Saturday, October 31, 2009

Scanning vs. Reading

I’ve been scrolling the literary blogs recently as there seems to be nothing new in politics.  How many times can one write about Obama’s naiveté and incompetence?  This post over at The Elegant Variation caught my eye the other day.  It refers back to an essay in the L.A. Times by David Ulin whose subject is how the Internet has ‘fractured our attention spans’ and affected our reading habits.  This is something I have thought about often and am constantly on guard against – see this post here, which is related to these concerns.  I spend a lot of time on the Internet and am very aware of how one reads a computer screen.  We become scanners, pickers and choosers, never fully focused on what’s before us because of the instantaneous and ephemeral nature of Internet content.  Those habits can carry over and affect our book reading. 

I first noticed this when I graduated college.  As I’ve explained elsewhere I started college late.  I was already working and owned a home.  I had financial responsibilities.  So for five years I worked full-time and went to school full-time, a schedule that left me no time for other pursuits, such as reading for pleasure.  One of the main reasons I was so eager to graduate was that I would be able to read what I wanted again.  But when I started I realized that five years of furiously scanning text books and notes had affected the way I read.  I found myself scanning down to the bottom of every page, trying to do the picking and choosing one does while studying for an exam, separating out what’s important and what’s not.  It seemed I lost the ability to become fully engrossed in a book, to enter that fugue-like state that all book-lovers know when one becomes unaware of their surroundings.  You lose yourself within the book, almost like you’re a part of it, only coming to hours later, like waking up from a dream.  I had that ability from the time I started to read as a child.  After graduating college at the age of thirty, I wondered if I’d ever get it back.

Fortunately I did, though maybe not to the degree I had it when I was young.  I can still lose myself in a book and I hope I always can.  I think I’ve mastered what are probably two separate abilities, Internet reading and book reading. One reason may be that I’m in two physically different spots and positions when doing each.  When reading on the Internet I’m sitting up, at my computer terminal or sitting at my kitchen table reading on my laptop.  I would never read a book in this position.  As I’ve explained before, I read a book lying down, almost always on my living room couch.  At this point they seem to have become almost two separate activities, though as I mentioned above, I’m always on aware of how the one can affect the other. 

I’ll put it to the test today.  I received my copy of Gordon Wood’s Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 in the mail yesterday and I am very eager to get to it.  Wood is considered probably the finest historian we have on the founding era and, at 700+ pages, it’s the kind of book you must fall into, become engrossed with, if you hope to get through it in any reasonable amount of time.  Usually a book of this length I will figure I’ll be reading it for a good three weeks, maybe a month.  I don’t mind this a bit.  I like falling into another time and place and living in that world for awhile. 

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Decline Is a Choice

Yesterday in this space I worried that Barack Obama was in danger of becoming a weak and ineffectual president.  But what if he is deliberately weak?  That is Charles Krauthammer’s opinion in a speech he gave last week in New York.  Krauthammer, the smartest man in America, gave the Manhattan Institute’s annual Wriston Lecture last Tuesday, in a speech entitled, “Decline Is a Choice.”  The main point of the speech is that there is nothing inevitable about American decline but it is rather a choice, a choice the Obama administration has committed itself to:

Facing the choice of whether to maintain our dominance or to gradually, deliberately, willingly, and indeed relievedly give it up, we are currently on a course towards the latter. The current liberal ascendancy in the United States--controlling the executive and both houses of Congress, dominating the media and elite culture--has set us on a course for decline. And this is true for both foreign and domestic policies. Indeed, they work synergistically to ensure that outcome.

The current foreign policy of the United States is an exercise in contraction. It begins with the demolition of the moral foundation of American dominance. In Strasbourg, President Obama was asked about American exceptionalism. His answer? "I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism." Interesting response. Because if everyone is exceptional, no one is.

Indeed, as he made his hajj from Strasbourg to Prague to Ankara to Istanbul to Cairo and finally to the U.N. General Assembly, Obama drew the picture of an America quite exceptional--exceptional in moral culpability and heavy-handedness, exceptional in guilt for its treatment of other nations and peoples. With varying degrees of directness or obliqueness, Obama indicted his own country for arrogance, for dismissiveness and derisiveness (toward Europe), for maltreatment of natives, for torture, for Hiroshima, for Guantánamo, for unilateralism, and for insufficient respect for the Muslim world.

