You are currently browsing the monthly archive for July 2008.

On this day in 1972, Senator George McGovern, the Democratic nominee for the presidency, booted his running mate, Senator Thomas Eagleton, off the ticket.

Just a week earlier, Eagleton had traveled to the Black Hills in South Dakota, where McGovern was on vacation with his family. At a joint news conference, Eagleton had revealed that he had undergone extensive psychiatric treatment in the 1960s, including electroshock therapy. Both McGovern and Eagleton had insisted that, despite the disclosure, they would soldier on together to victory. But as the week had worn on, McGovern had begun facing enormous pressure from within the party to sever ties with Eagleton. And on this day in 1972, he explained to the press that:

In the joint decision we have reached tonight, health was not a factor. But the public debate over Senator Eagleton’s past medical history continues to divert attention from the great national issues that need to be discussed…

Continued debate between those who oppose his candidacy and those who favor it will serve to further divide the party and nation. Therefore, we have jointly agreed that the best course is for Senator Eagleton to step aside.

Evan Bayh would be a really lousy choice for a running mate. And to be honest, I’m not all that high on Tim Kaine, either. Health was not a factor in my decision.


The New York Times hands conservatives a dreydl:

“Look!” one shouts, “Obama’s socialism is evident in every question!”

“Actually,” another says, “it seems to me that the bottom line is not the questions he asked, but how he evaluated the answers. He asks for strengths and weaknesses of different possible positions in regard to gay marriage. That’s actually (both pedagogically and philosophically) a pretty fair way of testing. It not only gets at the student’s views, but also his ability to argue the question. But–”

“But what?”

“–but am I paranoid, or just appropriately suspicious, of the care he took to avoid taking positions, not publishing, questioning but not answering?”

“Exactly!” they enthuse.  “Come play now let’s begin!”

The dreydl bounces on the formica and settles into a smooth spin.


Gimmel it is.


The entire pot is theirs. They can on-the-one-hand this:

There’s little for someone hoping to exploit an image of Obama as any kind of radical academic: His responses are two-sided, finely balanced, sober. He seems the typical disinterested law prof to me, perhaps worthy of congratulations for keeping his aloofness intact, despite an incendiary subject matter.

On the same hand as this:

[C]onsulting his own answer sheet, Lecturer Obama seems a lot like Candidate Obama, saying he has no right answer and not volunteering his own opinion.

Had the dreydl not been loaded — had they spun a nun — they still would’ve won the pot. If Obama had presented himself as a “radical academic” or evidenced an itch to indoctrinate, it would’ve been proof of Secret Socialism. All evidence aside, it would’ve confirmed his status as the most liberal Senator Congressperson in the history of America.

So because Obama took his position as a teacher seriously and graded with respect to the quality of instead of the ideology behind an argument; because he kept his personal politics out of the classroom, as these very same conservatives so adamantly desire; because Obama’s behavior accorded with their ethical standards, he shouldn’t be trusted.  That there’s no conceivable scenario in which Travis Kavulla and his ilk would deem Obama trustworthy doesn’t mean his argument is intellectually dishonest.

Wait a minute now — it does.  Tendentious arguments are intellectually dishonest.


Ante up already!  Who knows?  Maybe this time they’ll spin shin!

Is anyone else irked that Rick Redfern looks exactly the same as he did years ago while Joanie Caucus has aged quite a bit?

I was going to write this up as a sort of parody of Eric’s Police review but on re-inspection his post doesn’t really give me anything sufficiently ridiculous to work with. Anyway. I went to see George Michael give the 100th concert of his 25 Live tour. Fantastic show.

The concert really emphasized that “blue-eyed soul”* works a lot better when delivered by a good voice. Michaels sounds great: his voice has a little extra rasp added to its youthful smoothness, but his intonation is good and he delivers a lot of tone over most of the register. “The first time ever I saw your face” got a really gorgeous reading in style that was sort of a tasteful version of the American Idol melisma-fest. By the time he sang the hell out of “Roxanne” I think he was just showing off. We also got to hear some of the big hits: “Father Figure,” “Faith,” and “Careless Whisper” as the first encore.

