The Atlantic, June 2010

Several interesting pieces this time:

How the private sector could build railways again, and save neighborhood life in the USA in the process

Mark Bowden explains the Conficker worm and the threat it may represent to computers on and off the internet. 

A piece on the revival of some centuries-old recipes for mixed drinks at fashionable bars in London.  The “shrub” sounds alarming, but might be delicious. 

There are lots of witchcraft trials in the Central African Republic; here‘s an attempt to see the bright side of that state of affairs.

Benjamin Schwarz isn’t impressed with the “New Urbanism,” and tries to dismiss the reading of Jane Jacobs’ works that has inspired many in that movement. 

Michael Kinsley adds a column to the already enormous amount of coverage given to the political movement known as the “teabaggers.”   This paragraph contributes something of value to the discussion:

“I like what they’re saying. It’s common sense,” a random man-in-the-crowd told a Los Angeles Times reporter at a big Tea Party rally. Then he added, “They’ve got to focus on issues like keeping jobs here and lowering the cost of prescription drugs.” These, of course, are projects that can be conducted only by Big Government. If the Tea Party Patriots ever developed a coherent platform or agenda, they would lose half their supporters.

I suspect Kinsley is right and “Big Government” is needed to keep jobs in the USA and lower the cost of prescription drugs, but the big government we actually have doesn’t seem to be geared to accomplishing either of these goals.  Quite the contrary, in fact. 

James Parker tries to find something interesting to say about pop star Lady Gaga.  I don’t think he succeeds, but I do think that it’s a waste that someone who is not a drag queen has monopolized the name “Lady Gaga.”

Funny Times, May 2010

It’s always been my habit to go to ground during the summers, so it isn’t much of a surprise that I’ve fallen behind in my “Periodicals Notes.”  Not that anyone has complained, but I’ll be catching up a bit over the next few days.  First up is May’s Funny Times

There’s an installment of Lloyd Dangle’s Troubletown that I thought was hilarious when it first appeared back in February.  It’s about the political movement known as the “teabaggers,” Americans of a rightward bent who have been vocal about their opposition to the Obama administration.  Dangle is mystified that the teabaggers have been the object of so much publicity.  My favorite line from the comic is “600 people showed up for their convention.  That’s almost as many as the Sheboygan High School science fair!” 

Matt Bors has a good comic about privacy, I was reminded of it by this recent xkcd

Jon Winokur’s “Curmudgeon” compiles quotes about money, including this from Brigid Brophy: “Whenever people say, ‘We mustn’t be sentimental,’ you can take it they are about to do something cruel.  And if they add, ‘We must be realistic,’ they mean they are going to make money out of it.”  Not exactly laugh-out-loud funny, but she does have a point.  So did Mary Gordon, when she wrote: “The use of money is the purest act of faith; no anchorite who has followed a vision into the desert has acted on an idea as far-fetched as our belief that if we put a dollar in a machine we will be drinking a Diet Coke in a minute.”  Andrea Dworkin is a name you don’t expect to encounter in a humor column, but she’s here: “Money talks, but it speaks with a male voice.”  Given Dworkin’s personal history as a woman who was once forced into sex work to escape an abusive partner, I can’t imagine laughing at that line, but I can certainly take it seriously.

Some would say that laughter is the ultimate form of seriousness.  If so, Dave Maleckar’s “Hundred Word Rant” may have hit on a way to take sex work seriously.  Arguing that people who like to cook should not open restaurants, he concludes thus: “You probably like sex, too.  You may be very good at it.  That doesn’t mean you should start doing it for money.”

The Nation and the metropolis

A review of Frances Stonor Saunders’ book about Violet Gibson, the Englishwoman who shot Benito Mussolini in 1926, includes this passage:

[A]ccording to the British ambassador to Italy, Mussolini was “like any other gentleman.” The King of England decorated him with the Order of the Bath, and Austen Chamberlain, the British foreign secretary (whose half brother was Neville, future prime minister and champion of the Munich accord), considered Mussolini a sincere, charming patriot, and certainly preferable to any other “Italian.” Sure he was a dictator, the foreign secretary admitted, but one simply could not “apply British standards to un-British conditions.” As Saunders acidly comments, Chamberlain’s remark “contained all the narrowness and smugness of an imperial conceit.”

I’ll grant that saying one cannot “apply British standards to un-British conditions” may have been an imperial conceit when it was used to keep agents of the British Empire from being held to account for actions they took in Britain’s colonies.  I would not agree that such a remark is also an imperial conceit when it is said in the course of an argument to the effect that the UK should not pursue a policy of confrontation with another state.  Indeed, to call on one state to take an interest in the internal affairs of another state is to meet any definition of imperialism.  Many have said the the function of ideology is to enable a person to hold two contradictory ideas simultaneously; that Saunders can say, in evident sincerity and to the approbation of The Nation‘s reviewer, that to defer to the sovereignty of a foreign state is to be an imperialist, shows the ideological power of liberal internationalism.   Certainly Mussolini’s regime was unjust; perhaps there might be a case to make that Britain and other world powers should have embarked on an adventure in the 1920s to coerce Italy into good behavior.  Not too long ago, neoconservatives like William Kristol openly described the US invasion of Iraq as an imperial project, a project which they claimed was justified because Saddam Hussein was so wicked a tyrant.  Kristol would likely have endorsed the idea of an international campaign to bring Mussolini in line as well.  Harsh as Kristol’s words may have been, at least they had some recognizable meaning.  One could rebut Kristol by arguing against imperialism.   Saunders and liberal interventionists like her are worse than Kristol, in that their ideology has drained words of all meaning and rational argument of all purpose.   

