Aug 30, 2008

The New Globals

"At the center of this optimistic future is a group he labels the 'First Globals,' consisting of the current 18- to 29-year-olds across the United States. This group, he finds, is 'the most outward-looking and accepting generation in American history... far more likely than their elders to accept gays and lesbians. For all practical purposes, they're the first color-blind Americans and the first to bring a consistently global perspective to everything from foreign policy to environmental issues to the coffee they buy, the music they listen to and the clothes they wear." And they feel far more connected personally to the rest of the world. They expect to travel to exotic locales such as Cape Town and Dubai. 'A quarter of them think they'll end up living for some significant period in a country other than America,' Zogby notes."

— review of The Way We'll Be: The Zogby Report on the Transformation of the American Dream by John Zogby

Aug 29, 2008

“There's a fine line between clever and stupid”

The most purely political decision in the whole campaign — mischievous, startling, Rovian, impulsive. It feels like a stunt — a firework, lobbed into his opponent's lap. McCain was boxed in, and so played the wildest card he could find. It helps him rally the base and combat the out-of-touch theme, but at the same time takes Obama's inexperience off the table, reignites McCain's age and health as issues and reopens the charge of recklessness: He had only met once before he gave her the job and only for 15 minutes. She is also under investigation for corruption charges and will have to take time off from campaigning to be deposed; the bipartisan investigation will deliver its verdict five days before the election. Did he even vet her? Was he thinking she wouldn't get questioned about national security or foreign policy? That she needn't both her head with that stuff? "I make them as quickly as I can, quicker than the other fellow, if I can," Mr. McCain wrote of his decision making process, with his top adviser Mark Salter, in his 2002 book, Worth the Fighting For. "Often my haste is a mistake, but I live with the consequences without complaint." These are a pilot's instincts. Are they a president's?

The election in one word: 'Enough!'

So he finally showed why he is so lethal. He sits and he waits and he listens to what you have to throw at him, and then, when he's sized you up, seen your best shots, and he's sure that you've exhausted yourself, he puts you on the floor: Enough.

That speech gave me species pride. If aliens landed tomorrow and said, so what have you got, what can you humans do, I would point to Barack Obama's acceptance speech for the democratic party nomination and say "there. That's what we can do. What have you got?"

God knows how the Republicans come back from that. What do you say? How do you clear your throat, put up your hand, and seek to formulate some kind of reply? Its hard to pick a fight with such eminently reasonable positions without looking cramped and peevish. Obama didn't just do his own positions proud, he did his opponents own positions better than they do. He came up with everything they might possibly say about him and then pre-rebutted it. It made you wonder why on earth they had the idiocy to raise it in the first place.

Weak on national security? "You don't defeat a terrorist network that operates in eighty countries by occupying Iraq" — the last word on the matter. "John McCain likes to say that he'll follow bin Laden to the Gates of Hell – but he won't even go to the cave where he lives" — a year's worth of schoolboy boasting cut down to size. "If John McCain wants to have a debate about who has the toughness and temperament to be commander in chief, that is a debate I am willing to have." It is one they no longer need to have.

Perhaps the most devastating line was this: "I don't believe that Senator McCain doesn't care what's going on in the lives of Americans. I just think he doesn't know". Its one thing to demolish your opponent, but to do so while extending so charitable an interpretation of their motives is in another league altogether. Ditto the wonderful, Sorkinesque passage at the end neatly filleting three hot button issues — abortion, gun control and gay rights.
We may not agree on abortion, but surely we can agree on reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies in this country. The reality of gun ownership may be different for hunters in rural Ohio than for those plagued by gang-violence in Cleveland, but don't tell me we can't uphold the Second Amendment while keeping AK-47s out of the hands of criminals. I know there are differences on same-sex marriage, but surely we can agree that our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters deserve to visit the person they love in the hospital and to live lives free of discrimination.
He made reason look so easy. And he keeps getting better. Tonight, he looked awfully close to being unbeatable.

Aug 27, 2008

Sorenson on Obama

"Kennedy at 43 proved that age matters in the White House. His energy, appeal to other young world leaders, calm under pressure and openness to new thinking, well served our nation. Denounced as a candidate for lacking executive experience, he displayed sound judgment in leading a successful nationwide campaign, choosing a top-notch team, negotiating with difficult leaders, and out-organizing and out-thinking his adversaries—just as he would as president, particularly when, with prudence and courage, he induced the Soviets to withdraw their nuclear missiles from Cuba without the U.S. firing a shot; and the world gave thanks that the more experienced Richard Nixon had lost that close election." — Ted Sorenson, JFK's speech-writer, at the Democratic convention today

Aug 24, 2008

Returning to form, in perpetuity

Woody Allen's new movie, Vicky Cristina Barcelona has been hailed as the "best Woody Allen movie in years", just like the last one. Why is every Allen movie these days hailed as a return to form? They can't all be. Its like each return to form comes, and goes and is forgotten just in time for the next return to form. With so many returns, doesn't any one of them, you know, stick around?

It's pretty thin stuff — a lubricious fandango satirising women's infatuation with the creative temperament, as embodied in the hunky form of Spanish painter Javier Bardem. Johansson doesn't seem to have figured out she's the butt of the joke; Cruz knows and doesn't care, which makes her performance hilarious. Rebecca Hall both knows and cares, and it registers in every frame: she gives a wonderful performance, intelligent, fragile, her face swimming in and out of its beauty, depending on the scene. I can't wait for her to be in something else.

Aug 23, 2008

Biden bites


More of a mauling, perhaps — but impassioned, fiercely moral and hard as flint. Great stuff. (Although if I were McCain's campaign manager, I'd put out an ad that goes: "Given a choice between change and experience, Obama picked experience. Which will you pick?")

Jerky rivulets of rain

In his new book, How Fiction Works, critic James Wood renews his objections to John Updike's sumptuous prose style, quoting the following description of a window pelted with rain from Of The Farm:

Its panes were strewn with drops that as if by amoebic decision would abruptly merge and break and jerkily run downward, and the window screen, like a sampler half-stitched, or a crossword puzzle invisibly solved, was inlaid erratically with minute, translucent tesserae of rain.

“Aestheticism is the great risk here, and also an exaggeration of the noticing eye," says Wood, who claims Updike turns "detail into a cult of itself.” The New York Times, however, reminded me of Nicholson Baker’s U & I, in which Baker singles out for praise the very the sentence Wood so dislikes:

I cried at the aforementioned description of the raindrops on the window screen like a crossword puzzle or a ‘sampler half-stitched’: it killed for the time being a patch of screen description of my own, but that didn’t matter, because Updike’s paragraph was so fine that my competitiveness went away; and when I found that Elizabeth Bishop’s 1948 New Yorker short story called The Housekeeper also had a screen whose clinging raindrops ‘fill[ed] the squares with cross-stitch effects that came and went,’ this parallel only demonstrated to me how much more Updike could do with the same piece of reality: he had lifted it from the status of incidental setting and made its qualities part of the moral power and permanency of his mother’s house.

