Monday, December 25, 2006

The Death of the Godfather: Origins Unknown

Depending on where you look, James Brown was born in 1928 or in 1933. He was - again, depending on where you look - born in Barnwell, South Carolina, or in Pulaski Tennessee, or, if you put your faith in Wikipedia, both Georgia and South Carolina simultaneously. Whatever.

He grew up in Augusta, Georgia, raised in a brothel by his great-aunt. As a teenager, Brown committed a series of minor, then increasingly major crimes (car theft, armed robbery) went away to prison, got released, tried his hand as a boxer, then as a baseball pitcher, before finding his calling as "Soul Brother Number One."

People will question a few of the detours he took in life, but none will doubt that he was hell-bent on living. His fondness for booze, crack, and PCP landed him in some dangerous, embarrassing, and expensive mishaps. The late 80s were a particularly colorful era, during which Brown was arrested numerous times on illegal weapons and drug charges.

During this phase, he menaced with a shotgun a group of accountants whom he suspected of having used his private bathroom, led police on a high-speed interstate car chase, coming to a halt only after they shot out all four of his tires, and was finally convicted of attempting to murder his wife. Sentenced to six years in prison, he served two. More importantly, he got some time away from the drugs that had proven so instrumental in the escapades above.

In these "wilderness years" of his, a friend of mine from Augusta happened across the Godfather in a grocery store parking lot. His purple Caddy was parked next to her, and Brown, loading groceries into the trunk, engaged her in an unceasing, high-pitched monologue. Sensing that this "conversation" was never going to end, my friend politely bade him good bye, then climbed into her car. He was still at it, muttering and screeching as she drove away. "What did he say to you?" I asked. She laughed, shaking her head. "I couldn't understand a single word," she answered.

Admitted to an Crawford-Long hospital in Atlanta, suffering from what appeared to be a simple bout of pneumonia, James Brown died on Christmas morning. Not only is he gone, but the world that shaped him, with its hardship and brutality, its grace and laughter, its poignant striving, and its inimitable sense of style . . . that world is gone as well. James Brown was a raging torrent, no wonder he couldn't keep still. By contrast, most of what passes for "soulful" music these days is about as compelling as the spilling open of a bathtub faucet.

Middle-aged nostalgia? Maybe, but Brown brought to his craft a polish and a style, when style was still to be admired. He worked at it, refining each move, but like any other brilliant practicioner, he gave the appearance of effortless, quicksilver motion, even as the sweat poured down his cheeks. God only knows how many singers and dancers he influenced, but then again, a chasm always separates the innovator from the emulator. Take a look at Papa's Got A Brand New Bag, then you decide.

Nothing, and no one, was more American than James Brown.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen

As the winter shadows lengthen and the nights grow long, those of us baptized in the name of Christ are enjoined to turn our thoughts to matters of redemption and grace. But let's not just yet. The other morning, I ran across two newspaper articles that in their symmetry led me to savor once again the hard-won blessings of secularism, as both as a social principle and a personal inclination. I fear we won't adequately appreciate it until it is gone.

The first article I read detailed the escape from the United Kingdom of one Mustafa Jama, a Somali immigrant wanted in connection with the murder of a police officer. The suspect, Mr. Jama - dutifully veiled as the Koran supposedly dictates - fled the country on his sister's passport. Though airport authorities have the power to insist that a veil be removed, or at least lifted, under suspicious circumstances, they failed to do so in this case, as can hardly be surprising since they had no way of knowing that "their man" was hidden behind the veil. He was, by the way, the most wanted man in the UK at that time, and his photograph would have been known to every airport security officer. Sadly, photos aren't of much use when faces are concealed. Undoubtedly, Mr. Jama's escape was abetted by Britain's cringing reluctance to offend religious sensibilities.

And elsewhere on our fallen globe, in the Holy Land, as fate would have it, we find an American-Israeli woman of respectable middle age severely beaten by a "modesty patrol" for her failure to relocate to the back of a bus. No, it's not what you're thinking, a pack of rabid Palestinians asserting their archaic faith on this Jewish passenger, shortly before detonating themselves. Miriam Shear, who, despite her "American-Israeli" status now lives in Canada, was on her way to pray at the Wailing Wall, when her evidently insufficient religious zeal and submission led her to conflict with her fellow Jews. According to the article:

Though not defined by Egged [the transit system, one supposes] as a sex-segregated "mehadrin" bus, women usually sit in the back, while men sit in the front, as a matter of custom.

"Every two or three days, someone would tell me to sit in the back, sometimes politely and sometimes not," she recalled this week in a telephone interview. "I was always polite and said 'No. This is not a synagogue. I am not going to sit in the back.'"

But Shear, a 50-year-old religious woman, says that on the morning of the 24th, a man got onto the bus and demanded her seat - even though there were a number of other seats available in the front of the bus.

"I said, I'm not moving and he said, 'I'm not asking you, I'm telling you.' Then he spat in my face and at that point, I was in high adrenaline mode and called him a son-of-a-bitch, which I am not proud of. Then I spat back. At that point, he pushed me down and people on the bus were screaming that I was crazy. Four men surrounded me and slapped my face, punched me in the chest, pulled at my clothes, beat me, kicked me. My snood [hair covering] came off. I was fighting back and kicked one of the men in his privates. I will never forget the look on his face."

Throughout the encounter, Shear says the bus driver "did nothing." The other passengers, she says, blamed her for not moving to the back of the bus and called her a "stupid American with no sechel [common sense.] People blamed me for not knowing my place and not going to the back of the bus where I belong."

Rather ironic, eh, given the Jewish commitment in America to abolishing this sort of "segregated seating" on public conveyance. But I suppose, when adamantine faith walks in the front door, good sense and reason fly out the window. I realize - or rather I assume - that Israel is not a secular state, though when I read this sort of thing, I wonder whether it should be. Sadly, the invocation of "God's will" is the most obvious smokescreen for all sorts of abhorrent and infantile human behavior.