This gives you an idea of the stage set-up: a huge LED screen that curved from the back to the floor of the stage, then disappeared off the front. This was put to good effect with a combination of artsy screen-saver sorts of visuals mixed with images from Michaels’ career from Wham! to the present. Big screens on the sides of the stage were sometimes synced, at other times just gave a blown-up view of the stage.

The band was on three-tiered risers on either side of the main screen. I counted about fourteen people total: several guitars, bass, a kit drummer, an extra percussionist, keyboards, and some background singers. As you’d expect: tight. They did a nice job with the usual band sounds but also managed to recreate club grooves nicely. The whole production pays a lot of attention to craft– it felt a little like a traveling Vegas show– which by my lights is a good thing.

*Let’s have a loooooong discussion of whether that’s racist.

Special “SOOO Unfit for the presidency edition.” Say, did you know that Barack Obama has a lotta charisma? People like to go hear him speak. Even white women. Some of them applaud—scream—swoon! Even white women. In fact, here‘s some pictures of him, with well-known white women. See? Get it? A black guy with random white women, for no very good reason. Black guy? White women? Oh, for heaven’s sake, do we have to spell it out for you?

Recently, Peggy Noonan wondered if Barack Obama — his professed love for America aside — had ever grown “misty-eyed” thinking about great men like Henry Ford, the renowned auto maker, conspiracy theorist and proud ignoramus who insisted that he did not read books because they addled his mind. Asked once about the American Revolution, Ford remarked that while he was aware of “one in 1812,” he tended not to “pay much attention to such things.”

In addition to being staggeringly unknowledgable about his nation’s history, Henry Ford was also a religious bigot who strivings against International Jewry eventually secured the admiration of the Adolf Hitler. Shortly after the close of the first World War — a war Ford claimed was the ejecta of subterranean Jewish saboteurs — Ford had financed the distribution of The Protocols of the elders of Zion in the United States. Based on Ford’s endorsement of these gross forgeries, newspapers like the Chicago Tribune and the Christian Science Monitor chimed in with similarly shrill warnings about the Jewish menace. Ford’s periodic editorials in The Dearborn Independent, which blamed Jews for an array of global ills — everything from the Bolshevik revolution to immoral popular films to the alleged decline of American baseball — were later compiled into a book titled The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem (1920).

Read the rest of this entry »

I’m in the early stages of work on a paper that’s partly about moral and epistemological issues involved in changes in medical practice. In particular my co-author and I are interested in the relationship between the “therapeutic obligation”– physicians’ obligation to provide patients with the most effective treatment, ceteris paribus— and levels of uncertainty about what the most effective treatment is, in particular in cases of new or experimental treatments. (One frequently-discussed version of this problem comes up in the ethics of randomized trials. How could patients be permitted to enroll or continue in RCTs given that, over time, justification for preferring one arm of the trial over another would grow stronger without being sufficient to justify stopping the trial?)

Anyway, reading up on this stuff took me on a little detour through the history of breast cancer treatment. I was going to write up a big long tedious post on this, then I remembered I’m not a historian. ZING!

Mildly interesting, some graphic drawings. Most of this is from Cotlar, et al., “History of surgery for breast cancer: radical to the sublime,” Current Surgery 60 (3), 2003.

Read the rest of this entry »

Deans are people too. As proof, one sent me this, via Mankiw: a cartoon primer on the subprime crisis, shorter and cruder than the This American Life version, but also funnier.

On this day in 1968, Pope Paul IV, in the encyclical Humanae Vitae reaffirmed the Roman Catholic ban on artificial contraception. Don’t worry, people, this isn’t going to be a post about Catholicism, or birth control, or even religion. I’m not above link-baiting. But not even I’m that desperate. And in this case, I know absolutely nothing of substance about any of the above issues.

Indeed, this is a post about ignorance. So here goes. Of all of the massive gaps in my knowledge base, my comical lack of familiarity with religion yawns the widest. How wide? Well, okay, since you asked…when I was in college, I went to visit a good friend whose significant other at the time has since gone on to become a world-renowned journalist and adviser to aspiring presidents. One evening, we played what I called the Name Game — which they called Ataturk.

