Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Opposition Party

There's been enormous comment about the House Republicans' unanimous vote against the stimulus package. Most of the comment has been about whether or not Obama's promises of "bipartisanship" will yield fruit and whether the Republicans in the House will gain anything from this strategy. But it's hardly a strategy; strategy implies a choice. The House vote is more an expression of the remaining House Republican's basic political nature.

The vote against the stimulus bill is very easy to understand: modern American "conservatism," movement conservatism, has never been a philosophy for governing. It has always been, from its very beginning, fundamentally a philosophy of opposition. Which part of "standing athwart history, shouting 'No!'" sounds like a plan to govern? That the modern Republican party actually became the governing party until recently was only an unfortunate accident, and since they chose not to alter their approach to suit their responsibilities, that accident led to horrible damage.

The partisans who had no interest in governance when they were charged with governing, who are philosophically opposed to the idea of government itself, aren't going to become more pragmatic or responsible now that they have returned to their comfortable, natural role in the opposition. In fact, they've been freed from unwelcome burden of actually compromising their principles with reality. They couldn't be happier. And their playbook is now very short, very simple, and very familiar.

The ideological conservatives not going to cooperate with President Obama's efforts of bipartisanship. They are not going to compromise their principles simply because the nation is facing a crisis, and they are not going to offer realistic solutions to America's problems; all of that is the governing party's problem. It isn't pretty. It isn't healthy. But from this point on, none of it should be a surprise.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

John Updike Is Dead, Alas

The mighty, mighty Johnny Up has passed away, and it's a shame. I admired him even when I didn't feel like reading him, and he was one of my heroes even though I've never wanted to be like him. If that sounds like faint praise it shouldn't. If my affection for his work had nothing to do with emulation, it also had nothing to do with ambition, and if my admiration wasn't founded on imaginative identification neither was it tainted by my self-regard. I've loved other writers more, but none less selfishly; Updike's appeal was stronger even than my egotism.

I respected Updike for his sheer chops, and for the pellucid artistic honesty with which he used them. Even when I felt alienated from the conventional middle-class "realism" practiced by Updike's inferiors, and hostile to its conventions, I could never begrudge Updike, who was clearly following his own artistic angels and demons where they led him and whose unrelenting eye made his work realistic in the strictest and rarest sense of that word. Updike was an original on an endless rack of knockoffs, a blessed soul in a massive congregation of hypocrites. That his artistic obsessions led him to a comfortable middle ground, wearing a sensible, inconspicuous suit, was hardly his fault. You couldn't tell him to change; he was doing what came naturally, and anything else would have been faking.

Perhaps more important was the reflexive and self-effacing generosity with which Updike used his fame. He had the best claim, for decades, to the title of Greatest Living American Writer, but refused to occupy the throne. There's no doubt that, had he chosen, Updike could have thrown his weight around, extorting homage and punishing rivals, but he doesn't seem to have been tempted. Best of all, perhaps, is that Updike's refusal to play king meant no one else could. Pretenders like Norman Mailer might brawl for the position of Top Writer, but it was hard to play the part convincingly with Updike off in the country somewhere. (Mailer, naturally, came to hate Updike, which is only one of the reasons to love him.) Updike kept American letters a democracy through his own constitutional shyness. And he used his bully pulpit in the New Yorker, his power to review essentially any book he liked, to build audiences for writers whose work was profoundly unlike his own. (If you doubt that Updike had more weight to throw around than he used, imagine what some other writers might do with the freedom to publish anything they chose, as often as they chose, in The New Yorker.) Updike's reviews introduced Nabokov and Garcia Marques, among others, to a mainstream American readership. Updike was never partisan when it came to art, and never insecure enough to insist upon this orthodoxy or that one. Every time I passed over Updike in the bookstores for some Latin American magical realist, I had Updike himself to thank; those writers would never have found their ways into American paperback without him. Updike the critic didn't grind an ax for his own selfish interests, or even for his own literary idiom, but generously led readers to books that Updike himself could never have written, but was wise and confident enough to love.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Standards of Civility for Democrats

So, Andrew Sullivan has a round-up of the instantaneous reactions, mostly complaints, from right-wing bloggers about the Inaugural Address. There are some moments of gracious or grudging acknowledgment, but there's also carping on matters so small that in fact they do not exist. One complaint is that Obama, who campaigned against Bush's policies, should have given more praise to Bush and his policies. Why this might be so is beyond me. Perhaps I have forgotten the fulsome praise that FDR lavished upon Hoover, or Jefferson upon Adams.

