Tuesday, January 24, 2012

She turned me into a Newt! (I got better)

To be clear, I do not think that Newt Gingrich stands a hope in hell of being nominated as the Republican candidate for president. There is simply way too much stacked against him: he has proved to be an inept campaign manager, he can’t come close to matching Romney’s money, the Republican establishment loathes him, and (perhaps most important of all) South Carolina played too perfectly to Newt’s strengths in a way that is highly unlikely to be repeated as the primary battle drags on.

My prediction: Newt rides the momentum of SC for everything it’s worth, fighting until his last dollar is gone. Perhaps he wins another, perhaps he comes close; in either case, he deals irreparable damage to Romney. I have to wonder if the worst damage hasn’t already been done: three states down, and the presumptive Republican candidate has won (then lost—the recount in Iowa went to Santorum) in a squeaker, won respectably in New Hampshire, and got his ass handed to him in South Carolina. This could potentially go on for a long time, and every primary and caucus that passes without Romney locking in the nomination bleeds him more. It’s not like four years ago in the protracted battle between Obama and Hilary—there, we had two strong candidates with devoted and indeed worshipful followings, and whatever resentment might have lingered, there was never any question that the loser would get behind the winner.

That isn’t a certainty here. Quite the opposite, actually. The antipathy to Romney is powerful, powerful enough to elevate wingnuts like Bachman, Cain, and Perry, a religious bigot like Santorum, and … well, honestly, I don’t know how to classify Newt. All of the above?

Mind you, I’m not totally counting out Newt. Just mostly. “Not a hope in hell” normally means no chance whatsoever, but having followed this carnival for what feels like ten years now, I don’t want to commit myself to the reasonable prediction. If I was a betting man, I’d say the good money’s on Romney … but I’d be really, really tempted to put a dollar down on Newt’s long odds. The old chestnut, “That’s so crazy, it might just work!” needs a re-jigging here. The Republican base is so crazy, they just might nominate Newt. How’s that?

For what it’s worth, I think an Obama-Gingrich showdown is precisely what the Republicans need. Would I be utterly gleeful to see Newt get destroyed by Obama? Yes. Would I be over the moon to watch the FOX/Limbaugh industrial-complex stymied? YES. A thousand times, yes. But I also want conservatism in the U.S. to return to its senses, for all our sakes. I think it needs its Goldwater moment again, to be so thoroughly destroyed that it has no choice but to reject the Palin/Bachman/Santorum wing of the party, to discredit the FOX contingent, and to embrace its intelligent spokespeople.

Of course, I say this knowing that a Gingrich-Obama showdown holds a 1% chance of Newt winning. At which point, Newfoundland doesn’t feel far enough away and I might start looking for English-language universities in Sweden.

Monday, January 23, 2012

And you thought "teabaggers" was bad ...

Oh, Rick Santorum ... as of this moment, you are the #1 reason Jon Stewart has the easiest job in show business. Seriously.

Apparently, Santorum has just launched a new fundraising group (or PAC, or SuperPAC, I'm uncertain of the distinctions these days), named "Conservatives Unite Moneybomb."

Got that? Yes. He has in fact started an organization whose acronym is C.U.M. Which meant that this morning I was treated to this headline in Google Reader:

(Which would not have been quite as bad if I hadn't been drinking a slightly gelatinous breakfast smoothie. Blerg.)

Besides going down (heh) as the most inopportune acronym since Canada's right wring briefly united under the moniker Conservative Reform Alliance Party, it also reflects so well on Santorum. Or at least it does from my perspective. His unrelenting and frequently unhinged attacks on gay marriage, gay rights, and the LGBT community generally echo the unreconstructed racism of people like George Wallace railing against civil rights even as the tide of history swamped them. That's what Santorum has to look forward to, but with a particularly cruel twist. Dan Savage's revenge--making "Santorum" synonymous with, and I quote, "the frothy mixture of lube and fecal matter that is sometimes the by-product of anal sex," and making it the number one result when one Googles the name--has effectively made the former senator's very name a joke ... and which added a rather revolting double entendre during the Iowa Caucus, when pundits and commentators spoke of him "surging" in the polls.

