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Nobody Told Me There'd Be Days Like This... | The Nation

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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.

Nobody Told Me There'd Be Days Like This...

My new Think Again is called “Collapsing Infrastructure? Who Knew?"

We have an expanded edition of Alter-reviews today.  Here goes:

Library of America: New Releases:

Philip Roth
Novels 1993-1995
Operation Shylock • Sabbath’s Theater

The Library of America is entering one of the great periods of contemporary American literature, offering those of us who still collect “brick and mortar” books a chance to honor (and perhaps even re-read) some of the best American writing anywhere, anytime.  In that category I would unhesitatingly put Philip Roth’s  Operation Shylock, published in 1993, which I would argue, is Roth’s most under-rated book. It is not quite his best book. That would be The Counterlife. But something about the Holy Land inspires this man—remember the wonderful section in Portnoy upon the discovery of Jewish everything—well this is a far more complex and in many respects bitter book. It contains the most searing indictment of Israel I have ever read, put in the mouth of a top Mossad agent. It also contains ten or so beautiful pages about Barney Greengrass. It’s a complicated work, with almost as many questionable riffs as successful ones, a meditation on the meaning of identity as well as the purpose and passions of post-modern Judaism, Israel-diaspora relation and this being Philip Roth, sex, sex and more sex. It’s a great novel in every sense of the word, including its failings.  Also included in the collection is Sabbath’s Theater, (1995) perhaps Roth’s dirtiest novel ever and among his best reviewed. (The publicity material reminds that of the leading literary critics of the English-speaking world, Harold Bloom and Frank Kermode, have proposed Sabbath’s Theater as the finest American novel of the last quarter century.)  I did not love it, much as I admired its audacity. (Perhaps it was too close to home, say the people who know me.)  Anyway, trust me on Shylock.

Saul Bellow
Novels 1970-1982
Mr. Sammler’s Planet • Humboldt’s Gift • The Dean’s December

Nobody considers Mr. Sammler’s Planet (1970), Humboldt’s Gift (1975), and The Dean’s December (1982) to be Saul Bellow’s best books with the possible exception of me, sometimes.  No question Augie March is more influentl. And though my recollection is a bit hazy, Herzog may be the ideal of the form. (I plan to teach it next semester and find out.) But these three books had Bellow in complete command of talents and writing with a kind of self-confidence to which only he had ever earned.  I much prefer Humbolt and Dean’s December; the latter, together with More Die of Heartbreak, being Bellow’s most underated. But I’ve been writing about Sammler, for my history of liberaism, so here’s some of that.

Bellow found New Leftists to be largely immature and idiotic.    He spoke at San Francisco State College, a hotbed of California radicalism, during that spring.  A student strike was mounting as he came to campus.  After finishing his talk, a creative writing professor, Floyd Salas, rushed into the room and accused him of wanting to “make the university a genteel old maid’s school.”  When the novelist’s response to another questioner didn’t please Salas, he yelled out, “You’re a fucking square.  You’re full of shit.  You’re an old man, Bellow.  You haven’t got any balls.”  Bellow immediately plotted to put this episode into his next novel.  As he told a friend, this novel became “a dramatic essay of some sort, wrung from me by the crazy Sixties.” In some respects, the novel could be seen as the human cost—or result—of liberalism gone out of control; the land brought to you by what Bellow would memorably term in another context, “the Good Intentions Paving Company.”

The central character of said novel, Mr. Sammler’s Planet (1970) is the seventy year old “child of a second marriage, born when his father was sixty.”  A Polish Jew, he survived the Holocaust but lost his wife in the process, and lives amidst the sharpening shards of civilization that was New York City at the end of the 1960s. The doubling of welfare rolls throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the increased amount of crime, the flocking of middle class Jews away from the city to the suburbs – all of these things weighed heavily on the moral tones of Bellow’s hero.   “New York makes one think about the collapse of civilization, about Sodom and Gomorrah, the end of the world.  The end wouldn’t come as surprise here.  Many people already bank on it,” he muses. (277) 

