Thursday, May 29, 2008

What Happened

As get rich quick schemes go, none is more honorable than writing a tell-all screed attacking the credibility and character of the President and his flying monkeys. But Scott McClellan will not be seeing my $27.95 for his new book confirming what the rest of us knew five years ago.

Let's face it--Republicans aren't good liars--they never have been--they are so successful only because they say what 90% of Americans want to believe is true. If you weren't already inclined to think that smoking marijuana causes homosexuality or that catsup is a vegetable, Ronald Reagan's saying so would not convince you. And if you didn't already think that the President and his advisers would never do anything to jeopardize America's security and rule of law, no White House Press Secretary has even bothered to offer a shred of evidence to convince you otherwise.

Frankly, if I were a Hollywood casting agent asked to find an actor to play an arrogant asshole whose shifty eyes give away his own untrustworthiness, I'd be on the phone to the Oval Office this instant.

So I hope McClellan makes a billion dollars off his book. I hope Americans will gasp in awe at news they should have had the good sense to figure out for themselves years ago. I hope the upteenth time America "loses its innocence" won't be too rough on everybody this go-round. And I hope Bush, Cheney, et al., won't be able to get a good table at Jeffrey's Restaurant ever again, since I truly despair of getting to see them behind bars or in stocks.

If I decide to go with political beach reading this summer, I might go with Vincent Bugliosi's The Prosecution of George W. Bush for Murder--for the title alone. Besides, it's a buck cheaper, and I saw VB speak 30 years ago, and his description of Charles Manson scared the shit out of me.

Or I may save all my money for the book that blows the lid off the claim that the oil companies are powerless to control the rising cost of fuel.

As for McClellan, I'll wait till they make his book into an opera.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Been Cruising This Dude for 127 Years

1881 pozzi

The subject of John Singer Sargent’s portrait is Dr. Samuel-Jean Pozzi, early specialist in gynecology and otherwise a ladies’ man of note.

No doubt his slender, elegant fingers cured many a bout of neurasthenia with his pelvic massage (a common cure of the day, for hysteria). Reportedly he had affairs with a number of his female patients, including renowned actresses Sarah Bernhardt and Gabrielle Rejane, Genevieve Bizet (widow of composer Georges Bizet and model for Proust’s Duchesse de Guermantes), and Amelie Gautreau, who posed for another Sargent sizzler, the infamous Madame X.

His med school buddies nicknamed him the “Siren,” and he was later dubbed “the love doctor.”

He also improved Paris’s water and sewage system during his term as senator and sided with Emile Zola in the infamous Dreyfus trial. Mainly he’s remembered as the dark and handsome knockout in the red houserobe.

He’s in his mid-30s in this painting, lambently captured in Sargent’s gaze and looking better here than he does in the photographs I’ve seen of the man.

The painting first appeared in public less than 20 years ago, but I had seen lithographs of it in a highly prized art book about (I think) 30 years ago. I was immediately awestruck.

For those familiar with “my type,” it’s no surprise that the face is what excites me—a face is as good as a nude, depending on the face and depending on the nude.

The liquid dark eyes, both passionate and sensitive. The alabaster forehead. The Roman nose. The obsessively groomed hair and beard. The hint of sadistic disdain. The throat that shines almost as white as the ruffled collar.

There are, of course, those um fingers, too.

Given the lurid red of the painting, widely interpreted as Sargent’s statement on Pozzi’s reputation as a Latin lover, you might have thought the good doctor’s life would have burned fierce but brief, but he died in his 70s, shortly after World War I.

But he did not, alas, die in peace. He was shot to death by a former (male) patient because Pozzi said he would be unable to cure the man’s impotence, which the patient blamed on a leg amputation the doctor had performed earlier.

Sex, toujours le sex.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Happy Fun Dog

In a crack-crazed fit, Tom Ripley wreaked terror in every corner of the apartment.


Friday, May 23, 2008

Thin American Skin

Sen. Hillary Clinton apologized for comments earlier today when she was explaining why she didn’t feel it was right or necessary for her to drop out of the race for the Democratic nomination. In the earlier comments she pointed out that her husband’s 1992 nomination was not cinched until June and that Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in June (while he was still campaigning for the nomination in 1968).

Her analogies were fairly clearly intended to show that the timeline for campaigning has historically stretched all the way to the national conventions, though obviously to refer to assassination could be perceived as malevolent and predictive—if you happen to be paranoid or superstitious.

Now I’m no fan of Clinton and even nourish a certain level of distrust of the political machine she fronts.

I'm sure her political advisers wish she had stuck to the same sort of overly processed statements that have characterized her campaign thus far.

But are we really to believe the comment was some kind of "code" for an assassin's ears? I've seen The Manchurian Candidate, too, both versions. But come on.

Or are we to believe that the comment was a Freudian slip, revealing a deep, secret hope that someone will take out one or both of her competitors by June? Interesting theory, but what other proof have we got?

Isn't it more likely that what she was trying to get across was really that she's being pressured to pull out well before the race is over, and well before anyone would have suggested such a thing to Bill or RFK?

