“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Federalism

When John Adams was defending a tri-partite government, he did so by first surveying the political facts as given to him by history. It seems to LI that this is a good way to start talking about politics. We don’t have to invent ideals at the beginning and apply them, because we already have a history of applied ideals. What we do have to see is how the application of those ideals has worked. If we find a discrepancy between the animating principles of an ideal and its consequences, we should then ask whether either the animating principles are wrong, or whether they disguise some other, real principles, or whether the application is wrong.

The case for federalism rests, for some people, on the idea that the smaller the scale of government, the larger the voice of the people in directing it. In other words, there is a correlation between scale and democratic participation.

So much for theory. But when we survey the political facts on the ground in America, we find something startling. Given that one’s vote should count more on a small scale than on a large scale, we would expect the smallest elections to have the largest turnouts, and those elections dealing with more national officers to have the smallest turnouts. But it is precisely the opposite that happens.

In fact, local politics – of the city or the state – turns out to be the venue in which a determined minority has the most say, since it is also the politics that seems to evoke the most indifference among the governed.

Adams noticed this too, even if he didn’t put it in terms of indifference. He put it in terms of an owed deference. He has a long defense of inequality in which this regularly occurring phenomena is looked at, by him, as one of the ways politics can reflect the natural order:

Let us now return to M. Turgot's idea of a government consisting in a single assembly. He tells us our republics are "founded on the equality of all the citizens, and, therefore, 'orders' and 'equilibriums' are unnecessary, and occasion disputes." But what are we to understand here by equality? Are the citizens to be all of the same age, sex, size, strength, stature, activity, courage, hardiness, industry, patience, ingenuity, wealth, knowledge, fame, wit, temperance, constancy, and wisdom? Was there, or will there ever be, a nation, whose individuals were all equal, in natural and acquired qualities, in virtues, talents, and riches? The answer of all mankind must be in the negative. It must then be acknowledged, that in every state, in the Massachusetts, for example, there are inequalities which God and nature have planted there, and which no human legislator ever can eradicate. I should have chosen to have mentioned Virginia, as the most ancient state, or indeed any other in the union, rather than the one that gave me birth, if I were not afraid of putting suppositions which may give offence, a liberty which my neighbors will pardon. Yet I shall say nothing that is not applicable to all the other twelve.

In this society of Massachusettensians then, there is, it is true, a moral and political equality of rights and duties among all the individuals, and as yet no appearance of artificial inequalities of condition, such as hereditary dignities, titles, magistracies, or legal distinctions; and no established marks, as stars, garters, crosses, or ribbons; there are, nevertheless, inequalities of great moment in the consideration of a legislator, because they have a natural and inevitable influence in society. Let us enumerate some of them:--1. There is an inequality of wealth; some individuals, whether by descent from their ancestors, or from greater skill, industry, and success in business, have estates both in lands and goods of great value; others have no property at all; and of all the rest of society, much the greater number are possessed of wealth, in all the variety of degrees between these extremes; it will easily be conceived that all the rich men will have many of the poor, in the various trades, manufactures, and other occupations in life, dependent upon them for their daily bread; many of smaller fortunes will be in their debt, and in many ways under obligations to them; others, in better circumstances, neither dependent nor in debt, men of letters, men of the learned professions, and others, from acquaintance, conversation, and civilities, will be connected with them and attached to them. Nay, farther, it will not be denied, that among the wisest people that live, there is a degree of admiration, abstracted from all dependence, obligation, expectation, or even acquaintance, which accompanies splendid wealth, insures some respect, and bestows some influence. 2. Birth. Let no man be surprised that this species of inequality is introduced here. Let the page in history be quoted, where any nation, ancient or modern, civilized or savage, is mentioned, among whom no difference was made between the citizens, on account of their extraction. The truth is, that more influence is allowed to this advantage in free republics than in despotic governments, or than would be allowed to it in simple monarchies, if severe laws had not been made from age to age to secure it. The children of illustrious families have generally greater advantages of education, and earlier opportunities to be acquainted with public characters, and informed of public affairs, than those of meaner ones, or even than those in middle life; and what is more than all, an habitual national veneration for their names, and the characters of their ancestors described in history, or coming down by tradition, removes them farther from vulgar jealousy and popular envy, and secures them in some degree the favor, the affection, and respect of the public. Will any man pretend that the name of Andros, and that of Winthrop, are heard with the same sensations in any village of New England? Is not gratitude the sentiment that attends the latter, and disgust the feeling excited by the former? In the Massachusetts, then, there are persons descended from some of their ancient governors, counsellors, judges, whose fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers, are remembered with esteem by many living, and who are mentioned in history with applause, as benefactors to the country, while there are others who have no such advantage. May we go a step farther,--Know thyself, is as useful a precept to nations as to men. Go into every village in New England, and you will find that the office of justice of the peace, and even the place of representative, which has ever depended only on the freest election of the people, have generally descended from generation to generation, in three or four families at most. The present subject is one of those which all men respect, and all men deride. It may be said of this part of our nature, as Pope said of the whole:--

