Thursday, April 30, 2009

Souter retiring? Nooooooooooooooo....

I'm so depressed about this. Souter is my favorite Justice. He was a Holmesian without the eugenics baggage. Souter is a wonderful human being and a first rate intellect. He had a judicious understanding of the law, and wrote beautiful opinions from both substantive and stylistic perspectives.

He will not easily be replaced. Perhaps John Sunnunu will call up Obama and say, "Hey, have I got a great liberal in conservative garb for you...!"

Now, if only Thomas or Scalia would retire...Dream on, boy, dream on...

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Latest pathetic attack on I.F. Stone

Commentary, a notorious right wing rag, has published a new line of attack against the legendary and brilliant journalist, I.F. Stone. Thanks to Eric Alterman for the link, and Eric does a good job in knocking it down.

My addition to Eric's response is this: There is nothing in the article in Commentary showing who Stone was talking to in the 1936-1939 period who was connected to the New York KGB office. If he was talking to Frank Palmer, who the Commentary writers describe as a "liberal," where is the evidence that Stone knew Palmer was working for the KGB in New York?

If Stone was talking with Palmer, and if he was not known to be a spy for the KGB, then it would be obvious as to why Stone did not talk about this to Eric Alterman or anyone else. And as Eric says very persuasively, there were many in the US who were trying to alert the world to the German Nazi drive for world domination, and the information Stone imparted was all open, non-classified information. That Stone chose to support the Popular Front during the mid- to late 1930s is what really drives the Commentary writers around the bend, and so the innuendo flies throughout the article.

I wish the people who keep trying to besmirch the reputation of I.F. Stone would give up the ghost. Instead, they appear to be pathologically driven as if their whole anti-Communist world will collapse if they don't finger Stone as a spy. Weird, really, since anyone who believes in an open society can see through the fatal flaws of Communism.

What angers me the most is the veneration for the odious Paul Berman, who maliciously repeated the canard about Stone supposedly being pro-Soviet Union up through the 1960s. My defense of Stone's public writings from the 1930s forward in response to Berman's New York Times Book Review of a decent on I.F. Stone are here, here and here.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Fathers (and Mothers) and Sons, Newest Edition--or Addition

Christopher Buckley made me feel bad for his parents as I read this article in the Washington Post. Not because he was unfair to them as if he was an outsider biographer--well, probably that too. It's just that I believe children should be more loyal to their parents, unless their parents were physically abusive, or were continually extremely verbally abusive. Children should be more willing to honor their parents than publicly humiliate them. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a revered Jewish sage of the early to mid 20th Century said:

“My mother and my father, these are the people who represent the mystery of my existence. The less respect I bear for the mystery of my existence — regardless of the flaws my parents may or may not have — the less human I become. Because being human incorporates a number of qualities, or sensibilities, one of the most important of which is the sense of the mystery of my very existence. Without that I cease to be human … I would have to say that the most fundamental commandment by which we should live our lives is ‘honor your father and your mother.’”

In saying this, I must emphasize I am not a fan of William F. Buckley, Jr. from a public policy perspective, and I thought him mean-spirited with his Red-baiting. He even had the whiff of racism in his elitism. Nor did I believe Buckley was as brilliant as most Americans assumed he was simply because he often used obscure and obtuse words. It just seemed creepy reading such biting attacks from Buckley's own son, who was treated rather well overall by his Dad--outside of Bill B making a quick dash from his son's graduation ceremony from college. And maybe Chris' Mom had a right not to accept any further criticism from her son in her son's various letters...

Goe Vidal must be very happy to read the article, though perhaps he would agree with me that Christopher Buckley may have crossed a line with his parents that he of all people should have been left uncrossed. Certainly, Vidal rarely publicly criticized his father, Gene, and in fact was often reverent about his father. Yes, he was certainly tough on his mother, Nina, but Vidal kept most of his attack on his mother in fiction in a not-well-received novel, "A Season of Comfort." In his first memoir, he gives her some due, but is mostly critical--though not in that glib, biting manner that Christopher Buckley developed with his comedic novels, which novels I have found unimpressive.

