Thursday, December 31, 2009

Midnight In The Garden Of Goobers And Weasels cont.

You longtime readers will remember I've been predicting the disappearance, for lack of funds, of right-wing media vents for a couple years now. Noted here with something like glee is the recent and ongoing implosion of the Washington Times and its affiliates.

The reasoning behind my call is simple enough. A LOT of these organs are utter vanity projects of hateful rich jerks, who even so need answer the same calls to accounts as the rest of us. So long as oceans of fake money were pouring over our heads, life was going to be fine in Wingnuttia. But very few of these jackasses actually made money advocating war and intolerance and the combination of our successful new prez and the cratering of the old regime's fake economy has bumped, and will bump, a lot of those douchebags to the curb.

Let's see, a family rich beyond measure falls into filial bickering as their patriarch ages, directly resulting in the collapse of their vanity right wing media empire. While this certainly describes the unhappy Moons, I submit it is also the tale of the disgusting Murdochs, the latest from their palace being any number of ideas on how to squeeze more money from their cable and newspaper projects.

Now, I've been guilty of being naive before, but don't you think that charging customers more (as costs settle from the boardrooms onto the suckers) for services once considered nominal if not free--in the aftermath of the collapse of our consumer economy--is, well, stupid?

I know, I know, it's TV, and sports, the IV line to our distracted body politic. Clearly Rupe is confident that people will pony up the dosh. And a lot of them, especially the older ones, will. But I am here to say that digital killed the video star, and a lot of people, mostly under the age of thirty, will have no trouble bidding cable TV, at least as currently constituted, goodbye if need be. This is the same demographic which has also utterly rejected the dying GOP, which is not a coincidence.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Head Counts

It seems to me that if the Republicans were really so confident that the healthcare bill was such a loser for the Dems they would happily stand aside and let the thing pass like an express train. But no, dragging out the process, hoping that someone on the majority side will maybe become incapacitated, or something, (Gee, I wonder who they have in mind?) before the final vote Xmas eve.

Which is not to say I am breathing easy just yet, even after this morning's early vote. But mainly the other side has been reduced to mean-spirited prayer, the likely outcome of which will be to prove that either Jesus does not give a fuck about their hateful policy concerns, or that HE wants the US to ease into a national full-coverage healthcare plan.

But I mainly wanted to direct readers' attention this morning to a profound heathcare issue now undergoing a rapid and positive re-evaluation which has mainly, near as I can tell, been overlooked by the Washington punditcracy. I am referring to the NFL at last finding religion regarding the devastating long-term effects of brain injury among their players.

For decades the NFL considered the health of their players about as casually as the American Tobacco Company took the well-being of their customers. In fact, if one were inclined to monolithic political thinking, both institutions were fully invested in a sort of post-war, he-man American dream long on swagger and recklessness and short on long-term consequences. The NFL, being a government-protected co-op rather than a publicly-held corporation, was able to slant studies and deny reality far longer than the tobacco criminals. But in the last eight weeks, in the face of some very damning research and a contentious congressional hearing, the NFL's institutional opposition came apart like a rotten box.

Long time readers here know my fondness for symbolic thinking, and I don't want to go overboard here. But the fact that the NFL, one of the most proudly conservative elements in our mainly moronic popular culture, has come to regard the long-term well-being of the men who work for it in a honest and compassionate way, is an astonishing change in the social landscape, one as profound and far-reaching as passage of decent healthcare reform.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Shooting Their Wahhhh

As the votes on healthcare reform dwindle down to a precious few, nerves all around are frayed to reveal true colors at last. I believe it was Isiah Berlin who called children moral imbeciles, and so a lot of the current debate is ipso facto childish. Clearly, Ben Nelson wants something for Christmas, and I don't think it is really stronger abortion wording (if I were he it would be a more realistic toupee), and he will get it. Joe L has probably had his fun, but you never know with imbeciles. I keep thinking that the honorable ladies from Maine will be eleventh-hour cloture votes if needed, especially if the last sticking point revolves around women's health, but, hey, I've been wrong before.

Most astonishing to me is the childish display from the leftward over the last 48, not so much the tone as the message. As someone whose memory stretches back to the Kennedy administration, (You want disappointment? I give you Hubert Humphrey.) let me advise my comrades to shut up, help the thing pass, then go whip every blue dog they can find next year. That's how things work in this country; though, granted, things generally don't work all that well.

Nate Silver did a tremendous service the other night, asking 20 good questions to aggrieved liberals, which Markos Moulitsas and some guy from FDL were good enough to answer. Silver posted the results, and his brief replies. It's long, but very much worth a read. The main differences seem to boil down to the question as to whether the mandate and insurance exchanges will deliver the savings the experts say they will. MM has his severe doubts. Fine. I say there's a great way to find out.

The biggest danger the kos crowd runs right now is to demonstrate just how very little influence it really has over substantial policy. Put another way: Never start a fight you can't win. It would be ironic, and sad, if one outcome of reform's passage would be to show that the new left coalition is as immature and fruitless as the old GOP rump. This is about the future, folks. Take what you can and run with it. Winning in politics is mostly about being around next year.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Midnight In The Garden Of Goobers And Weasels cont.

It is fashionable to decry the Democrats' fortunes as we stumble into the coming election year. Lots of frustrated liberals, and amped up 'baggers clog the intertubes as surely as the avatars of the dumb right (or is it the right to be dumb?) stop-up congress.

Though I am as aggravated as any normal person over the noise, it is easier to ignore than the garbage truck in the alley, just don't watch TV.

I am here to remind you that the Republican Party and its officials have been colossally wrong about everything ever since that day nearly nine years ago when Dick Chain-y (Just came up with that one--waddaya think?) appointed himself that squalid little man's running mate. To think they have finally figured out the pulse of the electorate, absent any evidence to the contrary, and that their tactics of No will reap big rewards next November, is the stuff of moonbeams.

The media will try its best to make it feel like a GOP surge. Indeed the media is the only stable constituency the old boobs have left anymore. But the media ain't what it used to be either (noted here is the demise of E&P, an utterly unthinkable development to those of a certain age and profession.) Whatever momentum the poor nuts have mainly boils down to the commentariot repeating the old saw that the party out of power always makes gains in this particular election cycle.

To this I'll say banana oil. The GOP is not a party, at least in the sense of a functioning legislative and uniformly organized national force, anymore. This election promises to the their last shattering disaster.

Not being one of your fancy policy bloggers, I can't explain in great detail why or how that will unfold. I'm a big picture guy, and the big picture is that, left or right, good or bad, right or wrong, Americans are a fundamentally practical people, and pragmatism (as noted earlier this year by our chief executive) is the national philosophy. As a people, over the arc of years, we figure out what works and head in that direction.

Let me suggest that on election day it will be blisteringly obvious to a healthy majority of voters from sea to shining sea just which slate of candidates is prepared to solve the nation's many problems. If you feel like worrying about voter turnout and youth apathy, be my guest. And if you are a Democrat running for office, you still have much work to do. What I'm saying is, the end is a lot closer than a lot of people think. One more good push and the rotten GOP culture which has done so much fucking damage these last 30-odd years will be gone for good.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Wringing In The New

Been busy elsewhere, sorry. Not like there's been a lot to comment on lately anyway. What there has been is a lot of head shaking and hand wringing over the Democrats' prospects next election, mostly based on the assumption that the Republicans always bounce back. I say gains in both houses and will get back to you about it in April sometime.

Honestly, it's been saddening to see how otherwise responsible news and comment sites (TPM, I'm looking at you) run day-four takes on dumb stories or are so prone to worry about recent polls of so-called voter sentiment. Granted, there are mainly two reasons for this: a molasses-like outpouring of real news regarding the most pressing items on the agenda, numero uno being healthcare reform, and a constant need to, like TV, keep eyeballs occupied, or click numbers up.

Happily, there are no such needs here. As for healthcare in the senate, I think it is awfully instructive to look at those statistical maps which chart poverty rates, food stamp use, measures of the uninsured, illness and mortality rates, and find red states leading the charge for nearly all (which will be interesting come election time.) One in particular which stands out is the great state of Maine. Now, I need not tell you I'm sure, Maine is special for a few reasons: it is not in the Rabble, excuse me, Bible Belt and it has TWO women senators at equal odds with their GOP colleagues for being--in a party increasingly keen on ideological purging--slightly to the left of, oh, Joe Lieberman, and, well, women.

I do believe the GOP fatheads went screaming off on the senate healthcare issue without exactly considering the concerns, moral and electoral, of their Down East Two. I suspected a few weeks ago that someone like Snowe was Reid's answer to Lieberman. (I also thought the truly friendless JL would come around. I don't anymore.) Here let me say Collins is the trump for Nelson, and is suit for Landreau, McCaskill, and Lincoln. And I will further observe that it is a remarkable achievement for women in the senate today, that they are allowed to be as limited intellectually and as cravenly mediocre as their male colleagues.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Debt, Doubt, Dubai!

