4 July 2006

Independence Day

I listen to Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac most mornings after I’ve gotten up, walked the dog, and made some coffee.

Today’s poem was the last stanza of what we know as “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Read it carefully, for it’s not as martial as you may remember, and it may even be an indictment of certain tendencies in American life.

Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand

Between their loved home and the war’s desolation!

Blest with victory and peace, may the heav’n rescued land

Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation.

Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,

And this be our motto: “In God is our trust.”

And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave

O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

And, in a funny note, Keillor points out the following:

On this day in 1931, James Joyce married Nora Barnacle at the Kensington Registry Office in London. They had been living together for twenty-six years. She once complained about Joyce’s late hours, “I can’t sleep anymore … I go to bed and then that man sits in the next room and continues laughing about his own writing. And then I knock at the door, and I say, now Jim, stop writing or stop laughing!”

On a completely different note, we’re fascinated by Portuguese Man O’ Wars this morning, because there have been a number in Massachusetts Bay of late. Did you know that they’re actually not jellyfish? They’re actually made of four animals living in symbiosis.

Posted in Books on 4 July 2006 at 9:10 am by Nate
8 February 2006

Weblog editor

I’ve been using ecto lately as a weblog editor, and I’ve really liked it. Much better than MarsEdit, from the people who make the best Mac RSS aggregator, NetNewsWire. ecto has a nice set of features, and moves nicely back and forth between WYSIWYG and HTML modes (just to name the one I’ve used most so far). But it supports deli.cio.us tags, all sorts of inserts and attachments, and other stuff I haven’t used yet. I’d recommend it to anyone who needs an editor besides the web interface of most blogs (say, if you want to blog offline and upload later when you find a hotspot).

I think I will probably pony up the $18 for a license, so I can keep using it….

Posted in Books on 8 February 2006 at 9:58 am by Nate
3 February 2006

Follow-up to the previous post

Martin Peretz, editor-in-chief of The New Republic, writes in support of Levy, trying to take Keillor to task for the NYT Book Review piece.

So what in the world possessed The New York Times Book Review
to ask Garrison Keillor to review L

Posted in Books on 3 February 2006 at 10:39 am by Nate
1 February 2006

Tocqueville he ain’t

Garrison Keillor writes a scathing review of Bernard-Henri Levy’s new footsteps-of-Tocqueville-book, American Vertigo. Keillor has some rather strong opinions about the work.

Any American with a big urge to write a book explaining France to the French should read this book first, to get a sense of the hazards involved. Bernard-Henri Lévy is a French writer with a spatter-paint prose style and the grandiosity of a college sophomore; he rambled around this country at the behest of The Atlantic Monthly and now has worked up his notes into a sort of book. It is the classic Freaks, Fatties, Fanatics & Faux Culture Excursion beloved of European journalists for the past 50 years, with stops at Las Vegas to visit a lap-dancing club and a brothel; Beverly Hills; Dealey Plaza in Dallas; Bourbon Street in New Orleans; Graceland; a gun show in Fort Worth; a “partner-swapping club” in San Francisco with a drag queen with mammoth silicone breasts; the Iowa State Fair (“a festival of American kitsch”); Sun City (“gilded apartheid for the old”);a stock car race; the Mall of America; Mount Rushmore; a couple of evangelical megachurches; the Mormons of Salt Lake; some Amish; the 2004 national political conventions; Alcatraz – you get the idea. (For some reason he missed the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, the adult video awards, the grave site of Warren G. Harding and the World’s Largest Ball of Twine.) You meet Sharon Stone and John Kerry and a woman who once weighed 488 pounds and an obese couple carrying rifles, but there’s nobody here whom you recognize. In more than 300 pages, nobody tells a joke. Nobody does much work. Nobody sits and eats and enjoys their food. You’ve lived all your life in America, never attended a megachurch or a brothel, don’t own guns, are non-Amish, and it dawns on you that this is a book about the French. There’s no reason for it to exist in English, except as evidence that travel need not be broadening and one should be wary of books with Tocqueville in the title.

