POSEUR ALERT WINNER 2004

“But how to paint or sketch such a genius at substitution [as Jacques Derrida]? One must, one can only catch him, portray him in flight, live, even as he slips away from us. In these sketches we shall catch glimpses of the book’s young hero rushing past from East to West, — in appearance both familiar and mythical: here he is for a start sporting the cap of Jackie Derrida Koogan, as Kid, I translate: lamb-child, the sacrificed, the Jewish baby destined to the renowned Circumcision scene. They steal his foreskin for the wedding with God, in those days he was too young to sign, he could only bleed. This is the origin of the immense theme that runs through his work, behind the words signature, countersignature, breast [sein], seing (contract signed but not countersigned), saint –cutting, stitching — indecisions — Let us continue.” – from the prefatory author’s note in “Portrait of Jacques Derrida as a Young Jewish Saint,” by Helene Cixous, published by Columbia University Press.

POSEUR ALERT RUNNER-UP: “Admittedly, Midge Decter’s biography of Donald Rumsfeld may stand the test of time as a classic achievement in the literature of coprophagia; the vivid yet bulimically svelte anthology of paranoid slanders Ann Coulter has given us in “Treason” has added something innovative to that small, delectable canon of hallucinatory works that also includes Cxe9line’s Bagatelles Pour un Massacre and the unjustly anonymous Protocols of the Elders of Zion; and the eloquent-as-a-treacle-tart Christopher Hitchens, in a prodigious outpouring of books and articles, has rendered the mental process by which intellectual prostitutes magically change form in alignment with shifting power formations as legibly as few besides Curzio Malaparte have managed since the fall of Mussolini.” – Gary Indiana, Village Voice.

POSEUR ALERT HONORABLE MENTION I: “Yesterday I posted an announcement of my new piece on gay marriage. This piece, I believe, will shift the gay marriage debate from speculation about the future to a discussion of present realities. For that reason, I see it as the most important piece on gay marriage I’ve ever published.” – Stanley Kurtz.

POSEUR ALERT HONORABLE MENTION II: “The value of listening to Brion’s score by itself – with the exception of his thematically tongue-in-cheek “Strings That Tie to You” – is situated in the potency of its corresponding visual nostalgia. This seems to be the logical fate of most film scores, but in the case of Eternal Sunshine, Brion’s insistence on certain themes popping in and out of his textures seems particularly appropriate, as the soundtrack’s fluid matrix performatizes the cinematography’s mind/body collapse: In the film, Brion’s organi-synthgaze postlude “Phone Calls” plays after Joel decides not to try and save his first memory of Clementine, but just to enjoy it. Here, Brion’s score meets Eternal Sunshine’s oculophilia halfway, and fittingly comprises one of the film’s most potent scenes.” – Nick Sylvester, Pitchforkmedia.

VON HOFFMAN AWARD WINNER 2004 (for egregiously bad predictions)

“Kerry Withdrawal Contest: In part for reasons described in the preceding item, Democratic Senator John Kerry, once proclaimed the frontrunner in the press, faces not just defeat but utter humiliation in the New Hampshire primary. Is he really going to soldier on to finish in the single digits and get clobbered by both Howard Dean and Wesley Clark, if not one or more other candidates? Shouldn’t he save his pride (and possible national political future, if only as a VP candidate) by withdrawing from the race before this harsh popular verdict is rendered? … But what can Kerry say that isn’t even more humiliating than seeing it through?” – Mickey Kaus, Slate, December 5, 2003. He was nominated in 2004 and so qualifies.

VON HOFFMAN AWARD RUNNER-UP 2004: “Joe Lieberman has gotten his campaign on track, finally, and is a serious candidate. Bob Graham is an outstanding public servant. Probably among those who are running, just from his experience, has the best experience to be President. He was governor of a big state for eight years and knows what executive power is, and he’s been a very thoughtful senator now for twelve to eighteen years. So I think that he is talented. John Kerry – well, let’s go on. Then you have the other candidates, Sharpton, Braun, Kucinich …” – Bill Bradley, SFPolitics.com interview.

