Archive for the ‘Unsolicited Advice’ category

If The Phone Don’t Ring…

November 18, 2015

Hey everyone!

I’ve got a message for you:

Pick up the damn phone.

The backstory:  I heard last night from a valued reader with connections to the Hill reminded me that there is more this crowd can do than point, sigh, and mock the GOP pants-wetters (abetted by an increasing number of feckless Dems) who so fear the widows and orphans from the latest spasm of our long decade of war in the Middle East.*

Rembrandt_Harmensz._van_Rijn_052

What to do about the attempt to make fear the ground state of American policy?  What to do about the spreading political meme that the proper exercise of US state power is to bar the door to Syrian refugees? How should we stand with President Obama when he says of the fear mongers “that’s not who we are”?

Pick up the damn telephone.

Call your Congressional representatives in the House and the Senate.

You know the drill:  Speak your mind, politely, respectfully, but firmly to whoever you get on the phone.

My reader emphasized, and my own distant memory of an internship on the Hill concurs, that these calls really matter.  House and Senate staffs keep notes and logs.  There are regular reports of how many calls came in, on what side, and with what passion or urgency.  \

Paradoxically, because of the ubiquity of social media, an actual human voice that has taken the trouble to pick up a phone carries a great deal of weight.  So call.

The numbers:

The Senate.

The House.

If you’re feeling extra virtuous — your governor and state legislature representatives would also be worth a call.

We can water the tree of liberty not with blood, but words.

Pick up the damn phone.

PS:  Obama gets it exactly right in this devastating take down of the chicken hawks in the other party.

*Yes, I do know that the conflict there — and “Great” Power strategerizing through its misery — extends well before 2003.  But the Syrian Civil War of the last few years is (at least to me) both a conflict with deep roots and a proximate consequence of Bush the Lesser’s attempt to remake the Middle East into an model US client region.

Image: attr. to Rembrandt van Rijn, The Flight Into Egypt 1627

Advertisements

A Couple Of Things To Talk About When You Pick Up The Damn Phone

August 12, 2015

I promise I won’t post on this every day — but I’m going to come back to this pretty often until we get through the votes on the Iran deal.

Anyway — yesterday I asked everyone to call their Congressional representatives — Senators and Congresspeople alike — to thank them if they’ve already declared for the deal, to urge them to do so if they’re still (publicly) thinking about it, and, respectfully but very firmly, to give them grief if they’ve come down on the wrong side.

I’m asking again.  Here are the House and Senate directories.

Today I’ve got a couple of new developments you can talk about when you do call.

First up, meet Gary Samore:

“I think President Obama’s strategy succeeded,” said Mr. Samore, who left his post on Monday. “He has created economic leverage and traded it away for Iranian nuclear concessions.”

Samore quit his job as head of United Against Nuclear Iran — a pressure group that worked to deepen sanctions against Iraq and that now, under its new head, old friend Joe Lieberman (D then I, but really R-Likud) opposes the Iran deal.

Giuseppe_Arcimboldo_-_Winter_-_WGA00819

The key here is that Samore is not someone who just fell of the turnip truck, nor is he a squish about the sweetness and light that may follow an agreement:

Though he backs the accord as the most that can be achieved diplomatically, Mr. Samore is skeptical that the agreement will open a new chapter in American-Iranian relations.

“The best you can achieve with diplomacy is delay in the hope that at some point a new Iranian government emerges that is not committed to developing nuclear weapons,” he said.

And if that leadership does not materialize, Mr. Samore acknowledges that Iran might vastly expand its nuclear enrichment program after core elements of the agreement expire in 15 years.

He is also not convinced that Iran will continue to adhere to the accord once economic sanctions are lifted. Even so, he argues, the accord will put the United States in a stronger position to respond than a congressional rejection would.

“We will have bought a couple of years, and if Iran cheats or reneges we will be in an even better position to double down on sanctions or, if necessary, use military force,” Mr. Samore said. “If I knew for certain that in five years they would cheat or renege, I’d still take the deal.”

This is what “best available option” means:  not that Lieberman and his herd of neo-con ilk can fart pixie dust and will away Iran’s political establishment, its institutional memory, and the broadly available knowledge of nuclear weapons design, but that we put ourselves in the most advantageous position we can to shape events as they unfold.

And in other news, it turns out that Iran is not, in fact, a monolithic Borg committed to the destruction of the United States and Israel.  Who says so? None other than a reporter from that famously pro-Iran media organ, The Forward.*

Mr. Cohler-Esses’s reporting, coming as Congress prepares to vote on the nuclear agreement next month, presents a more nuanced view of Iran compared with the dark descriptions advanced by a number of Jewish-American advocacy groups that consider Iran a rogue enemy state…

“Ordinary Iranians with whom I spoke have no interest at all in attacking Israel,” Mr. Cohler-Esses wrote. “Their concern is with their own sense of isolation and economic struggle.”

