Wednesday, September 24, 2008

A Loosing Battle

OK, all of us create typos, misplace punctuation (or omit it), and spell certain works idiosyncratically. Let's face it: the "rules" of English do little to assist us and much to maintain confusion. Still, we shouldn't abet the loss of specificity and function (let alone meaning) of written English. Especially not if we work for The New York Times. Especially not if we are op-ed columnists. Especially not if we have considerable writing skills of our own and access to the best editorial apparatus in the country.

We are all often sloppy. That's why we make use of editors and copyreaders. And that's the difference between a column running in a paper like the Times and one on a blog, where there is little editing available, where the work is expected to be raw in a way we assume is unacceptable at the Times.

This is also the distinction that many make between the "amateurs" of the blogs and the "professionals" of traditional news media, that the professionals are part of a process that ensures a certain accuracy, both of information and of language.


Now, it could be argued, when the Times shows signs of losing its grip on the language, that the influence of the blogs has been so pervasive that even august publications no longer care about accuracy or precise construction. But I don't think that's the case. Overall, the paper shows pride in attention to detail.

So it strikes me as odd, then, that Thomas Friedman, writing today, has a line like this:

Many Americans and me are relieved

Now, I do understand that editing of columnists is light, but that doesn't mean that someone, anyone at the Times couldn't have lifted a phone (or sent an email): "Ah, Tom. 'Me' isn't a subject pronoun. It does work as an object, but you might want to replace it with 'I' in this particular instance. Or, if you want to use 'me,' try a construction such as, 'Like me, many Americans are relieved... '"

It's a small thing. But if the argument is going to be made that we bloggers should leave the writing to the professionals, then the professionals need to constantly demonstrate that they are better at this than the rest of us.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

With Apologies to Percy Shelley...

I met a traveler from Manhattan Island
Who said: "Those vast towers of steel and stone
Stand in the street. Near them on the ground,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Finance, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level streets stretch far away.

Monday, September 08, 2008


Maybe it’s simply a case that the rich don’t get it. Never have, never will. Well, the born rich, at least. People like David Frum, whose father made millions in real estate and whose mother was successful in journalism, now Frum’s own field. People who, as Jim Hightower once described George Bush 41, were born on third base and think they’ve hit a triple.

Frum has an article in this week’s The New York Times Sunday Magazine entitled “The Vanishing Republican Voter” in which he argues that inequality (gasp!) is reducing the pool of Republican voters.

Frum ends with this:

Equality in itself never can be or should be a conservative goal. But inequality taken to extremes can overwhelm conservative ideals of self-reliance, limited government and national unity. It can delegitimize commerce and business and invite destructive protectionism and overregulation. Inequality, in short, is a conservative issue too. We must develop a positive agenda that integrates the right kind of egalitarianism with our conservative principles of liberty. If we neglect this task and this opportunity, we […] will lose America.

Putting aside the idiocy of positing contradictory goals (self-reliance and national unity), the idea that inequality can be an issue to consider—while, at the same time, equality is no goal—is preposterous.

What strikes me as so odd about Frum’s piece is that his main thesis, that inequality reduces confidence in the ruling class, should be so obvious that it needs no restating. I mean, all you have to do is look back to the French and Russian revolutions, where inequality grew to such extremes that those left with nothing more than (as Marilyn Monroe’s Sugar says in Some Like It Hot) “the fuzzy end of the lollipop” rose up and killed the elite.

It’s incredibly frustrating to read a piece like Frum’s, for he doesn’t even recognize the causes of inequality. In the article, he writes:

The first reason is the revolution in family life. Not so long ago, most households were home to two adults, one who worked and one who did not. Today fewer than half of America’s households are headed by married couples, and married women usually work. So America and other advanced countries have become increasingly divided between families earning two incomes and those getting by on one at most.

The family revolution coincided with another: a great shift from a national to a planetary division of labor. Inequality within nations is rising in large part because inequality is declining among nations. A generation ago, even a poor American was still better off than most people in China. Today the lifestyles of middle-class Chinese increasingly approximate those of middle-class Americans, while the lifestyles of upper and lower America increasingly diverge. Less-skilled Americans now face hundreds of millions of new wage competitors, while highly skilled Americans can sell their services in a worldwide market.

What nonsense. As one who has never had to worry about pennies, Frum doesn’t understand that a two-income family (at the lower end of the scale) doesn’t have much more than a one-income family. The costs of things like daycare eat a much higher percentage of income than they do for people themselves making many times what low-end workers do. Both parents work often because even the few dollars one might earn above the expense incurred by working can mean the difference between immediate financial disaster and staving it off for a bit. Or because that’s the only way to get health care. A huge proportion of lower-income American families hold more than one wage earner… and many of those work more than one job. The divide, then, is not between two-income households and one-income households.

