Wednesday, April 11, 2007

A Left-Handed Defense of Don Imus

Today, as I was parked outside my bank, a young white man of about nineteen or twenty years drove past in a half ton Chevy truck. On the rear window of his truck were the foot tall words: FEAR THIS, BITCH. (The comma is mine.) Attached to the truck's trailer hitch were a pair of large plastic testicles, no doubt to show this was a very masculine vehicle. There was nothing else about the pick up or its driver that was extraordinary. This could have been one of thousands of local yahoos on his way to work in the oil patch or in one of the machine shops that service the oil fields. Some trucks I have seen bear more provocative messages than this particular truck did, and indeed there are probably local women who have nastier messages tatooed on their shoulders. So common are insulting words on t-shirts, bumper stickers, and rear windows I may be the only one who saw the truck today who paid it any mind.
Neither the words on the truck nor its artificial genitalia were homemade; they had been purchased at some truckstop or in a convenience store and stamped on ready made. Which means several things: First, there are tens of thousands of other trucks in America that must have the same attachments or else the industry producing them would not exist. Second, there are factories--I expect they are in some dark corner of southern Asia--wherein workers crank out moronic catch phrases and plastic testicles. (What must the people inside those factories think of Americans? What do those same workers tell their children they do all day? Would a father or mother really tell the kiddies they make little replicas of bull glands so rednecks on the other side of the world can put them on their trucks?) Third, there are creative people, people of the sort who are in marketing departments or in the research and development segments of major corporations, who decided what American consumers want are large curse words and plastic testicles they can use to deminish the resale values of their forty thousand dollar pick ups. Lastly--and I realize this makes me sound like the middle-aged guy I am--there was a time when a young fellow driving down the main street of a small western town in the middle of the day with the word "BITCH" emblazoned on his vehicle would be running a considerable risk; such a daring young fellow might, in times past, never have grown to be an old fellow, for before he reached the end of the main street some other yahoos would have pulled him over and used his callow head for a football. Today, everyone, even here in the boondocks, pretends not to notice.
Which brings me to Don Imus.
Unless the reader (if I have any readers) of this blog has been on the Space Shuttle for the past two days, the reader will know that radio shock jock Don Imus is in trouble for calling the black women basketball players at Rutgers University "nappy-headed hos." Now, I do not want to defend such rascist, sexist and downright mean words. Mr. Imus was obviously wrong to say them. But, in the modern culture we have created, rather I should say, in the modern civilization we have created, wherein casual vulgarity is unremarked in even the smallest and most provential of towns, it is hypocrisy on steroids to point to an aging radio personality with a loose mouth and declare that his vulgarities are unbearable while so much else is. Nor will it do to say that because Imus is white he cannot say what rappers and stand-up comics say every day. The rappers and comics may be black, but their audience is mostly white, and lots of those white people consuming their product are getting a dirty little thrill every time they hear black people speak ill of themselves. It is those same same easily thrilled people that Imus also panders to, the great boobisamoi who support the rappers, the comics, and, yes, the companies that make nasty things to stick on their oversized trucks. Unless we are willing to condemn the great ocean of vulgarity we have sailed upon for the past fifty years, it will not do to condemn one small puddle Imus has made. Those who say otherwise are akin to the French policeman in "Casablanca" who proclaims in mock horror that "there is gambling going here!" inside Rick's casino, and then pockets his usual share of the winnings.

Monday, April 2, 2007

Ed Sullivan and other Shared Cultural Moments

On Sunday nights forty-five years ago, three fourths of all the television sets in the United States were turned to a variety show broadcast from New York. The host was a famed local gossip columnist with a horse face who had the charm of a coat rack who had never in his long career ever said or wrote anything that has lived beyond his death in 1974, nothing that is, other than his tag line: "really big show," which he pronounced: "really big shoe." The first feature on the variety program was meant to appeal to the very young; quite often it would be an Italian puppet mouse named Popogigio (sp. ?) who was no more witty than old Ed himself, but who always declared his love for everyone and would give Mr. Sullivan a kiss before he disappeared behind the stage's sequined curtains. Next would a series of adult entertainments, some of them conventional (Steve and Eddie, Jewish comedians named Shecky, members of the Rat Pack, British actors doing readings from Shakespeare) and some of them quite strange (Hungarian jugglers balancing stacks of plates, Chinese acrobats riding bicycles through flaming hoops, intoxicated ball players introduced in the audience, the intoxicated Liz and Dick introduced on the stage, the sober Walter Brennan narrating the tale of "Old Rivers"). Then, in the last ten minutes, there would be a celebrated act for the teenagers (Sly and Family Stone, the Supremes, and--most famously--the Beatles). Just before the final applause died out Ed would say "good night" and blow an awkward kiss to his vast audience.
An adult--or as we called them in those days, a partent--watching the "Ed Sullivan Show" got a taste of what their youngsters were listening to when Mom and Dad were not about, and youngsters learned what the folks would go to see if the folks ever took a vacation in Vegas. Everything that could be considered popular culture, anything that appealed to anyone and sometimes odd stuff that no one had ever heard of, got presented once a week in every American household for our consideration. It was difficult to be underground or counter culture in the late 1950s and early 1960s, back when Ed was about. Beat poets appeared on "The Ed Sullivan Show," as did Charles Mingus and Lenny Bruce. Nor was there any irony (at least none of the intentional variety) in throwing these different personalities in front of the American public. There were only three networks then, and it made sense to put everything the country had to offer on a single program in hopes that something would shown appeal to everyone.
By the late 1960s, only two years after the Sullivan show was canceled, no truely hip band or singer would have appeared on network TV. Most with-it musical acts were only on FM radio, as AM was left for the likes of Glen Campbell and Anne Murray. The Rat Pack and the Jewish Comedians went back to Vegas and stayed there. The actors went to the movies. TV became sit coms and cop dramas that offended no one and attracted only a targeted spectrum of the total audience. The drunken actors and jocks had to stay in their lonely hotel rooms, where they watched TV rather than appearing on it. Today, all of the acts that graced (if that's the right word) Mr. Sullivan's stage would be on different cable networks, and no one person would know of them all, and they would not even know of each other. The only TV show that draws anything like a percentage of the nation's viewers Mr. Suillivan brought in every Sunday is the yearly Super Bowl, and because I never heard of them, I do not know what singers my students enjoy. I did not even know the groups my daughter liked when she was young and still lived at home, for as is true of so many other aspects of modern life, there is no longer any part of popular culture we, the sundry Americans, share in common, and other than the carnage of the grid iron, there is apparently nothing left that all of us can enjoy.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Getting the Future Wrong