VON HOFFMAN AWARD HONORABLE MENTION: “Blair and Bush ultimately build their case on their personal intuitions, provoked by the Sept. 11 attacks, that something new had appeared in the world. They both concluded, as Bush was to put it, that they had to “rid the world of evil.” But their argument that Islamic extremism is a “global threat” is indefensible. The Islamists can make spectacular attacks on Britain or the United States, but neither country, nor any of the other democracies, is in the slightest danger of being “engulfed” by terrorism, or shaken from its democratic foundations. The Islamists are a challenge to Islamic society itself, but a limited one. Their doctrine will run its course, and eventually be rejected by Muslims as a futile strategy for dealing with the modern world.” – William Pfaff, in an article called “Blair overstates the threat of terrorism,” in the International Herald Tribune, the day before the 3/11 Madrid massacre.

BEGALA AWARD WINNER 2004 (for left-wing hyperbole): “No U.S. president, I expect, will ever appoint a Secretary of the Imagination. But if such a cabinet post ever were created, and Richard Foreman weren’t immediately appointed to it, you’d know that the Republicans were in power. Republicans don’t believe in the imagination, partly because so few of them have one, but mostly because it gets in the way of their chosen work, which is to destroy the human race and the planet. Human beings, who have imaginations, can see a recipe for disaster in the making; Republicans, whose goal in life is to profit from disaster and who don’t give a hoot about human beings, either can’t or won’t. Which is why I personally think they should be exterminated before they cause any more harm.” – Michael Feingold, in the Village Voice.

BEGALA AWARD RUNNER-UP 2004: “Their new health care plan will probably be a return to leeches.” – Maureen Dowd.

BEGALA AWARD HONORABLE MENTION I:“I hope we all realize that, as of November 2nd, gay rights are officially dead. And that from here on we are going to be led even closer to the guillotine.” – Larry Kramer, in a speech to the gay community in Manhattan Sunday night.

BEGALA AWARD HONORABLE MENTION II: “There are some subjects so depressing that we do whatever we can to avoid hearing about them. Along with the results of a certain recent election, the sexual enslavement of children is high on the list.” – Andrew Johnston, TV listings, Time Out New York.

MALKIN AWARD WINNER 2004 (for cliched boilerplate hackery): “Who really cares what Hollywood thinks? All these hacks come out there. Hollywood is controlled by secular Jews who hate Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular. It’s not a secret, OK? And I’m not afraid to say it. That’s why they hate this movie. It’s about Jesus Christ, and it’s about truth. It’s about the messiah. Hollywood likes anal sex. They like to see the public square without nativity scenes. I like families. I like children. They like abortions. I believe in traditional values and restraint. They believe in libertinism. We have nothing in common.” – Bill Donahue, president of the Catholic League, Scarborough Country.

MALKIN AWARD RUNNER-UP 2004: “A generation ago, the big capitalists, who have no morals, as we know, decided to make use of the religious right in their class war against the middle class and against the regulations that were protecting those whom they considered to be their rightful preyx97workers and consumers.” – Jane Smiley, from the classic Slate piece.

MALKIN AWARD HONORABLE MENTION: “There are certain things you want to avoid like an aloof Beacon Hill windsurfer with a crazy gypsy wife, crazed lunatics like Michael Moore sitting in the seat of honor at the convention, shadowy billionaires like George Soros paying for everything — I mean, why that didn’t play in the heartland I’ll never understand.” – Mark Simone, WABC radio host.

THE ART OF TONY KUSHNER

John Lahr’s Tony Kushner profile in this week’s New Yorker isn’t available online, unfortunately — but this interview with Lahr provides a pretty good idea of his attitude toward Kushner’s work, and particularly toward Angels in America, which Lahr holds up as a modern American “masterpiece.”

