31 October 2008

Nothing Comes out Right for McCain

In an interview with Larry King, McCain was asked about the place of race in the presidential election. First off, it was a dumb question--to ask a wealthy, white politician if he thinks race will be a factor in an election. Of course, it's Larry King Live, so we're not supposed to expect hard-hitting questions, I guess.

What struck me is the way McCain answered the question. He said:
"Look, there is racism in America. We all know that because we can't stop working against it. But I am totally convinced that 99 and 44 one-hundredths percent of the American people are going to make a decision on who is best to lead this country."
So perhaps that sounds great. Except that's the advertising slogan for Ivory soap.

Perhaps McCain-Palin wants an America that's Ivory pure? That's as white and pure as Ivory soap? A soap that is 99.44% pure soap with no additives that would take away from its white purity.

Normally I would laugh at this point and shake my head at the unfortunate choice of words. However, the other part of that jingle is that people who use the soap want a "clean as real as Ivory." And since that is a refrain from Palin's little 2-minute hates (also known as rallies), I'm starting to wonder if this is a slip of the tongue that holds a little more meaning than anyone in the McCain-Palin camp would want to admit OR this is a terribly unfortunate confluence of events. The other option is something I'd rather not consider.

29 October 2008

Obama the Marxist...Whaaaaaaa?

My wife and I are watching Obama's infomercial just now--not sure why since we've already voted a week ago. In the live portion at the end of the 30-minute, Obama appealed to Americans to vote for him and "to choose our better history."

Now that's some soaring rhetoric, but there's something more interesting going on. Well, at least more interesting for us medieval dorks over at ITM. Earlier, we were talking about the place of the medieval past in the present (and vice versa), and Obama's phrasing struck a cord for me in relation to that subject. I oscillate between two strand of thought:

1) What I want to learn, which I would place in the Foucauldian, archaeology-of-knowledge school which sees a Thing to be discovered—perhaps forgotten, perhaps repressed, but still Something. This is, I think, present in his early work on madness and civilization, and it is certainly there in his last writings on the history of sexuality.

2) And the other strand is what I want to do, which is certainly in line with a Marxist methodology, though not necessarily its ideology. I want, like John Berger said in Ways of Seeing, to view the past not as a thing to be recovered but as a “well of conclusions from which we draw in order to act.” (Berger may have been cribbing from Benjamin, but the latter never said it so well.) And how do we act upon the past? I’d follow Howard Zinn who, in the initial chapter of A People’s History of the United States, wrote “If history is to be creative, to anticipate a possibly future without denying the past, it should, I believe, emphasize new possibilities by disclosing those hidden episodes of the past when, even if in brief flashes, people showed their ability to resist, to join together, occasionally to win. I am supposing, or perhaps only hoping, that our future may be found in the past’s fugitive moments of compassion rather than in its solid centuries of warfare.”

I had a Latin teacher at the University of Texas one time who—after receiving his PhD in classical civilizations—told me that the humanities were one big Ponzi scheme. He wondered (rightly I think) what the point of all this work was if his job was then to teach others to essentially do the same thing he’d just done. It’s a pyramid scheme in that sense, but in some ways I see it more along the lines of non-productive, masturbatory work. Work of this kind is not at all creative and turns back to itself for meaning and legitimacy.

But that is only tru if we ignore Zinn’s desire for history to be creative. Certainly the idea is not new; Thucydides espoused it in his History of the Peloponnesian War way back in the fourth century BC. He said that he hoped his words would “be judged useful by those who want to understand clearly the events which happened in the past and which (human nature being what it is) will, at some time or other and in much the same ways, be repeated in the future”; that has, of course, become crystallized and clichéd into the slogan “those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Perhaps that is a commonplace, but Zinn-like (...get it?) generative history has a chance to not just steer us in the right direction, but to create our destination and course. In some ways what Zinn is proposing is not a passive role in the unfolding of historical events and then making the right “choice” when confronted with it; rather, it is an active interaction with the past that can help us to re-vision our present and change the choices with which we might be faced.

