Friday, May 30, 2008

Messenger, DOA

scottmcclellan8ie Does anyone remember the 2000 election, when the voting public acknowledged that then-Governor Bush did not seem like the brightest possible candidate but was likely to surround himself with great people and that those great people were as important as the president himself? [Exhibit A, Exhibit B]

Well, the Bush administration has been a ship afire for years, and few of his staff can be confused with "the boy [who] stood on the burning deck / trying to recite 'the boy stood on / the burning deck.'"1 (But plenty have been left still stammering.)

However, with the publication of former Bush spokesperson Scott McClellan's book What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception, those closest to the president have stopped just short of calling McClellan a traitor.

In an e-mail to McClellan, former Senator and presidential hopeful Bob Dole wrote:

There are miserable creatures like you in every administration who don’t have the guts to speak up or quit if there are disagreements with the boss or colleagues.... No, your type soaks up the benefits of power, revels in the limelight for years, then quits, and spurred on by greed, cashes in with a scathing critique. (

BobDole While Dole may be right in his assessment of McClellan, his invective speaks to something much more nefarious. Dole suggests (perhaps rightly) that McClellan should have spoken up at the time, that it was McClellan's responsibility to do the right thing. More incredibly, Jack Cafferty, a conservative commentator on CNN, suggested that had McClellan spoken up at the time, he could have "saved a few lives."2

Thus, the right-wing of the conservative party is painting McClellan, not the Commander-in-Chief or the administration that perpetrated the deception that McClellan ostensibly reveals, as a cause of dead soldiers. In this administration where the buck never stops, this is hardly surprising, but it is deplorable and as disrespectful of the soldiers' sacrifices as can be conceived. Moreover, the ones who are ultimately accountable for this war are being let off the hook (not only by these commentators but also by the mainstream media, an industry that seems to have forgotten investigative journalism when it comes to George W. Bush).

While it seems obvious that the administration engaged in some manner of misinformation regarding Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (remember them?  the reasons we went to war in the first place?) and Iraq's role in aiding anti-American terrorists, and while such misinformation is likely impeachable, Senator Robert Wexler's (D-Florida) call for McClellan to testify under oath might just be the move that mobilizes the imperiled Republican party and creates a stiffer fight for the democratic presidential nominee.

1"Casabianca," by Elizabeth Bishop

Love's the boy stood on the burning deck
trying to recite `The boy stood on
the burning deck.' Love's the son
stood stammering elocution
while the poor ship in flames went down.

Love's the obstinate boy, the ship,
even the swimming sailors, who
would like a schoolroom platform, too,
or an excuse to stay
on deck. And love's the burning boy.

2CNN Tuesday, May 27, 2008.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Sobchak 2008

walter_sobchak As the Democratic Party's Rules Committee prepares to convene in order to resolve the situation in Michigan and Florida, the mainstream media is ramping up the spin. Whether the spin favors Obama, Clinton, or ultimately John McCain, what the spin never favors is American democracy.

Every political party in the United States has the sovereignty to set its own rules for its elections and nominations; however, the language used in most mainstream media reports on the DNC's stance on the invalid primaries in Florida and Michigan make those rules and the exercising of that sovereignty appear like whims, not rules for the good of the party and for the fairness of the democratic process.

Very few articles also mention that the Republican National Committee (RNC) also penalized Florida and Michigan for moving their primaries by cutting in half their delegations to their national convention. Republican primaries are "winner take all" contests, unlike Democratic primaries which allot delegates proportionately with the vote; had the Republican race been tighter (i.e. had Huckabee decided to take his bid into June or to the convention), the penalty could have effected McCain's lead. However, after Huckabee withdrew from the race, the RNC's appropriate penalization of Florida and Michigan ceased to be an issue.

Yet the spotlight is solely on the Democratic party, and the language used diminishes the responsibility of the Florida and Michigan legislatures who knew the rules they were breaking as they approved the movement of their respective primaries. 

Consider the following excerpt from a article written by Drew Griffin and Kathleen Johnston:

Clinton has argued the primary results of two of the nation's largest states should count because otherwise millions of voters are being disenfranchised. Obama has said he is willing to work out some compromise.

But he is insistent the primary results are invalid since the two states failed to follow party rules and the rules are the rules.

The DNC has not seated the Florida and Michigan delegates because the two states violated party edicts in holding their primaries early.

The three paragraphs above exemplify all that is wrong with current mainstream media reporting. It seems as though CNN has adopted the "hands-off" rhetorical position of FOXnews: "We report, you decide." In the first two paragraphs above, Griffin and Johnston summarize the positions of senators Clinton and Obama, but they do so without context or commentary, and in fact the article seems to suggest that the opinions of the contestants are somehow more important than the sovereignty of the rules by which they are bound to compete. Most readers do not know the rules of national political parties; most readers do not know precedents when those parties have been forced to uphold their rules through penalization; most readers do not know the authority given to national political parties to conduct their own business.

