Archive for August, 2011
31 Aug 2011

Liberals: “Mothers, Don’t Let Your Cowboys Grow Up To Be Pres’dent”

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Paul Waldman, at the American Prospect, warns metrosexual, urbanista liberals that those evil Republicans are up to it again, turning to a manly, rough-spoken representative of the American West, a cowboy type, to appeal to the anxiety-afflicted white male voter. Have they no shame?

Bush may not have been much for book learnin’, but he appreciated the power of political iconography. The cowboy, he knew, is perhaps the most potent American archetype, the hero whose story speaks to everything many Americans want to believe about themselves and their country. And today, the newest star of the Republican party has more cowboy in his little finger than Bush had in his whole being—for better and for worse. As a candidate, Texas governor Rick Perry will be enacting a particular performance of masculinity, one that will resonate powerfully with some people—especially white men—even as it alienates others.

Within a few days of announcing his candidacy, Perry was already displaying his particular flair for the provocative. Asked for his thoughts about Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke, Perry seemed to suggest a lynching, then asserted that if the Fed conducted another round of quantitative easing to boost the economy, it should be considered a crime punishable by execution. “If this guy prints more money between now and the election,” Perry said, “I don’t know what y’all would do to him in Iowa, but … we would treat him pretty ugly down in Texas. Printing more money, to play politics at this particular time in American history, is almost treacherous—or treasonous, in my opinion.”

It was colorful but not surprising to those familiar with Perry. As Texas journalist John Spong wrote, “‘Treat him pretty ugly’ is, in fact, the way we talk down here. We’re prone to violent imagery, typically without the intent to actually hurt anyone.” Perry has built his career on being more conservative than anyone else around, and in a particularly Texan fashion. If there’s one recent bit of heroism he’s proud of, it would probably be the time last year when out jogging, he shot a coyote that he said was menacing his dog. (What, you don’t pack your .380 Ruger when you go for a run?) Today, it seems that every other story about Perry (see here for an example) is illustrated with that photo of him hoisting a pistol in the air, mouth open in a whoop, as though he were Yosemite Sam in a suit.

The intimation of violence in Bush’s rhetoric was always vicarious; he might say “bring ’em on” about Iraqi insurgents, but he wasn’t the one facing the fire. With Perry, you get the feeling he’s personally itching to fight. Perry also comes by his cowboy image more honestly than Bush; he actually did grow up on a farm in a tiny Texas town. He is confrontational and combative where Bush portrayed himself as a “uniter, not a divider.” This is enabled by the fact that unlike when Bush was governor, Texas under Perry is almost a one-party state, so appealing to Democrats isn’t necessary. To get a sense of how Perry’s swagger goes over with some folks, consider this illustrative anecdote. You may have heard the story of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was convicted and executed for murdering his daughters by setting fire to their house, a crime of which he was almost certainly innocent. As Politico recently reported, when the campaign of Republican Senator Kay Baily Hutchinson, who was challenging Perry in a 2010 gubernatorial primary, considered raising the issue, they tested it with focus groups. One voter memorably told them, “It takes balls to execute an innocent man.” Bred in the Southern culture of honor, where masculinity is forever tenuous and slights must be avenged quickly to save face, Perry’s willingness to use violence, in rhetoric or reality, is close enough to the surface to be visible to all.

Violence and the culture of honor have always been key themes in cowboy mythology, which is less a construction of history than a production of the American entertainment industry. It was essentially invented by Buffalo Bill Cody, whose Wild West show toured the country and the world beginning in 1882. Actual cowboys may not have had duels at high noon, but the image of the lone gunslinger taming the lawless frontier was too compelling to worry about historical accuracy, and the popularity of Westerns only rose until its peak in the 1950s. “Last week eight of the top ten shows on TV were horse operas,” reported Time magazine in a cover story in March 1959, when there were no fewer than 30 prime-time Westerns airing on the three networks. Of the heroes of these shows, the magazine said, “Their teeth were glittering, their biceps bulging, their pistols blazing right there in the living room; it was more fun, as they say in Texas, than raisin’ hell and puttin’ a chunk under it.”

