Monday, May 31, 2010

Being a Good Friend to Israel

Israel has always needed its friends. And now that Israeli forces have killed nine civilians on the high seas, and Ehud Barak, the Israeli Defense Minister, has followed up by blaming the aid flotilla to Gaza for "political provocation", Israel is going to need its allies' friendship more than ever. Over the next few days, there is going to be a loud outcry from some quarters inside the United States that the US is not backing Israel enough, that they are letting Israel down. Those voices are wrong. The United States has already let Israel down, and so have the people who will complain that Israel is not getting enough support. If we had been better friends to Israel, this terrible and wicked thing would not have happened in the first place.

The best friends are the ones who want the best for you, not the ones that want to make the biggest show of friendship. And when you're in need, the best friends are the ones who give the best help and the soundest advice, not necessarily the ones who are focused on displaying their loyalty. That advice includes talking sense to you when you need it, and the friend who won't or can't do that is a sorry friend to have.

If you've had too much to drive, the best friend you have is the one who takes your car keys away. The worst is the one who loudly declares that if you say you can drive, you can drive, and tells you not to listen to the haters. The guy who unconditionally supports your decision to drive while plastered really is sincere, and he wants you to know how much he likes you. It's just that you may never see him again. The guy who tells you you're drunk and lets you curse him in a rage, but ends up driving you home, is the guy.

For a long, long time now, American political discussion of Israel has been dominated by the better-friend-than-thou camp, the people concerned with demonstrating their superior loyalty to Israel. And those people have shouted down anyone who doesn't back every Israeli action, no matter how foolish or self-destructive, as not true friends of Israel: indeed, tried to brand anyone who talks sense to Israel as its enemy, an anti-Semite or "self-hating Jew." These people have been more concerned in displaying the intensity of friendship than in living up to the full obligations of friendship. Think that killing civilians is counter-productive? Then, according to the self-proclaimed friends of Israel, you're an anti-Semite, and you should shut up. If you were a real friend, you would support any military action by Israel, no matter how bad a strategy it is in the long run. Are you saying Bibi Netanyahu can't hold his liquor?

Self-declared friendship for Israel has won out over candid friendship in American politics, to the extent that American administrations have felt either unwilling or politically unable to restrain Israel's strategic mistakes. No one in high office is allowed to take Israel's keys, and anyone who suggests that they shouldn't drive faces enormous pressure to show their "support" for Israel (by slapping them on the back and even buying them one for the road). Even as the Israeli government has grown more short-sighted and reckless, we've become more passive and enabling, more reluctant to preserve Israel from self-destruction. At this point, they don't believe we will ever have the guts to take their keys, which makes them more reckless still.

If we had been better friends to Israel, they would never have gone so far down a road that risks so much and leads to so little. If we had been better friends to Israel, we would have tried to talk sense to them long before this. If we had been better friends to Israel, they would never have felt that they could forcibly board ships flying NATO flags in international waters. But we haven't been. We've only pretended to friendship, and let them go to hell. This week pundits will complain that we've stopped being real friends to Israel, but the truth is that we haven't even begun.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Most of What I Want to Say About Rand Paul ..

Has been said better by the immaculate Jay Smooth:

I will add that for a guy who presents himself as "principled," Paul put on a virtual clinic of sophomoric logical fallacies. I could probably teach a class session on dirty arguments just with his responses to Maddow: ad hominem! straw man! cheap appeals to sentiment! (Meanwhile, Maddow was doing what I would tell every student to do: stick to established facts and ask questions about them. She's no cheap shot artist; she stuck to Paul's own public statements.)

Rand Paul was impressive, but not in the good way.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

On Shakespeare Probation

The Boston Globe has a story about juvenile offenders in Western Massachusetts being sentenced to act Shakespeare as an alternative to jail or community service. Lenox's Shakespeare & Company troupe, a Berkshires institution, has a special program just for these wayward youth. It's written as a feel-good story, live theater and immortal poetry as a roundabout path to rehabilitation. But I'll admit I had two instant and inappropriate responses.

First off ... acting Shakespeare is a punishment now? Whose car did Kenneth Branagh steal? (More seriously, I wonder about the wisdom of making art a punishment, and what that teaches these kids about making art.) I like to imagine Sir John Gielgud as an extremely classy former crime lord, working off a long, long sentence.

