Tuesday, July 29, 2008


I started to write a piece on Andrew Klavan's Wall Street Journal editorial piece back before everyone else pointed out how stupid it was. Then I figured there wasn't much point in writing to say that I think Klavan's piece is stupid, too.

But, over the weekend I finally went to see The Dark Knight and I thought it might be worth writing on this general topic after all.

First, let's get this out of the way. The stupidity of this piece far exceeds even its august venue's standard for stupid.

A cry for help goes out from a city beleaguered by violence and fear: A beam of light flashed into the night sky, the dark symbol of a bat projected onto the surface of the racing clouds . . .

Oh, wait a minute. That's not a bat, actually. In fact, when you trace the outline with your finger, it looks kind of like . . . a "W."

There seems to me no question that the Batman film "The Dark Knight," currently breaking every box office record in history, is at some level a paean of praise to the fortitude and moral courage that has been shown by George W. Bush in this time of terror and war. Like W, Batman is vilified and despised for confronting terrorists in the only terms they understand. Like W, Batman sometimes has to push the boundaries of civil rights to deal with an emergency, certain that he will re-establish those boundaries when the emergency is past.
It's . . . curious? surprising? appalling? Yes, I think it's appalling that at this late date we still see this witless neoconservatism on the hoof.

For a while after 9/11 it seemed that there was a certain impulse, an irresistible impulse in some circles, to trump what was with what they preferred to be true. While the occupation of Iraq may not turn into a complete and utter foreign policy catastrophe for the US, the experience has been one long clinic on how the neoconservatives who told us what we could expect when we invaded, what would ensue and what good we'd get for invading we're pitifully naive and utterly incompetent.

And so now Iraq policy seems to be in the hands of people whose expertise extends beyond movies and comic books and maybe we'll escape Iraq having made it into a country something like Iran but a lot more unstable.

But still the role-playing warriors of the right are with us, some more shameless than others. For instance, Kenneth Pollack, who championed the war in 2002, at least now has the decency to admit the the war has been a colossal fiasco, regardless of its justification.

Klavan seems to be more of a Hitlerian sort of propagandist: just keep telling the big lie. In this case the lie is that the Iraq war had anything to do with the War on Terror aside from being a distraction from it.

And it wasn't an accidental distraction. George Bush simply chose to fight a war other than the one that, if carried out vigorously, was going to bring him toe-to-toe with an already-existing nuclear power: Pakistan.

In short, Bushman has already given up on the fight against the Joker and he did so a long time ago. He's no hero: he made a pragmatic decision to not force a lot of dangerous issues in Central Asia, but he was too much a coward to face the inevitable criticism he would receive for being pragmatic, so he quickly left for another venue he thought would allow him to play the hero at small cost.

After having seen the film and read many of the reviews, it is interesting to me to see how eagerly viewers embrace the idea that the "terror" against which we are at war is nihilistic.

The truth is that it isn't: Osama bin Laden has a pretty specific agenda--he wants to eliminate the influence of the West in the Islamic nations and he wants those nations to more closely follow the tenets of Islam. He isn't just in it to watch the world burn.

So what do we seem to want an adversary like that? Because the implied critique is less pointed? Better to be mere hypocrites that the joker points out than to be the object of legitimate grievances (no matter how badly acted-upon)?

[edit: added link for Kenneth Pollack]

Monday, July 21, 2008

Jimmy Breslin

I come to Jimmy Breslin late in life--very late in his life (he's 77), pretty late in mine considering I come from a working class family and I grew up not far from Breslin's stomping grounds.

Right now I'm reading his latest book, called The Good Rat. I'm enjoying it, but I'm running into a lot of the same mixed feelings Breslin has always inspired in me.

A bit of background:

I am from a similar background to Breslin, only a generation later. I, too, was raised among the ethnic working class. I, too (though Breslin probably would have a harder time admitting it), became non-working class through education and the opportunities/different associations that brought to me. And for both Breslin and I, our working class credentials are important and proudly held.

One big difference between us, though, is that I take my alienation from the working class as a given. Breslin seems to be at pains to pretend that at heart he's just a stevadore with an Underwood typewriter.

And this bit of self-delusion is tied in with a whole load of other illusions--mostly visbale in the rose-colored shades he tends to look at the old neighborhood life with generally.

Not that ethnic neighborhoods didn't have their upside . . . just that they weren't quite as Breslin would have them.

For instance, the policemen there were absolutely not typically paragons, by any measure. And the two cops in Breslin's story--two cops who became mob assassins--were really different only in degree from what is taken for granted among police. Essentially a large number urban police behave as if they were in a gang. This breaks through hen Breslin tells us that his virtuous cop hears locker room talk that fellow officers Louis Eppolito and Stephen Caracappa are workiong with the mob, and doing hits for them. But no one seems to consider sharing this information with someone who might put a stop to this enormity.

