March 2008: Nobody asked me, but…

Mamet unchained, Shin Bet bloggers, the New York Times discovers vegan strippers, and other observations

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

WAS THAT REALLY DAVID MAMET, PLAYWRIGHT OF THE PROFANE, ANNOUNCING IN THE Village Voice, of all places, “Why I Am No Longer a Brain-Dead Liberal“? Apparently so. Mamet’s political epiphany came, he has announced, as he wrote his recent play “November” and found himself contrasting the conservative tragic view of life with liberal perfectionism and deciding: “I took the liberal view for many decades, but I believe I have changed my mind.”

Mamet unchained goes further, arguing “that we in the United States get from day to day under rather wonderful and privileged circumstances—that we are not and never have been the villains that some of the world and some of our citizens make us out to be, but that we are a confection of normal (greedy, lustful, duplicitous, corrupt, inspired—in short, human) individuals living under a spectacularly effective compact called the Constitution, and lucky to get it.”

Count on the author of “Glengarry Glen Ross” and “Sexual Perversity in Chicago” for macho provocation: Mamet terms National Public Radio (NPR) “National Palestinian Radio,” sees similarities between George W. Bush and John F. Kennedy, and pronounces: “I am hard-pressed to see an instance where the intervention of the government led to much beyond sorrow.”

Yet this transformation isn’t completely a surprise as Mamet has never been a doctrinaire Man of the Left: he has displayed little patience with political correctness (vide “Oleanna”), and in some of his recent work (the movies Ronin and Spartan, the television series “The Unit,” and his book The Wicked Son: Anti-Semitism, Self-hatred, and the Jews,) Mamet has moved right-of-center on national security issues.

Mamet has picked an awkward time, however, to sing the praises of laissez-faire capitalism (calling Thomas Sowell “our greatest contemporary philosopher”); anemic regulatory checks-and-balances on Wall Street greed have contributed to the recent subprime mortgage meltdown. That, of course, may be the point: Mamet likes nothing better than to shock, and what better way to shock than to embrace free markets in the middle of a financial crisis?

SHIN BET, ISRAEL’S SECURITY AGENCY, HAS EMPLOYEES BLOGGING about their office routines. The Associated Press reports: “The new project is part of an attempt by the organization to attract more high-tech workers to its ranks, and the bloggers work on the technological side of the Shin Bet’s operations rather than in the field. Identified only by the first letter of their names, they appear in black silhouette on the site’s home page.” The blogs, however, are “pretty boring,” according to the AP, proving that the mind-numbing curse of the cubicle extends even to Spyworld.

IT’S COMFORTING TO KNOW THAT THE NEW YORK TIMES TAKES ITS JOURNALISTIC RESPONSIBILITIES SERIOUSLY: otherwise we might never have learned about the vegan strip club trend.

That’s right, clubs with vegan strippers serving authentic vegan food, according to Kara Jesella’s story “The Carrot Some Vegans Deplore” carried in the Gray Lady’s Fashion & Style section. Well, actually it’s only one strip club in Portland, Oregon—Casa Diablo Gentleman’s Club—one that is failing, but reporting “All the News That’s Fit to Print” demands comprehensive coverage, including a photo of a young tattooed Goth-looking lass in a black halter top gazing forlornly at a sign which proclaims: “Please Do Not Wear Fur, Feathers, Silk, Wool, or Leather on the Stage.” The strippers apparently must resort to donning and undonning pleather. (But wouldn’t silk produced in the wild be acceptable? Or feathers that naturally molted from a bird?)

Our intrepid Times reporter pursues the story further, discovering a Southern California girl group called the Vegan Vixens (“a kind of animal-loving Pussycat Dolls”) who perform at animal rights events. The nation’s newspaper of record happily provides a photo of the five Vegan Vixens in very short skirts so our First Amendment rights are fully observed.

SPEAKING OF JOURNALISM 101, THE LOS ANGELES TIMES HAS APOLOGIZED FOR ITS BOGUS STORY ON THE 1994 wounding of rapper Tupac Shakur. The newspaper was duped by a con man who had provided false FBI documents implicating associates of another rapper, Sean “Puffy” Combs, in the shooting. The author, Chuck Phillips, admitted that he never directly asked FBI officials about the authenticity of the documents, and the paper was apparently told by Combs’ lawyer that the story was false. Defamation lawsuits to follow?

THE CORNELL MATHEMATICIANS WHO CONCLUDED THAT JOE DIMAGGIO’S 56-GAME HITTING STREAK wasn’t all that remarkable (after computer-simulations of parallel baseball universes) couldn’t have ever experienced a 99-mile-per hour fastball from the vantage point of the batter’s box. If they did, they would know better.

FROM OGDEN NASH, 20TH CENTURY MASTER OF DOGGEREL, COMES THIS month’s closing sentiment (proving April wasn’t always IRS time): “Indoors or out, no one relaxes in March, that month of wind and taxes, the wind will presently disappear, the taxes last us all the year.”

Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

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Winter reading: Jack London’s “To Build a Fire”

It’s been a colder than usual winter in New England, with heavy snowfall and low temperatures well into March, but then again, cold is a relative matter.

