Friday, December 21, 2007

What Happened?

Any time, these days, I see a New York friend for the first time in a while, there's a conversation we always have. It begins, "What's up with Spitzer? He has really screwed the pooch," with about half the time "on this immigrant thing" appended.

I mean, look at it. The guy comes out with a proposal to allow undocumented immigrants to get drivers licenses, a proposal that is, to coin a phrase, politically right, legally right, morally right, right on the merits. But how does he do it? He doesn't consult with his allies in the immigrant world or in the legislature, doesn't even give them advance notice. Nor does he make any effort to defuse the opposition. He never met with the Daily News editorial board before the press conference announcing the proposal. Clergy? They'd be an easy sell on this but no one from the governor's office even tried. And he certainly didn't line up business allies. Dollars to donuts, nobody even did a vote count.

And then? And then? When the pushback gets too intense he announces he's got a deal with Homeland Security for their ok on a two-tier system where undocumented folks could get special licenses valid in New York only and not usable as IDs. Again, no consultation with immigration advocates or Ds in the legislature, some of whom had put their necks out considerably for his original proposal. The Daily News is still "No sale." So, once more without counsulting with anyone, he drops the whole thing. Net result: undocumented immigrants are still driving without licenses and scared to cooperate with police or emergency services. The Senate Rs see Spitzer as weakened and vulnerable, that mandate is looking pretty frayed at this point. The public sees a loser. And Spitzer's friends and allies see a man on whom they can't rely.

OK, honestly, everyone in NY politics has this conversation. But here's my original contribution.

This is exactly how a prosectuor handles things. You don't try to recruit allies on the jury before the trial, or neutralize a hostile judge. That would be seriously illegal. You don't come into the courtroom with a coalition, you come in with a case. That you've worked out with a few trusted colleagues and subordiantes. And if the case out not to be a winner? You try to settle. No settlement? Then drop it, and move on to the next one. Very smart, very sensible ... if you're a prosecutor.

Unfortunately, the fallacy of sunk costs is not a fallacy in politics. Once you're invested in something, you can't back off without seriously weakening your credibility down the line. (N.B.: this argument is often applied in cases where it's wrong; doesn't mean there aren't cases where it's right.) In politics the merits of a case matter much less than who's on which side of it. Practical politics is about 90 percent about relationships. You need to build up your allies and peel off your enemies. The notion of a leader who directly represents the people and doesn't need to accomodate established interests is a very attractive one. For better or worse (mostly better, IMHO), American politics doesn't generally allow for that. It's not a high school debate, it's not a chess game, it's not -- maybe Spitzer has learned by now -- a court case. Being right on the merits is helpful. Having a winning coalition is essential.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The Other Cromwell

So I read in the LRB that Henry VIII's great minister Thomas Cromwell "created a number of 'courts' (effectively, ministries), specialized in function, which were independent of the Exchequer and ... symbolic of impersonal, institutional continuity." Why would he want to do that?

It's a more general problem one runs across reading history. How did the individuals serving and composing the various dynasties replace their own personal interests with the interests of the "impersonal, instituional continuity" of the states they served? Unquestionably they did: states in the pre-modern period pursued consistent objectives over periods well longer than a human lifetime.

Who knows? But I speculate that one important motivator was hatred. Hard to imagine why they would have wanted some future sovereign to thrive but easy to imagine that they would have wanted rivals, present and future, to go down. A purely selfish motivation that is yet impersonal and extends beyond the personal existence of the hater: and we can, if we are honest, recognize it in ourselves.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Varieties of Religious Experience

1. "Little or big, learn’d or unlearn’d, white or black, legal or illegal, sick or well, from the first inspiration down the windpipe to the last expiration out of it, all that a male or female does that is vigorous and benevolent and clean is so much sure profit to him or her in the unshakable order of the universe, and through the whole scope of it forever."

2. ... Earth's the right place for love:
I don't know where it's likely to go better.
I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.

3. "Generally the closest I ever came to wondering about the meaning of it all was to consider that I must be the victim of a joke. ... I had a moment's glory that night, though. I was certain I was here in this world because I couldn't tolerate any other place."

I've been to see the future

... and it's called Southland Tales.

This thing is iconic. It's post-post-modern. It's Repo Man and Brazil and Blade Runner and Blue Velvet and Dr. Strangelove. It's got neo-Marxist revolutionaries and the Wicked Witch of the West running Homeland Security the mother of all SUV ads and a song-and-dance finale on giant airship called, yes, the Jenny von Westphalen. Sure, it doesn't exactly hold together, but who cares?

Whatever's the fuck has happened to American culture, it's doing great things to the movies.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

The Bechdel Standard

Based, apparently, on a a character in Dykes to Wath Out For's explanation that she never sees movies because so few meet it: There must be (a) at least two female characters, who (b) have a conversation with each other that (c) is not about men. Think about the last few movies you've sen: It's amazing how few satisfy even the first two conditions, let alone the whole thing.

