Wednesday, November 5, 2008
I found this clip online of Kenneth Clark interviewing James Baldwin some time in the 1960's. I think it provides an important perspective on what happened last night and why all those popping champagne bottles were absolutely justified. But it also provides some perspective on the daunting amount of work still to be done in the area of justice and equality with regards to all people. Baldwin fit into more than one disenfranchised demographic, and his words here on how to look at radical movements (specifically radical Islam, although not the kind we yap about these days) are just as relevant--and just as ignored--as they were then. It's a devastating and beautiful interview.
Monday, November 3, 2008
Thursday, October 23, 2008
I mean, we all know that McCain has the votes of plumbers, moose hunters, and naughty librarians locked down. Now the challenge is to get everyone else. So we are gradually being introduced to Jane the Engineer, Tom the Carpenter, Bill the Electrician, Bob the Builder, Oscar the Grouch, and so on. That's not a joke, it's actually what the McCain camp now considers appropriate content for oratory and political discourse (well, Oscar the Grouch is a joke, but his opinion doesn't matter--motherfucker's probably on welfare, and you know what Mama Palin says: now is no time to be experimenting with socialism!).
Listening to these speeches one gets the sense that the Straight Talk Express is now run by mediocre schoolchildren doing a group project on their weekly vocabulary word, "vocation." They make two columns, then start picking names to go with jobs. But, not wanting to sound like nerds, they actually make a concerted effort to produce the most banal lists possible. So for one column they come up with "plumber, painter, electrician, mechanic, janitor, nurse, secretary." In the other column they list "Joe, Jim, John, Sally, Harold (not Harold, that sounds professorial--Harry), Peggy, and Frank." Draw lines connecting names to professions and you've got yourself a Republican populist litany of saints.
The trick is to be as unoriginal as possible. By aiming for the generic you supposedly cast a wider net and eventually bring in all those faceless, nameless people who can relate to your faceless, generically named examples. But it's not working, maybe because all those nameless and faceless folks really do have names and faces. Maybe it took them eight years, but they've finally figured out that the candidate you want to have a beer with isn't always the guy that should run the nation. Maybe people don't want economic analysis from an unlicensed plumber.
So as I lament the realization that Sarah the Hockey Mom will probably never give a shout-out to Brian the Grad Student, it occurs to me that--for uniqueness and elitism, respectively--one name and one profession could never, ever be in John McCain's canon. And since Joe the Plumber hasn't succeeded in warming us to John the Maverick, maybe it's time we lend our ears (and votes) to Barack the President.
Saturday, October 11, 2008
- From The Devil's Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce, a few terms to keep in mind over the next few weeks:
- POLITICS, n.
- A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage.
- POLITICIAN, n.
- An eel in the fundamental mud upon which the superstructure of organized society is reared. When he wriggles he mistakes the agitation of his tail for the trembling of the edifice. As compared with the statesman, he suffers the disadvantage of being alive.
- PRESIDENCY, n.
- The greased pig in the field game of American politics.
- PRESIDENT, n.
- The leading figure in a small group of men of whom -- and of whom only -- it is positively known that immense numbers of their countrymen did not want any of them for President.
If that's an honor surely 'tis a greater To have been a simple and undamned spectator. Behold in me a man of mark and note Whom no elector e'er denied a vote! -- An undiscredited, unhooted gent Who might, for all we know, be President By acclimation. Cheer, ye varlets, cheer -- I'm passing with a wide and open ear! Jonathan Fomry
Friday, September 26, 2008
By the end of the hour I had, on one hand, the sense that everything would be alright; the quarter was off to a good start. On the other hand, I was a bit irked by our preparation: why hadn't we been prepped more about logistics, policy and procedure, rather than spending so much time in teaching workshops training ourselves to think of our students as a herd of fundamentalist sheep out to destroy their leftist instructors? Sure, UCI's undergradute population is rather conservative, but why spend so much time talking about it--actually preparing for it with no little trepidation--prior to entering the classroom?
