Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Intellectual Perversity in Chicago

Again with David Mamet, who's doing more publicity to promote his book on why liberals are stoopid. He pulls off quite a feat here, attacking stupidity while at the same time defending it:

Years ago, you described “American Buffalo” as being about “how we excuse all sorts of great and small betrayals and ethical compromises called business.” In this book, you defend enormous payouts to C.E.O.’s working for failing corporations. You seem to have changed radically.
I have. Here’s the question: Is it absurd for a company to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to a C.E.O. if the company is failing? The answer is that it may or may not be absurd, but it’s none of our goddamned business. Because as Milton Friedman said, the question is not what are the decisions but who makes the decisions. Because when the government starts deciding what’s absurd, you’re on the road to serfdom.

File this one under 'oh for fuck's sake.'

Contrarianism is all well and good, and goodness knows there are plenty of dippy hippies in the theatre world, but this is just making a virtue of idiocy. Put aside the issue of responsibility that comes with being tied into a precarious world economy. Mamet is reflexively arguing that any private business decision, no matter how reckless and collaterally damaging, is inherently better than government, just because, and he's relying on tired bumper sticker sloganeering--"on the road to serfdom"--to "prove" it to boot.

The modern conservative movement takes a nearly erotic pleasure in infuriating liberals (or at least thinking it's doing so), but saying something like this fills one with more pity than anger. David Mamet is a man of tremendous intelligence and talent, and so more than anything it's simply sad to see him now cutting off his brain to spite his face.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Scaring the Dickens Into Me

George Orwell was onto something in his description of how Dickens reads as comedy or terror based on the reader's age:

I must have been about nine years old when I first read David Copperfield. The mental atmosphere of the opening chapters was so immediately intelligible to me that I vaguely imagined they had been written by a child. And yet when one re-reads the book as an adult and sees the Murdstones, for instance, dwindle from gigantic figures of doom into semi-comic monsters, these passages lose nothing. Dickens has been able to stand both inside and outside the child’s mind, in such a way that the same scene can be wild burlesque or sinister reality, according to the age at which one reads it.

Here is one of the Murdstones in question:

It was Miss Murdstone who was arrived, and a gloomy-looking lady she was; dark, like her brother, whom she greatly resembled in face and voice; and with very heavy eyebrows, nearly meeting over her large nose, as if, being disabled by the wrongs of her sex from wearing whiskers, she had carried them to that account. She brought with her two uncompromising hard black boxes, with her initials on the lids in hard brass nails. When she paid the coachman she took her money out of a hard steel purse, and she kept the purse in a very jail of a bag which hung upon her arm by a heavy chain, and shut up like a bite. I had never, at that time, seen such a metallic lady altogether as Miss Murdstone was.

She was brought into the parlour with many tokens of welcome, and there formally recognized my mother as a new and near relation. Then she looked at me, and said:

'Is that your boy, sister-in-law?'

My mother acknowledged me.

'Generally speaking,' said Miss Murdstone, 'I don't like boys. How d'ye do, boy?'

Under these encouraging circumstances, I replied that I was very well, and that I hoped she was the same; with such an indifferent grace, that Miss Murdstone disposed of me in two words:

'Wants manner!'

My favorite instance of comic horror comes as David is running away to his aunt--who later gives the Murdstones a most exquisite tongue-lashing--and is looking for a shop at which to pawn his jacket:

Into this shop, which was low and small, and which was darkened rather than lighted by a little window, overhung with clothes, and was descended into by some steps, I went with a palpitating heart; which was not relieved when an ugly old man, with the lower part of his face all covered with a stubbly grey beard, rushed out of a dirty den behind it, and seized me by the hair of my head. He was a dreadful old man to look at, in a filthy flannel waistcoat, and smelling terribly of rum. His bedstead, covered with a tumbled and ragged piece of patchwork, was in the den he had come from, where another little window showed a prospect of more stinging-nettles, and a lame donkey.

'Oh, what do you want?' grinned this old man, in a fierce, monotonous whine. 'Oh, my eyes and limbs, what do you want? Oh, my lungs and liver, what do you want? Oh, goroo, goroo!'

