A TRIUMPANT MARCHE

Hear, hear, Stephen Marche. Writing in The National Post, Marche takes a swipe at David Denby, the Snark-hunter:

David Denby, a New Yorker film critic, has just released an assault on the bad behaviour of our times, Snark: It’s Mean, It’s Personal and It’s Ruining Our Conversation. It is one of those thin polemical books that tries to excuse the laziness of its argumentation with brevity of presentation. The opening chapter is a contortionist act, defining the term “snarky” to fit Denby’s rather boring and unexceptional tastes. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are not snarky. Penn Jillette is. Obama and friends are not snarky. McCain and friends are. David Letterman is snarky. Lenny Bruce is not. Basically, people Denby dislikes are snarky. People he does like? Those are ironists.

Denby is just another old man who doesn’t like the tone the kids are taking these days. He adds to this blinkered fuddy-duddyism a pathetically old-fashioned morality that would not have been out of place in Edwardian England. The book becomes, quite quickly, a study in David Denby’s aspirational snobbery. Like the American parvenu who arrives at the country estate trying to impress the other guests with an air of haughty entitlement, he shuts the window of the smoking room in a marked manner because the servants’ chatter is disturbing the peregrinations of the port. The efforts only display his clumsiness, however. Real nobility loves the noise of the rabble.

Denby’s defence of politeness boils down to a defence of institutional legitimacy. He disapproves of critics who are not from The New Yorker; he finds them gauche and common. I agree with him that the rise of the blogosphere has produced an explosion of sniping from the sidelines, but the problem with that kind of conversation isn’t tone — it’s method. The insults posted on the comments section of Gawker or any of the other nasty websites tend to be thoughtless because they’re anonymous. Argument reveals a healthy environment of idea development and discussion, and we should be taking shots at each other in public debate; just not cheap shots. No one but obsessive self-Googlers care what’s posted on a random website somewhere. But given that our celebrities are vapid, our bankers bankrupt, our politicians fraudulent, and our watchmen blind to endemic corruption at the core and periphery of all systems both local and global, who can say that we don’t need more attack dogs? Would Bernie Madoff have been such a complete surprise if Spy magazine still existed?

Blinkered fuddy-duddyism a pathetically old-fashioned morality? Yes! I love it!

BRINGING LIBERTY TO GREAT BRITAIN

I published this article today in the U.K. on The First Post, and on The Huffington Post.

no2id coml

Freedom-wise, there’s nowhere more self-satisfied than Britain. Bastion of personal liberty, home of the ground-breaking Magna Carta, the place where the sturdy yeoman can sit under his thatched roof secure from the intrusions of the king…

Pull the other one. Any sentient citizen must realise that in terms of liberty, the country has less than a state-of-the-art democracy; in fact, it’s been coasting on its reputation.

Now, thanks to a slavishly Bush-poodling Labour government with a startlingly authoritarian bent, Britons are beginning to recognise that this sceptred isle, this earth of majesty, this seat of Mars, this other Eden is about to become this surveillance state, this database depot, this green and pleasant centre of preventive detention, this precious home of biometrically-keyed national identification cards set in a sea of CCTV cameras.

The government’s appetite to maintain detailed files on its citizens is growing

But Britons are getting a chance to have their own democratic moment. On Saturday February 28, lawyers, judges, politicians, human rights supporters, anti-surveillance activists, members of the Countryside Alliance, rock ‘n’ rollers denied the right to stage concerts of their own choosing (honestly) and presumably more than a few ordinary concerned citizens will be gathering all across the UK – in London of course, but also in Belfast, Bristol, Cardiff, Cambridge, Glasgow and Manchester – at the Convention on Modern Liberty.

There they will hear from a roster of speakers that will include Shami Chakrabarti, Henry Porter, Helena Kennedy and David Davis. And they will learn more about the ever encroaching threats to individual liberty that have been fuelled by government’s growing appetite to keep its citizens under constant watch and maintain detailed files on what they do. It may not be as dramatic as the storming of the Bastille, but it’s a start.

And a start that might learn from the USA. A new, more American-like legal recognition of individual rights would be a welcome update for what is still, just, one of the world’s leading democracies. Not that it could prevent all transgressions, as the Bush-Cheney administration amply demonstrated. But such a change would bring about a fundamental alteration in the relationship between the people and the government. Continue reading “BRINGING LIBERTY TO GREAT BRITAIN”

SCARIEST NEWS OF THE CENTURY

In Slate, Adam Kirsch begins his review of Samuel Johnson, Jeffrey Meyers‘ new biography, with this scary observation:

If you get a group of writers together these days, you are guaranteed to hear a lot about death. Not just the deaths of once popular genres, like poetry or the literary novel; those reports have been commonplace for decades, and the practitioners of these arts have more or less gotten used to the obituaries. Now, the worry is that book publishing itself is dying. When a major house like Houghton Mifflin stops buying new manuscripts, the handwriting seems to be on the wall for the whole industry. Even more shocking is the death of the newspaper, which is turning before our eyes from an idle prophecy to an immediate prospect. In the current Atlantic, Michael Hirschorn suggests that the New York Times could go out of business as early as May. That is unimaginable, of course—as unimaginable as the sack of Rome must have been until the Goths came over the horizon.