I mention this only because I recently tried to describe, in my novel, those jerky rivulets of rain you get running down windows panes. I called them the "jerky rivulets of rain." That's the difference between me and Updike, I guess.

Aug 22, 2008

The houses have legs

Finally, the Obama campaign hit gold. The fact that McCain couldn't remember how many houses he has is a damaging and hilarious fact: that makes it endlessly repeatable. (The fact that he was, in all likelihood, only pretending not to remember only makes it the more painful). McCain has hit back with the allegations about Obama's associations with Tony Rezko, but the main problem here over-complication. I'm still not sure what it is Obama is supposed have done. Moreover, McCain has spent the last month telling us this guy is Britney Spears, the political equivalent of Pepsi — bland, popular, empty. Reverting to plan A (portraying him as a shady radical with criminal associations) feels, at this point, like the leftover from another campaign. The charge lacks the element of simplicity and truth necessary to make it stick. That's why the celebrity ads were so effective. They picked up on something everyone knew about Obama (he's popular) and turned that positive into a negative. Obama has now done the same. Everyone knows McCain is rich: now that fact links up with his economic heedlessness, and his age. Synergy.

Aug 21, 2008

Thomas Pynchon, king of blurbs

"Recently, Post Road magazine published Pynchon’s collected blurbs from the years 1966 to 2003 — more than two dozen in all." — New York Times

I've been trying to think of people to blurb my new novel, which is all about a reclusive author, flushed out of hibernation. The thought had crossed my mind of asking a real reclusive author for a blurb, but assumed i would run into the problem of, well, their reclusiveness. How wrong I was! Pynchon is blurb king! He has blurbed The Testament of Yves Gundron, a first novel by Emily Barton; Jim Knipfel’s memoir Slackjaw; and The Restraint of Beasts, a Booker-nominated novel by Magnus Mills, which he called “a demented, deadpan-comic wonder.” He has also written the liner notes for Nobody’s Cool, the second album by the alt-rock band Lotion.

It just shows you how hard you have to work at this recluse thing. Someone sees you down the bodega and you're not really a recluse any more, are you? Spotted waiting in line for a bus and — hey — it's all over. Writing liner notes for rock bands is oddball enough to qualify, but blurbs? I guess you don't really know where he was when he wrote them. He could have dashed them off from an oil rig, or the caves of Tora Bora. But still: they're such a positive, effusive activity, the literary equivalent of a high five. They don't comport well with the sour mood and scowling misanthropy we expect of our recluses.

Ellen and Portia say "I do"

"I do a lot of things differently now. I say "I do" a lot. For example: Who wants to do Pilates? I do. Would you like a Mountain Dew? I do. Do you know why I pulled you over? I do. and that was just this morning"

Kafka's porn

In a new book, Why You Should Read Kafka Before You Waste Your Life, James Hawe takes on the myth of Franz Kafka as a gaunt, melancholy, saint-like seer — a "lonely Middle European Nostradamus". From a review in The Observer:—
Rather, he lived with his parents and was set up with a relatively cushy job (six hours a day for the equivalent of £58,000 today), leaving him plenty of time to write. Thanks to his literary connections, he won a major literary prize in his early thirties before even publishing a book. He was not tragically unrequited in his love affairs; nor was he virtually unknown in his lifetime.... Hawes's Kafka is a canny, funny, worldly man who liked to relax by socialising with his many friends, visiting the occasional prostitute — and reading porn.
It makes me think of that great Woody Allen sketch in Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex but Were Afraid to Ask, in which a man finds himself turning, not into a cockroach, but a giant marauding breast.

Aug 20, 2008

"I'm not running for monarch"

Obama said that the other day when questioned about his FISA compromise. By which he meant: The President is not an absolutist leader. The comment struck me as startling if only because its hard to watch the election — and you don't just watch the election, as succumb to it, sink into it, get swallowed up by it — without the sensation that a monarch is what America is voting for. The howls of outrage that greeted Obama's statement that he would meet with unfriendly foreign leaders, and now his comment that deciding the issue of abortion was "above his pay grade" can only be explained that way. America is voting for a monarch: someone whose every whim and prejudice will dictate the course and quality of life in this country, who wages what wars please him, decides such age-old conundrum as when life begins, and who can even lower the price of gasoline! What startling powers this King has! Another instance of the Bush hangover the country labours under. Still drunk on the unparalleled executive power accrued to the presidency under his tenure, we don't feel much like sobering up. Hair of the dog that bit me, please.

What Obama is getting lashed for is nothing more radical than a return to a pre-imperial presidency. You remember: The sort of president who must work with congress, has no power to wage war, cannot overrule the law citing executive privelage, and who is commander in chief of the United States Army and Navy not the whole country. The sort of president they talk about in the constitution.

Whose war is this? (Clue: its not yours)

Obama has returned fire on McCain's charge that he would "lose a war in order to win an election", rightly defending himself from the insult on his patriotism. But what about the implied insult to the voters? It is no less strong.

Let's unpack the logic: 1) voters want to end the war. 2) Obama will win the election by appealing to those voters. 3) McCain dislikes Obama for doing this. What McCain doesn't seem to have noticed is that by snarling at Obama for this move, he's also snarling at the voters themselves. For what he implies is that the voters' desire to end the war is nothing but lily-livered foolishness. The idea that we might oppose the war because we genuinely, and in good faith, think it a bad idea simply doesn't occur to him. We are simply fools, to be duped or countermanded.

Hence the need for men like Bush and McCain to tell us only so much as they think we need to know, in order to get the go-ahead to pursue their war, for reasons known only to themselves. In other words: get your hands off my war, I know best, trust me. You know what? I don't and here's why: there is not a single instance in John McCain's career in which he decided that military force was not the answer. He believes we should have stayed in Vietnam. In 1990, four months after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait he asserted that "the peace and security of the world for future generations [demand] that the world community act decisively to end the Gulf Crisis now." In January 1994, he described North Korea's nuclear weapons program as "the most dangerous and immediate expression" of "the greatest challenge to U.S. security and world stability today." In an April 1999 he said that "America's most important values—life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—are under vicious assault by the Milosevic regime," requiring mobilization of "infantry and armored divisions for a possible ground war." In 2001, he was calling for war with Iraq six months before Bush was (“Next up, Baghdad!”) and has not wavered in his belief that military occupation is the best way to deal with terrorism —"this is a transcendent struggle between good and evil. Everything we stand for and believe in is at stake here." Really? Most experts give Al Qeada precisely zero chance of winning.

And now here he is saying that Russia's invasion of Georgia was "the first probably serious crisis internationally since the end of the Cold War." A demonstrable untruth. Max Bergman summarises:
The big concern with a McCain presidency – a concern which I am surprised has not been vocalized more fully – is that the U.S. will lurch from crisis to crisis, confrontation to confrontation, whether it be with Iran, North Korea, Russia, Syria, Saudi Arabia, etc. The danger is that McCain’s pundit-like rhetoric will entrap the U.S. in descending spiral of foreign policy brinksmanship. Just think about the very likely scenario of McCain giving Iran/Russia a rhetorical ultimatum and Iran/Russia ignoring it. Now we are stuck - either we lose face by not following through on our threats or we follow through and go to war. We can’t afford such a reckless approach after the last eight years.

