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Civility and Honesty

January 17, 2011 Leave a comment

We missed President Obama’s speech last Wednesday in Tucson. We were at dinner celebrating Jessica’s birthday. I read about it later in the evening, have seen a few clips, and have read a lot of commentary, but I still haven’t gotten around to watching it in full online. Among the commentary, I was particularly struck by the praise by one of Obama’s most persistent, articulate, and forceful critics, Gary Wills, who in The New York Review of Books the next day called it Obama’s finest hour. Wills, who has written a book on Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, connects the two speeches:

Obama came to the speech from the bedsides of those who had been wounded. Their message to him was one of dedication: “They believed, and I believe, that we can be better.” This rang a bell with me. It reminded me of the lesson of the fallen that Lincoln took from Gettysburg—“that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.” At Gettysburg Lincoln might have been expected to defend the North and blame the South—which is what Edward Everett did in the speech preceding his. Rather, the bulk of his speech was given to praising the dead and urging others to learn from them.

Lincoln might have been expected in his Second Inaugural Address to trumpet the gains of the North and the setbacks to the South. Instead, he invited all Americans to grieve for the tragic war and to share blame for the historical crime of slavery. God “gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came.” Death should forge a bond among the living. “The loss of these wonderful people should make every one of us strive to be better.” Obama stepped around the obvious and divisive sifting of wrongs done, to urge the doing of right.

I don’t wish to violate this spirit, which is perhaps one reason I have been mute for the past week. We’re all being told we need to be civil. Okay, I’m being civil.

But listen, being civil doesn’t mean being quiet. Being civil doesn’t mean you can’t point out errors, lies, and falsehoods. Being civil doesn’t mean that you have to read lame columns by David Brooks and his ilk and agree. Speaking of which, last Friday, in his NYT column, Brooks wrote:

But over the past few decades, people have lost a sense of their own sinfulness. Children are raised amid a chorus of applause. Politics has become less about institutional restraint and more about giving voters whatever they want at that second. Joe DiMaggio didn’t ostentatiously admire his own home runs, but now athletes routinely celebrate themselves as part of the self-branding process.

So, of course, you get narcissists who believe they or members of their party possess direct access to the truth. Of course you get people who prefer monologue to dialogue. Of course you get people who detest politics because it frustrates their ability to get 100 percent of what they want. Of course you get people who gravitate toward the like-minded and loathe their political opponents. They feel no need for balance and correction.

Beneath all the other things that have contributed to polarization and the loss of civility, the most important is this: The roots of modesty have been carved away.

President Obama’s speech in Tucson was a good step, but there will have to be a bipartisan project like comprehensive tax reform to get people conversing again. Most of all, there will have to be a return to modesty.

Here we go again. Those selfish athletes, liberal parents, and their self-centered children! Really? Is that the problem? What about limited gun control? What about a political establishment that won’t even talk about guns, except to say that guns don’t kill, people do. What about huge corporate and wealthy individual support for mental Neanderthals who support the rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer, and the elimination of regulation? What about the banishment of science, reason, and logic in favor of faith in a god who (proponents say) assures us that we can do whatever we wish to the earth, so let’s not worry? And what about the leading cable station airing lies 24 hours a day, claiming to provide fair and balanced coverage when it is in fact an arm of an extreme political party? (I know, I have it backwards. The party is in fact an arm of it.) And what about the mainstream media not being willing to call lies lies, but preferring to hide behind “he says, she says” coverage? Sure, let’s be civil. But let’s be honest too.

Actually, now that I think back, I realize that in counterpoint to David Brooks, Paul Krugman had a column last Thursday that is much closer in its thoughts to my own views. No surprise that I would agree with Krugman over Brooks. But he seems to be addressing reality in a more serious way.

Today’s G.O.P. sees much of what the modern federal government does as illegitimate; today’s Democratic Party does not. When people talk about partisan differences, they often seem to be implying that these differences are petty, matters that could be resolved with a bit of good will. But what we’re talking about here is a fundamental disagreement about the proper role of government.