At least a couple of bloggers, to wit Jennifer Rubin and Jay Nordlinger, take issue with Obama's thank-you to to Bush, which they view as insultingly brief. Rubin calls it "unduly perfunctory." Nordlinger calls it "the barest minimum: 'I thank him for his service,' or something." The idea seems to be that Obama rudely and pointedly truncated a gesture of thanks which one would normally expect to be fuller.

For reference, what President Obama said during his Inaugural Address was this:

"I thank President Bush for his service to our nation, as well as the generosity and cooperation he has shown throughout this transition."

Apparently, this is much shorter and less classy than what George W. Bush said in his inaugural address in 2001:

"As I begin, I thank President Clinton for his service to our nation."

That's it.

So, you see how classless Obama is: to give Bush (who leaves behind an economic meltdown, a massive deficit, and two unresolved wars) only slightly more praise than Bush gave his own predecessor (who left behind peace and a budget surplus). But of course, from such pundits' perspective, Clinton was owed no praise, because Clinton "had no class" and Bush did. Meanwhile, Bush is entitled to more deference from the mere parvenu who succeeds him. It's not about what they say at all.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Rod Blagojevich, Performance Artist

I would never disagree with Eric Kleefeld or David Kurtz about how bizarre Blagojevich's recent press conferences are. But as pathological as Blagojevich may be, he has relatively little to lose and perhaps something to gain from his shenanigans.

Consider the magnificent hole which Blagojevich has dug for himself:

1) His political career is over. It is beyond salvage.

2) At this point, he can count on the harshest legal treatment available. Every potential decision-maker involved in the case has been antagonized the full extent possible. Some are outright hostile to Blago, while others, like Patrick Fitzgerald, are merely implacable and Javert-like. In any case, Blagojevich should not expect any breaks. Quite the reverse.

3) Unlike the typical high-ranking American politician at the center of a scandal, Blagojevich is also on the brink of financial ruin. Blagojevich is a guy who tries to shake down a union for a $300,000 salary, because Blagojevich actually lives on his salary. Blagojevich doesn't have the means to retire from public life, the way a Scooter Libby or Elliot Spitzer might. He can't just head off to his country estate and live in quiet disgrace. When he loses the governor's chair, he will actually lose his primary source of income.

Factor in some extravagant upcoming legal fees, likely disbarment, and a reputation that will make him largely unemployable, and you're looking at a man who's facing financial catastrophe, whether he avoids prison or not. You can fall from grace in the public life and come back, but it's much harder in America to fall out of the middle class and come back. Blagojevich is on the verge of plunging from the upper middle class to something very like penury.

The only hope for Blagojevich's financial survival is, in fact, the media circus. It's the only business in which he might still find a profitable niche. There is ample room in American discourse for a colorful, irresponsible and self-destructive windbag: ask the folks on cable news, or talk radio. Ask some of the folks on book tour. And those people make better money than a lot of better people with better and more responsible jobs. We might be appalled by the freakshow of his press conferences, but the freakshow is Rod Blagojevich's only hope right now. He's going to be living the freakshow for the rest of his life, because it's the only place where he can make a living.

While the rest of us might focus rationally on the larger Problem #1 and Problem #2, Blagojevich is right: there's nothing to be done about those things at this point. Any efforts made to fix them are largely going to be wasted. But Problem #3 is going to be with Blago, one way or another, for the rest of his life. The press conferences make more sense when you realize that Blago isn't trying to get out of trouble. He can't get out of trouble. He's not defending himself. He's auditioning.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Your Biblical Hubris of the Day

Back in the day, Saddam Hussein decided that he would rebuild the ancient city of Babylon. It's a nice idea, from a man who didn't have that many, and profoundly unrealistic. Realism was one of the many virtues Hussein lacked.

It never happened, of course. While I'm a huge fan of archaeology, actually reconstructing the city would have been a fantastically expensive boondoggle, in a country without the resources to spare, and Iraq had plenty of other problems to deal with. But Hussein, whose refusal to cope with reality seems to have increased the longer he was in power, kept soldiering along with various grandiose plans. American journalists would sometimes use this as a symbol for Hussein's delusional pigheadedness: throwing money into an ancient hole in the ground. What kind of fool would do that?

Now, of course, everything is different, and Iraq no longer has any pressing difficulties or strains upon its resources. So the Rebuild Babylon initiative is back, with a new backer: us. The New York Times's Dave Itzkoff reports that the State Department has put up $700,000 for the project.

That's just for a study, mind you. This is only the preliminary stage.

In related news: