Saturday, March 31, 2007

Imperial Sunset?

Imperial Sunset? The `decline of U.S. hegemony' has been a favourite theme among many circles of the left since the early 1970s, not as an absolute event but as a relative decline, related to the growing power of its major capitalist competitors. Is that `decline' now becoming a real `sunset'?

A variety of factors have contributed to this question: the military debacle of the U.S. in Iraq and of Israel, its only 100 per cent ally, in Lebanon, which precipitated comprehensive domestic crises of confidence inside both countries; the immensity of U.S. deficits and instability of the dollar as the pre-eminent global currency; the challenges of the famous "pink tide" in Latin America; the resurgence of Russian power and high rates of growth in China and India; "resource wars", that is, the emergence of giant energy producers and consumers on the one hand and, on the other, what Michael Klare calls "energo-fascism" in which, he avers, the Pentagon has increasingly become a "global oil protection service". That is a very tall order, and no one article, or a set of articles as the current issue of Frontline is presenting them, can wholly answer questions of such magnitude. What follows here offers a basic outline, starting with the Achilles' heel, the historically unprecedented and currently unrivalled military power of the U.S., which is proving to be the principal cause of its hubris.

Continue reading here. H/T: "juan," in the comments at Maxspeak.

Update: Original link is dead, but this seems to be the same piece (link).

Must Read: Laura Rozen on Cunningham's Yacht

If you read this blog, you are probably already know about “the $140,000 pass-through.” That would be the deal whereby Mitchell Wade got $140,000 from the government for providing “anthrax screening” in the office of the Vice-President—and then turned around and spent $140,000 to buy Duke Cunningham a yacht.

Among all the crimes and follies of this or any other government, a $140,000 venality is actually fairly small potatoes. But it is so crude, vulgar, insolent and blatant, that it still takes my breath away. Anyway, on the off chance you are still vague about the details, take a look at Laura Rozen’s fine summary here.

Friday, March 30, 2007

The Fall and Fall of Jacques Arnoux

A few weeks ago I put up some posts about famous literary bankrupts (link). I missed one of the most important. That would be Jacques Arnoux, whose steady descent forms one of the framing narratives in l’Education Sentimentale, by Gustav Flaubert.

It’s easy to see why Arnoux is important, and at the same time easy to overlook. The novel builds a social history of Paris in the middle of the 19th Century, around the life of Frédéric Moreau, the young man who drifts through it all without learning much of anything. Arnoux, as an entrepreneur, sometimes an industrialist, apparently sometimes a scoundrel, is a marvelous instrument through which Flaubert can explore and understand Paris in his time. But Arnoux is also the husband of Marie Arnoux the great, though unrequited, love of Moreau’s life—“he had never,” we are told on page 18, “seen anything to compare with her splendid dark skin, her ravishing figure, or her delicate, translucent fingers.”

So Arnoux is with us from beginning to end. But we never see him from inside: he is always an obstacle to Frédéric and a mystery, at least to Frédéric, if not at last to the reader. We see him from the first page of the book almost to the last, but always indirectly, never from inside his own mind.

We see Arnoux first of all the publisher of L’Art Industriel, Boulevard Montmartre, “a hybrid establishment, comprising both an art magazine and a picture shop.” It’s as vaguely glamorous, if somewhat louche enterprise which does, at least, permit him the luxury of a young and delectable wife. In time we learn he is no longer in the arts, but is rather a manufacturer of “pottery”—and also, for whatever it may be worth, a serial and systematic philanderer. In time we discover that the “pottery” business is an enterprise marginal at best, scarcely worthy of the name. A bit of stock manipulation, a chiseling loan, help to flesh out a not very edifying portrait. At last we see Arnoux on the lam, fleeing with indecent haste from his creditors, so exigent that he leaves his household furnishing behind.

All of this rings true, yet none of it is spelled out in detail, because we see only what Frédéric sees; if we understand more, that is to our credit (or, perhaps, to Flaubert’s) and Frédéric has nothing to do with it. It all comes to as climax in the auction house:

He recognized straight away the two sets of shelves which had been in the office of L’Art Industriel, her work-table and all her other pieces of furniture. Piled up at the far end, in order of height, they formed a slope stretching form the floor to the windows, while on the other three sides of the room, her carpets and curtains hung on the walls. Underneath, there were rows of seats on which old men were dozing. On the left, behind a sort of counter, the auctioneer, wearing a white cravat, was casually brandishing as little hammer.

Gustav Flaubert, Sentimental Education 406
(Robert Baldick Trans,, Penguin Classics ed. (1964)

Frédéric never does get to bed the fair Madam Arnoux. It is not entirely clear why; it is not as if her husband paid even five minutes’ fidelity to her. But on this issue, as on so many others, we are left as clueless as Frédéric himself.

Bad News that Bears Watching

Having lived through nine of the last four recessions (did I use this line before) I am an instinctive pessimist, always on the alert for more bad news. Hence I was delighted to run across Pension Tsunami, your one-stop shopping center for all sorts of bad news about the impending pension meltdown, both public and private. I will bookmark it right close to Housing Bubble, tempered by the more temperate but still scary Calculated Risk. And while I am at it, I might as well throw in the Payday Loan Industry Watch.

What the Dumps Tell Us

I’m not a regular reader of Reason Magazine—I don’t think I’d want to read a magazine called Truth or Virtue either. But I must say I was intrigued by this account (link) from Radley Balko about what we learn from the Justice Department mail dumps. Consider:

[T]the White House’s official explanation for the firings of the attorneys – a disagreement over priorities – is actually more disturbing than what the White House is actually being accused of, which is basically abusing the office for partisan purposes, because of what this administration's priorities actually are (foolish pursuits of vicitmless crimes like obscenity cases, Internet gambling, and the mass investigation of people who sell marijuana pipes over the Internet).

In addition to its misplaced priorities, this Justice Department has endured allegations of illegal spying and wiretapping, abuse of national security letters, neglecting federalism in its enforcement of drug and death penalty policies, attempting to suspend habeas corpus for terrorism suspects, and all-around contempt for the Constitution. … . The emails reveal some disturbing truths about the inner workings of this Justice Department, and in so doing show not only the vital importance of transparency in government, but just how much the unprecedented secrecy of the current administration conceals from the public.

Consider the case of just one fired attorney: Arizona prosecutor Paul Charlton. Charlton was terminated despite having the backing of Arizona GOP Sen. John Kyl, and that he led the nation in total prosecutions last year. Charlton brought 9,500 immigration prosecutions alone, a four-fold increase over four years ago. One Justice Department official recently dismissed Charlton’s haughty numbers as the fortunate result of his jurisdiction being near the U.S.-Mexico border, where easy drug and immigration cases abound.

The emails indicate that Charlton frequently butted heads with higher-ups in DOJ over priorities and procedures. The emails show a comparatively cautious, careful prosecutor who, despite his gaudy record, seemed concerned with the actual administration of justice and the proper role of a federal prosecutor, not just in goosing his statistics. The emails also show that his critics at DOJ seemed to have little patience for such petty nuances.

Charlton, for example, was criticized in emails between senior-level Justice Department officials because he refused to take low- or mid-level marijuana cases, preferring to conserve his resources for major distributors. One email cited complaints from then-Speaker Rep. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill) about Charlton’s refusal to prosecute marijuana cases involving less than …

Less than what? For valuable prizes, guess how much (or how little) marijuana counts as a “low- or mid-level marijuana case.” H/T: David Yen, who picks up the good stuff about bankruptcy and the porn biz.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Breathes There a Man...

