Monday, December 31, 2007

A Patience to Listen, Alive and Well (by Anthony Tommasini, the New York Times)


Illustrator: Koren Shadmi

Classical Music
A Patience to Listen, Alive and Well
By ANTHONY TOMMASINI
Published: December 30, 2007


REPORTS about the diminishing relevance of classical music to new generations of Americans addled by pop culture keep coming. Yet in my experience classical music seems in the midst of an unmistakable rebound. Most of the concerts and operas I attended this year drew large, eager and appreciative audiences.

Consider this: On Dec. 15 the Metropolitan Opera’s first high-definition broadcast of the season, a Saturday matinee of Gounod’s “Roméo et Juliette,” played on more than 600 movie screens around the world to 97,000 people, a new record for attendance in this bold Met venture. O.K., the total doesn’t match the millions who watch rock videos. For all her popularity, Anna Netrebko, who sang Juliette, is not Mariah Carey. But classical music always was and always will be of interest to relatively modest numbers of people.

In recent years a spate of articles and books have lamented classical music’s tenuous hold on the popular imagination and defended its richness, complexity and communicative power. I’m thinking especially of the book “Why Classical Music Still Matters” (University of California Press, 2007) by Lawrence Kramer, a professor of English and music at Fordham University.

Just this month classical music emerged as pivotal to international relations. With the blessing of the State Department, the New York Philharmonic announced that it would present a concert in North Korea during its Asian tour in February. Some consider this plan an outrage that will allow a totalitarian regime to use the Philharmonic musicians as puppets for propaganda. Others see it as at least a chance to pry open a door and share Western culture with a closed society, which is pretty much my view.

Either way, implicit in this plan is the idea that classical music matters. It’s not a sports team or pop group that has been enlisted to begin a thaw with the government in Pyongyang. It’s the musicians of a premier American orchestra.

What effect might this concert have on an audience in a repressive society? To Professor Kramer, as he recently told The New York Times, classical music by definition “is addressed to someone who has a certain independence of mind.” It “almost posits for its audience a certain degree of Western identity, which includes that sense of individual capacity to think, to sense, to imagine.”

Classical music invites listeners to focus, to take in, to follow what is almost a narrative that unfolds over a relatively long period of time. Length itself is one of the genre’s defining elements. I do not contend that classical music is weightier than other types of music. Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony is no more profound than “Eleanor Rigby.” But it’s a whole lot longer.

Even a 10-minute Chopin ballade for piano, let alone Messiaen’s 75-minute “Turangalila Symphony,” tries to grapple with, activate and organize a relatively substantial span of time. Once you accept this element of classical music, the reasons for other aspects of the art form — the complexity of its musical language, the protocols of concertgoing — become self-evident.

Structure in classical music is the easiest element to describe yet the hardest to perceive. Too often writers of program notes take the easy way and simply lay out the road map of a piece: first this happens, then that happens, then the first thing returns in a modified form and so on. But perceiving these structures as a listener is another matter.

When I was around 13 and enthralled by Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony and Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, I didn’t have the vaguest notion of how sonata form worked or what a rondo was. That I grew so familiar with these big pieces, though, does not mean I grasped how they were organized. Still, I intuitively sensed that they were monumental in some way, for the great classical works seemed to have an inexplicable and inexorable sweep.

Years later, when I was an assistant professor at Emerson College in Boston, I inherited from my predecessor a music appreciation course called “Listening to Music.” Teaching that class was like missionary work. I tried to help students hear what seemed to me astounding similarities between, say, a song-and-dance from Monteverdi’s “Orfeo” and “America” from Bernstein’s “West Side Story.” I broke down symphony movements by Beethoven and Shostakovich into constituent parts. Quite a few students were openly resistant, others mildly curious; some were surprisingly engaged.

Once in a while someone would come back from a concert having had an epiphany, like one awestruck woman who had attended her first live symphonic concert: the New England Conservatory Orchestra at the acoustically splendid Jordan Hall playing Copland’s “Appalachian Spring.” She had no idea that such viscerally powerful sounds existed.

More often than not, though, these epiphanies did not turn the students into devotees of classical music. Why not? My guess is that the pieces played were simply too long. Taking in a concert involves a major time commitment. You sit in silence for extended periods and pay attention to live performances that, however viscerally involving and sonically impressive, are visually unremarkable. Operas, of course, tend to be even longer. But opera is a total-immersion experience, with characters and costumes, like going to the theater.

In an essay in The New York Times in June, Professor Kramer called for classical music presenters to follow the lead of enterprising art museums, which have had much success in presenting new and old art in interactive, stimulating and demystifying ways. The museum experience encourages visitors to relax, to take in things at their own pace. You feel emboldened to follow your instincts, to move on from a painting that bores you, or linger at some intriguing, baffling work.

As Professor Kramer acknowledged, the analogy is limited. You cannot set your own pace while listening to a Schubert string quartet. A concert can offer pre-

performance talks, interactive video displays in the lobby and spoken comments by the performers onstage. But at some point the talking stops, the performance begins, and the audience is asked — expected really — to be quiet and pay attention.

Even so, the act of communal listening need not be reverential. And classical music has its “wow” factors too. What could be more entertaining than a dynamic performance of Prokofiev’s shamelessly theatrical Third Piano Concerto, with its monstrously difficult piano part? And if your mind wanders during “La Mer,” by Debussy, and you start focusing on the kinetic playing style of an attractive young violinist in the orchestra, then, as Professor Kramer suggests, just go with it.

Concert protocol demands that you stay put for the duration. Yet entering into that receptive state of mind can actually foster excitement over the music. Most young people in today’s interactive, amplified, high-tech world may not instinctively be enticed by the idea of sitting quietly and contemplating a long musical work in a natural acoustical setting. Yet I’ve taken young friends and other classical music neophytes to concerts over the years and been routinely struck by how absorbed they become during, say, a blazing account of Stravinsky’s “Firebird,” even while all around us older, restless concertgoers are fiddling in their seats and rustling the pages of their programs.

Creating an atmosphere conducive to listening does not mean that concert halls have to be stuffy. Dress codes of any kind should disappear. Go ahead and replace some rows of seats at Avery Fisher Hall with rugs and pillows to recline on, if it helps.

Much less drastic innovations have proved effective. Lincoln Center’s series A Little Night Music, at the intimate Kaplan Penthouse, for example, presents 60-minute programs beginning at 10:30 p.m. Only about 160 people can be accommodated. Patrons share small round cocktail tables and have free glasses of wine. In one program last summer the bookish British pianist Paul Lewis played a probing performance of Beethoven’s stormy, mystical Opus 111 Piano Sonata, followed by the exciting young cellist Alisa Weilerstein delivering an intense account of Kodaly’s brooding and volatile Sonata for Solo Cello. Here were two elusive and demanding works. And the audience was transfixed. I don’t recall a single throat-clearing.

But to claim a listener’s attention, a substantial classical piece must entice the dimension of human perception that responds to large structures and long metaphorical narratives. This, more than anything lofty about the music, accounts for the greater complexity, typically, of classical works in comparison with more popular styles of music.

Beethoven was a master musical architect. When his “Eroica” Symphony appeared in 1804, it was the longest work yet written in which virtually every phrase and rhythmic figure was derived from a small group of musical motifs. Beethoven made this colossal symphony, in four quite varied movements, seem organic and whole. Most listeners may discern this only subliminally. But they do.

One reason “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” stunned my generation at its 1967 release was that this Beatles album was not just a collection of songs but a whole composition. I remember sitting in my freshman dorm room with friends, listening to the entire album in silence. That was a new experience in rock. “Sgt. Pepper” pointed the way to longer total-

concept albums like Radiohead’s “In Rainbows,” the big news in pop music today.

For the most part, though, rock and pop songs are relatively short lyrical statements. The classical genre that has most in common with the pop concert is the song recital. It makes no difference that the revered classical song repertory, from Schubert to Mahler, is rich with musically complex, often dark works. Because songs tend to be short, we perceive them as more approachable. This explains why, in a program at Weill Recital Hall three years ago, an appealing young baritone, Nathaniel Webster, segued so easily to an American group including songs by Purcell, Schumann and Wolf to American songs by Gershwin and Rufus Wainwright.

No one was better than Leonard Bernstein at drawing new listeners to classical music. When he presented his Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic, he didn’t have music videos or PowerPoint, and didn’t need them. It was just our amazing Uncle Lenny explaining the content of a piece, conveying its character and revealing its secrets.

But when the explanations were over, Bernstein would turn to his young listeners and say, “Are you ready?” The time had come to settle down and focus as the orchestra performed the piece in question. Instilling audiences of all ages with the ability — and patience — to listen to something long was crucial to an appreciation of classical music. It still is.



Thursday, December 20, 2007

My Time in the Indexing Trade (by Enid Stubin, moreintelligentlife.com)


Hans Dekker/Flickr

MY TIME IN THE INDEXING TRADE
MEMORIES OF AN ANCIENT KINGDOM | December 19th 2007

The Sydney Wolfe Cohen index was a thing of beauty, crafted in a warren of rooms on lower Fifth Avenue. Enid Stubin joined this small colony of publishing souls in purgatory. She recalls her toils in Bartlebyland ...


Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE


Somewhere between copy-editing and serving drinks at corporate Christmas parties lies my stint at Sydney Wolfe Cohen Associates, the pre-eminent indexing service in New York City. I take a certain pride in the excellence of SWC: of the making of books there is much chazzerai, but when Knopf or Cambridge or Simon and Schuster wanted to flog one in particular—shuttling the author onto "The Today Show" or Charlie Rose—the index was always contracted out to SWC.