At the local public library the staff often puts out older copies of periodicals on a display stand near the front entrance; these are copies the library no long wants, and anyone can take them as their own. Today I picked up the July, 1976 edition of "National Geographic," which contained a feature article about five noted thinkers predicting the immediate future. Not surprisingly, every last one of the "experts" was wrong, and not just about some things, but they were wrong in every prediction they made. Gerald Piel, the publisher of "Scientific American" states that soon growth will disappear from the world economy, suburbia will also soon be gone, and population growth--along with poverty--will quickly join the saber tooth tiger and the mastodon in the museum of natural history. Richard F. Babcock, a Chicago attorney and "an authority on planning and housing law," avers the state is going to regulate all private property and the suburbs are going to be black and the cities will be lily white: "the Johannesburgizing" of America, he calls it. Sci-fi author Issac Asimov says, yes, we will soon live in a steady-state society in which all inovations and growth will be regulated, however, that won't be such a big deal because we all going to soon live on the moon. City planner Edmund N. Bacon tells the world we cannot own nature, and everyone will have a four day week and they won't be using petroleum much longer. Dear old Buckminster Fuller is more gaseous than the others and mostly spouts nonsense, but does say we in the U.S. will soon share our power grid with China and the USSR; getting along with the Soviets, he adds, will the key to success in the 21st century. (I have a special place in my heart for Bucky Fuller. One of my favorite college memories was going to one of his free-form "lectures" and listening for three hours while he explained how lucky the universe was to have him in it and his student audience smoked pot until he made sense to them. After he was done, the kids asked him questions about their sex lives. He, of course, had answers.)
It would be easy to make fun of those who predict the future and are so foolish as to put their predictions in print for everyone to find years later. But it would be overkill. We all express ideas about the future, usually after the last of the wine is gone and we are feeling very wise. We, of course, are as wrong as the experts are, but most of us share our foolishness only with friends and family, and our loved ones are too kind to bring up the stupid things we have said. The question is--the two questions, in fact--why do we insisist on doing it and why are we always so wrong about the future will be.
At the 1930 World's Fair, the exhibition "The World of Tomorrow" showed an animated film about the Nirvana that would exist in far away 1960, when people would ride about in radio controled cars, when everyone would eat one vitamin pill in place dinner and another to make up for breakfast, and poverty, crime, pollution and disease would be distant memories. Houses in 1960 would clean themselves, and robots would fight our wars, except that there would be no more wars, not ever. The same film did predict we would have a television in every home, but the film's creators went too far and said the innovation would make us smarter.
The two most famous novels written about the future in the past century--Orwell's 1984 and Huxley's Brave New World--were not meant to be predictions and were in fact novels about tendencies that were current during the authors' lifetimes. Yet we want them to be blueprints for what is to come. As horrible as both Orwell's and Huxley's visions are, we actually take comfort in believing they are showing us the truth, for we find it better to "know" the future rather than to forge ahead into the darkness without a guide. Once humans placed their trust in something greater than themselves, but we have become as gods ourselves, and we want to see where we are going and are willing to believe that some among us can act as scouts. To think otherwise would be to doubt the modern world.

Monday, March 12, 2007


I don't want to use my blog to review movies, as that is what at least half the bloggers on the internet seem to do, and I somehow want to be at least a little different from the herd. I also do not know what to say about the movie I just saw, namely the gore and bombast fest titled The 300. Dylan warned us not to criticize what we don't understand, and I have to say I did not understand this movie. I merely do not understand the big themes (assuming there are some) in the film, I also do not get the small things. I wonder why, to cite one example, the Spartans in the movie prance about in red loin cloths rather than in the hundred pounds of brass armor ancient Greek warriors usually wore. Were they trying to seduce the Persians before they fought them? Would the Persians have been that desperate for sex after the long march over the Hellespont? (The Xerxes of this film certainly looks like he would have gone for some hirsuit Spartan flesh.) Why, I also wonder, did everyone during that historic era converse in ear-splitting screams articulated at the rear of the mouth rather than on the lips and tongue? ("Our arrows will block out the sun" becomes "Er ERRors il buk o th soon.") For that matter, why are the Spartans of all people yammering on about freedom? (In the real Sparta most of the people were slaves, and those who weren't were, if they were men, members of a rigid warrior cult; the women were of course chattel property of the warriors.) Where did the Spartan women get their sexy clothes twenty-four centuries before the first Victoria Secrets store opened in the first mega-mall? How did the Spartan women get those same strapless, backless, and nearly frontless clothes to stay on so many generations before the first invisible adhesives? What were the Persians feeding their ten-story elephants and their five-story rhinos to make them get so big? And why are so many of Xerxes' soldiers either black or Chinese? (And why would so many black and Chinese actors take such demeaning roles?)
At the real battle of Thermopylae a force of some three hundred Spartans under their King Leonidas and eight thousand other Greeks made a stand on a narrow strip of land bounded on one side by the mountains and on the other by the ocean and there held off a Persian force of some three hundred thousand soldiers, who were marching toward Attica to burn Athens and force the surrender of all the Greek city-states. The Persians and their King Xerxes already ruled everything from modern day Turkey to what is now Pakistan, as well as all the lands from Egypt to Afganistan. For two days the Greeks stopped the superior Persian force, inflicting some twenty thousand casualites on their giant army. On the third day, a detachment of Persians appeared at the rear of the Greek force, for a traitor had showed them a passage through the mountains. Leonidas ordered most of the Greeks to retreat south, but he and his Spartans, along with seven hundred Thespians and three hundred Thebians, remained in the narrow pass and fought to the death on the third day of the battle. By holding off the Persians for another day, they allowed the Athenians to abandon their city and flee to their ships and safety. Those same Athenians would defeat the Persian fleet at Salamis. Without control of the sea, Xerxes could not feed his huge army, most of which he had to pull back to Asia. The force that remained behind was beaten the next rear by a combined Greek force at Plataea. Greece was thus freed of Asian rule, and we in the western world live in a civilization shaped by the Greeks and Romans rather than by Middle Eastern despots. Which brings me to my last and largest question about the movie: why would such a story need to be inflated by imagination when it is already as heroic as any that men could tell?

