December 2009 Archives

Good magazine has a nice infographic on "The Biggest News Stories of the Year:"


(The fact that it reminds me of NewsMap is immaterial...)

In a further look at this year's news, MediaMatters honored Fox's Glenn Beck as their "Media Misinformer for the Year," and Sarah Palin earned PolitiFact's "Lie of the Year" award for her "death panels" fabrication.

Maybe the media will resolve to be less susceptible to right-wing BS in the new year...


Tanenhaus, Sam. Whittaker Chambers: A Biography (New York: Random House, 1997)

One problem I had with reading the Whittaker Chambers' autobiography Witness (1952) was the depth of the closet from which he wrote; the Sam Tanenhaus biography Whittaker Chambers (1997) remedies Chambers' reticence. Early on, Tanenhaus acknowledges the bisexuality of both Whittaker Chambers and his father Jay:

It was many years before [Whittaker Chambers] realized the origins of [his mother's] frustration and rage. [His father] Jay Chambers was bisexual. But even as a child [Whittaker] had grasped that his father's life was divided into "separate compartments." So would the son's be, with far greater complexity. (p. 7)

Tanenhaus examines Chambers' bisexuality in as open a manner as could have been done, I suppose, although I still wish he had tied it back to the omissions in Witness that I mentioned previously. Tanenhaus writes that "Chambers's sexuality had become a new and troubling question for him" after adolescence:

He seems to have begun his affairs with women as a means of overcoming an attraction to men. He confided his secret to [Henry] Zolinsky, who was surprised. [...] Chambers himself barely understood it. He was shocked when he heard friends whispering about his "homosexual relationship" with Henry Bang's younger brother, Bub, seven years Chambers's junior. (p. 40)

The feelings Chambers had for Bub Bang may not have been requited or consummated, but the situation was indeed worthy of a few raised eyebrows. Chambers vacationed with Bang (pp. 53-54) and paid his college tuition (p. 63), but this episode is particularly intriguing:

Chambers insisted Bub Bang move in [with him and Gertrude Hutchinson] as well. [...] The quarters were close--two rooms plus kitchen--and stimulating, at least for Chambers, who ruled this tight roost. He proposed that Bub acquire sexual experience by sharing the favors of Hutchinson, who consented reluctantly, no doubt aware her body had become the means by which her two roommates consummated their passion for each other. The situation grew "rather intolerable and tense," and Chambers finally ended it and the "marriage" in 1929. (p. 61)

Chambers, however, disingenuously dismissed the gay rumors when they surfaced during the trial:

What about the talk of "something strange" in Chambers's relationship with Hiss--that is, that one or both were homosexual? "I know all of those stories," Chambers said. "There is just nothing to them." (p. 244, to Bert Andrews, Washington bureau chief of the Herald-Tribune)

Later, however, he revealed the truth to the FBI. Here he described his first homosexual experience, in 1933 or 1934:

"It was a revelation to me. As a matter of fact it set off a chain reaction in me which was almost impossible to control. [...] Since that time, and continuing up to the year 1938, I engaged in numerous homosexual activities both in New York and Washington, D.C. At first I would engage in these activities whenever by accident the opportunity presented itself.

However, after a while the desire became greater and I actively sought out the opportunities for homosexual relationships. [...] I never had a prolonged affair with any one man..." (p. 344, to the Baltimore FBI, 17 February 1949)

Chambers' early homoerotic poetry attracted some attention, with "Tandaradei" being read at trial. Michael Kimage observes in The Conservative Turn: Lionel Trilling, Whittaker Chambers, and the Lessons of Anti-Communism (Boston: Harvard University Press, 2009) that "[t]he question of Chambers's homosexuality is complicated by an extreme thinness of documentary evidence. The existing evidence consists almost exclusively of Chambers's own homoerotic poetry and a brief FBI statement." (p. 321)

In addition to sexuality, I also read the Tanenhaus biography with an eye toward the final decade of Chambers' life. There are some insights here into his relationship with the young Bill Buckley and his columns for National Review, but I suppose I'll have to read Ghosts on the Roof: Selected Journalism of Whittaker Chambers, 1931-1959 and Notes from the Underground: The Whittaker Chambers/Ralph de Toledano Letters, 1949-1960 to get a fuller picture of the position Chambers occupied in the nascent conservative movement of the Fifties. Tanenhaus notes how the Hiss/Chambers case kicked McCarthy's Red Scare into overdrive:

On February 9, fifteen days after Hiss was sentenced...Joseph McCarthy, addressing the Ohio County Women's Republican Club of Wheeling, West Virginia, declared that as many as 205 known Communists "are still working and shaping the policy of the State Department."

So began the most destructive chapter in modern American political life. (p. 439)

The author was no fan of McCarthy, writing that he "moved in a world of blissful ignorance" and "knew nothing about communism as an ideology, a movement, or a party." (p. 454) Later, Tanenhaus noted the failures at the end of that paranoid era:

McCarthy's five-year rampage failed to produce a single certifiable Red. To the senator--and many of his followers--it scarcely mattered, as long as there remained a sufficient supply of liberals to smear. (p. 455)

Chambers himself played no small part in that psychodrama, smearing communists, atheists, and liberals with his writings both at Time and in his autobiography. In this context, his credibility-straining claim that he "had only the vaguest impression of the [House] Committee as a whole" before becoming its most famous witness:

I never read the reports it issued from time to time, and which occasionally reached my desk at Time. I almost never read a news story about it. I am a selective reader of the press, and among news I seldom read was crimes, disasters, scandals, the U.N., and news about the House Committee on Un-Americans Activities. (Witness, p. 536)

fails to convince. Tanenhaus is, on balance, far more even-handed and comprehensive--one reason why this biography garnered such significant praise. As one who knew Chambers during his Time years, Arthur Schlesinger writes in "The Truest Believer" (New York Times) that "Mr. Tanenhaus' biography goes as far as one can reasonably expect in unraveling the puzzle." In "The Great Pumpkin" from The Nation, Elinor Langer writes that Tananhaus' biography is "an honest and indispensible book...written in a clear, unpretentious prose that makes it a pleasure to read" but quibbles with his elisions and emphases. "The Authority of Witness" (Sewanee Review) provides many examples of Tanenhaus' over-deferential attitude toward Chambers as a source:

Tanenhaus does not distinguish between his own authority and that of Chambers. Over and over again Tanenhaus reports as undisputed fact interpretations and incidents (sometimes startlingly bizarre) for which the sole or chief authority is Whittaker Chambers.