Oh, and I don't mean to give Christians a free pass in honor of the season. In preparation for writing this, I saved an article from the Daily Mail about a vicar, or rather, former vicar, with an "Aladdin's Cave" of child pornography stashed in his home:

The collection, which took half a century to amass, was discovered after undercover police infiltrated the International Paedophile Child Emancipation Group and its subsidiary, Gentlemen With An Interesting Name. Both championed the legalisation of sex between adults and children.

At this point, such revelations hardly raise an eybrow. We all know about the salacious priest and the trailer park snake handler. We've seen the the televangelist entrepreneur, and learned to steer clear of the serial adulterer with the dog collar and the sympathic ear. We've laughed over Earnest Angley and Jimmy Swaggart, over Jim and Tammy Faye.

I once took a class with a guy who'd been a musician in the 700 Club orchestra, or whatever they called themselves. He described most of his bandmates as having well-established drug habits, and the 700 club itself as a den of orgies and depravity. Of course, he rather enjoyed his time there. This, by the way, was years before Jim Baker's scandal broke. So, we know. Men (I am using this in the archaic sense, to mean all of us primates), including men of the cloth, are after all, only men.

It seems to me that this season provides us with ample opportunity to reflect upon - and reinforce - some principles. If one believes that God, or Allah, or the next-door neighbor's Doberman Pincer, mandates that one keep one's face concealed from public scrutiny, one has the right to do so. In the privacy of one's home, that is, where of course, it's sort of unnecessary. This right stops at the front door. That's not to say that you can't wear a veil anywhere else. It is to say that society, not God, will decide, outside of your home, where you can and where you cannot, based on reasonable concerns about public safety. Mr. Jama has just recently demonstrated why such concerns are reasonable.

In much of the Western world, and certainly in America, we have a right, as some would phrase it, a "God-given right," to own a gun. We do not, however, have a right to brandish our guns in places like airports, bus terminals, banks, and schools. Similarly, if your religion commands the veil, fine, but if you choose to obey, you will have to forego air travel or rent your own Learjet. You will not be able to get a driver's license, and you will have to start keeping your money under the mattress, where it belongs anyway. Usury under Islam is a sin.

There is ample precedent for this position. I admire the humble Amish, who keep to themselves and drive those quaint black carriages. But they can't drive them on our Interstate Highway System, regardless of whether or not God has given them the green light. This, it seems to me, is the spirit of secularism, which is neither pro nor anti, but seeks only to establish that religious conviction carries no greater authority than do philosophical or scientific principles, and regardless of faith, conduct within a society must conform to legitimately derived legal constraint. Can our civilization (I use the word generously) long endure without it?

When confronted by the armies of God, we may all find useful Huck's memorable, "Alright then, I'll go to Hell." In other words, I'll take my chances among the flames, or better yet, in simple oblivion, rather than endure an eternity of trying to twist my mind around a set of lurid, self-contradictory doctrines that no intelligent twelve year old could easily accomodate. Twelve year old, hell! I remember my nephew, at the age of eight, giggling over some of the more obvious absurdities of faith, then concluding sarcastically with "What a fairy tale!"

And yet, given the stupidity with which we abase ourselves before God, and the horrors we inflict on each other in His name, does it then come as a surprise that belief in God seems only an archaic dream or childish wish? Or that a deity present in his absence, seems, more likely, simply absent? But then again, look around. Who wouldn't want to hide from us? A guy I used to know once said, "if there was someplace else to go, I'd be there." The place from which he sought refuge was Earth, or more broadly, existence.

As agnostic as I am by nature and by hard experience (in other words, ordinary experience), I can't get completely past the "What if . . . What then?" Many years ago, a friend of mine showed me an article written by an architectural critic he admired. My friend, an architect himself, commented that the author, though brilliant, had only recently been released from prison, having served a couple of years on a conviction for something like check fraud. Oh well, fertile minds generally suffer from an surfeit of intellectual energy, which they often dispose of in random and unsavory ways. If you doubt this, read the biography of a favorite author.

But the one thing I remember from this article - and what it had to do with architecture I have no idea - was the observation that the only thing more difficult to believe in than the existence of God was the absence of God.

The pedestrian interpretation of this would have to be that a life without faith is a more difficult life, a life more fraught with fear and despair than need be. In other words, regardless of God's existence or non-existence, why inflict hardship on yourself, even in the name of truth? But I don't think that this was what context of this article implied, nor what its author actually meant. The point, then and now, seems to me that, simply from a coldly analytical standpoint, the existence and the non-existence of God are somehow both terribly unlikely to the human mind.

It's always stayed with me, this paradox. It might be worthy of God himself. There are two options. One of them undergirds the structure of the universe, and the other is purest self-deception. Both strain credulity, and neither can be confirmed. What does it mean that both the prospect of God and the possibility of his absence rend the mind with doubt? The closest I've come to faith is turning round and round in my mind this crystal-like paradox, and pondering its improbability - either way.

God . . . no God . . . God . . . no God . . . the presence . . . the absence . . . the candle . . . the flame. This is the best justification I've stumbled across for entertaining the notion of God.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Turkish Airlines "Sacrifices" for Maintenance Efficiency

In a bid to motivate his mechanics, the head of Turkish Airlines' Airplane Maintenance Facility, Mr. Sukru Can, vowed to sacrifice a camel in their honor if they met a maintenance deadline. The airline had been experiencing myriad technical difficulties with one type of aircraft, the British made RJ100, and needed to get all planes of this model ready for shipment back to the manufacturer. No stranger to motivational psychology, Mr. Can (pronounced "John"), promised to "cut a camel" right on the tarmac at Istanbul's Atatürk International Airport if all the airplanes, by a specified date, were made ready for return. The maintenance staff responded heroically, and in celebration, the camel was delivered to his fate in the back of a truck. Atatürk Airport is, effectively, Turkey's gateway to the world, and one can only hope that the slaughter and subsequent quartering were clearly visible to arriving passengers. ("Welcome to Turkey," as it were.)