The relationships of fathers and sons remain an interesting sociological phenomenon for me. See here and here for two of the previous editions.

I wish Christopher Buckley had left it to someone else to write such a book. That there is apparently worse information about his parents locked up in Yale University until after Christopher's inevitable death is even more creepy. I wish children would realize that when their parents become famous and economically wealthy, their children will mostly benefit from that fame and money, even as they lose lots of face time with those parents to the public. Tomorrow, for example, I'd love to be at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. But I won't be there. Why? Because I am taking my son to his Boy Scout camp early tomorrow morning, and later in the day, I'm helping my wife at our daughter's 11th birthday party.

I really wanted to meet Gore Vidal, who is speaking at the festival, and likely at The Nation booth--and maybe give him my business card to have lunch with him as he is really getting on in years. I was privileged to meet Vidal some years ago, and he once wrote me a very kind letter that was complimentary regarding my knowledge of American history. I also wanted to check out some publishers at the festival since my current publisher is not able to get my book out in soft cover so far this year as he thought he could. In short, I had my reasons for going to the book festival tomorrow. But like George Bailey, I'm not getting out of Bedford Falls-again. Still, my children won't likely write about me what Christopher Buckley wrote his folks, either. Am I right to do what I am doing? Was Bill Buckley right to do what he did to become famous and well regarded in the public eye? I think we all need to be a bit more honorable about our parents, no matter how nice we think we already are to them--or if they wronged us from time to time. Yes, I know that if a parent called you "ugly" even once, there is a deep and dark betrayal. But let's not rush to an extreme of dishonor against them unless their behavior reaches an extreme of physical or mental abuse.

(Edited)

I read that op-ed and said Yup, nailed it!

Bill Maher in today's LA Times tells Republicans the American public is just not that into them anymore. Now if only Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid would start acting on that sentiment the public has already shown the Republican Party...Sigh.

Sure wish Maher had listed national health care in his list of priorities, though...

(Edited)

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Early Saturday morning "Sunday Review of Book Reviews"

There are some noteworthy book reviews in tomorrow's Sunday NY Times Book Review:

1. This review of what promises to be an excellent book on evangelist Billy Graham concerns Graham's sometimes tepid, sometimes powerful support of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. I can buy the point that we should be forgiving of Graham for not being as supportive as he could have been, but if we do, let's then be more forgiving and supportive to the radicals who endured the taunts, and violence emanating from the racist and reactionary structures of power, and elsewhere. Too often, we lionize the radicals after their death, or more often in the economic context (i.e. union), we forget about them altogether. The same with those who oppose wars. They endure the taunts and worse of being unpatriotic. Yet, later we realize they may well have been correct--and all we recall is they were "radical" and therefore not as worthy as those who were or are in power and were and are wrong. A real life example: Tom Hayden was wrong about North Vietnamese intentions, but right about most everthing else regarding that war, yet he is outside of respectable opinion. On the other hand, Henry Kissinger continues to be respected in corporate media when he was horribly wrong to continue and expand the war in southeast Asia. I expect this from corporate media, but we should be more discerning, just as the conservative book review writer wants us to be more discerning and forgiving about Billy Graham. In other words, everyone has their roles, which is something to consider as we as a society work through the same sex marriage political battles...

2. Here is an excellent review of what sounds like a classic and great journalistic work of sifting through the mythology of a horrific event, and seeking facts instead of trying to make larger philosophical and trendy cultural points. The reviewer explains in a powerful way the manner in which the media and police contributed to the myths that developed regarding the Columbine High School massacre ten years ago, and gives us a deeper sense of the specific truths as to what happened--and what did not happen--that fateful day in a small Colorado community.