It is hard enough finding a path of reason through the thickets of the American Now, or, put another way, a peak from which to survey the surrounding shifting landscape of events without having to account for foreigners. But our world is global, ha-ha, and a lot of stuff will blow in from nowhere to mess up the view.

Take Dubai, for example. Up until 24 hours ago all I knew about the small oil sheikdom was that it was building a sort of shiny concentration camp of wealth; a new international business headquarters--a desert Liechtenstein, a mid-East Miami Beach; a creepy city of the future, built by underpaid Asian laborers, designed to be a legit work destination for newly-formed Harvard MBAs and a shopping refuge for the more accomplished international money set. A year ago there was speculation Dick Cheney would buy a "vacation" home there.

Turns out it just went tits up, for all the usual reasons.

Usually surprise vies with speed in these collapses, One does not see the unexpected coming from a mile away, slowly anyway. But Dubai World's (if ever there was a hint of future trouble, maybe it's associating your civic name with the Disney Flagship) sudden "suspension" of debt payments announced on the eve of the U.S. and Muslim holidays has astonished the watchers, the most interested (or frightened) of whom are the Euro Banks carrying its $59 billion (UPDATE: make that maybe over $90 billion) debt.

Yesterday there was some question if this was a big deal or not. Structurally, I gather, that's hard to determine at this hour. Culturally, however? You bet your ass, as apparently many in the smooth money crowd have done already.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

This Is Just To Say . . .

I am tempted to go on at length regarding our dense contemporary politics, but will hold off, for now. I would like to suggest however, before several ideas completely congeal into received wisdom, that the pending senate debate over healthcare will provide handy cudgels to beat the Republicans' heads in in time for the next election. While a few individual seats may hang in the balance, to suggest, or worry, at this point that the Dems face wholesale losses for supporting universal healthcare borders on the delusional.

I know, I know, many a slip 'tween the cup and the lip, but honestly, I expect putting the fatheads on the floor of the senate arguing against a pretty damn smart bill will make for some very edifying sound bites, not to mention negative campaign ads. Even if that does not quite come to pass, confidently expecting the opposite, that the Dems are running their car off a cliff with the bill, is all only make believe. It makes more sense to believe that the next election will be, effectively, the last for the GOP as a national party

I also don't think the unemployment level will have much bearing on the coming election, provided the administration and congress are seen as trying hard to make things better. And, pace Messrs. Rich and Kunstler, there's no danger of the well-armed right rising up in breathless number to take back what they think they've lost. We are dealing, in the main, with thorough spectators; frustrated and hurt, no question, but fundamentally lazy viewers. Statistically, they are far more likely to accidently shoot themselves, family, and friends, in pathetic numbers, (see Cheney, Dick) than leveling any righteous (f)ire at gub'mint tyranny.

Monday, November 09, 2009


A rare two'fer today, seeing as how the great healthcare victory in the House last Saturday night is worth some comment. And it is not how Speaker Pelosi won the vote, which I never felt was much in doubt, which is so remarkable; rather how the Republicans lost.

Namely, if Eric Cantor--who, honestly, has never struck me as being all that bright--knowing that this would be a hard vote for Joe Cao, had stood up the day before and said something like, "Though, of course members are encouraged to vote their consciences here, I believe we will hold together unanimously against the Democrats' bill", then Cantor not only provides cover for a guy trying to keep a red seat in a blue district, he also doesn't look like a full-grown jackass when one of his guaranteed votes migrates to the other side.

And if Cantor didn't know this would be a hard vote for Cao, then he has NO business being minority whip.

I was going to say that the predictable racist right reaction against Cao was the last thing the GOP needs, but upon reflection that would be the reaction against the House GOP basically shouting down the Democratic Women's Caucus during Saturday's debate. I guarantee you, EVERY woman on the Hill noticed that needless bit of swinishness on the part of all those white guys, and something tells me that maybe, just maybe, Harry Reid won't have that much trouble finding one or two female senators willing to vote against a filibuster even if they will not support a final bill. There may also be one or two old friends of Ted Kennedy on the other side of the aisle who might, in a pinch, be the needed 60th cloture vote.

Just sayin'.

I do believe Joe Lieberman is playing his last cards here, and in fact will fall in line when it is pointed out to him, privately, that the votes needed will be at hand, and his committee chairmanship lost, if he carries out his threat.

Post Toasted

Frequent readers here know my fondness for regularly passing along bad news about Murdoch products, especially the NY Pest, so today is more catnip:

Nearly every paper in America has lost circulation, but The Post more than most — down almost 30 percent in 2.5 years, to 508,000 in the most recent reporting period, against 544,000 for The Daily News. The slide accelerated after The Post’s price returned to 50 cents last year. And this year, The Daily News has surged far ahead in online readership.

Mr. Allan,
[the Post's editor] who called it “a joyous occasion” when The Post took the lead, now takes a more subdued view of the competition, saying in an e-mail exchange that “whether we are a little in front or a little behind has no impact on our forward business plan.”

Business plan. A paper which has historically lost a million dollars a week, for over 15 years, has a business plan. Honestly, who needs a humor column? Three years ago (where DOES the time go?) I noted a rather suspicious inflation in the Post's circulation figure. Maybe because the competition smelled a rat too, it has been falling ever since.

The Times story, as most Times stories, is a funny one. Over halfway through, it does let drop just how much money the Post loses (now in the nabe of $70 mil. per annum), though not for how long it has been like this. Because it is a business story, it natters on about cover price, discretionary sales, and how well the tabloid competition News has done, with no word on how maybe, just maybe, New Yorkers are mighty tired of the pro-biz, right wing hogwash Rupe has spewed in a steady jet in his paper as long as he's had it. Maybe Mike Bloomberg's recent squeaker gives a hint here.

My impression is that few in the news biz have wanted to cover Murdoch organs too closely, or criticize them too harshly, over the years. There is fear of retaliation along with a certain collegial bias. As long as he seems strong, then newspapers in general are stronger, and cable "news" is a vital agent in the national debate. Take away his imaginary audience however, and he's just one more rich jerk, one of several in the news racket, boring the nation while losing money hand over fist.

Depend on it, outside of its pathetic share price, we will not hear about the impending collapse of the Murdoch empire until after it has happened and no one can pretend anymore.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

The Great Wit North

Congratulations are in order for Bill Owens who prevailed, as anticipated here, in the NY-23 election. An occasion which allows me to berate those big-deal pundits, left and right, resigned to think that the broad American electorate is incapable of choosing wisely in its best interests, especially when the baubles of celebrity, such as it is, and money are dangled before it.

The Right, of course, will want to crow this morning about the New Jersey and Virginia governors, which, you know, is fine. Statewide races are probably as apolitical as our politics gets, by which I mean a great deal depends on local economies, the popularity of the incumbent (if that person is running), the mood in the state capital, and the ability of the campaigners. Once elected, most governors, the GOP ones especially, need to stick pretty near a pragmatic line (see: Ah-noldt) in order to govern, at least so far as their legislatures allow (see: Ah-noldt). And the shelf-lives of governors is notoriously short (see Ah-noldt, Elliot, Jon, David et al), unless they are exceptionally gifted.

All politics is local, right? And up north the local guy won, the first Democrat to hold that seat since Lincoln slept in the White House. Some on the left may feel disappointed that the wingnut lost, thereby discouraging more Jacobin fun in the GOP contests. This is short sighted on two counts. First, we have enough right wing nitwits in congress to start with. I suppose one more would not have amounted to much, but honestly, you need to draw the line somewhere.

Second, and more to the issue, I don't think this setback will deter the true believers one jot. As noted in these pages, there is an unprecedented leadership void in the GOP. There is no one in charge to say no to these mischief-makers, who are perpetually just one win shy, in their minds and on TV, from Total Victory.

I had meant to say something about the White House challenge to FUX news closer to the first slap, mainly to say I thought it was a great idea. I still do. First, there is no real world downside. Barely two million people, tops, watch it. Then there is that adage, popular during the administration of that squalid little man, that power creates its own reality. It does, only not so much in the real world as in the media landscape of our collected imaginations.

By which I mean that by calling the Murdoch product for what it is, and inducing all sorts of petty indignant reactions, the administration has ipso facto defined FUX as a bias machine, a definition which, going forward, it either challenges or justifies every minute it's on.

My money is on justifies.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Hurl From The North Country

Mr. Rich's fine column this morning could not quite frame the rather astonishing events in the special NY-23 election for what I believe they represent. So let me: this is what a political party looks like as it dies.