Hellfire on a dimmer switch

It turns out that the woman with whom John Edwards had an affair, Rielle Hunter, provided the inspiration for my Alison Poole the narrator of my favorite Jay McInerney novel “Story of My Life”. A flightly actress/model/whatever, Alison spends her time hopping from club to bedroom to shower, in ardent pursuit of Mr Wrong:

It seems like his idea of wild is argyle socks. But it’s O.K., I like straight guys, I’d never go out with anybody who’s as irresponsible as me. Most of the guys I know have really high-powered jobs and make up for lost time when they’re not in the office. The Berserk After Work Club. I seem to attract them in a big way, all these boys in Paul Stuart suits with six-figure salaries and hellfire on a dimmer switch in their eyes.

Hellfire on a dimmer switch in their eyes? Hunter's tastes may have calmed down a little at least acccording to McInerney himself, who ated her back in the late eighties. "When I met her, she was bubbly and fresh and honest. She was afraid of nothing," McInerney told the NY Daily News. "She was doing a lot of drugs at the time - but so was I and everyone else. It really surprises me. She's not attracted to conventional guys - and Edwards, with his haircut and all, is a conventional guy."

Aug 19, 2008

The jerk versus the goof

Andrew Sullivan names one of McCain's contributions to the political lexicon: the reintroduction of the word "jerk."
If he likes you, and you work for him, you're an "incompetent jerk''; if he likes you, and you're a bunch of reporters writing down his bons mots, it's "What do you want, you little jerks?''; and if you're a kid who's just asked about his age, and he wants to show that sure, fine, he likes you anyway, it's "Thanks for the question, you little jerk. You're drafted.''
I like the affection of it, and the archaism, much as I like it when Richard Dreyfuss calls that driver a "turkey" in Close Encounters. The candidates always time-travel a bit with their put-downs — Obama called himself a "goof off" in high school, which is so early eighties. It appears to have stuck. Reporters called the shot of him on a bike rearing a helmet "goofy", opponents have called him "a goofy looking guy with big ears" although SNL writers complained that he is not "goofy enough."

Aug 18, 2008

McCain lifts 'cross' from Solzhenitsyn?

Leaving his shovel on the ground, he slowly walked to a crude bench and sat down. He knew that at any moment a guard would order him to stand up, and when he failed to respond, the guard would beat him to death, probably with his own shovel. He had seen it happen to other prisoners. As he waited, head down, he felt a presence. Slowly he looked up and saw a skinny old prisoner squat down beside him. The man said nothing. Instead, he used a stick to trace in the dirt the sign of the Cross. As Solzhenitsyn stared at the Cross drawn in the dirt his entire perspective changed. The man then got back up and returned to his work —The Sign of the Cross, Luke Veronis
Sound familiar? McCain told the same story about his POW experience in Vietnam the other night. McCain is a big Solzhenitsyn fan ("a writer with unusual gifts, utterly devoted to his art, brilliant and exacting") but as No More Mr. Nice Blog points out the story is entirely absent from all of McCain's in-depth accounts of his captivity. The story first saw the light of day in his 1999 book, Faith of My Fathers — co-written by his speechwriter Mark Salter:
For just that moment I forgot all my hatred for my enemies, and all the hatred most of them felt for me. I forgot about the Jerk, and the interrogators who persecuted my friends and me. I forgot about the war, and the terrible things that war does to you. I was just one Christian venerating the cross with a fellow Christian on Christmas morning.
In other words, the story emerged only after he started running for office. In 2000, he road-tested the story in the New York Times, but about someone else ("a scared American prisoner of war in Vietnam ....Both prisoner and guard both stood wordlessly there for a minute or two, venerating the cross, until the guard rubbed it out and walked away").

I have to say: this seems awfully like someone limbering up for a lie. First you try it out in the third person, to see how it sounds, then — since it now no longer seems like all that much of a stretch — you swap third for first, and bingo, you're up and running.

Aug 17, 2008

The jewish man who keeps me sane

“In some respects, the heavier subjects are the ones that are most loaded with opportunity because they have the most — you know, the difference between potential and kinetic energy? — they have the most potential energy, so to delve into that gives you the largest combustion, the most interest..... those types of stories that can, almost like the guy in ‘The Green Mile’, suck in all the toxins and allow you to do something with it that is palatable.” — Jon Stewart, in the New York Times
There are many things to like about that quote, not least the nerdiness of actually knowing the difference between potential and kinetic energy, and the suppleness to go with the metaphor and arrive at "combustion." It's got all the accuracy and rigour of his comedy. Stewart has performed an enormous pubic service these past few years. Not just because he is he funniest thing on TV, a position he has maintained for eight year. He has been the only broadcaster to run regular stories on Guantanamo and the torture of detainees, while every other network lowered its head and looked the other way. In England, he would be on course for a O.B.E. Here he is just a satirist.

Faith without works

I went to bed last night depressed. McCain did a better job than Obama at the faith forum. He didn't sound like a man of faith, he gave short simple answers: Drill now, defeat evil, etc. Obama gave long thoughtful answers that indicated some kind of spiritual compass: not what the audience had come to hear, funnily enough. They had come for chunks of red meat. They recognised that old rascally Republican DNA in the air — bellicose, simple, exciting — and responded to it, as if to the cologne of their favorite gigolo. Which makes me think the country is poised on the cusp of repeating exactly the same mistake they made with Bush. We recognise, reluctantly, the mistake of voting for belligerent men who think with their gut. And yet, how hard it is to kick the habit! How seductive they are! Maybe this one will be different!

(By the way, when Obama said that deciding the issue of abortion was "above my pay grade" he meant, not "there's not a job on the planet above the pay grade of the President of the United States," but: I am not God.)

Aug 15, 2008

Force the wine peep through their scars

A fascinating post today from Andrew Sullivan on McCain:—

The pattern throughout his career has always been seeking out the supremely moral position in a losing conflict. And here comes Georgia, plucky little Georgia, doomed throughout history to be perched between Russia and the Black Sea, with a newly elected McCain-like figure, Mikheil Saakashvili, thumbing his nose at the biggest bully on the block. What's not for McCain to love? McCain long championed the persecuted people of Iraq; and he came to the defense of the beleaguered Bosnians. He is passionate about Burma and Darfur. You name a lost cause and he will rally to it.