Printed on 25-pound bond, tapped into crisp alignment, jacketed in heavyweight cardboard. The disk, neatly labelled, enveloped and centred, four extra-heavy rubber bands gartering the stack. There you have the Sydney Wolfe Cohen index. It is a thing of beauty.



Sydney himself was a dapper, beautifully-spoken man in his seventies, who looked like a more soigné version of the character actor Jack Gilford. Sydney bought his jackets at Paul Stuart and held avuncular court in a warren of rooms in an office building on lower Fifth Avenue. (Ben Katchor might have immortalised the site as the "Vutsdepoint".) Upon entering the hush of this small colony the first time, I recognised that I'd ambled into Bartlebyland, replete with airshaft-faced windows. But quiet was the point at SWC Associates: tones were muted and tempers tamped. This was true whether you worked in the library, where we toiled at a big square table surrounded by reference works (the internet seemed so tacky and unreliable then); the computer room, where "imputers" typed out the actual indexes (double-spaced, Courier font); the front room, where the bella figura ethos reigned; or the sanctum sanctorum, Sydney's office, where he rarely sat.



Sometimes, during a tricky job, Sydney would take one of us into his lair, set us up at a narrow console table, and spend a long morning and even longer afternoon in debate over an entry. Authors had things to say, sure, but we determined how easily a reader could navigate them in a 600-page biography: Henry Kissinger's dog Blackie was hand-fed hamburger and string beans by Kissinger's mother (pet, diet of, 113). We worked under constraints: 1,100 lines was a sizable index; 780 lines meant we'd have to slash away. Balance, too, was a concern: a half-column on the mistress and only four entries for the missus? Maybe not. (Prudence, exercising of, 243)



I never dreamed of becoming an indexer. Such skills belonged to Randy and Grady, outwardly placid but impish fellows of a puckish disposition. David and Fred were more serious, arriving about once a fortnight carrying several 1,000-count cartons of 4 x 6-inch index cards (their original function), or to pick up blank ones. More rarely we steeled ourselves for the arrival of L., the son of someone famous, who was a crack indexer and an amiable fellow, but who'd gotten into some trouble for making obscene phone calls and spent some time on Rikers. (Employees, abilities of, 63; criminal records of, 66)



Most specialised were the abilities of Laura, whose cookbook indices were masterpieces of anatomy. If you were paying $35 for a regional Italian cookbook and wished to whip up a zucchini, tomato and Swiss chard frittata, you'd find your recipe under "vegetables", "zucchini", "tomato", "Swiss chard", "eggs", and "buffet dishes." I understand that computer programs do that sort of thing now, but in the early 1990s, Laura did it. She was one of the reasons Marcella Hazan, Rick Bayless and Maida Heatter sold so many books: her indices led you to where you needed to be. Around the office, Laura used vanilla as her signature scent and looked fierce—I was careful not to antagonise her. She alone of the associates had a key and could come and go as she pleased. (Favouritism, evidence of, 34)



A day or two after an index was typed up, I'd be asked to proofread and proofcheck—to verify spelling and to confirm our accuracy against the book galleys. One could handily absorb an entire book in the process, which Sydney knew and hated. If you were reading, you weren't doing something more important to ensure the quality and elegance of his product. (Drudgery, enforcement of, 78)



Worse, should you have the temerity to look up, say, "tapenade" in an encyclopaedic Barbara Kafka tome (in search of a chic and inexpensive dinner-party appetizer, say), and get caught at the photocopy machine cannibalising from an SWC galley, Sydney would look pained. (Manuscripts, potential exploitation of, 43)



Everyone guzzled coffee, so anxieties about spills and stains loomed. And while associates could bring their lunch to work, one needed to abide by a set of unspoken rules. You learned them by indirection: for reasons of sensibility, tuna was verboten (a shame, as the version cranked out by the Fifth Avenue Epicure down the block was tasty), while chicken salad passed muster. Mustard was okay, but not ketchup; rosemary was well-regarded while garlic—ah, garlic was a problem. Of course, you could obviate these regulations by offering to fetch Sydney "something" from downstairs: if he accepted a half-pound of, say, roasted potatoes with garlic and rosemary, you could bring in a leftover lamb navarin and he wouldn't say a word. (Food, ambivalence toward, 138)



It was my unofficial job to tempt the boss with something fragrant enough to give everyone clemency for a mid-afternoon slice of pizza. I wasn't half-bad at convincing Sydney that ratatouille was not only nutrient-dense and low-caloric, but would also clear his system of cholesterol. Twice a year, when he was due for a physical check-up, he foreswore dairy and fats, and we all paid the price. Cranky and yearning, he'd follow you around with his eyes, his chin tilted up to catch a whiff of hummus on the air. "Hmm, that smells...nice," he'd intone wistfully. I genuinely feared for Grady's tomato and cucumber on whole-wheat pita. (Sandwiches of others, desire for, 139)



We all liked each other, or at least got along. If Sydney overheard us making plans to get together after work, he'd intervene. An impromptu date for Friday evening drinks turned into dinner at Portfolio, with Sydney presiding over the long table and none of us too sure about what to order, as he'd be picking up the tab. In this way he was much like Fezziwig: genial and generous, but nothing could happen without him. (Centrality, possible insistence on: amiable, 256)



I never thought of Sydney as lonely. In fact, my one effort to fix him up—with the mother of my old high-school flame, a beautiful, smart, funny and accomplished woman of roughly Sydney's age—went badly. "He looks exactly like Jack Gilford!" she exulted. The trouble may have been that she knew Jack Gilford—and that she played the violin in chamber groups, and was a practising therapist, and had portrayed Hedda Gabler in a Brooklyn College showcase production, among other things. "She's done everything I ever wanted to do," he said mournfully after their first date. He never called her again. (Women, attracted to, 119; attractiveness to, 116-18)



Sydney was the best in the business—if he knew it, who could blame him? Like another ne plus ultra, he referred to his professional nemesis as "Moriarty." I never learned whether such a figure existed or was merely a cardboard cut-out of Sydney's, the yin to his yang, the Eisenhower to his Stevenson. Talk of Sydney retiring, all of it from Sydney, sounded like so much static to me.



But attentive to the rush of the Reichenbach Falls, Beth contemplated a move: "What if we bought Sydney out? We'd have his name and the business; we could keep all the people here and maybe even get health insurance." I was dazzled by her ambition and brio, the visionary gleam of her plans. But then Beth finished her doctorate and moved west for a tenure-track job; Grady became the first curator of The Museum of Sex; Fred, freelancing, indexed Beth's book on Virginia Woolf. Neither gifted in the heavy-duty skills that editing demanded nor possessed of the patience for Sydney's mandarin gamesmanship, I was phased out. (Employees, relationship with: guarded, 141-42)



Perhaps a year later I got a phone call from Sydney asking if I was available to "do some work" on a new Wordsworth biography. Expecting a nostalgic welcome, I arrived to find instead a slender Barnard graduate student seated alongside him. Down the table sat a stack of proofs with a dog-eared index atop: Naomi Wolf's version of Weltanschauung. Wasn't I working on the Wordsworth? "Oh," Sydney sighed, slyly, "there's always another Wordsworth..." The sylph smiled too, a Gioconda smirk. Stung, I laboured for two grinding days on the postmodernofeminist manifesto and swore never to return. (Bait, switching of, 387)




I heard that Sydney retired to Chappaqua just before the Clintons showed up, a fact that must have pleased him not a little. I should really dress up and invite him to lunch at one of the Murray Hill Italian places he liked or somewhere posh in Grand Central. (Growing up, as revenge: best, 247) We could talk about the old days.



(Enid Stubin is assistant professor of English at Kingsborough Community College of the City University of New York, and writes a New York diary for The Reader magazine.)

Sunday, December 09, 2007

A DRINKER'S GUIDE TO EASTERN EUROPE (by Edward Lucas, Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE)

A DRINKER'S GUIDE TO EASTERN EUROPE
RULE ONE: AVOID THE FOOD | November 30th 2007


Bottle-scarred Economist correspondent Edward Lucas breakfasts on plum brandy, lunches on balsams and dines on bison-grass vodka, but draws the line at a side-dish of Hungarian lung stew ...


The ex-communist world has a deserved reputation as a culinary wasteland (see box, below right), but the drinks are something else. Travellers to Prague find that the "real" Budweiser from Ceske Budejovice (no relation to its rice-based American counterpart) makes even the national dish of dumplings in gravy go down without protest. Winemaking has been transformed since the Soviet era—when bottles had to be inspected for wasps and snails, the former merely a nuisance, the latter stomach-turning (at least for foreigners).



But the real treat is the hard stuff. Every country from the Baltic to the Black sea has a national tipple, usually served in both industrialised and home-made versions. In Romania, tuica (also spelled tzuika, tsuika, tsuica, or tzuica) is the traditional start to any meal. It is made with plums, and bears a startling resemblence to the sljivovica of neighbouring Serbia. Both drinks are part of a delightful family of fruit brandies popular from the far corners of the Balkans up to modern Poland (an area that bears a coincidental resemblance to the Ottoman empire in Europe at its height). For the adventurous, visnjevaca (sour cherry) dunjevaca (quince) and smokvovaca (fig) are well worth a try. You may find these in shops, but you are better off finding a peasant farmer somewhere in what used to be Yugoslavia.




