Saturday, December 31, 2011

My Year in Books 2011
So as we masticate the last few orts from the turdburger platter that was 2011, I'll finish this year here as I started it: with a list of books I read. Maybe it's an appropriate indicator of incremental progress that I had the 2010 list on the first day of 2011, but present the 2011 list on the last day of this same year.

Not that this is about raw counts, but I seem to have read, or at least completed, significantly fewer books this year than last--22 compared to 26. The difference might reside in books I got fairly far into this year before abandoning, a group that includes Daniel Walker Howe's What Hath God Wrought, a lengthy comprehensive survey of early 19th century American history that I got maybe 350 pages into before deciding I'd had enough, and River of Gods, a high-concept sci-fi novel of maybe 800 pages that I got a quarter through and concluded that it just wasn't coming together for me. I read, and loved, about half of David Foster Wallace's Consider the Lobster, a book of non-fiction essays; no doubt, I'll read the rest over the next few years. (With DFW, sadly, there's all too much motivation to stretch it out.) I also had a stretch this summer where I was reading quite a bit on my iPhone; a couple of the shorter selections noted below came through that format, as did a bunch I didn't finish: Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Thus Spake Zarathustra, The Devil's Dictionary, and The Prince, among probably others.

What's cool about the e-books is that you can download many of these classics for the low, low price of "free," making it even easier (at least psychologically) to start something you've always been curious about but never quite wanted to pay for or even haul out of the library, and go as far with it as you'd like. Thus I have, among others, Siddhartha and Paradise Lost sitting on my iPhone, against the day I might decide to give either a spin.

The novel I read this year that most strongly resonated with me was the first one I finished: Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel. The best non-fiction was the first volume of Robert Caro's LBJ biography, The Path to Power. (I'm about 340 pages into volume three now.)

The list, in rough order and as I recall or can reconstruct. Starred items are particularly recommended...

Wolf Hall (Hilary Mantel)*
Super Sad True Love Story (Gary Shteyngart)
Freedom (Jonathan Franzen)*
Daniel Patrick Moynihan: A Portrait in Letters of an American Visionary (Steven Weisman, editor)*
1960 (David Pietrusza)
Old Man’s War (John Scalzi)*
The City and the City (China Mieville)
American Pastoral (Philip Roth)*
Notes from the Underground (Fyodor Dostoyevsky)
Heart of Darkness (Joseph Conrad)*
The Mysterious Stranger (Mark Twain)
Losers (Michael Lewis)
The Fall of Paris (Alistair Horne)
The Wind-Up Girl (Paolo Bacigalupi)
A Place of Greater Safety (Hilary Mantel)
See a Little Light (Bob Mould with Michael Azzerad)*
The Path to Power (Robert Caro)*
Means of Ascent (Robert Caro)*
Man in the Dark (Paul Auster)
Never Let Me Go (Kazuo Ishiguro)
The Enchantress of Florence (Salman Rushdie)*
Chronic City (Jonathan Lethem)

Friday, December 30, 2011

Trying to Resist an Awful Pun
(See if you can guess what it is; answer at the end of the post.)

I was talking with a colleague recently, a woman in a same-sex marriage, about the election next year and Obama's record. She said she planned to enthusiastically support him even though she wishes he'd done more to advance gay rights. I agreed on both counts, but added that civil rights aren't for him to give, but for her (or any unjustly denied constituency) to take.

Was thinking about that again just now when I came across this article about the president's position on gay rights heading into the 2012 race:

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told an audience of diplomats in Geneva this month that “gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights.” And in an interview in November, Shaun Donovan, the secretary of housing and urban development, said that he was “proud” to support the right of same-sex couples to marry.

The president enthusiastically endorsed Mrs. Clinton’s message, issuing a presidential memorandum directing all federal agencies to promote gay rights overseas. And while he said nothing publicly about Mr. Donovan’s declaration — which went further than Mr. Obama’s own position on the issue — a senior administration official said that Mr. Donovan enjoyed “the trust and respect of the president.”

Mr. Obama’s strategy, administration officials and gay-rights advocates said, reflects two conflicting forces. He recognizes that support for gay rights and same-sex marriage is growing, particularly among young voters.

