Thursday, November 27, 2008


I think of all the images in the Spiegel photo series on last night's terror attacks in Mumbai, this is the one that most effectively sums it up.

It simply shows what's left behind when people going about their daily business are mown down by fanatics.


(Image source.)

[UPDATE]: Fitting words for the above picture from Ophelia.

Lost in Theory

At the LRB, Elif Batuman has an enjoyable review of a new book, Philosophy in Turbulent Times: Canguilhem, Sartre, Foucault, Althusser, Deleuze, Derrida by Elisabeth Roudinesco.

The review is enjoyable; the book sounds pretty tedious, as is suggested by this excerpt, provided by Batuman:

Never has psychological suffering been more intense: solitude, use of mind-altering drugs, boredom, fatigue, dieting, obesity, the medicalisation of every second of existence . . . As for social suffering . . . it seems to be constantly on the rise, against a background of youth unemployment and tragic factory closings.

   Set free from the shackles of morality, sex is experienced not as the correlate of desire, but as performance, as gymnastics, as hygiene for the organs . . . How does one climax, and bring one’s partner to climax? What is the ideal size of the vagina, the correct length of the penis? How often? How many partners in a lifetime, in a week, in a single day, minute by minute? . . . It would seem impossible not to detect, in this curious psychologisation of existence . . . that is contributing to the rise of depoliticisation, the most insidious expression of what Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze called ‘little everyday fascism’.

This sort of 'we've never had it so bad' declaration is tiresome enough--seriously, don't philosophers ever read any history?--but its irritatant factor is multiplied by Roudinesco's bizarre (but all-too-typical) mis-application of the word 'fascism'.

As I've pointed out before at some length, there is a particular kind of cultural-studies mindset that has adopted the f-word essentially to refer to anything deemed uncomfortable, inconvenient or, somehow, Bad.

More recently, we have seen this meme on the right, where key aspects of liberal thinking have been labelled, yes, fascism. (Excellent responses are available from Dave Neiwert.)

It should be obvious that the devaluation of the term is not only an analytical problem, but--considering the very real horror of actual fascism (old and new)--isn't it a bit galling to have the term thrown around with such wild abandon to refer to the comparatively genteel problems of Western orgasm addicts?

(Referring to Roudinesco's discussion of Deleuze, Batuman rightly wonders, 'More troubling yet, does 'fascism' in this discourse simply consist of being told what to do, for whatever reason, by anyone at all? Is it always like Sylvia Plath said: Daddy is "a man in black with a Meinkampf look"?')

Moreover: in what world is Roudinesco living? Does she really think that people experience sex 'as hygiene for the organs'? (Or as 'gymnastics'? Just where is she spending her time?! Sounds like fun!) Should we really regret the advance of medical science? Should we really elevate typical psychological dissatisfactions to 'fascism' (however 'little' and 'everyday'?). Is this not a tremendous impoverishment of our vocabulary for understanding the world?

Batuman is also sceptical:

A peculiar claim: how can Roudinesco possibly know whether more psychological and social suffering is caused by obesity, youth unemployment, factory closures and – one rather admires the leap – the hygienisation of sex, than, say, by the bubonic plague, the Spanish Inquisition or the slave trade? And haven’t any of our gains offset our losses? Thanks to hygienisation, sex has become less spontaneous . . . but we don’t all have syphilis.


‘Health fascism’, which appears in the OED, does of course have an empirical reality. It’s not great to be told that one should quit smoking, cut down on coffee, go to the gym more often and regularly submit to screenings for various cancers. Nobody likes to sit on a metal table, wearing a paper ‘gown’, awaiting the arrival of a doctor who is increasingly likely to be younger than oneself. But who is the fascist here: the medical institution or the human body? What can doctors do if our bodies crave things which are harmful to us?

Nor, as she correctly points out, is this a new problem:

Roudinesco seems to be describing not a topical crisis but a matter of ‘human nature’ in the longue durée. It’s true that Flaubert, whom some Marxists consider to be a Marxist visionary, did his share of railing against modern times; his complaints are, in their details, historically specific, and would provide material for an interesting Foucauldian history of complaining: when, exactly, did children become so unbearable? (Certainly, no later than the 18th century, and probably earlier. ‘Il n’y a plus d’enfants!’ Molière wrote in 1673.) But Flaubert’s primary target was larger, more amorphous, nearly timeless. ‘Human stupidity,’ he wrote in 1875, ‘is a bottomless abyss, and the ocean I see from my window seems to me quite small in comparison.’ The implication is less that we have scaled historic heights of catastrophism, stupidity and complaining, than that humans have long been a catastrophic, stupid bunch of complainers.

I have, first of all, to thank Bautman for bringing that marvellous Flaubert quote to my attention. And her conclusion there has a lot to commend it.

However, as is typical of a certain kind of 'critical perspective' these days, Roudinesco is clearly not a fan either of the notion 'human nature' or of the body:

Roudinesco, however, attributes our stupidity, like our unhappiness, to political causes – specifically, to fascism. She is a strong advocate of ‘politicisation’, which appears to mean the redescription of everything one doesn’t like in terms of the Third Reich. Thus cognitive science, which uses ‘biological, neuronal or cerebral reasons to “explain” the supposedly innate differences between the sexes and the races’, turns out to be a mere step away from eugenics, which is synonymous with . . . Nazism!

If it were simply Roudinesco who thought this way, this wouldn't be a problem; however, this kind of equivalence (biological approaches to human thought and behaviour = fascism) is remarkably common in the humanities and social sciences.

Strangely enough, however, when some real brutality shows up, Roudinesco conceals it behind layers of theoretical posturing. Batuman describes Roudinesco's approach to understanding Louis Althusser's killing of his wife Hélène:

One can excuse Althusser for writing an unbalanced book, because he was deeply unbalanced when he wrote it. But Roudinesco, who refuses to treat people like objects or books as symptoms, is obliged to read his memoir as a heroic assertion of human autonomy. Althusser, she explains, was answering the imperative to transform the strangulation of Hélène ‘into a work’: ‘otherwise it would be endlessly reproduced, recounted, disseminated, falsified, interpreted, by countless witnesses or non-witnesses’ who would audaciously speak in place of the true ‘author of the crime’.


Nonetheless, having posited the murder of Hélène as a ‘work’, Roudinesco sets about reconciling it with the rest of Althusser’s output: viz, books of Marxist philosophy. [...] On this premise, Roudinesco sets out to rationalise Althusser’s spousal misdeeds by subjugating them to the ‘Louis Althusser’ which holds together a group of politico-philosophical texts. For example, she suggests that womanising – particularly, a long-term affair with a sexy Italian translator – was the method by which Althusser ‘learned to detach himself from the Stalinist tradition of Communism, and thus to read the works of Marx another way.’


I was no more persuaded by Roudinesco’s claim that the Althussers’ marriage ‘was made of the same turmoil, the same putting to death, the same repulsion, the same exaltation and the same fusion that united [Althusser] at the same time with the Communist Party, the asylum and psychoanalytic discourse’; or by Derrida’s characterisation of Althusser as the prisoner of ‘crimes perpetrated in the name of Communism’: ‘the killing of conceptuality, the murder of a woman of the Resistance, a militant of the Communist idea’. To a hygienised American reader, there is something grotesque in this description of a domestic crime as an expression of disillusionment with the Communist Party – or an abstraction on the level of ‘the killing of conceptuality’.