I take it as another sign of the thin skin of many if not most Americans that her words would excite any controversy at all—especially in the absence of other evidence of a physical threat against any of the candidates. The words are certainly not even remotely the equivalent of Mike Huckabee’s “joking” to the NRA that a sudden noise during his speech was Barack Obama cowering from gunfire.

[It's perhaps just that Clinton should be thus hoisted on her own petard, after the advantage she not long ago attempted to squeeze out of Obama's "bitter" remark, which she managed to feel deeply deeply offended by.]

I’m often reminded of Olive Oyl’s father in the underrated little musical film Popeye, who periodically mutters under his breath, “You owe me an apology,” over imagined discourtesies.

Americans get their rocks off on being offended and pressuring others to apologize. Even when the slight is real, such behavior is undignified and ignoble, even more so when a speaker’s words are twisted to squeeze out a possible offense.

Apologies have become part of American media ritual—whether getting Hugh Grant to tell the nation he’s sorry for hiring a prostitute or making James Frey repent of using The Oprah Winfrey Show as a vehicle for promoting a largely fictionalized memoir.

And frankly I don’t see the point. People seldom actually forgive and forget following such apologies—it’s not as if saying sorry really changes anything.

I’m more interested in an explanation or even a defense than a statement of regret. I find Clinton’s explanation adequate, if redundant, since I hold that her intended meaning was clear to anyone not trying to get his feelings hurt.

It’s worth noting that John McCain’s recent repudiation of John Hagee’s weird faith-based remarks on Jews, Catholics, and homosexuals was not even an admission that he (McCain) had made any sort of mistake in seeking Hagee’s endorsement. And Hagee himself claimed to have been misquoted by the audio recording of his sermon (!).

I can tell you that you won’t hear me calling for George W. Bush and cohorts to apologize for the fuckup they have made of the war, the economy, and the law. They should quite simply be impeached—in an international court for war crimes and in US courts for high treason.

Sorry means shit to me. And America needs to get over getting bent out of shape over every imagined insult that comes its way.

We need to grow a backbone, people. Eleanor Roosevelt, the subject of unmistakable and vicious name-calling in her day, said, “No one can insult you without your permission.”

It’s a sign of a weak nation—and perhaps a weak conscience—that in these days we are so quick to take offense.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Well, Dear Heart, Be Offended

Today Sen. John McCain rejected the endorsement of televangelist John Hagee because of Hagee's controversial statements in a sermon preached ten years ago, in which he interpreted verses in Jeremiah 16 to mean that God sent Hitler and the Holocaust to drive the Jews back into the "promised land" of Israel.

McCain distanced the controversy from the one that had recently buzzed around Sen. Barack Obama, regarding statements made by his preacher of 20 years, Jeremiah Wright. McCain clarified that Hagee was not and never had been his minister and adviser. (McCain attends but does not belong to a Baptist church in Arizona--and said a year ago that he does not consider himself "born again" and never has been baptized--prerequisites of Baptist church membership.)

Hagee responded with a statement that the widely circulated audio of the sermon had been dredged up to hurt McCain politically (and he's almost certainly right about that) and that the charges against him (Hagee) were "baseless"--perhaps forgetting what the word "baseless" means or perhaps never knowing.

Hagee has also gathered negative attention by identifying the Roman Catholic Church as the "Great Whore" mentioned in the Book of Revelation and blaming New Orleans' tolerance for gay circuit parties for the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.

I'm certainly happy that, after weeks of controversy, McCain has finally repudiated this moron (but, let's face it, McCain has a lot more where this one came from).

But I'm mostly amused that fundamentalist preachers are beginning to get bit in the ass by their own arrogance. At one point in Hagee's controversial sermon, he acknowledged that some people might find his interpretation of Jeremiah's prophecy offensive, and sarcastically retorted, "Well, dear heart, be offended." (Bless the good-hearted soul who saved the audiotape.)

As an ex-fundamentalist, I can attest to the fact that Hagee is only one of many red-faced, sweaty preachers who have made fortunes off statements just this idiotic. He is hardly an exception. I remember a minister once citing St Paul's "what communion hath light with darkness?" as an endorsement of racial segregation.

Most conservative pastors, rabbis, and ayatollahs butter their bread to the never-ending gnashing of teeth of infidels--i.e., all those who happen to reject the tenets of that particular branch of religion. I can't think of a single Baptist minister or evangelist I've ever heard who said anything other than that Jews, Muslims, Catholics, and even Methodists were going to hell unless they repented and accepted Christ as their personal savior.

And if the press begins to scrutinize closely the religious affiliations of politicians, it is sure to discover that so-called "spiritual leaders" have condemned many millions of registered voters to everlasting hellfire.

Potentially this version of guilt by association could cause politicians to distance themselves from their own churches and denominations (not necessarily a bad thing--but still I detest character attacks based purely on one's associations).

Perhaps some hellfire-and-brimstone preachers will start to recognize that, big bucks or no, they should take responsibility for the foolishness and hatefulness they sometimes spout.

Of course, in Hagee's case, the media have left the homosexuals out on the devil's rotisserie--a conciliatory gesture towards the bible-thumpers, perhaps. I imagine it will be quite some time before the weekly condemnation of sodomites (and celebration of HIV and hurricanes as tools of God's righteous ire) gets any preacher--or any politicians in the pews--into hot water.

