August 2008 Archives

amazon.com

Church, Forrest. Lifecraft: The Art of Meaning in the Everyday (Boston: Beacon Press, 2000)

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Church, Forrest. Love & Death: My Journey through the Valley of the Shadow (Boston: Beacon Press, 2008)

Historian and minister Forrest Church is the author of many religious/political books: God and Other Famous Liberals, The Jefferson Bible, and The Separation of Church & State. Drawing on his ministerial experience, Church has also written several other books on the big issues of life, love, and death; I am here examining Lifecraft and Love & Death. Like the late Randy Pausch (who was also a Unitarian), Forrest Church assembled the latter book after being diagnosed with terminal cancer; unlike Pausch, Church is happily still with us.

I use the word "assembled" rather than "written" as Love & Death is largely a collection of sermons and other reminiscences that discuss--not surprisingly--the subject of death and how it informs the ways we live our lives. Some of the stories he tells in Love & Death overlap with Lifecraft, but that is to be expected; I read them together because they cover similar terrain, and because Church tells his stories well.

Not surprisingly for a Unitarian, Church's theology is a liberal one; also not surprisingly for a (lapsed) Unitarian, I found myself largely in agreement with him except when his frequent mentions of god distracted from rather than enhanced his message. As Church wrote in Lifecraft, "You cannot expect to pick up a book by a preacher that doesn't have at least a little bit of preaching in it." (p. 92) His harmoniously common-sense stances only veered into jarring dissonance on rare occasion, as in this passage:

At their dying moment, no one wishes that they had spent more time in the office, made more money, read more books, or become a better squash player. (Lifecraft, p. 117)

As someone who has a to-be-read list exceeding 4000 volumes--which is continually growing--I will doubtlessly prove unable to read them all in my remaining years. My regret over those losses will be mitigated by other (greater) joys related to family and friends, but the regret will likely exist nonetheless. (I don't care for squash, but I may well wish I had become a better racquetball player.)

Of everything Church wrote in these two books, this passage was perhaps the most off-key:

If your neighbor disagrees with your personal theology, short of changing your mind--a prospect that may not delight you--you have only four options. You can convert, destroy, ignore, or respect her. Fundamentalists of the right usually attempt conversion, but sometimes, as we know firsthand from recent experience, they chose to destroy in God's name. Fundamentalists of the left tend to ignore such disagreements as irrelevant, but they, too, may choose destruction. One need witness only the gulags and crematoria to recognize that religious zealots alone have not cornered the market on muting the exercise of religious and political freedom by resorting to mass murder. (Love & Death, p. 81)

Church's mention of "crematoria"--clearly a reference to the (Christian) Nazi regime--turns this passage from mildly bothersome to severely disappointing. He should have known better than to ignore the Christian roots of Nazi anti-Semitism.

Also, as someone who overcame a drinking problem, Church has surely heard the term "dry drunk," which is an alcoholic who has stopped drinking but not yet made the other behavioral changes necessary for a full recovery. Giving up alcohol is necessary but not sufficient for recovery, and I would use this analogy for the Soviet Union's tyranny: a "dry drunk" partial recovery from Czarist totalitarianism. They had discarded the religious trappings, but the blind submission and other aspects of the authoritarian mindset were not purged. As their horrific experience demonstrates, secularism is a necessary precondition for a free society, but it is clearly not a sufficient one.

When writing later about William Blake's angelic visions, Church asks,

Does that mean angels really exist? Who knows. It is impossible to prove the existence of angels without leaving their realm. Like God, angels are beyond proof. Once we start arguing about whether or not angels exist, we have already missed the point. (Love & Death, p. 129)

The point is this: since the existence of angels--like gods--cannot be proven, it is not nearly as pointless to argue about them as it is to believe in them. Aren't there enough real things to argue about without inventing other bones of contention?

Depending on your tolerance for god gibberish and other religious fluff, you may get less out of Church's books than I did, but I can still recommend them as aids toward considering some deep questions:

The answers we arrive at may not be religious answers, but the questions death forces us to ask are, at heart, religious questions: Where did I come from? Who am I? Where am I going? What is life's purpose? What does this all signify? (Love & Death, p. x)

Those are philosophical questions--not merely religious ones, as Church claims--but that's an argument for another time. Here's to hoping that he's around to write a sequel...

< digression >

When Church went into his riff on the movie Titanic, I couldn't help but remember these two scenes, (which I have mentioned before) that take place after the ship's musicians had been assembled to soothe the passengers' savage breasts [typos fixed]:

The band finishes the waltz. Wallace Hartley looks at the orchestra members.
HARTLEY

Right, that's it then.

They leave him, walking forward along the deck. Hartley puts his violin to his chin and bows the first notes of "Nearer My God to Thee". One by one the band members turn, hearing the lonely melody.

Without a word they walk back and take their places. They join in with Hartley, filling out the sound so that it reaches all over the ship on this still night. The vocalist begins: "If in my dreams I be, nearer my God to thee..."

[...]

WALLACE HARTLEY sees the water rolling rapidly up the deck toward them. He holds the last note of the hymn in a sustain, and then lowers his violin.

HARTLEY

Gentlemen, it has been a privilege playing with you tonight.

The rest of Titanic was a overwrought mess, but that episode spoke to me in ways that the rest of the film did not: about the power of art even--or especially--in the face of death.

< /digression >

links:
Forrest Church
William Congreve

believe in this

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This website (h/t: Hemant at FriendlyAtheist) creates Obama images with your choice of slogans, so I had to create one:

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[The line break and the kerning bothered me so much that I had to fix them in Photoshop.]

the speech

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In case you missed Obama's speech last night--or even if you didn't--the NYT has the transcript, and Obama has both text and video. In it, Obama topped his own exemplary oration at the 2004 convention, and--while not perfect--delivered a rousing acceptance speech. M. LeBlanc at Bitch, PhD singles out Obama's "ownership society" rebuttal as a favorite passage:

It's not because John McCain doesn't care; it's because John McCain doesn't get it.

