Monday, June 27, 2005

Maybe We're the Problem

Spoilers are Shakespeare plays--several of them, particularly The Merchant of Venice and The Taming of the Shrew.

The other night Lucas and I were talking about racism and sexism in literature, our ability to really like certain works in spite of their clear racism (Hemingway, in his case) or misogynism (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, in my case), and it led us to the Shakespeare plays we have the most difficulty with, The Merchant of Venice and The Taming of the Shrew. I have more difficulty with the former, Lucas with the latter, but both have puzzled both of us. Many people classify these pieces as "problem plays"--in Shakespearean parlance, a "problem play" is basically a play you have a hard time fitting into the established Shakespearean genres; Measure for Measure and All's Well that Ends Well are almost always on the list, and sometimes the plays Lucas and I have difficulty with are on it as well. Harold Bloom, in his behemoth Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, has a section for problem plays, but includes neither of our problem pieces in it; he even goes so far as to say that if you consider Taming to be a problem play, "then perhaps you yourself are the problem." With Merchant he's a lot more casual, saying, simply, that you can like the play, particularly in light of Portia's importance, but you can't overlook or reshape its anti-Semitism. The play is anti-Semitic, period; now what?

Now, I have as many problems with Bloom as the next theatrical scholar does. The thesis of the book is that Shakespeare invented the modern character, as exemplified by Hamlet, in Bloom's view the most intelligent and complex character in literary history (for an interesting counterpoint to that, see Peter D. Kramer's Against Depression, which I just finished--he talks about how literature has caused us to see melancholia and depression as romantic, rather than debilitating, and that while Hamlet is a genius his paralysis is caused by depression, the illness). In addition to Hamlet, Bloom admires Falstaff as almost equally complex, and has several other characters he worships (the only ones I can remember off the top of my head are Rosalind and Cleopatra, the only women he mentions). However, the book is not focused around those characters, but has a chapter on each play, which in my view obligates you to show how each play contributes to your thesis. And many don't--the chapter on Richard III for example, says (yes, I am paraphrasing, but he comes pretty dadgummed close to saying this), "This play doesn't contribute to my thesis, because I don't like it." Maybe when you're the most famous literary scholar in the country you're allowed to do some shoddy scholarly writing, but I would really prefer that you didn't. In addition, he approaches Shakespeare with little or no eye to the theatrical aspects of it, which is just this side of the entire problem with the way Shakespeare is taught--these are *plays*, they were created to be performed, created with the knowledge that what is on the page is not all there is to what they are. So, Harold Bloom frustrates me as an intellectual, Naomi Wolf harrassment aside. But that said, I've lately started to think he's right about Merchant of Venice.

Now, I've only seen it performed twice, and once was the recent movie, which Cassie and I saw together. The movie in particular, knowing what the public outcry (minor about a Shakespeare film, but still present) would be, made a lot of very deliberate efforts not to be anti-Semitic. It opened with a long written, scrolling piece about the plight of Jews in sixteenth-century Venice; it opened with an almost non-verbal scene in which Antonio spits on Shylock in a crowd. And it had Shylock played by Al Pacino, who is capable of making the most unpleasant, abrasive characters (*ROY COHN* in Angels in America for fuck's sake) sympathetic without compromising their abrasiveness. And still it did not work. Michael Radford could not make Shakespeare's words express anything other than absolute contempt for Shylock. Which is fair; Shylock is a horrible, sadistic person in the script. He is cruel, he's ruthless, he's driven by a certain lack of reason--while Radford tried to make clear that that lack of reason, the crazed desire for revenge, was the result of years of ruthless oppression, the one nonverbal scene alone couldn't counteract the voluminous text. And since Shylock is the only Jew in the play, indeed one of the only Jews in all of Shakespeare's work (if not *the* only--I have neither read nor seen a lot of the histories, so I can't tell you for sure), and the contempt for him on the part of many of the characters we trust is expressed in terms of his Judaism, it follows that the reason he's so horrible is because he's a Jew. (And one sign of a Jew's insanity is his not being driven solely by the profit margin, interestingly--had Shylock accepted Bassiano's offer of six thousand ducats to pay back Antonio's three, rather than insisting upon the contracted pound of Antonio's flesh, he would have displayed reason. Insisting on the terms of the contract, upon getting either the money from Antonio or the flesh from Antonio, is one of the things that shows Shylock as insane. And while I'm not saying I don't agree, it's pretty interesting with regards to both modern capitalism and the general presentation of Jews as money-grubbers.) Taken in context, the legendary "Hath not a Jew eyes?" speech barely even appears sincere. Shylock is driven by greed and bloodlust. While not every Jewish character is the representation of all Judaism (certainly not today), any more than every African-American character is the ultimate representation of blackness or every female character the ultimate representation of femininity, within the context of this particular script everything about Shylock is presented to us in terms of his Judaism. And since just about everything about Shylock is bad, we have no choice but to see Judaism as bad. Or at the very least, to see Jews as bad. It may be that their religion's okay, but how would we know?