This is psychologically very acute. I've long suspected a streak of masochism to McCain — not just a willingness to be punished but an instinct for seeking it out. The rascally asides and hangdog humor, the misbehaviour in the Navy and nose thumbing of his Vietnamese tormentors, the Keating Five scandal and subsequent apology, the fondness for quagmires like Vietnam and Iraq, where the aim is not so much victory as it is honor — sucking up the punishment without a peep. In Shakesperean terms he is that glorious loser, Mark Antony, rallying his troops for one last night of celebration before his show-down with Caesar:
I will be treble-sinew'd, hearted, breathed,
And fight maliciously: for when mine hours
Were nice and lucky, men did ransom lives
Of me for jests; but now I'll set my teeth,
And send to darkness all that stop me. Come,
Let's have one other gaudy night: call to me
All my sad captains; fill our bowls once more;
Let's mock the midnight bell... to-night I'll force
The wine peep through their scars. Come on, my queen;
There's sap in't yet. The next time I do fight,
I'll make death love me; for I will contend
Even with his pestilent scythe.
No wonder he loves Brando so much. Electoral prediection number 2: if he becomes president, disgrace will follow. Not disgrace of the order of Watergate or Abu Ghraib, and maybe of scallywag laugh-it-off variety, but disgrace there will be, followed by the doleful acceptance of censure, the heartfelt apology and so on.

Aug 14, 2008

The swiftboating begins

List of the things Jerome Corsi gets wrong in his book The Obama Nation:

The facts of his father's divorce, his mother's maiden name, his college drug use, the existence of his sister, his job straight out of college, the dates of his attendance of United Trinity church, his positions on the global poverty act, nuclear weapons and abortion. He fabricates: a false childhood friendship with a muslim, an allegation that Tony Rezko found Obama his house, a contribution to a "socialist" magazine, a false pledge to reduce the size of the military and de-escalate troops in Afghanistan.

Apart from that he's totally on the money. That "PhD" is especially touching: Corsi is the man behind Unfit for Command, the book that launched the swiftboat attacks on John Kerry. He believes that President Bush is trying to merge the United states with Canada and that airplanes were not to blame for the towers’ collapse on 9/11 and that Hillary Clinton is a lesbian. 

Aug 13, 2008

My first electoral prediction

I've been looking for opportunities to test out my newfound predictive powers about American electoral politics, so here's one: Obama is going to get a much bigger bump in the polls from his choice of running mate than McCain.

Here's why: Obama's choice, no matter who it is, is going to be reassuring to voters. They will be white, they will hail from the heartland, they will serve to root Obama, particularly if he chooses from the midwest. Similarly, the sense of him being a preening narcissist at the centre of an Obama cult will recede: "The One" will no longer seem like such a good insult when he's two. He's a team player by nature, he'll look good with a buddy, his glamor is like Sinatra's and Kennedy's: its contagious.

McCain by contrast, is going to look like one part of the Odd Couple, no matter who he picks. He's a maverick, a flyboy, a solo player. Partnership cramps his style. (Look at the marriage). When he veers off-message, we'll notice it more. If its Romney or Pawlenty or Jindal, you'll look at the picture and try not to wish them swapped. Thinking about this, in fact, the more absurd it seems that McCain is accusing Obama of self-centredness. The pilot is accusing the bastketball player he doesn't play well with others?

Georgia on his mind

Somebody spare us the sight the cable news trying to "rate" the candidates' statements on Georgia — who has "won", who sounded "tougher" more "presidential" and so on. First off, America can do nothing in this conflict. Only the Europeans can. So not even Bush's words carry much weight. But the words of the candidates to be his successor? McCain appears the only one to have bought into the whole exercise. He's making the kind of growling noises facilitated only by the complete absence of all consequence — a barking dog, safe on its leash. It's amazing to me that the very people who cast aspersions on Obama's command of the English language — its divorce from action, reality, etc — happily eat up this kind of stuff.

Putin would die laughing if he read this week's American newspapers. The president, George Bush, declared the Russian invasion of Georgia "disproportionate and unacceptable". This is taken as a put-down to the vice-president, Dick Cheney, who declared the invasion "will not go unanswered", apparently something quite different. Bush says that great powers should not go about "toppling governments in the 21st century", as if he had never done such a thing. Cheney says that the invasion has "damaged Russia's standing in the world", as if Cheney gave a damn. The lobby for sanctions against Russia is reduced to threatening to boycott the winter Olympics. Big deal." — Simon Jenkins, The Gaurdian

The return of blackface

Reviewing Tropic Thunder, in which Robert Downy Jr plays Kirk Lazarus, an edgy Aussie actor who gets so deep into his characters he his skin surgically darkened to embody a badass Negro, David Edelstein writes:—
Downey is too serious about his craft to make Kirk Lazarus a second-rater. When he engages his co-star, Speedman (Stiller), about the latter’s failed foray into Oscar-bait territory as a mentally-disabled man. Kirk says Speedman’s mistake was not giving the character more stature: “You never go the full retard”.... Downey is loose as a goose: His flexibility—physical and emotional—is inspiring. His Kirk craves authenticity so deeply that you want to believe he’s a black actor playing a black soldier. And Downey craves authenticity so deeply that you want to believe he’s an Aussie actor playing a black actor playing a black soldier. This is a trivial movie, but the performance means so much.

"Nobody likes a funeral"

The Senate Republican press secretary who spoke to Politico about lack of attendance at the GOP convention. McCain's convention theme is said to be: "Putting country first." Isn't he getting his attacks on Obama mixed up with his message to the American people? Or maybe he plans on telling Americans they haven't been putting country first. In which case, expect a rousing peroration against the perils of celebrity, the pursuit of academic excellence, trips to Berlin and gym workouts.

Seriously. How can the accusation that Obama puts country second be made to stick? Spend just a few seconds imagining what Obama's convention speech is going to be like (theme: renewing America's promise), then think about the choreography of the event, in which 76,000 Americans will gaze on Americans cheering America. Think about the effect of those images being piped into every living room around the country. Oh and remember Obama's powers of oratory. And then think again about that line of attack. Maybe. Just a thought.

Aug 10, 2008

Before celebrity became a bad word

In a week in which McCain attempts to confound Obama with accusations of his own celebrity, a look at how it used to be done: a fascinating set of documentary clips showing the Kennedies in all their glory. We see JFK arriving at a political rally, then signing autographs; Jackie fiddling with her gloves while talking to an audience of Polish Americans; an intimate view of the two brothers holding a crisis meeting inside the white house to deal with George Wallace; finally, and most charmingly, we see Bobby, speaking on the phone to Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, when his 3-year-old daughter, Kerry, interrupts. Instead of shooing her away, Kennedy puts her on the line. The footage was shot by journalist Robert Drew, whose two films about the Kennedies, Primary and Crisis, have just been reissued in a newly released box set.
It was nearly 50 years ago that Norman Mailer, in his essay "Superman Comes to the Supermarket," observed how John Kennedy, the original political movie star, was reinventing U.S. politics. As Mailer saw it, Kennedy was "unlike any politician who had ever run for president in the history of the land." Most candidates were dull, prosaic, cautious; they lived solely within the political arena. Kennedy, with his good looks, his beautiful wife, his ironic wit, his style, was the first candidate who also lived outside it, in what Mailer called the "subterranean river of untapped, ferocious, lonely romantic desires" -- the psychic territory inhabited by our movie stars. Kennedy was the first politician to realize that the best politics wasn't politics at all. It was a form of popular culture -- dream-making. Or, as Mailer put it, Kennedy turned politics into a movie.... Obama brings idealism at a time when many Americans are despairing of making any headway against the problems the nation faces. Drawing on his own personal story of disadvantage that led to Columbia University, Harvard Law School and now to the Democratic nomination, Obama in his every gesture and utterance suggests that "Yes We Can." This idealism isn't inspiring adulation because Obama is already a star. Obama is a star precisely because he is inspiring." — Neal Gabler, Los Angeles Times
This is dead on. Does anyone think that the kind of world-wide renown that Obama has achieved is easy to come by? That charisma is one of those things you rustle up before lunch? That inspiring millions is something we could all do, if only we put aside our more onerous chores and really concentrated on it? In belittling Obama's "celebrity" McCain's campaign is dangerously close not just to being negative, but to the political equivalent of a double negative: being against hope because Obama says he is for it, looking down on popularity because Obama happens to have it, ridiculing aspiration because Obama's life embodies it.