Moreover, Griffin and Johnston call the DNC's rules "edicts," a word that is used incorrectly due to its denotation and used rhetorically due to its negative connotations. an edict is an order or command made without any legal authority but with the force of law. One follows an edict simply because one feels like it or because one fears an unjust reprisal; moreover, one can ignore an edict without expecting a justified punishment. If national political parties' rules were simply edicts without actual authority, would U.S. courts (in Florida, no less) continue to dismiss lawsuits filed against the DNC, stating that political parties have the constitutional right to determine their own rules for selecting delegates in nominating processes (Tampa Bay Online).1

Should responsible media outlets abstain from providing for their readers the appropriate tools to interpret the "facts" they typically present out of context? Do we want a media industry that absolves itself of any responsibility to interpret based upon fact? Few would disagree with the news-consumer's right to make up his or her own mind about the facts of a story, but in order for such a decision to be valid, for it to have the weight of rational decision making, it must have access to the pertinent information. It seems that the "no ideology" position openly proclaimed by FOXnews is in fact a more-insidious ideological tactic--by providing decontextualized "facts," the media is able to manufacture consent among its audience that seems even more authentic because we have "made up our own minds."

Although this may be a new type of Godwin, allow the hypothetical use of Robert Mugabe as illustration for a moment. If U.S. news outlets reported that Mugabe claimed the results of an election should stand despite the election itself being moved to an illegal time and despite the fact that his opposition was not even on the ballot in 50% of the area in question, would anyone in America say, "Sure, Robert. Sounds reasonable to me?" No, because as a nation we claim to believe in the sovereignty of rules, in insuring fairness in competition, and such actions as moving an election, as arguing for the legitimacy of a ballot that does not include the competition would be unfair and, more importantly, un-democratic.

So our choice, as the Griffin and Johnston would not have us believe, is between affirming the beliefs we claim to hold dear and placing blame not on the DNC but on the legislators broke the rules and disenfranchised their own voters or accepting as legitimate an un-democratic process in the name of (somehow) fairness.

clintonbeer Oh, and never mind the fact that Senator Clinton, who has found yet another voice in this campaign and become a crusader for voting rights, agreed to these rules and supported the DNC's decision to strip Florida of its full delegation.

But that was when she was winning.

1 The person filing the lawsuit, Victor DiMaio, did not even vote in his primary. Of course he still has the right to file the suit, but the circumstances are nothing if not ironic: "Every vote is sacred, but I had other things to do on election day!"

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Snuff: Winner, 2008 AVN Award for Best Banal Feature

snuff Snuff, the ninth novel by Chuck Palahniuk, the "edgy" writer of Fight Club (Shhhh!), Choke, Invisible Monsters, etc., needs a "fluffer," in the parlance of our times. In his previous work, Palahniuk has taken us into the (then fictional) world of underground fights clubs, into the offices of real-estate agents who specialize in flipping haunted houses, and into a commercial-jetliner cockpit with a recovering religious zealot/celebrity who is bent on committing suicide by taking down the plane (after all the passengers have disembarked). In other words, uncommon territory.

In Snuff, Palahniuk takes the reader into the snack-food filled, bronzer-stained green room on the set for World Whore Three, the final "gang bang" film made by Cassie Wright.  Wright is a porn star beyond her prime, and during her marathon session with 600 men (she's trying to set the world record) she hopes to die either by a vaginal embolism or through the last-resort cyanide pill she asks Mr. 600 to bring in his locket. Unfortunately, the green room is not unfamiliar territory for Palahniuk's readers, even though many, one may hazard a guess, have never set foot in any green room let alone one on the set of a blue movie. 

The male cast of World War Three is predictably filled with aging male porn stars who don't seem to recognize their bodies have lost their youthful luster, pig-headed chauvanists, aspiring actors, and the sexually frustrated.  Palahniuk gives the reader the exact cadre that the reader would have created had he or she been asked to do so.  The catering is bad: no surprise. The set manager treats the men like cattle: no surprise.1

In his non-fiction essay "Big Red Son," David Foster Wallace manages to surprise his readers with the truth more successfully than Palahniuk does with this fictional representation. In his essay, Wallace shows the absurdity, the depravity, but also the non-depraved humanity of the people who produce pornography. A country founded by Puritans, we are too ready to believe (erroneously) that people connected to pornography are pathetic degenerates; we are surprised to find out largely they are, in fact, just like the rest of us.

Palahniuk is at his best when he takes the reader into new places. However, in Snuff these moments most often do not deal directly with pornography, so Palahniuk uses them as small details of characterization, novelty pieces that ultimately do not advance the plot. What a shame.