(APPLAUSE)

For over two decades -- for over two decades, he's subscribed to that old, discredited Republican philosophy: Give more and more to those with the most and hope that prosperity trickles down to everyone else.

In Washington, they call this the "Ownership Society," but what it really means is that you're on your own. Out of work? Tough luck, you're on your own. No health care? The market will fix it. You're on your own. Born into poverty? Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, even if you don't have boots. You are on your own.

(APPLAUSE)

Well, it's time for them to own their failure. It's time for us to change America. And that's why I'm running for president of the United States.

It's my favorite part of the speech as well, because it momentarily elevates this election from a popularity contest into the realm of ideas. Ultimately, this should be less a contest of candidates than of ideas--even of ideologies. The failures of conservatism over the past four decades (which conservatives will never own up to, much less own) are more important to highlight than those of John McCain over the past three, and that's what Obama did here.

Bravo!

RIP, Del Martin

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The San Francisco Chronicle breaks the sad news that Del Martin, the pioneering lesbian activist who recently married her longtime fiancée Phyllis Lyon, has died. I offer my condolences to Martin's family, her friends, and especially her wife; may they take solace in the fact that her work continues to live on in the lives of others.

rolling stone

Sean Wilentz explains in the current issue of Rolling Stone "How Bush Destroyed the Republican Party" (an excerpt is posted on the RS website), and his analysis is a solid follow-up to his earlier RS piece where he suggested Bush was "The Worst President in History." Supplemented by the excellent illustration of Bush's approval ratings ("A Brief History of Bush's Flameout," pp. 48-9), Wilentz provides a good overview of how the Bushevik lawlessness is, indeed, destroying the GOP:

"The Republican Party, having presided over the longest conservative political ascendancy in U.S. history, now finds itself out of touch with American people, held hostage by radicals who have forsaken basic values like respect for the Constitution and the rule of law. The ideological factions and interest groups that now make up the party--the foreign-policy neoconservatives, the religious right and the pro-business, anti-tax radicals--are increasingly angry and inflexible in their demands." (p. 53)

With only 147 more days in office, Bush's trail of destruction will come to an end as his toxic legacy slouches toward Crawford to be buried. May his miserable failure stand as a cautionary warning to right-wing radicals for decades to come.

"fuck Fox News"

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ZP Heller writes at AlterNet about anti-war protesters yelling "Fuck Fox News" at the Faux News crew covering protests at the Democratic convention in Denver, and sides with the protesters:

These calls are entirely necessary, considering FOX has served as the propaganda arm of the Bush administration for the last eight years. [...]

FOX is guilty of war- and fearmongering, spreading the administration's lies at every turn, and smearing those who try to set the record straight. So "Fuck FOX News?" I'd say these anti-war protesters get the message just right.

I have to offer this caveat: please use a condom.

Much has been written about Obama's strengths on LGBT issues, and the current issue of The Advocate has Michael Joseph Gross asking "Should You Believe in Obama?"


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Obama is certainly not perfect--e.g., his disappointing stance on marriage equality, which Gross covers well--but he's so much better than McCain on LGBT issues that they may as well not be in the same race. Gross' concluding anecdote shows this well:

Kevin Thompson tells the story of a U.S. Senate campaign fund-raiser at the gay bar Cocktail in Chicago. After Obama finished speaking, he walked to the edge of the crowd and asked a gay guy, "Could I please bum a cigarette?"

Today, Thompson says, that guy can't stop recounting the exchange to his friends. Of all the anecdotes Obama's friends repeat about the time he's spent with gay people, this is the most mundane. As such, it is also a powerful testament to the candidate's humanity, atavistic and futuristic, both at once. Thompson laughs, quoting his friend's boast, a string of words that add up to something truly new under the sun: " 'I can't believe that the future president of the United States and I smoked a cigarette together in a gay bar.' "

Can you image a similar story about McCain? (I didn't think so...) Humanizing anecdotes don't make up for triangulating policy decisions, but giving up on progress to chase perfection is not a viable option.

links:
Obama Pride
LGBT for Obama

amazon.com

Carlin, John, et al. Masters of American Comics (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005)

Masters of American Comics is the catalog of an exhibition (from UCLA's Hammer Museum, LA's Museum of Contemporary Art, Milwaukee Art Museum, The Jewish Museum, and The Newark Museum), and it sits quite nicely alongside other overviews of the field such as the three Smithsonian volumes (The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics, A Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Comics, and The New Smithsonian Book of Comic Book Stories) and the recent anthology from Ivan Brunetti.

The master artists selected for this book are:

• Winsor McCay (Little Nemo)
• Lyonel Feininger (Kin-der-Kids)
• George Herriman (Krazy Kat)
• E.C. Segar (Popeye)
• Frank King (Walt and Skeezix)
• Chester Gould (Dick Tracy)
• Milton Caniff (Terry and the Pirates, Steve Canyon)
• Charles Schulz (Peanuts)
• Will Eisner (The Spirit)
• Jack Kirby (everything)
• Harvey Kurtzman (Mad)
• Robert Crumb (Zap, Mr. Natural, Fritz the Cat)
• Art Spiegelman (Raw, Maus)
• Gary Panter (Jimbo)
• Chris Ware (Acme Novelty Library, Jimmy Corrigan)

The only choice I question is the inclusion of Gary Panter. While I don't wish to slight either Panter or his art, I can think of many artists--Cliff Sterrett, Burne Hogarth, Hal Foster, Carl Barks, Walt Kelly, Alex Toth, Steve Ditko, Jim Steranko, Neal Adams, Barry Windsor-Smith, Vaughn Bodē, Craig Russell (my personal favorite), Dave Sim, Frank Miller, or Bill Watterson--who are far more deserving of the title "master." (In fact, those are fifteen masters whose work could easily fill a sequel to this book.) The Atlas Comics list of "The Top 100 Artists of American Comic Books"--which omits foreign artists, underground artists, and comic strip artists--gives an idea of the breadth yet to be covered by future exhibitions and their catalogs. (Alex Raymond, Al Capp, Jack Cole, CC Beck, Wally Wood, Gil Kane, Joe Kubert, Garry Trudeau, Michael Gilbert, Bill Sienkiewicz, Mike Mignola, Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez, Joe Sacco, and Adrian Tomine would be good choices for a third volume...)

