Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Huck Considered

Perceptive readers will have noticed a slight change to this page, made a few weeks ago, namely an epigraph taken from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, just one more surprise that fell from a book which never tires of dropping them.

I was re-reading that very great novel, for maybe the fifth time, last month and warmed to the idea of taking on my own temperamental and flawed appreciation of it here, chapter by chapter, for the further entertainment of my readers and future salvation of dim and lazy high school students across the English-speaking world.

Some of you may have followed a far vaster project of a couple years back, managed by the estimable Neddie Jingo and yr. obt. hmbl., breaking down the fractals of Thomas Pynchon's raw-ther sprawling Against the Day. That was a blast, and, following the blast, a stitch. Be that as it may, I plan nothing so elaborate for Huck but if others would like to join in, please say so in comments and I'll think of something.

Word recently came of a new Pynchon novel, duly reported here two-three days ago, which has an August pub date (NB: in Pynchonland, august pub date might also describe Lady Ottoline Morrell) Annnyway, even if Ned and I got the band back together, I feel confident I could fulfill my promise to Huck and Jim to follow their adventure to their very famous conclusion.

So shortly after the new year I'll commence a weekly serial appreciation of a chapter of Huck Finn just for the heck of it. For those wishing to follow along, there's a nice online version from the University of Virginia, though I will be working from the Library of America edition.

Until then, endeavor to do good.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Bit Player

I feel I owe that squalid little man one last kick before he goes whining into history, though in all candor I'm not sure what there is to say further. Word comes this morning that aides say that Hurricane Katrina swept away whatever cred the crud had, to which I say, No! Really?

Stupidity and venality and incompetence on the scale necessary to devastate the nation as it has is beyond the petty cravings of a single individual, no matter how twisted, vicious and inept he and his circle of henchmen may be (and I give high marks to all.) The true measure of our squalid chief executive is that he has always been a petty little man, albeit fluffed up by the regard of others, and party to entrenched power. He is, in short, a dupe, a greeter, no more capable of success or failure than a rooster in a henhouse fire.

All the comparisons to Herbert Hoover our busted gamecock has garnered recently forget something, that Hoover gained the presidency while being actively despised by the mandarins of the GOP. He was a Sunday-school prefect in a club of boodlers who got where he was by a sterling record of competence in public works, starting with the reconstruction of Europe after the First World War. The GOP never invested its all HH. Hell, it even had the sense to back slightly away from Nixon when the time came. But for the longest time, far past the point of too late, the Repubs cleft to that pointless little man as if he were the rock of the republic, AAA-rated.

Which is to say the enormity of his failure extends past the boundaries of his life and works, that it is not really his failure at all, but the peeling apart of a rancid and unsustainable way of life once embraced by millions. Going forward I would caution my amigos on the left from focusing too much on the wrinkled figure of that pathetic creep. From the start, the whole point with that guy was to pay more attention to him than the landscape (which is also the point of the movie cowboy, right?)

It was that silly man's ill luck, moved along-no question-by his own fecklessness, that the landscape turned toxic and erupted into fire and flood, the atmosphere burning with the stench of sixty years worth of bad ideas, while he was still in the saddle, still, so to speak, in the picture. Going forward, the only work he's ready for is bit player in a prison drama, if anyone even bothers to cast him.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Dyspepsia Generation

We've all been busy doing nothing this holiday season, I hope. Me? I got caught up in the mad Facebook whirl two-three weeks ago and have been mainly enjoying the experience. I did have to delist one "friend" however after it became clear he was using his page, and the alerts sent from it, to post Jonah Goldberg columns and articles from the Washington Times.

Exactly why is unclear. When several of our very bright mutual friends began to take pointed issue with the opinions involved he tended to call them unintelligent and unfair critics of the president, in a tisk-tisky sort of way, and wonder when the hatred was going to end. Now were we on a mail list I'd have gladly joined the fray. But Facebook is a social thing, dammit. The great thing about it is you don't have to pay attention there to soreheads if you don't want.

It may or may not come as a shock to learn that the fellow in question is of generous girth, lives in a small Ohio town, fancies himself a genius, is Catholic, Republican and openly gay. Yes, I know, it takes all kinds, but that he can be so doggone loyal to two institutions, the church and the GOP, which hold him in categorical contempt is a wonder to me. And it got me thinking that perhaps he'd rather feel the ire of his liberal friends for what he'd very much like to believe, rather than the far more painful self-loathing for who he so indelibly is. My gay and conservative readers may have a better understanding of the forces involved, which I would appreciate hearing in comments.

Moving forward, we might consider if, extended outward from our Ohio example, the nationwide conservative pity party now ongoing is simply a reluctance of the compartmentalized minority to look within for the sources of their sorrow. Which is another reason why I believe the right wing whiners will be mainly gone in a year's time. According to the latest poll, apparently 87% of us are looking to get on with our lives.

