Monthly Archives: January 2015

Andrew Sullivan: a post-mortem

I’ve written enough about St. Andrew over the years, the first political writer whose work I followed online, one of the first writers, period (Charles Taylor of Salon was another before I lost interest, for many of the same reasons). I won’t retract this sentence written in 2011: “These days Sullivan exists for me as a metonym for an hour-by-hour mastication of sociopolitical currents: free of id, not without humility, given to boyish crushes on leaders who radiate granitic moderation or, alternately, leaders whose “boldness” he can pimp as contrarianism.”

When The New Republic announced it was going to meet its corporate reward in December, the breathlessness with which he defended his legacy as editor didn’t surprise me. Well, TNR was rancid and dangerous in 1993; it had been since the eighties. To hire an openly gay Englishman with posters of Thatcher and Reagan in his kitchen was an inevitable move, a bit like Hitchens defending the persuasiveness of Doug Feith’s prose during the nadir of Gulf War II. Farce reminding me that it’s farce.

But I didn’t know that during Sullivan’s tenure the tobacco lobby in essence commissioned a hit piece on Bill Clinton’s health care bill:

But it was in 1994 that Andrew Sullivan’s recklessness and media fraud went berserk. First, he published a devastating three-part series destroying President Clinton’s universal health care legislation, articles that are generally considered the reason why “Hillarycare” failed to pass. The author, a Republican operative from the right wing Manhattan Institute named Betsy McCaughey, had secretly prepared her articles in cooperation with Philip Morris (much of Hillarycare coverage was to be funded by hiking tobacco taxes). McCaughey’s article, “No Exit,” won for The New Republic that year’s National Magazine Award. However, her articles were complete frauds; not journalism, but the very opposite of journalism: Tobacco industry propaganda designed to kill off health care for Americans in order to protect big tobacco profits.

Mark Ames, author of this story, includes plenty of bloodcurdling links. Read them. A garrulous Catholic who observes the sacrament of Reconciliation with the confessional door open, Sullivan has never stopped apologizing for his stupefying endorsement of every manly thing Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld said between 2001 and 2003. The Dish’s epigraph was once “Freedom means freedom for everyone,” a typical Cheneyism revered by a man who claims to love Oakeshott and Burke. Read any random post from that dark time. Who the fuck was he trying to be — Bill Kristol’s speechwriter? Sample:

I biked past a rather pathetic figure in Dupont Circle this afternoon. barely old enough to grow a beard, this poor soul was wearing a large cardboard placard: “Ashamed American.” Ashamed. Ashamed of the liberation of a people from an unspeakable tyrant. It’s a form of self-hatred and inverse liberalism that truly boggles the mind.

And:

Blair also spelled out with stunning clarity the absolute vacuousness of the notion that we have been engaged in a “rush to war.” This wasn’t a Churchillian speech. It was a lawyer’s brief, backed by a Christian faith, a faith mocked by many, but a faith that can still see evil where others prefer not to look.

Rereading this shit was dreary — a nerd begging for the quarterback’s attention.

It’s possible Sullivan doesn’t rankle as often these days because he’s got a staff — believe me, I’ll take “A Poem for Sunday” and ruminations on de Chardin over Obama-inspired spittle. Evaluating a fifteen year legacy shouldn’t be reductive. His protean shifts in tempo, tone, and subject never bored me. He was the first to make a living out of this crap. But journalism has taught me first isn’t best.

Rod McKuen, inventor of the seventies

From an unreleased poem called “rehearsal for a sonnet on your body”:

Were I a priest I’d lay you open
like a rite and stretch you out across
church conversation. I would translate
every limb of you from my mother tongue
to Latin, Greek, Greek orthodox. I’d mouth
your arms as I would Sunday saints in sermon;
sword and three-pronged spear to frighten
newer converts and the little criminals.

My lips would linger
on your mouth in word only, but with such
words devout parishioner has yet to hear. My
tongue would curve and turn at talking of the
coil and curvature and kindness of your tongue.

Were I a cardinal, a pope, a bishop used as pawn
I’d do you as a final prayer, then tucking you
beneath my arm be gone from church and
catechism contradiction and the dawn.

