The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Sunday morning reading (and listening)

Just a couple of articles that caught my interest this morning:

Finally, today is the 65th anniversary of the collision between the Stockholm and the Andrea Doria off the coast of Nantucket in which 1,646 people were saved before the Doria sank.

Fallen on Hard Times

I've just yesterday finished Charles Dickens' Hard Times, his shortest and possibly most-Dickensian novel. I'm still thinking about it, and I plan to discuss it with someone who has studied it in depth later this week. I have to say, though, for a 175-year-old novel, it has a lot of relevance for our situation today.

It's by turns funny, enraging, and strange. On a few occasions I had to remind myself that Dickens himself invented a particular plot device that today has become cliché, which I also found funny, enraging, and strange. Characters with names like Gradgrind, Bounderby, and Jupe populate the smoke-covered Coketown (probably an expy for Preston, Lancashire). Writers since Dickens have parodied the (already satirical) upper-class twit and humbug-spewing mill owner so much that reading them in the original Dickens caused some mental frisson.

Dickens also spends a good bit of ink criticizing "political economics" in the novel, as did a German contemporary of his, whose deeper analysis of the same subject 13 years later informed political philosophy for 120 years.

It's going to sit with me for a while. I understand that Tom Baker played Bounderby in a BBC Radio adaptation in 1998; I may have to subscribe to Audible for that.

Deaths in the news today

Three reports of deaths today, two of them institutional. First, the one with the most relevance to me personally, one of the people most responsible for my sense of humor, died yesterday at 91:

Norton Juster, the celebrated children’s author who has died at 91, stumbled into literature much as his most famous hero, Milo, stumbles into the marvelous world of wordplay and ad­ven­ture in the classic 1961 volume “The Phantom Tollbooth.” They were bored and entirely unsuspecting of the wonders that awaited them.

A budding architect with a self-confessed tendency to procrastinate, Mr. Juster was living in New York City and working — or not working — on a children’s book about cities. A Ford Foundation grant had given the project a degree of urgency. But it was not the book he wanted to write, and soon enough, he recalled years later, he was “waist-deep in stacks of 3-by-5 note cards, exhausted and dispirited.”

To pass the time, Mr. Juster began scribbling the story of Milo, a boy of about 9 or 10 years with no interest in the tedium of school or “learning to solve useless problems, or subtracting turnips from turnips, or knowing where Ethiopia is or how to spell February,” and who was as bewildered by the grown-up world as grown-ups were by him.

Only slightly less relevant to me, writer Jelani Cobb joins the crowd of people observing the death of the Republican Party:

The most widely debated political question of the moment is: What is happening to the Republicans? One answer is that the Party’s predicament might fairly be called the revenge of “the kooks.” In just four years, the G.O.P., a powerful, hundred-and-sixty-seven-year-old institution, has become the party of Donald Trump. He began his 2016 campaign by issuing racist and misogynistic salvos, and during his Presidency he gave cover to white supremacists, reactionary militia groups, and QAnon followers. Trump’s seizure of the Party’s leadership seemed a stunning achievement at first, but with time it seems more reasonable to ponder how he could possibly have failed. There were many preëxisting conditions, and Trump took advantage of them. The combination of a base stoked by a sensationalist right-wing media and the emergence of kook-adjacent figures in the so-called Gingrich Revolution, of 1994, and the Tea Party, have redefined the Party’s temper and its ideological boundaries. It is worth remembering that the first candidate to defeat Trump in a Republican primary in 2016 was Ted Cruz, who, by 2020, had long set aside his reservations about Trump, and was implicated in spurring the mob that attacked the Capitol.

One of the most telling developments of the 2020 contest was rarely discussed: in August, the Republican National Convention convened without presenting a new Party platform. The Convention was centered almost solely on Trump; the events, all of which took place at the White House, validated an increasing suspicion that Trump himself was the Republican platform. Practically speaking, the refusal to articulate concrete positions spared the Party the embarrassment of watching the President contradict them. In 2016, religious conservatives succeeded in getting an anti-pornography plank into the platform, only to be confronted by news of Trump’s extramarital affair with the adult-film performer Stormy Daniels. Now there would be no distinction between the Republican Party and the mendacity, bigotry, belligerence, misogyny, and narcissism of its singular representative.