Why were cowboys so compelling at that moment in history? Consider the changing status of the American man in postwar America. As more and more breadwinners moved from the farm or factory into office work, upper-body strength no longer seemed so critical to personal or national success. If you were pushing papers all day, it wasn’t so easy to feel like your job expressed and validated your masculinity. So dramas in which strong and brave gunslingers faced down villains while women swooned held a particular appeal. As one sociologist quoted in the Time article said, “How long since you used your fists? How long since you called the boss an s.o.b.?” What’s more, a Western hero “cannot be hagridden; if he wants to get away from women, there is all outdoors to hide in.”

That appeal may not be quite as strong today, but it has never disappeared. And as a party that has long built its success on the votes of white men (44 percent of John McCain’s votes in 2008 came from white men, compared to only 27 percent of Barack Obama’s), the GOP is drawn to arguments that play on male anxieties about strength and potency. Most recent campaigns have featured Republicans asserting that their candidate is manly and strong, while the Democrats’ candidate is effeminate and weak.

Liberals sneered at Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush in just the same way for cheap exploitation of the simplistic cultural stereotype of the cowboy. Both won two terms. The problem from the liberal point of view is that the cowboy represents a highly positive image to most Americans, to pretty much all Americans not sitting in Starbucks reading The Nation.

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Meanwhile John Ellis, at Business Insider, confirms that Paul Waldman is right to worry. Rick Perry has barely begun campaigning, and it looks very likely that Perry has already got the nomination sewn up.

The Republican “establishment,” such as it is, is quickly coming to the realization that the 2012 GOP presidential nomination is Texas Governor Rick Perry’s to lose.

He leads in Iowa and he hasn’t even really campaigned there yet. He’s running second in New Hampshire, which is all he needs to do. And he’s running comfortably ahead in South Carolina (again, without much campaigning), which is the gateway to the South.

The South is the base of the modern Republican Party. Perry has become, in less than a month, the Southern states’ de facto favorite son.

31 Aug 2011

Still Messing With Success

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Jim Geraghty in his morning email informs us that Gary Lucas has not learned to leave well enough alone.

If you were thinking, “Well, at least George Lucas has stopped messing around with the one work of film he got right the first time, and that he could never ruin through gratuitous edits and silly changes,” well, you were wrong.

Lord!

30 Aug 2011

American Spirit Defying Tragedy

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Hat tip to Vanderleun.

30 Aug 2011

Rivers Are Running Just a Little High in Vermont Right Now, Ayuh!

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Reminds me of the flooding on the Susquehanna and its tributaries near my home grounds in Northeastern Pennsylvania back in 1972 when Hurricane Agnes came through. This kind of thing does happen once or twice every century.

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Bartonsville covered bridge being swept down the Williams River.

Hat tips to Norman Zamcheck and Karen L. Myers.

30 Aug 2011

The Hardest-Working Member of Obama’s Administration

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Three minute speech: two heavy duty teleprompters.

Jim Geraghty’s Morning Jolt email today took another look at the relationship of the current president to his teleprompter.

Sigh. Yeah: “President Obama required two heavy-duty teleprompters on Monday during a three-minute speech in which he nominated Alan Krueger to serve as chairman of his Council of Economic Advisers.”

Why does the teleprompter bug us so? (Nothing personal, TOTUS.)

I think it’s because many on the right are simply not that persuaded that Barack Obama is all that bright.

(There are a lot of people who believe that intellect is directly proportional to one’s ideological views, and many folks also believe that one’s moral character is directly proportional to them as well. I’ll bet some of you disagree, but I’ve met too many dumb and/or dishonest conservatives — and/or too many smart and trustworthy liberals — to believe that one’s voting record can tell you much about a person’s brainpower or conscience.)

