Vacation

July 27, 2009

I am on one, probably until midway through this week. Posting should resume somewhere thereabouts.

Once You Pop…

July 22, 2009

It’s almost impossible to stop. Executive power is funny like that:

President Barack Obama has irked close allies in Congress by declaring he has the right to ignore legislation on constitutional grounds after having criticized George W. Bush for doing the same.

Four senior House Democrats on Tuesday said they were “surprised” and “chagrined” by Obama’s declaration in June that he doesn’t have to comply with provisions in a war spending bill that puts conditions on aid provided to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

In a signing statement accompanying the $106 billion bill, Obama said he wouldn’t allow the legislation to interfere with his authority as president to conduct foreign policy and negotiate with other governments.

Schwenkler considers bad children books, and immediately chops down one of the pillars of my childhood:

The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein. I guess that this is a pretty common target in these kinds of discussions, but damn is it ever deserved. Tree loves boy. Boy loves tree. Boy grows up. Boy exploits tree. Tree takes it all silently, growing less happy with each lonely year. Boy gets old, tree is a stump, boy sits on tree, no apologies. I mean, I get the point: the tree loves the boy. But heck, even Jesus was able to rise triumphant when all was said and done; couldn’t Silverstein have made the love at least a little more, you know, mutual? (Other questions: Why didn’t the tree’s apples grow back? And how did the boy build himself and his family a house out of branches?)

As sympathetic as my warped communitarian heart is to demands for mutuality, I think that the story’s lack of shared charity is actually its most powerful point.  It seems to me that the story’s complexity comes from the fact that love isn’t always mutual, and it certainly doesn’t guarantee interpersonal justice.  In fact, in some cases it can demand precisely the opposite: that we give until we have nothing left, and that the only compensation we can expect is the satisfaction from having done so. When I try to imagine what it must be like to raise a severely disabled child or deal with an addicted sibling or care for a mentally ill parent, this is the only understanding of love that can suffice… The love that gives until it is spent.

As I’m writing this I see that Millman has written a very insightful post in the same direction, so I won’t spend any words going places he’s already been, but I figure I should also mention this lovely piece by Kyle Cupp on the experience of being a father of an ancephaletic child and his sense of the divine in that struggle.  It’s definitely a better articulation of Silverstein’s take on love than I’m capable of giving, and one that think explains why it remains one of the better children’s books around.

Bacterial Cities

July 17, 2009

Yes, Horton, there is a city on your toothbrush:

These slimy bacterial colonies, known as biofilms, add a remarkable new dimension to our understanding of the microbial world. Ever since Louis Pasteur first grew bacteria in flasks, biologists have pictured bacteria as individual invaders floating or swimming in a liquid sea, moving through our blood and lymph like a school of piranhas down the Amazon. But in recent years, scientists have come to understand that much, and perhaps most, of bacterial life is collective: 99 percent of bacteria live in biofilms. They vary widely in behavior. Sometimes these collectives are fixed, like a cluster of barnacles on a ship’s hull; other times they move, or swarm, like miniature slime molds. Bacteria may segregate into single-species biofilms, or they may, as in the case of dental bacteria, join together in groups that function like miniature ecological communities, competing and cooperating with each other.

Edit: And not just in your toothbrush!

Thinking over yesterday’s reasoned argument ranty screed about America’s masculine sensibilities and our notions of the heroic, I was reminded of an excellent Foreign Policy article by Riehan Salam about the very particular place men play in this recession, both as its cause and its victims.  He makes an interesting argument, though I hesitate to draw quite the conclusions as he does… Big historical events are always more complex than the quantities of testosterone could reveal.  And yet:

For several years now it has been an established fact that, as behavioral finance economists Brad Barber and Terrance Odean memorably demonstrated in 2001, of all the factors that might correlate with overconfident investment in financial markets—age, marital status, and the like—the most obvious culprit was having a Y chromosome. And now it turns out that not only did the macho men of the heavily male-dominated global finance sector create the conditions for global economic collapse, but they were aided and abetted by their mostly male counterparts in government whose policies, whether consciously or not, acted to artificially prop up macho.

