Archive for July 2009

And What the Hell

July 23, 2009

Trolling through the related offerings on the video of Tom Waits’ “Singapore” posted earlier today led me to this comic gem.  It would be cruel to conceal it.  Enjoy:

Diary of Trade Book (Newton and the Counterfeiter) 12.0: Publicity in the post MSM era

July 23, 2009

(Editor’s note:  Go here for the last entry in this diary, and search “diary” in the box at right for the whole shooting match)

The most horrible words I know in publishing … well there’s a lot of competition for horror in the London/1665 plague pit that is contemporary publishing, so perhaps I should say that, among the most dispiriting phrases I’ve heard in my writing career is this:

“Your book is going to sell by word of mouth.”

Translation? We’re not going to do much/we don’t know what to do/we ain’t got the cash or the faith or the tactical cleverness to sell this book actively.  So we hope folks notice somehow…and if it does we’ll do what we can.

(And yes, I know that recently in this blog I gave Ron Fournier grief for his psychic translations of the Sotomayor questioning.  But I’m telling you what I hear when those words are said to me. And its my blog.  Plus I’m right.    So there.)

Now it is a truth universally acknowledged that any single author in possession of insufficient sales/celebrity* must be in want of someone to blame.  And the handiest scapegoats, after the gods, the times and the essential unworthiness of the world to receive mine or anyone else’s pearls of insight and artful prose, are, of course, each author’s publisher.

And so it is with me:  I am convinced that my publisher is not doing all that it could/should do to help Newton and the Counterfeiter (Amazon, Powells, Barnes and Noble, Indiebound) reach the audience that would prize the book if only they knew about it.  In particular, I see two choices that went the wrong way that I wish I had paid more attention to at the time.

For one, I think the decision not to pursue as many readings/talks/events around book publication was a mistake, and though we are now trying to rectify that, I see a big missed opportunity here.

The reasoning offered at the time, earnestly and I’m sure sincerely, is that book store events and other talks don’t sell that many books — and its true.  The one event I’ve done so far (several more on the schedule, at last, starting this Saturday — and if you are in middle-western Massachusetts, you could check it out) was a home-town event at Harvard Bookstore.   It was packed, SRO (literally), with an audience of about 90 — double what I was told to expect as the best plausible total.  The talk went well, and the store sold about two dozen books.  That was good.


To Occupy the Weary Hours Until the Next Post Shows Up

July 23, 2009

Nice, weird animation to accompany one of the finest bits of upbeat alienation from a master of the form.  Enjoy:

Further to the Gates fiasco

July 22, 2009

My post on Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. arrest and the “post-racial” willed ignorance of those whose bread and butter depends on their never knowing certain facts of life is here.

But you know who did it better, briefer, and to much greater effect?

That skinny guy with big ears you’ve heard a bit about:

Well, I should say at the outset that Skip Gates is a friend, so I may be a little bias ed here. I don’t know all the facts. What’s been reported, though, is that the guy forgot his keys. He jimmied his way to get into the house. There was a report called into the police station that there might be a burglary taking place. so far so good. Right? I mean, if I was trying to jigger in — well, I guess this is my house now so it probably wouldn’t happen. Let’s say my old house in Chicago. here I’d get shot. But so far so good. They’re reporting, the police are doing what they should. There’s a call. They go investigate what happens. My understanding is at that point Professor Gates is already in his house. The police officer comes in. I’m sure there’s some exchange of words but my understanding is that Professor Gates then shows his I.D. to show that this is his house. And at that point he gets arrested for disorderly conduct, charges which are later dropped. Now, I don’t know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts what role race played in that, but I think it’s fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry. Number two, that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home and, number three, what I think we know separate and apart from this incident is that there is a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. And that’s just a fact.

As you know, Lynn, when I was in the state legislature in Illinois we worked on a racial profiling bill because there was indisputable evidence that blacks and hispanics were being stopped disproportionately. And that is a sign, an example of how, you know, race remains a factor in this society. That doesn’t lessen the incredible progress that has been made. I am standing here as testimony to the progress that’s been made. And yet, the fact of the matter is that, you know, this still haunts us. And even when there are honest misunderstandings, the fact that blacks and hispanics are picked up more frequently and often time for no cause cast suspicion even when there is good cause, and that’s why I think the more that we’re working with local law enforcement to improve policing techniques so that we’re eliminating potential bias, the safer everybody’s going to be.

