Wednesday, April 26, 2006

The Moderate cannot hold

As "The West Wing" slouches towards its inevitable extinction, one must ask with dreary liturgical repetitiveness, "Why, oh why must it pretend to expect so much suspense on the part of the viewer over the lining up of a fictional Cabinet for an Administration whose fictional adventures will never be aired?" Or does NBC really expect that Americans will hit the streets demanding MORE of President(-Elect) Smitts and more, please more Josh Bolton-- er, whatshisface? Dear gods, Americans don't care who the REAL White House Chief-of-Staff is! Nor do Americans care who the real Rob Lowe is, Republican or jailbait-chaser or whatnot. Every preview of the April 23rd installment was thus an insult to the American electorate, and we should demand that the damned thing be killed off before Alan Alda can accept a Kerry-McCain Vice Presidency.
But there is more to the matter. In a vein which Aaron Sorkin would almost certainly not explore, we received a spirited defense of America's fundamental "centrism" which Josh and Smitts must carefully defend against the demands of radical "liberals" as well as fence-sitting "Republican moderates." Thus two of the most well-bred urban (well, DC) legends of today are feed. Not that I deny the existence of airily disconnected leftists who still thump Marx (or rather, some glossy pink post-feminist tome parading something or other completely disconnected from any legitimate question of political economy as "Marxism"); I have known them, I have loathed them, I have battled them too. These people are called "academics", and they are a woeful bunch, and they have absolutely no influence over Events at all. Thirty-seven years after Lyndon Johnson vacated the White House, does anyone even remember what a "liberal" is? This great nation endured them, their warmongering and all, and prospered. Hmm. And yet these slimmed-down Carter/Clinton liberals, who hardly dare to ask for a few more hospitals in exchange for a few fewer Stryker vehicles (or could we bargain for some handmedown BMD-2s from Russia instead?), no, just maybe perhaps no more tax cuts for the millionaires, not just right now please, and can we balance that budget?-- these Jacobin terrors are set to ruin everything, as always; but meanwhile, if we can whip those good old Republican moderates off the bench, we can have us a great government for sure!
Sadly, moderate Republicans are something of a Bigfoot right now, though reports of a couple of wild wooly females of that variety in the woods of Maine have gained credence. The real problem here is that, once again, mere moderatism, that unwholesome milk of electoral politics thrust into the mewling throats of registered infants, is the substitute for fortifying centrism. A centrist, in my view, is a person of convictions, either of the liberal or conservative persuasions, who assumes the responsibilities of office with a determination to make intelligent compromises which will promise not simply compromise for compromise's sake, but actual positive PROGRESS. The politics of the late Sharon government and of Ehud Ohlmert exemplify this tendency, and in light of the definition I set forth it is perhaps not so surprising that, sadly (and I do not know how) Ohlmert's sweep proved to be underwhelming. Vigorous programs do provoke suspicion as well as outright opposition, and so it should not shock us that Israeli voters had last-moment second thoughts about moving "Forward". But I still often ruminate on the Israeli teen who offered her enthusiastic support for Ohlmert by saying Kadima "is the sanest party-- it's right in the center!" She's right. And the center is the coolest place to be.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

"As You Like It" Day

Yesterday was-- well, not National Reading Day exactly, apparently, but someone declared a do some reading day (apparently outloud to your kids) and for my part I read "As You Like It". This most joyous of comedies naturally makes those times spent in reading it joyous themselves, though perhaps the thrill of discovery having first been met in 6th grade I may be forgiven for having turned my attentions today to two of Bacon's political essays, "Of Empire" and "Of the True Greatness of Kingdoms and Estates." But one should not flee the vernal byways of the Forest of Arden in haste, and I have been careful to return to pay further respects to Rosalind (particularly in Act 3 sc. 2 and Act 4 sc. 1) and her company, as well as to reread Susan Snyder's essay on the play at the back of the Folger edition. Despite a willingness to overplay the egalitarianism of Arden to the point of apparently denying Rosalind's own rhetorical triumphs (according to Snyder there are just no winners and no losers-- perhaps she too is a traveler?), she generally does justice to the play, and even sensibly echoes some of Camille Paglia's concerns about endless role-playing as a potential deadend. But then-- and also like Camille-- she has a rather exaggerated account, in my view, of how many compromises the post-Arden world will impose upon our heroine. But won't Duke Senior's new court be a rather jolly place? I can see it all, rooms of white and pale blue, hung with fully-clothed pastoral scenes like those Viennese Rococo paintings that adorned my childhood Mozart cassettes from Allegro. After all, Celia and Rosalind weren't having so dark a time of it there until Frederick sent them packing, and now he is gone, gone quite from the world in fact, there should be nothing to darken anyone's brow.

