Monday, August 30, 2010

Broken food chains

I wrote in late May about industrial food production, as an exemplar of a general thesis that complexity breeds collapse. And here we go again: news in the U.S. press this week skews heavily toward eggs contaminated with salmonella. Not just one or two eggs. We're talking "recall of a half-billion eggs from two mega-farms in Iowa" according to Friday's San Francisco Chronicle.

Who are the culprits? You guessed it, factory farmers using "battery cages," that strangle, deform, and mummify laying hens in massive operations like Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms, the Iowa farms whose product is making people sick. Many argue that battery cages also contribute to diseased food products.

Austin "Jack" DeCoster owns Wright County Egg, and it turns out he's been branded a "habitual violator" of Iowa's environmental laws.
'He's been trouble ever since he came here from Maine,' said former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, who said the 75-year-old DeCoster had unfairly hurt the reputation of Iowa farmers.

That's from Saturday's SF Chron. Congress will ask DeCoster and the owner of Hillandale
to explain how eggs from their facilities were linked to more than 1,300 cases of salmonella poisoning.

Inquiring minds want to know.

But here's what you'd really, really rather not know. Associated Press reports, by way of the Dallas Morning News, that
Millions of eggs from the Iowa farms at the heart of a massive salmonella recall are not destined for the garbage but for a table near you.

The recalled eggs that were already shipped to grocery stores and restaurants are being dumped by the truckload. But the eggs still being laid by potentially infected chickens will be pasteurized to kill any bacteria. Then they can be sold as liquid eggs or put in other products such as mayonnaise or ice cream. It's a common if little-known practice in the food industry – salvaging and selling products that may have been tainted with disease.

Mmmmmmmmm ... ice cream.

Californians passed Proposition 2 in 2008, which will ban "battery cages" for egg-laying hens in the state by 2015. In a recent move to broaden the effect of the law and protect California's egg producers, California's Governator signed a law
that will ban all eggs coming from outside the state that fail to comply with the battery-cage ban.

Sorry 'bout that Iowa.

Why the seven year delay? Because the food production economy is a very very big ship. It turns very very slowly.

Americans might be relieved to know that it's not only the biggest economy in the world that can't handle food production and distribution safely. The second biggest economy -- China's -- is similarly broken. It's not just melamine contaminated milk, as I wrote about in Digging Deeper Holes. Now it's crayfish.

Dozens poisoned after eating 'washed' crayfish says the Global Times.
Dozens of people in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, suffered from food poisoning after eating crayfish suspected of being contaminated by a type of powder used to wash them, according to local hospitals.

The powder, says my local translator of Chinese-language news sources (People's Daily), is a melange of citric acid and sodium sulfite.

According to Wikipedia, sodium sulfite has the following applications:
Sodium sulfite is primarily used in the pulp and paper industry. It is used in water treatment as an oxygen scavenger agent, in the photographic industry to protect developer solutions from oxidation and (as hypo clear solution) to wash fixer (sodium thiosulfate) from film and photo-paper emulsions, in the textile industry as a bleaching, desulfurizing and dechlorinating agent and in the leather trade for the sulfitization of tanning extracts. It is used in the purification of TNT for military use. It is used in chemical manufacturing as a sulfonation and sulfomethylation agent. It is used in the production of sodium thiosulfate. It is used in other applications, including froth flotation of ores, oil recovery, food preservatives, making dyes.

In China, they use sodium sulfite to wash crayfish, it seems. This, though it seems to fall someplace near the "food preservatives" category called out above, apparently causes a certain sort of collateral damage. To wit, muscle pain and kidney failure, diagnosed by doctors as "rhabdomyolysis, the rapid destruction of skeletal muscle."

Word to the wise: if you see crayfish omlettes on the menu when visiting Nanjing, order something else. In the U.S., if you look at a menu and see mayonnaise, ice cream, cake, cookies, certain kinds of noodles and bread, or -- of course -- eggs whether they are hard boiled, scrambled, fried, or poached ... either run screaming from the restaurant or buckle your salmonella seatbelt.

Seriously, though, what's a person to do?

UC Berkeley journalism professor Michael Pollan has written a book titled Food Rules: An Eater's Manual aimed at helping people avoid the peril of product when what's really wanted is nourishment. The book contains sixty-four rules organized into three categories. The three categories come from Pollan's simple, seven-word formulation that he initially presented on the cover of his previous book, In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto:

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

Kinda basic. Fewer words in the rules than in the book's title. William Strunk would have been proud...

At the same time, it's clear that a few hundred thousand, or a few million people following three rules, or sixty-four, isn't going to solve the problems complexity imposes on food production and distribution. The food chain is badly fractured, and as fun and delicious as this weekend's Eat Real Festival might have been here in the East Bay, it ain't enough. In fact, the 'incidents' that get reported as news -- salmonella poisoning, melamine contamination, crayfish that'll do a number on your kidneys -- are blips on a much larger radar. Here's more from a piece about Michael Pollan and the excellent, Oscar-nominated 2008 documentary, Food, Inc., in which Pollan is featured, from an article on
Michael says experiments have found that $1 can buy you 1,250 calories worth of food in processed food aisles. "Take the same dollar to the produce aisle? You will get only 250 calories of broccoli or carrots," he says. "We've made it rational to eat badly."

Of course, "rational" is a relative term, as it were. Pollan says:
"We spend less on our food than any people who have ever lived, than any people anywhere on earth—9.5 percent of our income."
And the piece goes on to explain how this oddity is subsidized:

Although "real" food is often more expensive, Michael says you either pay for real food now—or pay the doctor later. In 1960, Michael says 18 percent of our national income was spent on food, and only 5 percent on healthcare. Today, he says 9 percent of our income is spent on food and a whopping 17 percent on healthcare. "The less we spend on food, the more we spend on healthcare," he says.

This is not very different from the subsidized cost of coal and oil (for which future generations will make up the difference by 'paying' for the wreckage left in oceans, deserts, mountains, forests, melted glaciers, and climate change caused by the sum of these); or the investment in roads at the expense of public transit that has subsidized suburban growth and car-culture.

These are colossal problems, and if they're going to be solved they will have to be solved collectively. Give individuals a chance to buy stuff more cheaply, and they will -- hidden costs, subsidized by future generations, be damned.

By "collectively" I mean democratic (small-d) government regulation. Letting 'the market' and profit-driven politics take its course has given us modernity as we know it. Killer.

If we don't pay now, we (and our grandchildren) will pay later.

Hard as it might be to get that ship to turn, the alternative is shipwreck.

Thanks to Farm Sanctuary via Flickr for the photo of hens in battery cages.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

More on authors and their protagonists

This post follows on questions raised in my writers' group that I blogged about on August 19th.

