SIGNING OFF

I was going to write a gala farewell post that somehow linked zygotes, big-government conservatism and maybe Brokeback Mountain in a marvelous bloggy pastiche. But it’s a sleepy Friday afternoon, and I’m sleepy myself, so I’ll confine myself to thanking Andrew for being generous enough to let a member of the theocratic RightTM like me hang out here and spar with him – and Julian for sparring as well, and for handling all that complicated civil liberties stuff.

And if this whole fancy-pants, white-wine-and-caviar Time Magazine” schtick starts to go to Andrew’s head, you know where to find me . . .

-posted by Ross

LIES, DRUGS, AND ALCOHOL

A friend who’s spent some time grappling with alcoholism passes along this quote, from AA’s Big Book, which seems appropriate for the case of James Frey:

Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path. Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves. There are such unfortunates. They are not at fault; they seem to have been born that way. They are naturally incapable of grasping and developing a manner of living which demands rigorous honesty.

In a similar vein, Seth Mnookin’s Slate piece on Frey is worth a read. This passage, in particular, sums up the case against Frey’s anti-self-help self-help book:

. . . because A Million Little Pieces-one of the best-selling books about drug addiction ever written-has been trumpeted as an unflinching, real-life look into the world of a drug addict, it has helped to shape people’s notions about drug abuse. Ironically, the very abundance of its clichés has likely helped make it a runaway best seller: People, after all, like having their suspicions confirmed. For nonaddicts, Pieces reinforces the still dangerously prevalent notion that it’s easy to spot a drug addict or an alcoholic-they’re the ones bleeding from holes in their cheeks or getting beaten down by the police or doing hard time with killers and rapists. For those struggling with their own substance-abuse issues, Pieces sends the message that unless you’ve reached the depths Frey describes, you don’t have anything to worry about-you’re a Fraud. And if you do have a problem, you don’t need to necessarily get treatment or look to others for support; all you need to do is “hold on.” In building up a false bogeyman-the American recovery movement’s supposed reliance on the notion of “victimhood”-Frey has set himself up as the one, truth-telling savior. In fact, it seems clear that Frey would have been well-served by taking the kind of unflinchingly honest look at his own life that most recovery programs demand.

This makes me want to take back my earlier quasi-praise for Frey’s tough-guy writer act. Poseurs can be harmless; poseurs who cast themselves as experts on how to beat addiction are bad, bad news.

– posted by Ross

TEAR UP THE RULE BOOK, CARPENTER

At the end of a piece about the rare occasions on which Alito sided with the poor, the downtrodden, and the huddled masses in his lower court rulings, Emily Bazelon writes:

In almost none of these cases, though, does Alito seem like a little-guy champion. He seems like a judge who dutifully follows the law. When the law instructs him to find for the criminal defendant or the plaintiff, he does so. When you get to the Supreme Court, though, you get to rip up the instruction manual and rewrite it. There’s very little in Alito’s record that suggests his revisions will favor the little guy.

Just so we’re clear: Alito’s record as a judge indicates that he only rules for the little guy when the law dictates that he should. And this is really bad, because we need Supreme Court judges who are willing to “rip up the instruction manual” (I believe it’s known as “active liberty” jurisprudence these days, but maybe Bazelon didn’t get the memo) to help the little guy, or at least the little guy as defined by Ted Kennedy. And the way we should pick them is by nominating lower court judges who have . . . torn up the instruction manual on the lower courts? (Like this guy, I guess.)

MORE FREY: Why he – and many “memoirists” these days – probably meant to write a novel.

– posted by Ross

A PAIR OF QUIBBLES

A reader cites Albert Mohler as an example of a religious right leader who doesn’t think that God intervenes directly to punish sin – via hurricane, for instance – and Andrew replies:

Mohler differs from Robertson in not seeing a specific weather event as God-induced. But he shares with him the notion that all bad things in the universe stem in part from human sin.

Well, of course he does – because that’s one of the basic tenets of Christianity, no? Not that your sin or mine causes Hurricane Katrina, but that death and suffering are a result, ultimately, of the Fall of Man, and that this primordial catastrophe is responsible for the wounded quality of the world. It would be pretty odd if Mohler, or any Christian leader – Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, whatever – didn’t think that human sin, understood generally, has a strong relationship to human suffering and death.

