Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Outsider From Illinois: A Skimpier Resume It Would Be Hard To Find

In an unhappy coincidence, David Herbert Donald, the preeminent Lincoln scholar, passed away on May 17 at age 88. Donald was the author of Lincoln, which we have been excerpting each Sunday during the bicentennial year of the great man.

The New York Times has republished an op-ed column that Donald wrote in 1996 titled "The Outsider From Illinois." Here it is in its entirety:
In Presidential elections, a candidate's lack of experience is sometimes sold as an asset. Campaign managers have promoted Wendell Willkie, Ross Perot and Steve Forbes as candidates who have strength and doctrinal purity just because they have never held elective office. Veteran politicians like Lamar Alexander scuttle to hide their years in Washington, while Bob Dole suffers because he has had too much experience and has been too long in the public eye.

There is nothing new about this search for the ideal outsider candidate. In 1860, the new Republican Party passed over its most conspicuous and experienced leader, Senator William H. Seward of New York, largely because he had a long record of public service, during which he inevitably made enemies. The Governor of Ohio, Salmon P. Chase, suffered a similar fate. Instead, the delegates at the Chicago convention turned to Abraham Lincoln, who was little known outside of Illinois.

Indeed, it is hard to imagine a candidate for the Presidency who had a skimpier resume: four terms in the Illinois Legislature, one fairly disappointing term in the House of Representatives and two unsuccessful attempts to win election to the United States Senate.

He had never been a Cabinet member, a governor or even mayor of his hometown of Springfield, Ill. He had no administrative experience. The largest organization he ever headed was his law firm, which consisted of himself, his partner, William H. Herndon, and from time to time one or two law students who served as clerks.

His circle of acquaintances was limited. He had not been in Washington for more than a decade, and he was not personally acquainted with many of the country's principal political leaders. He had never been abroad and knew no foreign languages.

He had traveled a good deal through the Middle West and had made some political speeches in New York and New England, but his knowledge of the South derived from flatboat trips he had made down the Mississippi as a young man and from occasional visits to Kentucky.

His education, he admitted, was "imperfect." The total time he spent in elementary schools in Kentucky and Indiana was less then one year. Though he studied Blackstone's Commentaries and other books on the law sufficiently enough to be admitted to the bar, he never became a great reader.

He had an extraordinarily detailed mastery of Shakespeare's major plays and he knew the Bible thoroughly -- but he never finished a novel, and he had no acquaintance with major writers of the American Renaissance like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville. In history and biography, he had read little, and, despite his law partner's repeated efforts, he developed no interest in sociology or philosophy.

He was, as he candidly admitted just before his inauguration, "the humblest of all individuals that have ever been elected to the Presidency," a man "without a name, perhaps without a reason why I should have a name."

The first months of the Lincoln Administration demonstrated the costs of inexperience. After his election, when the states of the Deep South began to secede, Lincoln at first dismissed the crisis as "artificial" and insisted that "nothing [is] going wrong." But by the time he reached Washington in February 1861, the Confederates had already set up a government in Montgomery, Ala., and installed Jefferson Davis as President. President Lincoln was forced to decide whether to withdraw troops from Fort Sumter in South Carolina.

In making his choice, President Lincoln had no trusted advisers or staff on whom he could depend. He wanted to rely on his Cabinet because he cherished the belief of the Whig Party (to which he had belonged for so many years) that the President should play the role of chairman of the board. But the Cabinet was divided and indecisive.

Secretary of State Seward was privately promising commissioners from the Confederate states that troops would be withdrawn while he was giving Lincoln advice about reinforcing Sumter. Treasury Secretary Chase came up with the unhelpful recommendation that Fort Sumter should be reinforced if it could be done peacefully but that the Federal troops should be withdrawn if reinforcing them would precipitate a war.

Thrown back on his own resources, the President tried a compromise: He would resupply, though not reinforce, Fort Sumter, after giving the Confederates notice of his decision. And the war came.

Once hostilities began, inexperience in military matters further handicapped President Lincoln. His only military service had been in the Black Hawk War of 1834, in which he saw no action but, as he said later, fought "a good many bloody struggles with the musquetoes."

He turned, quite naturally, to military experts, not realizing that no one in America had any experience directing a huge army. Initially, he listened to Gen. Winfield Scott, the hero of the Mexican War, but General Scott was infirm and old -- older than the national Capitol.