After reading the Lahr profile, I found myself revisiting Daniel Mendelsohn’s NYRB review of the HBO production of Angels, which offers (to my admittedly biased mind) the most evenhanded look at the artistic strengths and weaknesses of Kushner’s magnum opus. Mendelsohn readily acknowledges the play’s many artistic high points, but he also notes:

. . . much of what seemed crucial about the play [in the early ’90s] seems artificial or even dated now . . . you realize how much the play depends on a cozy kind of politically correct goodwill and the easy prejudices of its audience, and so you realize, too, how often it makes its points not through dramatic logic or motivational coherence, but by means of emotional gimmicks and dramatic fudging.

I think this is right (though I should add that I’ve only seen Angels in the television medium, and presumably many of its weaknesses, particularly the stagey quality of much of the dialogue, would drop away were I to see it as it was originally produced). As Mendelsohn writes, Kushner’s plays has “the bones of a much grander and more important work” — but it never quite achieves greatness, not least because of Kushner’s tendency toward self-congratulation, and his inability to avoid stroking his own, and his audience’s, sense of moral superiority.

THE AGITPROP PROBLEM: This comes across most obviously, Mendelsohn points out, in the case of Joe Pitt, the play’s closeted Mormon Republican:

Indeed, of all the desertions that Angels depicts, none is as striking as the desertion of Joe by his creator. Angels presents many images of suffering . . . [but] each of these characters is, by the end of the play, healed, comforted, or forgiven . . . Of all the sufferers in Angels, only Joe is left alone at the end, the only character who is neither forgiven nor redeemed in a way that conforms to Kushner’s sense of “Perestroika” as a “comedy.”

Why is this? When you look over the cast of characters in Angels and think about whom we’re supposed to sympathize with, and who gets forgiven, you can’t help noticing that the most sympathetic, the “best” characters are either ill, or women, or black, or Jewish. Looking over this rather PC list, it occurs to you to wonder whether, in the worldview of this play’s creator, the reason why Joe Pitt, who alone of the characters is the most genuinely and interestingly torn, who in fact seeks love the hardest and suffers the most for self-knowledge, can’t be forgiven by his creator, and is the only character who goes unredeemed in some way at the end of the play, is that he’s a healthy, uninfected, white, Anglo-Saxon, male Christian. This in turn makes you realize how much of the second part of this play depends, from the in-joke of San Francisco as Heaven to the closing scene in which Prior addresses the audience and in a valedictory blessing vapidly declares us all to be “fabulous creatures, each and every one,” on a certain set of glib, feel-good, politically correct gay assumptions about the world, assumptions that in the end undercut the ambitions and, occasionally, the pretensions of what has come before . . .

It’s this inability not to pander to his audience (or to his own prejudices), I think, that leaves Kushner stuck halfway to true artistic greatness, unable to go the rest of the distance. You can see a similar limitation at work in Kushner’s election-time play-in-progress, in which Laura Bush confronts first the ghosts of dead Iraqi children and then, in another scene, Kushner himself. A bad left-wing playwright (Tim Robbins, anyone?) would have simply made the First Lady a cackling villain or a pathetic dupe, but Kushner is better than that — his Laura Bush is clever and witty and sharp and interesting, his Laura Bush quotes Shakespeare and Dostoevsky and is even allowed to get the better of Kushner, for a moment or two, in their face-off, and you can feel the character almost slipping away from Kushner, almost departing the stale agitprop routine he has devised and becoming someone real, someone full-fledged and interesting in spite of being white and Christian and Republican and all the rest of it . . . and then Kushner snaps her back into place, pulls the scene back into harness, and it ends with a monologue in which the actress Kirsten Johnson imagines the UN General Assembly (that great embodiment of suffering humanity, as we all know) rising up against Bush, “ablaze with Life’s revulsion at Death and at Death’s astounded, clueless little minion.”

