Saturday, April 30, 2005

Investigation Of The Crazies, By The Crazies

Oh, Vincent D'Onofrio. Oh, oh Vincent. How I adore you, and your uniquely freakish scenery-masticating brand of thespian baroquery. Who among us can truthfully deny that her life was changed forever by your visionary portrayal of The Bug In The Edgar Suit in Men In Black?

Now, every Saturday night right after the aforespurned 'CSI: New York', the gods rain manna upon me in the form of 'Law & Order: Criminal Intent', nth modulation in the ceaselessly mitotic 'Law & Order' franchise. Most of the 'Laws & Order' are heroically tedious ordeals (is there any duller genre than the courtroom drama in all of human enterprise?), with the notable exception of the truly vicious, voyeuristic, terrifyingly misogynistic 'Special Victims Unit'. But 'Criminal Intent' is a bird of an entirely different stripe, and that, friends, is down to Our Vincent.

OV plays Detective Robert Goren, 'an exceptionally bright homicide investigator with well-honed instincts that match up favorably with his criminal quarry.' Translation: it takes a nutter to catch a nutter. OV's Goren is a man-shaped heap of neuroses, tics, obscure anguishes and inappropriate attachments. His mother was schizophrenic (a bit of backstory which seldom goes an episode unreferenced), and Goren himself is surely at least borderline OCD. OV is at his scene-munching finest: he grunts, he grimaces, he gestures frantically with twitching fingers, he bobbles his head while peering slyly sidelong up into the suspect's wigged-out, sussed-out mien. He makes death-defying leaps of intuition in a single groan. His face crumples into a mask of existential ache as, in the climax of each episode, he crouches by the perp's side at the interview table and manipulates her into confessing the murder, by voicing her pain. Vincent, I mean Goren, psyches out these people because he is these people.

Every episode seems to feature a perp who personifies some new, utterly fucked aspect of Goren's barely-socialized personality. Surely this is not accidental. The writers have a plan. Once there was an obsessive nurse who stalked her ex-husband by visiting his house every day, cleaning it and packing him a nice lunch in Tupperware. Also by murdering a radio shock-jock and weaving his hair into a keyring for Ex-Man. As the investigation proceeded she moonlighted obsessing about Goren, who not only let her stalk him but became emotionally attached to her and got all anguished when she was collared. There was a (very insensitively-portrayed; naughty writers) Asperger's perp who drummed his fingers on the table just like Goren; they drummed a little duet. Goren solved the crime by inhabiting, effortlessly, the autistic's instinct for pattern and discerning said pattern in a seemingly random series of killings. The line between Goren and the psychos he hunts is hair-thin, and Our Vincent gives us everything he's got to make us buy it.

There are other characters in 'Criminal Intent', but the cast list might as well read 'Yeah and some other people, whatever.' They exist as translucent foils, because Vincent has to have someone to bark, whine, gibber or whisper to. 'Criminal Intent' is the Vincent D'Onofrio Histrionic Wonder Hour. Long may he emote.

Spoiled Rotten

I've got embroiled in a very interesting (to me anyway) discussion at The Mumpsimus about spoilers and spoiler warnings. Matt takes an extreme, though highly principled, position that any information you give about a work constitutes a spoiler, and therefore posting warnings about plot spoilers constitutes an undue privileging of plot over other elements of the work. Thus he refuses in general (with certain exceptions) to post spoiler warnings.

While I respect the purity and motivation of this program, I can't help feeling it fails to address the visceral rage of the reader-on-the-ground when she finds key plot points of an anticipated book or film wantonly revealed in a review. Spoiler warnings at least give the reader the option of preserving her (very possibly inappropriately privileged) experience of the plot unspoiled.

Fact: Revealing information about any aspect of a book or film does in fact 'spoil' something about that work, and there's no coherent structural justification for opposing the spoiling of plot over any other element.

Another Fact: I (and I think many others) become vastly more incensed when I experience the spoiling of plot than of characterization, setting, political viewpoint, &c.

How to square these realities, short of insisting on walking blind into books or films knowing nothing more than their titles?

I Approve Of Extreme Fennel-Control Measures

A man has been hired to fly over the Californian island of Santa Cruz in a helicopter and shoot 3,000 feral pigs which have taken over the island's ecosystem and, among other, lesser crimes (like destroying ancient Native American archaeological sites, whatever), promoted the excessive growth of wild fennel.

Fennel being the official first runner-up in the Foulest Contrivance of Vegetal Nature stakes (I think I need not invoke the winner by name here), such a crisis clearly could not go unredressed. I heartily applaud the owners of the Channel Islands, the National Park Service and the Nature Conservancy for taking the necessary measures to curb this scourge. If pigs must die so our children can frolic in a world free of crunchy feathery aniseoid mank, so be it.

Once the piggies are laid low, 'the fennel will simply be burned, mowed and treated, never to return.' That's what I'm talking about.

Friday, April 29, 2005

Why Should Abortion Be Rare?

I am really, really, really fucking fed up with hearing so-called 'advocates for choice' say that abortion should be 'safe, legal and rare'. Never mind the shrieking hypocrisy and political opportunism of the Hillary-Howard axis and their minxy plan to seduce pro-lifers into the Democratic Party. I'm talking here about the likes of NARAL Pro-Choice America, the old-school bastions of abortion rights. Their official position is 'Being pro-choice means believing abortion should be safe, legal, and rare, and supporting access to birth control, responsible sex education, and a fair-minded judiciary.'

Pro-choice figures feel so embattled in the blasted post-apocalyptic moral landscape of America that they're tripping over themselves to try and evince moral cred, and the way they seem to feel they can do this is by showing themselves acutely sensible to the 'moral complexities' of abortion. This could not be more wrong. By ceding the terms of the debate to pro-life, by essentially admitting that they 'know' abortion is bad, they put themselves in an invidious position. Now they're forced to defend a woman's right to do something everyone agrees is a bad thing to do. This is infinitely harder, and slipperier, than defending her right to do something they don't concede as bad. Now you have to start arguing conflicting rights of mother and child, identifying thresholds of acceptable termination, you're sliding right down the slope into the Valley of Special Pleading and staring stupidly back up at the moral high ground you voluntarily abandoned.

Why would you do this? Why do we have to concede abortion as a Bad Thing That Must Be Minimized? Not everyone does, you know, even in these diseased times. A massive shoutout here to the women of the
I Had An Abortion project, whose explicit agenda is to destigmatize abortion and women who've had them, and promote the view that it is a medical procedure to which no shame should attach. As we all should be doing. Here, watch, it's easy.

Abortion is great. Abortion is a golden privilege of modern human civilization, hard-won past barricades of technology, sexism and religious prejudice. It constitutes the ability of a woman to decide, for herself, when and if she will take on the unspeakably huge, life-transforming (and way too often life-ruining) joy/burden/responsibility/all of the above of bringing a life into the world. It liberates her from slavish thrall to biology.

In a thousand ways, every day, we transcend our brute biological imperatives. Ways we don't even notice. Our genes don't care if we read fiction, or order in Thai, or issue press releases, or wear sailor suits, or any of the infinite other non-survival-related things, large and small, that we are privileged to do by the state of civilization we've achieved. It is rank hypocrisy to rejoice in all the evolutionarily-superfluous advantages of 21st-century Western society, then decry reproductive choice as 'against nature'.

Terminating a foetus is not killing a person. At most it is killing a potential person. And so the fuck what? A potential person does not have a right to live that trumps my right to not become its mother.

Abortion is not wrong. Abortion is fucking brilliant. If I got pregnant today, I would have an abortion tomorrow, and I would skip home trilling a song of joy, because I live at a moment in history where I choose whether or not my body will be a vessel for perpetuating the species. My body does not belong to the species, it belongs to me.

It's about fucking time our prominent abortion rights activists remembered that, and marched back on the moral ground we must occupy to fight and win this battle for good.