I was so much dismayed by these words, and particularly by the repetition of the last unknown one, which was a kind of rattle in his throat, that I could make no answer; hereupon the old man, still holding me by the hair, repeated:

'Oh, what do you want? Oh, my eyes and limbs, what do you want? Oh, my lungs and liver, what do you want? Oh, goroo!'—which he screwed out of himself, with an energy that made his eyes start in his head.

The mad pawnbroker is, near as I can tell, a throwaway character, appearing for all of two or three pages. But what an appearance! With but a word--Goroo!--his impression is instant and memorable, being weird and funny and frightening all at once. It makes me think a David Copperfield adaptation directed by, say, Sam Raimi, would be pretty awesome.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Late Expectations

As part of another project I've been reading through Dickens's David Copperfield; Blood Meridian will have to wait. Thing is, I'm actually enjoying it. My only previous Dickens exposure, Great Expectations in high school and Bleak House a couple years back in college, left me bewildered by the man's long-winded prose and wide-net plotting. Such was Bleak House that my college classmates and I were convinced its ungainly prose was motivated by the incentive of getting paid by the word in serial fiction.

David Copperfield is also long in its story and in the telling thereof, but it goes down easier. No doubt this is due to the improved circumstances of reading it in relative leisure. Yet important people like Virginia Woolf and Tolstoy have declared it to be Dickens's masterpiece, so there must be somethings else going on.

There is for one thing the singular focus on Copperfield, literally from birth, as described in Copperfield's own voice:

Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o'clock at night. It was remarked that the clock began to strike, and I began to cry, simultaneously.

Right from the start it shows it content to let go of some of its storytelling authority: "...or whether that station will be held by anybody else..." "(as I have been informed and believe)," "It was remarked..." No omniscient narrator, this. It's endearingly conversational.

It helps a great deal that Copperfield has so many strange and wonderful characters and happenings to describe to us. I took for instance the near-end of the first chapter as an encouraging sign of quality to come:

'How is she?' said my aunt, folding her arms with her bonnet still tied on one of them.

'Well, ma'am, she will soon be quite comfortable, I hope,' returned Mr. Chillip. 'Quite as comfortable as we can expect a young mother to be, under these melancholy domestic circumstances. There cannot be any objection to your seeing her presently, ma'am. It may do her good.'

'And SHE. How is SHE?' said my aunt, sharply.

Mr. Chillip laid his head a little more on one side, and looked at my aunt like an amiable bird.

'The baby,' said my aunt. 'How is she?'

'Ma'am,' returned Mr. Chillip, 'I apprehended you had known. It's a boy.'

My aunt said never a word, but took her bonnet by the strings, in the manner of a sling, aimed a blow at Mr. Chillip's head with it, put it on bent, walked out, and never came back. She vanished like a discontented fairy; or like one of those supernatural beings, whom it was popularly supposed I was entitled to see; and never came back any more.

Finally there is Dickens's/Copperfield's (being semi-autobiographical, the two are hardly interchangeable) keen power of observation. Consider this episode describing Copperfield's nasty stepfather and aunt's methods of education, the way in which they manipulate an ostensibly positive relationship into something abusive, manipulative and power-driven:

I hand the first book to my mother. Perhaps it is a grammar, perhaps a history, or geography. I take a last drowning look at the page as I give it into her hand, and start off aloud at a racing pace while I have got it fresh. I trip over a word. Mr. Murdstone looks up. I trip over another word. Miss Murdstone looks up. I redden, tumble over half-a-dozen words, and stop. I think my mother would show me the book if she dared, but she does not dare, and she says softly:

'Oh, Davy, Davy!'

'Now, Clara,' says Mr. Murdstone, 'be firm with the boy. Don't say, "Oh, Davy, Davy!" That's childish. He knows his lesson, or he does not know it.'

'He does NOT know it,' Miss Murdstone interposes awfully.

'I am really afraid he does not,' says my mother.

'Then, you see, Clara,' returns Miss Murdstone, 'you should just give him the book back, and make him know it.'

'Yes, certainly,' says my mother; 'that is what I intend to do, my dear Jane. Now, Davy, try once more, and don't be stupid.'