"Of human nature, wit her worst may write, We all revere it in our own despite."

Unlike Adams, we are not at all happy with the inequalities of wealth and birth. But like Adams, we do see that this is a subject that “all men respect.” This is the reason we have never been particularly moved by the argument for smaller scale government, since it seems to us that this move magnifies, rather than mitigates, oligarchical power.

Given that general case, progressives in the 20th century have mostly mounted their programs with reference to national entities – the federal government. On the national scale, a progressive organization can summon resources that are sometimes unavailable on the local scale – plus, of course, there is the little fact that the ‘respect’ Adams speaks of is reinforced by real fear – of job loss, of public shaming, of police power, etc., etc. This progressive strategy has, unfortunately, developed a sort of pro-government, meaning Federal government, instinct in progressives. It is the instinct of the homeowner for his home. Which is all well and good – but when the homeowner is kicked out of his home, continuing to act as the homeowner isn’t a forgiveable foible – it is pathology.

We think this is why progressives are so flummoxed by the Bush culture, and thrash about trying to ‘frame’ issues. Really, the issues are framed for you. And the issue that has been framed for the progressives, that stares your Democratic party consultant in the face, is that the government, at the moment, equals the Republican party. Which signals rhetorical opportunity. Since the Repubs have sowed anti-governmental propaganda ever since white Little Rock residents were forced to send their kids to school with blacks. And the Repubs have been the minority party since Roosevelt’s day. They are now the majority party. They are now the government. They are now enjoying the usufructs of being the government – spending money like drunken sailors, destroying rules they don’t like among various states, looking for ways of shunting FICA tax dollars into the pockets of their cronies, etc, etc.

So it is time for progressives to start using anti-government rhetoric, because the government is using anti-progressive power. Simple. This is the program. It isn’t the Republicans, or Bush, who want to steal your social security – it is the Government. It isn’t Tom Delay or the President (whose heart was rung by a white Floridian dying in his brother’s state in ways that the death of ten Democratic voting Indians would never match) who wants to stand between you and your loved ones’ desire not to be reduced, by massive surgery and interminable feeding tubes, to a mass of simple vital signs in Hospital hell for decades – it is the Government. It is the Government that is sending Americans off to die pointlessly in the Middle East, the Government that is siding with credit card companies in an attempt to reduce you to peonage, the Government that is encouraging the depredations of the corporations upon your well being, your environment, and your property.

That’s the deal. Switch strategies accordingly.

Last week, our friend T. – who usually holds down the extensive NYC bureau, with its sweeping views of Central Park, its extensive armentarium of computers put together by God’s little elves, and its News Corp-like budget – supplied the posts while we were gone. We liked the posts; for a long time, we’ve been trying to get T. to put together a web site, or log, or something. Alas, unlike the perpetually underemployed crewe, here, T. actually has a real job, and real prospects.

T. left us with one last post on the Tiger Lillies.

Diana Vreeland in Harper’s Bazaar had a column “Why Don’t You?”

In that spirit: Why don’t you go out and buy some Tiger Lillies CDs. You really ought to.

When R. gave me the keys to LI’s front door, he encouraged me to what I would – profess Paraguayan nationalism, exhort LI’s readers to arms, overturn the laws of every prophet – so I will take this one shot of unmediated endorsement: go, go now and go later to tigerlillies.com and buy something. The Tiger Lillies are perfectly astounding. Songs about pimps, songs about pushers, songs about thieves, an entire album (Farmyard Filth) about sex with animals! If they are known, it might well be due their participation in Shockheaded Peter – the play based on Hoffman’s Struwwelpeter: songs about misbehaving children! Not much chance to see them play live in these States unless you live in or about NYC or San Fran, but if you live in the UK or Russia, there are many opportunities to see them every year (my wife and I will see them in London when we visit that town in May). If you live in such places, go to a goddamned show dammit! While Limited, Inc. may not endorse the band officially and fully, I know that I got its ear when I played many many songs during the drinks and the times we shared together last summer.

"Why don't you . . . Turn your child into an Infanta for a fancy-dress party?" - DV

“Never fear being vulger, just boring.” – Diana Vreeland. If you are not familiar with her, then you are not familiar with one of the great aphorists of the English language. “She is a beauty, no matter her features.” is a favorite; one of the finer statements on ‘beauty’ that these eyes have ever passed over.”

Friday, March 25, 2005

Continuing LI’s Menckenish ecumenicalism (now there’s a phrase, and that’s the only defense I can make of it), on this Good Friday we have searched out some article that can warm our somewhat tepid belief. We found one in the Winter Issue of Common Knowledge: The Presence of Objects by Caroline Walker Bynum – link here to Bynum’s President’s Address to the AHA. The article begins with a small but startling artifact found cemented in the wall of a church in Sternberg, Germany. It is a block of stone with footprints in it. What miracle is attested by those footprints? Well, it seems in 1496, a Jewess stole the eucharist and attempted to drown it. Her attempts were unavailing, and the divinity sunk her feet into stone. It seems, in fact, that the Jews around Sternberg were always bludgeoning eucharists, making them bleed, and in general showing their hard heartedness. A corrupt priest, it was said, delivered a lot of consecrated hosts to the Jews to redeem items pawned by his concubines, and of course they started sticking these things with knives, as was their habit. Hard hearted, these folks. To test just how densely the fibers of their hearts were contracted, the church had sixty five of them tortured, burned twenty seven of them on a hill still known as Judenberg, and expelled the rest.

Such is the history of the Catholic church in a less than life lovin' mode. But these things happened long ago (although certain Catholic bishops, notably the one appointed by the Church to serve the Argentine military, have hopes of reviving Jew-baiting any day now). Bynum’s inventory of objects in the Sternberg church include, quaintly, the heavily scored table at which the Jews assembled to attack the hosts, the iron pot that the concubine got back after the delivery of the hosts, and even a container in which the hosts were stored. The question, of course, is what is one to make of these things now?

In Sternberg, the answer has been, partly, to enroll these objects in the indictment both of the small, distant massacre of the Jews in 1492 and the larger one in the 1933-1945 period. Bynum reports that, in Sternberg’s economic history, the 1492 massacre was no small thing – it made Sternberg the site of a pilgrimage. Sternberg was not alone – it was a common late medieval motif, this of desecrating Jews and miraculously rescued hosts. According to Bynum’s reconstruction, the story of the desecrating Jews as a cause of a pogram is an innovation – in an earlier epoch, the chronicles would recount things like: visitation of grasshoppers, Jews all killed. Afterwards, the desecration story would be woven – not so much to excuse killing Jews, a self explanatory Christian act, but to attract pilgrims, an profitable source of income.

Bynum’s survey leads into Bynum’s argument – that the mass of anti-Jewish objects created in Germany between the 14th and 16th centuries should not be destroyed. They should be preserved both to be studied and as probes, as it were, of past cultures. With this argument, LI agrees, even if Bynum’s argument about the aura of objects (Bynum adduces her mother’s old wooden pie rollers) seems, partly, to be the rationalization of an inveterate pack rat impulse.

Now, I could imagine someone pointing out that the Church is no longer a center of anti-Semitism, and has repented quite extensively of its past role. That's true. And, of course, it is also true that the Church is much bigger than its bigotries. To think that it isn't is the mistake, ultimately, of such as Mencken -- it is a foreshortening of the imagination, the critic's vice.

