Friday, May 06, 2005

Sign of the Apocalypse #3: Pat & Paula in prime-time

Last night, the chronological convergence of two really stupid entertainment stories brought our civilization slightly closer to oblivion:

1) ABC's Primetime Live examined -- in its characteristically shallow way -- the alleged affair between Paula Abdul (Laker girl turned pop princess turned talent judge) and former American Idol contestant and current opportunist Corey Clark (who apparently has a song called "Paula-tics" on his debut album -- yeah, that's it, nice and subtle.)

2) CBS's Dr. Phil, America's nagging nuisance (now in prime-time), interviewed Pat O'Brien, host of celebrity-worshipping gossip-fest The Insider and, as we now know, foul-mouthed, coke-snorting, sex-crazed boozehound, who, like Bill O'Reilly, left some nasty messages on a woman's phone.

Far be it from me to pollute the pages of The Reaction with any of the details of these two sordid affairs. What's interesting, however, is that two of America's leading TV critics, The New York Times's Alessandra Stanley and, my favourite, the San Francisco Chronicle's Tim Goodman, linked the two stories to make a similar point about the degradation of our culture. What's so gross about these two stories is not just the obvious appeal to viewers during sweeps with tales of phone sex, drug use, cheating, and the like. Rather, it was the manipulation of those viewers for the sake of ratings and, of course, profit.

In the first case, ABC was trying to stick it to rival FOX, home of American Idol. It was that simple. In the second case, media conglomerate Viacom, which owns CBS, used Dr. Phil to resuscitate the flagging reputation of Pat O'Brien (not that there was much to begin with) and hence the prospects of The Insider, another Viacom property. When Phil led Pat back to The Insider studio, now cleansed by Dr. Phil's psychobabble, absolved of his sins through the power of on-air repentance, however insincere, it was all-too-obvious what was going on, and it was astonishingly phony even by the standards of mainstream television. And here's where it gets weird: Today, The Insider reported that Paula Abdul will make an appearance on this week's Saturday Night Live. Oh, and Paula Abdul just happens to be a "correspondent" for The Insider. Next thing you know, we'll find out that Corey Clark is Dr. Phil's illegitimate love-child. (Stop! My head is about to explode!)

For Stanley's take, click here. For Goodman's take, click here. For an interesting interpretation, by Slate's Dana Stevens, of American Idol as television's home to American-style democracy, click here.

But what's truly disturbing here? The two soul-crushing stories and their respective participants? The media conglomerates that suck profit out of human misery? Or the millions of herd-like viewers who obliviously tuned in to watch?

That rumbling you hear in the distance may very well be the Apocalypse. Be careful out there.

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(Not-so-)Merrie England

Lynndie England, that is. The poster girl for the abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib. You know, the one holding the leash, the one pointing at the genitals of the prisoners. You know, the homely one. You know, the scapegoat.

Well, England's case was thrown out on Wednesday by a military judge who rejected her guilty plea and declared a mistrial. Here's what happened: England was initially charged with 19 counts and faced a combined maximum prison term of 38 years. This was knocked down to four counts of maltreating prisoners, two counts of conspiracy to maltreat prisoners, and one count of committing an indecent act. This plea agreement meant a combined maximum prison term of 11 years for these seven counts, but a deal between the prosecution and the defence would have resulted in a lesser prison term (details of the deal were not released). So England pled guilty in order to secure a lesser prison term, and this meant admitting responsibility for her actions at Abu Ghraib. But then her superior (and lover) Charles Graner testified. Graner is currently serving a 10-year prison sentence for his role in the scandal. Where England took the blame for what happened, however, Graner said that she, like him, was just following orders. The military judge, Col. James Pohl, thus rejected her guilty plea. In other words, England's assumption of blame contradicted both Graner's testimony and her own explanation to the judge of what happened (she, too, had initially claimed that she was just following orders). The judge essentially ruled that she didn't believe in her own guilt and threw out her plea agreement (this is possible in federal and military cases, not in civilian criminal cases, where a defendant may plead guilty without admitting guilt). More, he threw out her case, which now goes back to her commander at Fort Hood, Texas, Lt. Gen. Thomas Metz.