Sammler is a novel filled with nasty, dyspeptic observations on New York City, particularly the minorities who appear to be taking it over in in the name of the sexual revolution spouting mindless, contentless leftist slogans that mask their own voracious appetites for sex and power, mixed with sloth—as if Norman Podhoretz’s infamous February, 1963 essay, “My Negro Problem—and Our,” had sprung to life as a kind of personal Jewish intellectual nightmare. In a scene that would offer critics and admirers alike ample argument for Bellow’s bravery sour malevolence, Arthur Sammler is followed off his Riverside Drive bus by a black pickpocket who traps him elderly, half-blind protagonist against wall and then, as a kind of warning of unspeakable (but clearly sexualized) violence, he takes out his penis and waves it at Sammler: "a large tan-and-purple uncircumcised thing—a tube, a snake ... suggesting the fleshly mobility of an elephant's trunk."  The novelist Scott Turow writes that he admires Bellow for “his perspicacity in recognizing the lethal admixture of crime and sexuality that was already being adopted as an underground ideal of black masculinity,” but it clearly bespoke a different world than the one of civil rights marches and the now forgotten “dreams” of Martin Luther King.

The novel mocks the counterculture and sexual revolution and those liberal coddlers of the new sensibility of the sixties.  For instance, when Sammler tells his niece that he witnessed a black pickpocket in action, she asks: “Was he a revolutionary?  Would he be for black guerilla warfare?” (17)  Angela, a young cousin of Sammler’s, is a wildly erotic figure, and she recounts her orgiastic adventures for Sammler who is simultaneously excited and disgusted, wondering if America is now at a stage when “all the repulsive things in history are not so repulsive?” (147).  His reflections on sexual liberation turn into a mean-spirited rant: “Millions of civilized people wanted oceanic, boundless, primitive, neckfree nobility, experienced a strange release of galloping impulses, and acquired the peculiar aim of sexual niggerhood for everyone.  Humankind had lost its old patience.” (149)

One of the novel’s climactic scenes comes when Sammler speaks at Columbia University about his life-long interest in progressives of yesteryear, H.G. Wells and George Orwell.  Inspired, undoubtedly by his own experience at San Francisco State College, Sammler finds that “most of the young people seemed to be against him.” (42)  “Hey!  Old Man!” one shouts at him.  “You quoted Orwell before…  You quoted him to say that British radicals were all protected by the Royal Navy?  Did Orwell say that British radicals were protected by the Royal Navy?”  “Yes, I believe he did say that.”  “That’s a lot of shit.”  (42)  The young man goes on, “Orwell was a fink.  He was a sick counterrevolutionary.  It’s good he died when he did.  And what you are saying is shit….  Why do you listen to this effete old shit?  What has he got to tell you?  His balls are dry.  He’s dead.  He can’t come.” (42)  Bellow notices a rupture in the history of the left, separating old from new, and generational conflict that turned into warfare and personal attack.  Ironically, and undoubtedly unknowingly, he mimics Friedan’s critique of the sexual revolution replacing old-fashioned political reform, except that Bellow’s Sammler has surrendered to the enemy. “All this confused sex-excrement-militancy, explosiveness, abusiveness, tooth-showing, Barbary ape howling,” he complains. (43)   The sour old man’s rant is the central voice of the novel, rendered, if not sympathetically, then without apology. “I am getting old,” Sammler observes, but “this liberation into individuality has not been a great success.” (208) 

It is also cause for celebration that LOA has picked as its first ever publication by an economist, John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Affluent Society and Other Writings 1952–1967.

American Capitalism: The Concept of Countervailing Power • The Great Crash, 1929 • The Affluent Society • The New Industrial State. The latter three are among the most influential books of the period and some of the best writing by any economist ever. Whether they are exactly “true” is a matter of much contention. What they are is unarguably important and interesting.

And with H. L. Mencken:

Prejudices: The Complete Series (boxed set), LOA has put together the perfect gift for some graduate or birthday boy or girl who wants to grow up to be a nonfiction writer of any kind.  They cover the period between 1919-1927 and there is nothing else like them, particularly for understanding the culture and politics of the period.

Have you seen Disney’s Oceans? It’s by the French fellow Jacques Perrin, who made Winged Migration, together with somebody named Jacques Cluzaud. The kid and I watched the bluray the other night and the wonderousness of it made me more furious than I have been in a long time about the idiocies of our politics that make it impossible to keep us from destroying the planet.  The rest of the time we spent wondering how in the world (get it) did they get all that stuff captured on camera. Apparently, the crew spent four years crossing the globe, according to the press material, “from the salt-encrusted marine iguanas of the Galápagos Islands to the silky fur seals of South Africa. In other sequences, horseshoe crabs scuttle across the sand, jellyfish pulsate through the deep, and sardines sparkle as the sun catches their scales.” How bad can it be? It comes as a BR/DVD combo, something I don’t understand. Who needs both?