I was giving voice to these thoughts with my roommate this evening at the In-N-Out near campus when we were distracted by the following exchange taking place between two UCI undergrads just to my left:
Young Lady #1: Yeah, I thought about that, because it's like, Sarah Palin has a whole bunch of kids. And she just had a baby with Down Syndrome, so I just don't think she should be trying to take on that job right now. I mean, she can't really do that job, right?I would like to thank these two for making me look like an idiot. For the record, I still have some faith in my students. More faith, apparently, than I do in God.
Young lady #2: Well yeah, but that's not even why Democrats don't like her. They don't like her because, like, they're liberals. And, like, liberals don't believe in God.
Saturday, August 23, 2008
I realize it's a terrible shot, but it was taken merely as a souvenir of where I stood during an incredible show. There were quite a few people onstage at the time, several of whom appeared to be professional photographers and individuals with press passes. I was rather shocked just to be there, and didn't exactly jostle for position when it came to taking pictures. A few days ago, during some random clicking that stemmed from a search for who knows what, I came across the Flickr album of a photographer who apparently stood a few feet to my left and captured a much better shot of the same moment:
photo credit: "Undisputed Wes"
I don't have anything terribly interesting to say about this. I just got a kick out of it.
Just like that. Candles, crosses, flowers and metallic balloons in a morbid little bunch under the overpass, right under the spot where homeless people piss. A boy died there.
When we moved to Artesia (1988) a fifteen year-old was murdered in gang violence right around the corner from our house. Things like that happened pretty often for a few years, then it calmed down. Apparently it's picking up again (economic patterns neatly parallel the ebb and flow). Still, for the most part, Artesia's a really nice place to live. Even back when that fifteen year-old was shot, most parts of Artesia were perfectly safe to walk around in at night. They wouldn't usually bug you unless you were from another gang.
Yet to watch local news coverage right now is to think that Artesia is crawling with murderous thugs. North Artesia especially is a bloodbath. There's a subtext to every local TV station report that paints the people under and around the freeway as savages. This image really bothered a relative of mine, not for the sake of the north side but for the city's reputation as a whole. "They're making Artesia sound like some crazy, dangerous place," he complained. "Like it's Watts or something." I asked if it had ever occurred to him that maybe he only thinks of Watts that way because the news coverage of Watts has always been just like it is right now for Artesia. "Oh, well, yeah maybe," he replied, "but you know what I mean."
Yeah. I know what you mean. (...sigh...)
Friday, August 15, 2008
Wednesday, August 6, 2008
-McCain opposed ethanol and now favors it.
-McCain opposed Bush’s tax cuts, and now supports them.
-McCain now opposes the campaign finance reforms that he brought to the table with so much fanfare a few years ago.
-Remember when McCain was absolutely opposed to any form of torture? Yeah, me too.
-McCain once criticized Bush for visiting the notoriously racist and anti-Catholic
-McCain was pro-choice, but has since gone pro-life (just in time, too!)
-McCain fought tooth and nail to prevent
Monday, August 4, 2008
I was up, I think, because of allergies. I haven't the slightest clue what I'm allergic to, but for a week now something has been causing me to sneeze and cough throughout the night and then wake up with a sore throat in the morning. Yesterday one of my coughs was apparently a bit past my throat's limit, causing irritation that resulted in a pretty bad coughing fit that didn't let up until around 5 am.
It was around 8 pm when I got home from the Chariot Festival and I was exhausted. I was thrilled by the prospect of getting to bed early and being productive. I was going to get a full night's sleep and wake up at six. I was going to go to the gym (belly's going soft), I was going to do quite a bit of reading, I was going to type something thoughtful on here about the recent uproar over Obama "playing the race card." But I didn't sleep. I coughed. I got up and typed a blog about Venice Beach. I tried to sleep, but just coughed more. I gargled hot water with salt, drank chamomile tea, tried sleeping sitting up.
