Friday, July 28, 2006

Friday Poetry: Nikki Giovanni

Nikki Giovanni

if i can't do
what i want to do
then my job is to not
do what i don't want
to do

it's not the same thing
but it's the best i can

if i can't have
what i want . . . then
my job is to want
what i've got
and be satisfied
that at least there
is something more to want

since i can't go
where i need
to go . . . then i must . . . go
where the signs point
through always understanding
parallel movement
isn't lateral

when i can't express
what i really feel
i practice feeling
what i can express
and none of it is equal

i know
but that's why mankind
alone among the animals
learns to cry

Brief Interludes of Slight Exploitation

And back again to sexism in movie reviews. I can't decide whether or not I feel better about this just because Manohla Dargis is a woman. I don't think I do.

I mean, I'm glad Woody Allen isn't sleeping with Scarlett Johansson too, but do we really have to hear so much about Scarlett Johansson's "lovely lush body" for the point to be made? How much do we have to hear about her bathing suit? At what point does Ms. Dargis cross the line between imagining the possibility of Allen's exploitation of a young movie star and participating in that exploitation herself? Is it better because she's a woman? Would it make a difference if I knew her sexual orientation? I think not, in either case. I think a reviewer's power in the New York Times, at this point, is not itself limited by gender, which is to say, she has the same influence as A.O. Scott or Stephen Holden in how audiences who have read the review will focus on Scarlett Johansson's breasts and figure in a bathing suit, and her lack of making out with Woody Allen, over actual cinematic content.

I have to say, I preferred Scarlet Johansson when she was a disarmingly gifted and centered child actor. Or at least, I preferred seeing her in movies then. Now she seems constantly cast in roles too old for her based upon her sex appeal alone. Certainly she's got plenty of sex appeal, and certainly that changes movies, and certainly a reviewer is entitled to comment upon those changes. I'm not asking Manohla Dargis to say Johansson's sexuality is invisible or not part of the movie (I haven't seen the movie, so I couldn't be sure, but certainly her sexuality has been asked to play a role even in ostensibly non-sexual films like Lost in Translation), but it seems to me there's a line reviewers often cross between acknowledgment of sex and sexuality in art and mimicking or exceeding an exploitation usually limited to the camera. Whoever's crossing it, I still am not a fan.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Crashing Down

Can't say I'm not feelin' the schadenfreude.

I can't say yet why my bitterness against this film still plays so large a role even these months later, but it does. It's such concrete evidence of so many things that are wrong. I'm not a fan of my own perspective, exactly—it would be nice if I'd actually wanted Brokeback Mountain to win, rather than being anything-but-Crash (or, for that matter, anything-but-Bush in the 2004 elections)—but I still don't mind that people, who work hard but not harder than anyone else, and have already been paid approximately my annual salary, are still waiting to be rewarded for neutralizing American racism, disguising sterotypes as stereotypes and liberal guilt with liberal guilt, and reassuring the citizens of Los Angeles that they're not as bad as the people onscreen.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Friday Poetry: Adam Zagajewski

I first encountered this poem in The New Yorker's first issue after September 11. (2001.) The plan was to save it for the fifth anniversary of that event, but I'm feeling much more in need of it right now, and I would like to put it forward once more into the world.

Adam Zagajewski (tr. Clare Cavanaugh)
Try to Praise the Mutilated World

Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June's long days
and wild strawberries, drops of rosé wine.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships:
one of them had a long journey ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You've seen the refugees heading nowhere;
you've heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn,
and leaves eddied over the earth's scars.
Praise the mutilated world,
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.

All the World

I don't know what to say about Israel and Lebanon and Palestine, Hamas and Hezbollah and ground troops and missiles and the remarkable distance that I as an American am capable of maintaining from all these things. Mxzzy linked to some noteworthy statistics about the disparity of resources and financial support and casualties between the two sides, substantive but not the whole story.

I admit openly here that I do not know the whole story. As a Jew, I've got to recognize the right of the state of Israel to exist, but as a humanist not to the exclusion of the existence of other states. I work a couple of months out of the year at a synagogue in a fairly wealthy neighborhood of Chicago, and I've always trembled slightly at the "We Stand with Israel" sign outside its door. Must I, employed by this organization, then stand with Israel? Is standing with Israel standing behind the myriad atrocities it has committed; is not standing with it standing against it, and is an acknowledgment of the insane conditions under which many Palestinians and many fewer Israelis are living daily actively Against Israel? To return to my old terminology, which has been resurfacing, I respect the patriotism and not the nationalism of the state of Israel. And, for that matter, of the Palestinian state. And of pretty much everyone, when you get right down to it.

