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  1. Unintended Consequences As The Foundation of Constitutional Rights
  2. More on Book Review Editing
  3. Late to the Party, Again
  4. Whither The NYTimes Book Review Section?
  5. California Nightmare?
  6. Facts from The Economist
  7. "Tanner '88"
  8. My Antipodes
  9. Anthony Lane

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Friday, February 6, 2004

Unintended Consequences As The Foundation of Constitutional Rights
Michael: Have you been following the feverish attempts on the part of the Massachusetts Legislature to propose a constitutional amendment to overturn the state’s high-court ruling permitting same-sex marriages? (An article on the rather hysterical proceedings can be read here.) I support gay civil rights, and I don’t think this really damages the traditional notion of marriage, so I admit I find all this hoopla a bit surprising. But my purpose isn’t to agree or disagree with the substance of the ruling in this post; what I want to point out is the bizarre mechanism by which this social change is occurring. To wit, the Massachusetts high court essentially found that state legislators, in passing previous laws, and state voters, in approving a previous change to the Massachusetts constitution, had unintentionally created a right to gay marriage. As Eugene Volokh at the Volokh Conspiracy pointed out months back (the relevant posts can be read here and here), opponents of these laws and constitutional amendments had noted at the time the possibility that in their enactment a right to homosexual marriage might be created. But proponents of those changes at the time also expressly disavowed any such intention and reassured the public that there was no likelihood of creating that right. Mr. Volokh quotes numerous examples of contemporary sources pooh-poohing the ‘slippery slope to gay marriage’ arguments. I will quote only two of his anecdotes. The first is from an editorial supporting the passage of a sexual anti-discrimination law; the law was quoted by the Massachusetts high court as supporting their finding in favor of a right to same sex marriage: An editorial in the Boston Globe, Oct. 15, 1989, at A30, said "[A proposed antidiscrimination barring sexual orientation discrimination in credit, employment, insurance, public accommodation and housing] does not legalize 'gay marriage' or confer any right on homosexual, lesbian or unmarried heterosexual couples to 'domestic benefits.' Nor does passage of the bill put Massachusetts on a 'slippery slope' toward such rights." The centerpiece of the Massachusetts high court opinion is its reference to the passage in the state constitution that reads: "Equality under the law shall not be denied or abridged because of sex". This language had been inserted as a consequence of the passage of the Massachusetts Equal Rights amendment. Mr. Volokh notes that many opponents of the federal Equal Rights Amendment had included claims by opponents that its passage would lead to gay marriage—which were explicitly denied by the bill’s supporters: "Opponents, for example, suggested passage of ERA would mean abortion on demand, legalization of homosexual marriages, sex-integrated prisons and reform schools -- all claims that were hotly denied by ERA supporters." U.S. News & World Report, Apr. 28, 1975. "Discussion of [the ERA] bogged down in hysterical claims that the amendment would eliminate privacy in bathrooms, encourage homosexual marriage, put women in the trenches and deprive housewives of their husbands' support." N.Y. Times, July 5, 1981 (excerpt of a book by Betty Friedan). "The vote in Virginia... posted by Friedrich at February 6, 2004 | perma-link | (58) comments