The big news of the week is the John Lennon 70th Birthday-apalooza. (Want to see some post-Beatle John video, go here)

Yoko, who is still not one of my favorite people, even if you restrict the population to the two blocks surrounding my previous apartment, has overseen the release of the following:
Eight Lennon solo albums (though a bunch of them are filled with Yoko). Here’s what’s new(ish): 

A hits compilation in two editions titled Power To The People: The Hits
A 4CD set of themed discs titled Gimme Some Truth
A deluxe 11CD collectors box with the remastered albums, rarities, and non-album singles, titled the John Lennon Signature Box
Double Fantasy, in a newly remixed 'Stripped Down' version in an expanded 2CD and digital edition pairing the new version with Lennon’s original mix, remastered.

All of them have been digitally remastered from Lennon’s original mixes by Yoko Ono and a team of engineers led by Allan Rouse at EMI Music’s Abbey Road Studios in London and by George Marino at Avatar Studios in New York.  All of the remastered titles will be packaged in digisleeves with replicated original album art and booklets with photos and new liner notes by noted British music journalist Paul Du Noyer. Soon to come are:

John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (1970)
Imagine (1971)
Some Time In New York City (1972)
Mind Games (1973)
Walls and Bridges (1974)
Rock ‘n’ Roll (1975)  

Milk and Honey (1984)
 
What to say: Power To The People: The Hits gathers 15 of Lennon’s most popular songs. It’s not nearly enough.

Gimme Some Truth, packaged in a slipcase with rare photos and a new liner notes essays by Anthony DeCurtis, presents 72 of Lennon’s solo recordings on four themed CDs:

‘Roots’ – John’s rock ‘n’ roll roots and influences
‘Working Class Hero’ – John’s socio-political songs
‘Woman’ – John’s love songs
‘Borrowed Time’ – John’s songs about life

It is actually enough. Lennon’s solo work was very uneven and this helps you discover a few gems you probably never noticed before along with just about everything you might want, with generous helpings of his best work, if you don’t mind the fact of the albums being messed with and the songs moved around quite a bit.

The John Lennon Signature Box is a deluxe 11CD and digital collection of the eight remastered albums, a disc of rare and previously unreleased recordings, and an EP of Lennon’s non-album singles. They are housed within a deluxe whie box including a collectible limited edition John Lennon art print and a hardbound book featuring rare photos, artwork, collages, poetry, and new liner notes by DeCurtis. It is well more than enough and it is not cheap but I’m sure it will feel that way for completists.

As for the indvidual albums themselves, if you prefer to go that way. Plastic Ono Band is a masterpiece; I am embarrassed by the number of superlatives I am tempted to employ in its praise. “Imagine” is pretty great too, though it contains the worst rock n roll song of all time. (Though to be fair, “Stairway” is a close contender.)  “Mind Games” is pretty good too. I kinda like Rock n Roll, though Phil Spector pretty much ruined it and John was too wasted while it was being recorded to know even where he was. The John Lennon parts of the “stripped down” version of “Double Fantasy” surprise me with their power these days. But they are going into the Ipod and I will keep the cd on the shelf because of you-know-who. There are some other good songs on the rest of the albums and the sound quality is sharp. Lennon has had quite a lot of repackaging, Yoko juggles the vaults as she mines them—so let your own experience and collection be your guide.

Janeane Garofalo: If You Will

So someone asked me to take a look at Janeane Garofalo’s new standup show. I was not initially eager. I had big crush on Jeanine when I first discovered her in the early days of Larry Sanders, but we went in different directions.  Sometimes I still loved her, but that was most often when she was playing characters I loved, like that press secretary on the final season of TWW. I always felt Jeanine was a good hearted person, and a brave one. But she was also aggressively nuts for a while. One night, when I was co-hosting with her on Air America, substuting for the comedic genius Sam Seder, Jeanine and some woman went on and on about how Neocons had probably plotted and carried out 9/11. I doubt she really meant it, but I had to get up out of the studio and leave during that part, to calm down and resume the show. Anyway, I want to like Jeanine, and she’s always really nice to me when we run into one another, but you know, that 9/11 moment really creeped me out. 