There are countless examples of books and stories and plays that explore and/or exploit a relationship between author and protagonist. Here are a few to think about:

In my post Am I my fiction's protagonist?, I already gave a nod to Shakespeare's The Tempest; here I'll call out Act V, in which the bard, in the guise of his spirit-summoning character Prospero, bids farewell to the theatre:

[...] I have bedimm'd
The noontide sun, call'd forth the mutinous winds,
And 'twixt the green sea and the azured vault
Set roaring war: to the dread rattling thunder
Have I given fire and rifted Jove's stout oak
With his own bolt; the strong-based promontory
Have I made shake and by the spurs pluck'd up
The pine and cedar: graves at my command
Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let 'em forth
By my so potent art. But this rough magic
I here abjure, and, when I have required
Some heavenly music, which even now I do,
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for, I'll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I'll drown my book

The role of Shakespeare's life in Shakespeare's work has fueled entire academic careers. Many, for example, have explored the romantic feelings Shakespeare himself had for the "Fair Youth" and the "Dark Lady" addressed in his sonnets. For example, courtesy of Project Gutenberg, the last lines of one of my favorites, Sonnet 60:

And Time that gave doth now his gift confound.
Time doth transfix the flourish set on youth
And delves the parallels in beauty's brow,
Feeds on the rarities of nature's truth,
And nothing stands but for his scythe to mow:
And yet to times in hope, my verse shall stand.
Praising thy worth, despite his cruel hand.

Perhaps as many academic careers, certainly in the latter half of the 20th century, were built on the work of James Joyce, who famously remarked about his work:
I've put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that's the only way of insuring one's immortality.

Stephen Hero was the title of an early draft of Joyce 's novel that gained a place in the literary canon as A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. About this draft, we learn from the catalog of Sylvia Beach, the first publisher of Ulysses:
When the manuscript came back to its author, after the twentieth publisher had rejected it, he threw it in the fire, from which Mrs. Joyce, at the risk of burning her hands, rescued these pages.

As the final title of A Portrait of the Artist... suggests, it is a rendering -- with room reserved for artistic license -- of its author, whose biography follows the contours of his protagonist in key aspects. As Harry Levin put it in an essay included in Joyce's Portrait: Criticisms and Critiques
Except for the thin incognito of its characters the Portrait of the Artist is based on a literal transcript of the first twenty years of Joyce's life. If anything, it is more candid than other autobiographies.

Joyce became more reticent as this work evolved -- from assertion of the epic proportions of his own life in its early title, he moves toward something more oblique. And in Ulysses, Joyce takes a further step into the wings of his own narrative by conferring heroic status not on his ethereal literary doppelganger, Stephen Dedalus; but on the earthier Leopold Bloom.

From the sublime to the ridiculous, then: book hoaxes.

Abe Books -- a "stand-alone" subsidiary of -- has compiled a long list of book hoaxes, in which the author passes off a memoir as authentic experience when it's not, or fiction as a dramatized life story when it's ... fiction. Here the game is reversed from the Shakespeare and Joyce examples just given. For whatever reason, often that an author thinks s/he can gain wider readership by masquerading as someone else, s/he constructs a fiction and passes it off as autobiography. If the constructed autobiography is the story that s/he wants to sell, memoir is the ticket. Alternately, the constructed autobiography can be applied as spice to further a fictional work, as authority to imagine fully. The U.K.'s Guardian published its list of the Top 10 literary hoaxes in November 2001.

The book hoax I most readily recall unfolding in the newspapers involved JT LeRoy (pen name of Laura Albert), when LeRoy was unmasked as a made-up identity. A BBC article of 8 Feb 2006, Cult author's 'identity revealed' leads with this piquant summation:
The US author of hit books based on the writer's life as a male prostitute and drug addict is actually a 40-year-old woman, her ex-partner has said.

The melodrama is amusing, in a sad sort of way: a relationship broken by the strain of maintaining Albert's fictional identity, an embarrassed "celebrity fanbase," a respected director fascinated by young male prostitutes and drug addicts, Gus Van Sant, who "developed a close working relationship with Mr LeRoy, who worked on the script for the director's award-winning film Elephant."

Wikipedia nicely summarizes the case of wished-he-was-a-badder-boy James Frey, another recent case of an author who made up a spicier past than he actually lived. Referring to a post on The Smoking Gun about the lies behind Frey's A Million Little Pieces, the article summarizes:
The website alleged that Frey had never been incarcerated and that he greatly exaggerated the circumstances of a key arrest detailed in the memoir: hitting a police officer with his car, while high on crack, which led to a violent melee with multiple officers and an 87-day jail sentence. In the police report that TSG uncovered, Frey was held at a police station for no more than five hours before posting a bond of a few hundred dollars for some minor offenses. The arresting officer, according to TSG, recalled Frey as having been polite and cooperative.

Even Oprah was hoodwinked. Frey is still publishing.

One more thing ... a meta thing, I suppose. There are -- in life, drama, and fiction -- circumstances in which a person or character projects the existence of another being out of his or her own imagination, believing and acting as if the imaginary being were real.

In Haruki Murakami's novel, Kafka on the Shore, it's often not clear who or what is dream and who or what is real ... which characters are figments of a character's imagination and which 'merely' the figments of the author's? Is "Johnnie Walker" the father of protagonist Kafka Tamura? A real cat killer? An invention of Nakata's strange imagination? And what about Colonel Sanders?

Then there's Mary Chase's Harvey, a play premiered in 1944 for which the author won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The play was adapted for a 1950 film, in which Jimmy Stewart starred and was nominated for an Oscar and a Golden Globe (he didn't get either, but Josephine Hull won both for Best Supporting Actress). In Chase's play, Elwood P. Dowd has -- or imagines -- a friend named Harvey, a pooka (a Celtic shape-shifting ghost, sort of) who takes the form of a 6'3" rabbit. Elwood and Harvey have a grand old time together, but no one else can see Harvey, so his existence is ... well, people wonder. Elwood's sister tries to have him committed to a sanitarium, but a comedy of errors ensues (the sister is committed in his stead) and in the end Elwood and Harvey have a salubrious influence on all and sundry, including Dr. Sanderson, pictured here as played by this blog's author in a high school production.

Thanks to nikkorsnapper for the photo of Joyce's Ulysses in its natural environment. Thanks to Mr. Penley for the yearbook photo, circa 1976; and to Matthew for improving the lousy quality of my digital snapshot.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Public education and dumb analogies

In Saturday's San Francisco Chronicle, C.W. Nevius authored a column titled Schools need to do a lot better for their customers. Those who follow the link will notice that the column is titled differently in its web incarnation: Extreme volunteering not the answer for schools. I don't care what you call it. The columnist's argument is full of holes.

