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.)
Barack Obama Politics The Opinionsphere

Stirring Up Trouble

Kevin Hassett in an opinion piece for Bloomberg calls on Obama to rein in Pelosi and try to bring in the spirit of bipartisanship that Obama talked about so much. He even compares Obama’s calls to civility (while running a civil campaign) to George W. Bush’s calls for civility (while running an exceptionally dirty campaign, especially against his Republican opponents.) Hassett is outraged that Nancy Pelosi said – to the Republicans who were threatening to vote against the stimulus bill:

Yes, we wrote the bill. Yes, we won the election.

How uncivil of her! Hassett continues:

If [Obama] wants to fulfill the promise of his rhetoric, he should take Pelosi to the woodshed and insist that she include Republicans, collegially, in the process. He should stand up to his party and threaten to veto a bill if it fails to make reasonable concessions to his friends across the aisle. He should advise his own staff to begin returning the phone calls of senior Republican aides.

Contrast Hassett’s hissy fit about how the Republicans in Congress are being marginalized with the comments of these Republicans themselves:

“If [the] President carries this on it does open door for a new tone!” – Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.)

“Sharp differences are muted.” – Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas)

“President Obama is speaking to House Republicans right now on Democratic stimulus bill. Good sales man, bad product.” – Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.)

There are complaints about how the Democratic majority is running the process on the Hill – and Obama should look into that. I think an open and fair process should be the standard no matter which party is in control. But the situation is nothing like Hassett’s piece suggests – as Rahm Emanuel’s outreach to Republicans also demonstrates. It makes it seem like Hassett is just trying to build a meme to use against Obama later.

Meanwhile, Congressman Tom Price has told Rush Limbaugh to back off:

…it’s easy if you’re Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh or even sometimes Newt Gingrich to stand back and throw bricks. You don’t have to try to do what’s best for your people and your party. You know you’re just on these talk shows and you’re living well and plus you stir up a bit of controversy and gin the base and that sort of that thing….

Barack Obama Liberalism National Security Politics The Opinionsphere The War on Terrorism

Why Liberals Must Embrace the Wars Against Terrorism (cont.)

[digg-reddit-me]Yesterday, I posed this blog entry on my Daily Kos account.

After my disastrous entry into the kosphere in which I was attacked as a “Republican in disguise”  a freeper and a troll back in 2004, my posts in the past year have been very well received. Markos Moulisantos, the founder of the Daily Kos, has linked to this site approvingly twice in his entries. One of my diary entries at the Daily Kos adapted from a blog post was linked to by a main poster there as an unheralded but interesting story generating a lot of traffic. My piece on “How the War on Drugs War Making America Less Safe from Terrorism” was well-accepted as well, even if it received little attention. Various other pieces have been positively received.

Which only made me more frustrated at the response my latest piece received: “Why Liberals Must Embrace the Wars Against Terrorism,” only loosely adapted from a blog post of the same name from yesterday. It was evident that many of the commentors did not find the time to actually read the article before commenting. The title itself was enough to set them off. Quite a number of the commentors went on to “criticize” my piece by reciting some of the very points I emphasized – for example how the Bush administration had done a poor job in it’s ‘War on Terror’. Others made great presumptions about what I meant – for example, presuming I was attacking Obama’s recent actions which I actually think are essential and which a close or even sympathetic reading of the piece would reveal.  Then there were the more substantial disagreements: Some commentors condemned war entirely. Some belittled the threat from terrorism. Some made the case that terrorism was blowback for America’s sins. A number of responses centered around calling the struggle against terrorism a war – asking when this war would be over; who would sign the peace treaty to end the war; how one can have war against a method.

Some of these responses raise points I intended to discuss in the piece, but instead shorthanded due to it’s length – specifically, the facts dealing with the seriousness of the threat of terrorism and the questions about the nature of this war, should it be called a war. This lead one commentor to say that the piece wasn’t thought out – when in fact they meant that it did not fully convey an entire worldview in a manner that could not be misconstrued. To that I plead guilty.

