May 24, 2005
It belatedly occurs to me that Justice Thomas's dissent in Deck v Missouri (suggesting that the common-law rule against forcing a defendant to attend trial in shackles) should be updated to account for changed circumstances (the existence of defense counsel, different technology, bifurcated trial/sentencing procedures) is exactly what Professor Balkin must have meant by suggesting that "post-enactment history" ought to trump "originalism" in some cases. Rather than ask whether the founders thought due process of law &c. would have forbidden a particular practice, Thomas would have asked how that practice plays out in modern society, and whether changed circumstances after the Constitution's ratification justify looking at it in a new light.
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I find very plausible Tyler Cowen's suggestion that the Jedi are evil (Although I kept wondering, if one believes his analogy of the Jedi Council to the Supreme Court, then does that make Emperor Palpatine Richard Nixon or Franklin Roosevelt? And is Master Yoda Justice Sutherland or Justice Brennan?). So I also find quite plausible Angus's suggestion (which he emailed to me earlier today) that Palpatine may actually have been in charge of the rebellion. Indeed, he more or less implies as much toward the end of ROTJ ("Everything that has happened has done so according to my design . . .")
Then again, I'm the one who maintained-- almost seriously-- that the narrative character of George Lucas is a dark lord of the Sith, so my paranoiac endorsement may not be worth much. (Having seen the entire trilogy I am considering revising my opinion. I believe that the inconsistencies between the Tales of the Bounty Hunters saga and the original trilogy may be reconcilable, as well as many other seeming inconsistencies. The first two movies are still bad, but no longer necessarily narratively false. There is still no excuse whatsoever for suggesting that Greedo fired the first shot in the Cantina showdown in Episode IV).
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I've not been keeping up with writing up my 50 book challenge entries - suffice to say that I've been reading diligently, except for a short gap around exam time. Hopefully, I can catch up over the next week or so, mostly posted on my own web site.
But my thoughts on Ruth Reichl's Garlic and Sapphires are appropriate here, even though Will has written on it previously. I'd only disagree with Will's assessment in that I find this book's lighter emphasis on personal drama when compared with Reichl's previous memoirs a tremendous strength. Give me formalized, Handel-opera like emotion any day.
Amid a real flood of good writing, however, one passage did strike me particularly. Discussing New York's famous Le Cirque, Reichl writes, "I had meanly ordered risotto, a dish few French chefs can master". (37). First of all, of course, the author is right - my suspicion is that French chefs see risotto as a convenient, superficially elegant sop for the awkward vegetarians that fashion has forced them to accomodate. Consequently, the number of wall-paper paste risottos I've eaten in otherwise competent restaurants is a little startling.
But much more interesting is Reichl's real point, about ordering dishes "meanly". I too have been known to take part in this bizarre game, ordering dishes I know the restaurant can't cook. Of course, to some extent this one sided exercise is silly, rather like the pitched academic rivalry we at St. Andrews maintained against Cambridge, and about which the latter knew nothing. And it's also somewhat masochistic - I know for a fact that the Cheesecake Factory isn't going to produce a creditable pasta carbonara, and it's idiotic to order it just to prove to myself that they couldn't. But I do it anyway, because I feel like part of what you're suposed to be doing at a restaurant is finding out if the menu is serious. Unless someone is paying for me to eat the entire menu, like a proper critic, the best I can do is make sure the most unlikely entry isn't a joke. And yet, this technique obviously results in me eating a lot of junk I don't want to eat. So who is really being mean, and to who? At least in Reichl's case, she was at a good restaurant, and the meal was great regardless. That doesn't often happen for me.
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In re Will's earlier post, I share his general lack of shame regarding books. My apartment overflows with them, I often leave the Strand with little money and overfull arms, and I have literally worn through a few favorite books with repeated reading. That being said, I am a inveterate social liar, and this often involves fakery when it comes to books. So for those who've wondered—Is he bullshitting?—here we go.
A la recherche du temps perdu: Got through Swann's Way, skimmed Combray, and yet have talked about the party at the Guermantes until I've been blue in the face. From the death of Bigotte to the ways in which Proust's notion of democratic production of art is the triumph of surficial modernism, this is a series of books I've bullshitted about with both frequency and bombast.
Glory; King, Queen, Knave; & Mary: Right. When I say that I've read all of Nabokov, I haven't. No one has read the early novels, anyway, so these are pretty easy to fake, and completion is something to hold over people's heads when one is engaged in the casual casuistry of Nabokovian dispute. Still, this omission and admission makes me feel slightly icky every time I run my fingers along their spines: I should read the damn things.
A Theory of Justice: Now, I've read most of ToJ, enough to feel a vague distaste for its conclusions. I have felt, though, that if I didn't give Rawls short shrift, his essentialist vision of risk-averse blandly liberal man would prove convincing, since by all accounts, this is the gold standard for political philosophy. So this is straw-man bullshit, less personally challenging than betraying VvN or faking the walk out to Combray, but mildly unethical all the same.
"On Camp": This is just an essay, but since I tore Sontag a new one last night at The Frick (whose Spring Party for Fellows was wonderful, even if Carolina Herrera [or a lookalike wearing her] snitted at my date's attire), I should admit that I've skimmed Sontag, I've yada yada'd as a lowly intern at Sontag, but I've never read Sontag, and I don't really think anyone should bother reading her, now that she's not around to offend.
Should reads, that no-one much cares about, or that I care not to bullshit, but that I still feel bad about not getting through: A Dance to the Music of Time, Anthony Powell; A House for Mr. Biswas, V.S. Naipaul, Henderson the Rain King and The Adventures of Augie March, Saul Bellow, & all the rest of Henry James and Graham Greene.
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As is perhaps apparent, we have a new (pseudonymous) guest-blogger. She can be reached via email at navigatrix (at) crescatsententia.net.
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Like Will, I'm a big fan of the movies. In college at Fancy East Coast U I meandered my way into the audience at one of the ubiquitous panels on How to be Someone Famous Doing Something Amazing, this time book reviewing. (Snark aside, I now subscribe to the NYRB and read everything Daniel Mendelsohn thinks fit to put to print.) (And, of course, I recognize that a HSFDSA panel on book reviewing draws quite the geeky crowd.) Notwithstanding Judith Shulevitz's gorgeous boots, I remember little but one panelist's comment that movies (or perhaps it was "film"), not fiction or poetry, are today's common artistic medium. That is, film--from Star Wars to Fellini (see below)--is our (our?) common imaginary, something to talk about over dinner or at the grocery store with family or neighbors, where once in the mythic past popular poetry or fiction might have taken their place.
This weekend it was Fellini's Nights of Cabiria. Growing up a fan of musicals, I had already seen Sweet Charity, a late-sixties musical based on Cabiria. Cabiria's undiminished innocence/sweetness/grace&courage/vulnerability&resolve/etc. to the side, what amazed me was the widely divergent endings between the two flicks--the two endings entirely change the movie!
[WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD.]
Both the musical and the movie end with Cabiria's (or, Charity's, in the musical version) "grace and courage" (so to speak) preserved. Cabiria's meander through the music-making adolescents after her new husband abandons her (and steals her money) and Charity's similar internal triumph over her cad aren't pop-psychology's "I choose me" in the face of adversity. Both films try seem to want to express something about staying true to a possible purity in a disinterested world.
But oh the difference the cads make!
But Cabiria's cad is just a plain old thief. He takes her in, breaks her heart, and steals her money. But (but!), as Pauline Kael writes, "each apparent irrelevance falls into place" in that last scene. Each seemingly disconnected scene--the shortcut through the woods, her near-drowning from her boyfriend Giorgio's push at the beginning of the movie, and her constant emphasis on her own self-sufficiency (her money, her house, her life)--comes back to reinforce Cabiria's lauded sweetness in the face of life's consistently cruddy lot.
