Thursday, May 29, 2008

Down with Harry Potter

Since I've pissed off several friends already by forwarding this critique of Harry Potter, it's time to troll it up on the blog. I hereby admit that I feel nothing but revulsion for Harry Potter and everything he stands for. I wanted to articulate why one day, and then I came across A.S. Byatt's fantastic review.

Some highlights:
Derivative narrative clich├ęs work with children because they are comfortingly recognizable and immediately available to the child's own power of fantasizing.


Ms. Rowling's magic world has no place for the numinous. It is written for people whose imaginative lives are confined to TV cartoons, and the exaggerated (more exciting, not threatening) mirror-worlds of soaps, reality TV and celebrity gossip. Its values, and everything in it, are, as Gatsby said of his own world when the light had gone out of his dream, "only personal." Nobody is trying to save or destroy anything beyond Harry Potter and his friends and family.


In this regard, it is magic for our time. Ms. Rowling, I think, speaks to an adult generation that hasn't known, and doesn't care about, mystery. They are inhabitants of urban jungles, not of the real wild. They don't have the skills to tell ersatz magic from the real thing, for as children they daily invested the ersatz with what imagination they had.

That children like it I understand. That adults can't see through its complete lack of imagination and craft I find depressing.

I realize that these sorts of critiques these days automatically make you a snob. You're only allowed to say "I like it" or "I don't like it." While the idea that food might taste good yet be bad for the body is widely accepted. The idea that culture can be good or bad for you is not, because it evokes the uncomfortable and seemingly elitist concept of bad taste. The same people who work out and eat salads obsessively would never dream of making artistic distinctions that transcend the expression of their personal taste; and they would never dream of modifying their leisure habits.

In case none of this offends you, the same thing goes for "The Kite Runner."

Fire away.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

A Brief Summary of Ian McEwan's Saturday

Begin day. Pre-day. Brain Surgeon awakes suddenly "some hours before dawn." Opens window on London square from fancy big apartment. Condescending observation of square peons. Sees a distressed plane and its trail of fire cross the sky to an unknown fate in the west. Fears terrorism. Biologically reductive reveries about terrorism and religion. Nature, nurture, Darwin, genetics. Enter the family. His wife: he met her by curing her brain disease; fucks her. The father-in-law, the famous washed up alcoholic poet and blues lover; his daughter, the saucy soon-to-be-published poet; his son, the budding benign laid back blues prodigy. Begin post-breakfast day. Drive Mercedes; delayed and detoured by war protest; ruminations about the wisdom of the coming Iraq war. A car accident, near-mugging, and bruising punch to the sternum by what turns out to be a specimen of brain-disease-induced violent tendencies. Mr. Brain Disease. Attempts to palliate and control Brain Disease with diagnosis and hint of possible cure (worked on his wife) but just humiliates Brain Disease in front of his friends, who leave. Gets away and has an emotionally charged, competitive squash game with a typically aggressive American medical friend. Wins, American calls foul, they replay, he loses. To the fishmonger for dinner supplies. Stops by to see his brain-diseased mother in a nursing home. Is he being followed? Back to make dinner for the family reunion scheduled for that evening; the elder poet to forgive the younger her success and sexuality, and she his envy. TV: Fears of terrorism turn out to be unfounded--a benign plane. Mr. Brain Disease returns with Brain Surgeon's wife, a friend, and a knife. Not benign. Daughter poet must strip and do a pre-rape reading of one of her poems--her mother's life depends on it. Nudity reveals pregnancy. Grandfather poet suggests she pawn off Matthew Arnold's Dover Beach as her own. Mr. Brain Disease is touched ("You wrote that!") and calls off the rape. Friend leaves--Brain Disease has failed him again. Father and pacifist blues son attack, crack open Brain Disease's skull. Redemption of squash skills. Brain Surgeon goes to the hospital and patches his skull back up so Brain Disease can run his natural course. Back to bed with the wife. Biologically reductive reflections about Brain Disease's genetically induced propensity for violence. Fucks his wife. Sense-of-vulnerability-induced reflections about life, getting old, familial diaspora, death, Iraq, terrorism. Another attack is as inevitable as the fate of Brain Disease, whom he decides not to press charges against. Camaraderie of mortals, pity for poetry-sensitive neurological victims, reductive sense of causal connection to and responsibility for family terror: ill-considered intersection with the genetically determined fate of Brain Disease; car accident, altercation, diagnosis, home invasion. Blowback? Trying to reason with demented thugs, whether products of religion or biology, will just get you in trouble? Reflect further on connection to unmentioned Islamofascists on your own time. End day.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Poetry Friday: Hungover a Line (a sonnet)