That is what I heard from Obama this evening. An appeal to generative, creative history that he thinks can move the country forward. That, to me, is a great hope for this administration. It probably won't be some Kennedy-esque central figure that controls all with his charisma; it may just be a way to revive our country by revising our history.

Of course, the astute folks in my hometown of Waco, TX--especially David B. Anderson and Mike James--have known this all along!

28 October 2008

Jonah Goldberg had a piece in the LA Times today in which he (surprise!) attacked Obama's progressive/liberal socialist agenda. I (surprise!) have a few responses to him:

1) He wrote that "Obama prefers the word 'progressive' to 'liberal' because it makes it sound like he's shedding old liberal ideas." Maybe, but I imagine the reason is less sinister (notice the Obama-as-misleading meme that's running through Goldberg's statement there). One of the main reasons progressives/liberals run from the term is that people like Goldberg, Limbaugh, O'Reilly, etc. distort the positions it represents. Why do they do it? Well, for one thing, they're getting paid to. But the other reason is that they do so in order to create straw men.
It's tempting to tout something as "socialist" when you know the word has such baggage from the Cold War era. If you can peg Obama, or any Democratic plan as "socialist," you can link them to Soviet-style communism. There simply is no better way to poison the well in America than to associate it with Hitler and Stalin and Castro; the Red Scare may be history, but it's still a strong part of our collective memory, and raising that specter will torpedo ideas before they even get started. At least in this country. What Goldberg doesn't talk about are Social Democrats (of which Stalin and Hitler were heirs) in Western Europe. They seem to be doing quite well, thank you very much, and there aren't any fascist dictators that I have heard of in Denmark or the UK.

2) Later, Goldberg observes: "In 1944, FDR proposed updating the Bill of Rights with a new 'economic bill of rights' that would define freedom not as liberty from government intrusion but as the possession of goodies provided by government. 'Necessitous men are not free men,' FDR proclaimed. It's a statement Obama surely agrees with; his advisor, Cass Sunstein, wrote a book saying FDR's 'second bill of rights' should become the defining principle of American politics." OK...I'll admit that I didn't get what Goldberg was driving at initially. I mean, one doesn't often hear presidential hopefuls compared to FDR as a negative thing. Hell, McCain's doing his level best to compare Obama to the protectionist Hoover instead of FDR. It just seems slightly off. Name another four-term president who whipped all Republican comers (Herbert Hoover, Alf Landon, Wendell Wilkie, and Thomas Dewey). Trick question. You can't because no one has (or ever will) spend four terms in the White House. FDR was that good. I can understand Goldberg and other hard-core conservatives being uncomfortable with the progressive concepts of Wilson, Roosevelt, and Obama since they probably don't fully understand them--or at the very least studied them with a mind already made up. But in some ways, Goldberg and his ilk have only themselves to blame. If they hadn't blindly thrown their support behind Bush, maybe the Republican brand wouldn't have been as radioactive as it is today. If they hadn't bent over for Bush and Cheney because they were Republicans and in power, McCain would probably have won this election and Goldberg wouldn't be losing sleep at night worrying about Obama socializing health care (which he isn't claiming he'd do anyway...read the white papers on the Obama website). So I say to Goldberg and the rest of the conservatives: "take your damn medicine like a grown up." You are all complicit in screwing the pooch (indeed, as Eminem said, we are all complicit to a lesser extent for letting it happen at all)...Since Bush is more responsible for Obama's rise to power than any other single person (except maybe Obama...maybe), maybe Goldberg should be looking at Bush; there's always something that pushes the pendulum too far one way. Bush is that thing. He is the Hoover of our time, and though it remains to be seen if Obama will be our FDR, we'd be lucky if that were so--whether or not Goldberg et al has "no desire to go back to that future."