Interestingly, though, Merchant is pretty progressive on the woman front, at least with regards to Portia. For someone whose father stuck her with little marital choice, her only emancipation to be derived from little boxes, she does an amazing job using her intelligence to benefit herself in the world. Note my very smooth segue into Taming of the Shrew, eternal source of puzzlement to those who believe Shakespeare was a feminist (among whom I count myself). I should add here that I have seen several more productions of Taming than I have of Merchant--I've seen at least three, including one where the genders were reversed (didn't work, sadly) and one where Allison Janney played Kate in Central Park, and I was also in a production during my senior year of high school. And while that production experience calls up very conflicted memories for me, I most certainly learned a lot about the play. An almost classical premise, it has. Little sister Bianca, sweet, innocent and (if you get an interesting actor playing her) conniving, is the belle of the town, while Katherina, angry, voracious, mean, intelligent and probably just as attractive as her sister, is an object of desire for no one. And then Petruchio arrives on the scene.

It's a sad thing to say about a play whose feminist motives are questionable in the first place, but whether you can make the play non-misogynistic or not depends upon the actor playing Petruchio, not Katherina. You need a strong Kate, of course, to handle the character transformation and the final speech; I don't mean to negate that. (If you haven't read Taming of the Shrew, Kate's final speech includes such gems as:

"I am ashamed that women are so simple
To offer war where they should kneel for peace,
Or seek for rule, supremacy, and sway,
When they are bound to serve, love, and obey?
Why are our bodies soft, and weak, and smooth,
Unapt to toil and trouble in the world,
But that our soft conditions and our hearts
Should well agree with our external parts? . . .
Then vail your stomachs, for it is no boot,
And place your hands below your husband's foot."
-V.ii.160-8 & 175-6

Booya.) But the real question, the one that changes how we receive the play, is whether Kate and Petruchio are in it together. And Kate doesn't have much control over that; the script forces her into certain positions. He says it is the sun, and goddamnit she knows it is the sun. But why it's the sun is Petruchio's choice. (And the director's, of course; this is why I'd rather be a director than a Shakespearean scholar, because I feel no need to quibble over what Shakespeare intended, or more specifically, I feel no need to limit myself to saying that he only intended one thing. The question is, what can the play do and still be itself?)

So, dude comes to wive it wealthily in Padua; if wealthily, then happily in Padua. (I.ii.74-5) His old friends in Padua lead him to the despised older sister that the younger sister might be free for their courting. Petruchio finds this woman a worthy opponent in wordplay and, at least in my high school production, physical combat; still he deceives her, her father and her sister's suitors in order to marry her. (It ain't a play where no means no, this is for sure.) He conducts himself horribly at their wedding, and here's the rub. Kate's been rejected by society; Petruchio conducts himself so badly at the wedding as to be rejected by society as well. At the time, this does not make Kate happy; it's just someone else rejecting her and treating her badly, only this time it doesn't seem precisely to be based upon her behavior. He's relentlessly cruel in the first days of their marriage, but in an almost absurd, parodic way. And then we get to the I say it is the moon scene. When I saw the scene work was in the production with Allison Janney--suddenly she and Petruchio looked at each other and got it, and laughed hysterically, and basically continued that for the rest of the play. The continuation was a boring directorial choice, but the laughter itself made sense. And then at a dinner party Kate, coming fastest when called, presents the speech, a speech so misogynistic it seems outrageous--absurd, parodic. And the play, therefore, is more interesting if it *is* them against the world, if we see Petruchio on a real journey--if the speech is a joke between her and Petruchio, if the two of them, social wild cards, decide to be with one another against the world. *Conformable* as other household Kates, rather than *conformed* thereas.