Nor is it based on any “planetary division of labor.” Or on immigrant labor (as Frum goes on to suggest). Frum assumes that value for labor has something to do with “skill” and, one assumes, productivity. He completely ignores the fact that, no matter how you slice it, value comes primarily from natural resources and labor. Frum’s “skilled” people are not generally skilled laborers (what, for example, does Frum himself produce that tangibly adds value to anything?) but are those with access to, and control over, resources and labor—and they have been taking a higher and higher percentage of the profit from these over the last quarter century, forgetting that it would be wiser to bring the laborers up with them rather that squeezing them ever tighter on the assumption that faux-free-market capitalism has “won” and that revolution is a thing of the past.

Not surprisingly, Frum avoids any consideration of race as part of the divide. Race and social class, two determining factors that Frum, like many of today’s conservatives, has convinced himself are nothing more than minor roadblocks that the ambitious and able will easily overcome. But that’s another story.

What the conservative movement has become over the past decades is an excuse machine for exploitation and a political machine for fooling just enough of the public from voting for their own best interests. Both of these are beginning to break down as the mechanisms for sustaining a belief on the part of the general public that it, too, can join the elite are collapsing. Sub-prime mortgages, for example, were nothing more than a way of fooling people into thinking that they could easily bridge the gap between the new elite and the rest. And wedge issues such as single-sex marriage and abortion are beginning to lose effect as people see their own dreams of economic success slipping their gears.

The smart thing for the elite to do, and the reason more and more of them are voting against what Frum sees (in his myopia) as their best interest, is to make sure that the lower portions of the economy start rising in earning power once again, even if that means reducing the riches of those who already have more than they need and much more than they are actually worth through their own “real” contributions to increased value. More and more people at the upper end do recognize the danger of great class divide, and wish to reduce that danger by reducing the divide. If that means a smaller cushion, house, or BMW, so be it. Better that than the social disruption continued widening of the gap will surely spawn.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Maple Street

This is my street. Down the other end of the block, admittedly, and from the other side... and perhaps more than a few years before I arrived. But my street, nonetheless. Or, I think of it as mine.

I've lived here, more off than on, since my parents moved onto the block in 1970 while I was in college, more than a decade after (according to some) the neighborhood lost its soul, when Ebbets Field and the Dodgers disappeared. The stadium was close enough, I've been told, that the cheers from home runs could be heard from back windows.

Summers, during college, I was here. And for a time in 1975, before moving across Brooklyn to Carroll Gardens. I returned in 1978, while my father was on sabbatical, taking care of the house. In 1992, after my father died, I bought a house across from my mother and down the block a bit. No, not one of those pictured. I had no austere wall by the sidewalk, and mine was a slightly smaller house (one of the few brownstones on a block almost completely limestone).

Now, I'm back again, and in the house that was my parents'.

The other day, while walking Dusty, I met someone who bought one of the pictured houses a decade or so ago. He welcomed me to the neighborhood. Slightly sneaky, I said thanks, but that I'd first lived here nearly forty years ago. We chatted for a bit. His is a house retaining more original detail than most of ours, and we discussed that a bit.

The neighborhood has become somewhat upscale recently, lots of young people moving in to places that have tripled in price over the past ten years. Most of those moving in are quite nice, but I am concerned by some of the attitudes I see. One of the attractions to this area is that it has had a stable ratio of races for half a century, just about half black and half white. That is beginning to change, as blacks are priced out, and to change the nature of the block itself. Certainly, it is changing the way people feel about each other.

Another time I was walking Dusty recently, a very young man (twenties, I would guess) with a trendy mien hailed me.

"Hi, guy. My toddler sometimes grabs the ivy there are puts the leaves in his mouth. I just turn around for a second, and he's doing it. So, please, don't let your dog urinate there."

I shrugged, said, "OK," and turned back the way I'd been heading.

Guy Toddler, as I have since dubbed him, has quite a different idea of urban life than I do. I suspect he grew up in a suburban house well separated from the neighbors and expects to be king of all he sees. He once yelled at the man who lives behind him, I've since found, because the barking of his little dog disturbed same toddler.

Certainly, he has little concept of what happens to leaves growing close to the ground on a city street, not if he really believes that dog pee is the worst thing coating them when his toddler puts them in his mouth. Drunks piss there too. And people spit on the leaves. And... and.... Well, whatever you can imagine, it has been there.

A woman who moved away was back visiting recently, relaxing on the small porch above one of those walls by the street with a couple of friends when I passed by. We chatted for a moment. When she made a mention of the changing nature of the people in the neighborhood, the sense of entitlement of many of the newcomers, I smiled and told her I'd begun to wonder if they would continue to allow me to even walk down the street.

