' rel='stylesheet' type='text/css'>

Here come the blimps! Rinse, and repeat every ten years

Way back in the day, so far back that Ronald Reagan still had a functioning short-term memory, I worked for a very smart woman who had an odd passion for blimps. Not dirigibles, mind you. Dee was totally not a rigid frame gal. I don’t know why she insisted on the distinction so, you know, rigidly, but she was the one with a Ph.D. from Columbia in French literature, not me.

Anyway, I developed the odd habit of keeping my eye out for odd articles about blimps, since Dee found them so fascinating, and it’s remarkable that, as I’ve discovered, the blimps are coming back! They are! Every ten years! Except this time, they’ll be, you know, advanced!

Last Monday, the New York Times delivered with absolutely the best “blimps are back” story I’ve ever read, including the fabulous “blimp o’ the future” artist’s rendition that I’ve pilfered for this post. According to the report of the suitably breathless Joshua A. Krisch, “engineers are designing sleek new airships that could streak past layers of cloud and chart a course through the thin, icy air of the stratosphere, 65,000 feet above the ground — twice the usual altitude of a jetliner. Steered by scientists below, these aerodynamic balloons might be equipped with onboard telescopes that peer into distant galaxies or gather oceanic data along a coastline.”

There’s also a photo of an actual “new blimp,” circa 2005, that actually got off the ground, but not very far. But this time it’s different! Know hope!

Afterwords
Maybe this blimp will actually fly. I hope so. It would be cool!

Pseudo New Yorker


Legal humor here. All cartoons here. and here

“So, we’ve got lots of bird feed, right?”

“The great thing is they shit green.”

“Yeah, that’s why they call it ‘Super-Gro’!”

“OK, now we know where does an 800-pound sparrow eats. Where do they sleep?”

“What would be really cool is if you could hypnotize them.”

“I think it’s time we paid the Audubon Society a visit.”

“Roger and Sylvia are going to be green with envy.”

“The best thing is, our squirrel problem has simply vanished!”

“Yeah, they’re pretty tame, but, you know, no sudden movements.”

“Once these things go viral, ‘Shark Week’ will be but a memory.”

How much does foreign policy rhetoric matter? Not enough, and too much

Over at the American Conservative, Daniel Larison riffs on a column by Dan Drezner, who claims that we shouldn’t worry about foreign policy statements like those recently dished out by Hillary Clinton that seem more interested in striking poses than solving problems. Says Drezner, “The most important fact about American foreign policy and public opinion is that Americans just don’t care all that much about the rest of the world. Sure, they’ll express less interventionist preferences when asked, but most of the time they don’t think about it. It’s precisely this lack of interest that gives presidents and foreign policymakers such leeway in crafting foreign policy.”

Drezner follows this with a conclusion that’s something of a non sequitur: “Statements about how one would do things better on the foreign policy front are among the best examples of cheap talk you’ll find in Washington. Why? Because the world will look different in January 2017 than it does today. So of course these proto-candidates can say they’d do things differently. No one will hold them to these claims if they’re elected, because the problems will have evolved.”

But if the people just don’t listen on those rare occasions when candidates do talk about foreign policy (and frequently they don’t), how likely is it that they’ll be aware of the “problems” at all, must less how they’ve “evolved”?

The real problem with foreign policy rhetoric is that the public doesn’t pay attention, but the multisided foreign policy “iron polygon”—consisting of foreign policy professionals in and out of government, the military, military contractors, and the intelligence “community” (also rife with contractors), along with “influential” foreign nations like Saudi Arabia and Israel—does pay attention, and, to a large extent, these people want to be told that they will have careers. During the Clinton years, the general public cared little for Iraq, but the Clinton Administration pursued an “anti-Hussein” policy that affirmed all the fraudulent claims of the Right—that, among other things, “weapons of mass destruction” were actually weapons of mass destruction and that Saddam Hussein was an “existential” threat to someone other than his own people. Clinton could have changed that policy, but, since the public didn’t care, he didn’t care. The last thing he wanted was a fight with guys wearing gold braid. Just let sleeping dogs lie, dude! Let ’em lie!