I have a young son.  He heard my wife and me talking about this arrest over the last couple of days, and we told him the nine year old version of the story, as best we could.  And as for what I hope I got across…and what I may try to express again tomorrow by using the elegant formulation President Obama has given me — this is it:

I want race to be over in this country.  I want world peace, too, and I want my left-handed kid to develop a nasty curve, for then he’ll never be out of work; I want….I want all kinds of things.  But one of the things I hate most about being some kind of a grown up is being forced to recognize the difference between  aspiration and the reality through which we still slog to get to any goal worth seeking.

As President Obama said:  we’ve come some considerable distance.  But not all the way, not nearly….which is what I will tell my son.

James Montgomery Flagg, First World War US propaganda poster, 1917.

On Why Income Disparity Matters…

July 21, 2009

What Eric Martin says.

Image:  John Singer Sargent, “The 9th Duke of Marlborough and family (Consuela Vanderbilt)” 1905.

Why Not Pile On? Clueless (or Malign) NY Times Pundits: David Brooks Edition

July 21, 2009

A fair amount of note has already been taken of today’s David Brooks’ pontification; I saw it mentioned first in the daily pundit round-up at Kos and then aptly skewered by DougJ at Balloon Juice.

DougJ is correct:  Brooks’ equivalence between the GOP loss of public support and the (still mostly notional) erosion of support for the Democratic platform only works if you ignore the Iraq War — and then, to go one step further, if you also discount the electorate’s experience of the explicit, overt, plain-to-see failure of both specific GOP trumpeted policies and of much of the worldview that informed those policy choices.

I’m sure the rest of the political blogosphere will eviscerate the rest of Brook’s “argument” in detail, and that’s not my purpose here.  (I use the scare quotes because, again, following DougJ, I have to say it’s not an argument so much as a kind of wishful projection if the terms of your claims only make sense if you leave out most of what actually happened in the period you are discussing.)

Rather it is to use some actual data to try and beat down one of the most persistent and pernicious tropes of the right:  that the coasts, full of liberals, are somehow an isolated rump region, talkative, influential, rich, but easily overwhelmed when “real” America rouses itself from its torpor and asserts its customary “moderating” (or, depending on your real agenda, its radical rightward) correction to the excesses of the chattering elites.*  Brooks writes:

It’s not that interesting to watch the Democrats lose touch with America. That’s because the plotline is exactly the same. The party is led by insular liberals from big cities and the coasts, who neither understand nor sympathize with moderates.

I was actually going to write this post in connection with the ludicrous opining around the Sarah Palin flameout, but the gods favor procrastinating bloggers by guaranteeing that the intellectual laziness of the right promises an eternal return of the same follies.  Bluntly:  the coasts are “real” America, if by real you mean the home of the majority of US citizens.

There is actual data here, always ignored by the  likes of Brooks.  NOAA, a US government agency, collects demographic and resource information on a wide range of subjects.  One of its programs, titled Coastal and Ocean Resource Economics looks at a number of factors bearing on US coastal regions, including population trends.  A fifteen second Google work out led me to this report.  It’s bottom line number:  as of 2003, 53% of Americans lived in the 17% of US territory (excluding Alaska) that form the coastal regions.  And that proportion will only continue to grow:

The narrow fringe comprising 17% of the contiguous land area is home to more than half of the nation’s population. Between the years 1980 and 2003, population in coastal counties has increased by 33 million people or by 28%, where the largest gain was seen in the Pacific region. Additionally in 2003, 23 of the 25 most densely populated counties were coastal. By the year 2008, coastal county population is expected to increase by approximately 7 million.


An Answer To Ross Douthat’s White Washed Vision

July 20, 2009


I actually agree with one of Douthat’s claims, that the formation of a new, post-racial power structure will eliminate the need and basis for affirmative action.  Where I — middle aged, privileged white man/member of the academic elite as I acknowledge I am — dispute Douthat is in his belief demographic changes in themselves lead to an end to discrimination.