To me, the strangest part of the story is that airport security were furious not because Mr. Can had engaged in animal sacrfice on the grounds of the airport, but because he had deceived them as to the type of sacrifice he intended to carry out. He had told them that he would be butchering a ram on the tarmac, when in fact, his intended victim had always been a camel:

"The police headquarters at Atatürk Airport had this to comment on the incident: "We did not realize they were sacrificing a camel. We, thinking that they were going to sacrifice a ram, didn't think it would look good to have a ram walking out the doors of the airport and to the apron, so we gave permission for it to be driven there. But in fact there had been no permission received from the Goods Management Headquarters. The head of the Airplane Maintenance Facility lied to us about this."

Well, who wouldn't be outraged? (Is it normal at Atatürk Airport to sacrifice rams on the tarmac? Why have I never noticed this before?)

According to Hurriyet (English Language edition), Mr. Can has been relieved of his position.

Speaking about the "camel sacrifice" incident with reporters yesterday, Transportation Minister Yildirim had this to say:

"It is wrong to blame an entire organization for a mistake made by one colleague whose mind is still in the past. The necessary orders have been given in the wake of this incident, and that colleague has been removed from his job. The investigation is continuing. Sacrificing a camel is not a talent. It is more important that Turkish Airlines carries out its job well, and works on addressing any complaints that citizens using it might have. Which is why it is not fair to compare this giant, well-established company with a couple of tactless mistakes that might have been made. The important thing is that the necessary measures have been taken."

In all fairness to Turkish Airlines, I have to say that it is my carrier of choice when making the interminable haul between Turkey and the States. The food is good (well, for airline food it's good), the booze is free (a big plus on an 11 hour flight), and the transcontinental aircraft are all Airbus made (one wonders about the problems with this RJ100).

Is Mr. Can being "sacrificed" to an increasingly bloodless corporate mentality?

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Turning the Corner in the War on Terror

"Speaking only for myself, it's hard to keep things in perspective and in the categories. . . . Hezbollah. Uh, Hezbollah. Why do you ask me these questions at 5 o'clock? Can I answer in Spanish? Do you speak Spanish?”

- Silvestre Reyes, the incoming Democratic Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, explaining his difficulty in defining what "Hezbollah" is, and his uncertainty as to whether Al Qaeda is a movement of Sunni or Shiite Muslims. (He managed to guess wrong.) Rep. Reyes has proudly served on the intelligence committee since before 9/11, so things in Washington are certainly looking up.

From the Washington Post article: "Reyes, a former Border Patrol agent and an opponent of the Iraq war, was chosen for the intelligence committee post over the panel's two top-ranking Democrats, Reps. Jane Harman (Calif.) and Alcee L. Hastings (Fla.)."

Hmm . . . makes you wonder about Pelosi's judgment, not to mention the qualifications of the other two.

By the way, Reyes' "Can I answer in Spanish? Do you speak Spanish " query was absent from the Post article. Who knows why. When told by a Congressional Quarterly reporter that he could speak in Spanish, Reyes managed, "Well, I uh . . . " (in English). I ran across this missing bit of the story this morning in the Times UK.

"The intelligence committee will keep its eye on the ball and focus on the pressing security and intelligence issues facing us," said Reyes.

Well, that's reassuring.

Friday, December 8, 2006

No Child Left Behind: Two Views

There are two ways of explaining the passage of legislation such as No Child Left Behind, which has no chance of actually working. One is stupidity, on the part of the legislators, the bureaucrats, and/or the voting public. The other, more heartening possiblity, is that NCLB is intended to provide statistical evidence documenting the failure of "underperforming" schools, which will in turn fuel the push toward a school voucher system. I would love to believe that the explanation for NCLB is the latter, though I suspect it is the former.

That having been said, there are also two ways of looking at the failures of these so-called underperforming schools. One focuses on shortcomings of the schools themselves. The other focuses on the shortcomings of the students.

According to the NY Times, the fault lies squarely with the schools, or rather with the government's failure to adequately staff these schools with the cream of the teaching crop:

"Unless we improve schools — especially for minority children who will make up the work force of the future — we will fall behind our competitors abroad who are doing a better job of educating the next generation.

It’s impossible to brand No Child Left Behind as a failure, because its agenda has never been carried out. The law was supposed to remake schools that serve poor and minority students by breaking with the age-old practice of staffing those schools with poorly trained and poorly educated teachers. States were supposed to provide students with highly qualified teachers in all core courses by the beginning of the current academic year. That didn’t happen.

The battle for teacher quality is just getting under way. The country can either win that battle or watch its fortunes fade as the national work force becomes less and less competitive. Given what’s at stake, the teacher quality provision of No Child Left Behind deserves to be at the very top of the list when Congress revisits the law."

Gird yourself for battle. If we don't hire new legions of the most talented teachers to do service in the worst of our schools, we will never raise poor minority children up to the intellectual standard not only of their American counterparts, but of their international competitors. Soon, we shall all be processing fishsticks for our Asian overlords.

For a contrasting perspective on the causes of underperforming schools, however, consider the following statistics about Baltimore, in many ways a representative American city:

"Not unexpectedly we found a cognitive discontinuity at the city line. Surprising, however, was its magnitude. Whereas suburban mean IQs (86 for blacks, 99 for whites) conform more or less to national norms, city IQs are dreadfully low. With a mean IQ of 76, inner-city blacks fall about 0.6 SD below the African American average nationally. More than a third have death-penalty immunity on grounds of mental retardation. The inner-city white mean of 86 is nearly a full standard deviation below the national white average. By this measure, whites fared worse than blacks. Both groups are seriously deficient in human capital. Neither is very employable. To compound matters, we almost certainly have overstated urban IQs. City residents constitute a low-IQ group extracted from a more cognitively representative population. Their kids, whose test scores we analyzed, should have regressed toward their racial means, i.e., toward higher IQs. That is, inner city kids are smarter than their parents. Accordingly, our estimates of inner-city IQs are best regarded as upper bounds to adult values."