Friday, December 19, 2008


Regular readers know my called shot of two-and-a-half years past, that the GOP would collapse as a viable political party over the following three elections, with 2010 as their final gasp. I also predicted that the Democratic party would become more liberal in its positions, via primary challenges by progressives.

With two elections down, I'm feeling pretty damn good about my picks. (Call me sensitive.) And now I'm pleased to read Nate Silver add a statistical foundation to my tower of supposition.

That is, districts that are won by wider margins can support more progressive policymakers. The Congerssional Progressive Caucus now has 71 members, considerably larger than the Democrats' 47 Blue Dogs. Many congressional districts are so blue that the congressman is theoretically under more threat of losing to a primary challenge on his left than a Republican challenge on his right.

Read the whole thing.

Matty Y. has made the point at least twice lately that unless Obama can institute a "robust recovery" in the next two-four years, the GOP is going to come storming back. To this I say, fat chance. No use bickering about it now, but too many people blame them for what's happened. Their ideas are bankrupt and prospects nil.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Corn Hole

You can read this whole Times piece on former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, the next Ag. Secy. without encountering the words sustainable, organic or consumers. No, for some reason agriculture in Washington has come to mean energy resource--no, hang that, alternative energy resource, and Vilsack is supposed to be the guy to lead us to the green fuel future.

Trouble is, corn for bio fuel uses nearly equal imputs of petrochemicals to grow, harvest, transport and refine. The notion we can grow corn to run our car fleet is literally hogwash. The whole enterprise propped up by Federal farm subsidies to agribusiness and made reasonable by expensive and misleading advertising.

Talk of revitalizing our farm communities is also pointless so long as corn is grown in vast plains. Big corn, as opposed to a variety of plant crops and animals, is, all in all, pretty damn easy to look after. One guy in a combine can work land that once supported a couple dozen farmers and field hands, and take the winter off. Consequently rural communities have no need for many people anymore. Vast corn monoculture tends to reduce prices too, so only the biggest outfits make real money. What "small" farmers are left in the corn belt need to hold second jobs.

The ray of light in the Times report is that Vilsack is an advocate of reduced corn subsidies, which really is the keystone to this whole bridge of sighs. Anyone who thought someone was going to come in and set the Ag. Dept. in a completely new direction was dreaming. BUT a rule change here and there, say one reducing corn subsidies and another allowing small farmers to sell meat they've butchered themselves, can make a remarkable difference in a short period of time.

The truth is that people need to eat less and pay more for food, good food grown by people who care a lot about what they do. This is not a message that is easy to send. But unsustainable tends to cut through the shit, and I do believe we are at a breaking point. New York's Governor Paterson just proposed an 18% tax on sweetened (mainly by corn) soft drinks. He's calling it an obesity tax and it is as good a challenge as any to throw down right now. (New York used to be a huge farming state, believe it or not, where big corn never caught on.) Stay tuned.

UPDATE: Mr. Kunstler on the subject Monday:

The economy we're moving into will have to be one of real work, producing real things of value, at a scale consistent with energy resource reality. I'm convinced that farming will come much closer to the center of economic life, as the death of petro-agribusiness makes food production a matter of life and death in America -- as opposed to the disaster of metabolic entertainment it is now. Reorganizing the landscape itself for this finer-scaled new type of farming is a task fraught with political peril (land ownership questions being historically one of the main reasons that societies fall into revolution). The public is completely unprepared for this kind of change. We still think that "the path to success" is based on getting a college degree certifying people for a lifetime of sitting in an office cubicle. This is so far from the approaching reality that it will be eventually viewed as a sick joke -- like those old 1912 lithographs of mega-cities with Zeppelins plying the air between Everest-size skyscrapers.

UPDATE 2: Ez Klein:

At the end of the day, though, Vilsack is arguably less the problem than his agency. In 1862, when the Department of Agriculture was founded, agriculture composed 82 percent of American exports. America had three times as many farms as it does now -- and those farms were far more labor intensive, in a country that had one-third the population. Agriculture, in other words, was the main export and one of the nation's largest employment sectors. You needed a Department of Agriculture. Today, agricultural exports make up 8 percent of the total. Agricultural industry employs a tiny fraction of Americans and is dominated by a few large producers. It is an interest group that has attained cabinet status. That it would be headed by a governor from a state whose reliance on agricultural exports makes it a throwback to the days when the agency had a more obvious claim to existence makes sense. What doesn't make sense is why you'd have a Department of Agriculture rather than, say, a Department of Food.


The Organic Consumers Association is up in arms

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Sound Bites And Simpletons

This highlight reel of Peter Schiff (a gold bug) reading the economic riot act to covens of idiots over the last couple years (via Wolcott) can be enjoyed on many levels (Ben Stein, for examp, should be required to wear the ears of an ass in public for the rest of his silly life.) What so fascinated me was not what Schiff's mockers were saying, so much as the inchoate snorts, gasps, and chuckles venting from their fat heads in preparation of their fatuous remarks.