I obey the first clause of the injunction by trying once more, but am not so successful with the second, for I am very stupid. I tumble down before I get to the old place, at a point where I was all right before, and stop to think. But I can't think about the lesson. I think of the number of yards of net in Miss Murdstone's cap, or of the price of Mr. Murdstone's dressing-gown, or any such ridiculous problem that I have no business with, and don't want to have anything at all to do with. Mr. Murdstone makes a movement of impatience which I have been expecting for a long time. Miss Murdstone does the same. My mother glances submissively at them, shuts the book, and lays it by as an arrear to be worked out when my other tasks are done.

There is a pile of these arrears very soon, and it swells like a rolling snowball. The bigger it gets, the more stupid I get. The case is so hopeless, and I feel that I am wallowing in such a bog of nonsense, that I give up all idea of getting out, and abandon myself to my fate. The despairing way in which my mother and I look at each other, as I blunder on, is truly melancholy. But the greatest effect in these miserable lessons is when my mother (thinking nobody is observing her) tries to give me the cue by the motion of her lips. At that instant, Miss Murdstone, who has been lying in wait for nothing else all along, says in a deep warning voice:


My mother starts, colours, and smiles faintly. Mr. Murdstone comes out of his chair, takes the book, throws it at me or boxes my ears with it, and turns me out of the room by the shoulders.

Life and age are a constant rebuke of youthful fancy, as evidenced by my reappraisals of Cormac McCarthy, The Great Gatsby, and now Dickens. With that in mind, I am rather looking forward to being proven wrong in the future.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Face Off

Today I saw a poster for the upcoming Mr. Popper’s Penguins film starring Jim Carrey.

The poster didn’t make me think much on the film itself, but rather a different film, Me, Myself, and Irene, and its attendant publicity material.

This led me to consider other similarly framed posters in Carrey's ouvre.

I know a star close-up isn't at all unusual for movie posters, but it's still a little odd to see it so often with Carrey. Is his face really so compelling?

Then again, no one ever accused Hollywood of originality:

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Miseducation of David Mamet

This Weekly Standard piece on David Mamet's conversion to conservatism is an interesting read, in that it unwittingly reveals Mamet has learned the wrong lessons:

Mamet mentioned a screenplay that he hopes will soon be produced involving a young rich girl who applies to Harvard. When she’s rejected she suddenly declares herself an Aztec to qualify for affirmative action. Presumably high jinks ensue. A new two-character play opening in London this fall, The Anarchist, is a “verbal sword-fight” between two women of a certain age, one a veteran of 1960s radicalism, jailed for life on a bombing charge, and the other a reactionary prison governor from whom the aging radical hopes to receive parole. Regardless of the play’s true merits, we can expect the word didactic to get a workout from critics.

Also, regardless of its didacticism, we can also expect the words 'true merits' to get a workout from conservatives.

Terry Teachout noted the problem with this sledgehammer approach to political theatre a couple years back, incidentally amid a discussion on why there are hardly any conservative playwrights:

Mr. Hytner, in other words, wants to produce issue-driven conservative plays that are just like today's liberal plays, only in reverse, whereas the problem with today's political theater is that its practitioners see their plays not as works of art but as means to an end. In such tedious exercises in left-wing agitprop as Sam Shepard's "The God of Hell," Caryl Churchill's "Drunk Enough to Say I Love You?" and Tim Robbins's "Embedded," we are presented with a black-and-white universe of victims and villains, a place where every deck is stacked and never is heard a surprising word. Why would anybody with half a brain in his head -- even a fire-breathing McCainiac, if such a creature exists -- want to suffer through their right-wing equivalent?

Mamet may have once worshipped Bertolt Brecht, but his strength as a playwright has always been his refreshing refusal to sermonize or caricature. Instead his characters interrupt each other constantly, lose trains of thought, and generally speak in short, often vulgar bursts. Even a politically charged play like Oleanna was laden with ambiguous intentions and misunderstanding, showing the strengths and weaknesses of both its characters and the "sides" they represent. In breaking away from his liberal peers and from the characteristics of his writing that often set him apart from them, Mamet is in fact indulging their worst habits.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Newtly Wed

Joshua Green called for a David Brooks photoshopping meme earlier this week and today tied it into the Newt Gingrich implosion. I propose an alternative.