Let us note that the Republican candidate was driven from the race by apostates on her right and, just about two hours ago, endorsed her Democratic opponent. While Mr. Rich wants to consider this an attack by GOP Stalinists, it bears repeating that this is an election for the House of Representatives, in a district the Republicans have held since the Civil War, that for all intents and purposes does not have a Republican on the ballot. Let that sink in a minute.

It is altogether interesting that NY-23 probably resembles the far west more than any bailiwick east of the Mississippi. Far flung, mountainous, rural and forlorn, with long and harsh winters, its central employer is a Army base, home to a large division of alpine troops which has seen long tours in Iran and Iraq. What makes the election interesting to handicap is how NY-23 also differs from reliably conservative western districts. For starters, this is a part of the country people move away from, not to. Consequently outsiders are held in minimal regard. Independence is probably put at a higher value than out west, where a certain lock-step, Mormon-style fealty to the cause seems to hold, hence Dede Scozzafava's "liberal" profile among her cohort. That the Watertown paper, and now Scozzafava, have endorsed Owens, the Democrat, as the true local candidate means a great deal.

One local factor that the commentators rushing to see have overlooked is that, for all its rural aspect, NY-23 shares an enormous international border. People up there live closer to Ottawa and Montreal than to Albany. While this might not strike your average big-city pundit as a big deal (and you can insert your hockey joke here), let me suggest that those people might not be quite as parochial as one might assume.

In thinking about this yesterday, I decided that Scozzafava coming out for Owens would be enough to tip the election his way. That said, I didn't expect her to do it. So there you are. The GOP death spiral tightens apace.

UPDATE: A Sullivan reader reports from the ground, and it's not pretty.

Copyright Infringement Theater Presents

K L Burgess, a man out of time.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

TV Slide (Cont.)

Oh look! (via The Raw Story):

CNBC Viewership Plunges 50% In October

Specifically, CNBC has experienced a massive 52% decline in overall viewers during business day hours (5 am - 7 pm), and a not much better 49% drop in its demo (25-54) in the month of October as compared to last year. Specific shows that are likely to follow the fate of Dennis Kneale's recently cancelled 8pm gobbledygook are likely the Kudlow Report and Mad Money, which are down 59% and 56%, respectively.


The writer goes on to speculate that perhaps if CNBC stops peddling right wing free market bullshit (not his words exactly) the audience will return, to which I reply: nope. I do believe the dream is over for those clowns. When last I checked no one was watching FUX Business either and it remains to be seen in what form, if any, financial TV will stand. The marks wised up and moved on. (While we are at it, just for the mental exercise, we might also game-out what's in store for all current forms of cable news. I do believe the latest newspaper circulation figures give some hint)

If you'd like to speculate too that this is a pretty good indicator of just how shallow, or rather narrow, the recovery has been, feel free. Consider also what this bodes for heavy reform of Wall Street in the coming twelvemonth, as it looks like there won't be much popular opposition.

This is a good opportunity to bring up an element of Marshall McLuhan's thinking I've been pondering for a while, a proposition of his which we may be on the threshold of seeing tested in the real world. Briefly, McLuhan considered one of TV's main attractions to be the relatively fuzzy, pixel-based image it presents to viewers. The automatic effort people made to "fill in" the image with their imagination gave TV, according to McLuhan, an irresistible grip on their central nervous systems.

Strange idea, no doubt about it. But if he was right about this subliminal attraction (written, remember, over 50 years ago), then hi-definition TV is a death knell for the sort of addicted viewer engagement with television which has been the true lifeblood of the networks from the beginning. Put simply, people will not find hi-def images so mysteriously fascinating, so utterly involving as low rez pictures. TV will lose its addictive nature and become something people can take or leave, like magazines. The test of this idea has only begun, but as flat screens take over it will, so to speak, bear watching.

Monday, October 26, 2009

GOP Goes The Weasels

As we head into what promises to be the climactic week for health care reform I wanted to briefly consider a couple points sort of lost in all the excitement. First and mainly is the complete disappearance of Republicans in forming any alternatives or conditions on the final bill. In this regard conservative Democrats (and Olympia Snowe, who can be sometimes seen on the left of two or three of her Democratic colleagues) have completely taken up the duties normally assumed by the opposition party.

Considered away from policy details, in the light of pure political science, this is a breathtaking abdication of responsibility on the part of the GOP, one that does not strike me as planned. This is how a political party acts on its death bed, and Harry Reid's 60 votes for cloture will be the doctor's merciful administration of a fatal dose of morphine. No one is saying this right now, but I cannot emphasize enough that passage of reform with a public option is the last nail in the GOP coffin.

Why? Because they have demonstrated by their inane posturing, rancid tactics, and utterly listless legislative record that they are incapable of influencing events in their favor. This does not mean "winning" every battle, or even most of them. It means organizing an effective opposition that might even draw strength from defeat. Waiting for the other guy to fuck up is not a plan. But worse than ceding the field to the Democrats, they have offered nothing to their shrinking cadre of supporters, and by supporters I don't mean the assembled yay-hoos waving signs, but to corporate allies, many of whom have been laid low in the Great Recession, who would have benefitted from a more cooperative climate in DC. Those who survive will be looking for new friends.

Speaking of assembled yay-hoos, another, and far more entertaining, sign of a dead political party can be seen in northern New York State, as the true believers fight the not-right-wing-enough faction in the special election to fill the house seat for NY-23. Now the Republican vs. Conservative Party rivalry has been a staple of upstate NY politics for at least a generation and is altogether a healthy thing. What makes this an example of terminal decay is the enthusiastic and very public intervention of national GOP figures, all from very distant parts of the country, on either side of an intramural contest which by all rights should be of no interest to anyone outside the Watertown/Messina/Lake Placid nexus.

What this tells me is that no one is in charge of national GOP organizational affairs anymore, and that no one likely will be in time for next year's elections. If this does not strike you as the final stage of a political party which only got as far as it did by an utter fealty to top-down control, I don't know what else would.

And speaking of control, let me suggest that all my fellow Democrats, concerned and sincere, who have mainly bitched and moaned about Harry Reid and Nan Pelosi for the last three years prepare themselves to offer sincere apologies, along with their profound thanks.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

TV Slide

High on my list of petty annoyances are smart people who should know better. Take Steve Benen for example, wondering why-oh-why right-wing hammer heads like Frank Gaffney are asked to appear on MSNBC talk shows in the first place.

The answer is: because RWHHs are entertaining. They love talking the kind of smack that riles up centrist opponents (in the case above, honest Ron Reagan) and is broadly congruent with the interests of corporate ownership. Considering the example highlighted, TV is always, always pro-war as war delivers consistently high ratings and offers no risk whatsoever to their broadcast infrastructure (yet.) This is not hard to figure out, Steve, and to behave as though these so-called news networks, any of them, are somehow obligated to present sober and informative evaluations of current events for the enlightenment of viewers; that with just a little management towards fairness and good judgement the whole stupid medium could be made to work for the greater good, is breathtakingly dumb.

But this morning I want to suggest that TV really has lost its fastball so far as driving the agenda is concerned now. It dawned on me earlier this week that none of the ill-informed blather, flawed framing, and caustic misrepresentation that is TV's stock-in-trade for forming public opinion has worked a lick in guiding the healthcare debate this time around. The robust presence of some kind of public option here at the 11th hour, in a nearly inevitable reform package, in spite of the ample time given its opponents to run dishonest ads and make unchallenged claims; the enthusiastic publicity given subsets of mad sign wavers; in the face of active campaigns by some behind desks in front of cameras to derail reform completely; is really pretty remarkable.

Feel free to disagree, but it strikes me that healthcare reform is the first public issue thoroughly and definitively decided in and through the internet, by blogs that inform general readers while giving those participating on Capitol Hill broad real-time evaluations of any day's events (TPM is good. Ez Klein is king), to a pretty spectacular ability by advocacy groups to immediately publicize flaws in disingenuous reports (see: AHIP) that would once have permanently deformed debate.

TV has been nowhere in all of this, rather only providing ready forums for the bankrupt yammerings of the chronically aggravated, and their enablers, which, though entertaining to those watching, have all the effect of vapor rising from a wet driveway. I do believe the in-progress epic failure of the GOP (long predicted here) has a lot to do with its institutional and resolute focus on wining the day only on TV, the idea being that once-upon-a time that was all that was needed to drive events their way. Now, though, winning on TV is no more meaningful than winning Madden's NFL. Fun, I guess, but nothing like gaining yards for real.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

That's Rich

The Timesman today shows how he's still a drama critic:

Those Obama fans who are disappointed keep looking for explanations. Is he too impressed by the elite he met in Cambridge, too eager to split the difference between left and right, too willing to compromise? As he pursues legislation, why does he keep deferring to others — whether to his party’s Congressional leaders or the Congressional Budget Office or to this month’s acting president, Olympia Snowe? Why doesn’t he ever draw a line in the sand? “We know Obama has good values,” Jeff Madrick said to me last week, “but we don’t know if he has convictions.”