The scary beautiful Olympic games

Spielberg would have loved it. Zhang Yimou's opening ceremony for the Bejing games was an awe-inspiring, eye-boggling, even moving, epic. A blockbuster up there with his best. Above all it was fascinatingly foreign. Too often these things are marred by overinflated international symbolism of the save-the-world and bless-the-chilluns variety — visual esperanto, used by no-one outside of Olympic ceremony committee meetings. There was a fair bit of that last night. But as the teeming multitudes met and coalesced, dispersed and reformed in a manner somewhere between a communist march and a microchip approaching orgasm, it was possible to catch something more genuinely Chinese, something genuinely alien, even a little scary, and no less beautiful for that.

Aug 9, 2008

That forged letter (as if anyone cares)

Ron Suskind’s revelation that the White House ordered the CIA to forge a letter linking Saddam Hussein to al-Qaeda invites the following correction from The American Conservative:—
Dick Cheney, who was behind the forgery, hated and mistrusted the Agency and would not have used it for such a sensitive assignment. Instead, he went to Doug Feith’s Office of Special Plans and asked them to do the job. The Pentagon has its own false documents center, primarily used to produce fake papers for Delta Force and other special ops officers traveling under cover as businessmen. It was Feith’s office that produced the letter and then surfaced it to the media in Iraq. Unlike the Agency, the Pentagon had no restrictions on it regarding the production of false information.
The former head of Britain's MI6, Sir Roger Dearlove, confirms that both Bush and Blair received late-breaking but excellent first-hand intelligence that Saddam was bluffing on WMDs. This seems big news to me. Up until this point, we've had plenty of evidence that intelligence was massaged, cherry-picked, distorted, twisted and finessed in the lead up to war with Iraq, but we've lacked any evidence that we were lied to. That said, it wouldn't surprise me if this story disappears. We've grown so inured to shocking revelations about the Bush Administration that even the idea that they manufactured a casus belli seems like something we've already heard, reacted to, and been outraged by. That's quite an accomplishment: to have got us into such a state that even our own outrage bores us.

Next!

What they mean by solitary confinement

One of the upright coffins that house violent prisoners at Guantanamo. The Pentagon, which has not released pictures of those that are merely 3 feet by 3 feet by 6 feet, said detainees, who stand inside the boxes, are isolated for "no more than 12 hours at a time." They have been illegal since US troops discovered them at Auschwitz.

Aug 8, 2008

Hitler's chaffeur

The recent trial and sentencing of Osama Bin Laden's driver, Salim Hamdan, made me curious about how we dealt with Hitler's driver. SS-Obersturmbannf├╝hrer Erich Kempka served as Adolf Hitler's chauffeur from 1934 to 1945, when, as the end of the Third Reich drew near, Kempka was one of those responsible for burning Hitler's body — delivering 200 litres of gasoline to the garden outside the bunker. On June 20th, he was captured by U.S. troops at Berchtesgaden. At the Nuremberg trials, he was called to testify but was released on October 9, 1947.

Of Hamdan's case, The Economist writes that his "sentence may not survive appeal, as Mr Hamdan was acquitted on charges of terrorist conspiracy, but convicted on a lesser charge of providing 'material support' to a terror group—an offense that may fall outside the proper jurisdiction of a military tribunal. But this also places the adminstration in an awkward position. Having defended the tribunal system for years—both in public statements and in a Supreme Court case brought and won by Mr Hamdan in 2006—they must now either repudiate the decision anyway, or acknowledge that some of their heated rhetoric about the dangerous fanatics held at Guanatanamo was unfounded."

The beauteous Rachel Maddow

From a wonderful profile of Rachel Maddow in The Nation:—
"Maddow is one of the few left-liberal women to bust open the world of TV punditry, which has made icons of right-wing commentators like Ann Coulter and Michelle Malkin. Unlike her beautiful, bilious conservative female counterparts or the cocksure boys-on-the-bus analysts, however, Maddow didn't get here by bluster and bravado but with a combination of crisp thinking and galumphing good cheer. Remarkably, this season's discovery isn't a glossy matinee idol or a smooth-talking partisan hack but a PhD Rhodes scholar lesbian policy wonk who started as a prison AIDS activist."
British readers are invited to check out her clips, here, here and here.

The post that ends this blog

Entertainment Weekly asked BO for some of his favorite movies. His choice of favorite movie president is "Jeff Bridges in The Contender... He was charming and essentially an honorable person, but there was a rogue about him. The way he would order sandwiches — he was good at that." An interesting choice — a great movie about realpolitic written by a fellow poker player — and a good eye for detail: Bridges said the sandwiches were the key to the character.

The first film he remembers seeing as a kid? "One of the first was Born Free. I remember that movie having an impact on me. I think I may have teared up at the end when they release Elsa. I couldn't have been more than 4 or 5, but I remember choking up on that." Africa, a fellow Leo, letting go of something you love to set them free... An interesting thing for a kid who lost his African father to get choked up about.

If he could be any superhero, which superhero would he be?": "I was always into the Spider-Man/Batman model. The guys who have too many powers, like Superman, that always made me think they weren't really earning their superhero status. It's a little too easy. Whereas Spider-Man and Batman, they have some inner turmoil. They get knocked around a little bit." Apart from being accurate, dramatically speaking — that's why those movies are better movies — a potential insight into his attitudes to his country: not blind faith in an insuperable goliath, but love for a complex, contested republic that is all the stronger for being tested.

Or maybe he just loved the new bat bike. McCain also goes for Batman, but because he's misunderstood. "He does justice sometimes against insurmountable odds. And he doesn't make his good works known to a lot of people, so a lot of people think he's just a rich playboy." Shades of McCain's embarrassment about his own wealth. He also liked the new Indiana Jones movie, although one suspects mostly for the punchline it allows him: "The old guy wins."