A little obvious, but, yeah.

Life From Inside

One of James Fallows's readers provides an Orwell quote that dovetails nicely with Follies's downtrodden spirit (emphasis mine):

An autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful. A man who gives a good account of himself is probably lying, since any life when viewed from the inside is simply a series of defeats.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Regrets, They Have a Few

The curtain rises. A ramshackle facility: crumbling columns, dingy brickwork, and piles of discarded chairs, onto which enter a multitude of brightly colored, ethereally lit Vaudevillian shades, clad in giant headpieces, scandalist skin-tight garments, and other ornate regalia. Normally their appearance would suggest exuberance and emotional buoyancy. But in these digs, and in the ghostly silence in which these apparitions make their circuits round the stage, the effect is fittingly funereal, for the show in which they appear in, the Kennedy Center's lavish, $6 million production of Stephen Sondheim's Follies, is melancholy at its heart.

Its characters, old-time performers of the Weismann Follies gathering in their old theater one last time before it's torn down, are similarly worn and faded: Buddy, bored with his marriage even though he still loves his wife Sally. She still carries a torch for Ben Stone, who true to his name is hard-hearted, caring little for the women he woos, including his wife Phyllis, jaded by her husband's indecency.

Not content to revisit their old showtunes, they reconsider their lives, including their marriages. Sally, played with a touching vulnerability by Bernadette Peters, is perhaps the most dissatisfied of the lot. Who but the most wounded soul would sing one of the most gorgeous tributes to love that she probably doesn't actually believe herself?

In Buddy's eyes
I'm young, I'm beautiful.
In Buddy's eyes
I can't get older.
I'm still the princess,
Still the prize.
In Buddy's eyes
I'm young, I'm beautiful.
In Buddy's arms,
On Buddy's shoulder
I won't get older.
Nothing dies.
And all I ever dreamed I'd be,
The best I ever thought of me,
Is every minute there to see
In Buddy's eyes.

The feeling of the show is best encapsulated in Ben's "The Road You Didn't Take:"

You take one road,
You try one door,
There isn't time for any more.
One's life consists of either/or.
One has regrets
Which one forgets,
And as the years go on.

The show flashes and dazzles, of course. This is a Broadway musical, about musical performers no less, and the conceit of having them relive their old routines makes for some stunning set-pieces, particularly the show-stopping "Who's That Woman?" in which the aging ladies of the cast tap-dance and twirl about the set like (and with!) their twenty year-old selves, within a shimmering silver curtain descending from the wings.

Most if not all of the material with the secondary characters is admittedly ancillary to the Phyllis-Ben-Sally-Buddy plot, a reiteration of the main story's ideas of nostalgia and regret, but it gives the show some much-needed kick, some honey with the medicine. The black joke is, of course, that the youthful energy of those scenes of the past are tempered with awareness of the present day's unsexiness.

Sondheim knows this, which leads to his ballsiest gambit, the spectacularly staged Loveland medley that takes up most of the play's second act. With the four main characters having all reached a moment of crisis, they translate their personal follies into the Follies of the type they once performed, with each character getting a song based on a different kind of routine (it's the same concept as Chicago, but driven by sadness and regret instead of hard-bitten cynicism).

This is probably the make-or-break point for most audience members, as it becomes most clear that the story, tender and affecting as it is, is a skeletal thing on which to hang its musical numbers. This would sink a lesser dramatist, but Sondheim is the crowned master of the craft. He knows what he's doing. Lines like

Now Lucy has the purity
Along with the unsurety
That comes with being only twenty-one.
Jessie has maturity
And plenty of security.
Whatever you can do with them she's done.

are so witty and attached to music so great, it would be churlish to complain of narrative irrelevance. It's actually the point, in a meta-theatrical way: the play is a follies show about follies, of many types, so the plot is almost secondary by design. It's executed with such aplomb that when the final actors, the final Vaudeville spirit, leave the stage, the characters's sadness, from which they only begin to move on, carries to the audience: for we, too, are a little sad to see it end.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Sunset Bloody Sunset

I've lately started reading Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian. Thirty-four pages in I'm still not sure where the extraordinary violence of thus far is leading--Mexico, by the looks of it--but I am enjoying the ride, if "enjoying" is the proper word for it, for McCarthy wields a mighty pen:

Toadvine was four steps above him and when he kicked him he caught him in the throat. The clerk sat down on the stairs. When the kid came past he hit him in the side of the head and the clerk slumped over and began to slide toward the landing. The kid stepped over him and went down to the lobby and crossed to the front door and out.