My latest on wellreadchild:
Ms. Tullo asked me to write a sonnet. So I did.

Hungover a Line

by Wes

Hungover a line, to dry the crime
I wring out little droplets of regret
Last night dissolves below me, in the brine
Today flies upward with my darkening head
These sparking thoughts make way from cloud to cloud
In search of what I committed when impaired
A word or two to seed the brawling crowd
Which rained in fists until the taproom bled
You locked me out and I rolled to the shore
Where a jagged kite once pulled us sunward
Sober now, imprisoned in the air
My mind is stretched toward the seaside roar
Where land begins the lightening strikes the surf
When you relent and bring me back to earth


  1. The rhymes suddenly slacken in the last quatrain, which I like (I think in general poetry teachers ask for looser rhymes for a form like this so it doesn't sound so sing-songy, but I don't see that as necessary in general).

  2. One link in the last quatrain doesn't scan, which I think adds a nice touch but perhaps it's best not to kill the rhythm there ....

  3. I challenged myself with extending the metaphor as far as possible despite its shifting meaning (hungover a line might seem like laundry, but then we have clouds, a kite, etc.)

4. I avoid end-line punctuation in poetry (do I need it here?)

Monday, May 12, 2008

When "Experience" is Conformity, and "Toughness" Insecurity

When I talk to friends who are worried about an Obama candidacy and possible administration, I hear the following:

  1. Americans will not elect a black man

  2. Obama is inexperienced and soft

  3. The optimism of Obama and his supporters seems dangerously naive

  4. Obama is simply a politician, like the rest, and no more like to put principle ahead of political expediency

I've written enough about (1). So In this post I'll address (2-4).

Experience and Conformity

I frankly find (2) to be baffling. Perhaps that's my own elitism and workplace cynicism, but consider the following. I'm sure plenty of your co-workers are experienced, in the sense of having been in the workforce for a long time, and yet either incompetent or competent but highly unsuited to positions involving authority or leadership. These people are notoriously difficult to weed out during the hiring process. The kinds of resumes that appeal to HR people (often not the brightest bulbs) are highly conventional and so inherently risky: it's just as easy for less attractive candidates to jump through hoops, acquire certifications, and rack up years of "experience" as it is for mis-educated highschool students to ride a conveyor belt from one grade to another.

On the other hand, there are highly competent or even brilliant people who have jumped through the same hoops. Clearly some of these candidates stand out by virtue of their very shiny hoops -- Harvard, prestigious firms, the expected career ladder, and so on. But even for these over-achievers there's a second layer to the problem of evaluating "experience": even they are not necessarily the most creative, independent minded, or ethical human beings. In fact, that they have gotten where they are is often the result of significant conformity: teacher's pet, straight A's, regurgitation of professor's lecture onto blue book exams, all the right clubs and activities and political alliances, the right career choice, and so on.

In other words, experience often implies conformity.

This conformity has its place, because the teaching of artistic and technical pursuits depends initially on the passivity of their apprentices. Good teachers are authorities, and good students respect this authority. As a consequence of this respect they become vessels for the "knowledge" -- today "information" -- that their mentors pour into them. In the end, there is a body of knowledge to which the student must conform.