For a time, the President sought strategic advice from George B. McClellan, the handsome and dynamic general who proved to be a superb administrator but a poor strategist because of his reluctance to advance his troops into battle. "He is an admirable engineer," President Lincoln remarked. "But he seems to have a special talent for a stationary engine."

Not knowing where else to turn, the President yielded to the expert and accepted McClellan's plan to attack Richmond from the east, on the peninsula between the York and James Rivers. He was not surprised when the general failed.

By the summer of 1862, the President felt sufficiently experienced to set his own policies. Faced with rising antislavery sentiment in the North and with probable European intervention in the war, he abandoned his inaugural pledge not to interfere with slavery and issued his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.

At the same time, he began shuffling generals in the East. John Pope, Ambrose P. Burnside, Joseph Hooker and George G. Meade all had their chance to defeat the Confederates. President Lincoln was looking for a commander who understood what his own good common sense taught him: that the objective of the Union armies was not to seize Richmond or Southern territory but to destroy the Confederate armies.

In the West, despite all criticism, President Lincoln clung to Ulysses S. Grant, because General Grant had already mastered that lesson. The President hardly consulted his Cabinet when making these major policy decisions. No longer deferential, he reminded his secretaries: "I must do the best I can, and bear the responsibility of taking the course which I feel I ought to take."

After more than 12 months in office, Abraham Lincoln had come to realize the awesome authority of the Presidency. There would continue to be major difficulties in his path; ahead lay some of the heaviest fighting of the Civil War and formidable challenges to his leadership within the Republican Party and in the nation. But in these subsequent trials, Lincoln showed that he had learned that the Presidency is a position of both moral and political leadership. Thereafter, he forcefully used his office to promote his basic aims: the preservation of the Union and the emancipation of the slaves.

Would someone else, with more experience in government, have done better?

It is impossible to be sure. Certainly not James Buchanan, President Lincoln's predecessor, who had many years of conspicuous experience in both the legislative and executive branches of government. Stephen A. Douglas, with his years of experience in Congress, might have been more effective, but he died early in the war. William Seward showed a distressing willingness to bargain away the integrity of the Union, while Salmon Chase's inflexibility would have driven the Border States to join the Confederacy.

So if there is a lesson, it is that an inexperienced Chief Executive can cause the country immense heartbreak, but that with time and good common sense even an inexperienced leader who has sound principles can grow into greatness.

'Not Prepared For This Emergency'

20th of 45 excerpts from Lincoln by David Herbert Donald:
At noon on March 4 [1861], James Buchanan and Abraham Lincoln entered an open barouche at Williard's Hotel to begin the drive down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol. Determined to prevent any attempt on Lincoln's life, General [Winfield] Scott had stationed sharpshooters on the roofs of buildings along the avenue, and companies of soldiers blocked off the cross streets. He stationed himself with one battery of light artillery on Capitol Hill; General John E. Wool, commander of the army's Department of the East, was with another. The presidential procession was short and businesslike, more like a military operation than a political parade. . . .

The audience could not be quite sure what the new President's policy toward secession would be because his inaugural address, like his cabinet, was an imperfectly blended mixture of opposites. . . . Reaction to the address was largely predictable. In the Confederacy it was generally taken to mean that war was inevitable. A correspondent of the Charleston Mercury viewed this pronouncement from "the Ourang-Outang at the White House" as "the tocsin of battle" that was also "the signal of our freedom." . . .

The most thoughtful verdict was offered by the Providence Daily Post, a Democratic paper: "If the President selected his words with the view of making clear his views, he was, partially at least, unsuccessful. There was some plain talk in the address; but . . . it is immediately followed by obscurely state qualifications."

* * * * *
On the morning after the inauguration Lincoln found on his desk a report from Major Robert Anderson that the provisions for his garrison at Fort Sumter would be exhausted in about six weeks. Unless he was resupplied within that time, he would have to surrender. He warned that it would take a force of 25,000 well-disciplined men to make the fort secure.

Lincoln was not prepared for this emergency. As yet there was no executive branch of government. The Senate had yet to confirm even his private secretary, John G. Nicolay. None of his cabinet officers had been approved. His secretary of state-designate had not yet agreed to serve, and Salmon P. Chase had no even been informed of his nomination. . . .