I woke this morning with a swollen throat, having slept about three hours. I paid my rent, and I've been a zombie ever since. So now I'm turning my phone off and hoping that tomorrow I can be a real human being again.
Saturday night checked out the Orange County Fair and, while standing in line, saw a woman that went to my high school. She was a few years older than me, although I think she had a brother my age. If memory serves me correctly, she used to dance at a "gentleman's club." She's stunningly attractive.
It's difficult to overstate how crazy the fair is, with its deep-fried everything (avocadoes, Twinkies, Snickers, Oreos, broccoli, tomatoes, mushrooms, zucchini, battered potatoes, etc.), its enormous livestock (worth the $1, believe it or not--they're really big), and its orgy of gaudy lighting in every rusted corner. I love it. The highlight for me is always seeing people make their way through crowds wielding outlandish prizes. One guy had a five-foot tall blue plaid Scooby Doo doll, another deftly balanced two mountain bikes while giving directions to his kids, who led the way excitedly. Both men had the same look on their faces, a sheepish mix of accomplishment and practical dilemma: does a giant stuffed dog fit in the car?
Sunday was still more interesting: the Chariot Festival of Venice Beach, which celebrates Lord Krishna's return to Vrindaban. Having grown up a couple of blocks from the stretch known as "Little India," I can't say that I've ever felt like my life has any lacunae in need of being filled by experiencing Hindu festivals, but this one definitely looked like something new: basically, two flatbed trucks are decked out lavishly in colorful, florid patterns and adorned with statues, pictures, etc. Then a ceremony is held around the floats, and an entire festival--food vendors, ethnic performances and the like--takes place in the general vicinity.
Had I thought more about the thing, I may have factored in the location. I'm glad I didn't, as the surprise provided for half the fun of the experience.
Upon arriving, the people we met told us right away that the Indian food served at the festival was terrible and we'd better get something to eat at another place. So I had a gyro. It wasn't very good, but not terrible. Then we proceeded to the site of the festival, which was literally only what I've described: two decorated flatbed trucks (I should note, they were very well-decorated), a stage where a group of young girls performed a very impressive traditional dance, and lots of shops selling everything from authentic Indian fare to New Age-y trinkets to Bob Marley t-shirts. For the first twenty minutes I saw many Hare Krishnas, countless women in saris, but not one person of Indian descent. It was essentially a gathering of old hippies and Phish-heads.
We did finally run across a contingent of “real” Indians, all gathered together sitting on a little knoll, apparently as bemused by the spectacle as we were. In front of them, somewhere in between Govinda’s International Imports and the Hawaiian Shaved Ice stand, a tall Caucasian man painted blue calmly explained Vishnu’s virtues to an apparent skeptic. Back near the boardwalk, stationed in front of another float under the watchful eye of the police, three men held signs high in the air condemning us all to hell for defying God and Jesus, while their associate yelled through a bullhorn that “You should be eating cows, not worshipping them!” While I was clicking a photo of him, he picked on a Hare Krishna adherent standing next to me and bellowed, “Does grass have a soul?” Then without letting the guy answer, continued, “The tents you’ve erected today are sitting on grass! You’re hurting the grass, you hypocrites!” As we left the scene I could hear him work up to a fever pitch and yell, “God hates you all and will send you all to hell, because you’re a nation of homo lovers. That’s right! You’re all nothing but a bunch of homo lovers!” This was met with uproarious laughter and even some applause from the crowd.
We proceeded down the boardwalk to find a spot on the beach. A guy in a turban with a visor pulled over it rode rollerblades and played the electric guitar. Aspiring rappers attempted to sell their CDs to passersby. Booths along the way sold a rendition of Shepard Fairey’s iconic Obama poster that substituted the Rasta color scheme for the red, white and blue. Caricature artists, tattooists, calligraphers, blown glass, tongue whistles, fortune tellers, body builders, well-trained pit bulls, the "Venice Beach Freak Show."