Now, Barack Obama is not stupid. And there is something admirable about how he rose from what he was in his teen years — awkward, isolated, effectively abandoned by both parents, turning to drugs to tune out the pain — to what he was when he entered politics: a lawyer, a university lecturer, an author. (Please, no more theories that the sentence structure and aquatic metaphors prove that William Ayers really wrote Dreams from My Father.)

But if Barack Obama had the wind in his face for the first 20 or so years of his life, he had the wind at his back the moment he entered politics. He and his guys ensured he would win his first state-senate race by challenging signatures and getting all his rivals tossed off the ballot. His quixotic, failed bid to unseat a longtime U.S. House member did no serious damage to his career, and he faced no serious primary challenge afterward, despite a state-senate record that was nothing all that special. He represented a part of the state where the Republican party existed only in theory. When he decided to run for Senate, the Chicago Tribune dug into the divorce records of his top Democratic rival and then his top Republican rival — a sudden burst of groundbreaking investigative journalism that never extended to, say, Obama’s college transcripts. Jack Ryan’s implosion was so spectacular that Obama roared to victory against tomato can Alan Keyes, meaning he entered the U.S. Senate without so much as a genuine attack ad run against him. Then he faced the challenge of appealing to Democratic hopes and dreams more than Hillary Clinton did — and then running against John McCain as the economy imploded.

Moreover, despite his meteoric rise, Obama seemed to be awfully lacking in the categories of hard-won legislative accomplishments, ingenious compromises, crafty deal-making, anything resembling executive leadership, or suffering the consequences of telling his allies things they didn’t want to hear. We were endlessly told that he gave brilliant speeches, and he had a nice phrase or two — “there are no red or blue states, just red, white, and blue states” — but in the end they were generally predictable platitudes, and anybody who had spent about ten minutes watching the U.S. government in action would acknowledge that giving a good speech is really not the hardest part of politics. It might be the easiest or at least the most teachable. Heck, George Pataki gave a really good speech at the 2004 Republican convention. All it takes is a good speechwriter, a bit of practice in delivery, and actually believing what you’re saying.

So the teleprompter — a fairly standard-issue tool in politics, albeit one that seems to enjoy a particular devotion from Obama — has come to symbolize the notion that Obama is not really that bright, mostly good at delivering speeches that he’s reading off a glass screen, and more capable of delivering pretty phrases well than actually thinking through problems and making the tough choices. It’s a bit simplistic, but in light of the perennial Republicans-are-stupid meme — see below — grassroots conservatives are more than justified in doubting the much-hyped intellect and brainpower of the president. As Zip from Weasel Zippers responds to yesterday’s news, “And the left wants us to believe he’s the smartest man who has ever lived.”

29 Aug 2011

The Real Playboys

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Sach’s suicide note: “The loss of mental control over my life was an undignified condition, which I decided to counter decisively.”

A nice tribute to twelve handsome, rich and well-born male practitioners of the art of living for pleasure, from Kempt.

When 78-year-old Gunter Sachs killed himself with a single gun shot to the head in May of this year, the world not only lost an accomplished marksman, but also a fine bobsledder, photographer, and manufacturer of ball-bearings. Of greater concern, though, was the fact that Gunter was widely considered to be the world’s last remaining “Original Playboy,” of which there were twelve.

“Twelve, and no more,” Gunter said of his bronzed, international jet-setting comrades. “The golden age when an elite breed of professional pleasure seekers fascinated the world is over. We were charming and spoke languages and behaved well with women. To go with a girl to Tahiti was incredible. Now everybody goes to Tahiti.”

Tribute to the 1957 demise of Fon Portago, which accident also ended the famous Mille Miglia.

Do not miss Prince Dado Ruspoli’s talk on the correct manner of smoking opium and tobacco.

Hat tip to Karen L. Myers.

29 Aug 2011

Car Goes Down Vermont River

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This is the Waloomsac River near Bennington, Vermont. Three cars were actually swept away by the flooding. WNYT.

Hat tip to Theo.