The first half of the book is devoted to John Carlin's essay covering all fifteen artists; the second half consists of essays by other writers covering each artist in turn. The entire volume is well-illustrated throughout, with selections ranging from preliminary sketches to finished art to the published works. Some of the Little Nemo strips still seem cramped at full-page size--slightly more than 9"x12"--and would have benefited from being printed on fold-out pages; McCay's artwork is so detailed that anything less than tabloid size is an unfortunate compromise.

This 328-page large-format hardcover book was $48 when it first hit bookstores three years ago, but can now be found in remainder bins for $10. If you're at all interested in graphic fiction, go out and pick up a copy right now! I might not recommend this book for a comics neophyte, but it's a great coffee-table book that could start some conversations. Regardless of the artistic sensibilities of your house-guests, there should be something in here to catch an eye and spark a thought. This image from Art Spiegelman is one of many such potential conversation-starters:

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McCain's campaign must have been waiting quite some time to use these Biden quotes against Obama (h/t: James Joyner at Outside the Beltway):

yes, it's Biden

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The rumors were correct: Obama has indeed chosen Delaware Senator Joe Biden as his running mate. The NYT article is here, and the campaign's announcement is here.

The text message from Obama's campaign hasn't arrived yet, but it looks likely that he will announce the selection of Senator Joe Biden (D-DE) as his running mate (h/t: Anthony Hecht at Slog, who uses this charter flight information to make his guess):

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If Obama's VP selection is truly a done deal, the next question is: Who will McCain choose?

I'd put my money on a running mate who knows how many houses he owns--preferably only one--but McCain might not know anyone in the not-a-multimillionaire social stratum.

amazon.com

Ross, Alex. The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007)

Alex Ross' The Rest Is Noise seemed to be a good choice to fill in the gaps from the Aaron Copland and Julius Jacobson books I've read recently; Ross delivered a stellar book that exceeds the praise it has received so far. Geoff Dyer's NYT review called The Rest Is Noise "a work of immense scope and ambition" and "a great achievement." David Schiff's Nation review called the book "engaging" and asked "Who would have thought that a 600-page history of music that few people love could be such a page turner?" Joseph Kerman's TNR review praises Ross' New Yorker pieces, says that he "writes very well about classical music," and notes:

That he never shies away from technical language gives him cred (as he might say) with his musician readers and bothers not at all the non-musicians, who seem happy to skim over the C-sharps and the minor triads rooted a tritone apart, knowing these will always lead to something interesting and even breathtaking.

For Ross is one of very few music critics who somehow create the illusion that you grasp the music they write about even if you have not heard it. This a rare gift.

Ross' narrative effortlessly places composers, works, and performances placed into their historical and cultural settings to aid the reader's understanding, and never fails to maintain interest. He explains the tonality-to-atonality transition, twelve-tone serialism, the avant-garde movement, experiments with chance and collage, minimalism, and then sketches the way forward:

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the impulse to put classical music against pop culture no longer makes intellectual or emotional sense. Young composers have grown up with pop music ringing in their ears, and they make use of it or ignore it as the occasion demands. They are seeking the middle ground between the life of the mind and the noise of the street. (p. 541)

Part I kicks off with the 1906 premiere of Richard Strauss' Salome; and Part II with Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth in 1936, which leads into the well-known story of his immortal Fifth Symphony; Part III continues the tale from the end of World War II to the present. The middle section is the book's highlight, and Ross does a spectacular job of explaining and dramatizing Shostakovich's relationship with Stalin's totalitarian terror. I was unaware of the harrowing story of his Seventh Symphony, titled "Leningrad," which Ross brings to life here:

Against his own wishes, he [Shostakovich] was evacuated from the city on October 1 [1941], and spent the winter in Kuybyshev, formerly Samara, in the Volga region. [...] Besieged Leningrad heard the [Seventh] symphony on August 9, 1942, under the most dramatic circumstances imaginable. The score was flown in by military aircraft in June, and a severely depleted Leningrad Radio Orchestra began learning it. After a mere fifteen musicians showed up for the initial rehearsal, the commanding general ordered all competent musicians to report from the front lines. The players would break from the rehearsals to return to their duties, which sometimes included the digging of mass graves for victims of the siege. Three members of the orchestra died of starvation before the premiere took place. [...] An array of loudspeakers then broadcast the Leningrad into the silence of no-man's-land. Never in history had a musical composition entered the thick of battle in quite this way: the symphony become a tactical strike against German morale. (p. 246)

That is the sort of dramatic story that would be nearly unbelievable if it came from the pen of a Hollywood scriptwriter; the fact that it actually happened gives me shivers, and showcases Ross' ability to tell his story exceedingly well.

When Ross notes that Lenin "regarded [music] as a bourgeois placebo that covered up the sufferings of mankind" (p. 218), this struck me as a deliberate echo of Marx's "opiate of the masses" remark regarding religion; it is to Ross' credit that he assumes such historical familiarity on the part of his audience. His assumptions about musical knowledge may be less warranted, however. Readers who have never studied music theory may want to do some reading on intervals and modes to help understand Ross' detailed musical descriptions.