Its worth your time to read the whole thing, if you haven’t already.  It was pointed out in the comments section to yesterday’s post that there’s a world of difference between stock brokers and pilots, which I think goes without saying.   Excepting Glenn Beck-inspired lynch mobs, the level of danger in securities trading is quite low.  Yet to hear it told, many in the financial world were under the belief that their work should have carried a comparable level of cachet… Or, at a bare minimum, that the levels of ballsiness required to do investment banking elevated it above the tedium that that profession is legendary for. Think about Paulson, or Cassano, or Cohen, or any of the iconic figures to emerge from the financial crisis: the thing that is striking about all of them is (a) just how heroic/cutthroat/testosterific they saw their work and (b) how their taste for “innovative” financial products amplified that self-image well beyond its proper constraints.  While the traits singled out in (a) are going to be operative at the top of any field as a matter of necessity, they rarely acquire the heroic undertones they did in the run-up to the collapse, and its that bubble-born mentality Domenach is praising that, at least so far as it relates to business, should probably be confined to the ash-heap. (And, if Salam is right, already has been.)

I apologize for the light posting over the last couple days… Job search stuff occasionally winds up being amazingly time consuming, especially when it seems to be productive. Unfortunately it looks like this most recent glimmer of opportunity was for nought and so I’m back to hoop jumping for at least a few more weeks.  And of course, dear readers, to blogging.

Which brings me to this essay, which Peter Lawler recommends and I am puzzled by.  So far as I can tell, its central argument is that America is aging and finding less space for the kind of expansive, manly excess that characterized the world of The Right Stuff. Instead we are getting older, finding that government dependency is easy, and sopping at the consumer trough.  All of this with nary a mention of women’s exclusion, the rampant alcoholism, the miserable children, the suicidal closeted homosexuals. (Or heaven forbid, the south.) What really mattered about that era was that a miniscule portion of the population went really fucking fast and could have killed themselves doing so, and they were real men for doing so.

But setting aside the historical blindness necessary to write this kind of essay, maybe the most bizarre part of Domenach’s thinking is the fact that the world he mourns did exist less than two years ago, on Wall Street, among bankers whose belief in their testicular infallibility drove the economy off a cliff. And its their failed heroics now forcing the rest of us, unwillingly I might add, to rediscover the values of dependence, whose gifts include such unmanly traits as gratitude and humility.  But this could only be a signal of decline, goes Domenech’s thinking, because we weren’t being manly anymore, and dammit, manliness built ‘merica.

There’s a metaphor involving heroin withdrawl here but somehow I think my point has been made. Good riddance in any case.

*Cease rant.*

Edit: As if on cue, Will finds the best Craigslist ad ever.

(Cross-posted at Post Right)

It’s probably a bad idea to get into the habit of linking as heavily to the Times as I have been in the last few week, but, I was really quite impressed by this weekend’s profile of David Cameron…  Go take a peek:

Conservatives — or Tories, as they are also called — are counting on Cameron to rescue them from the ideological confusion and public contempt that has been their lot since New Labour, behind Tony Blair, drove them from power in 1997, handing the party its worst drubbing since its founding in the 1830s. Tories have spent 12 years mulling over, and fighting over, a version of the problem that now confronts American Republicans. Cameron’s rise has led some conservative thinkers in the United States, notably the Times Op-Ed columnist David Brooks, to suggest that Republicans follow his lead. Speaking to Charlie Rose in April, Brooks described Cameronism as the “natural alternative” to the “technocratic” politics of Barack Obama and summed up Cameron’s philosophy this way: “You’re going to champion the technocrats in government; I’m going to champion every other institution in society, whether it’s family, career associations, the church — every other association you can think of.” A pragmatic kind of communitarianism runs through a lot of Cameron’s policies. His advisers, particularly the party’s shadow education secretary, Michael Gove, argue in defense of local institutions, from schools with competitive enrollments to small post offices, whose contributions to community cohesion don’t appear on the bottom line and are often invisible to orthodox Thatcherites.

