Saturday, January 28, 2006
This weekend a titanic political battle is being joined. On Monday, the U.S. Senate will debate the lifetime appointment of Alito to the current swing seat on the Supreme Court, an appointment likely to affect interpretation of Americans' constitutional rights for a generation or more. The Republican-dominated Senate has scheduled a vote to end debate for Monday evening. Their schedule calls for Alito to be confirmed in time to sit in clear camera range for Bush's state of the union speech on Tuesday.
To suspend debate requires a two-thirds vote of the Senate. Last week, Senators Kerry and Kennedy began an attempt to rally Senators to prevent "cloture," the end of debate leading to confirmation, and essentially organize a fillibuster. News media immediately characterized this as a doomed, quixotic effort, and wondered why Senators would risk the label of "obstructionists" in future elections.
Kerry and Kennedy began in a highly interesting way. Apart from the usual means, Kerry sought support from his formidable e-mail army, and both Kerry and Kennedy made direct appeals to the Southpaw blogosphere, especially Daily Kos. Both have posted there, and Kennedy held a conference call with bloggers of the major sites. Kerry has an on-line petition to register opposition to Alito's appointment.
A number of "netroots" and other political organizations have joined the fight, arming thousands with the phone numbers, fax numbers and email addresses of target Senators. All these efforts had enough success (one of my Senators, Dianne Feinstein, announced she was against the filibuster before she announced she was for it) that this weekend is crucial, and what seemed a frustrating exercise is within reach of success. Especially since the Senate's Democratic leader Harry Reid joined it.
The strategy of this fight is significant in that it shows that major Democrats have recognized that the usual news media are no longer a mixed bag of ideological partisanship,and subconscious partisanship towards both parties; plus laziness, ambition and incompetence within a basic structure and tradition of sound journalism based on sound journalistic principles.
They are recognizing that television news is now openly partisan against them, through ideology-driven management and management devoted only to profit, with no respect for sound journalistic principles or practice; plus fearful, subtly corrupt, ambitious, incompetent, pack-and-camp following, richly cynical, intellectually dim and professionally lazy reporters and editors. Print journalism is not far behind.
So they have appealed to the public through the Internet, during this time when the Internet is free. I don't expect it to be in any sense free in the near future, but for now, it offers some political counterbalance to the Empire.
There are partisan political reasons to support the fillibuster, if only to sour The Big Smirk's smirk on Tuesday night, when he can't point to his new Supreme Court pet purring next to his wife. But for all the emphasis on partisan politics in the blogosphere, individuals who participate are often driven by principles and ideals. They are upset at the prospect of Alito changing the Court dynamic to favor expanded totalitiarian power, further decimating rights of non-wealthy, non-corporate Americans, allowing even greater environmental destruction, and overturning Roe v Wade, among other searing issues.
As of today, this is still an uphill battle. So among the exhortations, there is this from Senator Kennedy in his conference call, "You don't ever lose fighting for principle, for what is decent and right. You don't ever lose when you have the power, the force of being correct." This is not idle rhetoric--it comes from a veteran Senator who has endured many slanders and many defeats defending and asserting principled positions. For instance, he has championed universal health care well before any other major political figure still in the fight. Kennedy was virtually a lone voice in the 1980s, and eventually he was instrumental in getting some incremental help for some Americans.
And at Daily Kos, frontpager Armando---whose speciality is law and Supreme Court matters, and who has often returned to precedents and principles in the Lincoln presidency--offers this quote from Abraham Lincoln:
Neither let us be slandered from our duty by false accusations against us, nor frightened from it by menaces of destruction to the Government nor of dungeons to ourselves. LET US HAVE FAITH THAT RIGHT MAKES MIGHT, AND IN THAT FAITH, LET US, TO THE END, DARE TO DO OUR DUTY AS WE UNDERSTAND IT.
It's a great day when Lincoln can inspire again.
Friday, January 27, 2006
The online version of the North Coast Journal article on blogging now has hot links in place. There's nothing like actually looking at what the article is talking about to give the article real dimension. It's one of the beauties of the Internet. Kudos to the staff, as busy as they are.
When my interview with Australian radio was set to start, the interviewer called to say there had been "a small explosion" in the studio and could he call back in a half hour? Yes, and he did, and we had a good conversation, though my mouth wasn't working at maximum efficiency. I know what it's like to have to scour a tape to find clearly enunciated and pronounced sentences that make some sort of sense.
Now I'm scheduled to do an hour of on-air chat a couple of Monday mornings from now on the Jefferson radio network, six stations in southern Oregon and far northern CA. We'll be taking your calls...
Right now, on a surprisingly sunny day (all clouds in the forecast) I'm stuck at home waiting for the Cable Guy. Does everybody expect him to look like Jim Carrey? I do, and I didn't even see the movie. We've been getting poor reception for some time on broadcast stations, though not always the same ones. (Both TVs.) I'm dreading this encounter, which is why I put off calling for so long. But the Steelers are in the Super Bowl, and that makes a clear picture serious business.