Among some of Iran’s senior ayatollahs and prominent officials, he wrote, there is also dissent from the official line against Israel.

“No one had anything warm to say about the Jewish state,” he wrote. “But pressed as to whether it was Israel’s policies or its very existence to which they objected, several were adamant: It’s Israel’s policies.”

While he wrote that there was no freedom of the press in Iran, “freedom of the tongue has been set loose.”

“I was repeatedly struck by the willingness of Iranians to offer sharp, even withering criticisms of their government on the record, sometimes even to be videotaped doing so,” Mr. Cohler-Esses wrote.

There you have it, folks: the deal on the table — even if the Iranians break it — still works to the advantage of the US, according to one of the most expert and skeptical figures in this long-running debate.  And the Iranians have a polity that is not in fact a unified autocracy bent on rogue violence, but is instead a much more complicated web of interests, beliefs and aspirations — exactly the kind of situation that offers opportunity for those deft enough to seek it out.

Oh — one more thing.  Last night I got an email from someone I’ve never met, who thanked me for yesterday’s effort to get some calls into the Hill.  He identified himself as someone who works on the senate side, and this is what he wrote:

We all hear the report every week on the top issues being called/written about and the breakdown. That message isn’t lost.

Your five minutes makes a difference.  Go to it.  Call your representatives.  Let them know you’re paying attention.

Once more:  the House and Senate directories.

*Snark, friends, if you’re not familiar with this pillar of New York Jewish newspapering.

Image:  Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Wintersecond half of the sixteenth century.

 

Pick Up The Damn Phone

August 11, 2015

I just got off the phone to my Congresscritturs:  Elizabeth Warren, Ed Markey, and Joe Kennedy.  I spoke to aides at each place, thanking Senator Warren for her support for the Iran deal, and urging in the strongest possible terms that Senator Markey and Rep. Kennedy pull their fingers out and do the same.

The bad guys are hitting the airwaves, the junkets, the phones hard on this one.  President Obama got this one right: the anti-deal folks include all those who screwed up the Iraq call.  We shouldn’t — we must not — let the nation listen to them again.

Joseph_Hauber_(attr)_Falter_Pilz_Schlange

To that end: aeons ago I did a summer’s worth of answering the phone on Capitol Hill for a congressman.  I’ve asked, and what was true then is still true: phone calls make a difference to these people — and you’d be surprised how few calls can make a difference.

So get on the phone.  Call your representatives.

House of Representatives numbers.

Senate numbers.

Thank your peeps if they’ve already got this one right:  affirmation matters a lot to them.  If they are still thinking, urge them POLITELY to come out in favor of the deal.  Tell them how disappointed you are, how angry, how motivated for change you have become if they tell you that they’re going to try to block the deal.  (Again — do so politely, but firmly.  That’s vastly more scary to them than bluster.)

If you want a great quick review of the arguments for the deal, there’s no better place to start that James Fallows. This post and this one will put you ahead of the entire neo-con policy apparat.*

In any event.  Call. Call now. Get your friends to get on the horn. It matters.

*This one opens with a longer list of Fallows’ arguments for the deal in the context of an opponents view.  The asymmetry of intellectual power will, I think, speak for itself.

Image:  attibuted to Joseph Hauber, Unsterblichkeit – Falter, Knollenblätterpilz und Schlange,** before 1834.

**translation help, anyone?

 

Less Than Meets The Eye — Cyber War edition

June 5, 2011

A couple of days ago John wrote about the seemingly new doctrine of armed response to acts of cyber sabotage.  I’m broadly with him on the badness of expanding without limit the range of events that we would treat as an act of war.  But I think there is much less new here than it seems — and perhaps that lack of novel insight is more of the problem than the risks inherent in treating cyber attacks as a potential casus belli.

First of all, there is a significant trail behind this latest Pentagon statement.  A major milestone came with the publication of Presidential Decision Directive 63 in 1998 — a document coming from the Clinton White House/National Security Council.  The directive calls for a series of measures aimed at minimizing our vulnerability and enhancing our ability to respond to cyber attacks — response in this case meaning fixing the damage to critical systems to minimize pain, suffering, and economic and/or military damage.  But the notion that a digital attack is a form of warfare is already present, part of US official doctrine all the way back in the last century:

Because of our military strength, future enemies, whether nations, groups or individuals, may seek to harm us in non- traditional ways including attacks within the United States. Because our economy is increasingly reliant upon interdependent and cyber-supported infrastructures, non-traditional attacks on our infrastructure and information systems may be capable of significantly harming both our military power and our economy.

