Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Google Search: Bellamy Looking Backward

Saw a reference to this in a NYTimes book review, a sort of Rip Van Winkle, man-out-of-time thing:Google Search: Bellamy Looking Backward. As it was written in 1888, there are plenty of versions available in the public domain.

The New Yorker

I have no idea how long this link will last, but while it does, it's a worthy read about having too many choices. The conclusion of which can be summed up in this, well, concluding sentence: And if Schwartz’s book is really about the anguish of choice in general—and not merely about choice as a facet of shopping—there is no reason for any such argument to stop before it reaches, say, “a woman’s right to choose.” Once you stop taking people’s expressed preferences at face value, pretty much every single contentious political, economic, sexual, familial, social, and labor issue can be opened up to unpredictable renegotiation.

I've seen a few things written about this book since it was released. And I've had a similar knee-jerk reaction: What do you mean we have too many choices? Who gets to choose what I get to choose? But the more I read about it, the more I think, Well, that's fine, but shouldn't it serve more as a caution to us that we're always going to find something else somewhere else that we're going to want? It's not just me or you or him or her, but everyone has twinges of buyer's remorse? Everyone wonders if he or she made the right choices? Heck, I still wonder if I should have gone to NYU instead of USC, but there's only so much time available to make a choice like that.

It reminds me of a snippet of a conversation I overheard in a line once. A guy in his early twenties was bragging about going to UCLA, because it was "the best school, in the best city, in the best state, in the best country in the world." I find other people's pangs of doubt more reassuring that this kind of absolute certainty. We who wonder if we've done the right thing are constantly correcting our course, it seems. True, too much introspection can lead to indecision and paralysis, but there's a healthy amount that make us want to improve our choices by wondering, What would be different? What did I fail to take into account? Those who are absolutely certain of every decision they've ever made seem to be lulled into a certainty that EVERY decision that they will EVER make will ALWAYS be correct. A dangerous expectation, I think.

Tuesday, February 24, 2004

The List

Worth it, just for his complete list of alternate titles for The Passion.

The New York Review of Books: The Trauma Trap

Woooowwww... This stuff always gets me:The New York Review of Books: The Trauma Trap. I read things about how certain groups believe that psychiatry and psychology are tantamount to abuse, and I'm prone to think, "That's because you're all a few tacos short of a combo platter yourself." And while that may be true, some of the stuff that this review goes into makes you wonder about the other side. It's just not very reassuring that both groups tend to have the same loopy delusions of grand conspiracies out to get them.

I'm aware that not all psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, and mental health advocates are like the extreme examples described in this piece, but it also highlights the ultimate unknowability of whether someone is really helping or hurting you. If I go into an emergency room with some ailment, I assume that I will be helped. I may not know until long after the fact that what that doctor did that night made things worse, or that he fixed the wrong problem, but I do have some immediate feedback. The pain is gone, the blood has stopped flowing, the bone is back in the arm, et cetera, et cetera. But when you're seriously mentally ill, you lack those certainties. Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean that someone's not out to get you. It's possible to be unbalanced AND to be abused. Everyone's delusions aren't as colorful or as obvious as demons sweeping down from the ceiling and swatting at your head.

Ultimately, it's scary because people with real problems were told that they were caused by something else, and they were encouraged to accept these something elses as being absolutely true, even though there was no real evidence to support it. Now they're stuck with imagined memories that seem more real than the prosaic ones that were shoved aside. Who do you trust now? Who do you believe next?

Friday, February 20, 2004

Whiskey Bar: Patriot Games

A good read here:Whiskey Bar: Patriot Games. But while I'm always impressed with the analysis in posts like these (Orcinus is far and away the best practitioner of it), I'm also dismayed by the lack of a resolution. What do we DO about it? Can we do anything at all? We're talking about groups of people who poke their fingers in their ears and shout "LA LA LA LA!" at the top of their lungs while they regard any attempt to engage them as an attempt to "indoctrinate" them. The solution is always presented as: "We must defeat them at the polls." Well, fine, except the Clinton years weren't exactly a cakewalk. We thought we had elected someone who would put forth at least a slightly progressive agenda, and he got beat back at every turn. Can we look at America today and say that the conservative Republicans were right to destroy any notion of a national health care plan? Private industry can handle this, we were told, while 11 years later health insurance is the first benefit being cut by every employer. Lose your insurance or lose your job.

