Archive for February 11, 2010

Where Law Ends, Tyranny Begins

February 11, 2010 Leave a comment

In my post last week on my visit two weeks ago to the National Gallery of Art, I mentioned in passing my walk on that extremely cold Washington, D.C. afternoon from our hotel down Pennsylvania Avenue to the gallery, noting that I passed the Justice Department headquarters along the way. The building was completed in 1935 and re-named after Robert Kennedy in 2001. It is imposing, like many of its neighbors, and handsome in a way. But the feature that caught my eye that afternoon was the famous saying etched onto the facade that gives this post its title.

(Who said it? William Pitt the Elder, twice British prime minister in the 1750s and 1760s. Or so it seems. But a century earlier, John Locke wrote in The Second Treatise of Civil Government that “Wherever law ends, tyranny begins.” I’ll leave it to others to sort out priorities here.)

Hmm, I wondered, what did John Ashcroft think when he read those words every day? Or Alberto Gonzales? Or for that matter, not to pick on Bush’s appointees only, what does Eric Holder think?

Two days after my stroll down Pennsylvania Avenue, the question of what Mr. Holder thinks was brought into sharper focus for me through a blog post Glenn Greenwald wrote on the Obama administration’s handling of civil liberties.
Read more…

Categories: Law, Politics

Odd Apology

February 11, 2010 Leave a comment

Two and a half weeks ago, when we flew on Alaska Airlines from here to Washington, D.C., I came across a sentence on our airplane breakfast menu that struck me as peculiar, so much so that I talked Gail’s ear off about it for 5 minutes and then made a note of it. I stumbled upon the note last night. Rather than let the sentence go to waste, I’ll share it with y’all.

Mind you, this isn’t really a big deal. Probably not worthy of a post. The sentence is grammatically correct. Its only problem is that it doesn’t really say what the writer, or the airline, intended for it to say. Not that there’s any difficulty unwinding their point.

I know. I need to present the sentence already. One more bit of background. There were two breakfast options, some all-in-one egg-meat-bread concoction and a more traditional omelette with sausage. The sentence followed the listing. Here it is:

We apologize if occasionally your choice is not available.

This doesn’t bug me so much now. It did then. The thing is, are they apologizing to all of us for the fact that sometimes some few of us won’t get what we want? That’s what they’re saying. Presumably, their intent is to apologize to the occasional poor schnook who doesn’t get his or her choice. I don’t see any elegant way to fix this in one sentence. Maybe you do. I would use two, stating the sad truth in the first one that sometimes the mix of breakfasts loaded on the plane does not match up well with the mix of passenger preferences and in the second one that if that happens on this flight and you’re one of the unfortunate few who doesn’t get what you want, we apologize.

It turns out that I was the designated schnook on this flight. When the flight attendant got to Gail and me, we were the last two. She offered Gail both options. Gail took the all-in-one. She then told me she highly recommended the omelette. I graciously accepted.

Categories: Language, Travel, Writing

Out on a Limb

February 11, 2010 Leave a comment

Today’s NYT has an interesting piece by Patricia Cohen about what John Lowe, an English professor at LSU, is quoted as calling “one of the most sensational literary discoveries of recent decades.” It’s a mid-nineteenth-century diary of a Mississippi plantation owner whose great-grandson would be a childhood friend of William Faulkner, and as the article explains, it may be the document on which Faulkner modeled a ledger that plays a key role in his 1942 work Go Down, Moses.

Go Down, Moses, as it turns out, happens to be the first of Faulkner’s books that I read. I wasn’t exactly a mature enough reader or human being to be reading it at the time, but my camp counselor recommended it. The counselor, an undergraduate at Swarthmore at the time, recognized me as a serious reader, told me about Faulkner, and lent me his copy of Go Down, Moses. If you’ve read the book, you may have some idea that it’s not the most accessible work for a twelve-year-old, or possibly even for an adult. I don’t think I made much sense of it. Yet, I was determined to read more, and a few years later, when I was 15, I returned to him. In my then-compulsive way, I read The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Light in August, Absalom, Absalom!, The Rievers. Probably another one. I still wasn’t mature enough, as reader or human, but that didn’t seem to deter me.

One thing I understood, even if I didn’t understand Faulkner, was that I was in the presence of a great writer. Which brings me to the point of this post. I was stunned myself when I read in the third paragraph of today’s NYT article that, “Specialists have been stunned and intrigued not only by this peephole into Faulkner’s working process, but also by material that may have inspired this Nobel-prize-winning author, considered by many to be one of the greatest American novelists of the 20th century.”

I know journalists are expected not to give their own opinions when reporting a straight news story, but really, isn’t Ms Cohen exercising a little too much restraint when she summarizes Faulkner’s stature by saying he is “considered by many to be one of the greatest American novelists of the 20th century”? Can’t we all simply agree that he is one of the greatest? That doesn’t mean we have to like him. He just is.

Willie Mays? One of the greatest baseball players of the twentieth century. Paul Dirac? One of the greatest physicists of the twentieth century. We needn’t qualify these judgments. They just are. Likewise with Faulkner.

(By the way, I didn’t choose Mays and Dirac by chance. They are both on my mind, thanks to recent biographies. James S. Hirsch’s Mays biography has been reviewed in many places recently, including yesterday’s NYT. Freeman Dyson’s thought-provoking review of the Dirac biography by Graham Farmelo is in the current New York Review of Books, but unfortunately not freely available.)

Categories: Books, Journalism


February 11, 2010 Leave a comment

This morning, I read Sam Sifton’s review in yesterday’s NYT of the Manhattan restaurant Novitá. Boy was I tempted to head to the airport, get on a plane, and dine there tonight. I’ll have to wait a little longer, but I’ll be thinking about it.

Sifton describes Novitá in the opening sentences as “a perfect neighborhood trattoria” with “excellent pasta.” That sounds good already, but only abstractly. Then come the details. For instance:

A plate of gramigna alla carbonara, for instance, thin strands of curled pasta with eggs, pecorino romano, guanciale and black pepper, arrives on the table as a riot of simplicity, a four-member noise band. It is outstanding, firm and pliant, salty and sweet, slick and sticky and rich.


You might try a bright and floral pesto over the long cavatelli pasta known as strozzapreti, or priest chokers, studded with pine nuts and salted with Parmesan. Or a plain penne with roasted tomatoes, basil and mozzarella that tastes of triangular perfection, summer on a midwinter plate. Black spaghettini with mixed seafood and a spicy tomato sauce is worth a mini-fad in itself, with pasta that is toothsome and a sauce made rich with lobster.

Three more: little ears of orecchiette with spicy sausage and broccoli rabe in tomato sauce; papparadelle with lamb ragù and earthy porcini mushrooms; rigatoni with seared tuna, black olives, tomatoes and oregano. These are like postcards from an Italy of the mind, color swatches to recolor your world.

If there’s room after the pasta, I could move on to

a splendid veal Milanese with rucola and tomates, crisp and juicy, the sort of dish you could eat once a week, and a rolled chicken breast stuffed with spinach and prosciutto that revives confidence in both chicken breasts and stuffing them.

Maybe I’ll take JetBlue’s redeye tonight.

Categories: Restaurants