I have no doubt that what England did was wrong. Those horrendous pictures that for a time were all over the media (before the short-sighted media and their memory-deficient consumers grew tired of the whole sordid affair) are irrefutable evidence of the abuse at Abu Ghraib. And England, like Graner, should be punished. But isn't it obvious what's going on? They're scapegoats. Graner was surely following orders and may or may deserve the severe punishment he's received, but there's no way England should be punished with a long prison term. She did what she was ordered to go in a climate of abuse that was sanctioned by the highest reaches of the military and civilian establishment, including the highest reaches of the Bush Administration. But while Graner and England are brought up on charges, their superiors are doing nicely. Alberto Gonzales, former White House counsel, is now Attorney General. Donald Rumsfeld is still Secretary of Defense. And no general has yet been punished... Oh, wait. There's one. Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, head of the Army Reserve unit that was involved in the Abu Ghraib scandal, has been demoted to Colonel (three other generals have been cleared of wrongdoing). And that's it. Otherwise, it's been all low-level, as AP reports:

More than a dozen other lower-ranking officers, whose names were not released, also received various punishments:
  • Three majors were given letters of reprimand and one of the three also was given an unspecified administrative punishment.
  • Three captains were court-martialed, one captain was given an other-than-honorable discharge from the Army, five captains received letters of reprimand, and one was given an unspecified administrative punishment
  • Two first lieutenants were court-martialed, another got a letter of reprimand and one was given administrative punishment.
  • One second lieutenant was given an other-than-honorable discharge and another was given a letter of reprimand.
  • Two chief warrant officers were court-martialed.
Majors, captains, lieutenants, chief warrant officers. That's not justice, that's scapegoating.

Lynndie England is a poor woman from a bad place who found herself in an even worse one. She is hardly the poster girl of the American military, let alone of American sexuality -- and that might explain why she's been so easy to scapegoat -- but is that really where the buck stops? As Richard Cohen puts in an excellent column in today's Washington Post, England is "an odd, unlikely puppet on the strings of fate," "some sort of anti-Statue of Liberty, the female personification of what some people insisted America had become". Cohen sums her story up well:

"She is the sort of woman who gets used by others, most often men. Powerless everywhere in life except on her end of the leash, she just had to come night after night to the section of Abu Ghraib where Graner held sway. She was admonished for this -- her real work was suffering -- but Graner drew her. She knew that what she was doing was wrong -- "I could have said no,'' she told the military court. "I knew it was wrong.'' But in all likelihood, only theoretically could she have said no. Some women always say yes.

"How sad, how ironic, that this wee woman should have become the personification of supposed American arrogance. Like all those convicted for the abuses of Abu Ghraib, she is one of America's little people -- not an officer, not even regular Army, but one of a collection of nobodies just trying to get somewhere better. Lynndie England was one of them, and she is suffering for that -- officially for abusing prisoners, actually for being a loser. Whatever the outcome of her trial, the sentence will be life."

It's a sad story. I have no excuse for what happened at Abu Ghraib and for what surely must be going on at other American facilities around the world (and for what's happening in foreign facilities where the U.S. is shipping some of its prisoners for torture). The abuse of prisoners by the American military is a stain on the United States and a serious roadblock in winning the "soft" war for the hearts and minds of those who would inflict terror on us or who otherwise repudiate our way of life.

Once upon a time, the noble thing to do was to take responsibility at the highest levels, not least in the Oval Office. Now, the ignoble thing to do is to assume no responsibility whatsoever and to blame convenient cogs somewhere down the hierarchy (while being promoted and otherwise rewarded). The buck doesn't stop with Lynndie England, but she, and others like her, will take the fall. That's "justice" for you.

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Update: Better late than never for Microsoft

Not too long ago, I noted here that Microsoft was rethinking its withdrawal of support for a Washington state bill that would have effectively banned discrimination against gays and lesbians in housing, employment, and insurance. Well, not a little too late, Microsoft has indeed switched back to the right side. CEO Steve Ballmer announced today, in an e-mail to employees, that the company would support such legislation in future. Why in future? Because the bill failed in the state Senate by a single vote on April 21. Wrote Ballmer: "After looking at the question from all sides, I've concluded that diversity in the workplace is such an important issue for our business that it should be included in our legislative agenda." Better late than never, but let's hope the tech giant, whose OS allows The Reaction to be, soon has the opportunity to make amends.

A belated bravo.

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Canada: Sodomy on the books?

In response to my recent post about the anti-gay bill introduced by an Alabama lawmaker and that bill's reference to Alabama's existing "sodomy and sexual misconduct laws," a friend sent me an e-mail to remind me that anal sex is still on the books even in Canada. Here's the relevant section of the Criminal Code, from Part V:

159. (1) Every person who engages in an act of anal intercourse is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding ten years or is guilty of an offence punishable on summary conviction.

But there are exceptions:

(2) Subsection (1) does not apply to any act engaged in, in private, between
(a) husband and wife, or
(b) any two persons, each of whom is eighteen years of age or more,
both of whom consent to the act.