Update May 1st:
I posted this philippic on PBA HQ (yah, blatantly looking to stir up trouble), and got one measly comment (where are you people? Doesn't anybody want to fight?). However, it was interesting in bringing out another layer of mainstream pro-choice self-delusion and capitulation, so I reproduce it here, along with my (so-far-unanswered) riposte:

Rare for a Reason
Submitted by Elayne Riggs on Sat, 2005-04-30 09:04.
The reason abortion advocates want the procedure to be rare is that they also want more emphasis put on family planning and education so that women and girls don't find themselves with an unwanted pregnancy in the first place. Any medical procedure that's even minimally invasive carries a risk, and it's always better not to be in a position where you need that procedure in the first place.

Yes But Not That Reason
Submitted by BionOc on Sat, 2005-04-30 10:56.
These are legitimate concerns, as far as they go, but they are way secondary to the main issue of choice and certainly don't merit raising to the level of a slogan.
More pertinently, it's disingenuous to call selectively for abortion to be 'rare', as opposed to any other medical procedure. It's surely no coincidence that no one feels the need to stipulate that lumpectomies, liver transplants or heart bypasses should be 'rare'--of course they should, but we don't bother saying so because they're not embattled, and we all know that in an ideal world they wouldn't be necessary, and given that they are, it's meaningless to agonize over their desired 'rarity'.

The only reason they say abortion should be 'rare' is because there are those who want to make it never, and to say 'rare' is therefore to acknowledge that and to half-capitulate to it.
We have to make a choice: either we consider abortion to be a medical procedure like 'any medical procedure', in which case no special pleading for its rarity absent pleas for all medical procedures to be rare, OR we allow the opposition to define abortion as a special case, in which case we've lost the argument already.

Frankly, and not meaning at all to impugn your honest intentions, I don't believe that the reasons you cite are the real reasons for the inclusion of 'rare' in the slogan. I'm sure those reasons are genuinely on the minds of women's health advocates, as they should be with respect to all procedures. But the real mindset behind 'rare' is the tacit acceptance of abortion as a special case, replete with trauma and anguish beyond those of 'any medical procedure'. And as long as we have that mindset, we are perpetuating the actual experience of trauma for women who choose to have abortions.

While certainly for some (though certainly not all) women, having an abortion is indeed traumatic, isn't it likely that at least some of that trauma is rooted in society's insistence that abortion is in fact a traumatic event? If we are told often enough that we should be upset about something, it's very hard not to absorb that message to some degree and get upset. While absolutely remaining sensitive and supportive to women who do experience trauma from abortions, I think we owe it to women in general not to indoctrinate them preemptively with the notion that they will or should do so.

Update May 5th: I've posted a follow-up to this post here, with some argument and a couple of important points.

2nd Update May 5th: Want to comment? Great. Pro-life? Please read this Public Service Announcement first.

No, It's OK, You Can All Go Back To Your Atkins*

Turns out being fat is bad for you again after all. Phew!

*Note: the above is stated purely in the spirit of comedic hyperbole. Do not, repeat do not adopt the inexplicably still-undiscredited Atkins diet, nor any of its monstrously wrongheaded progeny. Your body burns glucose for energy, people. It gets glucose from breaking down complex carbohydrates. Protein is made of amino acids, which are also necessary to your body's healthy function, but not as fuel. If you weren't 'meant' to eat carbohydrates, your body wouldn't be evolved to rely on them for fuel. That unpleasant bad breath problem people on Atkins suffer from? Indicator of a little thing called 'starvation ketosis': your body digesting its own tissues for lack of glucose.

Human beings are omnivores; we have evolved to derive our various nutritional requirements from a variety of different food types. Cutting out any one type entirely is unrealistic, unsustainable and patently unhealthy. The fact that you may be losing weight does not mean you are healthy, nor that you will be able to sustain the weight loss when you (inevitably) return to a more balanced eating pattern.

Losing weight is brutally fucking difficult, there's no two ways about it, and the temptation is strong to subscribe to a plan that offers simple guidelines ("Only Ever Cabbage Soup!"), or draconian measures ("Only Ever Cabbage Soup!"), or unlimited if circumscribed freedom ("All The Fat & Protein You Can Stomach"). But these measures are based on a category error about human metabolism (see above), they put serious stress on your metabolism and they pretty much never work over the long haul. The only reliable way of losing weight healthily and sustainably I've ever seen is, if you'll forgive my stating the obvious: a) reducing the quantity of food you eat; b) paying attention to the nutritional quality of same (i.e., lots of fruit and veg, not so much with the fats and sugars); and c) getting regular, sweaty, heartpounding exercise. Boring and preachy and assishly difficult though it may be, I don't know of anything else that really works.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

An Anti-Semite In Every Crypt

Today's award for Fanciful Anti-Semite Spottery goes to Timothy Garton Ash who, anxious lest anyone anywhere spend 15 seconds of her life unmindful that 'there have always been, and are still, nasty strains of anti-semitism in British life,' adduces the claim that 'Even the humorous Private Eye portrayal of Howard as Count Dracula of Transylvania, picked up in a cartoon in this paper over the slogan "Are you drinking what we're drinking?", teeters somewhere on the edge of a historical minefield.'

Somewhere? Where, please? Would that be the edge of the notorious Anti-Semitic-Pogroms-Against-Transylvanian-Vampires minefield?

Clone Bad, Shut Up Shut Up Shut Up

Lurking at the heart of the debate over stem-cell research and therapeutic cloning is a big old honkin' black box: the unthinkability of human reproductive cloning. With the exception of a pariah Italian embryologist and some South Korean researchers who claim they just want the stem cells, no one in the scientific community will touch human cloning with a ten-foot pipette. Figures clear across the political and religious spectrum go miles out of their way to denounce the very possibility. Even the staunchest advocates of therapeutic cloning tie themselves in pretzels to diss the reproductive kind.

Why please? The religious perspective is easy, and covers most politicians, especially in the States. Non-religious science types are harder to figure. The only argument I ever see put forward by this side is that 'the risks are currently too great'. 'We don't know what hidden health repercussions there might be down the road.'

The absurdity and hypocrisy of this should be pellucid; one glance at the multi-multi-bajillion-dollar pharmaceutical industry shows how routinely medical science is willing to risk applying new drugs and technologies that might, and in many cases do, turn out to have significant health repercussions later on.

This isn't just an indication of overweening greed on Big Pharma's part (though Yhwh knows there's plenty enough of that, and worth a whole separate discussion of how the profit motive modulates risk thresholds), it's also, and distinctly, fundamental to scientific progress. It's in the essential nature of medical research to perform experiments in non-human models, be they in-vitro, computer simulation or animal analogues, for as long as useful data can be so obtained, and then at a certain point to make a risk-benefit analysis of the viability of human trials. It is impossible to know for certain the risks of a human trial beforehand; the organism is too complex and too little understood. But these calculations are made all the time, and then some trials turn out badly and some issue to the tremendous benefit of humanity. That's how the game works: no risk, no reward.

The disingenuity of this argument is compounded by the qualification 'currently'. Rarely is anyone ever asking 'Can we start cloning humans by supper-time today?' The debate is framed in terms of eventual viability, and yet the answer to the question 'Could we ever...?' is always 'No, because we don't know enough now.'

This, I suspect, is because that's not the real problem for these people. The current state of our knowledge is a red herring, a rational blind they can use to justify their wholly irrational, visceral revulsion at the idea of human cloning. Just today Steven Rose, rationalist extraordinaire and general voice of materialist reason, came out against Ian Gibson's recommendations to loosen controls on various reproductive and genetic technology and experimentation, as follows: 'This is laissez-faire genetic and reproductive technology pushed almost to the limit, with even a hint that in the future reproductive cloning might be acceptable.' [Italics mine.]

This is given as the ultimate in ethical turpitude, as if Gibson were hinting that someday his committee might decide incest is acceptable too. Note that Rose says 'in the future'; this isn't even the objection based on current knowledge. It's a brain-stem response: Reproductive Cloning Bad, Now And Always. No justification, he just assumes we all share this taboo.

This troubles me. To be clear, I am not coming out unequivocally in favor of human reproductive cloning, although I'm definitely not organically opposed to it. What I am is deeply unconvinced by any of the arguments I've ever seen agin it, and very disturbed by the unquestioning attitude of our finest science minds towards a significant politico-scientific issue of the day.

