Sunday, April 27, 2008


No matter how broad and changeable the relative morals of styles may be, there is always an absolute norm to be kept after having heard the admonition of conscience warning against approaching danger; style must never be a proximate occasion of sin.

Pope Pius XII, 1957

It looks as though the City of Copenhagen will adopt a new policy for public swimming pools of allowing women to swim bare-breasted, just like the men. Women have been allowed to go topless on public beaches and in public parks for as long as I can remember. Nudity on television and in newspapers is common. This includes full frontal nudity and, yes, penises.

The Danish People's Party, while steadfast in its opposition to hijab (Muslim headscarves in particular), is nonetheless concerned about the new pool rules. What about the children, they ask? They have, of course, chosen to ignore the basic argument for the new policy, namely, that seeing a naked breast does not harm anyone, not even very young children. The activists who demanded the new freedom (they demonstrated in the obvious way) were objecting to the sexualization of the breast. They simply did not see it as "adult content".

I recently read Philip Roth's The Breast, the first and best of the David Kepesh novels. Roth, I think, is absolutely adamant about the sexuality of the female breast. But his sexual fantasies are not wholly convincing. (The character of David Kepesh will have to be dealt with in another post.)

I think this sort of issue is very much a part of the grammar of kulchur. At the extreme ends (public copulation and the burka) it seems pretty clear that there have to be limits, both to individual freedom and collective morality. But what about a moderate bikini and hijab? It seems to me to be an interesting discussion that is too often allowed to bog down in one or another perceived "fundamentalism". There are arguments for "modesty in dress". There are hairstyles that are so absolutely "fetching" that they undermine civil discourse. There must be limits. Etc.

I don't claim to know where all the lines should be drawn. But drawing them is worth taking seriously. I think hijab is perfectly good suggestion, worth considering in its details and comparing, point by point, with a tight pair of faded bluejeans. The blanket refusal to talk about modesty on the grounds that modesty oppresses is, to my mind, not constructive.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Stray Thought

Possible essay project. Revisit Perloff's "Whose Era?" (Pound/Stevens) question politically. Working title: How to Do Things with Money.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Audacity of Unsentimentality

Still, Lyndon Johnson must be given a vote. Because My Hope for America contains one good sentence, one more than Barry Goldwater could claim. This sentence reads: "...the wall between the rich and poor is a wall of glass through which all can see." It inspires a corollary whch is almost as good—the space between hypocrisy and honest manner may not forever insulate the powerful from the poor.

Norman Mailer

Kirby's keeping me abreast of developments on the campaign trail. It seems Barack Obama has said something that could be taken out of context. And taken out of context it was. And off we go.

Let's begin with the spin. "I’m a southern boy myself,” Dave ‘Mudcat’ Saunders tells CNN. “I don’t have a gun because I’m bitter, it’s because I’ve always had one. I don’t pray to God because I’m bitter. I pray to God because it makes my life better.” The implication is pretty straightforward: Obama has said that rural southerners pray to God and own guns because they're bitter. But is that actually what he said? Of course not. He said:

...the truth is, is that, our challenge is to get people persuaded that we can make progress when there’s not evidence of that in their daily lives. You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. So it’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.

I said in my last post that Obama's strength is not to deny facts; in this case he does not even deny interpretations. His damage control on this includes an insistence that he meant the first three words of what I just quoted. According to Obama, this is the truth. And it remains the truth even as the affair hits the news.

Obama's crime here is to be unsentimental about poverty. Poverty sucks. It humiliates people and makes them less human. It is not saying it that is humiliating (especially not within the four walls that Obama was saying it); it is the actual 25 years without real opportunity. It makes people bitter. It brings them low. Makes them mean. Turns them into brutes. For a left-leaning liberal (i.e., a democrat), that's the goddam reason to get rid of poverty! Obama is saying that you're not going to get rid of poverty in America unless you do something about the forces that create poverty.

He was explaining to his supporters what he also talks about in his book (page 249-259). He was trying to get them to understand the complexity of the situation. Consider this similar passage in The Audacity of Hope. He is has just described what the hard work and determination of one man, Mac Alexander, has done for Chicago's West Side.

But travel a few blocks further in any direction and you will also experience a different side of Mac's world: the throngs of young men on corners castings furtive glances up and down the street; the sound of sirens blending with the periodic thump of car stereos turned up full blast; the dark, boarded-up buildings and hastily scrawled gang signs; the rubbish everywhere, swirling in winter winds. Recently, the Chicago Police Department installed permanent cameras and flashing lights atop the lampposts of Madison [Street], bathing each block in a perpetual blue glow. The folks who live along Madison didn't complain; flashing blue lights are a familiar enough sight. They're just one more reminder of what everybody knows—that the community's immune system has broken down almost entirely, weakened by drugs and gunfire and despair; that despite the best efforts of folks like Mac, a virus has taken hold, and a people is wasting away.

Okay, the "rubbish swirling in winter winds" is not a great image, and not a little sentimental, but here's my point: Is there anything offensive about this description of urban poverty? Would an urban version of 'Mudcat' Saunders say, "Hey, I'm from the West Side! I'm not wasting away in despair!"? Would that be anything like a critique of what Obama is saying? Of course not.