Make Us Proud

Yesterday in court, "gay American" and former NJ governor James E. McGreevey said he would really like to pay his ex-wife child support (for six-year-old daughter Jacqueline), but he's broke and owes his boyfriend Mark O'Donnell $250 thousand.

Now a seminary student at the General Theological Seminary in New York, McGreevey recently converted to the Episcopal Church (roughly equivalent to converting to Nordstrom's).

He stated under oath that he is "unemployable."

He said that he makes about $48000 a year from two jobs but has $11000 a month in living expenses, not including tuition.

Ouch. Tell me when I can stop grimacing.

But, you know, I make just a few K more with two teaching jobs and have only $8000 a month in expenses, not including NetFlix.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Bye, Angel

john phillip law as pygar in barbarella
John Phillip Law 1937-2008 (here as Pygar in Barbarella)

Perhaps I'm the last to find out, but I just read that John Phillip Law died last week in LA, at age 70, of undisclosed causes.

The 6'5" actor was an icon of mine in the late 1960s--particularly as the painfully sad young Russian in The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! and as the angel Pygar in the camp classic Barbarella, with Jane Fonda.

He's also memorable as the title character in Diabolik, which has recently achieved a level of cultish importance on its own.

He was more male starlet than screen actor--and though he has left only a light mark on movie history, he was (and remains) a gay icon of importance--not only for his statuesque beauty, but also his participation in such quirky films as (Jacqueline Susann's) The Love Machine, The Sergeant, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, Ghost Dog, and CQ.

Side Note: Director Robert Rodriguez is currently developing a remake of Barbarella, possibly starring Rose McGowan in the title role, possibly for release in 2009. Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, who scripted Casino Royale, were working on the screenplay a year ago. Casting and production are still in the "rumor' stage--for a while, idle gossip linked Orlando Bloom to the Pygar role.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Reading between the Blurbs

I find dust-jacket blurbs seductive, if often misleading. My favorites are the ones that don’t even offer proof that the reviewer has read the book (“a remarkable achievement”). Being no insider to the publication biz, I’ve had to work out my own method of decoding the blurbs (mainly I just try to trust authors I’ve liked in the past who have somehow been commandeered into writing the blurb).

“ambitious” = interminable

“charming” = British

“decadent” = gay (with a lot more sex than the reviewer feels comfortable with)

“flamboyant” = gay (but no sex)

“groundbreaking” = dated or soon to be

“height of her/his literary powers” = will vaguely remind you of bits you liked in the author’s previous work

“inspiring” = badly written

“instant classic” = trendy

“luminescent” = previously published in The New Yorker

“lyrical” = you’ll have a hard time following the plot

“magnum opus” = unreadable

“mesmerizing” = soporific

“page turner” = just read the ending

“promising new talent” = not quite there yet

“raucous” = written before 1975

“sensitive” = gay (with a little sex)

“satisfying” = predictable

“shimmering” = likely to contain the word “shimmer” (or “glint” or even “glister”)

“sumptuous” = overwritten

“towering achievement” = daunting, with little or no payoff

“unique” = not one of the author’s best efforts

“vastly entertaining” = you won’t have to think at all

“whimsical” = really really dumb

Saturday, May 17, 2008

One Part Marzipan, One Part Cloud

Gerome Cock Fight
Cockfight by Jean Leon Gerome, 1846

Pygmalion and Galatea by Jean Leon Gerome, ca. 1890

One part marzipan, one part cloud, the flesh tones of the French academic painters seem to derive from the humanist idealism of the previous century, particularly the ideal of human nature aglow with the pure light of reason.

The alabaster whiteness of the caucasian skin is also a reminder that the nineteenth century was a century of colonial imperialism, during which many racist stereotypes took shape--for one, the ethereality of white womanhood.

Gerome's paintings are typical in bathing classical (Greek) themes and myths in clear Parisian light--and toying with naturalist eroticism behind delicately concealing poses--in much the way A+F catalogs now carefully balance American adolescent sex frenzy and American puritanical sex phobia.

In England, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood took up the same themes--with comparable results.

Relegated to the status of "kitsch" by the end of the century, namely by admirers of Manet's and Monet's impressionism, French academicism was to painting what Italian opera was to music--elegantly theatrical, flamboyantly colorful, tragically romantic, naively erotic.

Friday, May 16, 2008


Yesterday the California Supreme Court overturned a state statute banning same-sex marriage.

Cue the hand-wringing over “wedge issues” during an election year.

Obama’s and Clinton’s responses to the decision have been tepid, safe, and unenthusiastic. They both reaffirmed their belief that states, not federal government, should make decisions about who can be legally married, as did Senator McCain.

Clinton added that she would work to validate “civil unions” on the federal level.

Obama added that he opposes all “divisive and discriminatory constitutional amendments.”

Republican candidate McCain argued that the state supreme court had no right to overturn the popularly supported ban—ignoring the fact that the supreme court’s main function is precisely to determine the constitutionality of legislation and protect the rights of minorities against the oppression of the majority.

Republican governor Arnold Schwarzenegger said he would support the court’s decision and continue to fight against a proposed constitutional ban on gay marriage to be voted on in November.