Following some time spent soaking up UV rays on the sand, and after two or three beers at a nearby bar, we headed back through it all one more time on the way out. Close to the scene of the festival, an Indian family—mother, father, one child, one set of grandparents—sat bewildered on a bench in front of a head shop watching people shop for bongs as a woman stood out front distributing cards and yelling, “Medical marijuana, upstairs! Come see the doctor!” In the spot where we had all been condemned to hell’s eternal flames, three men still stood with signs, but they had no vociferous spokesman and their signs read “SURFING! SKATES! BIKES!” and “SUNGLASSES! $5!”
Tuesday, July 29, 2008
On CNN, Wolf Blitzer actually seemed disappointed by this. I guess now that Obama's back in America and McCain has yet to choose a running-mate the election just doesn't have the same punch it did a week ago, so as they covered major news stories around the world CNN for some time maintained a split screen displaying a live shot of an empty podium. Eventually Arnold Schwarzenegger stepped up and Blitzer interrupted another report to hear the Governator spend a few minutes assuring Californians that everything is fine before moving on to address questions about the state's budget problems.
Serves CNN right for expecting so much with so little sensationalism. The local stations--now those guys can squeeze water from a stone. You don't see Anderson Cooper in a Honda dealership pointing out weather sealing strips falling from the windows and staff moving the merchandise to safety "in record time." I bet nobody at CNN even knows what the previous world record was for moving Hondas out of a showroom.
photo: Rick Loomis/Los Angeles Times
Tuesday, July 22, 2008
It occurred to me at some point that I've become more timid as my vision has worsened. This is actually good news, as lately I've found myself worrying that graduate school is ruining my personality. As it turns out, it's only ruining my vision.
Sunday, July 20, 2008
"Call me Ishmael." Is there is a more recognizable opening line in the English language? The occasional literary scholar for whom Moby Dick has slipped through the cracks (yes, they exist) can still identify those three words as the opening salvo of Melville's opus. I'd like to say that anyone who reads--period--is familiar with it. I imagine that this assumed recognition of what we consider to be common knowledge abounds with the potential for disappointment when confronted with those folks that, despite apparent intelligence in other areas, just don't know it.
I have never experienced this profound disappointment, but it is not due to any shortage of folks who haven't read Moby Dick. It has more to do with low expectations, stemming from the fact that I have never actually been surrounded by readers. In fact, sadly, I can't think of one lifelong friend or family member with whom I've ever been able to discuss literature. For me, reading has always been either solitary or pedagogical--if I was not reading on my own, I was learning, teaching, or even evangelizing to a non-reader.
This particularly loud Melville reference at the Auld Dubliner was the result of one of the more interesting "pedagogical" moments, one that I had long forgotten. In April of 2007 I attended the Long Beach Grand Prix with some friends. After a long day of drinking we all piled into a car (with a designated driver, of course) and headed to a restaurant managed by an old friend of mine. He and the owner had opened the place up privately for a party, and once the word got out we continued to drink late into the night. Around 2 am, with the place now empty except for the people we'd come in with (and some women we'd managed to keep interested), I got into a conversation with three or four guys about my plans for graduate school. I had just accepted admission to UCI and was explaining my interest in Hawthorne and Melville when somebody interjected, "Melville! I know that name! What did he write?"
"Moby Dick," I answered, and waited for the inevitable snickers.
"That's right! That was my dad's favorite book. I always wanted to read it, but I don't have the patience."
"You should read it," I told him. "It's a great book."