The game, whatever it’s called, goes like this: participants form teams (Usually two players to a team, in my experience.); each player writes a set number (10, 15, 20, whatever, that’s not really the point of the story, okay?) of names on pieces of paper (You should recycle — think globally, act locally.); the players fold their papers in half or quarters or whatever (Seriously, stop with the nit-picking about details.); the players toss their folded papers into a hat (A bowl works, too, I guess.); and then one member of the team pulls names from the hat and gives clues to his or her partner, who tries to guess the name, for a set amount of time (I’ve always had the turns last a minute. But ymmv.); each time the guesser guesses a name, within the allotted amount of time, the giver of clues pulls another name from the hat (Or bowl. Jerk.); the team gets as many points as the guesser guesses names.

So, if I was playing with you, and I picked the name “Eric Rauchway” out of the hat, I’d give these clues: “He’s a renowned US historian. He works at UC Davis. He’s written brilliantly about the Progressive Era, the McKinley assassination (I should have done that one first, I know.), globalization, and, most recently, the New Deal. He has a crappy blog. But it’s not his fault. His original co-blogger is a hack. He’s devastatingly handsome. He’s generous of spirit and kind to animals. And he may some day sit on the committee that determines if I become a full professor.” And if you didn’t shout “Eric Rauchway” some time before then, well, then, in addition to being a picker of nits and a jerk, you’re the ignorant one.

Anyway, on the night in question, I was neither the best nor the worst player. And given that I was playing with a soon-to-be-famous journalist, a soon-to-be-famous doctor, and some other dude (I honestly can’t remember who else was there. But I’m totally confident that he’s now at the top of his field, whatever that might be.), and also given that I’m kind of dumb, I wasn’t that bummed about my performance. Until, that is, I pulled the name “Pontius Pilate” and had no idea who that was. For which hole in my omniscience, the soon-to-be famous journalist/confidante to a future president mocked me mercilessly. I mean, she just couldn’t stop herself from being slack-jawed with awe that a rube like me could walk upright — even though she hadn’t known who Joe Charboneau, or some such person, was. Looking back, she was probably right. It was pretty stunning that a nineteen-year-old pseudo intellectual didn’t know that Pontius Pilate was the founder of the nation’s most important pen company. Rim shot! And again! I’ll be here all week.

Seriously, though, about what topic are you most ignorant? And has your ignorance caused you some serious embarrassment in the past? Spill. It’s okay, I promise not to make fun of you or tell anyone that you’re even dumber than me.

(Note: This post is utterly unrelated to the one below it.)

Somewhere in Silas Weir Mitchell’s voluminous correspondence on the brain damage of Civil War veterans—my notes are in California, I’m now in Texas—is an account of a Confederate soldier whose bullet-struck head recoiled into a dry-stone wall and performed a fortuitous auto-trepanation.  The insult to his brain had been mitigated by the hole in head, but Mitchell feared the soldier would never regain normal cognitive function.  As time tripped over nothing, cursed in tongues, begged passersby for aid and, roundly rebuffed, stumbled on, the soldier slowly found himself again.  Eventually he could move, see, speak, form new memories and remember the old ones.  He was as he’d been before the war, but for the brutal fact he saw in still life:

The dog is across the room curled before the fire.


The dog is on its hind legs staring out the window.


The dog is in the middle of the room facing him.


The dog is sinking its wet nose into the crook of his arm.


The dog is across the room curled before the fire.

The soldier suffered what we now call akinetopsia or motion blindess.*  The effect represented by crude blinks above is better, if more crudely, represented about 5 minutes and 14 seconds into this clip, which captures the fear and paranoia Mitchell assumed would accompany akinetopsia.  Items like fans would be particularly disturbing because they produced a constant impression upon the skin by a process undetectable to the patient, for whom the blades would jump—jump—jump instead of spinning.  But Mitchell was less concerned with akinetopsia itself than one of its side-effects: the ghostly motion trails produced by items in motion.