But I digress. It's hard not to do. My point is that winning at the polls only does so much good, especially since these people really and truly believe that they are fighting for some greater good. They are the "real" Americans, and they -- and ONLY they -- are supposedly privvy to the way of TRUE Americanism. They control all three branches of government right now, and they still believe that they are a persecuted minority, which is an essential component of their identity. They are David fighting Goliath, even if the facts would prove otherwise. They border on delusional, and how do you fight a person's delusions with anything resembling logic and reason?

Tuesday, February 17, 2004

New York Times Link Generator

Calpundit offered up a little thingymabobber that would generate a permanent link to a New York Times article. Let's test it, shall we?

An article about life in Texas.

Why, oh why, don't we just let them secede? They think they're a different country, we think they're a different country...let's call the whole thing off.

Thursday, February 12, 2004

TANGy

I'm of two minds about the GWB Texas Air National Guard story. Probably more, but at least two. On the one hand, it's a piddly offense. Did he join the guard to avoid going to Vietnam? Almost certainly, as did almost anyone else who had the opportunity. Did he shirk his duty and fail to complete his required service? It sure looks like it, but he wouldn't be the first, the last, or the only one ever to have done so. So what's the big deal? This is where the second mind comes in. It's so easily explained away, in its most innocuous form, by GWB being impatient to move onto other things and always meaning to, but never quite getting around to, finishing his National Guard service. Because there were more than enough pilots to go around, and it was unlikely that GWB would ever be called upon to go to Vietnam, a couple of strings were pulled and he was let go a little early.

And I guess this is where the difficulty for GWB and his entourage lie, in those strings. It's very easy to get tangled up in them and trip all over yourself, especially as you try to pretend that they're not there.

GWB has never, by any account that I've ever read of him, been shy about his family name. It was well known in Washington and Texas, and if it made his life a little easier, then so be it. But the hagiography that surrounds him tries to portray him as a self-made man. No evidence is ever presented to prove this assertion, but it's not necessary, because we only have to see him clear brush on his ranch (in front of cameras for ten minutes before he goes back inside) to know how hard he works. But being born into a privileged family means having privileges, and one of those privileges meant that the right people were known who could pull strings and get his discharge from the TANG a little bit early.

But how do you resolve your image (if only to yourself) as a self-made man if other people did things for you?

This is where it all starts getting bizarre. Instead of simply saying, "Yeah, I got out early, but I doubt that anyone else who could have done the same thing would have done it differently," he tries to claim that he didn't get out early, and that he did complete his service, even though the evidence doesn't seem to prove it. Would he release his complete service records to fill in the blanks? "Absolutely," he told Tim Russert on "Meet the Press" on February 8. "Not so much," White House spokesperson Scott McClellan told reporters later that week. What they would get were selected portions of the records, and an assurance that that was all that there was. But this was more information than was made available in 2000, and reporters had been told then that that was all that there was. If more information had come out in the last 4 years, where did it come from? If they were so confident that there was no more information to be had, why were they still looking for more? Who was still looking for more? And could it mean that there was still more information elsewhere?

At this point, McClellan accused reporters of engaging in gutter politics.

Not exactly. Because at this point, we still haven't even gotten into the nasty rumors about where Bush was. His story is that he left Texas to work on the campaign of a family friend in Alabama. But no one who worked on the campaign has stepped forward to say that they remember him doing much of anything. Kevin Drum at Calpundit has issued a challenge to anyone who can find a mention of GWB in any of the contemporaneous accounts of the campaign. If he wasn't in Texas, and he wasn't in Alabama, then where was he? The mind reels, and the rumor mill grinds away.

The reason this seems to be gaining some traction is that it so easily emblemizes the approach of the GWB administration to, well, everything. "Up is down! Black is white! We've always been at war with Eurasia!" When anyone even tries to ask for some sort of evidence of these claims, they're beaten back with, "I believe I've already answered the quetion. Your insistence upon asking follow up questions show your inherent bias against this administration and your resistence to the good work it is doing to make this world a safer, better place. It is not the policy of this administration to respond to partisan attacks like that, as the President believes that we have a much more important job to do, leading the American people." Blah blah blah blah blah.