In his book The Triggering Town, poet Richard Hugo distinguishes between the triggering subject and the generated subject in creative art. Hugo defines the triggering subject as that which the artist thinks he or she should be writing about, while the generated subject is what the act of writing reveals to be the actual, interesting subject of the piece. Hugo argues that the writer needs to drop the triggering subject when the generated subject arrives on the scene. In Snuff, a pornographic snuff-film is the obvious triggering subject (what Palahniuk wanted to write about), and no matter how many interesting generated subjects appear, Palahniuk never abandons his trigger. One could easily imagine reading a whole novel centered on Mr. 72, the adopted son of a mother who bakes erotic designer cakes and a father who is a model-train enthusiast:

My adopted dad was an accountant for a big Fortune 500 corporation. Him, me, and my adopted mom lived in the suburbs in an English Tudor house with a gigantic basement where he fiddled with model trains. The other dads were lawyers and research chemists, but they all ran model trains. Every weekend they could, they'd load into a family van and cruise into the city for research. Snapping pictures of gang members. Gang graffiti. Sex workers walking the tracks. .... All this, they'd study and bicker about, trying to outdo each other with the most realistic, grittiest scenes of urban decay they could create....

My adopted dad would use a single strand of mink hair to paint the number "312" across the tiny back of a street-gang figure. To make a member of the Vice Lords of Chicago. (35)

Moreover, Mr. 72's dad is likely a white supremacist who good-naturedly tries to indoctrinate his son:

If I stood next to him and put my hand on the basement work bench, if I held still, my adopted dad would paint the "WP" and "666" for White Power at the base of my thumb. Then he'd tell me, "Hurry and go wash your hands."

He'd say, "Don't let your mother see." (37-8)

blhitler39 In these two paragraphs, Palahniuk creates a world more lush, more full of promise that he does in the rest of the novel. Through Mr. 72's background, Palahniuk introduces his readers to a world they never knew existed (if it did not before, it now will soon; perhaps then Palahniuk will not be blamed for inspiring real fight clubs but applauded for fostering interest in a healthy, socially-acceptable hobby). A novel about an enclave of white-supremacist model-train enthusiasts? Where can I pre-order a copy? However, Palahniuk keeps the narrative firmly rooted in pedestrian pornography.2

For their edginess, Palahniuk's novels often end on a recontextualized upnote, and Snuff is no different. Without spoiling the end, let's say it's electrifying but uninspired.

At the last, Snuff reads like a book built on what the author hopes will be a clever plot, and like most plot-driven narratives (Palahniuk's included) the characters are barely realized and language takes a back seat to movement and development—one wonders if product-placement money motivated Palahniuk to name his male porn stars after brands of liquor (Branch Bacardi, Cord Cuervo, et. al), and one quickly tires of the clever faux-porn titles if only because they are significantly more clever (To Drill a Mockinbird, A Tale of Two Titties, Catch Her in the Eye) than any porn filmography ever conceived (the 2008 AVN Best Film award winner is named Layout [Ed. Note- Beach volleyball themed? Talk about gritty!].

If you are new to Palaniuk, start elsewhere in his catalog. If you are an avid fan of his work, I won't be surprised if Snuff doesn't get a rise out of you.

1While one of these is Mr. 72, Darin Johnson (presumably not a porn name), who believes he is Cassie Wright's long-lost son, the reader is not surprised. Mr. 72 answers the casting call in order to "save" Wright, but when she tells him she actually had a daughter, he overcomes his erectile dysfunction and aggressively has sex with her, making her call for security to "get him off of [her]." Yet, if one had read a Palahniuk novel before, one would see this coming [Ed. Note - No he di'n't!] from the outset, for drastic character reversals are Palahniuk's trademark. For the same reasons, the identity of Wright's actual daughter is equally obvious to the reader.a

aTruth be told, I was immediately convinced that the stage manager was Wright's child, but as I, like Mr. 72, was under the impression that Wright had a son, I anticipated the stage manager had undergone a sexual-reassignment surgery (another Palahniuk stock device).

2One wonders if Palahniuk (or sympathetic reviewers) will cite the novel's banality as part of the point, an illustration of the state of culture that a graphic story about a 600-on-1 gang bang barely raises the pulse of most readers. (Don't get me wrong, I still imagine that fundamentalists will get hot and bothered, but discriminating readers who read broadly will likely find this book a bit ho-hum.)

Chuck Palahniuk
197 Pages

Friday, May 16, 2008

Palahniuk Puts the "Awesome" Back in "Viral"

Here is the new, likely-NSFW, fairly-ribald, viral marketing effort for Chuck Palahniuk's next annual novel, Snuff (and he ain't talkin' 'bout no Kodiak, neither).1

The trailer is for another Cassie Wright feature, the fictional Chitty-Chitty Gang Bang.

See the first video and read an description of Snuff here.

1Word on the street is, the Scandinavian edition will be titled Snus.

Pistorius Can Run!

After months of setbacks, South-African sprinter Oscar Pistorius has won his appeal before the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne, Switzerland. The Court's decision overturns a ban imposed by the International Association of Athletics Federations, allowing Pistorius the opportunity to qualify for the 2008 Oympics in Beijing.

oly_g_pistorius_600 The IAAF had made a series of escalating arguments against Pistorius in order to prove that he should be ineligible, but the CAS decision immediately overturns all of them.  The IAAF first claimed that Pistorius might fall, injuring himself or others, and should be barred from competition for safety. The IAAF made this decision without evidence that demonstrated that Pistorius was any more likely to fall than an athlete without a disability. In short, their first claim was based upon incorrect, biased assumptions about people with disabilities.