None of these deaths will mean the death of writing. Human beings wrote long before there were newspapers or books or even paper, and they will continue to do so when these have been replaced by pixels and bytes. But something precious may be coming to an end in our lifetimes: the age of the professional writer. For the last three centuries or so, it was possible to make a living, and a name, by writing what the public wanted to read. The novelist, the essayist, the critic, the journalist—all these literary types flourished in that historically brief window, which now appears to be closing. In the future, if fewer people are interested in reading and few of those are willing to pay for what they read, all these kinds of writers may go the way of the troubadour and the scribe.

To read the entire review, click here: New biographies of Samuel Johnson. – By Adam Kirsch – Slate Magazine

SNARK ATTACK

Three cheers for Walter Kirn–the novelist, critic, and my friend and former colleague from Spy-who slaps around David Denby in today’s New York Times Book Review in his review of Denby’s new book Snark:

Denby pronounces Tom Wolfe and Maureen Dowd masters of “snarky mimesis” and settles on two epicenters of snark located on opposite sides of the Atlantic: Private Eye, a British publication that he deems an outpost of postcolonial Anglo bitterness, and Spy, the aforementioned American magazine whose golden age was the late ’80s and whose editors, Graydon Carter and Kurt Andersen, are sniffed at as new-to-New York City provincials stuffed with dreams of metropolitan glamour and disgust for the “wicked” city they ended up in. As someone who worked at Spy and knows a bit about what went on there while Denby wasn’t present, I find his portrayal of the place inaccurate — and his charges against it frail and dim. “The editors wanted to find out where the power was, though their fascination was severely limited in range. Finance and the media . . . obsessed them.” To take on New York’s two most conspicuous, intimidating and seemingly invincible industries wasn’t limited at all, of course, but, if anything rather predictable and obvious. Denby then engineers an accusation that’s even more moronic and meaningless. “Spy . . . did not want its victims to disappear. It wanted them to hang around so they could be attacked again and again. The magazine and its subjects were mutually dependent on each other.”

How very true. As The New Republic is dependent on the government and Motor Trend on General Motors, Spy indeed relied upon its subjects. So as to have subjects, like any magazine. One, the main one perhaps, was Donald Trump, who consistently outpaced the efforts of even his most fanciful critics to lampoon his own persona, climaxing in the series “The Apprentice,” whose explosive, ill-mannered, grotesque main character raised and doubled every snarky charge that Spy ever hit him with, and seemed proud to do so. Would Denby have rather had the magazine pick targets less maniacally vain and clawingly ubiquitous? If Spy on Trump was quintessential snark, then snark is mandatory in certain cases.

When I read Denby’s comments about Spy, I, too, thought his depiction inaccurate–inaccurate, wrong, uninsightful, selective and tortured. He just didn’t get it, and more to the point, he’s very proud that he never got it. Which is a very different think than not liking it, or even hating it. I’m afraid he has revealed himself to be fatally square.

SATIRE TURNED SUDDENLY SERIOUS

Writing in The Guardian, the estimable journalist Barbara Ehrenreich tells an astonishing story: a man named Binyam Mohamed, an Ethiopian who was a British resident, has been held at Guantánamo, having been labeled a terrorist after confessing he had visited a ‘joke’ website on how to build a nuclear weapon. Mohamed says he admitted to having read the ‘instructions’ after allegedly being beaten, hung up by his wrists for a week and having a gun held to his head in a Pakistani jail. How or why it ever came up that he read the `instructions’ is still classified, but it turns out that the authors of the item were Ehrenreich, the noted movie critic and historian Peter Biskind and a physicist named Michio Kaku. They composed the piece after a newspaper called The Progressive published instructions on how to build an atom bomb. Ehrenreich and company wrote their instructions purely as a joke, as a humor article, a parody, for a classy weekly called 7 Days, which was edited by Adam Moss, and to which I contributed a handful of articles before its altogether premature and undeserved demise. The satire was not especially subtle; among the instructions: “Never make an A-bomb on an empty stomach”, and  “Attach a six-foot rope to a bucket handle. Now swing the rope (and bucket) around your head as fast as possible. Keep this up for about 45 minutes. Slow down gradually, and very gently put the bucket on the floor. The U-235, which is lighter, will have risen to the top, where it can be skimmed off like cream.” No one could ever have thought such instructions could have ever been taken seriously; now a man has been tortured and imprisioned because some true-believer in the Bush-Cheney regime was stupid beyond belief.