Second, I was deeply amused at the idea of Shakespearean acting as a way of keeping out of trouble, considering what menaces to the civil peace some of Shakespeare's coevals were. If only Shakespeare had gotten Marlowe a walk-on in 3 Henry VI, maybe he wouldn't have gotten stabbed in the head like that. Maybe if Ben Jonson had been good enough to get a gig with the Lord Chamberlain's Men, he wouldn't have killed that other actor in an armed brawl. (Or course, the fate of the actor Jonson killed does complicate that theory.) Maybe, though, society will ultimately benefit from a generation of hooligans who use more literate and poetic threats. Aroint thee! Art drawn, and talk of peace?

Dead for a ducat, baby. Show me the ducats, and it's done.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

How Long Would the Gulf Oil Spill Power the USA?

cross-posted at Dagblog

The amount of oil spilling into the Gulf Coast boggles the mind. And looking at one offshore well destroying such a huge swath of fragile ecologies, it's easy to think, "Man, there's more oil down there than I thought. I see what those 'drill, baby, drill types' were talking about."

But here's my question: how much oil is that compared to America's energy needs? If all of that oil had gone into refineries instead of into the Gulf and our wetlands, how long would it keep our cars and lights and internet servers going?

So, apparently, about 5,000 barrels a day have been coming out of that well into the ocean. (210,000 gallons a day, if that's how you'd prefer to think of it.) America's daily oil consumption is somewhere between 20 and 21 million barrels a day. That's 21,000,000 a day. Let's round it down to an even 20 million, just to make the arithmetic easier (I was an English major). And what the heck, maybe some easy, painless conservation efforts could get us down to 20 million a day; they certainly wouldn't get us much lower.

Even an English major can figure out that, with the numbers rounded down for optimism, we use four thousand times as much oil every day as the amount that's going into the Gulf. That's four thousand. (20,000,000/5,000 = 4,000) The amount of oil that the Deepwater Horizon is clogging the Gulf of Mexico with every day is still only enough to meet the US's energy needs for, ummm, let's see ... 24 hours times 60 minutes times 60 seconds, divided by 4,000, is ... uhhh...

21.6 seconds.

Of course, that's only if you round our daily consumption down a little.

It's hard to get one's head around the astronomical numbers involved in our energy policy, but that's a good concrete example. The amount of oil we use every 21.6 seconds is enough for a massive environmental catastrophe. The next time BP (or Exxon or Shell) shows you an "environmentally conscious" TV ad, remember that during those thirty seconds America used every bit as much oil as went into the Gulf of Mexico today, and almost 40% more.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Kagan Dog Whistle Gets Louder

cross-posted at Dagblog

Today, Ann Gerhart at the Washington Post came right out and said it: Elena Kagan's nomination to the Supreme Court is suspect because she is not a mother. So that dog whistle I was complaining about? It's a steam whistle now, very audible and very shrill.

I'm not going to link to the Gerhart's post, because bad behavior should not be rewarded with traffic. If you want to find it on the WaPo opinions page, her title is "The Supreme Court Needs More Mothers." No, I am not making that up.

Here is Gerhart's ringing conclusion:

In saying he wants justices who have "heart" and "empathy," and who understand "how our laws affect the daily realities of people's lives," Obama has invited us to ask who has a life outside work and who doesn't. That's hard to determine in a confirmation process that will require Kagan, like Sotomayor before her, to crimp her personality and bite her tongue.

Motherhood offers a one-word verifier. It signals a woman with an intensity of life experiences, jammed with joys and fears, unpredictability and intimacy, all outside the workplace. Much of the time, it's the opposite of being strategic and assiduously prepared.

It's a story we understand without needing all the details.

Heavens no, who needs details when we have handy stereotypes? As far as Gerhart's concerned motherhood is sufficient evidence if your intense inner life and your capacities for "unpredictability and intimacy" (are we hiring a Supreme Court Justice or writing a personal ad?), even if the nominee doesn't happen to be unpredictable, joyful, spontaneous, or capable of intimacy. Yes, parenting, as Francis Bacon tells us, exercises and strengthens our compassion, but not every father or mother is compassionate. By Gerhart's standards, Margaret Thatcher should be considered compassionate, but Jane Addams not. If you find those examples cheap and easy, they are. It only took three seconds to come up with them. But Gerhart didn't think that long.