FlexSprintIII Next, the IAAF claimed that Pistorius' running blades did not provide the same wind resistance as a normative shin. In a sport decided by hundredths of a second, this argument seems to have validity; however, the rules governing the sport do not (yet) include a provision for a minimum shin size, so to exclude Pistorius alone for lack of drag would be completely unfair.

Finally, the IAAF has argued that Pistorius receives a mechanical advantage from his running blades. Again, no tests demonstrate this to be true. In fact, tests do demonstrate that he is mechanically disadvantaged when leaving the starting blocks.

Now, the CAS has cleared the way for Pistorius (and other athletes with disabilities) to compete on the world's largest stage for sport.

According to an report:

"The panel was not persuaded that there was sufficient evidence of any metabolic advantage in favor of a double-amputee using the Cheetah Flex-Foot," CAS said. "Furthermore, the CAS panel has considered that the IAAF did not prove that the biomechanical effects of using this particular prosthetic device gives Oscar Pistorius an advantage over other athletes not using the device."

Pistorius' training has been disrupted by the appeals process, and his Paralympic-record 400-meter time is a second off the qualifying pace for the 2008 Olympics, but now he has the summer to focus, compete, and attempt to qualify. Moreover, he can be placed directly on the South African 1600-meter relay squad.

When commenting about the appeal, Pistorius said, "'It is a battle that has been going on for far too long. It's a great day for sport. I think this day is going to go down in history for the equality of disabled people'" (

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

CU Catching the Spirit (no, not the good French one from '68)

Peterson Yesterday (May 13, 2008), the Wall Street Journal ran an article concerning University of Colorado at Boulder Chancellor "Bud" Peterson's desire to create an endowed chair for a Professor of Conservative Thought and Policy.

Citing a 32-out-of-800 conservative-to-liberal ratio on the CU faculty, Peterson believes this chair will help to balance what is presumably a leftist college experience for the tens of thousands of undergrads longboarding around Boulder.

Peterson's proposal is problematic on several levels. First, it supposes that those who self-identify as liberal (or at least those who do not identify as conservative) cannot separate their politics from their teaching. As intellectuals, professors of conservative, moderate, and liberal politics represent multiple viewpoints and perspectives—that is good, ethical education. Apparently Chancellor Peterson does not believe this is happening with the 768 other faculty members, and apparently he believes that a hard-line conservative is the anti-dote.  Aside from being blatantly anti-intellectual, Peterson's proposal is ludicrous.

scalia One need only consider Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, appointed by President Reagan, to see illustrated perfectly the flaws in Peterson's argument. While Republicans often denounce "activists on the bench" (i.e. any judge appointed by a Democrat), the right seemingly has no problem with Scalia's opinion that Catholic officeholders (Scalia is himself a conservative Catholic) should resign their positions if they are asked to uphold public policies or laws that contradict doctrinal Catholicism. This direct articulation of secular government with non-secular ideology is antithetical to the Constitution of the United States, the document Justice Scalia is charged to defend.

In response to Chancellor Peterson's statement, Republican congressman Tom Tancredo (R-Colorado) issued a press release that inadvertently helped the cause of actual intellectuals everywhere. A former member of the Independence Institute, a libertarian think tank in Golden, CO; a current member of both the House Foreign Affairs and Natural Resources Committees; and the founder and former chairman of the bipartisan House Immigration Reform Caucus, Tancredo has introduced enlightened ideas (such as running a fence along the entire U.S.-Mexico border [Wait, didn't a former Republican president named Ronald Reagan utter the famous phrases "open this [the Brandenburg] gate" and "tear down this wall!"—Ed.1] into 21st century democracy.

According to the Denver Post,

Republican congressman Tom Tancredo has fired off a wisecracking press release saying he wants to be a professor of conservative politics at the University of Colorado — a school often criticized by conservatives as being too liberal.

The outspoken opponent of illegal immigration is suggesting classes in "English Only 101" and "American Assimilation." He's also proposing a 20-foot-high fence around the border of the university's Boulder campus.

When I teach academic writing, I always tell my students to analyze and interpret each piece of evidence they cite, as evidence rarely argues for itself. In the case of Tancredo's comments, they are the exception to the rule.

Certainly, Tancredo (as a self-defined conservative) not only trivializes Chancellor Peterson's proposition, but also illustrates the danger in hiring someone for his or her ideological position.

