Thursday, May 31, 2007

"But Doctor, Is It Curable?"

We’ve come a long way towards believing that the doctor ain’t god, and also that some patients are just not going to get well. You can find an interesting contrast to that attitude in an instructive, but perhaps obscure, source: Stefan Zweig’s novel, Beware of Pity, where Dr. Condor (who seems pretty clearly a mouthpiece for the author), unburdens himself on the concept of “incurable” in medicine.

Zweig is a provocative source for this sort of thing because he is writing about Vienna, his home and a city he understood well. Vienna is interesting because (in the early 20th Century) it was a society in decay with a lot of attention to sickness and death—yet at the same time a center for explosive growth in knowledge, not least medical knowledge. It’s no accident that Vienna produced, along with Stefan Zweig, Dr. Sigmund Freud, whose great paper Analysis Terminable and Interminable, on the concept of cure, was published almost simultaneous with Zweig’s novel (link). In any event, I wonder what Freud would have thought of Zweig’s Dr. Condor:

You’ll never get me to utter the word “incurable.” Never! I know that it is to the most brilliant man of the last century, Nietzsche, that we owe the horrible aphorism: a doctor should never try to cure the incurable. But that is about the most fallacious proposition of all the paradoxical and dangerous propositions he propounded. The exact opposite is the truth. I maintain that it is precisely the incurable that one should try to cure, and, what is more, that it is only in so-called incurable cases that a doctor shows his mettle. A doctor who from the outset accepts the concept “incurable” is funking his job, capitulating before the battle begins. Of course I know that it is easier, more convenient to pronounce certain cases “incurable” after pocketing one’s fee, to turn one’s back on them with a sigh of resignation—indeed, extremely convenient and profitable to concern oneself exclusively with those cases that have been shown to be curable, in which one can turn up page so-and-so of the medical text-book and find the whole treatment set out for one in black and white. Ah well, those that care to can go in for that sort of witch-doctoring. As for me, it seems to me as pitiable a thing as if a writer were only to attempt to say what had already been said, instead of trying to force into the medium of the spoken word the unsaid, nay, the unsayable; as though a philosopher were to expatiate for the ninety-ninth time on what has long been known instead of tackling the unknown, the unknowable.

--Stefan Zweig, Beware of Pity 139
(NRB Classsics paperback ed. 2006)

When Condor/Zweig speaks of philosophers, I wonder if he is thinking of another famous Viennese—the one who said “"Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent” (link).

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Don Giovanni: The Graphic Novel

My favorite Shakespeare teacher back in college told me that Romeo & Juliet isn’t a tragedy; it is just a comedy that ends badly. Something the same can be said for Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Indeed one of DG’s almost illimitable points of appeal is the odd and unsettling mix the truly nasty and the falling-down funny. Not all productions of DG recognize this, or at any rate, not all dare to face it.

We queued up with a legion of wrinklies and crumblies this afternoon for a dress-rehearsal production of DG in San Francisco. It’s worth the trip, although perhaps not, as Michelen would say, worth a detour. One signal advantage of this David McVicar production is that it isn’t afraid to let the comic scenes be comic. Indeed, the staging itself seems to have been lifted from a graphic novel, with (at times) little boxes like panels in a cartoon. Never mind that the drama ends with the hero being dispatched to hell: you are mad to understand that an unsettling lot of this is just good fun.

This was refreshing, and it worked, and it was enough to carry the main event. Which was a good thing, because a lot of the other pieces didn’t connect. As Mrs. Buce was quick to point out, the production as a whole lacked the ambivalence that you need to make it truly unnerving. By all accounts the Don is a great seducer but you don’t get that many babes unless you are either (a) a world-class basketball player; or (b) a bad boy with a large dollop of sexual magnetism. The Don here obviously wasn’t competing in class (a) and he really didn’t seem to have it for class (b); he was, as Mrs. B said (rather dismissively, I thought) “trailer trash.”

This is important not just for the Don himself but for those round him: you want to believe it when Donna Elvira discovers that she may be just a teensy bit in love with him. And when Donna Anna sets out to take her vengeance against him, you want to feel that she feels that she might be just a little bit complicit in all his crime.

This didn’t come off in this performance, and it’s too bad: the performance has a lot going for it. But in the end, it’s such a great opera that almost nothing can spoil it, and this one, if not perfect, was as long way from spoiled.

Afterthought—pleasant surprise: Luca Pisaroni as Massetto, the Ringo Starr of the majors in the show, made a lot out of not a great deal. It was his SFO debut and here’s wishing him many happy returns.

Maureen and the Thucydides Boys

Maureen Dowd is chuffed this morning at what you might call “The Thucydides Boys”—Victor David Hanson, Harvey Mansfield, the brothers Kagan, and others of that ilk who try to justify carnage with vague reference to the Greek classics (link $).

I have news for Maureen: Thucydides is not their boy. Granted, they can find an almost illimitable number of references to human awfulness in his great History of the Pelopennesian War. But his whole point is that these instances are, well, awful. The story arc is how a great nation destroyed its own soul through the arrogant abuse of power. The Greeks, as Mansfield recognizes, understood thumos—chip-on-the-shoulder belligerence—but the fact that they recognized it is testimony at once to their realism and their clear-eyed sense of tragedy. So also their view of Achilles: they saw him as some combination of Mel Gibson, Chuck Norris and Jack Bauer but (unlike Professor Mansfield?) they weren’t eager to install Jack Bauer as leader of a great nation.

When I first started reading this sort of stuff from Hanson and his ilk, my impulse was to say—this guy cannot possibly have read Thucydides. I concede that this is a stretch: this assortment of professors and sons-of-professors may indeed have actually read Thucydides. They may be assuming that we have not read Thucydides.

Or they may rather fall into that class of delinquents in (is it Clockwork Orange? –my library is not handy) compelled to read the Bible so they might become better Christians. In the event, they wound up concluding that dressing up in togas and crucifying people was just the coolest thing you could possibly do.

An Aesthetics for Bullyboys

There are two stories in the NYT this morning that form a nice matched set on the matter of how the wingnuts conduct our government.

The more interesting and important is the front-pager about “intelligence techniques,” and in particular the bullyboy approach to interrogation currently favored among our betters. A new report shows again that the bullyboy approach just isn’t terribly effective. But we knew that: the newsy bit is the suggestionthat the administration can’t really defend the bullyboy approach against less immoral means, because the bullyboy approach is the only technique it ever really tried. The Times says (link):

[S]ome of the experts involved in the interrogation review … say that during World War II, German and Japanese prisoners were effectively questioned without coercion.

“It far outclassed what we’ve done,” said Steven M. Kleinman, a former Air Force interrogator and trainer, who has studied the World War II program of interrogating Germans. The questioners at Fort Hunt, Va., “had graduate degrees in law and philosophy, spoke the language flawlessly,” and prepared for four to six hours for each hour of questioning, said Mr. Kleinman, who wrote two chapters for the December report.

Mr. Kleinman, who worked as an interrogator in Iraq in 2003, called the post-Sept. 11 efforts “amateurish” by comparison to the World War II program, with inexperienced interrogators who worked through interpreters and had little familiarity with the prisoners’ culture. …

Robert F. Coulam, a research professor and attorney at Simmons College and a study participant, said that the government’s most vigorous work on interrogation to date has been in seeking legal justifications for harsh tactics. Even today, he said, “there’s nothing like the mobilization of effort and political energy that was put into relaxing the rules” governing interrogation. …

In a prologue to the December report, the first of a planned series, [Robert] Fein [the director of the project] said the shortage of research meant that many American interrogators were “forced to ‘make it up’ on the fly,” resulting in “unfortunate cases of abuse.”

The companion piece is the story about the “resignation” of Cindy Sheehan—her announced decision step down as the public face of the peace movement (link). There’s been something remarkable about the Sheehan episode since day one—not so much Cindy herself as the wingnut response to it.