Toadvine was running down the street, waving his fists above his head crazily and laughing. He looked like a great clay voodoo doll made animate and the kid looked like another. Behind them flames were licking at the top corner of the hotel and clouds of dark smoke rose into the warm Texas morning.

O, the imagery!

The kid went out and scoured his cup and plate in the sand and came back banging the tins together as if to fend away some drygulch phantom out there in the dark.

I'm still not sure what this next passage means, but it sounds good:

Only now is the child finally divested of all that he has been. His origins are become so remote as is his destiny and not again in all the world's turning will there be terrains so wild and barberous to try whether the stuff of creation may be shaped to man's will or whether his own heart is not another kind of clay.

Funny thing is, for the longest time I despised McCarthy after having to read All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing for an AP Literature class in high school. My interests were largely in plot mechanics back then, and so I didn't much cotton to McCarthy's contempt of standard punctuation and his marathon sentences. It took the Coen Brothers's adaptation of No Country For Old Men, some four or five years later, for me to reconsider. I think exposing young people to literature is on balance beneficial, but I can't imagine them appreciating a phrase-curve like "drygulch phantom."

Sunday, May 15, 2011

With Liberty, Injustice For All

In the politics of the Paul family, like son, like father:

Just about a year after his son Rand Paul stepped in it when he told Rachel Maddow he was opposed to provisions of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) told Chris Matthews Friday he wouldn't have voted for the law in the first place had he been in Congress at the time....

"Yeah," he told Matthews when asked if he would have voted against the act in Congress. "But I wouldn't vote against getting rid of the Jim Crow laws."

Ron, like his son, said that his statement about the Civil Rights Act has nothing to do with the law's intentions -- i.e. ending institutionalized discrimination in a wide swath of American life, including in the public accommodations where African Americans were denied service at the height of the Jim Crow era. Paul said he would vote against the law because it imposed unfair rules on what private business owners can and can't do on their own property. Essentially, they should be free to discriminate if they wish, Paul says, however distasteful that may be.

Ron Paul has a notoriously troubled history with race, yet we can, even if only for the sake of argument, disregard this. His ostensible anti-racism fails on its own terms.

Put simply, Paul believes racial equality is a good thing but would have voted against legislation that would have furthered it, because it violated his absolutist stance on individual freedom: that business owners should have the right to make whatever disagreeable policies they like. In a maddening way it's an admirable, principled position, of the same conviction as his anti-war stance that makes Paul such an outlier in the Republican party and made him an occasionally appealing figure for liberals in the bad old days of George W. Bush.

But results matter. The rottenness of the status quo which a defeat of the Civil Right Act would have maintained is self-evident, even to Paul. Yet he would have preferred that an enormous segment of the population continue to be treated as second-class citizens, rather than that the powerful class keeping them down should be stripped of that particular "liberty."

The whiteness of the beneficiaries of Paul's position may be incidental to his overarching worldview, but it is very real, and no amount of freedom-talk changes that. The problem isn't that Ron Paul's a racist, it's that he would have voted in the name of freedom against a law aimed at abolishing second-class citizenship for blacks.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Black Magic Muammar

I'm not the first person to notice the similarity between Muammar Gadaffi and Carlos Santana. I did do a double take yesterday when I glanced up at a CNN special on Baby Boomer music and seemingly saw the Colonel being interviewed. "Oye Como WHA...?"

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Fictitious Times

In thinking about the Osama bin Laden hit my mind keeps coming back to fiction. There was much of it to go around during those heady hours following the initial announcement: fictitious firefights, fictitious human shields, even fictitious Martin Luther King and Mark Twain quotes that spread among social networks and blogs in response to the news of bin Laden's death. Twain's adage about a lie getting halfway around the world before the truth has put its shoes on would be fitting, were it not similarly undocumented.