Part of the problem comes from the concerted effort on the part of the right to demonize the word "liberal," and part of the problem comes from the elusive definition of what "liberalism" really means in common usage.  For instance, the WSJ tries to use the fact that "the campus hot-dog stand sells tofu wieners" as evidence of liberalism (if we admit this as valid, can we also admit that the $5 dollar price point equally suggests that the hot dog stand is pro-capitalist?). People eat tofu for any number of reasons that have nothing to do with the lever they pull in the voting booth (if, in fact, they choose to vote).

The WSJ allows Peterson to define futher "liberalism" when it reports:

A college that champions diversity, he believes, must think beyond courses in gay literature, Chicano studies and feminist theory. "We should also talk about intellectual diversity," he says.

Wait, what? After reading that, one might feel a bit like a post-dart Frank the Tank:


According to Peterson, courses in queer theory, cultural studies, and gender studies do not represent intellectual diversity?  I suppose someone should tell all the pundits covering the Democratic race for the presidential nomination that America's normative position on these issues is one of equality for those minority cultures; wow, I'm relieved to know that voters aren't making voting decision based upon Senator Clinton's gender or Senator Obama's race. And the fact checker at the Washington Post must be asleep at the switch, because the May 13, 2008 article "Racist Incidents Give Some Obama Campaigners Pause" is apparently loaded with inaccuracies:

Victoria Switzer, a retired social studies teacher, was on phone-bank duty one night during the Pennsylvania primary campaign. One night was all she could take: "It wasn't pretty." She made 60 calls to prospective voters in Susquehanna County, her home county, which is 98 percent white. The responses were dispiriting. One caller, Switzer remembers, said he couldn't possibly vote for Obama and concluded: "Hang that darky from a tree!"

Documentary filmmaker Rory Kennedy, the daughter of the late Robert F. Kennedy, said she, too, came across "a lot of racism" when campaigning for Obama in Pennsylvania. One Pittsburgh union organizer told her he would not vote for Obama because he is black, and a white voter, she said, offered this frank reason for not backing Obama: "White people look out for white people, and black people look out for black people."

I sure hope a conservative Republican perspective can set those people straight and restore the balance that Chancellor Peterson seems to think exists on the CU-Boulder campus and in this country.

1I suppose President George W. Bush has learned a few things about foreign relations, diplomacy, and sovereignty from President Reagan when Reagan asked Gorbachev, President of the Soviet Union from 1985-1991, to tear down a wall in another country.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Chuck Palahniuk Is Cooler than Your Unfinished Novel

snuff Pomo-bad boy Chuck Palahniuk, author of Invisible Monsters, Survivor, and...well, we can't talk about that one, seems to be taking a page from 60s-era The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and The Rolling Stones by releasing a new novel a year, including next week's Snuff1 (Doubleday). Some might say that he publishes too much; tell that to his agent.2

His newest work concerns Cassie Wright, a pornographic actress whose star is waning, and her plan to cap her career with her magnum opus [Ed. Note: horhorhor!], a film that captures her having sex with 600 men consecutively. That sounds graphic!

According to Publishers Weekly, the narrative is told from the perspective of Mr. 600, Mr. 72, and Mr. 137. Publishers Weekly writes:

But for a novel centered around a gargantuan gangbang, there's surprisingly little action; the small amount of narrative movement takes place backstage, where the characters attempt to get a sense of one another while waiting for their number to be called. There are sharp moments when Palahniuk compassionately and candidly examines the flesh-on-film industry, but mostly this reads like a cross between the Spice Channel and Days of Our Lives.

[Ed. Note: That's a burn.]

First, I'm shocked that a story about pornography is only told from the men's perspectives and that the men seem most interested in themselves in comparison to other male 'bangers. Why, that almost seems homoerotic! In a move that is sure to launch a thousand academic-conference papers and a handful of Master's theses, Palahniuk has collaborated on a fictional film trailer to promote the book.  You can view it below, but beware, it is both bawdy and likely NSFW (Not Safe for Work).

Second, Palahniuk's work is wildly uneven. While Invisible Monsters is a classic (with its innovative use of language and fashion-mag-inspired narrative structure), Fight Club (whoops) remains one of the only books that pales in comparison with its filmic adaptation (the other is Sideways, sorry Rex), and his other works depend too much on the audience continuing to be surprised by the premise as the story develops.

Check back next week to read the Not Invisible review.  You'll be the only one!

1With my usual thumb on the pulse of the industry, I saw a whole table of Palahniuk's books on prominent display in the downtown Barnes & Noble yesterday, but couldn't imagine that he had a new novel already coming out. Probably because I was angry that in the store you can only buy Charles Dickens' novels in the Barnes & Noble editions. The price point is awesome; the absence of all critical apparatus is non-awesome.

2Palahniuk's Fictional Output
  • Fight Club (1996; Major Motion Picture 1999)
  • Survivor (1999)
  • Invisible Monsters (1999) (written between Insomnia (unpublished) and Fight Club)
  • Choke (2001)
  • Lullaby (2002)
  • Diary (2003)
  • Haunted (2005)
  • Rant (2007)
  • Snuff (May 20th, 2008)
  • Pygmy (forthcoming 2009 according to official website, WTF?!?!)