Matty Yglesias has been very good on the subject of why Obama defers to others in pursuing legislation (hint: those others are cranky and powerful senators and so, under our system of government, he has to.) And can we just walk back a year or two and recall a president who loved drawing lines in the sand, supported by a lock-step one-party legislative monopoly that loved railroading legislation, yea or nay? And, if you will recall, me liberal-hearties, it totally blew goats. It's a lousy way to govern and the nation is a mess for it.

Really, nothing gets me angrier at this point than people who wish Democrats were more like Republicans. There are fundamental reasons, reaching into early deforming psychological events and carried forward through life on waves of ego gratification, why this is not so, and to wish that, so to speak, a fireman acted more like a pyromaniac (both being in broadly the same line of work) because the pyro knows how to do his job with greater ease is the height of spoiled thumb-sucking. It shows an un-serious temperament.

Nothing would make me happier than urban half-way houses filled to capacity with white collar criminals made to clear city streets and wash buses and subway cars. I think the world would be a permanently better place if huge banks were regulated down to a 50th of their current size and most of their employees made to find gainful employment in agriculture, light manufacturing, teaching and public service. (I'm also crazy enough to think it might happen too.) But let's get real.

Notably absent from Mr. Rich's above cri de coeur is what strikes me as the real reason Wall St. has gotten a pass from the president: he had other, more important things to do, like healthcare reform (looking damn good this morning) and climate change legislation (which is surprisingly fit, all things considered.) Obama did the quickest, best fix possible under the circumstances. Recall he did not begin his campaigns with an eye towards fixing a collapsed economy, had to follow the first measures of his overwhelmed predecessor, and, in the main, did what nearly everyone, experts and congress-critters alike, agreed needed to be done, disagreeing only on degree. What we witnessed was issue triage, stabilize the patient and move on.

I think the president's statements this week, to the DNC convo in California and yesterday's warning to the insurance companies are the real deal. I do believe he is telling friend and foes, mainly his foes, that he's just warming up, and it sounds like he's in it for the long haul. Call me a dreamer, but once health care has been squared away and climate change given enough momentum, I fully expect a bracing revisit of certain Wall St. understandings and rules, probably just in time for next year's elections.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Summer of Shove

It was a bit over five years ago when Dick Cheney, on the floor of the Senate, regarded Sen. Pat Leahy, a persistent foe who'd come over to say hi, and directed him to go fuck himself. I mention this not to savor the people skills of a man who will be seeing more subpoenas than citizenship awards for the rest of his miserable life, but to note his subsequent reply to those who asked for him to apologize: Why should I? Dick wondered. In fact, "it felt good."

I bring this up as a retrospective landmark of a remarkable sea change (I'm a cement mixer of metaphors, baby.) For most of its storied history, the GOP, hammered in the forge of the Civil War, had been the party of sacrifice, of work, of self-denial as a beacon for self-sufficiency. Upright, stoic, abiding, you get the idea,

That this self-image always covered a garden variety of hypocritical human failings is, for the moment, besides the point. Republicans as a group identified with certain in-their-lights upright principles which were at philosophic odds with doing things just because "they felt good." That, after all, was Democratic territory.

I'm not sure just how the "If It Feels Good Do It" ethos crept into the party of Lincoln (I suspect a certain California governor, after presiding over our most hedonistic state for eight years, brought this new sense of fun to the midwest Main St. and Bible Belt crowd.) Be that as it may, the dam has collapsed and for the first time in their painfully proscribed lives right-wingers have a general absolution to let it all hang out. Is it any wonder that the modern stars of their ever-dwindling fortunes are a glamor-obsessed, status-seeking former cheerleader and a weepy boy-man with a storied history of substance abuse?

In early 1967, at the first Human Be In in San Francisco, Allen Ginsberg famously looked upon the assembled multitude of the amped-up and blissed-out and wondered to Lawrence Ferlinghetti: "What if we're wrong?"; always a good question to ask of any great undertaking which relies on certain tacit understandings.

I submit that the season past was the Right's long-delayed Summer of Love, and that it will turn out no better for them--in fact threatens to be several degrees worse--than the real one was for the assembled 60s dreamers. We can expect the same; goofy, solipsistic splinter groups and pathetic violent cells all working to reassemble something which was never quite intact in the first place, call it that City on a Hill.

I say degrees worse because the first "feel good" crowd, say what you will about it, acted out of optimism and possibility, the opposite conditions holding now. What's more, the Right's Summer of Shove was a purely political enterprise pretty disconnected from any avant ideas of art and living, that is: any alembics of order that might incubate a movement outside the scouring realm of politics.

That may sound silly, but from a political perspective Ginzy was absolutely correct, and what saved the "new left" as a force were its ideas about how people could live that existed entirely apart from winning elections: expanded boundaries of spirit- and sexuality, new notions of rural and urban order, classic civil rights and radical libertarian personal freedoms, which the GOP has been fruitlessly fighting tooth-and-nail ever since.

Let's not overlook demographics either. Those stoic Republicans are dying of old age by the thousands now every day, leaving behind a different set, raised in far more affluent and permissive, media-rich ways. The right-wing demonstrators have less to offer their times because they traffic in used goods, now animated by the potential for anger instead of the possibilities of love. In trying to look fresh, they end up looking silly to all but themselves. Also missing from the current GOP tough-lovefest is apparently anyone with enough status to guide events (which Ginsberg certainly was) who also has enough sense to wonder aloud if maybe they're wrong.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Daze Of Our Lies

Yr. Obt. Hubl. Svt. has been reading a lot lately and not inclined to write much, though the temptation has been marked to post some book reviews, or at least Amazon links.

A large part of my problem regarding regular posting is recognizing that successful blogging entails a great deal of repeating oneself. Some, like A. Sullivan, J.H. Kunstler, and M. Ygelesias (to name but three) do it exceptionally well (most of the time.) I however feel there are better things to do most days, no offense to you, my dear and valued readers.

But hey, I was surprised by the insurance industry's 11th-hour drop of the Price-Waterhouse study, both as a desperate political act (which spoke volumes of the IN.IND's disarray) and in the rather sharp response it gathered in mere hours (including a very sorry walkback by the study's chastened authors.) The first tells us that the insurers are now pretty sure they're screwed (at least in their understanding of what a relatively mild realignment of industry regulation means for them) AND that there's been a resultant fracturing of their camp into appeasers and hardliners. The P-W report was so out-of-nowhere, so contrary to earlier policy towards reform initiatives, and so utterly flawed as supporting evidence that one can only assume it was dropped by a desperate faction acting without intramural concord.

It reminds me of nothing so much as the panicked measures of the McCain campaign as it lurched to its foregone conclusion a year ago. So sure of getting their way for so long, the interests of money and power come unglued astonishingly easily when presented with nothing more challenging than a united, sure-footed opposition. That the president has largely vanished from the narrative of day-to-day details of the bill's progress only makes me admire him further.

The sharp and dismissive answer the report generated (to the, I think, very credible notion that it increased the chances of a public option) points not only to the climatic support for reform but to the relatively subtle and granular means by which policy can be hashed out in our new age of communication.

Okay, maybe I'll have more to say about this shortly.

Copyright Infringement Theater Presents

A guilty pleasure.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Midnight In The Garden Of Goobers And Weasels cont.

Much hand wringing this weekend about the prez's so-called loss of white support, the media's thrall of the angry super-pats, the perils the Dems face in the '10 elections. Even Mr. Rich was cranky yesterday about how in his opinion Obama allowed the healthcare debate to be hijacked by the flag necktie set, dah dah dah. . .

You may say I'm a dreamer, but let's look at things in a slightly different light. First: there is still no smart person in sight in GOP Land. Stupid people running things make colossal and avoidable errors, even when events might favor them, which they currently don't. Second: Newspapers and TV have always sided with the forces of money and entrenched order, being forces of money and entrenched order themselves--that is until recently. Watching their influence and income drain every quarter, they have ramped up their coverage of the shrill and mindless because A) their bottom line inclines them to do so (count the ad pages and commercial minutes for prescription drugs and hospitals sometime) and B) the old media folk desperately need to prove they still drive the narrative, now that it's getting clearer that they really don't.

Just as Three: the GOP's legislative apparatus desperately needs to show its sponsors that it can still deliver, a proposition which has looked dubious all year and now, after the prez's address last Wednesday, verges on the laughable. No, the serious money people are looking on those loud-mouth sign-waving clowns (I am referring to elected Republican officials in the House chamber, not the good citizens assembled on the Mall) and must wonder deeply what their money is getting them now.

Nutty Jim DeMint is right, this really is Waterloo for the GOP--not because our freedoms as a nation have been sucked away by fascist czarist communists, but because those who hand out the serious green will look to spend their Washington money where it will get the best return, which will not be the coffers of the result-starved, brain-dead, helpless GOP.

In truth, big money moving back to the Democratic side is not such great news, but I will venture to say that big money ain't what it used to be and that the Dems do not line up in nearly as fine an order as the highly-trained Repubs. But that will have to be a story for another day.

Nate Silver advises not to minimize the import of a DC rally which drew at best estimate 70,000 souls, so I won't. But still, organizers would have certainly liked to have at least cracked the six-figure mark. Looked at from the perspective of audience share, it was a very poor showing indeed if what you wanted to demonstrate was the awesome power of right-wing radio and TV media.

Nope, the visuals were pretty pathetic (honestly, how many non-bottom-feeding advertisers will look upon the video and film of the sincere and strange people assembled in DC this weekend and say: Yes! There's my national market!), and as near as I can tell, no speaker or entertainer of any vividness or strength--a Huey Long, say, a Woody Guthrie--appeared to galvanize the attending and appeal to those watching from afar. No, the best the likes of FUX et. al. could accomplish was to get a bunch of decent, if very upset and confused, people to mix with some genuinely hateful low-lifes to reflect the pain and discord felt by most Americans anyway. Message being: Things are tough all over.

UPDATE: Like I was sayin' (even a month ago--this just in from Matty

Thursday, September 10, 2009

About Last Night

It is a little disappointing to see Josh Marshall succumb to the traditional media's thumb twiddling here in his on the one hand this reaction to President Obama's speech. Understandable, I guess, because he runs a big brand now and, like all big branders would hate to appear wrong.

So let me.

It was a first of all a fighting speech, specific and detailed. More than the ghost of Ted Kennedy hovering over the proceedings, the president's bitter experiences watching his mother die far too young from cancer--mentioned during the campaign though unremarked on last night--surely gave his words an especial heat and strength. Second, after calling out the baboons (one of whom was monumentally dumb enough to actually yip back) he made it awfully clear, in emphasizing the fiscal balance of his proposal, that the budget resolution path--that is, simple majority passage--is very much in the cards.

The prolonged, almost hysterical, ovation upon his entry and introduction told me that the chamber was packed to the rafters with scared and unhappy men and women dearly looking now for deliverance from this plague of responsibility which has settled amongst them, a task Mr. Obama seems ready and able to undertake.

Unremarked on about the president's dropping health care poll numbers, settled at something like 50% approval is that a good deal of that loss is from disappointed Dems left to drift in a haze of bad news. In fact, it did not dawn on me until yesterday afternoon that any specific proposal from the president will bring a sizable bump-up in numbers. We'll know in a couple days.

As for the details, I thought they were beautifully addressed and laid out in a logical way. The only rhetorical bad guys in sight were the insurance companies, whom nearly everyone hates already, and those unnamed politicians mudding the brook on their behalf. He gave a sold competition-based model of a two-tiered plan for covering the uninsured--the state/private colleges analogy was especially apt--and even offered a couple, albeit passing, examples of where savings in the existing system might come from. More to the issue, his words rang true in the ear.

The GOP reply was, as usual, tepid and inane. And then there's their latest problem of Representative Jackass from South Carolina. Though he had the wit to apologize last night, I'm sure before tucking into the rest of that bottle of scotch, he was able in one ill-conceived outburst to glue all the brain-dead rudeness and chip-on-the-shoulder stupidity of last month's theater-of-the-absurd townhall meetings tightly onto the GOP brand.

I expect we'll hear more of Rep. Wilson in the coming days, with none of the attention good for the long-term well being of his political fortunes. I have no idea where his little red district is, but in apologizing to the chief executive last night, he neglected to also say he was sorry to those who matter most, his constituents. His little trailer-park outburst may have endeared him to the outraged 5%, but he broke GOP Rule 1 last night, being: Let Others Do Your Dirty Work For You.

UPDATE: The Field Negro gives a far more nuanced appreciation than I.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Huckleberry Finn, An Afterword

Modern readers tend to assume that the Territory which Huck says he is lighting out for is a metaphoric place, an uncharted wild west free of law and responsibilities. In fact Indian Territory was on the map, a Native American "homeland" set aside in 1834 by a Congress in the process of removing native nations from their lands east of the Mississippi. In 1907 Indian Territory became, in one more legislated theft, a large part of the state of Oklahoma.

Native American arts lace subtly through Huckleberry Finn, from the empty canoes which appear--or vanish--on the river, to Jim's raft wigwam, to the landscape itself and the mystic agents whom Huck says he hears sometimes. As noted earlier, Huck himself is based on Twain's childhood friend, Tom Blankenship, reputedly half Native American. Consequent of these effects is Huck's yearning for the Territory feels innately right, a subliminal expression of character that serves to make his itch to run off ring beautifully true. Where else could Huck go but the Territory?

General readers don't know that Twain began a sequel to Huckleberry Finn the year it was published, picking up exactly where the novel ends. Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer Among the Indians, follows the two, with Jim attending, on Tom's proposed Indian Territory expedition. But the project was utterly stillborn, and Twain quit after about 10,000 words.

The sequel disregards much of what makes Huckleberry Finn so compelling. First off, Huck picks up writing another book not long after vowing he never would again. His voice lacks the idiomatic snap of the novel (though clearly Twain did not spend much time getting it right in what was a first draft, we do get an idea of how much effort he did put into Huck's great monologue.)

Unfortunately too, Huck has not struck out on his own, like he said he would, but in the company of the ever-tiresome Tom. Least forgivable is that instead of allowing Jim to return home to work for the money to deliver his wife and children from slavery--his cherished dream in the first book--Twain brings him along as a comic third wheel. A very stock love story is also set up between a beautiful pioneer girl and a handsome horseman of the trail, exactly of the sort of junk infesting pulp novels of the time-- movies soon enough--and for the next hundred years.

The pulp idyl soon ends. Indians attack, massacre the pioneer girl's family, and abduct her and Jim, prompting a rescue by the boys and dashing cowboy. The story slams to a stop after the searchers find unmistakable evidence, greatly foreshadowed, that the girl had been staked to the ground spread-eagle and raped. This, as far as Twain was concerned, was what happened to white woman captured by Indians, and, clearly, that would not do, even for America's literary bad boy.

Clouding over the story is Twain's obvious hatred of Native Americans (see the otherwise delightful Roughing It), a prejudice he recognized and regretted late in life. While Twain was intimately acquainted with the shades of goodness and wickedness among whites in a slave holding society, and the radiant soul of black folks, he could not begin to imagine the humanity of people he considered beasts.

He instead used the aborted novel to mock Tom's romantic ideas of Indians, gained from the novels of Fenimore Cooper, a writer he also despised unfairly , to better condemn a people he did not understand (and let's agree that the man responsible for Puddin' Head Wilson has no call to ridicule Cooper's literary offenses.) Instinct probably told Twain his notion of Indians was wrong, but not why that was or by how much. He put the manuscript away, like he put Huck Finn away, only never to go back to it.

By considering the creative dead end of Among the Indians we can appreciate how great Huckleberry Finn really is. For one thing, even Twain could not surpass it--and he knew it. (The Tom and Huck potboilers to come ten years later, riffs on Jules Verne and Sherlock Holmes, are not worth further mention.) But Huckleberry Finn is not a happy accident. Written at the height of Twain's powers, just before financial ruin began to haunt his days, and warp his work, the novel is a sly, deliberately crafted and precise vision of a time and place in the world, socially and psychologically true.

Another facet of this greatness is how it still resides in the minds of readers after almost 130 years. I'm not sure how this is accomplished exactly; how any book can last so long. Something to do, I'd say, with the exhibition of an intimate knowledge of particular things that somehow extends to an expressed totality of life as it is lived, something recognizable in the real world.

With Huckleberry Finn Twain shows how well he knows the people, the land, the language. He also knows his audience and exactly which rules to follow and which to break. He knows the American violence, arrogance, hypocrisy, and greed that led to the deaths of half a million men in the Civil War. He also knows, and shows, how goodness and mercy work in the human heart, how people are resilient and steadfast, how they will stand up for what's right no matter what others think. These qualities are very American too, and ever lead our nation further away from the original sin at its founding.

Huckleberry Finn, of low estate and rudely told, stands in the highest rank of world literature. Not only does it tell the central American tale of bondage and freedom, of lighting out into a world of danger and bad luck to find a new home; in its pages Twain turned the first-person narrative into a living thing, a genuine voice in which for the first time how the story is told is as crucial as anything in it. It is impossible to imagine what American literature--what American life--would be like now without it.

