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Daily Office:
Tuesday, 10 November 2009


Matins: Paul Krugman addresses our most dangerous problem: the growing power of a right-wing rump without any interest in governing and with every intention of preventing others from governing: "the GOP has been taken over by the people it used to exploit. (NYT)

Real power in the party rests, instead, with the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin (who at this point is more a media figure than a conventional politician). Because these people aren’t interested in actually governing, they feed the base’s frenzy instead of trying to curb or channel it. So all the old restraints are gone.

In the short run, this may help Democrats, as it did in that New York race. But maybe not: elections aren’t necessarily won by the candidate with the most rational argument. They’re often determined, instead, by events and economic conditions.

In fact, the party of Limbaugh and Beck could well make major gains in the midterm elections. The Obama administration’s job-creation efforts have fallen short, so that unemployment is likely to stay disastrously high through next year and beyond. The banker-friendly bailout of Wall Street has angered voters, and might even let Republicans claim the mantle of economic populism. Conservatives may not have better ideas, but voters might support them out of sheer frustration.

This repeats one aspect of the scenario that Germany found itself in in 1932-3: while conventional political activity proceeded, with the usual elections, campaigns and whatnot, an increasingly popular movement gathered strength in the nationalist, extra-political arena. One of this movement's principal objectives was the de-legitimatization of conventional politics; however, capitalizing on widespread frustration and resentment (often couched in joblessness), the movement came to power by generally legitimate means. Then it set about the destruction, from within, of the government's democratic machinery.

The problem in a nutshell is the difficulty that powerful members of the political establishment have in taking seriously the longing to transcend — or, at any rate, to undo — the establishment itself. When you don't take a threat seriously, you don't take measures to protect yourself. We see cluelessness in Nancy Pelosi's face every time her picture appears in the Times.

Decades of Republican Party pandering to the country's wingnuts has nourished the monstrosity that now sports the talking heads of Limbaugh, Beck, and Palin. Do not mistake it for a political animal.

Lauds: Duran Duran bassist John Taylor, who "became a teenager in 1972," fears that the Internet has not been a positive force for popular culture. He seems troubled by the fact that it makes too much old stuff too easy to get, thus reducing the need for new stuff. (BBC News; via Arts Journal)

This relative lack of need for current, innovative culture can cause, has caused, is causing - maybe - the innovative culture to slow down, much as an assembly line in Detroit slows down and lay-offs have to be made when the demand for a new model recedes.

And the speed and growth of new technology, which has been so heralded and so much fuss has been made of, has actually served to disguise how little real growth is taking place at the artistic level.

We find this sweetly wrongheaded. Great new stuff is not produced in response to demand; it happens when it happens, and sometimes it happens because really bad things happen. Consider the impact of the Nuremberg Laws on the flourishing of Broadway musicals in the Forties and Fifties, many of them transplanted Viennese operettas onto which Broadway boogie-woogie was miraculously grafted.

Mr Taylor notes that his stepson, a student at NYU, is "into Cole Porter." The Editor was into Cole Porter when he was a student at Notre Dame, forty-odd years ago. The Internet had nothing to do with that.

Prime: Felix Salmon disagrees with Wall Street Journal writers on the subject of Ken Lewis's "mettle."

In other words, Lewis never had the mettle to withstand regulatory pressure, should it ever arise. Other acquisitive CEOs like Sandy Weill are the same way. They're like central banks intervening in currency markets: they can push regulators to move further in the direction they're already moving, but they can't push back once regulators become aggressive. That's why Weill stepped down, and that's why Lewis stepped down too.

We agree. From what we can tell, the long Wall Street boom enabled a number of  dysfunctional, sometimes almost sociopathic executives to rise to the top of the financial world. Once there, the one thing that these bad apples all seem to have had in common was the irresistible urge to cancel out opposing voices.

Allowing men who are prone to bark "my way or the highway!" to manage other people's money would appear to be contraindicated.

Tierce: Meryl Gordon's discussions with some of the Marshall Trial jurors makes for fascinating reading at Vanity Fair.

The jurors had also watched Tony’s volatile wife, Charlene, alternately solicitous of her husband and furious over testimony in which she was described as “Miss Piggy.” A devoted spouse can engender sympathy from a jury, but Charlene’s daily presence in the courtroom did not enhance her husband’s standing. “She comes across as an unpleasant person,” says juror Philip Bump, a 34-year-old consultant.