It sounds like a stretch. And in many ways it is one, I won't argue. I guess no matter what it's not a *feminist* play, per se. It's not a play that advocates the emancipation or equality of all women. But I think the title is ironic--and there's precedent for Shakespeare using ironic titles, All's Well that Ends Well certainly being up there--and that it is a play, or at the very least can be a play, about two very unconventional people who find outlets for their unconventionality in one another, and have pretty incredible secrets.

Why am I so much more forgiving of Taming than of Merchant of Venice, though? I identify as both a Jew and a woman, so there's equal room for me to be offended. There are other women in Taming of the Shrew, where there are not other Jews in any other Shakespearean work, but the other women in Taming also kind of suck. (Although in high school I played the Widow, and it was awfully gratifying to be that bitchy.) I really, simply do believe there is more to Taming, that it's a lot more possible to find an interpretation one feels safe with and satisfied by with that play. But Lucas doesn't agree with me, and *maybe you don't either*. Tell me why! Tell me why!

Tuesday, June 14, 2005


Today's spoilers are Todd Solondz's films (Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness and Storytelling--I haven't seen Palindromes yet) and some plays and films of Neil LaBute (In the Company of Men, Bash: Latter-Day Plays, and The Shape of Things). And it's pretty damn spoiltastic, since this entire post is a comparison of their work and a discussion of misanthropy in art, so you may not want to continue. You were warned.

I saw Happiness in eleventh grade, long before I saw any of the others. I saw it in response to this dialogue in my playwriting class:

Anna (student): "Have you ever seen Happiness?
Nancy (teacher): "Is it good?"
Anna: "Yeah, but it's so good that for the next four hours you're like, 'Oh my god, I don't know whether to kill myself or--'"
Nancy: "That doesn't sound so good."

So we see what kind of film viewer I am. And I lied about my age to get into the movie theater, and all that. I've seen it twice since then, each with people who didn't want to see it alone, at my advice. It's a really bloody disturbing film, following portions of the lives of three sisters living in East Coast suburbs, very lost and disturbed in very different ways, and the stories of the people connected to them (one of their husbands is a pedarast who drugs and rapes friends of his 11-year-old son--however, the character is played by Dylan Baker, an amazing actor, such that you can't overlook or dismiss him. I want to quote the best and most inordinately disturbing writing in the script, but even I can't be that much of a spoiler--suffice it to say it's between that father and his son at the end of the film). Its strength is undeniable, and so is Solondz's weird combination of contempt for humanity and unwillingness to blame it. Welcome to the Dollhouse, his first film, which I like much less, is a little more vindictive, but it still presents a blankness, a sense of inevitability. That sense is only pushed forward by Storytelling, which Emily and I rented a couple of months back. After the movie finished, we stared at the screen for several minutes, and then:

I: "On that note."
Emily: "On that note, we need to do something life-affirming."
I: "What've we got that's life-affirming?"
Emily: "Nothing."

These are the kind of movies Solondz makes. Storytelling is in two parts, "Fiction" and "Non-Fiction," each of which contains somewhat contemptible artists (in "Fiction," a college creative writing student; in "Non-Fiction" a documentary filmmaker) and the destructive powers of their art (both to themselves and to others) and of the people they interact with. Solondz is in most senses of the word a misanthrope, and all the characters in his movies are really rather horrible; even those we're inclined to sympathize with a little more, such as Consuelo, the manipulated Hispanic maid in Storytelling or the lost, victimized sister Joy Jordan in Happiness, end up doing horribly stupid or horribly vindictive things and leaving you not knowing what to hook into. And yet, there *is* something to hook into--they are not movies that shut you out or point an angry finger at you in particular. Solondz's characters are following perfectly clear logics, even as we are terrified by knowing their actions to be logical, and they're almost uniformly without self-awareness. (The one exception I can think of right now, interestingly and even more disturbingly, is Dylan Baker's pedarast.) For the most part, they lack moral compasses (the pedarast does, too), but almost more importantly, they have no idea that things can ever be done in any manner other than the way they're being done now.

