Saturday, November 08, 2003

To deaden and divert

You might surmise that, in the wake of the opening of the Broadway show I was working on, I'm catching up on my accumlated back issues of the New York Review of Books, and you would be correct in doing so.

This is from a review by Russell Baker, the former New York Times columnist, of Paul Krugman's book, The Great Unraveling:

Krugman's analysis of journalism's limp coverage during Bush's first three years overlooks some potentially interesting explanations. One has to do with political journalism's heavy dependence on polling. Incessant polls make it tempting to do easy horse-race journalism and ignore what candidates stand for. Since polling doesn't require going far from the office and social centers where professionals chat about polls, it has tended to make political journalism a stultifying kind of work. There is no longer much fresh air blowing through the political columns, but a great deal of deadly dull inside-baseball stuff that sounds like Washington insiders talking among themselves.

The healthy income of top Washington-based political writers may also have an effect. For those with a foot or two in television, the income is very healthy indeed. Six-figure incomes are the rule, and those seen frequently as TV performers may be millionaires. We are talking of people who may well be in that top bracket so generously favored by the Bush tax cuts. Self-interest almost always begets a little prudence.

Krugman's column is remarkable for its single-minded concentration on the President's economic policy. There is very little of the mock ideological posturing about "conservatism" and "liberalism" which most pundits churn out on dull days. He rarely deals with foreign policy except as it affects the economy. He has not said much about the Bush administration's astonishing switch to a unilateral policy of mak-ing preemptive war against nations the President considers dangerous, and there has been virtually none of the conventional pundit's bread-and-butter material: information about what insiders are saying, meditations on the small-town virtues of New Hampshire, startling scoops on what the next usually reliable poll will reveal about public outrage, contentment, or utter indifference.

Most pundits dwell on such stuff because they started out as political reporters or were politicians themselves when they were hired into journalism. They grew to maturity talking this shop talk, and they come to the work with a somewhat limited intellectual reach, as well as a repressive sense of dignity.

Few are equipped to challenge the mathematics and economic theory underlying the Bush budget, and though Krugman may scold them for not doing their homework, doing so would involve prodigious feats of reeducation. Even then it's doubtful that many would be willing to attack a president with charges of deceit, as Krugman has done. A sense of propriety, of dignity, sits heavily on the "commentariat," as Krugman calls it. In the code language of the trade, a colleague like Krugman is said to be "shrill" or "strident," words commonly used to caution a colleague that he is being crude and undignified.

In the higher levels of journalism there is a curious uneasiness about dealing candidly with the quite natural relationship between various money interests and government. All politics is to a great extent about who gets the lion's share of the money at a government's disposal, and a public that realized this might be less insouciant about elections than today's American nonvoter.

Journalism is reluctant, however, to make much of an effort to find out who will benefit if a given candidate wins, and who will lose out. Instead of providing this valuable information, the media tend to explain politics in terms of high-sounding ideological piffle about a "conservatism" and a "liberalism" which have very little pertinence to anything of consequence to the voter. The result is to deaden public interest in politics by diverting the mind from the fact that there is real money at stake.
[Emphasis added -- Ed]

It seems slightly scandalous that Krugman has persisted in noting that the present administration has been moving the lion's share of the money to an array of corporate interests distinguished by the greed of their CEOs, an indifference toward their workers, and boardroom conviction that it is the welfare state that is ruining the country. Krugman has been strident. He has been shrill. He has lowered the dignity of the commentariat. How refreshing.

Ed Fitzgerald | 11/08/2003 05:52:00 PM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE


Too late for two states?

In the same issue of the NYRB Tony Judt has a provocative essay on the Israel/Palestine problem, titled "Israel: The Alternative".

The Middle East peace process is finished. It did not die: it was killed. Mahmoud Abbas was undermined by the President of the Palestinian Authority and humiliated by the Prime Minister of Israel. His successor awaits a similar fate. Israel continues to mock its American patron, building illegal settlements in cynical disregard of the "road map." The President of the United States of America has been reduced to a ventriloquist's dummy, pitifully reciting the Israeli cabinet line: "It's all Arafat's fault." Israelis themselves grimly await the next bomber. Palestinian Arabs, corralled into shrinking Bantustans, subsist on EU handouts. On the corpse-strewn landscape of the Fertile Crescent, Ariel Sharon, Yasser Arafat, and a handful of terrorists can all claim victory, and they do. Have we reached the end of the road? What is to be done?