The murky nature of the Hiss/Chambers case will likely persist, given such evidentiary problems. Tanenhaus, however, is to be commended for illuminating at least some of Chambers' secrets.

This image comparing healthcare costs and life expectancy in various nations (from National Geographic) is definitely worth a thousand words (h/t: Jason Kottke):


update (1/4 @ 9:44am):
Andrew Gelman posted an alternate visualization of the data set at 538:


No matter how you look at it, we're an outlier...

Time's article on running, "Is Running Bad for Your Knees? Maybe Not," (h/t: Runner's World Peak Performance) talks about some study results on osteoarthritis in runners:

Perhaps because it seems intuitively true, the notion persists that running, especially when done long-term and over long distances, is bad for the joints. [...] But over the past few years an emerging body of research has begun to show the opposite, especially when it comes to running. Not only is there no connection between running and arthritis, the new studies say, but running -- and perhaps regular, vigorous exercise generally -- may even help protect people from joint problems later on.

Some studies even show that "the runners' knees were no more or less healthy than the non-runners' knees," irrespective of mileage:

"We have runners who average 200 miles a year and others who average 2,000 miles a year. Their joints are the same," says James Fries, an emeritus professor of medicine at Stanford, and leader of the research group. The study further concluded that runners experienced less physical disability, and had a 39% lower mortality rate than the non-runners.

In 2007, a nine-year study of 1,279 elderly residents of Framingham, Mass., found similar results: that the most active people had the same risk of arthritis as the least active... [...] And in the same year, Australian researchers writing in the journal Arthritis and Rheumatism found that people who exercised vigorously had thicker and healthier knee cartilage compared with their sedentary peers. That suggests the exercisers may have also enjoyed a lower risk of osteoarthritis, which is caused by breakdown and loss of cartilage.

Aside from its insistence on "appropriate footwear"--is none an appropriate choice?--the web-only Running Times article "Running and Arthritis" is a good piece that covers similar ground:

In her practice, Leisz [Marie-Christine Leisz MD, medical director of the Running and Endurance Sports Injury Clinic in Minnesota] is frequently faced with the question about running and bad knees. "People are always asking, 'Am I going to end up needing knee replacements if I run?'" she says. "I want to reassure the seasoned veterans out there. Now the consensus is, no, we don't think so." Rather, the major risk factors for developing OA appear to be obesity, prior traumatic joint injury, and heavy manual labor. In fact, says Leisz, "for those who do not have those risk factors, running may be protective."

That's the kind of news that can put a smile on a runner's face!

Xmas humor

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This stocking-stuffer made me do a double-take:


My first reaction was to ask "You got me a Jesus Pez dispenser?" and start loading it with candy.

When I started in on my "Take, eat, this is my Pez" routine[*], someone said "I think that's supposed to be Obi-Wan Kenobi!"

True, yes...but so much less amusing.

[* See Matthew 26:26 and Mark 14:22]

Continuing my series of posts on non-traditional December holidays, today is Festivus! (You can check out the Festivus website, Wikipedia, or this First-Timer's Guide at Craft for more information.) Here's a YouTube clip from the Seinfeld episode that introduced Festivus to the world:

May your Festivus miracles be numerous, your grievances well-aired, and your feats of strength victorious!

holiday celebrations

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Greta Christina's "7 Reasons for Atheists to Celebrate the Holidays" is as well-written and insightful as the rest of her writings. She's an atheist who doesn't mind the traditional aspects of Christmas--the comfort and connection, the music and presents--but adds a recent favorite to her list:

#4: The War on the War on Christmas.

Watching Bill O'Reilly and the Christian Right work themselves into an annual lather over the fact that (a) not everyone in America celebrates Christmas; and (b) some well-mannered businesses choose to recognize this fact by using ecumenical or secular holiday some of the best free entertainment we could ask for.

Sure, it's theocratic. Sure, it's bigoted. Sure, it has its roots in anti-Semitism and white supremacy. But it's also freaking hilarious. Watching these hypocrites twist themselves into knots explaining why America is a Christian nation and it's the grossest insult to acknowledge the existence of other religions by saying "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas"... and why this stance somehow isn't shameless religious bigotry? It's the best contortionist act in town. And like the circus, it comes around every year.

To demonstrate my bona fides as a pro-holiday atheist, here's a holiday tree photo:


One Martha Stewart gold ribbon and two MS brown-glitter ornaments: A few bucks.

One wooden clothespin: Even less.

One pair of eyes from a Potato Head figure: Serendipity.

Questions about the Flying Spaghetti Monster atop the tree: Priceless.

Fellow Pastafarians can see some noodly-good ornaments here, and some other decorated trees here and here. (If FSM doesn't suit your holiday spirit, there's always the Invisible Pink Unicorn...)

Christianists will complain that, like Kwanzaa, these things are all "invented" and therefore invalid--completely missing the point that every holiday is an invented one. The modern era at least allows us some latitude in choosing to celebrate the holiday that best suits us, rather than being compelled to observe whichever one is dominant in our particular nation or neighborhood.

The Winter Solstice has arrived! During this dark and cold time, we know that light and warmth will return--let us rejoice!


update (1:59pm):
Hemant (Friendly Atheist) Mehta passes along a great Solstice sign from the Triangle Freethought Society:



Chambers, Whittaker. Witness (New York: Random House, 1952)

I've previously commented on the foreword to Whittaker Chamber's famous (or infamous, if you prefer) autobiography Witness. Susan Jacoby's Alger Hiss and the Battle for History prompted me to look deeper into the Hiss/Chambers case that epitomized the mid-century Red Scare, and Witness was at the top of the stack.

Witness is much more than a recollection of the Hiss/Chambers case--it is an autobiography of exceeding interest despite its sometimes-excessive detail. Various formative traumas in Chambers' early life (his parents' painful relationship, the suicide of his brother, the death of his father, and his disturbed grandmother) help to illuminate his character, but the mind-numbing minutiae of his Communist Party intrigues make me feel as if this 800-page book could be shorter by half without omitting anything of importance.