My favorite part is the consideration of Levy’s use of rhetorical questions:

…And what’s with the flurries of rhetorical questions? Is this how the French talk or is it something they save for books about America? “What is a Republican? What distinguishes a Republican in the America of today from a Democrat?” Lévy writes, like a student padding out a term paper. “What does this experience tell us?” he writes about the Mall of America. “What do we learn about American civilization from this mausoleum of merchandise, this funeral accumulation of false goods and nondesires in this end-of-the-world setting? What is the effect on the Americans of today of this confined space, this aquarium, where only a semblance of life seems to subsist?” And what is one to make of the series of questions – 20 in a row – about Hillary Clinton, in which Lévy implies she is seeking the White House to erase the shame of the Lewinsky affair? Was Lévy aware of the game 20 Questions, commonly played on long car trips in America? Are we to read this passage as a metaphor of American restlessness? Does he understand how irritating this is? Does he? Do you? May I stop now?

Good old GK gets more and more like Mark Twain every day.

Posted in Books on 1 February 2006 at 11:25 am by Nate
21 December 2005

Actual Gay Cowboys!

Profiled here.  Very interesting.

No, I haven’t seen the adorable Jake and Heath gettin’ it on.  But very soon.

Posted in Books on 21 December 2005 at 8:43 am by Nate
4 November 2005

Catholic brainpower firepower

TNR Online discusses the Catholic intellectual backing of the evangelical movement in America.

a bargain of the devil oyu don’t know here.  For Catholics of a
certain bent (they’d refer to themselves as “orthodox”, although by
that term they indicate that they prefer the theology of the
post-Reformation over that of the patristics and the unified church of
the first millennium [in general]), the agreement means that they get
footsoldiers for the culture wars.  Evangelicals get a language
that doesn’t require the quoting of a scripture and interpretation that
few people are willing to accept.

But for each side, there’s a danger.  Both sides don’t really
think that the other is of the same faith community and therefore not
fuly Christian.  For the Catholics, those of the conservative bent
would say that the true church can only be found most fully in that
which is in communion with the bishop of Rome; that is, Protestants are
part of a church that is a church, but a defective one.  For
evangelicals, the tradition of referring to “Christians and Catholics”
is a long one, and one which I heard used even as recently as this week
in my department.

It’s a tenuous alliance and one which exists mostly for expediency, I
think.  And perhaps one way to decrease the power of the religious
right is to separate evangelical muscle from Catholic minds.

Posted in Books on 4 November 2005 at 8:22 am by Nate
17 October 2005

Getting into Harvard

I’ve read a couple of reviews of Jerome Karabel’s new book, The Chosen,
about the admissions processes of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. 
I’m interested both because the subject matter concerns the institution
I’m at and the students I teach AND because Karabel is on (to my best
recollection) a friend’s dissertation committee.

There has not been much discussion of the book (at least, that I have
noticed) here on campus.  Not surprisingly, because the facts
about the admissions process here do not put Harvard in a good
light.  The attempts to keep the Jews and blacks and most people
out continued well up into the middle of the last.century. 
Karabel also points out that even the current system of admissions, in
giving priority to legacies and certain schools (the private boarding
“prep” schools of the Northeast seem curiously overrepesented here),
continues the trend of making sure that Harvard and its ilk continue to
admit and educate “the right sort of people.”

From Malcolm Gladwell’s review in the New Yorker:

In the 1985-92 period, for instance, Harvard admitted children of
alumni at a rate more than twice that of non-athlete, non-legacy
applicants, despite the fact that, on virtually every one of the
school’s magical ratings scales, legacies significantly lagged behind
their peers. Karabel calls the practice “unmeritocratic at best and
profoundly corrupt at worst,” but rewarding customer loyalty is what
luxury brands do. Harvard wants good graduates, and part of their
definition of a good graduate is someone who is a generous and loyal
alumnus. And if you want generous and loyal alumni you have to reward
them. Aren’t the tremendous resources provided to Harvard by its alumni
part of the reason so many people want to go to Harvard in the first
place? The endless battle over admissions in the United States proceeds
on the assumption that some great moral principle is at stake in the
matter of whom schools like Harvard choose to let in—that those who are
denied admission by the whims of the admissions office have somehow
been harmed. If you are sick and a hospital shuts its doors to you, you
are harmed. But a selective school is not a hospital, and those it
turns away are not sick.