I was reminded of that relativity when I re-read Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” this winter, a short story set in the bitterly cold Yukon wilderness, a harsh environment that London knew well from his days as a miner and adventurer during the Klondike Gold Rush of the late 1890s. Bitter cold meant temperatures that could reach 75 degrees below zero, and according to London the “Yukon Code” cautioned against traveling alone “after the frost has dropped below zero fifty degrees or more.”

My father introduced me to Jack London when I was young, and I devoured “The Call of the Wild” and “Burning Daylight” and many of London’s other adventure stories. Today I wonder if my father gravitated to London because he identified with him: both were voracious readers, self-educated men who became writers, and both lost their fathers (to desertion for London, to divorce for my father) as they became teen-agers.

London’s stories are long on description and plot, and short on character development. He set out to write page-turners because, like Dickens, much of his fiction appeared serially in newspapers and magazines. London first published “To Build a Fire” in Youth’s Companion in 1902 and a second, revised version (the one you will find in anthologies) in The Century Magazine in 1908. (The complete story is here.)

What makes London’s stories powerful is their authenticity. He gives us the insider’s view of life in the Yukon in “To Build a Fire,” which lends a matter-of-fact, journalistic quality to story. (London prided himself on getting the details right, tartly explaining to the copy editor at Youth’s Companion who had the temerity to question the story’s factuality that fires couldn’t be built with mittened hands.)

A killing cold

The cold takes on a personality of its own in “To Build a Fire”: relentless, unforgiving, a merciless force that kills the unexposed human in just minutes. The protagonist in the story is overmatched, “a newcomer in the land, a chechaquo, and this was his first winter.” London faults this novice for both his ignorance and his arrogance; the only creature with any sense is the man’s “big native husky, the proper wolf dog” who instinctively knows that it is too cold to travel.

The man plans to follow the trail back to camp and his fellow miners, where he eagerly anticipates a hot supper waiting. He ignores the advice given by old-timers, not to travel alone in such extreme conditions. And since he has not formed any emotional bond with his husky, London tells us “the dog made no effort to communicate its apprehension to the man.”

When the man blunders into a branch of the Henderson river—a dangerous misstep as it drenches his feet and legs—he reacts promptly, starting a small fire and gradually and carefully feeding it. Belatedly he recognizes the danger:

…He knew there must be no failure. When it is seventy-five below zero, a man must not fail in his first attempt to build a fire–that is, if his feet are wet. If his feet are dry, and he fails, he can run along the trail for half a mile and restore his circulation. But the circulation of wet and freezing feet cannot be restored by running when it is seventy-five below. No matter how fast he runs, the wet feet will freeze the harder.

But the man makes another—disastrous—rookie mistake: he has built his fire under a snow-laden birch tree. When the snow capsizes onto the fire, extinguishing it, he is shocked “as though he just heard his own sentence of death.”

From this point “To Build a Fire” moves inexorably, grimly, towards its end. The man’s frantic efforts to build another fire fail—his bare hands are crippled by the cold, and he realizes why the old-timers insisted that “after fifty below, a man should travel with a partner.” The newcomer thinks of killing the dog and warming his hands in its carcass, but he no longer has the strength to hold the dog, draw his knife and finish him off. “A certain fear of death, dull and oppressive, came to him,” London writes, adding, “This fear quickly became poignant as he realized that it was no longer a mere matter of freezing his fingers and toes, or of losing his hands and feet, but that it was a matter of life and death with the chances against him.”

Re-reading the story after many years, I was most struck by London’s dispassion in recounting the last few hours of this chechaquo‘s life. (London never mentions the man’s name in The Century Magazine version of the story). There is no sense of tragedy, for London portrays the man as a victim of his own foolhardiness, an amateur who has lost this Darwinian contest.

London finishes the story quickly. We are told: “Freezing was not so bad as people thought. There were lots worse ways to die.” (I was reminded of Robert Frost’s poem “Fire and Ice” in which he muses that for the destruction of world ice “Is also great/And would suffice.”) In the last paragraph of the story, we learn that the man “drowsed off into what seemed to him the most comfortable and satisfying sleep he had ever known.” His husky confirms that this is indeed, the end, as he crawls close to the man “and caught the scent of death.”

A heroic contrast

It would be a mistake to conclude from “To Build a Fire” that London viewed Man vs. Nature as a necessarily unequal contest. As an outdoorsman he admired those men whose physical and mental strength allowed them to prevail despite the harshest of circumstances. In his novel “Burning Daylight,” his hero Eliam Harmish (who is nicknamed Burning Daylight) represents the Omega of the Alaskan outdoorsman—virile, a canny veteran, and yet with a test-pilot’s appetite for risk.

But Harmish knows the rules, knows the danger, and in the first chapters of the novel his initial mythic battle with the harsh Northern elements—through a two-thousand-mile dog-sled trip on a dare—represents a deliberate and conscious test of manhood. He makes the epic journey carrying the mail from Circle City to Dyea and back in sixty days, in frigid weather, nearly killing one Indian companion and wearing down another. By accomplishing the near-impossible “[h]e had performed one more exploit that would make the Yukon ring with his name–he, Burning Daylight, the king of travelers and dog-mushers.”