The Conservatives Unite Moneybomb won't do nearly as much as Savage's savaging, but it has the added bonus of being self-inflicted. And the fact that America's most vocally anti-gay mainstream politician will go down as a footnote to history forever associated with bodily fluids and gay sex ... well, to quote Buffy Summers, as justice goes, it's not unpoetic.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The appeal of Downton Abbey

We’re now three episodes into season two of Downton Abbey, and the show continues to enthrall and delight—a fact that has apparently flummoxed some commentators, not because they don’t like the series but because it seems odd that such a proper and mannered British period piece should find the audience(s) is has. What, it is asked, is the appeal?

The question seems to me at best ingenuous and at worst paternalistic, ignoring in the first case the fact that such stories have always had a broad appeal, and subtly suggesting in the second that if it doesn’t contain sensationalistic story and spectacle, contemporary audiences (especially non-English ones) won’t get it. Yes, the hidebound class system depicted in Downton is alien to contemporary social mores; and yes, the series proceeds at an appropriately stately pace, with little in the way of lascivious storylines (Mary’s near-affair with the Turkish diplomat being the exception, sort of), and much harrumphing among both upstairs and downstairs about tradition and custom and the difference in kind between the aristocracy and everyone else.

But to wonder why this all appeals to contemporary audiences doesn’t give enough credit to contemporary audiences, who know a good story well told when they see it. There was much the same sort of pondering during the Jane Austen renaissance in the mid-90s, starting with the Colin Firth Pride and Prejudice and continuing with the adaptations of Emma, Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion, and Mansfield Park (which, had a production of Northanger Abbey been done, would have run the gamut of Austen’s corpus). Why, everyone asked at the time, is Jane Austen so popular again?

Theories advanced at the time tended to focus on nostalgia, a wistful desire for the certainties of a stately and stable class system; Generation X (remember them?), stuck in their dead-end jobs and aimless lifestyles, thought longingly of the calm certainty of Mr. Darcy or Emma Woodhouse’s lives. The appeal of Downton Abbey, it has been suggested, lies in both the revisitation of Austen-esque manners, but also the social ferment underlying the action as WWI starts to show the fault lines in the British class system and heralds the slow decline of the British Empire. In a recession-stricken time, it has been suggested, the discomfiture of the aristocracy and the new possibilities for social mobility resonate with audiences angry at the predations of Wall Street.

None of which I disagree with—certainly the waxing and waning of Austen and the periodic prominence of such series as Upstairs, Downstairs, The Jewel in the Crown, and Downton Abbey reflect shifts in the popular imagination—but it does seem a little overblown to me. The better considerations I have read do get around to the more important question, “why now?” as opposed to just “why?” but then the appeal of Downton Abbey seems self-evident after watching just one episode … it is extremely well written, well acted, and well produced, and makes one want to know what happens next.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The unbearable cynicism of Mitt Romney

There once was a time during this extended carnival of the Republican race for the nomination that Mitt Romney seemed like the one sane person in the asylum, and his inability to establish a commanding lead an indictment of the current state of the Republican base. Seriously: the best thing that can be said about the successive surges of the non-Romney candidates—Bachman, Perry, Cain, Gingrich, and, most recently, Santorum—is that they all proved unsustainable, that in the end all but the most froth-at-the-mouth evangelical nativist wingnuts conceded that these people were at the very least unelectable. (I won’t speculate on how many would still be backing the likes of any of these candidates if they were conceivably electable; it’s enough relief to know the vast majority of Americans run screaming from the prospect of President Gingrich).

I’ve never liked Romney, always seeing him as basically fake, a reasonable simulacrum of what Hollywood imagines presidents to look like. But he was at least moderate and reasonable, as his record as governor of Massachusetts shows. And I can forgive a certain amount of flip-flopping in the name of campaigning, as that’s really just the nature of the beast. To be certain, I would have more respect for the man if he were to say something like “I passed liberal policies like health care in Massachusetts because Massachusetts is essentially a liberal state and I am not an autocrat.” Of course, that wouldn’t get him many votes among the party faithful, but it would earn him more respect than his relentless pandering.

