Friday, March 26, 2010

"Revenge! Revenge! Sweet is Revenge!"

When I compiled my exam reading lists, one of the things that made both my friends and my committee members cringe was the overwhelming presence of somewhat obscure religious—mostly Puritan—texts. Thankfully, I never shared that sentiment (I chose these texts, after all). This may seem strange to most, but I was actually excited by the prospect of making fire-and-brimstone sermons part of my daily required reading. Furthermore, the Puritan section of my lists includes captivity/conversion narratives, apocalyptic poetry, and some of the documents used to justify the Salem witch trials. Scoff if you like, but I love that stuff.

What people often forget (or don't realize) about these texts is that although they were primarily dour religious, political, and didactic treatises, they were also popular entertainment (as were, unfortunately, the executions they sometimes inspired); and they were often written much like the pulp fiction and horror novels that were their cultural descendants. So although these works can only lead one to the conclusion that the individual Puritan's existence must have been a gloomy one indeed, they've left us an incredibly entertaining legacy if you only know where to look.

I'm currently reading Increase Mather's Remarkable Providences, which makes the case for interpreting natural events as signs of God's displeasure. It was written in 1684, eight years before the good people of Salem, in part based on Mather's formulation of Satan's methods, went completely bonkers. His Puritan rock star son, Cotton Mather, later wrote Wonders of the Invisible World to defend the use of "spectral evidence" in the Salem witch trials.

Whereas Cotton's book (written after the fact) attempts an erudite defense of his controversial methods, Increase is still trying to diagnose the problem based on anecdotal evidence. The result is basically a collection of crazy ghost stories with scenes like the following, found near the end of a twelve page-long catalog of "Providences" that bring to mind either that dinner scene from Disney's Beauty and the Beast, or Marx's introduction to commodity fetishism. There are no dancing candlesticks or acrobatic tables in this sampling of Providences, but it does make me wish someone in the past had thought to make a record of Vincent Price reading Puritan witch stories.
    All this while the Devil did not use to appear in any visible shape, only they would think they had hold of the Hand that sometimes scratched them; but it would give them the slip. And once the Man was discernably beaten by a Fist, and an Hand got hold of his Wrist which he saw, but could not catch; and the likeness of a Blackmore Child did appear from under the Rugg and Blanket, where the Man lay, and it would rise up, fall down, nod and slip under the clothes when they endeavoured to clasp it, never speaking any thing.

    Neither were there many Words spoken by Satan all this time, only once having put out their Light, they heard a scraping on the Boards, and then a Piping and Drumming on them, which was followed with a Voice, singing, Revenge! Revenge! Sweet is Revenge! And they being well terrified with it, called upon God; the issue of which was, that suddenly with a mournful Note, there were six times over uttered such expressions as, Mas! Mas! me knock no more! me knock no more! and now all ceased.   
image: The Rev. Increase Mather, oil portrait by John van der Spriett, 1688.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

My favorite literary genre.

One of my student evaluations for this past quarter complains that I'm too politically conservative. That's a first. It's sort of ambiguously worded, but I think the complaint is actually that I avoided stressing my own liberal biases and this student (presumably of my own political stripe) would have liked me to be a little more forceful with my leftist interpretations. So take that, Michael Savage.

I also had a student directly address the administration (as "you guys"), requesting that they order me to relax my attendance policy and give students a "five minute cushion." The funny thing is that I did give them (at least) a five minute cushion, I just never announced it. Now I'm tempted to announce a five minute grace period next quarter and then not honor it, just to see if I get an evaluation commending me for my generous attendance policy.

Don't let me down.

According to the widget that lets me read the readers of this blog, one of the search terms that leads people here via google is "perennial disappointment." This has yielded exactly one visit, which lasted 0:00 minutes. It appears that, in this case, google led to exactly what was requested.

Monday, March 22, 2010

"It is later than you think!"

It turns out that my new favorite Congressman and countryman once removed is remarkably quotable. He also said that the health care bill is the Democrats' way to "lay the cornerstone of their socialist utopia," to which I say...wait, wait, I can't...stop...laughing.

My personal favorite response to Nunes's tribute to Cold War genre fiction has been the evil socialist role-playing that erupted on this message board.

