A Good Party With Poetry

Readers adding value.

There’s more Fray participation to go with that mentioned below: Paul Bloom’s “Faith-Based” article on whether religion makes you nice produced a phenomenal response from readers, who turned up in their hundreds to discuss it. Among them were psychologists Ara Norenzayan and Azim Shariff, whose recent work was mentioned in the article and who came to make several points on the issue, including “surveys asking people to report on their own virtuous behavior can be unreliable” and “Were American atheists to form moral communities in the way that religious folk do, it might make them happier. But it would also make them likely to adopt many of the unsavory aspects of groupishness that many of their banded religious brothers exhibit.” Article author Paul Bloom came into the Fray to answer them. You can read the argument in full at the end of the article or in the Fray here.—MR9:00 a.m. GMT

Wednesday, Nov. 12,  2008

It’s participation week in the Fray: Bring out your poetry criticism and your koans.

Slate Poetry Editor Robert Pinsky is taking part in the “Poem” Fray: Post your questions and comments on “There Was a Man of Double Deed,” and he’ll respond to as many as possible. There’ve been some great discussions already, and poets Mark DotyPaul Breslin, and Jim Powell have jumped in, too. Mr. Pinksy says, “I … feel some of the pleasure of giving what seems to be a good party.”

A quick sample: MaryAnn said:

It always amazes me when I discover that poems like “There Was a Man of Double Deed” were included in 19th century anthologies of nursery rhymes. Perhaps this poem has the moralizing intent of reminding children (and other listeners) that every story inevitably leads to death, regardless of the off-beat twists and turns along the way.

Robert Pinsky responded

I agree with MaryAnn that the rhymes—and the leaping narrative?—provide, for child or adult, a kind of talisman or armor against the dread or violence or disruption. A central principle of art?

It’s fascinating, value-added content—everything a Fray could and should be. And still going on right now.

Over at “Culturebox,” Jessica Winter has been seeingNew York Times headlines as koans, and readers are encouraged to offer their own examples. Octibus has gone off in another direction—s/he likes headlines about being ready for your close-up—but all contributions will be gratefully received.

Elsewhere, look for featured Fray posts (in our sparkling new format) at the end of recent “Press Boxes” (“Good. I like a chief of staff who does not care about offending the sensibilities of the Washington Press Corp!”); a “Television” column (were those CNN holograms a vision of the future, or not even holograms?); and “Explainer” about death (“If there were a god, it would almost be like it was messing with us”).—MR11.30 a.m. GMT

Saturday, Nov. 8,  2008

The Conservative Crackup,” Slate’s dialogue between conservative intellectuals about the meaning of this year’s bruising GOP electoral defeat, makes for truly insightful reading. The attendant conversation in The Fray provides an excellent source of further illumination on the problems facing the GOP as it regroups from its recent losses.

One of the first stumbling blocks to fruitful conversation seems to be a lack of common understanding of which topic is under discussion. As Illinichief points out, “conservatism” and the GOP aren’t necessarily linked. “Conservatism” describes a (hotly contested) core set of political values that orders one’s priorities and shapes the means by which they are obtained. The Republican Party, however, is an empty vessel into which any American may pour their political identity, ambition, and votes. The discussion, therefore, is marked by an elementary division between task and tool—a schism which pulls the conversation in two very different directions.

For those debating “conservatism,” the salient questions are “what should be conserved” and who can be persuaded to join the cause of protecting it? This fundamental contradiction between “social conservatives” and “fiscal conservatives” animates most of the discussion. Jshankel best captures the cost of this unresolved dispute among self-styled conservatives:

The contradiction between social conservatism and small-government libertarianism hasn’t so much lost conservative voters as it has boggled the compass. When you’re arguing on the one hand that government is too blunt an instrument to reasonably regulate finances or the environment, but on the other hand the nanny-state knows best when it comes to terminating a pregnancy or setting limits on scientific research, you’re bound to get lost in the woods

Given the slant of Slate’s readership, it should come as no surprise that smart advocates for jettisoning moral conservatives abound in The Fray. One Democrat, jwschmidt, helpfully suggests that if the Republican Party “find[s] a non-crackpot version of Ron Paul, you guys can have a chance for my vote.” Rocket88 compares the two major parties and finds recent Democratic success attributable to the marginalization of their base. Many readers join endorendil in calling for a “circular firing squad” to drive the religious right from the Republican tent.

