September 2007: Nobody asked me, but…

Campus free speech, Clinton and Shakespeare, and other observations…

With a tip of the ballcap to legendary New York columnist Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

SEPTEMBER WAS A STRANGE MONTH FOR FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION ON AMERICA’S COLLEGE CAMPUSES. Columbia University invited the president of Iran—a Holocaust denier, Israel hater, and all-purpose enemy of the West—to share a stage with its president, Lee C. Bollinger, who proceeded to hector and insult Mahmoud Ahmadinejad before the Iranian spoke.

Bollinger apparently forgot both his manners and the old saw that trying to teach a pig to whistle is a waste of time—it only annoys the pig. True to form, Ahmadinejad “debated” the issues by evading all direct questions and informing the audience that, among other things, Iran had no homosexuals.

As Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield points out in the Weekly Standard, Bollinger focused his criticism on Ahmadinejad’s noxious actions, not on his noxious ideology—undercutting Columbia’s stated public purpose in inviting the Iranian president, which was supposedly for an exchange of ideas.

Meanwhile the University of Florida campus police tasered a student (one Andrew Meyer) who had the temerity to ask the hapless Senator John Kerry if he was a member, like President Bush, of Skull and Bones, a secret society at Yale. (The much-played “Don’t tase me, bro” YouTube video of the incident is quite bizarre). The answer to Meyer’s question, by the way, is that yes, Kerry and Bush are believed to be members but, according to the rules of the club, are not supposed to say so.

KATIE COURIC PROVIDED SOME COMIC RELIEF DURING THE Ahmadinejad circus, letting it be known that her mnemonic for pronouncing his name is “I’m a dinner jacket.

IN THE LATEST HARVARD MAGAZINE, STEPHEN GREENBLATT relates an intriguing story about former President Bill Clinton. Greenblatt had attended a White House poetry evening at which Clinton mentioned that his first encounter with poetry had been memorizing passages from Macbeth in junior high school. Greenblatt then writes:

After the speeches, I joined the line waiting to shake the president’s hand. When my turn came, a strange impulse came over me that I cannot adequately explain and certainly cannot justify. This was a moment when rumors of the Lewinsky affair were circulating, but before the whole thing had blown up into the grotesque national circus that it soon became. “Mr. President,” I said, sticking out my hand, “Don’t you think that Macbeth is a great play about an immensely ambitious man who feels compelled to do things that he knows are politically and morally disastrous?” Clinton looked at me for a moment, still holding my hand, and said, “I think Macbeth is a great play about someone whose immense ambition has an ethically inadequate object.”

I was astonished by the aptness, as well as the quickness, of this comment, so perceptively in touch with Macbeth’s anguished brooding about the impulses that are driving him to seize power by murdering Scotland’s legitimate ruler…

Clinton then recited one of Macbeth’s soliloquies, leaving Greenblatt to conclude that he had”missed his true vocation, which was, of course, to be an English professor.”

HELL HATH NO FURY LIKE A SCORNED ANCHORMAN, or so it seems as Dan Rather has launched a legal assault on CBS over his departure from the network after the Memogate debacle. The key question: if the courts accept the civil suit (no sure thing), is Rather determined to get a public airing, or will he accept a monetary settlement to go away quietly? Stay tuned.

JOURNALIST JUAN WILLIAMS HAS AN AMAZING GUEST COLUMN in Time magazine sure to ignite further debate over the health of African-American culture. Williams, who is black, wrote the piece in defense of Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, who had been criticized for his comments on the topic. What is startling about Williams’ essay is his blunt assessment of the problems facing the black community.

The most pernicious damage being done by the twisted presentation of black life in pop culture is the self-destructive message being beamed into young, vulnerable black brains. Young black people, searching for affirmation of their racial identity, are minute by minute being sold on the cheap idea that they are authentically black only if they imitate the violent, threatening attitude of the rappers and use the gutter language coming from the minstrels on TV.

The lesson from the rappers and comedians is that any young brother or sister who is proud to be black has to treat education with indifference, dismiss love and marriage as the business of white people and dress like the rappers who dress like prisoners — no comb in the jail so they wear doo-rags all day, and no belts so their pants hang down around their butts.

Williams closes his column by excoriating all those who “sell out the history and pride of black people to make a buck.” Tough stuff.

NATURE ABHORS A VACUUM: so now we can look forward to a conservative, an organization called Freedom’s Watch.

ON THE DAY THE NEW YORK METS eliminated themselves from baseball’s playoffs in a collapse of epic proportion, it’s fitting to close with the words of one-time Mets manager Casey Stengel: “Been in this game one-hundred years, but I see new ways to lose ’em I never knew existed before.”

Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
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Summer reading: Shirley Jackson and “The Lottery”

Shirley Jackson
The Lottery

Read Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” a parable first published in the New Yorker magazine in 1948, today and you’re left wondering why this particular story has achieved canonical literary status and appears in so many American short story collections. The story’s premise seems like something out of a middling “Twilight Zone” episode (although Rod Serling would have insisted on a much more intriguing ending) and Jackson’s Gothic New England village is nowhere near as chilling or dark or convincingly evil as the settings of Stephen King’s horror stories.

Jackson does fashion an intriguing and jarring plot: on a sunny June day the residents of a small New England village gather in the town square for their annual lottery. The catch: the “winner” of this strange rite is to be stoned to death, a ritual sacrifice that is said to insure an ample harvest. The people of the village accept the deadly lottery as necessary—we learn that it is common throughout the region—drawing paper slips from a wooden black box until the unlucky one marked with a black spot is drawn. The story centers on one somewhat unlikeable villager, Tessie Hutchinson, and her fate as the victim of this macabre tradition. That, more or less, is it—Jackson doesn’t bother to develop her characters at any length; she banks on her narrative to provide the necessary suspense to engage the reader.

So what accounts for the story’s inflated reputation?

The popularity of “The Lottery” in academic literary circles stems in large part, I would argue, from its initial hostile reception. Readers puzzled and confused by its contemporary setting and disturbed by what they saw as Jackson’s assault on American small town life bombarded the New Yorker with critical letters and phone calls. And what better way to convince English professors and literary critics that you’ve produced great art than to draw fire from outraged (if befuddled) middle class readers? (If the Reader’s Digest crowd hates it, the story has to have literary merit!)

When the South African apartheid government decided to ban “The Lottery,” it further validated the story’s bona fides as a significant literary accomplishment, an allegory about conformity and violence feared by authority. Stanley Edgar Hyman, Jackson’s husband, wrote about her reaction to the South African ban: “She felt that they at least understood.”

Perhaps. Or it could be that they—the Boer censors—did not completely understand “The Lottery,” and simply banned it to be safe–why take any chances with potentially subversive literature? After all, even the legendary Harold Ross of the New Yorker didn’t claim to understand the story when he published it. And literary critics Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, who admired the story, acknowledged that some readers might find Jackson’s strange tale “vague and fuzzy,” but argued that a “general meaning emerged.”

“The story comments upon the all-too-human tendency to seize upon a scapegoat and to visit upon the scapegoat the cruelties that most of us seem to have dammed up within us,” Brooks and Warren wrote in their Understanding Fiction. They maintained that the story’s “web of observations about human nature is too subtle and too complex to be stated in one or two brief maxims.” Again, perhaps, but isn’t an allegory supposed to be coherent? While ambiguity has its place in literature, it’s annoying when an author asks you to suspend belief (a ritual sacrifice in modern America) and leaves you grasping at exactly what is going on.

Muddled lessons?

Jackson agreed that explaining “The Lottery” was “very difficult,” and later wrote: “I supposed, I hoped, by setting a particularly brutal ancient rite in the present and in my own village, to shock the story’s readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives.”

The shock value, of course, came from placing her tale in a present-day New England village (modelled on her own hometown of Bennington, Vermont). The suggestion that somehow “pointless violence” could lurk in Norman Rockwell territory did offend many readers (Jackson reported that the Bennington postmaster stopped talking to her) and caused some schools and libraries to ban it.

In retrospect, the public fuss raised over “The Lottery” in 1948 seems silly. After the horrors of World War II, it’s hard to believe that Jackson’s contrived story shocked anyone. The millions of Americans who had fought in World War II and had experienced first-hand “general inhumanity” hardly needed a parable to alert them to the presence of evil in the world. None of the other “lessons” in Jackson’s tale are particularly novel or arresting. What do we learn? That small towns can operate in cruel and arbitrary ways? That we will do things in a crowd we would never do as individuals? That tradition and superstition can lead us astray? That humans can be quite violent? This is shocking?

Because of its muddled triteness, “The Lottery” shouldn’t appear on any list of memorable American short fiction of the 20th century; if an allegorical story is included, Ursula K. Le Guin’s thought-provoking “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” is much more deserving (and much better written). Yet it’s likely that “The Lottery” will remain in short story anthologies and on high school and college English reading lists for the forseeable future—proving, I guess, that perception can trump reality in literature as well as in life.

This is the third in a series of Summer Reading: Short Fictions essays for 2007.

From Summer 2007:

Katherine Mansfield and “The Garden Party”

Anton Chekhov and “The Lady with the Pet Dog”

(You can find some of my own short fiction here.)


Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
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August 2007: Nobody asked me, but…

Fisking Robert Fisk’s 9/11 fantasies, a farewell to the Scooter, and other observations…

With a tip of the cap to legendary New York newspaperman Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

“FISKING” IS THE TERM COINED FOR THE PUBLIC DEBUNKING (by bloggers, journalists, and other critics) of claims made by British journalist Robert Fisk. A quick glance at “Robert Fisk: Even I question the ‘truth’ about 9/11” which appeared in The Independent in late August, helps explain why Fisk’s reporting raises so many eyebrows.

In his article, Fisk tries to distance himself from the more extreme elements of the 9/11 Truth Movement (the “ravers” he calls them) but then announces: “I am increasingly troubled at the inconsistencies in the official narrative of 9/11.” Fisk proceeds to list a number of these “inconsistencies,” which turn out to be a cobbled-together list of rhetorical questions that are favorites of the conspiracy theorists.

Fisking Fisk’s 9/11 questions is quite simple. Here are the answers to the four major questions he poses:

1. ”[W]here are the aircraft parts (engines, etc) from the attack on the Pentagon?” Much of the aircraft, a Boeing 757, was destroyed upon impact, but there are numerous photos of the wreckage of American Airlines Flight 77. You can find them here, here, and a photo of what’s left of an engine here, along with other wreckage photos and extensive eyewitness accounts of the debris found inside the Pentagon. (What’s really behind this question? Some 9/11 conspiracy theorists claim a missile slammed into the Pentagon, not the jet.)

2. “Why did flight 93’s debris spread over miles when it was supposed to have crashed in one piece in a field?” Some debris from Flight 93 did spread after impact, which is common in such commercial airline crashes, but not nearly as far as 9/11 conspiracy theorists assert. The “wide-spread debris theory” is thoroughly debunked here and here. (What’s behind the question? Many conspiracy theorists claim that Flight 93 was shot down by a military aircraft, a scenario which would produce scattered debris).

3. ”If it is true, for example, that kerosene burns at 820C under optimum conditions, how come the steel beams of the twin towers – whose melting point is supposed to be about 1,480C – would snap through at the same time?” This represents a complete misunderstanding of the causes of the Twin Towers collapse. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) concluded after a three-year study that “the impact of the planes severed and damaged support columns and dislodged fireproofing insulation coating the steel floor trusses and steel columns, which meant that the subsequent fire, which reached 1000 degrees Celsius, weakened the floors and columns to the point where they bowed and buckled, causing the towers to collapse.” (What’s behind this question? Many conspiracy theorists contend that the Twin Towers were brought down by controlled demolition, refusing to accept the conclusions of NIST and other scientific studies.)

I would encourage Fisk, and other 9/11 doubters, to take the time to watch this simulation of a jet hitting one of the towers, developed at Purdue University, to better understand how impact led to the collapse.

4. ”What about the third tower – the so-called World Trade Centre Building 7 (or the Salmon Brothers Building) – which collapsed in 6.6 seconds in its own footprint at 5.20pm on 11 September? Why did it so neatly fall to the ground when no aircraft had hit it?” While no aircraft hit WTC 7 directly, the building was badly damaged by debris from the collapse of nearby WTC 1. NIST’s working hypothesis is that WTC 7 fell because of the collapse of a critical column due to “fire and/or debris induced structural damage.” And the actual collapse of WTC 7 took longer, some 15-18 seconds (according to the seismic data), much of this activity not evident on the videos of the collapse.

My questions for Fisk would be: did you do any research on 9/11 before writing your piece? Talk to civil engineers? Read the NIST reports? You would be asking a different set of questions if you did.

A VERY STRONG ARGUMENT CAN BE MADE THAT “THE LIVES OF OTHERS,” last year’s Oscar winner for best foreign-language film was flat-out the best film of 2006 in any language. Director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s film, now available on DVD, follows an East German Stasi agent assigned to spy on a playwright and his actress girlfriend and traces the compromises and betrayals that become tragically common in a police state. The acting in the film is superb, understated and yet emotionally moving.

A Hollywood remake, in English, is slated for 2010, although it is hard to imagine it having the power or authenticity of the original.

AMMUNITION FOR ANTI-MONARCHISTS: news from Norway that Princess Märtha Louise is looking to charge people for teaching how to communicate with angels. “Now, some are calling for her to renounce her royal title” according to Der Spiegel. At least the embarrassing family members (Billy Carter, Margaret Trudeau, Cécilia Sarkozy, Neil Bush, etc.) of leaders in democratic countries eventually fade from sight when the leader leaves office.

I MET FORMER YANKEE GREAT PHIL RIZZUTO some 33 years ago, in 1974, when he was in Boston announcing a Yankees-Red Sox game. Rizzuto stopped by WEEI, where I was working as a weekend news writer, to record a syndicated radio spot. The diminutive Hall of Famer proved to be more than happy to talk baseball with a teenager. Nicknamed the “Scooter,” Rizzuto, who died August 13 at the age of 89, was an unaffected and genuinely warm man. Vale!

YOGI BERRA, a teammate of Phil Rizzuto and noted American philosopher, provides this month’s words of wisdom: “If the world was perfect, it wouldn’t be.”

Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
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