This 'hygienised American reader' has much the same response. And he is, moreover, bewildered by a theoretical position that has to explain Althusser's affair with a 'sexy Italian translator' via a somewhat tortured-sounding effort to link it to a transcendence of Stalinist understandings of Communism.

I mean...isn't there perhaps a, you know, simpler explanation? (It's not as if the marital transgressions of normal mortals typically require such high-flown analysis, especially when they involve the words 'sexy' and 'Italian'.)

In any case, I recommend the whole of Batuman's essay.

And this is true even if Alex Callinicos remains unconvinced. In a testy letter in the current LRB, he takes Batuman to task for allegedly getting some of her facts wrong, such as precisely in which book Deleuze and Guattari introduced the theoretical concept of the 'rhizome' (a.k.a., 'laterally proliferating heterogeneity', doncha know).

I'm far from an expert on their work (to be honest I refuse to invest the enormous effort into desciphering their mystifying prose unless someone can explain to me quickly and clearly why it might be worth doing so), but this seems a minor point in response to her (rather mild) criticisms of their work.

(By the way, I very much enjoyed Batuman digging out the following gem from D&G: '“Be the pink panther,” said the two authors, “and may your loves be like the wasp and the orchid, the cat and the baboon”. Yeah.)

He also disagrees with her claim (or rather 'her persistent repetition of the vulgar charge') that Foucault was a 'conspiracy theorist'. Instead, he says,
Foucault in his middle period affirms the omnipresence of power, but he conceptualises power as non-intentional, constituting subjects rather than expressing subjectivity, crystallising around unanticipated consequences.
This is a plausible summation of Foucault's thinking. Unfortunately, his texts and thinking--while often intellectually stimulating (I made use of some of his ideas in my book)--are often so vague as to allow many other kinds of interpretations, as Lawrence Stone pointed out long ago. And one of these interpretations has been a tendency toward a one-sided and at least quasi-conspiratorial view of things like medicine and science.

Moreover, while I am no fan of conspiracy theories, I think even they are often more convincing than the omnipresent, disembodied, subject-constituting 'power' that Foucault sometimes seemed to be positing. Responding to criticism of Foucault by proclaiming one of his theory's greatest weaknesses doesn't seem to me to be the best strategy, Dr. Callinicos.

Batuman blogs, by the way, here.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Obama's sister on German TV

Apparently, there was a major stand off the other night on German TV between Barack Obama's half sister Auma and ridiculous former punk Countess Gloria von Thurn und Taxis - who, after spending the crazy 1990s with pink hair and dressed in a latex dirndl has turned to prim propriety in recent years (good Vanity Fair article on her "conversion" here). According to her Royal Whatever, arranged marriages are a good thing and condoms do not prevent HIV infection.

You don't want to know. This is Germany in 2008.

But - We have a remedy (We have .... a remedy):

Underwater, no one can hear you scream

I'm quite sure that a Magnapinna squid--like the one caught unexpectedly on camera by a Shell remote submersible about 2.5 km underwater--wishes me no harm.

But still, why is it that seeing one somehow makes me think, even momentarily, that I want to be sure I know how my ship's automatic self-destruct system functions?

Like, just in case, you know?

(Via Institute of Jurassic Technology)

Coolest. Ad. Ever.

For Nokia’s new N96 Bruce Lee Edition mobile:

(via David Thompson)

Lessons in tenacity

On never giving up:
A restaurant chef has ended up in hospital after a turtle bit his foot to escape the cooking pot in a Hong Kong restaurant — but it will still be cooked this week, according to a news report.

The 60-centimetre wattle-necked, soft-shelled turtle sank its teeth into the chef's foot, during a dash for freedom as it was about to be put in boiling water on Monday, the South China Morning Post reported on Tuesday.

The chef was taken to hospital with a suspected broken toe, while the turtle - a delicacy worth hundreds of dollars - was put back in a cage, having successfully won a temporary reprieve.

(Via The Wife. German language report here.)

All work and no play...

I'm hardly what you'd call a video game freak. I have, however, been an intermittently avid player since about 1977, when we got our first Pong console, and there were periods where things got a bit...obsessive. (Four words: Ultima, Elite, SimCity, Doom.)

I suppose the main thing lacking these days is time; however, I still love the idea of video games and their creative possibilities, and I play the odd demo now and then to see what's going on out there. (My latest discovery--like, a million years after everyone else, I know--is Oddworld. Very cool.)

Hence, I've been enjoying reading the newish Boing Boing gaming blog Offworld, which has a knack for highlighting things that might appeal to even non-hard-core gamers.

Little curiosities like the five-minute art-game Passage, by game designer (and simple-living advocate) James Rohrer. (via)

Or this Counterstrike level based upon Van Gogh paintings:


I also, via Mightygodking, discovered the oddly fascinating Auditorium.

OK. Break's over. Back to work.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Some thoughts on pop-tarts, bad sushi, manga eyes and processed meat

Headbang8 (at Deutschland über Elvis) asks some important questions about The American Way:

Shovel enough Oldsmobiles, Pop-Tarts, Magnavoxes and Cheez-Whiz in my direction, and do I really need to marry the man I love? If my supermarket shelves are well stocked, is it important that the local library's shelves are not?

He also has revealed to me that the 'sushi' that I -- every once in a while, like when travelling in London -- have enjoyed so much is probably something that does not even deserve the name:

Now, I don't want to be one of those insufferable expats who once lived in Japan, and spends the rest of his life scoffing at amateur Japanophiles in the West. But really, Europeans have no fucking clue about Japanese food.

This taste test in the UK asked a respected Japanese chef to rate the food from London's most popular sushi restaurants. None rated above a three out of ten. These offerings achieved the the near-impossible; they made a Japanese person say something rude.

In other Japanophile news, an American woman who refers to herself as 'Magibon' has apparently become a minor phenomenon in Japan by...staring at her webcam, making manga eyes at the viewer and striking cute poses.

I'm not going to embed the video, because I find it somehow too weirdly disturbing, but should you wish, click away on the above link to Tokyomango (via BoingBoing).

Who also informs us:

American processed meats have a huge fan base in Japan. Hot dogs and spam were introduced to Okinawa by American soldiers during the US Occupation. [...] Japan has serious hot dog fever—convenience stores sell at least two different kinds of hot dogs carefully wrapped in plastic, and they even have yakisoba in hot dog buns.

And for reasons I can't explain, it makes me feel better about our lack of authentically good sushi.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Jonestown, 30 years on

To mark the 30th anniversary of the Jonestown mass-murder/suicide, Boing-Boing has offered a useful series of posts looking back at the cult and the shocking series of events that marked its end.

Among them was one that featured a video of a PBS documentary that, if you have some time to spare, is definitely worth watching.

I had grown up knowing about Jonestown (it happened when I was 8), and 'don't drink the Kool-Aid' had quickly become a joking reference to any form of extreme cultish devotion.

However, I don't think I have, before now, really spent time considering where the movement came from and the horrifying details of that fateful day, 18 November 1978.

The documentary is quite a thoughtful, and even in some ways sympathetic, view of the cult's early days. But it packs quite a punch by the end.