Breathes there a man with soul so tough
He thinks two sexes aren't enough?
Now this: (link).

H/T: Wichita bureau.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Recommended Reading from the Alabama Bureau

Still snarled up in snuff, so I turn the mike over to the Alabama bureau to offer up a bit of recommended reading:

Hi all -- if anyone needs more reasons why we ought to be leaving Iraq there are plenty in the March 26 New Yorker, in an article by George Packer titled "Betrayed -- the Iraqi translators who helped America." There were probably many good people there from State and a few other agencies and departments trying to do what they saw as right. but almost always the good guys were run over by weirdos, freaks, zealots, psychos supervised by tunnel vision bureaucrats, and top administrators like Bremer and Negroponte and Khalilzad didnt involve themselves in straightening out situations at low levels where the work gets done.

Unnerving report. It ought to be read word for word on the House and Senate floors and ought to be the basis of hearings on why we "lost" Iraq. The Bush administration lost the war the troops won, not Democrats trying to prevent more loss and more failure.

Comment: Might be a good companion to this Masterpiece of Self-Deception, from John McCain, via CNN, via Carpetbagger.

Guest Blogging from the Nine Year Old

I'm snarled up with stuff right now, so I turn the floor over to a nine-yer-old of my acquaintance. Apparently this is a draft of a school science report:


Astronomers have found a football-shaped object in the kuiphir belt nicknamed "Santa*" santa (in about Half an eon) will come twords the sun. if it makes it past Jupiter, it will become the most spectacular comet ever. raise your hand if you have no idea what I am talking about.

Hey, my students have been feeling like that for years.

Monday, March 26, 2007

This Year's Bill Bradley?

Ron Brownstein says maybe ((link)

Obama's early support is following a pattern familiar from the campaigns of other brainy liberals with cool, detached personas and messages of political reform, from Eugene McCarthy in 1968 to Gary Hart in 1984 to Bill Bradley in 2000. Like those predecessors, Obama is running strong with well-educated voters but demonstrating much less support among those without college degrees.

That trend may be exaggerated at the moment by the fact that Obama, a relative newcomer, is better known among better-educated voters, and it could be mitigated in the future by his potential appeal to African Americans. But it is not a pattern Obama can allow to harden. All of the candidates whose support fit that profile ultimately lost the nomination to rivals whose support was rooted in the blue-collar and minority communities where Clinton is strongest in early surveys.

"Obama has got to expand his base in order to be consistently competitive," said Bill Carrick, a veteran Democratic strategist not affiliated with any of the 2008 candidates.

Since the 1960s, Democratic nominating contests regularly have come down to a struggle between a candidate who draws support primarily from upscale, economically comfortable voters liberal on social and foreign policy issues, and a rival who relies mostly on downscale, financially strained voters drawn to populist economics and somewhat more conservative views on cultural and national security issues.

It's not much of an oversimplification to say that the blue-collar Democrats tend to see elections as an arena for defending their interests, and the upscale voters see them as an opportunity to affirm their values. Each group finds candidates who reflect those priorities.

Democratic professionals often describe this sorting as a competition between upscale "wine track" candidates and blue-collar "beer track" contenders. Another way to express the difference is to borrow from historian John Milton Cooper Jr.'s telling comparison of the pugnacious Theodore Roosevelt and the idealistic Woodrow Wilson. Cooper described the long rivalry between Republican Roosevelt and Democrat Wilson as a contest between a warrior and a priest. In modern times, the Democratic presidential race has usually pitted a warrior against a priest.

Warrior candidates stress their ability to deliver on kitchen table concerns and revel in political combat. They tout their experience and flout their scars. Their greatest strength is usually persistence, not eloquence; they don't so much inspire as reassure. Think of Harry Truman in 1948, Hubert Humphrey in 1968 and, in a somewhat more diluted fashion, Walter Mondale in 1984 and John Kerry in 2004.

The priests, whose lineage runs back through McCarthy to Adlai Stevenson, present a very different face. They write books and sometimes verse. They observe the campaign's hurly-burly through a filter of cool, witty detachment. Their campaigns become crusades, fueled as much by inchoate longing for a "new politics" as tangible demands for new policies. In the past quarter of a century, Hart, Bradley and the late neo-liberal Paul Tsongas in 1992 each embodied the priest in Democratic presidential politics.

Some candidates transcend these divisions. In 1968, Robert F. Kennedy was a warrior who quoted Aeschylus. Bill Clinton blended a warrior's resiliency with a priest's promise of transformative ("third way") politics. But most Democratic candidates fall clearly on one or the other side of this divide.

John Kerry as a warrior candidate? Oh, I think not. And where are Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, Jimmy Carter?

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Erudite (p. 88)! Didactic (p. 127)!

My friend John died last year. John and I had a common past: we both had grown up as part of a transitional generation: our mothers came from immigrant families, eager to cement their children into the middle class. Both mothers stood as testimonials to an important but now-forgotten landmark in American public life: they got first-class educations from the public school systems in the first part of the 20th Century.

No surprise, then, that both of us came to adolescence, equipped with copies of Funk and Lewis, Thirty Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary, necessary baggage in its time on the road to respectability.

My own original copy is long gone, but lately I stumbled across what must be the mate of it—a Yellow/Black/Red paperback edition, from Pocket Books, Inc., 6th Printing, 1950 (no cover price, but I bet it was 25 cents).

One of the charms of this neglected masterpiece is its strategy of compare/contrast. On pp. 50-51, we have “patriot/chauvinist/jingoist”—only patriot familiar to me, I suspect, when I first ran across this triplet at the age of 13. A few pages later, we have some words on Greek roots: so “misanthropy,” which I think I knew (it comes up under both MISO and ANTHROPO)—but I don’t suppose I had hitherto encountered “misogamy” or “misogynist.” My vanity was particularly tickled by “Words for Mature Minds,” where I found “vicarious,” “maudlin,” “effete” and “obsequious”—that last a rude shock to me, because I thought I knew it before: I had misread it as “obesequious,,” and assumed it meant “very, very fat.”

I’m pretty sure I never finished the entire book, but perhaps that is a pattern: the previous owner of my new copy finished the exercises only through page 90 (item 11, “habitually silent or reserved”—the anonymous hand had answered “taciturn”-- for full credit). Probably all for the best: whatever I learned was no more than a mixed blessing—I’m sure I made a perfect nuisance of myself for years as I scrolled through the files of my overstocked memory—surely a display of “pomposity” (pp. 88-95), not to say “pedantry” (p. 66) par excellence (p. 164).

Fn: Somewhat to my astonishment, I find it is still available at Amazon (link)—a “reissue edition” from 1991, so I infer (but cannot be sure) that it is revised from my childhood. Over 4 million copies in print, the promos boast, a respectable 13,552 in Amazon sales. I wonder who it is that reads it now, flattering their vanity and tickling their imagination and struggling for respectability as John and I did so many years ago?


Count on these guys for this.

More Advice

Since I've declared myself an expert on advice (link), I might as well aggravate the offense with this (link) (h/t Kottke). Samples:
1. The badness of a movie is directly proportional to the number of helicopters in it.

[Perhaps corollary to the rule that if a movie has more than two big stars, they couldn't afford to pay for a script.]

9. The main accomplishment of almost all organized protests is to annoy people who are not in them.

[True enough; but isn't that also the purpose of a good many organized protests?]

12. A person who is nice to you, but rude to the waiter/janitor, is not a nice person.

[That's a longtime favorite of mine, which I freely credit to Samuel Johnson, though I can't find a citation & am very likely making things up.]