Best Vietnam movie, inexplicably, draws "We Were Soldiers. That's a very good film." He;s on firmer territory when it comes to Brando. "Elia Kazan made three movies with Marlon Brando. One was A Streetcar Named Desire, one was On the Waterfront, and the third was Viva Zapata! Many people think Brando's performances in Streetcar and Waterfront were his best. I think Zapata! was his best. I'm in the minority about this. But go back and watch the scene of his wedding night, with [Brando] and Jean Peters — the actress who later married Howard Hughes, who made her give up acting — when she teaches him to read by taking out the Bible and reading it with him. That's a poignant scene."

His favorite movie/TV president is President David Palmer on 24, the show that gave the CIA so many of its ideas about interrogating detainees. "He's fabulous. He's a guy who makes tough decisions, he takes charge, he's ready to sacrifice his interest on behalf of the interest of the country. My least favorite is the one that got stabbed by his ex-wife but who, according to your magazine, may come back to life, along with Jack Bauer's daughter, Kim..."

Isn't he, um, the black one? "You know, I hope that I and all Americans can be color-blind about any president."

A suitcase full of money

I've been working close to three years on a novel and have just realised something very important: the plot needs a missing suitcase of money. I wish someone had told me this at the start. Maybe if I'd phoned up Elmore Leonard he could told me with barely a sniff at the manuscript. It's amazing to me that you can labour on a book for so long, getting the characters right, the dialogue just so, the settings nicely described, without realising that what it really needs is a suitcase of money. Not all do. But mine did need one and now it has one.

Aug 7, 2008

The dynamics of the fight

How is the fight shaping up so far? Much as expected, with McCain making a lot of full-frontal attacks, Obama sidestepping and counter-punching deftly. McCain's sarcasm is proving an very effective foil for Obama's seriousness of purpose. The Britney ad and tyre gauge antics are cudgels with which Obama can beat McCain for some time.

In other words: exactly the same thing that happened in the primaries, with Hillary Clinton unleashing attack after attack which Obama sidestepped, then turned back on her. It's been remarked on before: Obama's skill at counter-punching, and his jijitsu-like ability to use an opponents weight and force against them. What no-one seems to have remarked upon is the relevance of all this to the war on terror.

Think about it: America's is currently fighting two asymmetric wars, on two fronts, against smaller forces using guerilla tactics. McCain grew up in a different world: the cold war, in which two equal and opposing nation states duke it out until the last man standing wins. It seems unlikely that America will ever fight that kind of war again. Since 9.11 the battle ground has shifted: America's enemies are now smaller, they move quickly, and disperse as quickly as they came. And yet everything McCain has said about Iraq suggests he is still thinking of Iraq as a class symmetrical nation-state square off.

He could be pandering, of course. It is hard to explain to voters what is different about the battleground in Iraq, but its worth the effort because this is the exactly the kind of fight America has had on its hands since 9/11 and will have for the foreseeable future.

This isn't to say that America shouldn't be prepared for an all out war. But the war on terror requires a different skill set, with its own perpendicular dynamic, and lopsided balance. Its a low centre of gravity thing. What the situation calls for, in other words, is a nimble jijitsu warrior, not a lumbering cold one. What this fight needs is the skinny kid with the funny name who nobody seems able to put down.

The election in 100 words

Nate Silver's flowchart:

1. Can McCain win Michigan? If so, McCain is very likely to win the election.
2. If McCain loses Michigan, can Obama win Ohio? If so, Obama is very likely to win the election.
3. If Ohio and Michigan are split, can Obama win Colorado or Virginia? If so, Obama is very likely to win the election, having essentially to pick off just one or two smaller states West of the Mississippi (Iowa, New Mexico, Nevada, Montana) while perhaps also having to defend New Hampshire.

Aug 6, 2008

The election in 1,000 words

The The Boston Globe has turned both candidates' blogs into word clouds. Both seem to agree that Obama is the focus of both campaigns. Other than that, there is very little overlap. McCain's goes big on Obama's recently cancelled hospital visit, offshore drilling, the troops and country. Obama's is big on hope, change, the future, donations and supporters.

Aug 5, 2008

Race Card Redux

Okay. Let's try and get this straight.

One month ago, John McCain released an advert depicting Barack Obama on a dollar bill, the idea being: look how incongruous an image that is. Last week, Obama made explicit reference to the ad, saying to voters in Missouri that the Republicans would try and rustle up fears that "he doesn't look like those other presidents on the dollar bill." Immediately, the McCain campaign claimed that Obama had "played the race card, and from the bottom of the deck."

Now, here's where things get complicated: in the same week, the McCain campaign released another ad, this one comparing Obama to Britney Spears. But by this time, the "race card" allegations were hitting the airwaves, so commentators started poring over the Britney Spears ad, looking for a racist subtext. Incredibly, some found it. This in turn angered professional race-baiters like Pat Buchanan, who has just appeared on MSNBC saying that Obama can't play the race card simply because someone compares him to Britney Spears.

At times like this, I wonder if I watching an election can make you lose your sanity. Who is in charge of these people? Can someone please adjudicate? Or how about a complete ban on the phrase "race card" until someone works out what it means? Kurt Anderson:
According to the McCain campaign’s new expanded definition of “playing the race card,” it now covers pretty much any mention of racial bias by a black politician. For instance, when Martin Luther King Jr., in his “I Have A Dream” speech 45 years ago this month, said that “we can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of … unspeakable horrors,” wasn’t he, by McCain’s lights, playing the race card divisively and negatively?

It’s a see–hear–speak-no-evil response, an attempt to shut down debate preemptively. It reminds me of the way many Republicans also refuse to talk about inequality—by dismissing any complaint about the increasingly lopsided distribution of wealth in America as an incitement to “class warfare.” Or the way that racism is automatically imputed to opponents of affirmative action, or anti-Semitism to any sympathy for the Palestinians in the territories.

Aug 4, 2008

Travel advisory Part 2

British foreign secretary David Miliband was today accused of letting himself be "duped by the US on a colossal scale" following the publication of new claims about the interrogation of terrorist suspects on Diego Garcia, a UK-controlled island in the Indian Ocean. "In my presence, in the White House, the possibility of using Diego Garcia for detaining high-value targets was discussed," Richard Clarke told Time magazine. This follows last month's Commons foreign affairs committee report that America's word can no longer be trusted when it comes to claims about torture.
"The UK can no longer rely on US assurances that it does not use torture, and we recommend that the government does not rely on such assurances in the future. We also recommend that the government should immediately carry out an exhaustive analysis of current US interrogation techniques on the basis of such information as is publicly available or which can be supplied by the US."
In the short term lying works: Cheney gets to use British territories for his "enhanced interrogations." But in the long term what happens is: it gets found out, as it always does, and the first chance the British public get they vote whoever got duped out of office. A new government comes in, and this one isn't so friendly to US interests. A crucial alliance gets loosened. 

