Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Great American Hypocrites, by Glenn Greenwald

I generally don't bother with political blogs but I've been making an exception lately for Glenn Greenwald. He's a good writer, and a more serious thinker than the hundreds of people around the Internet who lavish their intelligence on the daily minutiae of poll movements and stray gaffes. Over the few years his blog has been online, Greenwald has brought several issues to people's attention simply by taking the time to read the documents that the government releases, and this is while professional reporters have regurgitated the administration's press releases or reproduced quotes from opposite camps, assuming that the truth would somehow determine itself.

Greenwald also writes at length. He doesn't have the addictive but finally enervating habit of posting link-plus-half-a-paragraph entries each hour, and he doesn't jump on the story of the day to give you his "take." He isn't part of the echo chamber, at least not usually. Greenwald focuses, instead, on a set of his own central concerns. On a weekly basis, he discusses torture, indefinite detention, and warrantless surveillance (he was and possibly still is a practicing lawyer). Most media outlets covered these stories for roughly a week, almost nothing changed, and then the news cycle marched on to something else.

So if Greenwald is occasionally indignant and repetitive, I'm glad: Americans need to have these things shoved down their throats on a daily basis. All of these prisoners are still there, and some of them have been locked up for almost a decade without any opportunity to prove their innocence in a court of law. And the administration is either unwilling or unable to prove their guilt; considering the scant evidence that it has actually put forward, the latter seems much more likely. Yet people who were once paranoid about the encroachment of the federal government on fundamental rights have barely made a sound. I'm not sure what conservatism means anymore if it doesn't include some respect for the founding documents of this country and what were once the basic tenets of our system of law: habeas corpus, the necessity of warrants, every human being's right to humane treatment.

I wrote several years ago about McCain's finally pointless "stand" on torture. After I wrote that article, McCain had a chance to vote for legislation that explicitly banned waterboarding in February 2008. He chose not to, opting instead to leave in place the hazy set of regulations in the Military Commissions Acts from 2006, which McCain knew gave the president the right to determine the legality of any interrogation practice himself. Mccain had already lost my vote at this point, but he succeeded in also losing my respect.

Greenwald lays out the case against McCain in the last chapter of Great American Hypocrites. Like most of the book, the chapter seems hastily written and temporary in the way of most such political screeds. I wish I could recommend the book more highly because I really do admire his blog.

Greenwald's central points are at least interesting. Basically, he argues that the Republican Party has won most of its recent elections by engineering a narrative of traditional masculinity versus elitist effeminacy; or, if their opponent is a woman, by painting her as an excessively masculine, gender-confused weirdo.

The media has run with this strategy because it is extremely easy to understand -- the real man versus the professorial loser -- and also entertaining for viewers, since it makes the private lives of politicians increasingly "relevant" to the election. Even columnists that are supposedly liberal traffic in the same basic dichotomies because they lend themselves so effortlessly to readable satire (Maureen Dowd is an obvious example). And the narrative also plays to the insecurities of people who are increasingly stuck in stores and offices, and aren't sure how their lives fit into the old archetypal American narratives of personal courage and heroism.

This insecurity, Greenwald argues, is a driving force behind the bellicosity of the Republican Party. The neo-conservatives who pushed for war, to a rather extraordinary degree, are people that avoided service in wars they vociferously supported, while demonizing anyone that urged caution, including many who had actual military experience. Greenwald sees the standard-bearer of this mentality in John Wayne, who managed to get numerous suspect deferments in WWII and then spent the rest of his life cheering on other wars, while denouncing people who disagreed with him as anti-American. Naturally, Wayne is now an icon, especially with conservatives, for playacting the sort of heroic life that people long for. And today's heroism-by-proxy -- sending other people to fight and showing "courage" by keeping them there -- is essentially the same thing as playacting.