I read Haruki Murakami's fascinating book Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche, which focuses on the Aum Shinrikyo cult, last year.

The two movements had very different cultural contexts and explicit notions about the world.

But still, you see a similar appeal attaching to such movements among people searching for something...more?...than the ordinary world provides them with.

These movements are, at the same time, terribly ordinary and terrifyingly strange.

They say it's your birthday (almost)

Since I probably won't get to it on the day itself, here's my somewhat premature commemorative post on The White Album, which was released on 22 November 1968.

Not many videos of tracks from the album out there (I really wanted "Back in the U.S.S.R."), so this rather embarrassing one'll have to do. George don't give a fuck. John at least seems to be trying. I really don't like Paul. Ringo's pretending to work the drums like an unusually single-minded platypus:

And otherwise I, too, adore John Darnielle.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Love, love, love

Declarations of love come in very different forms.

Sweet and melty:

(via Boing-Boing)

Scary, but possibly more practical:

“I will marry you if you bring me a shipful of corpses.”

(Via Mightygodking)

"900 ccs of raw whining power, no outstanding warrants for my arrest"

An excerpt from an interview in The Believer with John Darnielle with which I can, in some way, sympathise:

BLVR: You are revered as a sort of cuddly troubadour.

JD: I was always hoping people were afraid of me.

BLVR: I’m not aware of anyone who’s afraid of you.

JD: Then I’m not doing my job.
Also some thoughts on having musical tastes that most people would not expect:

THE BELIEVER: I think it would surprise many of your fans to hear that you’re a death-metal fan.

JOHN DARNIELLE: I hear that a lot, but the thing is, I don’t know why if you make the kind of music I make you would listen to more of that kind of stuff. [...] Deicide is a band that is single-mindedly focused on hating Christ. Now, a lot of death-metal bands, that’s a part of their ideological arsenal. Deicide is a one-issue candidate; it’s all they’re interested in. And I think they’re charming.

BLVR: Christianity or Christ?

JD: Christ and Christianity, but they like to focus on Christ.

BLVR: They’re opposed to loving your neighbor?

JD: That’s all secondary. Human ideology is secondary, I think, to the sort of Sharks and Jets thing: you guys are the Christians and fuck you—we’re not. Then later I think they developed the whole “we don’t like Christians because they’re weak, we don’t like Christians because of false piety” or whatever. So I had an advance [copy] of the new Deicide, and I was going to transfer it to the iPod, to listen to it on the plane. I put the CD into the Macintosh, and the drive starts doing the “whir whir” that suggests it’s not going to be able to pick up the CD. Fine, I’ll try and eject the CD. No. Press the button. No. Press the button. No. What about the drive? Okay. Force-quit iTunes in order to try and open it. No, iTunes won’t force-quit. Deicide has taken over the computer. I can’t play the CD. I can’t do nothing with it but sit there and wait for my wife, who’s more proficient with the Macintosh than I am, to come home and say, “Umm, shut down the computer, I guess.” It was pretty great, it was like the ghost of the art haunting me.

JD: I never actually shot anybody.

The rest is worth reading.

And just because it's now relevant to the post:

The Mountain Goats, 'Jenny' (From the album All Hail West Texas)

The Mountain Goats, 'See America Right' (from the album Tallahassee)

Previous Mountain Goats references here:

The 'Satanic Messiah' EP
'The Best Ever Death Metal Band Out of Denton' and 'Dance Music'
Daytrotter sessions
'This Year'
'The Sign' (cover, originally by Ace of Base)
'Going to Georgia'
'Sax Rohmer #1'
'Woke Up New'

Sunday Bloody Sunday

Found yesterday, while in pursuit of project-related data:

Riots in St. Giles's

Bow Street--For several Sundays during the summer months, the peaceful inhabitants of St. Giles's and its vicinity were kept in continual alarm by the outrageous conduct of the lower kind of Irish, resident in that neighbourhood, and other parties of Irish who came from Whitechapel , Shadwell, Woolwich, &c. for the express purpose of fighting with those of St. Giles's, in which conflicts much mischief has been frequently done; the savage ferocity of these people (both men and women) inducing them to use bludgeons, knives, cutlasses, rusty swords, shovels, and other dangerous weapons. Complaints of this shocking profanation of the Sabbath were made to the Magistrates, and a strong guard of constables and patroles were ordered to attend, by whom several of the ringleaders were apprehended, and obliged to find bail for their good behaviour, which then had the desired effect of checking the nuisance.

For two or three Sundays past, this practice has been renewed. One of these riots continued almost the whole of Monday last, which being represented to Mr. Read, the Chief Magistrate of this Office, he sent a number of patrole men in the evening, who, notwithstanding they met with great resistance and were assaulted with sticks, brick-bats, &c. took four of the principals in the affray into custody, who were yesterday examined before Mr. Graham, when, appearing to be very able fellows, and not in any particular employ, the Magistrate very properly judged them fit persons to serve his Majesty at sea, and accordingly sent them on board the tender for that purpose: which mode, we understand, will be adopted in future to all others so offending, as the only means of effectually checking such dangerous tumults.

In an age before the Daily Mail, I suppose the Morning Chronicle (Wednesday, 23 September 1807, iss 11966) would have had to suffice.

You don't hear that many references to the 'lower sort of Irish' (both men and women) that often these days.

That's a shame somehow.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The hate. It is good.

I suppose one of the secondary points that I was trying to make in my last post was that we should not be afraid of sneering at people who deserve it.

It can be a zesty, life-affirming experience.

As Charlie Brooker discovers, in the pages of Tatler magazine:

Shaken, I turned to the Little Black Book section, which turned out to be an authoritative A-Z of overprivileged arseholes (most of them still in their early 20s), plus the occasional celeb, rated and compiled by the single biggest group of wankers in the universe.


Or consider "The Hon Wenty Beaumont": "The growl, the growl - girls go weak for the growl ... Utterly divine Christie's kid who enjoys nothing more than playing Pass the Pig during weekends at the family estate in Northumberland or in Saint-Tropez."

In other words, the only thing these waddling bags of arseflesh have going for them is unrestricted access to a vast and unwarranted fortune. Strip away the coins and it reads like a list of the most boring people in Britain.


In summary, it's an entire alternate dimension of shit, a galaxy of streaming-eye fart gas, compressed into a few glossy pages. It will have you alternating between rage, jealousy, bewilderment and distress, before dumping you in a bottomless slough of despond. Buy a copy. No, don't. Stand in a shop flipping through the pages, deliberately fraying each corner as you go. Drink it in. Feel your impotent anger levels peaking. The headrush is good for you.

My point exactly.

Splinter removal, part 2

Ok, so I suppose I should get this out of the way so I can get on with something more useful today.

As I suggested in my post last night taking issue with Nick Cohen's flippant dismissal of evolutionary psychology, my compelling need to respond was partly driven by the fact that I generally admire his writing and, on probably most things, agree with him. He's a thoughtful, original commentator, so I just couldn't let it slide by when that essay seemed like it was written on intellectual autopilot.

In a way that is not the same but somehow similar, the other thing that I haven't quite been able to get out of my head this week is Molly Ivors's accusation that some liberal criticism of Sarah Palin should be seen as misogyny.

