Archive for February, 2008

William F. Buckley, who passed away yesterday, was of my father’s generation. Buckley was considered the premier promoter of mainstream conservatism (some would say arch-conservatism) in the United States. My father, who could not have been more different From William F. in terms of worldview, was still able to admire Buckley’s style while largely rejecting his substance.  

Buckley preached a particularly distressing brand of close-minded conservatism that brooked no arguments. The founder and head of the magazine National Review, he  promoted ideas that seemed to me to be outdated, outmoded and outflanked by the realities of our post-Cold War world.

The salient point is that Buckley knew how to debate, or rather, he knew what it meant to have a debate of ideas that didn’t involve wallowing in the muck of personal diatribes. Well, perhaps that’s not entire accurate: Poor Howard K. Smith of ABC news got far more than he bargained for when Buckley and Gore Vidal exchanged insults on live television during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Vidal called Buckley a crypto-Nazi and Buckley called Vidal a “queer” and threatened to plaster his face…well, you get the idea.  

And yet, for the most part, he was, in public and apparently in private good-natured and good-humored. His weapons in the war of ideologies were words, many-layered, little-used representatives of our language strung together in graceful phrases inflected with his uniquely patrician voice. Not for him the rude, crude, simple-minded hate-mongering that passes for dialogue on today’s broadcast and Internet forums. 

The obituaries this morning seemed to rise to the occasion; Buckley might have been pleased. The Chicago Tribune wrote of Buckley’s “brilliant mind and Brobdingnagian vocabulary” and the Times  referred to him as the “Sesquipedalian Spark of (the) Right.” I’m embarrassed to say I needed help with the supersized words but I now know (or perhaps remember from an earlier encounter) that  Brobdingnagian, meaning “out-sized or colossal”, derives from Brobdingnag, the fictitious land of the giants in Gulliver’s Travels  by Jonathan Swift. Sesquipedalian refers to using long words, a trait Buckley shared with my father. Maybe that’s why I feel something has been permanently lost; some connection to a faraway and long-ago place where people could discuss, debate, disagree or argue with style and wit and then go out together for drinks.

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I’ve been thinking about plagiarism lately, mainly because I’m writing a book. I want to – I need to –  credit all the wonderful people, from comedian Lewis Black to revolutionary Thomas Paine, who do a much better job of making my points than I do. (You may wonder then why I’m even bothering to write a book if others have expressed themselves on the subject but ask yourself, when was the last time you read anything that put Lewis Black and Thomas Paine in the same sentence). Anyway, plagiarizing is also in the news because one of the candidates in particular has a way with words and the others are anxious to point out all the words may not be his.

What a waste of time. If we have yet to effectively recycle our waste, we’re certainly terrific at recycling our movies, books, styles, ideas. I might say “everything old is new again” but that phrase perfectly encapsulates my point: it’s the title of at least four different songs, including one each by Peter Allen and Carol Bayer SagerBarenaked Ladies and two different women I’ve never heard of, Julie Anthony and Laura Hayes , not to mention too many books, radio shows and articles to count. Many of the best movies this year seem to be adaptations and fashion is always a restatement of an earlier era. I can’t remember the last time I heard any music I thought was truly original. We know that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it and yet, around the world that’s exactly what we’re doing. If you want to see how far we haven’t come in more than fifty years, check out the lyrics  from a 1953 song by Broadway lyricist Sheldon Harnick. It’s a short song and worth reading (click on this link) but I’ll just throw out a few lines:

They’re rioting in Africa
There’s strife in Iran
What nature doesn’t so to us
Will be done by our fellow man

(“Merry Minuet, copywrite 1953)

I’m still deeply into Sue Jacoby’s book about the latest version of American unreason but I’m more struck by how stuck we are with the old lagnauge, using words like “liberal” and “conservative” as they were used half a century ago. Talk about a lack of imagination. Meanwhile, we keep returning to outmoded economic or foreign policies, looking for a new outcome to an old application. It’s like taking an old boyfriend back, hoping things are going to be different. Tons of songs on that subject but here’s one of my favorites, “Maybe This Time” from “Cabaret” :