His writing is frequently praised--and justly so--although Chambers does not demonstrate much capacity for editing his own work. He describes at length a post-HS stint at manual labor on the railroads, an aborted education of Columbia, and his life as a Communist. His employment at the communist newspapers Daily Worker and New Masses led to him spending several years underground. The narrative then slows to a crawl as Chambers recounts the endless pseudonyms and deceptions en route to his membership in the Ware Group--where he met Alger Hiss, a rising star in the State Department.

Interestingly, Chambers concluded that the information allegedly provided by Hiss and others in the Ware Group was worthless:

I concluded that political espionage was a magnificent waste of time and effort--not because the sources were holding back; they were pathetically eager to help--but because the secrets of foreign offices are notoriously overrated. There was little about political espionage, it seemed to me, that an intelligent man, who knew the forces, factors and general direction of history in our time, could not arrive at by using political imagination, backed by a careful study of the available legitimate facts. (p. 426)

Disillusioned by Stalin's Great Purge and the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with Nazi Germany, Chambers eventually broke with the Communist Party. In Witness, Chambers calls the Communist Party "a terrorist organization," (pp. 65-66) writes that Communism is "absolutely evil," (p. 79) and opines that, through Stalin, "it found its supremely logical manifestation:"

The important point was not the character of Stalin, but the character of Communism, which, with an intuitive grasp that was at once the source of his strength and his mandate to power, Stalin was carrying to its inevitable development as the greatest of fascist forms. (pp. 248-249)

When a comrade suggested that the Kronstadt Rebellion changed Soviet communism "from benevolent socialism to malignant fascism," Chambers continued to conflate Communism and Fascism:

The fascist character of Communism was inherent in it from the beginning. Kronstadt changed the fate of millions of Russians. It changed nothing about Communism. It merely disclosed its character. (p. 460)

He did the same thing in "The Revolt of the Intellectuals," writing that "Lenin was the first fascist" and that the communists were "the party from which the Nazis had borrowed all their important methods and ideas." His ideological ire in Witness crescendoed from a claim that "Communism exists to wage war" (p. 454) to this climax:

Americans...are at grips with a secret, sinister and enormously powerful force whose tireless purpose is their enslavement. (p. 542)

At the time in question, however (September 1936 to April 1938, p. 441), the Americans and Soviets were not enemies. In fact, we've never waged war against Russia, except when we assisted an invasion of their country during their civil war. (I'm guessing that not many Americans know about that...)

Amid some irrelevant details (the make and model of his farm equipment; the breeds of his cattle, pigs, and sheep; which grains he planted on each of his three farms) the latter half of the book is of more consistent interest. The transcripts of his testimony--and that of Alger Hiss--are well selected, illuminating both history and its actors. Chambers' professed reticence at destroying Hiss' reputation (although Hiss did pretty well on that score all by himself) surprised me:

I could not separate the acts that I had felt that I must perform from my repugnance at having to perform them. What I had done I had done from a necessity that I could not evade, and I had done it most reluctantly. (p. 773)

The famed Case is what engenders Chambers' profoundest insights, and his deepest indignations:

Sooner or later in this book, I must unavoidably take note of the slanders which at one time or another, as best suited their purposes, the Hiss forces have spread about my relations with every member of the Hiss household. Those slanders were part of an international whispering campaign, probably originated and spread by the Communist Party and made deafening by certain commentators and public figures. (p. 374)

It takes him three hundred more pages to return to the subject, writing that "the charge of insanity, and the whispering campaign that was linked to it, was the heart of the Hiss defense." (p. 690) Later, Chambers writes:

It was late in the Hiss case before any friend summoned the courage to tell me the slander in which the Hiss partisans had involved me with my brother--a story so inconceivable that it seemed to me that only a mind deformed by something more than malevolence could have erected it. I said only to the woman who told me: "What kind of beasts am I dealing with?" The fact that men and women could be found to credit and spread a lie so disgusting and so cruel remains the measure of the Hiss defense and the pro-Hiss psychosis. (p. 733)

To what slander is Chambers referring? Negligence? Murder? Incest? He doesn't say. His lifelong habits of evasion and omission appear to have rendered a full and complete accounting of these details beyond his ability. I had wondered previously if the talk of "slanders" was about to lead into a discussion of Chambers' sexuality--but I was wrong. The jacket flap's claim that "In this book you meet a man who does not hesitate to bear witness first of all against himself, disclosing facts that men commonly conceal" falls short in one area: Chambers' bisexuality. He mentions molestation once:

In the boarding house, there was a good deal of drinking, and I could not help but overhear, and hear about, things that cannot be mentioned. But nobody ever molested me. (p. 157)

and homosexuality once,

...under the fiction of unity, the factions fought fiercely and shamelessly. Each sought to gain control by any means of the party press and all the units of the party organization. Each circulated secret mimeographed attacks on the other or promoted scandals whispering campaigns, in which embezzlement of party money, homosexuality and stool pigeon were the preferred whispers. (p. 206)

but otherwise leaves the subject untouched despite its clear relevance to his life. One wonders if, in an era less consumed with the closet, Chambers would have been an openly gay man--perhaps even a member of the Log Cabin Republicans--or whether his religious fervor would have prevented such an honest course of action. The religiosity that made the Foreword such a chore to read is almost absent from the body of the book, except for a few paeans to Quakerism and some passages like this:

"...the conflict between the two great camps of men--those who reject and those who worship God--becomes irrepressible." (p. 449)

"I could never be a complete man without God." (p. 489)

Other remarks like "...all men simply pray" (p. 446) and "In the end, the only memorable stories, like the only memorable experiences, are religious and moral." (p. 450) assume that his personal desire for religion is a universal need.