The Age of American Unreason: Review Part 2

[Ed. Note: Yesterday, our one regular reader asked if we could refocus the blog into a site that "was stupid and made him laugh." We do not know how to take this request from 100% of our audience.]

Age of American Unreason_small In "The Way We Lived Then: Intellect and Ignorance in a Young Nation," the second chapter of Susan Jacoby's The Age of American Unreason, Jacoby establishes the seeds of the intellectual and anti-intellectual movements in America, suggesting that this problem is not local but systemic.

Predictably, Jacoby lionizes Emerson, the patron saint of American intellect. Again, Jacoby does not interrogate Emerson's message, but establishes his claims as inherently correct. Jacoby focuses on "The American Scholar," and she discusses Emerson's truly democratic concept of "Man Thinking." Emerson is worth quoting at length:

The fable [of there being One Man] implies, that the individual, to possess himself, must sometimes return from his own labor to embrace all the other laborers. But unfortunately, this original unit, this fountain of power, has been so distributed to multitudes, has been so minutely subdivided and peddled out, that it is spilled into drops, and cannot be gathered. The state of society is one in which the members have suffered amputation from the trunk, and strut about so many walking monsters, — a good finger, a neck, a stomach, an elbow, but never a man.

Man is thus metamorphosed into a thing, into many things. The planter, who is Man sent out into the field to gather food, is seldom cheered by any idea of the true dignity of his ministry. He sees his bushel and his cart, and nothing beyond, and sinks into the farmer, instead of Man on the farm. The tradesman scarcely ever gives an ideal worth to his work, but is ridden by the routine of his craft, and the soul is subject to dollars. The priest becomes a form; the attorney, a statute-book; the mechanic, a machine; the sailor, a rope of a ship.

In this distribution of functions, the scholar is the delegated intellect. In the right state, he is, Man Thinking. In the degenerate state, when the victim of society, he tends to become a mere thinker, or, still worse, the parrot of other men's thinking.

In this passage, Emerson argues against the compartmentalization of one's subjectivity into a single area defined by labor (what Emerson calls "a form"), and if we extend his thinking, we see that an individual is capable of being an intellectual, a laborer, an artisan simultaneously—Man Thinking anticipates Gramsci's notion of the organic intellectual, and the concept does not close off laborers from participating in intellectualism, nor does it argue for the reification of an elite class of intellectuals. While Emerson does not investigate any labor-based reason for one's estrangement from his or her own labor, on the majority we can say of the Man Thinking: So far, so good.

One need not look too hard at "Self Reliance," though, to see some roots of American isolationism, as well attitudes and beliefs that have worked to marginalize oppressed groups.1 Thus, by not problematizing her major argument, again Jacoby stacks the deck in her own favor, undermining her own case by either intentionally omitting what is problematic in the sources she champions or by not seeing the problems themselves. She does, however, focus on those who disagree with Emersonian self-reliance and intellectualism, painting them as antagonists to what she develops more and more as an American narrative.2

Throughout this chapter, however, Jacoby is relatively even-handed in her analysis of the parallel development of secular and non-secular school systems in the early years of the Republic, and she does an excellent job of framing the intentional omission of religion from the nation's founding documents.

And for our one reader who wants "funny":

1In Extraordinary Bodies, Rosemarie Garland Thomson posits that "Self Reliance" and its related themes directly contribute to a culture that devalues bodies with difference and ultimately ignores the reality that humans are, in fact, interdependant, not autonomous.

2In The Archaeology of Knowledge, Michel Foucault credibly argues why one must resist the impulse to narrativize when researching history. As a New Historian, Foucault would reject Jacoby's method of chronological, causal narrative outright.

Monday, May 12, 2008

The Age of American Unreason: Review Part 1

[Ed. Note: As I might have known, I could not stop reading after a single chapter, so the review and reflection on the first six chapters will each be written after having read them as a block.]

Age of American Unreason_small In the opening chapter of The Age of American Unreason, Jacoby establishes what she contends are the two main causes of the metastatic unreason she finds in America. Titled "The Way We Live Now: Just Us Folks," the opening chapter paints with broad brushstrokes, covering [in some cases quite clumsily] linguistics, the mass media (she attacks television with particular gusto), and fundamentalist religion. In short, the pillars (or post-hole diggers) of American anti-intellectualism are defined precisely where one would expect them to be.

Problematically, Jacoby spends little time promoting intellectualism (granted, this is not the mission of the book); however, Jacoby's argument for rationalism and scientific method are seriously undermined by treating "intellectualism" and "rationality" as things which are inherently good, as though they themselves are devoid of rhetoric, non-ideological, and natural.1

Jacoby, however, would disagree. At every turn Jacoby posits that intellectuals are the accurate interpreters of "culture"—using it not in Raymond Williams' tripartite sense, which includes the whole way of life for a people, but in Matthew Arnold's sense of culture as,

the great help out of our present difficulties; culture being a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world.... (Culture and Anarchy)

By subscribing to such an ideology, Jacoby feels no need to justify the denigration of television because she contends it disrupts reading, a highly-valued cultural practice.