And of course, this is true.  As the WSJ article to which John linked recounts, the Stuxnet virus that seems to have done significant damage to Iran’s nuclear effort struck at a sovereign nation’s economic and perhaps military capacity in a pretty direct way.

Had the authors of Stuxnet managed to set off a bomb in the centrifuge room, that would have been obviously an act of violence, one of war.  That the cyber path permitted the same damage to be done less messily does not alter its tactical significance, at least not in any obvious way.  If the Pentagon is moving to formalize the logic implied by Clinton-era perceptions of cyber threat — well, there are changes here, but I’m not sure they are as groundbreaking as the WSJ article made it seem.

That is:  the reality behind the digital metaphor of infection is one of the facts of life in a networked world.  The realms of the virtual and the physical are now deeply interconnected, and disruption of the cyber networks can (and has) produced real consequences in our material circumstances.  I don’t see it as a huge stretch to suggest that a cyber attack could cause the deaths of people, and that a response using other weapons that also kill people might be appropriate, if (and only if) you can reliably connect the original attack to the folks you want to target.

Which is the real problem with this not-so-new posture, a twisty little bit you can find by burrowing a little deeper into the WSJ piece:

Pentagon officials believe the most-sophisticated computer attacks require the resources of a government. For instance, the weapons used in a major technological assault, such as taking down a power grid, would likely have been developed with state support, Pentagon officials say.

Well, maybe.  But I read this and come back to where I think John was heading in his piece:  if a network attack by a cyber-al-Qaeda goads us into pounding the next Iraq stand-in, then we are back to what got us into our current predicament in the first place.

To which depressing thought, I’ve three reactions.

First:  it is a good thing that our government is taking cyber crime/war seriously.  Given how increasingly dependent we are on a complicated and variously vulnerable digital infrastructure,  it would be the height of folly to think that our networks are of no interest to potential adversaries.

Second: its an assumption not in any evidence I’ve seen these adversaries will be conventional states, to be deterred or defeated by conventional means.

The idea that cyber skills are uniquely the province of nations, or that digital assaults require the same kinds of concentration of resources needed to field actual armies is as unsupported as the notion that no band of committed nothing-to-losers couldn’t strike at major civilian targets in the United States.

So if in fact the focus of this new cyber command is mostly committed to state actors, I don’t feel much more secure for its existence.  Worse — if our only options in response to cyber attacks are ordinary military strikes on conventional physical targets we’ll be right back in the sad old game of shooting at the wrong people with the wrong weapons…which is no damn good at all.

Third:  It’s not in the piece, and though I’ve been following some of the writing about cyber security popping up lately, I’m hardly expert.  But I do worry about what I see as at least a potential trap in the way we might be imagining cyber threats.  A lot of conventional, garden variety digital security is based around the idea of building a fence around a vulnerable system — that’s the idea of a firewall that keeps malware and intruders out of yours and my personal computer, or the systems to which we attach in the course of our working day.

I’m hoping that’s not how the new cyber-command — or rather, its superiors in the chain of command — are thinking.  If the concept of cyber-security being developed by the national security folks is based some kind of digital Maginot Line,  an über firewall designed to keep the bad guys out, then we may well be fighting the last war.  Because, as we’ve seen with major security breaches in commercial networks, the real vulnerability happens when someone gets past a security wall, whether by clever hacking from without, or old fashioned human treachery from within.  If the folks directing our national cyber defence are Fulda Gap types, people with a strategic sense born of classic war-fighting approaches, then we’re in for trouble.

Early days, but my own web paranoia is peaking, and I have a deep urge to encrypt everything down to my cat Tikka’s 313131122’s name.

Images: Giovanni Batista Tiepolo, tentatively identified as the victory of Gaius Marius over Teutonic tribes in 101 B.C.E., c. 1725-1729

 

Andrew Bacevich and Me On Tea Parties: Fringe Ephemera, or Brown Shirts Looking for their Couturier

September 15, 2010

Yesterday I attended a fascinating, depressing talk by Andrew Bacevich (live blogged!) in which he discussed the way the Washington consensus on national security is (a) disastrous and (b) perpetuates itself by trading on the myth of Washingtonian competence and the willingness of those beyond the beltway to defer to the presumed superior expertise and access to hidden information of the national security elite.