Friday, March 23, 2007

The Sun King Rules

I've been off the grid for a couple of days and I am several news cycles behind, but I'm still ticked at Tony Snow trying to justify the President's non-offer of testimony in the US Attorney for kerfuffle. We are given to understand that the administration is defending a principle of great structural, perhaps even Constitutional, importance here. And besides, says Tony Snow, the administration's non-offer was "generous."

Yo Tony! You can't have it both ways here. If this is a matter of principle, then your offer isn't "generous," it is a betrayal. Principles are things you do not give away. "Generous" is something for the Sun King. Or perhaps that is the framework you had in mind?

[Afterthought: It's probably not too early for an analysis of styles of lying in Presidential press secretaries. Ari Fleischer seemed to do it in the lonely practice of his craft, for the sheer aesthetic pleasure of it all. Scott McClellan realy wasn't very good at it, just possibly because he didn't really like to do it--a fatal disability in a press secretary. Tony Snow does it with a kind of brio that we haven't seen in quite a while. At the thought of what his job entails, he must wake up happy every day.]

Diary: March 23

It's not easy to read Carlo Gadda becuse his logorrheic plentitude rides a knife edge between literature and madness. Dostoevsky is perhaps the only writer ever fully to get away with it. Maybe Melville. Robert Burton, except he may have been kidding.

With Gadda, if it works at all, it works because in Quer pasticciaccio brutto de via Merulana--That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana--he finds a subject that suits him. That would be Rome, in particulr Mussolini's Fascist Rome, a city just as obsessive, just as anarchic, and blessed or cursed with the same plentitude as Gadda's style itself. The task is not made easier by the fact that there is a lot of language-play here, in a nation where language was (at least traditionally) fully as fractured as the nation it lives in.

One saving grace, even in translation, is Gadda's almost unerring eye. Here he is not precisely in Rome itself, but in the hills that surround the great city:

It was dawn, even later. The peaks of the Algido, the Careseolani and the Velini unexpectedly present, gray. Soratte, sudden magic, like a fortress of lead, of ash. Beyond the passes of Sabina, through small openings, portholes that interrupted the line of the mountain’s crest, the sky’s revival manifested itself in the distance by thin stripes of purple and more remote and fiery dots and splendors of sulphur yellow, of vermillion: strange lacquers: a noble glow, as if from a crucible of the depths. The north wind of the day before has died away, and here, to alternate the auguries, the hot slavering on skin and face, the gratuitous and now subsiding breath of a sirocco’s lashing. Further on, from behind Tivoli and Carsoli, flotillas of horizontal clouds, all curled with cirrus, with false ribbons of saffron, hurled themselves, one after the other, into battle, filed joyously towards their shredding: whither? where? who knows? but surely where their admiral ordered them to get it in the neck, as ours orders us, all their little sails with the range of the winds. Labile, changing galleys, tacked at a high, unreal height, in that kind of overturned dream which is our perception, after waking at dawn, tacked along the ashen cliffs of the mountains of the Equi, the whitened nakedness of the Velino, the forewall of the Marsica. Their journey resumed, the driver obeyed the road, the machine addressed the curves, bending with the two men. The opposite half of the weather there, above the shore of Fiumicino and Ladispoli, was a brown-colored flock, shading into certain leaden bruises: gravied sheep pressed, compact, meshed in the as by their dog, the wind, the one that turns the sky rain. A roll of thunder, rumm, son-of-a-gun! Had the nerve to raise its voice, too: on March the 23rd.

--Carlo Emilio Gadda, That Awful Mess
on the Via Merulana
(1957; NYRB ed., 200?).

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Here's One Who Did Not Get Fired

My friend Swifty, aka Underbelly's Alabama bureau, helps to showcase an issue that needs more attention--what about the US Attorneys who were not fired? Carol Lam and David Iglesias (at least) got in trouble for not pushing the Rove/Cheney agenda. Can we assume there are others who pushed the agenda too well?

Swifty says yes. Here are some excerpts from an email:

Does anybody know if any of the state's editorial pages (or any editorial pages) are looking at the Siegelman prosecution in light of comparison with this Administration's firing of US attorneys -- some of them because they were too tough on Republicans and some because they weren't tough enough on Democrats?

To me, the irony is just glaring.

Here in Alabama, we've got a US atty -- Leura Canary -- that is never going to get fired by this Administration. She has done exactly what Rove et al want -- engineered the prosecution of Democrat Don Siegelman to get him out of the way of Republican Riley's reelection campaign. ... Why this isn't part of the national story and the subject of angry editorials is beyond my comprehension. ...

My first-hand knowledge of Alabama politics is--let's see--ah yes, zilch. But Swifty is an old political reporter who has been watching the Alabama scene off and on for something like 50 years now. If he says it, I'd say it's worth a follow-up.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Take This to Heart As Well As to Mind

Just last week, I wrote a bit on advice. Following up, my son (sic) sent me this bit from The Best of Craigslist—“Advice to Young Men from an Old Man.” I won’t reprint the whole thing, which you can find here (link)—but this is a sample:

  1. Don’t pick on the weak. It’s immoral. Don’t antagonize the strong without cause, its stupid. …

4. Get in a fistfight, even if you are going to lose. …

9. You’ll spend your entire life listening to people tell you how much you owe them.You don’t owe the vast majority of people shit. …

23. Realize that love is a numbers game. Guys fall in love easily. You’re going to see some girl and feel like you’ll die if you don’t get her. If she rejects you, move on to the next one. It’s her loss.

Even as excerpted, I cannot endorse this list unreservedly. For example, when I was young I did get in a few fistfights. I always lost and I cannot imagine what good it did me. But on the whole, the list seems balanced, compassionate and generous.

But it did set me to thinking about the general matter of advice. It’s a puzzle. There is, first of all, the matter of the target. We know that the son of Lord Chesterfield, that most famous of all advisers, for all his loving tutelage, ended life as a nonentity and largely a failure. Does anyone ever take advice except that which he wants to hear? Or even understand it? Does anyone ever ask for advice, except when he knows that he will get the advice he wants?

There is also the problem of the adviser. We’ve all heard of radio announcers with Tourettes’ Syndrome, who can’t speak in sentences unless we are on the air. We know that Machiavelli, the grand master of political advise, was an unemployed second-tier civil servant seeking (unsuccessfully) after a new job. Is there any connection at all between the character of advice-givers and the advice they give—and is so, is it perhaps negative, as in “don’t do as I do, do as I say”--? Could it be that the guy from Craigs’ List makes a habit of picking on the weak and antagonizing the strong, and running away from fistfights at every chance?

For more on this line, perhaps the best source of all is Samuel Johnson in an essay for The Rambler, for January 15, 1751 (link). Consider, inter alia:

Advice, as it always gives a temporary appearance of superiority, can never be very grateful, even when it is most necessary or most judicious. But for the same reason everyone is eager to instruct his neighbours. To be wise or to be virtuous is to buy dignity and importance at a high price; but when nothing is necessary to elevation but detection of the follies or faults of others, no man is so insensible to the voice of fame as to linger on the ground. . . . Vanity is so frequently the apparent motive of advice that we, for the most part, summon our powers to oppose it without very accurate inquiry whether it is right. It is sufficient that another is growing great in his own eyes at our expense, and assumes authority over us without our permission; for many would contentedly suffer the consequences of their own mistakes, rather than the insolence of him who triumphs as their deliverer.

Or at last, from the guy on Craigslist:

Remember, 97% of all advice is worthless. Take what you can use, and trash the rest.