But he is reluctant in an election year to be drawn into a culture-war issue — one that reliably helps Republicans turn out evangelical voters in their favor and that also strikes a particular nerve with religious black voters, a bedrock Obama constituency in battleground states like North Carolina and Florida.

The original basis of my support for Obama during the 2007-2008 campaign cycle was a hunch I had that, like great past presidents, he had a compelling vision for where he wished the country to go on certain issues; a clear sense of where it was at the moment; and an idea of how to move it in the direction he supported. At various times on various issues, I've had reason to doubt not just the overall concept here, but all three components of it. On this one, though, I wonder if maybe the paradigm actually holds.

There's just no way I believe that Obama really doesn't support fully equal rights for same-sex Americans. The circumstances of his upbringing, the political circles in which he came of age, the totality of his known views about social justice and the grounds to be at least somewhat skeptical of his Christianity--by which I do NOT mean that he's a "secret Muslim," but rather that he embraced churchgoing for social and political reasons at least as much as from personal epiphany--add up to a very strong case. But while the trend is unmistakably positive, any lead of a (small-c) conservative temperament would be aware of the dangers inherent to pushing too hard, too fast. Thus it's politically logical, if not particularly admirable, for Obama to maintain this pretense of his views "evolving"--and to let the New Yorkers, Clinton and Donovan, walk point and convey the message to a deep-pocketed and increasingly powerful constituency.

Another point, which is actually very consistent with Obama's conduct through the first three years of his presidency: his personal views don't really matter! He can't issue an executive order mandating marriage equality. He has the bully pulpit, and in that sense his public statement might have some positive impact--but it also would additionally politicize an argument that really should transcend partisan battles. Remember that marriage equality passed in New York only because a small number of Republican state senators went along with it. Of course, they had numerous pragmatic reasons to do so--log-rolling by Gov. Cuomo, campaign contributions from Mayor Bloomberg--in addition to whatever part principle played. But if taking that stance would have put them on the side of a president hated by many if not most Republicans, it's very possible at least one or two of those Republicans would have declined to do so.

At the same time, I think Obama only can get away with this coy posture because he's already delivered on some major if lesser points: the end of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and the non-defense of the abhorrent Defense of Marriage Act. And while I don't know for sure, I think he's also solid on the one function of the presidency most consequential to his personal views on equal rights: judicial appointments. There are larger problems here, especially the slow pace of nominations, but I'd be very surprised if even one Obama nominee to a judgeship is positively known to be hostile to equality. The progress might be slow, but it's sure.

(The bad pun? "Leading from behind," of course.)

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Hitchens' Death
Like many people, I found Christopher Hitchens' writing both infuriating and irresistible: the smugness, the more than occasional gratuitous cruelty and flat-out wrongness (not inaccuracy, mind you, though sometimes that too) on the one hand, the usually superb construction of arguments, the erudition and the almost-always superb prose on the other. His last regular column, in Slate, was a regular pleasure even though it fell on the bad side of that line at least once or twice a month. When his cancer diagnosis became known, I always wondered how long he'd be able to keep it up; when he missed a week or two, I'd start wondering if the end was here. But it still came as a surprise when I read yesterday morning that Hitchens was dead, about two weeks after I'd read his column on the Republican presidential debates. There was no indication whatever that it would turn out to be his final one.

I find this easy to admire: while no doubt Hitchens was a world-class egomaniac and self-aggrandizer, the narcissism was untouched (at least in print) by self-pity at what happened to him. I love that he was unrepentant about all the drinking and smoking, though maybe even more that "I would have quit earlier hoping to get away with the whole thing." That's exactly reflective of a man who felt he was on his own in the universe, responsible for himself above all else and delighted at that prospect. You don't get the sense with Hitchens that he died feeling a great deal of regret about work left undone or much left unfinished.

The reaction to his demise has been interesting. For the most part it's been love and admiration, though not totally unmixed with reference to Hitchens' peevishness, disingenuousness and various other faults. Others have noted that Hitchens himself wasn't in the habit of deference to the deceased; his takedowns of the likes of Mother Teresa were legendary. Perhaps with that in mind, Glenn Greenwald has fired off the harshest postmortem on Hitchens that I've seen:

[F]for the public at large, at least those who knew of him, Hitchens was an extremely controversial, polarizing figure. And particularly over the last decade, he expressed views — not ancillary to his writing but central to them — that were nothing short of repellent.
Subordinating his brave and intellectually rigorous defense of atheism, Hitchens’ glee over violence, bloodshed, and perpetual war dominated the last decade of his life. Dennis Perrin, a friend and former protégée of Hitchens, described all the way back in 2003 how Hitchens’ virtues as a writer and thinker were fully swamped by his pulsating excitement over war and the Bush/Cheney imperial agenda...