28 Aug 2011

The Train of History

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Malcolm Muggeridge, 1903-1990

Malcolm Muggeridge recalls, in the first volume of his autobiography, Chronicles of Wasted Time: The Green Stick:

On one of my early birthdays I was given a toy printing-set with whose large rubber letters I was able to print off my first composition. It was a story of a train going along very fast and, to the satisfaction of the passengers, racing through the small stations along the track without stopping. Their satisfaction, however, turned to dismay, and then to panic fury, as it dawned on them that it was not going to stop at their stations either when it came to them. They raged and shouted and shook their fists, but all to no avail. The train went roaring on. At the time I had no notion what, if anything, the story signified. It just came into my mind, and the rubber letters dropped into place of themselves. Yet, as I came to see, and see now more clearly than ever, it is the story I have been writing ever since; the story
of our time. The imagination, at however rudimentary a level, reaches into the future. So its works have a prophetic quality. A Dostoevsky foresees just what a revolution will mean in Russia – in a sense, foresees the Soviet regime and Stalin; whereas a historian like Miliukov and his liberal-intellectual friends envisage the coming to pass of an amiable parliamentary democracy. Similarly, a Blake or a Herman Melville sees clearly through the imagination the dread consequences industrial¬ism and technology must have for mankind, whereas, as envisaged in the mind of a Herbert Spencer or an H. G. Wells, they can bring only expanding wealth and lasting well-being. It was not until much later that I came to identify the passengers in my train as Lord Beveridge, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, Kingsley Martin, Eleanor Roosevelt, and any number of progressive prelates, mahatmas, millionaires, regius professors and other such eminent persons.

28 Aug 2011

Races and Gender and Victims, Oh, My!

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Joseph Epstein finds in the recently published Cambridge History of the American Novel a perfect demonstration of exactly what has happened to university English departments in recent decades and thinks all this probably has something to do with the percentage of students majoring in English having been roughly cut in half over the same period.

Only 40 or 50 years ago, English departments attracted men and women who wrote books of general intellectual interest and had names known outside the academy—Perry Miller, Aileen Ward, Walter Jackson Bate, Marjorie Hope Nicolson, Joseph Wood Krutch, Lionel Trilling, one could name a dozen or so others—but no longer. Literature, as taught in the current-day university, is strictly an intramural game.

This may come as news to the contributors to “The Cambridge History of the American Novel,” who pride themselves on possessing much wider, much more relevant, interests and a deeper engagement with the world than their predecessors among literary academics. Biographical notes on contributors speak of their concern with “forms of moral personhood in the US novels,” “the poetics of foreign policy,” and “ecocriticism and theories of modernization, postmodernization, and globalization.”

Yet, through the magic of dull and faulty prose, the contributors to “The Cambridge History of the American Novel” have been able to make these presumably worldly subjects seem parochial in the extreme—of concern only to one another, which is certainly one derogatory definition of the academic. These scholars may teach English, but they do not always write it, at least not quite. A novelist, we are told, “tasks himself” with this or that; things tend to get “problematized”; the adjectives “global” and “post”-this-or-that receive a good workout; “alterity” and “intertexuality” pop up their homely heads; the “poetics of ineffability” come into play; and “agency” is used in ways one hadn’t hitherto noticed, so that “readers in groups demonstrate agency.” About the term “non-heteronormativity” let us not speak.

These dopey words and others like them are inserted into stiffly mechanical sentences of dubious meaning. “Attention to the performativity of straight sex characterizes . . . ‘The Great Gatsby’ (1925), where Nick Carraway’s homoerotic obsession with the theatrical Gatsby offers a more authentic passion precisely through flamboyant display.” Betcha didn’t know that Nick Carraway was hot for Jay Gatsby? We sleep tonight; contemporary literary scholarship stands guard.

“The Cambridge History of the American Novel” is perhaps best read as a sign of what has happened to English studies in recent decades. Along with American Studies programs, which are often their subsidiaries, English departments have tended to become intellectual nursing homes where old ideas go to die. If one is still looking for that living relic, the fully subscribed Marxist, one is today less likely to find him in an Economics or History Department than in an English Department, where he will still be taken seriously. He finds a home there because English departments are less concerned with the consideration of literature per se than with what novels, poems, plays and essays—after being properly X-rayed, frisked, padded down, like so many suspicious-looking air travelers—might yield on the subjects of race, class and gender. “How would [this volume] be organized,” one of its contributors asks, “if race, gender, disability, and sexuality were not available?”

