Monthly Archives: August 2009

Re American Meritocracy

I recently wrote about the eeriness of the American Mullahs, that club of practically identical – in dress, age, gender and ethnicity — senators panicking about Judge Sotomayor.  When you consider these distinguished whiners, the historical composition of the Supreme Court (two non whites and two women out of some one hundred justices), how close we were to a path of Bush, Clinton, Bush, Clinton, how there are still more Bush’s out there, and how Liz Cheney gets airtime, then its begs the question as to whether the U.S. is in fact a meritocracy.

In commenting on how W. Bush’s daughter, Jenna Hager, got her new gig as a Today reporter, Glenn Greenwald makes the following excellent points:

They should convene a panel for the next Meet the Press with Jenna Bush Hager, Luke Russert, Liz Cheney, Megan McCain and Jonah Goldberg, and they should have Chris Wallace moderate it.  They can all bash affirmative action and talk about how vitally important it is that the U.S. remain a Great Meritocracy because it’s really unfair for anything other than merit to determine position and employment.  They can interview Lisa Murkowski, Evan Bayh, Jeb Bush, Bob Casey, Mark Pryor, Jay Rockefeller, Dan Lipinksi, and Harold Ford, Jr. about personal responsibility and the virtues of self-sufficiency.  Bill Kristol, Tucker Carlson and John Podhoretz can provide moving commentary on how America is so special because all that matters is merit, not who you know or where you come from.  There’s a virtually endless list of politically well-placed guests equally qualified to talk on such matters.

. . .  Just to underscore a very important, related point:  all of the above-listed people are examples of America’s Great Meritocracy, having achieved what they have solely on the basis of their talent, skill and hard work — The American Way.  By contrast, Sonia Sotomayor — who grew up in a Puerto Rican family in Bronx housing projects; whose father had a third-grade education, did not speak English and died when she was 9; whose mother worked as a telephone operator and a nurse; and who then became valedictorian of her high school, summa cum laude at Princeton, a graduate of Yale Law School, and ultimately a Supreme Court Justice — is someone who had a whole litany of unfair advantages handed to her and is the poster child for un-American, merit-less advancement.

Losing another Kennedy is like peeing in the ocean; we still have a sea of American aristocrats to fill the void. What are we left with? The worst of Europe without any of the health benefits or modern infrastructure.

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Olé McCain

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I congratulate John McCain for his appearance yesterday on Face the Nation, breaking with partisan ranks, calling torture, torture and disagreeing flat out with Dick Cheney.

I think the interrogations were in violation of the Geneva Conventions and the convention against torture that we ratified under President Reagan. I think that these interrogations once publicized helped al Qaeda recruit. I got that from an al Qaeda operative in a prison camp in Iraq who told– who told me that. I think that the ability of us to work with our allies was harmed and so– and I believe that information, according to the FBI and others, could have been gained through other methods.

Of course, I don’t quite see McCain’s logic in saying that the interrogation violated the Convention and then not recognizing that failing to investigate also violates the Convention. But McCain has been off-the-wall before (remember him calling the detainee habeus corpus decision one of the worst in Supreme Court history?).

It is revealing that the Face the Nation headline was not “McCain calls Cheney Interrogation Techniques Torture” but “McCain: CIA Abuse Probe ‘Serious Mistake’”. It even says that McCain “opposes investigation into ‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques” (emphasis added) when McCain clearly called them “torture” and violations of law. So much for the liberal media bias.

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Nocturnes

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I finally got back in the saddle again and this week finished three long-awaited books: Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Stout, Rhyming Life and Death by Amos Oz, and Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro.

I have mixed feelings about Olive Kitteridge, this year’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel that just didn’t quite reach the same level as 2008’s The Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Throughout the book, I waivered between finding the writing style and structure (almost a compendium of short stories tied together by the ever present Olive Kitteridge) compelling to wishing that I was reading a ligher and more uplifting John Irving novel (Olive Kitteridge takes place in Maine and New England is the principle setting in Irving’s fiction). I was also reminded, believe it or not, of V.S. Naipaul whose protagonists, in particular Mr. Biswas, are often unlikeable characters, just as we are not always sure whether to root for Olive Kitteridge. Overall, though, while I recognize the writing talent and effectiveness of the story’s underlying theme – the inevitable loneliness of life, even in a picture perfect All American town – I suppose that I just don’t want to relate to such bleakness at this moment in my own life.

I am a big fan of Israeli writer Amos Oz’s works; I especially loved The Black Box. But with regards to his new novel, Rhyming Life and Death, I am really not sure what to say. Billed as reflecting “on writing, reading, middle age and the elusive chimera of literary posterity”, this meta-novella about a few hours in the day of a writer and his public left me almost completely indifferent. Just like with recent works by Coetzee focused on middle age and aging, Oz showcases his great ease with storytelling, but that’s about it. Nothing too memorable.