Westerners may think that hard liquor is for after dinner, but these drinks are usually apertifs. To help you digest, the best drink in the region is Unicum. Anyone who likes Italy's Fernet Branca, or German's Underberg, will feel that they have graduated into elysium when they try it. The flavours are an intense mix of liquorice, ginger, coriander and cinnamon (that's guesswork: the recipe is secret). It brings tranquility to even the most overburdened stomach. Latvia's balsams is a close rival—and a neck ahead for those who like its flexibility. It has a stronger tinge of burnt oranges; Latvians put it in their coffee or in fruit salad. With Champagne (or any old sparkling wine) it creates a terrific cocktail.





Any offer of absinthe
in eastern Europe, by contrast, should be shunned as firmly as any suggestion of a return to the planned economy or the one-party state.



Having accustomed your liver to the demands of life in "new Europe", it is time to move north. Poland and Russia tussle for the right to be the "real" home of vodka (an argument that the Swedes and Finns regard with bemused disdain: how can anybody take these Slavic squabbles seriously?). Having sorted out the national question, the serious drinker has to decide between vodkas made with different feedstuffs (barley, rye, wheat and so forth). The nasty stuff produced in western Europe is made from farm surplus products, disgracefully subsidised by the taxpayer. The cheapest of all is synthetic alcohol, produced in factories by a chemical process. If you think all vodka tastes the same, just try drinking a cheap one.




If your palate finds little difference amid the clear vodkas, you can ring the changes with the flavoured kind (for example with chili peppers, ginger, fruit, vanilla, chocolate or cinnamon). Best of all-in your correspondent's view-is Zubrowka, a Polish (or Belarussian) rye vodka flavoured with bison grass, a stalk of which can be found in the bottle.



Sadly, the scent of newly mown hay that makes Zubrowka so seductive comes from the presence (in tiny quantities) of coumarin, a toxin that can be legally used in perfumes, but is prohibited for use in foodstuffs in America. The version sold in America now is coumarin-free.




On the whole, though, the names of vodkas vary more than the contents. Lithuania used to have one called "Dar po viena" (roughly "Let's have another one"). Romania, astonishingly, has a vodka called "Stalinskaya"; Russia's favourite Stolichnaya (Capital) brand, disgracefully, uses Soviet kitsch in its advertisements, including pictures of the murderous founder of Soviet communism, Vladimir Lenin, who is described as a "visionary". That is something to discuss over a Zubrowka or six.




(Edward Lucas is deputy international editor, and correspondent for central and eastern Europe, at The Economist. His book, "The New Cold War—How the Kremlin menaces both Russia and the West", will be published in February 2008 by Bloomsbury in Britain, and Palgrave in America.)

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Without a Writer, Is a Joke Still Funny? (by Alessandra Stanley, the New York Times)



Note to the Capture: Carson Daly broadcasting on Monday on his late-night show on NBC.

The TV Watch

Without a Writer, Is a Joke Still Funny?

By ALESSANDRA STANLEY
Published: December 5, 2007


The problem is not that Carson Daly defied the writers’ strike and resumed taping his late-night show on NBC. It’s that Monday night’s show might as well have been a rerun.




Skip to next paragraph


Related


Writers Strike: Times Topics: Writers Guild of America Articles, multimedia and additional coverage.





Except for a sober preamble in which Mr. Daly explained his decision (“If I had not been back on air tonight,” he said, “75 members of my loyal staff and crew were going to get laid off”), the writer-free return of “Last Call With Carson Daly” was hardly noteworthy — a bland interview with the underwear model Karolina Kurkova and pop music by the Plain White T’s.

So while technically Mr. Daly is the first host of a late-night talk show to cross the picket line, the writers’ strike has barely been scratched.

And that’s because the only thing that is really missing from television since the strike began a month ago, and late-night shows, as well as some sitcoms and dramas, began running repeats, is topical humor: tart commentary on candidates’ latest foibles by David Letterman or Jay Leno, and the parodies and video satire perfected by “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” and “Saturday Night Live.” Mr. Daly doesn’t really do monologues or stand-up comedy; he’s a talent spotter and celebrity interviewer whose show happens to be seen at 1:30 a.m.

The timing of this black-humor blackout couldn’t be worse: If Rudolph W. Giuliani’s campaign falls in a forest of bizarre mayoral accounting practices, but nobody hears about it on late-night television, does it make a sound bite?

Ellen DeGeneres also defied the writers guild to resume her talk show almost immediately, saying that as the producer of a syndicated show, she had contractual obligations to local stations to provide content. While that decision enraged her peers (“We find it sad that Ellen spent an entire week crying and fighting for a dog that she gave away,” a statement by the Writers Guild East said, “yet she couldn’t even stand by writers for more than one day”), it didn’t change the balance, either. Ms. DeGeneres finds humor in everyday quirks — lint-in-the-dryer jokes and funny phone calls to elderly ladies in the Midwest — not in election campaigns or social policy. Monday’s show, which she opened with a riff about Christmas tree shopping, could have been taped a year ago, or 10.

Web sites like 23/6, TheOnion.com and YouTube are trying to bridge the gap, and many pieces are contributed by striking writers. Some of the material is apt and amusing: 23/6 (236.com) has a feature called “SwiftKids,” a parody of the Swiftboat ads that rattled Senator John Kerry’s campaign in 2004. (“Does baking cookies for me make my mom a bad person?” a little boy says sorrowfully. “Hillary Clinton thinks so.”) But that kind of humor, when spread across the Internet, seems sparse and small-cylinder. Even the best sites read more like blogs than like big network productions.

Don Imus returned to radio on Monday at what could have been an opportune time to fill some of the silence left by Conan O’Brien or Stephen Colbert. But while Mr. Imus used to be a heeded voice on politics, now he seems consumed by the politics of being Don Imus.

Mr. Imus, who was fired by CBS and MSNBC after his infamous slur about the Rutgers women’s basketball team, made his redemptive debut this week on WABC-AM. His tone on his first day was perforce somber and chastened, but even on the second, Mr. Imus seemed constricted, deferring to his new African-American cast members, Karith Foster and Tony Powell, to discuss Oprah Winfrey’s endorsement of Barack Obama.

Oddly enough, the closest thing to bold topical humor on network television is on “30 Rock,” which still has a few episodes filmed before the strike, and which has taken a marked turn toward impish send-ups of the Bush administration.

On one recent episode, Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) turns in a foreign neighbor whom she suspects of being a Muslim terrorist but is actually in training to be a contestant on “The Amazing Race.” On another, Jack (Alec Baldwin) intervenes to impose American values on an urban Little League team. The team pulls down a statue in the style of Iraqis toppling the statue of Saddam Hussein; in the background its field is draped with a red, white and blue banner that reads, “Fun Times Accomplished.” And, when things fall apart, Jack orders a “surge.”

Those episodes were filmed a while ago, and soon even “30 Rock” will go dark. Mr. Daly and Ms. DeGeneres crossed the picket line, but their return to live television doesn’t undermine the strike so much as enhance it.

Crime, Drugs, Welfare—and Other Good News (by Peter Wehner and Yuval Levin, the Commentary Magazine)

Crime, Drugs, Welfare—and Other Good News
by Peter Wehner and Yuval Levin

December 2007


Fifteen years ago, a deep pessimism seemed to be stalking the American landscape. It arose from diverse quarters, took different forms, and cited a congeries of different symptoms—military, economic, social, cultural, and spiritual—in support of its dark diagnosis. For some, like the Yale historian Paul Kennedy, America’s commitments abroad—dubbed by Kennedy a species of “imperial overstretch”—were a sure harbinger of impending national decline. Others, like the leftist literary critic Alfred Kazin, saw a broad collapse of domestic morale, partially disguised by our “unparalleled technological power and scientific advance.” Echoing Kazin from the other side of the political spectrum, James W. Michaels, the editor of Forbes, introduced a symposium marking his magazine’s 75th anniversary by declaring the American condition to be a moral and cultural “mess”:



While the media natter about a need for economic change, these serious intellectuals [in the Forbes symposium] worry about our psyches. Can the human race stand prosperity? Is the American experiment in freedom and equal opportunity morally bankrupt? . . . It isn’t the economic system that needs fixing. . . . It’s our value system.

As for the social reality underlying this general feeling of decline, a number of conservative commentators, concentrating especially on the areas of crime, welfare dependency, and illegitimacy, undertook the task of quantifying and analyzing the available evidence. The most notable such effort was by William J. Bennett, who in March 1993 released a report entitled The Index of Leading Cultural Indicators.*


Over the course of the preceding three decades, Bennett wrote, the United States had indeed experienced “substantial social regression.” About this, the data were unequivocal. Since 1960, there had been a more than 500-percent increase in violent crime; a more than 400-percent increase in out-of-wedlock births; almost a tripling in the percentage of children on welfare; a tripling of the teenage suicide rate; a doubling of the divorce rate; and a decline of more than 70 points in SAT scores. To Bennett, the conclusion was inescapable: “the forces of social decomposition [in America] are challenging—and in some instances overtaking—the forces of social composition.”



Could anything be done to halt the slide, or even turn it around? Few seemed to hold out much hope. “America’s worsening social pathologies,” according to the Heritage Foundation’s journal Policy Review in 1994, “have convinced many on both sides of the political aisle” that no end was in sight to the nation’s “deep cultural decline.” Robert H. Bork’s 1996 book Slouching Toward Gomorrah put this view most starkly. In his chapter on crime and welfare, Bork wrote:



These pathologies were easy to fall into and will be very difficult to climb out of. There is, in fact, no agreement about how to cure them. It may be, in fact, that a democratic nation will be unable to take the measures necessary, once we know what those measures are.