Posted in Books on 17 October 2005 at 11:24 pm by Nate
7 February 2005

Soul of the secular state

Yesterday’s NYT has a review of Jim Wallis’s God’s Politics.  Short.

But Ryan Lizza, of The New Republic, points out the following:

And to liberals wary of any prescription that includes more religion in
politics, and to those worried that his evangelical Christianity is not
ecumenical, Wallis makes an important point rarely heard on the
religious right. ”We bring faith into the public square when our moral
convictions demand it,” he writes. ”But to influence a democratic
society, you must win the public debate about why the policies you
advocate are better for the common good. That’s the democratic
discipline religion has to be under when it brings its faith to the
public square.” It is a reminder that Martin Luther King may have had
a Bible in one hand, but he had the Constitution in the other.

Winning the public debate by appealing to and persuading via the public
good.  This is the essence of liberalism and the tolerant
secularism that it demands.  Funny that it takes an evangelical
preacher, arguing for the re-emergence of a religious progressivism in
our contemporary politics, to remind us  what the soul of the
secular compromise is.  What the religious and the “secular”
(let’s call them the non-religious) have both forgotten is that
demands that we make arguments about how to live our common life on the
basis of appeals accessible in common. 

Religion cannot make an appeal to the common, except perhaps in a
theocracy.  So it cannot be the basis for an argument as to why we
should or should not pursue a policy.

Similarly, secularism does not require that we never make mention of
factors and forces like religion in public.  In fact, it’s
perfectly acceptable to do so.  It might even be desireable to
understand the motivations that religion provides.  But secularism
cannot require the shut-down of all talk of religion, for that’s a
similar problem.  Areligiosity cannot make an appeal to the common

The original toleration thinkers (I especially mean Locke and Mill)
thought that Reason would provide the basis by which people of varying
viewpoints and beliefs could talk together in public.  I’m not so
sure that such would work today (as there are plenty of signs that
reason does not dominate our ways of thinking in public), but there has
to be a middle ground, wherein we can acknowledge differences in
beliefs without allowing them to be publicly determinative personally
or politically.

Posted in Books on 7 February 2005 at 8:11 pm by Nate
28 November 2004

Building with Books

This exhibit at MIT is fascinating.  Furniture built with books.

Posted in Books on 28 November 2004 at 4:19 pm by Nate
15 October 2004

National Book Award surprise finalist

Last Wednesday, finalists were announced for the National Book Awards, and
there’s a bit of brouhaha over the fiction finalists, because they are
all very small, unknown novels.
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But the Tom Clancy of the nonfiction set, the 9/11 Commission Report,
got a nomination for at non-fiction award.  The first eleven (of
thirteen) chapters are compelling reading.  They provide,
alternating between action in the United States by intelliegence
communites and among the terrorist plotters, an overview of the whole
situation leading up to September 11, 2001.  Not only does the
report have an organization that lends itself well to narrative, but
the style and tone of the report comes across as very unified, as if
written by a single author (as I suspect for this reason that it was),
rather than the joint product of ten or twelve people.

The last two chapters are somewhat disappointing.  The solution to
the ideological crisis of Islamism requires bureacratic
re-organization.  But the failure wasn’t just one of
intelligence.  When George Kennan wrote the Long Telegram in 1947,
outlining the structure of a US foreign policy to oppose Soviet
hegemony, he didn’t propose a bureacratic change, a tactic; he posed a
strategic plan, that of “containment.”  The “solution” chapters of
the 9/11 report strike as missing just that element, a comprehensive
strategy.  I think the bureacratic reorganization provides a
fairly good tactic, and the report’s suggestions should be
implemented.  But it lacks an overall vision of what needs to be
done, and thus doesn’t go far enough.

Posted in Books on 15 October 2004 at 10:23 am by Nate