The Daily Blague

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26 March 2010


Matins: Whatever critics were calling President Obama prior to this week, they now appear to concur that he's a capable Machiavellian. Stephen Burt joins the chorus of commentators cited by William Saletan at Slate. (LRB)

The president seems vindicated not only in his ideals, but in his management style. The State of the Union speech in late January, given the week after Scott Brown won Ted Kennedy’s old seat, now looks like a turning point. In it Obama insisted that he would ‘not walk away’ from healthcare reform, even though (to progressives’ dismay) he never specified how it was to be accomplished: he never said he would use reconciliation. Why not? He had to show the inattentive American, the ‘independent’ voter, that there was no less partisan way to get anything done.

The much-talked-about and (in policy terms) meaningless ‘healthcare summit’, televised from the White House, was the show he chose to put on, and only after the show was over could the real plan (have the House pass the Senate bill, plus a reconciliation fix) work. Designed to give the appearance of listening, the healthcare summit was also designed to give Democrat leaders in Congress time: time to count noses, time away from the news (or at least from the news about healthcare), time for the Scott Brown panic to recede, and time to convince skittish backbench Democrats to support reform, on pragmatic (failure makes all Democrats look weak) as well as on moral grounds.

Lauds: Alexandra Lange, who teaches architecture criticism at NYU, explains why she's unhappy with Times critic Nicolai Ouroussoff. Doing so, she lays out a handful of very sound principles to bear in mind when reading almost any critic. (Design Observer)

Now, I am not as mean or as funny as the 1980s Michael Sorkin, but I can’t help sharing his wrath. What outraged him about Goldberger was Goldberger’s inability to express his own opinion and his refusal to speak truth to power (in the form of Philip Johnson). What outrages me about Ouroussoff is partly the opposite. Ouroussoff has an opinion about design, but his reviews offer not much more than that opinion. His approach — little history, less politics, occasional urbanism — shrinks the critic’s role to commenting only on the appearance of the architecture. He might have been the perfect critic for the boom years, when looks were the selling point, but this formal, global approach seems incongruous in a downturn. His evaluative criterion was never clear to me until I embarked on this essay; in re-reading him, I found frequent defenses of one quality: the new.

If that’s what he’s selling, I’m not buying it. For three reasons: We don’t know where he lives. He’s slippery. And he doesn’t care (enough).

Prime: If this is the best that Ernst & Young can do to exculpate itself from facilitating the folly at Lehman Brothers, says Felix Salmon, "they really are in for a world Lehman-related pain."

The letter continues in this vein for two pages, denying allegations which haven’t been made while stepping gently around the ones which have. Even if you haven’t seen things like the [ZeroHedge] report, the tone of the letter is decidedly weird. If you have seen things like the ZH report, the letter will only serve to make your opinion of E&Y even worse. If I was on the audit committee which received this letter, I would certainly be shopping my account right now.

Tierce: At Wired Science, "6 Ways We're Already Geoengineering Earth."

Scientists and policymakers are meeting this week to discuss whether geoengineering to fight climate change can be safe in the future, but make no mistake about it: We’re already geoengineering Earth on a massive scale.

From diverting a third of Earth’s available fresh water to planting and grazing two-fifths of its land surface, humankind has fiddled with the knobs of the Holocene, that 10,000-year period of climate stability that birthed civilization.

The consequences of our interventions into Earth’s geophysical processes are yet to be determined, but scientists say they’re so fundamental that the Holocene no longer exists. We now live in the Anthropocene, a geological age of mankind’s making.

Sext: At The Awl, Natasha Vargas-Cooper and Julie Klausner discuss Greenberg.

Natasha: Have you dated a G-berg?

Julie: YES!!

Natasha: Ok, Explain what a G-man is.

Julie: Somebody who thinks honesty is not only a value, but THE MOST IMPORTANT VALUE. But honesty should be a given! There's no nun named after honesty.

Natasha: I have met this kind!

Julie: Just, like, a guy, who's like "I'm damaged and awful, but I'm being honest about it so here I go! Get your gauze out, ladiezzz!!!" And then you just bleed from the eyes and the heart and the hands.


Nones: Will those 1600 housing units in East Jerusalem prove to have the weight of a fatal straw? Ethan Bronner, at the Times:

Mr. Netanyahu returned to an overheated political atmosphere fed in part by news coverage of his Washington trip, describing his treatment at the White House as deeply humiliating because neither photographs or ceremony marked his visit.

There is little doubt that Obama administration officials thought it was appropriate to reciprocate the embarrassment felt by Mr. Biden here and to send a tough message about the need for commitment regarding Jerusalem, American officials said.

Also interesting in this connection is Michael Young's piece in the (Lebanon) Daily Star: "Israel is losing the battle of narratives."

Vespers: A delightful reminiscence of mythologue Stanley Edgar Hyman and his wife — Shirley Jackson — by one of Hyman's thesis students at Bennington, Patricia Highsmith biographer Joan Schenkar. After reading it, you may want to dig out Jackson's immortal short story, "The Lottery." (Speakeasy)

By then, I’d read everything Shirley Jackson had ever published, and my heavily-freighted prose –- Stanley likened it to the changing of box cars in a railyard — was beginning to relax under the influence of her elegant simplicities.

As in a dream –- the scene is top-lit by bright sunlight and set out-of -doors — I remember the afternoon of the thesis return. Shirley, Stanley, and I are standing near the Hyman family Volkswagen. Its passenger door hangs open like a broken wing. Shirley, white as a ghost, is swathed in cotton materials. She holds my black (or green) thesis folder in her hands which tremble slightly. Stanley, smiling broadly, wears a short-sleeved shirt. His pants are hitched up to his armpits.

A sudden premonitory whirring of midges (it’s black fly season in New England), then Shirley, skilfully avoiding my eyes, looks me right in the forehead, pronounces a sentence and thrusts my thesis into my chest. Paralyzed by respect for her, I am unable to utter a single sound. Thus do I manage -– once again — to leave in the middle of a conversation with Shirley Jackson.

After that, I never saw Shirley and Stanley together. Then Shirley had an awful death, and Stanley reverted to the habit he’d developed over the years, the habit of taking his students into his bed. Shortly, he would marry one of them.

And after that, every encounter I had with Stanley was an embarrassment to both of us.

But I can still recall what Shirley said to me that afternoon. And her words are the response I still hope to get for anything I write.

“Thank you,” said Shirley Jackson, holding my thesis in her hands, “I learned something.”

Compline: The Editor was recently asked by a friend if he thought that future generations would pity us as condescendingly as we pity, say, medieval folk. "I certainly hope so," was his optimistic reply. At New Humanist, Sally Feldman surveys an aspect of life that could be a lot more civilized (outside Japan, anyway).

And by the same measure, the United States is still in the Dark Ages. You may think of America as the country that created the allergy, where bathroom culture rules, where germs and dirt are feared more than global warming and where cleanliness is worshipped alongside godliness – but public conveniences in some of its major cities are a disgrace. New York City, for example, is one of the most sophisticated metropolises in the world. Yet its provision of any public toilets at all, let alone clean and decent ones, is woeful.

“Three successive mayors failed to agree proposals that would have put public restrooms on New York’s streets,” writes Rose George. “When Michael Bloomberg did, in 2005, newspaper headlines cheered that new restrooms were finally going to be provided. On closer inspection, it was apparent that the plan would provide 3300 bus shelters, 330 new kiosks and only 20 public toilets.”

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