Unfortunately, Greenwald lays out these points in maddeningly repetitive fashion. Whole paragraphs of text are repeated verbatim, and certain phrases come up numerous times without alteration. Also, it is hard to analyze a frivolous phenomenon without occasionally seeming frivolous yourself. Gleenwald catalogues the spread of media chatter on a handful of largely forgotten stories, and it is as exhausting to read as it was to watch. The book's exposure of hypocrisy also includes dozens of prominent conservatives who defended traditional values while living lives that were either highly untraditional or genuinely debauched. So a section of the book is basically a long list, often of obscure figures and their salacious scandals, and it ends up feeling as pointless and gossipy, again, as the non-stories on TV. This kind of stuff, at best, belongs in an appendix as a form of highly anecdotal evidence, but Great American Hypocrites has no endmatter and no references, which seems strange for a lawyer.

I'm only bothering to write this review first to recommend the blog, and second because there is a little discussed quote from McCain near the end of Great American Hypocrites that I wanted to put online as my small contribution to election discourse. It's quite extraordinary (the bold is in the original). Greenwald begins by quoting the New York Observer's Jason Horowitz:
In a small, mirror-paneled room guarded by a Secret Service agent and packed with some of the city's wealthiest and most influential political donors, Mr. McCain got right to the point. "One of the things I would do if I were President would be to sit the Shiites and the Sunnis down and say, 'Stop the bullshit,'" said Mr. McCain, according to Shirley Cloyes DioGuardia, an invitee, and two other guests.

That's the thoughtful, insightful view of the highly experienced, profoundly serious maverick for whom foreign policy a mastered discipline. Apparently, all Iraq needed for the last five years was some profanity-laced commands issued by the American President to the frightened sectarian simpletons, and harmony would have reigned.

Stop the bullshit, indeed. I would dismiss this as a stray remark if it didn't seem so typical of the attitude that has governed America for the last eight years. Conservatives complain about the nanny state, but when in power they don't actually work towards a lean, sensible government that sticks to a few basic responsibilities; their actual dream, as evidenced in this quote, is the daddy state, where resources that were once used to help people (deserving or not) are now used to punish those that step out of line. The daddy state doesn't tolerate excuses or bother thinking about root causes; it has no respect for privacy or sense of limited authority. Anything it does is automatically within its rights. And if the children complain, or don't step into line, the daddy state simply tells them to cut it out, and then delivers spankings when, mysteriously, they don't. It's a disastrous, patronizing, and profoundly stupid way to look at the world.

It's hard to get too enthusiastic about most American politicians, but I'll at least be thrilled to get rid of such people for a little while.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Ask the Dust, by John Fante

I was on a plane when I came across Robert Towne's film of Ask the Dust, with Colin Farrell and Salma Hayek. I remembered the movie getting bad reviews and was surprised to find that the portion I managed to see -- roughly the middle half -- was actually good. Or at least it exercised a certain fascination. This fascination was mainly born of the fact that something about the relationship between the two main characters -- Arturo Bandini, a struggling Italian writer in Los Angeles, and Camilla Lopez, a local Mexican waitress -- simply didn't make sense. Since most movies make entirely too much sense, this cloud of irrationality that hung over the two of them was weirdly alluring.

Here's what I mean. Arturo is obviously attracted to Camilla, and she essentially offers herself to him on several occasions, but what could have been glorious or at least reasonably satisfying sexual encounters dissolve into fury and abuse and violence, for no reason that I could make out.

Several months later, I picked up the novel -- it is widely acknowledged as a California classic -- and it quickly became clear that there is an explanation for this strangeness. The novel, unlike the movie, is not mainly about writerly ambition or racial self-loathing: it is about Catholic sexual guilt.

The strange thing is that Bandini is a nonbeliever -- a fairly virulent one, at times -- but he simply can't escape the habits of his upbringing. He is constantly thinking about mortal sins in which he does not actually believe. He is desperate for sex but so estranged from his desire that he can only experience arousal when alone. He goes to a prostitute and then runs away in terror, after throwing all of his money at her just so she'll leave him alone.

Bandini is finally only capable of being with a woman when he is pretending that she is Camilla. And this other woman -- his only sexual partner in the book -- is grotesquely scarred around the loins, so can barely bring himself to look at her.