More on Book Review Editing
Dear Friedrich -- Because I'm the kind of bore who can't let go of a topic without giving it one final shake ... Here's a list of some of the culturethings I've been looking at/listening to/flipping through during the last few weeks. "A History of Classical Music" by Richard Fawke -- a Naxos four-CD package that's read by Robert Powell and that includes many musical examples. An excellent first spin through the history of Western art music, by the way. It's buyable here. "Money Money Money," a terrific police-procedural crime novel by Ed McBain, which I listened to in an abridged version on audiotape. Several episodes of the A&E series "American Justice." The Wife loves Bill Kurtis, the show's host, and the episodes themselves are well-told, hour-long true-crime stories. Several Howard Goodall music-history shows on Ovation. A three-part IFC documentary about American movies in the '70s. An English documentary about Dizzy Gillespie. The usual huge number of websites. A talk by the wonderful Vedanta guru, Swami Prabhavananda, which I listened to on audio. (Tons of Vedanta-related books and tapes are buyable here.) A few decades ago, all the above media products might well have been books. These days they're media products instead. They were all, by the way, just as satisfying as good books, and often (to my mind) better-scaled, as in "finito in a few hours." I think this list can help explain two things that are useful when thinking about the state of bookchat and book reviewing. * It helps explain why so much vitality has gone out of the book world. There's been no loss of cultural vitality in a general sense, IMHO, but as media options have opened up, energy has dispersed among them. (I don't read as many books in the traditional way as I once did; and I don't watch network TV anymore either. Both are consequences of the same thing -- the explosion in media options.) Cultural energy now slops around among many media possibilities. There used to be a small number of well-defined categories: network TV; movies; books; classical, jazz or pop music; etc. These days, there are an uncountable number of categories. What to call, for instance, a website that includes visuals, writing, biographies, and sound clips? That's certainly a project that a few decades ago might have been a book. Is it a tragedy that today it's a website instead? If so, why? Gee whiz: it's free, it's accesssible, it's easy to use, and the blending of media works better on a website than it ever could in a book. As far as I can tell, its availability as a web thing is a big fat plus for consumers. But the fact that it's a website rather than a book does mean that the world of books per se is a little less rich than it might have been. * My list also helps illustrate the kinds of challenges book-review editors are up against. A simple-and-obvious example: these days, where... posted by Michael at February 6, 2004 | perma-link | (6) comments

Thursday, February 5, 2004

Late to the Party, Again
Michael: Even though I’m about to start my sixth decade on the planet, I still find myself just noticing little patterns and thinking: shouldn’t I have spotted that years, or even decades ago? Let me give you one little example. During the Super Bowl my two-year-old son got bored and wanted to watch a movie, picking out a copy of Mel Brooks’ “Robin Hood: Men In Tights.” Since my days of watching football intently are about 30 years behind me, I took him to another room, fired up the backup DVD and sat with him while he took in the swordfights and archery and I took in Amy Yasbeck as Maid Marion. Amy Yasbeck as a Yummy Maid Marian My brother, who is much more of sports fan than I, eventually wandered in to join us. Afterwards, comparing notes with him on the movie, I remarked that I was particularly fond of the scene in which Robin Hood (played by Cary Elwes) invades a royal banquet hosted by King John (played by Richard Lewis). The dialogue goes roughly as follows: ROBIN HOOD (Noticing the beautiful Maid Marian who is busy rejecting the attentions of the Sheriff of Rottingham) And who might you be? MAID MARIAN (Simpers) Maid Marian. ROBIN HOOD Ah, rumors of your beauty have spread far and wide across the land. But I see that they fail to do you justice. (Takes her hand and kisses it) KING JOHN (In a loud ‘undertone’) Smoo-thy! The guy’s a smoothy! The 'Smoothy' Does His Thing As I was repeating all this, it dawned on me that I couldn’t really explain why I found this funny, except that it was so obviously not kinglike on the part of Richard Lewis. But then, nothing is kinglike about Richard Lewis, and it’s not like everything he does in the movie is hysterical. (Granted, despite being a terrible actor, or possibly because of it, Lewis' performance works perfectly in the film.) Chewing on this for a moment, it finally dawned on me that Lewis’ comment was the kind of thing you would ordinarily think but not say aloud while watching a movie. And here it was, inserted into the movie itself, into the mouth of a senior authority figure. It struck me that watching a Mel Brooks movie is like watching a straight version of a genre film (Western, thriller, medieval adventure, monster, etc.) with Brooks talking back to the screen. While dialogue commenting on the action (a la “smoothy”) is one form of such backtalk, he also inserts characters that violate the norms of the genre (a black sheriff in a western, a Jewish rabbi in 12th century England) and shows behavior that should be visible in such movies but oddly isn’t (with all the bean-eating around the campfire in Westerns, only “Blazing Saddles” shows the inevitable symphony of farting). The effect of these strategies, despite Brooks’ obvious fondness for genre films, is of a smart little Jewish kid critiquing the Waspy worldview... posted by Friedrich at February 5, 2004 | perma-link | (16) comments

Whither The NYTimes Book Review Section?
Dear Friedrich -- The chitchat in the bookworld these days is about The New York Times Book Review Section. Have you followed the gossip? Chip McGrath, who has edited the section for some years now, is stepping aside to return to writing. Who'll be named to replace him? The choice will be announced in a few weeks. Amazingly, some misguided soul has written in to ask what my thoughts about the matter are. Well, I do declare! But I certainly can't resist doing some opinionating and pontificating too. First things first: there's been good information and sassy commenting from a number of sources, and I urge the interested to check them out: Margo Hammond and Ellen Heltzel at Poynter Online (here), OGIC at About Last Night (here), Cup of Chicha (here), Mark Sarvas (here), Bookslut (here), Dr. Mabuse (here), Boris Kachka in New York magazine (here) and Rachel Donadio in The Observer (here) have all had much to contribute. Christopher Dreher in Salon reports here, but you have to subscribe to read his article. What's raised temperatures is what the Times' new Executive Editor, Bill Keller, has been quoted as saying he wants from the Book Review Section -- less space given to first literary novels, more attention paid to mass-market fiction, and more coverage of the bookbiz. Are these good or bad ideas? My mature reaction (which I promise to keep very short) is ... Well, we'll see how it plays out in practice. I confess that some of what Keller is planning is what I'd insist on too if the Book Review Section were given to me to edit, not that anyone in his right mind would do such a thing. In some ways, and although this probably makes me one of the bad guys, I'd take things further than he would. Just for the heck of it, I went through a recent issue of the NYTBR, which I'll assume is a typical one. Here's the editorial matter in the issue's 28 pages: A letters column. Full-scale reviews that covered 13 nonfiction books. Full-scale reviews of six fiction books. Four are new literary titles, two are volumes of a new translation of Proust. A "crime fiction" column that consisted of short reviews of five crime-fiction books. An "in brief" section that gave short reviews to three new lit-fiction books and to three new poetry collections. Two pages of bestseller-lists and recommendations. A final-page essay. Topic: was Sherlock Holmes gay? In all, 30 books were reviewed -- seven lit-fiction books, five crime novels, 13 nonfiction books, and three poetry books. The issue contained no news stories, no interviews, no visits, no trend pieces, no musing-and-thought pieces. A fine, professional book-review publication, but also one that I haven't felt the need or desire to follow closely for some years now. As a piece of self-indulgence, I've pulled together the M. Blowhard guide to making the Book Review Section a vital and enjoyable read, at least one that I'd consider a... posted by Michael at February 5, 2004 | perma-link | (20) comments

Wednesday, February 4, 2004

California Nightmare?
Michael: You might find interesting a story in the L.A. Times about the relationships between California’s demographic crisis, California’s financial crisis, and California’s infrastructure crisis. The demographic crisis, which is the driver here, is the likely doubling of California's population (to roughly 60 million inhabitants) by 2040, a process driven chiefly by immigration. Called “Infinite Ingress” and written by Lee Green, the story examines the likely future of the ever-swelling Golden State and comes up rather on the pessimistic side. (You can read it, with registration, here.) A short sample: The state has "a spending crisis," Schwarzenegger said in this month's State of the State message. But the state also has an evolving crisis of shifting demographics as immigration expands the underclass, which pays a lesser share of the tax burden. The Southern California Assn. of Governments' 2003 State of the Region Report found that the region's position "is slipping in nearly every performance category related to socio-economic well-being, including income and educational attainment. Among 17 major metropolitan areas nationwide, the region ranks 16th or worse in ... attainment of high school degrees, per capita income, persons in poverty, and children in poverty." Researchers at the Rand Corp. think tank spotted these troubling trends in 1997 after studying 30 years of economic and immigration data. Rand's review concluded that "the large-scale of immigration flows, bigger families, and the concentration of low-income, low-tax-paying immigrants making heavy use of public services are straining state and local budgets." The story goes beyond the strictly financial, however; it also discusses the overall inability of California’s governing classes to come to grips with the problems affecting the state, which include an overburdened infrastructure and environmental degradation. There is more at stake here than mere comfort and convenience. Apply enough stress to any biological system and eventually it falters. Or as Brown puts it: "The economy is inside an environment—the environment is not inside an economy. Which is to say, the laws of nature will ultimately prevail over the laws of economics." But if the people entrusted to lead the state are not having this discussion, if they're not grappling with these issues, then who is? That's a fine thing to think about the next time you're stuck in traffic. Which should be soon. And remember...trends that start in California have a way of showing up nationwide. Not-feeling-so-cheerful, Friedrich... posted by Friedrich at February 4, 2004 | perma-link | (5) comments

Tuesday, February 3, 2004

Facts from The Economist
Dear Friedrich -- Annoying as I often find The Economist, I still marvel at the vividness and precision of its writing -- and at the frankness, earthiness and detail of much of its reporting. A few highlights from recent issues: Dairy cows attract 1000 flies per cow. Dairy cows generate 100 pounds of manure per animal per day. Angola, two years out of a civil war, seems to be one fantastically corrupt country. Its rulers have been accused of having "filched or misspent $4.2 billion in five years ... The missing cash was equivalent to nearly a tenth of GDP each year -- as if an American administration had 'lost' $5 trillion -- and roughly as much as was spent on all social services." Half of Angola's children are malnourished while 20 Angolans are worth $100 million or more. Only 23 of Angola's 168 municipal courts are functioning. The government says it will fix the problem "by 2051." Mexico has an illegal-immigrant problem of its own -- people attempting to migrate north from Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua. "Last year, Mexico deported 147,000 illegal immigrants in all, some 20% more than in 2002." Most seem to be trying to make their way to the U.S. Gives one's art-concerns, art-gripes, and art-preferences a bit of context, don't you find? Although all the above facts come from subscription-only articles, The Economist's website, which is here, is a generous one, well worth a regular visit. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 3, 2004 | perma-link | (13) comments

"Tanner '88"
Dear Friedrich -- George Hunka (here), scourer extraordinaire of the TV-schedule pages, points out that, starting this evening, the Sundance Channel will be broadcasting the Robert Altman/Garry Trudeau miniseries "Tanner '88," one episode a week for eleven weeks. Did you ever catch the series? Trudeau and Altman invented a Democratic presidential candidate and ran him in the 1988 elections, writing and filming the series for HBO in near-"real time." Not all the episodes sparkle, but many of them do. I thought the series had some of Altman's best and most innovative work; watching it, you can see antecedants of reality TV and of new-media political-campaign shenanigans too. Dazzling stuff that's full of lively performances (Michael Murphy, Pamela Reed, Cynthia Nixon) and real people playing themselves; Altman's characteristic overlappings, doublings, and multidimensional unfoldings aren't in short supply either. Altman fan numero uno here says: Go for it, all the more so because the series hasn't been easy to find, I don't know why. So the Sundance Channel's rebroadcast, in celebration of election season, is something to be relished. Sundance begins broadcasting the series tonight (Tuesday) at 9 pm. Gentlemen, set your VCRs. The Sundance Channel's page about the series is here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 3, 2004 | perma-link | (2) comments