The Sumter crisis was the principal topic of discussion of a cabinet meeting on March 9. . . . If Anderson required an expeditionary force of at least 25,000 men -- at a time when the entire United States army numbered only 16,000, mostly scattered in outposts along the Indian frontier -- the inescapable conclusion was that the fort must be surrendered.

Lincoln was not yet willing to accept that conclusion. Perhaps his reluctance was increased when [Republican Party stalwart] Francis P. Blair Sr., forced his way into the President's office and warned that evacuation of the fort was "virtually a surrender of the union" amounting to treason. The next day the old gentleman apologized for having said "things that were impertinent," but Lincoln got the message.

An Index To Abraham Lincoln Posts

Abraham Lincoln was the greatest American president because none faced such enormous challenges, none grew more in office and none reinvented the United States to the extent that he did. All of that and the fact that 2009 is the bicentenary of his birth is reason enough to publish posts each Sunday on the great man over the next 12 months.

Series highlights so far:
NOW ALIEN TO THE REPUBLICAN PARTY (5/11) Pete Abel writes in a two-part guest blog that while there are a few common traits between Lincoln and today's GOP, the differences are far more substantial. PART 1, PART 2.

THE ASSASSINATION (4/22, 4/29, 5/4) It is rather amazing that so little is known about basic aspects of the assassination of John F. Kennedy while there is virtually no aspect of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln a century earlier that remains a mystery. PART 1, PART 2, PART 3.

THE STRANGE BUT TRUE STORY OF THE GETTYSBURG ADDRESS
(4/5) It took fewer than three minutes to deliver the famous speech, but it was an afterthought on the day it was given and remained so into the next century.
LINK.

HOW VALID THE COMPARISONS? (3/29) With the nomination and election of Barack Obama, the comparisons to Abraham Lincoln have come fast, thick and furious. But do they hold up? LINK.

A PATENTLY CLEVER PRESIDENT (3/22) That Lincoln was the only president to get a U.S. patent is not surprising when you consider that he was an inveterate tinkerer and had a lifelong fascination with mechanical things. LINK.

A PRESIDENTIAL SCHOLAR ON LINCOLN (3/15) A wide-ranging interview with James Hilty on Lincoln's greatness, frailties and innate conservatism. LINK.

A BUMPY RIDE TO HIS REWARD (3/8) There was a controversy over a photograph taken of Lincoln's open coffin, an attempt to steal his corpse and his body was exhumed an extraordinary 17 times. LINK.

WAS THE GREAT EMANCIPATOR GAY? (3/1) No revisionist history of a famous person would be complete without a book on whether they were gay, or if they were gay whether they were bisexual, or if they . . . LINK.

PRESIDENTIAL POWER GRABS (2/22) The infringements by Lincoln on civil liberties arguably were greater than during any period in American history, including the last eight years. LINK.

EARLY ASSASSINATION PLOT (2/15) A March 1861 assassination plot was never carried out, but Lincoln's response to it sullied a carefully cultivated image of dignified courage. LINK.

OH HE OF LITTLE FAITH
(2/8) Beyond Lincoln's opposition to slavery there was no aspect of him more controversial than his spiritual bona fides
. LINK.

THE BOHEMIAN BRIGADE COMES THROUGH (2/1) Modern journalism can trace its roots to the Civil War, which because of the telegraph and steam locomotive was the first instant-news war, something of which Lincoln was very much aware. LINK.

LINCOLN ON BLACKS & SLAVERY
(1/25) His metamorphosis from a frontiersman who always opposed slavery but like most white Americans felt that blacks were unequal into the Great Emancipator was as complex as the man himself. LINK.

LINCOLN'S CAUTION (1/18) Guest blogger Robert Stein writes that Barack Obama can learn much from the 16th president, who perhaps even more than wisdom and moral strength needed a highly developed political sense of the possible. LINK.

THE FIRST TECHNOLOGY PRESIDENT (1/11) Arriving in Washington at the dawn of the age of the telegraph, Lincoln embraced this new technology of instantaneous communication with a passion and used it not just to communicate with his generals in the field during the Civil War, but to bend them to his will. LINK.

LINCOLN LINCOLN BO BINCOLN (1/4) A substantial Lincoln mythology had taken hold in the American imagination even before his assassination in 1865. This canon of broad brush strokes and tall tales gave Lincoln his historic due but overlooked or willfully ignored the myriad complexities of our greatest president. LINK.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Catholic Church's Depravity

In a particularly egregious case of bad timing, The Shoes of the Fisherman was on TCM the other night.