For her part, Cindy is almost the model of human misfortune—the gold-star mother, the woman who lost a son in war. In her grief she spoke out against the war, and who could blame her? No, wait a minute, there is an answer to that question—I’ll tell you who could blame her, the entire wingnutterati, that’s who. Almost since he moment she opened her mouth, she’s been hit with a shitstorm of dead cats and rotten vegetables so unrelenting that you might almost think she was a senator from New York.

Cindy isn’t the Senator from New York. Hell, she isn’t even Jane Fonda. She is just one more grief-stricken mother. If she did something that seemed ineffectual or silly, well let it be; it is the least that we owe her.

The devilish part is that if we had let her be, then after a couple of days—weeks at most—she would have morphed into a non-story, one more of those sincerely unhappy people you see waving placards on Saturday mornings outside farmers markets. That is: I don’t see that Cindy Sheehan has ever been a “problem” in any important sense, but if she is a problem, it is because her enemies have made her a problem.

The common thread in these two stories: when there is a choice between tact, diplomacy and silent respect (on one hand) and slack-jawed ruffianism on the other, always go for the technique that involves the threats, noise and intimidation. It

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

All the Good Comedy Ideas Have Been Done

From Underbelly's Greenwich Village bureau:
A Dutch TV station says it will go ahead with a program in which a terminally ill woman selects one of three patients to receive her kidneys.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Hogzilla

Underbelly's Alabama bureau weighs in on the new Hogzilla, the giant wild boar nailed by an 11-year-old boy last week:

Wild hogs are more common than ordinary farm hogs now, I guess. Used to be every farmer had a boar and a sow or two. they'd sell some or most of the little pigs at weaning size, raise the rest to butcher and fill the smoke house. Now, you hardly ever see a sow on a farm around here. all the meat comes from Smithfield's factory farms. some, in NE Alabama -- really Appalachian mountain country, have so bad an odor and other problems, nearby farmers can't breathe the air or even step outside the house. real horror. ...

Many, many years ago i happened to be visiting my in-laws on this farm when a hog-killing took place. we did the butchering on the banks of a branch in the barn lot -- lots of hot water is essential. It was a huge effort -- well, it was a huge hog. long time ago. Incidentally, the smoke house where the hams and shoulders and sides were hung to complete curing is now my outside tool shed.

Phew, I bet he is right about the smell. I remember Southwestern Ohio--out of Dayton, towards Washington Courthouse--on August evenings 50 years ago, i.e., long before commercial piggy factories. The whole county stank, and it was muggy to boot. I can understand why all those nasty flu bugs come from South China.

Learning How To Run a Great University

Dinner tonight at the Great China, a 24-Zagat just downhill from the Berkeley Campus. It’s a fine place in a fine location, but I can never stay in a house like this very long without thinking of what a god-awful lot of work it must be to run a restaurant. Everybody running every which way, lots of things to trip over, to spill on yourself or (worse) the customers. I don’t see how the boss gets home before midnight, and somebody must be hitting the produce market again at 5 a.m.

My thoughts then turned, as they so often do in this situation, to Harold Tafler Shapiro, former president of Princeton University. As I recall, Shapiro’s first grownup job was working as manager of Ruby Foo’s, Montreal’s most expensive Chinese restaurant, owned by his family. It was only after Ruby Foo’s that he went back to get his Ph.D. But it occurs to me: for running a great University, I can’t think of any better preparation than running a Chinese restaurant. You’ve got a million jobs to do, you have got dozen constituencies to keep happy, you have to make the cooks (=professors?) think they are special, and you have to make it all look like fun. Anyway, high marks for the double skins and the greens with duck egg.

And yes, I’ve got wifi.

Suspension of Blogging,
Or Maybe Not

Close the door, they're comin' in the window,
Close the window, they're comin' in the door.


So goes the old vaudeville song, and so it feels this morning at Chez Buce, where everything is all up in a heaval: we have painters inside and out and a new pergola going up in the back, and carpets due next week, oy vey.

We do what any sensible person does in this kind of a scrape: we bug out. We leave it all in the hands of our Trusted Man of Business and skip off on a peripatete--ending with a high school commencement Friday night.

I have no idea whether I'll be blogging or not. Maybe so. Maybe not. Anyway, I hope to return next weekend to find that all our problems have magically disappeared. Ta.

Don't Forget Your Carrots

From Underbelly's Southeast Asia bureau (link):

NEW DELHI, India (Reuters) -- An elephant in eastern India has sparked complaints from motorists who accuse it of blocking traffic and refusing to allow vehicles to pass unless drivers give it food, a newspaper has reported.

The Hindustan Times said Monday the elephant was scouting for food on a highway in the eastern state of Orissa, forcing motorists to roll down their windows and get out of the car.

"The tusker then inserts its trunk inside the vehicle and sniffs for food," local resident Prabodh Mohanty, who has come across the elephant twice, was quoted as saying.

"If you are carrying vegetables and banana inside your vehicle, then it will gulp them and allow you to go."

If a commuter does not wind down his window or resists opening the vehicle door, the elephant stands in front of the car until the driver allows him to carry out his routine inspection. ...

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Andrew Bacevich on His Son and the War

I started to excerpt this but every word deserves to be read (in the Washington Post) on its own (link):

I Lost My Son to a War I Oppose. We Were Both Doing Our Duty.
By Andrew J. Bacevich

Sunday, May 27, 2007; Page B01


And while you are at it, you could go back and read this (link):

What's an Iraqi Life Worth?
By Andrew J. Bacevich
Sunday, July 9, 2006; B01

Best Republican President Ever?

I guess it is no surpise that the “Carter/worst-president” meme is getting new traction these days (see, e.g., link). He is, after all, the guy who broke the rule of ex-presidential omertà to identify the man who really is the worst president (link). And of course, as perhaps an even graver crime, he’s had the presumption to challenge the prevailing shibboleths about power in the Middle East (link).

Still, there are voters old enough to be grandparents who were not old enough to vote when Ronald Reagan trounced Carter in 1979. And for them, we need always to repeat: Carter is not the worst president ever. He wasn’t even a very bad one. He was a mediocre president who has always, in office and out, paid more attention to trying to get it right than he has to his image.

I won’t plow over all the old ground again, and in particular, I won’t waste a lot of time trying to insist that good intentions trump lousy results—Warren Harding, after all, seems to have been a nice enough man, but a calamitous president. Richard Nixon was a Darth Vader of a human being but in the end, not quite as bad a president as people make him out to be.

My particular point is that some of the points on which Carter appears most vulnerable to his critics are those on which he was behaving precisely as the right-wingers would want him to behave.

Exhibit #A: One of the truest charges against Jimmy Carter is that he was a moral arrogance, touched with a streak of mean-spiritedness. Yet of all our presidents, Carter has the best claim to recognition as a born-again Christian. Born-agains (Carter and others) have contributed a lot that is good to American political life. Republicans like Henry Hyde and Sam Brownbeck have put their convictions to work on issues like human rights abroad in a way that mere pragmatists would not have thought to do. Yet arrogance and mean-spiritedness appear to be almost inevitable corollaries of this kind of belief—you take what you can get.

Exhibit #B: Almost nobody seems to want to remember these days that it was Carter, not Reagan, who set us on the road to deregulation. Trucking, natural gas, airlines: all these were products of the Carter years.

Exhibit #C: We talk about “The Carter inflation.” In fact, the inflation we saw in the Carter years was the result of policies that long preceded him. It would be at least as just to call it “The Johnson inflation,” or “the Nixon inflation” (and remember this?). In fact, what most people remember as “The Carter inflation” might well be remembered as “The Volcker inflation”—the stiff, sharp, shock, administered by Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, Carter’s appointee. This is precisely the kind of “shock therapy” that robust free marketeers find so attractive when it is administered to the poor and vulnerable in, say, Argentina or Thailand.