Speaker of the US House Nancy Pelosi stated her approval for the court’s decision on the basis that it is in keeping with the state’s constitution and, like Schwarzenegger and Obama, condemned plans to add discriminatory language to that constitution in November.

I don’t think the California decision will complicate the upcoming Presidential election.

For one thing, the candidates’ positions on gay-lesbian-bisexual-transgender issues were undoubtedly going to be used in campaigning, regardless of what happened in California. The Republicans love to paint Democrats as pervert-loving wimps (while they discretely restrict their manly adventures to airport restrooms). I can’t believe Limbaugh, Coulter, and their cohorts were not already planning to portray Obama himself as gay—and won’t be surprised when they do.

Also, Obama, Clinton, and McCain alike hold that states ought to define marriage for themselves. The disagreement over the California decision is not whether states can accept same-sex marriages (even McCain believes they can), but whether a supreme court has the right to overturn legislation that it feels violates the state constitution and, probably, whether the ban did in fact violate that constitution.

I, for one, think “wedge issues” can be good. Differences among the candidates should be made clear—though I understand that politically these differences are often unfairly exaggerated to instill fear and panic. Still, how McCain and Obama feel about the function and nature of supreme courts is, of course, of great importance.

Scare tactics over gays, blacks, feminists, etc., have most definitely worked for Republicans in the past.

But in 2008 the GOP has bigger problems—quite apart from the fact that the biggest “gay” scandals of the past two years have involved Republican politicians.

The war, the economy, health care, climate change, food and fuel shortages, slow and inadequate disaster response-systems, corporate welfare, torture, illegal surveillance, arrogant exploitation (and overreach) of Presidential powers. Do I go on?

In 2008 to vote Republican just because you hate homosexuals would be like voting for Mussolini because you want the trains to run on time.

And as long as idiots and haters are allowed to vote—and as long as political discourse and media coverage remain on a fifth-grade schoolyard level--, lies, spite, and diversionary tactics will continue to affect democratic processes. For that we cannot blame the issues.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

On Racist Democrats and Clinton


A widely circulated clip of Saturday Night Live shows Amy Poehler playing Hillary Clinton. At one point in the sketch, Clinton proclaims that she is the better Democratic candidate because her supporters are racist.

How funny the gag seems to you probably depends on how accurate you think it is.

Clinton’s win yesterday in West Virginia (67%, vs Obama’s 26%) is being played up as a victory based on race. Two out of ten white WV voters polled admitted that race was an important factor in their vote. Eight out of ten of these voters said they voted for Clinton.

Elsewhere in the nation Clinton has polled well with white working-class voters, while Obama has polled well with black voters in all economic brackets.

Friends had warned me not to vote for Obama because regrettably America remains a racist nation on the whole, and since whites still outnumber blacks, a black Democratic candidate is sure to lose to a white Republican.

How do I feel about this?

I can understand why blacks might vote for Obama and whites for Clinton without taking into consideration factors other than whether the candidate’s race matches their own, especially since the two candidates’ stances on most issues are closely comparable.

I’m only a little surprised that today a large number of Americans still feel kinship with people whose skin color most closely resembles theirs.

It may well be that the racists were right all along in saying that humans respond to racial cues naturally and instinctively.

It may well be that we Americans have been acculturated to be superficial in the choices we make—whether by racial typing or by responding to packaging and branding in the products we consume. We do, after all, live in a society where Image Is Everything.

America has an educational system based on multiple-choice items—we pick the “best” answer among a number of preset options, based entirely on easily observable external features of each option—through a process of elimination, not critical thinking.

As a people, we lack creativity and the ability to devise positions on our own—from scratch, so to speak. We accept the limits of choice given to us at the shopping mall and the voting booth and then make our choices on the bases of feeling and easiness, not on analysis of available evidence and mulling things over.

In politics, dress, celebrity endorsements, hot button issues (gay rights, abortion, etc.), age, attractiveness, religion, family, gender, and race provide “short cuts” taking the place of real thinking about the direction our country’s leaders take.

Racism, then, is just one symptom of the nation’s overall imbecility.

It may well be that the Republicans will win in November. The more Democrats try to second-guess the Republicans, the more like the Republicans they become.

Fearing to lose the “white” or “religious” or “homophobic” vote, Democrats often hypocritically appeal to the same prejudices and fears that the Republicans do—and the voters are equally vulnerable to appeals to their worse natures.

Most Americans will vote for the real Republican instead of the Democrat wearing a Republican mask.

What I like about Obama is that he tries to appeal to the public’s better natures. He may not succeed—and it’s possible that the appeal is insincere and purely tactical.

Still I like the openness and directness that he speaks for.

I’m tired of the second-guessing. If Americans (even Democrats, white and black) are racists, let that fact be clear in the record.

Make the racists, bigots, misogynists, homophobes, and haters show their ugly faces in public.

If this nation is evil, mean, and ignorant, it’s probably for the best that we come out in the open about it. Concealing the problems behind political correctness and plausible deniability will only make the problems worse.

We won’t solve the problem of racism in America by mimicking the racists or by manipulating their ignorance and fear.

Whether we can win votes this way remains to be seen.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

My Ugly Betty Dream

Can't make heads or tails out of this dream I had this morning.