Which is to say, it ends in polemic, in choir-preaching, and in the expression of ideas perfectly tailored to the prejudices of Kushner’s audiences (the Laura-Tony confrontation first played out at a MoveOn.org benefit). Which is where Angels in America ends, ultimately, with its one Republican, Middle American, Christian character abandoned and everyone else safely “fabulous.”

And which, I think, is where Kushner himself ends (at least in his work to date), trapped somewhere between Tim Robbins and Dostoevsky, his artistic aspirations tangled hopelessly in the nets of his politics.

— Ross

DOUTHAT-MANIA!

x93The fact that you make me so angry only increases your hotness, quite frankly.x94 More feedback on the Letters Page.

STILL EMERGING: Don’t get glib, Republicans. Judis and Texeira are righter than you think about “the emerging Democratic majority.” Mark Schmitt offers one way to get there.
Reihan

A LATINO RACE?

x93Like it or not, nearly half of the Latino population considers itself a race.x94 So writes Ian Haney Lxf3pez, a professor at Boalt Hall. Dispiriting is the word that comes to mind.

Since the Gore defeat in 2000, left-liberals in the US have turned away from identity politics, just as Michael Lind and Todd Gitlin among others recommended in the mid-1990s. You could say that this was one of the few unambiguous intellectual victories of American conservatives, except that devotees of Old Left class politics provided much of the ammunition. At first, the multicultis blasted the likes of Lind and Gitlin as crypto-racists or, worse yet, crypto-conservatives, but fear of Bush ended all of that. The most aggressive proponents of the multicultural world-viewx97that America is a congeries of x93culturesx94 defined by race, and that said x93culturesx94 are entitled to proportional representation in key institutions, if not some kind of quasi-sovereigntyx97were cowed by electoral logic. Somehow, the vast majority of Americans, x93people of colorx94 included, didnx92t buy the implicit anti-Americanism, to say nothing of the illiberalism, of this profoundly odious world-view, and so the multicultis remained silent as the grave.

Banished to their redoubts in the universities, the multicultis never gave up hope. Theyx92ve been plotting a triumphant return. The hope was that it would happen now, under a newly elected Democratic administration. Because that didnx92t work out, some have grown impatient and are jumping the gun. My guess is that Lxf3pez falls in that category. Far from presenting the x93factx94 of an x93emerging Latino racex94 dispassionately, he champions it with verve. One wonders if he considers those Latinos who identify as white or black or Asian as somehow less authentic.

RACIALIZATION FOR FUN AND PROFIT: It had been my understanding, admittedly crude, that x93racializationx94 is a tragedyx97that far beyond making a trivial distinction, ascribing racial difference to an outgroup was to cause a serious harm, to cement an exclusion in a thoroughgoing and profound way. Hence the still very low rate of intermarriage between black and non-black Americans, particularly when compared to intermarriage rates between various ethnic groups of European origin. Latinos and East Asians have followed a more x93Europeanx94 pattern, thus suggesting that the relevant color line in this country remains that separating black from non-black.

While itx92s true that segregation and a lack of income mobility, both exacerbated by mass immigration, have driven the x93racializationx94 of Mexican American communities in California and the Southwest, itx92s not clear that this makes Latinos a x93race.x94 Rather, Ix92d say that these communities are facing a social crisis that demands serious revisions to social policy, not nationalist posturing from the likes of Lxf3pez.

The notion that the Census Bureau merely describes x93sociological realityx94 by codifying race is flatly absurd. The x93ethnoracial pentagonx94 drives and then reinforces a process initiated by political entrepreneurs like Lxf3pez. It manufactures x93sociological reality.x94 It sharpens divisions, and only a handful of interpreters and middlemenx97in the social-services industry, among the marketing gurus, and, of course, among the professorsx97stand to benefit. Donx92t let it happen.
Reihan

THE PROPER CARE AND FEEDING OF LEVIATHAN

Will Wilkinson of the Cato Institute slays the beast that is x93starve the beastx94x97the fanciful notion, advanced by a number of very smart people who ought to know better, that a revenue collapse driven by tax cuts will automatically lead to steep spending cuts. Drawing on the work of William Niskanen and Peter Van Doren, Wilkinson offers a far more plausible hypothesis:

When current spending is financed by current taxes, voters see it as their money being spent, and so are more motivated to be frugal. But when current spending is financed by debt, voters see it as future voters’ money being spent. If voters prefer to benefit now and have some one else pay later, there is no good reason to think legislators will see deficits as a reason to restrain themselves.