Case in point, Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s arrest in his own home, after providing identification for the crime of having lost his keys.  Gates, for those of you who don’t know, is not merely a member of the academic elite, but as the holder of  a chair at Harvard; as a major author and editor recovering African American literature from its apocryphal status; as probably the best known and most influential scholar of African American Studies in this country; as a serial host of PBS broadcasts and ubiquitous interviewee —  he is fully paid up member of America’s academic aristocracy.  If you are familiar with David Lodge’s Changing Places novels, he is, in certain ways, (and I mean this as a compliment) someone that Morris Zapp would have called brother.

And yet, it appears, he is guilty of the crime of AWB — Affluence While Black.  Would a white professor — would I — have been arrested in the same circumstances.  The counterfactual is untestable, but I’ll venture a guess and say no.

And my point?  It is that Douthat matches in ignorance of the real world all of his uninformed arrogance in his judgements passed on it, and on much more accomplished people than he will ever be.

Yes, it is true that affirmative action for the victims of discrimination can morph into the same back-room privilege that puts 20 somethings with a gift for reasonable prose into a series of posts in which his lack of real world knowledge does not disqualify from opining on whatever.  In that context, I was struck in Douthat’s latest column by this remark:

It was a characteristic O’Connor move: unmoored from any high constitutional principle but not without a certain political shrewdness. In a nation that aspires to colorblindness, her opinion acknowledged, affirmative action can only be justified if it comes with a statute of limitations. Allowing reverse discrimination in the wake of segregation is one thing. Discriminating in the name of diversity indefinitely is quite another.

Douthat, proud possessor of a BA from Harvard (but no law degree) manages to dismiss Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in an almost Buckley-ian sniff of disdain.  The little lady is “not without a certain political shrewdness.”  How generous.

The Latina, of course, fares even less well:

It’s doubtful, though, that Sonia Sotomayor shares this view.

“It is firmly my hope, as it was expressed by Justice O’Connor,” she told Senator Kohl, “that in 25 years, race in our society won’t be needed to be considered in any situation.”

But O’Connor didn’t hope; she expected. And Sotomayor’s record suggests that there’s a considerable difference between these postures — that for the nominee, as for most liberal jurists, as long as racial disparities persist, so too must racial preferences.

Such fine parsing of hope vs. expectation; for one as blessed as Mr. Douthat, expectations do not fail but to be met.

How else does someone who has never worked a non-media job, never met a payroll, never worked a political campaign, nor, heaven-forfend, organized his community — someone who, by all that’s holy, has had even less contact with the real world than his NY Times predecessor, that self-made son, William Kristol — come to his conclusion, which is that Judge Sotomayor is part of the emerging rainbow conspiracy to use the fact of past discrimination to preserve illegitimate non-white power indefinitely into the future.

I don’t know if Douthat knows his own bad faith, or actually believes that his position in society was achieved without the exercise of advantage systematically denied to most — and differentially so for those of color.

I do know that he could not imagine himself in the position Professor Gates found himself in within his own home — and for good reason.  As Graham Greene had it in Our Man in Havana (that rare double:  a must-read book and a must-see film) the policeman educates the English expatriate on the distinction between the torturable and non-torturable classes, remarking that his own father had been an example of the former group.

Douthat is as firmly placed in non-torturable America as it is possible to be.  Gates, for all his greater accomplishment, institutional affiliation, and unmeasurably more significant wealth of experience is not.*

And that’s why affirmative action has not run its course; why O’Connor’s expectation and Sotomayor’s more modest hope that by 2028 we will inhabit the post-racial society of Martin Luther King’s dream may not in fact be realized by that deadline.  For all of Douthat’s insouciant assertion that Senator Sessions and his ilk are yesterday’s men, right now, today, those men and their ilk — and their scions, like Douthat himself — retain their privileged status where it counts:  both in power and on the street.

Mere numbers do not alter the fact of American life, racially charged.  Demography does rule, eventually– but only an actual end to discrimination, only the creation of a society where a black man being arrested for breaking in to his own home would actually be a surprise, will mark the point at which we may say for ourselves that we’ve finally put race behind us.

Don’t believe me?  Go Skip Gates’s bail.