Despite his gilt-edged résumé, Tony Marshall appeared to the jury to be a weak man caught between two strong women, his famous mother and his overbearing wife. “Tony Marshall was on trial, but it wasn’t even called the Marshall trial,” says Greta Goldberg. “Even in infamy, he was living in the shadow of his mother.”

It's understandable that Philip Marshall, who started all of this while his grandmother was still alive, feels even more strongly about his stepmother.

On the phone with me, he fumed, saying, “The fact that my father is going to jail and having Charlene walk away free is like pouring salt on the wound. He’s her blunt instrument, he’s her pawn.”

Sext: Choire Sicha remembers "vividly" where he was when The Wall Fell — although he didn't know a thing about it at the time. (The Awl)

Anyway, we didn't have a TV (or, like, beds or anything, though Dawn had a mattress on the floor and I had a nice foam chair that I'd found in the street) and it wasn't like the newspapers got delivered to the neighborhood—to get groceries, you had to go down to look for the roaming van that sold milk and fruit and stuff to all the old Mexican women—so it was probably a few months before I heard about the whole Berlin Wall thing, and by then, I was like, big deal. If we'd had Twitter back then, or even AOL chatrooms, I bet I would have 1. known about it and 2. had something to say about it for sure!

Nones: George Packer reminds us why the Wall fell when it did, in a piece about the uniqueness of 1989 in Europe. (The New Yorker)

For Europe’s Communist regimes to disappear so suddenly and bloodlessly (Romania was a different story), everything had to fall into place, above and below, within and without. Such circumstances are improbably rare, and they can’t be mechanically replicated by the laws of history or by divine design or by universal human aspiration. A false lesson drawn from 1989 involves a kind of shallow eschatology of totalitarianism: this is how it always happens—the people rise up, the regime withers and dies, peace and democracy reign. The chaos that followed the overthrow of Saddam Hussein was in part a consequence of this thinking. In planning the postwar period in Iraq, George W. Bush and some of his advisers had 1989 in mind—“like Eastern Europe with Arabs,” as one official put it.

Mr Packer concludes: "Berlin will never again be the hair-trigger focus of global ideological conflict, and Europe’s place at the center of modern history is over. This proves not the failure of 1989 but, rather, its astounding success. No one is prepared to die for European unity, and no one will have to."

Vespers: Tim Adams talks about Alan Bennett's new play, The Habit of Art — a little. Mostly he appreciates a writer who, against all the odds, has become a beloved fixture in Britain. (Guardian)

Bennett, in his life and in his work, has often been drawn to such unlicensed figures as Auden, to people who run out of control: Miss Shepherd, the mad King George, Mr Toad, as well as friends such as Russell Harty and Peter Cook. Their ability to be rather than to act has often served as a counterpoint to the social awkwardness that Bennett has made his comic trademark, the inheritance of those emblematic childhood afternoons in teashops and department stores marked by the "dread of imminent exposure", the knowledge that he and his family didn't quite belong.

In his notes to The Habit of Art Bennett suggests that he identifies himself in the play not with Auden but with Benjamin Britten, the poet's estranged friend and one-time collaborator. In their fictitious meeting in the play Britten is repressed and tongue-tied, next to Auden, who is anything but. Writing those scenes, Bennett says he drew on his own formative experiences in the theatre, which marked his subsequent character.

Much as we love reading Alan Bennett's autobiographical writing, it always brings on an awful sadness, triggered by a sharp sense of all the fun that he might have had, if he hadn't been so certain that he didn't deserve it.

Compline: Jonah Lehrer registers a new study about the "privileged" sense of smell. (Frontal Cortex)

Why is smell so sentimental? One possibility, which is supported by this recent experiment, is that the olfactory cortex has a direct neural link to the hippocampus. In contrast, all of our other senses (sight, touch and hearing) are first processed somewhere else - they go to the thalamus - and only then make their way to our memory center. This helps explain why we're so dependent on metaphors to describe taste and smell.

Mr Lehrer regrets that bad smells make a stronger impression: "This is the bleak truth of the brain: it clings to what we don't like."

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