Neil LaBute's characters, by contrast--at least in the works I know, which list is by no means comprehensive--tend to be in some way intellectuals, able to *see* other options and yet powerless to be or do anything else. I guess that concept is most concretely embodied in Christine, the deaf female character in In the Company of Men, who is the chosen mark of a pair of jilted men who decided to hurt a woman as best they can to compensate for all the women who've ever hurt them. One of them, Howard--less attractive and less confident--is a lot less capable and falls in love with her, but she rejects him for the other one, Chad, who's still committed to the scheme. And it goes about where you would imagine it would. And yet I feel like most of his characters, from Chad and Aaron to the disturbed and violent Mormon characters delivering their monologues in Bash (I saw Calista Flockhart, Ron Eldard and Paul Rudd do Bash in New York, which was pretty inordinately awesome), long to and cannot find the resources to break out of what they are.

In some ways, that makes LaBute more misanthropic than Solondz. And yet, neither of them is precisely contemptuous of their characters, which is what makes their work watchable. Most people who hate the human race insist that you do so too, by leaving you nothing to hook into in their characters, which makes you mad at the filmmakers/playwrights as well as the characters. LaBute sometimes walks the line--Chad's a pretty dangerous character in that sense, as is Evelyn in The Shape of Things, a conceptual artist who seduces a man as part of a new piece--but . . . Maybe it's that LaBute isn't telling you that the entire world is like that; he's very specific about his characters, it's simply that when you've seen enough of his work you get a definitive sense of how he thinks and of his, if not contempt, at least deep cynicism regarding the world, but it's not to be found so thoroughly in individual pieces. Solondz *is* telling you that the entire world is like that; while his characters are specific, his films are sprawling enough (LaBute's films & plays tend to be a lot quieter and more intimate, though there is a similar disturbing settledness to both men's cinematography) that you know they encompass social universes. However, since his characters don't have the slightest idea what's going on, neither you nor they are at fault for it--or rather, *everyone* is, Solondz won't let the blame fall in any one place. Which gets into a weird Boal/catharsis conflict: if we leave a film full of scathing social commentary feeling that everyone in it is equally at fault, does it have the same effect as the Aristotelian catharsis Boal so scorns--i.e. are we left feeling that we don't have to change anything, not (as in most cases of catharsis) because it's already been solved in the play/film, but because the play/film has made it abundantly clear to us that it cannot be resolved? I'm not really sure. (If you don't know what I'm talking about, see the post We Three Kings Be Renting Our Hair to Boal, in the December 2004 archives.)

When Emily rented In the Company of Men, the woman at the video store told her that it would make her angry. In the beginning I thought that would be the case, but as it went on I found that what I was was not angry, but compelled. Can you be both? Probably, but I was not. Or maybe you can't--maybe it goes back to what L. quoted to me from Susan Sontag, "you can't punch someone out and think at the same time." Anger's very active, and if you're busy getting into something else you may not have the active energy for anger. In that case we're getting into some *serious* Boal issues, both in the sense that Solondz and LaBute are in conflict with Boal and I am in conflict with Boal, whom I usually respect. But then again, what Boal does is about the endings--you're supposed to be compelled by the scene as it's happening, it's just supposed to end with you unsettled enough that you want to do something to change it. However, both Solondz and LaBute leave you a little helpless--there isn't a way to change it. Not that I think all art has to come in Boal form, anyhow. LaBute and Solondz both create a sense of despair in their movies, and yet, while Solondz makes *you* despair and LaBute tends to make you a little bit more reflective, it's not precisely anger they're aiming for.

What is it they're aiming for? Not just one thing, thankfully. It's pretty elusive. And yet . . . while it's not about anger, both men are definitely about making you, the audience, understand that you have a place in what's going on here. Not to sympathize, precisely, but to know that you are there, that this is your world. Weirdly, when I saw it in high school, I felt capable of separating from Happiness because it seemed like a critique of suburban life . . . while all of Solondz's films *do* take place in the suburbs, I really don't think that's what's going on anymore. It's about exposing you to a world and letting you know that you are one of the many people who made it, and that there isn't anything, any company (of men or women), that can save you from it.