And so I don't fear for Rosalind's compromised female integrity-- why on earth would it be compromised?-- but I do wonder at Jacques' parting shots. It's as if, in cinematic terms, we pulled back at the close, our minueting marrieds (excuse my 18th Century anachronisms) frolicking in the depth of the frame while we huddle with Duke Senior and Jacques in the foreground. Jacques is no Malvolio, of course, plotting any sort of offstage mischief (I doubt Malvolio's potency to accomplish any, which is why I rather wonder that so many seem to feel that "Twelth Night" leaves such a dark shadow), but one may wonder why Shakespeare feels the urge to highlight his desire to continue his philosophic quest from the peripheries, substituting the once-disenfranchised Duke Senior in his pastoral idyll with the now-resigned usurper Frederick, who presumably will become some sort of Charles V-style holy man-- we might hope, one more holy and less inclined to wish for his old prerogatives. As Bacon says at the beginning of the essay "Of Empire", in a proposition I have previously applied to the postcurtain Prospero, "It is a miserable state of mind to have few things to desire, and many things to fear; and yet that commonly is the case of kings." So that he who has reached the pinnacle of his worldly fortune "falleth out of his own favor, and is not the thing he was." To what then does Jacques lead us?-- a pleasant "nook merely monastic", or a change of direction for the dramatist himself, as if to say, "Now I put my frolics behind me and take up the dark and mystic path that leads through Elsinore, past the cliffs of Dover and the tawny Nile, to the drowned book and Prosper's isle." Is Jacques a stand-in for Shakespeare, inventor of the human, preparing to interrogate the melancholy Dane, Iago and Edmund, Prospero and Perdita, turning his stage from breezy wood to blasted heath?

Rebecca West might lead us to ponder just what has been lost, that Shakespeare never again was so purely joyful a writer. If only "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is comparable in its sweetness (and even there we have more shadows, more overt unpleasantness), should we be willing to ask Shakespeare for more comedy, less tragedy? But be that as it may, let us forever stand at the side of Rosalind, who delights us with the picture of all that is best in us, commingling as only she can a vernal freshness that is enduring, a talent for androgeny that is rare, and an idyllic backdrop that is sheer fantasy made real. Giddiness is no alien to High Art, or High Thought, though few pedagogues and fewer sorts in the street will allow it, and Rosalind's musical wit, ever flowing and ever golden, and in concert with her merry and melancholy assortment of companions, offers us a literary concerto grosso whose irridescence will never pale, as long as we have ears to hear it.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Coming to Amsterdam, Going to America

As an opening salvo, allow me to pass on my delayed "hurrahs" for the mighty Dutch Republic, which has created an informational video as required viewing for new immigrants, showcasing such features of the liberaltarian Netherlands' modern life as a topless sunbathing female and two men smooching in the park. Are they targeting Muslim immigrants? Well, unless they're expecting an influx of new citizens from Kentucky, then, yes. The Dutch have been here before, after all; when the Hugenots deluged the Netherlands after the French ran them out, one of their first orders of business was to pressure the state to crack down on Catholics. Having borne with the mob lynching of the De Witts and now the murder of Theo Van Gogh, this small but proud country which was unquestionably the first European state to incarnate the ideals of Enlightenment, and which, with its harboring of Descartes and Spinoza in addition to the great cultural legacy of its Rembrandt and Vermeer may fairly claim to be a modern Athens in terms of the quality and fecundity of the intellectual achievement it has bequeathed to all modernity, is entirely right to insist upon newcomers adapting to what is not only a tradition but a rational and immutable ideal of tolerance and freedom there. After all, Spinoza explored at considerable length the issue of making ourselves reasonably conformable to the needs of our community-- of living as rational beings in a rational community-- and immigrants of faith, Islamic or otherwise, must understand that along with a freedom of personal metaphysical exploration and expression comes a duty to mend the sails of faith in order to leave all other citizens (family very much included) to make their own explorations and to express their answers and questions openly. The individual cannot make of himself a state within the state by virtue of his faith, nor can he be allowed to encourage the obeisance of his family to such a rule. The Dutch government is both right and completely within its rights to take steps to assure its continued freedoms, and I applaud the new effort.
In terms of our own American immigration debate, I offer simply this: whatever the pragmatic or moral outcomes of one policy or another (and I incline to believe that the McCain-Kennedy bill offered a reasonable course of action to deal with the problems at hand) let us not obscure the issue by forgetting that sovereign states certainly are within their rights to police their borders. Whatever my doubts about the motives of some of the fence-lusting Congressmen, I cannot right off a border fence as merely a manifestation of Nativism. Nor can I quite swallow the contradictions embedded in claims that "no American wants these jobs." Are we entirely unselfconscious in this nation of the Work Ethic to say such a thing, and are no conservatives going to jump in and comment on why Americans should hold themselves aloof from such work? More to the point for a liberal, why aren't more voices angrily demanding to know why the conditions involved are so deplorable that no legal citizen would consider such work, or what outrages illegal immigrants may suffer in the course of this labor? And surely even ardent Free Traders should be willing to allow that, where certain conditions depress wages within a country, it is not simply kneejerk interventionism to ask whether such conditions shouldn't be altered.
And frankly, we should not be too indulgent in simplistic, sentimental claims about the work ethic of illegal immigrants doing menial labor. I don't doubt that in fact most of them are diligent and motivated, but such states of character do not necessarily contradict the possibility of violating the law in other ways as well, and with vast influxes of persons roaming about unknown to the law and outside the system, they must inevitably pull certain social problems in their wake. This is not to push for collective punishment-- in fact, it is perhaps the central argument for the McCain/Kennedy approach, and it is one that can, and should, hold the center. But as long as massive illegal immigration continues, there remains a necessary problem (and, by definition, failure) of law enforcement, and with that problem in view I can only maintain that strengthening the security of our Mexican border cannot be a bad thing.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