Me: In the Valley of Elah, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, Diva, and No Country for Old Men. Two outstanding movies and two not-bad ones, but none of them meet the Bechdel Standard.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Todos pecados son iguales

Do you ever wonder if maybe the street preachers are right?

There was one on the train coming home tonight, bearded and straggly. He spoke in Spanish so I couldn;t understand all of it, but what I could make out went something like this:

"All sins are the same. It doesn't matter whether you rob or kill, or if you only feel anger or greed. To God it's all the same; he only cares what's in your heart. So forget whatever you are pursuing in life. Money, success, it doesn't matter. Just think about your heart, because that's all that God sees. Just seek that there be no sin in your heart."

And isn't that what Jesus would say -- and isn't that who Jesus would be -- if he came back today?

Monday, October 29, 2007

This Charming Man

It's that time of year again, when I contemplate the fact that I have not had sex for two and half years, or been in a relationship for nearly eight. Over the past two years I've been out on dates with 19 women and, except for two or three whom I didn't call back, been rejected by every one. The reasons are a bit mysterious.

In any case, the most likely reason you're reading this is you follwoed a link from one of my blog comments. So you can take satisfaction in seeing that posting lots of comments on poltiical blogs does, yes, have the implications for the poster's personal life that you had thought.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Never Predict Anything...

Subjects I might like to write about in this space:

- Article in the most NYRB about the treatment of Germans by American troops following WW II. (It was bad.)

- The book I'm currently reading, about the creation of the modern American state between Reconstruction and the 1920s. (It's good.)

- Eliot Spitzer, Law & Order's gift to American politics.

but as they say, "... especially the future."

Hello World, Take 2

It's right to write, right?

Just back from brunch. Apple pie and cheese, chicken and waffles, coffee and mimosas, doctors and crazy tatooed anarchist bikers, Americans and Canadians somehow living in harmony, writers and politicians and bureaucrats (hi!), a Brooklyn rooftop, the Willaimsburg Bank Building and the sunset over Manhattan. In short, life is good. Which, really, is why one ought to write.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007


I am a New York leftist. What this means, in practice, is that during the invasion of Iraq I found myself at a dinner party in a lovely Upper West Side apartment where the host, after pouring the wine but before serving his gorgeous salmon, invited us to raise a toast "to the victory of the Iraqi army." And everyone did.

You hear O'Reilly talk about people like that and you think he's inventing them out of whole cloth, but I'm here to say, No, he's not.

That's not me exactly tho. For one thing, I live in Brooklyn. And at my dinner parties I don't do the toasting thing.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

What I'm Reading: U.S. by Chris Bachelder

Imagine if Upton Sinclair, the great Socialist novelist, author of The Jungle and 1934 Democratic candidate for Governor of California, were brought back to life today to comment on the modern world of strip malls, drug companies and high school wrestling. And then imagine if he were assassinated. And then imagine if he were brought back to life again, and then assassinated again, and then brought back to life…

OK. It’s not the most obvious premise for a novel.

But with U.S., Chris Bachelder makes it work. More than work: It’s hard to think of a better political novel from the past few years.

Without ever quite spelling it out, Bachelder has written a parable for the relationship of the Left with its heroic past. Like any inspired conceit, the revived Sinclair takes on a life of his own, functioning both as allegory and as plot driver. It’s easy to read through the book (as I do here) in terms of what it says about the American left, but it reads (like Sinclair’s books were supposed to, whether or not they ever did) just as much as a page-turning adventure story.

What do we want from our political forebears, anyway? Bachelder’s Sinclair is the cheerful, literal-minded, slightly unworldly, tireless, humor-impaired, good-natured, occasionally infuriating older activist all of us involved in left politics have crossed paths with. He has all the virtues of the ‘30s; he carries an aura of heroism with him along with dirt of the grave. And come on, if you’re reading this, I know you’ve felt that’s exactly what’s missing from your life.

The book has all the postmodern devices, first-person narrative interspersed with imagined reviews of imagined Sinclair novels, transcripts, letters, and EBay listings. But I tend to think the book owes more to the USA trilogy than to David Foster Wallace. And anyway, whatever postmodern elements it incorporates, it’s quite free of postmodern irony. Sinclair’s appeals for Socialism may be stilted, old-fashioned, unconvincing: well, that strand of politics hasn’t left much of a usable legacy: but Bachelder doesn’t leave much doubt that, as far he’s concerned, it’s still right.

Years ago Scott McLemee wrote a short affectionate piece in In These Times (I can’t find it online) about his own relationship with past Lefts, specifically his time as Trotskyist. He quoted some anti-Reagan slogan – “Resist Reagan, the servant of the bourgeoisie and the figurehead for imperialism” or something like that – and commented that while there were plenty of more interesting or elegant or appealing things to say about Reagan, wasn’t that slogan at least as true as any of them. That’s the spirit of U.S. right there.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Hello World

Look, it's a blog!

Because if there's one thing the world needs now, it's another blog.