I'm dreading it partly because we're now a non-priority customer (my phrase). Several months ago I dumped all but the basic channels (broadcast plus public access, C-Span, and gee I guess I got some Religious Ranters channels too). I would have kept some cable channels, but it was an all or nothing choice. Still, without the increasingly maddening and depressing cable news channels, my quality of life has improved, and my cable bill is down to $12 a month.
That probably does not make the cable company happy, and I suspect our bad reception is semi-intentional. They make their money on the premium channels. They may be happier if we ditch their service altogether than hang on at this profitless level. Paranoia? You don't know capitalism as its practiced today. Few people even realize that cable companies enter into agreements with local municipalities to serve the public interest as a condition of being granted a monopoly. One of those quaint holdovers of the past. But we'll see.
UPDATE: Cable Guy was here, it all went pleasantly, and it's more or less fixed. Even though the problem was probably with VCR connections, he gave me new connectors without charge. It reminds me that as hard as Cox makes it to even talk to someone there (and getting a notice on their cable access is needlessly complex), once you get to the local people, they usually go out of their way to help... Unfortunately however the sun is now gone. That's the North Coast.
This is not Mozart. This as a matter of fact is J.S.Bach.
Just because this is Mozart's 250th birthday is no
reason to ignore Bach, who will be 321 in March.
Or even Ludvig van, who was 235 in December.
It's simple justice is all I'm saying.
Happy birthday Amadeus.
Volume 1: Into the Frey
A previously unpublished writer tries to sell his self-help novel and ends up getting it published as a memoir. (Details and part one of our handy analysis here.)
In his book, the man called Frey confesses to, well everything that Augustine does in his Confessions---all the sins and mis-spent youth (for similiar before-and-after, add the Buddha, St. Paul, Thomas Merton, Sebastian in Brideshead Revisited, etc.) but to the max: selfishiness, drunkenness, drug addiction, violence, jail, a lover's tragedy, another lover' tragedy when his girlfriend commits suicide on the VERY DAY they are to be reunited when he's released from jail--it's got everything! It's got sure fire success because it's got TOO MUCH of everything (gotta stand out in the crowd of incest victims, abuse victims, and vice versa and etc.).
Yes! It's sin, sorrow, Conversion, Suffering and the Big Redemption. Which leads to Oprah and her book club, and the books are selling like---well, like Oprah's book club books sell. Only MORE. BIGGER. The author Frey himself gets on Oprah and basks in the sunshine of her approval. The book is powerful, because It's All True. The hero has returned from his quest to share his wisdom with his people.
But just when the hero is about to stride off into the sunset, the dirty smut peddling Internet Enemy shows up, and calls out the golden boy. Says he's a liar, big time. My gosh. What will happen next?
Volume 2: The Frey Strikes Back
Frey defends himself at the broadcast court of Larry the King. He admits there's maybe a fib here and there, but nothing important to the Story. The Story is True.
He sits on the other side of that vast expanse of table, not with his lawyer or even his editor, but with his Mom. Character witness. So Mom is there to support his claim-- no the boy wasn't a suburban wuss whose jail time added up to a few hours in the suburban police facility waiting for ride, he was a drug-addicted, violent drunken bad-ass, Mom believe him and she couldn't be prouder.(Where was she at the time anyway? Sorry--not part of The Story.)
But Mom's testimony is not as important as Oprah's. Her surprise, unsolicited call--swooping in like the Millennium Falcon to save Luke's ass---tells the world that maybe he did fib a little but his Story was important to people--the Redemption! The Redemption!
But just as it looked as if our hero had escaped the jaws of certain death again, and well before he could ascend the stage for his medals while singing his theme song, Who's a-Freyed of a Million Little White Lies?.....
Volume 3: Revenge of the Freyed
Now there's Oprah on her own show, with the erstwhile Hero and his Adviser (not his Mom this time, but his editor!) --but not for praise! No no no! Reversal of fortune! Sudden and Devastating!
Oprah with her flashing furious eyes. Oprah who says she is "humiliated." Oprah apologizes for her witness to the King. She gave the impression that the Truth does not matter. She has Guests, Important Heads all, all of whom intone, the Truth Does So Matter.
The hero is there, no more a hero. He looks terrified, frightened, a-freyed. But Oprah the Prosecutor presses him--is this true? Is that true? (The girl didn't really commit suicide on the day you didn't get out of jail, didn't she? Or did she?) Not even Frey knew for sure. Did he REALLY have a tooth pulled without novocaine? He really, truly, honestly...couldn't remember. The audience BOOED. The mob has made him, the mob has turned against him! What irony! What television!
The Jimmy Hoffa defense doesn't wash. Nobody likes that dishonest fifth amendment anyway. Come on, the whole Redemption thing loses its punch if he didn't feel REAL PAIN as that molar came screaming out by the roots. I guess.
Anyway, the hero is brought down. He is stung with the whips of scorn, crucified on national TV! So now it's the Hollywood story---the struggle, the rise, the triumph, the fall. What could possibly be next?
Come on. You know what's next. Resurrection!
And it begins with: gee, I've really learned my lesson this time. Some say Oprah smiled her forgiveness, others that she indicated her satisfaction, though with what, no one can yet say.