This, kiddies, is the sound a system makes as it is going to die--not a weeping and knashing of teeth, not frantic pleading and panicked vows of reform, but the eye-rolling chuckle, a snort of disdain, the smart-alec remark of: Are you kidding me ?

Nope. The nitwits captured in the video, in full feather on FUX, knew no other way of performing, and resented the idea of anyone calling them to task. I submit that the current rondelet of GOP faux outrage over our next president's possible association with my dumbass governor, one kept running by the needful electric media, expresses exactly the same sentiment.

The notion that the climate has changed and that maybe they should react with more caution and thought, walk humbly in trying times, has not, nor ever will, dawn on the doomed GOP. I do believe they think they are poised to make gains in the next elections, that killing the Detroit three and the UAW is a great idea.

I suspect a great deal of P-e Obama's pre-inaugural calm comes from the conviction that events have already done a lot of the heavy lifting for him. Failure has a good way of clearing the decks of the deluded, no matter how rich and powerful they once appeared. After that, success can be defined any number of ways.

The news now is full of stories now about Big Shots who turned out to be crooks: Tom Petters in Minneapolis, Bernie Madoff and Marc Dreier in New York. As Lupica observes, there are bound to be more of such cases. Any one of them could take down a network or political party for good in an afternoon. I'm not saying it will happen, only that certain operators are nuts to think it can't.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Food Fight

I've started and stopped a couple posts here in the last two days, all on the usual topics, mainly because I can't get past the feeling I need to do something else with the space. Politics is fun and all, don't get me wrong. And the death of newspapers is just catnip to me. But I do believe most of our everyday life is peeling apart in quiet and steady ways and, frankly, I'd like to be a bit more aware of where we're off to than raging about where I think we are.

As a few of you might know, there was once a Divide family farm, owned by my grandfather and run by an uncle. Indeed the Divides were Sicilian farmers stretching back into dim antiquity. Though I managed to spend my pampered youth avoiding farm work, except for one often miserable summer, the subject of small-scale, local and sustainable agriculture is close to my heart.

The Divide family farm was, at the end ten years ago, mostly an orchard in western New York when Chinese apple juice imports shot my uncle's margins all to hell. It's hard growing apples organically and my uncle was never interested in trying. In fact he had no philosophical problems at all with DDT. But once upon a time the place had a prize dairy herd and then a pasture's worth of Angus cattle, very handsome beasts. which were sold off when I was a kid.

I guess my point is that even with pesticides it was the sort of place that once, like tens of thousands of others, produced pretty wholesome food, exactly the sort of small enterprise which has been under steady attack for over three decades.

Perhaps the most important appointment PE Obama will make will be the Secretary of Agriculture. No department beholden to so few is in greater need of reform. Consequently, small, but distinct and irreversible, changes can make an enormous difference. For a good overview of the broader issues involved go read Nick Kristoff's column (via Ez Klein) then sign the petition.

Want more? Watch this.

I do believe that food, how it's grown and consumed, will be the defining social issue of our time, connecting economic and ecological issues in ways most people can't begin to consider right now. You and me though have a head start.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Chicago Transit

Regular readers, of which I'm sure I have three or four left, will recall my wish that P-EBO pick Patrick Fitzgerald as the next Attorney General. However, watching this digest of his press conference yesterday he now strikes me as a tad high-strung for the job, and way too busy with work here in Chicago.

Ahhh, Chicago. I think we cling to our corrupt politics in a kind of egalitarian way, as leavening for a civil order that would have otherwise been utterly polarized along class, ethnic, racial, religious, labor and income lines. Chicago, more than New York or L.A. was the land of opportunity for all, the city which gave America Al Capone, Saul Bellow, Playboy and Jet magazines, Milton Friedman, Chess Records, the Pullman strike, Mayors Richard J Daley and Harold Washington, and the 1968 Grant park riots. The common thread here is a respect for power, an appreciation for larger-than-life characters, and the space to allow for a live-and-let-live attitude in civic affairs . . . most of the time. In truth, the genius of the current Daley machine is how open it is for advancement by formerly marginalized constituents, women, blacks, latinos and gays, as well as how remarkably committed it is to some progressive public projects, its library system, parks and ecological initiatives.

I'll add that the schools are a disaster, the cops are a mess, the public transportation woeful, and the mail delivery sucks too. But the last is a federal matter, and find me a city where the rest are consistently better.

What has people shaking their heads here is less Blagojevich's cupidity than his monumental, now defining, stupidity. This is not a smart man, and until he was led from his home in handcuffs yesterday at 6:30 am, not an interesting one either. Chicago demands that its politicians--either honest, bent or somewhere in between--be smart, and that such a plainly dumb and dull shyster like Blago made it to the statehouse speaks a great deal to the morbidity of a system which one hopes is, like so many others here in the states, about to come crashing down.