3) As David Gergen (who could run the intellectual equivalent of laps around Goldberg) said, Ronald Reagan and Teddy Roosevelt both advocated much of the same (re)distribution of wealth that has been attributed to Obama.

A quotation from Teddy Roosevelt's December 7, 1907 speech to Congress (emphasis mine):
The inheritance tax, however, is both a far better method of taxation, and far more important for the purpose of having the fortunes of the country bear in proportion to their increase in size a corresponding increase and burden of taxation. The Government has the absolute right to decide as to the terms upon which a man shall receive a bequest or devise from another, and this point in the devolution of property is especially appropriate for the imposition of a tax. Laws imposing such taxes have repeatedly been placed upon the National statute books and as repeatedly declared constitutional by the courts; and these laws contained the progressive principle, that is, after a certain amount is reached the bequest or gift, in life or death, is increasingly burdened and the rate of taxation is increased in proportion to the remoteness of blood of the man receiving the bequest.
That's enough to make McCain cringe...a progressive estate tax from one of the men that McCain touts as the bulwark of his party. What has the world come to?

I respect Goldberg and Krauthammer and their ilk, but the defenses of McCain and attacks on Obama are getting more and more intellectually tenuous by the day.

22 October 2008


Not sure I agree with everything they stand for, but the poster is as compelling as anything I've ever seen.

Sarah Palin's Clothing Budget and Why We Shouldn't Give a Damn

From Jake Tapper's ABC blog, Political Punch:

I just got off the phone with a well-respected and well-known tax attorney who doesn't want to be identified.

I asked him earlier in the day whether Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin can avoid paying taxes on the $150,000 worth of clothes the RNC bought her, as she and the RNC maintain. (They said the RNC now owns the clothes; she's just borrowing them.)

He said that, after consulting with a number of experts at his prominent firm, he thinks the RNC and Gov. Palin are wrong.

"It's probably not a 'gift,'" he said. "The issue is whether it counts as 'income.'"

Palin's claim that the pricey duds belong to the RNC and she's just "borrowing" them and will return them later, reminds him, he says, of some of the issues going on in the prosecution of Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska. (Some of the issues, he specified, not the allegations of criminality.)

"This is exactly the issue with the Stevens case," he said. "When you loan something to someone can you call it a 'loan' if, upon its return, it has no practical value?

"The consensus view is she would have to count the wardrobe as income at least in the amount of the fair value of the rental of the wardrobe," he said.

He added that the law is clear that uniforms -- "big brown suits with your name on them" -- don't qualify as income, but it would be hard to make the argument that fancy dress suits from Saks Fifth Avenue and Nieman Marcus are a uniform.

"Especially since Palin is employed by the state of Alaska and not the RNC," he said.

I'm not at all sure why I should care. Tapper's blog is usually spot-on as far as interesting, timely, and significant news items, but this one's a swing and a miss. I do not really care that the RNC spent $150,000 to clothe Palin; if anything it's a disturbing comment on the expectations placed on female politicians these days instead of some knock on the RNC. She was pole vaulted into the national spotlight, and even someone who tried to sell a jet on eBay can't meet Karzai or Kissenger in something she bought at Ross Dress for Less!

Here's another question we should be asking if we're worried about Palin's clothing budget. Has anyone found out how much Obama and McCain and Biden have spent on suits and fancy red-or-blue ties?

21 October 2008

A Total Rip-off Post

JJC posted a picture of his desk over at ITM, and I thought--since I've spent the last six hours chained to mine--I put a pic up as well. I am beginning to feel surrounded by work.