Jacoby opens with an analysis of the rhetorical usage of "folks," particularly how President George W. Bush has consistently used the term in his political addresses. While Jacoby's analysis of the rhetorical effect of that term is accurate—by being repeatedly called one of the folks, one subjectifies (not her term) him- or herself as one of the good ol' boys or girls who has no need for intellectualism—she reveals herself to be a linguistic prescriptivist, arguing for an inflexible language and lamenting the supposed "debased speech" as a sign of cultural degeneracy.

Paradoxically, Jacoby argues that language and meaning does change when she  defines debased speech not as, "the prevalence of obscene language, so widespread as to be deprived of force and meaning at those rare times when only an epithet will do" (7). By arguing that language can lose its efficacy, Jacoby is arguing for a descriptivist approach to language, one that is based upon actual usage, nor prescribed "correct" usage. Moreover, she argues that there are times (admittedly "rare") when an epithet is appropriate. By suggesting that obscene language is overused, she simultaneously argues that the majority of English speakers is unable to discern what those appropriate times are.  Well, hot damn, I suppose the intellectuals could tell us.

While Jacoby consistently lauds scholars and intellectuals, she has no hesitation dismissing scholars with whom she disagrees, and her argument about television illustrates this. She writes,

Predictably, the video culture has spawned an electronic cottage industry of scholars and writers taking up the cudgels in defense of a multi-billion-dollar conglomerate and pooh-poohing old-fashioned intellectuals (a.k.a. curmudgeons) for their reservations about sucking at the video tit from cradle to grave. (15)

Interestingly, Jacoby seems to sense no irony in her proclamations, given that she stumps for print (itself a technological innovation in 1485 when William Caxton printed Sir Thomas Mallory's Morte Darthur) and chose to publish this book not with an academic, scholarly press, but with Pantheon Books, a division of Random House, the world's largest trade book publisher and a subsidiary of the transnational media corporation Bertelsmann AG, which posted a 28.5 billion dollar revenue for 2007.  "Sucking at the ... tit," indeed.

When Jacoby challenges fundamentalist religion, she would be better served by establishing the assumptions she relies on to posit (out-of-hand) that science trumps religion. By neglecting to investigate how scientific method is itself a cultural construction, how it has deployed and still deploys rhetoric to establish itself as natural and inherent, Jacoby participates in furthering the hegemony of the scientific (Jacoby's thesis would argue against such a hegemony, but if one takes her claim that all good intellectuals believe in the scientific method, one might illuminate that hegemony more clearly).

In this chapter Jacoby makes many interesting and profound claims, but by relying upon the old historical conventions of narrativizing—even though she claims, in a watered-down Foulcauldian way, that "Anti-intellectualism in any era can best be understood as a complex of symptoms of symptoms with multiple causes"—and failing to declare and illustrate the many assumptions upon which her the-best-that-has-been-thought-and-said-in-the-world argument is based, she does not present in this first chapter a convincing opening argument, but a series of opinions and standpoints (10).


1 One only need read Antonio Gramsci's Prison Notebooks (written between 1929 and 1935) to encounter a much more democratic concept of intellectualism. Gramsci does not restrict intellectualism to an elite class (although, according to Gramsci, such a class can and does exists), but each bloc (or class of people) produces its own intellectuals. The role of the intellectual, Gramsci argues, is not only to be eloquent, but to be active.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Review: The Age of American Unreason, Introduction

Age of American Unreason_small In Susan Jacoby's eighth book, The Age of American Unreason (2008), she explores what Richard Hofstadter had earlier described in his seminal Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963) as the cyclical nature of America's passionate anti-intellectualism, positing that this current nadir may be the end of the cycle and the beginning of a cultural infection that will kill finally intellectualism.

Jacoby, a well-credentialed author who has received many prestigious awards for her work, has garnered praise for this new work from Douglas Brinkley to Stephen Colbert (he accepts your apology).

While the book has received glowing reviews, Not Invisible plans to develop an extended analysis of it, moving chapter by chapter with a method somewhat reminiscent of Barthes' S/Z. Somewhat. The actual method will be antidisciplinary, blending reader-response theory, structuralism, deconstruction, ideology theory and cultural criticism as Jacoby's arguments warrant their applications.

Each section of criticism will be written after reading a chapter, so the analysis will work by accumulation—expect misadventure—and will not endeavor to be comprehensive, but it will attempt to be fair. As Jacoby writes in her introduction:

The unwillingness to give a hearing to contradictory viewpoints, or to imagine that one might learn anything from an ideological or cultural opponent, represents a departure from the best side of American popular and elite intellectual traditions. ...In today's America, intellectuals and non-intellectuals alike, whether on the far left or right, tend to tune out any voice that is not an echo. This obduracy is both a manifestation of mental laziness and the essence of anti-intellectualism. (xix-xx)

Jacoby is unafraid to diagnose; one wonders if her book will pass her own examination.