Is This a Good Poem?

Is this a good poem (or portion thereof)?

Indeed I live in the dark ages!
A guileless word is an absurdity.
A smooth forehead betokens
A hard heart. He who laughs
Has not yet heard
The terrible tidings.

Ah, what an age it is
When to speak of trees is almost a crime
For it is a kind of silence about injustice!
And he who walks calmly across the street,
Is he not out of reach of his friends
In trouble?

--Bertolt Brecht, To Posterity

I admit, I once thought it was a wonderful poem—when I was 19 or so. A few years later, a colleague (not really a friend) told me that Brecht wore silk underwear.

I do not know that Brecht wore silk underwear, though I have not spent much time trying to find out. The trouble is, as soon as I heard the remark, I knew that Brecht sounded like the kind of guy who would wear silk underwear. And ever since it has colored, or perhaps tainted, my appreciation of him.

Clearly, Brecht was an angry man. Anger alone doesn’t make a man an artist, but it doesn’t necessarily bar him either: Céline was a thoroughly nasty piece of business, but one of the great 20th Century French prose stylists. Hadrian VII is the work of a terminally unpleasant character, but that is part of the fascination.

In this wise, I think Brecht’s plays work pretty well: Good Woman of Szechuan, Caucasian Chalk Circle—the anger adds dynamism, and helps to make them great theatre. I thought last year’s NYC production off Threepenny Opera was a disappointment, but the fault wasn’t Brecht’s: I suspect that the 1950s’ Theater de Lys production (which I did not see) was probably one of the great cultural events of the Century.

But stuff like this poem: I can’t quite make up my mind. Apparently it still catches my attention. But I wonder if doesn’t fall in the same category as the Rubaiyat of Omar Khaayyam (which, I am happy to say, I gave up at about age 16) or Khalil Gibran (which, I am even happier to say, I never really took to at all).

Monday, March 19, 2007

Yowp Yowp Yowp Yowp Yowp Yowp Yowp

We spent the weekend in the company, inter alia, of four beagles. I rather liked them, actually: they were good-natured beasts, cheerful and easy-going. One of them did betray a serious Jones for artisan bread: he broke into Mrs. B’s suitcase and gobbled up a half a loaf we were counting on for breakfast. In the end, I think he suffered more than we did, and it wasn’t a big deal.

But they did holler. Man, did they ever holler. I suppose like this:

Theseus. Go, one of you, find out the forester
For now our observation is perform'd;
And since we have the vaward of the day,
My love shall hear the music of my hounds. 1660
Uncouple in the western valley; let them go:
Dispatch, I say, and find the forester.
[Exit an Attendant]
We will, fair queen, up to the mountain's top,
And mark the musical confusion 1665
Of hounds and echo in conjunction

Hippolyta. I was with Hercules and Cadmus once,
When in a wood of Crete they bay'd the bear
With hounds of Sparta: never did I hear
Such gallant chiding: for, besides the groves, 1670
The skies, the fountains, every region near
Seem'd all one mutual cry: I never heard
So musical a discord, such sweet thunder.

Theseus. My hounds are bred out of the Spartan kind,
So flew'd, so sanded, and their heads are hung 1675
With ears that sweep away the morning dew;
Crook-knee'd, and dew-lapp'd like Thessalian bulls;
Slow in pursuit, but match'd in mouth like bells,
Each under each. A cry more tuneable
Was never holla'd to, nor cheer'd with horn, 1680
In Crete, in Sparta, nor in Thessaly:
Judge when you hear.

Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Act IV Scene 1

Angela Gheorghiu: Two for the Price of One

We’d never heard Angela Gheorghiu live before (though we’d listened to her impressive Traviata and other stuff on DVD) so we were happy to grab a chance to see her at the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion in Los Angeles Saturday night. It was well worth the effort, but in an unexpected—and, one might say, a peculiarly LA--sort of way.

Gheorghiu’s strong suit is her tone—a gift from providence that connects instantly with almost anybody, like Bix Beiderbeck on the cornet. She’s an indifferent actress. So a concert recital, where she can pick and choose her material, is a sensible choice.

On the whole, it worked, but the odd part is that she ended up giving two concerts instead of one. The first was a straightforward concert recital of opera standards chosen, presumably, because they let her look good. The second was a string of five (count ‘em) encores, which morphed into a faux Hollywood Bowl show, under roof.

The first, concert, recital, was straightforward. Gheorghiu was at her best in Pucinni’s “Chi il bel sogno di Doretta” (from Rondine) and “In quelle trine morbide” (from Manon Lescaut), with honorable mention to “Pace, pace, mio dio” (from Verdi’s La Forza del Destino). She was okay in “Un bel di vedremo,” the crowd-pleaser from Pucinni’s Madama Butterfly—she sang it nicely, but she was too forceful, not winsome enough in the person of Cio-Cio-San. She had the same problem with the “Habañera,” from Carmen: good singing, but she just wasn’t able to deliver the sense of sauciness and danger that every listener expects (but it was the first time I ever saw a concert soprano waggle her bottom at the audience). She also tackled some Gounod and some Massenet, but I don’t know how she did with it, of which see more infra.

LA audiences are a soft touch: they thought all this was wonderful. They were even more swept away by the “second concert,” the five encores, headlining “I could have danced all night” (from My Fair Lady) and “Granada” (from bullfight central).

The audience loved the down-market stuff, and pretty clearly, so did Gheorghiu: she danced, the bumped, she ground, she flirted—flirted so much with the conductor that he must have wondered whether he would get to go home with her (a man always wonders if he is going to get lucky on a date; a woman always knows). Yet remarkably, she really wasn’t very good at it: her “danced all night” was formless and inspid; “Granada” put her into a state of open warfare against the castanets. Perhaps luckily for everyone, she ended with “Oh mio babbino caro,” (from Pucinni’s Gianni Schicchi)—a number that she could handle, and that has come to signify opera just as much as “Greensleeves” has come to signify the Renaissance.

Fn on the LA opera orchestra: a disappointment. Eugene Kohn is said to be a great conductor of singers. Possibly, but he doesn’t seem to be able to keep 50-60 instrumentalists in ensemble. Made it particularly disappointing when they played so loudly as to drown out pretty much the first half of the concert.

Why They Don't Call it "The Walton Museum"

In a previous post, I talk about the Getty Center and the Getty Villa (link). You can't quarrel with this kind of success: the Getty is a great institution. Still, it is worthwhile to keep in mind that these things don't happen by themselves. Here is the background, from Daniel Yergin's indispensable history of the oil business, The Prize:

At the end of the war only rekindled his consuming ambition to make much, much more money. He first devoted his efforts to what he was convinced would be the sure route to fabulous wealth as Americans took to the roads and highways in the postwar years: the manufacture of mobile homes. But he gave that up for something he knew more about—oil. Getty was certain he wanted the Saudi concession for the Neutral Zone even before he had it surveyed. “If one is to be anybody in the world oil business,” he declared, “one must have a footing in the Middle East.” This was his chance.

The head of exploration in the Rocky Mountain division of Getty’s Pacific Western oil company was a young geologist named Paul Walton, A Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Walton had worked in Saudi Arabia for Standard of California in the late 1930s and he knew his way around there. Walton would be Getty’s point man in making a deal with the Saudis. Getty summoned him to the Pierre Hotel for a few days of discussion and briefings. Getty, Walton remembered ever afterward, had a “half-mad” expression on his face—a sort of angry, disagreeable scowl that he had developed, Walton figured, to keep people at a distance from him and his money. Walton found Getty overbearing, though a man of considerable intelligence. But their discussions about the Saudi concession went smoothly, and Getty set the boundaries for the deal—at what price to start bidding for the concession and how high Walton could go. He also gave Walton a firm order: When Walton got to Saudi Arabia, he was not to discuss anything with anybody.

Walton left for Jidda and soon found himself face to face with Abdullah Suleiman, the [Saudi] finance minister… . Suleiman arranged for Walton to go up in a DC-3 and fly low over the Neutral Zone desert. Walton could barely believe what he saw from the plane: a small mound rising up from the flat expanse. He was elated. It looked almost exactly like the mound in Kuwait’s Burgan field, then the largest known oil field in the world.

Though very excited when he came back to Jidda, Walton, remembering Getty’s injunction about security, was also very cautious. There were no locks on the rooms in the in his hotel in Jidda, so he left no pieces of paper around. He did not dare send a message to Getty by wireless, since he was sure it would be intercepted. Instead, he dispatched a handwritten letter by airmail. Judging by that little mound, he told Getty, the odds of a major oil play were fifty-fifty. He would have set the odds higher, but he had been in Saudi Arabia after the original discovery in 1938 and had remembered two seemingly perfect structures that had been drilled, each of which was “as dry as hell.” Still, fifty-fifty was a lot more promising than the exploration odds in the Rocky Mountains, which were one in ten or even one in twenty.

Walton opened negotiations with Suleiman, which were mostly conducted on the porch of Suleiman’s house in Jidda. Clearly, the deal was going to be expensive. Once again, Saudi Arabia needed money, badly, and as in 1933, Suleiman wanted a large bonus payment up front. As instructed by Getty, Walton opened at $8.5 million. The deal they finally struck was $9.5 million up front, a guaranteed million dollars a year even if no oil was found, and a royalty of fifty-five cents a barrel—far higher than what was being paid anywhere else.

By the last day of 1948, Suleiman had given assurance to Walton that Getty had won the concession. However, Suleiman also took the precaution of telling [two competitors], if either would top the Getty offer, the concession would be theirs. But the price tag was too high and the risk too great; neither took it. Of course, Walton, for his part, had played a pretty good game of poker. Suleiman had stopped at $9.5 million. He never found out that, at the Pierre Hotel, Getty had authorized Walton to go up to $10.5 million. Still, Getty’s company, Pacific Western, was paying an unprecendentedly high price to wildcat in an unknown desert….

[At first, the deal did not look promising.] Exploration took longer, and proved to be more difficult and, thus, much more costly than anticipated. As time passed, anxiety among the American oil men was rising rapidly, and with good reason. By the beginning of 1953, half a decade had elapsed since the concessions had been granted, both groups were looking at expenditures in excess of $30 million, and there was nothing to show for their efforts except five dry holes.

Still, Getty’s patience and confidence were wearing thin. Not only was the string of dry holes exasperating, but so was the outflow of expenses, including his million-dollar-a-year payment to Saudi Arabia. Getty made it clear that he was disgusted with the whole approach. The Amnioil team [Getty’s development partner] resolutely ignored the little mound that Walton had seen from the airplane. Getty insisted that the sixth hole be drilled at that site. Furthermore, sunk costs were sunk costs; if the sixth hole was dry, he was going to pull out. Such extreme action proved unnecessary. In March 1953 the Amnioil team struck oil where Walton had thought, all along, that oil would be found. To call it a major discovery would prove an understatement. Fortune was to describe it as “somewhere between colossal and history-making.”

Getty used [the profits from the strike] to build up vast integrated oil operations in the United States, Western Europe, and Japan. He reorganized all his holdings, putting Getty Oil at the top and making himself the sole commander of a great oil empire. By the end of the 1950s, Getty was the seventh-largest marketeer of gasoline in the United States. Fortune magazine announced in 1957 that he was America’s richest man and its sole billionaire. He was stoic in the face of that news. “My bankers kept telling me,” he said, “that it was so, but I was hoping I wouldn’t be found out.” He added a sensible admonition. “If you can count your money, you don’t have a billion dollars.” He achieved further fame as the Billionaire Miser. He spent his final years as squire of Sutton Place, an exquisite, 72-room Tudor manor house in Surrey, and there, amid the splendors of his priceless collection of art and antiques, he installed a pay phone for guests to use.

Paul Walton, the geologist, had come down with amebic dysentery while negotiating in Saudi Arabia in 1948. It took him three years to recover. Getty gave him a $1200 bonus, and Walton returned to Salt Lake City to work as an independent geologist.

Daniel Yergin, The Prize, 441-5 (1993)

Gettys, New-Old and Old-New

Boy, time gets away from you, or from me. Used to be I was in and out of LA every month or two (and come to think of it, I lived there fore two years). Back again this weekend, I realized it must have been in the last millennium.

We went to see the old Getty Museum--"The Gettty Center," formerly known as the new Getty, and the new Getty--"the Villa," formerly the old. I had seen the Villa just once, perhaps a quarter century ago and I remember thinking it a bit of a disappointment—drop-dead beautiful location, but not a lot of stuff on display. I hadn’t seen the Getty Center at all.

We didn’t have time to do either of them justice and I won’t pretend to do so here. Just a few loose thoughts.

On the Getty Center. in the hills by Brentwood: no question, this crowd does understand location—a stunning testimonial to what you can do with the help of God and a ton of money. The architecture is a bit puzzling, though: I defy anyone to remember what this building looks like when they aren’t looking at it. This may be a Good Thing: it may mean merely that the architect so wedded his building to the site that you can’t tell the two apart. I think the experience inside may support this notion. Well: all the way inside, you are in a gallery, just like any other. But the patios and piazzas, the stairwells and breezeways are cheerful, reassuring and pleasant to be in (or at least they were in sunshine and 70 degrees).

The collection—we did no more than a quick trot through the Europeans. And what struck me here is that there are some things not even Getty money can buy. They’ve got some big names: some Rembrandts, a recognizable Masaccio, an untypical Franz Hals. But an awful lot of this stuff from what Hollywood would call B-list celebrities—“Hi! I’m Dorso Dossi! You’ll remember me from such hits as…” No matter how you slice it, Getty has not been able to undercut the great first movers like the Uffizi, the Louvre, even the Met. Seems to me there are two possible inferences here:

  • If you really want to get a handle on European Art, you don’t want to spend much time here until you’ve pretty well canvassed the big ones; otherwise you’ll get an eccentric and distorted picture; or
  • The whole narrative has to be trashcanned and rewritten.

Of course I lean to the first view, but I am hospitable to the second.

Oh, and did I mention the food? There’s an old rule that a restaurant can give you good food, and cheap and a view, but not all three at the same time. The Getty does give you all three at the same time: lunch for three of us, including two glasses of wine, came in at just over $100 pre-tip, and I wish I could remember the name of that pinot.

As to the Villa in Malibu—the one that disappointed me so many years ago—I don’t whether they’ve changed or I have (well: in fact I know that we both have). But either way, I must say I take it back, or mostly. I’m still more than a little skeptical whether you can ever meaningfully “recreate” an ancient Neaopolitan villa, but the space is a delight to be in, and the collection is first class—not huge, but a fine representative selection of top-quality stuff, fun to look at and potentially interesting to study. Including of course, what may be one of art history’s all time greatest fakes.

