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Archive for November 2004

Lucky Jim / Confession

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Lucky_jimAnyone else feel it’s vastly overrated?

(Felt like I should stick one up that’s on topic, my topic, for once).

(But here’s the thing. The business of being a young academic, finishing a Ph.d., on the job market for the first time, links up with blogging only awkwardly, guardedly, half-heartedly. For a few reasons. First of all – there’s the anonymity thing. I used to have a site that wasn’t anonymous, but then I pretty much panicked for fear that one of the places I’m applying to for a job would see my posts. Not that anything’s too controversial – but being almost hard-left, resolutely anti-Christian in my web persona might give the impression (the wrong impression, I guess) that I’m a polemicist in the classroom, intolerant, brow-beating the younguns into the one, true, holy, and apostolic church of secular socialism when I’m supposed to be teaching them Yeats or Shakespeare or how to come up with a "true but arguable" thesis. Secondly, there’s the intellectual property thing. My sole commodity for sale are the ideas that I produce about literature. Rather good ones from time to time, I’d like to think. And even to give the faintest hint of what I’m on to would send me into spirals of paranoia that someone else would pick up on it, type up the very article that I’m working on, and submit it to ELH, PMLA, Critical Inquiry… Maybe one day, when I’m well tenured, tired of writing out these rather good thoughts, I’ll drop them into the ether stream for popular consumption and reuse. But I just can’t afford it right now. So I keep my ideas to myself – and post of Frank Rich, the Marine killing the "insurgent," and Carol Lin…)

Back to Amis, now that I’ve got that out of my system. Interesting look, I guess, at British academia circa-1950. Things haven’t changed in some ways – in other ways the world’s been turned upside down. (First of all, no one could get a job who’s completely incompetent. Jim does and is. It’s utterly impossible nowadays. Just degrees of over-competancy, all the way down the line. And I guess I’m mildly interested which girl he ends up with – I’ve got 30 or so pages left. But otherwise, the humor no longer works… And it’s built on the humor, doncha think?

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November 21, 2004 at 1:26 am

Posted in literature

Rich Back in Form

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Frank Rich appears to be back in form as of today – was getting a little worried about him for a few weeks. Seems to me that his job is – and he’s the only one doing it (well) – is to sketch out the eerie parallelisms that exist between the (il)logic of American entertainment and the (il)logic of American politics.

Today: Just as "family values" driven, FCC enacted mass panic attack about our decadent media seems to be turning the corner from sex (Janet’s boob, DHW miscegenation, etc) to violence (Saving Private Ryan was booted off 66 affiliates on Veterans’ Day), the news media is practicing its own form of fear-driven self-censorship, "protecting" the American public from the gruesome images currently damned up in Iraq, sluicing only onto European networks, Al Jazeera, and the like.

What makes the "Ryan" case both chilling and a harbinger of what’s to
come is that it isn’t about Janet Jackson and sex but about the
presentation of war at a time when we are fighting one. That some of
the companies whose stations refused to broadcast "Saving Private Ryan"
also own major American newspapers in cities as various as Providence
and Atlanta leaves you wondering what other kind of self-censorship
will be practiced next. If these media outlets are afraid to show a
graphic Hollywood treatment of a 60-year-old war starring the beloved
Tom Hanks because the feds might fine them, toy with their licenses or
deny them permission to expand their empires, might they defensively
soften their news divisions’ efforts to present the graphic truth of an
ongoing war? The pressure groups that are exercised by Bono and "Saving
Private Ryan" are often the same ones who are campaigning to derail any
news organization that’s not towing the administration line in lockstep
with Fox.

Even without being threatened, American news media at first sanitized
the current war, whether through carelessness or jingoism, proving too
credulous about everything from weapons of mass destruction to "Saving
Private Lynch" to "Mission Accomplished." During the early weeks of the
invasion, carnage of any kind was kept off TV screens, as if war could
be cost-free. Once the press did get its act together and exercised
skepticism, it came under siege. News organizations that report facts
challenging the administration’s version of events risk being called
traitors. As with "Saving Private Ryan," the aim of the news censors is
to bleach out any ugliness or violence. But because the war in Iraq,
unlike World War II, is increasingly unpopular and doesn’t have an
assured triumphant ending, it must also be scrubbed of any bad news
that might undermine its support among the administration’s base. Thus
the censors argue that Abu Ghraib, and now a marine’s shooting of a
wounded Iraqi prisoner in a Falluja mosque, are vastly "overplayed" by
the so-called elite media.

