Needles & Threads

The week’s best on the Fray.

It’s difficult not to resort to pedestrian cries such as, “This is America?” As omnibus1reader wrote Wednesday, “I want my country back. Truth, justice, liberty and the American Way where some frail old black lady in a garret in New Orleans is equal to kings.” The images are an indelible scar on our collective character. If there’s a silver lining, then it’s the opportunity for national self-examination—an exercise that’s long overdue: 

…As our government falters and one of our great cities reverts in the face of catastrophe to a Hobbesian–not Rousseauan–state of nature, one can’t help but feel the the civilizational veneer overlaying our baser natures is thinner than even we dedicated cynics thought. That modernity can be reduced to tenebrous, dysenteric anarchy within a passage of days, and that the entire governing mechanism of our society is utterly impotent in the face of such disintegration, should give us pause. Before we go remolding the world in our image, we might search out a mirror. In Iraq, for example, the descent into chaos following catastrophe is suddenly more real, more visceral, and more comprehensible. It turns out that it had nothing to do with preconditioning from life under dictatorship, nor does it have anything to do with any particular quality of sectarianism or societal backwardness. Base tribalism, violent territorialism, rejection of aid from outsiders, self-propogating despair–these are the steady-state conditions of a species that’s spent thousands of years divesting itself of any real capacity for survival in the natural world. Every aspect of our lives presumes higher authority. In its absence, we falter, often fatally.

Nothing about our lives or society is God-ordained or even remotely eternal. If any good comes of the still-unravelling disaster along our Gulf Coast, it must be an immediate reevaluation of the fragility of our sustaining web–recognition that rugged individualism is a myth born out of comfort and national wealth. I say this as a person who deeply, deeply distrusts government and central authority and who advocates libertarianism wherever it’s feasible: our failure to acknowledge collective interdependence on a civilizational level is the intellectual error that will doom us all.

The right to be left alone is one thing. Quite another to be left alone to die.—IOZ, here, watching the levitathan rot from within.  …Yes, the hardest hit who will take the longest to recover are the poor, the elderly, the disabled. But in truth, the ones who know how best to survive in hard times are the poor, the elderely, the disabled. Suffering is relative, and those who know no different, tend to handle the hard times better than those who have no experience living in crisis or survival mode. There is no question that in New Orleans and a number of MS towns, the black population has suffered greatly at the hands of Katrina. It is tragic that some of those have foolishly sought to take advantage of the time to steal what will be worthless to them rather than focusing solely on survival. When they are forced to walk away from their homes, none of those stolen items will have value to them, and most will be lost in the clean up to come before New Orleans will again be inhabitable. The lack of judgment is understandable, if not justifiable. But many of the same towns in MS and a number of those in New Orleans are not blacks, but caucasians - some elderly, some who could have left, but couldn’t bring themselves to leave their family home and the only life they’ve ever known. Economics won’t change the devastation they feel knowing their way of life has been forever altered. And for many of the “advantaged”, they are facing an unknown future without the experience or skills to deal with what’s coming. That sense of hopelessness will not be salved by savings accounts or privilege, and while the poor and underprivileged will find a way to survive, I wonder how many of the others will not.—jd-14too, here, on class and coping.  …There is one opportunity here–we can change the way we handle our national priorities. We can’t change the mismanaged policies of the past, but we can resolve that not even the government can violate the second law of thermodynamics with impunity–you can’t get something for nothing. We can plan better. We can realign our priorities. We can stop fooling ourselves and pretending that nothing really needs to change in our lives, that no sacrifices are necessary and that these decisions won’t really affect us. Because the truth is, as we are all finally discovering–it affects every single one of us because we are woven together in the fabric of this society, and the pain of one region inevitably ripples out to us all, and there is no insulating ourselves from the consequences. We’d do well to remember that…—Demosthenes2, here, looking ahead. I have read other posts on the issue with varying degrees of interest, and most seem to fall on fairly predictable lines. For those on the right … this kind of issue seems to be absolute fresh bloody red meat; the excessive focus on looting by the right wing media looks to me like fairly overt racism dressed in the thinnest clothes of “news.” The left, meanwhile, practically falls over itself finding ways to excuse or minimize the phenomenon’s importance; I’m not quite sure if this is because of a fear of saying anything negative about African-Americans (a pathologic fear of the left) or just an aversive reaction to the ugly example from the far right.

Regardless, what really hasn’t been said is that this is both typical consequence and partial cause of the problems New Orleans is having right now. Looters after an evacuation there are as predictable as the tides, which is quite possibly due to the nature of the city itself - if you pride yourself on being a place free of rules, you can hardly express surprise when those rules you choose to try to enforce are flouted, particularly in a chaotic situation like this. The addition of guns to the equation is simply a reflection of the fact that this time it’s survival at stake, not just property loss and self-enrichment.