Quite an indictment, the fundamental consequence of which is to effectively undermine any moral claim that America might have to world leadership, as well as the moral confidence that any nation needs to have in order to justify to itself and to others its position of leadership. According to the new dispensation, having forfeited the mandate of heaven--if it ever had one--a newly humbled America now seeks a more modest place among the nations, not above them.

Krauthammer continues by contrasting the old liberal internationalism of the Clinton era with the new left-liberal internationalism of Obama, a shift in philosophy that precludes American hegemony:

But whatever bizarre form of multilateral or universal structures is envisioned for keeping world order, certainly hegemony--and specifically American hegemony--is to be retired.

This renunciation of primacy is not entirely new. Liberal internationalism as practiced by the center-left Clinton administrations of the 1990s--the beginning of the unipolar era--was somewhat ambivalent about American hegemony, although it did allow America to be characterized as "the indispensable nation," to use Madeleine Albright's phrase. Clintonian center-left liberal internationalism did seek to restrain American power by tying Gulliver down with a myriad of treaties and agreements and international conventions. That conscious constraining of America within international bureaucratic and normative structures was rooted in the notion that power corrupts and that external restraints would curb arrogance and overreaching and break a willful America to the role of good international citizen.

But the liberal internationalism of today is different. It is not center-left, but left-liberal. And the new left-liberal internationalism goes far beyond its earlier Clintonian incarnation in its distrust of and distaste for American dominance. For what might be called the New Liberalism, the renunciation of power is rooted not in the fear that we are essentially good but subject to the corruptions of power--the old Clintonian view--but rooted in the conviction that America is so intrinsically flawed, so inherently and congenitally sinful that it cannot be trusted with, and does not merit, the possession of overarching world power.

For the New Liberalism, it is not just that power corrupts. It is that America itself is corrupt--in the sense of being deeply flawed, and with the history to prove it. An imperfect union, the theme of Obama's famous Philadelphia race speech, has been carried to and amplified in his every major foreign-policy address, particularly those delivered on foreign soil. (Not surprisingly, since it earns greater applause over there.)

And because we remain so imperfect a nation, we are in no position to dictate our professed values to others around the world. Demonstrators are shot in the streets of Tehran seeking nothing but freedom, but our president holds his tongue because, he says openly, of our own alleged transgressions towards Iran (presumably involvement in the 1953 coup). Our shortcomings are so grave, and our offenses both domestic and international so serious, that we lack the moral ground on which to justify hegemony.

This mindset will have consequences:

So why not? Why not choose ease and bask in the adulation of the world as we serially renounce, withdraw, and concede?

Because, while globalization has produced in some the illusion that human nature has changed, it has not. The international arena remains a Hobbesian state of nature in which countries naturally strive for power. If we voluntarily renounce much of ours, others will not follow suit. They will fill the vacuum. Inevitably, an inversion of power relations will occur.

Do we really want to live under unknown, untested, shifting multipolarity? Or even worse, under the gauzy internationalism of the New Liberalism with its magically self-enforcing norms? This is sometimes passed off as "realism." In fact, it is the worst of utopianisms, a fiction that can lead only to chaos. Indeed, in an age on the threshold of hyper-proliferation, it is a prescription for catastrophe.

Heavy are the burdens of the hegemon. After the blood and treasure expended in the post-9/11 wars, America is quite ready to ease its burden with a gentle descent into abdication and decline.

Decline is a choice. More than a choice, a temptation. How to resist it?

Read or watch the entire speech.  It is highly persuasive and very troubling.  I’ve so far been resistant to the calls from the right that Obama is deliberately out to weaken the country.  One friend has been trying to convince me since February that Obama and his cronies intentionally want to destroy the economy in order to reshape domestic policy towards a more socialist model.  I argued back that, while it is clear that collectivism was the end goal of our president, in order to implement his policies Obama needed a strong economy, that he needed some wins in order to gain the trust of the American people.  Getting the economy back on track first was the only way he would he be given leeway to implement a more radical agenda.  Without those wins and the attendant trust that came with them, any attempt to shove a radical domestic agenda through Congress would lead to he and his party being swept from office in the next few elections, their radical vision nothing but a memory.  I still think I’m right about that.  The economy remains moribund, unemployment remains high, and Obama has failed on both cap-and-trade and (so far) health care.  Now the American people are on to him and radical legislation seems less of a possibility.  However, Krauthammer’s point that retreat abroad will work in conjunction with European-style socialism here at home is something I hadn’t thought of.  The foreign and domestic policy shifts work in conjunction with each other:

There is no free lunch. Social democracy and its attendant goods may be highly desirable, but they have their price--a price that will be exacted on the dollar, on our primacy in space, on missile defense, on energy security, and on our military capacities and future power projection.