Somehow this exchange led to me quite drunkenly retelling the entire narrative of Moby Dick to four or five other well-oiled individuals on the patio of a bar. I remember stopping occasionally to tell them that if they were bored or if they wanted me to shut up I wouldn't be offended, but they wanted me to go on. Unaccustomed to people at bars having any interest whatsoever in literature, I delighted in the attention and giddily continued. Whether they were enraptured by the story itself, by my occasional self-interruptions for personal interpretation and historical context, or by my unusual enthusiasm I can't say, but when I was done they seemed to have gained a certain degree of appreciation for a novel whose value to most of them was simply that of providing a slightly dirty pun. Of course, simply telling the story (especially when drunk) is not by any means what we do, but I was just happy that someone seemed interested for once.
Still, I never expected any of those gentlemen to go out and read the book. Yet a few months later I ran into one of my captive audience members who, lo and behold, had read--and thoroughly enjoyed--the story of the white whale. I have no shame in sentimentally admitting that this filled me with pride. Furthermore, I was absolutely tickled to hear this same guy yell out that iconic opening line in a crowded bar over a year later.
Maybe this seems quaint, this thrill at having inspired someone to remember the most famous line from the most famous book of one of America's most famous writers; but to me that's something, and I think that approach will come in handy in my chosen profession. In a way we're guardians of a threatened form, one which will only survive if we can convince society at large (and that includes a world of literate illiterates) that it matters. We're literary evangelists.
So sure, it's just one book. One guy reading one book once a year. That's a start. I suppose that if we're doing anything worthwhile in this business, we're going to have to do it one book at a time anyway.
The fact that I can even still pray the rosary in Portuguese is something of a source of pride despite the fact that I haven't been a practicing Catholic or praying Christian in quite some time. I was raised Catholic and served as an altar boy when I was younger; even now I must admit that I've remained more than a little enamored with the pageantry and imagery of Catholicism. Furthermore, deaths in the community (and, in a tightly-knit community such as ours, one stays updated on plenty) are always observed with a rosary, resulting in frequent opportunities to practice over the years. For me the rosary, prayed in Portuguese, has always been more of a way of remaining connected with my culture and community. Sometimes I wonder if that's disingenuous, but I do not think it's particularly unique.
It has always seemed to me that the apparition at Fatima has more significance to Portuguese people as a national event than a religious one. The Catholic Church does not mandate belief in it, and I've known people whose avid faith results in unquestioning adherence to the story of the shepherd children as told by Lucia dos Santos even as they give rational explanations for their disbelief in the apparitions at Guadalupe or Lourdes. From any skeptic's perspective, the only substantive difference between the three stories is the nation in which each takes place. So we venerate Nossa Senhora de Fatima as a matter of Portuguese pride rather than Catholic faith and, in doing so, pray the same rosary that the French pray in honor of the Lourdes sighting and Mexicans pray in honor of the Guadalupe sighting.
If I'm right about this, I suppose in a way it matters more that you remember the words than that you believe in their efficacy. There's something tragic about that realization which is not blunted for someone like myself who--even as a faithful, credulous altar boy--had severe doubts about why the hell Mary would concern herself with Soviet politics.
Getting to the point, I'm visiting my parents this weekend and they have the statue. On my way to the shower, I hear my father ask, "You want to pray the rosary with us?" Now, he can tell I don't want to; I can tell he really wants me to. "It's only ten minutes," he says. And he's right. If anything, it isn't inconvenience that bugs me but rather the creeping sense of my own disingenuousness. I sit down with them in front of the statue and my dad, almost apologetically, remarks, "Might as well. It's been here all week and we haven't even been praying." Then he proceeds to lead the rosary, occasionally stumbling over certain parts and laughing at his own mistakes.
Having personally witnessed my father's crises of faith over the years, the first thing I noted at that moment was that when I was a kid there's no way he would have chuckled in this way. He would not have likely made the little mistakes in the first place. Here again, prayer as such seemed to take the backseat: if to me it's a way of staying Portuguese, to my parents it's a way of gathering the family peacefully in one place.
Oddly enough, realizing this was a bit scandalous to me. If my parents don't fully believe, where does that leave me and my polished Portuguese-ness? For an instant I found myself the returning tourist angered that the quaint village he'd once loved had moved on and, catching myself in that sentiment, I felt ashamed. How dare I exoticize my own parents in this way? And my own culture? Shame! Yet that is (again, assuming I'm right about what really matters here) precisely what we do to ourselves with this statue, with our traditions. Exoticize our past, our culture, our ethnicity, our little blip in space and time. We Portuguese-Americans go to visit our relatives in the old country and lament the fact that nobody goes to church anymore, but it has more to do with our romanticizing of a "quaint" past than with lamenting a loss of faith.
It's patronizing and embarrassing, and yet I genuinely love my culture and its traditions. Maybe I'm a hypocrite or an impostor, but if that's so then I'm not alone. Not within the Portuguese community or any other that I may be a part of. I don't suppose any overt affirmation of a movement or belief can help but serve as a marker for its eventual downfall. Nor do I think that any tradition can help being both bastardized and sentimentalized--otherwise it would fail as a tradition. It would simply die. Then what?
Well, then you wake up in the morning and see if you still agree with what you typed after midnight the night before without giving the thing much thought. That's what.
Monday, July 14, 2008
The moral of the story? None. I just came from Las Vegas, don't ask for morals.
Tuesday, June 24, 2008
So following this little adventure, I decided I'd treat myself to a burger from In 'n' Out. As I waited for my food, a father and his no-older-than-eighteen year old son entered, practically yelling at one another. It didn't take much eavesdropping to figure out what was going on: Irvine dad sends his kid to college, kid develops some liberal opinions, dad gets pissed; family goes to In 'n' Out to talk it over (mom looks around in humiliation).
Kid: It's illegal to tax people? That doesn't make any sense!
Dad: It's illegal raise taxes the way Obama wants to. It's not in the Constitution. Look it up.
Kid: That doesn't make any sense! And, I mean, is the Iraq War in the Constitution?
Oddly enough, I sort of felt sorry for the dad. He wasn't some silver spoon Republican, if appearances are worth anything. Calloused hands, thick neck, dirty jacket, hunched over and tired-looking. He looked like an electrician or a washing machine repairman. Probably worked his ass off for years and just didn't like paying taxes; gets all his talking points from AM radio and Bill O'Reilly. Misguided politics notwithstanding, he reminded me of my own father (I've always been very proud of my laboring dad's informed progressivism). Eventually Mom noticed I was listening, so I averted my gaze and stared at the wall in front of me until the kid at the counter called my number so I could grab my dinner (sans tomato, because of the salmonella scare) and leave.
While eating I turned on CNN. Floods, fires, some teenagers made a pact to get pregnant, Obama's courting evangelicals and James Dobson is telling evangelicals that Obama's a phony. This prompted a panel to debate whether Dobson is right or wrong. Dobson is the one that said teaching kids about racial diversity and tolerance is a coded way of converting them to homosexuality. According to Dr. Dobson, Spongebob Squarepants is an important part of this nefarious plot. People still listen to this guy.
I have a paper to write. TV off. Back to work. Ho hum.
George Carlin was the perfect anti-hero for a mindset that I don’t think I’ve ever really outgrown: he was the dunce who could outwit his entire class, the erudite underachiever, the intelligent stoner with a "fuck you" always on reserve and bubbling just beneath the surface. I loved George Carlin before hearing so much as a word from that album, but of course the record (which includes the notorious "Seven Words" bit) fully delivered on its sleeve's promise and—angry little shit that I was—I instantly became a devotee of St. George's Church. I don't know if I can say that I absolutely "got it" back then, but I don't think that my angsty teenage understanding of Carlin's humor was so far from getting at the crux of his impressive career.
