Archive for November, 2010

Speaking of Men

Posted on November 30th, 2010 in Uncategorized | 2 Comments »

Yesterday I riffed a little bit on this quote from LA Times’ writer Patrick Goldstein, writing of Russell Crowe and machismo:

the alpha males of the past often ended up ruining their lives, along with most of their marriages, with all their womanizing and boozy excess. Yet we’ve lost something too, since many of today’s best-known actors and athletes are cautious and dull, fearful of jeopardizing their careers with any intemperate behavior.

This morning it occurred to me that one current male who fits that former description is Kanye West, whose new album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, I’ve been listening to a lot lately. It’s ambitious, over-the-top, and great—a hip-hop Sergeant Pepper. West himself seems like a jerk—arrogant, insecure, obnoxious. But his talent is undeniable. So often these qualities go together: the dysfunctional personality and the exorbitant talent. (Think Frank Sinatra.)

Do we need that kind of figure in our culture? Quoted in the LA Times, singer John Legend—who couldn’t be more different—says yes to Kanye and others like him.

“We need rock stars in our culture,” Legend said. “I feel like we don’t have as many right now as we used to. It’s cool to have an outrageous, outsized persona in popular culture, and Kanye’s doing that. He’s also making really interesting, innovative and exciting music. We should be grateful to have an artist like him right now.”

If it’s a choice between bad boy Kanye West at one extreme and good boy Justin Bieber at the other, I know which way I lean….

Does Harvard Really Matter?

Posted on November 30th, 2010 in Uncategorized | 3 Comments »

Illustrated with a picture of a tour group surrounding the John Harvard statue in Harvard Yard, a debate on the NYT website asks whether where you go to college matters as much as everyone acts like it does.

Guidance counselor Martha O’Connell points out that Oprah went to Tennessee State—a pretty silly argument, as there will always be exceptions, the typical student is concerned with the typical outcome—and writes,

Researchers found that students who applied to several elite schools but didn’t attend them — either because of rejection or by their own choice — are more likely to earn high incomes later than students who actually attended elite schools.

But Anthony Carnevale responds,

Access to selective colleges increasingly determines lifetime earnings, and has become an arbiter of access to the key positions of power and influence in American society.

My sense is that, as a general matter, people who are going to be successful go to good schools, and people who aren’t, don’t….

Monday Morning Men

Posted on November 29th, 2010 in Uncategorized | 3 Comments »

I read a couple of newspaper articles this morning that made me think about the strange, complicated relationship between men and ambition.

Blogging in the LA Times, Patrick Goldstein writes about the decline of Russell Crowe’s career, and argues that Crowe is falling because a) he hasn’t mastered the art of publicity the way Steve McQueen did, and b) the press now reports on the foibles of Hollywood stars far more than it used to.

Crowe has also run up against something that McQueen never had to contend with: Our culture’s attitude toward masculinity has radically changed in the decades following McQueen’s box-office reign. In mid-20th century America, our heroes had a swagger to their step, a drink in their hands and were allowed, even encouraged, to live outside the bounds of responsible behavior. When Mickey Mantle and his teammates got into an epic brawl at the Copacabana nightclub, it only enhanced his reputation.* When Norman Mailer got into fistfights with other writers and stabbed one of his wives, his literary stock only went up.

In today’s culture, when you throw a phone at a desk clerk, your stock plummets. Is this all for the good? In some ways yes, since the alpha males of the past often ended up ruining their lives, along with most of their marriages, with all their womanizing and boozy excess. Yet we’ve lost something too, since many of today’s best-known actors and athletes are cautious and dull, fearful of jeopardizing their careers with any intemperate behavior.

Meanwhile, the Boston Globe reports on Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe’s “early” departure from a post in the Obama administration; Tribe says it was for medical treatment of a benign brain tumor, while Allan Dershowitz suggests that it was Obama didn’t reward his service richly enough. At issue: Whether Tribe’s job, heading a new Justice Department unit intended to help people who can’t find lawyers, was important enough for Tribe. A former law school advisor to Obama, Tribe wanted a position involving national security.

“He deserved better,’’ said Alan Dershowitz, a longtime associate of Tribe’s at Harvard Law School. “He would have been terrific adviser to the president. . . . He was, after all, one of the president’s mentors. He worked diligently during the [2008 presidential] campaign. I think it would have been in the president’s interest to put him in an advisory position.’’

What an unpleasant thought: That helping the poor and disempowered (awful word, but lacking a better one) gain access to legal resources is so trivial, Tribe “deserved better.”

But Tribe apparently thought his post was insufficiently interesting or important to him.