But, of course, if one's foreign policy is to reject the very notion of international primacy in the first place, a domestic agenda that takes away the resources to maintain such primacy is perfectly complementary. Indeed, the two are synergistic. Renunciation of primacy abroad provides the added resources for more social goods at home. To put it in the language of the 1990s, the expanded domestic agenda is fed by a peace dividend--except that in the absence of peace, it is a retreat dividend.

And there's the rub. For the Europeans there really is a peace dividend, because we provide the peace. They can afford social democracy without the capacity to defend themselves because they can always depend on the United States.

So why not us as well? Because what for Europe is decadence--decline, in both comfort and relative safety--is for us mere denial. Europe can eat, drink, and be merry for America protects her. But for America it's different. If we choose the life of ease, who stands guard for us?

Who indeed?

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Obama’s Blues, part II

The ridiculousness of Barack Obama receiving the Nobel Peace Prize has been well-documented over the past twenty-four hours. Commentators on both the left and right have noted how undeserving Obama is of the award so I will have nothing to say about that. The question now is, does this help Obama or hurt him?

Not surprisingly, I think it hurts him. Coming on the heals of his Olympics humiliation and the take-off-the-gloves spoof from last week’s episode of Saturday Night Live, it sets Obama up as an object of ridicule – the last thing he needs right now. The Olympics fiasco revealed more than any other episode in his still young presidency how self-absorbed Obama is. Even those who don’t pay much attention to the day-to-day happenings in Washington were paying attention to Obama’s Chicago bid, and he failed, miserably. The SNL do-nothing skit was devastating and it contributes to the growing public perception of the Obama administration as incompetent. Furthermore, it signals to other comedians that Obama is now fair game. I expect we will soon see other similar comedy skits and I wouldn’t be surprised if Obama’s pomposity were the subject, replete with his chin in the air, his imperious and patronizing manner, spouting seemingly grand but rhetorically empty nonsense. Jesse Jackson was a terrific sport back in the day when he poked fun at his own persona in the Green Eggs and Ham skit. But it worked for Jackson because he himself was doing the poking. Imagine, rather, some late-night comedian doing this to Barack Obama?

And now the undeserving Nobel prize. The inevitable jokes about Obama receiving the Heisman Trophy (he once criticized the BCS system), the Cy Young award (he threw out the first pitch at the All-Star game), an Emmy award, and every other award under the sun do him no good in this environment. It’s like piling on. It’s clear why the Eurotrash that make up the Nobel committee in Oslo gave Obama the award – to take another shot at George Bush and to perhaps constrain Obama on his decision to commit more troops to Afghanistan – but they did him no favors. The entire country is having fun with this.

The most common reaction to the award was the one I had yesterday morning when I saw the headline - “what has he done?” Well, the answer is that Obama has done, like the SNL skit says, nothing (don’t get me wrong – I’m glad he’s done nothing. When it comes to his radical domestic agenda doing nothing is a good thing.) He’s done nothing of consequence so far in his presidency other than the stimulus, which was a consequential failure. He now owns a moribund economy, a failed energy bill, and (so far) a failed health care bill. He dithers while his generals wait for an answer on Afghanistan and does nothing while the Iranians assemble the bomb. In other words, there is nothing positive going on for him to combat some of the inevitable ridicule that is attaching to him. He’s in danger of becoming a public joke, a man of no consequence, and a weak and ineffectual president. I take no glee in this. We live in a dangerous world and a weak president only emboldens our enemies – think Jimmy Carter. Despite his campaign rhetoric Obama has shown himself to be a man thoroughly of the left, with no bipartisan instincts. He will somehow have to shed these natural instincts, move to the center, and achieve some victories. The problem is, as I’ve said before, I don’t think the man is capable of compromise. It’s going to be a long four years.