Read the rest of this entry »

One historian proposes a regulatory authority for the discipline:

Its task would be to protect what he designates “proper historians” from incursions by “amateurs” into writing history books, and to restrain literary editors from commissioning “C-list celebs” and the writers of “chick lit” to review such historians’ work.

Of course, the proposing historian is Andrew Roberts, and who’s to say he wouldn’t be the first one fined by such an office….

More seriously, Roberts’s plaint touches, needle-like, upon the historical profession’s characteristic anxiety—can just anyone do what we do? There are more amateur historians taken more seriously than there are, say, amateur physicists. What is the professional historian’s appropriate attitude toward such amiable practitioners?

Me, I say let a thousand flowers bloom. A journalist writes a derivative and not especially insightful book about a topic I know something about: there’s an opportunity for me to write an essay or, at an extreme, a book setting the record straight (as I see it). All historical understanding is iterative, building on slight corrections to the previously written record. So the more there is, the better a picture you have, making a crabwise approach to truth. Even a mediocre book, creating a misperception of the past, at least creates a perception of the past, and one that we can work with. Why, even historical fiction is good by me; I could never understand why historians got so exercised over, say, Gore Vidal’s Lincoln. Teachable moments galore!

Incidentally, this view helps explain what you’re getting when you get hold of a professional historian—someone who’s read an awful lot of books on the subject, and has a good idea of how they push against each other, who knows what corners of the canvas remain sketchy or untouched.

Of course, this is me if you catch me in my more cheerful mode. Other times, I do think there’s a kind of Gresham’s Law operating in historical research, especially on thickly impastoed subjects like, say, Theodore Roosevelt. The profusion of bad, or at least foolish, books makes it impossible for a good book to make any meaningful impact.

And there are also pernicious books, which actively mislead by reinforcing prejudices, thereby making it that much more difficult to bend the arc of accumulated narrative back toward accuracy.

Further, inasmuch as the profession isn’t self-regulating or even -defining in that Kuhnian way, there aren’t a list of agreed-upon problems and methods. Which might, as previously noted, help keep salaries down.

Say, suddenly I’m not so sanguine anymore.

[Link via occasional commenter ac.]

On this day in 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution “was declared in effect.” Or so says the Times. But what does that mean? The Fourteenth Amendment was ratified on July 9th of 1868. So, does a Constitutional Amendment have to be “declared in effect” in order to be in effect? Alas, my books are thousands of miles away, so I can’t solve this problem myself. I need help.

Regardless, for those of you who thought I was going to tell you something about the Fourteenth Amendment, sorry. As a consolation prize, I offer you the text:

Section 1. All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Section 2. Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed. But when the right to vote at any election for the choice of electors for President and Vice President of the United States, Representatives in Congress, the Executive and Judicial officers of a State, or the members of the Legislature thereof, is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such State, being twenty-one years of age, and citizens of the United States, or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion, or other crime, the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such State.

Section 3. No one shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress, or elector of President and Vice President, or hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any State, who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States, or as a member of any State legislature, or as an executive or judicial officer of any State, to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof. But Congress may by a vote of two-thirds of each House, remove such disability.

Section 4. The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned. But neither the United States nor any State shall assume or pay any debt or obligation incurred in aid of insurrection or rebellion against the United States, or any claim for the loss or emancipation of any slave; but all such debts, obligations and claims shall be held illegal and void.

Section 5. The Congress shall have power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.

Looking it over, I think the Fourteenth’s probably my favorite Constitutional Amendment. The Equal Protection clause has done a lot of good work through the years. Not to mention the way the whole of Section 1 dispatches the Dred Scott case. Section 2 then obliterates the 3/5 Compromise. And the rest isn’t bad, either.

