November 27, 2005

Recapitulation, Chapter 15 (p. 264-270)

A Whispering Through the Branches
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August was a frenetic month in Newport, Rhode Island, and Nathaniel liked to keep to his own less frenzied neighborhood across the mouth of the bay, where he could walk the beaches, rocky and less refined than those that the tourists tread, and wander unperturbed, without the rush of forced and expensive enjoyment. Newport in the summer felt, to Nathaniel, like a contrived amusement, with merchants willing to supply all of those trinkets that tourists were compelled to purchase (t-shirts, Irish hats, and machine-made scrimshaw), with waiters bringing dishes that were considered seasonable and comme il faut (lobster rolls, sushi tuna, and uncleaned shrimp), and with bartenders serving up the frothy iced drinks and summer brews that those old enough felt obligated to savor and those too young schemed to taste. Whether traveling on foot, more slowly by car, or even by the dinner train that punctually traversed the island, none of the village's guests, in Nathaniel's opinion, felt the impress of the ancient houses that lined the cobblestone streets — unless, of course, they were of the obscenely gigantic type, to which travelers flocked not to feel a part of the string of kindred humanity, but to drool over and pine for the means to live in so opulent a manner that hundreds each year would pay of their own meager savings to be allowed just a brief glance at the uncomfortable furniture and the real, but plastic looking, gardens.

But August was cooling, and the crowds, though still suffocating, had begun to thin as they spread the country to their offices and practices and classrooms, so from time to time, some service that only urbanity could provide or that only surfeit currency could attract would force Nathaniel over the bridges onto the cobblestone, or otherwise cracked, avenues. He found, on these trips, that Newport was becoming more and more palatable. Never the traffic nor the hurried atmosphere, but in a place that offers no pastimes save those that call for the draining of funds, having the extra supply that he was finding in more abundance after each month's bills certainly served to allay his disgusted boredom.

Nonetheless, without fail, he found himself quickly striding along on his errands as if to emphasize the fact that his use of the village was entirely utilitarian: he came for that which he could acquire by no other reasonable means and then left, refusing to partake of the inebriation of time wasted under the guise of not being wasted at all. If, for some reason, his chores called upon him to stroll the less crowded side streets, he would, it is true, slow down, perhaps even standing still and closing his eyes, and strain to feel the city as it must have been felt, even by tourists, a hundred years before; but on this particular trip, he had no excuse to divert himself thither, and so was bouncing from shoulder to shoulder along the sidewalk when his eyes met with those of a dark-skinned young man, who smiled at him from a patio table of a bustling restaurant, a disemboweled lobster strewn about his plate.

Finally managing to break himself from the flow of pedestrian traffic in front of the next store front, Nathaniel made his way back toward the restaurant and exclaimed with pleasure, "Othello!"

Othello stood and reached out a hand that Nathaniel shook enthusiastically over the metal railing that prevented walkers from overwhelming and toppling the tables. "What brings you here, Nathaniel?" Othello asked. "This is one of the last places in the world that I would have expected to bump into you."

"Oh," Nathaniel responded, feeling, strangely, a little ashamed, "I live nearby and had to do some shopping." The passing crowd jostled him against the railing. "How about you?"

"Well, I found myself with a great deal of unexpected free-time this summer, so I thought I'd come up here and see what all the fuss is about."

"Have you figured it out, yet?"

"No," Othello smiled. "In fact, I was about to ask you the same question."

Nathaniel laughed and gestured with his head to indicate the mob that fairly pummeled him from behind, "Do I look like I get it?"

"I have to say that you don't," Othello stated and suggested that he sit down. Nathaniel, finding that the crowd had congealed even more behind him, chose, rather than struggle through it, to hop the railing. He sat down in an empty, green-metal chair at the table.

"Would you like something to eat or drink?" Othello asked cordially.