At any rate, what I said two paragraphs ago about once seeing Romney as the sane one? Not so much anymore. And it’s not so much that he’s batshit as that he is appallingly, cynically mendacious. I watched his victory speech in the New Hampshire primary and was just left open-mouthed. It basically broke down to: (1) Obama is not American; (2) Obama is waging war on the private sector; (3) Obama is attempting to reshape America along a European socialist model; (4) hence, this election is about saving America’s soul; (5) and finally, Obama is an appeaser who wants to denude American military might, something he (Romney) will reverse and return America to its proper global military hegemony.
Seriously. Watch it:

When I hear someone like Michelle Bachman say this kind of horseshit, I’m at least convinced that she believes it. But Romney? He can’t possibly be that stupid.

These days I find myself increasingly reading conservative bloggers and essayists inveighing against precisely this kind of mendacity. When David Frum becomes the voice of reason in conservative circles, the time is out of joint. One of their frequent refrains is that such patently false accusations as Obama’s antipathy to capitalism—to say nothing of birtherism or the attempts to characterize him as an “anti-colonialist Kenyan,” to borrow Gingrich’s memorable phrase—completely miss the boat when it comes to issues on which Obama is genuinely vulnerable, such as his appalling record on civil rights and executive power (which, incidentally, are issues on which certain segments of the left and right vehemently agree).

Speaking as a committed liberal, the complete asshattery of the Republican presidential hopefuls distresses me on two fronts. The first is that I firmly believe a rational and reasonable right wing is vital to national discourse, not least because it keeps those of us on the left on our toes. The second is because it is not inconceivable that Romney might be the next president … and he has shown himself to be a man of no principle whatsoever, entirely beholden to whomever he happens to be wooing.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

An overdue lament

This is a long-delayed post, almost a month late. All things being equal, I was a little surprised at how affected I was by the death of Christopher Hitchens. I woke up the morning his passing hit the news to his voice—my clock radio blared him mid-invective, playing one of his more notorious anti-theistic speeches on the barbarism of circumcision, and my first thought was “My god, he died.” My second thought was that it would probably have irritated him that I prefaced my realization with “my god.”

My first real encounter with Hitchens’ writing came during my research for my dissertation, when I quoted an essay of his (collected in his book For the Sake of Argument) about Norman Mailer’s CIA conspiracy novel Harlot’s Ghost. The best part of it, unfortunately, had to be dropped into a footnote:

Harlot’s Ghost exhibits the typical Mailer touch of the ongoing question of self-definition of one’s manhood in a particular context, for which the undercurrent of homoeroticism is a constant and alluring tug. British writer Christopher Hitchens tells of the danger of questioning Norman Mailer’s heterosexuality to his face: paired up with Mailer on a talk-show once, Hitchens apparently prodded him a little too strongly on the question of just why, in novel after novel, the practice of sodomy figured so prominently. Why, Hitchens inquired, did Mailer seem so fascinated “by its warped relationship to the tough-guy ethos”? Apparently Hitchens pressed too hard—to the point where Mailer became incensed at the implication that he went in for such behaviour himself. While stopping short of offering to fight Hitchens, he some time later vented his ire in a vengeful interview with the magazine The Face, declaring that he had been attacked by “the London faggot literary coterie.” (Mailer named Hitchens, Martin Amis and Ian Hamilton as the vanguard of this “coterie.” Hitchens says that he and Amis considered writing a letter to The Face saying “that this was very unfair to Ian Hamilton, but dropped the idea.”)

What I love about this anecdote, even more now than when I first stumbled across it, is how clearly I can imagine Hitchens deftly pressing Mailer’s buttons. It’s a shame that, given the plethora of miscellany available on YouTube, I cannot find that particular clip.

I was soon to become more familiar with him in the aftermath of 9/11 and the lead-up to the Iraq war, his advocacy for which Hitchens lost many friends and became branded as apostate by former colleague on the political left. Hence in my first real exposures to his polemics, I found myself in constant disagreement with his arguments. But however infuriated his writing in favor of the invasion and prosecution of the war made me, I could not help but be impressed by his argumentation and style. As has been said by many of his opponents, the experience of reading Hitchens when you vehemently disagree with him is to say “I know you’re wrong! Now, just give me a day to get my evidence together,” because however violent the disagreement, one found oneself being persuaded by the force and rhetorical flair of his argument.

Hitchens never gave an inch on Iraq. Unlike many advocates of the war who later recanted (such as his friend Andrew Sullivan, another polemicist I greatly admire), he defended the essential rightness of the invasion until the end; and in fact doubled down in his memoir Hitch-22. But here’s the thing: I strongly encourage everyone to read his chapter justifying his support for that campaign (actually, I encourage everyone to read it entirely), not because he convinced me, but because he is so good at stripping away the pieties liberals and leftists are good at cloaking themselves in. I don’t think he makes an ironclad case, but he does make you think.

And in the end, that is what I will miss most about Hitchens’ writing—the fact that when I disagreed with him, he nevertheless made me face the weak elements of my position or, more significantly, those arguments I was channeling rather than constructing. In a lot of ways, I am just as happy to never have met him. He was notoriously pugnacious and pugilistic, combative, and frequently hostile. My own mild and milquetoast demeanour, I suspect, would not have gone over well with him.
The longer I spend in academia, the more I value those who fill the role of public intellectual—and the more that species seems to be passing from the earth. Hitchens was among the best, and he nicely summarized his personal philosophy in Hitch-22:

How … I am asked, do I find meaning and purpose in life? How does a mere and gross materialist, with no expectation of a life to come, decide what, if anything, is worth caring about? Depending on my mood, I sometimes but not always refrain from pointing out what a breathtakingly insulting and patronizing question this is. (It is on a par with the equally subtle inquiry: Since you don't believe in our god, what stops you from stealing and lying and raping and killing to your heart's content?) Just as the answer to the latter question is: self-respect and the desire for the respect of others—while in the meantime it is precisely those who think they have divine permission who are truly capable of any atrocity—so the answer to the first question falls into two parts. A life that partakes even a little of friendship, love, irony, humor, parenthood, literature, and music, and the chance to take part in battles for the liberation of others cannot be called 'meaningless' except if the person living it is also an existentialist and elects to call it so. It could be that all existence is a pointless joke, but it is not in fact possible to live one's everyday life as if this were so. Whereas if one sought to define meaninglessness and futility, the idea that a human life should be expended in the guilty, fearful, self-obsessed propitiation of supernatural nonentities… but there, there. Enough.

Even better is this:

I’d tell you to rest in peace, Hitch, but that really isn’t your style.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Best reads of 2011

Happy 2012! It has been some time since I have updated my humble blog, but one of my new year’s resolutions is to do one post a week. We’ll see how that goes.

I’ve missed a lot in the lag since early September, from crucial world events to the carnival of the GOP race for the presidential nomination, to my various reads and viewings, to the sad death of Christopher Hitchens. This last event came close to inspiring a post; I wrote a draft or two of my thoughts on the occasion, but simply have not been in a blog head space for some time.

But I’m back, and let’s hope I can maintain something of a regular schedule. I miss my blog.

I thought I’d lead off 2012 with a list of my favourite reads of 2011—though I should clarify that few of these books actually came out in the past year. They are, rather, just books I read and enjoyed. So without further ado …

Monique Truong, The Book of Salt 

The story of Binh, a Vietnamese cook forced to leave Saigon in the early 1920s because of his affair with the head chef of the Lieutenant Governor’s house—an affair less scandalous for being homosexual than for crossing racial boundaries. He ultimately ends up in Paris in the 1930s, employed by Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Besides being beautifully written—a feast in a variety of ways, and a must read for any literary foodie for its exquisite descriptions of food—it is a remarkably nuanced and deft critique of the “Lost Generation.”

George R. R. Martin, A Dance With Dragons 

As any reader of this blog will know, I have been an avid follower of GRRM’s Ice and Fire series since A Game of Thrones was in hardcover … and like my fellow readers, I had to wait four long years between books three and four, and six—six years!—for book five. Which would have not been nearly as arduous were the books not so good, so readable, and addictive. Dragons was so long in the writing that many of GRRM’s formerly diehard fans turned against him starting vitriolic websites devoted to attacking what they saw as the betrayal of his obligation to them as his readers. (For the best response to such whininess, see Neil Gaiman’s comments on the subject). Coming on the heels of the incredible achievement of HBO’s Game of Thrones adaptation, Dragons did not disappoint—full of GRRM’s trademark intrigues, complex plots, nuanced characters, and surprising twists, it was almost worth the wait.