Part of what's frustrating is that Gerhart enumerates the obstacles that today's women face and then offers a solution that scapegoats women. It's really hard to juggle motherhood and career, Gerhart reasons, and so women who choose to make their career the priority should be punished by, what was it? Oh yes, blocking their careers. Can't see anything unfair or unreasonable about that.

I'll try to explain this again, in words that even a WaPo Op-ed writer can understand (although Ruth Marcus needs no help, and her piece on Kagan is a gem):

It is paradoxically easier for women in the path-breaking generation in any field to juggle motherhood and career. How could that be? Because that generation of women doesn't need to worry about being slow-tracked if they get pregnant. They've been slow-tracked anyway. This is why Justice O'Connor could be a mother and the first woman on the Supreme Court. First of all, O'Connor's career was initially held back to an artificially slow pace (during her prime child-bearing years), because women lawyers had few or no opportunities. (Again, she finished 3rd at Stanford Law, and that didn't get her a job. Her classmate William Rehnquist, 1st in the class, had plenty of offers.) O'Connor had to break her own trail, slowly, and taking time off to start a family had a relatively low cost. Today's most promising young lawyers have to choose: a baby now, or a Supreme Court clerkship this year? A baby now, or bill extra hours to make partner at White, Shoe & Clubb? A baby now, or a chance to serve in the new Administration? O'Connor didn't have those choices. Secondly, as slow as progress is for women in the ground-breaking generation, there are still no other women ahead of them. O'Connor could take her winding route to nomination, raise a family, and still be one of the most qualified female Republican lawyers in the United States when she was nominated. That is no longer true for women who made law review at top schools. They are no longer alone, but they also no longer have the field to themselves.

I've seen this first hand, watching my mother break into a field that had always belonged to men. I could watch, because my mother had me before she started that career, and even before she had gone to college. (The first time I ever entered a college classroom, it was because Mom's baby-sitting arrangements had fallen through.) But even with that late start, Mom was always unusually qualified for a woman police officer her age. It was unusual for her even to be a police officer. Everything she did and everywhere she went, she was going first. There were no female peers for her to be measured against. But the first woman to lead the NYPD or LAPD or the FBI won't be the only woman in the NYPD, LAPD or FBI; she'll be one women among many, and they'll all face hard choices about career and family.

What's repulsive about Gerhart's argument is that none of these standards are applied to male nominees. No one's asking if male nominees are dads, or how much attention they actually spare for my children, nor should we. I might be more sympathetic to the nominate-more-mommies argument if we demanded that people like Roberts and Alito coach spend a certain number of hours flying kites or coaching Little League, but not much more sympathetic, because applying a foolish standard universally doesn't make it less foolish. We demand intellectual achievement and legal heft from our nominees, and that's fine. It's just from the women that we demand intellectual achievement, legal heft, musical laughter, a devil-may-care smile, and experience catching fireflies in bottles on summer nights. A male justice has to be a judicial heavyweight. A female justice apparently has to be a judicial heavyweight and a character in a Bronte novel. (Although if she is openly emotional, or even just a Latina, her emotionalism is suspect.)

And what's truly repellent about Gerhart is her traffic in the ugly saw that childless women lack full emotional lives. Everybody knows, of course, that a woman who doesn't get married and have kids, and most especially a high-achieving woman who doesn't get married and have kids, is entirely out of touch with her inner life, deprived of her full capacities to imagine, intuit, hope, and feel.

You can ask the Bronte sisters about that last one, too.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Kagan Dog Whistle

cross-posted at Dagblog

Suddenly, with the Elena Kagan nomination, careerism is a terrible thing.

When John Roberts was the nominee, it was all about the splendid qualifications of his splendid career. Much the same when it was Samuel Alito. When Sonia Sotomayor was the nominee, it was all about whether or not her qualifications were actually qualifications, what with her being a Latina and all. (If you get a summa cum laude from Princeton but you're not white, how can Pat Buchanan be sure you can even read English?) But everyone agreed that the big questions were career and qualifications. Now that Kagan has been nominated, some people are complaining that to be this qualified, she must have spent her entire adult life pursuing those qualifications! My goodness! Anybody with such an impressive career must be a ... a ... a ... careerist!

Can you hear the dog whistle yet?

