“The party erred only in its excessive compassion”

There’s a been a few of these written in the last few days. Chait:

And so the reality remains that a vote for Romney is a vote for his party — a party that, by almost universal acclimation, utterly failed when last entrusted with governing. Romney may be brainier, more competent, and more mentally nimble than George W. Bush. But his party has, unbelievably, grown far more extreme in the years since Bush departed. Unbelievable though it may sound to those outside the conservative movement, conservative introspection into the Bush years has yielded the conclusion that the party erred only in its excessive compassion — it permitted too much social spending and, perhaps, cut taxes too much on the poor. Barely any points of contact remain between party doctrine and the consensus views of economists and other experts. The party has almost no capacity to respond to the conditions and problems that actually exist in the world.

Economists have coalesced around aggressive monetary easing in order to pump liquidity into a shocked market; Republicans have instead embraced the gold standard and warned incessantly of imminent inflation, undaunted by their total wrongness. In the face of a consensus for short-term fiscal stimulus, they have turned back to ancient Austrian doctrines and urged immediate spending cuts. In the face of rising global temperatures and a hardening scientific consensus on the role of carbon emissions, their energy plan is to dig up and burn every last molecule of coal and oil as rapidly as possible. Confronted by skyrocketing income inequality, they insist on cutting the top tax rate and slashing — to levels of around half — programs like Medicaid, food stamps, and children’s health insurance. They refuse to allow any tax increase to soften the depth of such cuts and the catastrophic social impact they would unleash.

An indictment then of the party, which is sensible: Romney leads a skeleton’s life, a symbol of the GOP’s chicanery. He has a sycophant’s attraction to power and the plutocrat’s inability to understand his privilege. He isn’t a man — he’s an early warning system, signaling to party satraps when he has to change a position because Barack Hussein Obama embraced it. There isn’t even a Republican Party anymore: it’s a list of pathologies.

Straight guys – less free sexually than anybody else

There’s truth to what Dan Savage says here. In Miami, despite its tolerance, you don’t want the reaction of a young woman of Hispanic descent to an admission that her boyfriend, to quote Suede’s Brett Anderson, tried it that way:

“Straight guys run the world, but that includes the Taco Bell franchise. They’re less free sexually than anybody else. The girl who eats pussy once or twice in college can tell her husband, and he’s not going to believe she’s a lesbian, and she is not going to be terrorized by that experience. But these poor straight guys, who meet the one guy who blips onto their sex radar, and they’re devastated! They think no matter how much sex they’ve had with women, this is proof . . . because straight male sexuality is two negatives bundled together: it’s to not be a woman and to not be a fag. So anything a straight guy might be interested in that is perceived as feminine or faggy is really destabilizing to their selves.

“After reading their letters for a couple years, I realized gay men and women were complicit in this too. If you’ve had sex once with a man, they say you’re gay. Gay men want you to be gay—if you look like Tom Cruise. There is not a lot of speculation whether Seth Rogen is gay. I fucked women. Nobody ever says to me, ‘Oh, you couldn’t have done that if you weren’t actually straight.”

“The hard labor of a difficult pregnancy”

Ta-Nehisi Coates reposted an amazing short essay he wrote two years ago called “On Labor.” A highlight:

This is the era of Internet intellectuals, mostly dudes, who excel at analogizing easily accessible facts to buttress their points. It’s a good skill to have, and one I employ myself. But it isn’t wisdom. Like most people, I have deep problems with the termination of life — and that is what I believe abortion to be. Still a decade ago, I learned that those problems were abstract, and could not stand against something as tangible and imposing as death.

My embrace of a pro-choice stance is not built on analogizing Rick Santorum with Hitler. It is not built on what the pro-life movement is “like.” It’s built on set of disturbing and ineluctable truths: My son is the joy of my life. But the work of ushering him into this world nearly killed his mother. The literalism of that last point can not be escaped.

Every day women choose to do the hard labor of a difficult pregnancy. It’s courageous work, which inspires in me a degree of admiration exceeded only by my horror at the notion of the state turning that courage, that hard labor, into a mandate. Women die performing that labor in smaller numbers as we advance, but they die all the same. Men do not. That is a privilege.

Jacques Barzun – RIP

A few years on an older blog I wrote the following about my happy experience reading From Dawn to Decadence. Since then I’ve acquired A Jacques Barzun Reader, containing several of his (in)famous essays on education as well as ruminations on music, the James brothers, Wilde, Diderot, and Lincoln (“…a man of strong passions and mystical longings, which he repressed because his mind showed him their futility, and this made him cold-blooded anda fatalist”).

