Archives for the 'Arts and Culture' Category

Cult at the Movies

Caleb Brown and Jorge Artega have put together a terrific little video segment on changing views of the president’s role, using an interview with me and clips from the 1933 film Gabriel Over the White House, a Hearst-funded, FDR propaganda vehicle in which the president is literally touched by an angel and imbued with the Holy Spirit of Presidential Activism. (I’m glad Caleb included the clip where the president pledges to suspend mortgage foreclosures).

Update: and it turns out that Gabriel is on Turner Classic Movies on 11/25. Set your Tivo.

Posted on Oct 12, 2008 in Arts and Culture, Cult of the Presidency | 14 Comments

But Does He Ever Call?

The New York Times had a good story this Sunday exploring the irony that the best public affairs show in America is Jon Stewart’s “fake news” comedy half-hour. I cover similar themes in the last chapter of the book, when I’m looking (desperately, some have said) for reasons to be positive about the state of American political culture:

An enormous chunk of Generation Y, those born roughly after 1977, gets its political information from Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, a comedy news program devoted to the idea that we’re led by fools….

Stewart’s merciless ridicule of President Bush has led some conservatives to complain that the show is politically biased. But the evidence doesn’t support that complaint. In a 2006 study, the Center for Media and Public Affairs found that the only overarching prejudice The Daily Show displays is indiscriminate contempt for the political class. According to CMPA, 98 percent of The Daily Show’s coverage of Republicans was negative, compared to 96 percent of its commentary on Democrats. The idea that anyone relying on the program as his or her main source of political news will end up woefully uninformed turns out to be false as well: Daily Show viewers tend to be more knowledgeable than most newspaper readers, even when factors such as education and political interest are taken into account….

In 2006, Daily Show alum Steven Colbert was the featured comic at White House Correspondents’ Dinner, the annual gathering of D.C. journalists where the president is expected to show up and be a good sport by putting up with some gentle ribbing. Colbert wasn’t gentle. In character as the moronic right-wing talk show host he plays on the Daily Show spinoff The Colbert Report, Colbert compared the Bush administration to the Hindenburg disaster, sarcastically applauded our “success” in Iraq, and suggested that the president was an ignoramus who refused to seek accurate information because “reality has a well-known liberal bias.” A former top administration aide who attended the dinner commented that the president was furious: he had “that look [like] he’s ready to blow.” Colbert’s performance was open, in-your-face disrespect for the presidency, and many people didn’t care for it. Many didn’t like it 10 years earlier at the White House Correspondents Dinner, when President Clinton had to sit uncomfortably while shock-jock Don Imus cracked jokes about Clinton’s marital infidelities (though, then as now, how offended one was largely depended on one’s party affiliation).

Despite the vestiges of hero-worship on display in the press and in popular entertainment, we treat the presidency with less sentimentality and less respect than we have in years…. Mocking those who rule us might seem immature, but consider the alternative: From FDR through LBJ, for nearly four decades, Americans forgot their heritage of political distrust, and looked to the Oval Office with a childlike faith in the occupant’s benevolence. The age of the heroic presidency left a legacy of ruinous wars, unrestrained executive surveillance, and repeated abuses of civil liberties. Perhaps a little disrespect is in order, and perhaps there are worse things, after all, than making the president a punching bag and punchline.


Posted on Aug 19, 2008 in Arts and Culture, Cult of the Presidency | 22 Comments

Sunday Presidential Song Blogging

Neil Young: “Campaigner.” “Even Richard Nixon has got soul”: a lovely line, even if it’s hard to make sense of the rest of the lyrics. And hey, the Godfather of Soul endorsed Tricky Dick’s ’72 reelection campaign, so maybe he did.

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Posted on Jul 27, 2008 in Arts and Culture, Asides | 7 Comments

Neocon Career Advice

First two sentences of a book review by David “End to Evil” Frum in yesterday’s NYT:

In most lines of work, a person does his credibility real damage by denying the obvious and asserting the manifestly untrue. Yet in the book world, there can be very large rewards for a writer who boldly turns reality on its head.


Posted on Jun 30, 2008 in Arts and Culture, Asides, Conservatism | 3 Comments

The Literary Offenses of David Brooks

David Brooks’s latest, a disquisition on the difference between ‘geeks’ and ‘nerds,’ is cringe-inducing throughout, the sort of chatty exercise in pointless faux-hipness that makes you long for the cool logic of Maureen Dowd and the mellifluous metaphors of Thomas Friedman, but it was the following sentence that nearly made me swear off reading entirely:

Barack Obama has become the Prince Caspian of the iPhone hordes.

Why? Why??


Posted on May 24, 2008 in Arts and Culture, Asides | 18 Comments

“Great” Presidents: They’re Good for the Soul!

Scroll to the end of the audio of this Federalist Society debate on “Executive Discretion & the Rule of Law” for the following gem from the unsatirizable Harvey Mansfield:

Q: is the type of [presidential] greatness you’re talking about consistent with separation of powers [and is it] necessarily good for individuals?

A: ….Is it always good for the individual? No, if by good for the individual you mean make him more wealthy or more secure, but… what… what is good for your soul? what is good for your soul is something that enlarges it and makes it respect itself more and it gives you something to be proud of–and that’s what a great president does in our country. Our greatness is wrapped up in our great presidents.