David Brooks is terribly, terribly worried that Kagan is a careerist "Organization Kid," who has repressed her true self to get ahead: "prudential rather than poetic," calculating rather than passionate. (Why any rational person would want a poetic judge rather than a prudential one is beyond me.) Andrew Sullivan is scared, too, because Kagan's "life, so far as one can tell, is her career" which has kept her from taking bold, passionate positions. What bold positions? Coming out as a lesbian, of course, which is Sullivan's chief demand, Kagan's actual desires, in every sense of that word, notwithstanding. According to Sullivan, Kagan's "entire life seems to have been a closet - in the pursuit of a career."

Can you hear it? It's pitched very, very high.

Oh, fine then. Here is twittering twit Howard Kurtz, answering the whistle and salivating:

Kagan, Sotomayor -- Do some women dispense with husbands and kids to climb to the top of their professions?
Howard Kurtz
(h/t John Cole, whose post on Kagan is superb)

Whoops. There it is. You see, Kagan has been so focused on her career that she's left no time for her personal growth. (Nudge, nudge.) She has turned her back on her own passions. (Wink) She needs to get off the career track for a little while and do things that wouldn't help her resume but which are, you know, personally fulfilling. (Nudge, wink, nudge, wink.) That would make her more emotionally well-rounded. Otherwise, of course, she must be passionless, emotionally stunted, and estranged from her real self. Probably a lesbian, too.

Only Kurtz is clumsy enough to say it aloud. That's why it's a dog whistle. But it's meant to summon up familiar anti-feminist stereotypes about career women, and about the horrors of sacrificing one's "natural" maternal destiny in order to pursue a professional career. The point of those stereotypes is not to deal with the genuine difficulties facing women who want both motherhood and careers, but to intensify those difficulties, and to make the option of forestalling or foregoing motherhood appear illegitimate. The argument is that women who aren't mothers, and most especially women who aren't mothers because they have been pursuing careers, aren't real women at all. And of course, since they're not real women, they don't know what they really want.

This is why one 50-year-old nominee was presented as brilliant, poised, and prudent while an essentially identical 50-year-old nominee is presented as a repressed, wonkish automaton. Elena Kagan isn't any more of a careerist or a nerd than John Roberts was. Who could be? And no one imagines Roberts as less authentic or less human, let alone less manly, because he delayed marriage until after he was forty. No one faults a man who postpones starting family life while building his career.

It's startling the extent to which the press coverage of Kagan has been dominated by her childlessness and her apparent partnerlessness. On one hand you have the must-be-gay storyline, with its breathtaking ignorance of the choices professional women in our society face. (I have no idea who Elena Kagan likes to sleep with, but I know that there are many, many successful women who have trouble finding appropriate and supportive partners. To treat the fact that Kagan is single as some inexplicable oddity, which must be hiding a deep personal secret, is to indulge in the luxury of not having to notice certain basic facts. ) On the other hand, you have the "careerist" meme, which is inseparable from the stereotypical ways in which career women are imagined in American society. Either way, it boils down to the same ugly idea: whenever a woman gets to the head of the class, her femininity is suspect. So she needs to prove that she's a real woman. Bullshit, I say. It stinks.

Let's face some hard facts about the Supreme Court nominating process these days. The two key demands are that the nominee must be indisputably, even overwhelmingly, qualified (because the opposition party will attack any weakness) and that the nominee be as young as possible, preferably 50 or so (so that the nominating party keeps the seat as long as it can). Those two requirements demand a candidate who's been on the fast track for his or her entire career. All of the hand-wringing about the way everyone on the court is from Harvard or Yale Law stems from this. The only way to become impeccably qualified for the Supreme Court by age 50 is to get a hot start and keep it in high gear for three solid decades: clerking at the Supreme Court, followed by a series of plum appointments in some mixture of high-powered firms, the federal judiciary, government service, and Top 5 law schools. Lawyers who begin without elite pedigrees and influential recommendations can build an equally powerful resume, and sometimes achieve more than their peers from Harvard, Yale and Chicago, but it will take them longer. When someone from a merely excellent law school is qualified for the Court, they will likely be 60 or 65, rather than 50. The nominees we're seeing are all, necessarily, careerists: there's no longer any time to relax if you're going to be ready for nomination before you're too old to nominate.