He made a powerful case, fleshed out in his new book, Washington Rules, positing that American national security thinking (such as it is) rests on two poles. First there is a “credo”:  that “the US and the US alone should lead, save, liberate, transform the world.” (Bacevich added yesterday that his choice of verbs was deliberate — they are all those used by American policymakers.) And then there is his trinity  — the idea that the US should maintain a global military presence, configured for power projection, and used for that purpose as needed.  (And yes, Bacevich at one point did refer to his atavistic commitment to the Catholic Church of his raising, as if you couldn’t tell…;)

Go check out the live blog if you want more, or better, buy his book.  My focus here is on an answer he gave to a question late in the session, on what he made of the meaning of the rise of Tea Party.  Here, as close to a transcript as I could make it, is his answer:

My bet is that the Tea Party is an epiphenomenon. Despite all the hooptedoo (sic) and the expectations that the Tea Party will have an impact on the elections this November — don’t think that they will be around much longer .  The substance is so thin, and is so based on anger that it isn’t enough to sustain a lasting organization.

I think that’s right…

…but not all that long ago I spent a number of years immersed in the history of 1920s Germany as I was writing Einstein in Berlin.  The book was, as advertised, an account of Einstein’s years in Germany’s capital — 1914-1932, but the question I was really trying to understand was how the 20th century went to hell, using Einstein as my witness at the epicenter of the disaster.

So when Bacevich argued that mere rage and the vague and incoherent sensation that the aggrieved Tea Partiers have somehow been done dirt is not enough to propel a political movement to lasting impact, it immediately reminded me of this:

Asked in December of 1930 what to make of the new force in German politics, he [Einstein] answered that  “I do not enjoy Herr Hitler’s acquaintance.  He is living on the empty stomach of Germany.  As soon as economic conditions improve, he will no longer be important.” Initially, he felt that no action at all would be needed to bring Hitler low.  He reaffirmed for a Jewish organization that the “momentarily desperate economic situation” and the chronic “childish disease of the Republic” were to blame for the Nazi success. “Solidarity of the Jews, I believe, is always called for,” he wrote, “but any special reaction to the election results would be quite inappropriate.”

We know how that turned out — but rather than just make the facile juxtaposition, I’d add that Einstein was almost right, or should have been right.

There was nothing in 1930 to suggest that Hitler was more than just one more raving rightist whom the establishment would dismiss as soon as conditions improved even slightly.  And in fact, through 1930 up to the end of 1932 there remained (IMHO) nothing inevitable about Hitler’s rise to power.  He benefitted from all kinds of chance circumstances, all the while riding (skillfully) the larger and overt waves of economic dislocation and political crisis.  He was certainly helped by the incompetence of his opponents.

But, certainly, even if the attempt to draw exact parallels across historical space and time never work, the lesson of end-stage Weimar Germany is that it is surprisingly easy in moments of crisis for seemingly fringe movements to rise — and that in their ascent, to seize power that could never be theirs in any ordinary time.  And once seized, authority feeds itself — we don’t need to Godwinize the argument to see that; the rapid accumulation of state power by the minority Bush II administration offers plenty of object demonstrations of what happens once folks, however thin or nonexistent their mandate, get their hands on the mechanical levers of power.

All of which is to say I believe we should not wait for the ordinary flow of events to sweep the Tea Party from the stage.  Active opposition is what’s needed, rather than the passive certainty that they’re crazy, wrong, and so openly whacked out that no one could possibly actually hand them the keys to the car.

Above all, what the example of the rise of the Nazis tells us is that rage is enormously powerful, and real hardship combined with a sense of class or race or identity-based grievance is yet more potent.  Tea Partiers, on all the evidence do believe that something has been stolen from them, and plenty of them, including one running for the United States Senate in the state of Nevada (with a reasonable shot at getting in) have suggested that violence to retrieve their God-given right to rule is acceptable, perhaps required.

Bacevich did speak to that as well.  Despite his sense (wrong, in my view) of the minor, temporary danger posed by the rise of the nativist, crazed right, he still  painted a picture of establishment GOPers as analogues (my interpretation) to the elite bosses of the German right:

You may have heard Trent Lott the other day — “We need to co-opt these people.”  And I think that reflects the cynicism of the Republican party –but the GOP is not going to become the Tea Party.

Recall the former Chancellor of Germany, Franz von Papen, crowing at the deal that brought him the Vice Chancellorship to Hitler’s ascension to the top spot in a short lived coalition, replying to charges that he had been had: “You are mistaken.  We have hired him.”

Oops.  Whatever else happens, I think Mike Castle would beg to differ with Mr. Lott.

Just one more thing:  I agree entirely with Bacevich when he said this:  ty ’20s:

You can’t divorce subject of race from all of this — and it is the most troubling part of our current politics.  It seems to me that too many of our fellow citizens refuse to accept the legitimacy of this presidency because it is unacceptable to have a black man as President.  Republicans would deny this, but I think they are lying through their teeth.  Race has not been left in our rear view mirror.

