Sunday Bookchat

May 17, 2008

Nostalgia for 1968 is in the air, at least on the part of wingnut pundits like Rush Limbaugh, who harken back to the riots during that year’s Democratic National Convention in Chicago and hope for a reprise. But a different kind of nostalgia will arrive this summer when Norman Mailer’s masterpiece, Miami and the Siege of Chicago, is returned to print by New York Review Books, one of the classiest print lines now going. Mailer, sent to cover both the GOP and Democratic conventions that year, wrote the book that showcases what used to be called New Journalism at its finest.

As Frank Rich notes in his introduction to the NYRB edition, the book is also an unanswerable reproach to the conventions of political journalism:

As a narrative of the summer’s actual political events it is both compactly comprehensive and dead-on, often hilariously so. And not just when serving up Richard Nixon. Mailer’s Dickensian portraiture revivifies even the half-remembered. Eugene McCarthy seemed less a presidential prospect than “the dean of the finest English department in the land.” John Connally boasted “a thin-lipped Texas grin, a confident grin—it spoke of teeth which knew how far they could bite into every bone, pie, nipple or tit.” Hubert Humphrey employed “a formal slovenliness of syntax which enabled him to shunt phrases back and forth like a switchman who locates a freight car by moving everything in the yard.” Mayor Richard Daley looked at his worst “like a vastly robust peasant woman with a dirty gray silk wig” and at his best “respectable enough to be coach of the Chicago Bears.”

The accounts of both conventions begin with definitive appreciations of the antithetical American cities where they took place. Mailer marvels that the Grand Old Party, “the party of conservatism and principle, of corporate wealth and personal frugality, the party of cleanliness, hygiene, and balanced budget, should have set itself down on a sultan’s strip.” In Chicago, which he rightly celebrates as “the great American city,” he apotheosizes both the “clean tough keen-eyed ladies” of the near North Side and “the fear and absolute anguish of beasts dying upside down” at the slaughterhouses. By the time Daley’s beastly police set off the massacre of Michigan Avenue, Mailer has painted an urban landscape vivid enough to ground his metaphor: “The Democratic party had here broken in two before the eyes of a nation like Melville’s whale charging right out of the sea.”

Mailer spoke truer than he knew when, watching the way politicians rushed the television cameras, he predicted that political conventions would soon be held in TV studios. As it turned out, the conventions themselves became TV studios, but he was on to something.

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Since a great many wingers are fond of invoking Neville Chamberlain, Munich and Winston Churchill, even if they don’t quite know much about why they are important — this poor ass, for example — they might want to sit down with this excellent article about a spate of recent books about Winston Churchill and World War II, including two (Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke and Patrick Buchanan’s Churchill, Hitler, and ‘The Unnecessary War’) that attempt to demolish conventional thinking about “the good war” from leftish and rightist perspectives.

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Memo to George F. Will: Here’s what a review of Rick Perlstein’s superb Nixonland looks like when its written by somebody who’s intellectually honest and with no ideological ax to grind. Just thought you might like to read it and remind yourself what it was like not to be a hack.

The Prophet Hiaasen

May 15, 2008

Carl Hiaasen is fond of saying that Florida, being the state that extends the lowest on the continental United States, tends to be the place where the dregs of the nation trickle down and accumulate.

Speaking of “dregs,” here’s David Davis, principal of a Florida high school, who tried to bar students from wearing rainbow-themed clothing because it represented support for gay rights. I’m happy to report that a student called the ACLU and cleaned his clock in court:

During the trial, which was held in Panama City yesterday and today, Ponce de Leon High School’s principal David Davis admitted under oath that he had banned students from wearing any clothing or symbols supporting equal rights for gay people. Davis also testified that he believed rainbows were “sexually suggestive” and would make students unable to study because they’d be picturing gay sex acts in their mind. The principal went on to admit that while censoring rainbows and gay pride messages he allowed students to wear other symbols many find controversial, such as the Confederate flag.

The Good News

May 15, 2008

Michael Moore is making a sequel to Fahrenheit 9/11. The plan is to have it in theaters early next year. With Oliver Stone’s Bush movie coming out before the election and Moore’s documentary coming out after the result, that should make for a nice pair of bookends while the White House is properly fumigated.

One of the best things about a new Michael Moore flick is that it allows us to watch the spectacle of TV news twinkies engaged in the unfamiliar practice of fact-checking. When the Bush administration spoons out its daily nonsense about Iraq, the economy and Da War On Terra, these dolts passively gum it down like a roomful of Alzheimer’s patients. But when Michael Moore’s latest doc comes out, they leap up from their wheelchairs and start doing research, making phone calls, taking to unfamiliar people — you know, journalist kind of stuff. All to discredit a lone filmmaker.

It’d be nice if they could do this sort of thing with people who really matter — presidents, congressmen, all those guys — but I  guess we should be grateful for anything that gets them off the gurneys.

And the right-wing bloggers and pundits? They get to remind everybody that Michael Moore is fat! It’s a win-win situation all around.

Here’s your chance to help professional winger Jonah Goldberg — author of that deeply serious book that had a smiley face with a Hitler mustache on the dust jacket — decide what Bush’s legacy will be:

About a month ago, I called Ramesh in a panic because I’d forgotten that I was slated to do a Close-Up Foundation interview on the Bush legacy and I hadn’t thought too much about it. Fortunately, not only did Ramesh have some great thoughts, but I was wrong about the date — by a month (I’d entered it into my PDA wrong). Anyway, I’m doing the interview this Thursday and while I have my thoughts far better organized, I thought it’d be interesting to know what NRO readers think Bush’s legacy will be. Please send thoughts — hopefully constructive — to

Oh, I can think of a dozen or so constructive ideas right off the bat, but I’ll save them for Jonah’s in-box. The link is there, gentle readers.  