Don't be put off by the musical minutiae, because Ross has penned the best book I've yet read on music. His enticing explanations of the music have inspired me to take note of pieces I've not yet heard, in order to broaden my listening habits. (As encyclopedic as Ross was in The Rest Is Noise, his mentions of microtonality didn't include jazz trumpeter Don Ellis, who performed on a quarter-tone trumpet. A reference to the Modern Jazz Quartet in Ross' discussion of Gunther Schuller and Third Stream music wouldn't have been out of place, either.) Those minor details aren't much of a fault, as including every minor tidbit of information would surely have ballooned the book to over a thousand pages.

Ross constructs his narrative wisely, and has written the sort of book that I can't recommend highly enough. Avid music listeners should put The Rest Is Noise at the top of their reading lists.

links:
Alex Ross' New Yorker columns
his book's website and bibliography
Wikipedia's article on "20th-Century Classical Music"

[typo fixed]


update (10/14 @ 2:10pm):
In conjunction with the release of The Rest Is Noise in paperback, author Alex Ross has posted a glossary with plenty of audio examples. It's a great supplement to the newly enlarged audio guide, particularly for non-musicians.

Andrew Sullivan writes that the Bushevik logic (supported by McCain) leads to this conclusion: JOHN MCCAIN WAS NOT TORTURED IN VIETNAM.

The torture that was deployed against McCain [...] involved sleep deprivation, the withholding of medical treatment, stress positions, long-time standing, and beating. Sound familiar? According to the Bush administration's definition of torture, McCain was therefore not tortured. [...]

No war crimes were committed against McCain. And the techniques used are, according to the president, tools to extract accurate information. And so the false confessions that McCain was forced to make were, according to the logic of the Bush administration, as accurate as the "intelligence" we have procured from "interrogating" terror suspects. Feel safer? [...]

Now the kicker: in the Military Commissions Act, McCain acquiesced to the use of these techniques against terror suspects by the CIA. And so the tortured became the enabler of torture. Someone somewhere cried out in pain for the same reasons McCain once did. And McCain let it continue.

I wish McCain would quit whining about his POW experience already; if we can do those things to Gitmo detainees, why don't the Vietcong get the same pass?

amen

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I mentioned someecards a few weeks ago in this post; here's another of their great images (h/t: Wil Wheaton):

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new baby shampoo

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Here's an important product announcement for overprotective parents:


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"We at Johnson & Johnson have been making bath time a safe and soothing experience for far too long," company CEO William C. Weldon said. "Years of pampering have left our newborns helpless, feeble, and ill-equipped for the arduous road ahead." [...]

The result of five years of intensive research and market testing, the company's "Nothing But Tears" shampoo contains only the most abrasive of natural ingredients and is nearly impossible to rinse from a baby's screaming face. According to directions printed on the label, the bath-time product is best used with scalding hot water for optimal toughening-up of newborns. [...]

"You'll notice a difference after just one use," said Michelle Baker, head of new product development. "Whether it's your newborn's more hardened appearance, the way he now approaches people with guarded skepticism, or just that look on his face that says, 'Oh wait, maybe life isn't all hugs and kisses and rainbows. Maybe I need to get my fucking act together.'"

(h/t: Andrew Sullivan)

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(Click here to see the final panel...)

I keep watching this video, looking for signs that it's a parody...it must be seen to be believed (h/t: Amanda at Skepchick):

"We, as a nation, have got to ask ourselves what the hell is going on."

Indeed. What the hell is going on in our schools that someone can be scientifically illiterate enough to believe that a rainbow from a lawn sprinkler is an unnatural phenomenon to be blamed on something "in our water supply" that is "oozing out of our ground."

It's almost as pathetic as believing that rainbows are caused by an invisible sky-daddy to remind himself to never again create an impossible flood that killed everyone except a mythical boat-builder's family and the residents of his impossibly-huge floating zoo:

9:12 And God said, This is the token of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations:

9:13 I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth.

9:14 And it shall come to pass, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow shall be seen in the cloud:

9:15 And I will remember my covenant, which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh.

9:16 And the bow shall be in the cloud; and I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth.

(Genesis 9:12-16)

I prefer to think of it this way:

Every time you see a rainbow, god is having gay sex!

Obama's campaign is fighting back against the Swift Boat Liars for McCain; specifically, they've exposed Jerome Corsi's factually-challenged book Obama Nation, which I mentioned here. Obama's "Unfit for Publication" exposé (2MB PDF) gives Corsi's hackwork an extensive fisking: 51 of Corsi's lies are debunked.

MediaMatters' debunking of Corsi's book covered much of the same ground last week, but apparently the rebuttal hasn't sunken in yet. Obama Nation is a #1 bestseller--although it's misclassified as "nonfiction"--and Corsi was spreading more lies about Obama's birth certificate (published on his website, and verified by the Hawaii Department of Health) just this morning.

The "Unfit" exposé notes that some reviews of Corsi's book have called attention to his lies, but--once again--the so-called "liberal media" is proving itself to be anything but liberal in their disregard for the facts. The NYT review tries to weasel out of basic journalistic requirements by whining that "Fact-checking...can require extensive labor and time from independent journalists, whose work often trails behind the media echo chamber," although later mentioning that:

Several of the book's accusations, in fact, are unsubstantiated, misleading or inaccurate.

That's a pretty weak denunciation, and will probably have no effect whatsoever on Corsi's audience: those whose primary concern is having their political (or other) prejudices reinforced.

This morning, I got caught up in a casual discussion of politics with a coworker of allegedly* "eclectic" political opinions who claimed--in all seriousness--to be unable to vote for Obama "because he's a socialist."

<picks self up from floor, and jaw from lap>

First, I doubt seriously that many (most?) conservatives even know what socialism is; "socialist" is just another content-free slur (like "liberal") that is used to demonize political opponents. They neither know what it means nor care to learn, as that knowledge would deprive them of a useful rhetorical cudgel when dealing with others equally (or more) ignorant of economics.