In addition, the G.O.P.’s steady drift toward the right, from conservative to reactionary politics; its dependence on older, white voters; its reliance on right-wing media; its support for tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans; and its increasing disdain for democratic institutions and norms all portend increasing division and a diminishing pool of voters.

Large things die slowly, though, and the GOP's rot and sickness will pollute our civil discourse for years to come.

Another large, old thing that may not die for a couple more centuries has also let out a gangrenous burp this past week, when Harry Windsor and his wife Meghan unloaded on "the Firm" they recently quit. Leave it to an Irish writer (in this case Patrick Freyne) to sound exactly the right note:

Having a monarchy next door is a little like having a neighbour who’s really into clowns and has daubed their house with clown murals, displays clown dolls in each window and has an insatiable desire to hear about and discuss clown-related news stories. More specifically, for the Irish, it’s like having a neighbour who’s really into clowns and, also, your grandfather was murdered by a clown.

The most recent internecine struggle is between the royal family and a newly disentangled Prince Harry and his wife, the former actor Meghan Markle. Traditionally, us peasants would be nervously picking a side and retrieving our pikes from the thatch. Luckily, these days the pitched battles happen in television interviews.

Over the course of the interview Harry and Meghan, who are charming, clever and good at being celebrities, make the monarchy look like an archaic and endemically racist institution that has no place in the modern world. Well duh. And despite all the outrage you might read in the UK tabloids right now, they also did something else that renders everything else irrelevant: they officially launched themselves in the United States.

Harry and Meghan are ultimately going to win. Despite the tabloid frenzy, this was never the story of an ungrateful pauper being elevated by the monarchy. This was about the potential union of two great houses, the Windsors and Californian Celebrity. Only one of those things has a future, and it’s the one with the Netflix deal.

Well, OK, only one of those things has actually, permanently died. But I expect the other two will die before I do.

Shakespeare was right

Andrew Sullivan takes a step back and explains, carefully and quietly, the tyrant's mindset:

[T]yranny is not, in its essence, about the authoritarian and administrative skills required to run a country effectively for a long time. Tyrants, after all, are often terrible at this. It is rather about a mindset, as the ancient philosophers understood, with obvious political consequences. It’s a pathology. It requires no expertise in anything other than itself.

You need competence if you want to run an effective government, or plan a regular campaign, or master policy with a view to persuading people, or hold power for the sake of something else. You need competence to create and sustain something. But you do not need much competence to destroy things. You just need the will. And this is what tyrants do: they destroy things.

This is Trump’s threat. Not the construction of a viable one-party state, but the destruction of practices, norms, civility, laws, customs and procedures that constitute liberal democracy’s non-zero-sum genius. He doesn’t need to be competent to destroy our system of government. He merely needs to be himself: an out-of-control, trust-free, malignant narcissist, with inexhaustible resources of psychic compulsion, in a pluralist system designed for the opposite. All you need is an insatiable pathological drive to avoid any constraint on your own behavior, and the demagogic genius to carry a critical mass of people with you, and our system, designed as the antidote to tyranny, is soon unspooling into incoherence, deadlock, and collapse.

In every Shakespeare play about tyranny — from Richard III to Coriolanus to Macbeth — the tyrant loses in the end, and often quite quickly. They’re not that competent at governing, or even interested in it. The forces they unleash come back to wipe them from the stage, sooner or later. They flame out. Richard III lasted a mere couple of years on the throne.

But in every case, they leave a wrecked and reeling society in their wake. Look around you now and see the damage already done.

He then goes into the normal panic of everyone watching this election unfold, but until that point, he's absolutely correct. The president has no genius other than his own self-preservation; and if I seem angry, it's because this fact is obvious to anyone who has studied history.

Somebody call "lunch!"

Stuff to read:

Finally, last June, Jennifer Giesbrecht wrote that "Babylon 5 is the greatest, most terrible SF series." She's mostly right.

Mid-day link roundup

As I try to understand why a 3rd-party API accepts one JSON document but not another, nearly-identical one, who could fault me for taking a short break?

Back to JSON and my miserable cold.

The last moments of winter

Today actually had a lot of news, not all of which I've read yet:

And now, good night to February.