Quite a difference, eh? To reiterate, in Baltimore, the mean IQ among its black students is 76. The mean IQ among white students is 86. The mean IQs for black and white adults are, in all probability, even lower than are those of their children (the brighter kids tend to move away when they've grown up).

As reference points, the average IQ in America is 98, and the threshold for clinically-defined retardation is 70 (it was at one time 80). In other words, if one had to place the students in the Baltimore city schools on a continuum between intellectual retardation and normalcy, they would lie significantly closer to retardation.

Even though whites in the Baltimore test higher than blacks (as is true throughout geographical regions and economic classes in America) the white students still lie essentially at the midpoint between the American intellectual average and clinically-defined retardation.

How has this happened? IQ scores correlate positively with economic income. Ergo, poorer people in America, on average, have lower IQ scores. Baltimore city residents making enough money to relocate to the suburbs have disproportionately done so. Those left behind in Baltimore are disproportionately unintelligent. Thus, IQ tends to stratify not only by income, but by school district.

As unsettling as this may be, IQ also stratifies by race. Those eager to see improvement in minority academic performance will be pleased to note that Americans of Korean, Chinese, Japanese, and Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry all outperform the national average on IQ tests. By pure coincidence, they also outperform the average American student in other measures of academic achievement. Finally, they outperform their American counterparts in economic income as well.

Sadly, however, these are not the minorities NCLB has in mind when it talks about raising achievement in minority schools, though clearly these groups are American minorities. Rather, in the terms of NCLB, "minority students" refers specifically to black and hispanic students, who perform below average in various measures of academic performance, including IQ, and who go on to earn lower average incomes. Obviously, for the reasons cited above, poor minority students will tend to perform worst of all. This is more a matter of statistical reality than of instructional failure, though obviously it is difficult to recruit and retain talented teachers in the chaotic, sometimes dangerous atmosphere of bad schools.

A new crop of teachers will not erase this disparity in academic outcomes. Nor will a new computer lab. Nor more audio-visual equipment, a new gymnasium, nor a fresh coat of paint and a new sign in the parking lot. In the realm of education, a student's curiosity, enthusiasm, and sheer intellectual capacity are of far greater significance than are the attributes of the teacher. They count for more, and they shape the student's intellectual development to a much greater degree. To make matters worse, people tend to be curious and enthusiastic only about information they can understand and manipulate. They evince little curiosity or enthusiasm for that which they can neither use nor understand. Therefore, weaker students tend not to thrive indefinitely on curiosity and enthusiasm alone.

The facts of life often run contrary to our wishes.

There is legitimate room for discussion as to what the term "intelligence" means and how accurately it is measured by a given test. There is also room for discussion as to why some groups score differently from others. However, I am using IQ here simply to mean a quantitative score on any of several widely-used, standardized intelligence tests. There is almost no uncertainty as to whether the scores on such tests stratify in the ways described above, and as to whether they correlate with academic success as measured by grades, graduation rates, professional degrees and qualifications, medical board exams, bar exams, and so forth.

Several factors beyond the guidance or control of any government agency increasingly drive the stratification of our society by intellect and by income. This reality, like the statistics above, raises politically and socially disturbing questions. It would be unrealistic and perhaps inhumane to expect everyone to greet this information with calm self-assurance. It is, for most people, discomforting at the very least, and it will be construed by many as troubling, if not threatening.

Anything that calls attention to the role of nature, i.e. genes, in shaping our intellectual and economic fate runs dangerously counter to a number of carefully crafted social orthodoxies. America prizes particularly the belief that anyone, given clear instruction and enthusiastic encouragment, can learn anything, do anything, become anything. This belief may suffer in the light of statistical analysis, but it persists because it answers a peculiarly American need, one more grounded in culture and psychology than in observable truth. But this should not be surprising; the identity of any society is built to a large extent on falsehood and myth. For this reason, this information will never be thoughtfully examined in the pages of the New York Times.

Saturday, December 2, 2006

Marriage: The Long, Strange Twilight

How does one, amidst the contemporary turmoil, affirm the importance of marriage? Evidently, by refusing, or declining, to marry. Confused? Last Sunday's New York Times makes all clear in, The Sit-In at the Altar: No ‘I Do’ Till Gays Can Do It, Too which documents the movement among heterosexual couples to defer marriage until their gay and lesbian counterparts enjoy the same right, or priviledge, or burden, depending upon your experience of marriage.

Perhaps this latest civil rights initiative has passed you by. Obviously, you don't read the New York Times carefully enough. In the October 15 issue (now archived), the same phenomenon surfaced in an article trumpeting the fact that traditional households, made up of traditional families, i.e., two parents (presumably a man and a woman), living with one or more children (presumably their offspring) are now the minority. In an attempt to understand why the traditional family has become a receding bit of Americana, the reporter noted: "A few of those couples [not marrying] said they were inspired by solidarity with gay and lesbian couples who cannot legally marry in most states."

Since the Times is now expanding its coverage of this issue, we must assume that there are indeed growing legions of "Straight - but not Narrow" gay marriage supporters across America making their sympathies known by not visiting jewelers, not investing in tuxedos and gowns, and not flocking to the chapel. Well, that should bring the walls of bigotry crashing down.

The only other plausible explanation is that the Times, in a seizure of nostalgia for the era of Howell Raines, is "flooding the zone," i.e. magnifying a peripheral social issue, incessantly editorializing about it, preferably in the news section, and then watching as it assumes the moral dimensions of the struggle against the Waffen SS. You may remember the unprecedented success this strategy enjoyed in altering the gender composition of the Augusta National Golf Club.

As it turned out, nobody cared about that issue either. But this can hardly be blamed on the Times, which fervently believes that our moral consciences can be awakened, or aroused, or simply bludgeoned into compliance through the combined blows of unshakable orthodoxy and stolid prose.