I'm a regular reader of Whiskey Fire--where Ivors posts--not least since I feel a strong affinity for left-liberals who know how to use profanity creatively. And we probably agree on most things, such as the notion that liberals (progressives, the left, whatever noun you prefer) should not condescend to people living in rural and small town areas.

But Ivors's posts over the last week on the Palin critiques have bothered me, since I'm not sure that the problem she identifies actually exists--at least, based on the evidence she presents, in the places she says it does--and I wonder whether her suggestions, if acted upon, would be detrimental to the goal (which we seem to share) of keeping the right wing out of power.

Furthermore, both of us here at Obscene Desserts have spent a fair amount of time criticising and mocking Palin, something about which we feel completely justified.

Ivors's first post laid out the basic charge.

Exhibit A of left-liberal misogyny: Keith Olbermann in this episode of Countdown.

Here it is:

Ivors says:

[B]arely 30 seconds in, Keith Olbermann calls Palin, more or less, the Wife of Bath. Olbermann's a smart guy, and I have no issues with his fact-checking of the dates of Harry Potter publication (I did that myself) or the length of her acquaintanceship with McCain. But as a smart guy, he really should be aware of the medieval trope of the woman who will not shut up. Even as you give her more coverage than the VP who, you know, won.

So, the evidence of 'misogyny' is that Olbermann a) says Palin talks a lot, b) gives attention to the clothing issue and c) spends more time talking about her than about Joe Biden.

It occurs to me that we're setting the bar for woman-hating a bit, well...low here. There are good reasons why Olbermann might give her more attention than Biden (that she's given numerous interviews, may be gearing up for a presidential run and, you know, represents extreme political viewpoints that Olbermann finds appalling are three which come to mind), might focus on the Nieman Marcus scandal (it was directly relevant to--and contradictory of--Palin's efforts to present herself as an average woman) and might draw attention to her talkativeness (since, after being shielded from the media, she was suddenly everywhere wanting to talk about everything, and, can we not agree, she does have this knack for tortured, long-winded verbiage that means nothing.)

What I don't see here is what Ivors does:

Here's a hint: you guys think she's hot, plus she gives you a chance to smirk and sneer at women generally for their silly, profligate, Chatty-Cathy ways.

Well, I can't speak for Olbermann, but The Wife and I have spent a lot of time smirking and sneering at Sarah Palin in much the same way he has, and I can assure you that it's not because either of us finds her 'hot'.

I'm wondering if I' know, missing something, since I think you have to invest a fair amount of mental effort to re-interpret Olbermann's comments as criticism of 'women generally' or to believe that he's reviving ancient tropes all in an effort to Silence Women.

Liberal misogyny, exhibit B: an episode of Real Time with Bill Maher.

In particular, Ivors offers this excerpt, apparently chock full of red-hot patriarchy:

Ivors condemns the 'delighted giggles of Maher and Paul Begala' that were 'rightly called out by guests Joe Queenan and Farai Chideya, who noted both the gender and class sneering toward Palin, as well as her scapegoating.'

Let her own people call her a hillbilly: we don't need to. If we're really smarter--and I believe we are--there's no need to go down this road

Starting at about 1:30 here, Queenan points out that, as a local political figure, there's lots of things that can't be laid at her feet. Note his face and that of Chideya, both of whom are not buying into the frat boy chuckles over her ignorance.

I've watched this excerpt a couple of times now, and I'm mystified both by Ivors's condemnation of Maher and Begala as well as by her admiration of Queenan.

Maher and Begala, yes, laugh at Palin, but they see her as symbolic of a broader trend in the Republican party. Palin is, after all, a prime example of the anti-intellectual populism and God-bothering provincialism that an important section of the party (the one that was most 'energised' by Palin) has embraced. When Maher uses the word 'bimbo', he has included not just Palin, but also George W. Bush, Dan Quayle and even Ronald Reagan in that category.

And, while I haven't seen the whole show, Queenan's comments here are the epitome of non-sequitur: OK, Sarah Palin is not responsible for the Iraq War or the financial meltdown or any number of other Really Bad Things.

But...what does that have to do with anything?! As far as I know, not even her most misogynist critics have blamed her for those things.

And if we take Ivors's invitation and read Joe's face for meaning, he also seems singularly unmoved by Begala's comments about the Republican Party's embrace of full-on religious lunacy (i.e., creationism). Should we see that as another fine example of Joe the Journalist standing up to elitist smarty pants like Begala and Maher?

'Just because you're smarter than someone doesn't mean you're better than them', he concludes. Well, chalk me up as a snob, Joe, but I do think that closely considering someone's intelligence (their curiosity about the world, their ability to digest and consider complex concepts, their openness to new ideas, their ability to comment on the kinds of the issues that would be relevant to the job they're seeking) is a good idea when you're going to give them political power.

I'm not actually a huge fan of Maher, though I think he has his moments, but in that exhange he made several good points and Queenan (whom I don't know anything else about) was making very little sense at all.

Thus, I can't see how Begala, Maher or Olbermann deserve the stern warning with which Ivors concludes:

OK, let's have a look:Try to win with some grace, boys. You've beaten back the scary vaginas, whether they were qualified or not, and your penises are safe. For now.

Maybe I'm just a bit deaf when it comes to women-hatin', castration-fearin' commentary, but I think that in this case--based on the examples Ivors provides--I don't think there's any to be heard.

In two subsequent posts, Ivors has sought to clarify her position, partly in response to comments that have both agreed and disagreed, but even the latest one doesn't really bring us much further:

I'm talking about people--primarily Olbermann and Maher, but there are others--who are seizing this moment to sneer at Sarah Palin not because she's a backward-looking ignoramus with Darwinian policies and a vicious, tribal religion, but because she's a pushy woman who won't shut up and her family is declasse.

Let us just ignore the 'Darwinian policies' reference, hoping that it was meant as an ironic comment on Palin's creationist viewpoints rather than another smear linking 'Darwinisim' with reactionary economic policies. (Sigh.)

There might be people who are doing what Ivors says, but she has yet to present any convincing evidence, and if there are left-leaning people who really do equate the kind of innocuous commentary she's quoted by Olbermann and Maher with 'misogyny' (and many of the commenters on her posts agree with her), then I fear they're going to waste their time getting upset over nothing.

And I think Ivors's other concern--that our mockery of Palin will be counterproductive, and this also seemed to be Queenan's point--is unfounded. She says:

[T]he next candidate they bring forward will have more polish, and that can't be the grounds on which the Palins and their ilk are rejected. To do so not only alienates huge sections of the population, but also invites another retrograde asshole onto the national stage.

Well, I think that obviously the criticism of a candidate is going to be at least partly specific to them: i.e., when some more polished Republican candidate comes along then new lines of attack will emerge. I don't see how going after Palin in one way precludes going after another candidate in another way.

On another point we may simply disagree, but to the extent that 'huge sections of the population' adore Sarah Palin, I think they have moved themselves beyond the ability to be attracted to a Democratic Party that I would want to have that name. Mocking Palin has, I think, proven an effective weapon this year, helping to turn her (justifiably) into a millstone around the McCain campaign's neck. She, in the end, alienated large sections of America. That sounds like success for liberalism to me.

