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19 February 2010


Matins: Rochelle Gurstein has thought up a brilliant satire of John Rawls's "original position" that, very much like Swift's famous "Modest Proposal," is intended to make people stop and think, after they've had their laugh. This stopping and thinking is an element that she finds from popular satire today. (The New Republic; via 3 Quarks Daily)

Like Tina Fey mimicking Sarah Palin, what passes for satire today plays on our incredulity, presenting us with an exact replica of something real but at the same time so absurd that it beggars our belief. It gets a laugh, but what is missing is the wild, inspired, visionary flights of imagination that masters of satire like Jonathan Swift so excelled at. Through caustic hyperbole, Swift's "Modest Proposal" to raise Irish babies like cattle and sell them to Englishmen for dinner in order to eliminate overpopulation and poverty in Ireland made his first readers--and us, too, almost three centuries after them--see and feel how the world appears from the standpoint of common decency. Nobody writes like that any more and I could not help wondering if the extinction of satire that attempts to shame people into recognizing that there are things higher and worth striving towards than what merely happens to exist was a sign of just how poverty-stricken our moral, political, and literary imaginations have become.

So, hey, let's get the Big Baby Lottery going!

Lauds: Perhaps the most memorable celebration of Django Reinhardt's centennial was Steve Jobs's use of "Swing Guitars" to introduce the iPad. Will Friedwald celebrates the gypsy king at the Wall Street Journal.

Within a few generations, jazz improvisation would become a given, but back then, soloists like Reinhardt refused to take it for granted. Every solo he played sounds like he's battling to justify the very concept of improvisation. Reinhardt was never completely removed from his beginnings as a street musician, and he always sounds like he's trying to entertain an audience, rather than just to amuse his fellow musicians. He knew how to make an entrance and he knew how to leave us laughing. If we're still using the iPad, or its spiritual descendants, even for half as long as we'll be loving the music of Django Reinhardt, Mr. Jobs will have really accomplished something.

Prime: Tyler Cowen asks, "Is there a case for a VAT?" and outlines an argument that foresees the possibility of a credit collapse that would dwarf what's happening in Greece.

I would prefer spending cuts, but voters seem too irrational to be willing to cut spending; here the libertarian argument comes back to bite us on the bum.  They might be willing to cut spending once a financial crisis arrives (though maybe not), but then there will be days or only hours for decisive action.

Mr Cowen also points to a lucid Op-Ed piece by Gregory Mankiw, "What's Sustainable About This Budget?" (Marginal Revolution)

Tierce: In the guise of a "backward glance," assessing our times from the vantage of 2210, Spencer Weart endeavors to put the climate fight in perspective. (NYT)

To make matters worse, some scientists, and still more people among environmental and other organizations, made statements not supported by what was reliably known. An example was implicit or explicit claims that hurricanes were increasing as a result of human interference with the climate. There was no way for the general public to know whether scientists actually made such claims, still less whether the claims were made honestly or disingenuously. Thus a single error, such as the obviously wrong claim that Himalayan glaciers would vanish within decades, could be suspected to be a deliberate falsehood.

That said, the media coverage represented a new low.

Sext: Cathy Erway may live in the restaurant/take-out capital of the United States, but she foreswore eating out for not one but two years. She talks with Borborygmi about her reasons, which, while sound, implicitly make the case that the uneducated poor cannot follow in her footsteps. (Good)

As somebody who grew up in a kitchen where my parents cooked, I missed simple, homemade food. Even if it takes some time out of your schedule, anyone can cook something simple. I was also starting to get disillusioned with the foods I was getting a restaurants. I felt that I could make something a little more satisfying with just a little bit of time and, at the same time, eat healthier and spend more wisely.

Not that we regard Ms Erway as an elitist!

Nones: How was Hamas exponent Mahmoud al-Mabhouh killed? By a team of expert assassins? Or by a bunch of bumblers? We guess it depends on whom you read. The Times:

However, then the Dubai police released images showing some of the 17 people suspected of being in the hit squad bumbling about in poor disguises, and Britain became infuriated by the use of faked British travel documents. Now Israelis are wondering whether their once-famed spy service could have been behind such a sloppy job or, in a John Le Carré-like twist, if Israel could have been framed.

In the Telegraph account, those "poor disguises" are made to look quite effective. 

Dressed in tennis gear and carrying racquets and balls, the guests who wandered through the lobby of Dubai’s al-Bustan Rotana hotel on Jan 19 couldn’t have looked less threatening.

The assassination in Dubai on 19 January seems to be open to interpretation. Most curious question: was Mossad involved? (via 3 Quarks Daily)

Vespers: The Daily Blague is committed to the idea that favorable reviews are invariably more useful and informative than unfavorable ones, but every now and then we get down off our high horse — or, rather, we let other people vent. At Open Letters Monthly, seven oxen, some of them quite well known, are gored with aplomb, under the rubric "Bad Books, Good Hooks." Lisa Peet, for example, loves reading about "moral" dogs, but she excoriates David Wroblewski for the ending of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, which she considers a betrayal of everything foregoing.

I still can’t bring myself to call it a bad book. It was, however, underedited, bloated with distractions: the red herring search for the dog Hachiko, the mysterious stray Forte, Edgar’s extended conversation with an old farmer’s ghost. Using Hamlet as a framing device wasn’t exactly a fatal flaw, but it was often heavy-handed. The book’s climactic barn fire scene, though, was criminal. It thoroughly betrayed the characters, sacrificing all that sensitivity about dog-human relations to a grand finale. These marvelous animals, trained not just to obey but to have some kind of canine moral center, stood by while violence was done to their masters and then turned tail and ran off into the woods—it was wrong on every count. Wrong for storybook dogs, wrong for any dog that’s been fed regularly and trained right. For 509 of its 566 pages, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle played to the myth of the honorable bond engagingly, sometimes elegantly, and so earned my love. But Wroblewski threw it all away in a burst of authorial selfishness, and I’m not sure I can forgive that.

Compline: Craig Risen critiques Joan Didion: "Hello to All That." Da noive! (The Morning News)

But even New Yorkers—perhaps especially New Yorkers, and especially transplants—can get taken in by a media-fueled tunnel vision of their lives as fantasy, their residence in Manhattan as an all-access pass to the sleek and hip. Which is why I take issue with Didion’s gripe against New York. While I am sure she, like countless others, had many other good reasons for leaving New York, what she reports in “Goodbye to All That” makes clear that her problem lay not in the city, but herself.

For example, Didion writes, with no irony, that she had so little money that “some weeks I had to charge food at Bloomingdale’s gourmet shop in order to eat.” A hearty bowl of spaghetti would be cheaper, but What Would Holly Golightly Think? Didion believes New York to be “no mere city. It was instead an infinitely romantic notion, the mysterious nexus of all love and money and power, the shining and perishable dream itself. To think of ‘living’ there was to reduce the miraculous to the mundane; one does not ‘live’ at Xanadu.” But New York is just a mere city, no more and no less—it’s simply bigger than the rest. It may be the “nexus of all love and money and power,” but there’s no mystery to it. It’s just life, on an exponentially larger scale than most people are prepared for.

What nails Mr Risen's case is his concluding paragraph, which introduces Joseph Mitchell into the discussion. Now, there's an interrogation!

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