Read it all.

As for the Ted Rall cartoon at the top — sorry, I couldn’t resist. It is telling commentary in its own way, about Obama and about our country.

Categories: Politics

Still a Patriots Fan

January 17, 2011 2 comments

Steve Grogan

Gail wasn’t too happy about this, but I discovered yesterday that I’m still a Patriots fan after all these years. I couldn’t bear to watch them lose to the Jets. What Gail wasn’t happy about was that I seemed more upset about their loss than I was earlier in the day about the Seahawks’ loss to the Bears.

How to explain? Well, there’s the fact that the Seahawks fell out of the game quickly and were beaten a team that was clearly better. Plus, the Seahawks had already done far better than anyone had expected in getting to the second round of the playoffs, or than they even deserved, what with their 7-9 regular season record. But ultimately, I haven’t let go of my attachment to the Patriots.

That I even have an attachment is something of a surprise. Back in 1974, I made the big conversion, from Knick fan to Celtic fan and from Ranger fan to Bruin fan. It took another year before I had become a member of what’s now called Red Sox Nation, leaving the Yankees behind forever. But football was different. For one thing, at the time I didn’t much care for it. I followed what was going on, but it was by far my least favorite of the four team sports, and if not for a certain running back in Buffalo whom I kind of liked, and whose name I can’t even bring myself to say anymore, I might have lost interest altogether.

Then came Steve Grogan, in 1975, and the surprise benching of Jim Plunkett in favor of Grogan midway through the season, during which they finished with a 3-11 record. It must have been 1976 when I became a full-fledged Patriot fan. With Grogan at the helm, they finished 11-3. What I always remember is their playoff loss to the Raiders that year and the fact that they were robbed by the officials. The Raiders would go on to win the Super Bowl, but the Patriots were the better team. Or so I like to remember it.

And so I became a Patriot fan. My childhood love of the Giants was no consolation when they won the Super Bowl so improbably over the Patriots three years ago. Growing up with the Jets provided no consolation for yesterday’s loss either. Bill Belichick is a genius. Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback of our era. I would like them to be AFC champions and play in the Super Bowl every year.

What if their Super Bowl opponent happens to be the Seahawks? Who would I root for? Oh come now. That’s easy. I don’t want to be kicked out of the house.

Categories: Football

Law & Order: UK

January 17, 2011 Leave a comment

I’ve never been a Law & Order fan. I’ve watched it. How can one avoid it? But it was never part of my regular TV viewing repertoire, never a show I would think over the course of a day that I was looking forward to watching that evening. And the same goes for its offspring.

Earlier this month, Gail discovered one of its younger children, Law & Order: UK. We don’t get BBC America as part of our cable package. We are, however, able to catch up on the episodes after the fact using On Demand, and we’re quite enjoying them. Looking over the website just now, I see that what we’ve managed to see are the last few episodes of season one and, just two nights ago, the first episode of season two.

I’m still trying to make sense of a line we heard in one of the episodes. It would be the episode called Sacrifice, #11 of season 1. Like the original Law & Order, the UK version features two police officers and their boss on the Order side, with a parallel pair of prosecutors (or whatever they’re called) and their boss on the Law side. In this episode, the chief prosecutor decides to take a temporary leave in order to serve as defense attorney for an old friend. As befits someone of his talent and stature (it’s not by chance that he got where he is today), he is extremely effective in court. And as he muses on his experience at the end of a day in court, he comments, “I didn’t remember how much I missed this.”

Now, I know they use the language a little differently over there. But could this really be what the writers intended? And did no one — actor, director, whoever — think to question it? Surely what has happened is that two more plausible sentences got blended to produce this. Wouldn’t one say “I didn’t remember how much I enjoyed this” or “I didn’t realize how much I missed this”? Or am I missing something?

Categories: Language, Television

Picasso in Seattle, II

January 17, 2011 Leave a comment

Portrait of Dora Maar, 1937

Three months ago, I wrote about our visit to the Seattle Art Museum to attend one of the opening, members-only viewings of the new show Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso, Paris. I said at the time that my visit decades ago to the Picasso Museum was a revelation, but no second revelation was forthcoming.