And why do we set ourselves up to feel like this, again? Because it's good art. Which is another fifty thousand questions for another fifty thousand days.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Certain As the Sun Rising in the Eek

Since we took an abandoned TV into our home, Emily and I have developed an interest (one I never quite managed to have before) in reality television. The only one I can *defend* as a choice of something to watch is The Amazing Race, and I will do so with eloquence in a later post, but the other night we sat down for an episode of Ashton Kutcher's new masterpiece of executive producing, Beauty and the Geek.

And I *refuse* to say that things about reality shows are spoilers. They're just not.

I have, recently, spent a decent amount of time noticing that the feminist movement, in the last thirty years, honestly *has* made a great deal of progress. I look at the lives that my female friends are leading (my male friends too, for that matter, but for purposes of this discussion I'm talking about them only in relation to the females) and am amazed--not simply for their employment, though that too is impressive (after all, until about 30 years ago want ads were entirely segregated by sex), but for who they are in the world and how unabashedly they are those people. Not only employed and earning (in most cases--I'm awfully unemployed right now, after all, and therefore don't say that to belittle the people who are not employed), but believing in their value in their fields, prepared to handle what comes to them. I give the individuals credit for being this way too, of course (another point of Ann Coulter contention), but there's also the question of their feeling safe in society being the people they are. They interview war veterans, they manage medical offices, they organize and lead and create like nobody's business. For myself, I'm a female director who works with a number of male actors and designers and has never felt that any power conflicts--which of course there are, as there are in any relationship that involves power, otherwise known as any relationship ever--are based on my gender or theirs. I'm not going to say there's not a lot yet to be done, because there is; this post is not at all intended to belittle the concept of the glass ceiling, or to say that such characters as those in In the Company of Men, a movie that Emily and I also just saw and which I thought was fascinating, do not exist, because they do and are important factors in the lives of both women and men. But the concepts that drove feminism changed things, and while obviously they changed things *more* for women with greater disposable income (whether from their own labor or that of a romantic partner)

Then, however, there is Beauty and the Geek. Or rather, the central gender oddity, which Emily pointed out--simply, that it wouldn't go the other way. Even the daring mind of Ashton Kutcher would not develop a show wherein stupid and inordinately attractive guys are paired with extremely intelligent and often less-than-gorgeous women. Why not? Because you wouldn't get an audience, for one thing; a decent number of people are still watching TV for the gorgeous women. (I mean, in my view the majority of the "Beauties" are fairly unattractive in that they're uninteresting physically, but they're thin and boobius, which I suppose is what draws the viewers in. And I also found a decent number of the geeks quite attractive, but my tastes have never been what you'd call conventional.) I also wonder if networks might be worried that the studs wouldn't treat the female geeks quite so shall we say charitably as most of the Beauties have thus far been treating the male geeks. I mean, I won't say that women are in general any less cruel in their comments about male attractiveness than are men in their comments about female attractiveness, but I think it is fair to say that men are less likely to know what women are saying about them physically. This is probably not a good thing in terms of female assertiveness/progress, but there we are. And in general, an ugly man still has a much better chance of gaining respect based on his other qualities than does an ugly woman. (That actually is something I want to take up in a later post, but for now it just gets a mention.)

The most interesting concept, which Virginia suggested, would be to have a mix--some of the geeks are male and some are female, some of the beauties are male and some are female. See which mix ends up doing better, if there's any statistical pattern to it. I'm guessing it would still be the pairs we've got now, because in the genres of people who go on reality television (though my sister's close friend might get on America's Next Top Model, so I need to make fewer generalizations), men are much more likely to have some confidence in their other assets. And yet, I don't think the way feminism is working is limited to higher-class and/or educated women--this I would say from my teaching. I do think, however, that women being confident in the work they do or the people they are and women being confident in relationship to men are two completely different categories, perhaps particularly among less educated groups, though I'm not sure about that part.