The wisdom of this advice is called into question, however, by other right-leaning “small government conservatives.” As this post from jbtowers or this testimonial from Republican atheist Ranson suggest, a play for libertarians at this point may simply be a case of closing the barn door after the cows have escaped:

I’m still currently registered Republican, though that’s only as long as my switch to “independent” takes to process. There’s no question that I feel the party left me behind, rather than the other way around. I’ll admit that I have loosened up with age, but I viewed the party as one of fiscal and personal responsibility, reasonable exercise of strength in foreign policy, advancing science and technology, and a focus on individualism and liberty. The party before me today in no way resembles that ideal. It is strangled by the religious right with an irrational focus on abortion and homophobia, is fiscally irresponsible on an enormous scale, idiotic in terms of foreign relations, anti-science to a degree that would be comical were it not frightening, and working to curtail every civil liberty they can get their hands on (except the right to own a weapon).

On a more constructive note, Mercedes1254 thinks conservatives would do well to focus on American education, an approach which EMStoveken argues would lay the foundation of a new conservative majority. DirtyBird lays out a fairly comprehensive and persuasive conservative agenda for the opposition party, despite a confessed lack of conservative ideas for how to deal with healthcare.

Many readers reject the premise that extensive Republican soul-searching is called for. Mutatis Mutandis convincingly argues that this election is less of a setback for conservatives than it seems. CaLaywer, a Democrat, even sees a route to Republican victory in California far shorter than you might suspect. Lawdawg74 thinks the Republican Party is just one transcendent leader away from its next Presidential victory.

If you’re willing to head into the weeds of specific issues, the_slasher14 has some excellent posts on tax cuts here and here. Foohog, a Republican Frayster, indicts his party for backing the wrong kind of tax cuts. Johnzep explains why “Republicans lost the debate on taxes.” On education, most of the best arguments seem to call for complacency. Other good posts on education can be found here, here, and here. Orion38 injects some realism based on his observation that half of everyone will always rank below average: “No matter how many engineers we crank out, no one will hire them if Chinese engineers can do the same job for 1/10 the cost.” I also recommend keeping an eye out for posts from BenK, consistently one of the Fray’s smartest conservative posters.

As for the best post of the discussion, I think the prize goes to first-time Frayster rmoore for his big-picture post-mortem on what this election really meant to the great American middle:

Obama’s road to the White House began in New Orleans. I have always lined up with the Libertarian Party on most issues. I am pro choice and anti gun control. I don’t like the idea of a huge federal bureaucracy that sucks money out of my pockets as fast as I can earn them. I have voted for politicians from both parties who seemed to line up with my beliefs.The turning point for me, and I think most voters came with hurricane Katrina. I remember that the original story was about the looting. I can remember watching CNN and being struck dumb by the disconnect between the commentators denouncing the looters as nothing more than criminals while watching a bunch of people taking diapers and drinking water. Americans sitting on a highway overpass awaiting rescue for not hours but days…I still get mad thinking about it. The image of Americans floating face down, drowned in their own sewage while the President of the United States cut brush at his ranch is burned into my memory. It changed me. I had become cynical. I stopped giving money to charities because they all seemed corrupt, I had stopped voting because there did not seem to be any real difference between candidates. Hurricane Katrina got me thinking about what I really wanted out of a government. For the first time in a long time I started contributing to charities and I started to look for democratic candidates to vote for. Obviously I’m not alone in this. If Bush had only called his vacation short on say, Monday. He could have sat in the Oval Office and shuffled papers, and his supporters could have defended him. If he had actually gone to New Orleans instead of flying over it, they could have supported him. Instead, he didn’t see fit to end his vacation until Thursday. He presided over one of the greatest natural disasters in American history, and he couldn’t have done worse if he had started fiddling or said “Let the people of New Orleans eat cake.”As it was, no one can defend his leadership without showing themselves as either dogmatic drudges or party flacks. It was the most expensive two week vacation in history. In a year, the Republican majority in Congress was gone, and now the White House is gone. All of this talk about school vouchers and realignment and wandering in the wilderness is just as empty as the states where the Republicans can still count on votes. It changes nothing. They have lost, and they will continue to lose as long as they continue the way they are. As long as they prey on our fear and our greed, and as long as they keep calling anyone who doesn’t agree with them un-American they will keep losing. Tucker Carlson, Christine Whitman and the rest, you are just moving the deck chairs around on the Titanic. If you think this election went badly, just try financing the next Presidential campaign on contributions from Walmart Republicans and see how much that gets you.As for me, I hope the new President is up to cleaning up the mess left from the last one.