So what about you? What’s your favorite Amendment? The First? A bit on the nose, if you ask me. The Second? Um, yeah [backs away], sure, that’s a really good one. No offense, but the Third’s a bit anachronistic. Numbers Four through Eight? What are you, some kind of criminal? The Ninth is actually pretty cool. The Tenth is for neo-Confederates. You say you want the Eleventh? Suit yourself, loser. The Twelth? Elitist. The Thirteenth is a safe bet. The Fifteenth, too. The Sixteenth? Seriously? Yeah, that’s what I thought. The Seventeenth has certain charms. But I trust that nobody around here is going to claim the Eighteenth. The Nineteenth is a contender, of course. The Twentieth? Zzzz. Yes, you’re super cool if you said the Twenty-First, Mr. Party-pants. The Twenty-Second? A good one, to be sure. The Twenty-Third isn’t exactly setting the world on fire. We’ve talked before about the Twenty-Fourth. The Twenty-Fifth probably should be invoked more frequently. As for the Twenty-Sixth and Twenty-Seventh, if you know what both of them say, I doff my cap to you. So yeah, I’m sticking with the Fourteenth. But YMMV.

As everyone knows, the Cold War was loaded with efforts by all parties to menace the psychology of their adversaries.  Some of this was supposed to be accomplished through the nuclear arms race, by which  Soviets and US planners employed sheer terror in the hope of manage international relations to their peculiar advantage.  Elsewhere, domestic psychology was the target, with schemes by turns devious and bizarre employed to cause civilians to doubt the legitimacy of their leaders and their own way of life.  Some of this work — by folks like Edward Lansdale in the Philippines, Cuba and Vietnam — is well known and in some ways folkloric by now.  Even schoolchildren, I think, know that US intelligence agents considered depilating Castro’s beard.  In some ways, I suppose, cold war psy-ops was based on a principle identified by Charles Bukowski, the poet laureate of my life:

it’s not the large things that
send a man to the
madhouse. death he’s ready for, or
murder, incest, robbery, fire, flood…
no, it’s the continuing series of small tragedies
that send a man to the
not the death of his love
but a shoelace that snaps
with no time left …

With that in mind, I stumbled across this today while doing Real Work.  The story* comes from the Eisenhower years, when US policy in Eastern Europe was largely devoted to encouraging anti-Soviet discontent within the Warsaw Pact.  In 1956, a fellow named N. Spencer Barnes — the American minister in Budapest — wrote a memo that wondered if Hungarian citizens might be recruited to coordinate some kind of “mass action” that posed “minimum risk” to its participants.  Barnes had in mind some “trivial” action that nevertheless might allow Hungarians to — and I’ll use some trade jargon here — stick it to The Man.  One of Barnes’ suggestions included

dropping pieces of paper with torn-off edges on sidewalks.  The idea was that if thousands of such pieces appeared in Hungarian cities every day (“each one a testimony of an individual citizen’s hatred of the regime”), they would mitigate the regime’s prestige “and perhaps even [its] stability.”  Similarly conceived attacks could be made on economic sites and the government bureaucracy.

The human imagination clearly jumped the shark during the cold war.  Under what other conditions could reasonably sane people imagine that (a) nuclear weapons were necessary to prevent your adversaries from conquering the planet; but (b) a program of covert litterbugging might accomplish the same result.

*  see “Rollback, Liberation, Containment, or Inaction:  US Policy and Eastern Europe in the 1950s,” by Laszlo Borhi, Journal of Cold War Studies 1:2 (Fall 1999), 67-110.

Those of you interested in Nixonland will be pleased to know its author has provided you a sixty-three page precis in pdf, here. Perlstein goes further, excerpting himself on Nixon and the EPA:

His policy preferences also indicated a conflicted eagerness to please opinion-making elites. They praised his establishment of an Environmental Protection Agency, launched with an inspiring speech: “the 1970s absolutely must be the years when America pays its debts to the past by reclaiming the purity of its air, its water, and our living environment. It is literally now or never.” But he shared his true opinion of the issue in an Oval Office meeting auto executives: that environmentalists wanted to “go back and live like a bunch of damned animals.” Throwing conservationists a bone also suited another political purpose: the issue was popular among the same young people who were enraged at him for continuing the Vietnam War. In the end, the EPA was a sort of confidence game. The new agency represented not a single new penny in federal spending for the environment. It did, however, newly concentrate bureaucracies previously scattered through vast federal bureaucracy under a single administrator loyal to the White House—the better to control them.