Kids don’t get enough credit for possessing things like . . . oh, you know. Irony. A sense of humor. The ability to dissemble with a straight face when confronted with adults who are off their rockers. This account of what it was like to be a kid whose mother was dating a Pentecostalist — those are the people who speak in tongues and thrash around during church services — shows that young minds aren’t nearly as impressionable as some adults like to think:

I know this might be hard to believe, but my brother and I generally liked being a part of the Pentecostal church. For one thing, the majority of the parishioners refrained from using birth control, so there were always tons of kids around for us to play with. For another thing, church was exciting. Who needed a television set or video games when you could simply attend the Wednesday night service?

Church services always started off quiet enough with the organ playing and parishioners quietly whispering greetings and shaking hands. But among the kids, there was a kind of electricity in the air. Half of the time, we could barely contain ourselves. We knew that if things went well, it was likely we’d see some crazy ass shit.

Reverend Bud would begin the sermon slowly and thoughtfully. He preached the wonders of God’s love and the importance of attending Church regularly. Although this was typically the most boring part of the night, we (the kids) used the time wisely. We’d make faces at each other over the pews or give random people the finger behind our Bibles. The purpose of our antics was to simply keep ourselves occupied until the adults starting yelling, “Amen!” and “Praise God!” It was at this point, we would swivel around in our seats and keep our eyes glued to the front two pews. This is where the action usually started.

When Reverend Bud’s preaching reached an end, the organs would suddenly blare and everyone would hop to their feet. The singing and the clapping would swell to a crescendo and the children would titter excitedly in their seats. The fever and shouts of religious undulation would continue until the crowd worked themselves into a literal frenzy and then…


Sister Ruth, an older woman with long silver hair, would collapse onto the ground in the front row. Experiencing her own special brand of religious ecstasy, Sister Ruth would wriggle and writhe on the Church floor until her skirt hiked up over her hips to reveal her panties. Farm Animals. Sister Ruth’s panties always had pictures of farm animals on them.

Of course, this was the jackpot the children were all waiting for. A small tremor would vibrate through the crowd as the kindly children from the front pews would whisper to the kids in the back exactly what farm animal decorated Sister Ruth’s panties today. Sometimes, it was frogs. Every once in a while, we’d see little blue lambs. Often, there would be kittens and dogs and little yellow ducks. The single time we saw cows, we had to bury our faces in our Bibles to hide the fact that we were laughing our asses off.

At this point in the service, the adults would collectively lose their fucking minds. They’d hop around in circles, screaming. They’d hysterically cry and hold their arms up towards the heavens. They’d gyrate around on the floor and speak in some unintelligible language: Bugga bugga boo! Oh, I love you Jesus! Yada gabba doodle boo boo wak!

It was fucking awesome!

I leave it to you to discover what happened during the lad’s own baptism. I promise you, it’s hilarious. (Bird-dogged by PZ Myers.)

Brendan Nyhan and Josh Patashnik are pondering the question of what happens to Joe Lieberman if the Democrats expand their Senate majority. Let him continue caucusing with the Democrats? Tell him to flake off and see if he stomps off to join the Republicans? I’m still trying to decide if Patashnik’s argument for keeping Holy Joe in the caucus should be filed under Thinks Too Much or Not Enough:

The question that needs to be asked, though, is this: Is Joe Lieberman the type of vindictive, thin-skinned individual who would be likely to cast aside his longstanding moderate-to-liberal record on most domestic issues in order to join Republican filibusters and make life miserable for Democrats in retaliation for their snubbing him? I think the answer is quite possibly yes, and that’s a very good reason for biting the bullet and putting up with his shenanigans until 2012.

Lieberman has endorsed John McCain and called Barack Obama a Marxist. If he does go over to the dark side in name as well as deed, that’ll just make it easier to evict him from the Senate in a few years. If the party leadership had any sense, it would be looking into the possibility of a recall movement in Connecticut.


May 6, 2008

These appalling pictures were taken by an unidentified Japanese photographer in the immediate aftermath of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. A U.S. serviceman found them among rolls of undeveloped film in a cave outside the city.

I reproduce a couple of the images here, not because I think the bombing was unjustified — I have yet to hear a persuasive argument against the decision to drop the Bomb — but because all the photographs I’ve seen before this were creepy, surrealistic pictures of melted objects and distorted buildings that worked as art objects rather than documents of war and disaster. Looking at them, one might think the blast simply scoured away all the people, leaving sun-baked rubble and eerie spaces. These pictures convey the true enormity of what happened in Hiroshima.

Reading the various arguments about the Iraq invasion, it becomes clear that we have a view of war that’s entirely too sanitized. It produces degenerate thinking along the lines produced by Jonah Goldberg, articulating what he styled the Michael Ledeen doctrine: “Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small, crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show we mean business.”

These pictures are the product of what people like to think of as the “good war.” All wars, good or bad, produces horrors like this. Internalize that knowledge, all you strutting rumpus room warriors, and temper your rhetoric accordingly. You don’t unleash this kind of thing just to show “some small crappy little country” that we mean business. Find some other way to deal with your masculinity issues.