In it, I'm new on the job at a major city newspaper. My first assignment is to rewrite an article on a Japanese duo, written in broken English by a Scandinavian reporter who appears close to being fired (when she confesses having difficulty writing a catchy opener for her next article, the editor-in-chief simply points to her contract).

I don't know what to make of the Japanese duo--my impression is that they're old news and can't imagine why the paper is covering them. The duo is a commercial product of the singers' husbands, good-looking (in Hollywood spa fashion) Italian American brothers in their early 40s. The act is cute but hardly ground-breaking--more like this decade's Milli Vanilli.

During a lunch break I run into a Japanese guy associated with the duo at a smart downtown restaurant--and I'm hoping this encounter will help me develop the story. All I get is that the guy, whose name is Regan, is very very upset that the maitre d's reservations sheet lists his name as "Reagan."

Back at the office, I can't get into my e-mail. A former student of mine (hey, Gus!) works at the paper, but he can't be bothered to talk to me.

The woman in the cubicle next to mine is chatty--and, when she takes her breaks, she goes outside and exercises using these waterwing-like self-powered batwings and buzzes around the windows of the editorial staff, causing even more distraction.

David Sedaris drops by the office in a casual suit and a Cheeto's tan--everybody stands to greet him but he whisks by into a separate office suite, where he's going to shoot some WalMart commercials. The filming can be watched via monitors positioned over the doors, but I wake up when the woman next to me, back from her flight around the skyscraper, begins to pester me again.

As I awaken, I'm wondering if the Japanese duo is more cutting edge than I've given them credit for.

(In the dream they're universally famous but I'm not sure I ever hear their name spoken by anyone--not even in the article I'm revising--and now awake, I can't think of any group like them--except, for the Peanut Sisters in the 1960s' Mothra movies.)

Sunday, May 11, 2008

It Has Been a While Since I Last Sang the Praises of My Dog, Ripley

A character in a book I'm re-reading states that the good thing about having a dog is that you can train him to love you. "Love" falls short of "adore," which is really how a dog wins his way into a human heart.

But apart from the flattery of having another mammal's undivided and inalienable attention, how does a dog win a human's love and adoration?

My dog did it with a sense of humor. I don't really know whether dogs are supposed to have a sense of humor, since physiologically they can't laugh. But I'm convinced Ripley, my 11+ year old whippet, has a definable sense of humor. For one thing, he seems thrilled to hear me laugh. If I laugh at anything--Curb Your Enthusiasm or Jonathan Swift--he comes running to me, mouth open in a dog's approximation of a grin and tail wagging, ready to be in on the fun.

More importantly, the most positive reinforcement I can give to any behavior of his is to laugh. If I laugh, it seems, all is right in the world of Ripley. When he makes one of his amazing catches, his hindquarters spinning over his head, I laugh out loud, and that laughter just eggs him on and on into more feats of derring-do. It's kind of like that scene on the cliff in King Kong, with my dog playing Naomi Watts and I'm the big appreciative ape. (He even seems to understand the universal simian signal for "let's play"--wiggling both hands in the air over one's head. Do that around Ripley, and he's up like a shot.)

And here's his idea of a joke--He acts as if he's not paying any attention to me, nonchalantly stretched out on his pillow-bed, yawning even, and then, when I turn away from him, he leaps up and punches me in the ass, then he runs like a maniac through every room in my small apartment.

Good one, Ripley. Good dog.

Thursday, May 8, 2008


Running into people again after some time has passed, people who used to be friends, then became not friends, without becoming enemies--friends who were misplaced like stuff that went missing during a move to a new house. Or those who did become enemies, were suddenly cut out of our lives, but now, after some time has passed, the hate has settled down to indifference.

These reunions are awkward, pleasant and unpleasant at the same time, bittersweet, especially if the people were more than just friends, but lovers, intimates, or (once) almost constant companions.

You look at these people and they are the same people--and yet we're not the same--you're not the same and they're not the same--like flowers pressed and dried between the pages of an old book. Same flowers, only the color has grayed, the suppleness is now dry and tissuey.

Buddhists (or some Buddhists) believe that emotional attachments have to be shed, that the attachments we keep up until our dying day will somehow weigh down our souls, keep us from the perfect peace, nirvana--that such attachments trap our spirits in cycles of nonstop suffering.

Attachments, which at first define us, in time will burden us ... to death, if we can't release them.

These second or third meetings with old friends or lovers, after the interval of years--even decades, make us aware of how we shed our skins over time, like snakes, we become "new creatures." The old attachments, old passions, die away--not suddenly--worse: never suddenly--the lust that boiled up into love settles into affection, a calmer, more distant feeling.

A part of us feels good about this calmer way of looking at those old friends, old lovers, and a part of us, of course, misses the little pains and worries, and especially the shots of elation, that the old passionate attachments used to give us.

But mostly, I think, we feel it is good for us (for maybe our souls) to outgrow our attachments, however sad the thought of the losses is, just to know that we continue to grow.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

D vs R

Today the Congress debates a proposal, introduced by Barney Frank, D-Mass, to let FHA insure new loans to cover lenders willing to reduce the mortgage principal for homeowners in crisis. The proposal is designed to gain bipartisan support, including elements, such as additional tax-free municipal bonds, supported by the Bush administration.