So, what was to be gotten? Why did George Carlin matter? He was certainly a titan of comedy and a cultural force to be reckoned with, but it isn’t so simple to define what it was that he actually did beyond making us laugh (not to downplay the importance of laughter). The institutions that he habitually punctured remain intact, the injustices and absurdities that he so acutely pointed out have not become less prevalent—so what did George Carlin do? In a popular landscape where everybody has something to say (didn’t Pink write a song about Dubya?), why did Carlin stand out as someone to whom we should all be listening?
George Carlin was an eiron to all the bluster and puffed-up stupidity of an unjust, wasteful and shallow society. He was a trickster character, subverting norms and violating taboos at every turn, whose only concrete agenda was exactly that: to violate every absurd rule that he could, thus chipping away at the ridiculous system that propped up such oppression. Carlin filled the role of ironic sidekick that Kierkegaard assigns to John the Baptist in The Concept of Irony: not the positive force of the Messiah establishing a new world order, but the negative force of one who picks apart the established order from the inside by demanding that it deliver on the promise of its own ideals.
John the Baptist—the disheveled, belligerent, insane prophet—is not the revolutionary hero per se, but lays the groundwork for revolution by rejecting that which is established and accepted as given: “For just like the law, irony is a demand, an enormous demand, because it rejects reality and demands ideality.” (CI 213) Kierkegaard makes this observation in a comparison of John the Baptist with Socrates, in which he notes that—as Robert Perkins writes—both the Pharisees and the sophists failed to grasp “the discrepancy between the phenomenon and the essence and…the seriousness of this discrepancy.” (CI 376) I can’t think of a better way to describe Carlin’s importance as a commentator on American society. The phenomena of American life do not live up to—and in fact all too often shamelessly contradict—the essence of its ideals. The honest, just observer cannot then merely beg for change within the everyday operations of that system, but rather must demand that the system recognize itself as undeniably corrupt—and if the system will not recognize itself as such, it must be dismantled from within. This dismantling must be gradual, and must be propagated through a changing of the minds that operate daily within the very machine that oppresses them. Irony is, like John the Baptist, a presence that wags its finger at a broken world and demands that it fix itself:
Irony is a disciplinarian feared only by those who do not know it but loved by those who do. Anyone who does not understand irony at all…lacks what momentarily is indispensable for personal life; he lacks the bath of regeneration and rejuvenation, irony’s baptism of purification that rescues the soul from having its life in finitude even though it is living energetically and robustly in it. (CI 326)
This passage—especially the phrase “feared only by those who do not know it”—brings to mind Jon Stewart’s infamous appearance on CNN’s “Crossfire,” the interview that allegedly led to the show’s cancellation and resulted in the station’s refusal to renew pundit Tucker Carlson’s contract. Throughout this interview—a YouTube favorite—a progression is visible in the faces and demeanor of hosts Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala. At first, they’re apparently thrilled to have Stewart on. This changes rather quickly when it becomes clear that the comedian does not intend to put on a comedy routine, but rather to censure them about their show “h-h-hurting
Bewildered, Carlson tells Stewart that he’s not funny. “No, but I’ll go back to being funny tomorrow," Stewart answers, “and your show will still blow.” Laughter, applause. Later, in response to demands that he be funny and not sententious, Stewart sneers at Carlson and mutters, “No. I’m not going to be your monkey.” They trade insults back and forth until even the “liberal” Begala can hardly conceal his disdain behind that creepy grin that’s been painted on since Bill Clinton ran for president. What strikes one while watching this is how desperately lost Carlson and Begala are—they just don’t get it. One gets the sense that their staff handed out tickets outside the studio and deliberately sought out Stewart’s fans, wanting to fill the seats but oblivious to the fact that Stewart’s whole shtick is skewering the very type of show he’s about to be on. To them Stewart is just a “liberal,” like all the other castrated liberals and conservatives they’re used to having, he’s supposed to show up and voice his disapproval of the Bush administration, tell a couple of jokes, side with Begala against Carlson, shake hands, good day. When Stewart doesn’t follow the script, vertigo hits and nobody knows where they are anymore.
