This Blog is Stolen Property

Friday, August 17, 2007

Go Big or Go Home

So Karl Rove thinks the Congressional Democrats are "obsessed" with him. That he is their "white whale."

It's hard for me to listen to this without laughing. For the most part, the Congressional Democrats can't seem to be bothered to be obsessed with anything except handwringing and in-fighting.

I'd like to see them get a little obsessed with Rove. I'd really like to see them get obsessed with getting us out of this war and giving us back our damned civil liberties.

When I think about real honest-to-goodness Congressional obsession, it's Bill Clinton who springs to mind. If ever a Congress was obsessed with a single figure, it was with Bill Clinton.

And rightly so, perhaps. Travelgate. Whitewater. Filegate. Troopergate. Blowjobs.

Oh, the blowjobs.

There were a lot of things to obsess over. But there's sure as hell a lot to obsess over in the Bush Administration, too. And until the Gonzales business, the Congressional Democrats (even the scant few who voted against the Patriot Act and the war) have done precious little obsessing.

I've been contemplating why. Also, thinking about Homeric poetry.

The story of the Iliad, for anyone who's forgotten, is pretty much this: a coalition of Greeks are fighting a nine year war with the Trojans. With each victorious battle, they seize as much property as they can, which often includes some women. Agamemnon has to give one of his women back (to appease Apollo) and then decides to take one of Achilles' women.

So Achilles refuses to fight. "You're so mean," he tells Agamemnon. "You always just take whatever you want. And you drink too much. And nobody likes you. And it's not fair. I hate you."

It's all very manly.

Anyway, without Achilles the Greeks get their asses handed to them and all the soldiers are pissed off at Agamemnon for being such a shitty leader. "Dude," they say, "that's just cold to take his slave woman. And not even offer him another one. And without Achilles, we're pretty much fucked in this-here war. So make nice already."

And then some more stuff happens. It's a really great poem.

But (at least for the purposes of today's post), it's interesting that it's the dust-up with Achilles on which the warriors focus their resentment.

The poem begins with the slavegirl stealing incident, and not with the affair that got the whole war going in the first place. Which, as we all know, was when the Trojan prince, Paris, came to a dinner party at the king of Sparta's (Menelaus) house and then took of with his host's wife, Helen.

Not very nice manners.

Menelaus and his brother, Agamemnon, get a bunch of men together from all over and go fight a war.

But the warriors don't question why they should risk their lives trying to get a cuckold's cheating woman back from some skanky prince. They don't question the complicated extra-legal conventions of hospitality that are the putative reasons for waging the war. They don't ask if imperialism is the real reason that Menelaus and Agamemnon want to get all invade-y. These guys have been away from home for nine years, camping out, away from their families, and they don't seem to question their leadership AT ALL until it comes to this relatively minor incident with Achilles NINE YEARS into the war.

But really, what would the story be like if the fighters hald meetings about what constitutes good governance, what the limits of authority are, and how Menelaus and Agamemnon had overstepped these limits?

y a w n . . .

That's not dramatic. What makes the quarrel with Achilles so dramatic is how immediate its terms are. How accessible. Sex, honor, property, injured pride. These are all things we can make sense of. MUCH more interesting than reexamining our system of political values and taking stock in our complicity with our own subjugation.

George Orwell once leveled the charge against Charles Dickens that his novels were not radical or even reformist. Orwell argued that in fact they promoted a kind of quietism and that in a Dickens' novel:

[The] whole moral is that capitalists ought to be kind, not that workers ought to be rebellious. Bounder by is a bullying windbag and Gradgrind has been morally blinded, but if they were better men, the system would work well enough that, all through, is the implication. And so far as social criticism goes, one can never extract much more from Dickens than this, unless one deliberately reads meanings into him. His whole ‘message’ is one that at first glance looks like an enormous platitude: If men would behave decently the world would be decent.

Leaving aside whether or not this is strictly true, Orwell's point ignores the fact that Dickens had a story to tell. "Capitalism" in the abstract doesn't usually make for a very interesting villain. But a cruel capitalist does.

For proof, one need only read some of the proletarian fiction from the 1930s; it's heartfelt and intelligent and utterly dreadfully skull-numbing in both its storytelling and its orthodoxy. [exceptions do, of course, abound. Zola, for instance, or Brecht]

The truth is, it is very difficult to demonize very large evil. Satan is never more interesting than when he has a specific and limited (i.e. a human) agenda. Revenge in Genesis (and Paradise Lost), a little friendly game of chance in Job. Evil is boring (and might force us to confront the fact that we're not exempt). An evil character is interesting. Evil has to be scaled down in order to be compelling or comprehensible.

That's what Bill Clinton was to his Congressional opponents. An evil character. His scandals were all immediate. Accessible.

Compare Filegate with the warrentless wiretaps. The Clinton administration came under attack when a member of his staff requested background reports on a number of individuals, many of whom were Clinton's political enemies. This rightly caused inquiry (although Clinton was cleared of wrongdoing) and the staff member, Craig Livingstone, resigned.

This was an alarming abuse of power, a Nixonian move that evinced a paranoic insecurity and a Machivellian will to power. But in its very pettiness there's something in it we can understand. Who hasn't wanted the dirt on someone? It's like peeking into someone's medicine cabinet.

But when President Bush announces that he's wiretapping citizens and residents without warrents and intends to keep doing so, well, it's no longer like peeking into th emedicine cabinet. It's not even like taking off to Troy with your host's wife after the party. This is more like fucking your host's wife on the dinner table while eating the last pork chop. It's so outrageous that it's completely incomprehensible.

Take Travelgate, in which civil servants were allegedly fired so that the Clintons could hand out sweetheart deals to their friends. Or Whitewater. The Clintons were charged with using their position and influence to enrich themselves and their friends.

Which is bad.

But compared to the scope of Enron and Halliburton, it just doesn't rate. The comparative paltriness of the money involved made the Clinton scandals seem more scandalous. Because we could put a face to the people who were injured.

If the Clintons had only had more impressive friends, we might never have paid so much attention. But their friends were, like the Clintons, parvenus who wielded their newfound power clumsily. Both their ill-gotten gains and the displaced costs of these gains were small scale, and therefore visible.

The sheer scale of the damage done by the Halliburton contracts on the other hand makes it difficult to see. I've written before about how effective the neocons lies are--they are effective in direct proportion to their size. Ditto scandals. Go big or go home.

Monday, August 13, 2007

I am an Idiot

Today I'm doing a little proofreading, and I come across this sentence:

It's important to note here that the ethical concept of "hubris" is often metaphorically extended to pants and animals.

I've been laughing for about 15 minutes. Pants and animals! Hubristic pants! Animals wearing pants! Oh, the hubris of animals wearing pants! It just doesn't stop being funny.

Although maybe it's just me. It has been pointed out that I have the sense of humor of a 12 year old (do you think he wants it back?). One time I got stuck teaching Romantic poetry and we were reading Coleridge's "Kubla Khan" and I was feeling a little punchy while discussing this passage:

And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced.

and I asked the students if they thought Coleridge wore a belt or suspenders with his thick fast pants.

They were not amused. They looked at me with very grown-up unamused expressions.

I can't help it. "Pants" is a funny word. It's even funnier as a verb.

Unless you're the direct object.

World's Lamest Post

I'm not kidding.

Does anyone have a tip for getting an ink stain off a hardwood floor without damaging the finish too much?

I keep a bottle of hairspray to get ink stains out of clothes, but it's not doing any good on my floor (except to make it sticky). I've tried Murphy's Oil Soap, which likewise doesn't do anything on the ink. No luck with vinegar, either.

Any Heloises out there? I'm starting to obsess about this ink stain. And I'm not sure I can take on any more obsessions right now.

Where's Burt Lancaster when you need him to make you forget about your floor???