I think there really is something to Rich’s claim – this rising tide of bad-faith disgust at the nipple, the nudity, then the blood and guts, screaming at the tv set as you tivo the stupid moment over and over again – "I can’t believe she – they – did that! My kids are watching!" meets and matches something else, an ever more shrill insistance that we’re different from them, that the deaths we bring are just and/or "collateral," and thus the representation of them is a crime against the cause itself. As if the images themselves form a fifth column, slipping into each American home like the virus we’ve been warned is on its way.

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November 21, 2004 at 12:51 am

Posted in Politics

But who asked?

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Funny thing about language. Always gives us away, our deeper preoccupations, our bad conscience (or consciousness). Our guilt.

For instance, it seems to be impossible to write about the Marine shooting the Iraqi prisoner without bringing Margaret Hassan into it. The equation gives the game away, time and again. For instance, this one on Slate, whose subtitle suggests that it will be a consideration of whether the shooting meets the definition of a war crime: "The shooting of an unarmed Iraqi was a tragedy. But was it a war crime?" It’s like the author can’t help himself. Midway through:

On the same day as this story, the tragic news
broke that CARE International worker Margaret Hassan had been executed
by her captors in Iraq. Already, there have been cries of moral
equivalence. One Iraqi told the Los Angeles Times: "It goes to show that [Marines] are not any better than the so-called terrorists." Al Jazeera fanned
these flames of anti-American sentiment by broadcasting the shooting
incident in full while censoring Hassan’s execution snuff tape. (U.S.
networks refused to air actual footage of both killings.) There is a
simplistic appeal to such arguments because both events involve the
killing of a human being and, more specifically, the apparent execution
of a noncombatant in the context of war.

Yet it is the
differences between these two killings that reveal the most important
truths about the Marine shooting in Fallujah. Hassan was, in every
sense of the word, a noncombatant. She worked for more than 20 years to
help Iraqis obtain basic necessities: food, running water, medical
care, electricity, and education. The Iraqi insurgents kidnapped her
and murdered her in order to terrorize the Iraqi population and the aid
workers trying to help them.

By contrast, the Marines entered a
building in Fallujah and found several men who, until moments before,
had been enemy insurgents engaged in mortal combat. A hidden grenade
would have changed everything, and the Marine would have been lauded.
As it turned out, the Iraqi was entitled to mercy, but Hassan was truly
innocent. There is no legitimate moral equivalence between a soldier
asking for quarter and a noncombatant like Hassan.

There is
another key difference that reveals a great moral divide between the
Marines and insurgents they fought this week in Fallujah. The
insurgents choose the killing of innocents as their modus operandi and
glorify these killings with videos distributed via the Internet and Al
Jazeera. They recognize no civilized norms of conduct, let alone the
rules of warfare. The Marines, on the other hand, distinguish
themselves by killing innocents so rarely and only by exception or
mistake. Collateral damage is part of warfare, and civilians will die
no matter how many control measures are in place. Yet the U.S. military
devotes a staggering amount of resources to ensuring that civilian
deaths do not happen, from sophisticated command systems that control
precision bombs to staffs of lawyers at every level of command to vet
targeting decisions. And when such breaches do occur, as they
apparently did on Saturday, U.S. military commanders act swiftly to
punish the offender, lest one incident of indiscipline blossom into
many. (Indeed, one Army captain currently faces charges for killing a wounded Iraqi after a firefight and pursuit through the streets of Baghdad.)

may be hell, but no honorable warrior likes to spread the hell
unnecessarily. Killing Hassan, regardless of any attenuated argument
the insurgent apologists may make, was both unlawful and amoral—and
beneath what any warrior would do. Killing the insurgent in a split
second because it was instinctual, on the other hand, was a tragedy,
not an atrocity.

If I got this as a paper in the course I’m teaching now, I’d mark the student down for running away from their thesis statement, for "argument drift." I’m pretty sure that the Geneva Conventions don’t stipulate that, in order to determine the legality of an action, look around and see if there’s anything worse going on. If there is, no crime.