Keeping this blistering pace also doesn't allow much time for bearing children. It's possible for men to stay on the new future-nominee schedule and start a family, because they don't need to sacrifice their time or energy to pregnancy, and because it's easier for them to find partners who will take on more of the child care. That doesn't mean that professional women can't have children and be successful; it just means that it takes longer. Ruth Bader Ginsburg has children, but she was 60 when she was nominated, and that's still starting from both the Harvard and Columbia law reviews. Sandra Day O'Connor managed to have children and get to the Court by 51, and she'd taken a more interesting, less fast-track route to nomination, but that was because O'Connor wasn't originally allowed on the fast track; she graduated third in her class from Stanford Law and no one would hire her as a lawyer. Future women nominees with careers like O'Connor's won't seem "qualified," because talented female lawyers are recruited to the inside track now. A nominee like Joan Roberts might manage to have both career and children, but only if she doesn't get married until she's 41 and then adopts her children rather than bearing them. (Oh, I'm sorry. That was John Roberts. Forget I said anything.)

If all of this seems abstract or hypothetical, consider the case of Judge Diane Wood, who was on the short list for each of Obama's Supreme Court nominations so far. Wood is eminently qualified, has three children, and got her law degree from the University of Texas rather than Harvard or Yale. But Judge Wood is already 59, and will be 60 on the Fourth of July. As pundit after pundit has opined over the last month, that's now considered problematically old.

Might we eventually see female nominees to the Court who've managed to build up intimidating
qualifications by age 50 (or 52 or 48) and still had children? Of course. But it's a flat denial of reality to treat that profile as the rule and a profile like Sotomayor's or Kagan's as the exception. Kagan and Sotomayor are far more normal, and far more typical considering their professional circumstances. Elena Kagan became Dean of Harvard Law School when she was 43 years old. Apparently, some people (including a guy who became editor of The New Republic at 28) feel that this should be held against her. If she'd taken the time off (and I mean the minimum medical time) to start a family, she probably would not it have made it so far, so fast, and that would have been held against her, too. She has worked incredibly hard, drawing on formidable talents and resources, to make herself fit for national service, and faulting her for that is downright ungrateful.

Elena Kagan has no passions? Who are we kidding?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Elena Kagan Straight; Men Lousy in Bed

cross-posted at Dagblog

Friends of Elena Kagan grudgingly admitted on Wednesday that the Supreme Court nominee was unmarried not because of her orientation but because American men are absolutely terrible in bed.

"Maybe we shouldn't have said anything," said an embarrassed law-school classmate of the 50-year-old Solicitor General. "We didn't want for the men Elena's dated to feel inadequate simply because they are."

Experts disagreed whether or not the approximately 700,000 available adult men whom Kagan has met since she began college constituted a representative sample, but all agreed that Kagan has faced what one called "a perfect storm" of erotic ineptitude, a confluence of clumsy sexual technique, poor stamina, and general inattention to female pleasure.

Baffled male observers struggled to understand how Kagan could remain straight and single, despite having known such eligible bachelors as Eliot Spitzer and Larry Summers during their unmarried years. "Elena makes her own money, has plenty of friends, and doesn't need her self-esteem shored up," one confidante remarked. "If a man who wants to date her doesn't make it worth her while in the bedroom, she's better off with housecats." Pressed specifically about Spitzer, Kagan's confidante remarked that "Eliot's an old friend of hers, but sleeping with him is really not for amateurs." Kagan's confidante has requested anonymity in order to admit things everyone already knows.

As of Wednesday, however, a stubborn and entirely male minority refused to believe that a successful 50-year-old woman who had never been married could actually be straight.

"Technically, a woman like Elena might be single if she were a lesbian in Cambridge, Massachusetts," allowed one local authority. "But not for long, honey."

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Republicans Aren't Tough Enough

One day in high school, I casually infuriated one of the other boys. (We were all boys, and therefore the place was so full of adolescent macho boneheads that I didn't even notice I was one of them.) He had made a physically aggressive gesture toward me in the parking lot, and rather than simply ignoring him, as a mature person would have, I had responded with a calculated show of disregard, making it insultingly plain that I didn't take his threats, or him, seriously. The next day after school he found me in an empty hallway, and (from ten or fifteen feet away) threatened to beat me up if I ever did that again. Except that he pretended to think that he was talking to my brother.