How the Great Gatsby explains Trump

Brilliant essay in The Atlantic by Rosa Inocencio Smith:

There’s an eerie symmetry between Donald Trump and The Great Gatsby’s Tom Buchanan, as if the villain of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel had been brought to life in a louder, gaudier guise for the 21st century. It’s not just their infamous carelessness, the smashing-up of things and creatures that propels Tom’s denouement and has seemed to many a Twitter user to be the animating force behind Trump’s policy and personnel decisions. The two men, real and fictional, mirror each other in superficial but telling ways. Tom moves like Trump, aggressive and restless, and talks like him, with ponderous pride. He picks personal fights in public, “as though … it would be a privilege to partake vicariously of [his] emotions.” Tom surprises his dinner guests with disjointed political speeches, warning insistently that “civilization’s going to pieces.” His patrician mannerisms are shot through with flashes of anxiety, “as if his complacency, more acute than of old, was not enough to him any more.” 

Tom—the Yale man, the football star, the spender of old money, the scion of what he calls the Nordic race—embodies the peak of social status in his century. Trump—the former Playboy-cover subject, the billionaire celebrity, the most powerful man in America—does the same for his. And their shared personality traits are the product of their shared relationship to power—the casual unreflective certainty that comes from inheritance, and enables its holders to wield its blunt force as both a weapon and a shield. Such power has its own logic; it responds not to social or moral rules, but to what it perceives as danger. It’s for these reasons that in 2018, The Great Gatsbyreads like a warning. For as much as it is a story about the American Dream, it is also a story about power under threat, and of how that power, lashing out, can render truth irrelevant.

History rhymes, and literature provides insights.

Cat Person gets people's hackles up

A few days ago I lined to a story in the New Yorker by Kristen Roupenian called "Cat Person." I enjoyed the story, and identified to some extent with both characters. My takeaway was that being 20 sucks, and some guys are dicks.

Apparently the story got a lot more heated reactions than I imagined:

The story has run the gamut of viral reactions – from the initial chorus of sharing "this story is important", "everyone should read this", "it's almost too real"; to the inevitable backlash (over the fat-shaming descriptions of Robert's body, the focus on white middle class experience, the clumsiness of the prose, and of course the "not all men" contingent); to the inevitable defences against the backlash.

Many would now say we've reached the thinkpiece-overload stage.

Although the protagonists in 'Cat Person' have a real-life "meet cute", their relationship starts out mostly via text message. They only meet in person twice. Perhaps because of this, their interactions involve projection, suspicion and performance. At more than one point on their "date", Margot wonders whether Robert will murder her. Yet she also gets into his car, goes to the movies, invites him to have a drink and then sleeps with him.

Margot's underlying self-loathing and narcissistic gaze (she's attracted to the fact that Robert desires her, rather than Robert himself); the soul-deadening banality of their attempts to create magic through banter; the discomfort and obvious risk involved when interpreting a stranger's motives; her willingness to do things she doesn't really want (including have sex) to avoid hurting Robert's feelings and "seeming spoiled and capricious" – and likewise, her inability to bluntly reject him ... these aspects of the story speak to many young women on a deeper level than outrage over the final dump of abusive text messages.

New Republic thinks pieces like Jenny Noyes' (above) comprise a new form of literary criticism:

In this case, the media has been thrust in the position of the literary critic, drawing lines between the artwork and the broader culture. This isn’t a bad development, exactly—it’s great that a short story is making headlines. But it is also worth noting that the boundaries of literary criticism, at least as they are traditionally conceived, are being exceeded across the internet. The response to “Cat Person” is the latest evidence that we have entered new territory for online criticism, and no one quite knows what to make of it.

“Cat Person” is a short story, not a book, so until Roupenian publishes her collection it is not eligible for a review in one of the influential old literary criticism hubs. Instead, it has been treated as a quasi-news story, to be caught before its moment on Twitter has faded. It is being digested by critics whose job it is to digest cultural news, then regurgitated to readers as more fodder for the news cycle.

So when a literary phenomenon happens on social media, readers get the story-about-the-story, a commentary on how the conversation played out before it’s even finished. It’s the “Here’s Why You Can’t Stop Talking About ‘Cat Person’” style of take, and it treats you—the conscious and collaborative reader—like a consumer. This state of affairs is horribly unfair. It does no justice to the richness of literary conversations online.

I'm not even going to quote some of the less-formal criticism the story received on Twitter, because ew.