Update: a couple of the Friends of Buce point out that it's not just money that finds its limit in the Getty's upgrade search; apparently grand theft doesn't work either.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

That Time of Year

Twice a week, I do a ninety-mile drive through the orchard country in Northern California. About two weeks a year, the orchards are awash in blossoms--mostly almond and peach, some pear, maybe some cherry. So, no better time for this:

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

--A.E. Houseman

In the spirit of heavy-handed irony, I am off to Los Angeles, for a look at the not-so-new Disney Concert Hall, and the not-really-new-at-all Getty Center. Domestic tranquility requires that the laptop stay home, so little or no blogging for several days.

Update: UB's Fresno bureau weighs in--
I just read your blog re the beauty of the orchards in bloom. I agree,
they are lovely. But I used to get a lot more pleasure out of the sight
before I realized the amounts of chemical fertilizers and pesticides that
are applied. It is no accident that you don't see a lot of houses amid the
So, does that explain my nasty allergies? Sounds like there is a premise for a good Houseman parody here.

Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid

Franklin D. Roosevelt: The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

Michael W. Chertoff (link): "But I have no question about the fact that [Osama] bin Laden and [Ayman al-Zawahiri] and others like them quite consciously use the media, including the Internet, as a recruiting tool," Mr. Chertoff said. "In terms of recruiting, I would say that the principal way to enter the U.S. is through the Internet."

[Thanks, John]


My friend David, a lawyer in his 60s, likes to say—when I see a young lawyer, I ask myself, what is keeping this guy from being the best lawyer he can be? I’ve always thought that is about the classiest attitude I could ever imagine. But I thought of David when I stumbled on this, from the memorial service for a once-famous law professor, now deceased (link).

Every day you will have the opportunity to do something special – give a great class, help a colleague, advise a student, write a paper. Try each day to paint a masterpiece.

Don’t show anyone up. Be lavish and open with encouragement and praise for students and colleagues. Be cautious and private with criticism.

Don’t make a habit of proclaiming your greatness. Others have covered that field exhaustively. Try something different. Take satisfaction in quietly raising the game of everyone around you.

Brush aside the inevitable slights of academic life. You will find that many academics have a high estimation of their abilities. Some can be acutely tiresome, and you may be tempted to dwell upon their missteps. Each minute you spend to nurse old hurts is time lost, time stolen from preparing a better class, counseling a student, or reading a case. You cannot build a good reputation by keeping grudges.

Finally, when success comes your way and the day comes that you are established as a usual suspect, pass the favor along. May you never become too important to help those who need it the most.

I wonder, if I had run across this 30 years ago, would I have been smart enough to profit from it?

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Oh, So That's Rosenkavalier

It took us three weeks—three Sunday evenings, actually—to watch Der Rosenkavalier at Il Teatro Buce, but that is one of the advantages of ADHD TV—you can spread things out and give them time for thought. Good thing, too, because I had a fair amount of clutter to get out of my head.

First, I thought I’d seen it before. Can’t imagine what I was confusing it with—Die Fledermaus? Merry Widow? Whatever, but it was clear in the first ten minutes that I was wrong, and this was going to take some attention.

Second—well, Mr. and Mrs. B had sojourned to Dresden a while back for a Strauss Festival—three Strauss in three nights. Let’s say the experience was broadening. We saw Salome—a screamer’s opera sung by a screamer on one of those weird faux-Caligari sets that the Germans seem to fancy these days. We saw Ariadne auf Naxos, which I just can’t get my mind around somehow. We saw a pretty decent Elektra, but it got more or less lost in the shuffle. Not a high point of my cultural consumption career, then, though it beats a poke in the eye with a pointed stick (OTOH, maybe the locals knew something I didn’t know—Dresden is Strauss central, and this was a much-hyped special program, but on each of three nights, there were lots of empty seats).

A third threshold barrier was that I’d read somewhere how Rosenkavelier is infra dig among the amateurs, faux Strauss for amateurs.

Well, I guess that tells me, because in the end I loved it. Accessible, alright, and I don’t necessarily regard that as a barrier. A soupçon of Mozart here and there, but that’s not a problem for me: Indeed I’d say it is part of the charm: it puts it in a class with those pieces (Britten’s Ceremony of Carols is the classic example) that seem deliberately to transcend generations or even centuries. I also found it a good deal edgier than its billing. Might have been the performance (see infra, passim), but Gilbert & Sullivan this is not.

Three weeks: one consequence of the stretch-out is that we came to grips with it as three rather different items—different in purpose and correspondingly in tone. The first act for my money belongs to the Marschallinwho played it a bit like my favorite Cleopatras—a bit long in the tooth, a girl who knows that she has pretty much played out her string. Nothing funny about that, and Gwyneth Jones made it bracing conviction.

The second act belonged to Der Baron Ochs auf Lerchenau (Manfred Jungwirth). I suppose you could just wring it dry for comedy, and Jungwirth got a few laughs at appropriate places. But he’s really a pretty awful man: I kept remembering Homer Simpson saying “It’s the SS Homer Comin’ Into Port with a Cargo full o’love!). You really wouldn’t want that big tub o’lard landing on you in any circumstances.

The third act is a tavern scene of sorts, “and the gang goes wild,” as the sitcom blurbwriters might say (especially when they hadn’t yet finished their script). I must say it wanders a bit, but the final seven minutes for the three sopranos must be something that seasoned performers throw their grandmothers under a bus for (candidate bus-throwers here, along with Gwyneth Jones, are Brigitte Fassbaender and Lucia Popp).

The conducter here is Carlos Kleiber; the director, Otto Schenk. A couple of pretty good Amazon reviews help to untangle the somewhat confusing performance history. Anyway, Richard, I’m sorry about all those cheesy things I said about you. I’ll gladly try another Rosenkavalier, and I may even have to give Ariadne another try. Still not so sure about Salome, though.

The Dude Come Up Dead

My friend John was doing this labor arbitration. Management fired the employee because he had been charged with murder. The union took the position they couldn’t fire him until he was convicted. John was working to understand the facts. Apparently there had been a party, and a fight, and there were questions about who hit who.

“Now please narrate the facts as to how the killing took place,” directed John.

“I don’t know,” said the employee, “the dude come up dead."

Or in the immortal words of Ron Ziegler,* “mistakes were made.”**

*"We would all have to say that mistakes were made in terms of comments."--Nixon Press Secretary Ron Ziegler.

**"I acknowledge that mistakes were made here."--Bush Factotem Alberto Gonzalez.

I Want My Content!

And I want it now!

And I want it free!

And I'm going to lie here on the floor and yell until I get it!

Oh, wait...

Who Will be Scooter This Time?

Kyle Sampson will not become the next Scooter Libbey. So Charles Schumer (D-NY) on CNN just now, still pursuing the third-rate burglary, overblown personnel matter, the dismissal of the seven prosecutors. That’s Kyle Sampson, the now-blowing-town former chief of staff of Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez, who must be experiencing some abandonment issues as he sees the way his friends and colleagues have rigged the coverage in the press.

But I think Schumer is right: I think that the Libbey role has fallen to Harriet E. Meirs former White House counsel who came within a gnat’s crotchet of making it to the Supreme Court. “The idea for the firings originated at least two years ago,” reports the Washington Post this morning, “when then-White House counsel Harriet E. Miers suggested to Sampson in February 2005 that all prosecutors be dismissed and replaced.”

“Gonzales rejected that idea as impractical and disruptive, Justice officials said, but over the next 22 months Sampson orchestrated more limited dismissals.” The New York Times adds: “Karl Rove, the senior White House adviser, also had rejected the idea of replacing all the prosecutors, [White House Spokesperson Dana] Perino said.” Whoo, good thing we had responsible public citizens like Rove and Gonzalez and Sampson on hand to protect us from an out-of-control banshee like Harriet. Harriet? Your lawyer on line one.