With the presence of Israel, can the state of things in the Middle East be other than it is? I recall my sixth-grade history teacher offering the quotation from (I think) Joseph Kennedy: "Politics is the art of the possible. And what is possible is compromise." What level, then, of compromise is possible? How much, exactly, has been offered and rejected? To what degree can America do or change anything? On Slate, Jacob Weisberg (whom I met on a plane once; his six-year-old daughter still randomly calls me now and then) offers an intelligent assessment of why Bush is not himself to blame, but Bush is not the same as America and the structure and actions of the American system over many years. But when are we going to stop blaming the injustices perpetuated over thousands of years? The reasonable answer would be "when we start actively changing them instead." Can we?

As Octavia Butler articulates simply in Dawn, we as humans have the saving grace of intelligence and the destructive quality of hierarchy. D'apres elle, we cannot rid ourselves of either of these qualities. Will this lead to our destruction? Maybe so. Not now, I don't think. I've been braced to get panicked about a nuclear exchange, with the missiles somehow acquired from Russia or stolen from Iraq's incredibly fledgling nuclear program or—most likely—provided by Iran, but it doesn't seem like what's coming. I could be wrong, my analysis here certainly lacks sophistication, but it seems to me that we're simply in for weeks or months of intense casualties while even a respectable internet publication like Slate still places light fare about summer camp, rather than discussions of this topic, below the banner of its webpage. I can't pretend that I know what to think.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Friday Poetry: Robin Becker

Robin Becker
Sad Sestina
for Susanna Kaysen

Today's sadness is different from yesterday's:
more green in it, some light rain, premonition of departures
and the unpacking of books an dpapers. It's not a bad thing
to be sad
, my friend Susanna says. Go with it. I'm going by foot
into this sadness, the way we go as children into the awful
schoolday and the hours of cruelty and misunderstanding,

the way we go into family, into the savagery of standing
up for ourselves among siblings and parents, in yesterday's
living room, where secrecy turns ot habit and we learn the awful,
unthinkable fact: time twists our days into a series of departures.
When he was mad, my fahter used to say Someone's got to foot
the bills
, and I think of him now, this man who knew one thing

for sure: you had to pay your own way, since nothing
came for free in this life. A young dyke, grandstanding
before the relatives, I held my sadness close, one foot
already out the door. Who could believe in yesterday's
homilies while women cruised me, seventeen and hot for departure?
Today's sadness unfurls without drama, without the awful

punishments or reprisals of that house. In its place, the awful,
simple, mystery of human melancholy. Most days, I'd trade anything
to be rid of the blues, accustomed to flight and departure,
strategies that saved my life. Today I'm befriending it, standing
beside my sadness, like a pal down on her luck, who knows yesterday
isn't always a good predictor for tomorrow. A rabbit's foot

won't help; when the time comes, it's a question of putting my foot
in the stirrup and riding the sad horse of my body to the awful
little stable at the edge of town. And there to wait while yesterday
has its way with time. Susanna said, To be sad is not a bad thing,
and I believe her, as I pull the heavy saddle from th estanding
horse and hang the bridle away. Sadness readies for my departure,

and I for hers. In a most unlikely departure
from the ordinary, even the tough butch on a bike will be a tenderfoot
when it comes to goodbyes. We carry on, notwithstanding
all the good times gone and December's awful
cheerfulness. Susanna, if I ever discern something
useful about sadness, I'll wish I'd known it yesterday.

I've put distracting things aside and discovered, underfoot,
no wisdom absent yesterday. Still, a saint would find this awful:
a standing date with change, a season of departures.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Friday Poetry: W.H. Auden

I know we've been heavy on the dead white males lately; these particular poems have been in my head, this one especially. I've got a few lesser-known treats cooking for the next few weeks, though. And below is an amazing poem.

W.H. Auden
[Lay your sleeping head, my love]

Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm;
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral:
But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful.

Soul and body have no bounds:
To lovers as they lie upon
Her tolerant enchanted slope
In their ordinary swoon,
Grave the vision Venus sends
Of supernatural sympathy,
Universal love and hope;
While an abstract insight wakes
Among the glaciers and the rocks
The hermit's sensual ecstasy.