On the other hand, one must remember that the motive for repentence (of certain of those bigotries) came from outside the church – the horror at intolerance, the horror at anti-semitism, were sentiments generated by liberal, secular thinkers, promoted by their controversial disciples, transmitted via outlaw organisations and bohemian enclaves (well, sometimes), and fought against, bitterly, by the Church for two hundred years. Liberal secular thinkers did the Church a favor – in a sense, they brought it much closer to the teachings of Jesus. Moral is: don’t give up now, liberal secularists.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

The sedulous flycatcher

There was a faction, after the Bush victory in November, that urged a more compassionate approach to heartland America, outreach on divisive social issues, and even the well tempered expression of faith, on appropriate occasions. LI says to hell with that. Ourselves, we believe that the liberal/left strategy should be one of the fiercest and most unmitigated contempt for the logrollers from the confederacy who are now straddling our necks and digging in their spurs. You will find, here and there, expressions of mild surprise that the rightwing set seems to want to expand the federal government in several ways, and seems headed, as an objective correlative of their real politics, for eight solid years of record deficits. The idea that conservatives once foolishly elevated to power would deny the human impulse to self-aggrandizement to which all conservative theology admiringly refers in the chaste pursuit of small government is, itself, a cause for some amazement: are the depths of human gullibility ever to be plumbed? When a man seeks to reform our vices by throwing himself into the profession of pimp, suspect the purity of grasping heart. And so it is with the chorus of neo-conmen in Congress, who sweat to think that somewhere in America, someone is having some pleasure that they haven't passed a law to suppress -- a fear that ranks with one that sometimes renders them flaccid in the arms of their mistresses, the mighty panic of having, somehow, somewhere, offended a business lobbying group.

LI has little to say about the Schiavo ordeal except that the eructation of Tom Delay on the American scene was diagnosed, in its essence, for all time by H.L. Mencken’s coverage of the Scopes Trial, and his obituary of William Jennings Bryan. From that obituary, we would like to lift a phrase that is even more apposite for a man who sprayed DDT for a living before he decided there had to be an easier way to make a buck and went to that Valhalla of chislers, egomaniacs, and penny ante geniuses, D.C. – the “seduluous flycatcher.” We rip it from perhaps the most marvelous passage ever to open an obituary:

Has it been marked by historians that the late William Jennings Bryan’s last secular act on this earth was to catch flies? A curious detail, and not without its sardonic overtones. He was the most sedulous flycatcher in American history, and by long odds the most successful. His quarry, or course, was not Musca domestica but Homo neandertalensis.”

And then there is this description of Bryan at the Scopes trial, which pretty much captures the Delay persona as it trails clouds of talk radio heartburn.

“One day it dawned on me that Bryan, after all, was an evangelical Christian only by sort of afterthought -- that his career in this world, and the glories thereof, had actually come to an end before he ever began whooping for Genesis. So I came to this conclusion: that what really moved him was a lust for revenge. The men of the cities had destroyed him and made a mock of him; now he would lead the yokels against them. Various facts clicked into the theory, and I hold it still. The hatred in the old man's burning eyes was not for the enemies of God; it was for the enemies of Bryan.

Thus he fought his last fight, eager only for blood. It quickly became frenzied and preposterous, and after that pathetic. All sense departed from him. He bit right and left, like a dog with rabies. He descended to demagogy so dreadful that his very associates blushed. His one yearning was to keep his yokels heated up -- to lead his forlorn mob against the foe.”

Maggie Valley is a resort town in the mountains of North Carolina. It is distinguished by one dance hall, seasonally shuttered (the Stompin’ Ground), one main drag, Soco Road, upon which the Stompin Ground is strategically located, numerous rental cabins, four or five hotels including the Four Seasons, also on Soco Road, one now defunct amusement park (Ghost Town), which is for sale, according to the billboard on the property formerly occupied by the enterprise, and a ski resort, the Cataloochee, with a beginners, an intermediate, and a best slope – the best slope being accessed by a ski lift going up (the eye estimates) maybe two thousand and a half feet. It was open Friday, Saturday and Sunday last week. Then it was closing for the season. The employees there say that the busier season, in Maggie Valley, is the summer, anyway.

I headed for Maggie Valley with my brother last Thursday. My other brother had already rented a cabin (with, as he was eager to point out on the phone, a porch jacuzzi), and the aim was to ski Friday and hike Saturday. The resort was on the verge of packing it in, but it looked like there had been snow and sleet in the mountains, so we were figuring that the pack wouldn’t be all artificial.