Republicans who oppose the proposal have largely argued that it covers not only innocent victims of deceptive lending practices but also speculators and get-rich-quick schemers who fully realized the risks they were taking in mortgaging new property.

Here's my point.

The proposal is one more illustration of the fundamental difference between America's chief political parties.

Democrats see problems in the system and seek systemic solutions for them. Such wide-ranging solutions can and often do benefit "unworthy" individuals, while more generally trying to straighten out a messed-up system.

Republicans oppose these measures by identifying the cheats who may profit from them. This morning on NPR a Republican congressman, whose name I missed, expressed a desire to solve the challenges faced by "innocent" homeowners, but only with the implementation of a process by which the worthy can be segregated from the unworthy.

Such caution is ultimately stultifying to systemic change. This is why AIDS relief was so slow in arriving: Republicans wanted to save the "innocent victims" of AIDS and only the "innocent."

Similar moral discriminations have played into Republican responses to Hurricane Katrina, immigration, and health-care reform.

The quest for the "innocent," though noble sounding, slows down needed changes in society. Can politicians effectively distinguish who does and does not deserve relief and help in times of crisis? Is the distinction even necessary?

Interestingly, Republicans tend not to have the same qualms about acts of war. Most Republicans accept that "collateral damage" is part of military conflicts. In wartime, the innocent are punished along with the guilty--sometimes in greater numbers than the guilty. Republicans state that such losses are "regrettable" but "unavoidable."

Some conservatives make a similar argument about the death penalty and the detention of "terror suspects"--injustices towards the innocent are here acceptable in the broader effort to root out and destroy the guilty.

I wonder why then Republicans can accept the suffering of the innocent to ensure the punishment of the guilty, but cannot accept that some undeserving people may prosper from proposals designed to help the deserving.

More importantly, I question the sincerity of their moral reservations about proposed remedies for social ills and wonder whether their righteous outcries--against ruthless speculators, sinners, and victims of "lifestyle" choices--are deliberate, cynical attempts to shirk their political responsibility to find effective, speedy solutions to society's problems.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

When It Comes to Empty Phrases

English teachers are notorious for having pet peeves that are, well, really petty.

One that's cropped up on me in the last eight months is the phrase "when it comes to," always empty of meaning and wordy, always vague in what the "it" refers to.

I don't know whether the peevishness is new to me or whether the phrase has virally infected my students. I can stand "when it comes to" once every, let's say, 5,000 words, but I read 500-word themes by students that use the phrase three times or more ... sometimes on the same page.

The phrase becomes monotonous quickly.

I get "I'm distant when it comes to my personal life," instead of "I'm distant in my personal life."

I get "When it comes to the word 'caring,' one thinks of someone who takes other people's needs and feelings into consideration," instead of "'Caring' means taking other people's needs and feelings into consideration."

I get "When it comes to my family and friends, I make sure they are not wanting or needing anything," instead of "I make sure my family and friends don't want or need anything."

I get "My boss tells me that I do a great job when it comes to thinking 'outside the box,'" instead of "My boss tells me I do a great job of thinking 'outside the box.'"

When it comes to irritating verbal habits that tend to suck the rhythm and life out of a sentence, this one currently tops my list--right up there with the use of the passive voice and expletive sentence structures. But maybe, being an English teacher, I'm unusually picky when it comes to how people write their sentences.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Pray for Hillary Clinton

Bill Clinton, addressing the congregation of the Church of the Pentecost in Asheville, NC, yesterday: "I didn't come here to ask you to vote for my wife. I came here to ask you to pray for her. And to vote. Do whatever you want. Show up. Our country is in dire distress. ... I just want you to pray for her and to make your voices heard. Do whatever you think is right. But don't sit this out, because we are being called upon to return to our true purpose."

For months now I've complained about Barack Obama playing the Jesus card. Frankly, it's the main beef I have with the candidate whom I still plan to cast a vote for tomorrow and, if the good Lord is willing, in November.

I'd feel a lot better about my support of Obama if he didn't so often play upon the superstitiousness and gullibility of the American public.

Now the Clinton have lost the sole advantage I gave them over Obama (how else to refer to Clinton except in the plural?--like the Borg or Jefferson Starship).

I'm being a little less than genuine here, since the Clinton have long used religion for political ends--who in American politics does not? In 1998, on the eve of Kenneth Starr's publication of the Monica Lewinsky report, needing some extra stars in his crown, Bill Clinton even glad-handed Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

Republican John McCain made my heart flutter when he stated bluntly that he was not "born again" and had never been baptized as a non-infant (kind of a requirement for a Baptist, which he claims to be). To his credit, he's made a point of keeping his religious views quiet--remarkable for a Republican or any American running for public office. Sure, lately, he's sought the support of homophobic nut-case John Hagee and considered (I heard) going through with an official full-Baptist dunking, but all this is nothing compared to "hosting" a "gospel" tour, as Obama did in the fall.

Frankly, if I were a one-issue voter (and did not mind another 100 years of the US in Iraq--and gave only half a shit about the Geneva Conventions, health care. and Social Security), I might now be feeling "called" to vote for McCain, for his unusual scruples against idolatry, pharisaic hypocrisy, and taking the Lord's name in vain.