This 1968 movie starring Anthony Quinn shows the pageantry of the Roman Catholic church -- in this instance a conclave of cardinals at the Vatican -- at its most beautiful, but it was difficult to get caught up in the red hat crowd because of further confirmation that the Holy See has not only tolerated despicable acts of depravity around the world but has actively covered them up.

Now, coming hard on the heals of an extraordinary report that Catholic orders repeatedly abused Ireland's poorest children comes the news that they are pleading poverty and cannot pay their victims, while the real story is that these nuns and brothers are sheltering billions of dollars of assets.

The good news is that
Irish government leaders say they expect the 18 religious orders to pay a much greater share of compensation to the 14,000 state-recognized victims, as well as reveal the true scope of their wealth for the first time.

Cartoon du Jour

Adam Zygus

Beautiful Photograph du Jour

WRIGLEY FIELD
(Photomontage)
By Scott Mutter

Friday, May 29, 2009

Have A Little Rape With Your Torture

Funny, but Dick Cheney didn't mention that those Abu Ghraib photos that he commended President Obama on not releasing in his monument to demagoguery last week include at least one picture of an American soldier apparently raping a female detainee, another of a male translator apparently raping a male detainee and several apparently showing sexual assaults on detainees with objects including a truncheon, wire and a phosphorescent tube.

Click here if you have a strong stomach or don't believe that there is anything wrong with these grotesqueries.

And why, pray tell, have there been no prosecutions?

Suicide Is Painless Yada Yada Yada

I was in the Army, have followed its ebbs and flows closely since the Vietnam War and can pretty much say that I have its measure. And that the news media and bloggers sometimes unfairly criticize it because of a failure to understand the context in which bad things sometimes happen.

But I have no such compunction is coming down hard on Brigadier General Stephen J. Townsend, commander of the 101st Airborne Division, who in response to the alarming number of soldiers taking their own lives at Ft. Campbell, has essentially ordered his troops not to commit suicide.

Yes, our troops have to suck it in sometimes, but this is exactly the kind of callous and ignorant response to a real epidemic that should afford Townsend a transfer to someplace very lonely and very far away where he's not going to do any more damage -- at least not to anyone but himself.

The Teenage Hugging Menace

Stop it before it spreads!
Photograph by Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times

They Really Do Love Anything Red

Red Audi rear ends Red Ferrari in Red China.

Quotes From Around Yon Soniasphere

Modern conservatism is nothing if not self-contradictory. It stands athwart history yelling “stop”, but it would never interfere with the free market forces that drive history. It worships Burke and Oakeshott, but it distrusts anyone who’s read a non-Regenery book in the past year. It believes that Ivy League pedigree is a true mark of distinction, but finds that everyone at an Ivy League school—except Robert George and Harvey Mansfield—is a pinko commie. It rejects science and polling, but believes that a few surveys are all it takes to prove that feminism is a failure.

None of this is surprising. In fact, it is exactly what you would expect from the love-child of William F. Buckely and John Birch.

But it can make for an incoherent message. Part of the reason Republican attacks on Obama haven’t worked is that they alternate between describing Obama as an arugula-loving, elitist mastermind who will lead us to commusociafascism and as a watermelon-eating nitwit who will unwittingly cede our sovereignty to North Korea.

I think the same thing is happening with Sonia Sotomayor.

President Obama’s nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor shows that empathy has won out over excellence in the White House

Yep, that's already the unofficial conservative message -- that no matter how hard an Hispanic may work, and how high she might rise, and how many honors she might win (such as Princeton's highest undergraduate award), and how much jurisprudential experience she might accrue, in the end she will never be recognized as equal to a white person because she is just an "affirmative action" hire.

Indeed, one observer issued this warning to conservatives earlier today: "Going into weeks or months of paroxysms and hysterics (about Sotomayor) is just going to make the party look bitter, mean, tone deaf, and out of touch."

That would be Mark McKinnon, Texas Republican and former presidential campaign consultant for George W. Bush.

McKinnon correctly perceives Sotomayor's ethnicity to be an asset that conservatives dare not contest. Obama, of course, would love it if the Republican right keeps talking about "affirmative action. The president is probably thinking, "That's great, guys, just keep being who you are." There's no better way to prove to Hispanic voters that he and the Democrats, despite their sluggishness on immigration reform, are ultimately the only game in town.

It is as close to certain as anything gets in Washington that Judge Sonia Sotomayor is on her way to the Supreme Court. What impact she will have there is far harder to predict.
What this really boils down to is how much political courage will Republican senators demonstrate both at her confirmation hearings and on the floor of the senate?

In other words, are the principles involved in this nomination fight so important that a Republican senator should be prepared to go down to defeat rather than act pragmatically and tone down their opposition and perhaps even vote to confirm?

. . . Whatever tactics the opposition decides upon, there must be a clear message sent to the American people that the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor is a bridge too far and is antithetical to the founding principles of the republic. On that, Republican senators should reflect before genuflecting to Obama's crass identity politics and cynical use of the race card to pander to a minority constituency.

While many have assumed she’s reliable on Roe, there's precedent for surprising turns from Supreme Court justices, such as David Souter’s 1990s vote to uphold abortion rights.

Republicans would be foolish to fight the nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court because she is the most conservative choice that President Obama could have made.

And even though they should support her confirmation, liberals would be foolish to embrace Sotomayor as one of their own because her record is clearly that of a moderate. It is highly unlikely that she will push the court to the left. Indeed, on many issues of concern to business, she is likely to make the Chamber of Commerce perfectly happy.

Hispanic voters favor confirmation by a 66% to 15% margin.

Cartoons by Tom Toles, Matt Davies, Pat Oliphant, Steve
Kelley, Ben Sargent and Jeff Danziger

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Stop The Presses!!! Bad Black Men Abduct Beautiful White Woman!!!

The alleged abduction of a 38-year-old white mother and her nine-year-old daughter by two black men in suburban Philadelphia this week stunk on ice from the start. It took only 24 hours for that scenario to come crashing down on a local news media that covered the story with plenty of hankie wringing but nary a trace of skepticism. Sadly but predictably, it is a story that has been foisted on unsuspecting cops and reporters many times before.

Women and sometimes women and their children go missing much too often in and around a big city like Philadelphia, and it's a pretty good chance that they're black and get little or no news coverage.

But Bonnie Ann Sweeten is willowy tall and has blond hair, blue eyes and is attractive. Local media -- print and teevee -- treated the story as if it was Armageddon on wheels -- in this case the silver 2005 GMC Denali SUV that Sweeten was driving with daughter Julia Rakoczy as a passenger when, according to what she told police, she was rear ended by two black men in a black Cadillac sedan at a suburban Philadelphia intersection who then threw her into their trunk.

The circumstances of Sweeten's initial call and at least seven subsequent calls to police, including two during which they were able to talk to her at length, raised a number of . . . um, awkward questions that stopped me cold but were beyond the grasp of a gullible news media.

Sweeten told police that she was abducted near her home in Feasterville in suburban Bucks County about 2 p.m. Tuesday. But there was no sign of the Denali when police rushed to the scene. Her first 911 call was traced to a cell phone tower near 15th and Chestnut streets many miles away in Center City Philadelphia where the Denali, a parking ticket on its windshield left at 2:20 p.m., was found, an indication that the SUV might have been there the entire time.

Meanwhile, if Sweeten was abducted, why didn't her assailants take her cell phone? Why did they allow her the opportunity to repeatedly call police? Why did she tell police how to contact her husband but nothing about her abductors' descriptions beyond their blackness?

And if Sweeten is the wonderful mother that her husband described on NBC's "Today Show" on Wednesday morning, why did she withdraw Julia from school on May 1?

Because she planned to take her away. Far away.

It appears that police were far more skeptical than the hordes of reporters and camera crews that madly chased the story from Sweeten's home to police headquarters to the street where the Denali was found and towed.

A review of video surveillance camera tapes at Philadelphia International Airport revealed that Sweeten and Julia boarded a Tampa-bound flight as the FBI and other law enforcement agencies were
throwing their full weight into rescuing them from those bad black men, an Amber Alert was issued for Julia and a crisis intervention team rushed to her school to counsel shocked classmates.

Sweeten's make-believe saga ended on Wednesday evening at the ultimate land of make-believe, Walt Disney World.

She was arrested at one of the resort's hotels and will be charged with making false reports and identity theft. It appears that the $12,000 in cash that she was carrying might have been stolen from one or more former employers.