Friday, October 9, 2009

La Dolce Vita

The weather has always affected my mood. And if you live in the Washington D.C. area, you know that the weather this week has been nothing short of glorious - bright blue skies, not a trace of humidity, a cool breeze, highs in the low seventies. It's the same weather we had earlier this year on our trip to Paris and a few weeks ago when we were in New York. Gorgeous. The kind of weather that makes you happy you're on the right side of the dirt. So it should be no surprise that I have been in an inordinately happy state lately. It's not just the weather. Other factors come into play. I've been re-listening to Robert Greenberg's astounding Teaching Company course How to Listen to and Understand Great Music during my daily commute to work and having just finished his two lectures on Beethoven's Fifth Symphony I decided to listen to it straight through during my morning workout. It's been ages since I've done that but I had to. Professor Greenberg plays it in pieces during his lectures, stopping to explain what exactly Beethoven is doing here, what he's doing there, etc. Which is great because you come to appreciate and understand the music more than you ever could on your own. But if you know Beethoven's Fifth you know there is a driving, pulsating push forward, especially in the first, third, and fourth movements. You're always anticipating what's coming next. So when Greenberg cuts the music off during his lectures I'm left yelling like an idiot at the tape player in my car "No, don't stop it there!" So on Wednesday morning I listened to it in it's entirety while on the elliptical machine at the gym, Greenberg's lessons fresh in my mind. And what are those lessons? How the symphony is a battle between the C minor and C major keys, how the four beat short-short-short-long C Minor "fate come knocking at your door" motif in the first movement signals a dark and desperate future, one so ominous that its dominance is almost certainly inevitable; how the second theme of the first movement comes back in C major during the recapitulation, signaling its entrance; how C minor re-establishes its furious power in the third movement with a variation of the fate motif; how C major mocks and debilitates C minor during the trio section, rendering it helpless; how the C minor chord comes back weak and impotent in plucked, pizzicato pieces at the end of the third movement, a shadow of its former self; how it is so weak it cannot even complete its cadence material at the end of the movement; how the closed C minor cadence which our ears are ready for never comes; how instead a deceptive cadence leads us straight into the glorious, heroic, triumphant, C major first theme of the fourth movement; how the C minor fate motif reappears, pizzicato again, during the final section of the fourth movement development section, only to be crushed, once and forever, by the C major first theme of the recapitulation; C major, the key of triumph, triumphs. Good wins over evil. Happiness over despair. It may be the most greatest piece of music ever written. Combine the rush from this astounding music along with the endorphin rush I always get from my workout (I do 25-30 minutes on the elliptical machine with very low tension but as fast as I can, going somewhere between 3.7 and 4.4 miles, ending up each day soaked with sweat and high as a kite), add in the lovely weather, and what you get is a happy guy. The rhythms of Beethoven's Fifth kept pulsating through me for the rest of the day and during my lunchtime walk, which is usually about two miles but which I stretched to three due to the weather, I felt myself getting giddy. Passersby probably wondered what the goofy smile on my face was for.

On to Thursday. I've recently hooked up my ION turntable to my new PC and started converting some old LPs into MP3 format - a lot of music I love but was reluctant to pay for in CD or MP3 format because I already owned it on an LP. Last week I transferred some of these old, beloved songs over to my computer and loaded them onto my IPod. Having listened to nothing but classical music* lately, I was ready for something different so I decided to listen to some of the newly added songs during my workout. I listened to, in order:

Brown Eyed Girl - Van Morrison
I Think We're Alone Now - Tommy James & The Shondells
Hurt So Bad - Little Anthony & The Imperials
Chapel of Love - The Dixie Cups
I Wonder Why - Dion & The Belmonts
Tonight's The Night - The Shirelles
In The Still of The Night - The Five Satins
Maybe - The Chantels
Since I Don't Have You - The Skyliners
Up On The Roof - The Drifters
Crimson and Clover - Tommy James & The Shondells

How's that for a playlist? I love each and every one of these songs and it had been awhile since I'd listened to some of them. So listening to them during my workout had the same effect on me Thursday as Beethoven did for me on Wednesday. I left the gym exhilarated and looking forward to the day. I took another long lunchtime walk, this time with a stop at Borders Books to pick up a George Pelecanos novel to read next week. Which leads me to another reason I've been so happy this week. Today starts a period of ten days off work for me. I've got more music to transfer, movies and baseball to watch, books to read, new recipes to try out. I want to pack as much into these next ten days as possible. Including blogging. I hope to catch up on my Mad Men posts (the season keeps getting better and better), and let you know what I think of the current state of affairs on politics.

Oh, one more note. Yesterday I met Catherine Dent from the great television show The Shield. She played officer Danny Sofer during the shows entire run. Now, I don't know if I've mentioned how much I loved The Shield show during its run but love it I did. My wife and I never missed an episode and for years my buddy Mike and I had our weekly The Sopranos/The Shield telephone conversation discussing that week's episodes. And we were in agreement that The Shield was better than The Sopranos. Week in and week out it never failed to deliver. It was one of the best TV shows ever.