Summing up, Bork urged his readers to “take seriously the possibility that perhaps nothing will be done to reverse the direction of our culture, that the degeneracy we see about us will only become worse.”


But a strange thing happened on the way to Gomorrah. Just when it seemed as if the storm clouds were about to burst, they began to part. As if at once, things began to turn around. And now, a decade-and-a-half after these well-founded and unrelievedly dire warnings, improvements are visible in the vast majority of social indicators; in some areas, like crime and welfare, the progress has the dimensions of a sea-change. That this has happened should be a source of great encouragement; why it happened, and what we can learn from it, is a subject of no less importance.


_____________




In a number of key categories, the amount of ground gained or regained since the early 1990’s is truly stunning. Crime, especially, has plummeted. According to the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), the rates of both violent crime and property crime fell significantly between 1993 and 2005, reaching their lowest levels since 1973 (the first year for which such data are available). More recent figures from the FBI, which measures crime differently from the NCVS, show an unfortunate uptick in violent crime in the last two years—particularly in cities like Baltimore, Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. Even so, however, the overall rate remains far below that of the mid-1990’s.


Teenage drug use, which moved relentlessly upward throughout the 1990’s, declined thereafter by an impressive 23 percent, and for a number of specific drugs it has fallen still lower. Thus, the use of ecstasy and LSD has dropped by over 50 percent, of methamphetamine by almost as much, and of steroids by over 20 percent.



Then there is welfare. Since the high-water mark of 1994, the national welfare caseload has declined by over 60 percent. Virtually every state in the union has reduced its caseload by at least a third, and some have achieved reductions of over 90 percent. Not only have the numbers of people on welfare plunged, but, in the wake of the 1996 welfare-reform bill, overall poverty, child poverty, black child poverty, and child hunger have all decreased, while employment figures for single mothers have risen.


Abortion, too, is down. After reaching a high of over 1.6 million in 1990, the number of abortions performed annually in the U.S. has dropped to fewer than 1.3 million, a level not seen since the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade, which legalized the practice. The divorce rate, meanwhile, is now at its lowest level since 1970.


Educational scores are up. Earlier this year, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reported that the nation’s fourth- and eighth-graders continue to improve steadily in math, and that fourth-grade reading achievement is similarly on the rise. Other findings show both fourth- and twelfth-graders scoring significantly higher in the field of U.S. history. Black and Hispanic students are also making broad gains, though significant gaps with whites persist. The high-school dropout rate, under 10 percent, is at a 30-year low, and the mean SAT score was 8 points higher in 2005 than in 1993, the year Bennett published his Index.



More generally, we are seeing important progress in critical areas of youth behavior. Since 1991 (a peak year), the birth rate for teenagers aged fifteen to nineteen has decreased by 35 percent. The number of high-school students who have reported ever having sexual intercourse has declined by more than 10 percent. Teen use of alcohol has also fallen sharply since 1996—anywhere from 10 to 35 percent, depending on the grade in school—and binge drinking has dropped to the lowest levels ever recorded. The same is true of teens reporting that they smoke cigarettes daily.


John P. Walters, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, has summarized these across-the-board findings in one succinct sentence: “We have a broad set of behaviors by young people that are going in a healthy direction."


_____________




To be sure, we have not reached anything like nirvana. The gains made are not yet secure, and could easily be lost. Nor should it be forgotten that the improvements occurred after more than three decades of an almost uninterrupted freefall. Finally, the pathologies that still afflict us are serious, and evidently continue to be immune to the otherwise improving trend.


Thus, our popular culture remains, in many respects, a cesspool of violence and vulgarity. The “soft nihilism” and cultural relativism about which Allan Bloom wrote so powerfully in the late 1980’s are still with us, and at the same time many of our leading universities remain beholden to a radical leftist ideology. The yoking-together of these two syndromes may be even more widespread today than yesterday.



Perhaps most importantly, some of the most vital social indicators of all—those regarding the condition and strength of the American family—have so far refused to turn upward. Even as the teenage birth rate has fallen, out-of-wedlock births in general have reached an all-time high: 37 percent of all births in 2005. Over half of all marriages are now preceded by a period of unmarried cohabitation, and marriage rates themselves have declined by almost one-half since 1970.


In the life of any society, the place of the family is central. That fact alone makes these last statistics significant, and seriously complicates the picture of dramatic progress in other, related realms. Indeed, the two starkly divergent trends, taken side by side, should cause us to reconsider certain common assumptions concerning just how culture, behavior, family, and society interact, and how they change.


_____________


 


The most striking element of the overall picture continues to be the extraordinary turnaround in nearly every area apart from the family. The progress we have witnessed over the last 15 years is impressive, undeniable, and beyond what most people thought possible. There was, it is fair to say, essentially no one in the early 1990’s who predicted it. How, then, did it happen?


Obviously, no single explanation will suffice. Instead, long-overdue changes in government policy appear to have combined with a more or less simultaneous shift in public attitudes, with each sustaining and feeding the other. We may begin with the change in policy, for if the last fifteen years demonstrate anything, it is the enduring power of policy, properly understood, to influence culture.


The 1996 welfare-reform bill was the most dramatic and successful social innovation in decades, reversing 60 years of federal policy that had long since grown not just useless but positively counterproductive. In effect, the new law ended the legal entitlement to federally funded welfare benefits, imposing a five-year time limit on the receipt of such benefits and requiring a large percentage of current recipients to seek and obtain work.


When the bill was passed, there were dire predictions, mostly emanating from liberals, of an explosion of poverty and hunger. They were just as quickly refuted. State welfare rolls plummeted—and poverty, instead of rising, decreased. Welfare reform sent a message in bright neon lights: higher expectations will yield better results. Rather than giving up on the poor, the new policy assumed that the able-bodied were capable of working, expected them to work, and was rooted in a confident belief that, materially and otherwise, they would be better off for it. In each of these particulars, the policy makers proved correct. If, as the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb wrote in the 1990’s, our old social policy had “succeeded in ‘demoralizing’ . . . society itself,” the new policy proved to be profoundly re-moralizing.



Crime rates, too, benefited from something of a policy revolution over the course of the 90’s. Applying methods and concepts developed by James Q. Wilson, George L. Kelling, and others, innovators like then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in New York City and his police chief William Bratton pursued a zero-tolerance approach to crime that quickly became a model for other cities and states. Incarceration rates rose, policing improved, crime data were processed faster, criminal patterns were identified more effectively—all of which furthered the twin goals of intervention and prevention. Similar gains were posted by programs like Philadelphia’s Youth Violence Reduction Partnership, in which an array of urban agencies, working together, drove down homicide rates in the most violent parts of the city by focusing on youths most at risk of killing or being killed.


The progress we have made against drug use appears in large part to be another product of a reformed government policy. By the late 1980’s, in the heyday of the crack epidemic, drugs had come to be regarded as our most serious domestic challenge, and formed the subject of President George H.W. Bush’s first prime-time address to the nation. Discarding the piecemeal approach of the past, which concentrated now on one, now on another point of the drug-use continuum, Bush forged an integrated approach, applying pressure on all fronts: law enforcement, prevention, treatment, interdiction, and education. A critical element in the campaign was a public-awareness effort centered on the explicitly moral argument that drug use degrades human character.


The consequences were swift in arriving. If, in the 1970’s, drug use had been widely seen as liberating and glamorous, by the late 1980’s it was coming to be perceived as both dangerous and dumb. During the Clinton presidency, the drug issue was allowed to fade from attention, but since then national policy has returned to its former levels of efficacy, and the statistics reflect the encouraging results.


In education, the emphasis placed by government at every level on testing, accountability, and transparency has unquestionably made a difference. Every state now applies statewide academic standards, which, though in many cases still not high enough, at least measure performance against identifiable benchmarks. While the details of the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind program have been controversial, its general approach has come to be broadly accepted—and has produced results. In the meantime, the rise in charter schools and publicly funded school-choice programs, along with the advent of “virtual” education, has created many more options for American families.



_____________


 


As for the decrease in abortions, it seems to have been influenced less by policy than by the changing terms of public debate and, more importantly, by increasingly responsible attitudes among the young. Two decades ago, pro-life spokesmen changed their rhetorical tactics and began to choose their fights more carefully. The clear-cut issue of partial-birth abortion, although not settled legislatively until 2003, colored the abortion debate throughout much of the 1990’s, in the process creating greater sympathy for a moderately pro-life position. And the pro-abortion Left likewise softened its rhetoric, evidently reasoning that a more cautious approach, as encapsulated in Bill Clinton’s promise to make abortion “safe, legal, and rare,” was likelier to draw support. As a result, some of the more extreme arguments for unrestricted abortion rights slowly dropped by the wayside.


Other factors played a role as well, including the efforts of pro-life groups to assist women with unwanted pregnancies, the greater availability of birth control, and advances in our scientific understanding of fetal development. Contributing to the rethinking was the more widespread use of sonogram technology, which enables would-be parents to see the developing child and its human form at a very early stage. All in all, not only has the public discussion of abortion been profoundly transformed, but younger Americans seem to have moved the farthest—in September, a Harris poll found that Americans aged eighteen to thirty were the most likely of all age groups to oppose the practice. This trend seems likely to continue.


With the abortion issue, we have already moved from a change brought about in large part by government policy to one arising mainly through the (sometimes heated) give-and-take of public discussion and the slow, subterranean shifting of social attitudes. The same may be said of the drop in the divorce rate, which has been going on for a couple of decades now. This appears almost entirely attributable to the changed attitudes of well-educated Americans, whose views on the matter have grown decidedly less permissive.