But let's not get carried away. Resurrection---not too many can pull that off. And this tattered and Freyed copy of a writer--convicted of overweening Ambition, Greed, and pathological Lying--is not a likely candidate. He may end his days drinking with Jason Blair.
No, Volume 4 may not be The Frey-Shammed Resurrection. It may be more like: oh no, over my dead body! They are not getting the money back! The Frey Fugitive: Escape to the Freyman Islands! Which at the moment he could afford. Stay tuned! But don't hold your breath.
Addendum: Beyond what this all says about greed and credulity and uncertain reading skills, there's another issue better highlighted by a somewhat similiar case: several books purporting to be by a Navajo named Nasdijj, another suffering and redemption narrative, this time about harsh life on the reservation. It turns out there is no Nasdijj, and the books were written by a white man nowhere near the reservation, described as "a semi-successful gay porn writer" in the same online piece that quotes Sherman Alexie, an actual Native American who is a distinguished and excellent writer (and caught on to Nasdijj as a phony early on, but couldn't get anyone to believe him) stating an essential point about all this: "The backbone of multicultural literature is the empathy of its audience--their curiosity for the condition of a group other than themselves. Nasdijj is taking advantage of that empathy."
This is a vital feature of not only multicultural but all literature. Keeping faith with the reader is a precondition of empathy. And empathy is one of the major social functions of literature, especially in relation to the needs of the future.
Thursday, January 26, 2006
The North Coast Journal cover article on local blogging is out and online, with my first-person contribution. At the moment at least, the online version has no hot links (although I supplied a bunch, so that may come later in the day.) So if anyone who got here by way of the article, welcome, and if you are curious about my very first blog entry, it's here at Blue Voice. It was supposed to be the first of a series of comic riffs on the mythical town of Pluto, California, but for some reason I never did another one. Good idea, though. Maybe? Maybe I'll revisit it.
If you're curious about my other blogs, they're linked in the column to the left here, just below the ads. I love the ads. I haven't seen a penny from them, but I'm interested in how they change. Sometimes they accurately reflect the subject of a post, but at other times trying to figure out why they're there is mind-boggling, if not hilarious.
So far (just after noon on publication day) traffic to this site hasn't changed noticeably. Maybe a few more hits from Humboldt, along with the usual, like one from an Air Force base in Langley, VA, home of the CIA. Thanks to free online tools, anybody can engage in their own domestic spying, or counterspying.
Bob Doran begins the blogging article with an anecdote about Judy at his dentist not knowing what blogging is. Of course, given Arcata's size, I also know Judy, and I go to the same dentist.
Here on the coast of far northern California, trends arrive fully formed from elsewhere, late. When I arrived in 1996 there was but one cafe in town (a small one that doubled as the place you paid for a hottub) and not counting the donut shop. Now there are at least four more in Arcata, and as happened in Seattle in the 80s and Pittsburgh in the early 90s, they started small and local and have branched out.
Of course we're glad if some trends never get here. The landscape outside of town is the landscape I remember outside of my hometown in Pennsylvania when I was a child: green grass and cows. Now the western PA highway a fifty mile continuous commercial free-fire zone of fast food, malls, shopping centers, big boxes and so on, from the Laurel Highlands right into Pittsburgh.
Online trends are the most evanescent; they exist in cyberspace, which takes intention and special equipmet to go there. Otherwise it, or any portion of it, doesn't exist. Personally I haven't even dipped a toe in the water of podcasts or podcasting. Hey, I just learned to use a little basic html for my dkos etc. posts. I want to bask in a sense of accomplishment for awhile before I venture farther.
Thanks in particular to Fred, who wrote about local blogs in his blog, including one of mine, and who posts comments here, I do read several of the local blogs. (So naturally there is a discussion, including fuming, about the story going on at his blog.) As a newspaper reader I would have liked to see other bloggers voices in the story, as the Journal did last week with young local artists (a fascinating story by Helen Sanderson. ) I didn't see any of the blogging piece before publication, apart from the thousand words I was asked to write. I'm not complaining, just saying.
But now I need to accelerate the day's schedule so I'll be ready to talk to a radio documentarian in Australia this afternoon. He's interviewing me on Wal-Mart, the malling of America and related subjects, due principally to my review of Wal-Mart books in the SF Chronicle Sunday, but also an op-ed piece I did for the LA Times, "The Great Malls of China." Apparently when China sneezes, Australia gets bird flu. I get interviewed now and then, though they tend to come in clumps, and not always because I've published something new. I do them partly because I usually learn at least as much from the person interviewing me as they do from me.
The mourning has begun, quietly. NBC has announced that The West Wing will not return for another season. It wasn't much of a shock when NBC cancelled American Dream before this season, another show we watched every week. But it seemed unlikely this series would go to the trouble of a creating a season-long cliffhanger--who would be the television President next year?--when there wasn't going to be a next year.
But of course, it was a business, not a creative decision, taken by a network that has lost its touch in both areas. The real world had already intruded with the death of John Spencer, one of the original West Wing stars. Now we're truly bereft, with no president but the so-called "real one," and Geena Davis, who will have to do.