So why am I not jumping on the bandwagon? Well for one thing, it's too late for me. I'm already married, and I'm sure as hell not getting divorced in support of gay marriage. (That would be difficult to explain to the wife, eh?)

The more interesting question, it seems to me, is why abstention from marriage, rather than marriage itself, should ever have taken on the status of a noble sacrifice? I'm not alluding to "take my wife, please . . . " jokes here. What I mean is that we are so far removed from the primal origins of marriage that we have only the dimmest emotional instinct as to what led our ancestors there in the first place.

In the interests of brevity, I will take it as given that marriage is first and foremost about raising children. In the earliest days, you needed to create a next generation simply to keep the little band alive. People were dying all the time, and families no doubt increased the odds that a few lucky children would survive long enough to sustain the tribe. Once people settled into a sedentary agricultural societies, they needed field hands, support in their old age, and inheritors, though these were hardly the only benefits that family life provided. It would seem, however, that for the past two centuries, tradition has been engaged in one long and losing battle to reconcile this aboriginal or agrarian institution with a less hospitable social environment. Marriage, perhaps, is no longer fitted for survival.

Among other things, marriage doesn't work well in a society predicated upon doing whatever you want, because co-existing with another person while raising several other persons is rather emphatically not about doing whatever you want, at least, not most of the time. This doesn't mean that marriage is inevitably a form of imprisonment, though most people who have ever been married have probably felt that on occasion. It just means that marriage, as traditionally understood, was in part a form of sacrifice. One surrendered a measure of freedom and emotional independence in order to gain the satisfactions, and - let's be honest - the respect conferred upon responsible parents. Marriage may have been tricked out in fancy clothes and a day of dancing and feasting, but that was not the substance of the thing. We dress up soldiers in colorful uniforms and march them around in parades, but that's not the essence of soldiering. In both cases, the costumes and the pomp are really more about enlistment.

Abstaining from marriage in the 21st Century is about a dramatic a sacrifice as refusing the Marine Corps until Ru Paul can be your drill instructor. Admittedly, that might make boot camp a good bit more entertaining, but how well it would prepare you for the trauma of combat, I'm not sure. Of course, much of the pompous grandstanding surrounding gay marriage can be laid at the feet of our Hollywood aristocracy. For where Brad and Angelina dare to tread, multitudes will follow.

"These couples have gone mostly unnoticed (except by parents waiting to send out wedding announcements). Then Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie took up the cause. In an Esquire article in October called “(My List) 15 Things I Think Everyone Should Know,” Mr. Pitt writes, “Angie and I will consider tying the knot when everyone else in the country who wants to be married is legally able.”

Quite the noble gesture on the part of Brad and Angelina, between whom I count three and a half divorces (I'm including the engagement to Gwyneth . . . Brad's engagement to Gwyneth). But this moral highground need not be the exclusive domain of the celebrity class. There's room up there for us all. Just be sure to bring your sandwich board and megaphone.

". . . some couples see no point in resisting marriage unless they’re going to publicize it. They do so mostly by correcting people who assume they are legally married.

Sam and Fawn Livingston-Gray of Portland, Ore., have the same last name and wear matching white-gold rings engraved with Celtic designs. Still, when someone refers to Sam, 31, a computer programmer, and Fawn, 33, an administrative assistant, as husband and wife, they point out the mistake, even if it’s the guy at the car-rental counter."

“I go out of my way to say we’re not,” Ms. Livingston-Gray said. “It’s a really important dialogue with people I wouldn’t get to talk to otherwise.”

Wouldn't you love to be the harried car-rental clerk who - while tracking and shuffling incoming and outgoing keys, credit cards, and paperwork, has the pleasure of being corrected by Fawn regarding her marital status? What a fruitful dialogue that must be.

Fawn, I'm afraid, like the New York Times, suffers from a common contemporary malady. Both believe that the world is engaged in some raging moral conflict to which their existence and opinions are central. Both expect immense personal credit for advancing the line of battle. And both, while absurdly sanctimonious, remain oblivious to both their sanctimony and their absurdity.

But this delusion characterizes everyone quoted in this story.

"I usually explain that I wouldn’t go to a lunch counter that wouldn’t allow people of color to eat there, so why would I support an institution that won’t allow everyone to take part,” said Ms. White, 24, a law student at the University of California, Davis. “Sometimes people don’t buy that analogy.”

The reason why "sometimes people don't buy that analogy" is that the two situations clearly are not analogous. A lunch counter is a privately-held business, dependent on a steady flow of customers for its economic survival. Shouldn't a UC Davis law student grasp that marriage, despite its contractual obligations, is something other than a business enterprise? Who exactly, other than florists, dress designers, and caterers, will suffer financial hardship if she chooses not to wed? And aren't these the people she's claiming solidarity with anyway? It's difficult for me to square smug self-congratulation with classical virtue, particularly when both are clouded by muddy thinking.

“I didn’t have the wedding fantasies some little girls have,” said Sarah Augusto, 25, a sociology graduate student in Davis, Calif., who has been committed to Jon Bell, 26, a museum exhibit designer, since college graduation three years ago.

But some honestly wish they would walk the aisle, Mr. Bell for one. “Sarah has changed the way I thought about things a ton,” he said. “I was really excited about getting married. Going into high school that was the goal, to meet a nice girl and get married to her.”

Mr. Bell, despite your moving paean to Sarah's ability to change your thinking "a ton," she's cheating on you.

Some sacrifice their own dreams of matrimony for family members denied the right to connunbial bliss, though even their own grandmothers struggle to understand. (Jesus, it is a hard world, isn't it?):

"Mary Lunetta’s grandmother, 77, doesn’t understand why her granddaughter is putting off marriage, either. Ms. Lunetta, 24, a community studies major [a what?] at the University of California, Santa Cruz, explained to her grandmother that she is waiting to make it official with Max Hartman, her boyfriend of five years, because her aunt, who is a lesbian, can’t marry.