The other half of the strange correlation is not as often noted: just as hurricane evacuations lead to looting, the fear of looting causes many people to stay in order to protect their property. The people who can least afford to be looted are those without insurance or money to replace the goods lost, which adds yet another layer to the number of reasons why poorer people are more likely to be those standing in the path of the storm when it hits.

So do I care about people looting TVs? Probably not - by planning for entertainment rather than survival, they are marking themselves as unlikely to be among the longer-term survivors. Should I care? As it is one of the things that contributes to more people being at ground zero of the storm, I would have to say yes.—Sawbones, here, on the politics of looting.…I am leaving the lush, sensual, overripe place of my birth, the land of swamps and sugarcane, of Huey Long and the good ol’ boys, of fixed tickets and bribery scandals a la Edwin Edwards (he gave that money to my wife, it doesn’t have anything to do with me - only the players names change, and even then, not by much.) of liquid lunches at Galatoires that stretch into dinner (the old guard just cannot accept that there are women waiters now - sexual harrassment? oh no, he’s just flirting, honey, he don’t mean nothin’ by it.) And leaving the charming beautiful men who can neither commit nor grow up - stuck in the spoiled youthful belief that the universe revolves around them, as their mommas’ taught them so long ago (and why should they believe otherwise? Here in New Orleans its still true.)

I am leaving this beautiful tragic city that is full of my past history (there’s grandma’s house on Carrolton where grandpa proposed to her on the front porch), the house we lost to greed where grandma, grandpa, mom and dad all died (I hope they haunt the new owners every once in a while, just for fun), the house uptown where my birthday is carved in the wood, but the year is in the 1800’s, not 1900’s and the name is a soldier’s and family relation, not mine. I am leaving the thoughts of what could have been, and leaving the past - but not forgetting it - leaving in order to move forward and get on with living life - I have come home and buried my dead, now its time to move on.—Rachel-5, here, writing from New Orleans, July 8, 2002 (special thanks from chango for the referral).   

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Hurricane Parties: Precious memories from Sawbones:

Living in New Orleans after 9/11, I remember resorting to dark humor when the subject of terrorism came up in conversation; my response was that the Big Easy was safe because any enemy of the United States would not want to remove such a deadweight on the American economy and national character. I was only half-joking. Most who have lived there for an extended period (thirteen years myself, a short-timer by local standards) will tell you that they felt for the city the way one might feel about a crazy relative; sometimes exasperated, sometimes baffled, sometimes hopeless, but loving regardless and incapable of letting go.

There are few places in the world with, as Walker Percy put it, such a triumphant mediocrity. Service is almost uniformly terrible at nearly any business you choose. There is a disdain for intellect and seriousness that runs bone-deep. The government is utterly and absolutely corrupt (the current mayor bucked this trend upon taking office). You can gauge whether a driver is a resident of an area by whether he can successfully negotiate the maze of never- or barely-repaired potholes - most have been there long enough to seem like one’s children.

I used to see people wearing T-shirts with a slogan (and a grain of truth): “Louisiana: Third World and Proud of It.” But that was exactly what made the city so unique and irreplaceable in American culture. I’m aware of the appeal of the usual tourist destinations - Mardi Gras, the French Quarter, Bourbon Street, or Jazz Fest. Those were all treasured parts of my life, but more than that was the atmosphere that permeated every activity there, the feeling that, no matter what, everything and everyone would manage to muddle through and sort themselves out in a reasonably good way. Provided the beer didn’t run out, that is.

I remember being a part of “hurricane parties” on a couple of occasions when my occupation prevented me from leaving town with a storm approaching. As the hours ticked away, the barometric pressure fell precipitously; think of that strange, electric feeling in the air before a thunderstorm, and multiply it times ten. The sensible people were in their cars, spraying their windshields with spittle and curses as they crawled in 5 mph traffic away from the city. The rest of us barbecued.

I remember walking down Carondelet Street with a six-pack in hand, walking past the neighbors’ houses. Probably every other home had a grill set up on the sidewalk in front, with every imaginable food cooking in a wild chaos of aroma. I’d trade a beer for a chicken wing, a burger, or some grilled animal body part which I hadn’t previously realized edible. When I got back home, I would greet others at my house with food of my own for the same price of trade. Most people didn’t talk about the incoming hurricane, or if they did, they talked in tones of cheerful fatalism rather than worry. In a city with its share of racial tension, this was one moment in which black and white seemed able to mingle without fear or suspicion. Even my grumpy downstairs neighbor came out an joined us for a while.