How the Arugula war was won (UK edition)

"Everything that I, as a paid-up, Guardian-reading, organic muesli-eating, Red Ken-voting, farmers' market-visiting, lentil-cooking, metropolitan-living, city cyclist, hold dear — being nice to battery chickens and veal calves, buying fish that has been caught by a grizzled old man using nothing more technologically advanced than a bit of a string, buying only the most humanitarian coffee beans known to man — suddenly all these things seem to have become not only part of the Conservative party manifesto but also, and believe me, it pains me to say this, posh.... one minute, the bicycles and the muesli and the lentils were all manifestations of a certain home-spun knit-your-own-hemp-socks leftiedom as practised by what the Daily Mail used to call the tofu classes. And the next you're reading an interview with David Cameron in the Daily Mail and there he is saying that he knits his own hemp socks and actually bathes in organic tofu.

It's just so confusing. Because back in the days when Tories charged around in their 4x4s and shot things out of hedgerows, you could just ignore them and know you never wanted to be one of them. Bloodsports and ridiculous young toffs were Tories. Or as Bridget Jones put it back in 1997, 'it is perfectly obvious that Labour stands for sharing, kindness, gays, single mothers and Nelson Mandela as opposed to braying bossy men having affairs with everyone shag shag shag left right and centre and going to the Ritz in Paris then telling all the presenters off on the Today programme." — Carole Cadwallad, The Observer

Aug 3, 2008

Quote of the Day

"I've missed out on so much. I should have been getting on with my life. Who knows what I could have done and achieved?" — George Barry, the man who has just been released after serving 8 years for the murder of TV presenter Jill Dando. A retrial established that Barry "could not have killed Jill Dando because he was stalking another woman" at the time.

Why does the Queen exist?

"Why are we so gullible? Why is our language so vague and ambiguous? Why are we so bad at sticking to plans, or keeping track of how we know what we know, or generally doing any of the things you'd hope to be able to do with a superlatively well-engineered brain? Because it was a kluge. Evolution doesn't, in fact, tend to perfection: it goes with what works and tinkers with it later. That's why the retinas of vertebrates seem to be installed backwards, giving us all blind spots in the middle of our visual fields. Eyes like that do the job well enough, and there's no way of flipping the retina while preserving decent vision across intermediate generations. So we're stuck with them. Likewise the mind: our meagre reasoning capacity is an afterthought, spatchcocked on to the ancestral systems that have the reins where practical decision-making is concerned. If only our higher mental functions could dominate; alas, the lizard- brain parts have seniority" — Ed Lake reviewing Kluge by Gary Marcus in The Telegraph.

It's long been a suspicion of mine. Even though I know evolution to be taking place, certain phenomenon — toes, The Royal Family, Ben Affleck's film career — seem to be granted existence, not because they have been naturally selected, but because they haven't yet been de-selected. They occupy a kind of evolutionary blind spot, tucked away from the push and shove of the Darwinian marketplace proper: the effort to get rid of them just about outweighing the reasons for keeping them. So until such time as someone can come up with good reason to get rid of them, they might as well just hang out. Much like certain corners of my apartment which I can never quite get around to cleaning. Or that weird seed thing my father gave me that I'm not sure I really like. Or the Queen. The applications of this idea strike me as endless.

The world of Zidane

Ed Smith reviews Zidane – a 21st Century Portrait, a real-time replay of a match between Real Madrid and Villarreal on 23rd April 2005, using 17 synchronized cameras focused exclusively on Zidane throughout the match, from first kick to the last:
"Zidane does up his socks; he kicks his toes into the turf like Jimmy Connors used to at Wimbledon; he wipes sweat from face; he scarcely speaks; he doesn’t smile for the first hour. His only words in the first half are to the referee, immediately after the opposition have been awarded a penalty and scored. “You should be ashamed of yourself”, Zidane says very quietly and with no emotion. In case the referee missed it, he repeats, 'You should be ashamed of yourself'... With Real Madrid 1-0 down, Zidane makes a mesmerizing run and sets up the perfect cross for his team-mate to head into the goal. But our view is only of Zidane – and he is expressionless as the goal is scored... He is doing his job so well, there is not space to worry about whether other people are also doing theirs. Zidane is often almost still, barely trotting around. When he moves, it is for a reason – in his own mind, it will be a decisive move. With extraordinary prescience, the film ends with Zidane playing beautiful football but becoming enveloped by red mist. He is sent off. A year and a bit later, on a still bigger stage, again having defined the contest, the same thing would happen to him in the World Cup Final. Zidane leaves the field, and this film, with no remorse and little emotion. Things are still just as they are in Zidane’s world."

Immigrant Britain: football, fast food and 'fancy'

An article in the Guardian assesses Britain through the eyes of its immigrant children.
  • Ilyas, 12, from Kabul, Afghanistan, "imagined it would be a really big country with loads of nice, friendly people. I had seen England on the Mr Bean film." On his first day at school "I didn't know anybody and I didn't know English but someone said, 'Do you want to play football?' and I said, 'Yes, all right.' I wasn't playing well so after a little bit they said, 'You can't play any more.'" The thing he likes best: "the roads."
  • Anastasija, 12, from Latvia likes the other children: "They always help you, and if you're crying they always ask you what's wrong," but finds it odd that "When you go into a shop and someone pushes you or knocks you by accident, we say sorry and then go away - but here you say: 'Sorry, sorry, sorry.'" She likes the "cheeseburgers and hamburgers." The first word she learnt was "Fancies, like 'he fancies her'."
  • Daniel, 12, from Romania, was smacked on his first day at school: "On the way to every class I had someone smack me, but not hard - it was for fun because I was new." The first word he learnt was "from the children I heard, 'I'm not bothered,' and from the teachers, 'You're wasting my time.'"
  • Luke, nine, from Wisconsin likes the "Indian food and Chinese food" and thinks the people "sound more mature." His sister Sarah, 12, notes "all the museums and old pretty stuff, but also the big flashing stuff for advertisements. We didn't expect those, and Big Ben was much bigger than we imagined." She likes "the words that they use, like 'cheers' or 'shan't'" and "fish and chips, but steak and kidney pie is kind of scary."

The road less travelled

"....There are plenty of quotes from other self-help gurus — motivational speakers, "life adventurers", and self-proclaimed "spiritual messengers" — and lots of pseudo-scientific jargon (magnets, vibrations, wavelengths and the like), but basically it boils down to this: think positively. To those who object that they have been thinking positively ever since Norman Vincent Peale's The Power of Positive Thinking in 1952, you haven't really been trying. Really concentrate: "Look at the back of your hands, right now. Really look at the back of your hands: the colour of your skin, the freckles, the blood vessels, the rings, the fingernails. Take in all those details. Right before you close your eyes, see those hands, your fingers, wrapping around the steering wheel of your brand new car..." In other words: free yourself from the cares and wants of this world, follow the road less travelled, but make sure you do so in a brand new Lexus."
From an article I wrote about bestseller lists for Intelligent Life. I concluded that The Secret (a book which suggests that "if any moments or moments of your life did not go the way you wanted, replay them in your mind in a way that thrills you") could well turn out to be George Bush's favorite book. I was being facetious, of course. The self help guru most beloved of the Bush administration is, in fact, Martin Seligman, whose theory of 'learned helplessness', as put forward in such books as 7 Habits of Highly Effective People ("An amazing book! Absolutely full of practical wisdom and its authentic sources. What depth of understanding!") proved so helpful in the treatment of the Gitmo detainees.