Ms. Lunetta said she did not expect her grandmother to get it or agree. “And she didn’t.” Her grandmother, though, did tell her about Mr. Pitt and Ms. Jolie. “They’re copying us,” Ms. Lunetta said.

Affirming your principles, yet living the dream, just like Brad and Angelina.

On the issue of gay marriage itself, as opposed to this predictably trite piece of NY Times boilerplate, I'm fairly agnostic. Yes, it probably is one more step down the long road to marital obsolence. Not that I expect marriage to disappear completely, it's just likely to become increasingly whimsical, nostalgic and pointless, rather like the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace.

To add a further twist to the downward spiral of marriage, it is amusing to note that "Civil Unions" have become the latest lifestyle option among French heterosexuals. I don't mean campaigning in favor of them; I mean entering into them. Evidently, the confines of marriage are now more suited to those who will never be encumbered with children, while breeding, or at least heterosexual coupling, is less terrifiying under the looser strictures of Le Pacte Civil de Solidarité .

Or, you could just forget the whole thing and produce a slew of bastard offspring, which is clearly becoming the default option for increasingly bewildered and indifferent couples. The effects of this little cultural lab test, however, have yet to be agreed upon by the American Anthropological Association.

Marriage used to expand the possibility of stability and permanence, because people, particularly children, needed this, and stability and permanence have always been in short supply. This may have entailed patience and sacrifice, but evidently it enriched, or simply made more feasible, people's lives in some now increasingly unfamiliar way. Perhaps this was because, as I have tried to argue, it created the necessary space in which to raise the next generation.

Apart from that function, marriage really doesn't mean much other than a symbolic recognition of the temporary intersection of two lives, and while that may matter to those two people, it doesn't matter that much to the world. So, homosexual marriage or hetero-sexual "unions," polygamous triangles or quadrilateral couplings, in-vitro conceptions, sperm-bank fathers and surrogate wives plucked from the pages of a catalogue, let the new millenium begin in earnest.

But I do have one request for those boycotting marriage in support of their same-sex brethren. Couldn't you carry your boycott just one small step further? Until and unless nature herself makes procreative sex available to all, including homosexuals, could you please abstain from that as well? It seems little enough to ask for the coming generations.

Addendum: The Voice of Humility, an excellent blog, has a most interesting post on this topic, called "Another Social Problem Not Solved," which links to an article by Jane Galt, which will provide you with some reasons to oppose gay marriage, should you wish to shore up your bigotry.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Hoş Geldiniz, Papa Benedict

On the streets of Istanbul, Pope Benedict's arrival inspires Turks to spontaneous, decadent, and quite limber celebration. And you thought they only twirled like dervishes.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Been Down So Long It Looks Like Art to Me

Why don't people read more, why don't they want to read more, and most specifically, why do they want to read poetry least of all?

The simple answer is that almost a century ago the celluloid image began to replace the written word as our preferred mode of cultural expression. Fair enough, but it hardly seems adequate to explain and dismiss such a sweeping cultural transformation in a single sentence. The shift from page to screen must have occurred incrementally in numerous smaller, more specific dislocations, the cumulative effect of which has been the near-collapse of written culture. By studying one particular place and moment in this long seismic shift, we can perhaps better understand why magazine layouts increasingly resemble TV screens, and why a well-received book may now be written by someone who has never read one.

One bit of forensic evidence to have been pulled from the wreckage is "Up Is Up, But So Is Down: New York’s Downtown Literary Scene, 1974-1992,” edited by Brandon Stosuy. This anthology is reviewed in this week's New York Times by Meghan O' Rourke, who, in doing so, faced a series of uneviable tasks. First, in order to write the review, she had to read the book, or at least flip through it. Stosuy's writing may be fine, but sadly, this isn't an anthology of his writing. Second, she had to cobble together a semi-interesting piece of journalism about a stillborn literary movement that somehow persisted, according to the book's subtitle, for almost 20 years. Finally, while feigning enthusiasm for this project (perhaps her editors found the first draft too caustic), O'Rourke clearly felt a duty to warn her readers as to what Stosuy had actually anthologized. Fortunately, a few choice quotations serve to sound the alarm:

"terror is released in Lower Manhattan
and the terrorists neither carry guns
nor subvert the state
but simply buy it off with ... their mastercards.”

You know, you don't actually have to be a terroristic plutocrat to own a Mastercard.

Though O'Rourke claims to find passages like the one above compelling, her own distate for the material keeps bleeding through: " 'Up Is Up' itself has a scrap-book feel. It gathers poems, excerpts and short stories as well as handmade magazine covers, pamphlets and posters that capture the collaborative, on-the-fly spirit of the period."

In other words, it's a garbage bag full of rotten writing. Here is another example of O'Rourke offering praise, then allowing the quotation to make clear what politesse forbids:

"There are surprises, too — like Holly Anderson, who writes haiku-like prose-poems of delicate lyricism trapped in crossword grids. Each letter is separated from the others as if imprisoned, evoking both the density and the loneliness of the city, and challenging the reader to make “sense” of the lapidary inscriptions. One series reads “LASt Nt ON A BLACK ROAD I tOLD tHEM MY COUSINS WOULD CAtCH FIREFLIES SMASH tHEM & SMEAR tHEIR LIGHt ON OUR FACES. But the effect is partly lost in transcription."


This quotation reminds me of one of those horrific, accident scene photographs you were shown in health science class to frighten you away from ever mixing fast cars and hard liquor. Lady, I'm convinced! But, if you're not yet, here is "New York: 1979," written by "cultural provocateur" Kathy Acker, who wrote under the pen name "the Black Tarantula" and who now gazes at you "transgressively" from the photo above:

“New York City is a pit-hole: Since the United States government, having decided that New York City is no longer part of the United States of America, is dumping ... all the people they don’t want (artists, poor minorities and the media in general) on the city and refusing the city federal funds; the American bourgeoisie has left. Only the poor: artists, Puerto Ricans who can’t afford to move ... and rich Europeans ... inhabit this city. Meanwhile the temperature is getting hotter and hotter so no one can think clearly. No one perceives. No one cares. Insane madness come out like life is a terrific party.”