Here's an argument I can think of in my own little head that does give me pause: the human subjects of cloning experiments would, by definition, not be consenting participants. This has real weight. (On the other hand, medical trials have been conducted in shady consent conditions ranging from Tuskegee to African HIV vaccine trials, so it would be pretty damn hypocritical to act as if this were the first time such a thing had been contemplated. Not saying that's a justification, just that the players involved should check their professional conduct pretty closely before venturing that argument.)

My point is that this is not an argument I've ever heard put by anyone in the debate. Truth is, I've never heard any credible scientific argument put by anyone in the debate, and that's the problem.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Two Birds, One Dome

So here's my pitch for ridding the world of two scourging harpies while creating quality entertainment that will delight the whole family for years to come.

In a few days Condi Claus will return from sleighing around with her big Sack o' Democracy, sowing terror in the hearts of the naughty children of Latin America. We grab her, stop in Westchester to pick up Hillary 'Abortion Is Tragic Now That I'm Too Old To Need One' Clinton, and hightail it to LA, to the Warner Bros. 'Mad Max' soundstage.

There we bungee the pair of them into Thunderdome, and let them chainsaw it out on live television. No viewer-determined outcome here, just sheer animal struggle: Condi's skull-faced Snake Lady vs. Hillary's ravening She-Goat.

Pretty thrilling, eh? But wait, here's the twist. Instead of emerging blooded and triumphant to seize control of Lobbytown, the victor gets set on fire!

Two Hags Enter, No Hag Leaves--everyone's a winner!

Dear Readers

I trust I may count on your forbearance if, just this once, I drop my customary authorial reserve to commemorate a landmark occasion in my own life.

Today, a scant two weeks into my jeu de blog, I have received my first Trackback. I confess I'm still not 100% clear on what a Trackback is (any explanations welcomed), but I feel it must be a good thing, in that it shows that at least one person has been looking at my blog.

The fact that that one person is a PBA-trolling conservative who posts in the persona of a cat could be considered regrettable by some, but I take it in a spirit of inclusiveness. The fact that said person commits the unpardonable-in-2005 error of presuming me to be male, less so.

However, given that 'Ferdinand T. Cat' has gone to the trouble of trackbacking (backtracking? tracking my back?) me apparently for the sole purpose of confessing his own cognitive limitations, I would be churlish not to proffer both my sympathies and my best wishes for speedily improved reading comprehension. They say it helps to practice.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

I Recant

Or, strictly speaking, I revise. I said a while back that you can't squeeze any more juice out of the Holocaust, and in terms of its exploitation to confer Insta-Historicred in fiction I stand by that. But I wish now to add a rider to the effect that you can, it turns out, still find ways to look at the Holocaust that reinvigorate and make immediate its lived actuality, genuine pathos intact. Witness this gorgeous passage from Giorgio Agamben's Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life:
The wish to lend a sacrificial aura to the extermination of the Jews by means of the term "Holocaust" was, from this perspective, an irresponsible historiographical blindness. The Jew living under Nazism is the privileged negative referent of the new biopolitical sovereignty and is, as such, a flagrant case of a homo sacer in the sense of a life that may be killed but not sacrificed. His killing therefore constitutes, as we will see, neither capital punishment nor a sacrifice, but simply the actualization of a mere "capacity to be killed" inherent in the Jew as such. The truth--which is difficult for the victims to face, but which we must have the courage not to cover with sacrificial veils--is that the Jews were exterminated not in a mad and giant holocaust but exactly as Hitler had announced, "as lice," which is to say, as bare life.

"Bare life" does more to represent and understand what I see in images from the camps than any fully-orchestrated cultural widget the holocaust industry has ever turned out. No coincidence, I think, that Agamben's formulation explicitly militates against the very underlying symbolic conception of those products.

It's awfully good to be reminded that there are still ways we can think about this that don't doom us to kitsch and complicity.

Those Nefarious Arabs

With their tireless efforts to push the Jews into...'a wider Arab peace initiative which would offer Israel full recognition in return for a full withdrawal from the occupied territories'?

Yup. When Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, aka 'King of the Repressive Murderous Undemocratic Spine-Tinglingly Corrupt Middle Eastern Regime We Like', spent a dirty weekend at the Crawford ranch, he attempted to focus discussion on solutions like the above proposal to advance the Israel-Palestine peace process.

Strange to say, W, whose government 'is yet to comment on a recent landmark national election in Saudi Arabia that saw Islamist parties dominate a men-only vote', wasn't much interested in that conversational gambit. Seems he just kept steering the table talk back around to, hmm, well, oil.

It's almost as if he had some ulterior motive for hanging with Abdullah. Do you think he really likes him?

Monday, April 25, 2005

Know Your Local Candidate

Liberal Democrat MP for Brent East...

The Sarah Teather

...Or Asylum-Seeker Fleeing Repressive Lifeforce-Extracting Skeksis Regime?

The Podling

Only The You-Know-Who knows...

Besmirch Ye Not the Petroleum Jelly, Lest Ye Be Smirched

I am genuinely bewildered by this furious yet strangely informative Vaseline rant of John Sutherland's in G2. Man is clearly highly exercised over something, but I'm damned if I can pin down exactly what.

Is it the whole Michael-Jackson-on-trial-for-paedophilia thing tout court? How else to interpret this rhetorical query: 'But does anyone think that even if guilty, and the convicted monster of Neverland spends the rest of his days banged up in a cell with a tattooed biker, any child in southern California will be safer?' Um, yes? Yes, I do?

Is it the notion that Jackson, when interfering with the verboten bits of vulnerable young boys, could have so far disregarded their wellbeing as to employ Vaseline, even though it 'does bad things to latex condoms and has other disadvantages as an intimate lubricant'? Truly, reason balks.

Or, given his extended, borderline hagiographic history of the industrial by-product in question, are we witnessing the fury of a man who will not stand idly by while pop stars and media trashhounds drag through the mud the sterling name of a product whose plastic tub they are not worthy to lick?

'Vaseline was so pure it was virtually Platonic'? Methinks perhaps old John is just a teeny bit too fond of his 'rod wax'.

Joy In The Morning

Take a moment, children, to sing with me the song of Tom DeLay.

Tom DeLay, oh that Tom DeLay,
He goin' down, down, down.

Tom DeLay, you know that scumhog Tom DeLay,
He goin' down, down, down.

He goin' down,
He goin' down,
He goin' down,

And a big rousing Hallefuckin'lujah Amen. May he rot in hell.

It May Be Stupid, But It's Eville

BBC News today intones credulously that two new studies show scientists can 'read a person's unconscious thoughts' by functional MRI of the brain.

In one of the studies, Japanese researchers showed subjects stripes tilted in different directions, and detected different brain activity patterns that enabled them to predict which stripes had been shown. 'When volunteers were shown a plaid pattern made up of two different sets of stripes but asked to pay attention to only one set, the program was able to tell which one the subjects were thinking about.'

According to one of the scientists in the other study, 'This is the first basic step to reading somebody's mind. If our approach could be expanded upon, it might be possible to predict what someone was thinking or seeing from their brain activity alone.' Mm, yeah. If you already had a library of response patterns to everything they might possibly be thinking or seeing to match against.

Even more thrilling, Dr. Adrian Burgess, from the department of cognitive neuropsychology at Imperial College London, claims 'it might be possible to dip into people's repressed memories or even see people's hidden fears and phobias.' Sure, if they have a phobia of, say, horizontal stripes.

This is what happens when research scientists feel pressure to make their work relevant to the practical world. Instead of saying, 'Hey look! We can figure out from an MRI if someone's looking at horizontal or vertical stripes! Well done us!' and then moving on to the challenge of circle-perception, they get all messianic and wave their arms and start shouting about how they've created a device that will enable man in just a few short, amply-grant-funded years to o'erleap the bounds of his current stripe-directionality purblindness and achieve Total Mind Transparency. It's sad, and silly.

But ok, suppose it actually worked. Does anyone besides John Ashcroft think being able to forcibly read people's hidden thoughts by MRI is a good thing?

Feels So 'Wright, I Know It's Wrong

I am being stalked by the Wainwright family. For the last, well, for what's starting to feel like my entire life since I was born, I can't open a newspaper, magazine, TV Guide or fucking discount office furniture junkmail without being confronted with one or other of the hideous simpering self-adoring Pop Nepotees Extraordinaire. It's starting to make me a little bit crazy.