How so? According to Brad Wilcox of the University of Virginia, college-educated Americans have absorbed the message—from the media, religious institutions, civic organizations, and their own experience—that children do best when born to and raised by married parents. As a corollary, these educated Americans seem more and more willing to make the sacrifices necessary to stay married, for the sake of both their own welfare and that of their children.


Wilcox adduces two additional facts to round out the picture of a declining divorce rate. First, we now see very few teen marriages—a good thing not only for teenagers unprepared for the burdens of married life but for the institution of marriage altogether, since partners in their twenties or thirties are more likely to place a premium on stability. Second, marriage is much more selective. Because those marrying tend to have more income, more social skills, more of a stake in marriage, and more pro-marriage attitudes, they are less likely to divorce.


This is all to the good—as far as it goes. The downside is that it seems only to apply to those with higher levels of education. Among less educated Americans, divorce rates have not fallen at all. And here we confront once more the cluster of family-related issues where, as we have seen, the indicators remain stubbornly and perplexingly worrisome.


_____________


 


How to account for the anomalous absence of improvement or, more precisely, the acceleration of decline in the overall marriage rate, in rates of cohabitation without marriage, and in illegitimacy? And suppose that, in 1992, you had known that the picture in these crucial areas of family life would continue to be at least as dark in 2007, if not darker. Would you not also have predicted a similarly dismal profile in the related areas of crime, drug use, welfare, education, teen sexual activity, teen suicides, abortion, and poverty?


In fact, just that kind of linkage was behind many of the most dire forecasts of the 1990’s. In 1993, reviewing national figures on illegitimacy, then at just under 30 percent of all births (by 2005, as we have noted, they would reach 37 percent), the social scientist Charles Murray wrote in the Wall Street Journal that “every once in a while the sky really is falling.”



Murray is no inveterate pessimist. It was his creative approach to dependency, as set out in his 1984 book Losing Ground, that laid the intellectual groundwork for the dramatic successes in welfare policy; he is in many ways the father of the 1996 reform bill. Yet, along with many others, Murray believed that rising illegitimacy would lift with it a whole fleet of social pathologies. “Illegitimacy is the single most important social problem of our time,” he wrote, “more important than crime, drugs, poverty, illiteracy, welfare, or homelessness because it drives everything else” (emphasis added).


Murray may well have been correct about the importance of illegitimacy. But he—and not he alone—seems to have been incorrect that it would drive everything else. Over the past fifteen years, on balance, the American family has indeed grown weaker—but almost every other social indicator has improved.


Murray’s dictum could still be borne out in the long run; in time, the explosion of illegitimacy might undo the signs of healthy cultural revival we have charted. Or it may be that the broad improvement in cultural attitudes will in time cast its benefits upon the family as well, helping to curb the seemingly inexorable growth of illegitimacy. Or neither of these may happen, and it may instead turn out that we have underestimated the degree to which improving social factors in other areas can compensate for the enduring damage caused to individuals in broken or never-formed families.



The point is that we do not know everything, and we cannot come to unequivocal conclusions about the future on the basis of the last fifteen years. No trend line runs consistently for long, and no rule is without exceptions. That does not mean, however, that we have learned nothing, or that no lasting lessons can be drawn from our experience.


_____________


For one thing, we clearly benefited in the last fifteen years from the fact that, for many years previous, a number of very acute observers were insisting on an honest assessment of where we were and how bad a place it was. This was the necessary first step toward any possible recovery. In time, and with strong leadership, the nation heeded their counsel, instituting wise public policies pursued with energy and resolution. Legislation was far from the only agent responsible for the progress we have seen, but it played a formative role. No small number of our cultural problems had been exacerbated by bad policy; better policy helped ameliorate them. Along the way, it also helped shape moral sentiments for the better.


We have also learned that progress can happen faster than many people thought possible. Despite the good case made by those who believe that diffidence, skepticism, and self-limitation are the prerequisites of sound policymaking, sometimes what is needed is a bold break with the past. There will always be unintended consequences, but even these need not always be for the worse, and the prospect of such unintended consequences should not paralyze us from taking action. Guided by a modest sense of possibility, and by realistic notions of the limits of politics, reform can succeed. Daniel P. Moynihan, right about many things, was wrong in predicting without qualification that the “horror” of welfare reform would bring “loathsome” consequences.


And we have learned the trap of fatalism. In the late 1990’s, Paul Weyrich, a founding leader of the “religious Right,” circulated a public letter declaring that America was “caught up in a cultural collapse of historic proportions, a collapse so great that it simply overwhelms politics.” In the face of this descent into “something approaching barbarism,” Weyrich urged people of faith to adapt a “strategy of separation.” “We need,” he wrote, “some sort of quarantine.”



But no such separation or quarantine is possible; there is no safe harbor to which to retreat. Nor is one necessary. Problems that may seem intractable at one moment—violence and disorder, harmful and reckless conduct—can yield, and yield quickly, to the right policies and to a determined citizenry. Human problems, products of human failings, can be addressed at least in part by human ingenuity.


Culture itself, finally, exhibits an ebb and flow as surely as economies pass through cycles of ups and downs. In The Great Disruption (1999), Francis Fukuyama cited historical examples of societies undergoing periods of moral decline followed by periods of moral recovery. In our case, too, he argued, the aftermath of the cultural breakdown of the 1960’s had already triggered and was now giving way to a reassessment and recovery of social and moral norms. Such “re-norming” will not occur in every social class all at once; in some instances it may take hold in one stratum but not in another. That is partial progress, but progress nevertheless.


Despite persistent anomalies and backslidings, some species of cultural re-norming certainly seems to have been occurring in this country over the past decade-and-a-half, and it is fascinating to observe in whose hearts its effects have registered most strongly. In attitudes toward education, drugs, abortion, religion, marriage, and divorce, the current generation of teenagers and young adults appears in many respects to be more culturally conservative than its immediate predecessors. To any who may have written off American society as incorrigibly corrupt and adrift, these young people offer a powerful reminder of the boundless inner resources still at our disposal, and of our constantly surprising national resilience.


Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Forever Weird (by Joe Klein, the New York Times)


Note to the campture: Hunter S. Thompson. Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images



November 18, 2007
Forever Weird
By JOE KLEIN

On July 2, 1974, I started work as deputy Washington bureau chief for Rolling Stone magazine. My unlikely boss was Richard Goodwin, the former Kennedy speechwriter, who invited me to join him in temporary residence at Ethel Kennedy’s home in McLean, Va. (the owner was in Hyannis for the summer). On July 3, Hunter Thompson joined us. Much of what ensued that holiday weekend is lost in the mists of history and a fog of controlled substances. There were extensive conversations about the viability of renting a truck, filling it with rats and dumping them on the White House lawn. There was also an effort to remove all the Andy Williams songs from the Kennedy jukebox and replace them with Otis Redding. But mostly I remember having a marathon conversation with Hunter about books and writers, settling finally on Joseph Conrad’s exhortation in “Lord Jim”: “In the destructive element immerse!”


This was, no surprise, one of Hunter’s favorite lines, and it led him into an astonishingly candid assessment of his own career, which was then at its peak. He had published his two brilliant “Fear and Loathing” books, and he was worried about what came next. He didn’t want to become a dull parody of himself but feared he lacked the gumption to jump the gravy train. I asked if he’d ever thought about stowing the psychedelic pyrotechnics — his “gonzo” journalism — and sitting down and writing a serious, straight-ahead novel. Well, of course he had. But, he said, “Without that,” and he glanced over at the satchel in which he carried his array of vegetation and chemicals, “I’d have the brain of a second-rate accountant.”


Hunter Thompson was always much more, and sometimes a bit less, than the sum of his ribald public persona. In compiling this oral history, Jann Wenner and Corey Seymour could easily have succumbed to the same temptation that Hunter did: to celebrate the myth, to recount a numbing parade of hilarious, drug-addled Hunter stories, and to miss the man. Happily, they have produced a rigorous and honest piece of work. “Gonzo” is a wonderfully entertaining chronicle of Hunter’s wild ride, but it is also a detailed, painful account of his self-destructive immersions; the brutality he visited upon his wife, Sandy; and the anguish of a life that veered from inspired performance art to ruinous solipsism. It’s especially good to be reminded that Wenner, in addition to being a successful media mogul and perpetual gossip item, has been a journalist of real distinction, with the ability to find talented editors like Seymour, who, I assume, did most of the actual cutting and pasting to create the book’s unflagging pace from interviews with 112 sources, ranging from Jimmy Carter to Johnny Depp. It was Wenner’s patience and indulgence that enabled Thompson to produce his very best work; Wenner’s vision made Rolling Stone, in the early 1970s, one of the most exciting publications in American history.



Hunter Thompson was born in Louisville, Ky., in 1937 and, from adolescence on, seemed intent on becoming a classic American Literary Character, part of the outlaw slipstream that produced Whitman, Twain, Hemingway, Guthrie, Mailer and Kerouac. This might have been a staggeringly banal career choice — there’s a testosterone-addled, troublemaking puer aeternus spewing fountains of self-absorbed gush in every high school — but Thompson actually turned out to have a distinctly American genius for comic hyperbole. He was the son of an insurance salesman who died when Hunter was in high school and an alcoholic mother who didn’t have a prayer of controlling her wild child. He was antsy, violent, a lover of books and guns, a member of the prestigious Athenaeum Literary Association in Louisville and of a street gang of pranksters, most of whom were sons of prominent families. In his senior year of high school, Thompson was arrested with two others after one in his group stole a man’s wallet — this, after other scrapes with the law — and thrown in jail. Douglas Brinkley, Thompson’s literary executor, recalled: “Hunter wrote his mother these very philosophical letters from behind bars. ... The buddies that he was with ... were waltzing because they knew the judge, ... he was the poor kid on the other side of the railroad tracks with no dad. The game was fixed.” The judge gave Thompson a choice of prison or the military; he chose the Air Force. One senses that Hunter saw the experience mostly as grist for his legend. No doubt it helped solidify his politics, such as they were — a blithe populist libertarianism, unencumbered by doctrine.