There’s a review essay about Jane Jacobs.  Unless you’re familiar with Jacobs’ work, skip it.  It seems to be an attempt to counterbalance the usual portrayal of Jacobs as a critic of urban gigantism and an advocate of self-sufficient neighborhoods by summarizing her view of the advantages big cities offer their residents.  That’s fine up to a point, but the essay goes so far with it as to leave the impression that Jacobs was an uncritical booster of the big city.

Jo Ann Wypiewski’s been thinking about the dilemmas facing same-sexers who would like to live openly in places where that isn’t easy:

“For the longest time, the gay movement told people in rural areas, Just move to the city and come out,” Joe said afterward. He was raised in Oil City, and one sister still won’t talk to him. “That’s not an answer if you’re connected to your family, your job, your town. And you can’t expect oppressed individuals to take the whole burden of coming out on themselves.”

A friend of ours, a man in late middle age, spent much of the 1960s in Berkeley, California.  He often fondly recalls the evening he spent in the city jail with Mario Savio’s cousin.  When someone of the “Baby Boom” generation tells a story about an adventure s/he had in The Turbulent Sixties, I tend to react with a reflexive scepticism.  That’s why I cherish that story.  If he had claimed to have spent a night in jail with Mario Savio, I would find it impossible to believe him.  If he had claimed to have spent a night in jail with  Abbie Hoffman’s cousin, I would have found it impossible to believe him.  But Mario Savio’s cousin– who would make that up?  Mario Savio is a name that will impress too few people these days to figure obliquely in any fictional boast.  Only a direct encounter with the man himself could win anyone any points for a brush with celebrity, and then only if the audience were rather well informed about the fine details of the New Left. 

So I smiled warmly while I read a review essay about Savio.  It doesn’t mention Savio’s cousin, but you can’t have everything. 

The “teabaggers” are a group of right-leaning Americans who have been making headlines for the last year or so by sending teabags to their elected officials as a symbol of political protest.  The teabags are supposed to be reminders of the revolutionary spirit of the 1773 Boston Tea Party.  They didn’t have teabags in 1773, but then cloth sacks filled with tea would cost a lot in postage, so I suppose it’s all right.  One Bostonian, perhaps trying to bring matters full circle, claimed to see the Virgin Mary in a teabag.  The teabaggers have also made news by disrupting public appearances by members of Congress.  Most left-of-center Americans have been unhappy with the rise of the teabaggers.  Alexander Cockburn, however, sees much to admire in their movement.  He sees an anarchistic side to it, and sympathizes with its petit-bourgeois members:

The lower middle class is what we’re focusing on here, the people who own auto repair shops, bakeries, bicycle shops, plant stores, dry cleaners, fish stores and all the other small businesses across America–in sum, the “petite bourgeoisie,” stomped by regulators and bureaucrats while the big fry get zoning variances and special clause exemptions. The left always hated the petite bourgeoisie because it wasn’t the urban proletariat and thus the designated agent of revolutionary change. Today’s left no longer believes in revolutionary change but despises the petite bourgeoisie out of inherited political disposition and class outlook. Ninety-five percent of all the firms in America hire fewer than ten people. There’s your petite bourgeoisie for you: not frightening, not terrifying and in fact quite indispensable.

And the petit bourgeois are legitimately pissed off. Whatever backwash they got from the stimulus often wasn’t readily apparent. They can’t afford health plans for themselves or their employees. They’re three or four payrolls away from the edge of the cliff, and when they read about trillions in handouts for bankers, trillions in impending deficits, blueprints for green energy regs that will put them out of business, what they hear is the ocean surge pounding away at the bottom of that same cliff.

The conventional parties have nothing to offer them. The left disdains them. But here comes the tea party.

Cockburn likes some weird things, but maybe he’s onto something here.  If New York Times pundit David Brooks is afraid of the teabaggers, they must be doing something right.     

A straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Committee shows that while grassroots Republicans don’t like the Obama administration, they sure don’t want to go back to the Bush-Cheney days.  They oppose many of the same things lefties oppose.  One suspects that a genuinely populist American Left might be able to make common cause with them on issues from antimilitarism, to monetary reform, to civil liberties. 

I make my living teaching ancient history, so I take notice when I hear that historians are under fire.  Jon Wiener’s article about historians who have come into contact with the tobacco industry thus came to me as something sobering.  Over the years, many historians have been intimidated into silence by the industry and its lawyers.  Many others have been corrupted by tobacco money, making misleading statements in the  press and in the courts and then benefiting from tobacco-linked donations. 

General Alexander Haig died earlier this year, a fact that occasions some doggerel from Calvin Trillin.  I remember when Haig ran for president in 1988; Haig’s name had long been familiar, but neither I nor any of my political-junkie friends ever imagined he would run for president.  As a top-level army staff officer, later as Richard Nixon’s top aide, then NATO’s Supreme Commander, and finally as US Secretary of State, Haig was a symbol of the Washington elite, but not a leader who had a following outside the capital.  We weren’t alone in laughing at Haig; his whole campaign turned into a bit of a joke.  A joke that could still garner laughs years later, as this still from The Simpsons shows: