America’s Revolutionary Guard

J.K. Rowling suggests a difference between the Christianists in the United States and those of other countries (“J.K. Rowling Reflects on Fame, Fans and Harry Potter,” The Associated Press, 19 July 2007):

I had one letter from a vicar in England — this is the difference — saying would I please not put Christmas trees at Hogwarts as it was clearly a pagan society. Meanwhile, I’m having death threats when I’m on tour in America.

Of course, even the letter from the vicar is preposterous as European Christians appropriated the decorated pine tree as part of the symbolry of Christmas from early European pagans in an attempt to compete with preexisting celebrations long before — fictional, mind you — pagans reappropriated the tree to themselves.

Money is always a compelling issue — witness our China policy just for starters — and we’ve got a lot of it so people have to deal, but I wonder at what point the rest of the word declares the U.S. a bunch of incorrigible kooks and throws up their hands? Will the day come when a foreign author simply avoids the United States market, when an author is subject to the Salman Rushdie treatment in the United States? One can already almost see the analogy between the United States and Iran. A young, costal, cosmopolitan elite committed to freedom and secularism oppressed by a self-appointed and semi-officially condoned bunch of religious thugs. I can almost hear the first report of a Christian enforcer throwing acid in the face of a feminist on a book tour.

Business Loves Hillary

Business Loves Hillary Clinton, Fortune, 9 July 2007

Fortune reports (Easton, Nina, “Who Business is Betting on,” vol. 156, no. 1, 9 July 2007, pp. 45-52):

One of Hillary Clinton’s most important courtships began early last year, around a formal dinner table at Georgetown’s Four Seasons Hotel. Her targets were Morgan Stanley CEO John Mack and his wife, Christy. Mack was already active politically — but on behalf of Clinton’s political opponents. A Bush “Ranger,” he had raised at least $200,000 for the President’s reelection bid and was one of the most prominent business names on GOP donor lists. At one time his name had circulated as a potential Bush Treasury Secretary.

The conversation that night ranged widely, but always returned to one subject: health-care reform. …

Hillary Clinton was on familiar territory — and managed to charm the couple not only with her “intelligence and educated responses,” as Christy Mack recalls, but also with her one-on-one charisma. “You have these preconceived ideas about people you see in the public eye,” says Christy. “But we were extremely impressed with her ability to connect with every single person. She was an amazing listener, with tremendous warmth.”

The relationship could have ended there — a New York Senator engaging her local constituents. But early this year Clinton upped the ante with a phone call to the Morgan Stanley CEO, asking him to support her presidential bid. When he demurred, she asked for a meeting. Once again — this time over coffee — John and Christy Mack found themselves enticed. When Mack returned to his office, he told Nides he was ready to commit. “John, you can wait, you don’t have to commit yet,” Nides responded. “No,” Mack replied, “early support is better support.” Days later Mack picked up the phone and sealed the deal. Clinton, Nides recalls, “put the time in.”

On the one hand, this bodes well in that some have pointed out that Senator Clinton has nowhere to go but up and when people are exposed to Hillary Clinton in person instead of Hilary Clinton the myth, they are pleasantly surprised. On the other hand, one would really like to know what Senator Clinton could say (or maybe even promise?) to a Bush Ranger — in 2004 nonetheless — about healthcare that would cause him to back her for the presidency.

Cusping on a new Gilded Age, it would perhaps be best to have a candidate that business loathed. But I guess that’s what cusping on a new Gilded Age means: the money men vote first, then the rest of us chose from the slate they have prescreened.

Foodie Fetishes

Given that my last two posts might position me as something of a foodie, a skeptical step back might be in order.

For some people food is a truly important aspect of their lives. For people who garden and eat seasonal foods, I imagine their involvement with food is something akin to the cyclical ceremonial calendars of the religions. Only instead of serving to reify the connection to the sky gods of the major religions, the rituals of food serve to root people to the biorhythms of the Earth. And it probably occupies a similar psychological function, connecting a person to a larger story, cordoning off a ritual time separate from the monotony of the world (in this case the timeless homogeneity of the globalized food supply chain), demonstrating and reaffirming principles by which a community lives (e.g. vegetarians).

While this may be the case for a minority of us, for most foodies it’s the exact opposite: it’s just another commodity fetish.

Plymouth is Back!

Plymouth English Gin, the original and the redesigned bottles

I learned to drink from four people: my parents and two college fiends, Bill and Mariella. I say that I learned to drink from them because upon reflection, I am frequently impressed at the gems of booze-related insight that I have taken from these four. One evening, while over at Bill and Mariella’s place, the drink on offer was Gordon’s Gin in the one gallon plastic easy pour bottle. I sniffed: “Gordon’s is some pretty bad stuff.” Bill remonstrated with glee, “Bad gin? What are you talking about? They don’t make bad gin.” This is one of those peaces of alky wisdom that I have carried with me since.

But while they don’t make bad gin, not all gin is equal. And so at the beginning of May the New York Times ran a review of gins (Asimov, Eric, “No, Really, It Was Tough: 4 People, 80 Martinis,” 2 May 2007), and despite my concern that the over-excited pretension of a New York Times food review might sour one of my affections, I pressed on and found the article interesting and useful. Unfortunately the useful went catastrophically awry.

I have been in something of a gin doldrum lately. I now blame this on the fact that I have stuck too loyally with Bombay Sapphire. While a complex and flavorful gin, it is also powerful, sharp and nearly overcome by its alcohol. It’s great for a gin and tonic, too busy to blend well in a martini and I have recoiled from it on the rocks. With the New York Times article marked up and in hand I stopped in my neighborhood liquor store looking for what the tasting panel selected as their number one, Plymouth English Gin.

I have to say, I have been amazed at how good the Plymouth is. It really is a perfect, well balanced gin with the canonical amount of juniper. I can’t remember the last time I polished off a bottle of liquor so quickly — no, really, I can’t remember. A week later I was back for another bottle — in college I could have dusted it in a night or two, but I’m not so resilient or stupid anymore. At the end of week two I was back for a third bottle. This time the clerk told me that he only had two left and couldn’t get any more. It turns out that I am not the only person who reads the New York Times and distilling a gin isn’t something that can be done over night. There had been a run on Plymouth and the distillery was rushing to catch up. I took two and the next day at lunch went to the liquor store near my office and snapped up a few more for a store to carry me through the lean season.

My supply was dwindling and I was beginning to get nervous and eye the shallow gin row every time I opened the liquor cabinet and ration my intake. This week I stopped by previously mentioned neighborhood liquor store to pick up a bottle of wine to accompany the dinner-directed bag of groceries in hand. While being rung up I got a premonition and circled back to the end of the counter where the gins are massed and there was a suspicious looking familiar bottle. “What is that square bottle right there?” I inquired. Despite this being my favorite liquor store, the clerk is constantly trying to push me into the popular brand names and refuses to learn that I am always on the prowl for the Plymouth now. He gave it a half turn. “Oh, we just got in a new shipment of the Plymouth.” Saved! Confident that the drought was past I availed myself of only one.

Mmm … Avocados

September 2007, Saveur, Avocado Love, Know Your Avocados, p. 84

The most recent Saveur has one of the most erotic fruits on the cover: the avocado (Nguyen, Andrea, “Like Butter,” no. 104, September 2007, pp. 76-87). Am I in doubt? Check out the cover art of the most recent Pearl Jam album.

As I have said before, I tend to obsess on foods. A while back it was guacamole. I was making it every few nights. At an earlier point I tried to search the stores for a packaged guacamole, but that is hopeless. Most of what goes under the label of guacamole is sour cream and onion dip died green, but even the best doesn’t even come close. It’s something that you simply must make yourself. Fortunately for me and my obsessions, while a late teenager my mother — who probably also has a tendency to obsess on foods — went through a phase where she was constantly making a very rustic guacamole, so improvising my own recipe was natural. I have recently achieved a bit of a party reputation for my guacamole — why, I don’t know: it’s about as simple a recipe as you can imagine. The only thing you need to know is how to combine the ingredients so that you don’t over-stir it and end up with too creamy and consistent a guacamole.

My Central and South America hopping brother told me that once while in Mexico he visited an avocado farm. The farm hound would patrol the fields for over-ripe avocados that had fallen from the trees and gobble them down. He reported that under his fur the dog’s skin was slightly green tinted and that he shit guacamole (the lesser known recipe). On the other hand, I have heard that avocados are poison to most domesticated animals, so I don’t know how to reconcile these two stories. On the precautionary principle, Kitty is rather vehemently shooed away from a bowl of the stuff.

Some Other Books that Bush Should Read

The White House press office and has periodically made it known what books the President is reading. On a few occasions even the President himself has staged a mini publicity stunt to show off the same, for instance when he very deliberately paraded around with a copy of Bernard Goldberg’s book Bias to demonstrate his low opinion of the press or Eliot Cohen’s Supreme Command to signal to the military that the administration wasn’t about to be pushed around by a bunch of generals with their dictates of military requirement.

I am currently reading Adam Zamoyski’s Moscow 1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March. Sometimes it’s hard to imagine that a work was not written with an eye to current events. And sometimes they are. Robert Massie has specifically said that he wrote Dreadnought, his book about how the naval arms race between Britain and Germany precipitated the First World War, in part to illustrate the dangers of the Regan nuclear arms buildup.

When I read passages like the following, it is hard not to think that Mr. Zamoyski doesn’t have a certain contemporary swashbuckling world leader in mind. With the La Grande Armée fully ensconced in Moscow, harried by marauding Cossacks, Napoleon contemplates his next move:

Napoleon was far too astute not to realize that his strategy had gone badly wrong, and that Caulaincourt had been right all along. But he did not like to admit it. And he recoiled from the only logical next step, which was to withdraw. He liked neither the idea of retreat, which went against his instincts, nor the implications of such a withdrawal on the political climate in Europe. He also had an extraordinary capacity for making himself believe something just be decreeing it to be true. “In many circumstances, to wish something and believe it were for him one and the same thing,” in the words of General Bourienne. So he hung on, believing that Alexander’s nerve would break or that his own proverbial luck would come up with something.

He had studied the weather charts, which told him that it did not get really cold until the beginning of December, so he did not feel any sense of urgency. What he did not realize, in common with many who do not know those climates, was just how sudden and savage changes of temperature can be, and how temperature is only one factor, which along with wind, water and terrain can turn nature into a viciously powerful opponent.

The unusually fine weather at the beginning of October contributed to his complacency. He teased Caulaincourt, accusing him of peddling stories about the Russian winter invented to “frighten children.” “Caulaincourt thinks he’s frozen already,” he quipped. He kept on saying that it was warmer than Fontainebleau at that time of year, and dismissed suggestions that the army provide itself with gloves and items of warm clothing. …

With every day Napoleon spent in Moscow, the harder it was to leave without loss of face, and the usually decisive Emperor became immobilized by the need to choose between an unappealing range of options on the one hand, and a stubborn belief in his lucky star on the other. He fell into the trap of thinking that by delaying a decision he was leaving his options open. In fact, he only really had one option, and he was reducing the chances of its success with every day he delayed. (pp. 351-352)

For the outcome of this story, one need only consult Charles Minard’s famous chart portraying the destruction of the French Army. Substitute a few terms and this sounds strikingly like the current situation of the United States in the Middle East. For those of you who object to the comparison in the first sentence of the excerpt, “Napoleon was far too astute not to realize that his strategy had gone badly wrong,” I ask, do you really think that CIA director Michael Hayden told the Iraq Study Group that the “instability” in Iraq seems “irreversible” and that he could not “point to any milestone or checkpoint where we can turn this thing around,” (Woodward, Bob, “CIA Said Instability Seemed ‘Irreversible’,” Washington Post, 12 July 2007, p. A1) but that he has been telling the President in his daily briefings that everything is coming up roses? President Bush has been told the situation in Iraq, and in some dark corner of his mind he knows what it is — altogether too often one can see this in his broken, impromptu remarks to the press where his pleading, too strident by half tone seems addressed as much to himself as anyone else in the room. He just doesn’t have the strength of mind — and that is what it takes — to come to terms with the truth.

The Order of the Phoenix

Warning: Spoiler Alert.

Following on John’s post (“Thrown Out of the Man Club,” 12 July 2007) about the detrimental impacts of Harry Potter on his manly virtue, I went to see Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix today. I was initially hesitant because I thought that Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was such a weak showing. However, under the influence of S., her friend and her friend’s six year old son, I went to see the latest and totally loved it. S. has been trying to get me to read the books and Order of the Phoenix has come about as close as anything to convincing me that I should. I may have to read at least Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, least S.’s mood upon completion give away the big secret.

The Archetype. I think the thing that I most liked about it is that the story has really flushed out all of the traditional elements of the hero narrative. We find a world with dark shapings afoot, but denial and corruption on the part of officialdom. A secret society formed to confront the villainous in its previous incantation has been decimated and scattered. Remnants try to pull together to prepare for the coming conflict (they are called The Order of the Phoenix in this version of the story in case you needed a few more clues), but that they are only a tiny band of resistance is okay because they are in possession of a powerful secret, that a prophesy of a budding power of good is about to bloom. And finally, of course, an agent of destiny who, at the key moment comes of age to fulfill said prophesy. At first people are in doubt as to the true nature of this individual, but eventually events bring everyone around. This agent of destiny is shepherded through the beginning of his trials by members of the old guard, but eventually reaches that point beyond which his teachers cannot help him, after which he must find his own way. But he is not alone and pulls together a small band of the new generation to fulfill the work of the old. This time the Scooby Gang is filled out into a full crime-fighting team, even if the original trio had to be rounded out by a couple of unnamed in the background like a Star Trek away team. Don’t wear red on a sleepover at Harry Potter’s house.

The True Battle is Within. Throughout the film the focus is on the mind. In the climactic battle between Dumbledore and He Who Cannot Be Named, Dumbledore may rout corporeal Voldemort, but the real battle takes place between the good and evil inclinations in the mind of Harry Potter, portrayed too briefly in a series of images from Harry’s life stitched together from the previous films, shifting from fear and loss to happy memories of Hermione and Ron.

When Harry is teaching the other members Dumbledore’s Army how to produce the Patronus Charm he tells them that they must remain focused on their happiest thought throughout, no matter how frightened they might be. Snape insists that Harry “control your mind.”

When Harry has downed the death eater Bellatrix and ponders what to do with the creature that has just killed his godfather, Voldemort appears behind him and goads Harry, “You have to mean it, Harry. You know the spell. She killed him. She deserves it.” Whether killing a death eater or producing the Patronus Charm, it is the state of mind that is most consequential. It was all too reminiscent of the temptation of Luke Skywalker in the Emperor’s chamber in Return of the Jedi: “Take your weapon. Strike me down with all of your hatred and your journey towards the dark side will be complete.” In each instance, it is not the violent act itself that leads one to the dark side, but, again, the state of mind one is in when committing the act, whether it is done dispassionately, or filled with passionate anger.

The National Security States. There is apparently something of a debate on the bloggosphere over whether Michael Bay’s Transformers is about the Bush administration and the Iraq war (the only bubblings-up that I have seen are via Matthew Yglesias, “ Michael Bay and the National Security State,” 11 July 2007; “Strong Reading,” 12 July 2007). Partisans really getting worked up over this issue should go see The Order of the Phoenix.

Harry Potter is slightly confused in its symbol system. In Harry Potter it is the good guys who know that forces are gathering and war inevitable while it’s the perfidious Minister of Magic, Cornelius Fudge, who is the one that’s in denial. Meanwhile Laura Bush cum Professor of Defense Against Dark Arts, Dolores Umbridge, seems to be running the Hogwarts Department of Homeland Security at the same time she is administering No Child-Wizard Left Behind. She replaces the previously experiential curriculum of Defense Against the Dark Arts with pure book-base memorization aimed at passing the O.W.L. exams. She cavalierly brandishes accusations of disloyalty. At one point Ms. Umbridge is warned that a particular method or interrogation that she is about to employ on Harry Potter would constitute torture and according to the Ministry of Magic is illegal. Ms. Umbridge slaps the face of a photograph of the Minister of Magic face-down on her desk: “What the Ministry does not know will not hurt it.”

As for the things that I didn’t like, first I want Harry and Hermione to be getting it on. But no, the bookish overachieving, running with the wolfs woman is always shuffled off with the red-headed step-child. Meanwhile Harry is hooking up with the moody but insubstantial Asian hottie. Second, while the film partially embraces contingency it ends on a note too naive not to get my hackles up, even in fantasy. In the after-action debrief, the gang is all gathered together and Harry Potter reassures them that they will defeat Voldemort because, “We’ve got something he doesn’t have. We’ve got something worth fighting for.” It’s not one of those ridiculous inspirational pep talks that one might expect from, say, a Roland Emmerich film — if anything the virtues of the Harry Potter films is the degree to which the moral uplift is quiet and meek — still, if only. History is littered with the decent and worthy laid low by the stupid and cruel, but powerful. The outcome is not ordained.