Wait a minute, let me get my pen. OK, the government is dumping all of its wretched refuse onto the city of New York. Isn't that what the Statue of Liberty celebrates? Ah, but now the abandoned rabble consists of neglected artists, poor minorities, and "the media in general." Evidently, those condemned to exile in New York include Time Magazine, CBS News, Knopf Publishing, and Kathy Acker. Oh, and some Puerto Ricans.

Does she regret the departure of "the American bourgeoisie?" Does she regret the arrival of "rich Europeans?" Does she regret the fact that "no one can think clearly?" (A classic case of confusing oneself with one's subject.)

And look at the final line, or sentence, depending on whether this is supposed to be a work of poetry, or of prose. Does Acker not "perceive," or does she not "care," that the words "madness" and "insanity" are synonyms, and therefore, to speak of "madness" as "insane" is as crazily demented as describing "moisture" as "damp," or "eternity" as "endless?" My God, it's chaos gone out of control!

Sorry, Black Tarantula, but this sort of writing is a pile of shite. What I can't fathom is why this art action, or liberation movement, or free-form guerilla campaign, is considered by anyone to be worthy of notice, or study, or anything other than contempt. In New York, the self-proclaimed cultural capital of America (perhaps because the government keeps dumping unwanted artists and media people there), this sort of bourgeois-baiting declaration was being "emitted" a quarter century ago by a coterie of talentless adolescents pushing 40, and is now being anthologized, reviewed, and worst of all, revived.

According to Stosuy, "Though much of it is out of print and difficult to locate, Downtown writing has never been more relevant." Horrible to contemplate, but in a way, he may be right. As awful as the crayon books and "Xeroxed zines" of the downtown scene may have been, they do raise the unavoidable question. "Why?" Why would anyone want to write like this? Why would anyone want to read this? More disturbingly, why am I writing about this in 2006?

Was 1980 some pivotal moment when the visual image gained its ultimate ascendency, and the word "art" came to signify a bit of a joke to anyone with an IQ above 105? Wouldn't a quiet afternoon with a paper sack and a tube of glue prove more illuminating than subjecting oneself in the outcries of these rebel angels? Does this explain in any way the triumph of the electronic image? And finally, care to guess how many of these black-clad doomsayers are still subsisting on their parents' "terroristic" Mastercards?

Lest I create the impression that I hate everything, I should say that O'Rourke's review does mention two artists of the period whose work I have found both interesting and entertaining. The late Spaulding Gray, who committed suicide, or is believed to have committed suicide (no body was ever found) could be an amusing, witty, and gently ironic writer and performer, once described as a "WASP Woody Allen." David Wojnarowicz, a painter mostly, was a weird talent, but a real one, whose canvases incorporated images of gigantic dinosaurs, dung beetles, crumbling Mayan ruins, and graphic gay sex, all fused with anger, a kind of found-object mysticism, and an ironic sense of grandeur. Wojnarowicz died of AIDS in the early 90s.

I think it revealing that O'Rourke quotes from neither Gray nor Wojnarowicz (whose prose pieces, though not nearly as compelling as his visual art, at least occasionally offer a kind of hyper-paranoid intensity more intriguing than anything Kathy Acker ever dreamed of writing). It is this that leads me to believe O'Rourke selected her quotes with an eye toward the protection of unwary readers . By the way, "Up is Up" sells for ninety bucks hardback, and thirty paper, if you have no idea what to do with your money.

One more quotation from O'Rourke's review:

" 'Up Is Up' may not entirely convince us that this particular literary efflorescence is as remarkable as the literary movements that preceded it; plenty of the writing here is mediocre, in particular the poetry. But as one publisher-editor says: 'Yo, listen up, Cultural Elitists, wherever you’re hiding! Most of the art may have been' — insert a four-letter word here — 'but it was a g l o r i o u s time.' ”

Consider the premises of this "publisher-editor['s]" statement:

1. That there were "Cultural Elitists . . . hiding" from these Downtown Scenesters. If so, I'm sure they had their reasons. I suspect that, back in the 80s, the Cultural Elitists were in hiding, in the same way that, in high school, you avoided that isolated and perhaps dangerously unstable kid who latched onto you for six months simply because you made the mistake of speaking to him in Gym class, once.

2. That the tastes and inhibitions of this Cultural Elite stifle raw, provocative, expression. Would that it were so! This is rather like arguing that toilet training shames and suppresses the animal psyche within the human shell, when in fact, it's just a technique to avoid shitting yourself.

3. "Most of the art may have been" . . . why all the hedging? We will assume that the four letter word to be inserted is "shit" Well, this claim seems credible, though I think "may have been" is unnecessary.

4. "but it was a g l o r i o u s time." Perhaps so, if your idea of glory is slouching around in a studded leather jacket, cropping your hair in increasingly unattractive ways, and agreeing to fake an interest in your friends' scrawled musings, if they will fake an interest in yours. For others of us, however, this again brings up painful high school memories.

Walking around Manhattan in the mid 1990s, I happened across a denzien of the streets who had copiously shit in his pants, which were now gathered haphazardly about his ankles. He kept smiling and bowing to the scurrying crowd, all of whom were doing their best to pretend they hadn't seen what they quite obviously were seeing, and I can't be sure, but I think there was a hat or a styrofoam cup at his feet. This "cultural provocateur" had turned his personal humiliation into a public display, possibly even an art event. How could I have then known that I was witnessing a downtown revival?

Update: I so enjoyed my trashing of Kathy Acker (about whom I'd known nothing before) that I got curious and Googled her. The first thing I learned is that she's dead. Breast Cancer. Are any of these people still alive? I then ran across this interview with Ms. Acker, conducted by someone called "R. U. Sirius." (Clever, eh?)