Also, I think that Andrew’s last Malkin Award nominee – a pastor named Herbert Lusk who said, “my friends, don’t fool with the church because the church has buried a million critics” – probably wasn’t threatening to actually kill or do violence to his critics. It’s a pretty commonplace piece of Christian rhetoric to point out that the faith has outlasted most of its critics over the last two thousand years, and that this is perhaps a sign of God’s favor and ought to give would-be opponents pause. (Here’s how Chesterton put this line of argument, rather more eloquently.) But I admit Lusk’s comments are open to Andrew’s interpretation as well.

– posted by Ross

IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD

Or maybe it isn’t. There’s plenty of good stuff in the latest Atlantic, for those wise enough to subscribe – Paul Elie on the papal election, Caitlin Flanagan on oral sex – but perhaps the most fascinating piece is from Ben Schwarz, writing on the potential demise of mutually assured destruction. We’ve known for a while that our nuclear supremacy has been increasing since the end of the Cold War, as our arsenal improves, Russia’s military decays, and China’s remains static. But now there’s evidence that our supremacy is so great that we could, for the first time, actually win a nuclear war outright by destroying the enemy’s entire arsenal in a first strike. Or at least that’s the conclusion of a forthcoming RAND study, cited by Schwarz. Here’s what it found:

In a feat of technical sophistication and strategic insight, [the authors] have modeled a U.S. first strike against Russia. (Although China is Washington’s most probable great-power rival, the authors argue, Russia presents a “hard case” for their contention that America has achieved nuclear ascendancy.) That model, which they presented at the Council on Foreign Relations in October, has been vetted by most of the top civilian defense analysts. To be conservative, it assumes that U.S. nuclear weapons will perform with much less accuracy and reliability than should be expected. Even so, the authors conclude, a U.S. attack today would destroy the entire Russian nuclear arsenal. To grossly oversimplify: the erosion of Russian capabilities, combined with new, overwhelming warhead yields and the “accuracy revolution” in U.S. nuclear forces, has largely obviated the problems of “fratricide” (the prospect that U.S. missiles on the attack would destroy each other, leaving their targets safe) that once helped make a disarming strike impossible to achieve.

Schwarz’s piece is primarily about the dangers associated with this imbalance. Since “Moscow and Beijing will surely buy deterrence by spreading out their nuclear forces, decentralizing their command-and-control systems, and implementing ‘launch on warning’ policies,” he argues, there’s a greater chance that a future crisis will spiral out of control, leading to “the unauthorized or accidental use of nuclear weapons.”

This is a serious concern, and I hope that I don’t minimize it when I say that my initial, gut-level, Cold-War-geek reaction to this news can be summed up in just one word: cool.

– posted by Ross

PICKING UP THE PIECES

I’m of two minds about the apparent unraveling of James Frey, the Oprah-canonized memoirist whose tales of drugs, crime, and personal tragedy have turned out to be more than a little embellished. On the one hand, Frey has always come across as a poseur – a wannabe tough-guy, a dime-store Mailer – and it’s nice when poseurs turn out to be frauds as well. Also, I didn’t much care for his first book – and of course, I share in the pathetic-yet-delightful schaudenfreude that any would-be writer feels while watching an overpraised (and overpaid) author go down in flames.

But then again, there was something occasionally bracing about the Frey pose, even when you could see right through it – the hard-case persona, the “F.T.B.S.I.T.T.T.D.” tattooed on his arm (for “fuck the bullshit it’s time to throw down,” which was my motto for a while too), the boasts about becoming the greatest writer of his generation, the profanity-laced attacks on other writers’ mediocrity. Sure, it was fake – but it was a relief to encounter Frey’s brand of fakeness in a literary world where too many writers seem to follow the Dave Eggers/Jonathan Safran Foer “let’s-all-be-nice” approach to the writing life. I’ll take a phony tough guy any day, for instance, over this kind of pious crap (from Eggers):

It was our hope . . . that the literary world could be one of community, of mutual support, of spirited but nonviolent discourse-all in the interest of building and maintaining a literate society. It’s what we teach . . . that books are good, that reading is good, that everyone can and should write in some capacity, and that anyone pissing in the very small and fragile ecosystem that is the literary world is mucking it up for everyone-and sending a very poor message to the next generation.