To give an idea though of what I think a liberal approach to the Wars Against Terrorism would be, where my thinking leads me to end up, here’s a partial list of some things Obama should do:

  • Close Guantanamo. Which Obama has already started on.
  • Stop torturing prisoners. Which Obama has already ordered.
  • Reach out to our allies. Which Obama seems to be doing.
  • Reach out to the publics of the Middle East. In which this is a good first step.
  • Kill or capture bin Laden. This is one of those, “Of course” things. But imagine the symbolism of Barack Hussein Obama finally bringing Osama bin Laden to justice.
  • Flip Iran. After September 11 and the invasion of Iraq, Iran sent America a detailed proposal for comprehensive negotiations to resolve bilateral differences. In an act of stupendous stupidity, the Bush administration ignored it. Since then despite growing rancor between American and Iran, Iran exercised it’s influence in Iraq to assist the Surge by tamping down Shia violence. Iran’s and America’s interests in the region can complement one another once an overall agreement has been reached. Obama has indicated he is willing to meet with the Iranian leadership within his first year in office – but elections are coming up in June of this year. Whether Obama should send an emissary to influence who the Guardian Council allows to run in the elections or whether he makes some sort of appeal to the Iranian people, he should work to flip Iran. It would be the biggest foreign policy coup since Nixon went to China.
  • Keep up the pressure on “the nexus” – or the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and Pakistan more generally. Pakistan now seems to be home to the resurgent Al Qaeda. Pakistan was also at the center of the international market in nuclear technology that A. Q. Khan ran until after September 11. Greater minds than mine will need to figure out exactly what needs to be done here – but it must be the focus of our international efforts to combat terrorism.
  • Engage in public and transparent debate about strategy in the struggle against terrorism – while maintaining secrecy about tactics when necessary.
  • Establish a new legal framework that acknowledges the unique threat posed by strategic terrorism, the vulnerability of our society, and weapons of mass destruction. Some things to take into account: The consequences of letting an ordinary criminal go are far less serious than letting a terrorist go; punitive measures that are supposed to deter crime (The death penalty, for example, doesn’t deter someone who wants to be a martyr like Khalid Sheikh Muhammad.); law enforcement focuses on prosecution and punishment rather than prevention, when counterterrorism measures must do the reverse.)
  • And finally, there must be a reckoning for the illegal activities and the attacks on the rule of law of the Bush administration. An independent prosecutor would be fine. (I like the suggestion of Patrick Fitzgerald.) A truth commission would be better than nothing. But in some way, these people must be brough to account – not out of a desire for revenge, but as the only way to preserve our way of life come another emergency situation like September 11.

This isn’t a complete strategy. This only a list of steps – and some of them are still vague. The overarching idea though must be to take seriously what I believe is the existential threat of terrorism to our way of life – to a system of open borders, open markets, free exchange of technology and information, civil liberties, and unprecedented opportunity. This war must be a war to protect a free state and a free system – which means that counterrorism measures can be as contrary to the war aim as much as terrorism itself.

Barack Obama Humor

Even Worse Than John Roberts

At administering the presidential oath that is. (Yet another random webcomic from xkcd.)

Barack Obama National Security The War on Terrorism

Al Qaeda versus Obama (again)

Joby Warrick in the Washington Post:

The torrent of hateful words is part of what terrorism experts now believe is a deliberate, even desperate, propaganda campaign against a president who appears to have gotten under al-Qaeda’s skin. The departure of George W. Bush deprived al-Qaeda of a polarizing American leader who reliably drove recruits and donations to the terrorist group…

Friday, a new al-Qaeda salvo attempted to embarrass Obama, a day after the new president announced his plans for closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay. Appearing on the videotaped message were two men who enlisted in al-Qaeda after being freed from that detention center.

It kind of puts things in perspective.

Politics The Opinionsphere

A Useful Bullying

[Bill Gates] is now trying to do to malaria, AIDS, polio and lethal childhood diarrhea what he did to Netscape, and he just may succeed.

Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times perfectly capturing the dual images of Bill Gates the bullying businessman and Bill Gates the philanthropist.

Barack Obama Foreign Policy National Security Politics The Opinionsphere The War on Terrorism

Why Liberals Must Embrace the Wars Against Terrorism

[digg-reddit-me]Sun Tzu in The Art of War:

Hence the saying: If you know the enemy
and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a
hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy,
for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat.
If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will
succumb in every battle.

In the past week, the idea that America should “get rid of the ‘War on Terror’ mindset”  has enjoyed a resurgence. With Barack Obama’s rolling back some of the blunders of the Bush administration’s ill-fated War on Terror, liberals who have been bludgeoned with the term, ‘War on Terror’ in election after election want it retired. Surprisingly few voices have called for the Democrats to appropriate the term as a partisan weapon against the Republicans as it was used against them – which indicates the seriousness with which these liberals take retiring the term. For them, ‘War on Terror’ has become associated not only with political attacks on any criticism of the Bush administration but with the bevy of emergency measures taken by the administration in the panicked aftermath of September 11 – and then institutionalized as policy afterward. Many of these measures were ill-considered and counterproductive – and the fight over them has distracted the country from reevaluating our defense posture in light of the threat of strategic terrorism.

