Friday, December 30, 2005

When Talk Turned to Assassinating George W. Bush

Three years ago the British satirist and New Statesman columnist Mark Thomas put a bounty on George Bush’s head. “Given that Osama Bin Laden has a price on his head and is wanted dead or alive for organising acts of terrorism,” Thomas wrote, “it seems only fair to offer a bounty to anyone who can kill George Bush.” Thomas was upset that the president was bankrolling a Colombian government “involved in the worst human rights abuses in the region.” He wasn’t scrawling this on the bathroom wall of a London pub, or writing it in his blog, but in Britain’s equivalent of, say, the New Republic. So he put up his New Statesman earnings, some $7,000, to entice a taker, with these directions: “If some would-be assassin wants to give me the option, I'd like him taken out with a lethal papier-mache weapon crafted from flour, water, dictionaries and Enron share certificates. However, these are the finer points of President Bush’s demise. I would obviously settle for him accidentally stabbing himself to death with the pin from his enamel US flag badge.” When one of Thomas’ colleagues at the New Statesman wrote that he had gone “a joke too far,” Thomas responded by increasing the bounty by about $300.

None of this was reported in the United States. American journalism takes its “mission” so seriously these days, therefore fails it so efficiently, that it doesn’t tolerate jokes it wouldn’t risk publishing, let alone condone. Plus, no editor wants an FBI visit for even suggestively associating with talk of assassinating a sitting president (an actionable infraction of sorts under USC 18, Section 871, which rules that anyone using the post office to make such threats, or who “knowingly and willfully otherwise makes any such threat,” could face up to five years in prison). American journalism wasn’t about to be more welcoming of a novel on the subject. In came Nicholson Baker’s Checkpoint last year. Read the rest…

City Upon an Eroding Hill

[From L. D. Amabed Jr.’s Life on 200 Words a Day:]

It was with vanity and spelling doubled over that John Winthrop famously predicted to his shipmates that “We shall be as a Citty upon a Hill, the eies of all people are uppon us.” It’s anybody’s guess how he knew that in 1630, when Europe was busily mutilating itself with the Thirty Years’ War and the rest of the world was busy ignoring barbaric Europe and its hill-centric travelers. But the phrase has kept a patent on selected mythmakers, evolving accordingly. It now belongs to Ronald Reagan more than it does Winthrop , much as David Copperfield attaches to the magician more than to Dickens. Reagan first used the “city on a hill” theme at least as far back as 1974 in a speech about America ’s “divine plan” and “the last best hope of man on earth.” He used it for the last time 15 years later in his farewell address. Both times he credited Winthrop and liberally used quote marks where they belonged. But just as David Copperfield made the Statue of Liberty disappear, political illusionists have a way of making quote marks disappear. It’s their way of rewriting history and please their disciples’ way of reading it. The words may now be Reagan’s, though his vision is smoggy. When gazing America ’s way, the eyes of all people choose either to look away or to look no further than America ’s television image. Looking America straight in the face requires somebody’s permission. Or shades, to cope with disbelief’s radiation.

Badgering Edmund Wilson

The first thing to remember when reading Joseph Epstein, conservative snob and bigot extraordinaire (“If I had the power to do so,” said he in the pages of Harper’s in September 1970, “I would wish homosexuality off the face of this earth,” to choose the one example that has, in Epstein’s words, “followed me around”) is that he ought not be confused with Jason Epstein, the near-genius of publishing and long-time editor at Random House, who could hardly be faulted for marrying Judith Miller; or even with Joseph Epstein, the Polish-descended French resistance fighter, whose fate at the hands of the SS in 1944 might have given the other Joseph a hint about wishing some people disappeared. Epstein has his qualities, editing the American Scholar for many years, even if a bit smugly, being one of them. Generosity is not one of them. Handing over to him an appraisal of Edmund Wilson, as Commentary Magazine does in the current issue, is like asking Mike Tyson to interpret the Goldberg variations on the keyboard. It makes for a good pounding. It won’t make for a good, even fair, interpretation. And so Joseph lets loose.

Edmund Wilson (1895-1972) is often referred to, Epstein tells us, as “our last great man of letters.” Epstein would have liked to be it. Never has been. Never could be, because Epstein never has gotten out much (unlike Wilson, whose curiosity took him from To the Finland Station, a book for which he learned German and Russians to write it properly, to The Dead Sea Scrolls to travels through America’s Depression, and so on. Epstein takes it out on the old pudge by badgering him for his looks and his drinking (he was “a bald, pudgy little man with a drinking problem and a mean streak”), his inability to type or “handle money,” his sex life, his marriage to Mary McCarthy (“the union of a true bitch and a genuine bully”)—in short, badgering him for all things petty and irrelevant to his substance as a writer and critic. Coming to that, Epstein isn’t much better. He cites old and discredited clichés about Wilson, such as: “Anti-Americanism had long since become a strong strain in Wilson’s intellectual make-up.” This about the man who birthed the idea of the Library of America, the most patriotic of literary projects immortalizing all the great and some not so great American writers, and the man who celebrated American literary life for most of the twentieth century in the pages of the New Republic, the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books (like “Every Man His Own Eckermann”).