Julia's biological father, Anthony Rakoczy, was to go to Florida on Thursday to pick her up.

The Paradox Of The Unhappy Woman

There have been a rash of stories lately to the effect that women were happier than men in the 1960s but now men are happier than women. While the provocative paper on which the stories are based seems straight ahead enough, I am inherently suspicious of reaching such overarching conclusions based on economic and social data. Yet my gut tells me that economist authors Betsey Johnson and Justin Wolfers are onto something.

This is because while women have made enormous strides in the past 40 years, not the least of which is having a control over their own bodies and destinies that would have been unfathomable in 1969, they are less happy and that diminished happiness cuts across class, social and racial lines.

Their place in the current recession, the worst and longest since the Great Depression, is ample evidence of why this may be so.

Women are on the verge of outnumbering men on the nation's payrolls for the first time, a milestone that would be worthy of celebrating until you realize that it's not because women have been doing so well, but because they are increasingly bearing the burden of being breadwinners.

We're not talking fancy free women out on their own who are pulling down decent salaries and kicking up their heels on weekends, but women who have mouths to feed, possibly including those of their unemployed spouses if they're married, and still have mouths to feed if they are single or divorced.

Factor in the omnipresent glass ceiling and the continuing disparity in women's wages, and it's not hard to see why so many women are unhappy.

Cartoon du Jour

Pat Oliphant/Universal Press Syndicate

Another Reason Why Papers Are Drying

The New York Post is in a jam. It is anxious to sell zillions of papers to its proud Hispanic readers while dissing the Supreme Court nominee on its knuckle-dragging editorial pages.

And while we're sorta on the subject, I took a number of semi-juicy stories with me when I quit the newspaper biz that never got followed up on, but nothing like this.

Let's Hope They're Right This Time

The folks who said there wouldn't be a recession now say it will end in the third quarter of this year.
Image: "Wall Street" by Scott Moore

Is This Delivery A Bit Excessive Or What?

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Sonia Sotomayor & Ethnic Identification

Sonia Sotomayor (say so-toe-my-YORE) would not be the first Hispanic to serve on the Supreme Court.

To take nothing away from the justifiable pride that Hispanics feel in the nomination of the child of Puerto Rican immigrant parents who grew up in a South Bronx housing project and was a summa cum laude graduate of Princeton, that distinction probably belongs to Justice Benjamin Cardozo.

But therein lies a tale.


Cardozo, as Eugene Volokh and others point out, was the descendant of Portuguese Jews who immigrated to America, and when he was nominated by President Hoover in 1932 he was considered a Jew and not an Hispanic.

In fact, Cardozo filled what came to be known as the High Court's "Jewish seat" and was succeeded by three other Jewish justices.

Being an Hispanic was a vague thing in those days, and while Jews, Italians and the Irish, among others, had identifiable voting blocs and political power in their own right, Hispanics were very few and very far between.

Hispanics were defined in Cardozo's time as people from ancient Hispania, or the Iberian Peninsula, but today are considered the people of countries formerly ruled by Spain, including Mexico and most of Central and South America.

As well as the fastest-growing
ethnic voting bloc in the U.S. and responsible for an extraordinary political realignment. This is because many Hispanics, conservative by inclination and religion, drifted into the arms of the Democratic Party and went for Barack Obama over John McCain by a 2-1 margin in 2008 as the Republican Party (although not McCain himself) embraced an anti-immigrant nativism that has helped define its xenophobic tack to the right.

All that so noted, the Census Bureau does not consider Portuguese Americans to be Hispanic, although some other federal agencies do.

It matters not, because in the end ethnicity is substantially what you consider yourself to be. What Sotomayor is doesn't matter; what she brings to the court and the legacy she fashions will.

Why Sotomayor Is A Terrific Nominee

The vultures were circling overhead within nanoseconds of the announcement that Sonia Sotomayor was President Obama's first Supreme Court nominee.

Some thoughts:

* She more than passes muster as a replacement for David Souter and is a brilliant pick politically, and no more so than when the Party of Southern White Men tries to go after her since most voters are no longer susceptible to the GOP's brand of dog-whistle politics.

* Oh, it was a president from that party who nominated her to the federal district bench and 25 of its senators, including seven who are still sitting, who voted to elevate her to the federal appeals court.

* To call her a judicial activist, let alone a far leftist, as conservatives are, is downright hilarious in the era of Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito.