I think there is a good reason why people don’t remember characteristics like this from the Carter years. That is: neither side really wants to hear about them. The right has no incentive to remember him as a good Christian, and they certainly don’t want to give him credit for free-market economics or monetary prudence. The left for its part, is at least ambivalent on all three counts: for them, Carter’s born-again-ness was one of his least attractive qualities, and deregulation and monetary stabilization don’t really count as achievements in their circle anyway.

We are left, then, with a president who was certainly not one of the “greats,” but one whose record is probably more complex and interesting than his critics want you to believe. Just like Dwight Eisenhower, say. Or Ronald Reagan. Jimmy Carter as the greatest Republican president ever? Of course not. But you could make a far better case for this particular simplistic catchphrase than for the one that seems to be goin’ round.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

"If We Knew How to Do That,
We Would Not Be Poor"

While others are sorting out the question whether neoclassic econ is a Mafia (link, link), allow me to share this anecdote copped from one of the most interesting and original microeconomics textbooks I’ve ever seen:

Like the overnight train that left me in an empty field some distance from the settlement, the process of economic development has for the most part bypassed the two hundred or so families that make up the village of Palanpur. They have remained poor, even by Indian standards: less than a third of the adults are literate, and most have endured the loss of a child to malnutrition or to illnesses that are long forgotten in other parts of the world. But for the occasional wristwatch, bicycle, or irrigation pump, Palanpur appears to be a timeless backwater, untouched by India’s cutting edge software industry and booming agricultural regions.

Seeking to understand why, I approached a sharecropper and his three daughters weeding a small plot. The conversation eventually turned to the fact that Palanpur farmers sow their winter crops several weeks after the date at which yields would be maximized. The farmers do not doubt that earlier planting would give them larger harvests, but no one the farmer explained, is willing to be the first to plant, as the seeds on any lone plot would be quickly eaten by birds. I asked if a large group of farmers, perhaps relatives, had ever agreed to sow earlier, all planting on the same day to minimize losses. “If we knew how to do that,” he said, looking up from his hoe at me, “we would not be poor.”

--Samuel Bowles, Microecnomics: Behavior, Institutions, and Evolution
24-25 (Princeton Paperback ed. 2004)

There must be 100 books entitled “Microeconomics”—a thousand? This one is so far out of the conventional mode that it might count as a violation of the British Trade Descriptions Act. It’s far closer to what might have passed as “Political Economy,”—Economics before the Mafia took over. Lots more attention to the structure of economies than you would expect in a standard Micro intro. Yet in detail (at the micro level?) it is actually fairly conventional stuff: all the individual items appear to come out of the standard toolbox. The unconventional ordering gives them a fresh and invigorating spin.

German Lesson

Two-part weekend German lesson:

Flak: an acronym derived from a classic German compound word Flieger Abwehr Kanone (anti-aircraft gun) that has made it into common usage.

(link)

Enhanced Interrogation Techniques:

Well, "enhanced interrogation techniques" is a fairly decent English translation of the Gestapo euphemism "verschaerfte Vernehmung" which was the code word for torture in the Third Reich. Look it up.

(link).

Update: Underbelly's chief military strategist, whose arm has a tendency to flail unexpectedly into an upright position, says the German language is great at this sort of thing.

In Munich there’s the Feldherren Halle which figured in the 1923 Putsch with statues of great captains. It got bombed flat. At some point, someone referred to Hitler as the “Groesster Feldherr Aller Zeiten” – greatest general of all time – which got shortened to Grofatz. Goebbels was then dubbed the Groesster Quatschkopf Aller Zeiten, greatest dickhead of all time. Groquatz.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Immigration: All Balls Loose on the Table

We’ve got painters all around the outside of Chez Buce today so I can’t get to my car without wading through a band of Limbaugh surround sound (I hope our neighbors will forgive us). It did give me the exquisite pleasure of hearing Rush whine that he was being “marginalized by the Republican party.”

“Marginalized” seems to be a favorite word among the self-pity faction of the wingnut set these days, but it occurred to me he does have a point. That is: he was talking about immigration and here, at last, we have an issue that really sets traditional alliances on their head. I remarked earlier today that I found myself in the odd position of agreement with NRO’s Corner. DeLong (along with others) points out that the issue has caused The Corner at last to discover the mean-spirited arrogance at the editiorial page of the Wall Street Journal (link). NPR this morning took delight in running supposedly “acting against type” soundbytes: A Republican who embraced the cause of illegals, a Dem who thought we were being over run with them.

I don’t have any confident expectations here, but I do know that all balls are loose on the table at the moment, and when they are all loose on the table, you never know what will carom off what. And let’s hear it for marginalization. I hope these guys are better as housepainters than they are as critical students of politics.

Fn.: I stay away from opining about immigration not because I don't care but because I haven't a clue what to say about it. I know that not even Jack Bauer is going to school-bus 12 million illegals back to Mexico (aside: thanks, Kevin!). I tend to suspect that immigrants contribute more to the economy than they take out of it, but you'd never guess it from hanging around at the prompt-care door to any even remotely public hospital. I do suspect that the United States will probably hive off some kind of new entity in the southwest within the next 100 years, though probably not within my lifetime. I wouldn't say "a new nation," because the very idea of the nation-state seems to be under stress at the moment--but that is a whole nuther story.

Let Me Tell You What I Really Think, Judge...

There’s an entertaining discussion under way over at Above the Law, about a lawyer who told the (bankruptcy) judge she was “a few French fries short of a happy meal” (link). She is threatening to jerk his right to appear in her court.

There’s a huge amount of chatter in the comments at ATL (boy, doesn’t anybody have to work for a living any more?), but unless I overlooked something, it missed at least three points that seem to me to be important as lessons, and also for context.

  • As the saying goes, this is “worse than a crime, it’s a blunder.” I don’t suppose there is a lawyer in practice who doesn’t think that some judge (maybe all judges?) is(are?) a few tacos short of a combination plate.But the secret of success in law is to learn to manipulate people who have power over you.I can’t imagine how this outburst gets you closer to the result you want (but cf., next bullet point).

  • Is it just bankruptcy, or is it happening everywhere? I have a sense that you see more and more lawyers mouthing off to judges, like junior high schoolers to the hall monitor. The attitude seems to be:I make a million a year, you top out at around $160,000—why should I listen to you (but cf., previous bullet point).

  • The judge has ordered a full-scale hearing, with formal notice to almost everyone in the galaxy. I can’t quarrel with that approach, but there is another strategy: simply rule against him on all issues of fact. Pure decisions of fact are virtually untouchable on appeal, so he goes home empty handed. He might not even know what hit him—although I concede, it would be more fun if he did.

--Young man, are you trying to show your contempt for this court?

--No, your honor, I’m trying to conceal it.

Annals of Criminal Motives

Larry reads the NY Times so we don't have to (link):

LUCASVILLE, Ohio, May 24 (AP) — An overweight inmate was executed by injection on Thursday after a delay of about 90 minutes while prison medical workers struggled to find suitable veins in his arms. ...

Mr. Newton, 37, who was sentenced to death in the 2001 beating and choking death of a cellmate, Jason Brewer, continued to talk and smile even when strapped to the execution table at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility. ...

Mr. Newton refused to cooperate with officials investigating Mr. Brewer’s death unless they sought the death penalty against him, court documents said.

In an interview with reporters last month, Mr. Newton said he had killed Mr. Brewer, 27, because he repeatedly gave up when they were playing chess.

What Andy Said

This might be first: I'm agreeing with NRO's Corner (link) (but ignore the mash note to the WSJ).

H/T Tigerhawk (link).

Thursday, May 24, 2007

What Was Dahlia Smoking?

I’ve always been a big Dahlia Lithwick fan—still am, actually—but dear God, what was this woman smoking yesterday (link)?

