Friday, February 29, 2008

What the Success of Young Politicians Tells Us about What Lies Ahead

The brightest star in the Democratic camp is Barack Obama. If all goes according to plan, the brightest star in the Republican Party, in three years, will be Bobby Jindal. Barack Obama, if elected, will not be the youngest president this country has had. Bill Clinton was younger than Barack Obama is now; so was John F. Kennedy. And, of course, the youngest president of all was Theodore Roosevelt. Bobby Jindal, if elected in five years, will be the youngest president in the history of the nation (now, he is almost a decade younger than Senator Obama.)

I don't like this trend.

Why should I not? Aren't I happy that a minority is going to be the next president of the United States? Yes, but not that particular man. Aren't I glad that the Republicans will very likely be running a non-white for the White House? Of course. The problem is that both of the men are young.

You can forget experience; Abraham Lincoln didn't have much experience in Washington before he was elected president. (He had served one term in the United States Congress.) What I am concerned about is that people are throwing themselves behind these people without really thinking. (If you don't know what I mean, check out Barack Obama's "Yes, We Can" video.) I don't like to think of myself as a apostle of declinism, but, if the nation's vote is controlled by inspiration rather than reason, we have some hard years ahead.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Some Notes on the Death of Mr. Buckley

I can't pretend to be an expert on William F. Buckley, Jr. I have read articles by him, but I doubt that I have read an entire book that he wrote, cover to cover. I am a fan of the magazine that he founded, "The National Review," and I think that Mr. Buckley's intellectual charisma is far better than the sort of rubbish that most "conservatives" consume nowadays on Talk Radio or in Godless by Ann Coulter. A friend of mine, a Talk Radio "conservative," asked not long ago if there were any conservative writers whom I admired--I had been trashing Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh in his presence. "I'm a big fan of William F. Buckley," I said (Take that, dowg!) "The National Review" has stated that Mr. Buckley is irreplaceable. Given the current state of affairs, I would say that intellectualism in politics is, too. William F. Buckley, rest in peace.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Realistic Fantasy and Fantastical Realism

I read an excellent essay by James Wood yesterday called "Hysterical Realism." Since I had heard of this essay before reading it, you can rest assured that this will not be the first time that it has been discussed. But discussing it isn't really my intention, although discussion is inevitable in any conversation to which we hope to add.

By hysterical realism, Mr. Wood means novels by writings like Salmon Rushdie, Dave Eggers, Tom Wolfe, Zadie Smith and David Foster Wallace. Novels which draw from reality but also are set apart from reality. It is almost like reality on speed. Mr. Wood says it better; he gives the image of a work of art that is in constant motion because it is too embarrassed to stop. That would reveal its own shallowness.

Mr. Wood's central assertion is that such fiction is insufficient because the sum of the improbabilities while conceivable in reality, cancel one another out when they are taken together. He uses one of Zadie Smith's characters from "White Teeth" as an example. This character, the head of a fanatical Muslim religious group called KEVIN, is the son of Presbyterians from the Caribbean who converts to Islam, studies the Koran in Saudi Arabia and moves into the London garage of his Mormon aunt. Mr. Wood argues (persuasively, I think) that any one of these details would have been acceptable if Ms. Smith had taken the time to show a connectivity between them, but that she never does. The reader is bombarded with a barrage of humorous details, but none of them is true.

Mr. Wood also argues that these novels are too closely related to reality to constitute Magical Realism (a movement which started in South America but is sometimes connected with writers like Rushdie) because they are too closely related to reality. I agree with this assertion broadly, but, in this case, Mr. Wood has missed an excellent opportunity to set the record straight. This is what I will try to do, though I am not a critic of any great ability.

One fact of which Mr. Wood is aware, I believe, is that Magical Realism is a sort of fiction which commonly has a mythological setting but is writes against the grain of that setting. (The village of Garcia Marquez's short story, "The Very Old Man with Enormous Wings" is not a village inside of time or history, but that does not prevent the old man from having insects and parasite in his wings that the chickens dig out of them.) Hysterical Realism, as Mr. Wood calls it, is a genre which is grounded very much in the contemporary world, but writes against the grain of that world, making the mundane fantastical. In that sense, the writings of Rushdie and Smith are the antitheses of authors like Marquez; they are the anti-Marquezes, not his heirs. But now for the point which I wanted to get around to: I believe that a better title for the Magical Realism movement would be Realistic Fantasy (I substitute "Fantasy" for "Magic" because the word "Magicalism" does not exist) and a better name for Hysterical Realism would be Fantastical Realism. To refer to a novel like "One Hundred Years of Solitude" as Realistic Fantasy acknowledges the fantastical base and content told in a realistic form, whereas to refer to a novel like "White Teeth" as Fantastical Realism delineates the realistic base and content while acknowledging the fantastical form.

Devotees of Realistic Fantasy (as I will now call it) will say that the setting of "One Hundred Years of Solitude" is not fantastical; after all, is there not a real village of Macondo which Garcia Marquez visited on a trip back from school in his early twenties? Yes, but the universe of "One Hundred Years of Solitude" is a universe far removed from those which we occupy. It is a universe in which people live for hundreds of years and blood streams for miles to find the right person. It is a different universe with similarities to our own. The universe of "White Teeth" on the other hand is the same, although it has some differences from the one which we usually experience. The usefulness of the two terms, Realistic Fantasy and Fantastical Realism, lies in the fact that they acknowledge the two genres are not the same thing, but rather antitheses. But, as they say, two sides of a coin are never far apart.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Shortest Film Review I've Yet Written

I saw "In the Valley of Elah" tonight. Paul Haggis is a natural at sentimentality.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Archbishop Is Not an Economist, And It's a Good Thing, Too

I looked up Rowan Williams tonight on wikipedia to see what he actually said about Sharia law. I still have no clue because I am not sure if he has any clue what he is talking about anymore, but I was struck by another comment of his that I came across in the same article. Something to the affect that every score in the developed world can be interpreted as an economic loss in the developing world. What a load of rubbish. Does he have any idea how many people are not starving today in Taiwan or South Korea or Vietnam because their governments opened their borders to foreign business?

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The City Council Should Be Ashamed of Itself

Before making this post, I should note that I never bothered to vote on the ban on same-sex marriages in our state constitution, even though I did vote in the state elections in 2006. Having said that, I think that what the city council did, extending employment benefits to same-sex couples, is positively ridiculous. I consider myself, more or less, a supporter of gay rights if, by that, you mean that they ought to have the right to pursue and consummate a relationship with whomever they please, but there is no reason why they should receive privileges for such relationships at the cost of the rest of society. But (my opponents will say), don't you give those rights to heterosexual couples who don't have children. The truth of the matter is that we do, but we shouldn't. I have nothing against couples who decide not to have children, but, from a simple economic point of view, there is no point of subsidizing citizens for activities which will not positively benefit society in the long or short term. The act of the city council was especially ridiculous, given that they had just been voted out. I doubt that Linda Pall would have voted in favor of this measure had she been reelected last fall. Taking revenge on your the populace is no place to start.

Monday, February 18, 2008

On Money

I heard of a guy named Chris Hedges who has a new book called "American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America". Naturally, I think that he is an utter loser, but I'll leave that aside (for now).

What progressives (they aren't worthy of the title 'liberals') don't realize is that as long as people are allowed to control their own money, there is no need to fear totalitarianism. Money is quite a liberating commodity. We're lucky to have it.

It's for this reason that Barack Obama is more likely to be a fascist (even though he isn't one . . . yet) than is John McCain.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Barack Obama

Everyone likes Barack Obama. I'm sure that he's a nice enough guy, but one should never trust a politician whom everyone likes.

Saturday, February 16, 2008


I was having a conversation at Drones today about the nature of mythology, during which we discussed what constitutes a mythological system. We were debating, in particular, whether the Lord of the Rings trilogy or the DC and Marvell Comics qualified as mythology. Here are my thoughts on the matter:

Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" Project" does not constitute a legitimate mythology. When Tolkien, a preeminent Medievalist and critic, set out to compose a mythology for England set in a kingdom known as Middle Earth--a place with which all of us are familiar through generic writings but different names--he undercut any possibility of Middle Earth being a legitimate mythology of England. Mythology is like culture: It is not made, but is. Hence, the only prominent English mythology is the legend of King Arthur. King Arthur may not have sought after the Grail, but he was an actual historical figure known for his attempts to stave off Germanic invaders, and, in doing so, he so captured the imaginations of the Britons that all Anglo-Saxons are now familiar with who Arthur, the mythological figure, is and what he did. Even those of us who have not read Chretien, Geoffrey of Monmouth or Edmund Spenser can take educated guesses at who Arthur is. I doubt that many people who have not read or seen the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy can speak about who Frodo Baggins or Gandalf are.