He starts out with a story about a family who contribute extraordinary time and effort to their child's San Francisco school. Nevius reports that a fund-raising effort the parents helped to organize "brought in a mind-boggling $125,000 last year" to augment the school budget. The family's father estimates that the family's mother, who is president of the PTA, "works 40 hours a week on the school."

That's a lot of volunteer hours, by any reasonable measure, and the Hsieh family is to be commended for commitment to their child and community. But the columnist's next paragraph, in which he sets up an allegory that takes up fully 30% of word count, heads right off the rails:
The district needs to keep [the Hseih family's story] in mind when they launch the happy chat about parents making a difference. That's a massive commitment, especially for couples working two jobs. If the schools are a business, this is no way to treat your potential best customers.

The allegory that takes up fully 30% of Nevius' column? Imagine your kids' school were a neighborhood restaurant... Over to you, Cookie Monster:

Let's leave this ... rather silly allegory aside for now. The much more important tidbit has already been quoted: "If the schools are a business..."

The analogy in this column is silly (and doesn't belong) because schools are not a business. They're a public investment.

The school the Hsieh family's child attends is the Chinese Immersion School at De Avila Elementary. The 2010-11 SF Unified School District budget shows that 85 students were enrolled in the school last year, when the Hsieh family helped to raise $125,000. If I understand correctly, last year was the school's first year of operation. Projected enrollment for the coming year is 154. The budget allocation for 85 students last year, according to the district's budget for 2009-10, was $634,120 (for 154 students in the coming year the allocation is $865,161; the difference in the per-student funding seems to imply that it takes some juice to get a new school off the ground ... fair enough). I don't know whether the volunteer fundraisers' bucks were counted as part of what the district allocated to the school, or whether the raised funds augmented the district's contribution. Count one way, and you conclude that volunteers raised 19.7% of the school's annual budget; could the other, and they raised 16.5% of the budget for 2009-10.

Why all the fussing about numbers? Because what we've deduced is that the school district -- funded by federal, state, and local taxes -- kicked in 80.3 to 83.5% of this school's expenses last year.

Nevius wrote in his column on Saturday that "public education isn't a charity."

Is he sure? The numbers given above don't sound like "a business." They sound to me a lot more like a public works project.

Indeed, public education is a public investment in maintaining a competent citizenry and work force. The 'customers' of a school are not only its students and parents. In fact the term 'customers' doesn't apply very well at all. The term 'community' applies, because the beneficiaries of public education include the community -- neighborhood, city, county, state, nation, planet -- in which that school's students live and will live. Indeed, that's why communities fund public education in the first place.


And yet, when the public doesn't kick in enough funding to operate a school at a level of competence and effectiveness deemed appropriate by the most immediately interested adult segment of its community -- the parents of its students -- those parents either pitch in to make the school better, or they settle for Plan B. What's Plan B? Under Plan B, your kids get an education that fits within the limited resources allocated by the public.

When I grew up, this was called "life." One dealt with it, both politically and practically.

Now, to put my perspective in perspective, when our family came to California in 1970 we attended schools in one of the top districts in the state, in an affluent Bay Area suburb. We lived in student housing on a university campus (my father was in graduate school), and benefited from the fact that many students in our school were the sons and daughters of parents affiliated with the university, parents who had high scholastic ambitions and expectations for their progeny.

My family was pretty darn happy with the education my siblings and I received as a public investment. And yet it wasn't easy for schools to make ends meet then either. On the wall in the Social Studies department of my middle school someone posted a sign with what is now, nearly forty years on, a used-to-death slogan: "It will be a great day when the schools have all the money they need, and the military has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber." (Hasn't happened yet.)

If there wasn't enough to make ends meet, even in privileged circumstances, how did our community deal with it? Oodles of parents pitched in to help -- as playground monitors, as field trip chaperones, as guest speakers/teachers, as costume makers for school plays, as classroom helpers, as bake sale bakers, and so on.

And then what happened?

The year after I graduated from high school, the state of California was led off the cliff by anti-tax lunatics Howard Jarvis and Paul Gann, whose inane reasoning -- we want it, but we don't want to pay for it -- has led directly to California's current budget crisis. Yes, I'm talking about the infamous Proposition 13. Public education in the state has been on a downhill slide since 1978, and Prop 13 is a huge part of the problem.

Back to C.W. Nevius, who started Saturday's column with this:
[...] a frustrated parent wrote to say that they'd tried to make it work, but were resigned to moving to the suburbs. 'We love San Francisco,' he said. 'But we love our kids more.'

Later in his column, Nevius ended his silly restaurant allegory by making an analogy of the "product" of San Francisco's public education.

What was that analogy? Public education in San Francisco is:
A meal. Almost as good as the one you can get for free in Danville. [...]

Well, guess again, C.W. In Danville, as in other affluent suburbs, parents help schools too. (Why? Because they're not inane enough to think, like anti-tax lunatics, that society can get something for nothing.)

There's nothing "free" about education in Danville, other than the free-association that led a certain columnist to a certain, absurd allegory.

If there are more parents "free" to put more hours into helping out their kids' schools there, I'm going to take a wild guess that it's because there are a greater percentage of families in Danville able to pay their bills on one parent's salary, or on two jobs instead of three or four or five (census data shows per capita income in 1999 was $50,773 in Danville, compared to $34,556 in San Francisco). Or because there is a greater share of people who understand from their own experience, and that of their families' prior generations, that investment in education for one's children is among the most determinative of future quality of life that a parent can make (the same census pages show 59.4% of people age 25+ hold Bachelor's degrees or higher in Danville; in San Francisco the figure is 45.0%).

Are disparities in capability and drive to help kids navigate their education a problem? Of course they are! But that's nothing a little redistribution of wealth and privilege wouldn't fix over the course of some decades.

(Okay, 'me-first' conservatives, stop barking. I'll put away the red meat.)

No honest person claims these are easy problems to solve, and parents who can give their kids a leg up will. That's reality, by and large. Nevius is right that schools have to get better to keep children of interested parents -- especially interested parents with options -- enrolled. And some of the suggestions he makes about rewarding parents for their contributions toward helping San Francisco schools seem reasonable to me, so long as there are counterbalancing factors to the "preference" system he sketches out that might easily turn out to be, to use the columnist's own word, "exclusionary."

But. Simplistic, stupefying analogies won't help. So ... how about we give that populist hysteria a rest, eh?

On the topic of wild guesses? I'm sure that a careful fact-checker who digs more deeply into the numbers than I did -- like, say, a paid journalist ought to -- could quibble with the figures cited in this post ... but I'd wager more than a little that my approximations aren't far off, and substantively support this post's core arguments.

