Thank goodness we bow have a clear example of how progressive ideas can make a difference; Senator Arlen Specter's realization about the importance of progressive principles and his decision to abandon the failed policies of Republicans...
Oh, heck, who are we kidding?
Well, we're only kidding ourselves. If nothing else, one can at least respect Specter's candid admission of personal success over anything else, principle included: he looked around, saw he would lose the GOP primary in Pennsylvania to Pat Toomey... and realized he was a Democrat. Or at least, that he could win as one.
Thankfully, few people are trying to dress up Specter's choice as an ideological victory (though God knows, someone would, of course), but accepting it on his terms. It's not romance, it's business. And for Specter, and for the Senate Dems, apparently this is good for business.
Although I think the "100 Days" measuring stick is ridiculous, I think we may miss the biggest accomplishment the Obama Administration's first three months have wrought: that we now live in an exciting time... the future.
Yes, the biggest change, I'm starting to notice, is that we no longer live or speak politics in the present tense, but in a fascinating, conditional future tense - "If healthcare reform happens" or "when this economic crisis is over...."
In some ways, it's a very canny move - The Obama Administration gets credit for what it might do, what may happen... but can't be criticized too heavily since, you know, nothing's actually happened yet. Instead of arguing passionately over things actually done - like, you know, torture or something - we argue over shadows: whether to have commissions or criminal charges brought. Whether or not we should have a "public plan" in a healthcare reform that doesn't actually exist yet.
It's life almost on the same plane as (for most of us) reading the Neiman Marcus Christmas Wish Book - If I had a million dollars, I'd buy his and hers planes for me and potential future wife. And then argue about how to decorate it. And yes, it's quite entertaining... but also, not very real.
In which I attempt to clean my palate - and my browser - of a chunk of post-vacation chunks, mainly of the financial or "Hollywood Minute" variety:
One of the things I resolved to do over my recent vacation (goal setting, that's my motto) was to try and jump start my exercise routine (and then, see page 136 - How To Resist The Urge To Make Resolutions). So far, anyway, it's working: I've been running a couple of times this week, and I exercised every day on the ship.
Of course, resuming a workout after months - almost a year really - of almost nothing is bound to be difficult; I can't pretend I'm not out of shape and out of breath. Still, my body's not entirely resistant to the idea, and while I'm a little sore, mostly I feel the sense of accomplishment and making progress. Which isn't so bad, really.
I've had to be honest about pacing myself - you can't resume running and expect to run for miles without feeling winded and sore. My first day back, I didn't get as far as I might have wanted, but I ran what I could, walked the rest, and ran again when I felt up to it. Today I ran the familiar route the entire way, much further. Next time, I'll go even further. That's my incremental plan.
The point, as I thought about it this morning, with the sun shining and the smell of nature after a cleansing rain,is that we have to keep moving. Running clears my head, makes me focus on the basics (I'm big, especially after a lot of work with a trainer, on maintaining good form), and gives me the breathing room to face another day of heavy thinking and writing and work. Keep moving... and have a happy day.
On my way to a larger point about rights and wrongs (and, you guessed it, those torture memos), I'd like to recommend Bret Stephens in the WSJ today as an example of why conservatives have little to offer on the outrages of repression and mistreatment. Stephens starts, solidly enough, with a point that bears repeating: if we care deeply about governments that move into territory where they shouldn't and cause havoc, we really should be paying more attention to what Russia has been doing to Chechnya. But Stephens can't resist being sucked into the fashionable conservative math of the moment: proving that liberals are too sympathetic to the treatment of Palestinians, while ignoring the mistreatment of others.
Final calculation: With an "outrage" ratio of 6.6 to one, but a proportional kill ratio of one to 13 (at the very low end), it turns out that every Palestinian death receives somewhere in the order of 28 times the attention of every Chechen death. Remember that in both cases we're mainly talking about Muslims being killed by non-Muslims.
I'll admit this math exercise is a bit of a gimmick. But it raises a worthwhile question: Why is Palestinian life so dear in the eyes of the world -- and Chechen life so cheap?
Stephens isn't just being "gimmick"-y; he's using a sort of blanket "if one is outrageous, why no the other" logic that might work except that conservatives, really, don't give much thought to either situation as a moral outrage. It's just that traditional dislike of Russia, and the flailing attmpts to revive the right by rehashing old grievances (none so powerful as the old Red Scare), make focusing on Russia a new cause du jour.
This sort of relativism isn't new - conservatives use a similar false argument to suggest feminists weren't concerned about women in Afghanistan being forced back into abayas and other restrictive garments under the Taliban, a sign that "feminists" didn't care about some women, only ones that fit a certain PC expectation. That proved to be nonsense - as the only fly-by-night concern for Afghan women turned out to be the Bush Administration's, as they lurched around trying to figure out what the best strategy in Afghanistan was. Freedoms for women... well down the list of concerns they actually pursued. Feminist concerns for the treatment of Muslim women - still high up on the list.
It's not that the left approaches these social justice concerns perfectly; that brings us back to admitting that Stephens has a point that concern for Chechens has been an "out of sight, out of mind" exercise, mainly. But if someone's concerned about the Chechens having a chance to live without fear of a foreign government intervening in their affairs and randomly killing their citizens... it's probably the people who oppose random government interventions and casual citizen killing.
For years, lefties have been treated to blinkered debates with conservatives over "moral authority" - most of it nonsense about getting to decide who's not worth treating decently, and the doing just that. That, ultimately, is neither moral, nor authoritative. Moral authority, really, is setting some objective standards, holding to them, and asking others to, as well. The reason to speak up for the Palestinians - while admitting that the overall Israeli/Palestinian conflict is a complex topic where no side is all right or all wrong - is because no civilian population, really, should have to deal, as they do, with indiscriminate police actions by another state's government.