All this is by way of saying that this new act is actually great. There are a few gross moments, a number of which deal with the sainted Natalie Portman, but they come at the end and you can just stop the disc early. The rest of it is Jeanine in a return to her very best form.  It begins with her describing a Starbucks person saying to her: “No offense, but you look like Janeane Garofalo.  What ever happened to her?”  and goes on from there. I don’t know if it qualifies as a comeback. She’s been doing some pretty high-profile work of late.

If You Will is a performance that demonstrates the skill and the confidence of a comic who has been at it for a long time. Garofalo is as seasoned as they come, in spite of the fact that this her first comedy special in over a decade, and the ease with which she delivers her material makes it clear just how natural a comedian she is. This most recent show has her continuing to show her unique sense of humor – a mix of astute observations, self-deprecation, and running commentary – all while offering up real insights about herself.

Reed Richardson writes:

Disenfranchise Players

In a nation whose rhetorical birth literally began with the phrase “We the People,” one would think that even suggesting these selfsame people should trade away, give up, or be stripped of any of their Constitutional rights of political expression would be anathema to our country’s ideals.

Lately, however, there seems to be an inexplicable zeal emanating from some of the “freedom-loving”-est corners of our country for collectively ridding everyone of a few pesky rights as well as selectively stripping the few of some supposedly undeserved ones, all as part of an rather Orwellian campaign to somehow strengthen our democracy through fewer Constitutional protections and less political participation. (I’m leaving it to others to explain in detail how these ideas are often not only stupid and naïve, but almost universally counterproductive to their adherents’ own espoused political goals, let alone democracy.)

Boil these various conservative efforts at political disenfranchisement down to their essence, though, and what you really find is an a priori mistrust in people not government. Indeed, what many of us consider one of democracy’s main features—that, at least in principle, every American has an equal say or vote in how we should be governed—is, to this retrenchist movement, a major bug in our political system. If left unchecked, we the people, in their minds, can’t be trusted to do more than vote for the candidate or party that promises to implement popular policies—Better access to health care! Cheaper ways to pay for college!—to make our lives a little easier, an outcome that sounds exactly like what reasonable people might want out of their government, but that actually threatens the very survival of the entire American political system!

This is a core belief that turns democracy on its head, by essentially positing that a citizen’s franchise as well as his or her other Constitutional rights, in the wrong hands, represents a conflict of interest. That someone might go to the polls to support a person or a plan that might end up benefiting them in some way isn’t a banal, every election occurrence, instead it is akin to outright stealing from the American taxpayer. (Because, as everybody knows, only half of Americans pays taxes and they’re the only ones that deserve to get their money back.) Read through a recent version of this argument, which, just so happens to agitate for disenfranchising public employees (and yes, I realize who the author is, but another “leading light” from that same institution is also trying to make the same, troubling case here), and see if you don’t come away from it hearing a chillingly familiar echo of the same political justifications that, when taken to the extreme, were once used to prop up a century of Jim Crow laws, excuse lynchings, and before that, protect slavery itself.

Of course, once mainstream journalism wholly bought into the notion of objectivity to sell more papers over a century ago, it too has, over time, come to subscribe to eerily similar arguments about the conflict-of-interest dangers brought on by individual political advocacy.

Yesterday morning, NPR demonstrated just how ridiculously far it was willing to stretch this notion of political piety in the service of avoiding any apparent conflict of interest when an internal NPR memo, authored by senior vice president for news, Ellen Weiss, was leaked to Romenesko. In it, Weiss reiterated the network’s general newsroom ethics policies regarding political activity and then specifically forbade staff from attending Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s upcoming “Restore Sanity” and “Keep Fear Alive” satirical rallies in Washington, D.C. at the end of this month.

After a torrent of questions and criticisms in the press, it became clear that few were really buying the thin-on-details explanation originally offered by Weiss, so NPR posted an update last night, which sought to defend the decision against the backdrop of the recent Restoring Honor and One Nation rallies with some curious, no-but-yes logic:

“It's different with the Colbert and Stewart rallies; they are ambiguous. But their rallies will be perceived as political by many, whatever we think. As such, they are off limits except for those covering the events.”