Eventually, despite being unable to touch Camilla except in rage, Bandini declares that he is in love with her, and as far as I can tell he is sincere. He sends Camilla some conventional, mostly plagiarized woman-on-a-pedestal poetry. She is understandably amused and then annoyed by Bandini’s courtship, which alternates between declarations of love and racist insults.

Camilla, in any case, is already in love with someone else at the restaurant, a bartender named Sammy who has no particular respect for her and is occasionally abusive (he gets more and more hateful towards her as the book goes on). There is a telling passage when Arturo finally gets why Camilla wants to be with Sammy:
I understood it. She did not hate Arturo Bandini, not really. She hated the fact that he did not meet her standard. She wanted to love him, but she couldn't. She wanted him like Sammy: quiet, taciturn, grim, a good shot with a rifle, a good bartender who accepted her as a waitress and nothing else. I got out of the car, grinning, because I knew that would hurt her.
"Accepted her as a waitress" -- that's one of the key lines in this book. Arturo cannot honestly be with any woman, because he refuses to accept people as they wish to be accepted. The prostitute, for example, has no interest in talking, but Bandini (before he flees) insists on conversation to assuage his guilt over his own desire. All Camilla wants is a night or two of companionship, but this prospect is intolerable to him, and he ends up hating her for even making the offer.

This warped view of people is, I think, a problem for the book. Since Arturo narrates, there is not a single character besides him that feels real. And the author doesn’t give us enough in the dialogue to see through the cracks in Arturo’s perspective. The crucial relationship in the book is Sammy and Camilla: why does she keep going back to him? Why is her attachment to him so deep? But Camilla is given no chance to explain herself and Sammy is barely present, so we never understand the crisis that drives the last third of the novel.

What we have left, then, is Bandini and his obsessions. The sexual stuff is frankly not that interesting to me. In this particular way I think the world has gotten saner for most people. Bandini’s other focus –- his desperation to make it as a writer –- is a more durable and entertaining set of neuroses. The alternation between messianic arrogance and deep self-loathing that dominates the first part of the book is pretty hilarious. Bandini distributes copies of his single published story all around the motel where he lives, even putting them on chairs so people will have to pick them up to sit down. No one touches them. “It was disheartening,” he writes. “A big woman in one of the deep chairs had even seated herself upon a copy, not bothering to remove it.” And Fante makes (for me) more interesting use of Bandini’s religious preoccupations in relation to his writing:

My plight drove me to the typewriter. I sat before it, overwhelmed with grief for Arturo Bandini. Sometimes an idea floated harmless through the room. It was like a small white bird. It meant no ill-will. It only wanted to help me, dear little bird. But I would strike at it, hammer it out across the keyboard, and it would die on my hands.

What could be the matter with me? When I was a boy I had prayed to St. Teresa for a new fountain pen. My prayer was answered. Anyway, I did get a new fountain pen. Now I prayed to St. Teresa again. Please, sweet and lovely saint, gimme an idea.
The prose throughout the novel is filled with the same nervy energy, which seems easier to write than it actually is. There are several great passages and a lot to admire, but by the end I felt like something had gone badly wrong with the book. Around the middle of Ask the Dust there’s an earthquake, one character disappears from the narrative, and from this point on everything starts to feel increasingly arbitrary. Events happen faster and more chaotically, and there's an apocalyptic conclusion that has a certain power but finally feels artificial to me.

What is it about Los Angeles that seems to demand such endings? The L.A. novels I've read usually contain a small group of isolated characters, all from somewhere else, all without family. There isn’t a society behind them that represents any kind of continuity, so when the slim connections between these characters break, the entire world of the novel falls apart, and the author needs increasingly heightened and histrionic consequences –- deaths, madness, natural disasters -– to give these broken ties a sense of significance (or he needs to be indifferent to the actual idea of significance). It often makes for a great deal of vitality without anything approaching tragedy. I liked this book but it pretty much disappeared from my consciousness the second I finished it. It's definitely worth the day or two it takes to read, though.