Sadly, sleeping dogs, when they waken, have a tendency to bite you on the ass. After 9/11, the Bush Administration dusted off all the anti-Hussein clichés that the Clinton Administration had left unrefuted and turned them into a casus belli that the American people swallowed with barely a tremor. Once Bush started beating the war drums, it was too late to point out that Saddam’s chemical weapons, though morally repulsive, had proved less than decisive in the Iran-Iraq war that Hussein in fact lost, that Hussein had not dared use chemical weapons in the first U.S.-Iraqi war, that Hussein had never given them to terrorist groups, that no Mid-Eastern terrorist group had ever used chemical weapons, etc., etc., etc. It was too late for logic, not after a decade of deliberate dissimulation, disinformation, and deceit. Lies unrefuted live a life of their own.

Update
Now both President Obama and SecDef Hagel have publicly denounced ISIL as the “worst since Hitler” de jour, a meme that the Dick Cheney wing of the Republican Party must surely regard as manna from heaven. And the military is saying that if we want to take out ISIS, well, we’ve got to go into Syria—something that, obviously, they’ve been itching to do for a long time. Because if one invasion doesn’t work out, try another!

Obviously, ISIL is pretty awful, but they aren’t nearly as dangerous as the Soviet Bloc, which we managed to co-exist with for decades. Our friends the Saudis engage in beheading on a regular basis, which somehow rarely gets in the press. According to Amnesty International, “On Monday 19 August, four men – two sets of brothers Hadi bin Saleh Abdullah al-Mutlaq and Awad bin Saleh Abdullah al-Mutlaq along with Mufrih bin Jaber Zayd al-Yami and Ali bin Jaber Zayd al-Yami – were beheaded.” The men were convicted on the basis of false confessions extracted by means of torture, according to Amnesty International. But since the Saudis sell us oil at reasonable prices, we somehow don’t find this behavior all that outrageous.

James Thurber, A Reader’s Guide, Part 22


INTRODUCTION

This is the 22th episode of “James Thurber, A Reader’s Guide,” a rambling consideration of Thurber’s works, examining his life and work in some detail. Generally, these appear every Friday. The links to the first part and the most recent part are given below. Part 22 continues the discussion of Thurber’s 1942 collection, My World and Welcome to It.

PART 1

PART 21 

My World and Welcome to It has two of Thurber’s darkest stories, “A Friend to Alexander” and “The Whip-poor-will,” which especially reflect the agony he endured during his eye operations. Both stories deal with dream worlds, dreams that grow darker and darker and ultimately invade the real one. “A Friend to Alexander” reflects Thurber’s wide reading in American history—getting “behind” the textbook tales of American greatness that his generation grew up on. It’s a long, carefully wrought story about “Andrews,” a man who finds himself dreaming obsessively about Aaron Burr. He associates the story of Burr and Alexander Hamilton with his own life, with the death of his brother, killed by a “drunkard,” a story that makes him so angry that his wife has never been able to understand what actually happened. In his dreams, Andrews sees Burr kill Hamilton in their famous duel, but the dreams don’t end there. Burr insults him in his dreams, and Andrews begins to prepare himself for a final confrontation. He seizes on opportunities for pistol practice, and his bizarre behavior when he has his hands on a gun naturally frightens those around him.

Thurber adds curious touches linking himself with Andrews. When Andrews is happy he sings Thurber’s favorite song “Bye Bye, Blackbird,” also sung by “Kirk” in “One Is a Wanderer.” Andrews mentions a grave in one of the cemeteries in lower Manhattan that Thurber wrote about in a New Yorker casual a decade before. Beyond that, the story doesn’t do much more than assert the power of the irrational over the rational. Andrews will die, of course, “mysteriously,” as though shot through the heart, the forefinger of his right hand crooked as though pulling a trigger. If this wasn’t an episode from The Twilight Zone, it should have been.

“The Whip-poor-will” ups the ante considerably, pushing almost into EC Comics territory, although Thurber is chaste in his description of the carnage he delivers us. “The Whip-poor-will” is the story of Mr. Kinstrey and his wife Madge, previously known to us as Mr. and Mrs. Monroe, Mr. and Mrs. Andrews, and others. For Mr. Kinstrey, like so many Thurber men, the onset of night and darkness brings not sleep but, strange, soft, mysterious noises, noises that never cease, sounds that seem to speak, that send the mind chasing down corridors in search of a meaning that always eludes their grasp, lost in a darkness where words themselves, instead of separating and defining reality, run together and destroy it. Mr. Kinstrey lies awake listening to the call of the whip-poor-will, chanting its call over and over. “Its lungs must be built like a pelican’s pouch, or a puffin or a penguin or a pemmican or a paladin.”

All of his life, it seems, Thurber would lie awake at night stringing long lists of words together in an aimless yet compulsive manner, searching for a meaning that would not emerge from the chatter, a search that inevitably led him further and further away from meaning, and from sanity, the longer he pursued it. Kinstrey shares this problem, and so did Mr. Mitty himself, who struggles to recall the shopping list his wife gave him: “Toothpaste, toothbrush, bicarbonate, carborundum, initiative, and referendum?”

Mrs. Kinstrey, of course, is never troubled in her sleep.1 She sleeps alone in her “canopied four-poster” in perfect ease while Mr. Kinstrey twists in sweated, sleepless sheets. He complains bitterly about the whip-poor-will who, of course, bothers no one but him, not his wife and not the two black servants, who of course inform him that the sound of the whip-poor-will means death.2

Kinstrey is a typical Thurber man, flinching and agonizing over noises that only he can hear. Unlike everyone else, he can’t put things out of his mind. Everyone else is stolidly and absolutely “normal.” He alone is prey to the bizarre mysteries of the night, mysteries that, every night, grow fiercer and more implacable, mysteries that amount to nothing more than the mating call of a tiny bird.

“Who do you do first?” asks Kinstrey, holding a carving knife in the middle of the night. He begins with the servants, proceeds to his wife, and finishes with himself. Thurber naturally spares us all the bloodshed, but it all still seems a bit overwhelming, the leap from insomnia to slaughter too large, perhaps, for the compass of a short story. We, or at least I, feel that Thurber has forced his ending, wanting to give vent to helpless rage he apparently often felt, but failing to grasp the correct objective correlative.

The whip-poor-will’s3 cry obviously had meaning for Thurber, fascinated as he was by words and by dreams—a night bird’s call that almost seems to be the night itself speaking to us, but in a word that takes us away from the rationality and order that language ought to impose on life instead of towards it, taking us, ultimately and irresistibly, to madness, to the bitter recognition that life is without meaning, without order, and, in particular, without moral order, which to Thurber, cursed not only with “the Thurbs,” but with constant pain and impending blindness, seemed in his dark moments to be both the ugliest and most necessary truth that could be known.


  1. And surely the same is true of Mrs. Mitty as well. 

  2. As Jim explained to Huck, why would you need an omen of good fortune? To ward it off? 

  3. Thurber might have been even more intrigued by the whip-poor-will’s close relative, the “chuck-will’s-widow.” But the whip-poor-will has a greater literary lineage. 

Hillary Clinton, Warrior Princess

By now, you may have read that Hillary Clinton’s interview with Jeffrey Goldberg was not quite the unadulterated love-fest that Goldberg described in his intro to the rap session. It was only 99 percent unadulterated. At the Daily Beast, Michael Tomasky wants us to believe that Hillary isn’t really a neocon. She’s just a “muscular internationalist”: As proof, Mike offers us this “money quote”:

“I think we’ve learned about the limits of our power to spread freedom and democracy. That’s one of the big lessons out of Iraq. But we’ve also learned about the importance of our power, our influence, and our values appropriately deployed and explained. If you’re looking at what we could have done that would have been more effective, would have been more accepted by the Egyptians on the political front, what could we have done that would have been more effective in Libya, where they did their elections really well under incredibly difficult circumstances but they looked around and they had no levers to pull because they had these militias out there. My passion is, let’s do some after-action reviews, let’s learn these lessons, let’s figure out how we’re going to have different and better responses going forward.”