Thompson’s chronological adolescence is dispatched in a few pages here, but his militant juvenility lasts the entire book. Even near the end of his life, he was terrorizing his neighbors in Aspen, Colo. The lawyer Gerry Goldstein remembers an episode involving another lawyer, John Van Ness, and later the actor Jack Nicholson: “First Hunter placed these defrosted elk hearts on John’s front doorstep, and then he started throwing these stones he’d collected onto the tin roof of John’s house and just listened as they rolled down. Then he shot off a couple of rounds from a 9-millimeter and started playing a continuous looped tape of pigs or rabbits being slaughtered — a godforsaken screeching, curdling sound. This poor little girl came to the window screaming. Apparently Van Ness was out of town and this teenage girl was house-sitting for them. From there, he proceeded to Nicholson’s house, where he engaged in the same folly.”


Thompson was able to get away with such nonsense, and with his flagrant drug use, because he had befriended the local sheriff, who had an elastic sense of justice when it came to literary perps. Indeed, about the only person in this book who successfully confronts Hunter about his behavior is — amazingly — Bill Clinton, a fellow not known for public confrontations. But at a meeting in Little Rock, just after Clinton was nominated in 1992, Thompson braces the president-to-be with a question about the Fourth Amendment and drug searches. “He leaned back and did one of these long windup Hunter kind of things where everybody is supposed to be amused by it all, and Clinton wasn’t going to have any of it,” Wenner recalls. “Clinton came back with this really tough, aggressive answer involving his brother Roger’s cocaine problem and how he had seen the horrors and destruction of drugs.”


The writer William Greider picks up the story: “Hunter got up from the table right after Clinton’s response. He just stopped asking questions. ... It was like the dream had been smashed, and what was the point of going on with this?”



The structural defect of oral history is that it is easy, given a life like Hunter’s, to lose track of the reason he was special in the first place: the inimitable, hilarious whoosh of words, the cascading skeins of hyperbolic invective that came so close to replicating the disoriented epiphanies of a drug trip. The authors occasionally lay in samples of Hunter’s writing, but not really his best stuff — although the rejection letter he donated to Rolling Stone to handle the hordes of would-be imitators does sing. “You worthless, acid-sucking piece of illiterate” you-know-what, it began. “Don’t ever send this kind of brain-damaged swill in here again.”


“I never had any doubt that at some point he was going to commit suicide,” recalls his son, Juan. Old age is a difficult concept for a perpetual adolescent. Hemingway couldn’t handle it, and Hunter went out the same way, though more elegantly: with a pistol rather than a shotgun. His best work was pretty much complete by the time I met him, in July of 1974. Indeed, Nixon’s collapse that summer was so garish — the tearful “my mother was a saint” sayonara — that it beggared any acid fantasy that Hunter might have produced. Reality had gone gonzo. There was nothing left to do except to play his designated role as Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, wandering the campus lecture circuit, swindling would-be publishers, entombed in a mausoleum of celebrity he had created for himself.




Joe Klein is a columnist for Time magazine and the author, most recently, of “Politics Lost.”



GONZO
The Life of Hunter S. Thompson.

By Jann S. Wenner and Corey Seymour.
Illustrated. 467 pp. Little, Brown & Company. $28.99.

Publishers Seek to Mine Book Circles (by Joanne Kaufman, the New York Times)


Note to the capture: Esther Bushell, of Old Greenwich, Conn., leads 10 book clubs and is courted by publishers. Alan S. Orling for the new york times


November 19, 2007
Publishers Seek to Mine Book Circles
By JOANNE KAUFMAN

In early June, at Book Club Expo, a gathering of reading group members and book lovers, the author Khaled Hosseini opened the first session with heartfelt thanks to the attendees.

“He said that ‘The Kite Runner’ wasn’t being read until book groups got hold of it,” recalled Ann Kent, who put together the event, which was held in San Jose, Calif. “He acknowledged their power in putting his book on the best-seller list and keeping it on the best-seller list. It was pretty profound.”

Profound or not, the message had resonance. Increasingly, authors and publishers are tipping their hats to the power of 8 or 10 or 12 women (and usually they are women) sitting around a dining room table, dissecting their particular book of the month, then spreading the word to their friends.

Along with “The Kite Runner,” the successes of “The Memory Keeper’s Daughter,” “Water for Elephants,” “Eat, Pray, Love” and “Kabul Beauty School” have been credited to the early and continuing support of reading groups.

Film companies are trying to get in on the act, according to Russell Perreault, director of publicity at Vintage Books. “They’re asking us how to get clubs to read books before the movie version comes out,” he said.

Accordingly, Mr. Perreault sent reading group coordinators copies of the novels “Evening,” “Reservation Road” and “Atonement,” all Vintage titles adapted for the screen by Focus Features.

“By working so closely with the publisher, we have been able to spark interest from not only the avid moviegoers who seek out films of substance, but also the reading and discussion groups that are still very much a part of today’s marketplace,” said David Brooks, president of worldwide marketing at Focus Features.

Similarly, because of the tremendous success of “The Kite Runner” among book clubs, its publisher has spread the word to them that the movie is coming in December. The hope is “that they would support the movie as much as they had supported the book,” said Geoffrey Kloske, publisher of Riverhead Books, a division of the Penguin Group.

Sara Nelson, editor of Publishers Weekly, said an increasingly potent sales pitch when debating the merits of a manuscript is whether “this would work for a book group.”

Five years ago, the topic might not have come up. Reading groups were still a bit of an untapped resource. When, for example, Ms. Kent was introducing Book Group Expo two and a half years ago, she asked publishers to serve as sponsors. “They said it sounded like a good idea and wished us well, but they weren’t having the ‘aha’ moment,” she said. For the meeting last June, however, Random House, Penguin and other houses got involved.

“You don’t see the whole picture when you start out,” said Elinor Lipman, a novelist. She was initially hesitant when her publisher urged her to visit book group gatherings near her home in suburban Boston. “You see it as seven women wanting me to come and talk about their book. It seemed local, not a phenomenon. I didn’t realize it was spreading like wildfire.”

When Esther Bushell, a former English teacher, began working as a reading group coordinator five years ago, she said, she had no interaction with publishers. But now, “there’s a lot of courting going on,” said Ms. Bushell, who is based in Old Greenwich, Conn., and leads 10 groups. “I receive daily packages of galleys. I’m solicited by publishers asking my opinion of upcoming books.”

Additionally, publishers have arranged for Ms. Bushell to take field trips to New York with one or another of her groups to meet the authors of some of the books they have discussed. “I’m already planning our spring visit to the city,” she said. “The publishers are very eager to accommodate me.”

All the wooing from publishers has made Ms. Bushell part of the marketing front line. “I’ve done a good job of promoting a couple of the books to my groups,” she said. “They all read ‘The Book Thief.’ They all read ‘The Shadow of the Wind.’ They all read ‘Snowflower and the Secret Fan.’”

Making reading groups aware of a book is, increasingly, an effort that takes place on the Internet. “Technology opens a lot of opportunities to connect with readers,” said Ellen Archer, publisher of Hyperion Books. “For the most part, author tours are not as successful as they used to be.”

Publishers are buying space on AuthorBuzz, a two-year-old Web site that helps writers promote their work. “We have 10 spots a month for our book club promotions, and we’re selling out three to four months in advance,” said M. J. Rose, a novelist and the founder of AuthorBuzz.

Some publishing houses, like Simon & Schuster and Ballantine, have set up dedicated Web sites where reading group members can arrange phone chats with authors, download discussion guides and podcasts, and take part in live Web events. Sometimes there are sweepstakes whose grand prize is a visit from the author.

Simon & Schuster has created 40 downloadable videos of authors, some of whom “directly acknowledge book groups and thank them for their support,” said Aimee Boyer, a Simon & Schuster senior marketing manager.

And the Bantam Dell Publishing Group plans to introduce in February a new imprint for women’s fiction, which will pump out books meant to appeal to reading groups — using the trade paperback format — and for the mass market in the smaller size.

“We want to get books on that circuit,” Barb Burg, a Bantam spokeswoman, said of the reading groups. “There’s not a publisher in town for which this isn’t a top priority.”

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Ugly Stick (by Richard B. Woodward, the Village Voice)


Note to the Caption: Ah, love! Caricature by Bartolomeo Passerotti, 16th century
Private Collection of Peter Willi/Bridgeman Art Library

The Ugly Stick
Severed heads, devouring monsters, Marilyn Manson—Umberto Eco gazes at the grotesque
by Richard B. Woodward
November 6th, 2007 4:25 PM


Umberto Eco is 75 and has entered the autumnal stage of intellectual renown when publishers sell his books with his name rather than his actual writing. He is not yet the factory of anthologies that Harold Bloom has become. But like On Beauty, Eco's previous well-packaged venture into aesthetics, much of On Ugliness is a collection of quotes from writers— Aristotle, Dante, Milton, Kafka, Sartre—who are even bigger brands than he is.

As a historical survey of our responses to horror, this format is fine so long as you don't expect the semiotician-cum-novelist to spend much time analyzing these matters. The muddled relationships between ugliness and evil, physical and moral deformity, dread and mockery of ugliness he's content to leave muddled, pointing out simply their conjoined ancestry.