It will be a great day when newspaper pundits become responsible for making sense and telling the truth in the column-inches their subscribers subsidize.

(Full disclosure: I don't have kids. I do volunteer in my city's public schools. I have no problem paying taxes for the education of other people's kids, and vote to pay more when the opportunity presents itself. And I also have a conflict of interest: not only do I yearn deeply for a nation of competent, engaged citizens and an educated work force; I'm also on the staff at UC Berkeley, which means I'm paid a salary to help keep public education running. People who know tell me I could make better money in the private sector. But a person's got to stick to what he believes is important.)

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Am I my fiction's protagonist?

My on-line writer's group tossed around these questions recently: "How much do you hide in your characters? Is there anything you're working out through some poor unsuspecting character trying to mind their own imaginary business?" The questions, posed by one of our group's sage members, spawned a longish discussion thread, and strike me as questions that any author of fiction wants to consider from time to time. How about now?

The first thing that occurred to me when this topic came tumbling down the wire was Carl Jung.

In Jung's "subjective" mode of dream interpretation, every figure in a dream is an aspect of the dreamer.
The whole dream-work is essentially subjective, and a dream is a theatre in which the dreamer is himself the scene, the player, the prompter, the producer, the author, the public, and the critic. This simple truth forms the basis for a conception of the dream's meaning which I have called interpretation on the subjective level. Such an interpretation, as the term implies, conceives all the figures in the dream as personified features of the dreamer's own personality. (Jung, Dreams, 1948)

I think there's a case to be made that a lifelike work of fiction is like a dream -- and an author like the real-life dreamer, dreaming allegorical dramas. This is hardly an original concept: remember "We are such stuff / As dreams are made on" (Shakespeare, The Tempest, IV.i)? Spoken by the fictional Prospero, himself an echo of the bard, reflecting that created existence is not so distant from conjured drama? You might say that there is no other way an author can conceive characters and scenes than through a lens of imagination, inflected by experience ... no matter how real they read. That is, fiction is projected through the lens of the author's self.

And yet ...

One wants to believe that human beings "know" other human beings, whatever shrinks and philosophers want to make of the concept "to know" (never mind transference and projection). I don't think of colleagues and friends as aspects of myself. Part of what attracts me to writing fiction is the opportunity to express, explore, and develop empathy -- a connection between autonomous selves -- with people who form some basis (in whole or in part) of my characters. Part of what attracts me to reading fiction is an interest in the same kinds of connections with characters born out of another author's experience.

In my current novel, I do have 'models' for most of the characters: sometimes simply physical models, sometimes emotional or intellectual models, sometimes personality models, sometimes a mix. They tend to be 'partial' or 'composite' models; the characters in Consequence don't map to actual people, one-to-one. Early in its gestation, I began to think of one very dear friend as a part of the composite-models for three characters in my novel manuscript. He's a rich enough character in real life to support that degree of slicing and dicing, and I know him well. For what it's worth, though the partial-model is a man, one of the characters whose roots can be traced to him is a woman; I have based the female character's physical traits on a different old friend (whom I know less well, as it happens). Of course, each of those three characters has evolved into something more than and different from the composite models through which I first & roughly imagined them.

Riffing on Jung's subjective mode of dream interpretation, if one's own self supports the cast of characters in one's dreams, why shouldn't a good friend support a cast of characters in one's fiction?

Here's how Dan Berger, another member of my writing group, articulated his experience in this vein:
Models allow you to provide a context outside of yourself to explore territory both viscerally and more objectively. They allow you to imagine how other people think, which allows your character to consider things in ways you wouldn't naturally consider them otherwise. In short, models provide a way for some poor unsuspecting character to work through your issues on their own terms.

And yet ...

Coming back to the question posed to my writing group: "Is there anything you're working out through some poor unsuspecting character trying to mind their own imaginary business?" For me the answer is a resounding 'yes.' If I weren't working something out that is interesting to me, how could I summon and sustain the focus and energy necessary to write and revise and revise and revise a novel-length mss.?

The way I work that process is to set up a problem that I care about in a novel or short story; then I let the characters work it out. For me, "let the characters work it out" involves having some idea what's going to happen: I'm an outliner. But I've found that outlines are merely a great place to start, at least as far as my own fiction is concerned -- just as models are a great place to start when conceiving characters. Do I imagine for a minute that characters and situations and scenes are going to color only between lines drawn out in advance? If I did, I'd be a very silly author.

So, bottom line, what's my answer to the questions that initiated this musing: "How much do you hide in your characters? Is there anything you're working out through some poor unsuspecting character trying to mind their own imaginary business?"

It's complicated.

When you write, in what ways are you your own protagonist? In what ways are you not? When you read, do you often or always -- or never -- identify an author with her/his protagonist?

The image of Prospero, played by John Ioannou, is from the British Shakespeare Company's forthcoming first film, Sweet Swan of Avon. Honestly? I'm pretty skeptical of the promo material, but the photo's pretty cool....

Monday, August 16, 2010

Apocalypse, the 14th Amendment, and opera in Vienna

It's always tempting to look at the news and, cherry-picking the bits and pieces that fit, to propose a Theory of Everything. Synthesis is fun. But today I'm going to resist the temptation. Tomorrow? We'll cross that bridge when we come to it

For today, some selected bits and pieces.

First, "leading Republicans" want to re-consider the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Here's how the NY Times summarized it in an op-ed about a week and a half ago:
Leading Republicans have gotten chilly toward the Constitution’s 14th Amendment, which guarantees citizenship to people born in the United States. Senators Mitch McConnell, John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Jeff Sessions and Jon Kyl have been suggesting that the country should take a look at it, re-examine it, think it over, hold hearings. They seem worried that maybe we got something wrong nearly 150 years ago, after fighting the Civil War, freeing enslaved Africans and declaring that they and their descendants were not property or partial persons, but free and full Americans.

Articles on (some of them coming from the Associated Press) and opinion-pieces are largely -- and I'm only talking about the articles and invited opinion pieces here -- leaning against this "leading Republican" pander-fest. Blogs and comments are a different story. Though you may find it repugnant, have a look at some of them to get a sense of the vitriol involved. Here's a particularly telling example, from a blowhard who hides behind the nom-de-imbécillité 'sleuthboy':
Anchor-Babies are at the epicenter of all that is wrong with our broken Immigration system.....fix this amendment and you automatically take care of over half the Illegal issues/abuses. You can tell just by the swift and viscious reaction of the Brown-Supremacist/LatinoFirst zealots......"

What's an "anchor-baby" you ask? Don't ask. To whom are leading Republicans pandering? Keep reading.