In the NYT obit the reporter wrote: “For a generation of Americans at midcentury and afterward, Mr. McKuen’s poetry formed an enduring, solidly constructed bridge between the Beat generation and New Age sensibilities.” I’d see the volumes at Waldenbooks, not far on the shelf from Susan Polis Schutz; their patterns I’d seen on beach towels and doilies, the detritus of seventies fashion. Sneering at Leonard Cohen’s songs in McCabe & Mrs Miller, John Simon said they were “Rod McKuen for the semi-literate” or something (that’s how I remember it). To an aging daddy-o freshly married and divorced from Mia Farrow, covering an album of his songs sounded like a good idea, at least as much as Nehru jackets and love beads. The material appealed to men and women in their thirties, too old for the decade’s convolutions yet ready to embrace pop art steeped in counterculture values and encased in sturdy, recognizable forms. Rod McKuen, in other words, invented the seventies.

Who dies first and grisliest: Black Sea

In Black Sea, Jude Law wants you to know that he’s serious about making some dough headline in a formula submarine picture. As Robinson, a Scottish captain who accepts the job of piloting a ship in search of Nazi gold at the bottom of the Black Sea, Law gets his hair cropped short, hones his brogue, and squints a lot. Years of quasi-stardom have dulled his pansexual aggression; now he’s merely aggressive but with real pretty eyes, and I started to think how Sam Worthington or another UK third-rater could have played the part.

Directed by Kevin Macdonald as if just introduced to the script, Black Sea boasts several moments in which characters express rage at the injustice to which billionaires subject working class blokes without stopping to consider whether white-screened fantasy sequences of Law, his ugly kid, and wife splashing in the surf are just as banal. The movie’s certainly well-timed: polls show that the American public wants populist solutions to wealth inequality. An even more relevant scene unfolds in a bar: Robinson can’t understand why he worked so damn hard for so little money and lost his wife to boot. Who’s responsible? Minutes later a sequence featuring a sneering plutocrat eating a prim breakfast as he waits for Law to accept the assignment draws clear lines between good and bad. Many audience members won’t object to ripping off almost two hundred million in gold ingots (“Disguised as an old-fashioned adventure film, Black Sea is a really a jeremiad for the new gilded age,” Stephen Holden wrote in his review). “I’m not goin’ home poo-ah!” Robinson shouts during one tense moment.

But Robinson won’t get screwed by the same system. He guarantees every crew member two million dollars (that’s before he realizes how much the gold’s really worth). He’s ready to shoot or punch out any dissenters (“We live together and die together!”). Betraying its indebtedness to the Alien movies, Dennis Kelly’s script introduces an eighteen-year-old moppet named Tobin (Bobby Schofield) to whom Robinson becomes protective, almost fatherly, the son he never had, you find yourself thinking (the crew kid Tobin about his virginity; it turns out he’s got a girl pregnant, awwww). And in case you missed Paul Reiser, Black Sea offers Daniels (Scoot McNairy), the stuttering suit introduced so he can trap Russians in an airlock and walk away going dum-dee-dum. His fate is sealed the second you see the cut of his jacket.

Black Sea identifies the factions with an insolent quickness. First, only one of the Russian members (Grigoriy Dobrygin) speaks English. Within the sonar operator’s burly chest beats a pure heart. And so on. Macdonald knows — and he knows we know — that these bits are mere tags of characterization, for we’re waiting for the first person to die and in what grisly manner. If Black Sea‘s message — insofar as it can be said to have one besides “If you’re in a Black Sea sub, make sure everyone speaks the same language” — is that the sight of gold reduces even the noblest plebe into the sniveling rich man whom he despises, then the filmmakers should have told the story from the point of view of the rich men.

“Identity grants experience”

J. Bryan Lowder wrote the best response to Jonathan Chait’s essay about identity politics. I wasn’t kind to Chait myself. For one, he’s not the Iraq War supporter and netroots skeptic from whom I want complaints about rude progressives. Lowder:

The problem with identity politics—in this particular manifestation, anyway—is that it assumes that just because a person claims a certain identity label, that person is necessarily empowered to be judge and jury on all issues pertaining to that category. The truth is, identity grants experience (and experience should be valued to a point); but it does not automatically grant wisdom, critical distance, or indeed, unassailable righteousness. To forget this is to turn individual people who possess a range of intelligences, backgrounds, self-interests, and flaws into two-dimensional avatars for the condition of humanity in which they happen to share. And, by corollary, to assert that it is impossible on some fundamental level for those who don’t share that condition to ever relate or speak to that person as merely another human being with ideas and opinions.