Last week: Chapter XLII & Chapter the Last

Update: January, 2011 -- A word about that word.

Divide's Guide to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, edited and revised for publication, is now available in a Kindle edition for $3.95.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


Nate Silver, as is his wont, has a pretty sharp rundown of where things stand from a political perspective in the healthcare campaign. My own exasperation, moderate but persistent, is with the drowsy nature of the public offensive in favor of the prez's program. It seems to me his side could be a bit more organized, on point, but what I've seen of his town halls has, minus a couple spoken gaffs by the big guy, been pretty good.

There's always a first time, of course, but I will remind readers (as I have at least twice before now) that the political landscape is littered with the rusted hulks of those men and women unwise enough to underestimate Mr. Obama's capabilities in a fight. Missing so far from the entire media coverage of GOP efforts to torpedo the bill is the merest hint of a whisper of a glimmer of the idea that, just maybe, there will be a steep political price to pay for opposing healthcare reform.

Part of that is certainly because the administration has not bruited the notion in public, but the logic that the Repubs and Blue Dogs can ride back to electoral Fat City next year by blocking this thing flies in the face of a certain demographic logic which I do believe will become clearer as the weeks pass.

But-but-but all those angry people at those meetings! All those meatheads with guns outside the hall! All the cheap talk on TV! A certain type of cultivated worrier has no shortage of bad vibes to account for now, no question about it. But I am sticking to my hunch that the noise from the streets and broadcast studios are the sounds of something dying. (For someone fond of pointing out just how bad business has been for Rupe's News Corp for some time now, the word last week that the Dirty Digger is now renting out his enormous yacht was pure catnip. The price quoted is gargantuan. Let's see if it comes down.)

The crystal ball has cleared enough for me to make a few predictions. The first is that someone from the right-wing vigilante crowd will do something stupid and innocent people will die. I hope it isn't many, but that is the logical conclusion of all this playing with firearms, and it's not as though it has not happened before. Second, what with all the fun the GOP has been having lately with the knuckle draggers, there's a good possibility that someone from their team will be tied, probably by way of an expressed solidarity before the fact, to the violent perps. I reach this conclusion from observing how crass and luckless the GOP cause has become and the confident knowledge of what can happen when monumentally dumb and selfish people act out their desires.

Three: I do believe the other side has overplayed its hand and that Senate passage will be via a reconciliation vote lacking a few Dems and with at best two GOP votes. What will pass is still a big unknown. And I suspect several potential sticking points dear to us progressives shall be winnowed away. However, I think the Prez wants some dispatch in getting the legislation through because, Four, the economy (or what's left of it) is ready to drop off another cliff this fall.

A lot of people know this, some of them even in Washington. The evidence is everywhere, this week coming out of Asia. The American Consumer Show, upon which so much was riding, has shut down and is not reopening anytime soon. Health reform is needed not only for solid business reasons, to get some kind of small-bore manufacturing economy up and running in a couple years, but also because stuff has been breaking down for so long now that a genuine public health collapse, one inevitably tracking the economic decay, cannot be ruled out or wished away.

UPDATE: I'm pleased to report that Mr. Drum kinda thinks like me.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

In Which I Speak Ill Of The Dead

The late Robert Novak was a scoundrel and bully, and so a coward by definition. Few did more to cheapen the national discourse over the last 25 years than that arrogant lickspittle of entrenched power. I was pleased to hear that he died, am deeply sorry he lived as long as he did, and believe the nation is that much better for his absence.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Huckleberry Finn, Chapter XLII & Chapter the Last

The letter which Silas got from the P.O. is from Sally's sister Polly in St. Petersberg though before it can be opened Tom is spotted being borne home on a mattress by a crowd which includes a bound Jim (wearing one of Sally's calico dresses) and the doctor. Tom is barely conscious.

As the others go tend to Tom, Huck follows the crowd of men holding Jim, who pretends not to know him. Though Twain is obviously winding towards a happy ending, he is nevertheless pleased to remind his readers just how walking-sick people can be:

The men was very huffy, and some of them wanted to hang Jim for an example to all the other niggers around there, so they wouldn't be trying to run away like Jim done, and making such a raft of trouble, and keeping a whole family scared most to death for days and nights. But the others said, don't do it, it wouldn't answer at all; he ain't our nigger, and his owner would turn up and make us pay for him, sure. So that cooled them down a little, because the people that's always the most anxious for to hang a nigger that hain't done just right is always the very ones that ain't the most anxious to pay for him when they've got their satisfaction out of him.

The local farmers beat and curse the black man, dress him in his old clothes, shackle his arms and legs and bolt him to the wall on a length of chain.

The doctor soon comes to say Jim should be treated fairly, that he came out of hiding when he saw that the doctor needed help to cut the bullet from the leg of the delirious boy.

I judged he must be a runaway nigger, and there I was! and there I had to stick right straight along all the rest of the day and all night. It was a fix, I tell you! I had a couple of patients with the chills, and of course I'd of liked to run up to town and see them, but I dasn't, because the nigger might get away, and then I'd be to blame; [...] I never see a nigger that was a better nuss or faithfuller, and yet he was risking his freedom to do it, and was all tired out, too, and I see plain enough he'd been worked main hard lately. I liked the nigger for that; I tell you, gentlemen, a nigger like that is worth a thousand dollars -- and kind treatment, too.

Note that the doctor thought it was more important to keep an eye on a runaway slave than to treat patients, also how casually he monetizes Jim's good soul. One more good person,Twain shows us, bent by slavery. Of all the white folks in the book, only Huck makes it through with his humanity unscathed.

Huck says: I was mighty thankful to that old doctor for doing Jim that good turn; and I was glad it was according to my judgment of him, too; because I thought he had a good heart in him and was a good man the first time I see him. Then they all agreed that Jim had acted very well, and was deserving to have some notice took of it, and reward. So every one of them promised, right out and hearty, that they wouldn't cuss him no more.

I do believe that this is the first time in the book Jim is specifically referred to--by anyone--as a man instead of a nigger. It's a subtle touch, easy to overlook, but this is a subtle book. Indeed Huck's humanity has been enlarged by knowing Jim.

Tom takes almost two days to come back to his senses, Aunt Sally at his bedside. Huck is there when he does. Expressing surprise at being home, Tom immediately admits to Sally his elaborate plot to free Jim. After finishing, he is told that Jim did not get away.

Tom looks at me very grave, and says:

"Tom, didn't you just tell me he was all right? Hasn't he got away?"

"Him?" says Aunt Sally; "the runaway nigger? 'Deed he hasn't. They've got him back, safe and sound, and he's in that cabin again, on bread and water, and loaded down with chains, till he's claimed or sold!"

Tom rose square up in bed, with his eye hot, and his nostrils opening and shutting like gills, and sings out to me:

"They hain't no right to shut him up! Shove! -- and don't you lose a minute. Turn him loose! he ain't no slave; he's as free as any cretur that walks this earth!"

"What does the child mean?"

"I mean every word I say, Aunt Sally, and if somebody don't go, I'll go. I've knowed him all his life, and so has Tom, there. Old Miss Watson died two months ago, and she was ashamed she ever was going to sell him down the river, and said so; and she set him free in her will."

"Then what on earth did you want to set him free for, seeing he was already free?"

If readers, as I believe they should, regard Tom's elaborate rescue fantasy as an arch parable on the work of well-meaning whites to grant full citizenship to black people, what, then, are we to make of this? Twain might be saying that a certain type of do-gooder is very reluctant to admit that freedom is an innate and simple thing, easily denied by custom and law, which should be just as easily granted.

Such simple gifts are apparently beyond the grasp of many decent people with a high opinion of themselves (recall that Tom shot down Huck's no-fuss plan on freeing Jim weeks ago), and that their exalted ideas of what's right can bring a rain of misery on the very people needing help.

More overtly, Twain is also declaring that slavery was a forced commercial fiction, needing nothing more than a paper fiat to invalidate. This was a point of no small contention at the time and one easily overlooked by modern readers--that a vast number of white Americans believed for centuries that slavery was sanctioned by the Almighty and was vested upon sub-humans who clearly needed, deserved--and in fact, for the most part, wanted it.

Just as Tom finishes his explanations, Aunt Polly, fresh off the boat from St. Petersberg, appears. She's come down after a letter from Sally mentioned how much she liked having Sid (Tom) there. As Sid was with her, and not having any of her own letters answered, she means to find out what mischief Tom is so certainly up to.

Huck, hiding now under Tom's sickbed, is given his true name back. Sally says he can still call her Aunt.