[A]s it turns out, Goodling is nobody's parody. She is smart and assertive and articulate. And freakishly candid to boot. She comes across as nondefensive—or as nondefensive as anyone can be with a wall of scowling lawyers seated behind her and an array of voracious paparazzi in front of her. Goodling is Elle Woods without the puppy in drag.

Was she watching the same channel I was? No, guess not (link). In fairness, Dahlia regains her sanity quickly, making it clear that it’s not so much Monica II who won, but the committee Democrats who lost. There were, indeed, some good questions here and there. But Dahlia is quite right to wonder

why Democrats allow themselves to be rope-a-doped. They let Goodling give up all the good stuff in the first 30 minutes of her testimony and don't seem to notice or push her on it.

And she nails the core point:

[A]lmost nobody sees fit to ask follow-up questions about how the list was made, what criteria were used, and what exactly the White House did to play along. Nobody asks why she cried when she quit, what she made of those e-mails, or much of anything at all about Alberto Gonzales.

All fair comment; but Dahlia seems not to notice that nothing in this later presentation comes close to supporting that opener, which sounds like nothing so much as Ron Kessler gushing over Ann Romney (link). As the Commendatore says in Shaw’s Don Juan in Hell, even a stupid general can win a battle if the enemy general is a little stupider.

Scary Koran Quotes

Google now offers a home-page widget called "Scary Koran Quotes." It comes with a disclaimer saying it is not home-grown Google content, but it is up and available at Google's new-stuff page. It comes from these guys. You can post it right next to the Chuck Norris Fact Generator.

I Always Said...

She was the one who wore the pants in the family (link).

Amos Oz, Spy

Caution: This post is about Amos Oz' To Know a Woman (link). It's not really a spoiler but if you are planning to read the book, you might not want to read this just yet.

Anyway--The Mr. and Mrs. Buce Readaloud Club has completed its perusal of TKAW. I still can't quite make up my mind about it, but in this case, that's a compliment: I suspect it is intentional that the book leaves loose ends, questions unanswered, issues unresolved--some things we'll never know. So, high marks, and I may have stuff to say about it in, oh maybe a couple of months.

But one thought. The protagonist is/was a spy. It's not a spy novel in the Eric Ambler sense of the term, but spying and the spy' s mind do factor in. The protagonist watches and listens. He takes in his surroundings as if--because--his life depends on it. And he never lies.

I have no reason to suppose that Oz was ever a spy. Or at any rate, not in the nationalist/professional sense. But for a writer, perhaps spying is a way of life. He watches and listens, he takes stuff in. And he never lies. Or at any rate, he tries not to lie, and in this case, I'd say that Amos Oz, writer and spy, has pretty well brought it off.

Next up: Stefan Zweig, Beware of Pity.

Update: Okay, so I never said it was original (link):

Mr. Oz warns sternly against reading the novel as "political allegory" or "confessional," but agrees that Ravid [the protagonist of TKAW] could stand in for him. "A secret agent is a perfect metaphor for a storyteller," he said. "What he does for a living is what I do for a living: put himself under people's skins, try to be empathic, to see four or five contradictory points of view, to have more than one identity."

New York Times, February 24, 1991

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

How To Be a True Aristocrat: A Caution

Yesterday I posted some thoughts (from Proust) on what it takes to be a true aristocrat. I oversimplified. In fact, it takes more than just gracious good nature, and some of the other pieces of the puzzle can be trickier to fit in. There is, for example, the matter of “intelligence.” Apparently it is a subject of some contention between Marcel’s friends, the Guermants, and their relatives and rivals, the Courvoisiers:

Not only did the Courvoisiers not assign to intelligence the same importance as the Guermantes, the had a different notion of it. For a Guermantes (however stupid), to be intelligent meant to have a sharp tongue, to be capable of saying scathing things, to give short shrift; but it meant also the capacity to hold one’s own equally in painting, music, architecture, and to speak English. The Courvoisiers had a less favorable notion of intelligence, and unless one belonged to their world, being intelligent was almost tantamount to “having probably murdered one’s father and mother.” For them intelligence was a sort of burglar’s jimmy by means of which people one did not know from Adam forced the doors of the most reputable drawing-rooms, and it was common knowledge among the Courvoisiers that you always had to pay in the long run for having “those sort” of people in your house.

--Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past,
Vol. II 458(Scott-Moncrief/Kilmartin trans. 1981)

Justice Department? Who Needs It?

It now appears that we will have no Justice Department until at least the next Presidential administration. It is not immediately clear exactly who gains from this, except possibly Grover Norquist and those who share his vision of reducing government to the size where you can drown it in a bathtub (link). Possibly also Blackwater, Wackenhut and miscellaneous other purveyors of organized violence who will succeed to the control function once the state at last withers away.

Like the Marxists, the libertarians are not always crystal clear about the details of our progress down the road to Utopia. They might get some help from Edward Luce’s fine new book, In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India (2007), where he describes his meeting with an “encounter man”—a policeman who corrects the deficiencies of a corrupt and bureaucratic police structure as an extrajudicial killer. Luce’s conversational companion is a senior officer in the Mumbai police force, “recently been suspended pending an investigation into his role in an extrajudicial killing of a terrorist suspect.”

“They have given me six months paid leave. I have plenty of time on my hands,” the encounter man said as he joined Luce for a coffee.

He was very candid about his own role in killing suspects whom he believed the courts would either absolve or forget. He flatly denied any involvement in the killing of the alleged terrorist, a man who had been detained for questioning after a bloody incident in 2003 that involved two car bombs that were detonated near Mumbai’s seafront, killing fifty-seven bystanders. The Indian government said the bombing was facilitated by Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence Agency, Islamabad’s equivalent of the CIA. But the case remained unresolved.

“It is ironic that the one time I didn’t actually kill the person in question, I get suspended,” the policeman said. “Why would I want to kill a key witness who could have led us to the organized network before the bombs?” I did not have an answer to this one. But I felt it would be wise to agree with whatever he said. I asked how many encounter killings he had carried out. “About fifty,” he said, “which compared to X [the man who heads the anticrime unit in another zone of Mumbai] is not very many. He has been involved in about eighty.” My goodness, I replied, that is many more than you. “I always have to be 100 percent certain before I agree to anything,” he said. Did he have to get approval beforehand? He gave me a patient lock. “It is very rare that you get a freelance encounter killing,” he said. “I have never been involved in a killing that hasn’t either been approved or requested by the senior commissioner of police. We do not break the chain of command.

In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India 95-6 (2007)

Too bad about that chain of command. He could be so much more efficient without it.

Afterthought: Mrs. Buce is skeptical. How does a guy kill 50 people--and brag about it--without getting taken down himself? Is Luce being conned?


Move Along, Folks...

When Jerry Falwell died, I snarkily wondered how many GOP candidates would show up at his funeral.

The answer is—let me see here—ah yes, none (although we apparently almost had one semi-incompetent right-wing bomber).

I guess I had failed to grasp that Falwell is, well dead. And that, no matter what they say or what we perceived, these Churchy Entrepreneurs are all really free-lancers with no more interest in each others’ fortunes than the girls outside of the cribs in a port-city bordello (hey, sailor—goin’ my way?). The movement as a whole has no more stake in Falwell than it had in, well, say, James Bakker, once it became clear that he was/is a political busted flush. Nothin’ to see here, folks, just move along—ooh, look, there’s a dandy brimstone show just across the street.

I made another snarky crack about recycling old death jokes. Here’s another: on the day Stalin died this guy kept calling the newspaper to say “is it true--?”

“Yes, yes, yes, said the editor, why do you keep calling to ask?”

“Oh, I just like to hear you say it…”

My Next Nightmare

I guess the point that haunts me most about the Monica II testimony is the moment where someone (I am too indolent to go back and seek it out) asked her if she had any personnel experience before coming to the Justice Department. In answer, she recalled her work in student government.