At the dawn of the twentieth century, in the twilight of the continental empires, Europe's subject peoples dreamed of forming "nation-states," territorial homelands where Poles, Czechs, Serbs, Armenians, and others might live free, masters of their own fate. When the Habsburg and Romanov empires collapsed after World War I, their leaders seized the opportunity. A flurry of new states emerged; and the first thing they did was set about privileging their national, "ethnic" majority—defined by language, or religion, or antiquity, or all three—at the expense of inconvenient local minorities, who were consigned to second-class status: permanently resident strangers in their own home.

But one nationalist movement, Zionism, was frustrated in its ambitions. The dream of an appropriately sited Jewish national home in the middle of the defunct Turkish Empire had to wait upon the retreat of imperial Britain: a process that took three more decades and a second world war. And thus it was only in 1948 that a Jewish nation-state was established in formerly Ottoman Palestine. But the founders of the Jewish state had been influenced by the same concepts and categories as their fin-de-siècle contemporaries back in Warsaw, or Odessa, or Bucharest; not surprisingly, Israel's ethno-religious self-definition, and its discrimination against internal "foreigners," has always had more in common with, say, the practices of post-Habsburg Romania than either party might care to acknowledge.

The problem with Israel, in short, is not—as is sometimes suggested—that it is a European "enclave" in the Arab world; but rather that it arrived too late. It has imported a characteristically late-nineteenth-century separatist project into a world that has moved on, a world of individual rights, open frontiers, and international law. The very idea of a "Jewish state"—a state in which Jews and the Jewish religion have exclusive privileges from which non-Jewish citizens are forever excluded— is rooted in another time and place. Israel, in short, is an anachronism.


The time has come to think the unthinkable. The two-state solution— the core of the Oslo process and the present "road map"—is probably already doomed. With every passing year we are postponing an inevitable, harder choice that only the far right and far left have so far acknowledged, each for its own reasons. The true alternative facing the Middle East in coming years will be between an ethnically cleansed Greater Israel and a single, integrated, binational state of Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians. That is indeed how the hard-liners in Sharon's cabinet see the choice; and that is why they anticipate the removal of the Arabs as the ineluctable condition for the survival of a Jewish state.

But what if there were no place in the world today for a "Jewish state"? What if the binational solution were not just increasingly likely, but actually a desirable outcome? It is not such a very odd thought. Most of the readers of this essay live in pluralist states which have long since become multiethnic and multicultural. "Christian Europe," pace M. Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, is a dead letter; Western civilization today is a patchwork of colors and religions and languages, of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Arabs, Indians, and many others—as any visitor to London or Paris or Geneva will know.

Israel itself is a multicultural society in all but name; yet it remains distinctive among democratic states in its resort to ethnoreligious criteria with which to denominate and rank its citizens. It is an oddity among modern nations not—as its more paranoid supporters assert—because it is a Jewish state and no one wants the Jews to have a state; but because it is a Jewish state in which one community—Jews —is set above others, in an age when that sort of state has no place.

Ed Fitzgerald | 11/08/2003 03:25:00 AM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE


Schlesinger on Bush

The quote by JFK came from an article by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in the New York Review of Books. Here's Schlesinger's take on George W. Bush:

[W]e must not underrate President Bush's capacity for getting his way. He is a minority president who lost the popular election by more than half a million votes. The first minority president, John Quincy Adams, also a president's son, said apologetically in his inaugural address, "Less possessed of your confidence, in advance, than any of my predecessors, I am deeply conscious of the prospect that I shall stand more and oftener in need of your indulgence." There were no such apologies in Mr. Bush's inaugural address. He acted as if he had won in a landslide and had earned an electoral mandate—and he got away with it.