The gang at N+1 – who are neither as great as they’ve been made out to be, nor as bad as Stefan Beck suggests in this month’s New Criterion – offered an excellent response to this theory of literature in their latest issue:

The final, insidious manifestation of the reading crisis is the way it gives cover to the hostility to criticism. One’s critics “piss in the fragile ecosystem that is the literary world” (Eggers); or they are merely “resentniks” (Foer). The real trouble of course is that if “books” are “good,” as the mantra goes, you don’t have to face how good or bad your book actually is. The criterion is only to “make readers.” I make readers, the writer deludes himself, waving his sales reports-surely these millions came into existence only for him? It no longer matters what he wrote. In this way the novelist becomes as protected as the poet is today, a member merely of an endangered species (in the “fragile ecosystem”), or say of an identity group, who cannot be disagreed with, to whom certain months of the year will be dedicated, who is not only tolerated but encouraged and petted by the powers that be, not because of the content of what he writes (there is no content), but because, well, what sort of powers would they be, to discourage the flowering of such an art?

Social work is important, and so is novel-writing (at least if your novel is any good). But the two really aren’t the same thing. James Frey is a poseur and apparently a liar, but at least, I think, he understands that much.

– posted by Ross

PICTURES FROM AN INSTITUTION

Doubt won the Pulitzer Prize for drama this year, and after seeing it this weekend (the last weekend with the original actress, Cherry Jones, in the lead role, unfortunately) I think it richly deserved the win. The play deals with the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, and what’s particularly remarkable about it, in this year of hectoring works of art (most of them involving George Clooney), is it’s steadfast refusal to filter its story through an ideological lens. Set in 1964, Doubt follows a nun who suspects that a priest in her parish is molesting students, and given that description, it’s easy to imagine a bad, fashionable play about a heroic feminist nun taking down an evil, repressed, pre-Vatican II priest. But the playwright, John Patrick Shanley, is smarter than that: he makes the nun a tough-minded, old-school Catholic who sees the world in black and white, and the priest a young, hip, progressive figure who embodies all the ideas about religion that a Broadway audience is likely to find appealing. She seems heartless, tyrannical, and prejudiced; he’s questing, broad-minded, charismatic. But over the course of the play, the audience is invited to recognize the virtues contained within her old-fashioned attitudes, and the weaknesses at the heart of his charm.

Not that the priest ever entirely forfeits the audience’s sympathy, or that the nun is without her faults – again, the play is too intelligent to fall into a schematic view of its protagonists. What it does instead, more effectively than any work of art I’ve seen, is dramatize both the weaknesses of old-fashioned, pre-Vatican II Catholicism – the legalism, the occasional cruelty, the seeming heartlessness – and the ways that the 1960s reforms went so quickly wrong, good intentions and all. It dramatizes, as well, the central paradox of the entire sexual abuse scandal, which is that it partook of the worst of both “liberal” and “conservative” Catholicism – the former’s sexual permissiveness and contempt for time-tested traditions, rules and safeguards; and the latter’s clericalism, its insistence that the hierarchy knew best and the laity should just “pray, pay and obey,” its willingness to use authority as a screen for irresponsibility. In the name of freedom and progress and experimentation, priests justified their own sins and those of their fellows; in the name of order and tradition and obedience, their superiors protected them.

And everybody meant well. True monsters like Fathers Geoghan and Shanley aside, this the reality of the sex abuse scandal, but also of nearly every great historical tragedy – and it should be written in gold letters on the wall of every screenwriting workshop and creative writing class in these United States. There are exceptions to the rule, of course, but not nearly enough to justify the number of “serious” works of art that take an absurdly Manichean view of the world, and never even attempt to plumb the motives, or the humanity, of their villains. Terry Teachout (who loved Doubt) summed up this tendency earlier in the year:

. . . great art “takes you out of yourself.” By definition, it then puts you into somebody else, and in so doing enriches your understanding of reality. To do this successfully, it must be in the deepest sense sympathetic. The New Shorter Oxford Dictionary defines sympathy as “the fact or capacity of sharing or being responsive to the feelings or condition of another or others.” Such a capacity is a sine qua non of all serious art. It is what makes Shakespeare’s villains believable: We feel we can understand their motives, even if we don’t share them. It is also central to the persuasive power of great art. Without sympathy there can be no persuasion. Even a caricature, however cruel, must acknowledge the humanity of its subject in order to be funny. The artist must create a whole character and not simply show the side of him that will most convince us of his villainy.

