The Best of the Fray

Snippets and snipes from Slate’s readers.

The week’s best from the Fray …

Celebrities of all sorts, including political leaders, obtain/retain power by sedulously cultivating images pleasing to the public. Long after they are dead serious biographers usually reveal something closer to the reality. But why should falsehood work for these people during their heyday? Hence the need for somebody like Kelley, to demonstrate how the illusion is created. This could be dismissed as unimportant, but for the fact that the public lives of most recent presidents of the United States have been studied exercises in deception. Frtiz_Gerlich, here, on Kitty Kelley’s latest release
Liberals ought to be upset with the media over the way the story of George Bush’s service in the
Texas Air National Guard has been handled. The specific thing they ought to be upset about is that the media did not examine it in depth four years ago, when it had the potential to really damage Bush.

It’s too late now. Presidents, for better or worse, do get passes on their pre-Inauguration lives as far as most voters are concerned. Voters were not going to hold the Vorhees campaign against Nixon in 1972. In 1984 they didn’t care if “Bedtime for Bonzo” was any good. In 1996 Bill Clinton’s lurid past didn’t get even get Bob Dole close, and if he’d kept to the straight and narrow throughout his time in the White House no one would have cared about it after 1996 either.

Is that unfair? Stupid question. Anyone in the White House has a vastly more vivid profile in the eyes of the public than anyone else in public life; it’s a President’s performance in office that voters base their decision on. Anyone not in the White House has to start creating a profile for themselves from scratch. Of course there is a double standard; there always has been.

The fact is that President Bush’s 20-plus years of (shall we say) marginally productive life before he ran for Governor of
Texas in 1994, including his Guard service, could have been made a potent issue against him in 2000. John McCain didn’t want to do it; the Democrats, coming off eight years of a President who had dodged the draft outright and with a candidate uninterested in national security policy, decided not to do it. And the media just do not do election year stories that one of the campaigns isn’t badgering them to do.

Now of the three, I have most reason to be upset with McCain. The issue of Bush’s slacking off would have worked best for him, and of the men running in 2000 he would have made by far the best President. But if I were a liberal Democrat I would recognize when a train has left the station…
Zathras, here, on the National Guard flap.
The second amendment prevents the federal government from infringing on the right to bear arms, but has no impact on state regulation. The Founding Fathers neven intended to prevent state regulation of arms within the borders of a state. Strict constructionists should recognize that if you want to rely on what the founder’s intended, individual states can disarm their populations The proper place for the assault weapons ban is at the state house. Though many states have state constitutions that protect gun ownership as well, those constitutions can be changed much more readily than the federal one. Those who want gun bans should concentrate their efforts where it will matter and can occur, not at the federal level where it is impractical and should require a constitutional amendment.JRudkis, here, on the expiration of the federal assault-weapons ban.
Pregnant women have simply allowed themselves to be browbeaten by the farcical concept of a “zero-risk” life, an obsessive fixation on a narrow selection of risks to the exclusion of balance or moderation.

Presumably they should all choose bedrest for the last six months because violating any one of these dietary requirements is less likely to lead to problems than getting in a car and exposing themselves and their babies to the risk of a car accident. How much longer before pregnant women are put on oxygen at four months and encased in a nutritive gel at six months? I mean it’s just getting preposterous.
Brian-1, here, on the culinary dos and don’ts for pregnant women
I know that John Sayles has a lot to say as a filmmaker, but has he forgotten that people actually want to “enjoy” the movies they fork over their money for? Lone Star might have had a ton of preachy speeches, but man, the movie had style and drive.
SunshineState, Men With Guns, and Casa de Las Babys all were flatter than pancakes.

Ah well … not every indie director has a continuous hot streak…
TheMaxFischerPlayers, here, on John Sayles’ new release, Silver City
Tim Noah made what so far as I can tell is his New York Times debut over the weekend in the Sunday Books section, reviewing a handful of books written about the alleged president of the US.

So, that’s Jacob Weisberg, Dahlia Lithwick, Daniel Gross, Fred Kaplan (a previous contributor to the
Times) and Tim Noah who have written for the paper during the past few months, along with a couple of quotes from Jack Shafer. Emily Yoffe, although she doesn’t seem to have shown up recently, has been a contributor to the Arts and Leisure desk in the past.

Meghan O’Rourke, who has been an infrequent contributor to the
Times, did a book review at the end of June. David Plotz got a somewhat inexplicable mention from Maureen Dowd in her May 20 column. Bill Saletan made what seems to be his first appearance in the paper with a book review in July.