(3) For the purposes of subsection (2),
(a) an act shall be deemed not to have been engaged in in private if it is engaged in in a public place or if more than two persons take part or are present; and
(b) a person shall be deemed not to consent to an act
(i) if the consent is extorted by force, threats or fear of bodily harm or is obtained by false and fraudulent misrepresentations respecting the nature and quality of the act, or
(ii) if the court is satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that the person could not have consented to the act by reason of mental disability.

Some of this makes sense, specifically the matter of consent. Surely a person who is mentally disabled or who has been extorted cannot give his or her consent in any reasonable way. And surely we prefer that anal sex remains a "private" matter. And, yes, the "exceptions" do exclude married couples and, indeed, all adult couples. Presumably, the "husband and wife" section means that married couples with one or both partners under 18 can legally engage in anal sex. And the reference to "any two persons" means that anal sex is not limited to heterosexual couples.

We are, after all, a fairly progressive country. Several U.S. states may have passed anti-gay referenda last November, but Canada is moving towards full and equal recognition of same-sex couples, not least in terms of marriage. And I fully support these efforts.

Here are a couple of problems, however: Legal anal sex is limited to two partners. No one else may be present in any way, as a participant or not. Hence the definition of "private" is limited to two people, and the presence of only a single other person makes the private public. How does this make sense? Why can't three or more consenting adults engage in sexual activity of this kind "in private"? Yes, I know, I'm making an argument for group sex, but, more so, it doesn't make any sense that two is private and three or more is public. Does it?

Finally, it's interesting to look at where anal sex appears in the Criminal Code. Although it has for the most part been legalized in Canada, if only between two partners, anal sex appears between incest and bestiality in the "Sexual Offences, Public Morals, and Disorderly Conduct" part of the Criminal Code. But incest and bestiality are illegal without exception, whereas anal sex is for the most part legal. How does this make sense? Although anal sex is hardly limited to gay male couples, they of all Canadians should take offence at this inexcusable insult.

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Thursday, May 05, 2005

So much for that cheerleader fetish...

The fetishization of cheerleaders, most still minors, is indeed a troubling sub-category (or sub-sub-category) of American sexuality. But it doesn't take much -- don't make me Google it! -- to discover that it's a fairly significant one. And that should concern anyone who cares about the well-being of our children, teens, and young adults, not to mention, more generally, about the state of society and its treatment of sex.

But this makes no sense: Yesterday, the Texas House of Representatives approved a bill that would allow the state to prohibit "overtly sexually suggestive" cheerleading, whatever that means. The bill, which passed 65 to 56, was introduced by a Democrat and ordained minister, Al Edwards, but it lacks a sponsor in the Senate and already it has been watered down -- specifically, "a provision that would have allowed a cut in state financing to schools that permit racy routines was removed," according to The New York Times.

It may very well be that schools need to clamp down on the "overtly sexually suggestive" routines that are now so common among cheerleading teams. All I can say anecdotally is that the cheerleading team at my high school, West Morris Mendham (Mendham, N.J.), was hardly "suggestive" in any way -- then again, our nickname was "Minutemen," hardly sexual in any way. But there are a number of problems with this:

First, there is the obvious hypocrisy. Although firm numbers are hard to come by, pornography in the United States constitutes a multi-billion dollar industry. Frank Rich once put the number somewhere between US$10-14 billion, but even the more conservative estimate in Forbes of US$2.6-3.9 billion (for more on this debate, see here) indicates that the industry is huge and that, basically, America loves its smut, whatever the thin veneer of self-righteous puritanical moralism that masks what is really going on. Now, the relationship between cheerleading and pornography may be rather odious, and perhaps indirect, but I bring up the latter for a reason. It shows that sex is alive in well in America, and it shouldn't surprise anyone that cheerleaders have been so grossly sexualized, given how grossly sexualized the rest of the culture has become (for example, how about the fact that many teenaged girls dress like prostitutes?). Perhaps that's precisely an argument to de-sexualize cheerleading, but isn't it somewhat backwards to limit sexualization when such sexualization is precisely what the "customers" -- i.e., highly sexualized Americans who love watching cheerleaders do their thing -- want?

Second, aren't there better ways to deal with sexuality among teens and young adults? If you consider sexuality beyond sex-for-procreation in marriage to be immoral, then there isn't much to be said. All you're doing is denying human nature. But if you're worried about teen pregnancy and STDs, or just about high rates of sexual activity among teens and young adults, then there are more effective measures than cleansing cheerleading of its more overt sexuality. How about promoting real sex education, not just abstinence? How about promoting birth control? How about promoting discussion over censorship? How about recognizing that sexuality is a cornerstone of human nature and that to suppress it is actually to channel it into far more worrisome outlets? Efforts to clamp down on sexuality, especially when such sexuality is merely "suggestive" and in no way illegal, are, in my view, simply counter-productive. We should be promoting a healthier sense of sexuality among teens and young adults, not pretending that they're not at all sexual.

Third, what exactly is "overtly sexually suggestive" cheerleading? It may be like that famous non-definition of pornography -- I know it when I see it -- but isn't such a subjective determination better left to school boards and individual schools themselves -- that is, to local communities? The Texas bill is vague, which means that enforcement will be uneven, but, more importantly, it smacks of the same government over-reach that is now so common across the United States. I realize that public schools aren't the private sphere, and that regulating cheerleading isn't the same as, say, restricting access to adult-oriented entertainment on the part of consenting adults, but the State of Texas interfering with the affairs of local communities and their schools is very much like Republican efforts during the Schiavo case to use the federal government (Congress, the federal judiciary) to meddle in what was a state (Florida) matter.

Bill Clinton once said that the era of big government is over. He was wrong. It's back, in this case with a moral vengeance.

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Wednesday, May 04, 2005

North Korea: A tyranny of darkness

Lights out. Posted by Hello

This is a nighttime satellite image of the Korean peninsula taken on April 15. More, it's an astonishing image of tyranny. While lights burn throughout South Korea -- the white blotch on the west coast just south of the border is Seoul, one of the smaller blotches in the southeast is Pusan -- North Korea, where lights are turned off at curfew, lingers in seemingly absolute darkness.

Here's Christopher Hitchens's piece on North Korea in Slate. Though I generally find myself in disagreement with him these days -- I find his radical secularism mixed with pro-Bush hawkishness profoundly shallow -- he is right about North Korea. It amazes me... no. It saddens me that we don't seem to be doing anything to stop the horrific violence that is being inflicted upon millions and millions of people around the world, from North Korea to Darfur and in places that don't even register in the media, as if we've already forgotten the lessons of the 20th century. In Hitchens's estimation, North Korea is worse than Orwell's 1984 dystopia -- in some ways worse even than Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, Maoist China. Simply, it's a slave state, one big concentration camp. And its people live in darkness. And not just at night.

(Hitchens links to the satellite image, but it's also available from the Federation of American Scientists (FAS). Check out its fascinating website.)

I realize that it's important to engage this most atrocious of regimes (see Fred Kaplan's arguments here and here; see also this report of an interview with a defector), but negotiation -- both bilateral (U.S.-North Korea) and multilateral (including South Korea, China, Japan, and Russia) -- ought to be supported by moral outrage and greater awareness of what's actually going on in a place where millions of our fellow human beings are enslaved.

We say never again, but it keeps happening. Shall we speak out and demand action, or shall we sit back and wait for the North Korean Schindler's List, The Killing Fields, or Hotel Rwanda to arouse our armchair (and retroactive) indignation?

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Sign of the Apocalypse #2: Britney on TV

Who's the guy in the back? Posted by Hello

Here's a new feature at The Reaction: Signs of the Apocalypse.

Which is to say, signs that the Apocalypse, however understood, is right around the corner, or at least signs that our civilization is crumbling into oblivion. Now, there are many obvious signs, real or imagined, such as frogs falling from the sky or devil sightings or the Red Sox winning the World Series -- the Maple Leafs winning the Stanley Cup would truly be an apocalpytic event, not just a sign (let's not go there). From time to time, I will point out more subtle, or at least less obvious, signs. A few weeks ago, I mentioned, for example, Avril Lavigne's win for Best Artist at the Junos (Canada's Grammys), a good #1. Now let me offer Sign #2, a three-part sign involving no less a cultural giant than Britney Spears:

1) Britney's new "reality" show -- called Britney and Kevin: Chaotic, perhaps the worst TV show title ever. The good news is that, as of now, it's just slated to be a six-episode series, starting May 17 on UPN (can anyone name another show on UPN? I didn't think so). The bad news is that -- cue the Apocalypse -- it will feature "exclusive, never-before-seen private home videos they shot themselves during their courtship, engagement and wedding". Ouch. To steal a joke from Jon Stewart, that's gotta give you brain damage. Otherwise, it's obviously just a Jessica & Nick rip-off. But how low are you on the cultural scale when you're just a rip-off of something that sucked? The only reason to watch will be to determine who's stupider, Jessica or Britney. My guess: a toss-up, but those who watch Chaotic will be the stupidest of all.

2) Britney's website. Yes, it's that bad.