Well, yes.

And if we needed any more glances in the 1930s rearview mirror, then I’d suggest that we have a pretty good idea why in times of crisis demagogues go out of their way to paint as less than properly human a minority group that historically has been corralled into segregated settlements and has been both disdained and feared (by majorities wielding disproportionately more power than their scapegoats) — and we have more than just one precedent of what can happen when they do.

Bacevich bets that the Tea Party cocktail of rage, entitlement, ignorance, viciousness and the studied, cynical attempts at co-option will evaporate as times get less fraught.  I look at the next few months, and think of the three elections of 1932 in Germany, and wonder…if enough of the madness slips into Senate and House seats this fall, how sure can we be the rump of the GOP won’t follow?  And if times remain as hard as they may well through 2012?

Do you feel lucky today?

Well, do you?

I don’t.  I’m finally waking up; my personal enthusiasm gap has closed — I’ve hit the “donate” button three or four times today, and as the election gets closer, I’ll be heading up to New Hampshire to see what I can do to help Paul Hodes get over the hump.  I urge you all to act similarly as your wallets and geography permit.

Images:  Albert Einstein in 1929, playing a benefit concert in a synagogue in support of the Berlin Jewish community.  This is the only photograph I’ve been able to find (and I’ve looked) showing Einstein wearing a yarmulke.

Francisco de Goya, “Courtyard with Lunatics,” 1794

Garrison Keillor Thinks The Kids Have Already Left His Lawn: Future of the Book edition.

July 15, 2010

This post has whiskers on it, but even though the Garrison Keillor column “When Everyone is a Writer, No One Is” is long since gone for fishwrap, the issue it attempt to raise is, of course still with us.  So I thought I’d reanimate this from my fallow period for your reading pleasure.

To be sure, there was a fair amount of blog traffic on Keillor’s jeremiad about the book industry, at the time.

Broadly the response seems to have been pretty dismissive, which is right.  This is an awful piece, self aggrandizing, a work of anecdotage (h/t the irreplaceable Herb Caen, I think), not to mention that it’s a bizarre misreading of media history, given Keillor’s place of pride in that obsolete venue, radio.

It begins with a bit of don’t-you-wish-you-were-me aw-shucksitude:

In New York the other night, I ran into my daughter’s favorite author, Mary Pope Osborne, whose “Magic Tree House” books I’ve read to the child at night, and a moment later, Scott Turow, who writes legal thrillers that keep people awake all night, and David Remnick, the biographer of President Barack Obama. Bang bang bang, one heavyweight after another. Erica Jong, Jeffrey Toobin, Judy Blume….I grew up on the windswept plains with my nose in a book, so I am awestruck in the presence of book people, even though I have written a couple books myself…I’m not one of them — I’m a deadline writer, my car has 150,000 miles on it …

Well, yeah — and he is a nationally broadcast host of a signature program on America’s most prestigious radio network, and a contributor to places like The New Yorker, and, as he notes, the author of a few books himself which haven’t done badly at all.  He may say he hit that party by the grace of a well connected friend, but dude, you don’t need to go all bachelor Norwegian farmer on us.  You know as well as we that everyone else there was making the same list:  there’s Remnick, and Blume, and Jong and by gum that’s Garrison Keillor too….

But leave the formerly uncelebrated their conceits. (And remember that Hemingway retort to Fitzgerald’s “The rich are different.”  “Yeah — they have more money.”)

Keillor gets down to cases by declaring that all this glittering pleasure is a mask, or rather a vision of the unknowing dead walking under the delusion that they yet live:

…this book party in Tribeca feels like a Historic Moment, like a 1982 convention of typewriter salesmen or the hunting party of Kaiser Wilhelm II with his coterie of plumed barons in the fall of 1913 before the Great War sent their world spinning off the precipice.

What’s going to send all these beautiful people to a Western Front  in which the trenches are lined in Book Antiqua and Garamond?  Not the loss of readers, an audience for, if not The Word, then words.

We live in a literate time, and our children are writing up a storm, often combining letters and numerals (U R 2 1derful), blogging like crazy, reading for hours off their little screens, surfing around from Henry James to Jesse James to the epistle of James to pajamas to Obama to Alabama to Alanon to non-sequiturs, sequins, penguins, penal institutions.

So what’s the problem?  There are several:  the first is the lack of that which by asking for it (as the joke of my youth had it) New York singles used to get rid of their apartments’ cockroaches:  commitment.

and it’s all free, and you read freely, you’re not committed to anything the way you are when you shell out $30 for a book, you’re like a hummingbird in an endless meadow of flowers.