It was bad enough when we just had him, with his not-Leonard-Cohen-or-Bob-Dylan-bad-but-actually-irredeemably-awful nasal drone and omnipresent strutting guest appearances. Was anyone else seriously fucked off when they replaced John Cale's gutwrenching version of 'Hallelujah' with Rufus's whinefest on the 'Shrek' soundtrack?

Now there's La W, splattered all over the media like projectile vomit on a windshield, and I for one am feeling pretty hunted. I can't help suspecting this is all somehow connected to Hollywood's recent inability to fund a movie that's not a superannuated sequel or a remake of a seventies television show. It begins to take on the outlines of a terrifying if nebulous conspiracy.

Not to mention, every day it seems more and more of the Guardian's domestic news stories are written by a Martin Wainwright. Coincidence?

Sunday, April 24, 2005

She Comes As And When She Damn Well Pleases

Sex on the brain today. Must be hormones. Or, wait a minute, could it be the burgeoning oversexification of our culture? In this case, bingo. The Guardian Family of Newsmedia Outlets simply will not stop yammering at me about sex.

Friday's G2 informed me of the inevitable: the UK is at last being infiltrated by last summer's Stateside media phenom, She Comes First: The Thinking Man's Guide to Pleasuring a Woman, by Ian Kerner. This chirpy manifesto-cum-cunnilingus-manual (sorry) had Kerner all over daytime TV like a rash last year, touting his not-un-queasy-making catchphrase 'Viva la Vulva!' and evangelizing his creed. To wit, 'Men should go down on women, and make them come. First.'

Now, on the one hand, grand. If there are any men out there who still think they don't have to go down on their women and make them come, here's their memo, complete with pictures and step-by-step instructions.

On the other hand, this isn't exactly a radically new platform. Dr. Ruth was saying this when I was a wee pre-teen, I'm pretty sure Alex Comfort was saying it when my parents were younger than I am now, industrial hip hop collectives were singing it in 1992. Hell, 'The Sopranos' took this one on in Season One. The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm has been pretty well exploded for a fair old while now. And yes, of course there are men out there who still think they don't have to go down on their women and make them come, but they are not the men who will buy this book.

Which brings me to my real issue with this whole platform: the sexual indoctrination of the Sensitive Man. Honestly? The biggest problem I've had in this area is getting the big bunny-rabbits' faces out of my cunt so they could fuck me properly. Not because I have the world's most enticingly delectable bits, but because men of our generation have been ruthlessly indoctrinated with the notion that It Is Not Proper Sex unless you go down on her first and make her come.

This seems to me almost as restrictive and prescriptive a formulation as Freud's Mature Orgasm claptrap. Orgasm, pace Kerner's no-fail strategies for lingually delighting your lady, constitutes different things for different women, indeed for the same woman at different times. The linear erection-penetration-orgasm-cheers (or 'EPOC') pathway that makes sex so straightforward for (most) men is a lot twistier and more variable in women, at least the women I know.

Sometimes it's about getting hot and getting brought off. Sometimes it's about getting hot in a not-specifically-teleological way and just being fucked senseless. Sometimes it's about kinks and games. Sometimes it's about wanting closeness and sensation and not being up for the considerable performance pressure generated by the hopeful lappings of the Sensitive Man. Coming is damnably complicated for many women, which is why so many can't do it at all, and I don't think our interests are overwhelmingly well served by the substitution of yet another one-size-fits-all program of how and when and in what order we must come, if we are allowed to be having Good Sex.

Yes, it is my right to come, as much as it is my partner's. But it is also my right to determine how, when and if at all I want to come in any given session. Brainwashing the entire male population to face-dive my crotch at the first sign of sex frankly does me no favors at all.

Sex Is Bad Because It Is Not All Mine

I swear I'm not being faux-naive about this. Assuming you're not a religious nutter (and granted, in the US this is an assumption that will be wrong roughly 90% of the time), why exactly is sex bad?

The Observer today reports smugly on the crusade of 80's-vintage-Screw-Magazine-journo-turned-fat-assed-suburban-Dadbot Gil Reavill to call a halt to the pornification of our culture. Seems Reavill, having got his own personal rocks sufficiently off in Bonfire-era New York when he was still young enough to pull ('I enjoyed everything New York in the 1980s could throw at me when I worked at Screw. It threw quite a lot'), has decided that there is now entirely too much off-getting going on for his wrinkled rocks to stand by and watch. Sex is now too mainstream, too public: ''Whether we want it or not, we are inundated, saturated, beaten over the head with sex ... it's egregious, it's out of control, it's too much.'

What seems terribly obvious to me, though apparently not to the Observer, is how egregiously this begs the question. Too much sex is bad because it's...too much. But too much what? Why do Reavill and his non-overtly-religiose ilk think more sex is bad? Do they think sex itself is bad? Is it bad in a group setting? OK to do/think about/talk about in private but alchemically made naughty in public? There are no clear predicates for their condemnation, just this utterly woolly invocation of pernicious excess.

The other two camps in the anti-societal-sexification lobby are a lot easier to engage with. The god-botherers genuinely do think sex is naughty and shameful, in private too but certainly and at all times in public. These are the people for whom poor Janet's modishly-accoutred tit constituted a crisis of instantaneous-Decency-Commission-necessitating proportions, and their numbers are legion. I get them.

Then there are the people like--ha! I just almost said 'the people like Prince'! OK, there are, um, Prince, plus people who also think things similar to things Prince thinks (I think), namely that the barrage of sex is desensitizing: 'Back then, the sexiest thing on TV was "Dynasty," and if you watch it now, it's like "The Brady Bunch."' By this reasoning, the sex-positive anti-public-sex crusader could argue that, like wanking too often too hard, all this exposure is numbing our delicate nerve endings for private enjoyment of the good stuff. This too makes a kind of sense, albeit a weirdly prescriptive kind.

But an anti-sex manifesto by a man who happily peddled the dirt in his salad days, and now peddles his crypto-puritan ass under the banner 'sex industry insider (and concerned father)'? Revulsion and withering scorn are vying for control of my gag reflex.

Just Say No To Boho...Already?

In a precipitous piece of couturial revanchism that surely speaks volumes about Our Frantic-Paced Internet-Fuelled Hurry-Hurry Will-O'-The-Wisp Postmodern Age, the Boho Backlash has already begun.

A single page of the Observer Magazine today contains not one but two (Fashion Tense: 'Hippie sandals - the only bit of Boho we will tolerate') items snarking this season's ultrahyped fave fash flave.

Nausea and vomiting induced by massive overexposure? Snotty nose-turnuppage at the waxing clout of high street couture? Or is it perhaps, as the cannier conspiracy-minded among you will already be muttering, Reverse Reverse Reverse Psychology?

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Hand Me That Telescopic Magnet!

A monkey could be a Crime Scene Investigator in New York. At least, that's the inevitable conclusion one reaches from watching even a single episode of 'CSI: New York'. (Or, as I like to call it, 'Oh, Gary'.)

This latest bloodless epigone of the addictively brilliant 'CSI: Crime Scene Investigation' has taken forensics geekery to such an extreme that its human characters are reduced to rather unwieldy frames for carrying the fingers that the actual investigators require to operate their on-switches. Crime in New York City is apparently now investigated entirely by a race of superintelligent software applications and devices such as you and I have never seen on

A mounted cop (yes, one of the 3, no now make that 2, NYPD Mounties) is shot in the middle of Central Park by a sniper. Cop falls off and dies, horse bolts and is hit by a cab. CSI show up with a camera and a briefcase on a tripod, which opens casually to reveal a 3-D Reconstructo-Trajectorizing Perp-Spottron. The fingers take some pictures of the surrounding landscape and bam! the briefcase has recreated the cop on the horse, spun him around, shot him again, traced the trajectory of the bullet back and nailed the shooter to a specific window in a specific building somewhere outside the park. The thing pretty much gives the perp's name, disses his outfit, locates him hiding behind the sofa at his mom's, and offers to go collar him itself.