Remember the "birthers"? As explained in Counterfactual thinking in April, these are
Wingnut conspiracy theorists stoked by elected congressmen and professional journalists [who] invented a so-called Birther movement that aimed to invalidate the election of President Obama by repeatedly asserting falsehoods in the face of solid evidence disproving their lies.

It was wingnut in April, it's wingnut in August, but it's hard to ignore the common threads between birther wingnuts and the 14th Amendment rot: birth, identity, citizenship, legitimacy. If they can't get President Obama thrown out of office on false accusations that he was born outside the United States, how 'bout changing the law so that certain people, nudge nudge, can't be citizens just because they were born here.

Then there's the Cordoba House 'controversy,' which earned a mention in this blog's Debased discourse post two weeks ago today. On Friday, the President weighed in: "Obama Strongly Backs Islam Center Near 9/11 Site," as the NY Times headlined the news. Pretty much everybody with a real dog in the fight had already, including NY Mayor Michael Bloomberg (R, or, as the Tea Party people would have it, RINO), so the President must have imagined it would be safe to declare freedom of religion an American value. The next day, the same reporter (Sheryl Gay Stolberg) reported that,br />
Faced with withering Republican criticism of his defense of the right of Muslims to build a community center and mosque near ground zero, President Obama quickly recalibrated his remarks on Saturday, a sign that he has waded into even more treacherous political waters than the White House had at first realized.

On Sunday morning, headlined its site with an article titled "New Battle Lines Drawn Over Ground Zero Mosque Debate." The details are depressing; if you can stomach them you've probably read all about it in the MSM. Bottom line? G.O.P. Muslim-bashing is being served as another entree in this year's menu of populist-xenophobia-as-politics.

A "theory of everything" attempt to wrap one's mind around these and similar stories in the news might be to hypothesize that the American Century is over, the empire is falling, and as the glaciers melt and oceans rise we're going to see the question of whose United States (and planet, for that matter) we live in subjected to more and more lunatic, lethal, selfish, and absolutist claims.

But I promised at the start of this blog that I'm going to resist temptation. For now. No theories of everything.

Instead, I'll tell a little story. If I were to give it a title, I might call it A parable of platz.

In the hour before curtain at the same Wiener Staatsoper performance that I blogged about in Are you a lyrics person?, in the area at the back of the hall reserved for standing room ticket-holders, I witnessed an odd, ultimately quite pathetic scene. The standing room audience was a mix of staid, properly dressed Vienna residents; tourists in cargo pants and polo shirts; and a smattering of 'tweeners, such as my partner and myself, tourists who had packed something at least vaguely respectable to wear around Europe. The locals at Wiener Staatsoper knew and exercised a custom that, on reflection, seems central to regular enjoyment of standing room at the opera.

Places to stand, you see, are what we in the States call "general admission" -- first-come, first-served. Reasonable enough, given the staggeringly cheap rates at which standing-room opera tickets are sold in Vienna, on the order of three or four euros a pop ... less than the price of an American movie ticket to see opera at one of the finest venues on the continent of its birth. So what is the local custom? Why, simply to save one's place with a piece of clothing, generally a scarf or a tie, fastened to the handrail provided for each of the standing-room rows. (Blogger Aaron Anthony explains the whole business quite nicely in a post of about six months ago, in case you find yourself in Vienna with a hankering to see opera on the cheap.) Standing in line to get in early enough to claim a place with a view, then taking the time one has prior to the performance to do something, anything, other than stand in the place from which you'll be watching two or three or four hours of opera ... well, that's just common sense, isn't it?

So there we are, waiting for the opera to begin, when one local in respectable dress -- having secured his place as is the custom, and gone to have a look around, or a bite, or to see a man about a dog -- arrives back in the standing room area shortly before curtain. It is soon apparent that he is deeply put out to find that the place he thought he'd claimed has been usurped. Worse, it has been usurped by a cargo-pantsed, polo-shirted, young, buff, irritatingly healthy-looking American!

The Viennese gentleman addresses the young American. Politely. In German, of course, it's his own damn city.

"Das ist mein platz," he says, without aggression, particularly; but, well, firmly.

The American appears not to understand. The gentleman repeats himself. Das ist mein platz. This is my place. Still, the young American doesn't get it. Again. The light bulb is starting to go on for the American now, and some of the bilingual members of the audience begin to offer some assistance. But, no, the American insists, in English. He came early, there was no one in this place when he arrived, the place was not marked, the platz is, in fact, rightly his.

This goes on for several, increasingly heated rounds, both ticket-holders quite certain they are correct. The Viennese gentleman sticks to his German; he does not seem to speak any English at all. The American youth, a stranger in a strange land, does not try to meet the local on his native linguistic ground. The Viennese gentleman starts to lose his cool. The American sticks to his guns. "Das ist mein platz, das ist mein platz!" the gentleman insists, growing strangled and red in the face.

At last, with the house lights dimming to signal the audience to take their places, another American leans forward from the row behind the contestants for der platz, and wonders aloud, in American-accented English, whether the tie fastened to the rail next to him belongs to the gentleman. The gentleman looks around, in a huff. Again, the American suggests ... the Viennese gentleman is startled to see ... he takes a closer look ... he realizes ...

... and all of a sudden he finds he can speak heavily-accented English after all. "I am sorry," he mumbles to the young, buff, irritatingly healthy-looking American. His platz, it turns out, was in the next row back all along.

Well. I'm not going to say anything, I said I wouldn't ... but I've just got this feeling that if Chicken Little were alive today, she'd be worrying away, clucking something along these lines: The empire is falling, the empire is falling ...

Thanks to Wikimedia Commons for the Vienna Opera poster image.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Characters you're not supposed to like

My reading group will discuss Penelope Lively's Booker Prize winning Moon Tiger in a couple of weeks, and I'm five chapters in. The elderly protagonist, Claudia Hampton, is a former war correspondent and popular historian. She's dying of cancer. The novel is a "history of the world" with Claudia Hampton at its idiosyncratic center. So far, I dislike the character intensely.

Granted, I may change my mind by the end of the novel ... I'm suspending judgment for now. But I'm also thinking as I read it about protagonists in fiction that readers aren't meant to like, and especially about unlikable protagonists in well-regarded fiction. One could make a long, long list; I'll content myself here with three. It's worth pointing out that I'm not talking about unlikable characters per se, and especially not about unlikable foils to likable protagonists.

The canonical character in this mold for me -- perhaps because he was one of the first and most blatant I ever encountered -- is Thomas Gradgrind, the utilitarian schoolmaster in Charles Dickens' Hard Times. The character's name is enough to have earned a callout in an earlier post, Nominative determinism in fiction, though in fact Gradgrind didn't make the cut. Here, thanks to Project Gutenberg, is how he is introduced at the start of Dickens' novel:
'Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!' The scene was a plain, bare, monotonous vault of a school-room, and the speaker's square forefinger emphasized his observations by underscoring every sentence with a line on the schoolmaster's sleeve. [...]

Not so warm & fuzzy, eh? Well, Gradgrind does come around a bit by the end of the novel, but I sure didn't like the tyrant when I met him. You have to wonder whether Roger Waters had Gradgrind in mind when he wrote Another Brick in the Wall.

That Pink Floyd classic -- which famously became an anthem for South African students rebelling against the apartheid regime (banning the song only upped the ante) -- makes for a fine segue to J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace, another Booker Prize winner, and one I count among the most elegantly rendered works of fiction in my own literary experience. Professor David Lurie is Coetzee's middle-aged protagonist, and the novel opens with his dismissal from a South African university post for having an affair with a student. He is roundly shunned, and retreats to a remote smallholding where his lesbian daughter lives. He gets in the way. Violence, rape, and Lurie's failure to find much in the way of redemption ensue. There is little to like about him, yet the book is incandescent in its portrayal of a weak man's struggle to find humanity in an unambiguously brutal world.

In Klaus Mann's Mephisto, Hendrik Höfgen trades his soul -- and throws in his politics, wife, and mistress while he's at it-- to Hermann Göring, in exchange for fame and renown as an actor in Nazi Germany. The author (Thomas Mann's son) based his story on that of his brother-in-law, Gustav Gründgens, though he denied that Höfgen portrays a particular individual. Gründgens' adopted son sued the then-publisher of Mephisto in 1968, and successfully halted its publication -- but only in West Germany. The novel was made into a film in 1981, which won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. There is little to like about Höfgen either, and this is one of those rare stories that I found more powerful as a film than as a novel, but it definitely fits the "characters you're not supposed to like" rubric.

Your thoughts about unlikable characters in fiction? Personal favorites, least-liked, most outrageous? Screeds denouncing the insolence of authors who have tricked you into buying a book only to find you can't stand the company? Analysis of the fact that no unlikable character I cited in this post was written by an American?

Monday, August 9, 2010

Marriage v freedom: a modest proposal

Boy, oh boy. There sure has been a lot of cheering and moaning about U.S. District Chief Judge Vaughn R. Walker's declaration that a voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional. Haven't been following the story? You can find broad coverage of the issue & trial in the SF Chronicle; the NY Times or FoxNews report on Wednesday's decision; read Walker's 138-page decision yourself; or check out an analysis thereof.

All that coverage, not to mention endless chatter in the blogosphere, absolves me of the obligation to cherry-pick quotations from the decision. Of course, as many have pointed out, the game's not over: appeals to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal are on the horizon, and the U.S. Supreme Court may have a thing or two to say about Judge Walker's 138 pages of prose as well.

Naturally, the disinformationistas were waiting to pounce on the district court decision. So what's the argument against same-sex marriage that makes my head spin fastest?

Nope, not the "activist judges" argument, which is so very laughable when advanced by conservatives who support (or are blind to) the activism of judges with whose ideology they agree -- say, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts, to give just one itty-bitty example.

Nope, not the populist argument that people voting for some fly-by-night ballot proposition trumps essential law, e.g., the constitution under which the U.S. government operates, and to which each U.S. state is existentially bound. Not even when said populists hold both that a fleeting majority's vote supersedes all other law & precedent and that responsible judges hold strictly to the U.S. Constitution in light of intentions "the founders" had when they drafted it.

Here it is, the true head-spinner in this writer's book: the "marriage is a heterosexual word" argument. As articulated by William Moore of Red Bluff, California, and published in the SF Chronicle's Letters to the Editor section of 5 August 2010, the argument goes something like this:

[T]he purpose of Proposition 8 for many of us was to uphold the long-standing tradition that marriage is a heterosexual word. Pick you [sic] own word. For thousands of years, this word has had significant meaning to the husbands and wives who have made a sacred pledge to each other. You now have a population that is accepting alternate lifestyles as a part of that fabric. Just pick your own word to define your commitments to each other, and honor the one that represents our commitments to each other, and we can live in harmony.

Now it wouldn't be fair to blame only Mr. Moore for this argument. And yet, it would be tedious to review the nearly eight million hits I get when I type marriage heterosexual institution into the Google search interface. Or even the 2.5 million results yielded by Bing. It would be worse than tedious to try to link to a dozen or three arguments similar to Mr. Moore's, because doing so would elevate their relevance in search engines, if not in actual fact or law. Not going there. So I'm going to use Mr. Moore's argument as a stand-in for all those people who oppose marriage equality. Instead of using Mr. Moore's name -- to avoid making Mr. Moore into a martyr or a whipping-boy -- I'll just call all those people who oppose marriage equality by an acronym: ATPWOME. Got it? Who cares if it's hard to pronounce? It's pretty darn hard to make rational sense of the arguments, why should the people who advance them be anything but unpronounceable?

So let's clear up some facts in the argument Mr. Moore has advanced on behalf of ATPWOME.

First, to the "for thousands of years..." assertion. I happen to have beside me a compact edition of Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford University Press 1971), the one in two volumes with very small print; it came with a magnifying glass. The OED has a lot of terrific stuff in it, and among the most terrific are its etymologies -- complete with citations from the written record in which any given word appears. The earliest citation for the word "marriage" in English comes from Robert of Gloucester in the year 1297, same date and author as the word "marry" from which it is derived. 1297 was 713 years ago. The arithmetic sciences hold that 713 is less than one thousand, and much less than multiple "thousands." Oh! But the English word comes from Old French! And what do we know about Old French? Let's consult our old friend, Wikipedia: "Old French was the Romance dialect continuum spoken in territories that span roughly the northern half of modern France and parts of modern Belgium and Switzerland from the 9th century to the 14th century." There you have it. 9th to 21st century: 1,200 years in round numbers, which is still less than "thousands." My condolences to ATPWOME, whether they live in Red Bluff, California or elsewhere.

Second, sticking to our solid reference volume, the word "heterosexual" is defined in OED as ... wait! The word "heterosexual" is not in my 1971 Compact edition! Have no fear, the intertubes are our friends (though my access to the electronic OED is restricted by subscription, so I can't share the link; if you feel an urge to check my transcription, head to any reasonably well-provisioned public library). Heterosexual, the adjective, says the OED, is:

1. a. Characterized by a sexual interest in members of the opposite sex. b. Pertaining to sexual relations between people of opposite sex. 2. Pertaining to, characteristic of both sexes.

Once again, ATPWOME lose. There is no such thing as a "heterosexual word." Heterosexual is a term that pertains to things that have sex. Words, which may have grammatical gender, do not have sexual interest, sexual relations, or, well, sex.

Third, can ATPWOME please get over the strategic ignorance that relentlessly debases discourse on this topic?

Here's an excerpt from the Publisher's Weekly summary of Stephanie Coontz's 2005 volume, Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage:

When considered in the light of history, "traditional marriage"—the purportedly time-honored institution some argue is in crisis thanks to rising rates of divorce and out-of-wedlock births, not to mention gay marriage—is not so traditional at all. Indeed, Coontz (The Way We Never Were) argues, marriage has always been in flux, and "almost every marital and sexual arrangement we have seen in recent years, however startling it may appear, has been tried somewhere before." Based on extensive research (hers and others'), Coontz's fascinating study places current concepts of marriage in broad historical context, revealing that there is much more to "I do" than meets the eye. [...]

As it happens, Coontz contributed an op-ed piece titled The Heterosexual Revolution to the New York Times on 5 July 2005, and that op-ed came up second when I typed marriage heterosexual institution into my handy Google search interface (#21 on Bing). Ms. Coontz concluded her op-ed piece as follows:

Marriage has been in a constant state of evolution since the dawn of the Stone Age. In the process it has become more flexible, but also more optional. Many people may not like the direction these changes have taken in recent years. But it is simply magical thinking to believe that by banning gay and lesbian marriage, we will turn back the clock.

Magical thinking. There you have it.

ATPWOME should know that Ms. Coontz' book is available for less than ten bucks from Amazon, but all those people who oppose marriage equality but support America's small businesspeople should check their local independent bookstores first.

So. In any event. Here's my modest proposal.

Let us consider the word "freedom." From the OED again, the first of fifteen definitions, each with its own tidy little set of usage citations: "I.1a. The state or fact of being free from servitude, constraint, inhibition, etc.; liberty." If you're interested in the other definitions, through, including, and beyond "I.1.c. Exemption or release from the obligations of a contractual agreement; spec. release from a marriage, divorce," I again recommend any reasonably well-provisioned public library.

In light of the quoted definition of the word "freedom," I propose the following. To wit. Ipso facto.

So long as ATPWOME wish to constrain and inhibit homosexuals from marrying (each other), ATPWOME shall cease and desist from application of the word "freedom" to any description of their politics or values, whether spoken, in print, on-line, or even wildly fantasized.

That seems reasonable, right? Because, clearly, ATPWOME have a program, and it ain't about "freedom."

In fact, now that freedom to marry a same-sex partner in California is looking like it may be reinstated, it could soon become accurate to say of ATPWOME that they hate our freedoms! (To think that I'm quoting George W. Bush right here on the intertubes. Wonders will surely never cease...)

All you people who oppose marriage equality? The comment box is free for all.

This post appeared, with minor differences, as a Daily Kos diary on 6 Aug 2010.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Meet the Fishers

Okay, that title is a really bad pun. I didn't even see the movie, so I don't actually have the right to make fun of it.

The Fishers were Donald and Doris, founders of The Gap. Doris is still living, but Donald passed away in 2009, two days after the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) announced an agreement to house the Fishers' vast collection of contemporary art. (Wikipedia, citing Forbes sans footnote, claims that DF's worth was estimated at $3.3 billion, if you're looking to put some numbers around "vast.") This agreement came about after an attempt to build an independent museum to house the collection, in San Francisco's Presidio, ran aground on the shoals of community hostility to developing the park (a former Army base, until 1994).

I was never much of a Gap shopper myself, despite the fact that Berkeley had one at the foot of Telegraph Avenue for many years. The windows often caught the fancy of rioters. The space is a Walgreens now.

The Fisher family came to my attention in the early oughts, when they bought 350 redwood-forested square miles in Mendocino County and proceeded to carry forward the prior owner's clear-cutting plans. The issue was more complicated than that, natch. A history is maintained on the not-so-objective web site, which in addition to its own press releases includes articles from differently-invested parties, such as Wall Street Journal and San Francisco Chronicle reporters.

But that's not what I'm here to tell you.

Last weekend, I visited SFMOMA to see the first, introductory exhibition of 160 of the 1,100 works from the Fisher collection that will be held in "a trust, administered in collaboration with SFMOMA, to oversee the care of their collection at the museum for a minimum of 25 years" (from SFMOMA's press release of 25 Sept 2009). The exhibition is titled Calder to Warhol: Introducing the Fisher Collection. If you live in the Bay Area, or are out to visit before the show closes on 19 September, get thee to Third Street.

Seriously, the show is ravishing, not to be missed, and promises that the expansion whose proximate purpose is to accommodate the Fisher Collection, is going to vault SFMOMA to heights we west coast locals have only dreamed of.

I've only posted a couple of the many photos we took of the exhibit. The Calder mobile hanging in the entrance atrium is shown from the "I could be a stegosaurus on exhibit in a Natural History Museum" angle, which you too can view if you take the stairs to the third floor. Anselm Kiefer's powerful ridicule (cf. warships in bathtub) of Nazi plans to invade the U.K. by sea in WWII, Unternehmen Seelow (Operation Sea Lion) is one of five enormous Kiefer canvases in the show, not to mention Meloncholia, a military plane sculpted from lead that once crowned the cathedral in Köln.

Weirdly hypnotic, patterned canvases by Anges Martin (especially Night Sea); steel sculpture by Richard Serra; a magnificent canvas by Lee Krassner (Polar Stampede); a gorgeous graffiti-on-green canvas by Cy Twombly (Note I); many many Calder mobiles and a stabile in the roof garden; a chillingly beautiful Mao created by Andy Warhol are only a few of the highlights ... it's a show that's not to be missed, 160 amuse-bouches for the ages as San Francisco anticipates more of the Fisher Collection to come at SFMOMA.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Debased discourse

A passionate Facebook exchange between five individuals, spanning nineteen comments last I checked, alerted me to a sad and convoluted Congressional tale.

As Raymond Hernandez of The New York Times summarized,
House Republicans on Thursday blocked a Democratic plan to provide billions of dollars for medical treatment to rescue workers and residents of New York City who suffered illnesses from the toxic dust and debris at ground zero. A majority of the lawmakers in the chamber supported the bill, but the 255-to-159 vote fell short of the two-thirds margin needed under special rules that were used to bring the measure to the floor. In the end, 243 Democrats and 12 Republicans supported the measure; 155 Republicans and 4 Democrats opposed it.

The five FBers were arguing whether 155 Republicans & four Dems were bad legislators for voting to deny medical treatment to first-responders to the attacks of 11 Sept 2001; or whether the Democratic party leadership were bad legislators for bringing the bill to the floor under procedural rules that required a 2/3 majority for passage. Everybody in the FB scrap was holding a torch for the 9/11 heroes.