Exactly. This kid has the makings of a nightmare boss. She’s a know-it-all and a motormouth with a mean streak (except when she goes on a 45-minute self-pity crying jag) who thinks that life is one long extension of the sorority house. I’m gonna have nightmares in which I am a clueless 26 again, with a wife and a couple of babies to support, and Monica II is the only thing that stands between me breadline. Unless I can cancel her out with something milder, like the thought of being tied with an anthill and covered with honey, or keelhauled by Captain Kidd.

[Tedious afterthought: one big difference is that a lot of her adversaries in this case are not clueless 26-year-olds but highly skilled professionals--and, for all their conservatism,. highly princpled. David Iglesias is obviously not the kind of chap you push around easily. Nor John McCay, nor even, it seems, John Comey.]

Everything about her so far tells me that she is Paula Abdul on American Idol (thanks, John)—cute and dumb, but with a sharp tongue, free in her judgments of other people's lives. Whether Monica II (or, come to that, Paula Abdul) comes out of this as a superstar or just another has-been is an open question, but in each case, I am tempted to remember the old line about how “she doesn’t seem to know what it is she is famous for.” All of which reminds me—on the whole, I still prefer Moncia I.

Update--Obermann Tracks Underbelly: I see that Obermann leads his Monica II coverage tonight with a soundbyte in which she claims as her qualification for the job of AG Hitperson her experience as "student body president."

Updqate: Just picked this up from the BBC; attributed to Catherine the Great: "I shall be a tyrant; that is my business. God will forgive me; that is his."

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

How To Be a True Aristocrat

The Princesse de Parme’s mother “not merely related to all the royal families of Europe but furthermore—in contrast to the ducal house of Parma—richer than any reigning princess” had taught her daughter “the arrogantly humble precepts of an evangelical snobbery”:

Remember that if God has caused you to be born on the steps of a throne you ought not to make that as reason for looking down upon those whom Divine Providence has willed (wherefore his name be praised) that you should be superior by birth and fortune. On the contrary, you must be kind to the lowly. Your ancestors were Princes of Cleves and Juliers from the year 647; God in his bounty has decreed that you should hold practically all the shares in the Suez Canal and three times as many Royal Dutch as Edmond de Rothschild; your pedigree in a direct line has been established by genealogists from the year 63 of the Christian era; you have as two sisters-in-law two empresses. Therefore never seem in your speech to be recalling these great privileges, not that they are precarious (for nothing can alter the antiquity of blood, while the world will always need oil), but because it is unnecessary to point out that you are better born than other people or that your investments are all gilt-edged, since everyone knows these facts already. Be helpful to the needy. Give to all those whom the bounty of heaven has been graciously pleased to put beneath you as much as you can give them without forfeiting your rank, that is to say help in the form of money, even your personal service b y their sickbeds, but of course never any invitations to your soirées, which would do them no possible good and, by diminishing your prestige, would reduce the efficacy of your benevolent activities.

Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past,
Vol. II 445 (Scott-Moncrief/Kilmartin trans. 1981)

“She’s a very kind woman,” said the Duc de Guermantes of the Princesse de Parme, “and she knows how to play the grande dame better than anyone.

Fn.: Edmond de Rotschild may have held some Royal Dutch (=the oil company?), but in Rothschild circles, he seems to have been a bit player. Niall Ferguson, their great biographer, says that there is evidence of general decay among the Rotschild clan at the end of the 19th Century. Of the Parisian branch, he says, "Alphonse remained a formidable force in French finance until his death in 1905, assisted by his younger brother Gustave, but ... Edmond played only a minor role in the business." See Ferguson, The House of Rothschild: The World's Banker, 1849-1999 220 (1998). Not that Marcel's friends would have cared: the Prince de Guermantes allowed a wing of his chateau to be burnt down rather than ask the Rothschilds for help. See Proust, id. II, 604.

Mitt's First Date,
And Some Automotive History

Mitt’s first date, as recounted by Ron Kessler (link):

When he picked up Ann Davies for their first date, Mitt Romney left nothing to chance. He arrived in a red Marlin, a new fastback model made by his father's American Motors Co. Mitt had cleaned and polished the car until it gleamed. He brought along a bottle of sparkling Catawba grape juice and two chilled glasses.

Mitt took Ann, then 15, to see "The Sound of Music."

More than four decades later…

I’m having a bit of trouble with the dates here, but Mitt was born in 1947. “More than 40 years ago” would be before 1967. I’m assuming she’s younger than he is, and if he was driving, I assume he was at least 16. So, 1963-66.

Romney’s father was, of course, once president of American Motors. In fact, quite a good one: he developed the high-visibility “Rambler” line—fuel-efficient economy cars whose only real problem was that they were 20 years ahead of their time (Wiki has some good history).

But Romney left Rambler in 1962 to run (successfully) for governor of Michigan, a post he held from 1963 to 1969 (a period that bracketed his unsuccessful run for president in 1964). Conceding that conflicts standards were more relaxed in those days, I assume he was not involved in AMC management during that period. I haven’t any idea how much stock he continued to hold.

The Marlin was in large measure the brainchild of Romney’s successor, Roy Abernathy, one of those guys—there seem to be a lot of them in the car business—who loved cars too much and balance sheets too little. It was a success d’estime among car fans, but Abernathy’s grand strategy came near to destroying the company before he was ousted by Roy Chapin, Jr., in 1968.

So Romney’s story is—well, not really a lie, on the order of saying you’re a lifelong hunter when in fact you never owned a hunting license. But it’s a bit of marketing. The Marlin was really not the product of his father’s car company, and his father had reason to be glad of it.

H/T Pearlstein

Clarification: In the sentence that begins "So Romney's story is"--I first left out the "not" between "well" and "really." This was an editing error of mine, which I have corrected, although it was perhaps obvious what I meant from the context anyway.


Monday, May 21, 2007

Henry Fielding, Feminist

A lot of people who should know better (I’m talking to you, Samuel Johnson, and you, Jane Austen) have a low opinion of Henry Fielding. I grant that he indulged a certain liberality of spirit, but it was no more than the spirit of the age. And you have to credit him for candor: Somerset Maugham suggested that polite young ladies would do well to read Tom Jones to find out what men were really like (especially, perhaps, if they had no brothers). Maugham might have been thinking of this passage, where Fielding discusses the domestic situation of Squire Western, in his character (as he understands it) of “a good husband”:

He very seldom swore at [his wife] (perhaps not above once a Week) and never beat her: She had not the least Occasion for Jealousy, and was perfect Mistress of her Time; for she was never interrupted by her Husband, who was engaged all the Morning in his Field Exercises, and all the Evening with Bottle Companions. She scarce indeed ever saw him but at Meals; where she had the Pleasure of carving those Dishes which she had before attended at the Dressing. From these Meals she retired about five Minutes after the other Servants, having only stayed to drink the King over the Water. Such were, it seems, Mr. Western’s Orders: For it was a Maxim with him, that Women should come in with the first Dish, and go out after the first Glass. Obedience to these Orders was perhaps no difficult Task: For the Conversation (if it may be called so) was seldom such as could entertain a Lady. It consisted chiefly of Hollowing, Singing, Relations of sporting Adventures, B—d-y, and Abuse of Women and of the Government.

These, however, were the only Seasons when Mr. Western saw his Wife: For when he repaired to her Bed, he was generally so drunk that he could not see; and in the sporting Season he always rose from her before it was light. Thus was she perfect Mistress of her Time …

Henry Fielding, Tom Jones 338-9 (Wesleyan Univ. Ed. 1975)

In fairness, Mrs. Western did not always take her role as “faithful upper Servant” in good grace:

[S]he had contracted a little Gloominess of Temper: For she was rather a good Servant than a good Wife; nor had she always the Gratitude to return the extraordinary Degree of roaring Mirth, with which the Squire received her, even with a good-humoured Smile.

Id.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

From the BBC

Where do babies come from?

