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May 23, 2008

Another civics lesson

Glenn Greenwald says he used to be a constitutional law and civil rights litigator in New York. But he doesn't need that background to make the following obvious point:

. . . a court striking down a law supported by large majorities is not antithetical to our system of government. Such a judicial act is central to our system of government. That's because, strictly speaking, the U.S. is not a "democracy" as much as it a "constitutional republic," precisely because constitutional guarantees trump democratic majorities. This is all just seventh-grade civics. . . .

Point taken, Mr. Greenwald. But to pick a small bone: seventh-grade civics like this died a quiet death sometime in the late 1970s.

May 16, 2008

Pygar, RIP

John Phillip Law, the actor who played the well-tanned angel Pygar in one of the most absurd movies ever made, has died. Read the L.A. Times obituary.

Oh, and if you haven't seen Barbarella, Queen of the Galaxy, you should. Have you ever wanted to see a sci-fi movie about the sexual adventures of a hot chick who travels the galaxy in a spaceship with brown shag carpet that actually covers the walls? I thought so.

May 14, 2008

Barbara Ehrenreich gets the gender thing right

Hey Mom, look at this!

(I call out my mom because I always have my best discussions about gender differences with her. I'm pretty sure my mom will actually agree with this piece by Barbara Ehrenreich. Even if I'm still not sure whether she supported Obama or Clinton for the Democratic nomination.)

Hillary's Gift to Women

. . . . Biology conditions us in all kinds of ways we might not even be aware of yet. But virtue is always a choice.

Hillary Clinton smashed the myth of innate female moral superiority in the worst possible way -- by demonstrating female moral inferiority. We didn't really need her racial innuendos and free-floating bellicosity to establish that women aren't wimps. As a generation of young feminists realizes, the values once thought to be uniquely and genetically female -- such as compassion and an aversion to violence -- can be found in either sex, and sometimes it's a man who best upholds them.

Heroes at home

We hear people throwing around the word "hero" a lot these days, mostly in reference to our soldiers fighting in Iraq. Heroes these soldiers may be, but let's also recognize some other heroes serving our country, even if they aren't lauded by the Hugh Hewitts and Rush Limbaughs of the world. Heroes like the military lawyers and judges who aren't playing along with the system of kangaroo courts set up by the Bush administration to try convict prisoners at Guantanamo:

The Supreme Court, then, is hardly the only thing standing between the president and kangaroo convictions at Guantanamo. The truth is that the best thing the commissions have going for them right now are the lawyers and judges in uniform who have, albeit reluctantly, refused to play along. If they'd been out on the battlefield, they'd have killed any detainee they met as an enemy. But they're not willing to see them killed in the wake of a sham trial. That's not because they value the lives of terrorists over the lives of Americans or because they value legal formalism over the exigencies of war. It's because they come out of a long military tradition of legal integrity and independence. And much as it must pain them, this precludes them from being yes men for the Bush administration at the expense of the rule of law.

May 13, 2008

What makes a perfect book?

I was talking about perfect books with a friend of mine the other day. Most of you can point to a few books that sit at the tippy-top of your all-time favorites. Books that have become almost sacred for you. But what is it about these books that separates them from the merely brilliant?

My friend said something about a perfect book commandeering her brainstem, whereas a brilliant book can only take control of her cerebellum, or her bilateral parietal lobes. Or something like that. So that got me thinking: what is it about perfect books that makes them perfect, for me? (More importantly: what's the best medical analogy to convey the difference for me between the perfect and the merely great?)

I try a few promising ones: while most of my favorite books induce complex partial seizures, the perfect books cause generalized tonic-clonic convulsions with complete loss of consciousness and prolonged postictal stupor. . . . Well, that's not quite true. Jonathan Franzen's Corrections made me twitchy, but only because it sucked. China Mieville's Perdido Street Station put me in a coma for two weeks, but it's merely brilliant -- not quite perfect. This neurological analogy just won't work.

How about this: merely great books make me incontinent of urine and stool, but the perfect ones give me profuse, watery diarrhea. . . . Well, that won't work either. Wendell Berry's Jayber Crow (a perfect book) didn't do anything to my GI tract at all.

I realize that I'm going to have trouble using a medical analogy to describe what separates the handful of perfect books from the longer list of great books I've read. My problem is that each perfect book affects me differently. One makes me cry like a baby and another haunts my dreams. One is like black coffee, and another like kentucky bourbon.

The best I can do at this point is give you a list of the few books I'd call perfect. The fact that this list overlaps with my friend's helps to explain why we get along so well.

The Human Condition, by Hannah Arendt

Watership Down, by Richard Adams

Jayber Crow, by Wendell Berry

The Lord of the Rings, by JRR Tolkien

What perfect books have you read? If you're kind, decent, and civilized, you'll recommend them here and not keep them secret. Don't be an idjit. Tell us.

May 01, 2008

Noble and worthy people... who need their ass kicked

Writing about the college admissions process, Yale law student Amelia Rawls repeats the truism that successful people aren't always nice. Her article is worth reading because she also points out that noble, concerned, and committed people aren't always nice, either:

I'm saying that sometimes some of these students will denounce world hunger but be unfriendly to the homeless. They will debate environmental policy but never offer to take out the trash. They will believe vehemently in many causes but roll their eyes when reminded to be humble, to be generous and to "do what is right."

It is these people, though, who often climb America's ladder of success. They rise to the top, partly on their own merits yet also partly on the backs of equally deserving but "nicer" people who let them steal the spotlight. Before they, or we, know it, they are the politicians and corporate executives subverting the very moral positions they espouse. They are the (frighteningly) many figureheads who purport to be leaders even as they embarrass our country and mar our history books.

Sadly, I know what Rawls is talking about: some superachievers simultaneously deserve praise for their contributions to worthy endeavors, and deserve a fist to the face for the petty, selfish, and mean things they do to the people around them.

Can you think of anyone like this? I'll bet you can.