Monday, March 12, 2007

More on the Mortgage Meltdown

For anyone trying to make sense out of credit markets, there’s an interesting cage match under way between Gretchen Morgenson at the NY Times and blogger/journo Felix Salmon over everybody’s current favorite bogeyman, the subprime market.

Morgenson’s Sunday Times piece (not her first on the topic), compared the current state of subprimes to the Dot.Com madness of 2000:

Now, as then, Wall Street firms and entrepreneurs made fortunes issuing questionable securities, in this case pools of home loans taken out by risky borrowers. Now, as then, bullish stock and credit analysts for some of those same Wall Street firms, which profited in the underwriting and rating of those investments, lulled investors with upbeat pronouncements even as loan defaults ballooned. Now, as then, regulators stood by as the mania churned, fed by lax standards and anything-goes lending. …

The regulators are trying to figure out how to work around it, but the Hill is going to be in for one big surprise,” said Josh Rosner, a managing director at Graham-Fisher & Company, an independent investment research firm in New York, and an expert on mortgage securities. “This is far more dramatic than what led to Sarbanes-Oxley,” he added, referring to the legislation that followed the WorldCom and Enron scandals, “both in conflicts and in terms of absolute economic impact.”

Rubbish, says Salmon. Executive summary, per Salmon, of Morgenson’s work: :[W[e can ignore it, on the grounds that Morgenson adduces no evidence whatsoever that any crisis is looming at all.”

I don’t have any business pretending to expertise here, but Salmon’s own response doesn’t seem to provide the assurance he thinks he does. In particular, he has an unsettling way off seeming to sidestep the issue. Morgenson says that “Wall Street firms and entrepreneurs made fortunes issuing questionable securities … Regulators stood by as the mania churned…” Salmon responds by showing that mortgage-backed securities issuance peaked back in 2003. But this seems unresponsive; current levels still seem high in terms of history, and it may be that the industry is already struggling to dig itself out of a hole.

Similarly, Morgenson says the problem is obscured by the fact that the industry isn’t marking its loans to market. Salmon responds by saying they can’t mark to market because the market is too thin—which is hardly reassuring. But then he turns round and says that when this debt does trade, it turns out that it hasn’t fallen in price much at all. Say, what? Maybe he was right the first time—that the very rarity of the trades gives away the truth that you can’t sustain those prices.

It will be fun to watch this play out, but for the moment, I tend to lean towards Morgenson, for two reasons:

1) She’s got a pretty good record of being right and simultaneously not caring much about what anyone else things; and

2) I’m a congenital pessimist.

Hat tip to Economist’s View, with some cool comments, including one from Felix.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

The Axis of Flagity

The Wichita bureau rags me for excessive use of “evil” and “sorry,” with reference, of course, to that lot in Washington.

I’m sorry about sorry; I can see that in a recent post I used it twice, within a few lines of each other. I do think it is a fit description of a lot of what we see around us and I must say, for example, that New Gingrich’s late public airing of his own dirty linen (phew!) is one of the sorriest spectacles in the whole sorry extravaganza.

I plead not guilty to evil: I find I’ve used it only a couple of times lately, once quoting somebody else, and once with clear (if heavy handed) irony. In fact, I am not nuts about “evil;” a word which seems in general to have lost too much of its bite—probably has something to do with “Evil Empire,” and perhaps “Evel Knievel,” and the general overuse of the term in popular media (search Amazon for a DVD’s with “Evil” in the title, you get 327 hits).

Indeed, I’d rather like to give wickedness a try. Mary Midgley did a nice job of tryinig to rehabilitate this somewhat antique term:

We have somehow to understand, without accepting, what goes on in the hearts of the wicked. And since human hearts are not made in factories, but grow, this means taking seriously the natural emotional constitution which people are born with, as well as their social conditions. If we confine out attention to outside causes, we are led to think of wickedness as a set of peculiar behaviour-patterns belonging only to people with a distinctive history, people wearing, as it were, black hats like those which identify the villains in cowboy films. But that is fantasy.

--Mary Midgley, Wickedness: A Philosophical Essay 7 (1987)

This is good enough for starters. I must add that I certainly reject the suggestion of Wichita’s former law clerk that we simply resort to the thesaurus here. No matter what the thesaurus says, evil is not the same as iniquity, peccancy, diablerie, iniquity, affliction, bane, curse, ill plague, scourge, woe. It isn’t even the same as Wichita’s suggestion of flagitous either. But it’s worth a thought. Hm, flagitous.

"My Way or the Highway"
Meets The Two-Way Street

I don’t spend all my spare hours home hunkered down over C-Span, but I must say the TV catch of the weekend was the rerun of the Senate Hearings on the Prosecutors (a print account is here) I mean, this is not amateur hour; these guys (the fired US Attorneys) are total pros, honed to a fine edge for the job of answering questions and making a record. Among the questioners, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), the point man for the home team, was well briefed and stayed on message, with backup from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif) (who seemed a bit vague from time to time). Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa), who never in his life tried for the congeniality prize, seemed to be sniping, but in fact it appears he is one of the more conspicuous Republican grumblers about this latest administration of abuse of power (but cf. Fn. Below).

The hearings also brought home a point that has eluded me before: perhaps the worst of this sorry lot we call “the Executive Branch” is Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez. Don’t misunderstand me here: I don’t doubt that Vice-President Cheney is more satanic, and that Karl Rove is a more fully-formed sociopath (the Narcissist-in-Chief remains, I assume, above all praise or blame). But with both Cheney and Rove (and with their ilk), you get the impression that they know what the stakes are: they know what principles of decency, civility and good order they are working so hard to subvert.

It appears that Gonzalez, by contrast, really doesn’t get it—that all his career, he has made his way by being the dutiful, colorless hireling, who doesn’t have to swallow his principles to do his dirty work because he never really had that sort of principle to begin with. You get the sense that he never really lost any sleep over those 57 clemency memos that helped to make Texas (under then-Governor George Bush) the execution capital of the free and unfree world; that it wasn’t a big deal for him to sign off on “the torture memo” that did so much to set the tone for this whole sorry administration; and you suspect that when he speculated that there is no grant of habeas corpus in the Constitution, he really believed what he said.

Compared to what has gone before, his role in the dismissal of the Gonzalez Eight—the prosecutors summarily fired in mid-term—is actually pretty small potatoes. But it offers a marvelous insight into just how clueless and tone-deaf he really is. These are political appointees; we want to buff some resumes (and perhaps stuff a few pending investigations. If we said some unkind things about the departed, well then maybe we handled things poorly, Still Gonzalez was too busy to respond to subpoenas (although apparently not too busy to approve the original list (link)—after 57 clemency memos, this particular mass execution was probably not particularly hard). At the end of the day, it’s all an “overblown personnel matter.”

I’m willing to take him at his word here: he still doesn’t seem to understand why anybody is upset. Yet in this episode (at last?) he may have bought himself the worst sort of enemy: disciplined, energetic, professional, and really, really ticked. “Loyalty,” said evangelical, straight-arrow David Iglesias, late US Attorney from New Mexico, “is a two-way street.”

Fn.: Although it seems sincere enough, Specter’s current indignation is actually pretty rich, considering that it was he who started this locomotive down the track in the first place (link). But let that be: the quick 180 for a Senator is the political equivalent of the triple lutz.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

For Those Who Think Las Vegas Isn't Tacky Enough

Mr. and Mrs. B dined one summer evening not long ago on the pier at Naples, overlooking the blue waters of the Tyrrhenean Sea, under the shadow of Mount Vesuvius.