For one, there is only a small fraction of the works I saw in Paris years ago. For another, my long ago visit to the Musée Picasso was on a quiet weekday morning. I could go wherever I wanted, linger as long as I wished, view paintings alone, follow the chronological path and double back as often as I pleased. The Seattle exhibition is again chronological, but everything was so crowded. And then there was the curse of the audio tour. Wherever a painting was marked with a tour number, crowds would form. The problem is that people stay put for however long the audio remarks take, even if the work itself is no longer being discussed. And the auditors tend to cluster in a respectful semi-circle with a large radius, so no one can get close without getting in their way.

I closed the post by noting that we’ll “need to go back, this time sans audio tour and preferably sans people.” Well, the exhibition ends in seven hours, at midnight, and we got back just in time, two nights ago. But by waiting to make our return visit until the closing weekend, we managed to stumble into even larger crowds than awaited us the first time. And the semi-circular clustering of auditors seemed even worse than the first time, maybe because the radii of the semi-circles were larger. If one didn’t want to break the semi-circle, one was so far back that one couldn’t see the painting in any detail or read the painting’s name and year. It was an altogether frustrating experience.

Well, not altogether. For example, the Dora Maar portrait shown above, though part of the audio tour, was in a large enough room, and far enough into the show (by which point auditors’ attention seems to flag), that it was possible to get close and linger without feeling I was in some way invading the invisible semi-circular force field. And there are so many other treasures. We’re glad we went.

Categories: Art

The Sentry

January 17, 2011 Leave a comment

I finished Robert Crais’s latest crime novel last night. The Sentry. It was released last Tuesday and I had pre-ordered the Kindle version, so first thing Tuesday morning, I had a copy on my iPad. It is the 14th in Crais’s series of Elvis Cole/Joe Pike novels (see here for the complete list). As I have explained before, most of the books focus on Cole, with Pike as a secondary character. I started reading Crais in 2008 with novel #12, featuring Cole, then read #13 last May, as I wrote in a post in early June. It was the second novel featuring Joe Pike, and led me to go back to #11, the first Pike novel, which I read in Nantucket in September.

Crais wasted no time writing yet another Pike novel — The Sentry — and I wasted no time getting it. But I didn’t start it until I went to bed two nights ago. Less than 24 hours later, I had finished it.

Maybe reading three of them in 6 1/2 months wasn’t such a good idea. I didn’t enjoy this one as much. I don’t feel that I learned much more about Pike as a character, and I didn’t find him so interesting anymore. The plot drove me along. Crais is pretty good at that. But even that wasn’t so interesting. What was good was the use of the Venice area of Los Angeles, or Los Angeles as a whole, as the backdrop for the story. I wandered around Venice with Gail a little over a decade ago on a trip down there, so I had some picture in my head of the neighborhood, but now I’m curious to return and get a better sense of it.

Next up: Paul Clemens’ Punching Out: One Year in a Closing Auto Plant, which will be published tomorrow. I pre-ordered it over half a year ago for my Kindle. I must have read some short piece by Clemens at the time that mentioned the upcoming book, and ordered it immediately. I wrote two Junes ago about Clemens’ previous book, the superb Made in Detroit: A South of 8 Mile Memoir.

Maybe I should add a few words about e-readers. I started The Sentry Sunday night on my iPad, because it’s what I happened to have at hand. But yesterday, when I set about reading the book in earnest, I switched to the Kindle. It’s still my preferred e-reader, unless I actually want the distraction of being able to check my email and the blogs every few minutes. But distractions aside, it’s so much easier to hold for extended periods of reading. Holding an iPad with one hand isn’t feasible. Holding a Kindle and turning pages with one hand makes a huge difference. And just imagine how much better the experience must be with the third generation — lighter still, better contrast. In two days, I won’t have to imagine. My new Kindle will arrive.

Categories: Books