Nathaniel declined and leaned forward, placing his elbows on the plastic tablecloth, noting Othello's ubiquitous telephone. Its owner ordered another drink, and they talked their way through most of those topics that acquaintances might discuss when away from their common terrain: weather, world events, and the doings of each in the uncommon land in which they had now met. They commiserated over the banalities of their surroundings. "So have you been here since..." Nathaniel began, finishing with a look indicative of guilt.

Othello smiled so that Nathaniel would know that he, at least, did not feel slighted. "What? Since you kicked us all out?"

With a timorous attempt to return the smile, Nathaniel responded, "Yes."

Leaning back in his chair, Othello told Nathaniel that he had returned to work for a few weeks before he had come to Newport and would be going back again the following day.

"I've always wanted to ask what it is that you do." Nathaniel stated, intending an inquiry.

"Wouldn't it be against the rules for me to tell you that?"

"We're in the real world now; there aren't any rules."

Othello looked around and, with a chortle, asked, "Is that what you call this?"

Nathaniel, amused, merely shrugged and replied, "I guess it's what you let it be."

Nodding a sage affirmation, Othello answered the question: "I work on the stock market. Well, not actually on the stock market, but with it and near it."

With his eyebrows raised in interest, Nathaniel informed him that he had been considering investing some of his recent prosperity.

"Money from your book?"

The corners of Nathaniel's mouth twitched ambiguously. "Have you read it?"

"Oh yes. In fact, it's become quite the topic for after-close conversation at the pub."

"Really? How great that is to hear. Readers don't mean as much when they're only numbers."

Othello nodded. "I can imagine that to be the case in your business, although in mine, of course, it's all only numbers."

"What do you think?"

"About investing?"

"No, about my book."

"Well, I think that it's a very brave argument that you've put forth."

"Oh? How so?"

"Mind you that I speak from a very limited intellectual sphere, but it's a risky, albeit minor, stir that you've been causing in the world of money and finance."

With a look of mild disappointment, Nathaniel asked, "So what do you think?"

"I disagree with what some are saying, that you're a communist, or even just a socialist, as others are saying. But I do think that it's dangerous to be confused with either in our society. It's a modern world, Nathaniel, and being known as somebody who even tangentially espouses philosophies that the world sees as defeated is as good as being called a simpleton. Those who are superficially sympathetic will applaud without understanding, and the rest will dismiss you out of hand.

"And there's little doubt that the money machine has won. Just look around. You know what all these people are doing here? Some of them are doing what they enjoy, maybe, but more are trying to live up to what they consider their station. Still more are putting themselves in debt in order to pretend that they're better, or at least in a better position, than they really are. I don't know why, but then, as you've said, neither do you. Maybe nobody knows why. Do you think it's some inherent human longing?"

"To an extent," Nathaniel had to admit, not interested in this particular inquest at the moment and not positive that it was relevant to his book, anyway. "But what did you think about my book."

Othello leaned toward him and said, in all honesty, "I thought it was brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. I thought that your ideas are of the kind that might actually be able to save the world from itself, and I can't wait to read the next volume. But I wonder if you realize that you're dealing with humanity here — a group that doesn't seem to want to be saved and that will find some way to mess you up no matter how brave or brilliant you are."

Nathaniel's smile was inexplicably broad. "Of course I realize it, and of course they will! But you liked it. And even if people are buying it just so that they can see what all the fuss is about, then at least they're reading it. The ideas are getting in their heads anyhow. Maybe they'll eventually forget me and think that they've thought of these things themselves, which, of course, would make them think that they're good ideas, and that'd be exactly what I want."

"Come on, Nathaniel, I know you're not that naďve. I've heard you state the exact opposite."

"But I have hope now. Since I've gotten that book out there, I've been thinking that perhaps my job could be no better performed than by giving people each a common question, a common friend, a common enemy if necessary, a common anything. Something to discuss after work at a bar or at a restaurant on vacation. I have hope that people want to speak to each other's experiences, especially when those experiences are shared."