Jacoby, Susan. The Age of American Unreason. New York: Pantheon Books, 2008.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Hello, Democracy

michigan The DNC Rules Committee (scheduled to meet on May 31) has an opportunity to preserve democracy and educate voters in Michigan and Florida, as well as pundits, journalists, and talking heads, about the true nature of the illegitimate primaries in Michigan and Florida.

While the DNC (and Howard Dean, specifically, as though the DNC was a one-person show) has been given the blame for the current situation, the real culprits—the legislatures in Michigan and Florida, specifically the individual legislators who voted to move the primary dates—receive next to no attention.

2008 does not mark the first time a political party's national committee has established rules by which legitimate elections and primaries can be conducted, so the very presence of these rules is itself not problematic, nor is the use of sanctions for states who break those rules.

joinusMoreover, 2008 does not mark the first time that Michigan has attempted to move its primary against DNC rules. In 2004, Michigan Democrats attempted to move their primary against standing DNC rules. In 2004, however, Howard Dean was not the DNC chair (Dean was, in fact, running his own campaign, which was unbelievably derailed by poor sound engineering). The chairperson of the DNC in 2004 was Terry McAuliffe. You know him...he is currently serving as Hillary Clinton's campaign chair, and he is among the most outspoken about the DNC's rejection of the illegitimately-moved primaries.

How did McAuliffe deal with Michigan in 2004? One need only to consult McAuliffe's memoir, What a Party! (2007), for his personal account:

"I'm going outside the primary window," [Michigan Sen. Carl Levin] told me definitively.

"If I allow you to do that, the whole system collapses," I said. "We will have chaos. I let you make your case to the DNC, and we voted unanimously and you lost."

He kept insisting that they were going to move up Michigan on their own, even though if they did that, they would lose half their delegates. By that point Carl and I were leaning toward each other over a table in the middle of the room, shouting and dropping the occasional expletive.

"You won't deny us seats at the convention," he said.

"Carl, take it to the bank," I said. "They will not get a credential. The closest they'll get to Boston will be watching it on television. I will not let you break this entire nominating process for one state. The rules are the rules. If you want to call my bluff, Carl, you go ahead and do it."

We glared at each other some more, but there was nothing much left to say. I was holding all the cards and Levin knew it.1 (325)

terry_mcauliffe In McAuliffe's defense, he did use a co-writer (Steve Kettmann) when completing his memoir, so perhaps he doesn't remember writing (or having) that conversation with Levin. Or, less in his defense, McAuliffe remembers his use of sanctions as a threat, how he seems to take pleasure in that threat, instead of his simple enforcement of the rules.  Either way, McAuliffe is either a hyprocrit or guilty of a Clintonian "mis-speak."

Either way, Clinton & Co.'s continued suggestion that the DNC is responsible for the illegitimacy of the Michigan and Florida primaries is disinformation. Unfortunately, this disinformation hurts her party in more ways than one.

Hillary Clinton pointing2 First, by placing blame on the DNC, she paints the entire party as being anti-democratic and their continued observance of the rules as a choice fueled by a fire to disenfranchise two key states (that the DNC has such a desire is ludicrous). Second, she places blame on the Obama campaign, which only further weakens from within the party's likely candidate. Obama's campaign has objected to several proposals, not because they want to suppress Michigan or Florida, but because the proposals have not been fair to both candidates.

Consider Michigan's current "compromise proposal" to send the Michigan delegation to the convention in Denver with a 10-delegate edge for Senator Clinton. Remember, Obama wasn't even on the ballot in Michigan, so the "compromise" is presumptuous at best. However, if the Obama camp rejects this plan, you can guarantee that the Eternal Campaign will label him obstructionist.

Through all of this, though, the real message is lost. Republican-controlled legislatures (with bipartisan support) in both states voted to move the primaries with full knowledge of the potential ramifications from the DNC.

Consider the following from a New York Times article date August 22, 2007, called "Michigan Joins the Race for a 'Me First' Primary":

The matter is likely to boil over this weekend, at least for the Democrats, when the states meet with the rules committee of the Democratic National Committee in Washington. The party wants to rein in the scheduling anarchy and punish those violating party rules that bar all but a handful of states from voting before Feb. 5. Florida is the chief delinquent, and Michigan could be another.2

So, four and half months before the primaries in question, the state DNC's were reminded of the consequences of their actions. They broke the rules anyway.

Donna_Brazile_1 Voters in Michigan and Florida should not be outraged at the DNC. They should not be outraged at Obama. They should be outraged at their local elected officials who gambled with the legitimacy of their constituents' votes and lost. In fact, those voters should praise Dean, Donna Brazile, and the rest of the DNC Rules Committee if they are seated at the national convention at all.

1Transcription prepared by Mark Nikolas at

2It is interesting to note how Clinton and Edwards are mentioned in the article, but Obama is not.