Despite its faults, Witness is still an important book. One doesn't have to be a rabid wingnut to appreciate the first-hand account of a major actor in twentieth-century America--even accounting for the text's biases and omissions. This book demanded a substantial amount of supplemental reading, of which the following is a selection:

Alger Hiss (Wikipedia, Conservapedia)
Whittaker Chambers (Wikipedia, Conservapedia)

(Due to many errors stemming from a severe ideological bias, Conservapedia should not be used as a reference source. For example, their claims that Hiss "fabricated stories about Chambers having homosexual experiences" and that Chambers "was sent to Moscow for intelligence training" are easily disprovable. I link to the site both as an indication of the wingnut antipathy for factual accuracy and their homophobic denialism.)

Daniel Mahoney's "Whittaker Chambers: Witness to the Crisis of the Modern Soul" (Intercollegiate Review, Spring 2002) is largely split between discussions of the Foreword (about which I've already written) and Chambers' fragmentary book Cold Friday (which I have yet to read). I'm intrigued by his assertion that "it is the duty of keep pointing out why the Enlightenment and its faults were a wrong turning point in man's history," as that offers an insight into his apocalyptic religiosity.

The Alger Hiss Story

personal reminiscences:
Ralph de Toledano "I Witness" (American Conservative, 14 February 2005)
William Buckley "Witness and Friends" (National Review, 6 August 2001)

contemporary reviews:
Saturday Review called Witness "one of the longest works of fiction of the year," and Time quoted from a number of equally harsh assessments.

Chambers' gay liaisons:
There's a summary of the Hiss/Chambers case at GLBTQ, and UK's Out magazine reprinted an AP article asking if Hiss was the "Victim of Unrequited Gay Love." The AP piece quotes Alger Hiss' stepson Timothy Hobson as suggesting that Chambers' romantic inclinations may have influenced the case:

"It is my conviction that he was in love with Alger Hiss, that he was rejected by Alger Hiss and he took that rejection in a vindictive way."

The Villager mentions a "gay debate" at NYU's "Alger Hiss and History" conference, which led me to the Timothy Naftali paper "Alger Hiss and the Chambers' Secrets." The Naftali transcription misidentifies Chambers' youthful paramour Bub Bang as "Bumps Baine," illustrating one kind of stumbling block for online researchers that depend on correct spelling.

cosmic calendar

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Thanks to Timothy (Friendly Humanist) Mills for putting together a Google Calendar version of Carl Sagan's Cosmic Calendar. It's a great dramatic device, as it maps the 13.7-billion-year history of the universe onto our familiar 365-day calendar.

From the Cambrian Explosion (540 million years ago, on 17 December) to the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve, the last two weeks of the year are quite busy--especially once we reach written history, which occupies the last minute before midnight. If you're looking for a delightfully geeky way to secularize the traditionally religious December holiday season, you could do much worse than celebrate a few Cosmic Calendar holidays.

awesome videos

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The American Museum of Natural History has a video entitled "The Known Universe" (h/t: Jason Kottke) for which I have trouble finding a dramatic enough adjective--so I suppose that awesome will have to suffice:

It reminds me of one of my favorite film sequences, the opening to Carl Sagan's Contact:


Every time.


Long-time readers of this blog are no doubt aware of my deep love of libraries (historic, home, public, and Google), so it should surprise no one that the experience of reading a text (or of listening to music, which I'll get to later) is something about which I ponder as we move further into the digital age. Wilson Quarterly's multi-article feature on "The Future of the Book" from their Autumn 2009 issue has several articles on the subject. Christine Rosen's "In the Beginning Was the Word" and Tyler Cowen's "Three Tweets for the Web" are interesting, but "The Battle of the Books" by Alex Wright has this wonderful line:

"A hundred years after Gutenberg, only a relative handful of people had seen a printed book. Yet a mere 20 years after Tim Berners-Lee invented the Web, more than a billion people have used a Web browser." (p. 64)

The potential of technology to transform the reader's relationship to texts is obvious enough, but Rebecca Rosen's sidebar "This Is Your Brain on the Web" approvingly quotes historian Marshall Poe's observation that "A book is a machine for focusing attention; the Internet is machine for diffusing it." While it's easy to blame the hyperlink-happy Internet for its users' attention problems, books have their own mechanisms for diffusing attention. Bibliographies, indices, appendices--not to mention footnotes and endnotes--all lead readers away from the original texts and toward others; hyperlinks merely deliver the results more immediately.

The immediacy of book-buying is made easier by various e-book devices, but not without detractors. Benjamin Dangl explain "Why I'll Never Buy a Kindle" at AlterNet, writing that "a lot of book-readers, myself included, enjoy the smell and palpable history of a book from a library or used bookstore:"

There is something comforting about the shared experience of reading a physical book many others have read, and will read in the future. I like the story of a used book - a folded page, the markings on the margins, the hints at its past. Sure, sometimes they smell like cigarette smoke, but they can also smell like the places they've been, whether it's a dusty old used bookstore or the tropical funk of Asunción, Paraguay. You can't share a Kindle book and so history doesn't cling to it the same way.

Alan Kaufman hyperventilates at HuffPo, calling the Kindle "A Concentration Camp of Ideas:"

Today's hi-tech propagandists tell us that the book is a tree-murdering, space-devouring, inferior form that society would be better off without. In its place, they want us to carry around the Uber-Kindle.

The hi-tech campaign to relocate books to Google and replace books with Kindles is, in its essence, a deportation of the literary culture to a kind of easily monitored concentration camp of ideas, where every examination of a text leaves behind a trail, a record, so that curiosity is also tinged with a sense of disquieting fear that some day someone in authority will know that one had read a particular book or essay. This death of intellectual privacy was also a dream of the Nazis. And when I hear the term Kindle, I think not of imaginations fired but of crematoria lit.

Technology's effect on the experience of music listening is somewhat similar. A friend pointed me toward this Boston Globe piece on music collectors, where Jeremy Eichler writes "I've been thinking not only about the virtues of high-tech listening but also about what's been lost in our headlong sprint into the digital future:"

This is not a Luddite's lament, or a cri de coeur about the significantly reduced audio quality of those compressed MP3 files. I love having more music at arm's reach than ever before, I love taking it with me wherever I go. But I do find myself wondering why, exactly, collecting music now means so much less.