3. And this review of an economics oriented book helps us understand the need to revisit the economist Keynes' insight that people are not really all that rational, and how we must ensure public policy reflects that insight--and not assume corporate leaders know what's best in a deregulated world. Another insight from the book is the assymetrical information that is often existing in most transactions--which undermines much of the legal theory of contracts that posits an evenhanded transaction is the norm, not the exception. As Ralph Nader astutely said, how many contracts have you signed in your life that were truly negotiated, as opposed to printed forms with all sorts of hidden zingers? It is gratifying we are seeing even economists learning again to challenge the childishness of the past thirty years of the idiot Milton Friedman and his horde of shallow business libertarians. Now, if only our public policy would begin to reflect that...Doubtful, as long as corporate lobbyists rule our legislature and executive branches, and our idea of judicial "liberals" are corporatists like Breyer and Ginsburg.

4. Here is a short brilliant review of a book on Thoreau that helps us understand Thoreau much better than I had thought, at least. The review helps me realize that if Thoreau was living in the woods, not spending money at shops or attending aristrocratic cocktail parties, just what did Thoreau do up at Walden Pond and nearby Concord? He sang, danced, and played games. In short, he enjoyed himself and attended to his positive senses. I agree this is how Thoreau should be discussed and not in what the book reviewer recognizes is the grim manner in which Thoreau is portrayed.

4. There are also some great book reviews in tomorrow's NY Times Times because they blast at newly released books in a way that give us, the readers, a chance to decide for ourselves whether we agree. With reference to the gross-out fest posing as a feminist tract, or the book on arrogant doctors and botched medical procedures in the past and present, I'm on the side of the reviewers.

5. Finally, what gives with the Times not providing a more lengthy review to Leon Litwack's new and fascinating book on the racial history of blacks and whites in America? I would have rather seen a lengthy review of "How Free is Free: The Long Death of Jim Crow" than the ridiculous gross out book.

The NY Times Book Review tomorrow is simply outstanding, and it is the best I've seen in any newspaper in a long time. That is not an attack on past NY Times book review editions or other newspapers' editions. It is instead a deeply felt accolade for tomorrow's edition.

(Edited)

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Now that's some real piracy

Remember when piracy meant illegally downloading music and movies from the Internet? That's so...well, a few days ago.

Now that we have real piracy occurring, perhaps it is time for a coordinated government attack that may end up with a Treaty of Tripoli, if the piracy is emanating from another actually-functioning government, of which Somalia may or may not have a functioning government.

The Dread Pirate Roberts may still be operating...

"Inconceivable," you say? Maybe that word doesn't mean what you think it means.

The contemporary relevance of Charles Dickens

As this article from the LA Times says, our "hard times"--though relatively benign compared to depressions of decades and century's past--have made Dickens relevant again.

What the article hints at, but does not quite say, is there was an attack on Dickens which grew in the literary academy during the 1950s and 1960s. The attack became received wisdom by the 1970s in many corners among "professional" literature professors in the academy, and is based upon an overall attack on what those professors (and some writers) perceived as an undue sentimentality in Dickens' works. What such critics tend to miss is the dark side of Dickens' sentiment. They also miss Dickens' insight as to the interaction between culture and economics, an insight which always makes Dickens compelling, especially now.

As I am often heard to say, Sinclair Lewis is to America, what Dickens is to England. Both are too often denigrated by so-called sophisticated minds, yet both intellectuals and those looking for "entertainment" loved the works of both during each of their lives. What struck me in the article, and the article writer Scott Timberg does a marvelous job here, is how many respected writers cite Dickens as an influence, and sometimes a muse.

A great read, and if you catch any of the Masterpiece miniseries from the Dickens books, those are also excellent.

Us guys still have a lot to apologize for...

In the latest New York Review of Books is an outstanding review of Marilyn French's monumental, though per the reviewer, somewhat flawed work on the history of women in human society.