Second, Obama is most definitely not a socialist. In addition to his largely common-sense economic proposals, and his center-right economic advisers, here's what he said in an interview with CNBC's John Harwood:

"I am a pro-growth, free market guy. I love the market. I think it is the best invention to allocate resources and produce enormous prosperity for America or the world that's ever been designed."

Obama is as much as socialist as Adam Smith, but you certainly won't learn that from the mainstream corporate media. I really wish people would get their heads out of Faux News' ass...the constant GOP genuflecting is execrable, and the view stinks. (One might call their propaganda "Effluent for the Affluent.")


links:
Snopes doesn't have a page on the "Obama=Socialist" myth yet, but they should

Obama's Fight the Smears site should also debunk this myth


*This was an overstatement on my part. Our disagreements consistently begin when I debunk the errors of right-wing talking points, which suggests--but does not prove--ideological rigidity.

Watchmen posters

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Watchmen geekery: Check out the movie posters compared to the original comic-book ads by Dave Gibbons (h/t: flavordav at LJ scans_daily).

In order to compete on a level (albeit low) playing field, perhaps the Democrats should be running this ad against McCain:

(h/t: John Aravosis at AmericaBlog)

...at least not until you read this Oil Drum article
(h/t: TreeHugger) on the price of oil. Sure, it's dropped a little bit lately--but it's been rising at 30% per year for the last six (going on seven) years:

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Jerome Paris of Oil Drum sees "no reason why the recent lull in prices would be a sign of a serious trend change in the market." That new Prius is looking better all the time...

Allan Kozinn writes in "The French Horn, That Wild Card of the Orchestra" from the NYT (h/t: New York Magazine), that:

"Orchestral instruments don't come more treacherous than the French horn, either for the musicians who play it, or, when the going gets rough, for the listeners who find themselves within earshot."

Kozinn takes aim specifically at the New York Philharmonic, writing that it "has long been action central for horn troubles:"

"...its principal player, Philip Myers, is wildly inconsistent, and the rest of the section is also accident-prone. [...] ...he cracks, misses or slides into pitches often enough that when the Philharmonic plays a work with a prominent horn line, you brace yourself and wonder if he'll make it."

I'd like to say "Ouch!" on behalf of Myers and his section-mates. When the horn is played correctly, I side with Aaron Copland:

"If there exists a more noble sound than eight horns singing a melody fortissimo in unison, I have never heard it." (What to Listen for in Music, p. 75)

but even when played poorly, I don't think that a note-cracking horn player is any more aurally offensive than a barking trumpet, a squawking clarinet, a blatting trombone, or a screeching violin. Anyone who has thrilled to a majestic Mahlerian horn sound--or even a decent John Williams score--can appreciate Copland's sentiment. (To give an idea of my fondness for the French horn, I once interrupted a fellow movie-goer during a showing of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom to exclaim, "My god, listen to those horns!")

amazon.com

Jacobson, Julius. The Classical Music Experience, Second Edition (Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, 2008)

I was premature in writing of Copland's What to Listen for in Music that "I can't think of another volume so accessible for an orchestral neophyte," as The Classical Music Experience is indeed more appropriate for that audience. Unfortunately, I found it to be a little too light-and-fluffy for the rest of us; Jacobson sometimes tries too hard to be endearing, as when he writes such biographical asides as, "I think you will agree with me that Bach was quite a fellow, twenty children and all." (p. 25) Additionally, the author (an MD by trade) inserts far too many surgery-related digressions into the text, which adds little if anything to understanding and appreciating the music. I would have appreciated fewer biographical details on the composers and a correspondingly larger emphasis on their music.

One highlight of this book is access to more than forty hours of streaming audio from the Naxos website. (It's annoying to have to login again after each piece finishes playing; one wonders if this is a deliberate inconvenience designed to sell more CDs.) The book's previous edition (2005) included a pair of CDs, but they could barely scratch the topic's surface. Forty hours of music is a vast improvement, but it's still a long way from comprehensive; I suppose that one can only expect so much for $40.

Several passages that were apparently carried over unedited from previous editions really should have been updated, such as Jacobson's occasional references to the Schwann Opus catalog. The Schwann website disappeared at the end of 2003 after being acquired by Alliance Entertainment, and the Opus catalog appears to have gone missing in the process. (The Gramophone or Penguin guides would appear to be adequate replacements.)

Jacobson's omission of some composers is occasionally bothersome--there are no chapters on Ginastera, Holst, Khachaturian, or Respighi, for example--but it is in the last fifty years where the gaps become especially glaring. After a nice chapter on Schoenberg, there are no modernist composers. Adams, Cage, Glass, Ligeti, Reich, Riley, and Stockhausen--at least--deserved chapters of their own (or, failing that, a single chapter on modern music as a whole). For listeners whose idea of classical music doesn't end with Bernstein, these absences are a serious drawback.

There are several (non-musical) comments that grated on me, such as Jacobson's parallel to AIDS when discussing Smetana's death (at age 60) from syphilis:

"It is sobering to think about biographies of future artistic greats where AIDS may well replace syphilis and cut off productivity at even younger ages." (p. 129)

AIDS has, of course, already affected far too many lives, and the issue of AIDS in the artistic community has been well-discussed (e.g., Newsweek's "AIDS and the Arts: A Lost Generation" cover story from 18 January 1993, pp. 16-20; Andrea Vaucher's 1993 book Muses from Chaos and Ash: AIDS, Artists, and Art.). As Wikipedia notes, medical advances are enabling HIV-positive individuals to live longer and more productive lives than they were able to in decades past:

In areas where it is widely available, the development of HAART as effective therapy for HIV infection and AIDS reduced the death rate from this disease by 80%, and raised the life expectancy for a newly-diagnosed HIV-infected person to about 20 years.

In light of safer-sex education, more comprehensive healthcare responses to AIDS, and improved longevity for HIV-positive artists, Jacobson's comment seems rather outdated in addition to being a digression.