Meanwhile, the Great Bullet Hunt is on. Seems there's no bullet in the vic's body. We search the grass. We search the asphalt. We search the whole damn Park. Vainly do I shout at the screen, 'It's in the horse's neck, you fucking idiots!' Smart devices, stupid stupid CSIs.

We go back to our preposterously styley post-Gotham-industrial girdered Bat-cave to ponder. Some good old time later, glumfaced Gary Sinise is informed by the Grizzled Police Veterinarian (?!) that the bullet is, in a shock move, in the horse's neck. And if they want it back, the operation Just Might Kill The Horse.

After some amazingly unconvincing hostility between Gary and hatched-faced Melina Kanakaranathingy from 'Providence', Gary reluctantly orders the surgery, retrieves the bullet, ID's the murder weapon and El Perpo is laid low in a series of punishingly dull yet complex events. But not before Gary has, to no practical purpose I can fathom, fabricated a replica of the bullet using what appears to be a 3-D object photocopier. Just to make sure we're properly cowed, the Emma-Peelish Trace Lab Bint wanders up and exclaims flirtatiously, 'You've reconstructed the bullet?!' Presumably it bit a chunk out of the Object Fabrication line item in Gary's budget.

The shooter done, Gary stares mopily across at him in the interview room and delivers his homily: 'You shot a New York City police officer. He wasn’t just a cop. He was someone’s son. When you shot him through the back, you shot those people through the heart.'

I think we've all clocked by this point what Gary's blue about. He's hocked his fine cinematic acting cred for a steady check, and got himself stuck delivering reactionary mawkshite monologues as a barely-diverting sideline to the real stars of this show. Gary is the realistically humanlike skin on the cyborg that is CSI: New York, and every fold of his Droopy-Dawg eyes says he knows it.

Oh, I know you've been dying to know. The horse makes it.

Huzzah for Paul Krugman

I've been saying it for ages: as the underinsurance crisis creeps up the socioeconomic ladder, we'll start hearing more and more about it in the cultural preserves of the chattering classes. Sure enough, the New York Times's Paul Krugman is in the middle of a series on the mess of American private health coverage, and he is blatantly about to spring a single-payer endorsement. Here's a chunk of yesterday's excellent column:

Think about how crazy all of this is. At a rough guess, between two million and three million Americans are employed by insurers and health care providers not to deliver health care, but to pass the buck for that care to someone else. And the result of all their exertions is to make the nation poorer and sicker.

Why do we put up with such an expensive, counterproductive health care system? Vested interests play an important role. But we also suffer from ideological blinders: decades of indoctrination in the virtues of market competition and the evils of big government have left many Americans unable to comprehend the idea that sometimes competition is the problem, not the solution.

I may be a tad bilious about how microscopically most Americans care about crises like this until they actually set up camp in the family room, but I guess that's an unfortunate but persistent reality of our society under the current setup. If that's what it takes to get the NYT finally registering the magnitude of the problem, that's how it is. And given the political climate in the States today, Paul Krugman deserves our praise for taking on this issue so forthrightly.

Sudan, Zimbabwe and Congo Kick US Human Rights Ass

The United Nations
Commission on Human Rights
April 15, 2005
In a resolution (E/CN.4/2005/L.28) on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, adopted as orally revised and by a roll-call vote of 52 in favour to one against, with no abstentions, the Commission urged States to take steps, individually and through international assistance and cooperation, especially economic and technical, to the maximum of their available resources, with a view to achieving progressively the full realization of the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health; and called upon the international community to continue to assist the developing countries in promoting the full realization of the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, including through financial and technical support as well as training of personnel, while recognizing that the primary responsibility for promoting and protecting all human rights rests with States.

The Commission encouraged States to recognize the particular needs of persons with disabilities related to mental disorders, as well as their families, including by reflecting their needs in national health and social policies, such as national poverty reduction strategies; and called upon them to place a gender perspective at the centre of all policies and programmes affecting women's health. They also called upon States to protect and promote sexual and reproductive health as integral elements of the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health and decided to extend, for a period of three years, the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the right to everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.

The result of the vote was as follows:
In favour (52): Argentina, Armenia, Australia, Bhutan, Brazil, Burkina Faso, Canada, China, Congo, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Finland, France, Gabon, Germany, Guatemala, Guinea, Honduras, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Kenya, Malaysia, Mauritania, Mexico, Nepal, Netherlands, Nigeria, Pakistan, Paraguay, Peru, Qatar, Republic of Korea, Romania, Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Swaziland, Togo, Ukraine, United Kingdom and Zimbabwe.

Against (1): United States.

David Hohman (United States), speaking in explanation of the vote... said the United States believed that while the progressive realization of economic, social and cultural rights required government action, those rights were not an immediate entitlement to a citizen.

My government, ladies and gentlemen. I don't even have words. Toad-Boy must be chortling in his Cheerios today.


A striking development in the case of Anne Ayala, the woman who found the finger in her chili at a San Jose Wendy's. The chain, which has suffered a $2.5 million loss in the Bay area, claims the incident was a hoax, and San Jose police concur. Ayala was arrested on Thursday, and charged with larceny, presumably on the grounds that the finger wasn't hers.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Yes, Yes, Boho, I Know

I don't think it's just me. I think the media are displaying a freakish level of anxiety that we understand that the new fashion trend for spring and summer is Bohemian. Every magazine, newspaper and mainstream news site I've read for the last two weeks has found at least one, in some cases two or three occasions to impart this sartorial diktat. I don't think that happens every season. Why are they so desperate to get us in chiffon? What are they planning?

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Finally, Some Media Justice for Massad

from 'The New McCarthyism', in Salon, of all places:

A member of the U.S. Congress calls for an assistant professor at a major university to be summarily fired. The right-wing tabloid press runs a series of vicious attacks on him, often misquoting him and perpetuating previous misquotes. Opinion pieces attacking "tenured radicals" and questioning professors' patriotism use him as their centerpiece. All of these attacks are spurred by a propaganda film made by an advocacy group, in which anonymous accusations are made and the professor is not given an opportunity to respond to the allegations.

It is not 1953, the Congress member is not Sen. Joseph McCarthy, and the professor is not being accused of being a communist. No, it is 2005, the Congress member is Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., and the professor is being accused of being anti-Israel.

The lesson for academics, and American society as a whole: McCarthyism is unacceptable except when criticism of Israel is involved.

Good Old Pacific Northwest

from Wash. Senate rejects gay civil rights bill:

Olympia, Wash. -- A state Senate bill that would have banned discrimination against gays and lesbians in housing, insurance and jobs was rejected Thursday by a single vote.

The legislation appeared dead earlier this month when it was sent to a committee. But the Senate on Thursday allowed the measure to come up for a vote, and it was narrowly rejected 25-24.

Sen. Jim Hargrove, a Democrat, said he opposed the measure for religious reasons.

"I believe adultery is wrong; I believe sex outside marriage is wrong; I believe homosexuality is wrong," he said. "I cannot give government protection to this behavior."

That's a Democrat, people. Let's be clear. It's 2005 and a Democratic state senator in Washington has opposed a gay civil rights bill. Oh how I can't wait to return to my beloved Homeland and bask in the Security.

Update: And in one of those lovely little too-good-to-be-true ironies history occasionally delights in chucking our way, I am pleased to report that Spain has just legalized gay marriage. Yes, that's right, Spain. All you queer Seattlites, you know what you have to do.

They Just Keep Giving Me Reasons

to loathe writers of literary fiction. Today's gem is this coagulation of fatuous self-promoting blather from the nether reaches of G2: one Tim Lott's paean to the 'deepest forms of truth' found in--say it with me, children--Science.

Little is guaranteed to vex a science student more thoroughly than the damp-palmed, gropy appropriation (may I say aggropriation?) of science by the Literary Writer. It gets right in amongst us in no time. Now, I freely confess to a non-trivial element of snobbery in this. I also confess that, being a poet as well as science student, I have myself written not infrequently about things scientific. It is pretty damn amazing and inspiring. However, the utterly shallow, self-delighted smugness with which a given non-scientist writer trundles forth her tawdry little souvenirs of cognition from the Other Side Of Campus is enough to make me want to bludgeon this Lott and his lot pulpy with a spade.

I mean honestly. How are we supposed to react to being told 'I always remember [Martin Amis's] observation that everything around us, including ourselves, "was forged in the stars. We are literally made of stardust"'? Actually, that particular mot constitutes an impressive feat of unoriginality: the trite assertion of the profundity of a statement which is itself cripplingly trite. Cliche squared.

Also, offensively, though Lott starts out pretending not to buy into the ghettoization of science fiction writers by scare-quoting 'so-called "real writers"', before long he's laying claim to Kurt Vonnegut as a 'real writer who engages with concepts of physics and technology' and therefore 'written off as a writer of science fiction'. Fuck you very much, Vonnegut's one of ours. And, yes, a real writer.

(On a side note, Lott's list of '"proper" writers who have engaged with technology, physics and cosmology, to a certain extent' signally fails to include the best 'literary' novelist of science currently working: Richard Powers. Powers writes about the interplay of scientific and emotional realities with a range, skill and erudition that Lott should only short out his electric blanket dreaming of.)

In closing, Lott graces us with the (notably ungrammatical) confidence that 'My journey from fiction into science has just begun, and for the first time for several years, I feel genuinely excited by a subject. Because science is at the heart of life, that is to say, who we are, and as such any novelist who ignores it is turning their back on one of the most profound ways of seeing that we possess.'

So at least we have that to look forward to.

What Happens When Good Desktop Publishing Software Goes Bad? Only The Sarah Teather Knows

We got our campaign leaflet today from Sarah Teather, our local (Brent) Lib Dem MP. Words truly cannot do justice to its crapness, which easily outstrips that of your average 3rd-grade classroom newsletter. Had I a scanner I would share; as it is you'll have to settle for my description.

The header, which reads in rather Yodaic fashion 'On Kilburn FOCUS', is adorned with the motto '"Here to help you all year round" Sarah Teather', reproduced in La Teather's pudgy girlish script. The headline 'Sarah Teather fights for Kilburn' is enlivened by the addition of clip art depicting the word 'ACTION' in a wobbly black cloud with dust puffs shooting out, apparently representing some kind of scuffle. This is supported by a large photograph, captioned 'Sarah Teather has welcomed more police for Kilburn', featuring ST in what looks like a little red riding hood, goggling in slack-jawed profile as Charles Kennedy has a truculent-looking word with a bobby.

Badly proofread and even worse laid out, the leaflet features no less than six photos of La Teath, including another on the back from the same Charlie 'n' Bobby shoot, this time with an overexposed Kennedy looking alarmed to find his head is dissolving into air.

Many snippets of information are enclosed in little graphic boxes, some of which are cunningly designed with jagged edges and drop-shadows, as if they were torn scraps of paper.

My favorite feature of the whole screaming fiasco, however, is the bar graph that shows 2003 by-election results above the beguilingly messianic caption 'Only the Sarah Teather can beat Labour here.' On the verso, where they've inexplicably reproduced the same graph, as well as here, they've sanitized the caption to read 'Only the Lib Dems...' I like it so much better the other way.

3 Small Items From The World of Health

From, the none-less-surprising news that Health Savings Accounts, the Bush Administration's jaw-droppingly ill-conceived privatized answer to the rising cost of health coverage, will do pretty much jack for the aforementioned millions of uninsured Americans. Think of all the time and money they could have saved on research if they had just fucking asked me.

And from all over the damn place, the somewhat-more-surprising intelligence that obesity may actually be significantly less deadly than previously shrieked. Given the terrifying prevalence of obesity in the States, this, if true, can only be brilliant news. I do really wonder, though, about the data behind the strangely vague claim that being somewhat overweight 'lessens risk of early death'. This sounds to me very much like what in the study report will have been a statistical observation, sans aetiology, and which the ever-credulous popular health press is pleased to interpret as 'Flab Proven Armor Against Reaper's Scythe!' My personal jury is out, pending further data.

A propos of which, a slightly older bit of terrifying medicaliana: it appears that a new strain of MRSA has broken out in California, which was picked up outside of hospital and which causes necrotizing fasciitis, aka flesh-eating disease. I bring this up because NF is the only case I can remember in my life where the lurid name and scare status accorded by the media are in fact barely commensurate with the actual terror of the disease itself. NF is a scary-ass Stephen-King-inspired horrorshow of a bug, and we must all pray we never get it through any wild and imprudent behavior such as, oh, walking in a field while we have a cut. I am very, very scared of necrotizing fasciitis.

Life: Is It In Fact Fair?

Ever notice that the only people who ever say 'Life isn't fair' are people on the happy end of the unfairness? When I was a kid, it wasn't me telling myself that to soothe the sting of some familial injustice, it was my parents saying it to shut me up. That's the purpose of 'Life isn't fair': to shut up the people who might otherwise presume to imagine they deserve better, by making them think the circumstances of their infelicity are beyond human control. It's not we who are unfair, you see, it's Life.

On my health policy listserv, there lurks a libertarianoid toad among the well-meaning liberals. He takes great delight in trotting out at every opportunity lengthy but dimly-understood free-market arguments for leaving the American healthcare system in the hands of the private insurance industry jackals. Usually it's easy to dismiss his arrant nonsense for the unreflective regurgitated cant it is, and he's pretty generally ignored on the list.

But yesterday into the debate over the NYC Health Security Act (see below), the toad injected the following statement of principle: '*Life is not fair* and people should look out for their own health care, it is not the government's responsibility to provide it.'

The unapologetic heartlessness of this, coming from a future doctor no less, took my breath away. People should look after their own health care. And if they can't? Presumably they should die. Life is not fair.

The truth, of course, a thousand times duh, is that the vast majority of the 'unfairness' Toad-Boy attributes to Life is in fact the direct result of human endeavor. Material factors cause poverty, unemployment and ill health, in infinitely greater measure than does, say, a random spin of the genetic wheel. Material conditions are the result of human activity, and can be altered by same.

The 43-odd million uninsured Americans are that way because of the material, i.e., privatized capitalist, structure of our healthcare system. That structure is contingent, as evidenced by the fact that not all nations have developed the same one. Therefore it is mutable. Now, you may think it's the best of all possible structures, which is a different (if equally wrong) argument. You may not think it should be changed, or feel like getting off your ass to try to change it. But don't try to tell me that it is inherently unchangeable, that the plight of 15% of the American population is the immutable result of some ineluctable existential anti-levelling effect.

What 'Life isn't fair' really means is, 'The way life is currently suits me fine. Sucks for you.' In medicine, as in the rest of human society, that's a whole world of not good enough.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

At What Price 126,000 Insured?

In New York, my home city and very likely the center of the human universe, the city council is debating a bill called the NYC Health Care Security Act, which 'would require certain businesses to either provide their employees with health insurance or pay a fee to a city-wide fund to provide these employees with health insurance. The bill would affect medium and large businesses in the following five sectors: construction, building services, industrial laundries, groceries, and hotels. It would help 126,000 currently uninsured persons to become insured and would provide security to 446,000 people who currently have health insurance but might lose it. The bill would protect responsible businesses from unfair competition from businesses like WalMart who do not provide health insurance to their employees, thereby preventing a "race to the bottom".'

For context, consider that 1.8 million New Yorkers (in a city of 8 million) have no health insurance, of which 1 million either work full-time or have immediate family members who do. OK, so right there, nearly half the uninsured are left out of consideration by this bill because they're unemployed. Of the remaining million currently uninsured, only 126,000 would actually gain insurance from this bill. Which, I grant you, is a lot of people. But the question is, what's the political cost of supporting the bill, and is it justified by the gain of covering this tiny tranche of the uninsured population?

That may sound heartless, but here's what I'm getting at. For those of us who support a single-payer, universal healthcare system, breaking the irrational, philosophically contingent and deeply harmful bond between health coverage and employment is a critical step on the road to getting all Americans covered.

If we rally in support of this bill (Wednesday, May 4th, 1pm - 2pm, City Hall), we come out in favor of a reform that, yes, would provide relief for an objectively large number of currently uninsured workers as well as curbing scummy business practices by WalMart et al., but would do bupkis for remaining 1.7 million employed and jobless uninsured, and, crucially, would shore up the connection between health coverage and employment.

Is it worth it? I'm genuinely torn. It really does seem cruel not to support a measure that would provide coverage to so many people currently at unfair risk of their very lives. As a future doctor, can I justify that? But on the other hand, what's the strategic political cost of supporting this profoundly incomplete stopgap measure? I can't help feeling it amounts to perpetuating the misconceived system that put those 126,000, not to mention their 1.7 million ignored fellow citizens, at such risk in the first place.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Just to Clarify

I am not now, nor have I ever been, a member of the Democratic Party.

Don't Call Them Lesser, Call Them 'Differently Evil'

I was so right not to vote for John Kerry. Won't nobody ever admit it, but I was righter than a big fat bucket of extra-crispy correctness.

It was not without a certain amount of agony that I concluded last fall that my duty lay in not voting for the hypocritical, war-voting, anti-choice-Justice-amenable pile of hairsprayed shite that is John Kerry. I felt the pull, I confess, of the colossal tide of lesser-evilism that inundated liberal America leading up to the election. Yes, no doubt Kerry was eville, but was the Bush admin not eville squared? This at any rate was the refrain shouted at me by all my Dem-voting friends and family, who clung pathetically to the spar of believing if the Dems only got in, by hook or by crook, then they'd get back to liberal business as usual, erect a bullet-proof plexiglas dome around Roe v. Wade, stop beating the crap out of starving foreign children, &c.

As I say I felt the tug, pretty much entirely based on visceral repugnance at the idea of a vote of mine in any indirect way fomenting Bush's reelection (though given that I was voting from Blue NY, this was a pretty remote prospect). However, I stood my ground, girded my pro-choice and anti-war loins, and logged my protest vote for Nader, as a vote against the Democrats. And fuck but was I right.

Have the Dems come courting me and my poor sold-out principles? Did I churlishly turn my back on the party that deep down really had my best interests at heart? Nuh, and a world of unh. Since their defeat, the Dems have skated rightward with a speed that astonishes even jaded old me. By January they'd recruited Howard 'Scary Shouty' Dean and Hillary 'Words Do Not Suffice' Clinton to lead the bold charge to embrace the misunderstood legions of the anti-choice liberal. While Hillary swanned around popularizing the notion that abortion was 'tragic' and blithely sharing a platform with the arch-Satan Rick Santorum, Dean gathered the Party faithful for cozy tetes-a-tete in which he preached the pressing need for greater tolerance and inclusiveness of those who may not necessarily share our views on individual issues like, oh, say, a woman's right to choose, but who should nonetheless be welcomed into the fold as proponents of a different, but equally valid belief system. After all, who were the Democrats to dictate what their members believed, or for that matter wanted to legislate against? That would be so intolerant.

I had an IM conversation with a now-former friend who had one of these little chats with Dean, and who came away hedgehogged-up with defensive rhetoric about Tolerance and Inclusiveness. I was stunned by both the rancor and the utter incoherence with which she went on the attack, lobbing wild ad-hominem jibes in response to my any attempt to clarify what exactly it would mean for Democrats to 'tolerate' anti-choice party members. Would it just mean not beating them up at fundraisers? Or were we talking about allowing them a seat at the policy-drafting table, a voice in Party position-making on abortion legislation? What form would tolerance take if her newfound comrades began agitating for Democratic anti-choice legislation?

First she said she would try to reason with them, make them see the error of their ways. I remarked that this didn't seem very tolerant or inclusive. Weren't their ways meant to be equally valid? Besides, what if reason didn't work, and they still wanted to vote anti-choice? --Then it wouldn't matter, because there wouldn't be enough of them to vote it in. OK, but what if there were enough? Would she be ok with belonging to a Democratic Party in which there were enough pro-life members to force the Party to support anti-choice legislation?

At that point she stopped even pretending to argue and settled for furiously denouncing me as 'unconstructive'. If I wasn't willing to 'do the work', they didn't want me in the Party anyway. Which was funny, as I had been under the impression that if there was argumentative work being done, it was by me.

At length I called a halt to the flying e-crockery and signed off both IM and our friendship. Behold the face of the New Democrat. Inquiries about where to send Congratulations-on-Your-Overwhelming-Rightness bouquets will be gladly entertained.

The Wearying Exploit(ation)s of Kavalier & Clay

or Why Contemporary Literary Fiction Generally Sucks My Ass

For the purposes of this discussion, let us examine two big problem things about literary novelists in general, with specific exemplary reference to Michael Chabon's Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.

Thing the first: they invariably want to Say Something. There's this tremendous desire to sententiate, to observe the world wisely and express Truths about it. And, in part because they've only got the furniture of the real world to work with, they generally seem to feel they have no choice but to come out and just say things. Which is just about never a good idea. Truths(tm) tend to show up pretty fucking garish and blowsy in direct light; they want metaphor and diffusion filters to maintain their mysterious charm. They want slipping into the reader's cocktail, not delivering on a platter with parsley and flourish.

Chabon and his ilk nah get that. The action in K&C is liberally studded with carefully expatiated observations on the wider implications of it all, both for the characters and for Humanity at large. Here's a chapter-end page opened at random:

The magician seemed to promise that something torn to bits might be mended without a seam, that what had vanished might reappear, that a scattered handful of doves or dust might be reunited by a word, that a paper rose consumed by fire could be made to bloom from a pile of ash. But everyone knew that it was only an illusion. The true magic of this broken world lay in the ability of the things it contained to vanish, to become so thoroughly lost, that they might never have existed in the first place.

Now, the things he actually says may very well be true, apt, or at least competently expressed. His prose is generally pretty decent, very occasionally pause-makingly skilled. (The above not being a very good example; 'the true magic of this broken world'? Come on, man.) But the fact is, on the level of artistic legitimacy, the plot he's constructed (and indeed most any fiction plot I can imagine) can't bear the weight of so much explicit signification. It buckles and warps, and the reader is recruited to help hold it up, while also being condescended to, in a way that I find both presumptuous and terribly tiring.

I think writing in SF and fantasy can make it easier for the novelist to avoid this fate. Not all genre people manage it, by any means, but I think it's made vastly easier for an author who is interested in thinking about Things, if she's able to look at them, and talk about them, sidelong and from strange vantage points. It's not the whole answer, but it's a big chunk. At the very least, like I was saying wrt yon wearying Berger exercise, it provides novel costumes for old themes to masquerade around in, which for my money makes a much more enticing read. Give me a social anxiety in a monster suit any day, or better yet just give me the suit and I'll stick in my own social anxiety de choix.

Thing the second: Specific to the literary novelist who must needs use the Twentieth Century as her Canvas. There is a finite number of historically significant events in the twentieth century, and these people can not resist bumping their little Everymen up against them. I think actually it might be their groping attempt to get at something like the filters I'm talking about, an inchoate desire for a prism to refract their Truths through. But a) they can't leave it alone, they're neurotically anxious to make sure we get it; and b) it's a doomed proposition anyway. You can't squeeze any more juice out of the Holocaust, you just can't. You gain nothing but worn-smooth preconceptions by trotting your protag over that treadmill. You're signposting your landscape with landmarks so familiar they're effectively invisible. There's no cognitive purchase for anything but the always-already recognized. Likewise with McCarthyism, the Summer of Love, the Depression, all these other tourist attractions that novelists (particularly American ones?) can't stop haunting.

The fact of Chabon's having taken comics history as his particular theme park, while again not-unskillfully pulled off, doesn't go very far to mitigate the fundamental imaginative bankruptcy of his program. He tricks out his dark tormented Mitteleuropean refugee hero (complete with cruelly drawn-out family nazitragedy), and his closeted little Brooklyn jewboy sidekick, and he essentially says 'Don't you see? We're all superheroes really. Superheroes are...why, they're us!' That unpardonably sticky Hallmark essentialism glossed up with the minutiae-porn of period flavor and flash-frozen against a flat backdrop of History. There's something hopeless, and tiring, and up-giving, and faintly tawdry about it. You feel like you've been sold something shoddy, in the end.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

What Was That Bit About Memory Again?

Friday night attended 'Vanishing Points', part of the current, obscurely-motivated Fiesta De John Berger in London. It occurred at the German Gymnasium, a strange random rump of a building stranded amidst the King's Cross construction rubble. It was a Free-Form Performance Event co-written by Berger and the Canadian poet Anne Michaels, performed by them and several actors, including the delight that is usually Juliet Stevenson. And it was annoying, and I was sad.