Even as Eliam Harmish celebrates his victory, London sounds a warning note: “At the sharpest hazards of trail and river and famine, the message was that other men might die, but that he would pull through triumphant. It was the old, old lie of Life fooling itself, believing itself–immortal and indestructible, bound to achieve over other lives and win to its heart’s desire.” And later in the novel Burning Daylight will learn that he, too, can fail.

Yet London, a student of Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche and a socialist and materialist, balanced his fatalism with a romantic insistence that only by confronting life head-on and taking great risks could we become fully human. The reward is worth the risk. “I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet,” London’s “Credo” proclaims, adding, “The function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.”

Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders

All rights reserved

Jefferson Flanders is author of the Cold War thriller Herald Square.

February 2008: Nobody asked me, but…

The incomparable Obama, Duke lacrosse scandal blowback, campaign songs and controversy, and other observations

With all due credit to legendary New York City columnist Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

WHO IS BARACK OBAMA? It seems that America’s mainstream news organizations have spent much of the first two months of 2008 trying to answer that question about the junior Senator from Illinois, now the Democratic presidential frontrunner. Obama’s intriguing life story has produced countless stories to date, and now reporters and commentators are trying to dig a little deeper and to place his sudden appeal (Obama-mania) in context. This latest journalistic examination has featured explanations of how Obama resembles (or doesn’t resemble) transformative cultural and political figures from the past. (Many of these compare-and-contrast stories have been downright silly.)

Obama has acknowledged that he is a bit of a blank screen, where “people of widely different views project what they want to hear.” The journalistic comparisons have followed that pattern. Many of them have been flattering; the Illinois Senator has been likened to Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan, and Tiger Woods. He has also been compared, less positively, to less popular figures, including Jimmy Carter, George McGovern, Gary Hart, Mike Dukakis, George W. Bush (a jab from Senator Hillary Clinton) and Jesse Jackson (a jab from former President Bill Clinton), and even to the sinister cult figure Jim Jones.

What is going on here? Some of it is the human need to pigeon-hole people, to place them in a given category, whether positive or negative. Journalists are prone to this sort of categorizing and developing a frame for the candidate (to use an academic term) and establishing a narrative for a given campaign.

Obama, the “blank screen”, has proven somewhat resistant to this framing process. Is he an undistinguished novice with no executive experience who shies away from taking strong political stances and relies on empty rhetoric? Or is he a transformative figure whose oratory has captured the hearts and minds of Americans and who represents a post-partisan, post-racial political future? Or is the truth somewhere in between?

I’d argue that journalists should refrain from making comparisons, and focus instead on more substantive questions. For example, how about challenging Obama (and Senators Clinton and McCain) to answer the questions raised on the op-ed page of the New York Times before the Ohio Democratic presidential debate? I’d rather know how Obama plans to respond to these (especially the national security questions posed by the Boston Globe‘s Charlie Savage) than be subjected to more hype about how he resembles the Kennedy brothers.

THE DUKE LACROSSE SCANDAL REFUSES TO DIE as 38 members of the 2006 team filed suit against Duke University “for injuring the players’ reputations and causing them emotional suffering” during the bungled false rape case against three of the players. .

History professor K.C. Johnson has a detailed Q&A on the lawsuits (on his “Durham in Wonderland” blog site) and he thinks that the University is on shaky legal ground for its handling of “federally protected student information” and its failure to enforce its anti-harassment policies.

That the parents and players involved would sue Duke (and the city of Durham, N.C.) under the circumstances is understandable; it is a shame, however, that every dispute in contemporary American life must end up in the courts. If Duke president Richard H. Brodhead had openly accepted responsibility for the University’s bungling of the situation, had expressed regret, and had apologized publicly to the players, I’d like to think the lawsuit wouldn’t have been filed.

YOU WOULD THINK REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES WOULD HAVE LEARNED not to play rock songs at their campaign rallies, because it inevitably leads to the (registered Democrat) singer/songwriter demanding they stop. Latest cases in point: Boston’s Tom Scholz telling Mike Huckabee to cease and desist playing “More Than a Feeling,” and John Cougar Mellencamp’s camp asking John McCain to stop playing “Our Country.”

It’s not the first time McCain has been dissed by a rocker: Tom Petty made it clear he didn’t want the Arizona Republican using his song “I Won’t Back Down.” (Petty had also asked George W. Bush not to use that same tune on the campaign trail).

AMERICAN WOMEN IN COMBAT? U.S. female aviators in Afghanistan and Iraq are directly involved in counter-insurgency missions, based on these Parade magazine and New York Times Magazine pieces, despite the supposed ban on women in combat roles. According to Parade, some 105 American women have died in fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001. Isn’t it time to make policy match reality?

FROM WALTER WINCHELL, NEWSPAPER COLUMNIST EXTRAORDINAIRE COMES THIS month’s closing sentiment: “Too many people expect wonders from democracy, when the most wonderful thing of all is just having it.”

Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

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