This is just weird.  I was and am a reader — and the author of four books,* all published by major trade houses, all sold in that price range (not quite that high, actually) as hardcovers, half that or less in paper — and this isn’t how I either acquire or engage books.

I use libraries, I borrow, I dig through give away boxes, I buy used…and if there is a book that is a beautiful object, and it tickles me, and I have the money, I pay vastly more than the words could be had for to get that volume in its role as an object, a work of art.

And now, I have classics and pulp and all the rest on at least three devices (yes, I plead iPad-ity.  It ain’t worth it, but I love it…)

All of which to say is that you don’t read a long work because it cost you a lot.  You read it — I read it — because it gets its hooks in me.  And the medium is less important than you think, at least than I thought, once that hook is well and truly set.

I read most of U.S. Grant’s memoirs (h/t Ta-Nehisi Coates) on my iPhone, all 3.2 inches worth of screen, through a download from Gutenberg.org.  It’s better on the iPad, and I wish I had had access to proper maps, but I couldn’t stop reading, pulling out my phone at every crosswalk, at the supermarket counter, and so on.  And I am 50 mumble mumble years old; this isn’t some damn kid doing a byte dance.

The idea that how much someone pays for a piece of work evokes a reader commitment to it is…how to put it?

Sad.

Then there’s Keillor’s odd complaint that too many people are writing these days.

And if you want to write, you just write and publish yourself. No need to ask permission, just open a website. And if you want to write a book, you just write it, send it to Lulu.com or BookSurge at Amazon or PubIt or ExLibris and you’ve got yourself an e-book. No problem. And that is the future of publishing: 18 million authors in America, each with an average of 14 readers, eight of whom are blood relatives. Average annual earnings: $1.75.

And so what?  If someone wants to write for pleasure and share it, who cares.  There are lots of things wrong in book publishing and the like, but it’s not that people aren’t buying my book on Newton (see below for all the links to let you do just that 😉 just because John or Jane Doe just popped a book with Newton  in its title up on Lulu.  And it’s not that the publicity/marketing problem is made difficult because there are lots of free or cheap books.  It is that the broader demise of go-to media makes it harder to promote books — to enable original work to find its audience readily.

That is:  we are definitely in a transitional phase, but from where I sit, having done pretty ok in getting the word out on Newton and the Counterfeiter through a variety of channels, the fact that what used to be called literary journalism has evaporated from mass print media and drive time radio even faster than science writing has gone is the most important single change in America’s book culture.  Not the fact that you can buy my work on Kindle for ten bucks, in hard cover for 17 or so, and in paper for around 9 — and certainly not that someone else out there might be writing a work they’ll sell for less.  It ain’t my grandma, nor Cory Doctorow that’s the problem here.

Rather, as Rebecca Skloot’s incredibly innovative (and exhausting) self-created book tour (warning: PDF) shows, there are ways to reach audiences, (and it helps to have written a damn good book, of course).  But of course, Skloot’s experience is a prototype of new ways to make connections between authors, works, and audiences; it’s not the finished version that non-maniacal (and/or childless) folks can precisely emulate.  We will, we are getting a new interconnected web of readers and writers, I think (I certainly hope so). But as in so much of the digital transformation, the collapse of a distinctive regional as well as national, print-based culture of writing about books isn’t getting replaced instantly.  And whatever constellation of ways to get the word out  emerge (a bit of Scalzi here, a bit of barnstorming there), it’s going to take a while before at least fogies like me really figur out how to use these resources to reach all the people who might in fact want to check out what I have to say.

Here that sermon endeth. But back to Keillor’s jeremiad:

Back in the day, we became writers through the laying on of hands. Some teacher who we worshipped touched our shoulder, and this benediction saw us through a hundred defeats. And then an editor smiled on us and wrote us a check, and our babies got shoes.

Really?  I became a writer because I felt books telling me to write.  I still write because of what I read, or because I feel compelled to say something (like this!).  I’m not going to claim universal truth for a data set of one, but I know plenty of other authors whose experience is the same.

Yes, of course, the encouragement of teachers, editors, fellow writers all matter. It can be hard to go on if no one seems to think what you do is any good.  But in fact such notice is the result, not the source of writerly identity.  If what Keillor really means is that it took professional acknowledgement to make a living as a writer, well of course that’s true, banal, but still factual enough.  But writers write; the laying on of hands, when it happens, may encourage, but it does not alter the underlying dynamic.  All that has changed is that those who do not or do not choose to have a commercial career (see Adams, Henry) have ready means to create an expression external to themselves and their desk full of copy.  And what is so bad there?