* Although the comparison is being made, she is not a stupido like Harriet Miers. Stupidos do not graduate from Princeton and Yale Law at the top of their classes.

* Opponents pigeonhole her at their own risk. She has ruled against a pro-life group and the oft-quoted "wise Latina" passage from another opinion is out of context.

* John Yoo, who willfully ignored the law in justifying the use of torture, says she won't adhere to it.

* While the High Court makes the man . . . er, woman in many cases, there is unlikely to be a shift in the balance of power once she puts on the black bathrobe and gets her feet on the ground.

* As with Alito, who faced similar attacks from the other side of the aisle, it is a president's decision and only his decision whom to nominate.

* The Democrats have a filibuster-proof majority. She will be confirmed, but only after much breast beating and all-around wingnuttery.

Cartoon du Jour

Signe Wilkinson/Philadelphia Daily News

What If Kim Jong-Il Had A Hissy Fit . . .

. . . and nobody cared? Ignore the widdle baby.

Chinese At Work On Full-Deck Carrier

The Bling Culture Clangs To Earth

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Book Review: Pynchon's 'Mason & Dixon,' An 18th Century Musing On All Things

(ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN MAY 2008)

So, one day, into Delaware's great Basin/With strange Machinery sail Mr. Mason/And Mr. Dixon, by the Falmouth Packet/Connect, as with some invis'ble Bracket/Sharing a Fate, directed by the Stars/To mark the Earth with geometrick Scars
.
-- TIMOTHY TOX
Mason & Dixon is the penultimate book in my long slog to read the complete works of Thomas Pynchon (only his Vineland awaits) and is of more than usual interest because your Faithful Reviewer plies his trade within a stone's throw of the marker to the right, one of several placed by the eponomymous pair of 18th century surveyors in determining the demarcation line between Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware and West Virginia. And although they could not have known it, what would become the symbolic cultural boundary between the North and South nearly a century later during the bloody War Between the States.

Like Pynchon's 2007 magnum opus, Against the Day (reviewed here), Mason & Dixon is complex, wonderfully subversive and laugh-out-loud funny. But also like that book, it is more accessible than his earlier works, notably Gravity's Rainbow, a masterpiece but with prose so dense that you can stand a fork in them.

I knew I was in for a treat from the moment I read the Pynchonic run-on opening sentence of Mason & Dixon:
"Snow-Balls have flown their Arcs, starr'd the Sides of Outbuildings, as of Cousins, carried Hats away into the brisk Wind off Delaware,-the Sleds are brought in and their Runners carefully dried and greased, shoes deposited in the back Hall, a stocking'd-foot Descent made upon the great Kitchen, in a purposeful Dither since Morning, punctuated by the ringing Lids of various Boilers and Stewing-Pots, fragrant with Pie-Spices, peel'd Fruits, Suet, heated Sugar,-the Children, having all upon the Fly, among rhythmic slaps of Batter and Spoon, coax'd and stolen what they might, proceed, as upon each afternoon all this snowy Advent, to a comfortable Room at the rear of the House, years since given over to their carefree Assaults."
Pynchon casts Charles Mason, who actually was an astronomer by trade, and surveyor Jeremiah Dixon as straight man and goof ball in a rollicking epic that deftly combines fiction and fact through a cast of characters that include the poet Timothy Tox, a Pynchon invention, and the very real Nevil Maskelyne, the Astronomer Royal and owner of one of the most evocative names in English history. The story of this dynamic duo's adventures is told by the Reverend Wicks Cherrycoke 20 years after the fact in his sister's Philadelphia parlor in an 18th century dialect which I fell into rather easily. (And now find Meself talkin' to the Cats in said Dialeckt.)

These adventures include stopovers in Cape Town to observe the transit of Venus, and the island of St. Helena, where the winds never stop howling and the locals never stop whoring, and a brief return home to England, where Dixon is entrusted with a perpetual motion pocket watch, a fictitious bit player in the real English-French competition eventually won by clockmaker John Harrison, who constructed the first seagoing timepiece that could accurately determine longitude.