Items of note:
  • Ever-growing stack of books that I need to get (back) to for the KZoo conference paper (including Sociophobics, Chambers' Beowulf, and Friedman's Monstrous Races).
  • Chretien's Arthurian Romances for our UO reading group.
  • Computer monitor, proudly showing the ITM comment screen!
  • The stupid green egg timer that was going to bring discipline to my grading regimen.
  • Delicious, delicious Stumptown coffee.
  • Aromatherapy.
  • Student papers on Walker Percy or John Berger than I am pitifully trying to grade.
  • Nature.
  • Ever-growing stack of books that I need to get (back) to for the KZoo conference paper, pt. 2 (including Liuzza's Beowulf, the Norton critical Beowulf (I swear I only have it for the articles!), Klaeber's 3rd edition of Beowulf)
  • Even-faster-growing stack of books to which there many reasons I should return (including Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind, and Fradenberg's Sacrifice Your Love...what a pair!)
  • Also, there is a stapler.

19 October 2008

Connections Between the Middle Ages and 8-bit Video Games

Image taken from the Luttrell Psalter.

Oregon Trail video game known and loved by people between the ages of 28-36.

03 October 2008

The Tiny Shriner Watches Over All and Will Drink You Under the Table

Now that he is affixed to my bag, I can do no wrong. Or is that I won't remember the wrongs I do? Either way, the lil' guy is more popular than anyone else I know.

And I know people who are in indie rock bands.

And people with really good pharmaceutical contacts.

T.T.S. beats them all.

Luckily, he doesn't talk much, so I at least look smarter. I can only wish that I'd talked to Eileen earlier so T.T.S. would have been there to bless my presentation. I could have used the help--though there was only one question that I didn't feel I could answer.

Kathleen Grode (South Dakota) asked: if armor is symbolic of one's status as a thane and one's status among thanes, then why does he do worse in his battles as Beowulf progresses? It's an interesting question. He wears progressively more armor as he advances from fight to fight and he needs more and more help from human technology as he does.

And yet, the outcome of the fight between Beowulf and Grendel is never in doubt (at least to the audience and narrator). But with Ellen (what I call Grendel's mother because Chelsea Henson and I are tired of her having an identity that's tethered to Grendel), Beowulf almost gets his ass kicked. If it hadn't been for his mail shirt, he'd have been killed by her seax. If it hadn't been for the work of giants--the sword that melts--it seems that he would not have been able to kill her. And the dragon...well, that wyrm necessiated--as Britt Mize pointed out--the creation of a new piece of war gear. That doesn't happen in any other Old English work with which I am familiar. It's incredible. But it still doesn't work, and Beowulf of course dies as a result of the poisoned bite of the dragon.

I think what Jim Earl would say here is that the narrative demands these incrementally more difficult battles and that Beowulf dies. And I agree that the poet is--as Felicity Riddy noted that Malory was--hemmed in by history. Beowulf has to stay in the heroic past (as Methuselah, Moses, Adam, Noah, etc. had to) because no one when the poet(s) was writing could swim for seven days.

But I don't know. I agree, but I think it still begs the question. If my thesis is that armor is symbolic of a warrior society and that's why the Grendelkin don't wear it, then it's odd that as armor becomes more involved in these fights, Beowulf does more poorly until he dies. My original answer is all I've been able to come up with since then: that Beowulf, as an aglæca and as a monster-man, does more poorly because he becomes less himself--and more Geatish warrior. Beowulf is as much monstrous as he is Geatish--and that's probably what a hero is all about anyway. Your normal everyday thane (like, say, Hondscio and Aeschere) doesn't do so well against these monstrous antagonists: you gotta fight fire with fire. But as he becomes more and more the Geatish warrior and ruler, when he moves from the--as Mary Ziehe so aptly put it--orde to the interior of the society, he becomes less the hero and more the god cyning.

Of course, that's something that any British Lit. Survey student would know about Beowulf, so what else is there to say? I don't know. I'm still thinking about it because I just found out I got into the MEARCSTAPA panel at K'zoo in May (along with Karma who did a cool philological look at untydras in Beowulf). It won't, of course, be the same paper I gave here at SEMA, but it relies on the same general idea, and I need to get my ducks in a row if'n I want to continue this line of inquiry.

Suggestions will be welcomed with great joy.