I got a retroactive sense of this cancellation's inevitability in the reaction of a bunch of young whiners at Salon. One didn't like West Wing because it was unrealistically intelligent, and besides, her actor boyfriend does like it. The one contributor who wasn't busily displaying his hip cynicism had to apologize because watching West Wing made him feel good admitting it was "corny". But it was okay, because he knew it was corny.) These are apparently the viewers that advertisers pay attention to. Good luck.
The Internet attracts nitpickers, so I shouldn't expect anyone to simply acknowledge that at its worst The West Wing was an interesting hour of television not about criminals or crimestoppers, and at its best it was great. But the real reason I remained loyal was the simple fact that since 2000, President Barlett was my President, the chief executive of our alternative reality. I wasn't sure Jimmy Smits was going to do it for me, but I was willing to give him a try---and he's been looking and sounding like an acceptable substitute lately. (Not Alan Alda, sorry. One Republican president at a time is way more than enough.)
The idea that all we are to be left with is Bush may be too much to bear. Somebody has to set the standards, remind us of ideals, of intelligence and acting morally even in difficult or complex situations. The uber-hip Salon writers sure don't.
Maybe The West Wing's real sin was frequently articulating issues better than either politicians or the news media. We can't let a mere TV show even slightly slow down the collapse of civilization.
So we're left with the White House of Commander in Chief, now the property of the Bochco family, and its chief of staff, Tom Szentgyorgi (who I wrote about long ago when he was a young up and coming playwright.) Not a terrible alternative. However, for the best writing on contemporary issues as well as some of the best and funniest acting and general bizarre entertainment, we watch Boston Legal.
We're trying out that new series, Injustice, and still enjoy Numbers. Other that these, it's DVDs of Northern Exposure---its third season has some of the best television ever. No wonder old TV shows are the hottest trend in DVDs. Sure beats the tube. Or reading Salon.
The world is as sharp as the edge of a knife, says the Haida proverb, and the image of the knife’s edge or the razor’s edge as a narrow space of safety or certainty between dangers and chaos is widespread.
In our either/or culture, moral questions seem like huge expanses separated by definite borders. Abortion or anti-abortion, Evolution or Creationism, Red State or Blue State, and so on. But the test of moral questions is in the narrow space at the knife’s edge, where the stakes are high but the answers are not so easy.
Still, our politics, our “culture wars” admit of only two sides, and only opposite conclusions. Yet the same people who deride racists or the Right to Lifers and their “abortion is baby-killing” as extremist, will march with blood-curdling yells under signs demanding “Zero Tolerance” for one thing or another.
Of course, this is not to say there aren’t moral principles or moral issues in the political realm. There are, and there are political banners it’s necessary to march under. Often the clearest issues have to do with expanding rights—or, as in the case of many 60s causes beginning with Civil Rights, making Constitutional rights real by enforcing them with law and practice. But even rights are more complex in practice, because reality is way more complicated than slogans or even principles.
The Right To Die
Take the “Right to Die.” Some states have passed laws which describe general circumstances in which doctors can help patients medically defined as “terminal” to end their lives painlessly and at a time of their choosing. Those patients are said to be exercising their “right to die,” which creates an exception to laws against murder and also suicide, bizarre in any case, in that the successful criminal is beyond direct punishment.
Even if granted in principle, the morality of this right to die is complicated in reality because of the danger of abuse, which our bureaucratic, capitalistic and either/or society makes all but certain. The right to die becomes the right to kill for the hospital’s bottom line or even perhaps the family’s profit (in harvested organs) or convenience.
Does that mean such laws should not be passed? No. It's just that we need to think beyond the all-or-nothing discourse of politics, and the whose-side-are-you-on of the “culture wars.” Actually, I do support such laws, though I believe the need to place yourself in the hands of institutional medicine or to lose control to anyone, makes your fate dependent on the dice you can’t even watch being rolled. Despite my doubts, not of morality but of misuse, my reason to support such laws is very practical: I want the right to have the plug pulled before the hyenas of medicine-for- profit bankrupt people I love. With a civilized health care system, I would not be confronted with that possibility. But we make actual moral decisions where and when we are in the world as it is.
There are few more extreme us-versus-them, either/or issues that the fascinating battle over a scientific theory first proposed more than a century and a half ago.
Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection---“evolution” in the TV commercial version---is pitted against various stories that have in common an “intelligent” (if not Supreme) designer or Creator. That the idea that a Creator (however defined) could have created life forms by means of evolution over time almost never enters the debate (even though the wily Catholic Church once thought this was an elegant solution). This suggests that the debate is about a great deal more than biology.
It is quite often categorized as Science vs. Religion. The rise of science and technology define the modern age, and so do the controversies over their uses and misuses, both real and imagined, and especially their proper domains.
Adherents of particular religious beliefs and members of specific religious organization do engage in these conflicts with science and its representatives. But these particular fights also reveal more general conflicts involving questions of the claims and power of this era's kinds of science.
As is often the case with two opposite and extreme camps, each begins to take on qualities of the other. The religionists set up institutes and fund those who build a case for their beliefs in the language of science, while some scientists proclaim their version of Darwinian evolution as a dogma, even against their colleagues and allies employing good scientific method.
Extremes also lead to more extremes. While some Christian fundamentalists maintain beliefs that go against even commonly accepted knowledge (affirming a particular Biblical interpretation that claims the planet is only a few thousand years old, for example), some scientists are so defensive that they will admit no possibility or mystery or suggestion of transcendence that smacks of “religion,” which would place Einstein, for example, in the camp of delusion.
There is a kind of highly destructive war on science in Bushworld, though its purpose is at least as much to defend certain corporate interests as to support any religious belief, even for political purposes. This has made an already extreme situation more extreme.
In America the imagery of this war of the either/or goes back eighty years to the Scopes trial, where e-vil-ution was demonized as anti-Christian, and opponents of Darwinism were caricatured as ignorant hayseeds and backward idiots. But even then, there was more to the conflict than meets the single-image seeing eye.
History shows that the idea of evolution was already being co-opted by proponents of particular philosophical and political views even before Darwin’s theory was published. “Survival of the fittest” became a justification for the rich oppressing the poor. And that was just the beginning.
Darwin produced what is basically a description of a mechanism for how certain processes work to govern biological change in common plants and animals over time. But others used this kind of inexorable and impersonal machine logic to justify predatory capitalism, imperialism and “might makes right” military conquest in the so-called human realm. By these interpretations, the “dark Satanic mills” of England, the slaughter of Indigenous populations throughout the world, and the march of Hitler across Europe, were all manifestations of evolution.
Speaking of Hitler, 19th and 20th century proponents of eugenics also co-opted the Darwinian mechanism. These theories were used to justify discrimination against a wide variety of ethnic groups (including all that my ancestors belonged to.) Historian Bethany E. Moreton writes:
“The textbook at stake in the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial,’ Civic Biology, calmly pointed out that if the retarded, the insane, the criminal, and the epileptic members of the human family were animals, ‘we would probably kill them off to prevent them from spreading.’”
So perhaps there is something to the fear that being told your are descended from animals might get you treated like one. The textbook's statement is ironically reminiscent of William Bennett’s recent claim that crime rates would fall if all black babies were aborted, although the biology book’s statement has the virtue of probably being literally true, while Bennett’s statement does not.
In fact, for much of the past 200 years, all change---destruction of the land, of communities and families—was justified as progress, itself a particular interpretation of evolution. Some people objected to this, including some of those backward farmers in the American South.
The point isn’t that anti-evolutionists were right, but that they weren’t all wrong. It was all much more complex than any dramatic either/or.
The world is as sharp as the edge of a knife. The dilemmas we face in the real world are more difficult that what opposing teams shout at each other. Consider the plight of Christian fundamentalist parents who love their children and want them to prosper, and who realize that the basic mechanism of evolution in ordinary plants and animals—proven every day in high school biology labs---is fundamental to the science those children must learn to get the education they need. Or the scientist whose daughter is a drug-addled mess because her school is ruled by another scientist who believes her mechanism needs adjusting, since there is clearly nothing so unscientific as a psyche, let alone a soul.
The knife edge the Haida literally live on is a strip of land between the ferocities of the sea and the dangers of the forest. But both the sea and the forest nourish them, physically and in spirit. They are the source of good and of evil in the Haida's universe, and so they are not just feared or just praised. They are respected.
Wednesday, January 25, 2006
I may have been too hasty in declaring all the hummingbirds gone. A few days after I posted my goodbye, I glimpsed one at the feeder. I haven't seen one since, but I've kept nectar in the feeder and after a few days of stasis it's gone down considerably today, and it shouldn't have been because of the wind, as there hasn't been any.
So my working theory at the moment is that there is at least one hummingbird still around but it has increased its range because there are fewer food sources at this time of year, so it comes around our yard less often. We've had two warm, sunny days in a row, which also might mean a local hummer shook itself out of its torpor (a sleep-like state during which it conserves energy) for a big dinner.
The books say that Anna's Hummingbirds live year round on the Pacific coast, and that Allen's hang around the longest of those that migrate. Which raises the possibility that migrating hummingbirds have stopped by for a meal. In any case, I'm still looking, and refilling the feeder.
Tuesday, January 24, 2006
While the chair of the Senate committee investigating federal "response" to hurricane Katrina accuses the administration of trying to run out the clock without providing information ("My staff believes that [the Department of Homeland Security] has engaged in a conscious strategy of slow walking our investigation in the hope that we would run out of time to follow the investigation's natural progression to where it leads,"), the Washington Post has found some highly damaging documents which show that "In the 48 hours before Hurricane Katrina hit, the White House received detailed warnings about the storm's likely impact, including eerily prescient predictions of breached levees, massive flooding, and major losses of life and property..."
To be somewhat flippant about it, Katrina is the new 9-11. It is the nexus of certain kinds of fears and insecurities, in a situation that is more likely to recur and affect more Americans than another terrorist attack.
A government that cares about the future would be working to fix the system that failed, rather than hiding its failure.
Sunday's San Francisco Chronicle Insight published two opinions concerning James Frey and his fabrications in his bestselling memoir, A Million Little Pieces: one by Martha Sherrill, a young writer whose first novel has just been published, and the other by novelist Cynthia Bass.