"Tell your brother," his message went, "that if he ever [does thing that displeased me] again, I will [physical threats, etc.] "

"That wasn't my brother," I said, more or less conversationally. "That was me."

"Well, whatever," he said. "Just tell your brother [muttered repetition of threat, blah blah blah]."

And that was it. He stomped off, hunch-shouldered and glaring, and I went on my way without thinking much else of it. I couldn't foresee actually doing the particular thing that had provoked him again, but also saw no earthly reason to apologize for it, and it was obvious that I had no reason to be afraid of him. He was, like most people, physically stronger than I was (I weighed perhaps 160 pounds, and my typical upper-body routine involved writing with a pencil) but he couldn't even manage to deliver a threat without counting on me to play along. I understood, on some level that I couldn't articulate, that part of his sputtering rage was about his powerlessness to make me fear him. I didn't spare that kid another thought until sometime over the last decade, when too many public figures began reminding me of his bluster.

My high school experience was full of silly primate-dominance antics like these (in some ways, my classmates and I were like a large troop of baboons who occasionally did math), and I'm embarrassed now to admit my part in them. But growing up in a baboon troop, with all of its aggression and posturing and working out of hierarchy, teaches you to spot the pretense of toughness, the fake tough guy, quickly and instinctively. And it becomes at once obvious and unspoken that the kids who are pretending to be tough are nothing to worry about -- that in fact they are exposing their own weakness and fear. I didn't purport to be either tough or brave, because I was neither, but I knew without thinking about it that Tell-Your-Brother would fold at the slightest pushback. I knew it immediately, in the parking lot; his desire to intimidate, his bogus swagger, gave him away. I think anyone else I went to school with would have spotted the same thing. That's why I'm amazed that many Republicans, who must once have gone to high school themselves, do such a ridiculously weak job of acting tough. It seems the Republicans have built whole sections of their policies around bogus swagger, and most of what passes for "toughness" from today's GOP wouldn't have flown back in eleventh grade.

Look at Joe Arpaio, the Maricopa County Sheriff who's been in the media even more than usual since Arizona passed its recklessly unconstitutional anti-immigration bill. (There are two things Joe Arpaio knows how to do: violate people's rights and preen for the cameras.) Arpaio goes around calling himself "America's Toughest Sheriff," which is already a giveaway. If you need to go around telling everyone how tough you are, you're not. Arpaio's claim to toughness is how cruel he is to prisoners awaiting trial. He holds prisoners in a tent city in 110 degree heat, gives them slop for food, and makes prisoners wear pink underwear as a humiliation. What Arpaio tries to pass off as "tough" is his ability to dish out abuse to people who can't fight back. It doesn't take much courage or fortitude to do that. Arpaio's like one of my most pathetic classmates, constantly on patrol for someone weaker and more vulnerable to humiliate, and giving off the stink of cowardice the whole time. If Arpaio were genuinely tough, he would do the genuinely tough work of policing his county, such as investigating real crimes and serving felony warrants, but Arpaio can't police worth a damn. He doesn't have the guts to tackle the real messy problems of immigration reform, which require tough choices and telling voters unpopular truths. And he doesn't have the guts to stand for election on a record of real law enforcement. Joe Arpaio is a petty sadist and a drama queen. There are plenty of legitimately tough law enforcement officers in this country, grinding away at the hard and unglamorous work of policing, but Joe Arpaio isn't one of them.

Then again, nobody in the Arizona GOP seems tough these days. Not John McCain, who knows the new ethnic-harassment law is wrong but doesn't have the guts to stand up against it in an election year. Not the governor, who signed the damn law. The Arizona law itself is designed to single out some vulnerable individuals and beat up on them in order to avoid facing the hard problems of making immigration work. It's a gutless law by gutless legislators for gutless constituents . The entire purpose of SB 1070 is to run away from problems and take out voters' frustrations and fear on victims who can't fight back. In short, it's chickenshit.