Jon Stewart was invited to “Crossfire” for the same reason that big name politicians scramble to get on his show: they hope some of his credibility will rub off on them. And for the most part, it’s rather obvious that they can’t stand how much credibility he has. You can see this in the “Crossfire” incident, when towards the end there’s a hint of hateful frustration in the way Carlson addresses Stewart, who refuses to let up even for a second. For a person whose life has been dedicated to powerful brown-nosing in order to get the hottest scoop, Stewart’s legitimacy as a commentator is the worst kind of usurpation—but that’s precisely why he has that legitimacy in the first place. Americans are perfectly aware of the fact that we’re being lied to daily, hourly, constantly—to the extent that being an insider is no longer a sign of journalistic credibility but rather evidence of the most abject collusion. And since those giving us the story can’t be trusted, and those with access to information continue to distort it, we can only trust those who pick it apart and denounce its corruption.
That is how irony works negatively, and it’s why Stewart’s “fake news” and Colbert’s “truthiness” have eclipsed so much (to be clear, though, not all) “legitimate” political analysis. That negativity is what people like Tucker Carlson seem to struggle to understand: who the hell is this guy, and what exactly does he do? Why is he so important? Of course, when these questions are put to Stewart, the answers are, respectively, “Nobody. Nothing. I’m not.” But a man as well-read as Jon Stewart, as admiring of Twain and Swift, knows exactly who he is, what he does, why he matters—denying his power is simply what makes him effective. It's negation all around.
The sort of romantic irony of a satirist like Stewart is that the strength of his punch comes largely from his charade of weakness. Aware of his own limitations, he loses no opportunity to remind interviewers that he is only a comedian and his is only a comedy show, that nothing he says matters, that his own interviews are notoriously soft-hitting, etc. And with each denial, the aura of respectability strengthens, the immunity of the jester is reinforced, John the Baptist converts another sinner while the Pharisees and Romans alike scratch their heads, unaware of their own impending oblivion.
It is precisely because the satirist denies his own importance that he matters. Should even the sharpest ironist ever proclaim his own positive revolutionary potential, he would instantly become subject to the same scrutiny as his targets. Thrust into an arena with beasts, the adept penman would find himself desperately wanting a sword. But so long as he stands outside and gently harangues the spectators, drawing them in with laughter only to expand their minds with truth, the subversive eiron might slowly set in motion the downfall of the whole corrupted coliseum.
We’ve lost one of those with the death of George Carlin, but we’ve also gained several of them through the influence of his life’s work. One can only hope that, in this age of sound bites and embedded reportage, American discourse does not forget the importance of listening to the ferocious humor of those angry jesters, bitter eirons, mischievous tricksters and insane prophets.
Sunday, June 22, 2008
I don't know what I'm writing about, frankly, because I can't formulate a thought. Tubes are popping and crackling inside my skull as though somebody just turned off an old TV, no amount of water helps, fans aren't doing the job. So I covered the windows in my bedroom with foil, cooling the temperature significantly so that maybe--maybe--I can actually get some work done today. My apartment looks like a tweaker pad, and inside this den of iniquity I'll be trying frantically to pound out the last paper of my first year of graduate school.
First, though, I'm going to finish watching this game between Spain and Italy. European Cup quarterfinals. Tied 0-0 in the second overtime period. I hate the Italian team and, fully admitting that sour grapes play an important role in my distaste, I just want them out of this tournament. Now.
In related news, the commentators keep trying to wax poetic, dropping amusing, badly-placed literary references from time to time. Two gems from this game:
(1) Regarding the timing of the game and its impressive matchup: "Truly a midsummer night's dream."
(2) Discussing the fact that the oldest teams (France and Sweden), both with several players approaching their early forties, were disqualified in the first round of the tournament: "Switzerland has proven to be no country for old men."
The last line was delivered by an Irishman, so I'm going to pretend that he's actually making a Yeats reference. It's a comforting illusion.