If any of you believe I was overly harsh with "the Black Tarantula," especially in light of my recent discovery of her death, I suggest you sample this conversation for yourself and see just how much of it you can stand. I was able to read maybe three-fourths.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Status Porn

Arts and Letters Daily led me someplace I rarely go, New York Magazine, which has published Jay McInerney's lastest bit of society fluff, titled, The Death of (the Idea of) The Upper East Side: How New York’s most prestigious neighborhood lost its place atop the social hierarchy.

If you are of a certain age you may remember McInerney's lucrative, featherweight bildungsroman, Bright Lights, Big City (Oh come on, it wasn't that bad). McInerney's turf for the past two decades has been Manhattan, where he spins fantasies of dissolute yet raffishly charming young men whose spiritual quest seems to involve a fashion model. I'm not sure why people would want to read fantasies like this, but apparently, many do.

McInerney's current article chronicles the supposed decline of Upper East Side prestige relative to the once dangerously scruffy but now increasingly fashionable downtown (i.e. Greenwich Village, Tribeca, Soho, and extended environs). Now, the first thing for me to admit is that I have never lived in or anywhere near New York, so I am somewhat ignorant of its neighborhoods. But even as an outsider, may I ask, "Hasn't it been some time since Greenwich Village, or the West Village, or anywhere near the Village, constituted a dangerously edgy neighborhood?" Anyway, according to McInerney, this is now the stomping ground of those with both wealth and hip radar (the perennial Manhattan ambition). Good to know. I'll keep that in mind when shopping for a condo.

Early on, McInerney's piece abandons the pretense to anything more than shameless name dropping and cash snobbery, the curious effect of which is to make his prose more, not less, interesting:

In fact, this past spring, Forbes announced that Tribeca’s 10013 was the most expensive Zip Code in Manhattan—the twelfth most expensive in the nation, followed by 10007 to the south (No. 19) and Soho’s 10012 (No. 31). Venerable 10021, which includes most of the choicest cuts of the Upper East Side, the default Zip for generations of cotillion and benefit invitations, received a national rank of No. 255. (No. 1 was Sagaponack, the former stepchild of the Hamptons. Apparently, potatoes are way up.) As recently as 1990, before the dot-com and telecom booms, 10021 was the wealthiest Zip Code in the country. The survey was based on median home-sales prices. Meanwhile, the brokerage Citi Habitats reported that Tribeca and Soho are also the most expensive neighborhoods in which to rent (average rent: $3,718 a month) followed closely by Chelsea ($3,041) and the West Village. The Upper East and Upper West Sides are bargains by comparison, with average rents near $2,500. If we broke down the figures for the real tenderloin on the Upper East Side, the three avenues between Lexington and Central Park between 59th and 96th, the real silk-stocking district, the numbers would go higher. But still, it’s hard to deny that the Upper East Side isn’t the ne plus ultra that it used to be.

Last year, I started dating an Uptown Girl, and I’ve been shuttling back and forth between the Village and the Upper East Side ever since, pondering the cultural differences between our respective tribes as well as the question of geographical determinism.

Note the attention he lavishes on the most quantifiable aspects of New York status seeking. Why not, he reasons, just let the numbers speak for themselves? And they speak volumes, the upshot of which is: manage to claw your way into the proper Manhattan zip code, and you too can date an "Uptown Girl." Of course, the real trick would be getting there without the clawing.

Why status porn? Well in the same way that that sexual porn caters to needs of those who will a) never have sex, b) never have sex with someone they are actually attracted to, or c) never have sex that matches their ridiculously extravagant expectations, McInerney's article feeds the fantasy that a) you will benefit from knowing that downtown is now more fashionably outre than the staid Upper East Side, b) you share in the possibility of shuttling between these two, as McInerney does, and c) that you could afford even a six month sublet in either locale.

Let me plunder Jay's article a bit more before I wrap up.

It begins at a dinner party "given in honor of the Italian writer Alain Elkann. Along with Robert Hughes, who’d come in from Westchester, I was one of the few people at the gathering who’d traveled more than a few blocks that evening to attend the party." Thanks for inviting us along, Jay.

In attendance are "Jacqui Safra, scion of the Lebanese banking family and longtime consort of producer Jean Doumanian." No, I don't know who these people are, either. That may be the point of mentioning them.

"At times, these worlds seemed bizarrely heterogeneous; but then again, Patrick McMullan was snapping pictures at Marquee or at the Waldorf, and Donald Trump was likely to be standing next to you at either venue, so it was possible to see prosperous Bloombergian Manhattan as a melting pot of sorts, for better or worse, rather than the Balkan metropolis of disparate, geographically determined tribes that I’d moved to 25 years ago." Other than name dropping, I'm not sure what this is supposed to mean.

"My fiancée is a post-deb with a venerable surname and a deep, burnished voice that sounds as if it had been passed down through many generations." His fiancee is so established that he doesn't even have to drop her name.

"My shrink, a former student of Hannah Arendt’s, lives deep in the Lower East Side, at Houston and Avenue A, in a five-story building that has a stark, army-green, unattended, disinfectant-scented lobby." More pointless name dropping (Hannah Arendt), plus, he can afford a shrink.

The article ends on the following note: "Last night, we started at a reading and book signing in the Village, then joined another couple at Le Cirque, where we waved to at least a half-dozen of her friends, admired some major jewelry, winced at some unsuccessful surgery, and talked about acquaintances at nearby tables, people whose names regularly appear in W and Avenue and Quest, none of whom appeared to have any desire to be anywhere else." A typical evening in the life of Jay, . . . and you, gentle reader?

Despite my criticisms - fueled by envy, no doubt - I recommend McInerney's article for the very same reason that one can tear apart the ridiculous plotting of a porno flick, but never quite get around to shutting off the DVD player. I'm afraid that we are all primates at heart, with lots of primate urges, and that McInerney's status porn may answer a sad, but very human, longing.