Pynchon beautifully describes Mason and Dixon's arrival off of the Delaware cape:

"From the shore they will hear Milkmaids quarreling and cowbells a-clank, and dogs, and Babies old and new, -- Hammers upon Nails, Wives upon Husbands, the ring of Pot-lids, the jingling of Draft-chains, a rifle-shot from a stretch of woods, lengthily crackling tree to tree and across the water. . . . An animal will come to a Headland, and stand, regarding them with narrowly set eyes that glow a Moment. Its Face slowly turning as they pass. America."
The pair meet and party with Benjamin Franklin, who is showing off a pair of tinted sunglasses, his latest invention, and smoke hemp with George Washington, who gets the munchies and jabbers in Yiddish before they set out to try to settle the blue blood royal border dispute between the Calvert family of Maryland (the various Lords Baltimore) and the Penn family of . . . well, you can figure out where they're at.

Mason and Dixon clear cut their way through hundreds of miles of forests thronging with Indians with a rag-tag collection of axmen, purveyors, cooks and kooks, including R.C., a local land surveyor and resident of The Wedge, where Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware meet hard by Kiko’s House and described by the author as a carnival of fee churning by generations of attorneys outlaw . . . er, at law:

"To be born and rear'd in the Wedge is to occupy a singular location in an emerging moral Geometry. Indeed, the oddness of Demarcation here, the inscriptions made upon the body of the Earth, primitive as Designs prick'd by an Iroquois, with a Thorn and a supply of soot, upon his human body, -- a compulsion, withal, supported by the most advanc'd scientific instruments of their Day, -- present to Lawyers enough Litigation upon matters of Property within the Wedge, to becoach-and-six a small Pack of them, one generation upon another, yea into the year 1900, and beyond."
In any event, R.C. covets Dixon's perpetual motion pocket watch, which he steals and swallows when found out, giving new meaning to the old Timex slogan that "it takes a licking but keeps on ticking." R.C. subsequently drives his wife and children batty because of the never ending ticking coming from his stomach.

But I doth digress.

Dixon is a bit of a prankster and the rare Quaker of the day with a sense of humor and an eye for the ladies. He is never put off by the chilliness of Mason, a melancholic soul unable to connect with his young children and ever mourning his dear departed wife, Rebekah, who appears to him as a ghostly apparition.

As they make their way west to the Allegheny Mountains from their starting point near Philadelphia, Mason suffers repeated bouts of the creeps from the unrelentingly dark forests that is made only slightly better by the ministrations of Captain Zhang, a feng shui expert who assures him that Adam and Eve, Buddha and Newton were all enlightened while sitting beneath trees, but warns him that the line he and Dixon are drawing inevitably will lead to bad jujus:
"A quick review would suggest that Trees produce Enlightenment. Trees are not the Problem. The Forest is not an Agent of Darkness. But it may be your Visto [line] is. . . . .Nothing will produce Bad History more directly nor brutally, than drawing a line."
Although Zhang does not come right out and say so, those jujus certainly include the demarcation between the emancipated North and pro-slavery South.

In the end, Mason & Dixon is a pun-filled send up on the clockwork-like machinations of and metaphysical musings on the universe disguised as an 18th century novel. (Or at least I think it is.)
My only criticism is a minor one -- that the book could lose a hundred or so of its 773 pages and be none the worse for wear. But then the same and then some could be said about Against the Day, which is doorstop worthy at 1,085 pages.

Oh. I nearly forgot to mention that amidst all this higher mathematics and low comedy,
Dixon introduces pizza to England, bestowing upon a lowly pub keeper the following recipe:
"Half a school of sardines in a sea of his beloved Indonesian ketjap atop a loaf pounded flat and sprinkled over with Stilton cheese."
Mason & Dixon is a delicious book; about the pizza I'm not so sure.

The Civil Rights Movement & Torture

I keep returning to the civil-rights movement as an historically effective way to hang out to dry Bush torture regime sycophants.

As noted here with a hat tip to BooMan,
the sycophant talking point that we shouldn't be debating torture because it's a field day for terrorist recruiters sounds awfully similar to arguments by segregationists in the 1960s that debating black inequality gave comfort to the enemy -- the Soviet Union -- and its recruiters because it damaged the argument that America was a free, just and inclusive society.

I have been relentlessly critical of the mainstream media's generally uncritical coverage of the torture regime, and Oliver Willis indirectly makes another big point in reviewing a book on news media coverage of the civil-rights movement:

The more the media learned of the brutalities visited upon blacks in general and civil-rights workers specifically, the more it played an advocacy role, and a necessary one at that. So why is it struck deaf and dumb over torture regime brutalities?