It is more important to hold up the police version of omerta than to protect the public or the integrity of the police force. The hard truth about those cops are, they were (and are) racists; they were (and are) first and foremost concerned about themselves and the rackets they've got working; they were (and are) often the worst the working class has to offer, not the best.

I know because my family has rubbed shoulders with cops--from patrolmen to captains--all my life. And it's surprising how many of them have suspiciously big houses . . . and suspiciously big beach houses.

But Breslin's love of the mobster (in spite of his show at being contemptuous, Breslin loves the attention and acceptance he gets from lazy, deceitful murderers and swindlers) shows that he's drawn to the worst, and doesn't have the eye to depict the best as much as his adherents would tell you. His "good" characters all seem to have something of the whore with the heart of gold in them . . . something out of bad fiction.

Whether Breslin is fooling himself with his romantic, nostalgic pap about working class life or just his willing readers, I don't know. But, personally, as depressing as life in parking-lot land can be sometimes, I don't need lies and tall-tales and slight fictionaliztions about the old neighborhood to buoy my spirits.

And I don't think it does the old neighborhoods and the old characters and the old way of life much good for it to be gilded in myth--they're worth remembering accurately. They shouldn't be turned into crutches for unfulfilled suburbians to lean on.

The Obama Candidacy

Yesterday, the New York Times published yet another parsing of the now infamous New Yorker cover:

This time we hear from Lee Siegel about how this cover somehow constitutes something to get very very upset about. This time because it isn't good satire:
It was a gnawing permanence of everyday life that the satirist lampooned — i.e., punctured — to provide a general catharsis. . . .If you accept this definition of satire, then the reason The New Yorker’s cover seems to have fallen short is precisely that it brought out into open, respectable space an idea of the Obamas that is still, happily, considered contemptible. The portrait of them as secret Muslims, in cahoots with terrorists and harboring virulent anti-American sentiments, exists for the most part either on the lunatic fringe or in what some might call the lunatic establishment: radically partisan entities like Fox News. If, on the other hand, this newspaper began politely referring to Senator Obama’s radical Islamic sympathies, then a full-blown exaggeration of that insinuation into ridiculous satire would be just what the doctor ordered.

In other words either the new Yorker should have a) ignored the unpleasant but not mainstream stupidity that figures Obama as the 21st Century Manchurian candidate or b) depicted the holders of that belief in an obviously negative manner.

Option A is out of the question--there will be lots of money spent making sure no one is unaware that some people believe crazy things about Barack Obama.

Option B, it would seem to me, is just one technique among many for dealing with the fact that A is not a viable option.

Siegel concludes his little piece:

By presenting a mad or contemptible partisan sentiment as a mainstream one, by accurately reproducing it and by neglecting to position the target of a slur — the Obamas — in relation to the producers of the slur, The New Yorker seems to have unwittingly reiterated the misconception it meant to lampoon.

Siegel points to Swift's "A Modest Proposal" as a more well-done satire . . . one less likely, we imagine, to raise the hackles of sensitive readers.

Of course, the opposite is true. Many 19th-century readers considered a Modest Proposal to be a product of incipient insanity (Swift was later declared incompetent). Readings of "A Modest Proposal" have caused public disturbances.

Siegel's piece is yet another of the tiresome rationalizations that people roll out to excuse what is really a pathological strain in the whole Obama phenomenon.

Whether or not the New Yorker cover is good satire (it's OK, in my opinion, but it's not Swift) what generated this furor is not anything special about the cover: it's the extreme, irrational sensitivity of the Obamas and their supporters.

Still, at this late date, we have Obama-ites and supposedly detached observers who insist that Hillary Clinton talked about Barack Obama getting assassinated when she did no such thing. (Rather, certain people in the Obama camp, and certain people in the media, have some unhealthy fantasies regarding Mr. Obama, but that's another facet to the Obama phenomenon.)

The increasing perception is that the Obamas and their supporters are a bunch of sissies, who can't help but react "angrily" (a word I see often used to describe their spokespeople) to any form of criticism or disagreement that they deem, ex cathedra, to be "over the line."

In many ways, Obama looks like a shoe-in to win this race. McCain is a very weak candidate. The Obama campaign has shown itself to be capable. The tide definitely seems to be turning in the Democratic direction.

But the sort of sensitivity--or is it arrogance?--that leads to these sorts of dust-ups seems to be a distinct (glaring) weakness in the candidacy. I hope Obama has the sense to put a leash on it.

I should add that I will be voting for Mr. Obama come November and that I preferred him to Hillary Clinton in the primary. Lunatic fringe links that may be at the top of this page are strictly the responsibility of Google.

[Some small edits, mostly spelling. One added sentence 7/22/08]