As one commenter said, I'm not terribly thrilled about the bill's contents (it's not socialist-utopian enough!), but given the hysteria against it I can't help gloating. I just really can't wait until campaigning Republicans are forced to explain which parts of the health care bill's most instant measures they actually want to repeal. There won't be federal funding for abortion, and mandatory health insurance won't take effect until 2015. That leaves the Republicans to take shots at such totalitarian measures as regulations that prevent rejecting people with preexisting conditions, prescription aid for seniors, and a provision that allows college students to stay on their parents' insurance for a few more years.

Even some conservative strategists acknowledge that they've gotten themselves into an impossible political bind. (Best part of Frum's column: the first sentence, where he says that this bill's passage represents conservatives' "most crushing legislative defeat since the 1960s." Unless he's talking about the Civil Rights Act, Frum's got to be referring to the Social Security Act of 1965, which established Medicare, the protection of which has been one of the more confusing talking points for health care reform opponents for the past year. I mean, it's just too delicious. I can't help thinking the Democrats are going to screw this up somehow, but for now it's a lot of fun to watch)

So get ready for the crazy, because someone's going to start flinging shit. If I were a Democrat, this would be my campaign poster:

Sunday, March 21, 2010

"People, you know, begin to act crazy."

**Quick update: since no footage has emerged showing John Lewis or Barney Frank enduring this alleged abuse, many online debates about this topic center on whether it actually happened. Although I'll take Frank's or Lewis's word over that of an angry mob, this objection can't just be dismissed. However, I'd like to point out that Nunes's comments (below) don't speculate as to the veracity of his colleagues' claims, but instead simply defend the foaming at the mouth of raging crowds. So, just for the sake of argument, let's suppose that this particular incident didn't happen as claimed. There is still plenty of documented evidence of these protesters employing xenophobic speech acts which--when perpetrated by angry mobs--would constitute a serious threat to their chosen targets. And that is what Devin Nunes defends in this interview.**

I've never written to a member of Congress, but this morning I saw this and damn near lost my mind.

So, fully expecting to be ignored by the honorable representative from California, I've decided to make this an open letter. For all five of you. 

Dear Congressman Nunes,

I write you today as a fellow Portuguese-American resident of California to address your recent appearance on C-SPAN, in which you defended the aggressive actions of some Tea Party protesters toward your own colleagues as an expression of free speech and a reaction to "totalitarian tactics." Putting aside for a moment the fact that these two sorts of action are mutually exclusive—rendering your defense incoherent—I would like to point out that your stated position on this matter contained some glaring inaccuracies and baffling inconsistencies, and carries with it some dangerous implications.

The first problem is your generous interpretation of the First Amendment. One might assume that a man in your position would be familiar with the limitations of our freedom of speech, often illustrated by the cliché that nobody has the right to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater. The point, of course, is that nobody has the right to speech which puts others at risk of physical harm. Now, I don’t dispute anyone’s right to an unfortunate vocabulary, but there is quite a difference between friendly conversation amongst bigots and a hostile crowd yelling “Nigger!” and “Faggot!” at vastly outnumbered targets. Furthermore, no stretch of the imagination would lead to the conclusion that the First Amendment extends its protections to spitting on anyone.

Perhaps you're right that the actions of a few overzealous demonstrators should not color our view of 20,000 angry tea drinkers (and such generalizations being null, we can also discard as nonsense your broad comments about the strategies of “the left”), but it is well within living memory that those same words were commonly hurled by angry mobs at people who ended up at the ends of ropes. Just as yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater would create an unsafe environment for the theater’s inhabitants, it is entirely fair for an African-American and a homosexual to feel seriously threatened by even a handful of people yelling the terms that you seem to think are protected under the First Amendment just because 20,000 people didn't chant them in unison.

If I may expand a bit on the issue of nonexistent theater fires, it's interesting to note that there is more to that example than the practical issue of causing panic. It's generally assumed that yelling “Fire!” in a theater which is actually on fire would be constitutionally protected, even though it's just as likely to cause panic. There is, then, a second component at work, which we might consider a moral component: panic is not the issue per se, but rather unwarranted panic based on a false alarm, which puts people at undue risk of physical injury.