Well Keillor thinks that’s pretty dangerous:

But in the New Era, writers will be self-anointed. No passing of the torch. Just sit down and write the book. And The New York Times, the great brand name of publishing, whose imprimatur you covet for your book (“brilliantly lyrical, edgy, suffused with light” — NY Times) will vanish (Poof!). And editors will vanish.

Really?  Does Keillor actually think, in spite all the evidence of major media enterprises on the web, that the proliferation of data will reduce the audience’s demand for assessment, validation of consumer choices, the critical filtering role that acquiring editors and critics (maybe not at the Times, but in the newly emerging literary mediasphere)? The way the book writing and reading world will communicate is certainly changing…but there is no evidence, none, that Keillor adduces to suggest that self-anointed writers will be anymore successful or significant than they now are.  The mechanisms by which writers of books reach audiences and make money are changing; but the fact that some writers command both more audience attention and more cash than others hasn’t changed, and won’t.

And as for editors:  Vanish?  Really?  News to my wonderful editors over twenty years now.  The models by which books are acquired, helped and published are all changing, of course…but change is not the same as evaporation…and the blunt truth is that authors I know are hiring free-lance editors because book publishers have (long before this latest round of transformation) abdicated a lot of that task, and real writers know that real editors make them look yet more brilliant.

The upside of self-publishing is that you can write whatever you wish, utter freedom, and that also is the downside. You can write whatever you wish, and everyone in the world can exercise their right to read the first three sentences and delete the rest.

And this is different from my right to follow Einstein with Newton, and Newton with — I’m not going to tell you yet — and your right to stop after the first line of my first book “In the beginning…,” never to return again?  How, exactly?

Self-publishing will destroy the aura of martyrdom that writers have enjoyed for centuries. Tortured geniuses, rejected by publishers, etc., etc. If you publish yourself, this doesn’t work anymore, alas.

Bullsh*t.  Trust me.  Writers can martyr themselves at the drop of a hat (“Ouch! My back!).  Writing a book is a long, slow, hard slog for the most ephemeral and capricious of rewards at the end.  It hurts to spend a day casting prose, knowing all day it isn’t working, not knowing how to make it work, and not wanting to stop until it does, but running out of daylight, of eyesight, of words.  Then you get up the next day and, if you are lucky, figure out what is now obvious (any f*cking monkey could have got that one, bub), and get on with it.  We don’t need any help feeling lousy; the process of sustaining a long work contains all the resources to enhance our self-loathing that anyone needs.  The moments of joy are there too, (they have to be, or else no one would do this a second time, just like bearing children).

What I’m trying to say here is that Keillor has stopped even trying to make a coherent case; this is just masturbation.

And last:

Children, I am an author who used to type a book manuscript on a manual typewriter. Yes, I did. And mailed it to a New York publisher in a big manila envelope with actual postage stamps on it. And kept a carbon copy for myself. I waited for a month or so and then got an acceptance letter in the mail. It was typed on paper. They offered to pay me a large sum of money. I read it over and over and ran up and down the rows of corn whooping. It was beautiful, the Old Era. I’m sorry you missed it.

And I walked to school in bare feet through the snow.  Uphill.  Both ways.

**

What crap.

When I got my first contract, one guy bought me a drink at a bar on the Upper East Side when he heard someone was paying someone else to write.  That felt great too.

Then, starting in 1985 I had to write the thing, which I did, on a Zenith laptop running MS Dos that boasted not one but two 3.5″ floppy disc drives — hot stuff indeed in those days.  I can’t tell you how happy I was not to have to confront my dad’s Olivetti electric typewriter nor smudge my hands on a single sheet of carbon paper.  What Keillor is touting here is a fetish bathed in nostalgia.

Words are toys, books are miracles (and albatrosses) and I don’t give a damn what you use to make them, nor how you choose to read them, nor whether someone I don’t want to read still chooses to write and let the world know that they have done so.  Keillor’s dream of a closed circle of self-congratulatory demigods*** (“it was beautiful the Old Era” and all that) is the muttering of someone too scared to pause, even for a moment, against the chance that all that chaos and noise out there might yet contain the reward of beauty.

His loss, not mine.

*Not to miss an opportunity to plug a little — you can find my most recent, which a lot of folks seem to like, Newton and the Counterfeiter, at all the usual suspects: AmazonPowellsBarnes and NobleIndiebound and  across the pond at Amazon.co.ukWaterstonesBlackwellsBorders, and John Smith & Son — not to mention electronically Amazon’s Kindle store — and while there are no electronic editions of the earlier ones, you can check them out here.

**Bonus Eddie Izzard, Alan Rickman version for your viewing pleasure:

*** Demigods in the sense Einstein described his new Princeton neighbors as “puny demigods on stilts.”

Images:  Simon Vouet, “La Richess,” 1633

Carl Spitweg, “The Poor Poet,” 1839.