I’d like to think his closing point is a bipartisan peg we can all hang our hope upon. If his premise is accurate, the end of Republican misfortunes may lie no farther away than the next election. To read many more great discussions on the meaning of this election, look for the checkmarks in the Dialogues Fray.—GA3:50 p.m. PST

Wednesday, Nov. 5,  2008

“Well the whining, bitching and excuse-making are over,” said ProudInfidel last night as the results came in. If only. But still—is there hope that in the chat rooms and blogs of the United States some posts and posters may disappear now the election is done? These are the ones we won’t miss here at Slate—additional suggestions gratefully accepted:

1) Usernames like HonestPoster and BalancedViews. Sure sign that an unhinged rant will follow.

2) Posters saying, “They don’t like me because I tell the truth.” No, that’s not why they don’t like you. Or asking “Is it just me?”—in the words of a favorite ancient Frayline: “[Y]es it is just you, and not only this week, either.”

3) People who really truly believe that if others don’t see it the same way, they just need an extra bit of persuasion or another 54 posts listing more arguments, cut-and-pasted from other media, or an e-mail they found in their inbox today that says “forward this on—it is all true.” As one poster put it: “I don’t think that you really think I’m stupid; I think you just disagree with me and in your frustration you’re sublimating cognitive dissonance into hostility.”

4) Defending in your favored candidate what you would attack in the opposition. On the plus side, kudos to those who can make an outrageous twist. When Obama faced criticism over campaign financing, Nightswimmer had his answer ready: “So [Obama] changed his mind. It was a smart move. I hope it won’t make John McCain cry—like his first wife did when he dumped her for a young heiress. That’s an important vow. Agreeing to negotiate campaign financing is not on that level.”

5) Hilariously original references to Repugs, Rethugs, Dummycrats.

6) Shrieking posts at the end of an article about, say, poetry, asking,  “[D]on’t you care that this election is being stolen?”

7) Posts predicting the end of the world. May produce a nice polite reply: “Then you and your friends can enjoy the Rapture that much sooner.”

8) Paranoid posts from those importantly believing that the FBI cares about their political views. Again, a helpful reply can be counted on from fellow posters:

“And now [that you’ve posted in the Fray], They have your IP address. You’ll probably just have time to get your affairs in order before the helicopters arrive.”  “I can hear the rotors spinning now!”

There was one curious absence: In 2000, every day there would be posts saying some version of: “Slate! Ha! Why don’t you change your name to Slant!” Nobody says this any more. We quite miss it. They still say “your an idiot” and “do you get paid by the word?” and “why are you allowed to publish this?” though, so all is not lost.

We should also give a shoutout to all the great posts, intelligent arguments, and engaged writers who come to the Fray. We find what we said back in July: “These are Slate readers: Whatever their politics, 95 percent of them know that they are against racism, stereotypes, and dirty tricks.” If you wanted a quick history of the election, you could do worse than look through past Fraywatches for their contributions. For great quotes, we stand by our SuperTuesday Quiz, then go for a quick turn through Hillary’s “womanish leisure suits,” Michelle Obama’s thesis, those fluctuating primaries, and that fist jab. Sorry it’s over? Tell us what you’ll miss …—MR1:30 p.m. GMT