Batman and Superman, on the other hand, do constitute mythological American figures because they have become ingrained in the American consciousness to such an extent that everyone knows who they are and what they do. Furthermore, both--in one way or another--are avatars of American ideals. Superman is quintessentially American because of his unflinching devotion to justice (and don't forget the American Way) and Batman because of his dedication to self-improvement. More importantly, whereas they are extraordinary figures, they find it necessary to maintain their ordinary identities; Superman as Clark Kent and Batman as Bruce Wayne. The anonymity implied by this vocation makes these comic book characters distinctly American in that, unlike the heroes of the classical or chivalric age, neither of them fight for idealistic honor, but rather for practical justice. They are, in a sense, the very incarnations of American identity. Lastly, the two characters can be identified as mythological because they are constantly being reinterpreted and reinvented. For example, I have never opened a Marvell or DC comic in my life, but am reasonably familiar with the biographies of both characters. The different stories are often conflicting (it is difficult to square Tim Burton's 1989 telling of "Batman" with Christopher Nolan's 2005 version, "Batman Begins") but this is one of the attributes of mythology. There is more than one version of the tale of Iphigenia, for instance. There is an almost unbridgeable chasm between the sane Ajax of the "Iliad" and the unstable Ajax who becomes envious to the point of suicide in the "Metamorphoses." The Marvell and DC comics are no exception and, for this reason, they are their own urban mythology, although they may not last as long as the story of Achilles has.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Against Metafiction

Naturally, there are no hard rules to the art of fictions, but one thing which is best avoided is having a protagonist who is a novelist or--even worse--a poet. I suppose that Mario Vargas Llosa almost always uses a novelist as his main character, but the problem with that sort of fiction is that the fictional characters can only be as good as their creators. Hence, Thomas Mann can write about whoever he wants, because he's the Mann, but I wouldn't recommend that a first-time novelist try to write a novel relating the life of a great poet. Writers aren't very interesting people anyway; that's why we write about other people (even though the memoir, as opposed to the autobiography, has made navel-gazing respectable.)

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Who's It Gonna Be?

Fred Barnes hints, in the WSJ, that John McCain will need a running mate who can be a champion for social conservatives. This may or may not be code for Mike Huckabee, but I think that Mike Huckabee is the wrong man for the job. I would like to see Charlie Crist, but I think that he might be too moderate. For the moment, I think that Tim Pawlenty might be a better choice. Bobby Jindal is another option, but it would be unwise to have him run for vice president before he has been tried in Louisiana. (If he can straighten out Louisiana, he can do anything.)

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Is There Anything More Depressing That You Can Pile On?

Can you think of anything more depressing than the fact that a former social worker from Hawaii who solicited moral cues from Franz Fanon, patron saint of terrorists and children of the 1960s everywhere, is going to defeat in the next presidential election a decorated American war hero who was tortured for seven years because he wouldn't sign an anti-American statement?

Monday, February 11, 2008

"Rambo": Movie Review

There will be blood. And severed heads and shattering skulls and slopping intestines and flying limbs and ripped jugulars, too. That's what pretty much describes John Rambo's return to the screen in the fourth installment, simply entitled "Rambo." In fact, simplicity could, more or less, describe this unapologetically neoconservative fantasy in which the good guys (emphasis on the "guys" part) all speak with American or British accents and shoot first, then skip the asking-questions-later part.

We join John Rambo--tortured Vietnam veteran who looks nothing like John McCain--hunting snakes in South Eastern Asia with a dexterity that could easily be that of a Zen master. Enter a group of American missionaries carrying supplies to war-ravaged Burma ("Myanmar" is nowhere in sight), soliciting help from the mentally-scarred warrior. The rest of the movie involves a capture and a rescue, and from the set up, I assume that you can guess who is captured and who does the rescuing.

What makes this movie more than a standard action film is the level of violence prevalent throughout. One thing about evangelicals (think Stallone and Mel Gibson) is that they sure make violent movies. Mr. Stallone does not flinch at portraying children being executed or even mutilated; rape is one of the movie's motifs.