There is also a bit of blowback here. The Washington press corps has been well trained to ignore the big questions. Don't ask about national security or any sweeping policy related issues, don't question the way the war (either of them) is being conducted, or even if it is/they are necessary or productive. Focus on the small and the insignificant. Focus on things like infidelity as a character issue, or why Democrats own stock if they believe in corporate oversight. The stupid and the trivial get front-page treatment, and now its biting the people who thought they knew how to use it to their advantage.

Friday, February 06, 2004

Readerville Roundtable: The Literary Condition | February 2-6, 2004

An interesting discussion going on here. (Link via Bookslut.) Far more optimistic bunch than usual, even amidst the hand wringing over what is to become of literature. It helps when Nicholas Basbanes starts off the discussion with a post like this:
I have a chapter in “A Splendor of Letters" that I call "Ingenious Cipher," a phrase I derived from an observation offered in 1940 by the great poet-librarian Archibald MacLeish to describe the carrier of wisdom, enchantment, and information we call the book. I offer the brief quote here in full because it is pertinent, I think, to the discourse at hand:

"The physical book is never more than an ingenious and often beautiful cipher by which the intellectual book is communicated by one mind to another, and the intellectual book is always a structure in the imagination which may hang for a time above a folio-page in ten-point type with a half-calf binding only to be found thereafter on a different page above a different type and even in another language."

What MacLeish was saying a half-century or so before the printed book would be regarded in some quarters as a terminal species was that the mode of transmission--the artifact--changes as technology changes, and one of the great pleasures I had in writing SOL was to consider the multitude of writing surfaces that have been developed over the centuries to perform that essential function (and while I was at it to identify some of the timeless works that have been passed on to us by them, the “Gilgamesh” epic by way of baked clay tablets, the “Tao te Ching” by way of silk scrolls and bamboo strips known as slips, etc., etc.)

The relevance of all this to Katherine’s question, I suggest, is that whatever the shape and form of the moment, the book survives. ( Indeed, the subtitle of my book is “the permanence of books in an impermanent world.”) Even more to the point of her question about the future of publishing and writing is the irrefutable fact that publishing is an industry that responds to the tastes and interests of the marketplace. I haven’t seen the figures for 2003 yet, but my guess is that there was something on the order of 60,000 or so new titles issued last year in the United States alone, and the delicate state of the economy notwithstanding, I expect that most of the major houses posted profits. All that talk of a few years ago about e-books supplanting conventional books has become little more than a distraction in recent months, with no discriminating readers, so far as I have been able to see, eschewing their hard covers and paperbacks for flickering pixels, and with some of the publishers abandoning altogether their e-book imprints. (How many Readerville subscribers, I wonder, can say they have read an entire book from beginning to end on a computer screen?)

As for what will be published, well, let’s see what the others have to say as the discussion continues this week. I do know from my research that some of the grand publishing ventures of the past, particularly multi-volume efforts commissioned by university presses that take decades to produce, will likely go electronic. But as for the printed book itself, let me offer the view of Librarian of Congress James Billington, who stressed in an interview with me for “Patience & Fortitude” his belief that one significant consequence of electronic publishing will be that “the serious kind of traditional literature that has always been in book form will continue to appear in book form. The book, in my view, will be freed from a very heavy burden that it has had to bear all these years. It will be allowed to flourish anew.”

From what I've read thus far, it strikes a nice balance between the idealistic and the pragmatic, between the "we are writers, we are creators, we are unsung heroes of civilization" and the "we are narcisisstic, we are full of it, we are in it for the money". It would be foolish, I think, to pretend otherwise.

Tuesday, February 03, 2004

Whiskey Bar: The Humanitarian Case for War in Iraq

It's just worth reading. Whiskey Bar: The Humanitarian Case for War in Iraq. Especially the addendum, and Billmon's response to it, from an enlisted soldier under Lt. Col. Nate Sassaman's command. Frankly, I can't understand how it's possible to implement a kinder, gentler imperial rule. Yes, yes, we aren't an empire. But I think that's in name only, as Joshua Marshall makes in a persuasive piece in The New Yorker. It's an interesting game that we're playing. It's not unlike when Bill O'Reilly described boycotts as "unAmerican," and then called for his viewers to stop buying Pepsi products for as long as they employed rapper Ludacris as a spokesperson, urging them to call and write to Pepsi and explain why. That, however, was not a boycott, because he never called it a "boycott." If you don't call a thing a thing, that means it isn't that thing, apparently. If we don't call ourselves and empire, then we aren't an empire. It's just that simple.