For all his buffoonish side, the President is secure in himself, disciplined, decisive and crafty, and capable of concentrating on a few priorities. He has maintained control of a rag-tag Republican coalition, well described by Kevin Phillips (author of The Emerging Republican Majority, 1969) as consisting of "Wall Street, Big Energy, multinational corporations, the Military-Industrial Complex, the Religious Right, the Market Extremist think-tanks, and the Rush Limbaugh Axis." All these groups agree in their strong support of their president, though they sharply disagree among themselves.

President Bush radiates a serene but scary certitude when confronted with complicated problems or disagreements. "There is no doubt in my mind we're doing the right thing," he told Bob Woodward. "Not one doubt." Friends attribute this serenity to his religious faith. Woodward, who interviewed Mr. Bush for nearly four hours for his book Bush at War, came away with the clear impression that "the president was casting his mission and that of the country in the grand vision of God's master plan." "I'm here for a reason," Mr. Bush told Karl Rove, his political wizard, "and this is going to be how we're going to be judged." A senior aide commented that the President "really believes he was placed here to do this [his military policy] as part of a divine plan."

Though there is no doubting the sincerity of Mr. Bush's religious beliefs, his faith also serves his political purposes. Religious statistics are notoriously unreliable, but perhaps a third of Americans are born-again, evangelical Christians. In my youth, Protestant fundamentalists could be depended upon to be anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic. They led the campaign against Al Smith in 1928 and John F. Kennedy in 1960. They had lynched Leo Frank in Georgia in 1915. In those days, fundamentalists were a disdained and isolated Bible Belt minority. But in the last generation the Christian right has formed an alliance with right-wing Catholics over abortion and an alliance with right-wing Jews over the Holy Land. In consequence, they are a far more potent political force today, perhaps affecting more than 40 percent of the electorate; they give a born-again president a built-in advantage.

As Eisenhower's scrambled syntax misled people about his executive determination and political skills, so Mr. Bush's scrambled syntax misleads people, especially liberal intellectuals. The late Murray Kempton was among the first liberals to spot Ike's well-concealed political prowess—"devious" in the best sense of the word, as Nixon said. In an article in Time, "The Power of One," Michael Kinsley correctly diagnosed Mr. Bush as "the real thing: a leader." This is certainly not to suggest that Mr. Bush has the weight of experience and the circumspection of judgment that characterized Ike. But he is skillful at mobilizing opinion and brushing aside opposition.

[Link added]

Ed Fitzgerald | 11/08/2003 03:16:00 AM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE



We must face the fact that the United States is neither omnipotent or omniscient -- that we are only 6 percent of the world's population -- that we cannot impose our will upon the other 94 percent of mankind -- that we cannot right every wrong or reverse each and every adversity -- and that therefore there cannot be an American solution to every world problem.
John F. Kennedy
speech at the University of Washington (11/16/61)

Ed Fitzgerald | 11/08/2003 02:59:00 AM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE

Tuesday, November 04, 2003

Cellphones and tardiness

I have to admit that I have very little use for the "SundayStyles" section of the New York Times, and yet I continue to glance at it every week just to see if anything of interest might be hiding among the articles about the trivial and superficial ephemera of modern society. Recently I was rewarded for my diligence by a piece about how cellphone use is changing the habits of Americans, making them less concerned about punctuality and more prone to feeling that calling in their lateness was sufficient and appropriate behavior.

Unfortunately, the article, "Calling in Late" by Kate Zernike, has slipped into the Times archive (it's here for those who wish to pay for a look at it), and the only syndicated version of it I can find (in the Denver Post) is so truncated as to make it almost worthless, a throw-away snippet to fill an empty hole needing some "content".

Here are some excerpts from the article, which should give you the gist of it:

Restaurateurs, hairstylists, and friends and family of the unpunctual have suspected it for several years. Now research is providing some evidence: as cellphones have become more prevalent, with more than half of Americans wireless, so too has lateness. Phones have enabled more people to fall behind schedule and have provided a new crutch for the chronically tardy.


Researchers who study the effect of cellphones on society talk of a nation living in "soft time" -- a bubble in which expectations of where and when to meet shift constantly because people expect others to be constantly reachable. Eight-thirty is still 8 o'clock as long as your voice arrives on time -- or even a few minutes after -- to advise that you will not be wherever you are supposed to be at the appointed hour.


James E. Katz, a professor of communication at Rutgers University, has studied the behavior of thousands of cellphone users in surveys, in focus groups and in observational research, and he argues in two recent books, "Perpetual Contact" and "Machines That Become Us," that the cellphone has changed the nature of time and relationships. "It has erased the meaning of late," he said. "Just by calling and changing the plan, you're able to change being late to being on time."


Carol Page, who is the founder of, a cellphone etiquette site, described an e-mail message she received from a 16-year old boy whose mother had called him from her cellphone to say she would be late picking him up from soccer practice. Was there some emergency? A flat tire? No: she stopped along the way to look at some pottery.

"It's become 'Since I have a cellphone, I can dawdle more," Ms. Page said.

Dr. Katz said the subjects of his observations never considered themselves late if they called to alert the people they were meeting. They say they are being considerate of the other person by asking permission to be late," he said.

But ultimately, researchers say, being late is a way of exercising power.

"You think you're doing a good thing." Dr. [Robbie] Blinkhoff [, the principle anthropologist at Context-Based Research Group, which has studied the habits of cellphone users] said. "But in reality you're saying, 'I'm more important than you -- my time is more important than yours is.' There's this sense that if you're late, you must be really busy, and if you're really busy, you must be a really important person."

[Links added.]

Ironically, the effects of cellphones are different elsewhere:

The investigators at Context-Based Research Group concluded that the United States has become more like Brazil, where time has been spongy for generations. (In Brazil, on the other hand, people who used to just arrive late now complain that they have to call and explain.)

Ultimately, when behavioral shifts like this occur, counter-shifting occurs to being the system into whatever equilibrium is normal for the particular culture or sub-culture. In this case:

Some day care centers are beginning to charge steep fees when parents arrive late to claim their children. Restaurants are increasingly refusing to seat people who are waiting for stragglers, or not taking reservations at all.

I have a hard time believing, however, that any substantial number of people are simply getting rid of their cellphones. I myself resisted getting a cell for quite a long time, giving in only when I was rehearsing one show in a place which had no incoming telephone easily available, while running another show in the evenings, and I had to be reachable in case any crisis came up at one production while I was working on the other. That was the summer of 2001, and I rarely regret having given in, despite the occasional annoyance of being reachable when I don't particularly want to be.

Ed Fitzgerald | 11/04/2003 03:30:00 AM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE


Cleaning up

Since I seem to be bent on flinging questions out into the void, how about this one:

Why is the bidet ubiquitous in Europe and practically unknown here? And will this high-tech version of it, which I've seen a number of commercials for on cable TV, catch on?

Ed Fitzgerald | 11/04/2003 01:22:00 AM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE


...and Again

Another query regarding our measurement of time:

In his early novel Cat's Cradle (1963), Kurt Vonnegut wrote:

I had heard it suggested one time that the seasons in the temperate
zone should be six rather than four in number: summer, autumn, locking, winter, unlocking, and spring. And I remembered that as I straightened up beside our manhole, and stared and listened and sniffed.

There were no smells. There was no movement. Every step I took made a gravelly squeak in blue-white frost. And every squeak was echoed loudly. The season of locking was over. The earth was locked up tight.

It was winter, now and forever.

(The scene, of course, is the total devastation of the world by the accidental release of a quantity of "Ice-9" with a template of a new crystalline structure which instantly locks up all the free water in the world.)

Over the years, I've tried to find out who Vonnegut's protagonist was referring to, but have been unable to do so. My most recent search (just a few minutes ago) pulled this from a sermon by a Unitarian minister, Victoria Stafford:

Kurt Vonnegut writes wisely about this time of year:
One sort of optional thing you might do is realize that there are six seasons instead of four. The poetry of four seasons is all wrong for this part of the planet, and this explain why we are so depressed so much of the time. I mean, spring doesn't feel like spring a lot of the time, and November is all wrong for autumn, and so on. Here is the truth about the seasons: Spring is May and June. What could be springier than May and June? Summer is July and August. Really hot, right? Autumn is September and October. Seethe pumpkins? Smell those burning leaves? Next comes the season called Locking. That is when nature shuts everything down. November and December aren't winter. They're Locking. Next comes winter, January and February. Boy! Are they ever cold! What comes next? Not spring. "Unlocking" comes next. What else could cruel March and only slightly less cruel April be? March and April are not spring. They are Unlocking.

So it seems that perhaps Vonnegut's narrator was referring to Vonnegut himself. Unfortunately, Reverend Stafford didn't provide any reference to what she was quoting from, and additional searches on the language Vonnegut used brought up nothing.

I've got most, if not of all, of Vonnegut's published works in my collection, but I've never been able to pin this down -- any help would be appreciated.

Ed Fitzgerald | 11/04/2003 12:56:00 AM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE

Monday, November 03, 2003


Of our normal units for measuring time in the West, some are intimately related to the natural rhythms of the physical world (the day, the month, the year) while others are arbitrary divisions of those (the second, the minute, the hour). All of the second kind of unit, the 7-day week is perhaps the most pervasive and invasive -- despite its arbitrary nature, the week is so utterly controlling of our everyday rhythms that it's extremely hard to think in any other way for time periods of a particular magnitude.

And yet, I really wish that we had a common name for a period of 10 days besides the clunky and unlovely "a week and a half". Were there one, I think people would find it quite handy and pick up on it. (Just think of how often you hear about something taking "a week to 10 days".) The British have the "fortnight" (14 days, or two weeks), but it didn't take permanent root here, for whatever reason, perhaps because it's just a little too long for the modern world.

In an article in a recent edition of the New York Review of Books (a review of J. R. McNeill and William H. McNeill's The Human Web: A Bird's-Eye View of World History), Jonathan D Spence wrote:

...from the documents currently available it seems that the Chinese adhered not to a seven-day week [...] but to a lunar calendar, in which days were arranged in repeated sequences of sixty paired cyclical symbols, with the nearest equivalents to "weeks" being counted in blocks of ten days. Such ten-day blocks also dictated the rhythms of local markets in town and countryside.

I don't suggest that anything as revolutionary as giving up the week be considered (who would, since such a suggestion would be lunacy), but I don't see the harm in coming up with a name for 10 days, perhaps based on "deca-" or whatever the Old English or Middle English for "10" is.

Any suggestions?

Incidentally, it's been a little more than 10 days and a little less than a fortnight since I last posted, for which my apologies -- my work has been keeping me quite, well, busy.

P.S. Some other accounts (no link provided) are inaccurate and contain gross mistatements, which some might want to categorize as "lies".

Ed Fitzgerald | 11/03/2003 11:47:00 PM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE


Ed Fitzgerald

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03/16/2008 - 03/23/2008
03/23/2008 - 03/30/2008
03/30/2008 - 04/06/2008
06/01/2008 - 06/08/2008
09/21/2008 - 09/28/2008

search websearch unfutz

Bullshit, trolling, unthinking knee-jerk dogmatism and the drivel of idiots will be ruthlessly deleted and the posters banned.

Entertaining, interesting, intelligent, informed and informative comments will always be welcome, even when I disagree with them.

I am the sole judge of which of these qualities pertains.

All e-mail received is subject to being published on unfutz without identifying names or addresses.

I correct typos and other simple errors of grammar, syntax, style and presentation in my posts after the fact without necessarily posting notification of the change.

Substantive textual changes, especially reversals or major corrections, will be noted in an "Update" or a footnote.

Also, illustrations may be added to entries after their initial publication.
the story so far
unfutz: toiling in almost complete obscurity for almost 1500 days
2005 koufax awards


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2003 koufax award
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the proud unfutz guarantee
If you read unfutz at least once a week, without fail, your teeth will be whiter and your love life more satisfying.

If you read it daily, I will come to your house, kiss you on the forehead, bathe your feet, and cook pancakes for you, with yummy syrup and everything.

(You might want to keep a watch on me, though, just to avoid the syrup ending up on your feet and the pancakes on your forehead.)

Finally, on a more mundane level, since I don't believe that anyone actually reads this stuff, I make this offer: I'll give five bucks to the first person who contacts me and asks for it -- and, believe me, right now five bucks might as well be five hundred, so this is no trivial offer.

original content
© 2003-2008
Ed Fitzgerald


take all you want
but credit all you take.

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