My Antipodes
Dear Michael: Do you ever come across writings that are so completely opposed to your point of view that you find them perversely fascinating? Googling on the phrase generational equity I came across “Obligations to the Elderly and Generational Equity” which was written by Janna Thompson of the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics (CAPPE) of Melbourne University (you can read her paper here.) She begins by raising a basic question: Do grown up children have obligations to their parents? Do the younger members of a society have obligations to their elders? Of course, this is purely a rhetorical question, as Ms. Thompson does not seem to have ever run into anyone (like myself) who would answer those questions ‘no.’ (Or even anyone who might answer the first question ‘yes’ and the second question ‘no.’) In her mind, the only issue present is coming up with an argument to support such an obligation. She considers the question of whether reciprocity (i.e., for the care provided by the older generation to the younger as children) would dictate such an obligation, and finds that there are unwelcome weaknesses in such an argument. For example, some people never provided care to children (even their own). Others were unable or refused to contribute to the support of childhood education. This is the kind of thing that makes Ms. Thompson my polar opposite; first she blithely assumes an obligation that I doubt exists at all, then she rejects a theory I might be at least weakly persuaded by (i.e., reciprocity) on the grounds that it doesn’t sufficiently coerce every young person to support every old person at all times and under all circumstances. I mean, there’s a sort of moral absolutism here that just goes completely against my grain. But by this point I’ve developed a fascination with her argument like a mouse hypnotized by a snake. What approach will Ms. Thompson come up with? And I’m not disappointed; she comes up with an argument that could not have less persuasive power on yours truly: Those who think that individuals ought to be cared for in old age no matter what they contributed, or failed to contribute, to the well being of the young will be attracted to what Allen Buchanan describes as a ‘subject-centred’ approach to entitlement and obligation. In a subject-centred theory individuals have obligations and entitlements simply because of their status and not because of their deeds or the benefits they have received or have given to others. By status Buchanan seems to have in mind the condition of being human. According to Buchanan’s account, we have duties to others just because they are persons and as such are entitled to our moral consideration. I’m probably too stupid to follow the subtleties of this, but it doesn’t actually look like logic to me at all. What she’s doing appears, rather, to assume a postulate that gets her where she wants to go and leaves it at that. It’s sort of like... posted by Friedrich at February 3, 2004 | perma-link | (22) comments

Monday, February 2, 2004

Anthony Lane
Dear Friedrich -- Did he just have an off week, or has The New Yorker's Anthony Lane become a terrible writer? I was as amazed as anyone when Lane first arrived at The New Yorker. His writing may have been nothing but pinwheels, fireworks and fairy dust, but his columns had a performer's charge of their own. What a brilliant, breezily-confident, full-of-mischief prodigy. You didn't read him to find out about movies -- Lane has always been useless as a film critic. But he had something like Kenneth Tynan's semi-camp verbal facility mixed in with something like Andrew Dice Clay's lewd pleasure in self-display. You read Lane to see what wild joke he was going to crack that week. But it's been a few years since I followed The New Yorker regularly. This week, I picked up a copy of the magazine and turned to Lane's review of the screenwriter Joe Eszterhas' memoir "Hollywood Animal," hoping for something richly entertaining. How wrong I was. What an unfunny and unwitty piece of work. It was as though, while his typing fingers were busy turning Anthony Lane cartwheels, his brain was engaged elsewhere. Lane describes the loud, crude, long book he's reviewing as "shy and blushing." (How archly amusing ... I suppose.) Eszterhas writes at length about his childhood in Cleveland, "and so much of the autobiography is devoted to the rough joys of the city that the title 'Hollywood Animal' comes to sound unjust, although I guess the marketing department at Knopf might have balked at a book called 'Cleveland Human Being'." A lot of engine-revving for a joke that never takes off, no? "It may be that some brave young editor at Knopf took the liberty of suggesting a gentle rewrite; if so, whoever you are, it's safe to come out from under the desk now. The storm has passed, and the book is in the shop." I don't hear anything but the clatter of word-processing keys in that passage. I read this review feeling like I ought to be making the kind of indulgent chuckling sounds you make when an ancient aunt who's on the decline but hasn't realized it yet ventures a witticism. Lane writes about how Eszterhas, Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer spent time in Toronto researching exotic dancing while preparing "Flashdance," and follows those sentences with this payoff: "We don't learn whether the costs of this scholarly trip were written off against taxes." Anthony Lane: dotty old thing. Humor's a very personal matter, which is why I'm curious about how you respond to the above. Does any of it strike you as dazzling? Does it even strike you as amusing? Me, I find it about as funny as late-period Bob Hope; all I sense is spent comic reflexes and mannerisms. But Lane is still in his 40s, I believe. Can someone that young already be written-out? But I wouldn't have bothered taking much note if I hadn't finished the review feeling a little miffed by Lane's... posted by Michael at February 2, 2004 | perma-link | (1) comments