When generalized to the moral and political domains, this model of education fails. In fact, it is dangerous. That's because these domains -- and their study, Philosophy -- depend critically on non-conformity rather than conformity; the challenging of received views rather their absorption; and a comfort with the lack of resolution of their primary questions, rather than their artificial dissolution into easy certainties. As a consequence, there is no such thing as "expertise" and "experience" in statesmanship: there are no technical facilities that you can develop to become a great leader. It is not like learning guitar, or becoming an accountant, or even like becoming a writer or artist. More critical are character, passion, independence of mind, and comfort with decision-making involving situations that are so unique as to be without real precedent: in other words, political and moral decisions cannot be learned like times tables, or as algorithms developed either from book-learning or "experience." Experience is of course important in the broad sense -- i.e., any experience that develops character and judgment. Years spent in office, or years spent in Washington, D.C. are not what's relevant here.

In fact, one ought to be wary of strictly political experience when it comes to looking for a good leader. The more political a profession, the more likely an acolyte's conformity is a preliminary to corruption or incompetence. Experience in politics means having been around long enough to have achieved enough mutually back-scratching relationships; it means making the winning of elections more important than standing on principle.

That is why Clinton's vote for the Iraq War is so important to many of us. It was a vote of expedience, conformity par excellence. It is "experience." You will see a certain amount of this conformity, at least in the public sphere, in any politician, including Obama. But there are clear differences between Clinton's conformist opportunism and Obama's independent judgment. And Obama gives one the hope that even where winning depends on toeing the line, he will be much more independent in his use of power when he acquires it.

Experience and Toughness

"Experience" is also meant to be a synonym for "toughness." Obama is soft, the idea goes, because he hasn't been tempered in the fires of political backbiting for long enough.

This argument is just a coded command for the conformity discussed above. Obama's detractors are worried that he isn't sufficiently cynical enough to keep his political enemies at bay by out-conforming his opponents. Clinton's gas tax holiday and public beer-swilling are experience and toughness, again par excellence. So are talk of flag pins and the pledge of allegiance and patriotism in general: the point is to create doubts about Obama's sufficient conformity to a grandiose American self-concept; about how un-reflectively committed he is to the American Tribe; about whether he will let the teeming hordes of The Other -- muslims, Hamas, angry black men -- storm Castle Americana. Obama is not tough enough, according to this argument, because he is not paranoid enough about the rest of the world; because he might not share the knee-jerk, xenophobic hysteria of his fellow countrymen; because he might hesitate to "obliterate" our enemies -- their women and children with them; because he might be other himself -- muslim, black christian militant, Kenyan, Indonesian, Hawaiian, elite ....; because as other, he might cast an uncomfortably critical eye on America itself -- might be able to admit to himself some of the failings of its foreign policy, for instance.

Here the definition of toughness just is slack-spirited, weak conformity: toughness means sharing the patriotic delusions of your countrymen and rashly and even self-destructively striking out at the first sign of danger. Toughness is the cool, hostile posturing of the adolescent. Of course, we all know what "toughness" covers up in the United States just as much as the adolescent: profound insecurity, profound weakness. Demands for "toughness" and for "experience" are demands for conformity to this weakness: they are not about American national security but about American psychological security. They demand that a certain identity, a certain self-conception, remain unscathed, that a certain public mythology be perpetuated: it is the image of toughness that is to be preserved, even if it means gravely endangering the real United States (as for example, by going to war in Iraq instead of dealing with grave domestic security problems). What is meant to be "tough" is the shell preserving the posturing psychology itself -- as transparently insecure, weak, and reactively belligerent as it is.

So insofar experience is meant to convey "toughness," it really is just another conformist rejection of real strength: independent judgment, diplomacy, self-examination and even self-critique, and a willingness to change, negotiate, compromise. Real strength comes at an incredible psychic cost, which is why most of us don't often achieve it: it explodes the myth of one's invulnerability. At the national level, it threatens the idea of the United States as perfect and all-powerful. It threatens our imaginary, psychological security, which demagogues then transubstantiate into national security. Real strength is not in the rigidity of one's delusions of grandeur, but in the steadfastness of one's willingness to engage in self-examination -- as a means to well-considered decisions.

And as we have seen, that self-examination can be hindered by experience, if experience just means developing one's uncritical acceptance of the principles of national pride and collective narcissism.

So when you hear of anyone talk about "experience" in a political context, I encourage you to ask yourself whether what they really mean is "conformity." And when you hear anyone talk about a leader's "toughness," I encourage you to think of this as just a way of describing the rigidity of the surface-level shell that hides a gooey center of insecurity.

Naivete and Politicians

Some people I've talked to are turned off by the enthusiasm of Obama supporters. "Yes we Can" and "Hope" amounts to naivete on two counts: first there's Obama's lack of experience and toughness, second there is the fact that he is not a messiah -- not pure, not above political calculation.

I've dealt with the first reason for rejecting enthusiasm, and that analysis shows that it is not entirely consistent with the second. On the one hand concerns about experience and toughness are concerns about Obama's non-conformity; while cynicism about his motives involves a suggestion that he is more conformist than he seems.

I think it's enough to say here that most of Obama's supporters do not see someone as a political pure savior. They see him as someone who's unusually decent and honest for a politician. Any amount of decency and honesty in American public discourse is a reason for enthusiasm. But beyond that, Obama supporters are enthusiastic about the implications of his character for the presidency. We may be mistaken about his character and judgment, but it is still the right criterion. That's because we're looking for someone who displays real strength and independent mindedness, an independence is crucial to our national security at a time when the lemmings of conformist, "experienced" belligerence are leading us over a cliff.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Viability of Obama, Part II -- The Meaning of Toughness

A year ago I wrote a post called The Viability of Obama, in response to to friends who thought that the United States was not ready to elect a black president (and long before Obama was thought of as anything but a foil for Clinton). So yes, I'm here to congratulate myself. In part. For what I thought might form the counter-currents of Clinton's weaknesses--anger and eliteness--were effectively turned on Obama.

Back then I thought that a) white guilt might balance out racism (although this is not the same as saying, a la Geraldine Ferraro, that Obama is only where he is because he is black); b) Americans were looking for the reassurance of a certain kind of personality -- someone calm and sane; c) that Clinton was in a particularly tricky situation with regard to her own demeanor -- because as a woman with a tendency towards a robotic public persona, she might seem fake and even unhinged if she tried force a warmer or more passionate identity, and overly harsh and opportunistic if she didn't. And I thought that because of this dilemma she was in danger of being branded either as the "angry liberal" (a la Dean) or the distant "elite liberal" a la Kerry.

That's before I knew that Clinton could combine harshness, tin-throated enthusiasm, and opportunism all in one motley package. So in that sense I was wrong: Clinton's tough-but-occasionally-teary combo, as badly executed as it was and as see-through as I thought it should have been, helped her. While I saw her attacks and pandering as incredibly cynical, others saw this as "toughness" and "experience." The same goes for what I see as Clinton's delusional, entitled persistence. While I see this merely as a desperation for power, others give Clinton credit, once again, for "toughness."

The Meaning of Toughness -- Peace or Aggression?

Here, on the other hand, is what I wrote about Obama:
After their experience with Bush, Americans are looking for a candidate who exudes sanity. (Is “it’s the sanity, stupid” a possible slogan?). It’s not a high standard: please, just don’t be crazy. Obama possesses this un-crazy quality in much greater quantity than any other candidate in the Democratic or Republican field. It’s part of his sincere, calm, and charismatic demeanor. That he is an African American with these qualities makes him a more, not less, formidable candidate.

Obama's weak spot was being cast as an angry black man -- my point was that his calm, sincere, and sane personality (remarkably unpolitical in its way) immunized him to this. Of course I didn't know how hard they'd try. That's the significance of Wright, Farrakhan, Ayers, and Clinton's talk of white voters: one goal has been to convince us that Obama really is that angry black man, still a relatively hopeless task except among there base given recent polling data and the results of Indiana. The other goal became part of Clinton's meta-narrative: convince party leaders that a black man just can't be elected in the United States, whatever the primary results.

The narrative of "toughness," on the other hand, runs at cross-currents to these. On the one hand we have the claim that underneath the calm exterior is an angry black man or at least someone who will create that suspicion in white voters. On the other we have the claim that the calm exterior is a sign of weakness of the elite-liberal sort. Hence we have Clinton's nauseating talk about 3am calls, obliterating Iran, the heat of the kitchen, her love of god and guns, how she never gives up, and so on.