And if 'another retrograte asshole' emerges from the GOP (and that's likely, as they have plenty such orifices to spare) they're going to do so whether Olbermann or Maher or you or I laugh at Lady Also. A lot of people in the GOP love Sarah not as a response to Democratic urban elite condescension but rather because they want what she stands for. And what she stands for is not only absurd but also a threat and deserves mockery.

But does laughing at a particular woman mean you are inevitably also laughing at women in general?

Not at all, and I don't think that the particular amount of attention given to Palin is necessarily an expression of hostility to women as such. (Though I'm sure you could find examples of the latter if you look for them.) Ivor's argument that the attention given to her is somehow untoward has unfortunate echoes of Republican complaints that Palin's gaffes and mistakes were given undue attention compared to those of the other candidates.

However, when you consider the scale of Palin's incapacity and the frequency with which she demonstrated her ignorance I think that that attention is perfectly understandable.

Perhaps more to the point: is it wrong to laugh at Sarah Palin not only as an annoying, ignorant person, but also as an annoying, ignorant woman? This is more difficult, perhaps, but I don't think it is either easy or necessary to separate our perceptions of people from their sex.

To an important degree, my views of all of the people in my life (whether positive or negative) are to at least some degree inflected by their being a man or a woman. And I think this is unavoidable. George W. Bush is an annoyance partly because he represents a particular kind of man: the smirking frat-boy moron. (Ivors herself makes use of the 'frat-boy' image when critiquing Begala and Maher.) This may not be fair to all frat-boys (some of my best friends, etc., etc.....) but it's a recognisable type, and it's a type that is instantly recognisable as different than that represented by Barack Obama, John Kerry or Al Gore. Nor am I especially concerned about losing the frat-boy vote by pointing this out.

It's no different with Sarah Palin. Criticism of her--certainly criticism of the kind to which Ivors links--does not reflect upon other, demonstrably more capable female politicians.

And I don't even find the accusation of classism all that convincing, but this post has gotten long enough. Suffice to say, I think a lot of people who found her ridiculous did (and do) so not because they see her as an authentic representative of small town America but rather as a weird caricature of that kind of life.

So, in short, I think feminism has a lot more to worry about than inventing misogyny where it doesn't exist, that the left should not refrain from mockery or satire of the more absurd currents of right-wing thought (whether represented by small-town women or big-city men or vice-versa) and that those people (in whatever part of the country) who feel represented by Sarah Palin will probably never be reached by a Democratic Party that wants to maintain its sanity.

So they might at least provide us with a few laughs.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Splinter removal, part 1

It's funny when people with whom you generally agree suddenly say things that are not only wrong, but wrong in a special kind of nagging way that gets under your skin and prevents you from focusing on anything else. I've had this experience a couple of times in the last few days or so and thought that a quiet Sunday evening might be as good a time as any to finally dig these little intellectual splinters out of my finger before they get infected.

But they're on different topics, so I thought I'd split them up into two posts.

Who knows, I might even get to the second one sometime.

The most recent was just today, in fact, in the form of Nick Cohen's column 'Darwin's no help on the origin of greed'.

It's partly built around a visit to the Natural History Museum's Darwin exhibit, and about the first half of it is fine enough. But then it turns into an attack on evolutionary psychology, which is about the point where that nagging splinter broke the skin.

Look, I don't think that evolutionary psychology (or sociobiology, or behavioural ecology, or Darwinian psychology, or any other name for or variation of the field) has all the answers, and I'm well aware that there are many examples of sloppy, silly, pseudo-scientific evolutionary reasoning out there.

The thing is, most serious people who advocate some version of evolutionary thinking about human thought and behaviour would probably say the same thing.

To spare a much longer post that I'm really not up to tonight, let me just address three problems with Nick's essay. (Leaving aside the silly title, which I'm not going to blame him for, since I know that sub-editors are often to blame for such things.) Partly what's disappointing about them is that they're not even original problems, but rather pretty much smell like the usual poo flung at evolutionary psychology (EP).

First, he creates a strange straw man in which EP is portrayed as a band of mad scientists who claimed they could explain everything with a few handy theories, thereby making all other forms of knowledge obsolete. Now, while it wouldn't be hard to find a few overly enthusiastic proclamations about the potential of the field, if you've spent much time actually reading EP articles or books on specific topics, you will, actually, find a lot of fairly sober-minded and well-balanced efforts to contribute usefully to whatever topic is under study.

I know the literature on violence better than other areas of EP, and I just can't say that I've seen anything like the hubris that Cohen alleges. What I have seen a fair amount of, on the other hand, are polemics by humanities scholars and social scientists responding to EP who manage to mis-read assertions such as 'biology plays an important role in behaviour X' as something like 'biology is the only factor in behaviour X'. For some such scholars (The Wife and I have each had personal encounters of this kind), even the suggestion that something other than 'culture' (often ill-defined) or 'society' (sometimes ditto) plays any kind of significant role in making us who we are (or shapes our interaction with culture and society) is anathema.

If there's any hubris to be found, I think Nick's looking in the wrong place. He should hang out with cultural studies people more often.

Second, Cohen revives the 'just-so stories' slander against EP: i.e., the notion that evolutionary psychologists simply spin random myths about evolutionary adaptations that cannot be evaluated or weighed against other, competing theories. This is a long-standing accusation that has been addressed several times. The best refutation, however, is to actually read some serious EP writing. Like that from Martin Daly and Margo Wilson, who have mainly worked on homicide and whose carefully argued, logically thought-out, theoretically consistent and relentlessly evidenced work inspires me every time I return to it.

Daly and Wilson bring me to my third problem: Cohen argues that even if EP claims are true, they are simply trite . He cites, among other things, a claim he heard an evolutionary psychologist make at some public get-together once, that 'step-parents were more likely to murder children than natural parents who shared a child's DNA' .

Clearly, what he said about comparative murder rates was right. Equally clearly, the overwhelming majority of step-parents do not murder their stepchildren. His sociobiological truth is thus no help to social workers trying to save the life of the next Baby P.

Daly and Wilson are in fact the originators of the work that Cohen's referring to. It is absolutely true that step-parental murder of children is rare (something that Daly and Wilson acknowledge); however, their findings have suggested that the per capita rate of killing of children by stepfathers is likely to be more than 100 times greater than by genetic fathers.

Is this finding 'no help' in understanding the risk factors in child muder? Really?

As to 'Baby P': there is no general theory of human behaviour that is going to allow any bureaucratic agency to always prevent whatever Bad Thing they are tasked with preventing. This is a terrible argument against pursuing further understanding of human psychology: by Cohen's standard, any knowledge which doesn't provide a foolproof solution in every situation is deemed useless.

And that doesn't make any sense to me.

Moreover, I strongly think that Cohen underestimates how even some solid, scientifically grounded banality might be a useful thing. There are some truly kooky theories out there in the humanities about what makes people think and act the way they do. Many of these are rooted in a fairly radical (though often not explicit or even conscious) cultural-constructionist paradigm.

The reassertion of a meaningful human nature is gaining traction in the humanities and social sciences (at least so far as I can judge from here, partly from the mostly open-minded responses I've received to my own contributions to the debate), and I think it has the potential to have a lot of beneficial effects. Some of them might just sound a bit like common sense. Maybe there's something...unspectacular?... about this, but given lack of earth-bound logic and abundance of exciting-but-wacky theory lurking around in some of the more esoteric regions of academia, unspectacular will do just nicely, thank you.