Huh. And here I thought the ostensible purpose of the national government was to make the individual more prosperous and secure. And I thought that tasks like enlarging the soul and making it, er, respect itself more, were beyond the purview of the federal government’s chief magistrate, who was to have “no particle of spiritual jurisdiction.”

Shows how much I know. I mean, until HM published Manliness a few years back, I was inclined to doubt that you could learn much on the subject from some twee, tweed-jacketed fellow whose own bio brags that “he has hardly left Harvard since his first arrival in 1949.”

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Posted on May 13, 2008 in Arts and Culture, Cult of the Presidency | 6 Comments

My Precioussss….

My God, the Kindle is great. And I say this even though the first one I got broke after about three hours (screen locked up and wouldn’t reset). My replacement arrived yesterday. This morning, it was like Jeeves had brought me the New York Times–it was right there when I woke up and all I had to do was reach for it.

Posted on May 13, 2008 in Arts and Culture | 13 Comments

One Thing at a Time

(Or none). In “The Autumn of the Multitaskers,” Walter Kirn explains why the only time I really seem to get anything done anymore is when I’m crammed into a tiny coach seat, forbidden to use electronic devices, and faced with the choice between doing some work and watching a Katherine Heigl movie.

Multitasking messes with the brain in several ways. At the most basic level, the mental balancing acts that it requires—the constant switching and pivoting—energize regions of the brain that specialize in visual processing and physical coordination and simultaneously appear to shortchange some of the higher areas related to memory and learning. We concentrate on the act of concentration at the expense of whatever it is that we’re supposed to be concentrating on.

What does this mean in practice? Consider a recent experiment at UCLA, where researchers asked a group of 20-somethings to sort index cards in two trials, once in silence and once while simultaneously listening for specific tones in a series of randomly presented sounds. The subjects’ brains coped with the additional task by shifting responsibility from the hippocampus—which stores and recalls information—to the striatum, which takes care of rote, repetitive activities. Thanks to this switch, the subjects managed to sort the cards just as well with the musical distraction—but they had a much harder time remembering what, exactly, they’d been sorting once the experiment was over.

Even worse, certain studies find that multitasking boosts the level of stress-related hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline and wears down our systems through biochemical friction, prematurely aging us. In the short term, the confusion, fatigue, and chaos merely hamper our ability to focus and analyze, but in the long term, they may cause it to atrophy.

The next generation, presumably, is the hardest-hit. They’re the ones way out there on the cutting edge of the multitasking revolution, texting and instant messaging each other while they download music to their iPod and update their Facebook page and complete a homework assignment and keep an eye on the episode of The Hills flickering on a nearby television. (A recent study from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 53 percent of students in grades seven through 12 report consuming some other form of media while watching television; 58 percent multitask while reading; 62 percent while using the computer; and 63 percent while listening to music. “I get bored if it’s not all going at once,” said a 17-year-old quoted in the study.) They’re the ones whose still-maturing brains are being shaped to process information rather than understand or even remember it.

This is the great irony of multitasking—that its overall goal, getting more done in less time, turns out to be chimerical. In reality, multitasking slows our thinking. It forces us to chop competing tasks into pieces, set them in different piles, then hunt for the pile we’re interested in, pick up its pieces, review the rules for putting the pieces back together, and then attempt to do so, often quite awkwardly.

Speaking of flying/multitasking: about a week ago, I was in the bathroom at the Seattle-Tacoma Airport, when a guy comes in quacking away on his bluetooth device, sidles right up next to me at the urinal, and continues talking (apparently to an assistant/employee) about an upcoming meeting, treating his associate to a cascading liquid symphony punctuated by autoflushes.

Posted on May 11, 2008 in Arts and Culture, Asides, Human Nature, Uncategorized | 5 Comments

For the Raisins

It turns out I had another blogiversary while this site was on hiatus. I’ve missed blogging a bit during my near six-month break. But my feeling about the enterprise as a whole remains what it was two years ago in this post. Excerpt:

Have you ever spent an hour or so reading through your own archives? It’s like being trapped in a very tiny room being hectored by your clone. You don’t look like you think you look, sound like you think you sound. The effect is probably something like the dysphoria Nixon experienced when he had to read through the transcripts of his Oval Office tapes: “[expletive deleted]: is that really me?” And the thing is, I’m generally ok with what I write, in small doses. I wonder how some other people can keep it together after doing this exercise or surfing through some of the vast sea of crap out there.

My father once told the story of a colleague who had a recurring dream. He’s swimming through what seems like an endless sea of crap for what seems like hours, when he encounters another swimmer. “Crap! It’s all crap!” the first swimmer exclaims. “Ah, it’s not so bad,” replies the second swimmer, “every now and then, you get a raisin!”

And so, chin up, we swim on and on against the current. For the raisins.

Posted on Apr 9, 2008 in Arts and Culture | 7 Comments

You Had Me at “Live Lobsters”

So my dad, who, like me, is a fan of pulpy noir detective novels and shows, sends me an email telling me to set my Tivo for this. I click the link and read:

In the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant in Edinburgh, corrupt cop Brendan McCabe is being drowned in a tank of live lobsters.

That is perhaps the best sentence I’ve ever read.

Posted on Oct 6, 2007 in Arts and Culture, Asides, Civil Liberties, Conservatism, Cult of the Presidency, Domestic Policy, Executive Power, Foreign Policy and Defense, Human Nature, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Uncategorized | 1 Comment