I now officially declare that, as master of this particular domain, hereafter any comment that mentions that the EPA proves Nixon was “liberal” will be deleted. :-)

And people think we have a draconian comment policy here.

Hey, is that Larry Craig endorsing Barack Obama? Why yes, despite the handsome text, it is.

“I’m sure Sen. Obama appreciates Sen. Craig’s support.”

For a brief golden moment in weird bipartisanship you could apparently get this button, because … well, in Idaho evidently all white Larrys look alike, or something.

If the vid pleases you, head over here. You’ll find lots more like it.

Via sociological images.

As the premier Dark Knight poster ’round these parts, it has been demanded of, er, falls upon me to draw your attention to an interview with Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale in which the pair reveal their Batman is based on Edmund Morris’ The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt and Theodore Rex.* In the interview, Bale admits to confusion when the Nolans — brother Jonathan co-writes Christopher’s films — insisted he read The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt before they began principle photography on Batman Begins. Nolan then explains (and I paraphrase):

Batman’s not as unique as people think. Grant Bob Kane’s Gotham is New York and Batman has a direct historical precedent in Theodore Roosevelt. His father, Theodore Roosevelt, Sr., had been one of the city’s preeminent philanthropists — having found and funded the New York City Children’s Aid Society, the Met, and the American Museum of Natural History, to name a few of his charitable works — and died in a way Morris contends traumatized his son: suddenly, from a cancer whose existence he’d hidden, and mere hours before Theodore returned from Harvard. In 1884, his beloved mother and wife died in the same house, on the same day. A bereft Roosevelt set out for the Dakota Territory shortly thereafter. He spent his time in the hinterlands learning how to be a proper police, then applied those lessons when he became president of the New York City Police Commissioners in 1895. Like Batman, Roosevelt employed bleeding-edge technology into his crime-fighting: under his watch, telephones were installed in precincts, bicycles were deployed on beats, and various criminal identification systems, like Bertillonage, were monkeyed about with.

Read the rest of this entry »

Just for fun, some charts showing the representation of American citizens at various levels of the federal government. The top chart, showing thousands of persons (as of 2006) per Senator isn’t news; it’s simply the states arranged in population order and everyone knows the Senate rips off people in favor of representing, uh, rocks. No, not even that, because Wyoming rocks are better represented than California rocks. Okay, there is in fact no rational justification for the Senate at all.

Moving on; the second chart, showing thousands of persons (as of 2006) per Congressman, is sometimes a bit more surprising—it’s a lot smoother, but not perfectly smooth. That’s because the formula for apportioning Congressmen is imperfect.

So the third chart, showing thousands of persons (as of 2006) per presidential elector, is different still.

Read the rest of this entry »

On this day in 1999, Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France. It was the first of what would be seven consecutive victories for Armstrong in the most difficult and magnificent bike race in the world. At the time, I was a fanatical cyclist; I shaved my legs and everything. And I had followed Armstrong’s career from the early years, when his was the name everyone knew, when he was this incredibly gifted, brash kid (Must all Texans be described as “brash”?) who later would win a World Championship and two Tour stages. He was going to be the next Greg Lemond.

Then he got cancer, which very nearly killed him. And I, like most everyone else paying attention, assumed he was finished as professional bike racer, a gig widely regarded as among the most physically demanding pursuits in the world of sports.

So it was that the 1999 Tour became such a transcendent moment — and not just for cycling fans. Armstrong dominated the race by winning each of the three time trials — as well as another stage — and holding serve throughout the rest of the Tour. Still, the two pre-race favorites, Germany’s Jan Ullrich and Italy’s Marco Pantani, weren’t there because of injury and doping respectively, allowing some critics to contend that Armstrong hadn’t beaten the best in the world. It also wasn’t Armstrong’s most artful win. In later years, he would add poetry to his repertoire, becoming a world-class climber and demolishing his competition in the mountains as well as in the more prosaic time trials. But how he won in 1999 hardly mattered at all. Having just beaten cancer, Armstrong became far more than an athlete; the media and his fans, myself included, saw him as symbol of hope and courage.