3) Britney's pregnancy test. This is bizarre. According to reports, an online casino, Golden Palace, has bought one of Britney's used pregnancy tests (I'm not sure if it's the positive one) from a radio station, which allegedly found it in the trash outside Britney's Los Angeles hotel room a few months ago, for US$5,001. Said a Golden Palace spokesman: "It's hard to put a price on Britney Spears's urine." (Indeed.) To be fair, this isn't Britney's fault, and she deserves no further blame here for summoning the Apocalypse. Online gaming (and casino gambling in general) is a huge, flashing Sign of the Apocalypse, and this story only provides further confirmation.

Truly, we have much to fear.

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Judith Grace Stickings

My beautiful niece. Posted by Hello

Okay, I've generally resisted getting too personal in this space. After all, The Reaction is a blog about politics, philosophy, and culture -- and, often, it's way too serious for its own good, even though I'm trying to market it as a serious blog. But how can I resist posting this wonderful picture? She's much nicer to look at, after all, than George W. or a bunch of Kuwaiti legislators or some papabile.

I'll get serious and political again later this evening.

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Democracy in action?

Kuwait: All the ladies in the house say "Aye"! Oh... right. Posted by Hello

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Tuesday, May 03, 2005

A day in the life of the Middle East

(Is Lewis Black hilarious, or what? Tonight: Rippin' on Cameron Diaz's Trippin'.)

Here are three of the lead international stories at The New York Times online:

"In a striking display of the divisions that have plagued Iraq's fledgling government, the new cabinet was sworn into office on Tuesday with at least six positions still undecided after days of polarizing negotiations. In a protest over the stalled talks, Sheik Ghazi al-Yawar, one of two vice presidents, refused to attend the ceremony. He has been leading efforts to name candidates for the Defense Ministry and two other vacant positions allotted to Sunni Arabs and had threatened to boycott the ceremony if Shiite leaders continued to block Sunni nominees to the Defense Ministry, a key post. On Tuesday Sheik Yawar, the government's top-ranking Sunni and a member of its three-member presidency council, carried out his threat, and his seat remained conspicuously empty as the other cabinet ministers swore the oath of office with their hands on a Koran... The persistent failure to fill the cabinet - and the public protest by one of the government's only Sunni Arabs - was a serious embarrassment for the effort to build a government of national unity. [Prime Minister Ibrahim] Jaafari made similar assurances of a speedy finale after the partial cabinet was approved on Thursday. Instead, Iraq's first fully and freely elected government remains hobbled by sectarian divisions more than three months after January elections. In recent days, tensions appear to have worsened between the Shiite alliance that dominates the new government and the minority Sunni Arabs. Violence, too, has risen along with the discontent." (Click here for full story.)

"Iran declared Tuesday that it would soon resume some of the nuclear activities it had suspended during negotiations with Europe, and it used a conference here to accuse the United States and other nations of using the fear of nuclear weapons proliferation to deny peaceful nuclear technology to developing nations... Iran did not repeat its threat during its formal presentation in the hall of the [United Nations] General Assembly, where the monthlong meeting is taking place. But the foreign minister, Kamal Kharrazi, told the [United Nations] conference [reviewing the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty] that the United States and Europe were trying to keep an exclusive hold on technological advancement, and he said Iran was determined to defy that effort." (Click here for full story.)

"Conservative lawmakers in Kuwait's Parliament on Tuesday created a constitutional roadblock that effectively killed a measure that would have allowed women to participate in city council elections for the first time. Hours later, the elections were called for June 2. The action eliminates any chance that women will be able to take part in elections for another four years, when city council seats are again up for grabs. The legislation initially was passed by Kuwait's 64-member National Assembly on April 19, but in accordance with Kuwaiti law faced a second vote for ratification on Monday. But Parliament ended in deadlock on Monday when 29 members abstained and only 29 voted for it, leaving the legislation just shy of the 33 votes needed. Efforts to resume voting on the measure on Tuesday failed when opponents argued that it had already been rejected and that any new vote would therefore be unconstitutional... While the city council holds little political significance, winning the right for women to run for office there was seen as a first step in gaining the right to run for Parliament." (Click here for full story.)


I want democracy to work in Iraq -- since the start of the Iraq War, that's been the constant in my thinking, and, however much I may disagree with Bush's handling of the occupation (which is what it is, justified or not, euphemisms to the contrary), there's no good reason to hope that these democratic efforts fail (or do you want Saddam back? or the theocrats to tyrannize? or the terrorists to win?). But things don't look so good, and the instant euphoria that followed the Iraqi election has long since dissipated. This now requires statesmanship of the highest order. The U.S. doesn't have it, and I'm not sure Iraq does either.