These words and ideas spread and were spread, of course, because they sounded so good and so right. It brought to mind a decidedly different fiction, an old episode of The Simpsons, "Lisa the Iconoclast." Lisa learns that Jebediah Springfield, the venerated founder of Lisa's hometown, was really a murderous pirate. She ends up keeping the bombshell secret to herself, concluding that Springfield's myth brought out the best in people, which was sufficient for keeping it alive.

This sounds nice--so good and so right--but as the cases of Jessica Lynch and Pat Tillman have shown us, looking away from inconvenient truths involves actively duping people, including grieving families, and often in service of less than noble causes (namely, ass-covering). We re-learned this lesson just a few weeks ago, when it was revealed Greg "Three Cups of Tea" Mortenson's Pakistani school-building philanthropy was really a poorly-implemented cover for his own enrichment. If we care not just about feeling good about ourselves but about the state of things in the real world, then knowing the truth and grappling with its implications is imperative.

Osama bin Laden is dead and no longer a threat. That much we can celebrate. But what if he didn't go down in a firefight? What if he was in fact captured, in our protective custody, and then executed in front of his daughter? What kind of legal precedent does this set?

There is another, fact-based, fiction I've pondered regarding this matter, Steven Spielberg's Munich. Its broader concern with the War on Terror was evident when it came out in 2005, and to my mind the questions it asks are even more pertinent now that bin Laden is gone. Now that we've taken out the 9/11 mastermind, where do we go? How far down the chain of command are we going to be knocking off Al Qaeda leadership, including an American citizen?

I argued before that revenge and justice are one in the same, and that avenging 9/11 was justified and defensible. I still believe that. However, an eye for an eye system of justice only works when both sides are willing to, eventually, call it even. As the endless grind of the Israel-Palestine issue shows, however, reprisal can all to easily take on a life of its own. And so I fixate on Munich's closing, warning, words:

There's no peace at the end of this, no matter what you believe.

The real Munich avenger never said that, never had such doubts. But it sounds so good to imagine he did.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Bust a Gut

I draw your attention now to a subject only slightly less depressing than international Islamic terrorism: Alien3. I don't think I'd call it my favorite in the series--I'm not that masochistic--but it is certainly the most underrated and, thanks to a truly hellish production, the most damaged. This makes it interesting in a way that the merely awful Resurrection and Alien vs. Predator cannot compete. It's one of the few cases in which one could justifiably say that the child's parents screwed it up.

Enter film blogger Timothy Brayton, whose reviews are always sharp and funny (especially the negative ones) and whose analysis of every film in the Disney canon is well worth checking out even for those with only a passing interest in the House of Mouse. Last year he set up a fundraiser for the Carry On Campaign by offering to do a write-up on a film of the donor's choice for anyone who donated $15 or more. I gave, and solicited his thoughts on Alien3. But rather than just have him look at the troubled film as it was released, I requested he also look at the Assembly Cut released with the Alien Quadrilogy box set, which restores a lot of material that goes a long way toward making it a better film, and compare the two.

The piece is now up on Antagony & Ecstasy. My only quibble is where he says the film's moody visuals "do all the heavy lifting." I would add that Elliot Goldenthal's nightmarish score work does a lot to elevate the material. Check out how the atonal brass in "Candles in the Wind" is used in tandem with the violence on screen, particularly at the end. Or 1:48 of "Lento," which starts off the funeral for Hicks and Newt and plays over the movie's end credits too. This is a small omission, however; the analysis is great and is well worth checking out.

Monday, May 2, 2011

A Dish Best Served Cold

Time will tell if the death of Osama Bin Laden will have any decisive impact on what used to be known as the War on Terror. For now, however, his death should be enjoyed as a greatness unto itself. This is an admittedly morbid stance, and whether we should celebrate the bloody end of the September 11th mastermind in the same manner as the Palestinians who celebrated September 11th, is a fair question. I propose that it is so, for this is in fact the most satisfying revenge for September 11th we could have hoped for.