But, somehow, the violence seems cathartic to the audience, and I don't doubt that it seemed cathartic to Mr. Stallone as well. This is not to say that the movie is brilliant. I enjoyed it no more than I enjoyed "The Hills Have Eyes." The only thing about either movie which I enjoy is seeing the villains be dispatched in the end, and their end in "Rambo is particularly satisfying.
Poetic justice has never been more just, or less poetic.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

On Visiting the Crossing

I visited the Crossing, a church that meets in the UI's administration building, today. Though I can't say that I enjoy the charismatic liturgy prevalent in so many evangelical (or mere Christian) churches in this day and age, it was nice to get another perspective as well as seeing so many college students--many of whom I know--apart from the academic context. Onward Christian Scholars!

Friday, February 8, 2008

Some Probable Guests at RNC

I took a two-and-a-half hour nap today. I haven't felt so refreshed in several years. But, anyway, there's no rest for the weary this time of year. Here's who I'm guessing will be on the speakers' list at the 2008 Republican National Convention:

Tim Pawlenty, Mitt Romney, Joe Lieberman, Charlie Crist, Sarah Palin, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mike Huckabee, and, of course, John McCain.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

On Hearing Mitt Romney Dropped Out

Mitt Romney just dropped out of the election. That means that it is a two-way race between Mike Huckabee and John McCain. I also suppose that means that Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh are going to be disappointed. Good. Although I'm not Mitt Romney's biggest fan, I must say that I feel kind of sorry for him at this point. After all, he has been planning to run for president for about ten years. He has also spent millions on a campaign that didn't work out. But I really do appreciate that he was willing to drop out.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

What McCain owes Mike Huckabee

John McCain might not owe Mike Huckabee for his victories yesterday, but I think that he probably owes Huckabee for his lead in more general terms. For example, McCain would probably not have won in New Hampshire if Mitt Romney had won in Iowa, but Mitt Romney didn't win in Iowa, Mike Huckabee, a man who was unelectable in New Hampshire, did. Hence, I think that John McCain should send Huckabee a thank you note, and the Republican Party should, too.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Rambo and the Terminator: We Shall Not Fail!

Apparently, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger have both endorsed John McCain for president. It would be cool if they could both act as his bodyguards. I doubt there's ever been a presidential candidate who both Rambo and the Terminator would take a bullet for. It could be a cool movie.

Sunday, February 3, 2008


I read on wikipedia tonight that Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck is working on a script in English. This may or may not be a translation of The Lives of Others (a movie which you should see if you haven't.) But if it is a new screenplay and is anywhere close to as good as his last one, I can't wait until it hits the theaters.

Random Thought Experiment

Which of the following do you think would make the best (or worst) potential interviewee on Oprah?

Humbert Humbert

Fyodor Karamazov


Sir Gawain


Saturday, February 2, 2008

A Recording of a Short Conversation

Tom and I were discussing my politics recently. The conversation went something like this:

Tom: Do you consider yourself a man of the people, James?

I: No, but I do consider myself to be a man for the people.

Tom: That's good. Is it Edmund Burke?

I: No; it's Derek Jacobi in Gladiator.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Iraq and Vietnam

Since everyone appears to think that the war in Iraq is, like Vietnam, lost from the beginning, I think that I, as a layman, ought to point out that while the war may not be winnable, it is not like Vietnam. I won't bother mentioning whether I support the war or not, because, at this point, that question is irrelevant. We shouldn't worry about what we did do; only what we should do now.

It would seem that we are in a situation like that of Vietnam. Our enemies are using the same sort of guerrilla warfare which was our undoing in Asia, we have lost more than three thousand men, and there is no end in sight, as they say. Furthermore, we are fighting a distant war in a country whose people are not out biggest fans.

But there are also significant differences. For one thing, in Iraq, there is no clear clash of ideologies, unlike in Vietnam where it was communism vs. democracy. In Iraq, it is more like a clash of civilizations. It is not a battle spawned in the head, but in the bowels. Iraq is in the middle of a civil war between Sunni and Shi'a; I don't think that anyone but the Republicans in the White House and Congress would deny this. But it is not a civil war in which the United States will appear as the extreme axis of evil for either side (or, at least this outcome is unlikely.)

I actually have great hopes for the future of Iraq. It may not be a nation that will help us with our War on Terror (I'm sorry, that's just a bad name), but I would like to echo Thomas Mann to express my optimism: The Iraqi people may not have decided what they want, but I believe that what they have demonstrated is that they do not want another dictator like Saddam Hussein or a theocrat like the Iranian Ayatollah Koumeini was back in the 80s.

In short, I think that Iraq will prevail. The only question is will the United States.