A stork flew out of the blueberry bush, and daddy was so amazed he didn't see the milkman nicking in by the back door.

You Gotta Read Faulkner

"Nobody," says Samuel Johnson, "ever reads a book he was given." When it comes to imposing my literary tastes on others, I try to restrain myself, but I make one exception: Faulkner. I didn't get Faulkner the first time around. It was my friend Ivan (aka Underbelly's Alabama bureau) who insisted I take another chance. By that time I was working as a newspaper reporter, covering politics in Kentucky, which might have made things easier. Anyway, I am eternally grateful for having been noodged into the second chance -- "came to scoff, and stayed to pray," as they say in that part of the world. So I feel I owe it to folks to try to carry on the tradition. Here's the latest--an email to a friend, based in part on what I learned from Ivan, 45 years ago:

You really owe it to yourself to take another shot at Faulkner.

The thing is that Faulkner wrote, not a bunch of novels, but one long novel, like Proust. They just package it in parts. So do this:

Get the Viking Portable Faulkner, with the Malcolm Cowley intro.

Read “That Evening Sun.” If you do not think it the most perfect story you ever read, then exit, there is no hope for you.

Still here? Then read “Spotted Horses.” If you do not think it is the funniest story you ever read, then exit, there is no hope for you.

Still here? Go read the Cowley introduction. From then on, you can be on your own, but I would suggest continuing with the entire reader, skipping “The Bear” which is a big moony overloaded piece of English teacher crap.

Then perhaps The Hamlet. Then several others that don’t claim the attention of English teachers, but are the better for it: Sartoris, The Unvanquished, maybe Intruder in the Dust (Faulkner tries the mystery).

The monuments are still there. Absalom, Absalom! has wonderful parts, but it is heavy weighted with Meaning. Sound and Fury is a literary stunt, but a good novel anyway. It is four overlapping stories from overlapping points of view. Begins with the idiot child (“Tale told by an idiot/Full of sound and fury,” get it?). Skip that, and read Jason IV (“the only sane Compson since the battle of Culloden”). Then Quentin, then Benjy the idiot, and finally Dilsey.

As I Lay Dying is a bit of a stunt also, but perfectly readable, if you like stories about decaying bodies.

From there on you will make your own decision as to whether to reads the rest. I never read Mosquitos. Or A Fable. Or Light in August, although that last I think I should read.

There, now that wasn't so hard, was it?

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Afghanistan: The New Switzerland

London bookies peg Ashraf Ghani, currently the chancellor of Kabul University,as either first or second in the running for the Presidency of the World Bank (link). That’s a natural segue to a hobby-horse of mine. Call: it Afghanistan, the new Switzerland.

It’s not that crazy. A hop, skip and a jump ago, Switzerland was mountainous, landlocked, desperately poor, the producer of nothing in surplus except warriors.

Now, Afghanistan. Mountainous, check. Landlocked, check. Desperately poor, ooh checkeroo. Producer of—well, I’m not sure Switzerland ever did opium.

I’m really not clear exactly why or how Switzerland vaulted from nowhere into financial preeminence, although I have the impression it has something to do with Italian bankers driven out of Lucca by the Counter-reformation. At any rate, I strongly suspect the Swiss aren’t all that clear themselves. Oh, they may think they know, but it happened so fast (in geologic time) they probably haven’t had the time or the inclination to follow the breadcrumbs back to the source.

Okay, frivolous, but not entirely. Compared to Switzerland at its takeoff, there is really nothing Afghanistan needs that it doesn’t have already, except perhaps luck. Wonder how they are at cuckoo clocks and chocolates.

Fn.: Looks like I said it before (link).

Friday, May 18, 2007

God in Man's Image

It’s a new one on me:

On dit fort bien que, si les triangles faisaient un dieu, ils lui donneraient trois côtés.

It has been well said that if the triangles had a god, they would give it three sides.

--Montesquieu, Lettres Persanes, LIX

Others have said it, before and after. Ludwig Feuerbach, the left Hegelian and precursor of Marx, in The Essence of Christianity (1841), sought to demonstrate that man created God in his own image, as a culmination of human self-alienation. At the other end of the scale, Xenophanes in the 6th-5th Century BC said that

The Ethiopians say that their gods are snub-nosed and black,
the Thracians that theirs have gray eyes and red hair.

[As reported in Clement of Alexandria, Miscellanies, 7, 22].

To my taste, Montesquieu’s form (or the form reported by Montesquieu) is the most elegant and economical. It makes clear that we define God in terms of what defines as creatures who define God.

Clives James on
Shakespeare's Eighth-Grade Teacher

Clive James salutes all those eighth-grade teachers (ours, and Shakespeare's) who made us diagram all those sentences:

[U]nless we ourselves know quite a lot about how grammar works, there will be severe limits on our capacity to understand what [Shakespeare] wrote, especially when he seems to be at his most untrammelled. Take a single line from Henry V:

How ill white hairs become a fool and jester

Here is a whole story in eleven syllables, but unless we grasp how an extremely compressed sentence can be put together, we won't get the story out, and if Shakespeare had not grasped it, he would not have been able to put the story in. Though they might look like it at first glance, "ill" and "white" are not a pair of adjectives. "Ill" is an adverb, modifying the verb "become." If this is not realized, the meaning is reversed. If Shakespeare hadn't realized the fundamental diference between an adjective and an adverb, he couldn't have written the sentence. A good actor will help make the point, by emphasizing "ill" so that its effect carries over to "become." But it is quite easy to imagine a bad actor missing the point, and conveying the impression that ill white hairs make a fool and jester look good, or, even worse--two errors in one--allowing it to be thought that ill white hairs have turned into a fool or jester.

--Clive James, Cultural Amnesia 777 (2007)
Or, as Shakespeare did not say, "I kissed her on the lips and left her behind for you."

Everybody's Out of Step But Paul

To the deluge of postmortems about Paul Wolfowitz, let me add this: by so royally screwing up his own career at the World Bank, he did serious harm to at least two good causes that he purports to support. One is the matter of cleaning up corruption in third world lending. The other is the matter of shaking up the leviathan bureaucracy at the bank itself.

Wolfowitz made corruption in lending his signature issue. Sebastian Mallaby has the right take (link):

Wolfowitz mishandled this challenge so badly that it poisoned his tenure, and the bank's next president will be tempted to avoid it. But the challenge of corruption and, more broadly, of weak institutions in developing nations must not be neglected.

Except that it’s more than just “avoid.” The point is that Wolfowitz made it harder for his successor to tackle corruption, because he has tarred the issue with his own brush. IOW, he’s done the impossible: he’s made fighting corruption look bad.

Re the issue of bureaucracy, Steven R. Weisman’s postmortem in the Times this morning is on point (link). It makes the case that it was bureaucratic blowback, much more than Iraq, that finally brought him down. Anyone who ever watched Sir Humphrey hornswoggle a minister can readily believe this is true (link).

The Wall Street Journal picks up on the same theme. The Journal rightly says (link):

If there is a silver lining here, it is that the public has been able to get a glimpse of how the World Bank works and what it actually accomplishes. Among other lowlights, we've recently been reminded that the bank annually pushes billions in loans to countries like China and Mexico that can easily get credit in private capital markets. We've seen that many of those loans go to projects in places like India or Kenya that are riddled by corruption; the bank may have lost as much as $8 billion to corruption in 25 years of lending to the Suharto regime in Indonesia. We've also learned that the bank funds literally hundreds of projects from Albania to Niger that were ill-conceived and proved to be failures.

We've seen that senior bank personnel, such as former Indonesia country director Dennis de Tray, openly argue that corruption is no big deal and should not get in the way of the bank's "helping people."

This is pretty much dead on. But who is responsible for leaving this mess just as he found it? The question ought to answer himself. Wolfowitz failed here for the same reason he failed at the Pentagon: he screams and hollers. He kicks and yells. Then when he has made an unholy mess of things, he blames everybody else.