And so the fiscal strategy of the supply-siders has been exactly as counterproductive as the root-canal Republicans, the great Dick Darman among them, said it would be.

Read the op-ed and see why Wilkinson is the best thing to hit Cato since the bottomless largesse of some unnamed silver-haired tycoon.

TEARS OF A CLOWN: Imagine a papier-mxe2chxe9 mask with a wind-up device that would both a) play the melody from x93Tears of a Clownx94 and b) slowly lower a small papier-mxe2chxe9 x93tear,x94 painted light blue, from the x93eyex94 of the mask, to which itx92d be attached by a slender thread, to the ground. This, to my mind, would be the most terrifying Halloween costume of all. Please do not wear it in my presence. I might die.

MICHAEL LIND IS MAKING SENSE: The Democrats have a Greater New England problem. At one point, Lind draws a parallel between John Kerry and Charles Sumner. Fortunately, Zell Miller was never in a position to savagely beat John Kerry with a shillelaghx97but really, who thinks he wouldnx92t have if given half a chance?

I should add that I owe Michael Lind a lot. The Next American Nation sold me on the value of reading. I never would have picked up The New Republic otherwise, and I never would have started reading Andrew Sullivan. Instead, Ix92d be in the state pen, organizing a ferocious Afro-Asian gang to do battle with white supremacists and the Gangster Disciples. In homage to the historic Bandung Conference, a key event in the formation of the Non-Aligned Movement, the gang would be called x93the Bandung Brigade,x94 and wex92d perform an Electric Slide-inspired boogaloo called x93the Non-Aligned Movementx94 to strike fear in the hearts of our enemies. In addition, wex92d also sharpen cutlery and threaten to make x93chow funx94 of our enemies. Everybody Wang Chung tonight, for tomorrow there will be hell to pay.

x94SOUTHERN BARBARIAN MONKEYx94: In my never-ending quest for any and all information pertaining to monkeys, creatures I resemble in nearly all crucial respects, reckless disregard for the human taboo against going pantless in public among them, Ix92ve come upon an article, x93From Protean Ape to Handsome Saint: The Monkey King,x94 by Whalen Lai (Asian Folklore Studies, Vol. 53, No. 1., pp. 29-65.). The abstract reads as follows:

The novel Monkey or Journey to the West tells of a simianx92s revolt against Heaven, of its defeat by the Buddha, and of its later being recruited as a pilgrim to protect the monk Tripitaka on his quest for scriptures in India. This essay traces the Monkeyx92s background to a) a mythic battle between a land deity and a water deity; b) a myth about an aboriginal in a medieval forest who is converted by Buddhist missionaries and becomes a saint who protects his new faith, just as St. Christopher, originally a subhuman Dog-man in the forest, became the patron saint of travelers; c) a folk Zen parody of the Sixth Patriarch Huineng (who was called a x93southern babarian monkeyx94); d) an ancient tradition about the Chinese Titansx97the demigods of Xiax97striking back at the Zhou god of Heaven that displaced them. The appendix goes into the folkore of the Frog, a chthonic deity kept alive among southern non-Chinese aboriginals.