Well, if that’s a money quote, I want my money back. Hillary isn’t saying that we shouldn’t have gone into Iraq, or that we shouldn’t have invaded Libya. No, our problem was that we didn’t do it effectively! Yeah, that’s the problem!

Any time I hear someone talking about their “passion,” I start to gag. And when their “passion” is doing a whole shitload of “after-action reviews” of the Iraqi invasion so we can learn how to do it “better” the next time around, well, I start to get more than a little afraid.

I’d like to believe that Hillary was triangulatin’ with Jeff when she pitched all this neocon jive, but the more I read, the less optimistic I became. Hillary is well-known for her lack of bullshitting skills. She’s so convinced of her own virtuousness that when she tries to finesse an issue she ends up stepping on her own message, with the unmistakable subtext of “Goddamn it, how dare you ask me questions I don’t want to answer! I’m the good guy, goddamn it! I’m the good guy!

There’s none of that in this interview, or at least too damn little. Hillary speaks with confidence because she believes in what she says, she believes the double-dome foreign policy buro-babble false dichotomies and false equivalencies about leadership versus “hunkering down” and about how the lessons of the Cold War are supposed to shape our response to 10,000 “terrorists” whose main skill at this point appears to be the ability to pick up weapons that other people have dropped.

As many people have noted, Clinton’s “hard line” on Iran—her argument being that they somehow have no “right” to do anything that we don’t want them to do—is particularly disappointing. The U.S. spent more than a decade, under George H.W. Bush, William J. Clinton, and George W. Bush, backing Saddam Hussein into a corner, relentlessly harassing him until he stepped over the line (which in fact he didn’t, but never mind). So, basically, we had to do invade Iraq! He put us on the spot! It was his fault!

Clinton seems to want to play exactly the same game with Iran—a long series of false, contrived crises leading up to a final showdown. Like her self-professed brother in arms, Bibi Netanyahu, she appears to be pursuing a new Cold War as an end in itself, a self-perpetuating crisis machine that will generate endless tension and “purpose.” That’s the bad news. The really bad news is that the Republicans will almost surely be driven to be “tougher than Hillary.”

Afterwords
Again, it would be nice to believe that that is Hillary’s “long game”: “They won’t be able to get to the right of me without falling off a cliff, which means that foreign affairs will be a big fat zero all the way to the election. And on domestic matters I can’t lose.” It would be nice to believe that, but I don’t.

Mark Lynch and Fareed Zakaria1 both demonstrate that Hillary is totally talking out of her ass when she suggests (she does not claim definitively) that arming the Syrian rebels would have been a good idea. (Kudos to the Washington Post for running both pieces, which directly contradict the neocon “wisdom” ladled out on the Post’s editorial page.) Peter Beinart demonstrates how grossly inaccurate—not to say explicitly and disgracefully deceitful—was Clinton’s account of recent Israeli history.


  1. Fareed or, you know, someone

Ferguson: White folks being white folks, cops being cops, and black revolutionaries being bad asses

Those white folks down in Ferguson, Missouri are clever, aren’t they? In a classic “winner deals and dealer wins” situation, the white power structure has arranged for city elections to be held on off years, in April! Hey, what’s wrong with having an electorate composed of the citizens who care, who work hard, who aren’t just looking for a handout and a free ride?

Well, maybe, just maybe, it might be better to have a city government, and a city police force, that represented, you know, the entire community, instead of just the white smart folks.