"Well I hope so, too, if only for your sake. But I guess we'll have to wait and see."

Othello's phone rang and jittered on the tabletop. He answered it and scattered what seemed to be random "yes"es and "no"s into the mouthpiece, while Nathaniel tried to look as if he weren't listening, which was true to the extent that he was more concerned with guessing who was offering the questions than divining the meaning of the answers themselves. Othello hung up with a short "G'bye," and Nathaniel asked if it had been important news.

"Oh, you know. It's always petty and inconsequential, and it's always of dire importance."

"I know what you mean. It's all a matter of perspective, I guess."

"Yeah. Guess so."

The conversation lapsed, each man sinking into his own thoughts, until the waitress brought Othello his bill as if by some invisible signal.

"Why don't you come over the bridges with me and meet my fiancé? You and I could discuss the possibility of my investing with you. We're going to a great burger place for dinner; why don't you join us?"

Othello stood and threw back the rest of his drink and slipped his phone into his pocket. "I'd love to, but I've got to get ready for my trip home tomorrow. I've been away too long, and as that call just showed, there are minor emergencies popping up every day that I can't control over the phone any longer. They're starting to pile up. I hope to come back this way before the end of the summer, though. Or maybe if you're down in the city, you could look me up."

Nathaniel looked at the interlocked fingers in his lap, then stood and shook hands with Othello. "Yes, I think I'll do that."

"Great! Here's my card. Call or email me with your address, and I'll send you all the information that you'll need to get started investing intelligently."

Nathaniel read the card. He didn't recognize the name that was raised in black ink across it. He looked up as Othello threw some money on the table. "It was good to see you," Nathaniel said.

"Same here," Othello reciprocated and, smiling, wove his way through the crowded tables, calling back from the edge of the patio: "Nathaniel. Hope's a good thing, probably the best of things, but don't let it blind you."

Then Othello nodded reassuringly and was swept away in the human wave on the sidewalk.

Jostling and plodding our way through the crowd, we follow Nathaniel through the streets, losing him just once, but catching him again as he slips into a car. Now, riding along with him, we watch the passing rush of adults in sandals and children with eager, but tired, faces. We pass through the traffic lights and past a shopping center and a hotel to another traffic light. Then a cemetery on both sides of us, and we wonder if we are the only ones who question whether it was by some conscious design that all those who would escape their lives by means of a brief vacation must pass through the final drudgeries of the dead. Or perhaps, if it was meant at all, it was meant to frighten those who would leave and make them think that it might be best to stay. A nasty trick of mercantilism if it was meant for such a reason, but not surprising nonetheless.

And after the line of cars has passed through the final traffic light (which has given us time sufficient to consider the meaning of all this exploited death), we reach the highway and the bridge and shudder at the daring maneuvers of the middle-aged in their expensive cars. But the toll is paid and a more tranquil island calms the racers as they approach yet another bridge, the crossing of which seems to lead into an entirely different world altogether, rather than just the mainland. With Nathaniel, now, we travel into the country, and into life as it should be, or, at least, as it really is for a larger portion of souls.

November 25, 2005

A Local Culture War

I wasn't sure on which blog my latest post belonged. Being about the social and administrative culture of Brown University, and local liberals' reaction thereto, it's the sort of thing that I generally mention here. But since it's so very Rhode Island, I put it on Anchor Rising.

Posted by Justin Katz at 6:48 AM

November 21, 2005

Little Religious Wars

This — from an NPR commentary by Penn Jillette (of Penn & Teller) — is rich:

I don't travel in circles where people say, "I have faith, I believe this in my heart and nothing you can say or do can shake my faith." That's just a long-winded religious way to say, "shut up," or another two words that the FCC likes less.

Another way of figuratively using "two words that the FCC" dislikes comes to mind:

The skit, performed last week in Las Vegas, included Teller, dressed as Christ on a full-size cross, entering the room on a cart. According to the column, a midget dressed as an angel "performed a simulated sex act on the near-naked Teller." Penn, in a Roman gladiator costume, unveiled the scene by pulling away a "Shroud of Turin" that covered the cross.