What I find striking about much of today’s political art, by contrast, is its unwillingness to make such acknowledgments. Instead of seeking to persuade–to change the minds of its viewers–it takes for granted their concurrence.

Teachout was talking about plays, for the most part, but his comments are even more telling after our autumn of Good Night, and Good Luck and Syriana and The Constant Gardener – all skillfully-made movies that would have been worlds better with some bare acknowledgement that not every anti-communist was a McCarthyite, and not everyone who works for an oil company, a pharmaceutical company, or the CIA has knowingly sold their soul to the devil. Doubt is a welcome exception to this depressing habit. May there be more like it.

– posted by Ross

THE PARTY OF THE COUNTRY CLUB

Somehow, I don’t think this, from Time, is exactly the message that George W. Bush wants to be sending to his base:

The President’s inner circle always treated DeLay as a necessary burden. He may have had an unmatched grip on the House and Washington lobbyists, but DeLay is not the kind of guy-in background and temperament-the President feels comfortable with. Of the former exterminator, a Republican close to the President’s inner circle says, “They have always seen him as beneath them, more blue collar. He’s seen as a useful servant, not someone you would want to vacation with.”

Via Matt Yglesias and Michael Crowley, who are loving every minute of it. As they should.

A DOWN YEAR AT THE MOVIES?:
You better believe it, says Anthony Lane.

MORE ZYGOTES: Because you can’t get enough of the tiny little blighters, can you?

– posted by Ross

THE COVERT OPTION

Matt Yglesias flags an excerpt from James Risen’s new book, in which it’s revealed that the CIA may have given the Iranians defective blueprints for a nuclear bomb, in the hopes that this would send their nuclear program down a primrose path to failure. The excerpt casts the whole incident as a fiasco that may have actually helped the Iranians, though as Matt points out, it’s hard to tell from the details whether the plan backfired or succeeded. And the story seems a little fishy in any case. But either way, it’s not terribly shocking that we’d attempt something like that. As my Atlantic colleague, Terrence Henry, pointed out in last month’s issue, this kind of skullduggery is an obvious way to sabotage a nuclear program that can’t be stopped by diplomacy or direct action. It’s quite likely that we’ve tried to sell Iran defective parts, ensured that certain ships bound for the Persian Gulf have found their way to the bottom of the ocean, and plotted acts of sabotage against Iran’s uranium-enrichment facilities.

What’s less likely, however, is that we’ve taken up the Israeli approach to covert anti-nuclear action:

Iraq bought the cores for the Osirak reactor from France. Originally they were to be shipped to Iraq in April of 1979, but shortly before their departure an explosion ripped through the warehouse that held them. An organization calling itself the French Ecological Group, which had never been heard of before (and hasn’t been heard from since), claimed responsibility. Shipment was delayed for six months while the cores were repaired.

The next year Yahya al-Meshad, an important scientist in Iraq’s nuclear program, arrived in France to test fuel for the reactor. The morning he was to return home a maid entered his Paris hotel room and found that he had been stabbed and bludgeoned to death. (The only person known to have seen the scientist the previous night, a prostitute who called herself Marie Express, was killed a few weeks later in a hit-and-run accident. The culprit was never found.) Soon afterward workers at firms supplying parts for the reactor began to receive threatening letters from a mysterious group called the Committee to Safeguard the Islamic Revolution. Bombs went off at the offices of one of the firms, in Italy, and at the home of the company’s director-general. Over the next several months two more Iraqi nuclear scientists died in separate poisoning incidents.

Not that Israel ever claimed responsibility for any of this, mind you. And it’s worth noting that even after all this effort, it still required an air strike to permanently take down the Iraqi nuclear program.

– posted by Ross