Yes, I would agree that "our country is in dire distress." It's a point that can no longer be argued. I'm just not sure that magical thinking and blind belief--or any faith-based approaches to problem-solving that ignore credible evidence or logic, not to mention due processes of law--are the means to keep the country from entirely falling apart at the seams.

Prayer can't hurt, to be sure ... unless it's the only trick we've got.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

The True Idea of Incarnation

"No existing thing could be what we have meant by God. Any existing God would be less than God. An existent God would be an idol or a demon. ... God does not and cannot exist. But what led us to conceive of him does exist and is constantly experienced and pictured. That is, it is real as an Idea, and is also incarnate in knowledge and work and love. This is the true idea of incarnation, and is not something obscure. We experience both the reality of perfection and its distance away, and this leads us to place our idea of it outside the world of existent being as something of a different unique and special sort. Such experience of the reality of good is not like an arbitrary and assertive resort to our own will; it is a discovery of something independent of us, where that independence is essential. If we read these images aright they are not only enlightening and profound but amount to a statement of a belief which most people unreflectively hold."

--Iris Murdoch, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (1992)

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Perception, the Individual, and Goodness

"I would say that the best picture of most kinds of thinking is perception, and the best picture of serious contemplative thinking is serious contemplative perception; as when we attend to a human face, music, a flower, a visual work of art (etc. etc.). Such close mental attention involves the conception of 'presence'. ... The definition of God (the necessity and sovereignty of Good) is connected with the definition of a human being. ...

"Why the quest for certainty, why should that be so specially important? ... Should not the idea of certainty be regarded with sceptical caution? 'Certainties' occasion persecutions. ... The idea of Good (goodness, virtue) crystallises out of our moral activity. The concept of good emphasises a unity of aspiration and belief concerning the absolute importance of what is done on the heterogeneous scene. ... The charm and power of technology and the authority of a 'scientific outlook' conceal the speed with which the idea of the responsible moral spiritual individual is being diminished. The fragmentation of morality menaces this individual, as it menaces the society in which he flourishes. ...

"The unity and fundamental reality of goodness is an image and support of the unity and fundamental reality of the individual. What is fundamental here is ideal or transcendent, never fully realised or analysed, but continually rediscovered in the course of the daily struggle with the world, and the imagination and passion whereby it is carried."

--Iris Murdoch, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (1992)

Friday, May 2, 2008

Totalitarian Morals

"It is not the fundamental duty of the state to make us good. It is the fundamental task of each person to make himself good. Hobbes also suggests that moral philosophers ought to realise that 'virtues' are 'good' because they are 'the means of peaceable, sociable and comfortable living'. (Leviathan, Part I, ch. 15.) It is, one might say, the duty of the state to make 'decent arrangements'. Politics concerns large crude decisions affecting large numbers of heterogeneous people. Politics is about other people with individual interests. Think how crude and clumsy all government is and has to be. Of course in modern democracies the liberal (political) individual and the moral individual constantly overlap, as when we argue about pornography, pacificism, abortion, medicine and hundreds of topics which are in the newspapers every day. The discussion and clarification of such topics are often proper tasks of the democratic liberal state, in the context of decisions about what is and what is not 'the state's business' or 'the government's duty'. We recognise and attach importance to sometimes unclear distinctions between public political standards and private personal morals, between sin and crime, between the claims of happiness and goodness, and equality and freedom. ... Modern states, if they are rich enough, may tend toward becoming 'nannies' to their citizens, and we argue about how far this tendency should go. The Welfare State is a good thing, but can it go too far? When does a nanny become a tyrant? ... The right to be free is not internally connected with the right to be happy. ...

"Citizens of liberal democratic states can argue about whether to be more free and less comfortable or more happy and less rich or more equal and less free and so on and so on, and a great many different kinds of considerations bear on these arguments which are made possible by a certain fundamental refusal of system. It is characteristic of totalitarian states to refuse access to such choices and to prohibit such discussion, intimating to the citizenry that (for instance) the system which makes them orderly is also making them happy and good. A denial of human variety and the rights which the fact of variety carries ... lies behind totalitarian reasoning.... The manifest lies involved in the imposition of such a view can produce cynicism and despair, or else simply perpetuate some demoralising simplicity or lack of education in the society. When I was in China I asked a question about 'homosexuality', a word with which our otherwise excellent interpreter was unfamiliar. When I explained its meaning in other terms, I was told that there was no such thing in China. So if homosexuals do not exist they clearly cannot have rights. ... Orwell's book 1984 exhibits such impoverishment as deliberately fostered by cynical rulers. ... In any state there are always plenty of motives for destructive activity, but concept-starvation makes it easier for a few leaders to turn their citizens into a centrally directed herd. ...

"A good (decent) state, full of active citizens with a vast variety of views and interests, must preserve a central arena of discussion and reflection wherein differences and individuality are taken for granted. (For instance, religious differences.) Here there are no authoritarian final arbiters, certainly not God, Reason or History. Here general good will, consent, maintains a kind of justice which is 'intuitively' understood. That this is, in western democracies, something 'obvious' is important too. It is also fragile."