Divorced from the physical object, collecting should mean less; listening, however, means as much as ever. Although it is "extremely hard to fetishize an MP3" in comparison to older (and more physically imposing) media, the downside to digitization is that "A digital file that lives on our computer is immaterial and deracinated, shorn of context, not to mention liner notes:"

The personal aspects loom large for many collectors, and a home library becomes a kind of autobiography, an index of one's quirks, passions, and adventures. [...]

Yet it is not only the object itself, but also the process of bringing it into our lives that has changed. For a real collector, the hunt to find an object can at once take on the dimensions of sport, art, and life's quest. Even a casual music lover can appreciate the feeling of working hard to track down a particular recording, thumbing through the bins, or scouring the holdings of used-music stores.

That is certainly true in my case, the most memorable being a lengthy quest for a recording of Shostakovich's "Novorossiisk Chimes." After finally locating a copy, my hour-long drive home (in a CD-less car) seemed interminable; my pleasure at shaking the walls when first listening to it was that much sweeter by the contrast with the preceding silence. Is our experience of texts and music tied to their media, or merely temporarily anchored by them? Will we value that experience as highly as we move toward constant accessibility?

I'm still not sure.

restoring history

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The story of those millions of thought-missing-but-now-recovered Bush-era emails (see here and here for the backstory) is told here at Mother Jones. Nick Baumann writes, "Some of the recovered messages could potentially shed light on controversies such as the lead-up to the Iraq war and the leak of Valerie Plame Wilson's covert CIA identity:"

In perhaps the biggest win for the plaintiffs, the restoration effort will not be limited solely to the records that were the subject of the lawsuit. The Obama administration has offered to recover presidential records--including those from the office of former Vice President Dick Cheney--that the court had ruled the plaintiffs had no legal standing to sue over.


The White House has agreed to continue to hand over documents detailing archiving problems during the Bush administration. The settlement also includes an agreement to release a joint document outlining the email archiving steps the Obama administration has taken to ensure that it won't repeat the Bush administration's mistakes.

The Bush administration's archiving mistakes might appear minor, but not if they shed shed some long-overdue light on more of their high crimes and misdemeanors. The press release from co-plaintiff CREW states that "Documents produced so far show the Bush White House was lying when officials claimed no emails were ever missing. The record now proves incontrovertibly that Bush administration officials deliberately ignored the problem and, in fact, knowingly allowed it to worsen:"

Melanie Sloan, CREW's Executive Director, said, "We may never know exactly what happened to all the missing emails, and which Bush administration officials were involved in the coverup, but we do know the American public never got the full story." [...] Sloan continued, "The Obama administration, which inherited the lawsuits and the dysfunctional White House email system, has done a terrific job straightening out the mess. Thanks to the Obama White House, a critical part of our nation's missing history will be restored. This is yet another example of the administration living up to its promise of accountability and transparency."

Much more, however, remains to be done.

criticizing Taibbi

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Over at American Prospect, Tim Fernholz lists "The Errors of Matt Taibbi" from Taibbi's RS article on Obama selling out. In "Blame Obama First" at ThinkProgress, Matt Yglesias has some thoughts on Taibbi's piece, writing that it "claim[s] everything in the world would be great if only Barack Obama were more left-wing" and "suffers from the same basic conceptual flaw as the vast majority of this literature--it ignores congress." Barefoot Bum notes that Yglesias' critique misses the point:

The point is not that things would be rainbows and unicorns if Obama were more left-wing. The point is that neither Obama nor the Democratic party are putting up a fight against reactionary and obstructionist members of congress. On the one hand, politics is the art of the possible; on the other hand, you don't know what's not presently possible until you try to fight for it and lose.

Galt's Gulch, defined

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Paul Krugman's "Disaster and Denial" makes the brutal observation that in our current economic crisis "you might have expected the emergence of a national consensus in favor of restoring more-effective financial regulation, so as to avoid a repeat performance. But you would have been wrong:"

Talk to conservatives about the financial crisis and you enter an alternative, bizarro universe in which government bureaucrats, not greedy bankers, caused the meltdown. It's a universe in which government-sponsored lending agencies triggered the crisis, even though private lenders actually made the vast majority of subprime loans. It's a universe in which regulators coerced bankers into making loans to unqualified borrowers, even though only one of the top 25 subprime lenders was subject to the regulations in question.

Oh, and conservatives simply ignore the catastrophe in commercial real estate: in their universe the only bad loans were those made to poor people and members of minority groups, because bad loans to developers of shopping malls and office towers don't fit the narrative.

John Cole comments at Balloon Juice that Krugman has defined that most elusive of wingnut utpoias, Galt's Gulch:

It is a magical place where global warming solves itself, the only thing health care reform needs is more deregulation, if the government would just get out of the way, Wall Street would self correct, and you get to eat Freedom Fries with every meal and never gain weight.

For all those who dismiss Krugman because he's a "Bush-hater," or regulations as bad because they're proposed by Democrats--or any idea as "socialist" because it's suggested by Obama--I offer these words as my Quote of the Day (h/t: Ed Brayton at Dispatches from the Culture Wars):

Suppose I think, after doing my accounts, that I have a large balance at the bank. And suppose you want to find out whether this belief of mine is "wishful thinking." You can never come to any conclusion by examining my psychological condition. Your only chance of finding out is to sit down and work through the sum yourself. When you have checked my figures, then, and then only, will you know whether I have that balance or not. If you find my arithmetic correct, then no amount of vapouring about my psychological condition can be anything but a waste of time. If you find my arithmetic wrong, then it may be relevant to explain psychologically how I came to be so bad at my arithmetic, and the doctrine of the concealed wish will become relevant - but only after you have yourself done the sum and discovered me to be wrong on purely arithmetical grounds. [...] In other words, you must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong.

(C.S. Lewis, "Bulverism")

The History Channel's "The People Speak: Democracy Is Not a Spectator Sport" will air tonight at 8PM, with actors dramatizing the words of American dissidents such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Frederick Douglass, Eugene Debs, and Martin Luther King Jr.

Using Howard Zinn's acclaimed Voices of a People's History of the United States (itself a companion to his magnum opus A People's History of the United States) as its source, and you can read more about it here. As noted by Dave Zirin at HuffPo, some people are opposed to the idea of dramatizing America's progressive history:

Certainly the lunatic right will howl to the heavens after seeing "liberal Hollywood" perform the words of labor radicals, anti-racists, feminists, and socialists. In fact, aided by the craven Matt Drudge, they are already in full froth, campaigning online to get the History Channel to drop The People Speak before its air-date. If it weren't so contemptible, their actions would be almost quaint, like a virtual book burning.