Then, of course, there's the prospect of gay beauties and gay geeks. That'll be a few years at least, because I think as far as the viewing public is concerned there are exactly two homosexual personae in America, and both of them are male. (No, I'm not counting viewers of Showtime or HBO--we are talking about audiences who watch shows produced by Ashton Kutcher.) I think the concept of gay men and lesbian women having individual personalities (even the Fab 5 are something of a conglomerate) is probably a little much for America--couldn't tell 'em apart without a scorecard, or something. I think that's really the distinction, that we live in a country where every public mention of an individual homosexual still has to be iconographic. Audiences honestly would have a hard time understanding why some were the beauties and some were the geeks. And besides, what would Ashton Kutcher call the show? (Everybody should propose something . . .)

On the other other hand, there are five fingers. There *is* something to be said for the beauties accepting ugly and extremely smart men, if not a whole lot. Then again, the argument could be made that it's something they're doing because they're stupid. Who could say?

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Break On Through

A long time ago I read a Letter to the Editor regarding the Patriot Act's surveys of our library records. The letter itself was trivial: a liberal woman decided to check conservative books out of the library both to bone up on her debating skills and to fuck with the minds of those who chose to look at those library records. I thought it was a good idea, and have had it on my mind ever since--but how to go about this when I'm embarrassed even to be seen touching Sean Hannity's book in Borders? (Seriously.) Finally, I checked out Ann Coulter's SLANDER: LIBERAL LIES ABOUT THE AMERICAN RIGHT as well as Nat Hentoff's THE FIRST FREEDOM: THE TUMULTUOUS HISTORY OF FREE SPEECH IN AMERICA (which I've yet to read), that I might look kind of weird rather than simply conservative. Yeah, go figure. (By the by, would someone please teach me a bit of HTML so I don't have to capitalize titles all the time anymore?)

So, in the privacy of my own home, because I was absurdly embarrassed to be seen with it in public, I read SLANDER. And it's been quite enlightening.

Coulter's thesis, of course, is one that I fundamentally disagree with--that the media is controlled by liberal elites, that the NEW YORK TIMES is a bastion of anti-conservative hate speech, that every major television network save Fox is controlled by a conspiracy of liberalism while Fox News is fair and balanced. One of my major problems with her logic in that sense is that her main source of evidence for saying the NEW YORK TIMES journalism is biased in the liberal direction is the op-ed page, which does, after all, stand for opinions and editorials, and is therefore intended to be biased. I can see how one might believe that knowing the opinions of editors tend toward one political direction might lead you to believe that the entire newspaper leans that way, but she rarely cites articles not from the editorial pages, and I doubt there's an editorial page in the country that doesn't lean in one political direction or the other. Despite what Coulter says, I imagine they're about balanced.

The first things I found myself criticizing, in my head, were rather nit-picky. For example, she footnotes single words, as if citing the fact that the word "Dangerous" was at one point mentioned in an article about Tom DeLay honestly means/proves anything about bias in the press--she does this consistently, and there are many other such quibbles to be had if you desire them. However, I eventually realized that I was playing precisely into her stereotype of liberals--that they want to see conservatives as ignorant without taking on the substance of the debatable point. And in the case of my reading the book, that was reasonable. So I aimed to move on.

Coulter's a pundit--Lawrence and I had an interesting phone conversation the other night which included my talking about this, and when I honed the explanation, it came out to be that a pundit's social role is simply the things they say about politics, they're not supposed to be anything in the world but someone who says things about politics. As I explained it to my mother, Coulter is around the intellectual level of Al Franken with a much less compelling (to me) sense of humor--she bases what she does around her mean-spiritedness, and damn she is very good at that, rather than her sense of humor, as Franken does. She is not an academic intellectual, but she is by no stretch of the imagination dumb. In other words, her book is worth getting into a debate with. I even found myself agreeing with her on a few points: I also think Maureen Dowd is an annoying and not very politically productive writer, for example, and while I do respect a group's right to be named as it wants within limits, I think political correctness movements tend to go way too far way too fast. I had to check to make sure the book wasn't hypnotizing me, and it was to a degree--when the writing is of decent quality, how can you help but be absorbed in what you're reading, suspend disbelief at some level?--but Ann Coulter and I do have some opinions in common.