The magic of the moment was not destroyed, but it was somewhat diminished, by the adjacence of one of those monster new cruise ships that tower and seem ready to tip over you—making the whole scene seem a bit too much like the Starbucks at Penn Plaza.

I’ve never actually been inside one of those babies but now I’ve seen the pictures, and now I get the point: this is an entertainment option for those who think that Las Vegas is not tacky enough.

But it occurs to me that someone is missing a great entertainment opportunity here. We’ve got countless doctor shows (for my money, none better than this). We had nine seasons of The Love Boat. We’ve got a pretty good TV show about a casino. Isn’t it time for a threepher—a show about a doctor on a casino ship? Might be a good venue (after he leaves his present job) for a guest shot by George W. Bush. Oooh, doctor, I’ve got this rash. …

Fn.: for valuable prizes, readers are invited to consider other possible guest-star employment for the former president? How about Law and Order? Maybe Rome? Or Deadwood? Hm, this is too easy…

Friday, March 09, 2007

Reactive Shakespeare

One of the most attractive and interesting things about Shakespeare is his reactive capacity—his ability to respond to others, and to say “I see possibilities here,” and to make the ordinary extraordinary. Read Golding’s Ovid or North’s Plutarch and compare (say) Prospero “drowning his book” or Enobarbus appreciating Cleopatra: in each case, the original is pretty good in its own right, but the rewrite is better.

He does the same thing with himself. You can just imagine him looking at an early performance of Richard II and saying “note to self: next time, let the clowns talk prose.” In tragedy, he builds and builds, from Romeo and Juliet, through Julius Caesar on to the incomparable heights of Antony and Cleopatra.

In A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, James Shapiro comes up with a wonderful example that I hadn’t noticed before. That would be Sonnet 138, which I took the trouble to memorize a few years back. But here is an original version, as the opening poem in The Passionate Pilgrim:

When my love swears that she is made of truth,
I do believe her (though I know she lies)
That she might think me some untutored youth,
Unskillful in the world’s false forgeries.
Thus vainly thinking that she thinks me young,
Although I know my years be past the best:
I, smiling, credit her false-speaking tongue,
Outfacing faults in love with love’s ill rest.
But wherefore says my love that she is young?
And wherefore say not I that I am old?
O, love’s best habit is a soothing tongue,
And age (in love) loves not to have years told.
Therefore I’ll lie with love, and love with me
Since that our faults in love thus smothered be.

The “revised, standard” version reads:

When my love swears that she is made of truth,
I do believe her, though I know she lies,
That she might think me some uuntutor’d youth,
Unlearned in the world’s false subtleties.
Thus vainly thinking that she thinks me young,
Although she knows my days be past the best:
Simply I credit her false-speaking tongue,
On both sides thus is simple truth suppress’d.
But wherefore says she not she is unjust?
And wherefore say not I that I am old?
O, love’s best habit is in seeming trust,
And age in love loves not to have years told.
Therefore I lie with her and she with me
And in our faults by lies we flatter’d be.

I’ve italicized the changes (and omitted two sets of superfluous parentheses). I won’t say that every change is an improvement, but it is fascinating to wonder just what Shakespeare had in mind when he edited as he did. Anyway, listen to Shapiro:

The most significant change is also the subtlest. By turning “I know to “she knows” in line 6, a shared understanding and subjectivity is introduced. We are now witnesses to a lover’s game, one in which role-playing leads to mutual understanding. Only in the revised version does the speaker learn to see himself through his lover’s eyes. We’re n o longer listening to someone brag about an affair; instead, we’re experiencing the excitement and confusion of what it feels like to be in love.

--James Shapiro, A Year in the Life
of William Shakespeare
201 (2005)

There’s plenty more of the same in this stimulating and thought-provoking book.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

We Can't Go Home Again

I’m happy to sign on with Mark Kleiman here, more or less, or maybe not, but close. Anyway, I join those who think that the war is a dreadful mess but that we can’t just pull out. I’m not talking about “victory” here—Matt Yglesias has pointed out that we achieved that, and years ago. And I don’t for a moment mean to associate myself the accusation of “cut and run”—a thought-killing mind virus if there ever was one.

Say rather that the tragedy of this stupid war is that it has made it impossible for us to cut and run—immured us in the Middle East to an extent and for a time period that mirrors our worst nightmares. We’ve exponentially ramped up the necessity for American presence in the Middle East, and for American wisdom and prudence, two virtues in short supply under any conditions, and wretchedly absent from our recent history.

There is absolutely nothing in the record of the incumbent ruffians to suggest that they are fit to offer this kind of leadership. The Democrats are doing a bit, but not much, to make things better. The maligned John Murtha had a whiff of reality in his voice when he talked about withdrawing from the center of the action but maintaining a presence. But the measured part of that measured response is fast getting swamped in the rush for a timetable.

It’s enough to get up any decent person’s nose to listen to the Republicans’ smug and dismissive provocation—“well, what would you do?” Tearful and groveling apology might strike a more harmonious note. But it’s annoying not least because it is, at core, a fair point. Like it or not, the Dems can’t avoid the responsibility for Getting it Right just by asserting (correctly) that the Republicans Got It So Wrong.

The Middle Way: home of yellow lines and dead armadillos. The political traction in this centrist posture is just about zero—the only candidate who comes anywhere close to embracing it is Wesley Clark, and his chances rank somewhat lower than Bill Richardson, or perhaps Harold Stassen. Doesn’t make it less right. One can only hope that some of this prudence worms its way into policy, even if by indirection and accident.

Drooping SOX

Boy, do I ever feel of two minds about this one. Fact is, I think Sarbanes Oxley, the securities disclosure megadeath act, is mostly a bad idea—a lot of makework paperpushing that increases the chances of discovering corporate malfeasance from, oh say one in a billion to, oh say one in a million. I don’t see any plausible evidence that it is causing a rush away from American markets but (except for the lawyers and accountants and assorted seminar proprietors who have flourished in its wake, or rather by churning out its wake) it seems to be an annoying waste of time.

And guess who is the latest recruit to the drooping-SOX club? Drum roll…that’s right, our old friend Michael Oxley of Ohio (link), co-author, or at least co-marquee-host, of the legislation that bears his name. Would he do it differently today? “Absolutely,” says Oxley. "Frankly, I would have written it differently…" And then in a deathless finish:

“But these were not normal times.”

Damn straight these were not normal times. All those little investors who have such a stake in American capitalism (as the Republicans keep reminding us)—all those little investors had fire in their eyes, and steam coming out of their ears. They were looking for revenge, and Oxley, who up to that point had (almost?) never met a management abuse he didn’t like, was in danger of getting his sorry corporate lapdog butt shot off. What he meant to say was “I would have written it differently, but when it came to choosing between good legislation and my own career, why the question just answers itself.”

Steve Bainbridge, the kind of guy who ought to know better, bills this as “Oxley Recants” (link) (see also Tigerhawk (link))..

Yeh, right. American Heritage Dictionary gives “recant…v.intr. to make a formal retraction or disavowal of a previously held statement or belief.” gives: “L recantāre to sing back, sing again.” Perhaps better “singing a different tune.” Anyway, if Oxley in his Congressional career had been more serious about seeking true functionality and integrity in securities markets, we might not be in the mess he helped to create.

Fn.: In the elided portion of the quotation, Oxkley says “and he would have written it differently,” referring to his co-author former Sen. Paul Sarbanes. Be interesting to see whether this is true.