And his Aunt Polly she said Tom was right about old Miss Watson setting Jim free in her will; [...] and I couldn't ever understand before, until that minute and that talk, how he could help a body set a nigger free with his bringing-up.

Recall Huck's amazement when Tom told him he'd help free Jim, that his friend would so casually become a criminal. Tom is, in fact, the all-American show-off, one who really risks nothing; a jerk.

Confirmation of this comes not long after when Huck asks, in the closing pages, what Tom's intention was if they'd managed to get away. Follow the river to the end having adventures, he says:

and then tell [Jim] about his being free, and take him back up home on a steamboat, in style, and pay him for his lost time, and write word ahead and get out all the niggers around, and have them waltz him into town with a torchlight procession and a brass-band, and then he would be a hero, and so would we. But I reckoned it was about as well the way it was.

So Tom's ambitions, from a theatrical perspective, are not that much different from the King & Duke's (whose place in the narrative he very neatly took) that is: pay Jim for his pains and put him on display to those most interested (as an example of what exactly?) at every river town they land in, to popular acclaim.

As it is, Tom gives Jim $40, and we hear Jim speak for the first time since Huck left him to fetch the doctor:

"Dah, now, Huck, what I tell you? -- what I tell you up dah on Jackson islan'? I tole you [...] I ben rich wunst, en gwineter to be rich agin en it's come true; en heah she is! Dah, now! doan' talk to me -- signs is signs, mine I tell you; en I knowed jis' 's well 'at I 'uz gwineter be rich agin as I's a-stannin' heah dis minute!"

Of course on Jackson Island Jim told Huck he was rich because he was worth $800 and, after running off, he now owned himself--an observation he does not care to repeat in front of the white people now assembled.

Tom now wants to go have adventures in Indian Territory, though Huck allows he doesn't have the money for an expedition, being that pap has probably claimed his fortune from Judge Thatcher by now. Tom says that, far as he knows, there's been no sign of pap all this time. Jim then solemnly tells Huck that pap is never coming back, that the man they found face down dead in the drifting house, who Jim told Huck not to look at because of bad luck, was his father.

With this, the story ends. Our chronicle of drift has found home at last, the family restored, Huck in its midst, the need for lies gone. We hear no more about Jim, likely on his way back to wife and children as Huck writes the tale.

Twain closes his work, this greatest of American novels, with a perfect hymn to national restlessness, a coda which might have done as much to certify the book's stature as any passage that's come before:

[...] if I'd a knowed what a trouble it was to make a book I wouldn't a tackled it, and ain't a-going to no more. But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she's going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can't stand it. I been there before.

The End. Yours Truly, Huck Finn.

Last week Chapter XLI
Next week: An Afterword

Divide's Guide to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, edited and revised for publication, is now available in a Kindle edition for $3.95.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Huckleberry Finn, Chapter XLI

Huck gets the village doctor, a kind older man, out of bed and tries to explain how his companion got a bullet in the leg.

I told him me and my brother was over on Spanish Island hunting yesterday afternoon, and camped on a piece of a raft we found, and about midnight he must a kicked his gun in his dreams, for it went off and shot him in the leg, and we wanted him to go over there and fix it and not say nothing about it, nor let anybody know, because we wanted to come home this evening and surprise the folks.

[....] after a minute, he says:

"How'd you say he got shot?"

"He had a dream," I says, "and it shot him."

"Singular dream," he says.

An awkward boy, trying desperately to lie his way out of a jam, comes up with an enduring, wry comment on the Pursuit of Happiness, one which, in the wake of the Civil War and Reconstruction, was apt for idealists north and south. "He had a dream," I says, "and it shot him." Huck knows Tom too well, has witnessed his latest mania close-up, and in the midst of a lie, can't help but voice a supreme truth. Tom made his dream a reality and has been knocked down by it.

While the American Dream was not coined as a phrase for another half century, Twain certainly recognized early on its outline--the promise, the lift and the all-too-frequent fall back to earth--and the individuals who believed in it. He saw it in the particularly frustrated lives of his father and older brother, in the fates of the men he knew on the Mississippi, in the Nevada silver camps, in the dandies and plungers who drifted through San Francisco. He neither criticizes nor condemns, the line isn't even a warning (and in his own life it vibrates with as much prophecy as knowledge.) It is rather a simple fact tucked in at the end of our greatest novel: the dream has consequences.

The doctor is unsure if the canoe will carry the two of them safely across the river. Huck, saying it has held all three of them, awakens further suspicion from the old man and he insists on paddling out to the raft by himself. Huck has no choice but to let him go then falls into a deep sleep that lasts until mid-morning.

No sign of the doctor and Tom, Huck resolves to get to the island when he runs into Uncle Silas in the village. Huck makes up another story as to his whereabouts the night before and Silas takes him home after getting a letter at the post office.

At home the neighbors are sitting talking with Aunt Sally. One has been to Jim's cabin for a good look around.

"Well, Sister Phelps, I've ransacked that-air cabin over, an' I b'lieve the nigger was crazy. I says to Sister Damrell -- didn't I, Sister Damrell? -- s'I, he's crazy, s'I -- them's the very words I said. You all hearn me: he's crazy, s'I; everything shows it, s'I. Look at that-air grindstone, s'I; want to tell me't any cretur 't's in his right mind 's a goin' to scrabble all them crazy things onto a grindstone, s'I? Here sich 'n' sich a person busted his heart; 'n' here so 'n' so pegged along for thirty-seven year, 'n' all that -- natcherl son o' Louis somebody, 'n' sich everlast'n rubbage. He's plumb crazy, s'I; it's what I says in the fust place, it's what I says in the middle, 'n' it's what I says last 'n' all the time -- the nigger's crazy -- crazy 's Nebokoodneezer, s'I."

So Tom's fantasy, which he promoted with the cry that everyone knew that such things needed to be done, has been discovered by the intended audience, who don't get it. What's more, Jim, who had to acquiesce to every one of Tom's nutty ideas, is regarded as the crazy one. The tiresome biddy's opinion about Jim's sanity was a common enough evaluation of black people made by clueless whites for years and years, as well as an all-too-true reality for many blacks indeed driven insane by the institution of American apartheid. (Maybe not coincidentally, That Nigger's Crazy is the title of a 1974 comedy record by the great Richard Pryor, who also happened to win the very first Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.)

Aunt Sally, in reviewing the events of the night before with the neighbors, remembers she locked the boys in their room for safety, and looks at Huck suspiciously. He volunteers to go out to look for Tom, and is made to stay put as Silas goes back to town. He returns at 10 that night with no news. Sally puts Huck to bed and sits talking with him for a long time, worrying about Tom's well being and, now aware that Huck can sneak out of the house, asking him not to.

He promises, though he does climb down the lightning rod twice that night to see her sitting up waiting, tears in her eyes, next to a candle in the window. At first dawn he finds that she has fallen asleep, apparently resting on the sill. The Civil War is recalled if only temperamentally; the figure of the grieving, grey-haired mother of a missing and wounded boy, with light in window, being probably the central sentimental popular image of that time.

Last week Chapts XXXIX & XL
Next week Chapt XLII & Chapter the Last

Divide's Guide to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, edited and revised for publication, is now available in a Kindle edition for $3.95.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Midnight In The Garden Of Goobers And Weasels cont.

Last time out (it seems like only yesterday!) I forgot to mention a large, perhaps the central, driving force behind the ginned-up rightist outrage brigades, being specifically ratings. The MSM in general, and ol' Rupe in partic., desperately need eyeballs.

Let us savor briefly the latest bad financial news over at the Dirty Digger's shop: a $200+ million loss on the MySpace business. Unmentioned in the piece are declines elsewhere in the Asshat Empire: such as wildly overpaying for the Wall Street Journal a year before the crash (one hears that the staff there are waiting for the blades to start dropping), the money drain that is the FUX financial channel, not to mention the $1 million lost each and every week for years now at the NY Post. Next posit the putative %20 drop in advertising over all and one sees the drastic need for juicing the brain-dead brands. Now think where the d-bag might be in six months' time if nothing turns around.

Now I am just an old magazine biz refugee, living on a quiet Chicago back street, writing my books and going slowly broke; which is to say a mere bystander. Which is to say, take all I have here with a grain of salt. But I bring it up in the first place because few will do it elsewhere. To put it baldly, TV will never tell you that fewer people are watching TV. No one wants to go into too much detail about Rupe's problems because a) he'll do his best to make them regret it and b) his problems are their problems too. (Any one know how many cable boxes have been switched off in the last year? I'm curious.) Former high rollers fallen on their uppers slide by on bullshit just as long as they can. While there is never a shortage of that enduring lube, the machinery of commerce and fear it is so often applied to breaks down all the time.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Muddle Managers

I began my guide to Huckleberry Finn to coincide with the first half year of Barack Obama's first term mainly because I felt there was very little else to talk about. Public events were rolling along pretty much as I'd foreseen and, unlike James Kunstler, I get tired of repeating myself. (This, btw, is not a knock on JHK. His grasp of what's so dreadfully wrong in our country is pretty tight, and far more informed than mine.)