Tribe’s departure was announced a few weeks after a conservative blogger with the National Review Online published a private letter the Harvard professor wrote last year to Obama angling for different and far broader responsibilities that would include national security, a hot topic since Sept. 11, 2001.

In Washington terms, that’s the equivalent of throwing a phone…**


* It’s worth remembering that that bar fight got Billy Martin—who was a participant, and was deemed by Yankee brass a bad influence on Mantle and far less valuable to the team—traded, an insult from which Martin never really recovered.

** Apologies for the crazy formatting. It’s not my fault.

Speaking of the National Mood

Posted on November 23rd, 2010 in Uncategorized | 3 Comments »

…has anyone else noticed the abundance of apocalyptic culture these days? Certainly a longstanding theme in American culture, but now more than ever it feels like half the new books, tv shows and movies lately are about the end of America.

For instance: Last night I attended a screening of an as-yet unreleased film called “Stakeland,” which is about an epidemic that sweeps the world, turning most of the population into vampires. Against the background of a devastated United States, a boy and a man—not his father, I won’t tell you what happens to his father but it’s not ideal—try to make their way north, because there are rumors of a safe haven in the North.

Complicating their journey: the existence of a homicidal cult whose leader teaches that the vampires have been sent by God to purify the Earth.

It’s a fantastic film, reminiscent of predecessors like Omega Man and The Road, but original in its own ways and beautifully filmed. Don’t miss it.

The Insanity of the GOP

Posted on November 23rd, 2010 in Uncategorized | No Comments »

Paul Krugman has a terrific column on the subject.

The fact is that one of our two great political parties has made it clear that it has no interest in making America governable, unless it’s doing the governing. And that party now controls one house of Congress, which means that the country will not, in fact, be governable without that party’s cooperation — cooperation that won’t be forthcoming.

This is demonstrably true over the past two years. And now the Republicans have given birth to a monster—the Tea Party People—that they can not control.

And opposition for the sake of opposition isn’t limited to economic policy. Politics, they used to tell us, stops at the water’s edge — but that was then.

These days, national security experts are tearing their hair out over the decision of Senate Republicans to block a desperately needed new strategic arms treaty. And everyone knows that these Republicans oppose the treaty, not because of legitimate objections, but simply because it’s an Obama administration initiative; if sabotaging the president endangers the nation, so be it.

A defining characteristic of American life has been optimism, but these days, it’s tough to feel hopeful.

The Wit and Wisdom of Keith Richards, Cont’d.

Posted on November 22nd, 2010 in Uncategorized | 7 Comments »

My suggestion that Keith Richards’ description of rednecks brought to mind the Tea Party People brought howls of protest below. Inevitable cries of “liberal elitist!” emerged from the commento-sphere, along with the suggestion that the TPPers weren’t at all racist or homophobic or women-hating or any such thing.

Well…maybe they are?

In the Times, Charles Blow writes of the trend within the TPPers to say that blacks like to be discriminated against because it takes them off the hook for failing to advance socioeconomically,  and how TPPers say that in fact they are the real victims of racial discrimination.

Blow notes that a poll by the Public Religion Research Institute found that…

62 percent of whites who identified as Tea Party members, 56 percent of white Republicans, and even 53 percent of white independents said that today discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities. Only 30 percent of white Democrats agreed with that statement.

Blow points out that there’s absolutely no body of data for that claim, which this blogger finds absurd and pathetic.

We can find racial prejudices in all segments of the population, but pretending that the degree and consequences are comparable is neither true nor helpful. …In fact, some on the right seem to be doing with the race issue what they’ve done with the climate-change issue: denying the basic facts and muddying the waters around them until no one can see clearly enough to have an honest discussion or develop thoughtful solutions.

Of course there are differences, modern elements, particular twists. But we’ve seen this form of populism before. It’s the Know-Nothings, the KKK, the McCarthyites, the hippie-bashers—the paranoid style in American politics. And not to recognize it as such is dangerous.

As Richard Hofstadter once wrote,

We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well.

And, in turn, he afflicts the nation, as we will all find out over the next couple of years.

Monday Morning Zen

Posted on November 22nd, 2010 in Uncategorized | 3 Comments »

Clownfish hiding in a sea anemone, the Indian Ocean

Clownfish hiding in a sea anemone, the Indian Ocean

Harvard’s Offensive Video

Posted on November 18th, 2010 in Uncategorized | 27 Comments »

The New York Post reports, “Heartless Harvard undergrads have mocked the brutal murder of a Yale grad student in a video for a student-run Web site.”

The humor site “On Harvard Time” features a video in which ostensible Yale undergrads sing about why they went to Yale, which is apparently because they didn’t get in to Harvard.