Looking back, in light of all that has happened since, I can’t help but wonder if Armstrong was clean at the time. Which, given that he never once tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs — despite all of the allegations and dirt around him — seems a bit unfair. Regardless, although most American probably think of Barry Bonds or José Canseco or Mark McGuire when they think of drugs in sports, my mind drifts to more obscure names: Pantani, Virenque, Basso, and Landis.

I have very few hobbies, fewer still as I age. I used to love music and follow the scene avidly. I even went to work in the industry after graduating from college. But now I barely find time to listen to anything other than the occasional Dan Zanes CD when I drive. Even then, I’d choose NPR, but my son enjoys singing along with “Hello, Hello.” And I enjoy it when my son sings. So he sings. And I drive and listen to him. And the thousands of CDs I have in a cabinet at home gather dust.

Sports, also, used to be a passion of mine. These days, though, I barely pay attention to my favorite teams, much less the arcana filling the back pages of the sports section that I once pored over every morning. And during the past couple of years, I haven’t even followed the day-to-day drama of the Tour. I have no idea precisely why, but my alienation from these things that I once loved — songs that, when I hear them, I realize are the soundtrack of my memories, and the sports that once marked the passage of seasons for me — makes me sad and nostalgic. And not because I think that my youth was a golden age, especially not when it comes to sports. Professional athletes never were pure. Cycling always was a sport plagued by drug scandals. I’m also savvy enough to understand the argument that I think of as the Modified Haraway: that “nature” and “natural” are ephemeral concepts; that people have been altering their bodies, in one way or another, for a very long time; that the latest performance-enhancing drugs may be useful tools, another step on a long march toward entirely refashioning ourselves through the use of increasingly sophisticated technologies. To which I say, fine. Or, perhaps, I don’t really know.

But on this day, I’d like to remember Lance Armstrong for having accomplished the impossible in 1999. Failing that, I’d like to recall all the good he has done since then, acts far more admirable than winning even the most grueling bike race. But it’s hard to do that. Because when I think of Armstrong, I keep conjuring a lineup of disgraced former champions from throughout the world of sports. And that rogue’s gallery makes me wonder if what he achieved in 1999 actually was impossible.

Having failed in my attempt to compel Adam to discuss The Dark Knight in terms of Schmitt, Benjamin, or Agamben — the perpetual state of emergency and what-not — I was content to let the matter drop. But as a future professor of literature somewhere, preferably in the near future, I can’t let the conservative push to lionize Bush-as-Batman or the liberal push to demonize Batman-as-Bush stand. Both interpretations are naive inasmuch as they mistake the depiction of an issue for an endorsement of it.

The conversations on Unfogged about the impossibility of an anti-war film always annoyed me because they either 1) knighted those most likely to misunderstand the most basic literary devices — like irony — the final arbiters of meaning; or 2) devolved into polite-but-pointed accusations about who really loves watching people-bits scatter across the sky. In professional-literary-type terms, the conversations flat-lined somewhere between Fishian reader-response and crude Freudian insinuation. Needless to say, neither of these modes produces much in the way of value.

To return to The Dark Knight: although not immediately evident, the film is profoundly critical of the current administration and its policies. Its utilitarian compromises — the surveillance system, Batman in the box with the Joker — are criticized by sound moral agents as they occur: Lucius threatens to quit, Gordon breaks for the door. The problem, in both instances, is that neither Lucius nor Gordon has the authority or muscle to stop Batman. Their attempt to stop Batman from compromising his moral authority fails; and their failure leads directly to Batman’s debasement at film’s end. But I’m getting ahead of myself here.

(Way ahead of myself, as I meant to note that one of the reasons I’ve written so much about The Dark Knight isn’t because I’m a fanboy — although I am — but because it’s a such a rare horse: a film as substantial as it is popular and can be discussed with an audience unaccustomed to literary analysis. It’s as if the world itself has done the reading.)

Read the rest of this entry »

This is officially an award-winning blog

HNN, Best group blog: "Witty and insightful, the Edge of the American West puts the group in group blog, with frequent contributions from an irreverent band.... Always entertaining, often enlightening, the blog features snazzy visuals—graphs, photos, videos—and zippy writing...."