So one side — presented always, in my experience, as a general representation of an unflappable caricature — insults by having confidence that its belief is correct. The other side, as Jonah Goldberg puts it, "actively enjoys mocking and condescending to people who believe in God."

In response to Goldberg, Andrew Stuttaford — who says of religion, "it's not a subject that worries me very much one way or the other" — asks, "Why does theological debate have to be muffled in cotton wool, euphemism and that feeble contemporary desire not to give 'offense'?" Not that wool and gloss ought to be items in every rhetorical toolbox, but I'd reply to Stuttaford that a prerequisite for "debate" is generally to avoid chasing the other side off with jeers.

For all Jillette's pleasant-sounding claims about wanting "to be more thoughtful" and "to treat people right the first time around," his disbelief in God apparently does not foster sufficient human sympathy of "I know you take this matter seriously." Instead, the sentiment is: "nothing you can say or do will be listened to."

Posted by Justin Katz at 8:05 PM | Comments (3)

November 9, 2005

Welcome. Sorry to Keep You Waiting...

Folks speak of events in "real time," and it's been one of the notable frustrations of having had to relinquish my part-time work schedule (because blogging wouldn't pay well enough to count as work) that I can no longer keep up with Internet-speed reality. The bright side of this necessary delay in my online reactions, I suppose, is that I get to come home from a day spent doing such things as framing walls, demolishing plaster, and (today) carefully dismantling 100-year-old built-in shelves installed by some carpentry predecessor with nails to spare and discover that something encouraging has happened.

Today, I thank Michelle Malkin for mentioning in her column something that I've written. If you happen to have arrived here as a result of that piece, the blog post from which she quotes is here.

A Moment of Serenity

Relinquish some time, today, for perusing the photography of Marian "Jordan" Lewandowski — scenes from Poland, and life. There's something in a sunset, in a mist-draped field, in an outside nightime view of stained glass, and in the smile of an old man with a pigeon on his head, something that can perhaps be found in anybody's day anywhere.

Posted by Justin Katz at 5:43 AM
Visual Art

November 7, 2005

Recapitulation, Chapter 14 (p. 257-263)

A Whispering Through the Branches
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The tree was ornate, with its intricately entwined branches and sporadic leaves scattered upon the branches like jewelry. Its many arms, like some Asian dancer's, undulating in impossible stillness, intriguing, nearly hypnotizing. It fairly coiled about itself as if dancing in the middle of the wrought iron grate in the pavement, while the misty steam from a nearby manhole caressed its limbs incense-like, twirling up its trunk, giving the impression that it was the tree itself that undulated.

Perhaps a tree in the city lends itself to images of exotic life. It stands as a hope for those who pass it each day. It shades the hard working pretzel vendor, whose fare gives the visitor a signature aroma as a memory, as he calls out to the passers by in his friendly, neighborly tones during steamy July afternoons. It likewise shelters the homeless who seek its patchy shade as a respite from the heat, and who, in the cooler months of autumn and winter, nestle up to it to be comforted, if not by any actual heat that it emits, then by the more interior warmth of kindred life. The children play beneath it, running between the legs of grownups who pass by on commutes and expeditions and pilgrimages. And the city tree surely lends a bit of cheer to the otherwise rushed and jostling rambles of those grown children, as they work their way through the shuffling crowd on foot, because, at the very least, it forces the wave of people to part and allow a cooling draft to waft equally upon all. And likewise for those faces that peer out from the cars that pass by must the tree act as a blur of hope for those being borne away by taxis, limousines, and police cars alike.

But most of all, Sybil thought as she peeled her forehead from the glass of her lofty office, this city tree was a beacon on which those whose windows were too high for them to partake of the rush of life, yet not high enough to see more substantial scenery in the distance, might relax their souls during a brief repose.