But where Republicans really display their lack of toughness is when they talk tough about terrorism. Apparently, they are under the impression that toughness is about dishing it out rather than taking it, and that real toughness is measured by how badly you treat terrorist suspects in your custody. McCain raves about not reading American citizens their Miranda rights, and Lieberman talks about stripping accused terrorists of their citizenship (so that all you have to do is accuse them). This is a weak child's fantasy of what toughness is, a fantasy of being strong enough to punish the people who frighten you. It is not tough, or brave, or adult. It is an admission of weakness, and America's terrorist enemies know that. After all, the point of terrorism is to terrify the enemy; when Lieberman and McCain put their cowardice on national display, the terrorists have achieved a goal.

But much of the American right remain deeply unhappy with legal, effective, and productive interrogations that don't use torture. This isn't, at its foundation, because the torture advocates want to get more information. Normal methods actually work better, and always have. The torturers want to torture because they want to act tough, to cause pain to someone who's tied down and can't move: the coward's fantasy of strength. Torturing prisoners is an admission of the torturers' own weakness. It is an admission that the interrogators have no idea how to do their jobs or get the suspect talking. So they torture their victims to take out their own impotence and fear and rage. Torture has never been about getting information, but about making other people suffer for the torturers' fears. The torture methods the last Administration used were designed by totalitarian regimes to use upon the political dissidents who frightened the secret police. They were specifically designed not to elicit truth but to force false confessions to hold the truth (which totalitarians fear most of all) at bay. And when we used those methods we admitted to the world that we were frightened and small. We confessed our terror. We let the terrorists dictate who we would become.

The world since September 11th isn't fundamentally different from the world before September 11th. Courage is still courage, and cowardice is still cowardice. Strength and weakness did not change places on that day. And the real enemy of a democratic society is still the enemy of every democratic society: Fear itself. Same as it ever was.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Not the Real Shakespeare

Flavia has a post that makes me laugh. She recently went to see a Shakespeare comedy produced by a regional theater company, who staged it in modern dress, worked to keep the piece "accessible and appealing," and used some good, old-fashioned slapstick. In short, the production was straight out of the standard Shakespearean-performance playbook: faithful to the text but using costumes and set as an interpretive gloss. At the end of the evening Flavia overheard a number of other playgoers who had enjoyed themselves enormously but were under the impression that they'd seen an adaptation, rather than Shakespeare's play. After all, how could it be the "Real Shakespeare" if it's accessible and fun?

I've run into this many times over the years with modern-dress Shakespeare, which some people view as Not Shakespeare even when the language is unchanged and the story choices are enormously traditional. What I enjoy best about this misapprehension is the how people feel free to respond honestly to the play when they don't think it's Shakespeare's original, and become willing to talk about the parts they dislike. This can be especially hilarious when it comes from professional reviewers who haven't read the play for a long time. My favorite in that genre came from a reviewer who was absolutely furious that a director at the Goodman in Chicago had "added" a scene full of wise-cracking musicians to Romeo and Juliet, especially when it was "added" at such an inappropriate moment, just after Juliet has taken the potion that fakes her death! What was the director thinking? The answer, of course, can be found in any edition of the play, because it wasn't the director's addition: a glance at, say, a Pelican paperback of R&J would have cleared it up.

Years ago, after the credits for Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet had finished crawling by, one of the friends I'd seen it with stood up in disgust. "I really hated what they did to Juliet's family," she said. "They're so much worse than Romeo's family."

"But that's how it is in the play," I said.

"That much worse?" my friend replied.

The answer, although I didn't voice it, is "yeah." Romeo's mother is barely in the play, with fewer lines than it takes Mercutio to clear his throat. And since Romeo's parents never actually come face to face with their son, they don't get the kind of quality time that the Capulets spend forcing their daughter into an arranged marriage and threatening her with beatings. But the point isn't whether my friend was right or wrong; it's that she only felt free to express herself when she thought the storytelling choices belonged to someone else. My friend thought that Shakespeare's development of those characters was lame, and maybe she's right. But it was only okay to say it when she had someone else to blame.

The Real Shakespeare turns out to be an extraordinarily slippery cat. When something in his scripts rubs the audience the wrong way, somebody must have changed things without permission, because the Real Shakespeare never makes mistakes. (The actors have screwed it up again!) But on the other hand, if you enjoy yourself too much in the audience, like Flavia's new friends did, that can't be the Real Shakespeare either. How could the Greatest Poet Ever be so damned silly? I guess the obvious conclusion is that the Real Shakespeare was artistically infallible, but also sucked. It's up to those rascally actors to spoil everything, and play his comedies for laughs.