But beneath the bombast, their hostile aversion "a people's history" speaks volumes about why we need to support this project. This is a country dedicated to historical amnesia. Our radical past holds dangers for both those in power and those threatened by progressive change. We need to rescue the great battles for social justice from becoming either co-opted or simply erased from the history books.

Matt Taibbi writes in his latest Rolling Stone piece "Obama's Big Sellout" that "What's taken place in the year since Obama won the presidency has turned out to be one of the most dramatic political about-faces in our history:"

Elected in the midst of a crushing economic crisis brought on by a decade of orgiastic deregulation and unchecked greed, Obama had a clear mandate to rein in Wall Street and remake the entire structure of the American economy. What he did instead was ship even his most marginally progressive campaign advisers off to various bureaucratic Siberias, while packing the key economic positions in his White House with the very people who caused the crisis in the first place. This new team of bubble-fattened ex-bankers and laissez-faire intellectuals then proceeded to sell us all out, instituting a massive, trickle-up bailout and systematically gutting regulatory reform from the inside.

Robert Rubin comes in for special opprobrium from Taibbi, who calls him "perhaps more responsible for last year's crash than any other single living person"--due to his work repealing Glass-Steagall and deregulating derivatives--and writes that Rubin is "an unapologetic arch-capitalist demagogue whose very career is proof that a free-market meritocracy is a myth:"

Much like Alan Greenspan, a staggeringly incompetent economic forecaster who was worshipped by four decades of politicians because he once dated Barbara Walters, Rubin has been held in awe by the American political elite for nearly 20 years despite having fucked up virtually every project he ever got his hands on.

In this respect, Rubin is like the other "callous millionaire-assholes" on Obama's economic team, who have "absolutely zero interest in reforming the gamed system that made them rich in the first place...Obama and his team of Rubinites have done almost nothing to reform the warped financial system responsible for imploding the global economy in the first place:"

What's most troubling is that we don't know if Obama has changed, or if the influence of Wall Street is simply a fundamental and ineradicable element of our electoral system. What we do know is that Barack Obama pulled a bait-and-switch on us. If it were any other politician, we wouldn't be surprised. Maybe it's our fault, for thinking he was different.

Scarcely less acerbic is Taibbi's remark that "Finance reform has become to Obama what Iraq War coffins were to Bush: something to be tucked safely out of sight," although this rings less true in light of Obama's weekly address praising a bill that "address[es] the irresponsibility and recklessness that got us into this mess in the first place:"

Some of it was the result of an era of easy credit, when millions of Americans borrowed beyond their means, bought homes they couldn't afford, and assumed that housing prices would always rise and the day of reckoning would never come.

But much of it was due to the irresponsibility of large financial institutions on Wall Street that gambled on risky loans and complex financial products, seeking short-term profits and big bonuses with little regard for long-term consequences. It was, as some have put it, risk management without the management. And their actions, in the absence of strong oversight, intensified the cycle of bubble-and-bust and led to a financial crisis that threatened to bring down the entire economy.

Although the NYT reported that the House bill would "create an agency to protect consumers from abusive lending practices, set rules for the trading of some of the sophisticated financial instruments that fueled the crisis, and take steps to reduce the threat that the failure of one or two huge banks or investment firms could topple the entire economy," they also urged caution:

Whether all of those measures will become law, however, is uncertain because the Obama administration wants certain revisions and the Senate will not take up its version of the legislation until next year.

Such a scenario certainly leaves plenty of time for status-quo selling-out-to-the-bankers to be nonsensically referred to as "socialism" throughout the "liberal" media--reading from the same plutocrat-friendly script, regardless of which elected officials are selling out to which special interests.

According to the NYT, I'm sad to report that the lackluster economy has placed the ACLU in financial trouble:

A longtime anonymous donor to the American Civil Liberties Union has withdrawn his annual gift of more than $20 million, punching a 25 percent hole in its annual operating budget and forcing cutbacks in operations.

ACLU executive director Anthony Romero reported that even though other large donors have stepped in to help, "we may still not have sufficient resources to replace our revenue gap. Therefore we will need to consider a number of budget reductions as well as the possibility of drawing down from our reserve funds if necessary."


If you are able to, please consider donating to the ACLU. Cutbacks in their work would have been disastrous under the worst of administrations; such a situation would be dangerous even under the best. As noted by Glenn Greenwald, "It is not hyperbole to say that, over the past decade, there has been no organization more important to the United States, the Constitution, and basic political liberties than the ACLU:"

From the start of the Bush/Cheney assault on core civil liberties -- when most organizations and individuals were petrified of opposing any efforts justified by "terrorism" -- the ACLU was one of a small handful of groups which defied that climate of fear by vigorously and fearlessly opposing those erosions. Along with that same small handful of civil liberties and human rights groups, the ACLU since then has been at the center of virtually every fight against government incursions into basic rights. They defend core Constitutional principles regardless of party or ideology, and they continue to lead this fight even now that Bush is gone from office.

Chris Hedges' "Liberals Are Useless" piece at TruthDig somewhat parallels the complaints on the Right from people like Andrew Sullivan, although not from a policy standpoint. Hedges excoriates liberal groups like Progressives for Obama, stating that they "make political satire obsolete:"

Obama was and is a brand. He is a product of the Chicago political machine. He has been skillfully packaged as the new face of the corporate state. I don't dislike Obama--I would much rather listen to him than his smug and venal predecessor--though I expected nothing but a continuation of the corporate rape of the country. And that is what he has delivered.

Hedges is less worried about the Right's strength than the Left's weakness:

The gravest danger we face as a nation is not from the far right, although it may well inherit power, but from a bankrupt liberal class that has lost the will to fight and the moral courage to stand up for what it espouses.

I must confess some degree of sympathy with his position, although I'm less cynical about the necessity for raw pugnacity.