In the spring of 2002, Seligman was contacted by the CIA, and asked to deliver a three-hour talk on how to help U.S. soldiers resist torture. The CIA was particularly interested in some experiments he had conducted involving
caged dogs, in which Seligman used electric charges to shock them randomly. He discovered that this destroyed the dogs emotionally to the point where they no longer had the will to escape, even when offered a way out.

This was a pretty crucial moment in the development of America’s secret interrogation and detention program. Abu Zubayda had been captured just weeks before, and the CIA was trying to come up with ways to make him talk. They had no patience for the slow, rapport-building methods used by the FBI, whose role in the case they had just superceded. But what to do? At this very moment, Professor Seligman, it seems, agreed to participate in what he says was an unexplained private high-level CIA meeting, held on the campus of the part of the Navy that runs a secret program emulating torture – the SERE School in San Diego.

Professor Seligman says he has no idea why he was called in from his academic position in Pennsylvania, to suddenly appear at this CIA event. He just showed up and talked for three hours about how dogs, when exposed to horrible treatment, give up all hope, and become compliant. Why the CIA wanted to know about this at this point, he says he never asked. But somehow- and this is what is news as far as I know – Professor Seligman does know that in his audience were the two psychologists who soon after became the key advisers to the CIA’s “enhanced” interrogation program: James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen. So, Professor Seligman, must have had some contact with them, since he knew they were in his audience. Did he speak with them? What did they talk about?

According to sources close to the FBI, around the same time, one of those psychologists, James Mitchell, showed up where Abu Zubayda was being held, and started talking about Dr. Seligman’s theories of “Learned Helplessness” as shedding useful light on how to coerce Zubayda into talking. Specifically, he spoke of Seligman’s dog experiments, in which random electric shocks broke the dogs’ will to resist. An FBI agent was appalled – pointing out they were dealing with humans, not dogs. But Mitchell said it was “good science” for both.

— The Dark Side, Jane Mayer

The grin test

"...Less asinine was McCain's two-pronged lie that Obama would rather lose a war than a campaign and that he snubbed injured troops in Germany. The former is repulsive and you can tell McCain knows it because he has a weird habit of saying it and then grinning broadly and humming a little to himself as a semi-laugh. He doesn't own the statement even as he says it." — Andrew Sullivan
Which makes me wonder: is that grin a lie tic? I'm going to watch him over the next few weeks and see. I've noticed he does it to rubber-stamp strong statements which he expect to go down well with the GOP faithful. (He did it a lot when he first launched his attacks on Obama in front of the green screen). It's the expression of a cheeky boy who knows what he is saying is naughty and fully expects to be aprehended at any moment. There's something of the sheepish rascal to McCain: try it on until told otherwise, and then recant fully, saying 'its a fair cop.' Also, the expression of someone who is being forced to be meaner than he wants to be.

Travel advisory

Gen. Antonio Taguba, lead Army investigator of the prison abuses at Abu Ghraib, wrote in a recent report, "There is no longer any doubt as to whether the current administration has committed war crimes. The only question that remains to be answered is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account." It seems unlikely in the US, given the current political climate, but according to British lawyer Phillip Sands, writing in Vanity Fair:—
"For some of those involved in the Guant├ínamo decisions, prudence may well dictate a more cautious approach to international travel. And for some the future may hold a tap on the shoulder. 'It’s a matter of time,' the judge observed. 'These things take time..... And then something unexpected happens, when one of these lawyers travels to the wrong place.'"
Among those who have to watch their step overseas: Feith, Haynes, Bybee, Addington, Yoo and Gonzales, all of whom "should never travel outside the U.S., except perhaps to Saudi Arabia and Israel." Leaving aside the morality of law-breaking for a second, a foreign policy that leaves its chief architects unable to travel, you know, abroad is not foreign policy working at the highest pitch of efficiency.

Of kankedorts and hypergelasts

"There’s hypergelast (a person who won’t stop laughing), lant (to add urine to ale to give it more kick), obmutescence (willful speechlessness) and ploiter (to work to little purpose) — all good words to have on the tip of your tongue when, for example, you’re stopped for speeding... Acnestis — the part of an animal’s back that the animal can’t reach to scratch. And bespawl — to splatter with saliva. In Chapter D, Shea encounters deipnophobia, the fear of dinner parties; Chapter K brings kankedort, an awkward situation."
Nicholson Baker, reviewing Reading the OED by Ammon Shea in the NYT. Am I alone in finding Baker's newly-white beard fantastic — not quite of this world? It's not just the kind of beard you would find on Santa Claus or the Forefathers, but the kind of beard you would find on Santa Claus as imagined by coca-cola, or the Forefathers as imagineered by Disney. Maybe that's why it's so deeply comforting.

Aug 2, 2008

About those polls

Obama and McCain are tied for the first time in the national polls, but RCP has him winning a majority of electoral college votes at the moment, 322 to 216. Fivethirtyeight has it slightly tighter, 303 to 234.

Goddamit McCain, I tried!

It turns out my one and only pro-McCain post must, unfortunately, be recanted. When Obama said the McCain compaign was suggesting that he "doesn't look like the other presidents on those dollar bills" he was talking literally: a new McCain ad really does portray Obama on a dollar bill. My pretense of objectivity now crumbles.

Wedding bells on the waterfront

“He was a remarkable man he really was. When I first told Kazan he thought I was making it up so I took him to a lunch where Corridan was enraged by something the Catholic arch diocesese had done. He was swearing at the top his lungs — ‘goddamit I’m going to get that goddamn sonofabitch.....’ As we left I said well what do you think?” Kazan replied, “I honestly don’t think that man’s a priest. Now I see why you want to make him the centerpiece of the movie."
Budd Schulberg, interviewed by me in the Gaurdian this week. Father John Corridan was the Jesuit priest who took on the Mob gangsters who ran the piers of New York Harbor. He was a priest at St. Francis Xavier Parish on 16th Street, the church where Kate and I are getting married later this year.

Time for the fat suit

"In a nation in which 66% of the voting-age population is overweight and 32% is obese, could Sen. Obama's skinniness be a liability? Despite his visits to waffle houses, ice-cream parlors and greasy-spoon diners around the country, his slim physique just might have some Americans wondering whether he is truly like them." — WSJ
I know the whole point of election campaigns is to turn your opponent's positives into negatives. Thus far the McCain campaign have complained that Obama is too popular, too charismatic, too cool under fire and too eloquent. Now he is "too fit". I've also heard believes in the rule of law. The man must be stopped.

Aug 1, 2008

Britney 4 president

Xpostfactoid's response to McCain's new Britney ad:

As old white males'
authority pales,
I view the change with tranquility.
Celebrities rule
and that's totally cool —
long live the nation's
nubility.