28 Aug 2011

Unusual Traffic

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Alas! It was Photoshop, not Irene, that delivered the shark into that street.

The caption for the photo said: This picture was taken in Puerto Rico shortly after Hurricane Irene ravaged the island. Yes, that’s a shark swimming down the street next to a car, and this is exactly why authorities in NYC are warning people not to go swimming in flood waters after a hurricane. Sharks go where fish go, and fish go where water goes, and if that water (and those subsequent fish) happen to be right outside your front door, then guess where that freakin’ shark’s going to be?!

The Washington Post spoiled all the fun by identifying the shark photo used for the pranked image.

Real source of shark.

27 Aug 2011

Just Plain Cruel

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Bird Dog, at Maggie’s Farm, says whoever assembled the above background comparison of the likely 2012 rival candidates was hitting very hard.

27 Aug 2011

A German Language Lesson

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27 Aug 2011

Subjugation Fantasy

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Emily Blunt plays Matt Damon’s Manic Pixie Dream Girl

Adam Serwer, blogging at the left-wing American Prospect, recently watched “The Adjustment Bureau” (2011). His reaction involves the deconstruction of a popular cinematic theme revealing the unattractive desire lying just behind the fantasy.

The female lead, played by Emily Blunt, is a variation on Nathan Rabin’s ” Manic Pixie Dream Girl,” concept, defined as a woman “exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” …

As the Onion writers later note, the key offensive quality of the MPDG is, like the Magic Negro, subservience: She exists to lead the male protagonist to happiness/catharsis.

    Like the Magical Negro, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype is largely defined by secondary status and lack of an inner life. She’s on hand to lift a gloomy male protagonist out of the doldrums, not to pursue her own happiness.

It’s prominence as a cinematic archetype, I think, stems from the fact that it’s the ultimate female fantasy of a particular kind of “nice guy” overrepresented among artsy men*. She’s on hand to “lift a gloomy male protagonist out of the doldrums” because male writers are often the gloomy male protagonists of their own internal dramas. …

My theory is that the MPDG is a fantasy molded from the clay of an infinite number of adolescent rejections from the women of their youth. Precisely because the relationship never reaches the stage of genuine intimacy, the MPDG remains a two-dimensional projection of the desires of a guy who is progressive enough in gender matters to want a woman who is “interesting,” but not one that has an internal life of her own beyond the superficial qualities that made her “cool” and “not like other girls” to begin with.

Key to the MPDG is that the concept reflects the gender-based hostility of the nice guy. She frequently suffers from a form of (mental) illness, because this both proves that she needs the nice guy and shows why he has such a hard time acquiring her. Even if she’s not sick in some way, she is defined by some kind of glaring emotional vulnerability that makes her, in an abstract sense, a damsel in distress who needs rescue. Under the circumstances, the nice guy’s qualities become as heroic as he imagines them to be. She often suffers cinematically, because she refuses — like the unattainable women of the nice guy’s imagination — to recognize just how good for her he is.

Just as with the Magic Negro, though, the insidiousness of the MPDG archetype lies in the way the creator assumes that their characters are progressive. These characters are in a superficial sense positive in that they’re usually protagonists or allies of the protagonist, but the purpose of this is merely to assuage guilt and provide the unparalleled sense of comfort that comes with the knowledge that everything is in its proper place.

I thought it was rather a pity that there does not seem much likelihood of Mr. Serwer deconstructing the whole array of pleasing political fantasies, minorities, victim groups, the poor, the environment, unions, that serve to feed the ego and power needs of the community of fashion intelligentsia.

27 Aug 2011

Hurricane Irene

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I wonder how long we’ll have electricity and Internet access.

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