Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Gopnik >>> Leader >>> Amis

I enjoyed this New Yorker review of the new Kingsley Amis biography.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007


My father used to be an Imus listener back when my family lived in New Jersey, so I’m aware of him, though I was never a fan. Referring to “nappy-headed hos” should be a ticket to the unemployment line and permanent Media Untouchable status, in my opinion. What I find most interesting is the fact that people like Howard Fineman and Tom Oliphant—people with standing in the political punditocracy, people who are old enough and smart enough to know better—refuse to cut Don Imus loose. Indeed, they go out of their way to commiserate with the I-Man, Fineman bemoaning the fact that guys can't get away with telling racist jokes like they used to. (This Digby post pointed out the raw economic motivation for many pundits to appear on Imus: he can really help sell a book. At one point Cokie Roberts swore she would never appear on Imus’s show again, and her promise held up for a few years, until she had a new book to promote.)

Being "in" with Imus's zany crew is pretty intoxicating, evidently. It occurs to me that the appeal of Don Imus for some people is pretty similar to the appeal of George W. Bush for some people, even supposed skeptical and jaded reporters and columnists. Both Imus and Dubya come off as confident, tough-talking, shoot-from-the-hip Westerners. Just looking at Tom Oliphant (slight, bespectacled, visibly part of the East Coast intelligentsia), I can envision his being star-struck in the presence and good graces of a Don Imus. And maybe even a little intimidated, afraid to risk falling out of those good graces.

The appeal of frat-house camaraderie, the pleasures of “talking shit”—you’d think people would outgrow it. Not all of us do. Lately I find myself flashing back pretty often to college days and the needling conversations we used to have in my predominantly male circle. For better or worse, I miss that stuff. The inside jokes, the private language, “just kidding” (but not really), “just between us” (but not really). The political incorrectness of it is not the part I most miss, but it is a part of it that I used to accept, back in the day.

Imus tries to have his cake and eat it too, along a number of dimensions. Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post points out that being a shock jock and being a respectable political commentator are incompatible. Imus’s show gives listeners the ingratiating feeling that he’s saying something shocking, something that shouldn’t be repeated outside present company—forgetting for a moment that it’s being broadcast live to hundreds of thousands of listeners. And many have pointed out how, repeatedly, Imus has transgressed, then grudgingly repented, then transgressed again. He occupies a no-man’s land between nice and naughty, reliable and volatile. (Again, like Dubya, who for all his righteousness likes to play the semi-reformed rogue occasionally.) Even this week, he apologizes with one breath then makes veiled threats with the next.

More from Eugene Robinson—I found this a compelling description of the appeal of talk radio:

Drive-time radio has become a free-fire zone, a forum for crude and objectionable speech that would be out of bounds anywhere else. There's an intimacy about radio. The medium creates the illusion of privacy -- it's just the jock and his or her entourage speaking to you, the listener, alone in your car where nobody else can hear.

Maybe, in your heart of hearts, you think some of those stereotypes are true -- about black people, or white people, or Latinos or Asians. Somewhere on the radio dial you'll find some jock who not only agrees but is willing to say so out loud, willing to ridicule those "others" and thus cut them down to size. You can have all your prejudices confirmed on your way to work. It's almost like putting on a suit of psychological armor. [emphasis mine]

Two months ago when I was writing about FM radio, I thought about the power of radio as a medium, the sense of intimacy that it carries. I also thought about the advent of shock jocks reflecting a movement in which that intimacy was exploited for unfortunate ends. (I had in mind Howard Stern as well as the Greaseman, a Washington-area DJ who eventually met a premature career death due to his fondness for racist jokes.)

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Thanks, Great Britain

For keeping the United States out of war with Iran, despite our government's wishes.

Friday, April 06, 2007

"it's the rhetoric, stupid"

At TPM CafĂ© Michael Berube takes up the subject of Democrats and their supposed hostility to religious faith. He discusses the electoral prospects of a generic atheist candidate for POTUS, which polls show are not good. Citing Richard Rorty, he discusses the asymmetrical use of religion as a “conversation-stopper” in political discourse. He acknowledges that snarky liberal bloggers are sometimes inadvertently insulting and that “some atheists can get downright annoying in their insistence that they have objectively demonstrated the nonexistence of God using simple algebra and a household magnifying glass.” Heh.

Then he concludes:

But I see no evidence whatsoever that “persons of faith” are discouraged in any way from testifying to their faith in American political life, which is why complaints about Democrats’ indifference or hostility to religion strike me as so very disingenuous. These complaints can’t possibly be about hostility to religion in American politics, I think. And when they come from the left side of the spectrum, they can’t possibly be about trying to win over voters on the religious right. Nor do they seem to be centrally concerned about issues of war and peace -- or even the minimum wage. Nor do I see religious progressives arguing for greater discrimination against gays and lesbians. So I’m left to wonder: is this conversation-stopping conversation all about abortion, in the end?...

Okay. About the abortion part, I imagine he’s thinking of Amy Sullivan and Mara Vanderslice, party activists for whom having the Democrats moderate their pro-choice stance is a preoccupation. As for me, it was as a 16-year-old youth delegate to a church conference that I became pro-choice. I would like a chance to make a theological argument in favor of reproductive choice. Are religious liberals concerned about peace and a living wage? A lot of us are; who’s to say if we aren’t getting the message across well enough or if Berube isn’t paying close enough attention.