From when Sir Michael Howard first made the case to treat terrorism as a law enforcement matter and ditch the war posturing in 2002 in an article for Foreign Affairs magazine to Matt Yglesias’s short sketch in The American Prospect last week, the argument has been substantially the same. It is certainly not weakened by the fact that the main critiques it makes cannot be reasonably disputed.

In summary, the critics of the term ‘War on Terror’ make the point that this war does not fit our traditional definition of war; that because it does not, it makes it seem like the metaphorical wars on drugs or poverty; that it ennobles terrorists as warriors instead of mere murderers and criminals; that declaring war on terror leads us to conflate our enemies and even confuse them – when in fact they have separate and competing agendas; that by using the term war without the prospect of victory, we are setting ourselves up for a failure; that as this war is without a foreseeable end, we risk permanently giving up those liberties that are traditionally infringed upon during war. Already, this War on Terror has lasted longer than any war in American history – and yet victory is nowhere in sight. In related points, critics of the term point out that terrorists have launched attacks on numerous societies in the past – and these societies have been more successful when they responded with law enforcement than with military force, for, as Lawrence Wright explains in The Looming Tower:

The usual object of terror is to draw one’s opponent into repressive blunders…

In the past seven years, we have not avoided the pitfalls that have historically accompanied a state response to terrorism. We have not learned from the history and experience of other nations that informs the views of the liberal critics of the terms.

Yet it should be admitted that the term has been accepted by the greatest majority of Americans – and in the aftermath of September 11, it seemed clear to me – as well as to many others – that this was somehow different. It wasn’t just the scale of the damage that was shocking; it was the deliberation involved in planning the attack. As more information became public – as it became clear that this attack was in development for years, that it had required hundreds of thousands of dollars to organize; that it’s goals were not the mundane extortion of 20th century terrorism (Free this prisoner! Give us our own state!) – but a long-term strategic plan to reorganize the world – as all this became clear, we knew it was something different. Worse – our society is more vulnerable to attack today then it was even a decade ago. Biological technology is advancing rapidly – and soon, if not already, biological weapons will be acquired by terrorists. There is a black market is weapons of mass destruction – including nuclear weaponry thanks to Pakistan’s A. Q. Khan. Large numbers of people travel the world and international borders have become porous. At the same time, our society is becoming more and more concentrated as people pack into already denseley populated cities. The markets that control an ever expanding portion of our society are especially vulnerable to the effects of terrorism – both the fear that it elicits and the government intrusion that comes in reaction.

These vulnerabilities coupled with the opportunities to create havoc which are more democratically available than ever mean that the threat of terrorism truly is a threat to our way of life. At the same time, these terrorists are no mere criminals – whose activities while damaging to society are manageable and who can be deterred with punitive measures. Suicide terrorists seek death – and even are willing to be given capital punishment, considering it martyrdom, as the Khalid Sheikh Muhammad has said.

For the past seven years, we avoided the needed-re-thinking of our approach to terrorism, as under Karl Rove’s guidance, our response to terrorism became yet another front in the culture wars; as under Dick Cheney’s influence with his poisonous One Percent Doctrine, he ensured that our nation stayed the course set in the panic of September 2001, justifying every misstep as an essential part of a ‘strategy’ to combat terrorism that never materialized. ‘We will fight them over there so we do not need to fight them over here,’ it was said – as if our enemy were a fixed group which we could eliminate like our enemies in conflicts past. The Bush administration could never bring itself to acknowledge that Al Qaeda was a stateless organization – and Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Bush were certain that Iraq must be somehow behind it all. But the threat of September 11 did not emanate from a state although it did have a temporary home in Afghanistan. We conflated and confused our enemies – presuming they formed a united front when in fact they consisted of squabbling groups, or in other cases, mortal enemies – and we did our best to unite them, treating them as one entity.

Although it is not fashionable today to say anything in praise of Donald Rumsfeld given his mismanagement of the Defense Department, by October 2003, he was asking the tough but necessary questions:

Today, we lack metrics to know if we are winning or losing the global war on terror. Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?

Does the US need to fashion a broad, integrated plan to stop the next generation of terrorists? The US is putting relatively little effort into a long-range plan, but we are putting a great deal of effort into trying to stop terrorists. The cost-benefit ratio is against us! Our cost is billions against the terrorists’ costs of millions.