In short: I find that there's good and there's bad evolutionary psychology out there, but I think as carried out by its actual practitioners (none of whom actually seem to have been consulted in Cohen's essay) it is far more humble, rigorous and relevant to understanding human life than Cohen's--surprisingly slapdash--column suggests.

I'd be plenty happy for him to disagree. But only if he demonstrates that he's read some of it.

OK, that other splinter will have to stay embedded till tomorrow. G'night.

[UPDATE]: Part 2 now available.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Friday night Kinks embryo documentary film blogging

Geoff Edgers, arts reporter for the Boston Globe, believes--quite sensibly--that a Kinks reunion would be a fine idea. In what we might think of as his own version of Change We Can Believe In, he's doing something about it...which is...making a film about how he's going to try to get the Kinks to get back together again.

OK, it's neither the most dramatic nor important issue facing the world these days, but I think it's a pretty good plan, and he's got an interesting little promo video for what he's achieved so far.

It features Zooey Deschanel and Robyn Hitchcock. Which is excellent!

And Sting. Which is...less excellent. But, you know, he seems to not be so annoying and Sting-like during his brief appearance.

And Geoff...well, he reminds me of an amalgam of three very specific guys I know. So I feel connected to what he's doing already.

Here's what Geoff has so far. I think it's worthwhile.

And, a couple of bonus thematically related videos.

'1974' Robyn Hitchcock

The Kinks, live in Offenbach, part 1. Part 2.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Nostalgic moment of the day

I'm afraid I have to extend our recent nostalgia/memory topos a little further. Driving home from work this afternoon, I passed two coaches of the Spejbl & Hurvinek theatre from Prague. I feel the need to share my elation.

Spejbl & Hurvinek are puppet characters - a not very brilliant father and a rather smart son - who spend their days engaging in somewhat silly question-and-answer games. There's isn't much going on in those sketches; their humour -- revealing a subtle awareness of the intricacies and absurdities of language and human communication -- being mainly linguistic.

These two are a European institution. They have been around for seventy odd years (since 1930) and accompanied me (and others of my generation) throughout my childhood. In fact they (together with the no less marvellous Augsburger Puppenkiste) helped shape one of my great (albeit brief) prepubescent professional ambitions: to have or work for a professional puppet theatre.

I got to see Spejbl & Hurvinek "live" on stage at least once (it's so long ago I don't remember). Apparently they're touring parts of Germany at the moment and in theory I could try to get tickets to see them tomorrow evening not far from here, but I don't know whether I'll have the energy. Have I told you all how tired I've been feeling lately? My puppet-groupie days are long over.

I thought you all deserve a bit of Spejbl & Hurvinek on this grey and dismal November day. Unfortunately, the only clip to be found is in Czech, but they're such expressive puppets (check out how Hurvinek leans over the bed at 0:57 and his brief, but strikingly life-like gesture of exasperation a little later) that at least some of the emotional gist of the plot is communicated.

Cute, no? I believe that the same voice actors did the German versions, with an unforgettable, charming Czech accent.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

More Memories

John and Francis's moving posts about their fathers and grandfathers have inspired this brief Remembrance Day comment of my own. I know, being a Hun my act of remembrance doesn't count for much. But then again ....

Since I don't have any of the few photos here that exist of my grandfather Johann ("Hans") Lamm, a picture that we took a few years ago of the headstone of the grave that he shares with another man at the cemetery in Niederbronn-les-Bains (Alsace) will have to suffice.
My grandfather was 24 when he died from a bullet wound in the stomach in February 1945, some three months before the end of the war. Not long before that, he had received another injury, but was unfortunately declared fit for service by a GP from his native town of Bamberg (who, needless to say, survived the war and merrily continued to work until well into the 1960s).

He never met the twin daughters who were born about a month later.

He never met me.

But then I guess my life would have been very different if hadn't died. In fact, I'm convinced that if he had survived I wouldn't be here at all. My mother's life would have taken a completely different, maybe happier turn, preventing my parents' fateful encounter and disastrous mixing of genes. Such is the contingency of life.

Still, I like to think that I have inherited some of his traits and talents, as I'm told that he was a very even-tempered and athletic man.

Well ... I am a runner. One of two ain't bad.


Far more interesting than the story about the mystic Obama face appearing on a slice of toast, is one about the tiny Obama portraits, each about half a millimetre wide and consisting of 150 million carbon nanotubes. (Via Boing Boing)

(Image from here. More information and pictures via

In other news: an unholy lottery drawing in Illinois on the day after the election (yes, featuring the number 666) has got any number of sensitive Christian hearts all aflutter.

However, Bible Prophecy Today (via HJOP) has some comforting news for us:

At this point, I think it’s unlikely that Obama will be the antichrist. The beast of Revelation will come out Europe, and he will be a man of profound political skills.

Ah, that'd be Silvio Berlusconi, then.

I had suspected as much.

Soldier boys

Today is not only Remembrance Day but also the 90th anniversary of the end of the First World War. (In Germany, Volkstrauertag falls on 16 November this year.)

And I have to admit that I am one of those soppy people who gets all emotional about the whole poppy-wearing, wreath-laying, old-men-with-medals-parading, two-minutes-silence-observing solemnity of it all. (And, at the same time, a bit irked by the very notion of a 'Veterans Day Sale'. Yes, by all means, honour wartime sacrifice by buying cheap crap...)

This has a lot to do, no doubt, with being raised among people who took their personal military history seriously. After all, the two generations of men who came before me on both the American and British sides of my family went off to war, and taking my uncles into account, their service included the army, navy and air force and extended to theatres from Europe to North Africa to the Middle East to India to the Pacific.

That's a lot of soldiering.

I don't think there's anything particularly unusual about that: the first half of the twentieth century saw both a lot of fighting and mass conscription, and the twenty years between the two world wars were almost ideally calibrated for the children of the veterans of the first to go off to fight in the second. (A chain only broken in my family when, with fortunate timing for my brother, the Vietnam draft ended just in time, in 1973.)

I grew up with hearing those veterans' stories and experiences at family get-togethers and army reunions. It seemed kind of normal to me as a kid that you leave home and go off to some part of the world where you might experience some pretty horrible stuff.

Which strikes me, now, as a fairly odd thing.

Although, these days, of course, it shouldn't. (There was a remarkable article yesterday about an American outpost in Afghanistan, it it well worth reading.)

But, on Remembrance Day, I tend not to think of flags or stirring poetry, but rather of the rather mundane experiences of individual people from my family who were in those two generations. Some of them I knew well, some of them I never met.

I think particularly of my grandfather (and namesake), John Dennis, who was in the Great War. I never met 'Jack', as he died before I was born, but I heard a lot about him.

I don't know much about his military service, but I was always told that he left his quiet Devonshire town as part of an infantry regiment and that he spent some time in Flanders and then some in Mesopotamia, the area now known as Iraq.

This picture, we think, was likely taken in or on the way to the latter.
Quite a handsome chap. Certainly, a pith helmet does wonders for any man.

In any case, Jack apparently didn't want to talk much about what he had seen at the front, which was not all that atypical. Returning home to a land that he found hadn't quite managed to make itself fit for heroes to live in, he became a lifelong left-winger. He also, for more prosaic reasons, became a bus conductor. (I have his union lapel pin, which actually says 'Workers of the World Unite'. Very Old Labour.)