That makes nine Slate staffers who have either written for the
Times in recent months, most of them for the first time, or have been quoted, and one, Yoffe, who hasn’t appeared lately but is not unknown to the paper.

I like Tim Noah for the most part, but his appearance has the
Times veering dangerously close to Kaus Kountry.

Rumor has it that Kevin Arnovitz will be making his Times debut soon as well. It’s my rumor, but I think it might be true.
Betty_the_Crow’s semi-regular Slatewatch feature

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Gawd Awful: Steven Waldman’s ”Heaven Sent: Does God Endorse George Bush?” has Faith-Based Fray boiling over with a blend of biblical references and political invective. Gtomkins and marksman open up their biblical texts in this thread (here, here) and debate the lineage of divine leadership. Doodahman takes fundamentalists behind the woodshed:

seems to me that when God wants to do some good in the world, it’s not through governments and the fiat of some king, but through millions of individual acts by simple people moved by the Spirit.

Funny, but back in the day, if you told a conservative right winger that the federal gov’t is in fact the instrument of God’s will that will make the world safe for Whitey, he’d first laugh his ass off and then have you roughly escorted from the country club. But today, the alleged right wing is so extreme and so fringe that they actually imply that the federal gov’t IS god acting through Bush and Mullah Ashcroft.

See, to those right wingers, the hand of God is only seen when smiting here and non—usually a bunch of randomly selected little brown froggy people who don’t have the sense to build a million dollar bomb shelter under their mud brick shack. But when the federal gov’t is doing something like, oh, raise taxes to provide services to the poor…then the tune changes. In that case, Great Society/New Deal gov’t types are doing Satan’s work. I say, if God put Bush in the White House, he must have put Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter there too. …Sorry, but I like leaders who believe that it’s OUR responsibility to keep this mad house rotating so that maybe future generations will have the chance to be fat, stupid and selfish. If the fundamentalists insist on the primacy of the spiritual world unseen, that’s fine. They just need to stop mucking of the material world of the seen, okay?
Baltimore-aureole respectfully challenges dood here on a couple of his characterizations, and, in an earlier top post, charges the likes of Robert Reich for “giving secularism a bad name” by suggesting that the great conflict of the 21st century will be waged between “modern civilization and … those who believe that human beings owe their allegiance and identity to a higher authority”:
I’m a secularist, so I don’t believe that the earth is “turtles all the way down”, or any of the other creation myths. but when asked to explain our existence through science we are treated to competing theories of a big bang, inflation theory, the bumping of “brane”, being folded inside 11 dimensions”, and whatever else is appearing in discover magazine this month. given the fractured nature of scientific explanation, who can blame someone for wanting to have faith?

sorry mr reich … i DON’T think faith is a bigger threat than al qaeda. the christian childrens fund, amnesty international, doctors without borders, the peace corps, and many other fine organizations rely people of faith as among their strongest contributors and supporters.

i’ll reassess my opinion on the dangers of christianity if billy graham ever sends an airliner towards the sears tower, or a truckload of armed assassins into my daughter’s elementary school.
TJA thinks b-a misses the mark here.  All this “I heard the call” business reminds Fraywatch of Network’s Howard Beale, anchorman for UBS News. Beale claimed to have been awakened in the middle of the night by a voice ordering him to speak the truth. Beale asked, “Why me?” The voice replied, “Because you’re on television, dummy.”  Whirled Peas:AdamMorgan got a talking-to from the Dean for wearing a peace symbol lapel pin on his blazer jacket while teaching his undergraduate math class.  AM is scheduled to face off against the objecting students and parents. The busy thread starts here, with dozens of thoughtful, witty and nutty replies beneath. … KA12:20 p.m. 

Friday, September 10, 2004

Good Yontif? Ender, for one, “won’t be remembering 9/11 this year.” Quoting from Christopher Isherwood’s Diaries that it’s the “atmosphere of war, the power which it gives to all the things I hate … I am afraid I should be reduced to a chattering enraged monkey, screaming back hate at their hate,” Ender disclaims that “I’m no Isherwood,” and that in the days following September 11, 2001:

I was reduced to a chattering enraged monkey without a second thought. There was no fear of what I’d become, I was in fact fearless in my certainty that an enraged monkey was exactly what I needed to be … I go on to understand Isherwood to mean that the power the atmosphere of war gives the reactionary chattering classes is the power of being right. They’re always there, and they’re always at it, insisting, insisting, insisting that the world is as simple as what little minds are capable of grasping. But they are wrong and easily dismissed until the day the world proves them right. On September 11, 2001 the chattering enraged monkeys behind the controls of those planes vindicated the chattering enraged monkeys among us. Isherwood didn’t like it, but he was resigned to the awareness that to survive in a world ruled by chattering enraged monkeys, you have to become one … Yuck! I’m wrong. I must be—because life as a chattering enraged monkey for someone capable of more is no less than a prison sentence.
So what’s changed?
It’s been 3 years since September 11, 2001. Time enough to reflect, to assess, to confess and to question. Was I right to become a chattering enraged monkey, i.e. did my chattering enraged monkey logic work?
To find out, click here. Schadenfreude counters Ender’s demonkification with a reply titled “Why you’re wrong“:
I think that Bush (or someone advising him) had roughly the same idea that I did. I concluded that the Middle East produces terrorism for a reason, and that the reason isn’t Israel. And, that the only way to combat terrorism was to reform the Middle East…or to destroy it. For the first couple of days—in my chattering monkey phase, if you will—I was all for destroying it.

Note that I said the Middle East. That’s deliberate. Afghanistan is not in any way the root of the problem, or even a very important part of it … The real problems lie in Iraq, Syria, Iran, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Libya and Egypt … Those are the countries that need to be reformed, and some of them can only be reformed by force.

So, Bush is on the right track, but his execution has been dismal, I think because he was trying to hold back troops for the next mission, instead of taking it one step at a time.
Tar Schad with whichever brush you wish here. Demosthenes2 has his behavioral observations on “what chattering monkeys” (and Thomas Friedman) do. Click here for D2’s take.   SplitDecision:Gail Mazur’s “Enormously Sad” evokes mixed reviews among the jury pool in Poems Fray. Departmental co-chair, MaryAnn, pans this week’s selection:
The speaker in “Enormously Sad” feels sadness—in fact, grief and defeat—but she has a hard time convincing herself that her emotions are valid enough to be taken seriously by others, others who are probably stronger than she …Like many of us, the narrator can’t seem to stop being self-conscious, can’t seem to “feel” something without having to critically dissect the feeling. Yes, she feels enormously sad, but is the word “enormous” really justified? Yes, she’d like those occasional nocturnal visits, but then how valid is her desire for solitude? Yes, she feels sad now, but is she really any sadder than she was before, with those “presentiments of sadness prickling the limbic”?A poem about a seemingly pathetic woman has to avoid being pathetic itself. This poem does, but just barely. The author’s word choice, her unfortunate image of a metal detector, her use of one long stanza detract from what could have been a sympathetic examination of feelings that not many modern women admit to.
Hold on a sec. In his critique, rob_said_that departs from MaryAnn’s read that the poet is enveloped in abject self-consciousness:
“Enormously Sad” is a poem about—it genuinely surprised me to discover—the objective correlative. More properly, it’s about the lack of same. …As we all know from our lit classes, the objective correlative is that detail which objectifies an emotion and evokes a response in the reader. But the damaged reader—the enormously sad reader—is incapable of response.

And, in fact, the poem does provide the necessary hooks in spite of its subject matter: “your little metal detector”; “salty scouring air”; “the other world … struck by iron, reels”; “World of intentional iron, pure save organized iron of the world”—all these comprise a contrasting web of imagery that seems calculated to get one to look outside oneself at the intense wellspring of sensation we call “the world.” The great and savage world, the poem says, is indifferent to you, and while some depressed minds may view that as further reason for depression it can also be construed as a relief. In this case, it is a high relief, for the only real cure for depression is to be distracted from it. One has to occupy one’s mind with ideas outside one’s own “tiny purview.” This poem attempts to cajole all us self-pitying bastards out of our brown studies and into the world. It even tells us point blank: “Get outside / yourself, go walk on the flats.”

What a good idea.
For demi_mundane here, the trope (“the world of unintentional iron”) is “worth the admission price.” For a more elaborate explication of the poem from d_m, click here, and Ted_Burke weighs in on the piece here. In Memoriam: Rosemary Quigley, Slate contributor/diarist, died Monday in Boston after an extended fight with cystic fibrosis. The Slate community—its editors, contributors, and readers—all mourn this loss … KA11:20 a.m.