She and her friends just laughed. That knowing laugh.

Maybe the block isn't mine any longer. Or hers or her friends', either.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Palin As Sit-Com

My disdain for a certain class of American conservatism comes simply from the fact that they talk their talk, but rarely walk their walk. They make claims, for example, about being good Christians, but conveniently ignore the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. They talk a good anti-drug line, but aren’t averse to smoking the occasional jay or doing up a little meth. They talk about the importance of family, but cheat on their own.

This hypocrisy has been around for a long time, of course, and often noted. My favorite example came in an episode of WKRP in Cincinnati called “Real Families” that aired on November 15, 1980. In it, polyestered salesman Herb Tarlik is promoted as the “real” American—and a TV show comes around to profile his family. The tissue of lies that Tarlik and his family have presented to the outside world soon begins to unravel, however, culminating in a wonderful attempt to go to church—but they don’t know where it is (not having been for so long) and, besides, it’s Saturday.

One of the reasons for this hypocrisy is the image of the “real” American built by the media elite and reinforced each election cycle. The media denizens, however, really haven’t a clue as to how most people live; they decide (for example) that Iowans hang out in diners—so flock to diners to find the “real” Iowans. And they take what people say at face value, assuming that no one would be lying to them.

But people do lie. And few of us, anyhow, live up to the image we would like to project. We may want to be good Christians, or Jews, or Hindus, or Moslems, but generally fall far short of what we would like to be or imagine we should be. We may want to live clean and sober, but frustrations, temptations, and the realities of addiction often trump that desire. We may want to raise perfect children, but circumstances of job and the nature of the individual child may make that impossible.

And that’s in the best of all possible scenarios. Most of us live lives of unbelievable complexity where things—and people—constantly go wrong. The mistake of the class of conservatives I’m writing about here is to think that they can hide the wrong and, thereby, make it go away. They have come to believe the image of themselves the clueless media elite have promoted, though they also know—a bit of cognitive dissonance—that it’s all a lie.

Of course, the media themselves are also hamstrung by contradiction, able to parody the very self-image they promote, as happens in the WKRP episode.

All this is to say that what we’ve been seeing this week of Sarah Palin’s family is only what we would see if we rip the façade off of most families. The difference with her and those like her is that they’ve lived a holier-than-thou existence while wallowing in the muck with as much exuberance as anyone—only, behind closed doors. So, Palin is now living out the fictional Tarlik-family scenario, finding herself stripped and exposed in ways cruel to any of us, even if brought on by our own actions.

What is saddest of all is not that conservatives are rallying around Palin, but that they have so long refused to do the same for anyone else. If Palin were a Democrat, a Latina, or a Lesbian, these same people would be excoriating her.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

"A Star Is Born"?

One small pleasure of mine is careless language. “A canary in a minefield,” “a hard road to hoe,” and “to all intensive purposes” can always make me chuckle, no matter how often I hear them. In addition, I love the dying metaphor, described by George Orwell in “Politics and the English Language”:

A newly invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image, while on the other hand a metaphor which is technically ‘dead’ (e. g. iron resolution) has in effect reverted to being an ordinary word and can generally be used without loss of vividness. But in between these two classes there is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves.

The sloppiness of dying-metaphor use was illustrated yesterday by The New York Times columnist William Kristol in the very title of his op-ed “A Star Is Born."

Maybe Kristol hasn’t seen the movie, not Janet Gaynor’s 1937 original, the 1954 remake with Judy Garland (partially lost), nor Barbra Streisand’s 1976 version. Any way you look at it, Sarah Palin pales beside any of these stars, but that’s not the point.

The title of these movies is first, last, and always ironic. I mean, just look at some of the people involved: Dorothy Parker and her husband Alan Campbell are two of the credited writers, and Budd Schulberg, who would later write one of the greatest satirical novels about Hollywood (What Makes Sammy Run?), also apparently contributed to the script. These are people who looked at the Hollywood star system with a jaundiced eye, and who rarely spoke of it without sarcasm.

A Star Is Born is not about glory or success, but about striving and failure. Vicki Lester may become a star, but Norman Maine (who created her) slides downhill.

In choosing his title, Kristol clearly did not think about what he was saying about McCain, who would be playing the Norman Maine roll, here. He simply went with the upbeat feel of the title phrase.

But, yes, the “creation” of Palin may be McCain’s undoing. Not for reasons like those in the movie (McCain is no Maine-esque drunk), but because it does show, similarly, the weakness in the character. Though I don’t think we can draw out the analogy to the movie much further (I doubt Palin will be around when McCain is forgotten), I remain pleased that Kristol, in his haste, has provided another example of why Orwell’s essay remains as fresh today as it was sixty years ago—and has given me another reason to chuckle.