Obama is not saying that people who believe in guns or always keep God at their side are forced to do so by poverty, despair, and bitterness. What he is saying is that if one approaches poverty without a good sense of its social, structural causes (perhaps because one has given up all hope that social structures will change after 25 years of joblessness), then one may become bitter, and in that bitterness one's faith in God, one's insistence on holding a gun, one's conviction that another faith or another race is to blame, is a mere sentiment. It will not change things.

"Sentimentality is the emotional promiscuity of those who have no sentiment," said Mailer in his review of LBJ's My Hope for America. I don't want to say that The Audacity of Hope doesn't have a single a sentimental page. A book written by a man who wants to be president must cover so much ground that he is bound to express an emotion every now and then that he does not really feel. But I am generally impressed with his honest manner, with his lack of hypocrisy. And he is not, in particular, sentimental about the poor. He is outraged.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

The Audacity of My Hope for America (part 1)

"Human Greatness" is an unusual energy coupled with straightness, the direct shooting mind, it is incompatible with a man's lying to himself, it does not indulge in petty pretences.

Ezra Pound (GK, p. 106)

Pound had Mussolini. Norman Mailer had JFK. We, I, have Barack Obama.

I first began to like Obama when watching him handle himself in confrontations with Hillary Clinton, whether in real-time debates or in his responses to journalists about her most recent attack. He has a way of accepting the facts (where they are not obviously skewed) and taking a position on the real point of contention. Also, like Pound's Mussolini (which is to say, a larger than life statue of the man), Obama seems to display a "swiftness of mind ... in the speed with which his real emotion is shown on his face" (GK, p. 105).

So I was eagerly looking forward to reading his book, The Audacity of Hope. Now, my eagerness here was obviously tempered with the certainty that I would be largely disappointed. Mailer, let us remember, would be "forced" to admit that, by ordinary standards, Kennedy did not write well (imagine Pound having to comment on Mussolini's poetry!). But there is still better and worse writing, and I think Mailer offers us a good model for an analysis of The Audacity of Hope in his review of Lyndon Johnson's My Hope for America.

Of course, a book written by a high official must not be judged by average standards, or one would be forced to say, for example, that Jack Kennedy was not a very good writer and that Bobby Kennedy, at last reading, wrote a dead stick's prose—his style almost as bad as J. Edgar Hoover's. But even at its worst, the prose style of Jack Kennedy (and his ghost writers) is to the prose of L.B.J. (and his ghost writers) as de Tocqueville is to Ayn Rand. It is even not impossible that My Hope for America is the worst book ever written by any political leader anywhere. (Cannibals and Christians, p. 48)

Now, even Obama's title is better than Johnson's. And its source, the Rev. Wright, is of course much more interesting. It should remind us that part of Mailer's hope for Kennedy was that he could "play fair" with Castro. In his open letter to JFK, Mailer articulated the theme of the "imperfect union", let's say, that is the United States. This was in the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs.

You are in trouble. Your best troops now fear that you are not deep enough to direct the destinies of our lives. And if you are not, the country will deaden a little more, even as it increases in its fevers, and the imagination of the best will will begin to harden into the separate undergrounds of a New left and a new Right, ready to war against the oppressive, flatulent, and totalitarian center of our beleaguered land.

Do not hold to that center, Jack, it is the pusillanimous sludge of liberal and conservative bankruptcies, a pus of old jargons which will whip into no militant history, but may be analyzed eventually by the chemists as the ingredient which smudges the ink on such mothers of the center as the N.Y. Post. (The Presidential Papers, p. 78)

Of course, Obama has not yet been in a position to screw up the invasion of a country whose music he did not understand (Mailer's analysis of the Bay of Pigs). So we can use this warning as an audacious expression of our hope for Obama, namely, that he is deep enough to direct the destinies of our lives. The next president of the United States will, arguably, either be that deep or destroy us (at least the vital parts of us). If Obama succeeds, he will have to defeat the "totalitarian center" of US politics. (Interestingly, McCain offers more hope in this regard than Clinton.)

I generally like Obama's "A More Perfect Union" speech. I think he manages to avoid the worst pitfalls in his "condemnation" of the Rev. Wright's opinion of America, which, like many European, left-leaning, intellectual types, I find much less objectionable than his American critics. I was disappointed, around eight minutes into the speech, to hear Obama say that "the problems of the Middle East ... emanate from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam." That's a pretty simpleminded thing to say. It's the sort of thing a presidential candidate arguably "has to say", so we can forgive it in its way. But Obama's appeal to me has so far been his ability to avoid saying what a candidate has to say. And even this he seems to acknowledge when he talks about "a candidacy as imperfect as mine".

After 9/11, Le Monde famously declared that "We are all Americans". Indeed, in the years that followed we all got our versions of the Patriot Act and of "home grown terror cells". Even before 9/11, I was arguing among my friends that we should give up the European Union and subscribe directly to the US Constitution, that Denmark should become just another state in the union. That would, for example, allow us to vote on who should become the Leader of the Free World. That is the audacity of my hope for America.

If Obama is not elected, my hopes will be diminished. I am going to spend a few posts on this topic.