"Commercial sex worker is a term I learned recently at an AIDS conference held at the Harvard School of Public Health. At first I chuckled, thinking that a prissy professor was trying to avoid the use of offensive words in public. But as I thought about it further, I realized it as a better term than the usual synonyms because, particularly in the context of AIDS, it can refer to either sex." (p. 162)

Without doing extensive research, I found that the phrase "sex worker" has been in use for three decades; I agree with Jacobson that it is superior to the common vulgarities, but his entire anecdote was a waste of space.

"There is a new computer language named Apache, amusingly so because as it matured, so many program patches were added to it." (p. 265)

First, Apache is a web server, not a language. Second, it is hardly new--at least not in Internet years: Apache has been the most popular web server almost constantly since its first release in 1995. (See Wikipedia for more information.)

Jacobson's second edition of The Classical Music Experience is a useful primer on the subject, but hardly an essential acquisition for the home library. I would suggest that classical tyros borrow this book from a local library instead--along with a stack of the recordings that Jacobson mentions in the text but were not included in the online selections.

Carol Hamilton asks "Does Christian Fundamentalism Endanger Our Republic?" at History News Network (h/t: Buffy at Gaytheist Agenda), and the unsurprising answer is yes:

Authoritarian, narrow in its scope, rigid in its attitudes, and tautological in its thinking, evangelical fundamentalism has been making war on the founding ideas of the United States. Its belief in submission to authority puts it at odds with a democratic republic. Its hostility to intellectual inquiry--by its very nature an interrogation of authority--causes it to wage war on scientific research and modern medicine. Its valorization of ancient codes of behavior inspires its attacks on feminism and gay rights. Its revisionist attitude toward history--denying the deism, skepticism, and Masonic associations of certain major Founders--is dishonest.

Fundamentalist Christianity is essentially anti-modern.

That certainly sounds like Christianism to me, and thus a good time to revisit Andrew Sullivan's 2006 essay "My Problem with Christianism:"

Christianity...is simply a faith. Christianism is an ideology, politics, an ism. The distinction between Christian and Christianist echoes the distinction we make between Muslim and Islamist. Muslims are those who follow Islam. Islamists are those who want to wield Islam as a political force and conflate state and mosque.

and slidge's 2004 DailyKos post "Christianism vs. Christianity:"

Christianism uses Christianity in order to further its agenda, which can be quickly summed up in two goals:

1. The establishment of a state religion. This state religion, of course, is not to promote Christianity, but rather to consolidate power in order to achieve their second goal.

2. Legislation of their repressive moral agenda. The Christianists plan to destroy the system of checks and balances in the Constitution, and they plan to do this in the name of Christianity. The establishment of a state religion is critical to this.

Given their demonstrated hatred of church/state separation, civil equality, and democracy itself, I definitely categorize Christianists as a threat. They won't control the White House for much longer (I hope!), but don't count them out yet. They have a seemingly inexhaustible supply of fraudulent quotes, fictitious history, and false accusations...and, despite the facts, they're convinced that they're in the right.

amazon.com

Miller, Frank & Jim Lee. All-Star Batman and Robin, Volume 1 (New York: DC Comics, 2008)

For a more modern take on Batman than that of the Moore/Bolland tale The Killing Joke, I checked out the first collection (issues #1-9) of the Frank Miller/Jim Lee All-Star Batman & Robin series. Miller has taken his perspective on the beginning and end of Batman's career (Year One and Dark Knight, respectively) and applied it to his nascent partnership with Robin. The series begins about a year after Year One, just before the murder of Dick Grayson's parents, and shows us how Batman befriends the young orphan and begins transforming him from an grief-stricken gymnast into a costumed crimefighter. William Gatevackes reviewed issues #1-3 for PopMatters, and faulted Miller's characters:

"The book is filled to the brim with one negative character after another, which wouldn't be a problem if they were developed more and written better. But instead of being hard-boiled, they're half-baked."

I have to give some weight to his complaint, because Miller's characterization is pretty thin even after a half-dozen more issues (although the denouement after issue #9's tussle with Green Lantern is a good omen). His scripts give us a cocky and borderline out-of-control Batman, who often seems as dangerous and unbalanced as his opponents. He's almost a caricature of the Dark Knight Batman, as this much-publicized (and mocked) exchange from issue #2 shows:

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Perhaps because this particular usage garnered so much attention, "goddamn" was re-used many times later in the series; here is the funniest example (from issue #7):

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It's as good an illustration as any that Miller doesn't take the series so seriously that he omits levity from his script. The humor--such as Wonder Woman's over-the-top imperiousness, for example--clashes somewhat with Miller's noir-ish narration, which works less well here than in his previous books. The typographic and color changes between characters serve to differentiate the changes in narration adequately, but the characters themselves are still far less fleshed-out that they should be by this point in the series.

Despite penciller Jim Lee's superstar reputation, the art doesn't grab me the way it apparently does so many comics fans; it's well-finished by Scott Williams and sublimely colored by Alex Sinclair, but it strikes me as rather sterile. (Not that the pools of blood from Dick's parents--or the numerous flying teeth and broken bones from the many fight scenes--are sterile, but most of the art just doesn't involve me emotionally in the story.) Van Jensen's review at ComicMix echoes my assessment:

The biggest problem here really is the creative team, as Lee's art represents the superhero norm. His clean, highly detailed and gregarious style evokes the action-heavy, reader-friendly adventure comics. There is nothing dark or edgy about his work, and so paired with Miller's script it creates a sense of cognitive dissonance. These two do not match.

I can only wonder if Miller's script would be more effective paired with his art, all harsh lines and heavy contrasts. His successes have all come in books that he's either drawn himself or teamed with a similarly gritty artist.