So how did I meet Ms. Dent? During my lunchtime walk I was standing at the corner of 18th and M St. waiting for the light to change when I heard a couple standing next to me asking someone else directions to a restaurant in the vicinity. When the person didn't know the woman turned to me. As soon as I saw her face I said to myself, "I know this woman." But from where. While she was asking me directions to the restaurant my brain was spinning a mile a minute, trying to place her. And then it hit me. Instead of answering her question I said, "Weren't you on The Shield?" And she smiled and said yes, she was. And I started gushing about how great a show it was. She was clearly pleased she'd been recognized and I told her how much I loved The Shield, that it was one of the best shows on ever on TV. She introduced herself and asked me my name, which surprised me, and we shook hands. She was (is) an absolute sweetheart. There was no pretense about her at all. She just seemed like a very nice person. Unfortunately, I didn't know where the restaurant was so I couldn't help them out. We said goodbye, she thanked me, I thanked her, both of us with a smile on our face. A nice moment.

A nice week. And now I'm about to start a nice ten days. See you soon.

*"Classical" music is a misnomer, according to Greenberg. We should call it "Concert" music. Classical music should refer to a period of Concert music, roughly that period from the death of Bach in 1750 to premiere of Beethoven's Third Symphony in 1805, when everything changed forever after. The Classical Era of 1750-1805 was the era dominated by Haydn and Mozart, when the symphonic form took affect, when the piano replaced the harpsichord as the main keyboard instrument, when homophonic music - one main melody, all else supportive of the main melody - replaced the polyphony of Bach and the Baroque era of in which multiple melodies competed and complemented each other. Classical music was the music of the Enlightenment, when reason and restraint dominated and overly emotional displays were considered a lapse in taste. Music during the era was considered a decorative art. Beethoven, probably the most disruptive force in all of music history, would change all that.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Obama’s Blues

This was not a good week for Barack Obama.  His trip to Copenhagen on behalf of Chicago’s 2016 Olympic bid exposed him once more as an amateur.  Many figured the bid was wired for Chicago because, after all, Obama wouldn’t put his prestige on the line otherwise, would he?  I never thought it was wired though.  I insisted to my wife that Obama simply thought his mere presence in Copenhagen would charm everyone into voting for Chicago. The damage might have been limited had Chicago at least have made it to the final round.  Instead, its exit in the first round was the equivalent of an international slap in the face and one gets the feeling that all around the world yesterday people were snickering at Obama, and us.  He set himself up for humiliation and the world was eager to oblige.  If our president were a man with a modicum of humility he’d be humiliated.  If he were as self-reflective as he urges the rest of us to be he might stop to wonder, having failed to charm the IOC in Copenhagen, what his chances were of convincing the Iranian mullahs to give up their nukes. 

Checking in this moment with my girl Jennifer Rubin over at Contentions, I see that she too calls it a slap.  And, as usual, she puts into words my own thinking on the subject better than I could myself.  Read her whole post, but here’s an excerpt:

We’ll see in the weeks ahead whether the IOU’s slap across the face shocks Obama into some recognition of the limits of his own persona and a proper appreciation for how a president should use his time. It is perhaps finally time to put away the celebrity routine and focus on governance at home and in international affairs.

Rather than lecturing us on racial profiling, boring us with another marathon run of TV appearances, or spinning Utopian tales for the UN, he might get down to the nitty-gritty of working on the four critical issues before him: addressing the worsening job situation, devising a minimal health-care package (that doesn’t make the job situation worse and that garners some bipartisan support), implementing promptly a winning strategy in Afghanistan, and coming up with a credible approach (endless talk doesn’t cut it) to halting Iran’s nuclear program.

This is not the stuff of mass rallies or TV appearances. Obama must step into the role of president. For probably the first time in his political career, Obama cannot get by on charm. These issues are not going to be solved because he’s a “historic” president or because of anything George W. Bush can be blamed for. All that might have been the key to getting elected, but it’s not the solution to what ails him now. What he needs is to discard incompetent staff and unworkable plans, govern from the center of the political spectrum, restore his image as a resolute commander in chief, and lead rather than follow. If the Olympic-bid fiasco can set him on the course to do all that, it will prove worth the temporary hit. And if not, it will mark the moment when the wheels finally came off the Obama presidency.

This is wise counsel from Ms. Rubin but who among us thinks Obama will follow it?