That principle, ideally, also applies to the Chechens. But Stephens, like many conservatives, isn't really on about a principle - because a principled set of concerns would face, honestly, that both situations are terrible and require our involvement. Instead, Stephens wanders away from any direct discussion of Chechnya (try and find any policy solution he'd suggest to deal with Russia in that piece, I dare ya) into a fairly direct dismissal of the Palesinians being worthy of any concern at all. He's not saying, in the end, we should be more concerned about Chechnya than Palestine, or even mutually concerned about both. His argument, really, is that we can't be bothered with either of them. You want an outrage... start there.
So... anything happen while I was away?
Oh, right... tea parties. Or teabagging... or something.
I know it's a bit after the fact - though it was all the talk of the Sunday political shows - but I figured it was best to wait until they happened before weighing in. In general, I think the tea parties turned out to be just what they were likely to be: oversold, yet notable, exercises in gathering a lot of angry people to stand around... and then go home.
Whatever they were meant to accomplish - and just what that was, I think, was never established - the tea parties amounted to little more than the latest exercise in mass primal screams. The reason the tea parties can't have lasting impact - and they won't - is because, like so much of the rage that's about these days, there's nothing, really, to back it up. And really... I wish there were something to back it up, because we need that, desperately.
While I struggle to pull the next piece together, I'll pass this along... via Susie, my absolutely favorite moments from Monty Python and the Holy Grail: a communist critique of the power of Kings.
Consider, if you will, the end of The Wizard of of Oz.
I think as critics, we shy away from reexamining the "classics" of film, the real warhorses that are so bulletproof you can't challenge the accepted wisdom (though it's fair to counter that, I think, with the question of what, if anything, there's left to say). I mentioned it a while back with that penchant we have for making movie lists, too - we're conferring some notion of "classic" onto films that deserve more consideration, more examination, and always, more thought.
The Wizard of Oz is one of those things I've watched for years, but not necessarily considered deeply; like for many, it was my introduction to Judy Garland, and it took me years to see her as anything but Dorothy - gay icon, forever teenaged, pretty and perfect. And when I did broaden my appreciation of Garland, it sort of cheapened "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" - I've come to admire most the battle weary survivor, the gal who could still put on a show almost to the end, and the powerful singer she became. Those pretty, innocent early tunes have less call than "Hello Bluebird" or the no-stops version of "Just in Time" she did in her later years (or to bridge past with present, compare her teenage version of "You Made Me Love You" to the one from her concert years... that's a woman who's aching with desire, not a girl with a crush).
Watching The Wizard of Oz again while on my recent cruise - we got back yesterday - I was struck by the ending, and something I hadn't noticed before: that what really bugs me about the film is the ending. You remember - when, Glinda tells Dorothy she had the power to go home all along, and Scarecrow asks "what have you learned?" and Dorothy says (I'm quoting roughly, because it's not on IMDB) "I think I've learned that everything I need is at home. And if I think I need to go searching for something, I don't need to go any further than my own back yard... because if it's not there, than I probably don't need it anyway." And later, when she wakes up, Dorothy adds "Oh, but anyway, Toto, we're home. Home! And this is my room, and you're all here. And I'm not gonna leave here ever, ever again, because I love you all, and - oh, Auntie Em - there's no place like home!" (That last line was on IMDB.)
That hokey ending, of course, is pure MGM; I spent my cruise finally reading Neal Gabler's book on the Hollywood moguls and how they remade America through its dreams, and you can, as he writes, see the moralism of Louis Mayer in that ending. All the platitudes about home and family wrapped up in those sentiments, mouthed by Judy Garland, corseted into her role as America's perfect child-woman sweetheart. And of course... it's not true; it's not even true for the character of Dorothy and her actual experiences, considering that she's just learned "there's no place like home"... by not being at home. Moreover, it flies in the face of the other lesson American movies give us - that we need to go out into the world to become the self made people we are meant to be. There's no place like home... that's why we leave it. "I'm not going to leave it ever, ever again" is the voice of the shut-in, the paranoiac, the agoraphobe. We need to be out in the world.
Or consider Garland herself, who of course found a whole world by never wanting to go back to her own backyard. Indeed, Garland is in many ways the emblem of post-modernism as an adult: when she starts to deconstruct the pretty images created for her, to let us into the life behind the mask, the makeup and the costumes - A Star Is Born is her tour-de-force because it takes the manufactured elements of Garland's persona and rips them apart: its a fake name, makeup, a wig... and none of it can hide - or define - who the woman actually is. Yet it does define her, lock her into certain expectations... always on, always performing.... always eager to please. You want the girl next door... go next door. The Wizard of Oz can't be her best work because all it gives us - all she's allowed to give us - is the picture perfect image of a total fantasy without the leavening of realizing that what we're being sold is a lie; and many I think, supply The Wizard of Oz with more depth than it has by layering on what Garland became in real life... but of course... that's not in the movie.
I've realized that what frustrates me about The Wizard of Oz is that lie it tells itself, and us - after seeing a world of such magic, such possibilities... it says we should want nothing more than to stay home, never search, never explore... never even dream. We're given a Technicolor fantasy and then told we're better off if we never go to it. And this, in the end, we celebrate. And call classic.
And yet... coming home from the cruise - five days at sea in a fantasy world of commerce and manufactured expectations - it's true that coming home is, in its way, a relief. A return to the familiar, the expected, the way of life you already know... it's comforting, safe. And less expensive. That's the hallmark, really, of a good vacation - just enough of an escape from your everyday life to le you appreciate coming back to it. There's no place like home. It's good to be back. Forgive me, though, if I still believe in putting more faith in the value of escaping.
Crossposted from New Critics.