Sybil stepped back from her window. She was glad to be back in her city, in her office, and in her place. She sat in her acrylic chair at her fake-wood desk and looked at her green-metal shelves and her accumulated mass of crisp, unread books. Some of these unread books had made their authors famous by placing their names on the fleeting heights of best-sellers lists. Others had spread their influence into movies, at the expense, to be sure, of more than a little artistry and integrity. But still others, those on the extreme upper and lower shelves, in inaccessible, uneven piles, could only claim to be representatives of myriad unread copies of widely unheard-of books with forgotten titles and forgotten names, the authors having disappeared as if from the face of the Earth.

Sybil looked at the piles of manuscripts on her desk and on her floor. "So much to do," she said out loud. To her left and right on the desk were two piles of plain white paper, one labeled, in harsh red letters, REJECT, the other, POSSIBILITY, also in red but perhaps scrawled with a bit more of affection and hope.

Directly in front of her sat a pile of papers for which she had a more than common amount of affection and hope, and this not only because it had been her effort that had converted Nathaniel's scrawled handwriting, however poetic and charming the writing may have been in that form, into a presentable, word-processed manuscript. Her optimism about Nathaniel's work had, now, a stronger basis from the more full sense of the value of the thoughts that she had derived by typing them, racing to get from page to page, and the possibilities that it presented to all those who might buy and read it. She had absorbed the meaning as if through her fingers while she prepared it for the eyes of the men and women for whom she worked. It would not be relinquished, she was sure, to the forgotten piles of books on the extremities of her shelf — which required the would-be reader either to crawl along the grimy floor or to risk the harm that might come of falling from an unbalanced stool onto linoleum — despite the preference that Nathaniel might feign for such company.

Along with the words of Nathaniel, which she had transcribed with an almost religious adherence to the words that he had written (as well as she could make them out), she had typed a few pages of her own ideas about those written by Nathaniel, and it had been these, her words, accompanied by only a handful of citations from The Value of Breathing, that had eventually been passed around the upper floors of the skyscraper, gaining stamps of heavier rubber than hers. So, in a limited sense, it had been her words that had elicited the two sheets of paper she had been reading and rereading alternately with her admiration of the city tree outside.

One of the papers in her hand was scribbled all over with illegible notes and signatures, but with the unmistakable message of "yes." And that had been the word that she repeated to herself as the cars sped past below, though it was the other, smaller piece of paper that gave her the greater hope: a single rubber-stamped signature, the date, and a large number — a dollar amount — printed between them. All neatly printed in the name of Nathaniel Ariss.

But now she faced the daunting task of writing words that might explain what she had done and why, persuading, to the best of her ability, the receiver that she had been in the right to do as she had done and that he should allow her to keep going. She turned to her computer and thought, and typed, and thought some more.

By the time the sun had set out of sight in the West, the sky merely fading to darker shades from her side of the building, she held before her a work of the finest rhetoric that she had ever written. She read it over. If only he understands, she thought, that the world will never understand what it is not given to see.

She folded the letter in thirds and slipped it and the check into an envelope. She paused before touching the envelope to her tongue. She had on her desk, she truly believed, a writ of temporary manumission for all the world. They were good thoughts, as she had presented them in the letter that she had just written, which now lay in an unsealed envelope on her fake-wood desk.

"If only he understands," she pleaded to the books on her green-metal shelf, "that, even if nobody understands, at least the author will have a reward for his thoughts."

It could only be an undue vanity that would stop him from seeing that her proposal offered more than any worldly man might expect out of life. She glanced at the extremities of her shelf. And some don't even get the opportunity, she thought.

She dropped the sealed envelope in the "Outgoing" bin in the hallway as she made her way from her office, down the elevator, and into the street. She looked up at the sky. The moon was hidden behind a building. She crossed the street, walked around the tree, and descended into the subway tunnels, believing, as she disappeared into the ground, that all that stood between the world and its sure solution was the time that it would take a letter to travel from New York City to Rhode Island and gather one signature more.

"Nate!" her call spread across the sand, sweeping over shells and sea-polished stone, seeking him on the towels that were spread under sunbathers and among the curls of the incoming waves, where the few remaining swimmers bobbed with the tide, then it clambered between the jutting rocks nearby and the thick seaside brush beyond them and found him seated on the steps of an ancient house, or, rather, the ancient stone walls of a house that had mostly dissipated, as if washed away, and Nathaniel knew that Jen had found him. He looked up from his palms and saw her skirting along the edge of the rocks where a path had been worn in the tall grass.

"Whatcha doin'?" Jen asked playfully, though she already knew. He saw the envelope in her hand.

He stood and wiped the mixture of sand and dirt from his pants. He didn't want to have the conversation that he had known was approaching when he had walked out onto the beach. He had hoped that it would freeze in a white line on the horizon, but realizing that it was inexorable, he had trudged here to watch the approach and to prepare, both to make his point and to cede it.

"I needed some quiet," he spoke tentatively. "I've got a big decision to make."

And then it crashed upon him. "Is it really such a difficult choice?" she asked, though she knew the answer.

Nathaniel's lips turned into his mouth between his teeth, a characteristic gesture for him when he knew what had to be done but wasn't ready to admit it yet. "There's more to it than the money."

Placing her hands on his shoulder, Jen lightly urged Nathaniel to sit next to her on the steps. He couldn't meet her eyes. His position was an untenable mass of unrealistic pretensions and childish insecurities when all of its external justification was removed.

"What is it?" she asked, tenderly.

He looked over the ocean. "I don't know," he began. "I guess I've just become comfortable with the idea that this would never happen, and now it would be like replanning the rest of my life.

"No," he corrected himself, "that's not true. It's exactly the opportunity for which I've never stopped hoping. But it would bring such a terrible change to everything that I value in my life as it is."

Again he took up Jen's argument for her: "No. Half the people in my life wouldn't even notice it, and the other half would be thrilled even that I've gotten this far with it and have no expectations, only modest hopes that more might come of it... but even that for my sake only.

"But what if it proves to be just a false hope and dissolves like a dream? Although, we have gotten something tangible already," he continued, slipping the envelope from between Jen's fingers. "Or what if the dream of it has become a basis for my reality without it? Now that's just silly... but what if it changes everything that I've come to love for its own sake? No, that's ridiculous. But is it silly to worry that I'll get swept up in the dream and then be crushed when it fails? Maybe not, but what if it ends up being the only thing that I ever do, that I was ever able to do? What if it doesn't even get past the first volume? Or what if it succeeds, but I don't measure up to it as a human being? No, no, and no, again. I'm only lying to myself. I'm not really so insecure. I can take it for what it is. But I might be weak: what if I can't keep control of it, or myself under its influence? What if it doesn't change anything around me but changes me? Can I take that risk?"

"Hon, it's been your dream. And you don't have to make it into more than it really is. It can be just an extra experience in your life. And I love you, and I will love you no matter what, and I have faith in you. And we really need the money."

Nathaniel began to protest, "Screw the money."

"Well it's not the most important thing, but Nate, we don't make much, and we have to stretch it even further now that you've promised to support someone else."

"Oh I've explained that all to you," he snapped, allowing himself the ease of becoming defensive.

"I know," Jen quenched his mood. "I'm sorry. If it was only the money, I'd end up agreeing with you. I just want you to be happy. You know that. But as it is, I don't see any reason for you to be afraid of taking this as far as it goes. That's the only way that you'll be happy with it. If you don't you'll regret it. And I can't think of anybody who would be anything but excited for you however far you get, including me."

Nathaniel knew she was right. He had known as much before she had spoken a word. They looked at each other, stood, and kissed.

"This is exciting, isn't it?" Nathaniel asked, allowing himself, now that he had spoken and been told what he had wanted to believe all along, to feel the euphoria of success and the hope that follows the overcoming of a seemingly impassable obstacle.

"Yes," Jen agreed and kissed him again, "it is."

So we follow the lovers along the path, with the grass tickling at our ankles, through the stones, feeling the soothing coolness as we press our hands against the taller rocks for support, over the hot sand that burns at our feet even as we sink into it as into a field of down — crossing terrain that is familiar to us all to a degree. Already feeling, though we are but lookers-on, as if we have entered into an unknown world. Feeling the thrill of the coming days, days of excitement. So it is with change: we are wiled into believing that the rules that we have learned, for all our resistance, may no longer apply. We believe, no matter how much we warn ourselves to not believe, that this feeling of propitious change will become the stasis so that we will be in a state of perpetual hope, that, having gained a stair, we will find the next as easy to climb, forgetting the increasing labor as we've made each previous lunge.

But let these two forget that for now. Let them hope for now. And let us do so, too, as we follow them down the sunlit street, walking on the grass of our neighbors' yards so that our feet will not be burned by the scorching pavement, passing over, alternately, spots of iridescent sunlit lawn and cool fresh shade. Let us look into the windows of our neighbors' houses, though we see nothing, and picture, there, tranquilly reclining folks in the evenings of their lives who have no need nor desire to do otherwise than reminisce about lives well spent. And let us wave, as these two who walk before us do, to the families that play beneath curtains of water or sit on porches enjoying the way in which the breeze curls into their sleeves and the way ice cream melts on their tongues and over their fingers.

Now that the lovers have found their own house — no, not a house, but a cottage, suffice to say a home — let us peek through their windows, past the lazily undulating curtains, at a dream that seems too ideal, and perhaps too small of scale, to be contrived. We will be prudent, glancing only briefly at the quaint furnishings and the framed images of bliss and the wild flowers and the smiles, for many of us may have had this dream and found it too delicate to endure the throes of waking reality.

But let these two believe it all — all of it — for as long as it is their good fortune to be able.

November 4, 2005

Lost in the Shuffle

I've meant to mention, for some time, blogger Zman Biur's summary of a Jeff Jacoby talk delivered in Israel. Jacoby offered five reasons that the mainstream media appears hostile to that nation (and, of course, appearance is essence in news media):

  • Ignorance leads to reliance on accepted storylines.
  • Differences in access between Israel and its neighbors translate into an enforced gloss in Arab countries, while Israel lays bare all of the dark news on which reporters focus in any location.
  • Frequent association, both personally and professionally, among journalists encourages pack behavior. Breaking from the usual narrative will require explanation to editors and perhaps over martinis after hours.
  • Of course, with respect to ideology, members of the mainstream media tend to fall on the Left, from whence most anti-Israel sentiment currently derives.
  • The Israeli media is like other Western media in its penchant for criticism of its own nation and sympathy with others.

In breaking down the catchall excuse of "bias" in the media, I wonder if Jacoby has uncovered underlying reasons for leftist bias more broadly. On initial glance, the points he makes certainly seem applicable to other topics than Israel, as well as to other sources than journalists.

Posted by Justin Katz at 5:50 AM | Comments (1)
News Media

November 3, 2005

The Mystery of Parental Dissatisfaction

Kathryn Jean Lopez notes another Ninth Circuit ruling in the Culture War today:

…there is no fundamental right of parents to be the exclusive provider of information regarding sexual matters to their children, either independent of their right to direct the upbringing and education of their children or encompassed by it. We also hold that parents have no due process or privacy right to override the determinations of public schools as to the information to which their children will be exposed while enrolled as students.

The subsequent commentary in the Corner covers the matter pretty well. As Andy McCarthy suggests, the court's ruling isn't all that objectionable on the merits. But as a Corner emailer points out, the judges weren't content to issue a narrow ruling. Citizens shouldn't have to parse judicial decisions to get down to their actual significance. If they do, the actual significance is available for future judges to find precedent where none should have been created.

The emailer's third point precisely conveys the ways in which that process of legislation through litigation creates wholly subjective judicial dictation through ostensibly objective decisions that are supposedly even in their application:

... how would the court's decision have differed if the last question asked of the participating kids was "Do you accept Jesus Christ as your savior?"

Supporters of the libertine leftism to which the courts cater might argue that the Constitution establishes different rules for religion and sex. There is no separation of state and libido (and I'm not speaking merely of socialist totalitarians, here). Consider, though, the following seemingly reasonable assertion from the court:

"Schools cannot be expected to accommodate the personal, moral or religious concerns of every parent," Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote for the panel. "Such an obligation would not only contravene the educational mission of the public schools, but also would be impossible to satisfy."

Such reasoning appropriately places sexual questions within the same category as "personal, moral or religious" questions. What transforms Reinhardt's statement from something that conservatives could embrace to something that leads them to ponder migration to redder country is that instances abound in which the concerns of one or a few parents forced accommodation from the rest. Moreover, it is the least representative branch of government that has presumed to set the guidelines for deciding which parents' concerns are not impossible to satisfy — indeed, are obligatory to satisfy.

Posted by Justin Katz at 8:38 PM | Comments (1)
The Judicial Oligarchy

November 2, 2005

The Good, the Bad, and the Published

Jeff Jacoby assesses coverage of the war in Iraq with characteristic clarity:

No question: If you think that defeating Islamofascism, extending liberty, and transforming the Middle East are important, it's safe to say you saw the ratification of the new constitution as the Iraqi news story of the week. ...

But that isn't a message Big Media cares to emphasize. Hostile to the war and to the administration conducting it, the nation's leading news outlets harp on the negative and pessimistic, consistently underplaying all that is going right in Iraq. Their fixation on the number of troops who have died outweighs their interest in the cause for which those fallen heroes fought -- a cause that advanced with the ratification of the new constitution.

Frankly, boredom at the anti-war crowd's gesticulations has played a (relatively small) role in my lack of blogging of late. But one instance has bothered me more than it should, recently, and Jacoby's piece provides a possibly fruitful context in which to mention it. From Rod Dreher's latest column:

Then there is the Iraq quagmire, which, even if initially a worthy cause, has become a rolling disaster.

A blogger could certainly spend some words wondering why a cause that was initially worthy would make a list of "unconservative things foisted upon America" by the President; at the very least, the foisting, so to speak, would appear to have been in accordance with conservatism in this case. With reference to Jacoby's column, though, my mind goes to other things. In a (coded) word: "quagmire."

Dreher, it seemed to me, began to drift not long after he made the leap from displaced red-stater-in-NY working for National Review to editorial writer and columnist for the mainstream media down in the Great Red Yonder. He's still to be counted among conservatives, without doubt, and fairness requires that I admit to not reading him much anymore.

Still, "rolling disaster" is a strong and unambiguous characterization of the war, and I wonder whether being steeped in media that "harp on the negative and pessimistic" explains the ease with which Dreher bowls it out. Or perhaps there are other considerations. A year-old blog comment of Dreher's comes to mind:

I am deeply concerned over the conduct of the war, and the prospect that family members of mine might die for the illusion that Iraq can be democratic. This is not an abstract threat. I'm looking at the possibility that my brother in law, a National Guard officer who never, ever imagined he'd be ordered to go fight in the Middle East (because who on earth could have invented such a prospect?), might have to leave his wife and three kids ... and never come home. If I still believed that this was a cause worth shedding American blood for, that'd be one thing. But now I'm thinking that our men are dying for an unwinnable war. You cannot force liberal democracy on people who don't want it.

Well, what about people who do want it — as evident in their ratification of a constitution? Perhaps the newspaper editors wouldn't allow space in his column for Dreher to discuss why something that appears to be a success is actually a disaster.

Posted by Justin Katz at 8:00 PM | Comments (3)
News Media