Tuesday, September 7, 2004

Yeah, But … : There are few rhetorical tasks more difficult than threading the moral needle between unequivocal condemnation of a terrorist act like the one in Beslan and the instinct to delve into questions of causation. Is merely asking the question “how could it happen?” capitulating to the terrorists or is it a reasonable attempt to address history in an effort not to repeat it? Where does moral equivalency end and relativist insanity begin? Fraysters address these questions en masse in response to Masha Gessen’s “Chechnya: What drives separatists to commit such terrible outrages?FedUpWithCons has no problem asking, “how did it come to this?” Here, he draws a parallel between Chechnya—where things went sour, the Balkans—where the international community “managed to prevent the jihadists from gaining a significant foothold,” and now Fallujah—which is up for grabs. In contrast, Razzen has little patience for historical navel-gazing:

Whenever we hear news of yet another great man-made tragedy, among the first things to be vetted is the historical background of the incident, often presented in the guise of causality. Yet such attempts often border on or dive straight into the Post Hoc Propter Hoc logical fallacy (lit. “before this because of this”), also known as the “false cause” fallacy.By trying to draw out the long line of human action occurring decades or even centuries before the incident, we try to present that timeline as its causam primam, though the truth of History is that it’s always tenuous at best to tie the deeds of past generations to those of today’s. People make their own choices in life, and sadly they often choose to live by those prior histories.
According to A_Dude_in_San_Diego here, the history we need to learn from is that
the use of terror in the attempt to achieve a political goal is one that the world has supported since the 1970’s. The failure of the world’s governments and more importantly the people of the world to fully condemn the tactics of the Palestinians in their goal of freedom from the Israel have resulted in an increase in the use of terror as a weapon of negotiation. Not to debate the validity of the Palestinian cause, but their use of terror, the resulting support from some quarters of the world, with the eventual acceptance of the founder of the terrorist group as a legitimate leader (Yasser Arafat) gives hope to those that would use this tool.

Until the world refuses to accept any type of negotiation with a group that uses tactics against a civilian population we can all expect to see an increase in this tactic.
Gthomson unearths the political collateral damage in the incident. Like moderate Tamils in Sri Lanka,
this nihilism has repercussions: everyone knows now that Chechen terrorists are willing to kill young children to advance their cause. Moderates who seek independence or even an end to occupation and violence will surely be tainted by the horrific actions of the terrorists. Among the people who have cause to despair right now are the ordinary Chechens whose desire for a life of order and peace must now seem even further out of reach.
Zathras suggests that the connection between Chechen separatists and last week’s massacre in Beslan may be more tenuous than many realize, and that Islamic fundamentalists may have been using the cause Chechen independence as a front for their operation:
The possibility must be considered that with the long war having decimated the secular Chechen leadership, Islamist elements are in the ascendant. If that is true it is unlikely that non-Chechen fighters at Beslan were mere “volunteers.” It is more likely that non-Chechen Islamists directed the planning if not the execution of the operation, and will now attempt to use its spectacular success to strengthen the radical Islamists’ position in Chechnya and throughout Central Asia.
Jack Brown, who reported for Slate from Mexico City in April, offers a similar theory in his rebuttal here:
The article does readers who don’t know the background of last week’s events a great service, but there is still the hard reality that this group of men were set on massacring a thousand children. An event of nearly the same magnitude as the September 11 attacks in the US, I would suggest …Al Qaeda is more a rhetorical device than an organization, so to say that Al Qaeda is probably not present in Chechnya is true but not illuminating. The mad ruin of Chechnya is a training ground and radicalizing force for a lot of young men the rest of us are going to have to worry about later.

Like Afghanistan before it, Chechnya is a focus for Arab jihadists, and I think this is something to be concerned about. According to Aukai Collins, the (somewhat reliable) American jihadist who spent a few years fighting the Russians in Chechnya, there are plenty of Arabs in the militant groups he fought with. Meaning that, though the war there was not caused by international Islamism, it’s going to send another generation of angry, radical, and war-experienced young men back to their home countries and to the West.
For more on the franchising of Islamic terrorist cells or the moral imperative of asking (or not asking) why, visit The Gist Fray. Quote of the Week: Thrasymachus on Georgia Sen. Zell Miller, here:
[H]ow come I can go to work 5 blocks from the New York Stock Exchange every day and not be scared of these fuckers, and “this old marine” can’t drive his grandkids to Sunday School in Boola-Boola, Georgia without seeing bomb-toting mullahs in the shrubbery?
Fraywatch was born and raised in the A-T-L and summer-camped in Cleveland, Ga.—just a hand grenade’s toss from Boola-BoolaKA1:20 p.m.

Friday, September 3, 2004

The Acceptance Speech: Nestor sums Bush’s appeal up this way:

After a lot of thought, I’ve come to the conclusion that Bush’s campaign is successful because he appeals to us at our core … not on an intellectual level, but in simpler, more direct ways.