--Iris Murdoch, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (1992)

Thursday, May 1, 2008


"The concept of imagination ... can strengthen or clarify the sense in which 'we are all artists'. It is ... so ubiquitous that it is in danger of seeming empty. ... I think we need the familiar word ['imagination'] to designate something (good by definition) to which the contrast with fantasy (bad by definition) gives substance. The human mind is naturally and largely given to fantasy. Vanity (a prime human motive) is composed of fantasy. Neurotic or vengeful fantasies, erotic fantasies, delusions of grandeur, dreams of power, can imprison the mind, impeding new understanding, new interests and affections, possibilities of fruitful and virtuous action. If we consider the narrow dreariness of this fantasy life to which we are so addicted the term 'unimaginative' seems appropriate. ... [I]magination appears as a restoration of freedom, cognition, the effortful ability to see what lies before one more clearly, more justly, to consider new possibilities, and to respond to good attachments and desires which have been in eclipse. ... Imagination is ... a moral discipline of the mind, which would, for instance, help people not to become embittered or brutalised or stupefied by affliction. ...

"We are fantasising imaginative animals. ... Truthful imagining requires courage and humility. ... It is a matter of deepening the concepts in question through a relation to each other. There is a continuous and spontaneous interplay. 'Becoming better' is a process involving an exercise and refinement of moral vocabulary and sensibility."

--Iris Murdoch, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (1992)

Mission Accomplished

It's been five years today since GWB announced on the USS Lincoln that the mission has been accomplished.

In hindsight we see that the mission was not (and never was) to bring democracy to the Middle East or to put down the threat of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of a foaming-at-the-mouth enemy. Nor was it even, apparently, contrary to the conspiracy theories of the day, to build a pipeline through Iraq to ensure the ready availability of petroleum for the energy-bulemic West.

If Jesus's statement "by their fruits you shall know them" retains any meaning today, the mission of the second Bush White House has been

(1) to stir up lawlessness and chaos in Afghanistan and Iraq--characterized by a high level of malice and cruelty only possible when religious factions vie for sovereign power in a society;

(2) to establish a 100-million-acre "campus" for training budding terrorists;

(3) to drag the Geneva Conventions, along with Just War Theory in general, into the mud;

(4) to debase the image of America among its friends and increasingly embarrassed allies;

(5) to reduce and severely restrict benefits to US military personnel who have imperiled their lives and futures for a set of cheap gold-plated platitudes and nebulously defined ideals;

(6) to transform a $127-billion surplus to a projected $410-billion deficit (for 2008);

(7) to raise the costs of energy, housing, health care, and food in the USA so that everyday needs now look a lot like luxuries;

(8) to maintain a vague, yet perpetual state of fear, suspicion, and low-grade panic among the American people;

(9) to convert large masses of Americans into drooling simpletons and coerce the remaining citizens who resent being treated like idiots to "play the fool" just the same; and

(10) to tattoo George W's arrogant, monkey-like smirk onto the brains of millions of US citizens whose only sins were to allow their votes to count for nothing and look on silently while corporately financed crooks dismantled American civil liberties and democracy.

This mission has indeed been accomplished--perhaps irreparably.

And though, naively perhaps, I am shocked that any American presidency would show such disdain for fundamental processes of law as to willfully destroy them, I am almost as appalled at us Americans who would let this outrage stand, who at best wring our hands and shrug our shoulders, laughing feebly (though we may believe it is "ironically"), and cannot summon up enough outrage to demand that the sickening turds responsible for this treason be impeached.

Plain Stark Duty

"There are good modes of attention and good objects of attention. 'Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report, if there be any virtue, if there be any praise, think on these things.' (St Paul, Philippians 4.8.) ... These 'things' which are just and good assist our attention when we try to make just and compassionate judgments of others or to judge and correct ourselves. ... This is how morality leads naturally into mysticism and has a natural bond with religion. (By religion I mean a religious attitude and form of life, not a literalistic adherence to a particular dogma.) There can no doubt be a mysticism of the extreme ascetic. But there is also a natural way of mysticism, as indicated by St Paul, which involves a deepened and purified apprehension of our surroundings. ... Unselfish attention breaks the barrier of egoism. Living in the present: I really see the face of my friend, the playing dog, Piero's picture ...

"Someone may say that this line of thought could degenerate into a relaxed surrender to an aesthetic attitude, an ethic of 'beautiful thoughts'.... After all, it may be said, the idea of plain stark duty ... is also a widely recognised and surely rightly prized part of the everyday moral life. ...[T]he idea of duty must ... be seen in a wider landscape. It would be misleading to suggest that morality could be reduced to a list, perhaps a short list, of duties. ... Duty can appear when moral instinct and habit fail, when we lack any clarifying mode of reflection, and seek for a rule felt as external. ... Duties, because of their use as a bridle placed on egoism ... may seem more often to carry a sign of negation. 'Don't lie' is a clearer command than 'be truthful'. Be kind, be generous--these requirements seem a vaguer part of our lives, unclear in their limits. ... A totally good being would not experience the call of duty, might be said to lack or not need the concept, since all acts and decisions would emerge from virtuous insight and its orderly process. God has no duties. An imperfect being often feels and recognises the moral demand as external, contrary to instinct and habit, contrary to usual modes of thought. The idea of duty serves here."

--Iris Murdoch, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (1992)


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