Update: I was out of town over the weekend and didn’t read Frank Rich’s Sunday column on Sotomayor and her interrogators until this morning.  There Rich agrees with Douthat (or rather, Douthat follows Rich) in the claim — the  hope, I’d say — that Sessions, Graham, Coburn and the rest are dinosaurs, old, racist, sexist, pretentious, unreflective, hypocritical, morals-for-thee-but-not-for-me buffoons who have not yet realized that they are merely the walking extinct.  I share both writers’ hope; my expectation, however, is that powerful men know how to wield power, and that advantage will keep the kind of society that prospers such unworthy representatives ticking over for a while yet.  For a stray reason why, consider this story from the WSJ as highlighted by DK contributor Jerome a Paris.

Update 2: Via Gawker, Gates is released with charges dropped after four hours in jail.  With pix of Gates in handcuffs, being led from his own  home.

*Gates’ experience, btw, is no anomaly.  I have several black colleagues at MIT who, to a man and woman, have told me that (X)WB remains a pulling-over offense even here in the People’s Republic of Cambridge and its greater Boston environs.  To put it bluntly, Douthat has given no evidence in anything I’ve read of his that he has any idea of what people outside his charmed circle actually experience.  A wise Latina does in fact know better — but if Douthat is the standard she has to beat, it’s a very low bar.

Now you see why Judge Sotomayor will be a Supreme Court Justice, and Sen. Coburn will not:

July 15, 2009

Update…Ooops — wrong Republican trying to perform Latino/a outreach in the title.  Apologies…(Memo to self:  don’t blog and speed…)

There is nothing more to say to the video below but OMG.  I mean, Lucille Ball was a comic genius and worthy of all kinds of tribute, and Desi Arnaz was a great foil for her comedy, and a fine musician and producer too, but talk about tin — no make that lead — ears, and  you have the Hon. (sic) Senator Sessions Coburn.

So:  how’s that GOP – Latino/a outreach working for you folks?

(h/t DougJ at Balloon Juice.)

Dog Bites Man: Tom Friedman Mischaracterizes US Interventions.

July 15, 2009

Atrios sent me in search of Tom Friedman’s latest, and, like its author, it’s a bizarre piece of work.

Backstory:  back in the dawn of time, when giants still walked the earth (Mays in center field; McCovey at first base, Marichal on the mound), and humans preserved their communications in scratches on clay, Tom Friedman was a real reporter and a good one.  He spent time in country, he worked sources, he could write.

Somewhere along the line, though, during the Clinton years, I believe, he seems to have convinced  himself that his wealth of experience had given him the key to all mythologies.

Hence such trifles as his “argument” that we should invade Iraq to show that the US could punch somebody,* the endless iteration of “Friedman Units” and so on.

And now, with the war in Iraq now in its Pilate phase…

…Friedman comes up with a column that captures so many of his deficiencies in one place.  There is the complete abandonment of the reportorial function.

He doesn’t talk to folks, he tags along (his phrase) with US JCS Chairman Admiral McMullen.  Nice company, to be sure, but not that in which you will find unvarnished opinions being expressed.

He doesn’t seem even interested in testing his assumptions against any possibility of contrary information anymore:

“In the dining hall on the main base, I like to watch the Iraqi officers watching the melting pot of U.S. soldiers around them — men, women, blacks, whites, Asians, Hispanics — and wonder: What have they learned from us?”

Wonder?  WONDER? You’re a journalist — or rather you used to be!  You don’t blow wonder through your ass.   You go find out what they have learned from us.  But no…that would be (a) heavy lifting and (b) dangerous…so much so that it might render this kind of conclusion not merely pathetic, but simply unsayable:

We left some shameful legacies here of torture and Abu Ghraib, but we also left a million acts of kindness and a profound example of how much people of different backgrounds can accomplish when they work together.

Well, how much have we and they accomplished?  Some, I’m sure…but given this kind of news, buried in what used to be called the b section, but popping up with depressing regularity, perhaps not as much as Friedman’s breezy tour with the brass may indicate.

And in any event — how is it possible that a Serious Foreign Policy Thinker™ no matter how burnt out, overly comfortable, and generally hackified could actually bring himself to write such a Hallmark Card notion:  that the events of the last six years (12 F.U.s, if you’re counting)are coming to rest in a satisfactory state because, hey, we can all work together?