And what exactly does the word "tragedy" mean in this context? Who is the protagonist of this tragedy? The "insurgent," the Marine, the United States, or the entire world?

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November 19, 2004 at 11:06 pm

Posted in Current Affairs


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From Ron Rosenbaum’s piece, "Why Did Kerry Fold? Ohio Recount Stirs Distressing Nuttiness," in this week’s New York Observer:

On Mr. Olbermann’s MSNBC show, he asked Newsweek’s
Jonathan Alter why reporters haven’t been looking into the reality on
the ground in Ohio. Mr. Alter said, in effect, that he thought
reporters preferred the outcome to be decisive that morning so they
wouldn’t have to cancel their post-election vacation plans. Another
great moment in journalism! (Mr. Alter added that he thought when they
came back from vacation, "you’ll see" reporters looking more closely
into the situation.)

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November 19, 2004 at 4:04 pm

Posted in Politics

Maybe we should give them extra points on the GRE

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Charming article today by John Tierney in the Times. Complete with a classic
example of “one the one hand / on the other” journalism:

One theory for the scarcity of Republican
professors is that conservatives are simply not that interested in academic
careers. A Democrat on the Berkeley faculty, George P. Lakoff, who teaches linguistics and is the author
of "Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think," said that
liberals choose academic fields that fit their world views. "Unlike
conservatives," he said, "they believe in working for the public good
and social justice, as well as knowledge and art for their own sake, which are
what the humanities and social sciences are about."

Some non-Democrats prefer to attribute
the imbalance to the structure of academia, which allows hiring decisions and
research agendas to be determined by small, independent groups of scholars.
These fiefs, the critics say, suffer from a problem described in The Federalist
Papers: an autonomous "small republic" is prone to be dominated by a
cohesive faction that uses majority voting to "outnumber and oppress the
rest," in Madison’s words.

"Our colleges have become less
marketplaces of ideas than churches in which you have to be a true believer to
get a seat in the pews," said Stephen H. Balch, a Republican and the
president of the National Association of Scholars. "We’ve drifted to a
secular version of 19th-century denominational colleges, in which the
university’s mission is to crusade against sin and make the country a morally
better place."

That’s right. You remember the kid
wrapped in the American flag in high school, spent his off hours flipping
through the John Birch newsletter and writing letters to the local paper
against affirmative action etc… Just as likely to enter a Ph.d. program in
English as the pot-smoking pseudo-beatnik, reading Kerouac and scribbling in a
battered notebook.

Might just be a little bit
self-selecting, academia…




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November 19, 2004 at 12:58 am

Posted in academia

Socialized Medicine Here We Come…

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…but not without some serious bloodletting in the meantime.

From the Washington Post, in a piece on the coming overhaul of our tax system:

The changes are meant to be revenue-neutral. To pay for them, the
administration is considering eliminating the deduction of state and
local taxes on federal income tax returns and scrapping the business
tax deduction for employer-provided health insurance, the advisers

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November 19, 2004 at 12:31 am

Posted in Politics

Why it’d be fruitless for our side to bring Jesus into it

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…because it’s not really about Jesus. Never has been, never will be.

Brilliant post today on William Gibson’s (yes, that William Gibson) brilliant blog:

Re Creationism, I must point out an unfortunate
subtext that’s no longer quite so obvious. Having grown up in the
previous iteration of the rural American south, I know that what
*really* smarted about Darwin, down there, was the logical implication
that blacks and whites are descended from a common ancestor. Butt-ugly,
but there it is. That was the first objection to evolutionary theory
that I ever heard, and it was a very common one, in fact the most
common. That it was counter to Genesis seemed merely convenient, in the
face of an anthropoid grand-uncle in the woodpile.

Like the man says: Look at those cavemen go.

Jesus is a language people use to talk about things that are difficult to say out loud. Things we certainly don’t want to find ourselves saying…

One other thing: how much of the mo behind the newest FCC – broadcast scandal comes of the fact that we’ve got a white woman here (as nude as any actress in a shampoo comercial) throwing herself at a big black football star. At this craziness simply a reprise of the Superbowl breast-incident, which involved a white male and a black female… Darwinism at its worst…

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November 17, 2004 at 7:52 pm

Posted in Politics