Iran is a serious situation that the Bush Administration doesn't seem to grasp. For Fred Kaplan's take on the NPT, click here. European diplomatic efforts should be applauded, but, ultimately, Iran will only back down under U.S. pressure. And that doesn't necessarily mean military pressure. Bush's idealism prevents him from negotiating with undemocratic regimes like Iran and North Korea (but not Saudi Arabia and Pakistan), but a dose of realism would work better than high-falutin' rhetoric about the virtues of democracy. See also Kaplan's take on Iraq and North Korea (well, on Bush's failure to understand what's really going on in those two countries).

Kuwait is another of America's undemocratic allies, but at least the prime minister, Sheik Sabah al-Jaber al-Sabah has promised full political rights for women and may appoint a woman to a cabinet post once women get the right to vote. That's something.

Bush's vision of a democratic Middle East is a noble one -- one that liberals should applaud. But it takes more than a vision to change the course of history, and that's where Bush -- despite recent events (such as Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon) that may in part be attributable to his aggressive, unilateral foreign policy -- is the wrong man for the job. He's got the vision-thing his father lacked, but his accidental successes don't make up for inconsistency, foolishness, and, worst of all, recklessness.

Despite all the bad news, day after day, there is a glimmer of hope in the Middle East. It's too bad there's a statesmanship vacuum in the White House.

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Monday, May 02, 2005

Sweet home Alabama: Shakespeare, sodomy, and sexual misconduct

Here's a story to make your skin crawl: Alabama State Representative Gerald Allen has tabled a bill in the legislature that would prevent public libraries and other state institutions from purchasing works by gay authors or about gay characters (is Stewie Griffin gay? so long Family Guy!) or that somehow violate, or rather endorse violations of, Alabama's strict sex laws. Says Allen, "I don't look at it as censorship. I look at it as protecting the hearts and souls and minds of our children". Sure, and that Nazi book-burning was all about keeping warm during those long Prussian winters. Allen's view: "Dig a hold and dump them in it." Thankfully, there were not enough state representatives present when the bill came to a vote (i.e., no quorum), but we might not have seen the end of it.

PolySciFi Blog examines the issue here. The key language of the bill:

  • No public funds or public facilities shall be used by any state agency, public school, public library, or public college or university for the purchase, production, or promotion of printed or electronic materials or activities that, directly or indirectly, sanction, recognize, foster, or promote a lifestyle or actions prohibited by the sodomy and sexual misconduct laws of the state of Alabama.

By the way, "the sodomy and sexual misconduct laws of the state of Alabama" include the following:

  • DEVIATE SEXUAL INTERCOURSE. Any act of sexual gratification between persons not married to each other involving the sex organs of one person and the mouth or anus of another.

So it's not just homosexuality. It's also oral and anal sex between unmarried heterosexual partners. I'm not sure what happens if an "act of sexual gratification" involves "the sex organs" of more than one person. I'll look into that and report my findings here at The Reaction.

In response, another good blogger, Julie Saltman, is asking readers to "list our five favorite 'printed or electronic materials or activities that, directly or indirectly, sanction, recognize, foster, or promote a lifestyle or actions prohibited by the sodomy and sexual misconduct laws of the state of Alabama'." In that spirit, here are mine:

  1. Plato, Republic: No, not because there's any pedophilia (don't buy into that myth), but because a lot of it's about sex and nudity and men and women training together and close relationships between men and...
  2. Pink Floyd, The Wall: Allen would have both the double CD and the DVD to toss into his hole of shame. There isn't much in the way of homosexual behaviour, but the movie certainly wouldn't be acceptable (think "Young Lust"), and, generally, I'd be honoured if my favourite band were banned in Alabama.
  3. Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being: Trivia question: What is main character Tomas's favourite part of the female body? Hint: that part of the body, male and female, isn't legal in Alabama. (Answer at end of post.)
  4. Gunther Grass, The Tin Drum: Well, it's anti-Nazi, for one, but there's also a famous scene (that caused the film version to be banned across the U.S. when it was released) that certainly wouldn't be acceptable. Alabamans do not -- repeat, do not -- engage in cunnilingus (especially minors). Ever.
  5. Aldous Huxley, Brave New World: For all the drug use, of course. But perhaps I should instead suggest Woody Allen's Sleeper. One word: orgasmatron. Alabamans do not -- repeat, do not -- have orgasms. Ever.
Also, anything by Shakespeare.

Celebrate these works as much as you can. They're not safe.

Any other suggestions?

(Answer: What is the anus, Alex?)

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Radio Paradise: The best web radio

Just a quick post as I write Part III on Strauss -- for all of you who don't know much about Strauss or, worse, who don't care about Strauss, I appreciate your patience, and I hope you keep checking back daily. As always, I aim for breadth, given my diverse interests, and I'll be returning to non-Strauss posts soon enough. But, hey, does it get any better than Stewie Griffin?