I’d add, “To forget this is to vilify individual people who possess a range of intelligences, backgrounds, self-interests, and flaws into two-dimensional avatars for what’s wrong with humanity.”

If someone else had written a column or essay in which “microaggressions” and “mansplaining” are called out as the jargon they are, I would have been more sympathetic. Those words have their place but like all jargon they get fuzzy plucked from their contexts. I’ve been obtuse about trigger warnings, thanks to reading ideologically driven hair-on-fire dismissals in a half-assed way. Dealing with students all week can get dangerous. To speak from a position of power means risking the possibility that, passively or not, my students will accept my bilge without comment.

Selma as good historical fiction

Mark Harris, whose credentials as reporter and cultural historian I don’t doubt after Five Came Back and Pictures at a Revolution, wrote an essay on the purported inaccuracies in Selma. I don’t agree with his defenses of Ava DuVernay’s characterization and direction of LBJ; thanks to the writing and Tom Wilkinson, this Lyndon Johnson is too thick and cornpone to suggest any energy for passing civil rights legislation, much less sympathy for the Negro cause. What an odd combination: explicit writing meets pre-Method acting (and by a British actor). And deadly.

Still, the essay includes robust defenses of Selma as historical fiction. I was taken with Harris’ analysis of LBJ’s exchange with King: “You’re an activist, I’m a politician. You’ve got one issue, I’ve got a hundred and one … That’s OK. That’s your job. That’s what you do … Meet me halfway on this, Martin.” Canny about grassroots pressure Selma is also alert to the tensions between extremes that good leaders use as fuel to make agonizing decisions which at first look like they please no one:

uVernay’s understanding of the importance of legacy to men in power is profound — she grasps it not just as an aftereffect, but as a motive. And the issue of legacy may be why so many of Selma’s attackers, who speak the language of establishment power, are bent on invalidating the film. The old saw that history is written by the victors is particularly relevant here, because Selma is the first mainstream movie about this era to raise the question of who, exactly, gets to claim ownership of that victory. To many historians and politicians, the triumph of civil rights is that, after much toil and strife, they were bestowed from above; to many African Americans, however, the victory is that those rights were taken — wrenched, with tremendous will, persistence, and effort, out of a system that was not in an immense hurry to offer them up. The former stance has long been the vantage point offered by most white filmmakers who have tackled this history. So it’s little wonder that DuVernay’s movie, the first on the subject by a woman of color and the first not to view mid-20th-century civil rights purely as an example of presidential, judicial, or legislative beneficence, has distressed those who, even 50 years later, would be far more at home in a room with President Johnson than with Dr. King. They are unnerved not only that Selma threatens to become “official” history, but that it represents a sea change in who has custody of that history.

To be honest, no one but LBJ biographers paid attention to Joseph Califano until a December WaPo column, and — I don’t mean this cruelly — how many years has he left in him? The president’s most magisterial biographer produced a fourth volume in 2012 that cast one nervous eye on Taylor Branch’s MLK tome; Caro knew enough about Johnson never to suggest that his genuine interest in passing civil rights legislation didn’t rely on vote-counting calculations.

Selma to my eyes isn’t a great movie but it’s a good one that I recommend watching; its mistakes we’ll account for after the Oscar hoopla fades, its rooting the Selma experience in the pain of black men and women not a redress so much as a mediation.

Jonathan Chait, casualty of political correctness

Jonathan Chait is a professional Democrat writing for New York magazine. This means he makes a decent living excoriating, often well, Republican attacks on the president. It also means he’s obtuse, often horrifyingly so. In his defense, it’s often more irksome fending off attacks from people ostensibly on one’s own side than from the enemy; but there’s no reason why this quarrel with Ta-Nehisi Coates turned into the Battle of the Somme.

Internecine squabbles have the effect of airing pieties, exposing jargon behind which we hide specious or non-existent arguments, and forcing us to clarify positions. Alex Pareene exposes the mendacity of Chait’s bleating about the malevolence of political correctness. To me the term means an acknowledgment of thoughtlessness, a questioning of assumptions. I’m not blameless. It’s taken years to accept tremors in the canon. To study slave narratives alongside Mansfield Park isn’t to create an equivalence between them; it’s to suggest how a story meant for a handful of readers written by people responsible for the comforts of Austen’s characters can offer an additional gloss on the novel. While my experiences and education define me, there are many things in heaven and earth undreamt of in my philosophy. I need strangers to attack me. So long as they don’t succumb to jargon and doublespeak themselves, I don’t accuse them of bad faith.