Sherrill had herself accepted a big publisher advance to write a memoir but found it paralyzing. She felt more comfortable turning the same material into a novel, though she found that readers were still hungry to know what in it was "real" or "true." Though the controversy over the accuracy of Frey's memoir has provided him with even more publicity, she writes that "I do think there's a way he might be helping novelists everywhere. Once they're over their shock and sense of betrayal, Frey's readers might come to realize the fictional bits were some of the best moments in his book -- that without those thrilling embellishments it would have been just another true story. Maybe next time they go to the bookstore, they'll decide to try the real thing: an honest-to-god novel. "
Novelist Cynthia Bass writes that the Frey fray should be a cautionary tale, about just how much "truth" is in any non-fiction. The vagaries of memory, the limitation of one perspective, and the exegencies of telling a good story mitigate against certainty. She points out that before recently memoirs were by famous people concerning public events, with facts that could be easily checked. But memoirs these days are personal stories by previously non-famous people, usually of lurid events--addictions, incest, etc.-- with an arc of redemption. Their factuality has to be taken on faith. "If I claim to have hit a home run at my last at-bat at Fenway, you can look it up. If I claim to have hit a home run at my last at-bat at Patrick Henry Elementary, that's impossible to confirm. "
Yet the authenticity of personal memoirs is even more important to readers (hence the Frey fray.)"The unspoken bond of trust between reader and author is breached. Deliberately doing this to a reader is, for an author and a publisher, as close to a sin as you can get in the world of writing. "
Bass acknowledges that new writers are under tremendous pressure to write in the memoir form because it is potentially so much more commercial than all but a few novels (Only the latest Harry Potter novel has apparently been outselling Frey's first book.) She admits that she was asked to write a memoir instead of a novel and was tempted; and that other writers she saw commenting on the Frey fray found nothing wrong in whatever inventing he did. "The prevailing sentiment is to do whatever it takes. Which is just what Frey did. After failing to sell his book as fiction, he said it was a memoir." She suggests "a rearrangement of attitude: less cynicism from the producers, and more from the consumers. There's nothing more dispiriting than learning what you thought was true -- what you hoped was true -- was a lie, perpetrated for money, ambition and fame. "
But while both Sherrill and Bass make valid points, neither they nor Frey have addressed the most importance qualities of non-fiction or fiction.
I haven't read Frey's book but just the excerpts I saw in the now-famous Smoking Gun analysis were so plainly outrageous, melodramatic and exaggerated, that I didn't believe them on their face. I hope for the sake of his readers than in context they were made more convincing by better writing.
Clearly, the memoir's popularity has something to do with an immense hunger for certain kinds of redemption stories. That is apparently more important than any fact to these readers---the journey from sin to redemption---and especially the redemption-- forms "the truth" of the story for them. Perhaps these memoirs and their redemption stories are an outgrowth of the recovery movement, and the spreading of various new ways of approaching behavior and the big questions of life, from simplified psychology to the varieties of religious experience.
But some prominent writers and teachers, like philosopher Martha Nussbaum (Poetic Justice)and psychologist Robert Coles (The Call of Stories) have found that real literature still speaks to people on a very personal level, and helps them see themselves and the world around them in new ways.
What troubles me beyond truth in labeling is the simplistic analysis of fiction as embroidered memoir. Novels are more than stuff that happened , touched up for effect, like a Photoshop portrait. There is little sense in what either of these novelists said of what a literary work can be, of its complexities and resonances. Children don't seem to have any problem dealing with the literary intentions of the Harry Potter books, so it's not like contemporary readers can't handle it.
Novels are more than "thrilling embellishments." They are stories with their own integrity, following their own necessities. Literature is something alive ; truth is in the reader.
The cynicism of the writers Bass refers to is pretty troubling, especially in an age of institutionalized cynicism, as represented by current commercial capitalism and political fundamentalism. While I see nonfiction as a literary form, I believe that what Frey did was beyond the bounds of nonfiction storytelling; it was dishonest. What little I read wasn't even good pulp fiction, so the intention to deceive for profit wouldn't surprise me in a work that obviously stresses the extreme for easy effect. If so, it's mirror cynicism: a paint-by-number Best-Selling Memoir using the most lurid colors in the box.
We face complex problems in the present affecting the future, and we will face ever more complex situations requiring relatively quick decisions in that future. We need leaders and citizens who can apply the complexities learned from literature to understanding the dimensions of the future and to help them craft solutions to the problems that emerge. This is not a pipedream: it has been a feature of leaders in the West and East throughout history, though not uniformly, and its absense in current U.S. leadership is tragically clear.
It is also not a panacea, as history shows, especially if not widely shared by the citizenry. But literature is accessible to more citizens than ever before, as are opportunities to acquire the skills to augment intuitive responses. These skills are as just as important for an informed citizenry. Lacking leadership in this regard, it becomes a personal and family responsibility.
While we're on the subject of literature, I've still to complete my Jim Harrison journey in this blog. I will, in at least one more essay---sorry, I mean post---and when they're all done, I plan to post them in narrative order on my books blog, Books in Heat.