Last week, Andrew Sullivan wrote in "Leaving the Right" that it's time to "take a stand...against the conservative degeneracy in front of us," noting his support for presidential candidates (regardless of party) and observing:

I found it intolerable after 2003 to support the movement that goes by the name "conservative" in America. I still do, even though I am much more of a limited government type than almost any Democrat and cannot bring myself to call myself a liberal (because I'm not).

His list of grievances, however, sounds very much like the liberal response to Bush's conservatism:

I cannot support a movement that claims to believe in limited government but backed an unlimited domestic and foreign policy presidency that assumed illegal, extra-constitutional dictatorial powers until forced by the system to return to the rule of law. I cannot support a movement that exploded spending and borrowing and blames its successor for the debt.

I cannot support a movement that so abandoned government's minimal and vital role to police markets and address natural disasters that it gave us Katrina and the financial meltdown of 2008.

I cannot support a movement that holds torture as a core value.

I cannot support a movement that holds that purely religious doctrine should govern civil political decisions and that uses the sacredness of religious faith for the pursuit of worldly power.


To paraphrase Reagan, I didn't leave the conservative movement. It left me.

Except for the final statement, all those things were said by many liberals--myself included. In a follow-up piece, Sullivan declared:

I continue to call myself a conservative, of the tradition of Burke and Hume and Montaigne and Oakeshott. I suspect that all four of them would regard the term "conservative movement" an oxymoron anyway, as I do, even if they understood it at all. And although I have deep respect for the liberal tradition, I am much too much a skeptic, and an individualist, and an anti-collectivist to join the Democrats.

I dare say that my skepticism and individualism are scarcely less than Sullivan's, although I label myself liberal. Reviewing his book The Conservative Soul gave me a sense of where our differences lie.) Also like Sullivan, I'm concerned by the GOP's pursuit of such a hyper-partisan, principle-free path--whether 2010 is a resurgent year for them or a third consecutive losing election year. Having sanity represented in only one of the two major parties is not a good situation, as Pam Spaulding commented about Sullivan's piece:

I really don't see an easy way back to the party of limited government with the disturbing stranglehold of the theocrats on the GOP and its fealty to the likes of Rush and his dittoheads. [...] ...the movement's political strategy that is now so beholden to a voter base that is rife with under-educated, easily massaged-by-messaging populace that spends way too much time believing and spreading conspiracy theories, irrationally fearing brown and black people, and trying to control private behavior they abhor, yet they often commit themselves because of their own tortured, hypocritical madness.

Now that the GOP is losing, the inter-party tensions have bubbled to the surface:

The small-government traditional conservatives are far outnumbered by these know-nothings, but as long as the fundies and crazies just behaved like sheep, everything was fine. [...] Now the beast is awake, caterwauling and calling for hard-right "purity" in the movement; nothing will make it cease at this point, and thus it's time to abandon ship--the beast has stepped on the auto-destruct sequence button. Other sane conservatives need to come to their senses, swallow their pride, and save their own movement.

How many more Sullivans are still in hiding?

ACORN cleared

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Does everyone remember all the conservative caterwauling over those ridiculous ACORN sting videos?

Do you think that, in the interest of accuracy, all those GOP-friendly media outlets will be falling all over themselves to report the news that the illegally-videotaped ACORN workers broke no laws? As noted at The Hill (h/t: Ron Chusid at Liberal Values), "the report, prepared by former Massachusetts Attorney General Scott Harshbarger, cited ACORN employees for poor judgment, it ultimately found they did not violate any federal laws:"

"While some of the advice and counsel given by ACORN employees and volunteers was clearly inappropriate and unprofessional, we did not find a pattern of intentional, illegal conduct by ACORN staff; in fact, there is no evidence that action, illegal or otherwise, was taken by any ACORN employee on behalf of the videographer," Harshbarger wrote in the report.

Yeah, I didn't think that our "liberal" media outlets would trumpet that news...

(More details at MediaMatters.)

favorite books

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A blogging friend posted her ten-favorite-books list, which has been careening around my cranium for the past two weeks. Here's a first draft of my list, which is a tad long:

Richard Bach: Jonathan Livingston Seagull
John Cage: Silence
Noam Chomsky & Edward Herman: Manufacturing Consent
Richard Feynman: Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!
Allen Ginsberg: Howl
Frank Herbert: Dune
Douglas Hofstadter: Gödel, Escher, Bach
Julian Jaynes: The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind
Kramnick & Moore: The Godless Constitution
George Lakoff: Moral Politics
Christopher McDougall: Born to Run
Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons: Watchmen
Charles Petzold: Code
Robert Pirsig: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Eric Raymond: The Cathedral & the Bazaar
Alex Ross: The Rest Is Noise
Carl Sagan: Contact
Art Spiegelman: Maus
Theodore Sturgeon: Godbody
JRR Tolkien: Lord of the Rings
Lao Tzu: Tao te Ching

Bill O'Reilly's annual faux War-on-Xmas is in full swing for 2009 (on Faux News, of course)
(h/t: Atheist Media Blog) with a typical Christianist complaint that, by sponsoring this ad,


the American Humanist Association is "spending big money taking out anti-god ads [that] run down religion just in time for Christmas." Here's the video of O'Whiny and his cohorts:

"This is a direct and deliberate smear against Christianity. Do you think they would do this ad campaign in July?"

(In reality, a "smear" requires that its subject be mentioned; in Faux-land, Christianity can apparently be smeared without being discussed. Also, there were ongoing atheist bus ad campaigns back in March, although they didn't use Santa hats--which are still a seasonal item, no matter how much the O'Reilly-bots might want to stretch Christmas from a month into a year-round event.)

"Why do they loathe the baby Jesus? He's just a baby!"

(The ads don't mention Jesus, but O'Lielly assumes that his audience won't notice that--surprise!--he's lying again.) As an AHA member, I have to note that their press release from 23 November quoted AHA executive director Roy Speckhardt making this observation:

"We understand our message may seem controversial to some, but it certainly isn't our purpose to offend anyone. Of course, it's obvious that many people are also good with a belief in God, so I hope we can all find common ground."