In contrast, Charity's cad rejects her for being a prostitute. He's not avaricious--he's just a prigg. I didn't find Cabiria's unending naivete all that worth lauding, but at least it's honest. At the end of Sweet Charity we can all hate Charity's suitor (whose name escapes me. Oscar, like in Cabiria?) then leave the theater full of our own self-rightiousness. (Good for us!) Her suitor is too particular to be of a piece with a disinterestedly cruel world. We're robbed of whatever opportunity Cabiria gave us to experience that triumphant innocence. There's nothing beyond the standard story about a woman regaining her equilibrium after being dumped by a jerk. Cabiria is, for good or ill, something different--it gives an example of this strange person seemingly untouched by the world. Though phased by her heartbreak, it doesn't touch whatever makes her tick, her preserved childlike self. Sure, Cabiria's an odd and pretty unappealing one, but the movie's a tiny gem. Sweet Charity disappoints by turning that gem into the saccharine hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold.
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Said Kemal Bakovic, editor of Saff, a publication popular among Bosnian Islamicists: "We are all sick of wars here in Bosnia," Bakovic scoffed when I asked him about the Iraq troop deployment. "These guys, if they get killed in Iraq, they'll be killed for a foreign idea, not for their own country. Nobody will take care of their kids."
Said a Bosnian jihadist, asked what he would do if faced with the Bosnian Muslims troops who were fighting on the American side: "The Iraqi fighters won't give preferences, won't look at what flag patch you carry on the shoulder, or ask what's your name. They will shoot at anyone who's on the enemy side. And so will I."
While I'm willing to entertain the possibility that the young Bosnian's decision to join the jihad may be extreme, his decision once there---shoot at those who'll shoot at me---seems quite rational.
Nor does Bakovic's opinion strike me extreme. The interview, Trofimov notes, took place "in a grim neighborhood of Soviet-style housing blocks, still pockmarked by shrapnel." Should it be a suprise that some, perhaps many, people aren't eager to fight in another war, especially one that's not defense of homeland (tie-ins to international terrorism aside), but more theoretical in its need? Parents are concerned about what will happen to their children if orphaned: is the concern heightened because of relatives killed in the recent local war, or is derived from the second most senior cleric's recend denouncement of the American actions as "genocide"? Either way, if it's true that the children of soldiers fallen on the coalition side in Iraq would suffer, a lack of public support should not be suprising.
But Trofimov asks: "We liberated them. Why are they still against us?" Is the question whether why some Bosnian Muslims are joining the anti-American forces? Some Americans joined similar forces on the side of Al Queda: "stuff happens." Is the question why public sentiment against America even though the government has seen fit to send a team of minesweepers? Trofimov speaks of America's good deeds in stepping in on the Bosniak side during the conflict, but I do remember talk that America didn't step in soon enough (common enough words, when spoken afterwards). Good, but it could have been better.
According to this article, Bosnian Muslims are upset that Iraqi Muslims are dying at the far end of American weapons, and that only certain Iraqi Muslims and their band of followers are shooting back, are capable of shooting back. Though I don't agree with a broad anti-American conclusion, I can see that this situation is troubling to some Muslim onlookers. To such observers, it could be hard to push the view that Iraq would be in much better shape if all the Iraqis dropped their weapons that in would be if all the Americans dropped their weapons.
It's extreme, I agree, to call America's actions in Iraq "genocide." Whether this was rhetoric or an assertion the article leaves unstated. Either would be inaccurate. But who is being pacified by the refusal of the chief Islamic religious leader (a man with a UChicago Ph.D) to either "endorse or disavow" that cleric's term? It's playing the two possibilities off of one another, and leaving the junior cleric's pronouncement unrefuted. If, fighting words from imans aside, mainstream Muslim public opinion had previously been anti-American on this issue, it could prove a difficult force to change; once general public opinion has solidified against America's presence in Iraq, for whatever reason it did so, the recent scandals involving the treatment of prisoners and of the Koran are not making the case for sending Bosnian Muslim soldiers to Iraq any more palatable.
The best possible scenario for America? Hardly. Shocking? No. Would be nice to have some more support from Bosnia, but hey, you fight with the army you've got.
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