Monday, January 23, 2006
Bush is back, all right--to his lowest poll numbers: 36% approval for his job as president, 37% among registered voters, according to the American Research Group. Perhaps the most chilling number: all of 14% believe the U.S. economy is getting better, which is half of an already low percentage in December (30%).
How Halliburton Takes Care of the Troops
"Troops and civilians at a U.S. military base in Iraq were exposed to contaminated water last year and employees for the responsible contractor, Halliburton, couldn't get their company to inform camp residents, according to interviews and internal company documents,"according to the Associated Press .
Not So Fast, Scalito
Saying that "Judge Alito may be a fine man, but he is not the kind of justice the country needs right now. Senators from both parties should oppose his nomination. It is likely that Judge Alito was chosen for his extreme views on presidential power..." a New York Times editorial came out today against Alito's confirmation to the Supreme Court.
Many Democratic Senators, including Dianne Feinstein and John Kerry, have announced their opposition, with Kerry mobilizing his online forces. Only one Democrat has said he'll vote in favor, which seems to ensure that the Democrats have enough votes to enforce a fillibuster. It's not clear yet if they will "extend debate," or if the Republicans will actually use their majority to change the Senate rules to outlaw fillibusters entirely. But the easy path to the Court predicted just days ago seems a lot rockier at the moment.
And it's significant that even if the Democrats on the Judiciary Committee couldn't make an effective case on the topic, the Times zeroed in on Alito's "extreme views on presidential power." Which may be a reason that the Bushites are becoming so aggressive on the topic, well in advance of congressional hearings on the NSA widespread spying on Americans.
Guiding Indians to the GOP
Whether or not Republican operatives and pet blogs are being all that successful in spreading the grief of the Abramoff scandal to Democrats, the facts are coming out that while Indian tribes Abramoff was advising continued to donate to Democrats, he advised them to switch more of their gaming revenue contributions to Republicans. Though the Washington Post writer who started a firestorm when she wrote that Abramoff donated to both parties (he didn't) backpeddled on that, she defended herself by saying that his clients did, which is technically correct, but not at his behest. But the Post's Deborah Howell at least made one thing clear. On the charge that "I was trying to say it was a bipartisan scandal, as some Republicans claim," she wrote: I didn't say that. It's not a bipartisan scandal; it's a Republican scandal, and that's why the Republicans are scurrying around trying to enact lobbying reforms.
Two things you should know about the Steelers going to the Super Bowl. First, for Pittsburghers, wherever they live now, this is a Big Deal. Second, this truly could not happen to a better team, from owners to players. And I mean better as people and citizens.
The Pittsburgh Steelers and Pittsburgh/western Pennyslvania bonded forever in the 1970s, when the team became a winner for the first time in its long history, and the city began losing the anchor of its identity, its steel mills. Pittsburgh was a working class city, a city of immigrants, some of them rich, many of them working their way into the middle class. But pretty much top to bottom it was a city that shared some values in common: family, tradition and civic virtue. Not that there wasn't crime, corruption and the alcoholism, abuse, intolerance, anti-intellectualism and all the other vices of their virtues. But there was and is a certain character that has its values and strengths.
But when the mills went, so did a lot of Pittsburghers. The city's lost just about half its population. The city government is about bankrupt. But even with the new emphasis on high tech, medical, educational and cultural institutions, the old identity remained. But it was no longer anchored by the mills. It was invested in the Steelers.
The Steelers became the city's heart and heroes, the NFL their deeply felt living metaphor for their confrontation with the larger world, though of course never articulated that way. But that's part of the meaning when one fan--an operations manager in a telephone call center---told a Pittsburgh Post Gazette reporter: "This is not just a game. This is football."
Pittsburgh is the heart of Steeler country. While the Steelers were dueling with the number one ranked team in football, the Indianapolis Colts, last week, eight out of ten televisions that were turned on in the city were tuned into the game.
But the steel mill diaspora, as well as the fascination some fans who never lived here have with the Steelers mystique, means that the Steelers have ardent fans everywhere in America and all over the world. In Denver Sunday:
"An estimated 8,000 Steelers fans watched the game at Invesco Field. Many stayed well after the victory, waving their Terrible Towels in the corner of the stadium above the exit to the Steelers' locker room until security finally had to ask them to leave," Pittsburgh Post Gazette.
I saw another estimate that about 1500 fans traveled from Pittsburgh for the game. That means more that 6,000 live in Colorado.
When I wore my Steelers cap after the game here in far northern CA, somebody congratulated me for the Steelers win. At first I felt silly about it, but then, sure, I earned it--I was a hometown fan of the 70s teams, but I also suffered through Bubby Brister and Mark Malone and Neil O'Donnell, and a couple of decades of broken hearts.
As for the Steelers themselves, there is no one more revered in a city that reveres its cherished elders than the late Art Rooney. He was legendary as much for his individual kindness and his civic generosity as for his guiding the Steelers through thin and thick. Loyalty was important to him in large ways and small. He was the man who bought the Steelers, their first owner. And even in their great 70s years, I remember talking to a sports writer who had left the city for awhile. He got regular postcards from Art Rooney. Eventually he had to come back.