We can note with sadness that there is an element of self-hatred here on the part of Clinton and her supporters -- but I think that's the inevitable result of identity politics. In this case it's comprised of a gleeful rejection of qualities more usually associated with femininity -- grace and compromise, for instance. In the harsher backwaters Obama is frequently referred to as a "pussy." In other words, some of Clinton's more enthusiastic supporters hate Obama precisely because of his opportunity to be ... the first female president. Which is to say, Obama's feminine qualities comprise his strength; while Clinton's faux-masculine-toughness doth protest too much.

As part and parcel of this theme we watched the shift of Clinton and her supporters to the right: of course, this is what "new democrats" are all about. It's why, for instance, Clinton voted for the Iraq war; and why Bush, despite his weakness, remains unchallenged by the Democratic legislature; and why the party put up Kerry in 2004. The message of toughness really is: be afraid. Be afraid that the Republicans will out-tough you.

With Obama Democrats seem to be near the realization that tough-talk just is weakness: it's weakness when Bush does it, it's weakness when Bush acts on it, and it's especially weakness when Democrats cower before it by appropriating it. Countries are not made safe by preemptive wars (Germany, anyone?). They are not made safe by bluster. (Similarly, campaigns aren't always won by going for blitzkrieg early wins, pandering, and generally acting like a macho ass).

Countries are made safe (and sometimes campaigns are won) by deliberate, cool decision making in the face of crisis. That means an openness to discussion, an element of selflessness, and the ability to run a household, to mention a few cliches of femininity that I think apply more to Obama than Clinton. But ultimately it's a matter of the inherent toughness of inner peace -- the kind that opponents have uncomprehendingly tried to brand alternately as cerebral and "elite" or a cover for an angry black man.

In a previous post I noted that Obama's legislative accomplishments, abilities as an organizer, and the strengths of his campaign went hand in hand, and that his opponents ignored this at his peril. I think that organizational ability is closely connected to Obama's calm. A recent Newsweek article ("Sit Back, Relax, Get Ready to Rumble") documents this fact superbly:
Obama was explicit from the beginning: there was to be "no drama," he told his aides. "I don't want elbowing or finger-pointing. We're going to rise or fall together." Obama wanted steady, calm, focused leadership; he wanted to keep out the grandstanders and make sure the quiet dissenters spoke up. A good formula for running a campaign—or a presidency.

It worked against Hillary Clinton, whose own campaign has been rent by squabbling aides and turf battles.

The ability to do battle is the kind of thing that's supposed to make you tough. Apparently not:
Team Obama has been a model of tight, highly efficient organization, certainly in contrast to most presidential campaigns. The few tensions that have emerged have been between those who want to stick to the high ground and those who want to fight a little dirtier. (Such debates could intensify in a hard-hitting general campaign.) The campaign has at times been a little slow to fight back.

But Team Obama has been consistently able to outstrategize the opposition, and it does have a plan for the coming mud war.

This might sound like an anecdotal fairy tale if it weren't for the way in which Obama, a freshman Senator, has methodically seized power in the Democratic party from its entrenched bosses, including the Clintons:
From top to bottom, they have destroyed their opponents within the party, stolen out from under them their base, and persuaded a whole set of individuals from blog readers to people in the pews to ignore intermediaries and believe in Barack as a pure vessel of change. It's actually very similar to Clinton from 1994-2000, where power and money in the Democratic Party is being centralized around a key iconic figure. He's consolidating power within the party.

Read on to be reminded of Obama's deadly combination of organizational and fund-raising genius with his charisma and iconic power. One might wonder why there isn't more worry about his power than hand-wringing about his chances in a general election, especially in light of GOP weakness.

Witness the recent spectacle in which Obama was greeted as a rock star on Capitol Hill by his supporters, some Republicans, and ... Hillary supporters: "The mob scene around him was Beatles-esque."

So I rolled out this slogan and I'd like to roll it out again, as a tribute to the power of the pacifist personality: "it's the sanity, stupid."

Friday, May 9, 2008

We Hard Working, White, Statistical Falsehoods (Obama's Demographic Problem: The Elderly, not Whites)

Clinton: I, but not Barack Obama, have the support of
working, hard-working Americans, White Americans

Some ... call you swing voters, I call you Americans

(Where "hard-working" means uneducated enough to have voted for Bush twice).