Eco starts off with a few promising insights. "Whereas all the synonyms for beautiful could be conceived as a reaction of disinterested appreciation," he points out, "almost all the synonyms for ugly contain a reaction of disgust, if not of violent repulsion, horror, or fear." Before pausing to wonder why ugliness rebounds in our gut, however, he is rushing us off to pull down another classical author from the library shelf.

The chapter "The Ugly, the Comic, and the Obscene" opens with a citation from Montaigne, who wondered why sex, a "natural, necessary, and legitimate act," should provoke shame and jokes. Next is Freud's dubious observation that the sight of genitals is always exciting, even if they are "nonetheless never considered beautiful." Eco then closes the section with a few paragraphs about Priapus, the minor Hellenistic deity with the major schlong who inspired laughter but was himself "not a happy god," according to antiquity.

The buried assumptions in these thoughts would be worth unpacking if Eco would spend time to rest before the next stop on his tour of civilization. And a Eurocentric tour it is: He includes virtually nothing here, text or image, that touches on the many examples of grotesque or terrifying figures in Japanese, Chinese, Indian-American, or African art—stunning omissions given that he also harps on the obvious point that ugliness is relative to period and place.

The pleasures of the book—and they are considerable—derive from listening to an aging scholar's discourse on a lifetime of reading. Eco has always been at heart a Latinist. The numerous medieval texts he unearths help argue his case that figures such as St. Bernard were more fascinated by monsters and other sinister avatars than they knew they should be. St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas made room for lots of individual ugliness as part of a more comprehensive divine plan.

The book's illustrations are less parochial than the text, running the gamut from an astonishing, almost sci-fi painting of the Temptations of Saint Anthony by Salvator Rosa in the 17th century to a snarling photo of Sam, winner of the Ugliest Dog in the World contest. Judith's beheading of Holophernes by Caravaggio shares a spread with a 2003 photo from the Liberian civil war of a man holding his enemy's severed skull. Nosferatu, E.T., Divine, and Marilyn Manson also find a home here.

Striking are the centuries of writers and artists who have violated norms, embraced distortion, and deliberately made work they hoped would force their contemporaries to shudder or puke. The Renaissance Mannerists, including Michelangelo, stretched classical ideals to the breaking point. The Romantics reveled in perverse logic ("I love spiders and nettles/Because we hate them," wrote Victor Hugo in 1856). Other French writers (Marquis de Sade, Octave Mirbeau, Georges Bataille) have contemplated evil as a kind of spiritual exercise, testing how much their minds—and readers—could tolerate.

Ezra Pound hailed a "cult of ugliness" as part of a modernist program. This echoed the Italian and Russian Futurist manifesto, entitled "Let Us Be Courageously Ugly," which stated that "our aim is to underline the great importance for art of harshness, dissonance, and pure primordial coarseness." The gay sensibility of camp is related to other forms of ironic (kitsch) or militant (punk) ugliness, and Eco at least acknowledges them, even if he isn't able to effectively separate them.

At times, he speculates that absolute ugliness may exist. The smell of excrement and the sight of putrefying flesh, he points out, are offensive across all cultures. If he had included the writings of evolutionary biologists, he might have told us why this could be so. That he shows no awareness of post-Darwinian science can mean only that he isn't serious about locating the sources of aesthetic feelings. Hegel suggested that ugliness was a "species" of beauty. I suspect Eco's latest effort was hatched as a sport of his earlier research, and although both books are handsome and kinky fun, in neither case does he appear to have overexerted himself.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

All Souls (by Peter Schjeldahl, the New Yorker)



Note to the Caputure: “Me and My Parrots” (“Yo y Mis Pericos”)/1941/Oil on canvas. © 2007 Banco de México Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo Museums Trust. Av. Cinco de Mayo No. 2, Col. Centro, Del. Cuauhtémoc 06059, México, D.F.

The Art World
All Souls
The Frida Kahlo cult.
by Peter Schjeldahl November 5, 2007

There are so many ways to be interested in Frida Kahlo, who was born a hundred years ago and died forty-seven years later, in 1954, that simply to look at and judge her paintings, as paintings, may seem narrow-minded. No one need appreciate art to justify being a Kahlo fan or even a Kahlo cultist. (Why not? The world will have cults, and who better merits one?) In Mexico, Kahlo’s ubiquitous image has become the counter-Guadalupe, complementing the numinous Virgin as a deathless icon of Mexicanidad. Kahlo’s ascension, since the late nineteen-seventies, to feminist sainthood is ineluctable, though a mite strained. (Kahlo struggled not in common cause with women but, single-handedly, for herself.) And her pansexual charisma, shadowed by tales of ghastly physical and emotional suffering, makes her an avatar of liberty and guts. However, Kahlo’s eminence wobbles unless her work holds up. A retrospective at the Walker Art Center, in Minneapolis, proves that it does, and then some. She made some iffy symbological pictures and a few perfectly awful ones—forgivably, given their service to her always imperilled morale—but her self-portraits cannot be overpraised. They are sui generis in art while collegial with great portraiture of every age. Kahlo is among the winnowed elect of twentieth-century painters who will never be absent for long from the mental museums of future artists.

She was born Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderón in the house where she would die, in Coyoacán, then a prosperous suburb and later a district of Mexico City. She was the third child of a Hungarian-German immigrant photographer, who was an atheist Jew, and a pious mestiza from Oaxaca. Polio, at age six, withered her right leg and foot. She was among the rare girls admitted to the sterling National Preparatory School, in Mexico City, where she grew from an effervescent tomboy into a brilliant young woman, during the creative tumult of the nineteen-twenties. When she was eighteen, a bus crash left her with spinal and pelvic damage that would entail many surgeries, some of them probably unnecessary. (Was she masochistic? Anyone doomed to a lifetime of pain will find veins of sweetness in it.) While convalescing, she began to paint, depicting herself, in styles influenced by Renaissance and Mannerist masters, with the aid of a mirror set in the canopy of her bed. In 1928, she took up with Mexico’s chief artist, Diego Rivera, who was twenty years her senior. They married in 1929, divorced for a year in 1939, then remarried. They were the loves of each others’ lives, though with innumerable supplements. Their semi-public affairs (her amours included Leon Trotsky and numerous women); their dealings with famous figures in America and Europe, from John D. Rockefeller to Pablo Picasso; and their political adventures, as Communists subject to sectarian pushes and pulls, make Hayden Herrera’s hugely consequential biography, “Frida” (1983), a delirious read. (Herrera is a co-curator, with Elizabeth Carpenter, of the Walker show.) Kahlo died, probably of a complication of pneumonia, the last in a cascade of deteriorative maladies, a year after the opening of her first solo exhibition in Mexico.



Rivera often remarked, correctly, that Kahlo was a better painter than he was. Picasso confessed himself incapable “of painting a head like those of Frida Kahlo.” André Breton praised her art—with enthusiasm marked by condescension—as “a ribbon around a bomb.” In point of fact, the ribbons and other feminine adornments that she renders are, themselves, rhetorically explosive. Breton also claimed her as an exemplar of international Surrealism. Wrong again. At her best, she is a better artist than any of the Surrealists except Salvador Dali at his best, unless early Giorgio de Chirico may be deemed Surrealist before the letter. Besides, the avant-garde most germane to Kahlo’s development in the twenties is that of German Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity), which mined heightened realism for psychological drama. To this, she added fecund inspirations from Mexican pre-Columbian and folk art and Spanish-colonial and Creole portraiture. No swoons into the supposed unconscious—even most of her dream pictures are wide awake. She was terrific at still-lifes of fruit and flowers and at picturing animals—she intermittently maintained a menagerie of dogs, cats, parrots, and monkeys—all of which channel her consciousness. Kahlo’s self-portraits are about her gaze, as subject matter, technique, and content. They dramatize sheer attentiveness. They tell us exactly what it’s like to be Frida Kahlo, with, I believe, a superbly indifferent confidence that we will not understand. She confides, but she won’t plead. She makes eye contact not with the viewer but with herself—watching herself watch herself, in an extended but closed loop. T. S. Eliot articulated the truth, regarding all successful art, of a dissociation of “the man who suffers and the mind which creates.” Make the man a woman, and Kahlo becomes singular for having engaged both parties at once—and only them. Looking at the pictures, you’re not there.



The meaning of Kahlo’s art comes across in reproductions, but not its full dynamic, which involves brooding subtleties of surface and color. The reproduced images are shiny and bright. The paintings are matte and grayish, drinking and withholding light. (Their display calls for intense illumination—that of the Mexican sun, say. They should not be hung on white walls, as they are at the Walker, where the contrast makes them look like holes in a snowbank.) The lovely, highly varied, blushing colors (even Kahlo’s browns and greens blush) don’t radiate. Fused with represented flesh, foliage, fabrics, and, yes, ribbons and jewelry, they turn their backs to us. The payoff of this reticence is an absorption in the artist’s touch. It’s easy to fantasize that Kahlo’s brushes were fingertips, able to mold her own more than familiar features in the dark. The tactility of certain self-portraits is, among other things, staggeringly sexy. In “Me and My Parrots” (1941), it combines with sharp tonal contrasts of warm color to convey invisible moistness, as of a summertime, full-body, delicate sweat. Elsewhere, the felt oneness of sight and touch stirs harrowing empathy, as in “The Broken Column” (1944). Kahlo’s nude body is split open to reveal a crumbling pillar, nails penetrating her flesh everywhere. Tears flow from her eyes, but her face is dispassionate, as always. Her pain is not her. It just won’t let her mind stray to anything else, for the moment. The work belongs to a category of images with which Kahlo confronted and endured episodes of agony, including heartbreak and rage. (Most piercing are laments of her disastrous pregnancies; she longed for children but physically could not bring a baby to term.) They aren’t great art, but they are moving testaments of a great artist.