His son, Dan Rooney, is the team owner now. He also has an unassailable reputation for kindness, loyalty and civic virtue. The fact that the Steelers have had only two owners, both in the same family, is reflected in the fact that---almost unheard of in football--it has had, over the past 35+ years, only two head coaches: Chuck Noll, and his successor 14 years ago, Bill Cowher.
And in the national Blue-Red Game, the Black and Gold are True Blue.
The 2005-06 team is not only the best in many years, it has the best people. The reason that Steeler players and fans are so happy that Jerome "The Bus " Bettis is finally going to his first Super Bowl in perhaps his last season, and the game is being played in his hometown of Detroit--is that they all love him. He has established the team character which young Ben Roethlisberger is carrying forward: the Bus is a kind, loyal man, and a stand-up guy.
The Bettis family is in reality what TV commercials had to invent for another team. His mother and father, who have attended every game everywhere in his professional career (except two pre-season games overseas), in fact had the entire Steelers team to their house one year for Thanksgiving dinner.
I'm sure the Seattle Seahawks are fine people, and that city is happy to finally send a team to the championship. But it's hard not to believe that this year is our year. This Steelers team has a destiny.
Sunday, January 22, 2006
You could see him on the sideline shouting, "Home! Home!" Jerome Bettis is going home to Detroit and to his first Super Bowl in what could be his final NFL season.
An emotional speech to the team apparently inspired the Steelers, along with excellent coaching and preparation, as they became the first team to come from the lowest in ranking among playoff teams to get to the Super Bowl.
Pittsburgh Steelers 34
Denver Broncos 17
Congratulations Steelers! Hello Pittsburgh!
Business journalist Charles Fishman begins with a disarming story of how Wal-Mart produced an environmental benefit when the company decided that paperboard boxes around cans of deodorant were unnecessary. So they disappeared—not only from Wal-Mart but from everywhere—thereby saving many trees. But the reason Wal-Mart did this, and the reason everyone else followed, are also the key factors in a new kind and extent of destructiveness.
Read the rest of my review of two new books on Wal-Mart in today's San Francisco Chronicle Book Review . Or the longer version at Shopopolis.
Karl Rove made a speech promising that Republicans will make national security their key issue in the 2006 congressional elections, drawing a contrast between their "post-9-11" agenda and the Democrats' alleged "pre-9-11" worldview. Some Washington Democrats were apparently already quaking in their slippers at the prospect of being perceived as soft on terrorism by squeaking too loudly about the Bushites ongoing attempt to make the presidency a dictatorship while shredding the Constitution.
If that's not enough, Osama bin Laden shows up for the first time since just before the presidential election in 2004 to remind people why they should be scared. If Osama isn't on Bush's payroll, he should be. Who has been more important to the Big Smirk-- Rove or Osama-- seems pretty much a tossup.
So what's a Democrat to do? While some thought must be given to political realities, it's time to step up. If Al Gore's speech wasn't clear enough, listen to columnist Molly Ivins:
"The recent death of Gene McCarthy reminded me of a lesson I spent a long, long time unlearning, so now I have to re-learn it. It's about political courage and heroes, and when a country is desperate for leadership. There are times when regular politics will not do, and this is one of those times. There are times a country is so tired of bull that only the truth can provide relief. "
While the Repubs have managed perceptions well enough to keep people scared of Democrats almost as much as of terrorists, maybe it's not so dangerous out there as Dems may imagine. As Molly points out:
"What kind of courage does it take, for mercy's sake? The majority of the American people (55 percent) think the war in Iraq is a mistake and that we should get out. The majority (65 percent) of the American people want single-payer health care and are willing to pay more taxes to get it. The majority (86 percent) of the American people favor raising the minimum wage. The majority of the American people (60 percent) favor repealing Bush's tax cuts, or at least those that go only to the rich. The majority (66 percent) wants to reduce the deficit not by cutting domestic spending, but by reducing Pentagon spending or raising taxes.
The majority (77 percent) thinks we should do "whatever it takes" to protect the environment. The majority (87 percent) thinks big oil companies are gouging consumers and would support a windfall profits tax. That is the center, you fools. WHO ARE YOU AFRAID OF?"
We do know who they are afraid of: the America people who have been so easily made afraid. So what Al Gore said bears repeating:
"Is our Congress today in more danger than were their predecessors when the British army was marching on the Capitol? Is the world more dangerous than when we faced an ideological enemy with tens of thousands of missiles poised to be launched against us and annihilate our country at a moment's notice? Is America in more danger now than when we faced worldwide fascism on the march-when our fathers fought and won two World Wars simultaneously? [Here I think he meant to say "consecutively."]
It is simply an insult to those who came before us and sacrificed so much on our behalf to imply that we have more to be fearful of than they. Yet they faithfully protected our freedoms and now it is up to us to do the same."
These are times that try men's souls. That doesn't mean these are just difficult times. That means they are times when souls are on trial.
John F. Kennedy's book, Profiles in Courage, is about politicians who became statesmen and patriots in moments of crisis and importance. We need the material for new chapters, and soon.