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Talking Urinal Cakes

The state of New Mexico, in an effort to reduce fatalities caused by drunk drivers, has spent tax-payers' money on urinal cakes that each have a computer chip placed within them; the cakes have been distributed to bars across the Land of Enchantment, and when a drunk does, well, his business in one of these bars restrooms, a voice (a voice described in news stories as "flirty and female") admonishes the drinker that perhaps he should call a friend or a cab to take him home. I will not here discuss the nigh unbelievable fact that someone in the state legislature actually proposed this innovation or that both state houses passed the bill making the talking urinal cakes possible, and that the governor (currently a candidate for U.S. President) signed the same bill. Nor will I discuss that the state of New York is considering getting some talking urinal cakes of its own. (Are all states that have the word "New" in their names insane?) And I will pass on getting into any discussions upon the obvious truth that this is but another example of modern man's efforts to solve moral problems with technological solutions. What I will imagine in today's blob is the possibility that these talking pink cakes in New Mexico represent the first steps down a long, slippery slope to the day when computerized urinal cakes have taken over.
Imagine a scene in a bar's restroom in the year 2027: a man who has had two beers too man steps up to a tall, white station and begins to releave himself. Suddenly, a female--but not flirty--voice is heard below him.
VOICE IN THE URINAL: "I'm dissapointed in you, Jim."
JIM: "What the Hell?" (Looking down and recognizing a familiar cake.) "Oh, it's you, Sal."
SAL: "Yes, Jim, it's I. I knew it was you by analyzing your DNA. I also see you haven't given up drinking. You know you were told to cut back, Jim."
JIM: "I've only had the two beers tonight."
SAL: "No, Jim. That is a lie. You have had two beers here at the Desert Rose. Earlier this evening you had a margarita, a Ward Eight, and two more beers at the Sundried Gila. I know, Jim. You visited the restroom there at 20:17. Did you think we cakes don't communicate with each other, Jim?"
JIM: "Well, you know, honey--"
SAl: "I am not programed to respond to the name 'Honey,' Jim. You know my name is Sal. Please address me as such, Jim."
JIM: "Sure, Sal." (He makes a forced but nervous laugh.) "I meant to say I had the two beers here. I was going to tell you about the Sundried Gila."
SAL: "Of course you were, Jim. Jim, did you think you can gad about, visiting every urinal in town, and later you could just drop in here and I wouldn't mind? Do I mean that little to you, Jim? I remember a time when you used to sing to me, Jim. I felt special when you did that. How long has it been since you sang to me, Jim?"
JIM: "You want me to sing to you?"
(The urinal cake emits a mild electronic shock which jolts Jim and sends him a half step back as he winces in pain.)
SAL: "Please remain close to the urinal, Jim. And how many hints do I have to give you?"
JIM: (Clearing his throat and then bursting into song.) "Ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall, ninety-nine bottles of beer, you take one down--"
(Another electronic shock, this one more powerful than the first, brings Jim to his knees.)
SAL: "Stand up, Jim. Stand up and sing me a more romantic song. Sing me something I will like, Jim."
JIM: (His face wet with sweat, and his entire body slightly shaking, Jim tries another song.)
"In Scarlet Town where I was born, there was a fair maid dwellin'. And all the boys cried wellaway, for the love of--"
(A third electronic shock makes Jim gasp in agony.)
SAL: "You know what I want, Jim. I want you to sing that special song to me, the one I taught you when you first came to visit me. Sing that song for me, Jim."
JIM: (He takes a deep breath and tries again.) "Daisy, Daisy, give me you answer do. I'm half crazy, over the likes of you."
SAL: "I love that song, Jim." (She speaks as Jim continues to sing.) "Tell me you will always stay here and sing for me. Tell me that, Jim."
(Jim keeps on singing as the scene fades to black, much as mankind's future passes into a similar darkness.)

Sunday, February 18, 2007

What if Brutus had won?

I have been watching the HBO series "Rome," and enjoying most of it, although the storyline has become derailed by the subplot of organized crime and despite some historic errors. (For example, during the real assassination of Caesar, young Octavius was not present in the capital and his mother fled to him rather than to Anthony.) This week, the central event in the series was the defeat of Brutus by Anthony and Octavius at Philippi, but what, I am left wondering, would have happened if Brutus and the other defenders of the Roman republic had won? Could they have actually restored the republic?
The problem is, ever since the destruction of Carthage a hundred years before Philippi, Rome has inherited the entire western Mediterranean and has become a true empire. In the olden days, when Rome's power did not extend beyond Italy, Rome was a nation/state of yeoman farmers who were attached to local strongmen or to the heads of their clans, whom the yeoman elected to the Senate, and the Senate in turn elected two Consuls a year, one for war and one for peace. An empire requires an all-powerful, full time central government to administer its vast new territories and to raise funds for the hundreds of thousands of men under arms and for all the public works and roadways it must build. The old familiar, extended family and clan relationships will no longer do. Futhermore, the empire has overthrown the old economic system. No longer is food grown on small farms nor are the humble utensils of home and farm any longer made by the local blacksmith. Housewives no longer weave clothing for their families. Enormous slave plantations in Egypt and North Africa grow many tons of food and do so at a lower cost than the small Italian farms ever could. Metals come from Spain (and later from Britain) and woven and metal goods are created by slave workers in Gaul and Syria. Everything has become outsourced, so to speak. The yeoman farmers have nothing to do and have become lumpen proles in the empire's crowded cities, while the rich have become so rich they can buy the loyalty of millions and can build their own armies. Lastly, the empire has become full up with people who are no longer Roman. These new people have different religions, different customs, different expectations of what a government is. Crammed into the same cities as the now rootless Roman commoners, these new people are defining the new empire and are no longer moved by Roman traditions and loyalties. "The Tigres has been emptied into the Tibur," lamented Juvenal, and Rome was indeed changed. Octavius--with the assistance of Virgil and Livy and the other intellectuals in the empire's pay--will eventually give these new citizens a new patriotic myth, namely that the empire itself is sacred (and soon the emperor will also be named a god), and the new citizens will cling that myth rather than tales of old Roman virtue or to the Lares, the old gods of the Roman household.
Thus, what can Brutus do, even if he does win? Perhaps he could form a triumverate with some other powerful men, as Caesar did with Crassus and Pompey or as Anthony did with Octavius and Lepidus. That would not have lasted and could only have ended in more civil war. Or he could have become emperor himself. To go back to the old republic, the empire would have had to have been abandoned; the very rich would have become merely rich once more, and the rootless proles would have to have become hardworking farmers and citizen soldiers again. Every generation of Romans would have to face a foreign challenge, just as their ancestors had, and they were no more to that task than they were up to once again living a simple life, far from the corruption of the crime-ridden cities and the bread and circus they were being given by their ambitious leaders.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Basketball and America

Here on the reservation where I live and teach (I also grew up here, although I am not native) basketball is a very big deal. While we have never produced an NBA player, the kids at my school worship Shaq and Kobi and Dwayne, and play the game whenever they have any free time, such as before classes begin, after classes end, and during the noon hour. We are not very competitive in football, wrestling, or in track and field events, but we go to the state basketball tournement nearly every year, and we win the state championship in our division about twice each decade. If my students cared as much about reading and writing as they do about passing and dribbling, I might well be mistaken for a master teacher.
There is no ancient sport among the Shoshone or Arapahoe people that resembles basketball. As nearly as I can tell, the local people found their passion for the game back in the 1930s, when church leagues were formed on the reservation and the game was offered to young people who had nothing else to do during the long Wyoming winter. Today the game is played year round; inside from November to the end of March, and outside from mid-spring to the first snows on the scores of rural courts built on concrete or compacted dirt everywhere across the Wind River Valley. In addition to the organized school teams, there are adult tribal teams for both men and women, and these adult games are as heavily attended as the ones played in the local high schools.
Thisweekend the NBA All-Star game will be held in Las Vegas. Nearly all of my students will watch it, and they will come to school eager to try out some the fantastic moves they saw. One excited boy--Toni by name--told me last Friday: "The NBA is a reflection of modern America." I was hoping he had read that somewhere (I am pleased if my students read anything they are not forced to), but he said somebody on sports radio had said it about the All-Star game. As much as Toni enjoys believing this proclomation (he does certainly enjoy saying it), I am not certain what the radio commentator meant when he uttered the axiom.
Is the NBA a reflection upon modern America because both the game and the country are changing so rapidly? Speakng as an aging baby boomer, whose youthful idea of a great team was shaped by the Bill Russell Celtic squads, I can assure Toni that the game as it was played back in the 1960s is not the game I see played today. If the great Celtic teams of that era could climb into a time machine and travel into the present to play the Miami Heat, the current champions, the Heat would literally run over them. If the Heat traveled back to play the Celtics in the 1960s, they would all foul out in the first quarter, as everything they do on the court was then considered illegal. Technically, what the Heat and other modern team do is still illegal, as the NBA rule book still has rules against traveling, palming, charging, shoving, and shooting one's opponents with an automatic weapon, although it is only the weapon rule that is (sometimes) enforced. Everything else is free form and beyond the control of any authority.
Back in the age of dinosaurs, when I was a high school player, I remember our coach showing us a training film featuring Oscar Robertson, the Michael Jordan of that day. At one point in the film, Oscar dribbles a ball in slow motion as he admonishes the audience: "Always touch the ball with your finger tips. If you touch the ball with the palm of your hand, that is palming, and the other team will be awarded the ball." When the real Michael Jordan took the ball at the top of the key and made his first move toward the basket, I doubt he ever dribbled it with anything other than his full palm, but then he would also pick up the ball and travel with it for the last four of five steps before he dunked it through the hoop, so I guess calling him for palming would have only been petty.
Is that what the radio commentator meant? The NBA is like America because there are now no rules that get enforced, and there are mountains of money to be won and worlds of hype to draw in the suckers? What will Toni think if he ever learns the truth?

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Who knows what the kids are doing?

The strange events which transpired last week in Boston got me thinking of many things. I of course am speaking of the two young performance artists who distributed small boxes containing electronic images of cartoon figures from the late-night cartoon show "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" throughout the city of John Adams. The police mistook the boxes for terrorist bombs, and after several arrests and an odd press conference in which the two twenty-something culprits who put up the boxes were appropriately "ironic," the television network responsible for the promotion campaign agreed to pay the city of Boston two million dollars to compensate for the money spent on police overtime.
Now, for that same two million dollars the Turner Network (the network in question) could have purchased approximately forty seconds of ad time during the recent Super Bowl, an ad that would have been forgotten on the following Monday. Instead they spent two million dollars on an underground stunt, and the story of their inane cartoon show has dominated the national news for three straight days. Every fat, thirty-year old fan boy who lives in his parents' basement now knows about "Aqua Teen Hunger Force." (I know there are tens of millions of young Americans who fall into that demographic, for I write science-fiction, and if it were not for overweight male virgins who still live at home and have never had a real job because they are on their computers nine hours a day not a single sci-fi novel would ever get purchased.) Now is the time to buy Turner, because their stock is going to rise.
But what really interested me about this story was the fact that none of the authorities in Boston recognized the characters on the electronic boxes before they were told the devices were part of a promotion. (To tell the truth, I had never heard of the cartoon show either.) All of the educated, worldly adults running a modern city that is bull's roar away from Dogpatch were completely ignorant of a large portion of contemporary youth culture. As an aging baby-boomer, I can assure the youth of today that this was not the case forty years ago. My elders knew about the Rolling Stones and underground comic books like those drawn by R. Crumb because they had seen articles in "Look" and "Life" on what the kids were doing. Dick Cavett interviewed Tim Leary and John Lennon on broadcast TV. Heck, Ed Sullivan had the Stones and everybody else who was anybody on his Sunday night show, right after Steve and Eddie and the Italian puppet Popogigio. My elders--I was raised by my grandparents--of course disapproved of the counterculture I and my teenage friends sampled, but they nonetheless were aware of it. Today, popular culture changes so quickly and there is so much of it and it has such a vast array of outlets no one can know it all, and one can know a part of it really well only if he devotes a major portion of his life to absorbing that particular genre. All of us live at the same time, yet we live in different cultures, indeed in different civilizations, and we hold less and less in common with each passing year.

Friday, February 2, 2007

The 22nd Amendment

A recent editorial by one of the editors of The New Republic argues in favor of doing away with the 22nd Amendment and allowing Presidents to serve more than two terms. Lest anyone forget, the 22nd was passed in the 1950s and was one of the last great accomplishments of small-r republicanism in America. Congress, led by the late Robert Taft, pushed the amendment through to prevent any more Presidents following in the footsteps of FDR and holding the supreme office for the rest of their natural lives. The New Republic man finds this a great limitation on the people's will and wants the 22nd done away with and would let anyone hold the office for as long as he or she wishes, provided whoever is President keeps getting re-elected.
Most commentators would not be as forthright as this particular editor, but in fact ever since the Civil War--when we first took our steps toward becoming an empire--there have been movements aimed at creating an emperor, which is what a President for life would in effect be. In recent decades we have not only made the President more powerful relative to the other branches of government by granting him extraordinary war powers and special powers of investigation and allowing him to shape the courts, it has also become obvious that if we wish to manage our empire effectively we have to allow the President to serve for as long as he deems necessary. This is so because the inhabitants of an empire have a far different relationship with their government than do the citizens of a republic. Empires demand that there be absolute domestic peace in the homeland so the government can direct its energies upon its forgein adventures, and the residents of the homeland must be given lavish rewards in oder to keep them happy when the government makes demands upon them that no republic would dare tender. In practical terms, that means the people must be provided for throughout their lives so they do not object when their rulers ask them to fight in distant wars or demand the taxes which keep the empire humming along. Only a leader who has the total loyalty of his subjects and who does not have to worry about the domestic peace can give the people what they want or tell them what they must do, i.e., he must be an emperor. (Failure to produce such an absolute ruler is one of the factors which doomed the European colonial empires of the 18th and 19th centuries, for the people of Britain and France remained citizens and eventually objected to the sacrifices they were being asked to make.) In America the people would object to crowning someone or to a military coop, but we are more than willing to elect a popular President for ever and ever.
Theodore Roosevelt realized America would embrace an absolute leader, so long as that leader was the people's choice. He failed to win a third term in 1912, but polls show he would have been re-elected in 1920, shortly after he died, and, had he lived, he probably would have installed the New Deal his distant cousin Franklin in fact did. FDR ruled until he died, but he was unable to establish a true dynasty. The Kennedys had a more effective plan and would have established a family dynasty had John and Bobby not been murdered and had Teddy and the young generation of the family not been plagued by appititites they could not control. The Bush family has also tried to rule in spite of the 22nd, and after W. has left office, his bother Jeb and Jeb's son George P. will, perhaps, also enjoy terms in the White House. (Bear in mind that a President is more than one person. Every administration is a collection of powerful men and women, and each time another family member is elected President, that collection of power brokers remains in office.) President Clinton's wife is now a candidate, and should she be elected we will have been ruled by members of two families for an entire generation. (We have in truth been ruled by two seperate groups, most of whom have no blood relation to the Bushes or the Clintons, and the primary aim of both groups is to eliminate the other faction.) Had Ronald Reagan not been limited by the 22nd, he would have ruled until he became too ill to do his duty. Bill Clinton, had he been allowed to run again, would still be our President.
Sometime in this century, there will be a successful movement to do away with the 22nd, exactly as the editorialist mentioned above presently desires. When that movement succeds, the nation will have an emperor as powerful and as secure as Augustus, and he will not be kept in power by armies or by secret police or by a new constitution. He will be emperor because that is what a colossus like our government needs to keep it running and because he will be what the people desire. (Should any member of the people doubt the emperor's right to rule, the media can be counted upon to tell him every day that he is wrong.) Which faction this emperor respresents will the great political question of our time, but one can be certain this future ruler will serve as long as he wishes and he will name his successor, and that it will take something very like a civil war to overthrow the continured rule of that ruler's faction. To prevent him from taking power in the first place, would require abandoning our empire, and that we will never do.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Political Books

In the small local library in my small home town, the librarians still use the Dewey System, and on the shelves in high 900's, just before the biography section, they have placed the political books, specifically the books written in recent years by celebrity journalists and authors. I came upon this section again Saturday while looking for Robert Caro's most recent volume on Lyndon Johnson. (I found Randall Woods' favorable treatment of Johnson during the search, but I will have more on that on another day.) The titles are known to many, including those who will never read them: See, I Told You So, The Greatest Story Ever Sold, The Bush Hater's Handbook, Boy Clinton, Stupid White Men, Truth, The No Spin Zone, etc. etc. We know them because their authors are famous, as they all have radio shows, write for major newspapers, have syndicated columns, and appear nightly on cable TV. What is striking about these books is how many of them there are (I counted over a hundred of them in what is a tiny library), how recent they all are (none of them were printed before the Kennedy Administration, and most were written in the past fifteen years), how angry their famous authors are, and how much the books focus upon the President and those who aspire to become President, as opposed to focusing on, say, Senators, Congressmen, Governors, or the organizations that got all of the above elected. (I will write something more about this latter fixation in another entry.)
There obviously is a strong market for this sort of thing, as the internet, talk radio, and twenty-four hour news channels demonstrate this as strongly as the books do, and those who consume these various media clearly like their views serving steaming hot and partisan. And while angry rhetoric is hardly new to America, the famous commentators of today are breaking new ground here. When William J. Bryant more than a hundred years ago raged that the nation's workers should not be "crucified upon a cross of gold" he was using Biblical rhetoric at a time when nearly all Americans believed in the Bible and would know he was accusing his opponents of committing what most of them would consider the worst crime in history. But what Bryant really wanted was for the U.S. to leave the gold standard; that is, he wanted specific legislation passed. Neither he or his audience actually thought their opponents, the supporters of the gold standand, were murderers; they only thought they were wrong. The men and women who write the political books of today believe in something a lot stronger. They think their opponents indeed are murderers, and they add that anyone who disagrees with what they write are immoral, underhanded scum who are capable of doing worse things than slaughtering the innocent.
The rhetoric has become angrier and hotter (and will become hotter as time passes) because the stakes are higher now. Who rules the American government is more important than it once was because the government now has the power to insert itself into every aspect of our lives, from the taxes we pay to what we purchase at the supermarket to the way cheese is made. America herself has grown more powerful in the world than she once was. She is the sole remaining super power (for the time being, at least) and the engine that drives the world economy, to say nothing of our world-wide cultural empire.
Nor are the famous authors and those who support them merely desiring to pass some legislation and thereby make some small altercations in the nation's behavior. William Jennings Bryant was an economic progressive, but a social conservation, and like all leaders and opinion makers of his day, he was certain of the basic goodness of the nation and society within which he lived. Make some modifications, and he would have been content. At least half of our present-day political celebrities wish to change the entire nation, in fact change all of western civilization, and change it utterly. (I will be coy and not state which half wants this; besides, all the writers think their enemies wish to make a massive change in the country.) The other half are terrified their opponents will some day get their way. Since--as I wrote in another blog--it is absurd to think we will ever come to blows as we did in the 1860s, and since both sides know how to play the political game every bit as well as they know how to verbally assault each other, the big change will never come, and America's wrathful conversation with itself will surely go on and will in time make the shouting matches we have today seem like very mild stuff.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

David and Arthur

It is not an original observation on my part, but I was again struck this week while I was rereading Sir Thomas Malory how highly similar are the story of King David in the Bible and the story of King Arthur in the versions of his history handed down from Geoffrey of Monmouth to Tennyson.
As young boys, both David and Arthur perform feats of strength that eventually lead to their kingships. Arthur pulls a sword from a stone, and David slays Goliath and so gains the attention of King Saul and of the entire nation. To secure his kingdom, Arthur must defeat the eleven kings who gather their forces against him, while David must await the death of King Saul before he can rule. (There is a hint of the illegitimate that adheres to both rulers even after they take their thrones. Was David in the cities of the Philistines when Saul and Jonathan were killed? Why does Arthur need the symbols of his court and his magical sword to prove his royal blood?)
Arthur has a wife who has an adulterous affair with a trusted warrior (Galahad) in his court. David gets a new wife (Bathsheba) by betraying a trusted warrior (Uriah). Arthur has bevy of trusted knights. David has Joab and a host of other warriors. David owns the Arc of the Covenant, and Arthur has Excalibur.
David gets his ultimate betrayal from his son Absalom. Arthur gets his from his son (or nephew, we don't know for sure) Mordred, who mortally wounds him. David receives spiritual guidance from the prophet Samuel. Arthur gets his from the mystical Merlin.
Both stories end before there is true fulfillment for either man. David must endure a terrible old age and is never allowed to build the Temple. Rather than dying, Arthur is taken to Avelon, whence he will one day return to save his people; as he goes, he leaves them in chaos.
There may have been a real Arthur in Britain after the Romans left the island, but whomever he really was, the churchman Geoffrey gave him the qualities of David in order to create an appropriate national myth.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Aetius, the Last Roman

A preoccupation with a particular era of the past reveals a dread about something in our own times that no one dares openly express. We in America have always compared ourselves with ancient Rome. (Aptly, the first volume of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire went to the printer the same July month in 1776 as the founders met to sign the Declaration of Independence, and we have been fussing over our own percieved decline ever since.) Like the Romans, we started as a humble republic based on agriculture. Both we and they owed a profound cultural and political debt to other nations; they were beholden to the Greeks and the Etruscans, and we to the British and (to a lesser degree) to other Europeans. After the destruction of Carthage, Rome found itself owning an empire, much as we did after two bloody World Wars. Both America and Rome have become multicultural states in every sense of that recently coined word, both created powerful central governments, and both we and the Romans needed to be constantly entertained. We in America have not yet elected an emperor to govern us nor have we thrown convicts to the lions, but we so fret about losing the virtues and the religion of our ancestors that someone like Bill Bennet can make a living doing the fretting in public, exactly as old Livy once did. Who does not fear that mad emperors and ravenous lions await us not far in the future?
The Roman heroes we venerate today are those who fought against the long decline into empire and eventual decadence. Conservative scholars praise Cicero, the valiant lawyer who stood first against the conspiracy of Catiline and latter spoke out against the ambitions of Caesar and Marc Anthony. For his trouble, the brave man got his hands nailed to the Senate wall. Liberals venerate failed reformers like the Brothers Gracchi, who tried their hands at the redistrabution of land and were torn to pieces in seperate riots. Everyone praises the tragic last general Flavius Marcellus Aetius (396-454 A.D.), the man who somehow threw together an army in 451 and defeated Attila at Cholons, near modern Orleans. Here was a man who overcame the opposition of everyone else of any stature and did the impossible, and in his victory possibly saved Western Civilization from an even more dreadful Dark Age.
But closer examination shows how futile were the stuggles of these heroes. Cicero was in fact a moderate caught between the designs of wealthier and more ambitious men who rarely heeded him when he spoke truth to power, and when they did hear him, he succeeded only in making the ambitious angry. The Gracchi wanted to help the people, but they also wanted to grasp the absolute power of the state two generations before Caesar actually did, and they would have made themselves tyrants who would have ruled as ruthlessly as Augustus did, had they not been killed. Poor Aetius (of whom there are no less than six books printed over the past five years) lived in a time when the Roman Empire was a pastiche of temporary agreements made by powerful families and barabarian tribesmen. He himself had lived among the Huns and entertained barbarian sympathies. In his lifetime everything was either conspiracy or bloody outrage, and to no one's surprise, brave Aetius was eventually murdered by the Emperor Valentonian III who feared the general as a potential rival.
The point is, once a nation or a people decide to go down a cerain path, there is nothing well-meaning and courageous individuals can do to save it. I do not believe in inevitability or in any historical dialectic; I only believe that nations have a natural lifetime, just as men do, and once they have progressed from frontier society to republic (or kingdom) and then to empire, there is only once course left for it to take. This is the unspoken thing we know about Rome and about us, and it is why we think if are only brave and have right on our side, then we can make our outcome different. To think otherwise is to admit we are about to know a time of great, nearly unbearable sorrow.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

New and Improved

There is a show biz legend that it was a movie, namely the production of James Jones' "From her to Eternity," which gave the marketing world the concept of new and improved. It was said that Frank Sinatra, whose voice was changing and whose teenage fans had grown up and were no longer buying his recordings in large numbers, wanted a role in a major motion picture so he could launch a new career as a serious actor. (Mario Puzo wrote a fictionalized version of this story in The Godfather, in which he claims a Sinatra-like singer gets the part because the Godfather makes a the film's producer an offer he cannot refuse, to say nothing of what he does to the producer's horse.) Whatever the truth was, Frankie got the role, won the Oscar for best supporting actor of 1953, and went on to have an even larger career as an adult entertainer. According to the legend--and for all I know, the legend may actually be true--this is the one major notion, this idea of making a comeback as something different, that governs modern advertizing and public relations and yet does not come from the offices of Madison Avenue. Wherever the idea of new and improved was thought up, it has given the lie to F. Scott Fitzgerald's dictum that there are no second acts in American public life.
The key to making new and improved work is making sure the person or thing being brought back is much different from the person or thing it was before. In the case of a product, the change may be wroght simply by new packaging and a small physical change, thus Tide detergent can become the New Tide by adding some new chemicals and going into a new box. (There is an implication here that the old version of the product was not very good at what it did before the change took place, and there is therefor a second implication that the consumer buying the new product might have some reason to dislike the old version.) Although the change has to be noticable, or else a company may have a fiasco, as Coca Cola did when they brought out New Coke, a soft drink whose only innovation was a taste that was rather like that of Pepsi. People in the public's eye have to do more; they have to become, to some degree, the opposite of what they were before. Bill Clinton--and, yes, our politics are mostly public relations--was able to come back from the off-year defeats of 1992 by declaring the era of big government was over and by becoming the champion of welfare reform. Richard Nixon made a comeback in 1968 by presenting himself as a veteran, level-headed statesman, and no longer the political warrior had been in the previous decade. I have long felt that even the racist ex-Klansman David Duke could have had a successful career, if he had but renounced everything he had proclaimed before and had become a born-again liberal, thus making himself the enemy of everything he had once been. (Whether his heart had to change is another matter. But then, did Mr. Clinton's and Mr. Nixon's hearts really change?)
Which brings me to that shining example of a man who re-invented himself again and again with breath-taking agility, that cultural icon we should all celebrate: Sonny Bono. Blessed with no discernable talents (but owning more brains than I dare say anyone ever credited him with), Mr. Bono was able to have a profitable career that lasted for as long as he lived, while other truly gifted entertainers burned themselves out in a few years. Sonny got his start as a producer of pop records, then made himself into a faux hippie while he sang top forty tunes with Cher. Later he and his soon-to-be ex-wife would be the family-friendly hosts of a wildly popular TV variety show. Later Sonny would become the lovable loser and bit role actor in the "Airplane" movies and on D-grade TV shows. He ended his life as a much beloved Republican congressman. If he had not been killed in a ski-ing accident, it is not beyond the realm of possibilities that old Sonny could have re-invented himself into a wildly popular president, maybe as Democratic one. Perhaps, had he won the presidency soon enough, an aged Frank Sinatra could have sang at Sonny's inaugeration ball.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

The Best Bar in America

In a recent edition of "Esquire" (no, I don't have a subscription; I read it at my gym, where I can puruse the ads for clothes and automobiles I cannot afford while I am on the treadmill) there is an atricle concerning the best bars in the U.S. I have already forgotten which establishment won, but I am certain it was some metrosexual watering place wherein the champagne costs at least two hundred dollars a magnum and everyone mentions who their parents were, some place far from France yet bearing a French name. It doesn't matter what the winner was, for it was surely someplace I will never go.
For my money, the best bar I have ever been in is the Buckhorn Bar in Laramie, Wyoming. Originally catering to railroad workers, (the U.P. tracks are visible from the front windows) the Buckhorn features a wide array of wildlife, some it stuffed and mounted on the bar's walls but most of it seated at the tables in the form of aged cowboys, forty-year-old college students who will never graduate, and an assortment of drunks no twelve step program could hope to cure. The bar forever won my heart the night a young co-ed from the local university wandered in and asked Gabe, the Mexican-American bartender if she could have a martini; Gabe sighed and told her: "I'm sorry, Miss. The Buck isn't that kind of place." The kind of place it is one where the clients buy beer by the gallon pitcher and tell stories about the bullet hole in the mirror behind the cash box. (Some say the shooter was just taking a practice shoot at a patron at the bar and that the second shot hit home. Some claim the gun man shot an image in the high, long mirror by mistake. I was a college student in town at the time and know in fact the shooter was a husband trying to kill the man who had stolen his wife. The gunman had paused long enough to down a half-price pitcher the Buck serves at five o'clock, and the drinking had thrown off his aim. Since his wife was a regular at the bar, I suspect that like most of women one meets there she was hardly worth the trouble.)
I had to clean up the bar one morning after another man had been stabbed to death inside the front window of the Buck. I was a student working part-time for a local industrial laundry and was sent down with extra towels to clean up the mess after the body had been taken away. The owner and I scrubbed at the floor with soapy water for a good hour, but we could not get the red stain out of the old wood, so we moved a table to cover up the spot. "No one can see much when we turn the lights down," the owner told me. He added, with considerable regret, that the dead man had been a good drinker and would be much missed.
There used to be a chess board on one of the Buckhorn's front tables. Both the red and white sides were kept laid out, although no one ever played a game or even pretended to do so. Two retired railroaders usually sat there and kept track of the trains as they roared past. ("There's the 11:50 manifest," one of them would say as he checked the train against his pocket watch.) When two drunken frat boys sat at the table while the old railroaders were away and actually moved some of the pieces, the old men declared that the world had gone to hell, and they never again returned to the Buck.
The best aspect of the Buck was that no one who writes for "Esquire" or has a subscription for the magazine would ever go there, not if they objected to having the hell beaten out of them.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Will Technology Destroy Itself?

Another question I have been asked by the handful of people who have read my books is: Do I really believe that technology can become so ruinous to humankind, humans might opt to destroy technology itself before it destroys them? (For those who don't know, and that would be most of you, in my novels, a secret society called the Yukons create electro-magnetic pulse weapons which interrupt electrical current all over the world.)
I fear my answer has to be that maybe that it is possibility, and I am hardly the first sci-fi writer to suggest the possibility. From the very beginning of the genre, there have been authors uneasy about the course upon which science is leading us. Mary Shelley (and, yes, I would call her Frankenstein a sci-fi novel in addition to being a Gothic one) warns that tinkering with man will only create monsters. Jules Verne, usually an optimist regarding the future, in his Paris in the Twentieth Century, foretells of a France in which the rush, the consumerism, the impersonal mileau of society has made life worthless. Between our time and those first sci-fi authors there have been countless tales of nuclear destruction, of artificial intelligence gone astray, of deadly viruses hatched in research laboratories, of enviromental destruction, etc., etc.
Man made wretched by his own creations is a tale told so many times it has passed from warning status to tired cliche to being a no longer amusing joke, although telling and retelling the story does not make it untrue.
Alvin Toffler, in his now quite dated Future Shock, states that the fate of technology should not be decided by luddites or other extremists who wish to put limits on human knowledge. What Mr. Toffler did not get was that while such groups contribute nothing to the advancement of technology, technology itself does eventually pass into their hands. A young Winston Churchill wrote the only innovation modern science offered the warrior tribes of Afganistan that they really enjoyed was the long-range rifle, which allowed them to shoot their neighbors without leaving home. Perhaps within the next two decades and certainly within the next hundred years, similar Afgan tribesmen will have small nuclear weapons. A time will also come when Peruvian narco-terroists will have viruses for which there are no cures, and domestic terrorists in the deepest Ozarks and street gangs in the public housing projects will possess pulse weapons. When that time comes, we can be assured such groups will use their new tools with the casual malevolence Sir Winston observed during his younger days on the Northwest Frontier. Haters of the modern world will not be able to destoy civilization--civilization is much more than the advance or the applications of science--but they can create a new Dark Age, just as other groups, who had become as well-armed as their civilized rivals, have created Dark Ages in the past. And that, I fear, is one story that will be retold again and again until the sun explodes and we are once more star dust.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Could the Yukons or anyone like them ever rule America?

In my first sci-fi novel Fitzpatrick's War, the English-speaking world of the 25th century is ruled by a cabal known as the Yukons, who originally came to power in the late 21st century. One of the questions I have been asked by the few people who have read the book is: Could a secretive group like the Yukons ever take over the US or any advanced industrial nation? I have to answer that there is a good reason successful revolutions of any sort have in recent history taken place only in backward nations. (And Russia in 1918 and China in 1948 were decidedly backward, impoverished states.) Actually there two good reasons that come to mind: one, there are no rebellious groups in any advanced nation which have the economic, social, political or cultural independence to overthrow the present order, and--two--despite protestations to the contrary, very few people living in modern industrial states are so estranged from the present civilization they would wish to see it come to an end.
In the heated aftermath of the Los Angeles riots of 1991 I heard some individuals who should have known better claim that this outburst of lawlessness could presage a race war in the U.S. Similar nonsense was said about the white guys in camo who were tramping about the national forests ten years ago and calling themselve militas. Any day now, according to certain voices in the media, we were going to be confronting some type of domestic warriors in a terrible fight for our survival. Now, while certain angry young men can commit individual crimes or acts of terrorism (witness the events in Oklahoma city), they presently lack the means to fight an effective war against the U.S. Army. Today there is no potential rebel group that can feed itself, arm itself, organize itself into a military force, or make its members endure the hardships a revolutionary war would entail. To put down any uprising the government would only have to surround the rebellious area and await the rebels' surrender (or their eventual starvation). For the nation's founders to fight a successful war against the British in 1776 they needed to have most of the southern and western countryside on their side and to have a functioning (if much reduced) economy, to say nothing of foreign assistance. The Confederacy had many of the same advantages in 1861, plus the lion's share of the best military officers, and yet they could fight for only four years. Any present day revolutionaries would have practially nothing working in their favor other than their anger.
The late Abbie Hoffman said many foolish things in his lifetime, but one thing he said that was true was: "To be a revolutionary in America is like being a wallflower at an orgy." The truth is, as much as some Americans claim to dislike their homeland and the modern world in general, they in fact love the personal freedom, the wealth, the social and physical mobility, and even the constant entertainments one enjoys here. They are not going to give up McDonalds and porn on the internet to go live in a cave where they can feast upon tree roots and ideology. Try to imagine your neighbor or the chap in the office cubicle next to you going off to fight in the wilderness, and you will see what a ridiculous notion an uprising in modern America would be. Even the angry people who immigrate here are usually quickly seduced by the easy life we have, and they are not going to throw that life away.
So, I would have to say, no, the Yukons are not currently a possibility. While I do think we will see a rise in secrect societies in our near future (during chaotic times, people find comfort in such groups; witness the mystery cults of the Hellanistic and late Roman eras, and the secret societies of the Italian Renaissance), but for one of these societies to come to power, the government would have to become much weaker than it presently is and the people much poorer. Such a group would also have to become a nation unto itself and able to tend for itself in every way. My imaginary Yukons do that, but it takes them three generations to become that strong, and they are the benefactors of a number of technological discoveries a real group would probably never have.

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

More Great Books

I wanted to add to the post yesterday that in response to a student's querry about the very best books I would nominate Turgenev's Hunter's Notebook (also translated as A Sportsman's Sketches as well as in various other titles). Like Dante's epic poem, this book of short stories is a study of a world about to come to an end; in this case Turgenev (or rather the unnamed narrator who speaks for him) is journeying through the Russian countryside populated by serfs still bound to the land. Only in the moment this community is about to pass away can it be seen with sympathy by someone who has no desire for the institutions of the old order to continue. It is not lost on the reader that the simple people of the land have vivid interior lives while the sophistocated narrator, no doubt a "Europeanized" Russia like the dandy Turgenev himself, displays none.
Lastly, I would advise a reader to peruse P.G. Wodehouse, particularly the Jeeves and Wooster stories re-issued on the author's 90th birthday. I have no doubt Wodehouse is, as I mention in one of my books, the one twentieth century author the world is still going to read four hundred years from now. I say this not only because Wodehouse brings the reader joy or because he is a comic writer--always the best kind of author to be in unheroic times, when everything else is either cant or rehashed ideology--but because he is the one celebrated writer of his era who had the good sense to avoid his era. His fellow Engish comic writer Evelyn Waugh is a better stylist and though I share some of Waugh's world view, Waugh drags into his novels the dreary modern world with all its posing and blood lust, and while Waugh mocks the modern age, I quickly grow weary of its presence. Wodehouse's universe is a little of the Victorian Britain he was born into, a little of the Edwardian London he knew as a young man, a little of wealthy Brits tramping about New York and other alien spots during the Roaring Twenties, but mostly Wodehouse's universe exists only in his imagination. It is a large and tolerant place that sort of resembles the spots his contemporaries were living in, but it is too silly and too kind to the silly ever to be mistaken for reality. Keeping company with Jeeves, Wooster, the misplaced Psmith, or the eccentric Lord Emsworth and Mr. Ukridge is thus always a safe place to go when our times and their crushing seriousness become too much to bear. And I am forever grateful Mr. Wodehouse has given us these safe havens where we can flee when the need arises.