Thanks to social media, men like Chait can no longer take for granted the assumptions undergirding their beliefs. This is hard for a man over thirty. Check out this passage:

If a person who is accused of bias attempts to defend his intentions, he merely compounds his own guilt. (Here one might find oneself accused of man/white/straightsplaining.) It is likewise taboo to request that the accusation be rendered in a less hostile manner. This is called “tone policing.” If you are accused of bias, or “called out,” reflection and apology are the only acceptable response — to dispute a call-out only makes it worse. There is no allowance in p.c. culture for the possibility that the accusation may be erroneous. A white person or a man can achieve the status of “ally,” however, if he follows the rules of p.c. dialogue. A community, virtual or real, that adheres to the rules is deemed “safe.” The extensive terminology plays a crucial role, locking in shared ideological assumptions that make meaningful disagreement impossible.

The clammy tone, reminiscent of All About Eve‘s Addison DeWitt explaining the difference between a theater producer making a buck versus taking a risk, is the first thing I noticed. The other oddity is the abjuring of responsibility for his words. Chait doesn’t have to explain why he was accused of bias — he’s Jonathan Chait, he’s liberal, he’s on their side. That’s the most pathetic inference I drew from this excerpt. Chait:

As we get to the end of Chait’s essay, we can tally up the casualties of political correctness. One anti-abortion protester was shoved and had her sign vandalized. A few millionaires were disinvited from college campuses, and performances of two plays were canceled. Various people feel disinclined to engage in online debates. Participants in a Facebook group had to deal with a Bad Thread. And a college student was fired from his school newspaper. That’s one person whose life was in any meaningful way made materially worse by the scourge of political correctness, in nearly 5,000 words of dire warnings about the philosophical threat posed by left-wing speech policing.

Jonathan Chait, fan of The New Republic of the nineties (a venal sin), supporter of the Iraq War (mortal sin), has himself made blinkered decisions, decisions of stupefying banality, stemming in part from membership in a claque of pre-Internet polemicists. In 2015 he’s asked to explain them. And he can’t handle it.

A job well done: Sleater-Kinney

Sleater-Kinney – No Cities to Love

The band has sharpened every song – every song – so that it declares its principles, marshals evidence, and concludes. After two plays I could look at a title and hum it. Not even Dig Me Out boasted such an impressive average. But if something has been gained, something’s been lost. So straightforward are the tunes that they lack resonance, like an X-Men sequel. “It’s not a new wave/it’s just you and me,” Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein declare on “A New Wave,” and “you and me” is what No Cities to Love lacks: the symbiosis by which each of the two singer-guitarists matched, answered, and countered the other’s words and riffs exists in their (and drummer Janet Weiss’) commitment to the project and their respective songs; on their own music, not so much. No Cities to Love isn’t two solo albums stapled together, it sounds like two songwriters playing together: a bit like their beloved Robert Forster and the late Grant McLennan’s Go-Betweens dynamic. These structures, though, are sparsely inhabited. Also, and more debilitating, ten years apart yet the most feral of Tucker, Brownstein, and Weiss’ songs concern the travails of being in a band whose country is owned by a plutocracy — you’d think they’d been peering out buses from Chicago to Champagne since 2005. I’m not calling for “personal” over “political” songs, as if this dumbfuck binary ever existed; in arrangements and chordal developments and verse-chorus-verse this perfunctory, however, their ethos feels like a manner, a sign of tentativeness. When the songs aren’t anthems, they’re prayers: “We win they lose/Only together, til we break the rules,” they shout on “Surface Envy.” Stick together, please, but the band develops the sentiment with the predictability of activists in 2015 starting a direct mail campaign.

A delight and a model of brevity, then, No Cities to Love is a reunion album for fans who want Tucker, Weiss, and Brownstein updates; the exceptions luxuriate in the clamor and tumult of their best work. Depending on a guitar line that drags Led Zep’s “Trampled Underfoot” through the mud, “Bury Our Friend” has Tucker and Brownstein together at last decrying our new guilded age, wild and weary but they won’t give in. And in “No Anthems” Sleater-Kinney as unit repudiates what I wrote; with Weiss rolling and tumbling and Tucker playing staccato variants on a rhythm riff, “I sang the songs of me, but now/There are no anthems” rings like a fire bell, an anti-anthem anthem.