This brings me to the other statement you made with which I take issue: that this exercise of free speech was a reaction to “totalitarian tactics.” Again, let me reiterate my desire to steer clear of the laughably dissonant image of 20,000 people exercising free speech on the Capitol steps of a nation in the grip of a totalitarian regime. That will not be the topic of this letter, so I'll refrain from commenting on how ridiculous it is. I do, however, wonder what exactly you mean by “totalitarian tactics.” I can understand opposition to the health care reform bill, and I would be willing to listen to anyone with legitimate arguments as to why it constitutes bad policy, but I have a difficult time understanding how exactly any of this is being carried out through the modus operandi of totalitarian regimes. I have heard folks describe reconciliation as overreaching, and I can see how it might cause frustration for people who disagree with the measures it enacts, but surely it's no more “totalitarian” now than it was the three times it was used during the Bush administration. So as I pick through my limited knowledge of the proceedings in Washington, I can't help wondering whether your accusation of totalitarianism amounts to much more than that dangerous and dishonest alarm sounded to cause panic among theater-goers.

You see, Congressman, when I think of “totalitarian tactics,” I think of the stuff my parents and grandparents left behind in Salazar’s Portugal: secret police, intimidation of dissenters, rampant censorship, secret interrogations, unaccountable torture, invasion of privacy—some of which, come to think of it, resemble tactics that you supported when you voted for an extension of the PATRIOT Act or against Congressman Holt’s Amendment to HR 2647. So I would like to know how you reconcile these baseless accusations with your own actions in the legislature.

As mentioned before, I write to you as a Portuguese-American. If the disingenuous statements of politicians always prompted me to write letters, I would never get anything else done; and your words matter to me primarily because you're a person representing the interests of my community in a district in which I have many friends and family members. I am an avowed member of that “left” which you so glibly wrote off as some silly fringe group, but I have supported Republican candidates in my hometown. I have also worked closely with them for shared goals (political and otherwise), and although we agree on precious little, I think you would be hard-pressed to find one of them who would deny my dedication to the community or my passion in pursuing a more just and functioning democracy.

It is as a Portuguese-American that I would like to express my disappointment with your C-SPAN interview. Rather than denouncing the actions of extremists you defended them based on an incorrect, selective, and dangerous interpretation of one of our nation’s most cherished liberties. You deceptively implied that acts which threaten the safety of individuals are excusable so long as they're only carried out by a small group of people. You deliberately mischaracterized the actions of your own colleagues in an attempt to incite panic over a threat that does not exist, just to pander to the heightened rhetoric of the most insane factions of your party. As an American, I'm concerned—but that's nothing new. As a Portuguese-American, I'm embarrassed and ashamed, and I hope that in the future you will word your opposition with a little more nuance and a lot more prudence.



Sunday, March 14, 2010

High-fiving myself.

Today I booked three one-way flights. The first will take me from Los Angeles to Boston, the second from Boston to Terceira, and the third from Terceira to Porto. At some time in the near future I'll book a return flight from somewhere a few thousand miles to the east, but for now all I know is that a good chunk of this summer will be spent in Portugal. And that, dear readers, is overwhelmingly good news.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Calm down, Nate.

"America is now wholly given over to a damned mob of scribbling women, and I should have no chance of success while the public taste is occupied with their trash–and should be ashamed of myself if I did succeed.  What is the mystery of these innumerable editions of the ‘Lamplighter,’ and other books neither better nor worse?–worse they could not be, and better they need not be, when they sell by the 100,000."
- Nathaniel Hawthorne, whining.

And that's why nobody's ever heard of this Hawthorne guy. Say what you will about sentimental fiction, these "damned...scribbling women" knew how to start a novel with flair. Do you need a sick ass visual aid to let you know just how wicked sentimental this story's gonna be? No, seriously. Are you ready for this shit? . . . Bam!

I don't know about you, but I'm ready for the second coming. It's getting didactic as fuck up in here.

image from Susan Warner's 1850 novel, The Wide, Wide World

Sunday, March 7, 2010

This morning on Prairie Home Companion.

I didn't catch the whole show, but I think they said it was Bad Joke Day. Some of the bad jokes were hilarious, and one of their songs included the line: "You say the Democrats don't stand for anything, but that's not true, we do stand for anything."

Friday, March 5, 2010

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Getting warmer.

Holy shit:

"'Carbon dioxide is not a pollutant,' the resolution said, 'but rather a highly beneficial ingredient for all plant life.'"

 At least these folks aren't shirking the responsibilities that come with their commitment to creating a more stupid world. Go big or go home, I say.