I went to sleep that night with a pleasant buzz, the mildly disappointing knowledge that I had to work the next day, and a complete lack of worry. Tonight, and I imagine for a long time, I will not sleep as well. I’m thinking of friends I have not yet reached by phone, places I may never see again, and the great mass of terrified people sweating this thing out in ones, twos and ten thousands. And I am wondering with regret whether I will again be a part of a hurricane party.
Destruction of place is a gut-wrenching sort of loss that we don’t experience a lot in this country; it speaks to a beautiful—and heartbreaking—corner of our memory.  Remembering New Orleans: Author T.D. McKinney  dropped into the Fray  to respond to New Orleans native Josh Levin:
I am so happy that I did and saw many of the things mentioned in your article. I’ve always made it a point to visit at least twice a year - more if possible and just spent a long weekend there a couple months ago. Sometimes all I did was walk the streets and talk to people.

I firmly believe–I have to for my own sanity–that the city will rebuild and will not be too different in feel and culture from what we know. There will be dancing in the streets, the food will still be incredible, the drinks will be the best in the world, and there will still be a jam session at Liuzza’s on Thursday nights.

If nothing else, New Orleans will live on in the novels I write. It’s suddenly more important than ever that people see the city the way I saw it.

Shutting up now before I cry.
Josh’s piece indirectly poses the question—if your city disappeared tomorrow, what would you have missed from its canon? And which of your memories would you hold onto the tightest?  On that note, Montfort acknowledges the elephant in the roomKA4:35 p.m.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Drop in the Bucket: Read an open letter from Fritz_Gerlich to the president on oil production here:

Have you put the authority of your office behind the need for ever-greater energy efficiency and conservation? Behind the need for beginning to adjust our way of life to prepare for an inevitable energy crisis? I’ve tried to think of ways you could say you have done that, Mr. President, but nothing comes to mind. Did you ever tell the American people that we had a very difficult fact to face, that we could not go on consuming petroleum (and other resources) at the rate we are without eventually coming up against a brick wall of limited supply? If so, I can’t recall the occasion.
Also from BOTF, The_Bell on evangelicals in the Military Chaplain Corps. Sincerely, the Management: Neal Pollock longs for the day when Ivy Leaguers like Theo Epstein toiled in relative obscurity under the tutelage of crusty baseball luminaries who themselves toiled in relative obscurity. Idolatry of the baseball GM is hardly a new phenomenon, but Branch Rickey never had an endorsement deal. What’s the story? Is it all Michael Lewis’ fault? Not according to Artegall, who maintains that the rise of the public GM is…
analogous to the rise of the celebrity political hack. The idea that Theo Epstein is a star is like the decision, thirteen years ago, that George Stephanopoulos was a star. It helps in this example that both men are young and cute, but it isn’t that they were so good-looking that the press started covering people in previously unsexy jobs. I think it’s that the press started treating certain “unsexy” jobs as “sexy,” and gravitated to cute people as the first one promotes.
Regarding Epstein’s deal, Ang_Cho writes that it ain’t his cookin’ that gets Epstein the pub:
If you give most young men the choice of being a typical quarterback versus a typical general manager, I’m sure most will choose the typical quarterback.

But one look at Theo Epstein and you realize that you aren’t dealing with a typical general manager. This guy clearly doesn’t need a seven figure salary and/or an Italian sports car to land chicks. isn’t appealing to any measurable increase in the sexiness of management in general but is using a particularly sexy manager to sell their services.

There’s a big difference.
Meanwhile, Jim-in-Providence takes umbrage at Pollack’s rant because…
People take to sports in different ways, and it usually depends on what they’re good at (e.g. running a regression analysis) and what they’re bad at (e.g. hitting a curve ball). It also has to do with how the sport evolves over time. I’m told by friends who like football much more than I do that if you don’t have at least a basic understanding of how the NFL cap works, you’ll be dismayed season after season by the roster turnover on your favorite team. Twenty years ago, people playing in rotisserie baseball leagues used newspaper box scores to keep track of their teams. Nowadays, roto players likely have more and better statistical information online than Lou Gorman did when he traded Bagwell in ‘86 … That’s not to say that you have to run a dozen mock drafts before draft day, or that you need to develop a series of three-year salary allocation plans. Playing in a casual 4X4 league with friends is a lot of fun. But there’s no need to knock the guys who, in early April, are tearing their hair out trying to decide if Chip Ambres is worth the second pick in the reserve draft.
Fraywatch tends to agree with Jim; what’s made baseball interesting the last few years is the emergence of competing philosophical approaches to assembling a ball club. This makes pulling for Oakland or Boston all the more satisfying if you’re a hardened sabermetrician. For the record, Fray Editor’s squad, the Staten Island Fairies, is still smarting from the Scott Rolen injury and in danger of its worst finish in five years. Crescent City: Walker Percy wrote, “In New Orleans I have noticed that people are happiest when they are going to funerals, making money, taking care of the dead, or putting on masks at Mardi Gras so nobody knows who they are.” Fraywatch has been culling the Fray for a dispatch from Katrina but hasn’t yet heard from our readers in the region. Our heart breaks for the city, particularly one so vivid—one of the last authentic cities with its own voice … KA12:10 p.m.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Though it may be a bit too much inside baseball for the casual frayster, this gem compiled by topazz is Fraywatch’s new favorite feature for a number of reasons, most prominently because it performs the job of building a Fraywatch entry without all the fuss of culling dozens of unsavory Frays:

Who said the following in BoTF this week:

1. “You just don’t understand Vulgarian chic.”

2. “That’s not your resolve hardening.”

3. “So this is what happens when a gay man gets a woody for Bush.”

4. “NASA wasn’t hiring negroes…you see, it was adifferent time…”

5. “Who are you, the fraybarbie?”

6. “Women cannot be generalized. I am not a pig. (I only play the part)”

7. “Who says I can’t be both real and rentable?”

8. “You are InSadeOut. Like the great man who sandwiched bad philosophical critique between great porn.”

9. “imho, of course.”

10. “No doubt she’s intelligent and moderately well read. Honestly, how many full-on educated fascist blowhards do you catch around here?”

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Let’s See Your ID: It appears that the formal Intelligent Design debate between locdog and Thrasymachus has come to a close. For those unfamiliar with this megillah, the debate thread begins here, in BOTF. As a matter of course, locdog lays out the parameters: 

this is not a creation/evolution debate. I am not a Young Earth Creationist and do not believe man and all other living things were created 6,000 years ago, or that the dinosaurs died in the flood, or that the apparent age of the Earth or universe is one of God’s elaborate pranks. We’ll be dealing with the question of the origin of life. In particular, we’ll be arguing whether natural causes alone could have produced life, or whether some intervening intelligence was necessary. The exact proposition we’ll be arguing is:The existence of life on Earth cannot be adequately accounted for without positing the intervention of a conscious designer, such as God or an alien life form.
I will take pro and Thrasymachus will take con. Second, We have agreed to the following rules: that we each get three posts, that our posts will be 1,000 words or less, that they will be posted within 24 hours of one another barring a requested for an extension, that they will all be on this thread, and that only official responses on this thread will be considered by the judges.
The boys have done the Fray good; the posts speak for themselves, and any summary of the discussion would be a disservice. For navigational purposes … locdog  (1)
Thrasymachus (2)
locdog (3)
Thrasymachus (4)
locdog (5)
Thrasymachus (6)According to debate bylaws, ghostofa-z and Geoff will judge the participants. Sources close to the debate report that said verdict will come down shortly.Nice Work! Who’s Your Mohel? Circumcision never fails to incite passionate debate in the Fray and elsewhere. What’s interesting about the issue is that it’s one of those questions that tests the limits of tolerance on both sides; proponents of religious freedom often find themselves at odds with secularists who find the practice repugnant. Who are the true dogmatists? Ask GimmeCoffee— and she’ll tell you that:
To me it’s clear that folks that obsess about the issue have accorded circumcision an elevated significance for psychiatric reasons unrelated to the merits of it…More to the point, the whole circumcision issue is interesting mostly to the press, in the same way that they have tried to stir up the stay-at-home-mom/working mom difference into some kind of “debate.” It’s also interesting to those folks who clearly have other issues unrelated to circumcision.
GimCof continues her compelling argument in this post farther up the page. Meanwhile, Chris-4 presents a respectful case against snipping here:
I’m circumcised, but my two little boys are not. I was old enough to remember when my two youngest brothers were circumcised, and contrary to what the author reports, they were both crying for days, but afterward, nothing happened. When my wife was pregnant with our two-year old, she said the decision on circumcision would be up to me, so I did a fair amount of research, and found that the cleanliness arguments just did not hold water and decided that the best argument was that the son should look like the father, but to me, that just wasn’t enough to put my little boys through that pain, plus my irrational fear that they would be among those minute percentage of boys who have a little too much cut off.
I have no problem with anyone wanting to do it for any reasons, but I am somewhat disturbed by the author enjoying the carnal, discomfiting nature of a bris as a justification. That just seems somewhat sadistic to me.
In response to Emily Bazelon’s request for anecdotal data, Thugs-Ma offers some “circumcision vignettes” … KA5:05 p.m.