Friday, Oct. 24,  2008

Slate’s customer base: “gangstas that want to pimp their lives”? Yes, we, too, were surprised by JonIscream’s description, it conjured up such an … unlikely view of you all. The topic was etiquette one way or another: This post referred to the review of a new biography of Emily Post, but etiquette was also at the heart of John Swansburg’s piece on other people’s birthdays. That article touched a nerve with you gangstas, and it is time to trundle out the Fray Multiple Post summarizer. Birthday reactions divide (with a bit of unmannerly pushing and shoving) into the following categories:

  1. The person with the birthday should be paying for everyone, not being treated. There was strong support for this view, though “Grown-ups pay for themselves” was a puzzle. KateNonymous  means by this that one grown-up pays for everyone else—who knew?
  2. No, says another strong faction. If I invite you to the cinema, or a sports game, or a vacation, you don’t expect me to pay for you, do you? By far the most imaginative variation on this was from kari9704: “Would you be hosting if you said to your friends, ‘I’m going to the zoo; want to come along?’ Would you be responsible for buying their elephant key chains and cotton candy during the outing?” Kari, a friend who would invite you to the zoo is a friend worth paying for.
  3. We don’t have this problem, say some readers. It doesn’t arise in other parts of the country, they say, perhaps because New Yorkers notoriously have less room at home for the suggested alternatives: a cheap party (“potluck … karaoke. Best Birthday Ever”) or barbecue at home. Even then there can be difficulties—Anse told us about a recent event (a wedding, but still): “It was set up for a classic Czech-Catholic affair, except for one glaring problem: instead of barbecue brisket, sausage, and potato salad, they served prime rib and grilled chicken. There were complaints.” This nuance falls into the category of inexplicable but compelling for some of us.
  4. “Your significant other should be the one to take you to the steakhouse for your birthday,” sayshstein—oh bad luck if you don’t have one then.
  5. Mystifying posts. Several people mentioned the Puerto Rican option (as opposed to the Jefferson Davis solution suggested in the original article)—so what was this? “Full internal autonomy within the sovereign territory of the United States”? No apparently, it’s something to do with drinking rather than eating. And those of us of a timid disposition are also mystified by this description of a bachelor party.
  6. Posts that tell their story in the title: Server POV; Been there! Started a price cap! Now write an article about weddings.

As it happens, your Fray editor has special authority to speak on etiquette matters and knows that, in fact, everyone believes his or her rules to be best and hates to be challenged and is outraged by everyone else’s (totally wrong) rules. “I was always brought up to …” are words you can hear too many times. So it was a pleasure to read an unusually kind, charming post on etiquette from bigmac, who was talking about Emily Yoffe’s article  on taking offense.

Most people walk around with sharp nails and thin skin—they offend others sometimes even unawares, and then take offense to the slightest askew look. Rather than concentrate on their behavior, we need to look inward at ours. For example, when reading this article, it is easy for me to see how this subject applies to so many people. … But I can’t change them. I can only change myself (with God’s help and grace) and so I should read this and examine my own head and heart. A rhino hide and velvet gloves—that’s what I need to go for.

Defiinitely someone you should invite to your birthday party.—MR 2:30 p.m. GMT

Wednesday, Oct. 15,  2008

“Politically speaking, ‘elite’ just means ‘just as educated and rich as us, but in the opposite party.’ This was a useful definition from justicepsych but not one that was going to meet with a lot of approval. Some of us have not been able to get to the “XX Factor,” let alone its Fray, in recent weeks, so it was certainly time to drop by and see which cool intellectual debates were going on there. Whoa, take that back, the word intellectual has proved to be as controversial as almost anything in Slate this election year, and cool isn’t exactly the right word, either. Rachael Larimore’s “Thoughts on Intellectuals and Anti-Intellectuals” in the blog was the focus of endless discussion on—well, on intellectuals and anti-intellectuals. Amazingly, apparently you can insult someone by calling them either of these names. Throw in “elitist” and you have a full-scale flame war.