Epstein faults Wilson for quoting too much the authors he reviewed, a habit too many reviewers have actually abandoned in favor of quoting themselves. And he blames Wilson’s books and journals for being “longueur-laden well beyond the legal limit; one of his specialties in his journals was great boring descriptions of landscape,” or even his criticism’s style, in which “it is difficult to think of memorable phrases, or powerful formulations.” Maybe Epstein hasn’t read him keenly enough. It’s rather memorable of Wilson to describe the Sierra Nevada as “the huge, rusty spine of the continent,” (rather more colorful and memorable than Steinbeck calling the Great Divide “the granite backbone of a continent” in Travels with Charley), or to describe Newark’s “buildings strewn on the hill like the scum of a receding tide” (a description that could give Philip Roth a run for his Newarks, “whose very gutters,” he echoes Wilson in The Plot Against America,  “gushed with the elixir of life”) , or the way Wilson heard the “melodious murmur of boat whistles heard from a back room in Washington Square,” or smelled “the first soft mysteries of the city summer,” proving his biographer Leon Edel right when he wrote that  “Manhattan, in all its years of babbling journalism, never had so keen a mind and so sharp a pen survey its ephemera.” And we haven’t even touched on Wilson’s literary criticism, his granite backbone. But this summation of Hemingway, whom he somewhat discovered, serves enough to sum Wilson up as well, and also explain Espstein’s disdain: “Going back over Hemingway’s books today,” Wilson wrote, “we can see clearly what an error of the politicos it was to accuse him of an indifference to society. His whole work is a criticism of society: he has responded to every pressure of the moral atmosphere of the time, as it is felt at the roots of human relations, with a sensitivity almost unrivaled.”

And what does Joseph Epstein has in comparison? A forgettable article that only reminded us how much we’d missed Edmund Wilson, how fortifying he is to re-read, and how much we look forward to seeing his work immortalized in his own Library of America volumes. That’s as certain as knowing that the closest Joseph Epstein will ever come to the Library of America is on a float of resentment for knowing he’ll never make the club.  

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Coal Trained

Slightly overworked the very week, between Christmas and New Year’s, when it’s time to take a break; filling in, our friend L.D. Amabed Jr., from his Life on 200 Words a Day column at the Notebooks’ home site:

Visiting a coal mine some years ago I was handed a “coal products tree,” one of those industry promotions that show how coal’s derivatives branch into innumerable benefits. The drawing is of a stately tree, many limbed and with tiny tags for leaves. Each tag is coal’s photosynthesis of an everyday product: From coal, you get jasmine oil, perfume, “airplane dope” (not the hashish kind but the lacquer), almond flavor, tobacco seasoning, sugar substitute, rubber stamp ink, blue dyes, malachite green, food preservatives, radio parts, “indelible pencils,” artificial silks, wall paper color, soda water, baking powder, blue gas, and so on down a leafy list of ordinary wonders. Even if instinct suggests that some of these benefits are exaggerated, they impress. But coal is always countering its begrimed reputation with almond-flavored uppers. In a child’s hands the drawing is designed to stoke lifelong affection for the stuff. It shouldn’t be so difficult when coal’s automatic association with trains and trains’ automatic association with romance should automatically give coal the inside track to most hearts, the way radioactive fuel rods or oil sloshing in supertankers never could. So why coal’s persistent foulness when clean air acts have replaced Dickens's gardgrind skies and coal fields quit inspiring wars? Appalachia’s mongered landscape of lopped off mountains, buried streams, poisoned ponds, damned up hollows and damning inhabitants suggest an answer. Rape is less evocative than the foggy whistle of a coal train.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Sign of the Cross

Our friend L.D. Amabed Jr. contributes a brief odd piece on the subject. See his version of "Life on 200 Words a Day..."

Monday, December 26, 2005

Christmas Unplugged, bin Laden Naked, Posner re-Plugged: Monday Morning Bloggerback Is Up

It wasn't an easy one: Christmas week and good writing mix about as well as sausage, mustard and marmalade (last seen actually mixing at the King's School, Canterbury.) But here it is. From 800 trillion posts, the week's best, brightest, grimmest, silliest and least calorific prose from the world of bloggers. The line-up (click on the link to go directly to the summary and the post, or see the review whole):
  1. Christmas Post-Mortem (Mahblog)

  2. Wafah Dufour's Doff (JWL79 and The Black Iris)

  3. Subway Strike (Known Universe)

  4. The Web's George Washington (Tim Berners-Lee)

  5. Richard Posner Plugged-In (Becker-Posner)

  6. Our Kansas Fetish (Sometimeshappy)

  7. Penis Diversity (Delayedgrace)

  8. Rousseau of the Week (Let Me Go On and On)