See, it was about trains, and train stations. See what they did there? But there's more. Apparently, the thing about trains and train stations is that they are hotbeds of Memory, Migration, Alienation, Parting, Reunion, Transition, Transformation and probably a couple more tissue-thin tropes you might never suspect if you hadn't, say, been alive and conscious and tripped over a piece of literature at any point in the last two centuries. Berger's voice intoned shopworn observations over a structureless videomontage imperfectly projected on the wall or visible in toto on very small television screens scattered around the space, while the audience milled vaguely and huddled in coats against the glacial chill. Sometimes we desultorily crouched on the floor, but they kept rousing us to shuffle across and peer out various windows (evidently at traffic), or crush through a door down a narrow passageway to see a none-more-kitsch vignette of Old-Timey Luggage piled forlornly in a corner, and on to a too-small room floored with dirt (see? No, I didn't either, though it felt pleasingly bouncy underfoot) where a giant baggy-eyed video projection of Michaels droned dirgeishly for 15 minutes while we busied ourselves constituting a fire hazard. (Sidebar: nothing better calculated to discomfit the expat Norte-Amerkin than hearing a continent-mate exercising our rube accent. Somehow I usually manage to finesse the sound of my own from the inside.) Then back to the big cold room to watch, now in the flesh, Berger (who does look extraordinary for his 79 years), Michaels and several others read from corner-stapled scripts, in that special pitch of wooden portentousness stage actors bring to Evocative Monologues.

And skewer me sideways if we were not, in the course of many other exhausted ruminations, treated to a reading of, I shit you not, Walter Benjamin on the Angel of History. Now, maybe it's just me, but my feeling is once Laurie fucking Anderson has appropriated a notion, a decade earlier no less, that notion has pretty much given all it can to the literary culture. It should be retired with thanks and left to desiccate in peace.

Look, I'm sorry. You can't have trains anymore. You can't have train stations, you can't have Memory and Nostalgia and Immigration, you sure as fuck can't have the Angel of History; these things are done, unless you have something really quite startling to say about them. Which, to my genuine regret, Berger appears not to. The best thing about the whole show came at the end when ropes dropped from the ceiling and a woman cunningly trussed herself in one so as to roll slowly down it to the floor. It was opaque, mesmerising and sexy, and had nothing obviously to do with trains.

Now, I haven't read Berger's criticism (shame), but I am assured that he is a truly worthy thing and a major contributor not just to literature but to the culture at large. Why does the lit-fic establishment think these phthisic efforts are good enough? The Guardian review licked this tired retread up and down.

This is why I am rapidly losing all tolerance for lit-fic. Its imaginative universe contains about five themes, and has no qualms at all about chewing them over and over, chomping down into the same damn toothmarks author on author, decade on decade. At least genre has the grace to feel compelled to invent new monsters to stash its themes in.

Went home afterwards and watched several episodes of Buffy Season Six. They kicked Berger's ass.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Reporting For Jewry Duty

Am goaded by the appearance in G2 of this disgraceful, inflammatory, very likely defamatory load of feculent twaddle by a Luciana Berger (who it turns out, this just in, is Euan Blair's girlfriend). Yet a-fucking-gain, the alarums are raised and the legions called up to face the menace of Anti-Semitism On University Campuses. Is it just me, or is this kind of thing happening oftener, and shriller, all the time?

Swiftly to deal with Berger's disgusting and craven insinuations (surely not outright accusations; I mean, wouldn't that be defamation?) of 'leftwing anti-semitism':
  • the SWP seeking to ban Jewish student societies in the 70s and 80s? Um, Shred One of evidence please?
  • 'spat at for being Jewish'? Details? By whom? Did the spitter say anything amounting to 'This is for being Jewish' before, during or after spitting? If so, I am happy (so to speak) to concede that this was an anti-semitic act, and of course utterly foul and reprehensible. But I'm sorry, you don't get the luxury of just throwing a statement like that out there naked of the slightest context or corroborating fact. No one does.
  • 'anti-semitic whispers rocked the NUS': again, indictment by nebulous assertion (not to mention mixed metaphor). What was whispered? By whom?
  • And, of course, the mack daddy of Zionist scare tactics, the equation of anti-Zionism with anti-semitism, here put over with even cacker hands than usual:
  • 'Many people claim that being anti-Israel/Zionist isn't being anti-semitic. But why does hatred of Israel lead them to turn a blind eye to the Protocols on a GUPS pamphlet? Furthermore, while the UJS has always preached a two-state solution and peace, time and time again we see others reject it. This is evident in the attack on a UJS peace stall at the European Social Forum. University authorities are also dismissive of these issues - look at the Israeli boycot [sic] motions put to this month's Association of University Teachers conference.'

    The logical idiocies in this passage are legion. Who connected 'hatred of Israel' with tolerance for the alleged (I think; it's unclear whether she's claiming the pamphlet actually contained the Protocols or is simply equating text characterized as 'the typical anti-semitic work' with the Protocols) appearance of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in a GUPS pamphlet (which would of course be an appalling and censureworthy act)? Only Berger. She's produced anti-Zionism out of nowhere as a whipping boy. This is even more calumnious when she elides an attack on a UJS peace stall with the AUT's (entirely nonviolent and not even very radical) Israeli boycott motions.

    It will be clear that I consider not a 'Jew-free', but a Luciana-Berger-free NUS to be an entirely good thing. But let's have a think about these ever-louder hollerings of anti-semitism. A few prime examples from recent months spring to mind:

    1. The day before December's SOAS conference on Resisting Israeli Apartheid, the Guardian reported that the Union of Jewish Students asked the university 'for extra security to ensure the safety of Jewish students on campus.' The cunning histrionics of this, the sheer absurdity of pretending to fear violence from a clutch of lefty academics d'un certain age would be laughable if it weren't so ugly. The UJS protesters who gathered outside the conference handed out leaflets so filled with patently, demonstrably untrue claims as to be surreal. No one tried to hurt them, despite the absence of visible security.

    2. In The United States of Amerikey, the months-long farrago continues at Columbia University over allegations of anti-semitism and academic oppression on the part of several professors in the Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures (MEALAC) department, allegations made most notoriously in the 'documentary film' Columbia Unbecoming. In the end, even the toothless and opposition-packed Ad Hoc Grievance Committee was forced to concede that there was no evidence to support any of the charges made against Joseph Massad or his accused colleagues at MEALAC. They did note, however, that 'unregistered auditors attended Professor Massad's lectures, and their frequent interruptions and hostile asides disturbed many of the students'--i.e., the only suppressive voices in Massad's classroom were Zionist plants. Nonetheless, Columbia's President Bollinger (who voiced his opposition to an earlier Israeli-divestment petition thus: 'The petition alleges human rights abuses and compares Israel to South Africa at the time of apartheid, an analogy I believe is both grotesque and offensive') has made clear from the beginning, not least by invoking the Grievance Committee at all, that he favors the accusers, and has begun making noises about 'upgrading' the faculty at MEALAC.

    On a personal note, I was a student at Columbia during the time covered in the complaints, and from my (Jewish, no less) experience, nothing in this world could be more laughable than the notion of Columbia as an atmosphere hostile to Jews.

    3. And of course, poor Ken Livingstone. Man cannot catch a break. With the fur still flying thick and fast over his utterly non-anti-semitic comments to an Evening Standard journalist, the Mayor was trashed by Jewish leaders for spending '20,000 pounds of public money' (!) on a guide to Jewish London, in which he lauds 'the enormous contributions of generation after generation of Jewish people across all fields of social, political, cultural and economic life.' What exactly do they want from the poor schmuck? Apparently a sterling, decades-long record of anti-racist activism is insufficient to inoculate him against the effects either of his possibly-inconveniently-big mouth or of his insulting munificence and immoderate praise. Damned if you do...

    As an anti-Zionist Jew, I'm perversely moved to take hope from this upsurgence of cry-wolfery. Surely they're feeling on the defensive, or they wouldn't be squawking so loudly or grasping at such very slender straws. Can it be they sense change in the wind?

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