Maybe this time I’ll be lucky
Maybe this time he’ll stay
Maybe this time, for the first time,
Love won’t hurry away

Now all the odds are in my favor
Something’s bound to begin
It’s got to happen …happen sometime
Maybe this time I’ll win

Now there’s hope we can believe in

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My pleasure reading tends to be semi-lowbrow fiction: mysteries and thrillers, the odd fantasy or science fiction, historical novel and sometimes deceptively small character-driven books. I don’t do too well with romance novels or their modern sub-genre, chick-lit; I don’t identify with the earnest, ditzy, determined or confused heroines, all of whom end up depending on the appearance of “Mr. Right”. My idea of escapist fare involves puzzles that have to be solved or life-or-death decisions that have to be made. The drama unfolds in the courtroom, not the bedroom.

However, I’m hooked on a particularly appealing non-fiction book right now called “The Age of American Unreason” by Susan Jacoby. This academic, erudite, densely packed but highly readable book lays out all the ways and all the reasons our culture has been dumbed down – I mean seriously, irrevocably dumbed down. There have been other books that have sounded the alarm; reviewers have been referring to Richard Hofstadter’s “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life,” written in 1963. But Jacoby’s smart, angry, sometimes funny book has the advantage of being very current and extraordinarily specific about all the ways we Americans proudly go for the lowest common denominator. It’s not just that we don’t know science or geography or social studies; we don’t know why we should. We misuse words, misunderstand meanings, resort to easy labels and shrug. We think information equals knowledge, every piece of news is actually newsworthy and every issue has two equivalent sides (to given an example: saying the Holocaust occurred and saying it didn’t are not rationally equal points of view), a position encouraged by cable talk shows.

If you think Ms. Jacoby is preaching to the choir, you’re right. I absolutely believe she’s onto something. I’m not nearly as outraged as she is, probably because I’m not nearly as smart or as intellectually rigorous. In fact, I’m guilty of accepting lower standards of excellence in everything from writing to speaking to TV programming. Still, I’m aware of my shortcomings and make daily efforts to improve my knowledge base. And while I suppose my swearing contributes to the cultural coarsening she deplores, I swear I know the difference between trash, even the enjoyable junk, and news that’s worthy of serious consideration. Britney does not equal Iran on my radar screen. It does for many Americans, though and that’s what worries me.

I’m also concerned, as is Jacoby, about how the idiocy we’re force-fed dulls our ability to think rationally. We’re really getting out of practice, people. How else to explain the bills proposed by Alabama State Senator Hank Erwin that would allow professors and some students carry guns on Alabama’s college campuses, legislation gaining some traction following the recent shooting at Northern Illinois University? The good Senator is quoted as saying: ” “Most university folks feel a no-gun policy is the best policy. I understand their feelings, but reality says otherwise.” Arm students and teachers and let everyone shoot at each other? I want to scream, “Have we lost our minds?” but I already know the answer.

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I am slogging home on an overcrowded train through an ice storm from a two-day conference in DC, exhausted but also energized. The conference, really a summit, was organized by the Coalition for Citizen Democracy, an umbrella of affiliated organizations promoting outreach and exchange, all with the same general goal – to engage Americans in the world. Citizen diplomacy is, according to the website, the idea that the individual citizen has the right, even the responsibility to help shape United States foreign relations “one handshake at a time.”  The breakout topics ranged from America’s tarnished global global image to the positive difference that organizations like the Peace Corps or the League of Women Voters are making. There was a focus on promoting international awareness beginning in high school  – not a moment too soon, I’d say. If you watch “Jay-walking” on the Jay Leno show,  which features folks on the street who know absolutely nothing about politics, geography, social studies or history or if you caught the popular You-tube video of Miss Teen USA South Carolina taking a verbal pratfall over a simple question, you realize that too many Americans are frighteningly ignorant.  Worse, too many people think that’s something to laugh about.