John Kerry’s campaign is lagging because he tries to get us to see reason, when many of the issues are more easily answered emotionally.

The awful truth is, people like Bush for reasons that have nothing to do with his record, or his promise as President. They have to do with his perceived closeness to the electorate, IE, ‘he’s one of us.’

He’s not, but those who are voting for him don’t care. He says things they’ve been saying for years, things they’ve been thinking and not able to say for one reason or another.

If Kerry could ever connect with voters the way Bush has, this race wouldn’t even be close. As it is, he has to outsmart Bush before he outsmarts himself.
J_Mann responds to William Saletan’s scrutiny of Bush’s acceptance speech:
I don’t mind the anti-Bush bias, but I wish Saletan would at least try to address the other side of his arguments. …Promises Kept: As far as I can tell, Bush has delivered on most of the stuff he actually talked about in the last campaign. He’s delivered tax cuts to everyone who pays income tax, instituted sweeping education reform, strengthened the military, strengthened missile defense, and instituted a prescription drug benefit. You can argue that some of those things are bad ideas, or argue that Bush has gone about them badly, or you could complain about some of the things Bush hasn’t done (e.g., privatizing social security, enacting a “humble foreign policy”), but it seems to me that for better or worse, Bush has made substantial progress on the stuff he promised last time around.Responses to Unexpected Crises: Saletan also complains that Bush supposedly hasn’t done enough to address “recession,” “unemployment,” “corporate fraud,” etc. Again, I don’t think Saletan’s right, but it’s more disturbing that he doesn’t even try to address the counter argument. First, each of these problems was brewing before Bush took office, so it’s a little unfair to blame Bush for discovery of the decade of corporate fraud preceeding his administration, or for a predictable downturn in the business cycle, at least without discussing specifically what Bush should have done to address the problems more effectively. Second, it seems to me that Bush has done a pretty good job addressing those problems. …
The_Bell wasn’t particularly impressed with 43’s performance:
The official theme this evening is “A Safer World, A More Hopeful America.” George W. Bush accepted his Party’s nomination and attempted to outline his vision for the country’s future. After hearing him out, I suspect the rest of world feels safe in assuming that, whatever their hopes, they can expect only more of the same from America over the next four years should he prevail. … It was not a bad speech. Bush can be quite a good speaker when he has a prepared text and plenty of chance to practice—and Karen Hughes suggested that he and his advisors had been crafting this oration over the past six weeks or more. It felt at times like a State of the Union address. Bush contrasted himself with John Kerry but without attacking him stridently and he talked about his accomplishments and decisions without sounding especially defensive.
A prognosis?
I think Democrats would be equally remiss to believe this is all just temporary and that victory over an unpopular and failed Chief Executive is virtually assured for them in November. Bush is capable of self-effacing charm and the values he represents that are so anathema to many Democrats are not his alone but rather are shared and embraced by more or less half of this country. Bush himself may have explained his—to them—unexplainable popularity tonight better than I ever could, when he humorously observed, “Some folks look at me and see a certain swagger, which in Texas is called ‘walking’.”

George W. Bush is not President of the United States because he has fooled his supporters about who he is or what he stands for, at least not entirely. Some people argue the war in Iraq is the overriding issue in this election and others say it is the economy. But there are quite literally millions of people who will vote for Bush simply because they believe he shares their values on certain social values and because they feel they can trust him not to waver on those issues.

This is one of those Truths about him that the GOP would love to tell anybody who will listen but which his critics will never accept or understand. In the end, I think the election is still the President’s to lose and not Kerry’s to win. And I think his success will come down to whether moderate swing voters listened to him tonight and understood … and if “I am what I am” was good enough for them. I retain my doubts.
Demosthenes2’s treatise o’ the day is here. Betty_the_Crow has fun with Zell here. And doodahman officially proclaims  …
Fred Kaplan is no longer a lap monkey. He was lost, but now, he is found. Once blind, he now sees. As have Weisberg, Noah, and Lithwick.

Perhaps they saw all along, and were limited by considerations of career advancement, or some distorted notions about “responsible journalism,” to fully vent their thoughts. Perhaps they believe the taint of partisanship will tarnish their credentials.

Well, it does. They are now partisans to the truth, and thus, their credentials as lap monkeys have been revoked. … That’s a risk they are taking. I appreciate it, since I’ve been taking absolutely no risks attacking BushCo from street level. …
That brings the Official Slate Lap Monkey Crossover Index to 4 … KA8:20 a.m.