Christopher Hitchens, Hitch-22

Hitchens was diagnosed with stage four esophageal cancer almost immediately after the book was published; it was during his initial book tour that he suffered his first collapse. I had put off getting his memoir for a while, until I realized that I was, without realizing it, waiting for him to die. I was horrified at this realization. I started reading it mid-October, and finished in early November. A month and a half later her succumbed to his disease, and I was genuinely saddened by his passing—after reading his elegantly written, often self-serving, but always riveting autobiography, it was like losing a particularly prickly and sometimes infuriating great friend. Love him or hate him, he was the best of a dying breed—the public intellectual. Would that there were more like him. It is an historical irony that Kim Jong Il died only a few days afterward; I like to think the North Korean tyrant held out so that Hitch wouldn’t be around to write his epitaph.

Anne Patchett, Bel Canto 

Quite simply one of the most beautifully written novels I have read in a long time. The story of an unlikely group of people brought together by a hostage situation in a nameless Central American country. A meditation on music, love, passion, and language.

Terry Pratchett: Thief of Time, The Colour of Magic, Snuff, The Light Fantastic

I continue to work my way through the vast corpus of Pratchett’s Discworld novels, which he seems to write almost as fast as I read them. Not counting the young adult novels, the current Discworld crop stands at thirty-five books, of which I have now read twenty-six. Snuff is the most recent. I am currently at work on a few articles about Pratchett, and so this has become a professional concern … but then, that’s one of the reasons I love my job.

Colson Whitehead, Zone One

A few years ago, I read Whitehead’s novel The Intuitionist, and was blown away. He is one of the most critically acclaimed contemporary American novelists, an African-American whose writing offers a truly challenging and unique take on race in America today and the entire concept of “post-blackness”. So when I read reviews of this, his most recent novel, and saw that it is his version of a zombie apocalypse narrative? Sight unseen, I put it on the fourth-year seminar I’m teaching this term. And while I have once or twice put books on courses without having previously read them, they’ve usually been well-worn canonical works I’d been meaning to read for some time. So I went on faith this time—and was not disappointed. Exquisitely written, it is at once an innovative take on the zombie genre, a valuable addition to American dystopian literature (I paired it on my course with The Road), and a painful love-letter to New York City.

Justin Cronin, The Passage

Speaking of post-apocalyptic undead yumminess: Cronin’s novel combines the best of the zombie and vampire genres into a truly terrifying narrative. And that’s all I have to say about that.

Jamie Fitzpatrick, You Could Believe in Nothing

This one is a pleasure to plug: Jamie is a friend, and so it was with delight that I found his first novel to be a (a) exceptionally well-written, and (b) totally fun and engaging, even as it was (c) vaguely disturbing to a man approaching middle age. This is a novel about hockey and Newfoundland, and the troubled masculinity of a protagonist hitting his middle years with not a heck of a lot to show for it all. If I was to suggest an analogue here, it would be Philip Roth: sport as a metaphor for fraught national and regional identity and the waning of male virility and confidence. But it has none of Roth’s pretension or self-regard, and is inimitably at once a Canadian and Newfoundland novel.

Ned Sublette, The World That Made New Orleans 

I have to thank my friend and colleague Andrew Loman for turning me onto this one. While I was researching a paper on the HBO series Treme, Andrew suggested I read Sublette’s incredibly engaging and readable history of how New Orleans jazz became New Orleans jazz. Sublette does not shirk the history, going back to the original settlements of the Gulf coast, and beautifully explicates the complex relationships and interactions between English, French, and Spanish conquests and colonizations, and in the process provides one of the best histories of slavery in the Caribbean I have yet encountered.

Tim Cook, At the Sharp End 

This was a Christmas gift from Kristen last year, and this year she got me the sequel Shock Troops. These are the best popular histories of Canada in World War I that I have encountered—extremely readable while also scrupulously researched. Sharp End tells the story from the start of the war to the aftermath of the Somme. It balances the broader history and the individual stories of soldiers in the trenches. One emerges with a vivid understanding of both the political realities and the horror of battle. A must-read for any military history enthusiast.