First some words about a word: by revenge I do not mean going ballistic and inflicting disproportionate violence in retaliation. This kind of thinking has long warped our sensibilities on acceptable treatment of prisoners and where we ought to be going to war. What I speak of is the kind of revenge described in William Ian Miller's Eye for an Eye, a prescription of precision: you take my eye, I take yours, and we're even. Obviously this is not so easily applied when it comes to one person plotting the deaths of thousands, but it gives us something to shoot for: fitting the punishment to the crime. I'm generally skeptical of the death penalty, but in Bin Laden's case incapacitation and probable execution were practically a moral necessity, committed as he was to continuing to carry out terror attacks. The manner in which he died I consider to be the best and most fitting we could ask for.

Let us not forget that less than a year ago, whether Bin Laden was still alive was an open question. It would have been ever so depressing to learn, years after the fact, that the murdering bastard had expired of natural causes or failure of his dialysis machine or something equally mundane. For the U.S. to have unknowingly killed him, along with what would probably have been several innocents, in some bombing run would also have robbed the act of justice and reduced it to something approaching a Four Lions gag.

Capture of course was the ideal. It would have had the same effect as his being killed in action, and the news of it would have been greeted in much the same way. This is part of why I find the rowdy scenes outside the White House and Ground Zero are appropriate. The crowds are not celebrating a person's death so much as a madman's (in this case final) defeat: Osama Bin Laden will never plan another terrorist attack. His capture, in a perfect world, would have been followed by a trial, and then either shipment to a Supermax prison where we'd never hear from him again, or execution, and in the meantime we could extract valuable information on other terror plots, sleeper cells, key figures. In doing all this we could have proved to Bin Laden, to the world, and (most importantly) to ourselves, that our values and our methods of justice work.

But it would have never panned out that way. The abortive attempts to try Khalid Sheik Mohammad in New York, to close Guantanamo, to prosecute the enablers and architects of the Bush Administration torture policy, provide a glimpse of the ugly sideshow that would have followed the capture of Bin Laden. The initial jubilation would have given way to calls for waterboarding, to the embarrassment of a military commission, and perhaps to a bloodthirsty execution not unlike Saddam Hussein's.

What happened instead: a surgical strike in which no U.S. forces were harmed; in which neither sadism nor undue compassion had any time to manifest themselves; in which the great Islamic holy warrior was reduced to using one of his wives as a human shield; and in which we learned the cave he ostensibly dwelled in was in fact a swinging palatial man-cave.

Given the lousy alternatives and the ugly realities of U.S. politics, I fail to see a better revenge for September 11th, than two bullets in Osama Bin Laden's head, his endangered species hair shirt atatter, and his body at the bottom of the Arabian Sea.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

For the Record

There are a lot of things wrong with U.S. policy regarding Islamic terrorism, but the death of Osama bin Laden is not one of them. That is all.

Some More Skin of Our Teeth Excerpts

Because there's a lot of good material. First, Maggie Antrobus's kiss-off to her cheating husband is just some really great feminism:

Before I go, I have a letter.... I have a message to throw into the ocean.... It's a bottle. And in the bottle's a letter. And in the letter is written all the things that a woman knows.

It's never been told to any man and it's never been told to any woman, and if it finds its destination, a new time will come. We're not what books and plays say we are. We're not what advertisements say we are. We're not in the movies and we're not on the radio.

We're not what you're all told and what you think we are: We're ourselves. And if any man can find one of us he'll learn why the whole universe was set in motion. And if any man harm any one of us, his soul--the only soul he's got--had better be at the bottom of the ocean--and that's the only way to put it.

Next, George Antrobus to his son Henry, who he had been fighting in a just-ended seven-year war, articulating what every participant in armed conflict has ever felt afterward:

You're the last person I wanted to see. The sight of you dries up all my plans and hopes. I wish I were back at war still, because it's easier to fight you than to live with you. War's a pleasure--do you hear me?--War's a pleasure compared to what faces us now: trying to build up a peace-time with you in the middle of it.

This last one is actually Plato, selected by Wilder to embody one of the hours of the night. I found it most fitting to the late Donald Trump madness;

Then tell me, O Critias, how will a man choose the ruler that shall rule over him? Will he not choose a man who has first established order in himself, knowing that any decision that has its spring from anger or pride or vanity can be multiplied a thousand fold in its effects upon the citizens?

Anger, pride, and vanity, of course, are all that Trump has going for him.