There is one important difference between Wolfowitz at the Pentagon and Wolfowitz at the World Bank. That is: the Iraq War never should have been fought. The World Bank really does need to be reformed. Still, in each case, the bad guys have won a round because of the stupidity and incompetence of the supposed good guy himself.

Fn: I might have written the same piece, had I taken the time and trouble, about John Bolton at the UN.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Don't Call it Tax F--

Maybe I travel in restricted circles, but I am the only person I know who finds this interesting (link):

The Internal Revenue Service’s Private Debt Collection program is on track to exceed revenue expectations while costing less than originally believed, according to an IRS Oversight Board briefing dated April 30.

Private collection agencies (PCAs) collected $19.47 million in gross revenues as of April 19, with $15.57 million considered commissionable revenue and which resulted in $3.2 million in payments to the PCAs. This compares with the projected range for revenue at the end of April of between $15.05 million and $20.69 million.

Original projections for gross revenue by the Office of Tax Analysis called for the collection of $1.4 billion over 10 years; the board briefing states the program “is tracking toward the higher end of the projections,” and may net as much as $1.8 billion by the year 2017.

Yields have met or exceeded projections in five of the seven months since the program began, the board states in its briefing.

You can guess why I care? Good, I thought you could. The point is that tax-collection is about as much a “core function” of government as you can imagine. We have private cops, private judges, private armies—but when we privatize the function of tax collection, there really isn’t much left to do.

The topic has not gone completely unnoticed—hey, there is a Wiki article (link), two whole paragraphs, about one twentieth the space given to the Dungeons & Dragons (link). Wiki, on whose authority I do not know, declares that “tax farming is not identifcal to privatised (sic) tax collection” (link). I assume “tax farming” smacks too much of declining empiress, and in particular, of St. Matthew in the Bible—a general index of decline. Tax farming, we are told (id.):

…is speculative, meaning that the private individual or group must invest their own money initially to pay off the tax debt, against the hope of collecting a larger sum subsequently (hence "farming").

Well, sure, but any good lawyer will tell you it is not a big step from buying the contract and taking the case on a contingent fee, which is pretty much what the IRS tax fa, er, contracting parties do.

Critics, with Biblical images dancing in their heads, tend to think of tax farming as somehow a cause of social decline. I’d say it is less a cause than an index. If you privatize the police, the judging, the army, and tax collection, there’s not much left of the empire anyway, so it doesn’t really matter whether it declines or not.

Gratitude in Action

Eddie Rickenbacker survived 24 days in the Pacific on a raft after a plane crash. Thanks to a lone seagull landing on his head, Rickenbacker was able to feed his companions -- he made bait and caught fish that kept the eight men alive. A devout and grateful man, Rickenbacker insisted on feeding seagulls every Friday for the rest of his life.

Thanks, Larry.

Invite Ron Paul to the Next Dem Debate

Here’s the way Rep. Ron Paul describes himself at his Congressional website:

Congressman Ron Paul of Texas enjoys a national reputation as the premier advocate for liberty in politics today. Dr. Paul is the leading spokesman in Washington for limited constitutional government, low taxes, free markets, and a return to sound monetary policies based on commodity-backed currency (link).

In case you hadn’t noticed, he is also a Republican candidate for president. Without knowing a huge amount about him, I tend to think he is a bit of a nutter: whenever anybody uses the phrase “commodity-backed currency,” I tend to start asking myself when we will break for lunch. But even if it is over the top, Paul’s kind of libertarianism persists because it appeals to some widely-held basic instincts: free choice, individual responsibility, getting the government out of your hair.

If you know about Paul at all, the chances are it is because he got his 15 minutes of fame during the Republican codpiece festival in South Carolina debate. The Economist explains:

During the debate Ron Paul, a feisty libertarian from Texas who stands no chance at all, suggested that Middle Eastern terrorists attacked America “because we've been over there; we've been bombing Iraq for ten years.” Mr Giuliani fired back: “That's an extraordinary statement...that we invited the attack because we were attacking Iraq. I don't think I've heard that before, and I've heard some pretty absurd explanations for September 11th.” The conservative audience erupted in approval (link)

Now the Michigan Republican State Chairman wants to ban him from future Republican debates. He said:

[Paul’s] statement on why the terrorists attacked America is so out of the mainstream geo-political thought in the west and is increasingly becoming a distraction versus a supplement to the debate…(link)

Hm. If Paul is “out of the mainstream,” then so are Jerry Falwell, Pat Roberson or Dinesh D’Souza (link). So much for the big tent.

But let Republicans have that fight. I want to talk about the libertarian Paul. My point is that the snoopy big-spending authoritarian Republicans obviously have no use for this guy. So, invite him to the next Democratic debate. Of course he isn’t going to be their nominee any more than he is the Republicans'. But his ideas are far more likely to get a respectful hearing among Democrats than they are among the people who want to push him out. Indeed, as Bruce Bartlett (and others) have often pointed out, if you are looking for fealty to libertarian principles, you are more likely to find them in a Clinton (either one) Administration than with anything else on offer (link, link)

Welcome, Ron. We can install you in a safe house in Vermont, and we can probably even find a (private-sector) job for your wife, and good (private) schools for the kids.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Poodle Skirts, Anyone?

Underbelly's Wichita bureau, who really needs his own blog, finds this in the California (sic) Lawyer, magazine of the California State Bar:

California law prohibits employers covered by the FEHA from ‘refusing to allow employees to wear pants’ in the workplace on a account of gender. In other words, employees may choose to wear pants unless the employer has a gender-neutral policy prohibiting the wearing of pants. Cal. Govt. Code § 12947.5

Time to dust off the poodle skirt...

Just Once in my Life

Just once in my life I want to be able to say:

Listen, you broken-down old queen, he was drunk, he was hot, you got lucky, don’t ever call here again.

--Carmen Ghia, Common-Law Assistant to Roger de Bris in The Producers

A Lesson from the Dutch on Waterboarding

I missed the Republican codpiece festival (link) in South Carolina last night, but I’ve read chunks of the transcript. Brit Hume asked some of the candidates about “enhanced interrogation techniques”—waterboarding and suchlike Here are some responses, with a followup from the history of the English East India Company.

….

MR. ROMNEY: … And enhanced interrogation techniques have to be used -- not torture but enhanced interrogation techniques, yes.

REP. TANCREDO: … You say that -- that nuclear devices have gone off in the United States, more are planned, and we're wondering about whether waterboarding would be a -- a bad thing to do? I'm looking for "Jack Bauer" at that time, let me tell you. (Laughter, applause.)

MR. HUNTER: … even if it involves very high-pressure techniques, one sentence: Get the information.

MR. GIULIANI: -- and I would -- and I would -- well, I'd say every method they could think of, and I would support them in doing that because I've seen what -- (interrupted by applause) --

For the assistance of Republican candidates in preparing for future debates, I offer this account of what the Dutch did at Amboyna in India in 1623, to men of the English East India Company:

Typically the prisoner was spread-eagled on a vertical rack that was in fact a door frame. A cylindrical sleeve of material was then slipped over his head and tightly secured at the neck with a tourniquet.

That done, they poured the water softly upon his head until the cloth was full up to the mouth and nostrils and somewhat higher; so that he could not draw breath but must withal suck in the water; which still being poured in softly, forced all his inward partes [and] came out of his nose, eares and eyes; and often as it were stifling him, at length took his breath away and brought him to a swoone or fainting.

The prisoner was then freed and encouraged to vomit. Then the treatment began agan. After thus being topped up three or four times ‘his body was swollen twice or thrice as big as before, his cheeks like great bladders, and his eyes staring and strutting out beyond his forehead.’