Ophymirage posted a splendid disquisition on intellectuals. Naturally we’re going to quote the funny bit:

When it comes down to it, Intellectual are a harmless bunch. About the worst thing that intellectuals are going to do to this country is to stage a pretentious community-theater production of “Titus Andronicus” with giant puppets.

But also a serious, if possibly idealistic, bit:

The best thing that intellectuals can do for this country is to show everyone the way to the tools that are necessary for genuine self-knowledge. And one of the chief benefits of knowing yourself is that it makes it a lot harder to hate other people.

There’s a long discussion here on whether we want elites ruling us or not. Go here to find out who’s an intellectual, who an engineer, and who could run a gas station. At what might be called the far edges of the discussion: What was that again about the Labrador going to duck-collecting college? No, didn’t quite get it. Lubbesuh says there are too many intellectuals, and even those with opposing political views seemed to agree.

The splendidly-named HopefulCynic had this to say

Is it better for Americans to vote for someone they feel reflects their own worldview, or someone who is best able to do the job? It seems to me loyalty to party should come far below loyalty to country or family or duty … somewhere around loyalty to Kellogg Brand Cereals.

—and made a convincing case. “Are Intellectuals Mean?”, posted byMalone, was very popular with other readers, though mostly, it has to be said, those who agreed with him or her politically.

Posts are still pouring in on this topic, so feel free to join in. But a word of warning: you don’t even want to go near the other current argument in “XX Factor” on flag mending/trampling. It’s sticky and cross and long and involved. But, no—what are we saying? That would be a recommendation to most Fray posters. MR …5.00 p.m. GMT

Friday, Oct. 10,  2008

Kitty Burns Florey’s attempt to diagram Sarah Palin’s sentences was a hit this week. Even before Tina Fey’s dead-on impersonations brought attention to the VP candidate’s tortured linguistic style, language itself was already a campaign theme, starting with Hillary’s famous declaration during the primaries: “You campaign in poetry, but you govern in prose.” After the frequent attacks on Obama’s “lofty” (and, therefore, supposedly empty) rhetoric, Sarah Palin’s syntax is in some respects just the latest to come under scrutiny.

If diagramming was intended as the most neutral and objective way to decipher meaning in Palin’s speech—a candidate who has elicited enormous curiosity since her introduction to the national stage in September—Ischua dismisses the diagramming exercise as “petty partisan parsing.”

kaboku68, a schoolteacher from Chitina, Alaska, writes in to say that “[w]e have a different form of syntax. … Alaskans often have elements of the indigenious [sic] languages of … Alaskan Natives involved in their speaking patterns” (a claim contested vigorously by Fritz Gerlich).

For WetHen here, the debate format may have had an effect:

Palin’s object was to only sound decisive, matching her punchy delivery method to that of Biden’s forceful style. The words – they didn’t matter. Anything that sounded like a word would do as long as she didn’t pause, didn’t sound thoughtful, didn’t break pace.

northwoods describes the VP candidate’s “Joycean stream of consciousness” as a generalized condition among politicians, who “never mind the meaning … fill up time so that the questioner is defeated and time runs out.”

In ConcernSimian’s assessment, Palin’s “florid, babbling ideation” is tantamount to what psychiatrists might call a “word salad.” But ezames warns against any such pathologizing:

the little I’ve read about linguistics suggests, counter-intuitively, that the coherence and diagramability of [Palin’s] speech aren’t reliable indicators of her intelligence or clarity of thought. Chomsky’s notion that language isn’t the product of some sort of general intelligence, but of a specific module in the brain, is generally accepted today.

JerseyInsuranceGirl wonders, should Palin get elected, how translators will revamp and interpret her sentences in foreign languages. Scotboy56 gives it a try, and “with a few judicious uses/changes of punctuation, and one reordering of words,” manages to make the Palin quote “read perfectly”:

I know that John McCain and I, as his vice president, will do that. Families, we are blessed with that vote of the American people and are elected to serve and are sworn in on January 20. That will be. Our top priority is to defend the American people.

Not bad. Do you have a more coherent take? Consult the original here and then post your translation in “The Good Word” Fray. AC11:20 a.m. ET