Anyway, my literary project is finishing up in time for healthcare reform, so I'll just note that Our Man has it, details pending, in the bag.

How am I so damn sure? For starters, gaze upon the opposition, and laugh. There does not seem to be a coherent GOP political apparatus anymore, that is--a body that coordinates messages, policy, and legislation leading forward to the next national elections, and beyond in two-year increments. What's in place, in true Burkean style, are a variety of hot-button propaganda shops wired around certain, sometimes overlapping issues: right-to-loafers (I meant to write 'lifers' but will let that stand), john birthers, race nuts, gun butts, immigration screamers, israel dreamers, low taxers, Christian yakkers, and free market backers.

If you sense a certain boutique-ing afoot in Redland, give yourself a gold star. For let us appreciate in hindsight that the GOProject, from the Goldwater disaster onward was relentlessly test-marketed, thoroughly focus-grouped, and image-shopped to create that melange of petty grievances and grand aspirations that they have cooked with since King Ronnie. Problem is, once you feed your people What-You-Desire-is-What-You'll-Get long enough a certain reality principle intrudes. Interests wane and splinter, short-term goals predominate, cynicism rules the leadership, common goals become secondary, and when the system stops producing as advertised--which is what we are seeing now--panic roars in the wake of failure.

For all those touching idiots standing up yelling in town halls this month is one big, tone deaf admission that that ol' black magic don't work so well anymore, the political equivalent of an electric shock for a dying heart.

What has happened is that real life has left the GOP behind. Those of us around for the killing of the Clinton health reform program should remember a job very smoothly done, accomplished mainly because industries, even those like auto manufacturers which would have benefitted from guaranteed government health care, opposed it on philosophical (if the assumptions of power can be called such) grounds.

Guess what? While I have not seen this exactly bandied about in Blue Dog dispatches, vested commercial interests against healthcare reform have pretty much disappeared. Auto makers (I think there are a couple left, along with other vestiges of heavy industry) need it, the AMA (a very conservative lobby ) is on board, insurance companies, perhaps to stem the loss of hundreds of customers daily, or taking certain lessons from the AIG rescue, are ready to deal. If there's a small business option in the works, you might even see a couple Republican votes.

Looked at another way, the interests of the Gone Old Party are now at drastic odds with more than several of their traditional corporate overlords. The wild success of the Cash-for-clunkers program, a life-line to failing car salesmen, a traditional Republican cadre if ever there was one, is a sterling case in point. One notes that GOP opposition to extending the program was reflexive, shocked, and short.

If you see the GOP broadly, as one ought, as a branded politico/marketing/entertainment industry--something it very deliberately modeled itself into--then you will understand that their need to halt healthcare is really a fight to keep the lights on in their own mall. Their problem is, as it has been since that squalid little man lied about Iraq and left New Orleans to drown in filth, that mall has become a place no one--well, outside the old Confederacy--much wants to be seen in anymore. And sending out day labor to advertise the joint by yelling at the competition, which has far better products and an excellent CEO, is a monumentally stupid idea, one which worked very poorly the last time they tried.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Huckleberry Finn, Chapters XXXIX & XL

In their zeal to complete Tom's set design for Jim's prison cell, the boys capture, then lose in the house, a healthy supply of rats and snakes which terrorize Aunt Sally. The boys collect more vermin for Jim's cell and it is soon enough teeming:

and you never see a cabin as blithesome as Jim's was when they'd all swarm out for music and go for him. Jim didn't like the spiders, and the spiders didn't like Jim; and so they'd lay for him, and make it mighty warm for him. And he said that between the rats and the snakes and the grindstone there warn't no room in bed for him, skasely; and when there was, a body couldn't sleep, it was so lively, and it was always lively, he said, because they never all slept at one time, but took turn about, so when the snakes was asleep the rats was on deck, and when the rats turned in the snakes come on watch, so he always had one gang under him, in his way, and t'other gang having a circus over him, and if he got up to hunt a new place the spiders would take a chance at him as he crossed over. He said if he ever got out this time he wouldn't ever be a prisoner again, not for a salary.

Uncle Silas has not heard from the non-existent Louisiana plantation regarding Jim and decides to advertise the runaway in the St. Louis papers, which Huck fears will quickly render the truth of Jim's case. All the props of Jim's great prisoner adventure are in place, so now to bring the escape fantasy to a needed end Tom sends a series of messages warning the Phelps of trouble. The first note Huck slips under the front door while the family is sleeping, dressed--as Tom insists--as a serving girl. The second is a drawn skull and crossbones which Tom pins to the front door the next night. The evening following Tom, in a repeat of the trick played on Jim in Chapter II, leaves a letter on the person of a sleeping slave, posted to guard duty, saying that a gang of cuttthroats is planning to come take Jim the night after, when the boys are planning to finally set Jim free and escape to the raft.

While this, and all the nonsense of the preceding chapters, are related in Huck's very entertaining vernacular, let us pause for a bit to consider how the cause of the imprisoned man plagues the family. Everyone, except Tom, is miserable and on edge. The living quarters of all are alive with pests. (Might this be Twain's version of a house divided against itself?) Domestic thefts are rife and now the household has been put in genuine fear of their lives. Why? Because of slavery, and a conniving boy with an overactive, nearly sick, imagination.

That night the boys find out that Tom's image of Jim's captivity is not a game after Huck, sneaking into the cellar for butter for their getaway meals, is discovered by Aunt Sally and made to wait in the parlor, which is full of armed men. Fifteen neighbors have come to protect the home from Tom's imaginary gang of desperadoes. (Though the word abolitionist is unspoken here, any such raiding party at the time would have been seen as such. The system of slavery, always in danger of going to pieces with escapes, raids, and uprisings required constant vigilance, and finally the Civil War, to defend.)

Tom is waiting in Jim's cabin when Huck is finally able to sneak away and warn him of the armed neighborhood watch. Tom is delighted:

His eyes just blazed; and he says:

"No! -- is that so? Ain't it bully! Why, Huck, if it was to do over again, I bet I could fetch two hundred! If we could put it off till -- "

"Hurry! Hurry!" I says. "Where's Jim?"

The blazing eyes are a common enough 19th century trope meant to signal insanity. I am pretty sure that Twain means us to see that Tom is crazy by now, one more white guy who's lost his mind in projecting a fantasy upon the body of a black man. Note too that Tom is about to say he wants more time to draw more men against them when Huck cuts him short, nearly in a panic, to recognize the seriousness of the moment.

They hear men talking outside who try the lock on the door. Quickly slipping under the wall and sneaking out of the lean-to, the three are almost away when Tom snaps a sliver on a fence rail. They are discovered. Men yell, bullets fly. Our heros take to their heels as the hounds are let loose.

Because they know the boys, the hounds pass by without bothering them and our three heros get to the canoe, push off into the river and soon gain the raft. Huck speaks:

"Now, old Jim, you're a free man again, and I bet you won't ever be a slave no more."

"En a mighty good job it wuz, too, Huck. It 'uz planned beautiful, en it 'uz done beautiful; en dey ain't nobody kin git up a plan dat's mo' mixed-up en splendid den what dat one wuz."

We was all glad as we could be, but Tom was the gladdest of all because he had a bullet in the calf of his leg.

The notion that Tom could have run through the woods with a ball in his leg is best given a pass. The novel's essential realism reasserts itself quickly, however. Tom begins to talk off his head in earnest now and Huck and Jim quickly decide he needs a doctor; Jim indeed insisting that he will not budge a step until one is found. This steadfastness calls up Huck's unfortunate observation that he knew Jim was white inside, meant as a compliment, though very much at odds with the novel's earlier depiction of the color as something indicating sickness (pap's skin), confusion (the fog), and overweening pride and arrogance (the dress suits of Colonels Grangerford and Sherburn.)

Invisible whiteness is, of course, not white at all, and Huck's stray comment--a vulgar, if sincere compliment in America well into the 20th Century--now serves to underline just how pointless such distinguishing characteristics are.

Tom, of course, protests the seeking of medical attention and, as Huck leaves, gives him very specific instructions as to how to bring the physician--a farrago of adventure novel mummery with paranoid overtones. Jim, for his part, says he will hide in the woods once he sees Huck return with the doctor.

Last week Chapts. XXXVII & XXXVIII
Next week Chapt. XLI

Divide's Guide to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, edited and revised for publication, is now available in a Kindle edition for $3.95.