Are we “discouraged from testifying to our faith” in American political life? If you mean fired from jobs, forcibly ejected from places, locked up at Guantanamo Bay, then of course not. The way I would put it is, we are sometimes patronized or belittled in high-level discussions about Democratic strategy. It strikes me as somewhat akin to the “dirty fucking hippie” syndrome that Atrios and others describe--where opponents of the Iraq War, people who simply abhor modern warfare and/or have a non-hubristic view of America’s place in the world, are dismissed as unserious. Atrios isn’t having his livelihood taken away or being thrown in the gulag, he’s just being subtly marginalized in certain elite arenas. Which is not totally insignificant.

Am I disingenuous? I don’t believe so. Overly sensitive, probably, at times. (Are atheists ever disingenuous? Can Berube and Richard Rorty possibly be aggrieved that they can’t get conscientious objector status in the U.S. military?)

Anyway, the main reason for this post is to highlight the wonderful comment left in the Berube-TPMC thread by “Abby Kelleyite.” She (?) starts by quoting Sam Harris, who holds that faith and reason are mutually exclusive and that self-defined religious moderates are simply useful idiots for the fundamentalists.

By construing religious faith as not merely separate from, but also "in conflict" with, reason... Harris demands devaluing faith by anyone who claims to value reason, which, given the poll data you presented, poses a bit of a problem in the electoral arena. Must we really force people to choose between faith, on the one hand, and reason and science on the other? People also do not generally respond well to arguments that they are engaging in "self-deception," and I expect they will not be thrilled to discover that atheists think that moderation in the opposition of fundamentalism is no virtue.

All well and good, so we shouldn't overtly invalidate the role of faith in moral reasoning or liken belief in a particular religion to false consciousness, but how does one respond to the conversation-stopping religious argumentation in your examples? I suggest that we merely and politely acknowledge the incommensurability of our systems of evaluating the validity of faith-based arguments, leave them our literature on why we support, e.g., abortion rights, shake hands and part ways on those issues while still making use of the valuable, religious concepts we can reach via secular reasoning, such as caritas and agape, of which you have written elsewhere.

Is this the respect that adherents of religion themselves want? No. As Stanley Fish has recently written (from behind the NYT subscription wall): "But religion’s truth claims don’t want your respect. They want your belief and, finally, your soul. They are jealous claims." We cannot give the religious right any respect that it will value. As for our leftward of the religious right friends who want us to grant religious claims more respect in the political marketplace, I suspect that they have little interest in our souls or even the souls of swing voters, unless souls get votes in addition to the ones bodies get. They just want us atheists to stop offending the rather large number of voters who value both faith and reason--ours is not to reason how... For example, if we don't force people to choose between their Catholic faith and supporting access to birth control for all the rational reasons, they might somehow find a way to choose both of the above, and, somehow, they did just that.

I think you may have underestimated the appeal of, and need for repeating, the "usual arguments about competing for swing voters and trying not to piss people off unnecessarily." While trying to gain the votes of the religious right is a hopeless prospect, not losing the votes of the religious middle seems like a valuable goal.

Gator Love

Remedial NCAA basketball blogging—I would be remiss not to call attention to the fact that my bracket earned first place in all three of the pools I entered, including the illustrious Lawyers Guns & Money challenge. I raked in $41.25 from my wife’s office pool (how it came out to this amount, I have no idea), a delicious complimentary breakfast here at my office, and the jealousy if not outright resentment of the Warren Zevon geeks over at Lefarkins.

It was sheer dumb luck. I did do a modicum of research: the “pick up a copy of USA Today the Monday morning after seeds are announced” approach. But I think my formula for success came down to a distrust of North Carolina and all ACC teams (because familiarity breeds contempt) and a glimmer of confidence in UCLA and especially Florida (because, what the hell, they did it last year, with basically the same players). I didn’t do that well with my early-round picks, but I nailed the Final Four, then the Final Two, then hit the jackpot with Florida.

I'd call it a decent tournament, although it’s sad the way college hoops is haunted by questions of how long this or that star player is going to stay in school. It was great to see Georgetown do so well, marrying the Princeton offense with an athletic group of players. It was good to see such good low-post play out of Greg Oden and Roy Hibbert and the Florida guys. I don’t care for Joakim Noah’s hairstyle but I like everything else about him. I compared him to Marcus Camby earlier this year, and meant it as a compliment, but I don’t think Camby can put the ball on the floor like Noah did a couple times in Atlanta. I remember Al Horford’s dad Tito was an awesome physical specimen with no basketball smarts, but Al is a shrewd player; it’s nice to see the son outdo the father.

My main college hoops related emotion right now is, I’m a little bummed that John Beilein left West Virginia University to become the coach at Michigan. Bummed but not shocked: this is the lot of a WVU fan, plus Michigan was a great opportunity, a place with a fine basketball history and great resources, but also a program that has been humbled the last several years. I expect Michigan will be patient with Beilein while he gets his feet wet in the Big Ten. Contrast with Billy Donovan turning down the Kentucky job, where 20+ wins a year like clockwork under Tubby Smith was considered not good enough.

To take Beilein’s place, Bob Huggins is returning to WVU, his alma mater. I have fond memories of seeing Huggins play for the Mountaineers back in the 70s, but he left Cincinnati in 2005 just ahead of the posse, and now he is leaving bad feelings in his wake at Kansas State, where he spent only one year. I just hope Huggins stays on his best behavior and doesn’t land the Mountaineers in NCAA jail. It’s a concern.