In the past couple of years, I've gotten into web radio -- in part, I suspect, because Toronto's radio stations are so utterly mediocre, but also because it's just so much better for true music lovers than commercial radio.

My recommendation: check out Radio Paradise. It defies easy categorization, but, generally, the focus is on eclectic classic and modern rock... but even that doesn't do it justice. Right now -- to my pleasant surprise -- it's Pink Floyd ("Fat Old Sun"), but the playlist covers everything from Led Zeppelin to Patty Griffin to Oasis to Chris Isaak to Massive Attack to Jefferson Airplane to Peter Gabriel to Beck to Philip Glass to the Barenaked Ladies to Suzanne Vega to Sonic Youth to Isaac "Shaft" Hayes. And that's just a sampling from the past few hours. Plus, it's all free and listener-supported. And that's good.

Radio Paradise plays on Windows Media or Real Player, but I prefer to listen to it on Winamp (free download), which supports a new CD-quality audio compression format called aacPlus. It works really well (and better than MP3) even with dial-up, but with high-speed broadband (which, thankfully, I have) it offers 5.1 channel surround sound. For more on this new format, click here. For other stations that use aacPlus, check out Tuner2 (heavy on electronica, but a diverse offering nonetheless).

Good listening.

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Sunday, May 01, 2005

Stewie Griffin: Victory is mine!

He's back! Posted by Hello

Trivia question: What is Stewie's middle name? (answer at end of post)

Fox, which I am not much apt to praise for anything it does, has reversed course and "uncancelled" The Family Guy. And tonight's inaugural episode of Season 4, "North by North Quahog," was quite funny, not least the send-up of Mel Gibson (I'm no Frank Rich, but I don't care much for the former lethal weapon anymore). I had worried that the show would lose its edge and that its cult status, developed in syndication and through massive DVD sales over the past few years, would evaporate along with its wacky, postmodern sense of humour. Not so. At least, not so far. Let's hope Season 4 (and beyond) lives up to expectations.

A positive critique of The Family Guy by Elbert Ventura at The New Republic: click here. Ventura calls the show "nothing less than a loud, defiant raspberry from the Blue State subconscious". Where The Simpsons -- a better and more important show, in my view, if less absurdly funny and irreverent -- celebrates the nuclear family as "a moral bedrock," The Family Guy is an effort "to deflate Main Street sanctimony": "It's a needed reminder that humorless prudes do not have a monopoly on the airwaves yet, and that there's enough of us out there to put up a fight. As Peter would say, that's freakin' sweet." Yes, with American culture increasingly dominated by a minority of loud, self-righteous, illiberal crusaders who wish to suppress free expression (and the right to partake of that expression by participating in a vibrant, diverse, liberal culture), it's good to have the Griffins back on TV.

Check out these sites:

Family Guy main site: click here.
Family Guy quotes: click here.
Stewie soundboard: click here.

We'll be returning to Strauss soon. In the meantime, enjoy.

Answer: Gilligan.

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Diversity and conformity: What it means to be a Straussian, Part II

As something of an addendum to my last post, on the liberational aspect of Strauss’s teaching (the basis for what I see as Straussian liberalism – or liberal Straussianism, depending on how you look at it), let me quote extensively from Allan Bloom’s "The Democratization of the University" and "The Crisis of Liberal Education" (both essays reprinted in his Giants and Dwarfs: Essays 1960-1990):

"By liberal education I mean education for freedom, particularly the freedom of the mind, which consists primarily in the awareness of the most important human alternatives. Such an education is largely dedicated to the study of the deepest thinkers of the past, because their works constitute the body of learning which we must preserve in order to remain civilized and because anything new that is serious must be based on, and take account of, them. Without such a study a man’s mind is almost necessarily a prisoner of the horizon of his particular time and place, and in a democracy that means of the most fundamental premises or prejudices of public opinion." (DU)

"In popular discussion today, the goal of almost everything, including the university, is said to be diversity. To the extent that this is not merely a means to avoid discussing what is good, we mean that in a free society many high or noble ways of life must exist for men and women to choose among. But the concentration on diversity as such is self-defeating… The quest can never be for diversity but must be for the truth – the truth about the highest good and the end of life. Diversity will take care of itself, given the various talents and characters of human beings. Never has there been so much talk about diversity and so little difference among persons… We are diverse in [a] quantitative sense, but intelligent observers can call us conformists, for a certain way of life derived from our political and economic system settles itself on most of us. It does so, faute de mieux, because we are ignorant of alternatives or because we are told that all alternatives are equally true or untrue." (CLE)