The common interpretation among pundits is that it is an unwise but innocent statement of fact. But it is neither factual nor innocent.

First, there is the transition from hard-working to Americans to whites, with the implication that being white and American and hard-working are all the same thing. It is a testament to the collective tolerance for Clinton's delusions that she is not barraged with charges of racism, but rather given heat for just another indelicate gaffe.

Second, there is the idea that Obama automatically wins the black vote because he is black. In fact, Clinton once had a significant lead among African Americans--in January of 2007, by 40 points. She and Bill Clinton had to work very hard to shed that advantage.

Finally, if Obama has a demographic problem is with older white women, not white voters per se.

Obama and White Voters

Gallup Polls show that Obama's support among whites is precisely the same as Kerry's was at the same period in 2004. In fact, Obama's support among white voters has been remarkably consistent.

The point is that the white vote skews against Obama is likely an artifact of other factors, most egregiously, the fact that Indiana is 78% white. This means that barring some unusual circumstance (like winning 92% of the Black vote), any winner of of Indiana would have won the white vote. Given Clinton's current disadvantage with black voters, winning Indiana for Clinton implies winning the white vote. Hence no matter what the motivations of voters -- no matter what her reason for winning -- Clinton would have won the white vote. Why not attribute her win to voter policy preferences? If Edwards had lost to Clinton in Indiana, he also likely would have lost the white vote. Would that have been because of a Clinton advantage with race, or because of her name recognition? Or experience? Or her health care plan? Or her appeal to women and the elderly?

Obama and Older Women

In fact, because the Indiana electorate is far more evenly divided by sex and age groups, it is far more relevant to speculate about these demographics as causally relevant to Clinton's success. They are still speculations, but no where near as vacuous as speculations about racial advantages in a 78% white state.

56% of Indiana primary voters were female, and 58% were over the age of 44. 52% of women voted for Clinton, 52% of voters 45-59, 65% of voters 60 years and older, and a whopping 70% of voters 65 and older. These demographics are far more significant than race, and a racial advantage is an inevitable artifact of these advantages in a predominantly white state.

So the defense that the statistic about white voters is technically correct doesn't fly. The statistic is irrelevant. It is not conclusively indicative of a cause, it is not an explanation. Hence its use as an explanation is simply the assertion of a falsehood.

That pundits are incapable of making these analysis is far more distressing than Clinton's race-baiting.

Poetry Friday Challenge: The Aubade

Today's WellReadChild post:

We've done the aubade, and Wilbur, so I thought I'd combine them and turn it into a challenge.

In Richard Wilbur's "Late Aubade," the morning departure of a lover has already been staved off. It's just a matter of how long he can sustain the post-coital languor. Love has a lot in common with being lazy -- the bed is equally important to both.

I thought I'd try to write my own aubade -- since Wilbur's started late, I thought I'd start mine early, just before waking up. There's no convincing a lover to stay here when in a sense she's already left -- with the darkness, with the dream, with the end of a romantic story; especially if, unlike Wilbur's mistress, her loyalties lie with the sun!

So my attempt follows; if you accept the challenge, please post your own in the comments here (or a link to it on your blog)!

Early Aubade

by Wes

Now I feel the intrusion of the sun,
And your backwards glance against the glare

I was dreaming about the movies,
The projector beaming at the wall

We hold hands before the fire,
The drums beat for the entranced wood

We do our lines for the moon and crickets,
And kiss in closeup against the sky

We dance on the lawn,
And laughing, get some steps wrong

The celluloid burns a little and peels your face
Which I try to press back down

But time staggers on the wheel
In undone loops, darkness settles in

Now there's just your warmth, and I realize
We cannot see what we are

Fleeing through the night-rain without looking back,
Under a rising umbrella

To my car, where the pistons hum
And keep the world going, around us

The day you went back there,
I chased you through the void

The flames chanting at my back,
I found you in a bright-empty room

Standing at attention before the sun,
Turning from a wall of undressed window

To say get up, sleepyhead,
The day has just begun