Okumura Masunobu, “Book and Paper Peddlar” 1720-1730.

Sometimes I Just Don’t Get Andrew Sullivan

April 1, 2010

Usually, it’s pretty easy to parse Andrew Sullivan.  He has some very good instincts — see e.g. Palin, S. and torture for two very passionately argued correct calls — and some bad ones (he appears to be innumerate, and he has shown some willingness to use real sleight of hand in arguing with science he dislikes).  Mostly, I see him as evolving the idea of a blog as something between an online review and a genial post-prandial mostly-monologue about the state of the world, and though I often swear off his work, I just as often check back in.

But in an exchange with self-described “obnoxious and flamingly anti-religious atheist” PZ Myers, he said something I truly don’t understand:

Christianity flees power as Jesus did; Christianism seeks it above everything else. And there is nothing more powerful than killing others, except for torturing them. Hence my distinction, which I make from no authority. I merely think that declaring a homeless, apolitical, non-violent hippie in first century Palestine as someone who would bless a twenty-first century terrorist militia in North America is a bit of a stretch.

I’m not going to argue doctrine or dogma here, just history.  And in this wrangle, history could not be more on PZ’s side.  What I don’t get is that there is no way, just none, that Andrew Sullivan, B.A., Oxon, MPA, Ph.D, Harvard could possibly be ignorant of that past.

That is:  Jesus may have fled power, but his followers have not, for almost the full two millenia since the death of that dangerous religious dissident in the Roman province of Judeaea.

Just to focus on that part of Christendom to which Sullivan explicitly pledges faith, it can’t be news to him that from the conversion of Constantine in 313 c.e., and the start of official tolerance of Christian worship in Roman territory, to Theodosius’ decision, seven decades later, to establish Christianity as the state religion of the empire, the church, its hierarchy, and its community of believers became an integral component of the structure of legitimacy and even adminstration for the civil power.

Flash forward to 800, and the willingness of Charlemagne to accept the right of the Pope to crown him Holy Roman Emperor, and  you promote the notion of divinity in kingship, and its corollary: that the religious potentate may exert divine authority over monarchs.  Leap again to the papacy of Gregory VII, 1073-1085, and you see the doctrine of Papal supremacy over civil rule taken to its extreme.

And so on…Popes ruled as feudal magnates; they levied armies, formed alliances and so on.  National churches embedded themselves in power structures, and everyone was afraid of the Spanish Inquisition.

The beat goes on — I’ve just been reading Francisco Goldman’s chilling The Art of Political Murder about the assassination of Guatemalan Bishop Juan Gerardi, slaughtered after shepherding a devastating report on government and military human rights abuses in his home country.  In Goldman’s telling Gerardi was the kind of man Sullivan has in mind, I think, as a leader who stands up to power rather than embracing it — but Goldman also documents the history of members of the hierarchy embracing the brutal political/military ruling powers, which is to say that people almost anyone but Sullivan would recognize as Christians enmeshed themselves in the web of power, even when it involved killing and torture.

Obviously, this isn’t to say that all those who are revered by the Church embraced the structures of power.  But for everyone of these:

There is one (or more) of these:

I don’t think this point needs a lot more words, even for so logorrheaic a writer as your humble blogger.  But the Catholic Church, as is common to major religious organizations, has from its prehistory engaged with state power.  And that embrace has extended to torture, murder and much more besides.

Again, this isn’t to deny the existence of that part of religious experience, the imitation of the model of Jesus, that Andrew Sullivan sees as the royal road to leading a good life.  It does say, though, the long record of the Church in this vail of tears includes lots of people who meet any reasonable definition of the word “Christian” and yet have performed acts and practices that Sullivan and I both see as hateful.

To define away that millennia-long element in Christian history as inauthentically part of the Christian experience is magical thinking.

I can understand why Sullivan would like to think that the tradition that gives him such a wealth of internal experience is not stained with all the brutal reality of history.  But wishing it were so cannot make it so, as I tell my nine year old almost daily.

Why does this matter?  It doesn’t really; Sullivan’s hopes and dreams aren’t my problem.  But this was an example of profoundly sloppy writing and thinking, and, though it’s still no business of mine, I’d offer him this bit of  unsolicited advice:

Be very careful.

It’s just too damn seductive to let desired conclusions dictate the facts you become willing to know.

Down that road lies the particular intellectual pathology that Sullivan himself, as it happens, has observed in former friends over and over again.

Images:  attibuted to Giotto, “St Francis’ sermon to the birds.” before 1337.

El Greco, “Portrait of the Cardinal-Inquisitor Don Fernando Niño de Guevara,” 1596-1601