Lev Grossman, The Magicians 

This novel is at once a fabulous corrective to Harry Potter and Narnia, and a cracking good yarn in its own right. Grossman takes the conceit of a school for magicians out of Rowling’s twee realm of the British boarding-school novel and turns it into a brilliant satire of the privileged culture of exclusive small east coast colleges. Quentin Coldwater is a brilliant and gifted student from Brooklyn with his eyes set on Princeton when he is recruited by Brakebills school of magic. He is also secretly obsessed with a series of fantasy novels that are a transparent analog of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books; unsurprisingly, after many hardships and adventures at Brakebills, he and a handful of friends discover that Fillory (the Narnia clone) actually exists, and they make their way there. What I loved about this novel was that it pushes its derivative elements well past the point of simple parody. The novel is no mere satire: it is deadly serious, and its bald-faced borrowing from Rowling and Lewis acts as a trenchant critique of those books flaws and shortcomings. The second book in the series, The Magician King, sits now on my desk.

Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind, The Wise Man’s Fear 

Must-reads for fantasy enthusiasts. Kvothe is a former hero whose exploits are known across the land, but has gone into quiet and deliberately anonymous retirement as an innkeeper. For a variety of reasons he decides to tell his story to a chronicler, and that is how the narrative unfolds. Extremely well written, Rothfuss’ world is richly imagined and the plot compelling. If it has a flaw, it is in somewhat thin characters at times, and a tendency to be somewhat repetitive by the end of The Name of the Wind. This is somewhat corrected in Wise Man’s Fear as young Kvothe is forced to leave his university education and go out into the world. Neither book exactly ends on a compelling note, however; unlike GRRM’s Ice and Fire books, finishing Rothfuss’ does leave me frantic for the next installment.  

 Stuff I was ambivalent about

Kathryn Stockett, The Help

This was one of those rare novels that worked better for me as a film—mainly because actors Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Allison Janney, and Jessica Chastain all brought a depth and nuance to their characters that was lacking in the novel. The novel was, to give it its due, a good read, and very well written; and it did a useful job of reminding contemporary readers just how pernicious and hateful—and all-encompassing—Jim Crow laws were. But at the same time, there was something a little cheap about it. It never hurts to remind ourselves what the pre-civil rights South was like, but Stockett effectively gave herself an easy target in the much larger realm of race in America. There are few today outside the enclaves of white supremacist compounds who would not cheer long-suffering Aibeleen and irascible Minny and boo smug, superior Hilly (and feel satisfying schadenfreude when she gets her well-deserved comeuppance). Which makes it a pretty safe narrative in the end. It is a bit ironic that one of the novel’s frequent allusions is to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, which is also all about a virtuous white person helping African-Americans find their voices in the racist south. The difference is that when Lee wrote that novel, it was brave of her to do so.

Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion 

Dawkins spends a chunk of time at the outset of the paperback edition of his atheism manifesto debunking the criticism that he is “shrill” in his denunciation of religion. He presents a coherent argument to the contrary, but you know what? He is shrill. Though perhaps “shrill” is the wrong descriptor. He is, rather, disdainful and dismissive; he is glib and mocking when a more measured argument would be more likely to carry the day. Which is not to say that I wasn’t impressed by the book—perhaps more than anything however, I learned interesting things about science. To paraphrase Toby on The West Wing, the best answer to the question “Why are you preaching to the choir?” is “Because that’s the best way to get them to sing.” For me, this book was preaching to the choir. But unlike Hitchens’ God is Not Great, The God Delusion didn’t exactly inspire me to join Dawkins in song. The melody was just too discordant.

Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games Trilogy (The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, Mockingjay

If I had stopped with the first book, I’d have many more glowing things to say. But in the end, I found the series disappointing, mostly because it fell into a hackneyed teenage love triangle with utterly no affect. The dystopian world Collins imagines is at once plausible and chilling, and the framing conceit of the Hunger Games themselves a useful turn on a not-uncommon SF trope. But beyond that, I was generally unimpressed.