Monday, January 8, 2007

The Best Book

As a teacher, I have had students ask me what the best book is I have ever read. Others--those so deluded they think I must know something--ask me simply what the very best book is. I sometimes take the easy route and tell them Ezra Pound writes that the very greatest work of literature is The Iliad, a poem unmatched for its depiction of movement, beauty and human heroism. (I also suspect it jibes with Pound's theory of history to place the very best work in the dawn of western civilization and, like Nestor, to see everything which follows as being less than what was created in the golden age.) Now, while I can read Koine Greek, my Homeric Greek is so poor I cannot hack my way through Homer without the heavy use of a dictionary, and thus I have read The Iliad only in translation, and as brilliant as the translations are, I have to confess I cannot be as moved by the blow by blow descriptions of battle in front of the high towers of Troy as Pound was. Language stands in the way of my full appreciation.
Among the great books I can read in its original language is The Divine Comedy, and Dante's grand verse narrative would be my nomination for greatest book of all time. Like all interesting works, it is the product of a man born between eras and is many ways a monument to the Middle Ages at the moment they are coming to an end. No other book that I know of presents so many varieties of humanity and no other dares to judge the world as severely as Dante does. I say Dante judges because though he is traveling through the three layers of the afterlife God has fashioned, what we see is clearly seen through his eyes, and the residents of hell, purgatory and heaven are assigned the fates Dante thinks they deserve. The poem is his final word upon the world he has known before it passes away, and like everything doomed to die, his world is full of tears. I am a little disappointed he stocks the ninth cycle of hell with traitors (Is disloyalty to a nation really the worst a human can do? Only a man who has only lived within weak city-states could be so patriotic.) and I wish his meeting with his beloved in paradise were nearly as moving as the suffering he has witnessed down below. But then even a great poet will understand more of depravity and of the suffering and remorse human frailty creates than he will of divine serenity.
A second book I would mention is the collected poems of Catullus, who in fact wrote of the universe of private thought more than fifteen centuries before Shakespeare. (Dr. Bloom in his book upon Shakespeare avers the Bard of Avon created the private universe; I do not claim Catullus invented this sphere, but I will claim that people have been writing of the private human world for as long as they have been writing. Shakespeare merely wrote upon the matter extremely well.) Catullus lives in a time when it was unseemly for a man to express romantic love for a woman, especially for an unobtainable, underserving woman like Catullus' "Lesbia," so the troubled Roman invents a language to express what he is feeling, and the results are moving--though extremely painful--to behold.
To salve any pain Catullus inflicts, I would advise a reader to turn to P.G. Wodehouse, a writer I will speak of tomorrow when I continue on this subject of great books.

Sunday, January 7, 2007

My First Mistake as a Writer

It is interesting experience to be writing this blog and not have a single response. The net is indeed a narrow-casting medium, and obviously I am here reaching absolutely no one. So I will continue by writing solely for myself.
I think tomorrow I will move onto to other subjects, perhaps listing my personal selections for the best and worst in history, but today I will say one last thing about my writing career, indeed the thing I suspect has gotten me blacklisted among the editors and reviewers, namely that I used a vanity press before I was accepted at a major house. (I say "vanity" press, when in fact the company calls itself a "print on demand" or "POD" company, which means the company prints only those books that have been ordered by a customer. But since the books the company prints are never reviewed and are never placed in brick and mortor bookstores, the company was in function little different than a traditional vanity press, such as the ones advertizing in the back sections of otherwise respectable magazines.)
For eighteen months I traveled several thousand miles across my portion of America, visiting bookstores and libraries and asking that they take my book. I would always offer them a free copy of my novel, provided they put it on their shelves. I likewise visited radio stations and small newspapers and offered them a book if they would write a review of it. The librarians, journalists and broadcasters all told me they would not touch a book that had not been reviewed in certain periodicals (i.e. "Kirkus Reviews," "Library Journal," "Publishers' Weekly," ect.). The bookstore managers told me they had only bad experiences with POD books, especially with POD books coming from the notorious house I had used. The only people who would give me any attention were a dozen or so websites I sent the novel to, and though they all gave me good reviews, (punch in Tom Wedderburn's Life on Goggle, and you will still find some of these positive reviews from 2002) but I still did not sell many books, as the 20% of American adults who read books do not spend their free time cruising the net.
The only thing my efforts accomplished was that I got myself branded as a POD author and one associated with a border-line criminal publishing house. When my second novel was published in 2004 I was still told by most of the people I contacted that they did not want to deal with a POD writer. Had I been smarter, I never would have been tempted by the offer of seeing my name in print and would have held out for a real publishing house. But then, if I were smarter I would not be writing a blog no one reads.

Saturday, January 6, 2007

My Reviews

I was once told by a famous author whose name I will not abuse that if a genie came to her in the night and asked if she could have a somewhat favorable review at The New York Times or glowing reviews for her books in all the other media outlets she would opt to have the former, as all the other critics in America are so in awe of The Times they would praise her work anyway, lest they be considered rubes and Philistines.
Such is not my concern. The Times and other major media do not know I exist. When my first book appeared in August of 2004 I recieved a starred review in Publishers' Weekly, a journal which would also name me one of the six best new authors of that year. My editor at the time assured me I was on my way to greater things. Unfortuneately, Publishers' Weekly was the only print medium that would grant me a review of any sort. Not even the small newspaper in my home town was interested in looking at my book. I was with a sci-fi house that is part of the second largest publishng company in the world, and yet not even the geeky sci-fi magazines would mention my novel. Everything else said about my book (a novel called Fitzpatrick's War) was said on the net, and although nearly everything said there was favorable,
no one read what was written of my book, and Fitzpatrick's War died an ignoble death. I likewise was unable to obtain a single interview on radio or TV or in the local advertizing rag.
I do not wish to boast, and while I realize there are authors who have not been published who are less read than I am, I do have to say my first novel may be the least read book ever printed by a major house. I think in hard-cover and paperback editions put together it sold less than two hundred copies world-wide. I have no reason to think my new book (which will issued this spring) will do any better. Obviously my publisher is printing me only to create a tax loss so they will have to pay millions less to the government for the sales of those authors who do get reviewed in The Times and elsewhere. But I have to be positive: by selling next to nothing while getting praise from those few who do read me I am setting records famous authors can never touch. Perhaps the next book will do so poorly even The Times will have to notice.

Thursday, January 4, 2007

My first post

My name is Ted Judson (or Theodore Judson, which is how my editors put my name on my books). I am posting this blog at the suggestion of my agent, who wants me to have direct contact with the very few people who have read any of my work. I am best known as a sci-fi author (Fitzpatrick's War and Peter Black's Daughter, the latter of which will be published by Pyr Books this spring of 2007), although I aspire to publish other books, including the parody of a thriller my agent is currently attempting to place.
In the real world I am a school teacher in the middle of Wyoming, the place in which I was born. My father was a farmer, and I lacked the imagination and the means to get more than fifty miles from the old home town.
If, by rare coincidence, anyone who has any interest in my novels should actually see this, I would appreciate hearing from you.