According to one presenter, more than 75% of Americans don’t hold passports, primarily I’d guess because they don’t need to, or want to travel. Maybe it’s because they believe the world will come to them. Possibly it’s because they’re concerned about traveling where they’re not liked. It’s too bad because we citizens really have some work to do; convince a highly skeptical and sometimes hostile world that Americans are not out to do them in.

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The primaries are over and we have a semi-clear front-runner on the Republican side, albeit one despised by a wing of his own party and no clear front-runner on the Democratic side. Voters and would-be voters, who seemed to be impassioned now seem to be getting worked up into hysteria. The media has a lot to do with whipping people into a frenzy which frankly whips me into a frenzy; the writing and reporting these days is often as ugly as the candidates’ assaults on each other. But no one is blameless, including voters and would-be voters. So herewith, a list of behaviors and actions which are FORBIDDEN – or would be if I had any enforcement power:

  • To the candidates: You are welcome, even urged to keep working towards the nomination of your party. We know you believe yourself to be uniquely qualified to be the next President of the United States. That doesn’t mean you’re entitled. So don’t you dare get personal or allow your surrogates to do it for you. Don’t incite your supporters to anger; you’ll just jeopardize the enthusiasm this primary season has generated against all odds. Think about what’s best for your party and your country. Know when to say no. If you need a lesson in graciousness, call Al Gore.
  • To the surrogates: Watch your mouths.
  • To the Democrat and Republican National Committees: Okay, it’s still going to be a two-party election. It’s your duty to highlight the policy differences between the candidates and make the case for your person’s stand on issues of concern. However, I don’t want to hear one word about “attack machines” or see them in evidence. I don’t want to see fingers pointing or party officials claiming “they started it!” And don’t let me catch you underhandedly funding outside private groups to run nasty Swiftboat-type campaigns and then claim you didn’t know.
  • To the media: Focus more on what is important, not which candidate cried, which one coughed, who snubbed who and who wore what. Since when is that political reporting? Special note to the editorial folks: stop trying to imitate the tone of the nastiest blogger or most venal radio talk host. A dwindling handful of us still depend on you to observe, analyze and share your insights but we’re not looking for you to gleefully wallow in your skills at being snide.  If I want shrill and nasty, I can hit any number of so-called political blogs or visit a chat room, where you can be exposed to some of the most paranoid, hateful and generally uninformed opinions to be found anywhere. But that’s democracy.
  • To the voters:  I’m not going to argue whether voting is a right or a privilege because what it is, first and formost, is a responsibility. Every citizen of this country over eighteen who has not been convicted of a Federal crime is eligible to vote. I’m already hearing supporters of one or the other Democratic candidates threatening not to support the eventual party nominee and several wing-nuts on the other side are urging their listeners to “stay home” on Election Day if a certain war hero is the standard-bearer. Are you people crazy? We’re halfway around the globe trying to stick democracy into countries where it might not take and you want to sit out an election in a country where it works? Don’t even THINK about it.

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There’s an amazing adrenaline rush that comes from being throughly invested in the outcome of a contest, second only to engaging in that contest directly. Human beings seem to love competition and if you can’t compete, pick sides and saddle up. Or so I was thinking as I was shouting myself hoarse at last night’s Super Bowl party.

I don’t follow football as a general rule; don’t take part in office pools or bet on draft picks.  But somewhere around December, I got caught up in the drama of the New York/New Jersey Giants (hey, I’m trying to be fair here). After all, they seemed to be playing their best football almost impossibly late in the season. Meanwhile, there were the New England Patriots, on their way to compiling a perfect record, although really, who’s ever perfect? As I watched the Giants appear to grow in size, stature, speed and maturity over the course of a few weeks, I started tuning in more. Then I was hooked.

I went to the party last night with high spirits and low expectations. I mean, it was a great ride but the Giants were up against a perfect team. Then the impossible happened and the rest, as they say, is history. The Giants scored a huge upset and became Super Bowl champs.

An uncharacteristically giddy Tom Coughlin, the Giants’ coach, summed up the victory aptly when he said, “Every team is beatable, you know.” Given what the landscape looks like as we approach Super Tuesday’s set of Presidential primaries , I’d say that was an apt motto to remember, you know?

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