At times I’m inclined to agree with Brooks that the Cameron-model may be the only real alternative open to the Republican party in the age of Obama and Palin.  If the big business/big government model remains effectively dead, Paul-style libertarianism stays vibrant but fringey, and the Dems succeed in positioning themselves as the party of bureaucratic competence, then the kind of broad-minded communitarian ethos represented by someone like Cameron might very well have a chance. That is, of course, provided they can find the right leader for it, a mighty big if indeed.

And that leadership vacuum is hardly the biggest problem faced by those sympathetic to Cameron’s thinking. Maybe the biggest issue is the danger that those ideals would amount to nothing more than another stale rehashing of compassionate conservatism, only this time with a communitarian gloss. Granted, the last time we contemplated the dreaded double-Cs, they were completely derailed by Bush’s foreign misadventures, profligate spending, shameless pandering to social issues divorced from concrete institutions, and generally lame policy approach.  That said, it seems the repeated failures of similar policies in the American scene are reflective of the fact that Americans just aren’t given to serious communitarian policy agendas… For all the civic vitality that characterized our early history, we’ve really wandered far from the place where those organizations play a significant role in our lives, and that ideologies based on them can inspire political action.  (The obvious exception here being churches, but as Putnam pointed out in Bowling Alone, if we take their vitality in the context of our broader civic decline, their growth is more indicative of the system’s failure to provide other outlets than indicative of genuine growth of social capital.)

The other problem, and to my mind the one most likely to damn an American Cameronism from the get-go, is the gulf separating our political situation from that of Britain. Cameron’s policies, for better or worse, are being articulated against a functional if debt-ridden welfare state with a working health care system, some measure of a social safety net, and a history of state involvement in civic life.  The questions that American politics is faced with right now drive primarily in the opposite direction, namely, how to get a functional health care system, solve educational dilemmas, and construct a energy system not based on the impoverishment of future generations, all of which have been construed primarily as government’s problems and will likely remain so.  Moreover, the primary issue we share with Britain, debt, won’t be solved by anything other than cuts in government and tax hikes, both of which fit comfortably into existing (or reviving) political categories.  To me, it seems these differences pose an insurmountable barrier to Republican absorption of Toryism’s better impulses, and barring some radical shift in the American situation, I see little chance of any serious communitarian options emerging in the next few years, though I wish it weren’t the case.

Cyprian ctd.

July 10, 2009

Man, the more I read his writing, the more Cyprian is becoming my new favorite church father… Who else’s eschatology is so scatological, I ask you? This quote, from an online excerpt of De Mortalitate, has really caught my fancy, though in good faith I should probably add that its disgusting in that way only historical documents can be:

This trial, that now the bowels, relaxed into a constant flux, discharge the bodily strength; that a fire originated in the marrow ferments into wounds of the fauces; that the intestines are shaken with a continual vomiting; that the eyes are on fire with the injected blood; that in some cases the feet or some parts of the limbs are taken off by the contagion of diseased putrefaction; that from the weakness arising by the maiming and loss of the body, either the gait is enfeebled, or the hearing is obstructed, or the sight darkened;–is profitable as a proof of faith. What a grandeur of spirit it is to struggle with all the powers of an unshaken mind against so many onsets of devastation and death! what sublimity, to stand erect amid the desolation of the human race, and not to lie prostrate with those who have no hope in God; but rather to rejoice, and to embrace the benefit of the occasion; that in thus bravely showing forth our faith, and by suffering endured, going forward to Christ by the narrow way that Christ trod, we may receive the reward of His life and faith according to His own judgment!

Jim Harrison

Fig 1.1: A Man and his Book

There was a fantastic report on the News Hour about Jim Harrison last night… He’s been one of my favorite writers since I read The Road Home at the urging of a friend back in college.  Unfortunately the PBS folks don’t have the full video up online, but there are some shorter clips of him reading his new poetry and losing his breath here…  I’d warn any curious readers ahead of time that he is not a beautiful man and his reading, while certainly possessing, uh, character, doesn’t convey the strength of his writing terribly well. (Indeed, it sounds as if he’s been eating a steady diet of broken glass since 1983. Ah, chain smoking.) Still, very worth you while.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.