I get the sense that Jacques Barzun is one of those scholars on whom the label “men of letters” fits awkwardly, if at all. Like Henry Adams, his collected works merely allude to his literally unaccountable interests. Background: only child to French parents, who send him to America for his college education; teaching the Great Books course at Columbia University with Lionel Trilling; becoming the university’s provost; literary adviser to Scribner’s; winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The Internet has been good to generalists, but the medium’s tendency towards atomization transforms any generalist into a specialist. What makes Barzun preferable to Adams is the refreshing way in which his diverse portfolio supports Orwellian clarity and directness. He doesn’t write like an embittered insider banished to the periphery; rather, he proceeds like a scientist making deductions after studying data, no matter how unpleasant. Curiosity is his muse. Barzun embodies the spirit of nonplussed, enlightened humanism.

The average reader knows Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence, a mammoth study of Western civilization that was a surprise best-seller in 2000. Uneven pace notwithstanding, it’s a marvel, a model of elegance and sweep. Like his heroes Macaulay and Gibbon, Barzun treats history as fiction; characters are sketched at leisure; themes are developed in a lapidary manner, unfurled with the promise that they will be explained but not pinned down. In almost every sub-chapter Barzun dismisses orthodoxies; he’s particularly incisive when assuring us that women did not do so badly as contemporary thought would have us believe:

There always have been hundreds of women in all ranks who were in fact rulers — sometimes tyrants — of their entourage, as well as hundreds of others who wrote, sang to their own accompaniment, or practiced one or another of the ornamental crafts. The notion that talent and personality in women were suppressed at all times during our half millennium except the last fifty years is an illusion. Nor were all women previously denied an education or opportunity for self-development. Wealth and position were prerequisite, to be sure, and they still tend to be. The truth is that matters of freedom can never be settled in all-or-none fashion and any judgment must be comparative.

As attractive as Virginia Woolf’s portrait of Judith Shakespeare is in A Room of One’s Own — a triumph of the novelist’s art, let’s remember — Woolf places less emphasis on the triumph of the will. It’s not that the strong survive; think of it as the holy compulsion to create, more powerful than our sentimentalities about repressed talent (think of Jane Austen scribbling quietly behind her needlework, ignoring patronizing remarks from her family). From Catherine de‘ Medici to Louise Labe (Barzun’s story of this poet, musician, linguist, and soldier — at sixteen! — is one of his gems) to Christine de Pisan to Florence Nightingale, history records achievements by women as world-historic as any man’s. From its discursive method to the assertiveness of Barzun’s prose, FDTD is a quiet repudiation of the university’s version of a Hegelian view of history: progress, Barzun implies, is a specious notion. If we’re looking for historic examples of How Far We’ve Come, Barzun suggests we draw correspondences from oft-ignored socio-literary moments — such as the frequency with which Edward FitzGerald’s gelid, rather racy translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam appeared on Edwardian coffee tables.

Other subjects and personages re-evaluated: how slovenly Shakespeare could write (Barzun quietly notes the dull passages, terrible puns, “ludicrous images,” and “insoluble syntax,” all of which should make Harold Bloom weep); Diderot (always in Voltaire’s shadow); the remarkable wit of Sydney Smith, a precursor to Oscar Wilde; the novels of George Meredith (I’ve put down The Egotist more than once in ten years); the once-immortal, now-neglected George Bernard Shaw, who emerges as one of Barzun’s heroes. The final movement’s descent into a rote condemnation of late twentieth century vulgarity isn’t less excusable for being predictable, especially for one who scorns progress but never embraced Adams-esque theories about entropy. Actually, I give Barzun credit for sweetening his jeremiads with the kind of batshit inductive leaps I’ve always admired in great thinkers: he says that, no joke, young kids who join gangs fall prey to the temptations of…Satanism.

If From Dawn to Decadence seems too daunting, Perennial Classics recently published a splendid distillation of this centenarian’s work. Despite his idiosyncrasies, he should be read — cited — more often.

Singles 10/26

Miguel wins this easily, although it’s my least favorite of the leaked tracks and singles he’s released since last spring. Same goes for “Compton,” a mediocrity on one of the year’s best albums. The record most deserving of replay: “Merry Go ‘Round.”

Click on links for full reviews.

Miguel – Do You…? (8)
Kacey Musgraves – Merry Go ‘Round (6)
Bridgit Mendler – Ready or Not (6)
Justin Bieber ft. Nicki Minaj – Beauty and a Beat (6)
Divine Fits – Would That Not Be Nice (6)
Kendrick Lamar ft. Dr. Dre – Compton (5)
Tink – Fingers Up (5)
Girls Aloud – Something New (5)
Juicy J ft. Lil Wayne & 2 Chainz – Bandz A Make Her Dance (4)
Lena – Stardust (4)
Kara – Electric Boy (4)
The Rolling Stones – Doom and Gloom (4)
Loreen – Crying Out Your Name (4)
Alex Ferrari – Bara Bará Bere Berê (1)

“All populist movements lead to socialism”

A Romney rally in Hialeah:

“He’s 100 percent better than I expected,” Pedro Peraza, 57, tells me. Peraza’s son, Michael, 27, adds that he would have taken back his Gingrich vote in the primaries had he known Romney would campaign this hard.

The elder Peraza has also seen some tough times. He built a profitable business “starting with 50 bucks” selling fire protection equipment, only to see sales plummet when construction ground to a halt. “It’s been horrible,” he said. “People are afraid to put money into buildings now.”

He said he originally leaned Democrat back when he lived in New Jersey, where he volunteered for a number of Sen. Bob Mendez’s (D-NJ) local campaigns. But he swung to the right decisively when the Obama phenomenon took off in 2008.

“We know from childhood what communism looks like,” he said. “All populist movements lead to socialism.”

Therefore, the Tea Party is a socialist movement. Cuban-Americans once again showing how proudly they vote against their interests.

Whatcha doin’ uptown: Sunken Condos

Everything Must Go deserved Two Against Nature‘s plaudits. Besides a credible anti-Bush (I think) song (“Godwhacker”), four or five of Walter Becker’s most elegant and acerbic solos, and indelible ones all over the place by saxophonist Walt Weiskopf, it even sports a title worthy of Steely Dan. Donald Fagen’s fourth solo album Sunken Condos boasts another, deservedly: it’s his best record since The Nightfly. “I’m Not The Same Without You” is the sort of coup that only he could pull off. “Since you’ve been gone an awesome change has come about,” he sings while his own piano and a frisky drum part project the sense of liberty that as a singer he’s too knowing and restrained to indulge in. Loving Fagen means coming to terms with irony at its most metaphysical — in the seventeenth century Donne/Herbert sense. He’s not exactly willing himself to be enthusiastic so much as trusting the audience to understand the joy of winking at them.

“I’m Not The Same…” should have been the first track; it’s better than “Slinky Thing,” a conceit looking for a referent and finding it only in Jon Herington’s guitar. Sunken Condos simmers; coming to a boil would be unseemly. Besides, deserved revisionism has salvaged Gaucho from two decades worth of ignominy; no longer can Fagen surprise us with a nostalgic mode as ephemeral as a hurricane in December. Coming after Gaucho, the optimism of “I.G.Y.” and “Ruby Baby” felt like a cold soda can against a sweaty face. Fagen’s voice sounded like a caustic but well-meaning friend suddenly lapsing into what he would consider the confessional mode. Sunken Condos‘ real surprise is a cover of Isaac Hayes’ “Out of the Ghetto,” designed to press the same buttons that “Hey Nineteen” did, making a hash out of notions of white privilege. The shock of hearing Fagen sing “When you shake your booty, ghetto-style” pales besides the arrangement that he and co-producer Michael Leonhart carve out of clarinet, a mocking guitar, and obtrusive Hammond organ. There’s nothing “out” about it, let alone “ghetto.” He’s just another white boy who can’t resist certain pleasures so long as he can cling to his white, privileged, extraordinarily resourceful self.

Recognizing the appeal of violence

David Drake:

It’s also interesting, though, how rap music is as much a part of the text as it is a source for the record’s producers. Jeezy pops up on the aforementioned “The Art of Peer Pressure,” while E-40’s lyrics “had us thinkin’ rational.” Kanye didn’t just open the door for Kendrick’s conflicted feelings (“Projects is torn up, gang signs thrown up,” from “We Major,” appears on “m.A.A.d. city.”) Kendrick and his friends dream of living lives like rappers do. And he sees this as a problem (“A Louis belt will never ease the pain”) but he’s also caught up in it. Because he feels it, too.

Kendrick’s a smart rapper because he directly addresses violence and addiction and materialism by recognizing their appeal, and even smarter for being uncertain that this is enough: “Would you say my intelligence now is great relief?” His characters confront these things, things most “conscious” rappers run from or criticize without empathy, the things that much-vilified street rap covers (and glorifies) on a regular basis. Kendrick’s characters live through it, and he embraces that inner conflict, and still draws conscientious conclusions, even if he never quite seems comfortable with them.

A dramatic turnaway: Taylor Swift’s Red

The best track on Taylor Swift’s Red is “Starlight.” Buried in the last third of a sixteen-track album, it boasts the most Swiftian lyric: during the violet hour of a past that might exist, dreams become flesh to the accompaniment of a song on the radio. It’s a trope as old as rock itself; elders like Springsteen, Roxy Music, Donna Summer, and Madonna, of course, but Saint Etienne’s recent Words and Music devotes a song cycle to the way in which nostalgia is the caulking that binds courtship and music. Hell, Swift’s first hit “Tim McGraw” is part of the lineage. As power chords and four on the floor pounding evoke the Robert “Mutt” Lange who helmed Shania Twain’s blockbuster albums and the Corrs “Breathless,” Swift spins her own breathless yarn about she and her boy sneaking into a yacht club party pretending to be a duchess and a prince. “Don’t you dream impossible things?” he asks, like the guy in The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven” or in the dread-infused “To Wish Impossible Things.” All Swift can say is “Oh, what a marvelous tune!” as a piano tinkles beneath the beat. The fact that the song is reportedly about Robert and Ethel Kennedy demonstrates the fungibility of Camelot: Bobby skipping stones on the water dreaming impossible things like putting poison in Fidel Castro’s cigar or removing Jupiter missiles from Turkey.

Swift’s record company might release “Starlight” as a single. Every song on this multimillion dollar project, on which dozens of livelihoods reportedly depend, could be a single, as new rules set by Billboard indicate; every song was designed as a multiformat crossover sensation. That’s the trouble. By themselves, absorbed and loved on an iPod, songs like “Red,” “22,” “I Knew You Were Trouble,” and “Stay Stay Stay” register; heard en masse their details congeal into a kind of hypertrophied perk. The most sinister culprits happen to be helmed by the costliest help (Max Martin, Shellback, Jacknife Lee). There are gestures of altruism: a nullity of a duet with Gary Lightbody of unknown-on-these-shores Snow Patrol, presumably because no one deserves to sleep on the cold streets. Besides the ukelele-anchored trifle called “Stay Stay Stay,” in which she shows a rare talent (for an American) of making a smirk resonate like a smile (she even kids herself: “I was expecting some dramatic turnaway”), the best song after “Starlight” is a banger called “Holy Ground,” which I swear sounds like a pop version of an Easter-era Patti Smith rumbler. The guitars strum while a synthesizer squiggle urges Swift to go tribal and onomatopoetic while she imagines that the city is “ours” — the name of another Swift hit. Like Neil Young’s catalog, hers is all one song. The trouble is the ephemerality of breathlessness, not least when stimulants induce it.

George McGovern – R.I.P.

For his and my generation, a symbol of haplessness, of fumbling. He’s the man whom Richard Nixon, as Deep Throat told Bob Woodward with more than a touch of smugness in All The President’s Men, wanted to run against. But the GOP didn’t repudidate Barry Goldwater after 1964. The Democratic Party did McGovern, to its lasting shame. As Charles Pierce wrote, “McGovern was the last of so many things — the last true prairie populist, the last truly antiwar war hero, and, really, the last true insurgent to rise through the primaries and capture the nomination of a major party.”

From Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland: He was a war hero who’d come away wit ha sense of war’s madness seared deeply onto his conscience, a Cold War skeptic who thought he people ravening for another go at Russia were nuts. He cranked the Dakota Wesleyan history department’s mimeograph machine for Henry Wallace’s 1948 third-party, left-wing presidential bid, fought the bill Richard Nixon cosponsored with McGovern’s home-state senator Karl Mundt to require Communists to register with the federal government, then fell in love with Adlai Stevenson and nearly singlehandedly built the South Dakota Democratic Party. When it came time to run for office himself, to win the loyalties of the conservative farmers and farm wives of South Dakota, he mastered a difficult straddle. “I can present liberal values in a conservative, restrained way,” he explained. “I see myself as a politician of reconciliation.” The young professor won a congressional seat in 1956 despite the suspicious American Legion members who sat in on his classes, taking notes. In his first roll call he was one of only sixty-one congressmen to vote against the “Eisenhower Doctrine,” a kind of 1957 Gulf of Tonkin resolution for the Middle East.

…He won the Senate seat he coveted in 1962, then in 1963 became the first member to speak against the gathering U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Bobby Kennedy called him “the most decent man in the Senate,” adding: “As a matter of fact, he’s the only one.”

I learned a few months ago after reading Elizabeth Drew’s book on the 1984 campaign that he ran for the nomination but made no traction, losing to the former vice president whose administration did much to redress McGovern’s liberalism.