Hillary Mantel is my new hero, as she obviously read the 1,900 pages of the four volumes of the noted novelist French's books, and provides us with wide-ranging knowledge and a pespective that recognizes class issues must be brought to the analysis of the status of women in order to understand the level of oppression of women, the exceptions, and the way in which some powerful women contribute to overall human oppression, or, yes, human liberation. Mantel's review provides us an excellent summary of the four works by French, reveals primary shortcomings in the works, but overall recognizes that French's works will form the basis of any number of other books that will illuminate French's primary points.

French appears to have started this work in the 1970s, and may well have been initially influenced by Ellen Gould Davis' amazing polemical work (I use the word "polemical" in a descriptive, not pejorative manner as I adore Davis' book), "The Other Sex." Davis' book provides us a perspective we can work with in a relatively short work. Strange that I can't find any evidence of Davis' book on the Internet. Do I have the name of the book or author wrong? I used to own a copy of the book, but somehow it is no longer in my book inventory...

(ADDENDUM 5/23/09: I have found and purchased the book at a used book store and realized I had the name of the book and her name both slightly wrong. The book is called "The First Sex" and her first name was Elizabeth, not Ellen. I think I mixed her up in my mind with Ellen Willis. It is still an outstanding book I first encountered and read in my senior high school summer year in 1974, the year Ms. Davis passed away. The Wiki entry on the book to which I linked shows some scholarly criticism, which I feel is personally unfair since her book was written to jar us into pushing for that middle ground we all run to when confronted with something revisionist. See also the reviews at Amazon here.)

As for Mantel's background, there is this wild New Yorker profile that shows me that Mantel is herself a largely sad person deformed by relations among men and women, and class structures. I don't think I can read many of her novels as I admit to wanting more sentimentality than malice in the novels I tend to read. Still, she is a superior mind and writer and perhaps she will find more balance in herself in essays of this nature. Certainly, Gore Vidal a sublime figure in the literary world for his essays even more than his novels...

(Edited)

Saturday, April 04, 2009

I love the San Diego Symphony!

Tonight, my son and I traveled to downtown San Diego to hear the San Diego Symphony play a wonderful set of classical orchestral pieces. We heard Respeghi's Fountains of Rome, and two by the extraordinary 19th Century composer (and a favorite of mine), Felix Mendelssohn--Opus no. 64 and Symphony No. 4, the Italian Symphony.

The soloist tonight was a relatively young virtuoso, Corey Cervosek, who came out and did something one only sees at jazz or rock concerts--he gave two small, but sharp encores and spoke to the audience. My son and I adored his playing tonight. As my son said, "This guy was epic!" He was flying up and down his violin to the point that I thought his fast playing would saw his violin in two. My son and I each remarked--"This guy has to know Daryl Way!"

The orchestra itself was in great form tonight, and I think it has to do with the excellence of the works they played. San Diego's symphony has been a cut above many other symphonies I've seen or heard, in large part because they venture into territories that go beyond the usual symphony choice of works. Later this month and next, for example, the SD Symphony are playing Elgar's Symphony No. 1 and Ralph Vaughn Williams' The Lark Ascending.

Williams is probably my all-time favorite composer, with Mendelssohn close behind. The Lark Ascending is probably my all-time favorite single work of classical music, and I am so excited to be able to go see this next performance. To my mind, Mendelssohn and Williams are superior to other composers of the 19th and early 20th Century because their chord structures and tonal quality often anticipates elements of jazz and even progressive rock, and yet their works are very structured in a classical music context. Both composers recognized the importance of virtuosity and performance in their work, while each maintained a strong fealty to melody as the basis of their works. Williams sometimes allows for an influence from early 20th Century impressionistic composers, such as Ravel, Debussy and Respeghi (the latter whom I adore, too), but Williams almost alone ensures there is a strong, folk-influenced melody anchoring the overall sound.

So hooray for the San Diego Symphony! My son and I have greatly enjoyed this season and look forward to the rest of the season, with the Elgar/Williams performance, and Gershwin's Piano Concerto in F and Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 2 next month.