Finally, the book I thought I would enjoy the least, Ishiguro’s Nocturnes, I finished in just one sitting. Nocturnes’ five short stories all have a common thread – “love, music and the passing of time” – and unlike his other novels that are darker and more enigmatic, these stories were light and playful.  Usually when I finish an Ishiguro novel, with the exception of Remains of the Day and the heart-wrenching Never Let Me Go, I always feel slightly disappointed, possibly because his books have such great and promising titles: A Pale View of the Hills, An Artist of the Floating World, Remains of the Day, The Unconsoled, When We Were Orphans, Never Let Me Go, and now Nocturnes. I would love to be able to write novels with those names! Nocturnes, definitely not a magnum opus, at least left me wanting more, and definitely made up for me having to suffer The Unconsoled, possibly the most frustrating novel I have ever read (other than Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night which I quit after re-reading the first page ten times).

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My Daddy is Innocent

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I don’t know what is more repulsive, Liz Cheney crying “my daddy’s innocent” or the mainstream press actually giving her airtime. Today she was back on the circuit on This Week with George Stephanopoulos, arguing that daddy is not a crook and that even second-guessing him or his subordinates would be partisan, unpatriotic and make us less safe. Transparency, by the way, is bad for America. Amongst her ridiculous and legally untenable claims, Lizzy now also argues that investigating someone twice is double jeopardy (double jeopardy attaches to prosecution, not investigation, Lizzy).

Worse, though, and particularly dangerous for democracy is the question that the press poses and the Cheney’s affirm: whether torture works. Who cares? There is no but-it-was-effective defense to a crime. In an another article by Glenn Greewald highlighting how the establishment press publishes unsubstantiated, uncorroborated and self-serving anonymous CIA leaks (as with the faux claims of Guantanamo detainees’ rates of recidivism or that waterboarding was effective with KSM after just one 20 second session) that are immediately repeated by other media outlets (including Mr. Stephanopoulos himself), considered credible and then spit back by Cheney in his defense, Greenwald explains why the question of the effectiveness of torture is irrelevant to the debate at hand:

The debate over whether torture extracted valuable information is, in my view, a total sideshow, both because (a) it inherently begs the question of whether legal interrogation means would have extracted the same information as efficiently if not more so (exactly the same way that claims that warrantless eavesdropping uncovered valuable intelligence begs the question of whether legal eavesdropping would have done so); and (b) torture is a felony and a war crime, and we don’t actually have a country (at least we’re not suppoesd to) where political leaders are free to commit serious crimes and then claim afterwards that it produced good outcomes.  If we want to be a country that uses torture, then we should repeal our laws which criminalize it, withdraw from treaties which ban it, and announce to the world (not that they don’t already know) that, as a country, we believe torture is justifiable and just.  Let’s at least be honest about what we are.  Let’s explicitly repudiate Ronald Reagan’s affirmation that “[n]o exceptional circumstances whatsoever . . . may be invoked as a justification of torture” and that “[e]ach State Party is required [] to prosecute torturers.” [Emphasis added]

And I am still waiting for Liz, Dick or any other Republican for that matter to tell me what the CIA is not allowed to do.

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Paris in the Spring

Here is a video from this spring in Paris (sorry if it is a little out of season), shot from Rivoli overlooking the Tuilieres gardens and the Louvre, not far from where I had my civil wedding earlier that day. The music is “I love Paris”, interpreted by Frank Sinatra from his 1957 album “Come Fly With Me“. As I have said before, on a clear, sunny day, Paris is arguably the most beautiful city in the world. We had one of those days.

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In Praise of Deficits ?

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In today’s New York Times, Paul Krugman (in Economics 101 style) explains why deficit spending in the short term is actually good for the economy and that the only arguments against it are purely for political gain. Perhaps his cheap shot at the Conservatives at the end of the piece, though I may agree with it, is counterproductive.

August 28, 2009
Till Debt Does Its Part
By PAUL KRUGMAN

So new budget projections show a cumulative deficit of $9 trillion over the next decade. According to many commentators, that’s a terrifying number, requiring drastic action — in particular, of course, canceling efforts to boost the economy and calling off health care reform.

The truth is more complicated and less frightening. Right now deficits are actually helping the economy. In fact, deficits here and in other major economies saved the world from a much deeper slump. The longer-term outlook is worrying, but it’s not catastrophic. Continue reading

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Underappreciated

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In the summer, the Leonard Lopate Show runs an ongoing series of interviews about underappreciated works of literature. Last year, thanks to the Underappreciated episodes, I discovered the Tea in the Harem by Medhi Charef and Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih.  A few days ago, Lopate was discussing the mammoth, unfinished (both by myself and the author) The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil. I attempted to read this book a few years ago while on the beach in Fuerteventura, only to abandon it, slightly intimidated after 80 pages, for V.S. Naipaul’s much shorter A Bend in the River. Hopefully one day I will find my way back to The Man.

Promising works from this summer’s list include the short stories of Egyptian writer Yusuf Idris, the Slovenian novel Alamut by Vladimir Bartol, Andrei Bely’s Petersburg, and Paul von Heyse’s Children of the World, A Novel. In the past, Lopate has also featured one of my all time favorite works of Japanese fiction, The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki.

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