Since we were going to be staying in a cabin, we packed a few things into my brother’s car, including a bag of kindling and logs – for the fireplace. Then we set out, ate at a steak place, and made the drive from Atlanta in three and a half hours. During two and a half of those hours, I was feeling a bit of pain in my chest. I decided it was heart burn, although to tell you the truth, I have never quite understood the nature of heart burn, that evocative and mysterious term stamped into my brain from an early age by the very successful tv ad campaigns mounted by various patent medicine companies who, from the days of radio to the days of cable, have underwritten so much of the mental referential undergrowth for those raised during that period when tv consisted of the big three and a few public stations. So, we approach Maggie Valley at around ten at night. We are both looking for signs of snow, but it is, of course, dark. We find the cabin, and my other brother in deep repose mode in the Jacuzzi, a snifter of rum in his hand. We unpack, watch a movie (Apollo 13) and I notice that this heart burn is spreading and giving me a frightening empathy with the astronauts encaged in their apparently doomed lunar lander module. I am lying there, understanding the close bond between me and my heart. And, this night, I am not liking it. Still, it is merely severe heart burn. We all agree to go to sleep, what with the big day ahead of us.

At around three, I am filled with intimations of my mortality – intimations in spades that have spread into my shoulder and down my side. A small child’s plastic figurine – an elephant, a giraffe – is being stuffed, by invisible fingers, into one of my aorta. It is not very much fun. So I drag myself up the cabin’s hallway to one of my brother’s door, knock, and when he drags himself out of bed, I explain that I might be dead tomorrow morning. This alarms him. Luckily, my brother has seen enough medical shows on tv to prescribe for these situations: take two aspirins and call him in the morning.

I do. In the morning, I do feel better. However, whenever I laugh, my chest hurts. I discovered a fact about myself: I laugh quite a bit. I resolve to stop laughing so much in the future. I say that I think I can go with them to the Cataloochee, but I am not sure that I can ski. Well, we go on up there, and – whether it is the thinner air or some random anxiety I harbor that, if I do have to go to the hospital, I will never for the rest of my life be able to pay off the resulting medical bill – having no insurance, no assets, and a mere thousand bucks in the bank – my heart starts doing the business with the small plastic animal figurines again. So my brothers pursuade me to go to the medical tech people at the resort. One of them, a trim, handsome man, blue eyes, perfect hair, obviously once a ski jockey and now a med tech jockey who wants to get into medical management, takes my pulse, takes my blood pressure, and advises me to go to the urgent care clinic. He also gives me the helpful information that men in their forties have a greater risk of dying from heart attack then men in their fifties and sixties. He explains this factoid, but I am not, unfortunately, in reportorial mode. Therefore, I can't tell you the cause of the differential. So off I go, leaving one brother behind to ski, and with my unfortunate other brother in tow. We wait for a long time at the clinic, which is like a meeting place for every citizen of Maggie Valley that has a sneeze or cough, reviving, to my mind, that old medical term, miasma. And then I wait in a cubicle and get examined by an echelon of the medically trained, from the woman who takes my pulse up to the chief doctor.

I thought I’d get this down. I’m going to use that pain for some character or another.

Monday, March 21, 2005

http://www.nytimes.com/2005/03/21/arts/music/21cnd-short.html?pagewanted=2&hp

Sadness has descended on this office once again: Bobby Short, saloon singer extraordinaire, singer of saloon songs, saloon singer, the most high, is dead.
There is a peculiar annoyance that those who live in NYC and love NYC and those that love NYC who do not live in NYC can share intimately: the loathing of Woody Allen's particular version of the island of Manhattan. Mr. Short, of course, appears in a few occasions in WA’s version.

Nevertheless, if you ever had the chance to squat in that small room at The Carlyle during one of Mr. Short's performances, you would know that his presence, his manner, and his style were things grander than Woody's simple sentimentality.

I can imagine at least two types of obituaries: the one that reminds one of what has been lost, and the one that informs one of what one never knew. The obitiuaries that I read today reminded me only of what has been lost.

I can just now hear Mr. Short's sad soulful rendition of "Bye Bye Blackbird" - it is beautiful; it is one of the saddest songs that I know. Not quite so much like Nina Simone’s broken version. Nor quite like the Miles/Coltrane version, in its virtuosity. No, his offers a much more soulful sense of loss. His offers a sense of loss that is a sense that no one occasion is for the first nor the last time that one will feel a loss, that the sense of loss is ever present, that loss is ever happening; the sense of the lost ‘thing’ is a self-same sense of wondering what it is that has been lost – what was it and how was it lost at all?

Inconsolably, bye bye blackbird......