Note the striking parallels to our own time. In his penetrating analysis of the presidential race, x93How Southern Barbarian Monkey Really Won,x94 Mark Danner summons the spirit of the Frogx97inhaled in smokable formx97to outline the various ways in which Bushx92s relentless demonization of the x93land deityx94 led him to victory. Ross has dismissed this one out of hand.
Reihan

AWARD WINNERS 2004

Here they are. Or at least the first batch. Out of respect for the recently deceased, I’m renaming the Sontag awards – for moral equivalence in the war on terror – after Michael Moore, who once compared the Jihadist and Baathist thugs in Iraq to the Minutemen. But first … the right-wing nutcases, named after famed National Review bigot, John Derbyshire. And, yes, he had a great year in 2004, managing to win his eponymously named prize. More award winners in the coming days. Stay tuned.

DERBYSHIRE AWARD WINNER 2004: “My mental state these past few days: 1. The Abu Ghraib “scandal”: Good. Kick one for me. But bad discipline in the military (taking the pictures, I mean). Let’s have a couple of courts martial for appearance’s sake. Maximum sentence: 30 days CB.” – John Derbyshire, May 9, rejoicing in the torturing and murder of Iraqi prisoners.

DERBYSHIRE AWARD RUNNER-UP 2004: “If you use that logic and reasoning, that means every car bomb in Iraq would be an in-kind contribution to John Kerry.” – Mark Hyman, vice president the Sinclair Broadcast Group, October 12, defending himself against the charge that the broadcasting of an anti-Kerry propaganda movie amounts to an in-kind contribution to the Bush campaign.

DERBYSHIRE AWARD HONORABLE MENTION I: “I’m trying to find the correct name for it … this utter absolute, asinine, idiotic stupidity of men marrying men. … I’ve never seen a man in my life I wanted to marry. And I’m gonna be blunt and plain; if one ever looks at me like that, I’m gonna kill him and tell God he died.” – televangelist Jimmy Swaggart, September 9.

DERBYSHIRE AWARD HONORABLE MENTION II: “[Richard] Perle’s depiction of his delight at first meeting the future president reads like Fagin relating his initial encounter with the young Oliver Twist.” – Patrick Buchanan, in his new book on the neocons.

MOORE AWARD WINNER 2004: “Tillman, probably acting out his nationalist-patriotic fantasies forged in years of exposure to Clint Eastwood and Rambo movies, decided to insert himself into a conflict he didn’t need to insert himself into. It wasn’t like he was defending the East coast from an invasion of a foreign power. THAT would have been heroic and laudable. What he did was make himself useful to a foreign invading army, and he paid for it. It’s hard to say I have any sympathy for his death because I don’t feel like his “service” was necessary. He wasn’t defending me, nor was he defending the Afghani people. He was acting out his macho, patriotic crap and I guess someone with a bigger gun did him in.” – from the Daily Collegian in New England.

MOORE AWARD RUNNER-UP 2004: “The Iraqi killer of Reserve Navy Lt. Kylan Jones-Huffman has been brought to justice in an Iraqi court. Although he has since changed his story, he at one point admitted to killing Jones-Huffman with a bullet through the back of the neck while the latter was stuck in traffic in downtown Hilla. The assassin said that he felt that Jones-Huffman “looked Jewish.” The fruits of hatred sowed in the Middle East by aggressive and expansionist Israeli policies in the West Bank and Gaza against the Palestinians and in south Lebanon against Shiites continue to be harvested by Americans.” – Juan Cole.

MOORE AWARD HONORABLE MENTION I: “Alan (caller to Seattle’s KUOW): I am not afraid to speak out until I am shot down in the streets because I am a patriot … The president of the United States should be held before the court of international law for treason along with his administration. Lewis Lapham: I agree with everything Alan just said… Good for Alan.” You can hear the radio show here.

MOORE AWARD HONORABLE MENTION II: “I could not help but think about the hurt and fear that would cause a group of men to commit suicide by flying planes into the World Trade Center buildings. Anger as a byproduct of hurt and fear was not a foreign concept to me.” – Jayson Blair, identifying with the mass-murderers of 9/11 on the day it happened, in his new book, “Burning Down My Masters’ House.”

— Andrew