And yet, at the same time, reading SLANDER proved that some topics are simply not to be debated; that is to say, that there really is a difference between liberalism and conservatism that cannot be overcome. I found it more fiscal than social, though certainly there were some social issues. But there were times when I found myself thinking, "Ann Coulter, your logic is completely sound here; I follow exactly what you're saying. And if I honestly believed that the profit margin was the bottom line of art or newspapers or anything along those lines, I would agree with you. That is not what I believe, but you are taking it as a postulate, and I can't argue." For some of my life, I think I operated on the assumption that if liberals and conservatives were honestly willing to sit down and *talk* to each other instead of just politicking and grandstanding, eventually they would almost always find that they were in agreement. Now I don't think so. In some ways that's a relief, to know that the entirety of political debate in this country is not based on semantics, but given how limited the political range of our two parties is compared to that of other nations with elected assemblies it certainly makes me wonder about living in places like South Africa.

In addition, SLANDER made clear to me the level at which institutionalized politics is the province of the elite, since liberals and conservatives both seem to spend an inordinate amount of time accusing one another of being elitist; while both sides seem to make very good arguments that their opponents are elitist, neither's successful at representing itself as non-elitist. (I recognize that in this case I'm using Coulter to represent the entirety of conservatism, and that's unfair; I'm sure Coulter represents the entire spectrum of "conservatism" no better than Franken represents the spectrum of "liberalism." However, I imagine that with her, as is the case with Franken, most of the objections will come regarding the presentation rather than the fundamental substance of opinions--i.e. while details may vary and points may be contentious, a lot of what she has to say, as with what he has to say, will show the basis of what conservatives who see themselves as part of a group of conservatives believe.) And yet, at the same time, I did feel very challenged by, and don't yet have an answer to, her arguments regarding Ronald Reagan. I'd love help here. Coulter claims that his popular support, his consistently skyrocketing approval ratings, belie claims liberals made regarding his idiocy, and that the same can be said of Bush. And that is where her claim that liberals are elitist holds a little bit of water for me; dude, we consistently win only the coasts and a few states with either major cities or numerous university communities. In saying that these presidents are idiots, we are fundamentally calling an inordinate number of our country(wo)men idiots for supporting them, and how is that fair, what right do we have to claim that? Often we dismiss approval ratings, majority opinions, offhandedly, without fairly taking on what it is that makes so many non-us people share these opinions. And on some level that's what Coulter does too, but that doesn't make it any righter. Can we figure out why so many people loved Reagan, and why half the country loves Bush, without belittling those large numbers of people?

Amanda, one of the other students in my group in South Africa, once cited an older relative as saying, "If you're not liberal when you're younger, you have no heart; if you're not conservative when you're older, you have no brain." And I wonder. It's not that I don't know an inordinate amount of extremely intelligent older liberals; I do. And yet . . . In Beth Bosworth's (wonderful) short story, "Cassidy One Two Three," the narrator, recalling a college friendship in the '70s while eating breakfast in a troubled marriage in the '90s, tells us, "It used to be that everything came down to sex. Now, it seems, everything comes down to money. I should have listened, I should have understood: money." And that is what liberals and conservatives, in my mind, are liberal and conservative in relation to: the capitalist system. Conservatives are more conservative in their adherence to capitalist philosophy, and thus see finances and the free market as the bottom line, and by defining things in the same frame see popular support for an idea as an infallible marker of its quality. Liberals interpret the philosophy more liberally, and thuswise are a little looser in their definitions of what makes something good, since its market value doesn't necessarily define it. (Equating popular support with market value makes sense, right? I'm actually not sure.) I don't think I'm old enough to think capably about what that has to do with age, but I thought I'd put it out there for my older readers. I can see why age would sometimes bring on a stricter adherence to any system, more conservative interpretations, and yet that does imply, from my perspective, that I've more respect for the people who don't do that. Which is absolutely true, but why?

In conclusion, reading conservative writing is utterly worthwhile, particularly when you don't know a lot of conservatives. Ann Coulter's limitations are clear from the first chapter, but accepting the book for what it is and trying to be in its mindset was definitely a worthwhile exercise. If a little overwhelming at times.