Despite my complaints about the book, I'll still be queued up to buy the second volume as soon as it's released. Miller and Lee haven't created the perfect Batman story in All-Star Batman and Robin, but it's compelling enough to command one's attention.

never again

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game on!

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The DNC has launched an Exxon-McCain website (h/t: Mike Allen at Politico) in response to McCain's tire-pressure-gauge stunt:

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Game on, eh?

It looks to be an interesting three months until Election Day...

amazon.com

Copland, Aaron: What to Listen for in Music (New York: Signet Classic/Penguin, 2002)

What to Listen for in Music, a 1957 revision of the 1939 original, is Copland's attempt at making serious music more accessible to the lay person. While sometimes idiosyncratic, Copland does an impressive job at remaining impartial about what music is being listened to while being quite sympathetic to contemporary classical music:

Most people seem to resent the controversial in music; they don't want their listening habits disturbed. They use music as a couch; they want to be pillowed on it, relaxed and consoled for the stress of daily living. But serious music was never meant to be used as a soporific. Contemporary music, especially, is created to wake you up, not put you to sleep. It is meant to stir and excite you, to move you--it may even exhaust you. But isn't that the kind of stimulation you go to the theater for or read a book for? Why make an exception for music? (p. 199)

I have often observed that the mark of a real music lover was an imperious desire to become familiar with every manifestation of the art, ancient and modern. Real lovers of music are unwilling to have their musical enjoyment confined to the overworked period of the three B's. (p. xxxi, Preface)

Copland wrote this long enough ago that "the three Bs" referred to Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms; today, one might as well be referring to Berlioz, Bruckner, and Bizet. Or Bartok, Britten, and Bernstein. (Or even Berg, Berio, and Boulez.) Alan Rich has added a foreword and an epilogue to help bring the book up to date, but it is the mark of a classic that it is still relevant after the passage of half a century.

Copland discusses the "four essential elements of music" (rhythm, melody, harmony, and tone color) in a suitable manner, and follows up by describing the sonorities of the orchestra's instruments and the compositional forms common to the orchestral repertoire. This book is excellent throughout, and I can't think of another volume so accessible for an orchestral neophyte. Copland closes with these words for the listener:

Music can only be really alive when there are listeners who are really alive. To listen intently, to listen consciously, to listen with one's whole intelligence is the least we can do in the furtherance of an art that is one of the glories of mankind. (p. 219)

It's unusual to read a book that so strongly pushes the reader to put it down and listen to music, but that's what Copland has done with What to Listen for in Music. Read it, and then open your ears.

Writing at God Is for Suckers!, KA debunks the Decalogue-is-the-basis-of-American-law myth, based on this article by Richard Carrier. As he notes, we owe far more to Solon (and to English common law, which also predates Christianity's introduction into England) than to Moses, but the Right's historical revisionists can't possibly admit that. Jefferson made a similar observation when confronted with the Religious Right of his day:

"For we know that the common law is that system of law which was introduced by the Saxons on their settlement of England, and altered from time to time by proper legislative authority from that time to the date of the Magna Charta, which terminates the period of the common law...This settlement took place about the middle of the fifth century. But Christianity was not introduced till the seventh century; the conversion of the first Christian king of the Heptarchy having taken place about the year 598, and that of the last about 686. Here then, was a space of two hundred years, during which the common law was in existence, and Christianity no part of it...that system of religion could not be a part of the common law, because they were not yet Christians...we may safely affirm (though contradicted by all the judges and writers on earth) that Christianity neither is, nor ever was a part of the common law." (letter to Thomas Cooper, 10 February 1814)

Today being the fourth anniversary of the first Swift Boat Liars for Bush advertisement that sunk John Kerry's 2004 campaign, Obama's campaign would be well advised to fight back harder against the foul Rovian smears emanating from the McCain camp. The airwaves are already being polluted with misinformation
(McCain's "canceled a visit with wounded troops" and "he's the biggest celebrity in the world" ads), Swift Boat liar Jerome Corsi is defiling bookstore shelves near you with an error-ridden anti-Obama screed, and our email inboxes have been under steady assault for months with tall tales of Obama being an unpatriotic Muslim socialist. Lori Robinson of FactCheck has written a great article about the (largely conservative) email chain letters with their "false, misleading, utterly bogus, and completely off-base claims:"

Snopes.com has been investigating e-mail and other urban legends since 1995, and the site's founders, Barbara and David Mikkelson, have written articles about 31 e-mails about Barack Obama and Hillary (and Bill) Clinton. Only two e-mails were completely accurate. While a handful had elements of truth in them or couldn't be verified, the vast majority were flat-out false.

Another writer who debunks rumor and lore is David Emery, author of About.com's Urban Legends page. He lists seven e-mails about Hillary Clinton and five about Barack Obama. His verdict: 12 false and misleading, 0 true.

We have yet to see e-mails about John McCain, and Emery notes a decidedly anti-Democrat tilt to the bulk of the e-mail chatter.

The GOP's minions are only getting warmed up for the campaign season, so here are some resources to help you separate truth from fiction:

Fact Check
FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting)
Fight the Smears
Media Matters
Snopes


update (11:16pm):
Over at Liberal Values, Ron Chusid quotes Obama responding to the GOP's distribution of tire pressure gauges as a mockery of his sensible suggestion to save gas by keeping our tires properly inflated:

"Now two points, one, they know they're lying about what my energy plan is, but the other thing is they're making fun of a step that every expert says would absolutely reduce our oil consumption by 3 to 4 percent. It's like these guys take pride in being ignorant."

Even better than Obama's response is Chusid's analysis:

Maybe the Republicans really do take pride in being ignorant. Just consider the types of things many of them think. Some still believe there was WMD in Iraq or that Saddam was involved in the 9/11 attack. Some are ignorant of science and believe that intelligent design or creationism is a valid alternative to evolution. Some also demonstrate their ignorance of science by believing that the scientific consensus on climate change can be ignored because they don't like the findings. Some are so ignorant of our own history that they are unaware of the intent of the founding fathers to create a secular government with separation of church and state. Some are so ignorant of economics that they really think that all tax cuts will pay for themselves and do not realize that this is just a con used by those who want to pay lower taxes at the time without regard for the fiscal consequences. The really ignorant ones believe all the conservative smears against Obama, just as they believed the Swift Boat Liars and other smears against John Kerry in 2004.