--John Keay, The Honourable Comopany 48-9 (Paperback ed. 1993)

[One noteworthy exception to the chorus last night: Senator John McCain, who said, inter alia: “… the interesting thing about that aspect is that during the debate, when we had the detainee treatment act, there was a sharp division between those who had served in the military and those who hadn't. Virtually every senior officer, retired or active- duty… agreed with my position that we should not torture people. …

So yes, literally every retired military person and active duty military person who has actually been in battle and served for extended times in the military -- (bell rings) -- supported my position, and I'm glad of it."]

Why Nigeria?

The Wichita bureau and I consider a puzzle for which we solicit possible solutions. It’s about the “Spanish Prisoner fraud,” aka the “advanced payment fraud” aka the “Nigerian 419 scam.” (link). We all get them: “Hello! My name is Mnagnmnunu Mnuckimnuk, and I am the widow of a prominent minister in the Nigerian cabinet,” blah blah blah, “As a gesture of good faith, if will deposit $100,000 in our bank account,” blah blah blah.

The obvious question is: why would anybody fall for this stuff (and yet they do).

The less obvious, but still interesting, question, is: why do they claim to be “Nigerian?” There is no reason on God’s green earth to suppose that the senders are all sequestered in a Quonset hut outside Lagos, like so many gold farmers in an MMORPG (link). They could be anywhere – Chechneya, Singapore, hmm for all I know it’s the lady in the next office. Sure, sometimes they claim to be from other places—I got one a few weeks ago from the widow of a pal of Slobodan Milosovich, positively European. Yet the Nigerian tint remains. Isn’t that some sort of trade misrepresentation?

Fn: and speaking of cyber-carpetbombing, I see the Russians are trying to take down the Estonians (link) with a “denial of service” attack. The Economist deems it “potentially more damaging to the country's economy than the limited Russian sanctions announced so far.” If that doesn’t work, they might try a 419 storm.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Ozick and Sontag

Cubs and White Sox, Sheepmen and Cattlemen, Noodleites and Farfelites, it's a binary world Now, try Ozick and Sontag—Susan Sontag, the ““essayist, novelist, intellectual, filmmaker, and activist (link), as Wiki describes her, and Cynthia Ozick “an American writer” (link).

For her part Sontag—spare, austere, at once engagée and disengaged—would not have been amused. Ozick, tubby and a bit of a dork, was definitely not the coolest kid on the playground and Sontag certainly played for cool, as, indeed, she more or less invented cool. But Ozick, intense and localized, sometimes appears almost to be making an aesthetic out of uncool. If she skips filmmaking and activism, she may be seen to pour herself almost unconsciously into her life as an essayist and novelist. And in the end, no one can argue with her standing as an intellectual.

Ozick was born in 1928; Sontag in 1933. But Sontag died in 2004, and Ozick is still writing. Ozick’s new collection, The Din in the Head (2006), opens with a “Foreword” on Susan Sontag. Here Ozick traces Sontag’s spectacular career as our taste-maker and ironist-in-chief—and back, in the fullness of time to a more settled, a more traditional, a less ironized view of life. Ozick says:

It was the shock of Sontag’s death, of having to speak her name in the past tense—she was the tone of the times, she was the muse of the age, she was one with her century, and look, her century, our century, the terrible twentieth, with all its blood and gas and gulags and crimsonly sordid Riefenstahl aesthetics, has gone into the past tense too—it was her death that pricked these reflections upon long-ago excess. Excesses of critical pride, excesses of writers’ vulnerability and demoralization: all of it vanished into a nullity. My private war with Sontag can hardly count as a war if she had no inkling of the vanquished foot soldier in the yellow room. Yet she was the victory only until irony itself won out—after all, she did not recant! And it may not be mere sophistry to suggest that irony, and its sardonically grim grin, is the outcome of all wars, big and little.

Cynthia Ozick, The Din in the Head 8 (2006)

Who was it that said that the purpose of life is to outlive our enemies?

Fn.: The Ozick Wiki page is some sort of obscure joke; I fail to see the humor. A much more useful intro is at the Jewish Virtual Library (link).

But You Knew....

But You Knew…

About Jerry Falwell (link). There’s a concise career summary here (link).

I expect you’ll be able to do a comprehensive encyclopedia of X-goes-to-heaven jokes out of this one. I admit I am tempted by the one (I first heard it of Mayor Daley père) that they’ll bury him face down so they can kiss him goodbye.

Be interesting to see how many GOP candidates make it to the funeral.

Cook on the Demands of Office

In the deluge of potential distractions, I always make time to read Charlie Cook's "Off to the Races," his column on politics and elections, available as a free email newsletter (link). This week, he is considering the possibility of a third-party run by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, perhaps in company with Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel. Here, Cook offers a neat recap of what is up with Bloomberg as mayor, together with one boffo basic insight about the demands of office--any office, I suspect, public or private:

Bloomberg marked the point of having 1,000 days remaining in his second term as mayor by making a novel request of his department heads. In effect, Bloomberg told them to imagine they were about to leave office and to prepare transition reports for their successors, outlining the problems that they would inherit. Then he told them to analyze the reports and figure out which problems can realistically be solved over the next 1,000 days. Bloomberg has very high approval ratings, but said that if he left office with similar high marks, it would mean he hadn't tried to do enough and had left unspent political capital on the table.


Itals mine. That's the kind of thing the rest of us may forget from time, but a seasoned pol (or a seasoned manager, I suspect) just has to remember.

Monday, May 14, 2007

The Franconia Killings
(And Remembering Tubby Hayes)

I don’t think I’d ever heard of Bode Miller before this weekend, but I admit I am fascinated by the double shooting in Franconia, New Hampshire, where a cousin of Miller‘s killed a cop and then was killed himself.

I grew up in New Hampshire. It’s a small state and my first thought was—anyone I know? Apparently not: one account described the shooter’s family as “third-generation New Hampshirites” but then said they had arrived in 1962—about nine years after I moved away (so I guess that shows me). Apparently they’ve been bit of a challenge all along, and this plays into an intuition of mine. That is: for a long time I’ve entertained the notion that it’s not much that New Hampshirites are flinty eccentrics, but rather that the state has attracted a lot of people just recently (last three generations?) who know about the reputation and want to buy into it. Live free or die, it says on the license plate: as a principle, it is pretty bogus, but as PR, it is durable and effective.

I can think of at least two other reasons why New Hampshire might be, well, itself:

  • Historically, this was not a great place to be. The soil is lousy and the winters are dreadful. Lots of people (my own ancestors among them) came up there in the 17rth/18th Century and found it wasn’t that easy to get out.
  • But some did get out, and for those left behind, there was a powerful motivation to go negative. Read old farm newspapers from the 19th Century: they’re full of stories about former New Hampshirites who have crashed and burned in other places as if to say—see? They never should have left home.

[Anecdote: a few years ago, a famous economics textbook remarked that in New Hampshire, they farm goes to the last child, not the first. The authors regarded this fact as a puzzle. I wrote them a testy note pointing out that in New Hampshire, the farm is a liability, not an asset, and the kid who gets it is the one who is still at home when papa’s back breaks.]

Another take it sounds like the cop/victim was a bit of business himself (the whole thing has the makings of at least a TV movie). It brought to mind another episode, after I’d left New Hampshire, when I was working for a small-town daily newspaper in ‘Southern Ohio, not in the Appalachians, but nearby.

A cop got shot in a mountain community down outside of Portsmouth. Our own Sheriff, Tubby Hayes, explained to me, that it didn’t need to happen.

The boy went in there with his gun out, making a lot of noise, and somebody ambushed him (Tubby reasoned). What he should have done is drive to the clearing at the foot of the hill, and wait for someone to come down to meet him. Then he says: I need to talk to grandpa. There’ll be a palaver, but sooner or later, Grandpa will come down. The Sheriff will say: Grandpa, the boy’s got to come with me. There will be more palaver, but eventually, Grandpa will send the boy down. And nobody will get hurt.