Blisteringly scornful of self-importance—in a letter from Paris, in English, she lauded Marcel Duchamp as “the only one who has his feet on the earth, among all this bunch of coocoo lunatic sons of bitches of the surrealists”—Kahlo would surely raise her prodigious eyebrow to behold what has been made of her. But immortal fame rarely meshes with the temperament of those it befalls. It is about the wishes of others. In Kahlo’s case, the ways that she has been used by feminists, multiculturalists, bisexualists, and whatnot are readily defensible. Each catches the glint from one of her facets. Most of all, Kahlo is authentically a national treasure of Mexico, a country that her work expresses not merely as a culture but as a complete civilization, with profound roots in several pasts and with proper styles of modernity. She didn’t accomplish this by trying to, as Rivera did. She simply did it. For confirmation, visit her house, the Casa Azul, in Coyoacán, whose contents and décor are as vibrant with her presence as if she had just stepped outside. I should disclose that I’m nearly a Kahlo cultist, myself. Much that is hurt and disappointed in me feels momentarily allayed, and almost healed, when I am in the spell of her art. Like the serene Madonnas of Giovanni Bellini, with their hints of the coming Crucifixion, her self-portraits assure me of two things: first, that things are worse than I know, and, second, that they’re all right.

Where do you stand in the new culture wars? (by Sarah Baxter, the Times)


Note to the Capture: Apparently, Aleida Guevara, Che Guevara’s daughter was silenced in Tehran. Related news came from the infamous New York Post. Reference: Link

From The Sunday Times
October 21, 2007
Where do you stand in the new culture wars?

As the rise of Islamism challenges the old assumptions of left and right, new cultural fault lines are emerging. Take our quiz to see which side you are on

by Sarah Baxter

Where do you stand in the culture wars debate? Post your views in the feedback box at the bottom of this story

Take our culture wars quiz

A glorious culture clash took place in Iran recently that made me laugh out loud. The children of Che Guevara, the revolutionary pin-up, had been invited to Tehran University to commemorate the 40th anniversary of their father’s death and celebrate the growing solidarity between “the left and revolutionary Islam” at a conference partly paid for by Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan president.

There were fraternal greetings and smiles all round as America’s “earth-devouring ambitions” were denounced. But then one of the speakers, Hajj Saeed Qassemi, the co-ordinator of the Association of Volunteers for Suicide-Martyrdom (who presumably remains selflessly alive for the cause), revealed that Che was a “truly religious man who believed in God and hated communism and the Soviet Union”.

Che’s daughter Aleida wondered if something might have been lost in translation. “My father never mentioned God,” she said, to the consternation of the audience. “He never met God.” During the commotion, Aleida and her brother were led swiftly out of the hall and escorted back to their hotel. “By the end of the day, the two Guevaras had become non-persons. The state-controlled media suddenly forgot their existence,” the Iranian writer Amir Taheri noted.

After their departure, Qassemi went on to claim that Fidel Castro, the “supreme guide” of Guevara, was also a man of God. “The Soviet Union is gone,” he affirmed. “The leadership of the downtrodden has passed to our Islamic republic. Those who wish to destroy America must understand the reality and not be clever with words.”

Don’t say you haven’t been warned, comrade, when you flirt with “revolutionary Islam” as if it were a mild form of liberation theology. But it is time, too, for Che to lose his secular halo. If he were still living, the chances are he would be another dictator like Castro, who has ruled Cuba with an iron fist for half a century but gets a pass from liberals because he provides a modest health service.

There used to be a clear dividing line between conservatives and liberals. It defined the culture wars of the late 20th century, which pitted reactionary fuddy-duddies against tolerant, enlightened types, who believed in equal rights for women, minorities and gays. That fault line is becoming as dated as the flower power of the 1960s.

By the time Terry Eagleton, a Marxist professor of literature – how quaint and old-fashioned that sounds – is laying into Martin Amis, the Mr Cool of British fiction, for remarks on Islam that supposedly make the son as racist as his father, Kingsley, “an antisemitic boor, a drink-sodden, self-hating reviler of women, gays and liberals”, it is obvious we are into a wholly different culture war, between phoney and real progressives.

Wasn’t one of Amis fils’s main complaints about Islamic militants that they were “antisemites, psychotic misogynists and homophobes”? Confused? You are not the only one.

My own test for spotting a phoney liberal is as follows. If you think Bush is a fascist and Castro is a progressive, you are not a democrat. If you think cultural traditions can trump women’s rights, you are not a feminist. And if you think antisemitic rants are simply an expression of frustration with American and Israeli policy, you have learnt nothing from history.

It is no longer possible to tell at a glance which side people are on. My husband, a photographer, has long hair and wears T-shirts and cargo pants. We live in stuffy Washington, where almost everybody wears a suit and tie but secretly longs to be artistic and hip. On the school run, nice lawyers confide to him that they hate George Bush, despise the Iraq war and are not as reactionary as they look. They are completely thrown if he tells them he dislikes Islamo-fascism more than Bush, is glad to see the back of Saddam Hussein, supports Nato against the Taliban and thinks the Iranian mullahs should never be trusted with a nuclear bomb. He considers himself an antifascist who believes in the secular values of the Enlightenment and human rights. There is nothing radical about being tolerant of the intolerant, he says.

On the other side of the looking glass, jeans-clad leftists are horrified that one of their own could possibly have anything in common with the dreaded neocons. Christopher Hitchens is a rock star among atheists, most of whom oppose the Iraq war. Last weekend, he travelled to Wisconsin to receive an award from the Freedom from Religion conference for his book God Is Not Great.

“In my acceptance speech I upbraided the audience by saying I could easily have got the impression that they thought the only threat to our society came from the Christian Coalition and possibly the odd Israeli settler,” he says. “You would not have known from anything on sale, any T-shirt, any peaked cap, any book or pamphlet, that there was such a thing as Islamic fundamentalism.”

They didn’t like it. “I got the usual lame and bleating replies that, to the extent that if there was such a thing, it’s been created by us,” Hitchens says. One of the most indulgent forms of western narcissism is that everything is “all about me” – or, in this case, the West. Myopic liberals find it impossible to believe that radical Islam may have a dynamic of its own that threatens their values. “You cannot stand for multiculturalism if you represent a group that wants to kill all the Jews and Hindus. Shouldn’t that be obvious?” Hitchens asks. “Martin [Amis] was saying, ‘Look, there’s a real problem here’, and good for him.

“The name of the problem is religion, and there is only one religion that threatens us with this kind of thing . . . There is a reason people look askance at a mosque in their neighbourhood, and they are not mad or cruel or stupid or selfish or bigoted to worry about it.”

Nick Cohen, whose book What’s Left? has just been published in paperback, identifies progressives as antitotalitarian internationalists who subscribe to “some kind of universal values”, as he puts it.

“The left are like old-style Tory imperialists, who believe rights are all very well for western Europe but not for Johnny Foreigner, and that the liberation of women is essentially for white-skinned women, not brown-skinned women,” Cohen says.

A case in point is the treatment of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somalia-born author of Infidel, who has received an astounding lack of support from liberals and the left. An article in Newsweek described her as a “bomb-thrower”, when it is Hirsi Ali who faces death threats from real bomb-throwers merely for speaking her mind and has had to rush back to the Netherlands because its government will no longer pay for her bodyguards while she is abroad.

Natasha Walter, reviewing her book in The Guardian, wrote blithely: “What sticks in the throats of many of her readers is not her feminism, but her antiIslamism” - as if the two could be separated. It was Hirsi Ali’s culture that led her to be genitally mutilated as a girl, and it was her Muslim former co-religionists who murdered her friend Theo van Gogh, the Dutch film-maker. Why should she remain quiet?

Irshad Manji, the Canadian Muslim feminist, is about to become director of the new Moral Courage Project at New York University. “It’s about developing leaders who speak truth to power within their own community,” she says. “Ultimately it is about defeating self-censorship.

“Human beings are born equal but cultures are not,” she believes. “They are human-made and for the most part man-made. There is nothing sacred about cultures and nothing blasphemous about reforming them.”

When Amis said something a little more forceful along those lines at the Cheltenham literary festival, he set off a new firestorm. “Some societies are just more evolved than others,” he said. Then last week on Channel 4 News, he said: “I feel morally superior to Islamists.”

Note that he is not saying he feels morally superior to Islam - but to Islamists. Is it wrong to make such a judgment, when there is nothing immutable about culture and society?

Manji says: “I absolutely defend his right to believe that certain civilisations are superior to others,” but adds the important rider: “In contemporary times he may be right, but in the past Islam gave birth to the Renaissance.”

To my mind, Manji is a “moderate” Muslim, in that she still describes herself as a person of faith, but to many of her Islamic brethren, she is off the scale. Liberals have been too quick to accept as moderates Muslims who are nothing of the kind – except in comparison with the suicide bombers and theologians of Al-Qaeda.

“It’s not a waste of time to search for the moderate Muslim, because there is a civil war within Islam between people who do and don’t want to live under sharia,” says Hitchens, “but there are a lot of counterfeits who are being seized on in our cultural cringe moment.”

The chief cringers, he might have added, are the phoney liberals. The new culture war looks set to run and run.