I guess there is a thread of naivete left to me.  I grew up thinking that there was something special about the New York Times. I met Tony Lukas when I was 18, Tony Lewis some time later — and people like that impressed me for the fire they had, that seemed to come from that newsroom.  You didn’t get comfortable there, it seemed to my juvenile eyes.  Even when you got big, you felt the pressure the place forcing you to make that last call to get it right.

I know that’s a fantasy, and I’m sure it was never as true as I wanted it to be.   And even with the decline of the Times (Judith Miller, anyone…Ross freaking Douthat?) it’s still better than the whatever that other emblem of journalistic moxie, the Post has become.  But that’s kind of like saying that liver is better than spam…

But still…Friedman could once actually do the job he mails in now.  It’s painful to watch.  He should pack it in.  Otherwise it’s just going to go ever further down hill.  For, in this column as in this post, he and I save the best/worst for last.  If Friedman hopes to hang on above Kristol territory, he has to find a way to stop writing stuff like this:

After we invaded and stabilized Bosnia, we didn’t just toss their competing factions the keys.

Except, of course, we did not invade Bosnia.  The American led NATO intervention in the Bosnian War occured in 1995, just as Friedman was making his ultimately disastrous move to the NYTime’s Opinion pages, so he perhaps may have been distracted, but the military action taken by the US and its allies consisted of 3515 aerial sorties:  a hellacious bombing campaign.

If this seems like a distinction without a difference, think again:  many DFHs without Friedman’s bully pulpit tried to suggest that the range of analogies being drawn to justify the Iraq War back in 2002-2003 were false.  Iraq wasn’t Japan in August 1945; Bagdad was not Berlin; displacing Saddam was more like witnessing Tito’s death and the start of the Yugoslav disintegration than it was our ratification of Balkan partition in 1995 — and not much like that either.  Friedman chose then not to know any historical complexity.  He still does.  And as he continues to scrabble to find justifications for his own disastrous cheerleading for the Iraq war,  he’s willing to get basic facts wrong to prevent the slightest dissonant fact from disturbing the eternal sunshine of his mind.

If it were me, or any other mere blogger, or even one of the deranged commenters at Redstate thus deluded — who cares.  But despite the evident decline of even the flagship mass media organizations, the power that comes with the NYT platform and the inertial weight of Friedman’s own brand means that when he says stupid sh*t, he can get people killed.  And that’s why this matters.

*From Wikipedia:

In an interview with Charlie Rose in 2003, Friedman said:

What they needed to see was American boys and girls going house to house, from Basra to Baghdad, um and basically saying, “Which part of this sentence don’t you understand?” You don’t think, you know, we care about our open society, you think this bubble fantasy, we’re just gonna to let it grow? Well, Suck. On. This.[23][24][25] ..We could have hit Saudi Arabia. It was part of that bubble. Could have hit Pakistan. We hit Iraq because we could. That’s the real truth…

Similarly, in NPR’s Talk of the Nation, September 23, 2003:

.. and sometimes it takes a 2-by-4 across the side of the head to get that message.

Image:  Gerolamo di Romano called Romanino, Christ Before Pilate (detail of Pilate Washing his Hands), 1533-34

A bit more blogrolling, and Newton and the Counterfeiter’s latest notice

July 14, 2009

More self aggrandizement, and a pointer.  PhiloBiblos aka Jeremy Dibbell has just posted a very nice brief review of Newton and the Counterfeiter (AmazonPowellsBarnes and NobleIndiebound) at his book-loving blog, now to be found on the blogroll at left.

Key quote:

It’s the kind of story that would make a good novel, but which written by the right person works even better as history.

Touring through Dibbell’s other posts, I found many delights, including this one which pointed me here, which then led to Thomas Jefferson’s reading list…which forced me to add  J. L. Bell’s Boston 1775 to my blogroll.  Bell writes on the roots of the American Revolution in my current meatspace domicile, aka the Hub of the Universe, Athens of America, Somerville’s neighbor….Boston.

Beware of PhiloBiblos, by the way.  Too many juicy links…which provides me an excuse for a second hit of xkcd in a single day:

You have been warned.