But, the Post reports,

One person blurts out, “What happened to that girl that got murdered and stuffed in a wall?”

The question refers to Annie Le, 24, who was killed at Yale last year, allegedly by Ray Clark III, a lab technician there.


Here’s the video with the offending line edited out.

Even sans tastelessness, this video is sadly far from funny.

Instead, it feels more like a projection of Harvard students’ anxieties about why they went to Harvard than what it was intended to be, a spoof of Yale’s admissions videos, on the eve of The Game.

The New Haven Register features an account of the incident containing a response (via press release! Unsigned! Courageous.).

“In the video, the nationally covered incident was mentioned by an audience member and the admissions officer character promptly brushed over the question,” On Harvard Time said in its release. “Our intention was to comment on Yale’s guarded treatment of their crime problems. The humor rested in the glossing over of a significant event, and not in the event itself. The line was not meant to make light of the incident or those involved, but rather to mock the university.

This is clearly untrue, for a couple of reasons.

One, by no account except that of On Harvard Time did Yale “gloss over” a tragedy.

Here, for example, is a news report about a concert held in Le’s memory by the Yale School of Music, to raise money for the Annie Le Memorial Fellowship Fund.

Two, the theme of the video is that New Haven is crime-ridden, not that Yale tries to cover up New Haven’s problems. (And, in any event, this was not a “New Haven problem”—the killer was allegedly a laboratory employee with a sick obsession.)

So, as apologies go, this one is pretty weak. Who will stand up and say, “It was my idea and my fault, I clearly didn’t think sufficiently about my attempt at humor and stepped over a line that I now realize was cruel?”

Finally, a small point that comes, I’ll admit, from my sense of undergraduate loyalty: While this video argues that Yale students cower inside their undergraduate colleges because the streets of New Haven are unsafe, the students involved seem unaware that just a year and a half ago, a young man was shot to death in a drug deal gone wrong inside a Harvard house.

I think I missed the memorial concert for that young man.

And, as the Crimson reported,

…administrators have remained relatively mum on the potential security flaws exposed by the incident and their response to them, citing ongoing criminal investigations.

…Despite Harvard’s silence….

Perhaps there is more transference happening here.

The Crimson appears to have written nothing about this incident.

Really? The Democrats Just Did That?

Posted on November 17th, 2010 in Uncategorized | 3 Comments »

The caricatures of Nancy Pelosi are unfair, and one can’t blame the Dems’ recent electoral defeat on her.

At the same time, those caricatures have been effective, and Pelosi’s reputation is deeply stained.

So that the Democrats just reappointed her the head of their party in the House of Representatives is—well—a disaster. And a classic example of Democrats being their own worst enemy.

Here’s what Republicans will say in 2012:

“You remember what life was like under Nancy Pelosi. Do you really want to go back to those dark days? Vote for ________. Or vote for (pause)…Nancy Pelosi.”

The White House, to the extent that it could affect this process, should not have let this happen.

Democrats in the House and Senate have been opposing the ban on earmarks as well. Madness.

The Wit and Wisdom of Keith Richards

Posted on November 17th, 2010 in Uncategorized | 21 Comments »

So I’m reading the Keith Richards book, and it’s surprisingly…lucid…and unexpectedly insightful. And I’m not even a big Stones fan. A number of passages are worth sharing. Here’s one of them, about Keith’s thoughts on America following the Rolling Stones’ first tour here. The tour was in, I think, 1965. But don’t the words sound disturbingly current?

There was the stark thing you discovered about America—it was civilized round the edges, but fifty miles inland from any major American city, whether it was New York, Chicago, LA or Washington, you really did go into another world. In Nebraska and places like that we got used to them saying, “Hello, girls.” We just ignored it. At the same time they felt threatened by us, because their wives were looking at us and going, “That’s interesting.” Not what they were used to every bloody day, not some beer-swilling redneck. Everything they said was offensive, but the actual drive behind it was very much defense. We just wanted to go in and have a pancake or a cup of coffee with some ham and eggs, but we had to be prepared to put up with some taunting. All we were doing was playing music, but what we realized was we were going through some very interesting social dilemmas and clashes. And whole loads of insecurities, it seemed to me. Americans were supposed to be brash and self-confident. Bullshit. That was just a front. Especially the men, especially in those days, they didn’t know quite what was happening. Things did happen fast. I’m not surprised that a few guys just couldn’t get the spin on it.

The only hostility I can recall on a consistent basis was from white people….

Sometimes it takes a foreigner to see what’s right in front of us, and Mr. Richards, it seems to me, has pretty much just described the Tea Party.