He ran for local council in 1947, still looking quite dapper.

He lost the election. The area was, I think, solidly Tory. But according to family legend, he got more votes than anyone would have expected.

In my view, that was victory enough.

This other chap I knew well, if too briefly.

I can see, perhaps, why my mother fell for him. Despite the ears.

The uniform certainly does add something. (For her part, she always insisted that one of his best qualities was that he was a gentleman, unlike some of the other Yanks who were, as she put it, 'all hands'...)

My father, fortunately, never saw combat, though he did experience bombing raids and got more of a glimpse of war's reality when D-Day wounded arrived at the hospital where he worked as a supply corporal. (Unbeknowst to him at the time, his brother--who had followed family tradition and joined the navy--was stationed on a cruiser in the Channel that had been shelling the Normandy coast that day and had narrowly missed being blown apart by a torpedo.)

After the war, he worked at a psychiatric hospital on Long Island, helping soldiers psychologically traumatised by the war, an experience that he never talked about to me, but which my mother said deeply affected him.

Afterwards came the usual post-war stuff: work, love, kids and suburbia.

Not that long ago, my sisters found a huge number of photographic negatives from my dad's army days. One of them is above.

And this is another.

(The headline of the Scottish 'Daily Express' -- he had been re-stationed to Glasgow sometime after D-Day -- is 'Nuremberg is Blazing. Hitler Wires: Hold Out to the Death'.)

Of all the conversations I wish I could have today, most of them would be with these two guys.

You can't have everything.

However, I try not to forget.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Tales of pistol-packing parsons and fistic friars

This is something I wasn't looking for today, but I'm glad I found it:

Extract of a Letter from Salisbury, Dec. 10.

“A few Days since a Duel was fought at a Place called the Hutt [...] about seven Miles from this Town, by a Clergyman of this County, and a neighbouring Gentleman. It seems the Clergyman thinking himself aggrieved, carried a Brace of Pistols to the Hutt, where he sent for the Gentleman, and told him he had used him very ill, therefore he insisted on his fighting him: The Gentleman was very unwilling to accept the Challenge, alleging that he had a Wife and several Children, to whom his Life was of very great Importance, and that he was no Ways prepared for such a Re-encounter.

The Clergyman still insisting that he should fight, after much Reluctance, the Gentleman took one of the Pistols, and the two Combatants then going Back to Back, after a certain Distance, they turned about, and the Clergyman fired first, but luckily did no other Mischief than carrying off Part of the Sleeve of the Gentleman’s Coat. The Clergyman being thus left at his Antagonist’s Mercy, though so very courageous before, now fell on his Knees, and begged his Life, which was generously granted by the Gentleman. Since this, the Affair, we are told, has been taken up by the Bishop, who is determined to have no fighting Parsons and therefore will make an Example of this.’”

--Public Advertiser, Monday, 19 December 1763, Issue 9088.

And this is something a bit more recent:

As shocked worshippers look on in horror, the monks kick and punch each other, knocking down tapestries and decorations. One or two of the monks seem to have a handy right hook.

The fight took place in Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which Christians believe marks the site of Jesus' crucifixion, burial and resurrection. The Greeks say the Armenians interfered with their right to access a particular part of the church, while the Armenians accuse the Greeks of disrupting their celebrations of the 4th century discovery of the cross believed to have been used to crucify Jesus.


Radical Feminism from the Daily Mail (or: Me and Ms Jones)

Yes, you may trust your eyesight - there is radical feminism at the Daily Grail! In fact, after today I believe that this paper might be the last bulwark of radical feminism in the Western hemisphere, thanks to its ghastly opinionista, fashion editor Liz "Morticia" Jones.

For in today's issue our Lizzie depicts the spectre of "Michelle Obama-Super Mom" throwing women -- yes girls, all of us -- back into a more barbarian past (gender-wise):

It seems women are still right back slap where we were in the Fifties: smiling idiotically at the sides of our powerful men, mere Stepford housewives in the margins of history, our silly heads full of nonsense like sleepovers, worries about stale bread, the laundry and perfect hospital corners. Guess who will be clearing up after that brand new puppy?
It certainly won’t be the 44th President of the United States.

Very funny, Ms Jones. You've done a fair bit of post-election reading, I can tell.

So concerned is our Lizzie (a deep social commentator if ever there was one, known for her relentless exposure of "silly nonsense" in weighty posts about the aesthetics of loafers, Samantha Cameron's fashion sense, and having her terrible split ends removed) about Mrs Obama's self-denigration that she gets a bit carried away with her comparisons. For instance, with regard to the future first lady's tongue-in-cheek comments on her husband's domestic ineptitude, she comes up with the following moment of utter insanity:

But, let’s face it, even Osama Bin Laden must, at some point, shout down the stairs (do caves have stairs?) that he can’t find his turban to some poor, put-upon female.
Being inept at domesticity doesn’t make a leader appear more human; it merely means he is, de facto, oppressing someone else.
Point taken, Ms Jones, you don't really like the idea that a black man has become US President, do you? Thanks for being so outspoken! Has anybody ever told you that you sound a little like Sarah Palin? Maybe you should have a little sleepover in good old Wasilla one of these days. I have the feeling that you and our Lady Also would get on like a house on fire - swapping cashmere leggings, blow-drying each other's hair and then having a bit of a white supremacist karaoke with Todd and Trig.

In the meantime, please stop instrumentalising Mrs Obama as a straw woman for your racism. Do you really think that women's silly heads are so full of nonsense that they don't see through your lame ploys?

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Weekend cat blogging

I think this foray into cat blogging is a first here at Obscene Desserts.

Which is largely don't have a cat.

But I think it's worth making an exception for Maru, who has a thing for boxes and is, apparently, quite well beloved in Japan.

More Maru, should you be interested, at Boing Boing.

And on YouTube.

And at Maru's blog.

Friday, November 07, 2008

He pulls a knife, you pull a gun.

Here's a passage from a New Yorker profile of president-elect Obama's new chief of staff, Rahm 'Rahmbo' Emanuel, referring to events in 1992 (via):

It was there that Emanuel, then Clinton's chief fund-raiser, repaired with George Stephanopoulos, Mandy Grunwald and other aides to Doe's, the campaign hangout. Revenge was heavy in the air as the group discussed the enemies - Democrats, Republicans, members of the press - who wronged them during the 1992 campaign.


Suddenly Emanuel grabbed his steak knife and, as those who were there remeber it, shouted out the name of another enemy, lifted the knife, then brought it down with full force into the table.

''Dead!'' he screamed.

The group immediately joined in the cathartic release: ''Nat Landow! Dead! Cliff Jackson! Dead! Bill Schaefer! Dead!''

I like it, not only since Emanuel's selection means that the White House might see fewer prayer meetings and more profanity, but also since it signals that this administration might actually be serious about getting things done.

Emanuel grew up in Wilmette, a suburb of Chicago, and he now represents the 5th Illinois Congressional District, which includes much of Chicago's north side. (And which is almost-but-not-quite adjacent to the 13th district, where your humble narrator spent his formative years and -- somewhat before that -- where Donald Rumsfeld's illustrious political career was launched.)