Five years later, and we still do not have answers to these questions or a long-range plan for what the military has come to call the Long War. It is left to Obama then to forge a new legal and strategic framework to deal with this threat to our way of life. (Which should be easy as he must also attempt to patch together a new financial and economic world order at the same time.)

In the past seven years, liberals have tended to think of terrorism as an ever-receding threat. Certainly, the fear in the days and months after September 11 have proved to be inflated. And it is clear that Al Qaeda does not pose a threat to our nation in the way that Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union did. But Al Qaeda in particular – and strategic terrorism generally – does pose an existential threat to our way of life. By disrupting our markets, by prompting government repression. Our way of life is based on transparency, the rule of law, the free flow of goods, information, and people around the world, and technological advances – all of which are undermined both by terrorism and ordinary counterterrorism and war measures.

Which is why as liberals, we must – both out of political necessity and good sense – embrace some version of a war against terrorism and come to terms with the threat from strategic terrorism, especially when coupled with weapons of mass destruction, to our way of life. We must build a society and a structure of laws that will withstand another attack. Or we will lose.

A law enforcement approach is not sufficient to combat this threat. Nor is the hodge-podge of measures taken by the Bush administration. Nor would a traditional war. What is required is a serious look at who our enemy is and who we are. Without this knowledge, we will lose this war, whether we call it one or not. ((This entire piece is greatly indebted to Philip Bobbitt’s Terror and Consent.))


Blogging Break

I’ll be taking a break from blogging until January 19th January 21st, the day before after Obama’s inauguration.

Hopefully by then, I will also be re-launching 2parse with a slightly re-tooled look.

Update (January 22): Pushing back the re-launch of 2parse yet again.

You may have noticed the changes to the site’s theme. I’m working on a few other changes, trying to figure out exactly how to focus the blog more particularly, to launch the Quotations website I started over a year ago, and get a broader multimedia presence from YouTube to Flickr. Plus while making the changes to the site today, I got stuck in a series of those html/css ruts where I couldn’t get the looks and effects I wanted.

A preview of what’s forthcoming: I’m going to focus the site more on national security and the rule of law, though leavened by politics. As my regular readers know, I’m more of an establishmentarian – which doesn’t mean I defend the establishment, but that I try to look at issues from the perspective of those with the power to affect things rather than that of a revolutionary trying to create a new world order. I believe the threat from terrorism is real – and I’m concerned that the right trivializes the War on Terror as some G.I. Joe fantasy while the left seems to be betting on a constantly receding threat from terrorism. Neither approach serves the country well – and both threaten to undermine our core values in the aftermath of another attack.

Barack Obama Criticism National Security Politics The War on Terrorism

A Tortured Plot Device

Alessandra Stanley writing in the New York Times on the Senate hearings targeting Jack Bauer for torture and other broken laws:

[T]he Senate confrontation may be cathartic for conservatives upset that the Cheney doctrine is likely to be reversed by the new administration. (Mr. Obama’s choice to lead the C.I.A., Leon E. Panetta, has argued passionately against it.) But it’s kind of a buzz kill for fans of the show who eagerly wait for a new installment of torture, nuclear explosions, biochemical mass destruction and the latest nerdy computer surveillance techniques. In an action-adventure show, torture should be seen and not heard about.

And that pedantic streak makes the first hour of the season premiere a little like being in a bar with a football superstar, eagerly awaiting tales of gridiron glory, only to have to listen to him drone on and on about the hypocrisy and injustice of steroid testing.

Fortunately, and predictably, the Senate sanctimony is interrupted by an urgent threat to national security that only Jack Bauer can handle.

Politics The Opinionsphere

Defending Caroline Kennedy

Maureen Dowd defends Caroline Kennedy:

Congress, which abdicated its oversight role as the Bush crew wrecked the globe and the economy, desperately needs fresh faces and new perspectives, an infusion of class, intelligence and guts.

People complain that the 51-year-old Harvard and Columbia Law School grad and author is not a glib, professional pol who knows how to artfully market herself, and is someone who hasn’t spent her life glad-handing, backstabbing and logrolling. I say, thank God.

The press whines that she doesn’t have a pat answer about why she wants the job. I’ve interviewed a score of men running for president; not one had a good answer for why he wanted it…

I know Caroline Kennedy. She’s smart, cultivated, serious and unpretentious. The Senate, shamefully sparse on profiles in courage during Dick Cheney’s reign of terror, would be lucky to get her.