THE NEXT STEP IN GETTING YOUR ESPIONAGE DEGREE AT HOME

My friend Pari Esfandiari sent me this link to a very cool photo with zoom capability. Just hold down the left button on the mouse and drag it to whatever area of the photo you wish to see more clearly. Amazingly, you can zoom right in on individual faces. What are you waiting for? Try it!

http://gigapan.org/viewGigapanFullscreen.php?auth=033ef14483ee8994966…

CARA AND NADIA’S SWEET SIXTEEN PARTY

dscn05633

Cara (above red) and her longtime best friend Nadia Lindstrom (above blue) had their Sweet 16 party last night, and everyone had a terrific time. The girls looked beautiful, their friends were fun and well-behaved and enthusiastic, and the food was good (a tip of the chef’s toque to Donnie Alecci for deciding to use meatballs to make sliders–delicious.) Cara was indeed sweet, offering appropriate remarks of gratitude and appreciation to her sister, her aunt, her grandmother and the memory of her grandfather, her friends, and of course, to Ginny and me. Very nice–and we’re glad it’s over.

dscn0555 dscn0561

The joyous celebrants

dscn0554 dscn0574

Molly and her charming friend from college Shelby DeLuna came. Guests enjoyed the skills of two artists who drew caricatures on T-shirts.

dscn0559 dscn0562

Our good friends Ann and Paul Lindstrom; Paul’s sister Lisa

dscn0553 dscn0572

Ginny and me, with electricity flowing from my head; teen fun

OBAMA’S BAD LUCK

Call it bad luck. President Obama gets passed a stimulus bill aimed to revive the economy, and Karl Rove says that what he’s really done is revive the GOP. Arguing in The Wall Street Journal that “sometime late this year or early next the economy’’ would have rebounded “on its own,’’ Rove contends that the bill sets us on a path to wasteful spending, higher taxes, and the return of Republicanism. Obama, Rove says, “has already re-energized the GOP and sparked a spending debate that will last for years. The president won this legislative battle, but at a high price — fiscally and politically.’’ So it’s bad luck for Obama that he took over when the economy had merely cratered and hadn’t yet bored a hole so deep that we could see magma coming up from the center of the earth, because this sets the stage for a return to the policies that Americans repudiated last November. Bad luck that the permissive, `party on!’ policies of Bush and Greenspan and the other bubblemasters had produced only a paralytic credit crisis and a wolf of a recession at the time of the election, and not a full blown depression complete with riots, shantytowns, and marathon dances, because Rove—without the agreement of any credible economist on the left or the right–can now speciously argue that the economy would have recovered on its own. Bad luck that Obama passed this bill before more people were out of work, more people were evicted, more businesses closed, more kids had to drop out of school, because now Rove can believe that people not driven to the depths of utter desperation will all the sooner ingratefully wonder `what have you done for me lately?’ Bad luck that the party whose tax cuts for the rich stimulated a whopping deficit that we carry into this recession still myopically views tax cuts as stimulating a way out. Bad luck that millions of jobs lost in the last months didn’t include Karl Rove’s slot at the Journal, because now the Boy Pseudo-Genius whose divisive, destructive and fear-mongering tactics gave this country arguably the worst president in its history (arguably, as in, one could argue the point—but I won’t) still has a forum in which to propound his thoroughly invalidated views.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, ABE. HAPPY BIRTHDAY, CHUCK.

613_lincoln_portraitdarwin

Happy 200th birthday, Abe Lincoln. Happy 200th birthday, Charles Darwin.

Now, I’m not really any good at math. I think it’s the reason I’ve never been able to finish Walter Isaacson’s biography of Albert Einstein. Or understand magazine articles about card-counting. Or why, on those occasions when underwriters have explained mortgage amortization to me, all I ever heard was the sound of my blood pounding in my ears. So I don’t really grasp what I’m about to convey to you. But get this:

In any random group of 23 people, there is a 50 percent chance that two of them will have the same birthday.

Now, how the hell is that true? I don’t know. But here is the explanation as it appears in Wikipedia, with some it written in Greek letters, just to add that really persuasive, really confounding element that shoos away the dubious and confused.

But what I really want to know is this: who were the other 21 people in Lincoln and Darwin’s group?