"[T]he only true diversity comes from difference of principle about the final ends – serious thought and conviction about whether, for example, salvation, wisdom, or glory is best. This we lack, and it is the function of the university to maintain the awareness of these alternatives in their highest forms. We have all the negative conditions of freedom. Our young can think or do almost anything they please. But in order to act differently one must have ideas, and this is what they lack. They have access to all the thought of the past and all of its glorious examples. But they are not taught to take them seriously as living possibilities for themselves…" (CLE)


For all the talk among anti-Straussians (of both left and right) about elitism, the noble lie, and world domination, this is truly what Straussianism is about, the liberation of men and women from the confines of their particular horizons, or orthodoxies, through a revitalized conception of liberal education. In short, it is about liberalism properly understood.

To be sure, not all of us can be Socrates, nor even a shadow of Socrates. Most of us are content to live fairly unexamined lives, permanently confined by myriad orthodoxies that we never even begin to question. In our liberal democracies, we are free to pursue happiness and the good life privately, without much in the way of political interference or guidance, and we generally allow for a variety, a seemingly endless variety, of individual and communal conceptions of happiness and the good life. And that means that most of us will concern ourselves not with philosophizing, that is, with the long, arduous, Socratic task of ascending out of the cave and into the light, but with working for a living, raising families, enjoying the company of loved ones, spending time with friends, pursuing different forms of entertainment, worshipping our respective gods, and all the other aspects of normal, everyday life.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course. But Bloom is right, I think, to point to a certain conformity of thought that plagues liberal democracy -- even (or especially) in academia, where ideally there should be an appreciation of diversity. So while liberal theorists spend their time thinking about rights and the politics of pluralism within the orthodoxy of liberal democracy, while postmodernists abandon serious thought entirely by playing the reductionist game of deconstruction, and while relativists avoid the pursuit of truth entirely by claiming that everything is equally true (and untrue), Straussians and other serious political theorists – and it seems to me that Straussians generally reach out to and engage non-Straussians in a way that is hardly reciprocal – look to enlightenment beyond the narrow confines of our present horizons and to a fuller, more noble sense of what it means to be a human being.

This is why, to speak anecdotally (as a former teaching assistant), my students over the years found our courses to be so rewarding. At the University of Toronto, my students were generally second- and third-year political science majors, or interested non-majors. They came in with a healthy skepticism of political philosophy – and more generally of what they considered at first to be old books and obsolete ideas. What, after all, is there to learn from Plato and Aristotle, or Machiavelli, or Hobbes and Locke, when we seem to have progressed so far past them that we can no longer even understand them, or at least when they cannot possibly have anything of relevance to teach us? Confined by the reigning orthodoxies of our time, they could not see beyond the horizon, let alone conceive of other, more distant horizons. They thought that they knew the truth, or at least that they knew enough not to bother with the truth, or, more likely, they didn’t even know that they could pursue the truth at all.

This is what I’m getting at: Straussian political philosophy is about asking questions, not providing definitive answers. It is about studying the best that has been thought and said, whether it’s in Plato or Shakespeare or The Simpsons, not for the sake of instituting some Straussian political regime, conservative or otherwise, but for the sake of being truly free. Far from being an elitist pursuit of would-be philosophers, let alone philosopher-kings (and Straussians know that the rule of philosophers is impossible – if our opponents bothered to read our interpretations of Plato’s Republic, they’d know that), political philosophy as Straussians understand it is, in our liberal society, rooted in the liberal education that is available to the very masses we are accused of wanting to control. It is an education that is truly liberating. And I saw it when the young men and women I had the privilege to teach – young people from all over the world and from so many different cultures and backgrounds – were awakened from the perpetual (and conforming) state of slumber that seems to afflict, and paralyze, contemporary liberal democracy, preventing it from ascending to its potential. I saw it the moment they opened Plato’s Republic and began, with Socrates and his own young interlocutors, to ask questions that they didn’t know could even be asked: What is justice? What is the good? What is virtue? What is happiness? What is human nature? What is the best regime? What, ultimately, is the truth, what merely shadows of the truth? There may not be easy answers to these most fundamental of questions about human nature and the human condition, but asking them is the first step towards liberation, towards being truly free as citizens and human beings.

This is not about being "liberal" or "conservative" in current political terms, but about being liberal in the highest and most noble sense of that term. It is about encouraging a truly enlightening education to liberty, education for the sake of liberty. And it is about replacing conformity with a healthy diversity of thought that considers the full range of options open to human beings.

And that, I think, is precisely what liberalism is, or should be, all about.

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