Obama really is on to something in this response. Without ignorance we couldn't even have the current Republican Party.

Today's GOP: proudly carrying the banner of anti-intellectualism.

Russian novelist and historian Alexander Solzhenitsyn has died at the age of 89. Although awarded the 1970 Nobel Prize in Literature, Solzhenitsyn did not receive his award until being charged with treason and exiled from the Soviet Union upon publication of his magnum opus The Gulag Archipelago several years later. Solzhenitsyn's undelivered 1970 lecture meditates on capital-A Art, with this wonderful passage:

It is we who shall die - art will remain. And shall we comprehend, even on the day of our destruction, all its facets and all its possibilities?

Not everything assumes a name. Some things lead beyond words. Art inflames even a frozen, darkened soul to a high spiritual experience. Through art we are sometimes visited - dimly, briefly - by revelations such as cannot be produced by rational thinking.

Like that little looking-glass from the fairy-tales: look into it and you will see - not yourself - but for one second, the Inaccessible, whither no man can ride, no man fly.

Sapphocrat has a spectacular (and I do not use that word lightly!) piece at Lavender Liberal (h/t: Buffy at Gaytheist Agenda) about the terrorist attack on the Unitarian church in Tennessee, and the Right's denials of culpability:

The right has already begun and will continue to claim that Adkisson is just a crazy nut, is not really a conservative (or is actually a liberal), that his stated motive of carrying out right-wing ideology means nothing, and that it is "inappropriate" to discuss politics in relation to such a heinous crime. But they are wrong on all counts. While Adkisson's money problems surely caused him to snap, it was the words of the right's loudest voices and brightest stars that gave him the justification for his rampage. [...]

Let's just call this what it is: the right wing openly, proudly, loudly, and repeatedly advocates violence against liberals and Democrats. In fact, they are paid millions to do it and are given national platforms to spread their message. You cannot say that liberals and Democrats actively and purposefully want to destroy the United States and equate them with Nazis, Al-Qaeda, and the Ku Klux Klan, then claim that you don't want them to get hurt.

Now the right will claim that it is the left that is hateful and violent and that the left is "just as bad" or worse. To that I say: Prove It.

There's much more to read in Sapphocrat's lengthy post; this excerpt is only one of many stellar passages. I highly recommend reading the whole thing.

Coulterism

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This paper on "Ann Coulter and the Problems of Pluralism" by Samuel Chambers and Alan Finlayson (h/t: Patrick Appel, subbing for Andrew Sullivan) defines Coulterism as "a distinct form of political-performance-action that exceeds the imagined rules of 'proper' public speech" and suggests that, despite being "one of the most important political developments of our time," it nonetheless "tends to be too easily dismissed by liberals:"

Furthermore, we contend...that Coulter and her ilk in fact succeed in a political critique of mainstream political liberalism in America and that the failure of liberalism to recognise this fact lies at the heart of many of its problems - be they conceptual, electoral, ideological or governmental.

How is Coulterism's critique to be considered a success? Indeed, in what respects does it actually function as a critique? Chambers and Finlayson answer obliquely later in the piece:

Every time a Coulterist remark causes outrage or anger, every time it succeeds in causing offence and every time it garners the accusation of having 'gone too far' [...] this reaction provides evidence not of the failure but of the success of the Coulterist polemic. For it shows that the polemic has effectively put into question what had previously seemed settled and habitual.

This is less a substantive critique of liberalism than a deliberate effort to continue moving the Overton window further to the right. This is borne out by the authors' later observation that "The genius, if we may call it that, of Coulterism is that in playing the political game in this way it extends and rewrites the rules to trap those who most believe in them." Chambers and Finlayson also write that:

"it is not only extremely easy but also terribly tempting to dismiss Coulter as a minor media-made irritant, a flaky extremist or just another pundit. And Coulter has, of course, been accused of deliberate distortion, selective misquoting and outright falsification (Franken 2003). But all five of her books, from her 1989 indictment of Bill Clinton through to Godless, have topped the New York Times' best-seller list."

This is a non-sequitur. The sales figures for Coulter's books have nothing to do with her numerous distortions, misquotations, and falsifications (which are quite solidly proven, and not just by comedians). Pretending that they do is a way of side-stepping the issue, or--even worse--pretending that that the facts don't matter if a book sells well enough. Chambers and Finlayson prefer to focus on Coulter's style rather than her (lack of) substance:

While liberal theory is preoccupied with rational deliberation and the ultimate neutrality of justice, Coulterism speaks in angry, aggressive, mocking and emotive terms - all the while rejecting any pretence of neutrality. Coulterism remains gleefully, fiercely partisan while denouncing liberals as the partisan ones. And this is not simply - or certainly not only - an irrational challenge to liberalism.

It is this inversion of reality that we liberals find so difficult to comprehend--the politically powerful posing as the powerless, the economic elites pretending to be populists, the media mavens complaining of censorship. As a liberal, I have no qualms about "giving up on a normative pre-judgement of Coulterism as clearly 'out of bounds' or simply 'wrong' in a moral sense," although it would greatly trouble me to give up basic rules of non-contradictory argumentation and truthfulness. Issues of decorum can be easily dealt with, but offenses against rationality itself are more problematic.

I don't despise Coulter because she's abrasive or offensive--that's her shtick, after all--but because she's full of shit. As the authors write, "Coulter wants a dirty fight; perhaps we should respect her wishes." I believe that I've already done so; see here and here for the most recent examples.

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