There’s one other aspect to the adulation of Hitchens that’s quite revealing. There seems to be this sense that his excellent facility with prose excuses his sins. Part of that is the by-product of America’s refusal to come to terms with just how heinous and destructive was the attack on Iraq. That act of aggression is still viewed as a mere run-of-the-mill “mistake” — hey, we all make them, so we shouldn’t hold it against Hitch – rather than what it is: the generation’s worst political crime, one for which he remained fully unrepentant and even proud.

Fair enough, and to me at least Hitchens' cheerleading for the war against "Islamofascism" was his most obnoxious, unjustified and flat-out ugly position. (His over-the-top support for the hypocritical bastards who tried to impeach Bill Clinton in the late '90s, seemingly based on personal loathing for his fellow Boomer hedonist, was a fairly distant number two.) His willingness--his eagerness--to fellow-travel with the neoconservatives and provide intellectual and moral support for a global interfaith war was both tragic and, given his very public atheism, head-spinningly ironic. That he never stepped back and came closer to recanting the view than the occasional concession that the war in Iraq wasn't prosecuted all that well seems more evidence of his ego-mania than anything else. (It's a fascinating and, as far as I've seen, not-noted irony that Hitchens died within hours of the Iraq War coming to an official end.)

Even in his apostasy from the left, though, Hitchens refused to cede his intellectual or political agency. He favored Bush over Kerry in 2004, yet argued--at no personal or political advantage and probably to his disadvantage--that Bush probably stole the election in Ohio. The same stubbornness that bound him to the war in Iraq even after all its justifications collapsed had its root in the man's absolute and uncompromising resistance to totalitarianism in all its forms; in fact, I'm pretty sure that Hitchens hated Saddam Hussein for the same reason he hated the Catholic Church, and indeed organized religion in any form and flavor. He resisted control; he wouldn't accept any yoke whatever goodies, from a think-tank sinecure to the promise of eternal life, came with it.

As legacies go, this strikes me as a pretty fucking great one.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

When the Entertainers Run the Asylum
So it sounds like Herman Cain has shucky-duckied his way out of the Republican presidential contest, but thankfully we've got someone else returning to fill his sizable clown shoes: The Donald, who will be moderating a Republican debate with the frothing right-wing outlet Newsmax.

“Our readers and the grass roots really love Trump,” said Christopher Ruddy, chief executive of Newsmax Media. “They may not agree with him on everything, but they don’t see him as owned by the Washington establishment, the media establishment.”
[D]espite being derided by liberals – President Obama likened Mr. Trump to a “carnival barker” for his repeated assertions that the president was actually foreign-born – the real estate mogul carries weight with a certain element of the conservative base. And that sway seems particularly strong with the Tea Party wing of the base, which will be a decisive factor in the early primaries that are likely to determine the nominee. The debate, which unlike many recent ones will not be limited to a specific topic like national security or the economy, is set to happen just a week before the Iowa caucuses.

Newsmax sent candidates the invitation on Friday afternoon. It began, “We are pleased to cordially invite you to “The Newsmax Ion Television 2012 Presidential Debate,” moderated by a truly great American, Mr. Donald J. Trump.” Spokesmen for several candidates did not immediately respond to questions from The New York Times about whether they would accept.

Though presidential candidates may initially balk at the idea of appearing in a debate where Mr. Trump – with his bombast and The Hair – is the one posing the questions, they may ultimately see it as an invitation they can’t refuse. In fact many of the candidates have already met with him, some more publicly than others. Representative Michele Bachmann has sat down with Mr. Trump several times this year. Gov. Rick Perry of Texas had dinner with him at Jean Georges, the posh Manhattan restaurant. And Mitt Romney paid a visit but carefully avoided being photographed.

And Newsmax is a powerful player itself. It has a broad reach into the conservative base, with monthly Web traffic second only to Fox News among sites with conservative-leaning audiences.

Normally at this point I'd probably emit a sad sigh and say something about how this reflects the country's steep downward plunge. But while that sentiment is in there somewhere, right now I'm feeling more inclined toward schadenfreude: the chickens of Republicans turning over their party to its most entertaining and least serious elements are coming home to roost, and it couldn't happen to a more deserving bunch.

Trump essentially will be holding a televised contest for his endorsement: it probably will attract more attention than any other debate this year, and no doubt he'll make them work for it in full view of a public that mostly will be horrified at just how nutzo the Republicans have become... a point I don't think is generally appreciated. Because Trump is nuts--and the way to get his endorsement will be to ape him as closely as possible. For his part, is there any doubt at all whether Donald Trump cares more about the fate of the nation or the gratification of his own ego?

Two Republicans already have announced that they won't attend: the social moderate (but economic uber-con) Jon Huntsman and the libertarian Ron Paul. While Paul is pretty repulsive on a lot of fronts, he does seem to grasp the idea that the presidency is a dignified and important office that probably shouldn't be sullied by immersion in the spectacle of reality TV. (That said, Paul's flack seems to suggest that the old Texan would consider joining were Trump to publicly apologize for a past diss of Iowa Republicans... which is kind of clever if rather oily.) For Huntsman's part, he probably realizes he's got nothing to gain by fishing in that pool; his hope at this point is for Republicans to take a second look and realize that, one, the guy is a true conservative, and two, he probably could win. There's some reason to believe this is starting to happen.

Meanwhile, Newt Gingrich already has accepted the invite to Trump's debate show, making it that much more likely Mitt Romney will join as well. The other two Fox candidates, Frothy Mix and Batshit, surely will go and could emerge with the endorsement of their fellow entertainer. (If Trump doesn't give his nod to one of them, it's likely because he realizes they won't win and worries that his brand will suffer by association with a loser. When it comes to that sort of thing, the guy is legitimately sharp if no less repugnant.) Rick Perry, if he's not out by then, probably will go too; he's got the mammoth self-regard and sneering hatred of "libburls" that Trump will recognize and gravitate to, and it actually wouldn't shock me if Trump wound up supporting Perry.

I don't doubt that "establishment Republicans" are having a bad couple days with all this. They seem pretty conclusively to have lost control: when Karl Rove goes on TV to attack Republicans like Bachmann and Perry, you know The Plan has gone awry. They're still hoping for Romney, of course, but the guy inspires neither excitement nor trust.

Were this somehow all happening on the Democratic side, where shitting on the base is expected and in fact cheered, the likely result would be at least one or two candidates joining and delivering a "Sister Souljah moment": in this case, maybe taking Trump to task for his focus on Obama's birth certificate or other manifestations of Trump's unseriousness. But for every candidate other than Romney, this will be a case of like visiting like: Gingrich probably did more than anyone in the last thirty years to transform our politics into the zero-sum blood sport game that rightly disgusts so many Americans, and Bachmann and Santorum are both mostly known for extreme statements and personal eccentricity. (Well, maybe not in Santorum's case; he's best known as the deserving victim of the greatest political trick of the modern era.)

Romney is in a different and probably unique category. As I've written before, he passes the "me test": I don't for a second doubt that he's far smarter than I am, has better judgment and is incalculably more organized, so I'd rather see him in the presidency than me despite my disdain for his views. One recent New York magazine article presents a fascinating story of how Romney can make a pretty substantial claim as the architect of the modern "1% percent economy"--an accomplishment that's impressive whatever you think of its tangible results.

But he's got an evidently uncontrollable impulse to pander--which I think is at the core of why everyone, left and right, mistrusts him. Robert Draper's profile in this weekend's Times magazine leaves the reader equally with respect for Romney's intellect and managerial skills, and astonishment at his difficulty committing or connecting. Add in some recent signs of pique and the general and I think involuntary air he projects of being somehow too good for the (admittedly draining, depressing and disgusting) process of running for the presidency, and you're left with the impression of a candidate much stronger on paper than in reality.

It's almost enough to make you feel bad for the guy--and then you remember what he's actually for and the incredible damage his preferred policies already have done, and you're suddenly thankful for Donald Trump's ego and the rapacious stupidity of his co-partisans.