War in a Time of Beach Reading

Some sad day, when you're poking through David Halberstam's "War in a Time of Peace" for the third round or so, you ask yourself how you can be troubled to believe any given thing you're being told. After all, some fine smart people in Washington were obviously interested in filling Mr. Halberstam's ear with their take on events, events whose momentousness is perhaps overstrained by an author who, despite his subtitle and some spiffy character-sketches of the Bush warriors has precious little interest in the military doings of the George H. W. Bush Administration (one which, one might think, would provide a more fertile ground to pick over than the long slow slog of the Clinton terms) and perhaps in choosing his subject as he does already betrays a certain prejudice. It's easy to enjoy having Bill Cohen shot up; like Bill Frist, he's one of those mannequin-come-morticians of DC whose unstudied grimace betrays a heart full of bile and a head full of bilge. And I won't blame a journalist for falling a little bit in love with Wes Clark; I'm a little in love with Wes Clark too, and if he never runs again and never finds his way into the shoes of Kissinger and Brezinski which he could so capably fill, I'll still have sweet memories of a night spent in front of a Ramada Inn's tv set watching him on C-Span with my honey. Better still, for Clark at least, was that gem of a townhall meeting on C-Span the week before, which I watched with my little cousin in his trailer park bedroom, the both of us eagerly sucking in Clark's Kadima-like centrist wisdom (you just make so much goshdarn sense, Wes!) before the added refinement of the postshow meet-and-greet (cameras still rollin, Wes!) where the General confided in an eager pro-Israeli voter his own Jewish heritage and assured her that, where "Bring it on!" concerns go, he'd be sure to "beat the sh*t out of" that George W. Bush.
But Halberstam, just as bad as Woodward, has rolled up his history-as-it-flies wrap with just the scraps of anecdote and insight that appeal to him-- appeal to his "literary" or "psychological" instincts as much as, or rather quite more than, any prejudicial political inclinations. But Pulitzers be damned, so many of these choice tidbits are worthless simplifications, so many fussy little 'that's when I knew that Sandy Berger was on board'isms, that it's hard not to want to throttle Halberstam for even publishing them. Just look at his coverage of Clinton's little Putting Green Day spazfest and ask yourself, Why, as an author, does Halberstam even bother to show up? If you couldn't authenticate one good line of Clintonian cussing, or invent one even, you're just embarassing yourself to even mention it. Look at "Dutch: A Memoir" and ask yourself, what have you given your readers? Essentially, a six-hundred page weekend editorial score-settler; and it is sufficient testimony to the flimsiness of the endeavor that, giving himself a couple of hours to pour through it, the reader realizes what a light tome it is. That Penguin Lives tract on George H.W. Bush feels like the "Iliad" by comparison. --But sincerely, I did love the Larry Eagleburger sketch. Secretary Eagleburger should be the model civil servant for us all.