Why did the Dems invoke special procedural rules? Back to you, Mr. Hernandez:
Heading into the vote, Democrats acknowledged it would be difficult to gather enough support to pass the bill under special rules requiring a two-thirds majority. But Democrats were concerned that a simple majority vote would allow Republicans to propose a controversial amendment that seeks to deny 9/11 health benefits to illegal immigrants. That amendment threatened to fracture Democratic support for the original bill into two camps: moderates who might feel political pressure to deprive illegal immigrants of such benefits and liberals who flatly oppose the Republican amendment.

That is, the issue became something other than the issue, as issues tend to in Washington. It became a pivot around which each of the nation's two major political parties attempted to gain advantage in the upcoming November elections.

Here, thanks to one of the Facebook Five, is a video of Congressman Anthony Weiner's outrage over the other guys whinging about procedure instead of voting up or down on "doing the right thing on behalf of the heroes" -- a performance that was, itself, a masterpiece of political theatre, whether Weiner (D-NY) played it as he felt or as he calculated it:

Was Rep. Weiner speaking from his furious heart, or acting a scene dictated by political calculus? (Warning: if you answer this question you'll learn more than you might care to about your Personal Cynicism Index.)

The dustup reminded me of a passage in Adam Gopnik's story about the historical Jesus in The New Yorker of 24 May 2010, a passage in which Gopnik paraphrases Philip Jenkins' Jesus Wars: How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens, and Two Emperors Decided What Christians Would Belive for the Next 1,500 Years.

Gopnik writes, of the early first-millennium struggles between Christian factions over turning stories about Jesus into theology:
It wasn’t that they really cared about the conceptual difference between the claim that Jesus and the Father were homoousian (same in essence) and the claim that the two were homoiousian (same in substance); they cared about whether the Homoousians or the Homoiousians were going to run the Church.


I'm also put in mind of the ongoing mosque-in-lower-Manhattan 'controversy,' about which Sarah Palin's tweets were the subject of One Finger Typing the week before last. WTF? The Cordoba House (which may now be more blandly renamed Park51, should it ever be built) is represented in the NY Times as a center intended to be
a monument to religious tolerance, an homage to the city in Spain where Muslims, Jews, and Christians lived together centuries ago in the midst of religious foment." Even reports that "The mosque is a project of the American Society for Muslim Advancement and the Cordoba Institute, which promotes cross-cultural understanding between Islam and the West.

That Fox quote is part of an article titled "N.Y. Congressman Calls for Inquiry Into Funding of Mosque Near Ground Zero" -- which points to the nature of the spin that outre conservatives in local and national stages are giving to the 'controversy.' From the Fox article:
Rep. Peter King raised concerns about the sources of funding for the proposed $100 million mosque, just blocks away from the site of the Sept. 11 attacks, where nearly 3,000 Americans died at the hands of Islamic terrorists. 'It's a house of worship, but we are at war with al-Qaida,' King told the AP. 'I think the 9/11 families have a right to know where the funding comes from; I think there are significant questions.'

Mosque. Islamic terrorists. Al-Qaida. 9/11 families have a right. That's not just spin, that's a full-speed-ahead spiral down into the gutter. Who can wave the flag hardest and fastest as November approaches? Will the Homoousians or the Homoiousians run the Church? Take particular note of the deliberately restrained pose, the faux-thoughtfulness:
I think there are significant questions.

Another undercurrent beneath this issue, an undercurrent of national political import, was laid out starkly by Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. No relation, per se, to Fox News, but nobody'll be shocked if you wondered. The ADL is an organization whose mission, as condensed in an attention-getting block of red at the top of its web site, is "To stop the defamation of the Jewish people ... to secure justice and fair treatment to all."

Here's how the ADL's position and Foxman's explanation was positioned in the NY Times on Friday (emphasis added):
The issue was wrenching for the Anti-Defamation League, which in the past has spoken out against anti-Islamic sentiment. But its national director, Abraham H. Foxman, said in an interview on Friday that the organization came to the conclusion that the location was offensive to families of victims of Sept. 11, and he suggested that the center’s backers should look for a site 'a mile away.' [...] Asked why the opposition of the families was so pivotal in the decision, Mr. Foxman, a Holocaust survivor, said they were entitled to their emotions. 'Survivors of the Holocaust are entitled to feelings that are irrational,' he said. Referring to the loved ones of Sept. 11 victims, he said, 'Their anguish entitles them to positions that others would categorize as irrational or bigoted.'

One wonders: where to begin? The blogosphere is abloom with responses to Foxman's statement, so I'll keep my response narrowly focused around the odd phrase, "entitles them" and the emphasized sentence as a whole.

Why odd? Well, I might agree with "explains." But to elevate irrationality and bigotry to an entitlement that -- in the context of the ADL's statement as a whole -- is proposed as a driver of public policy? That just doesn't compute.

To be sure, people are traumatized by trauma. To be sure, traumatized people may cling to irrational and bigoted positions when their emotions are skewed by trauma. But what does that have to do with the question of where a religious organization should be permitted to build a community center? I can't explain Foxman's and the ADL's logic any more than I can explain how irrationality and bigotry are a means of securing "justice and fair treatment to all." But irrationality and bigotry drives an awful lot of demagoguery in these perilous times. Foxman's getting right down there in the mud with Palin, Gingrich, and Beck. Will the American people fall for these populist haters? For bigots posing as thoughtful and restrained leaders? Stay tuned. I'm afraid we're going to have to watch & see.

The ADL spews unsubstantiated insinuation --
legitimate questions have been raised about who is providing the funding to build [the Cordoba House Islamic Center], and what connections, if any, its leaders might have with groups whose ideologies stand in contradiction to our shared values

-- and pretends to be smoothing feathers. Congresspeople blow smoke about obligation to 9/11 first-responders and procedural trickery -- but they're really all about controlling power. Political discourse is pretty thoroughly debased. The ghost of Diogenes would have one hell of a time finding an honest politician or pundit, even if his lamp were a klieg light.

Some debunking of the fog of insinuation around Cordoba House can be found in a Clyde Haberman's NY Times piece of 26 July, in which he takes conservative hysterics to task over their hypocrisies and obfuscation. And, indeed, it's imperative to effectively and rationally defend against assertions by ostensibly responsible leaders that irrational bigotry ought to be a principle of social governance.

But who will pay attention?

The question of providing medical care to those made ill by their role in the aftermath of attacks on New York in 2001 will come up for a vote again in September. As for the mosque in lower Manhattan? Best to keep an eye on that one.