Certainly, fidelity
On the stroke of midnight pass
Like vibrations of a bell,
And fashionable madmen raise
Their pedantic boring cry:
Every farthing of the cost,
All the dreaded cards foretell,
Shall be paid, but from this night
Not a whisper, not a thought,
Not a kiss or look be lost.

Beauty, midnight, vision dies:
Let the winds of dawn that blow
Softly round your dreaming head
Such a day of sweetness show
Eye and knocking heart may bless,
Find the mortal world enough;
Noons of dryness see you fed
By the involuntary powers,
Nights of insult let you pass
Watched by every human love.

January 1937

Oh, the Headlines.

On the front of today's Sun-Times Weekend section:


If you hafta ask . . .

Oops, I Did It Again

Somehow, I made it through Ann Coulter's Godless: The Church of Liberalism.

I have learned my lesson, and I will never do it again.

As I mentioned last year, I read one other book of hers, Slander. I skipped several books in between but decided to look at this one, in part because the ostensible thesis, treating a political affiliation as a religion, interested me. I knew she was an inflammatory writer, a smart but unsophisticated thinker, prone to nasty and sarcastic ad hominem attacks, devoted to her views, a pundit. I did not know exactly how much plastic surgery she had had (if you look at all of her books in a row in the bookstore, the transition is abundantly clear and scary, on face and body; it's unsurprising, then, that a substantive part of an anti-Darwin chapter is devoted to debunking the research that has proven silicone is a health risk); I did not know the extent of her ignorance on issues of education; I hadn't really thought about punditry enough to realize why I was skeptical of her, aside from our fundamental philosophical disagreements. Now, having gotten through the book (with great difficulty on a practical as well as emotional level; I wouldn't buy it, and it's not in any of my local libraries, so I had to sit around in bookstores and read it, and I was always terrified that someone would see), I think I know.

The thesis turns out to be incredibly vague, and somewhat contradictory: Coulter basically claims that "liberalism" is "the state religion," based in particular on public schools teaching evolution, the power of teachers' unions, and the convoluted rhetoric surrounding abortion rights. She claims that "liberals" have the same fanatical devotion to these causes and the basic tenets of their political platforms that are ascribed to the Christian right. Where the logic falls apart is that she doesn't make a rational argument against religious fanaticism, period; she argues against the way "liberals" are fanatically devoted to their causes, and basically the problem is secularism. It's okay for Christians to be fanatically devoted because the Bible justifies their devotion, and is apparently not a "living document." Fanatical devotion is only a problem, apparently, when it isn't to a particular text, or when that text was not written by God. The thesis, then, doesn't have much to do with being a thesis; it's simply another forum for Coulter to stage venemous attacks on "liberal" views. It's a shame; I would've been interested in the thesis if she were consistent with it, as I think there's truth to it. But it doesn't come through the book, except as tacked-on ending sentences.

I put "liberalism" and "liberals" in quotes in the preceding paragraph for the same reason that I should probably put "conservatives" in quotes in my own writing: because Coulter really doesn't have a clue what she's talking about. She's intelligent, but she clearly stays in a room and watches and talks to Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly all day, and cannot possibly have any non-televised exposure to people who actually identify as liberal. More on that and punditry later; I'm going to stop using the quotation marks now, but please be aware that in this post I'm using the term as Coulter uses it, not as I do.

She makes only the vaguest allusions to gay marriage and to global warming, which I'd say are two of the liberal hot-button issues most worthy of lambasting by those who lambast these days. From my own interpretation, bias admitted, I'd say that means these are becoming less arguable, things Coulter feels she's less capable of backing into a corner than certain other ostensible tenets of liberalism. As climate change becomes undeniable, Coulter will no longer have grounds to dismiss environmentalists as "stupid girls who like birds," but that's pretty much all the commentary she's giving the environmentalist movement now. She succeeds in backing very few things into a corner, in my view, because she's not good at pulling her lens back. Which would, of course, make her incapable of saying much about global warming. The only topic on which she does pull her lens back is that of Darwin, on which she spends three solid chapters, and while her two main points—that there exist substantive gaps in the theory of evolution, and that eugenicists used Darwin to their own sinister ends, hence the term Social Darwinism—are noteworthy, they don't really prove anything she's trying to prove. Her focus, then, seems to be on things that aren't quite as important.