I'm trying to be as optimistic as Speckhardt, but O'Reilly isn't making it easy. His whiny little op-ed "Have Yourself a Godless Little Christmas" complains about the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which he slurs as a "virulently anti-God group." In fact, the FFRF exists "to promote the constitutional principle of separation of state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism." (Not that I expect O'Reilly to support--or even understand--the anti-establishment clause of the First Amendment.)

What really got O'Reilly's knickers all twisted was the FFRF's "Yes, Virginia...there is no god" sign:


Dan Barker, FRFF co-president Dan Barker observed:

"Most people think December is for Christians and view our solstice signs as an intrusion, when actually it's the other way around. People have been celebrating the winter solstice long before Christmas. We see Christianity as the intruder, trying to steal the natural holiday from all of us humans."

The other FFRF co-president, Annie Laurie Gaylor, notes that solstice celebrations pre-date Christianity:

"We nonbelievers don't mind sharing the season with Christians, but we think there should be some acknowledgment that Christians really 'stole' the trimmings of Christmas, and the sun-god myths, from pagans."

I'd love to see a Faux News segment on that.


Crumb, Robert. The Book of Genesis (New York: W. W. Norton, 2009)

I've long thought that the Bible should have a parental advisory warning, and this graphic adaptation of Genesis by renowned underground comics artist Robert Crumb (website, Wikipedia) has cheekily included one on its cover:


It isn't as if Crumb added any satire or salaciousness to the Biblical myths--he didn't need to, as anyone familiar with them will already know. Crumb's professed "straight illustration job" doesn't draw attention to the conflicting Creation stories or Jacob's misunderstanding of hereditary biology (30:37-39), but neither does he shy away from the debauchery, death, and destruction that fill the pages of Genesis. The illicit sex and violent bloodletting are presented simply and straightforwardly, neither evaded nor emphasized out of proportion to their dramatic importance.

Primarily created from the Robert Alter translation The Five Books of Moses, Crumb's work includes all the classic tales from the fifty chapters of Genesis: the Creation stories, Adam & Eve, Cain & Abel, Noah's ark, the Tower of Babel, Sodom & Gomorrah, Abraham & Isaac, Jacob wrestling with the angel, and it ends with Joseph's death after he led the Israelites to Egypt.

I had never read the entirety of Genesis before, usually skipping the "begat" passages and other bits of tribal trivia; this time, I read every word. (One down, sixty-five to go...) Some things that surprised me were the odd beings that are often overlooked when discussing the Old Testament: the cherubim from Chapter 3:


and the nephilim from Chapter 6:


Other than some unobtrusive visual shorthand--such as the sweat that dots the characters' nervous brows, or the radiating lines that express their shock and surprise--Crumb makes few concessions to comic-book conventions of dramatic storytelling. Other examples include this panel from the Tower of Babel story in Chapter 11


and this use of the interrobang (my choice for National Punctuation Day) in Chapter 45 to illustrate the confusion of Joseph's audience:


This page from Chapter 11 shows the sort of visual inventiveness that Crumb applies--he supports the text without distracting from it:


This image from the genealogy-heavy Chapter 36 is another example of his skill in enlivening an otherwise prosaic passage:


Twice--in 24:2 and 47:29--the text presented by Crumb surprised me by retaining a traditional obfuscation: testifying is described as being solemnified by the placing of a hand "under a thigh." (Skeptic's Annotated Bible suggests that "thigh" should be rendered as "testicles;" for more detail, see Taylor Marshall at Canterbury Tales.)

Malcolm Jones writes at Newsweek that "What distinguishes this version is its meticulous keeping everything as grittily real as possible, Crumb achieves a miracle all his own: he makes one of the world's oldest stories new again." Jones also calls Crumb a "professed atheist," but this is incorrect. Crumb himself has said quite the opposite in this interview with USA Today:

"I'm a spiritual guy. I'm not an atheist, more an agnostic. I don't doubt the existence of God, I just don't quite know what God is. It's a question that will challenge me until the day I die."

David Ulin's "Faith and Belief" (LA Times) calls it "electrifying," Paul Buhle writes in "In the Image of God" (Jewish Daily Forward) that it "stands on its own as one of this century's most ambitious artistic adaptations of the West's oldest continuously told story."

Not that the book's reception has been uniformly positive. The UK's Telegraph mentions complaints about the book's sexual content, the Guardian warns that Crumb's publisher referred to the book as "scandalous satire," while Australia's Sydney Morning Herald uses "Explicit Genesis Upsets Christians" to list complaints about Crumb's Genesis "turning the Bible into titillation," being "wholly inappropriate," and "trying to sell something by emphasising the sexual nature of some of the scenes." Southern Baptist President Albert Mohler whines mightily that "Reading The Book of Genesis Illustrated does reveal the power of this artistic expression (as in the sacrifice of Isaac), but mostly its severe limitations:"

Crumb's work reminds us that God gave us words, not images, as His means of revelation. The prohibition against images is not just a divine preference, it is a command. Looking at Crumb's work makes the force of this prohibition all the more clear. Crumb interprets (or misinterprets) with every image and characterization. His style dominates the narrative -- which is precisely the danger.

Robert Alter--the translator of Crumb's primary source text--praised the book, writing that the artist "has produced a frequently arresting interpretation of Genesis:"

By and large, Crumb's flights of fancy in visually elaborating the spare narrative are beguiling, and they seem to me to be a legitimate treatment of the text. [...] Crumb's Genesis is a bold undertaking, and most readers will be grateful for the many delights afforded by its visual inventiveness.

Greta Christina calls Crumb's Genesis "a must-read -- for any atheist, and for any Christian or Jew or Muslim who wants to honestly examine the origins of their religion:"

Many formerly- Christian atheists say that one of the most important steps on their journey to atheism was actually reading the Bible, and seeing that (a) it's a horror show, and (b) it makes no sense. And we atheists are always asking believers to actually read the sacred texts of their beliefs, to find out if they actually believe that stuff. This vivid, unforgettable, beautifully delineated, sometimes touching, often horrifying, intensely human, word- for- word graphic depiction of the seminal book of the Bible is right up our alley. I recommend it heartily.

As do I--now, if only someone could convince Crumb to spend the next two decades or so tackling the rest of the Pentateuch.


Chapter 1 (NYT)

Chapter 19
(LA Times)

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