There are worse things than having someone with Emanuel's background and temperament on your side when you want to accomplish something:

A knack for toughness seems to run in the family:

The Boys [Rahm and his brother Ari] went to summer camp in Israel, and reveled in the family lore: in 1933, after their uncle Emanuel Auerbach was killed in a skirmish with Arabs in Jerusalem, the family changed its last name to his first, as a tribute. Political passions always ran deep. [Rahm] still remembers the time his mother and her father got into such a furious argument at the dinner table over Henry Wallace and the 1948 split of the Democratic Party - a quarter century after the fact - that father threw daughter out of the house. ''And it was her house,'' Rahm says. ''I thought, 'This is nutty.' ''

See also comments at Jewcy.

Mailin' Palin

Now that was quick: Looks like Sarah Palin has already moved on professionally and refashioned herself as copy editor for the Daily Mail. Her first job - a headline:
Britain now official drugs capital of Europe.

As Alice said: "London is the capital of Paris, and Paris is the capital of Rome."

[UPDATE]: Ooops - didn't realise that there is actually a blog called "Mailin' Pailin", through which Lady Also/Our Mother of Wassila/Caribou Barbie/Bible Spice - you name her - or a cunning understudy, appears to give sound advice to survivalists, knife fetishists and other suchlike people. The page can be found here:

For further, disillusioning Alaska reading, I recommend T.C. Boyle, Drop City. And if, like Bing, you bemoan the fact that the dulcet tones of our beloved Sarah's voice are already beginning to fade, you might like Ben Elton's Blind Faith, a potentially evocative bit of dystopia that ever so often echoes her majesty's Ciceronian eloquence and intellectual brilliance.

Mapping change

There are many ways of analysing voting patterns this year, but I think the most striking example is a series of maps from the New York Times (under the heading 'voting shifts').

Rather than displaying who won each state, it shows the percentage change from previous elections on a county-by-county basis: the deeper the blue or red, the greater the swing toward, respectively, the Democrats or Republicans. You can compare 2008 to 2004, 2000, 1996 and 1992.

While comparing 2008 to the 1990s elections shows that large sections of the United States are today still voting somewhat more rightward than than was once the case....

...comparing 2008 to 2000 and 2004 reveals that most of the country has shifted toward the Democrats (even in places--like the plains--where that shift has not been strong enough to translate into electoral college success).

The notable exception to this swing towards the Democrats is clearly confined to the South.

Which has an obvious explanation.

The high density of plumbers in that region.

(Other maps here, via Dale.)

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Yes, we could

Although I was confident that I would wake up this morning (somewhat earlier than usual...) to an Obama victory, I still find it somehow difficult to believe it has actually happened.

Figuring out the details and absorbing all the other results will take some time. (For example, California's Prop 8 is, at the moment, too close to call, but it's not looking good. The Senate race in Minnesota is about as close as it can get.) And I'm interested in seeing some solid data on how different groups voted.

Encouragingly, it appears that Obama did well amongst white voters, at least on a par with previous Democratic candidates and possibly even better.

But, I'll feel like analysing this another time.

For now, I want to enjoy a Democratic victory, not least because it was accompanied by huge voter turnout and relatively few voting disasters (though the system still needs work).

And it seems like I'm not alone, from Chicago to Kabul.

[UPDATE] A couple of well-put things picked up while grazing the news.

Ezra Klein:

My basic emotion is relief. The skill of an Obama administration has yet to be proven. The structure of our government will prove a more able opponent of change than John McCain. But for the first time in years, I have the basic sense that it's going to be okay. Not great, necessarily. And certainly not perfect. But okay. The country will be led by decent, competent people who fret over the right things and employ the tools of the state for recognizable ends. They may not fully succeed. But then, maybe they will. At the least, they will try. And if they fail in their most ambitious goals, maybe they will simply make things somewhat better. After the constant anxiety and uncertainty of the last eight years, maybe that's enough.


Barack Obama’s race has been discussed practically to death in this last year - what it means that a black man can be elected President, what it means that white people will vote for him, what it means that white people won’t vote for him, and did his wife call someone “whitey”? (Answer: no.) But ultimately that hasn’t driven his campaign, historic as his candidacy might be (and it is). What has fundamentally driven his campaign is this: people decided, by and large, that this was a decent man.

This is not small potatoes. About the best we can ever hope for in politics, anywhere in the world, ninety-nine percent of the time, is to get somebody in charge about whom one can say “well, he might be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch,” and make do with that. We have, as a whole, largely divorced ourselves from the idea that political leaders can be upstanding, moral citizens; we expect them to be bastards because the process demands that they be bastards to win.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

With any luck...

Our friend Andrew has posted some incisive thoughts on why an Obama victory today is something worth caring about:

He's sometimes dismissed as a dreamer or a 'Messiah,' and his followers as glassy-eyed ideologues. But this is a caricature. During the Democratic primaries, he defeated a cunning and aggressive political machine without resorting to rumor-mongering or schoolyard insults, and looks set to repeat that achievement today. His campaign inspired unfeigned, sincere enthusiasm -- and then bound it to a regime of discipline enforced by loose but effective hierarchies. There were no damaging leaks, no dramatic resignations, no off-the-record tell-all interviews. And throughout both campaigns, Obama's message genuinely appealed to what Abraham Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature." Some bitterly mock Obama's eloquence. I pity these curdled, angry souls. They were abandoned by their better angels long ago.

One of the things that has so surprised me about the Obama campaign -- and one of the things that convinced me to support it wholeheartedly -- was that it was nice to see liberals get their act together in such a relentlessly competent way.

They were truly ahead of the curve much of the time -- and when they weren't they caught up quickly -- and this was something almost beautiful to behold.

Surely, behind the scenes there must have been a lot more chaos than they let on.

But that's a story to be told later.

Effective organisation, coherent thinking and consistent decency may not seem all that exciting, but given the last eight years (and what the other team were offering for the next four) they sound pretty good to me.

Fond greetings to our friends stateside who will -- with any luck...well, with more than luck -- be celebrating tonight.

You know who you are.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Cards on the table

OK, just for the hell of it...

My vision of what the map will look like Tuesday night/Wednesday morning:

Obama gets 53%, McCain 46%, and 'etc.' 1% of the popular vote.

The Democrats end up with 58 senators.

Proposition 8 is narrowly defeated.

And a spirit of peace, love and reconciliation pervades the land.

This is an optimistic forecast, I know, but...well, why not?

The only thing that might seem perverse about my electoral map is putting Georgia in Obama's column, but I was intrigued by Nate Silver's comment earlier today:

If there's one state where Obama is likely to overperform his polls, it's in Georgia, where 35 percent of early voters are African-American, and where almost 30 percent of them did not vote in 2004. These are the sorts of voters that may erroneously be screened out by "likely voter" models that rely on past voting history. Obama could not only carry the state, but he might help boost Jim Martin to victory in the U.S. Senate race there—giving the Democrats a plausible path to a 60-seat caucus.

I have no idea whether that's true or not, but I'm going with it.

That's just the kind of maverick I am.

You betcha.

If this proves wildly inaccurate, then you are all free, of course, to continue ignoring my opinions.

Sleep well, Democrats: you may have a long wait in line tomorrow.

(Map made at RealClearPolitics.)