The first chapter of the book references our God-given right to flush toilets. Manifest Destiny much? For all the time that Coulter spends trashing Darwin and claiming it's liberal adherence to his theory that created Social Darwinism, for all that she claims it's liberalism that creates racism, she's certainly internalized Social Darwinism. If flush toilets are a part of our being made in God's image, undoubtedly societies with the wealth to provide flush toilets for the vast majority of their citizens are closer to God. Which gives us, oh, the Hamitic myth. She continues to try to pin liberalism on Hitler, and as these days it seems that anyone can pin Hitler on anyone, I'm not going to get into it, except to point out that Hitler was intelligent. Intelligence, like courage (according to Sontag, but I agree with her), is morally neutral. Coulter references a number of things that I think ridiculous, but they don't make her stupid. Unethical, perhaps—and if the Bible *weren't* a living document, not to mention the Constitution, disagreement would be impossible—but not stupid. Hence the moral neutrality.

There's also the fact that certain flames—claiming that a party is elitist, out of touch with the common man, or stupid, ignorant, or immoral—are used equally by both sides. Coulter uses the above listed claims in an openly contradictory fashion--if need be liberals are all out of touch with reality and went to elitist Ivy League colleges and only live on the East Coast, and it's the popular vote/voice that matters, while at other times an individual thinker's credentials are proven based simply on the fact that he went to Yale—but the fact is that it's been a long time since I read any liberal pundit as carefully as I just read Coulter, and I don't doubt that many liberal writers do the same.

The problem, really, is that I am sick and tired of punditry. I mean, what do pundits, on either side of the so-called political spectrum, *do*? They're good thinkers, but I'm getting sicker and sicker of good thinkers who leave it at that. They are intelligent in a measurement-of-IQ (a decent portion of Coulter's education chapter is spent claiming that IQ is absolute and praising The Bell Curve) fashion, but I'm with Albus Dumbledore in saying simplistically that it's not the qualities with which we are born, but our choices. And there's knowledge you simply cannot acquire by devoting a life to sitting back and commenting on things. I'd say the same about such leftist pundits as Al Franken and Michael Moore, but Franken, at least, gives signs of having genuine interactions with intelligent people who do things and could possibly change his thought. (With Moore I question the word "genuine.") Coulter shows no such signs; everything takes place inside her head, with the occasional worship of another punditry author. It's a relatively well-organized and pretty thorough head for the questions that interest her. I'm simply skeptical of pundits because of—what else?—the form-content divide. Form is, in this case, thought. Coulter's a logical thinker. One thing she says builds on the next, her assertions don't completely come out of nowhere. But her lack of content, the lack of any pundit's content, allows her to think such ridiculous things as "teachers only work from 8 am to 3 pm and get summers off, so they don't deserve our attention or money" and "a teacher's request for a lower student-to-teacher ratio is equivalent to a mailman's request for a lower package-to-postman ratio." Nobody who's touched the field of education could think that, but Coulter sells about six thousand times as many books as Michael Johnston, or Brendan Halpin, or Vivian Paley, or Deborah Meier, or Jonathan Kozol, to name just a few. The best a good pundit can have is top form. Those who also have content are doing things other than being pundits. So I will no longer waste my time reading them, liberal, conservative or anything else. It's worth noting that there are also people with content, the experience, and no form—that's what I'm seeing in what I've read of Phillip Done's 32 Third-Graders and One Class Bunny—but they tend not to claim expertise at the same level.

I'm not ready to rule out everything about partisan politics just yet. Certainly there are, as I've said before, differences in thought that tend to fall along party lines—the terms for the most part refer to the way one adheres to the capitalist system, liberally or conservatively, and some assumptions of underlying philosophies can be made in terms of inclusion and absolutism. Yet the ostensible spectrum of thought encapsulated by the two major American parties would be a single party in the parliaments of most other nations. While I'm certainly on the left in American thought, issue by issue I can't rely on anyone to agree with me just because they're a Democrat (or a Republican), and I can't rely on voting for Democrats to change the things that are most important to me. Funny that it took reading Ann Coulter to make that explicitly clear to me, but there you are.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

As It Is

Regarding Tyromaven's comment on Tell Us About Real, I was just looking over an old favorite book of mine and found this amazing last few lines, which I think embody exactly what she was talking about and what I need to think about. If I don't tell you what book it is, it's not a spoiler.

"Knowledge of the facts of [the character]'s life and death changes nothing in the world. Our celebrating his life and grieving over his death, however, will. Good cheer and mournfulness over lives other than our own, even wholly invented lives—no, especially wholly invented lives—deprive the world as it is of some of the greed it needs to continue to be itself. Sabotage and subversion, then, are this book's objectives. Go, my book, and help destroy the world as it is."

I would love to hear anyone's thoughts.