Of course, perceived conflicts of interest do matter to listeners and readers and rightly so, up to a point. But who wouldn’t agree that an NPR producer or editor joining thousands of others at a rally during his or her off-hours poses far less of a risk to NPR’s institutional reputation than if, oh, I don’t know, a well-known NPR personality writes a memoir about racism—a topic that brings with it unquestionable political baggage—and then gets invited to spend nearly a full hour across all four NPR-produced broadcasts promoting that book?

Well, NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepard might be one, since in her professional opinion—given, finally, in the 36th paragraph of this column on Tuesday—there was no conflict of interest on the part of the network when NPR Morning Edition co-host Michele Norris did exactly that late last month. (Shepard did concede, at least, that Norris received preferential treatment in being booked on all four shows.)

Coincidentally, vice president of news Ellen Weiss also appeared in Shepard’s column, where she reassured readers that “while Michele’s appearances were all of great value to the audience…normally we do a better job of internal communications in order to avoid so much overlap on guest appearances."

Good to know that Ms. Weiss has settled the issue of the value and appropriateness of Norris’s appearances for us, despite what were clearly many complaints and comments from listeners saying otherwise. And where, pray tell, was this self-assuredness on the network’s part when it came to setting policy this week for the Stewart and Colbert rallies? In that case, just the prediction of, rather than any actual listener complaints about bias or conflicts of interest  was enough for them to clamp down on their editorial employees’ rights.

To be fair, NPR isn’t alone in this kind of draconian behavior, it’s symptomatic of the prevailing conventional wisdom among the media. But journalism’s willingness to have, as a default position, an ethical approach that demands sacrifices of political expression first and—maybe—asks questions later (and even then flouts its own supposedly sacred rules) doesn't make it any less palatable than when it's done under the banner of some sham sense of "limited govrernment." Besides, there's a good reason why all of us, and maybe journalists especially, should exercise our right to free expression more often and maybe attend a political rally or two—we might just learn something.

Eric notes: Ellen and I studied for the American history AP exam together. Just saying…

The Mail:

Ray Lodato
Chicago, IL

Eric,
Allow me a little prognosticating on my way to a point about the media.  I think the big Election Night narrative is going to be gridlock, mostly because the Senate will remain comfortably Democratic. As I see it, the Republicans will pick up Arkansas, Indiana, North Dakota and (sigh) Wisconsin.  The Democrats' best hope for flips are Kentucky and Alaska.  Even if the Dems don't flip any seats, however, the GOP gains will still leave at least 55 Democrats standing in the 112th. Most of the races that we've all been watching are reverting back to electing the candidate from the party that currently controls them.  It's quite possible that California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Washington will all elect candidates from the present incumbent party. Now, granted, many of the new Republicans who replace other Republicans are certifiably nuts.  I'm not saying that the next Congress is going to be roses and candy--just that there will be more Democrats there than we think. But the media spin is going to be most interesting.  Fox will, of course, see the GOP gains as a repudiation of Obama.  But will the other networks note that only recently, the Republicans were planning on a Senate majority?  Or that Democrats are likely to win several significant statehouses, which could (with the proper redistricting) overturn the Republican House majority in 2012?  No--besides gaming the presidential election (bonus to the first pundit who notes on November 2nd that "that campaign starts tonight"--my guess is Halperin), they will note that the Democrats are defending far more seats in the Senate in 2012 than the Republicans, and that their meager gains put them in the driver's seat to gain the majority in January 2013. I don't know how you put up with it.

Edward Furey
New York

Why don't gays attack Don't Ask Don't Tell on Second Amendment grounds? Although the term "bear arms" has been falsely construed to be equivalent to "packing heat," in fact it refers to serving in the armed forces of the nation. It asserts the right of "the people" to bear arms (serve in the armed forces and Militia), not "straight people." Perhaps in memory of Molly Pitcher at Monmouth in the Revolution, it says "the people", rather than "men" have a right to serve. In fact, the whole Constitution might be considered one of the first "politically correct" gender neutral public documents in American or world history. Where the Declaration says things like "all men are created equal," the Constitution and early amendments carefully avoid gender, referring to either "the people" or "persons" without regard to sex or sexual preference.

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