Of course, “home rule” is no guarantee of anything. In Detroit, a succession of highly representative black mayors encouraged a culture of crime and corruption that, when combined with the near collapse of the U.S. auto industry, has brought the city to its knees. In Washington, DC, it’s quite likely that only the unending gusher of federal cash avoided a similar outcome.

But I’m not going to exempt the nearly all-white Ferguson police force from special obloquy. The Washington Post has expressed editorial concerns over the department’s “fumbles.” I’m sorry, WP, but persistent manipulation of public information, including harassment of the media and the entirely unnecessary banning of news helicopters are not “fumbles.” They represent a culture of secrecy that verges on lawlessness. We’ve got the goddamn badges, goddamn it! That’s all ye know, and all ye need to know!.

But none of this begins to excuse the widespread arson and looting that has accompanied the black community’s protests in Ferguson. There is a persistent and unattractive pattern among “radical” blacks to justify theft, riot, and even murder as “rebellion.” Destroying the businesses, and even the lives, of shop owners guilty of the crime of supplying black communities with the necessities of life is not rebellion. It is a celebration of low-level gangsterism, frequently mingled with racism, since many of the destroyed businesses are operated by white or Asian owners. It increases the economic burden on the residents of poor black communities and glorifies exploitation while purporting to overthrow it. This is the sort of “rebellion” that destroyed Detroit and has come close to destroying other cities as well.

Pseudo New Yorker


Legal humor here. All cartoons here. and here

“Yeah, that was excessive. But somehow I don’t feel so bad.”

“Technically, it’s legal. But Big Bill Bronson don’t do technical.”

“A few broken windows I can ignore. A flipped car, not so much.”

“This isn’t a cry for help. This is a cry for a butt-kicking.”

“The ’75s never did have much traction.”

“Yeah, it probably will start. But at this point I don’t really give a shit.”

“Were the tires overinflated? I guess!”

“It seems that Fat Tony was not in the line of succession.”

“Yeah, I have a theory. My theory is that someone is fucking with us.”

“It seems the 30th Street Lesbians resent our presence.”

James Thurber, A Reader’s Guide, Part 21


INTRODUCTION

This is the 20th episode of “James Thurber, A Reader’s Guide,” a rambling consideration of Thurber’s works, examining his life and work in some detail. Generally, these appear every Friday. The links to the first part and the most recent part are given below. Part 21 continues the discussion of The Male Animal, Thurber’s one and only Broadway play, subsequently made into a film starring Henry Fonda, and begins discussion of his 1942 collection, My World and Welcome to It.

PART 1

PART 20 

Despite its eat your cake and have it too liberalism, The Male Animal can hold the stage today as a semi-functional period piece, with the major exception of the “comic” black maid Cleota, mercifully cut out of modern-day productions, a rare case of political correctness getting it right. In a play designed to uphold the values of intellect and enlightenment, Thurber and Nugent showed a massive lack of both in presenting such a shamefully racist caricature. Cleota is lazy, stupid, ignorant, and rude. One can only suppose that the Manhattan crowd enjoyed chuckling at those unfortunate folks west of the Hudson who couldn’t afford well-trained servants.

Nugent’s influential position in Hollywood helped bring The Male Animal to the silver screen in short order. The first half of the film is slow going, not helped along by either Hattie McDaniels as Cleota or Olivia de Havilland, who’s far too grand to play an Ohio State faculty wife. Surprisingly, things pick up during the drunk scene and continue to improve when the picture takes us to Tommy’s classroom, where his rendition of Vanzetti’s final statement earns him first a standing ovation and then a sort of impromptu pep rally cum victory parade that tops anything the university eve r threw for Whirling Joe! The topper occurs when Big Ed, joining happily if improbably in the revelry, finds Michael insufficiently enthusiastic: “What’s the matter with you? You’re not a fascist are you?” When “Old Hollywood” did happy, they did it right!

In fact, Hollywood was only beginning to screw with The Male Animal. The script was reworked in 1952 as She’s Working Her Way Through College, in which professor Ronald Reagan passionately defends student Virginia Mayo’s rights—specifically, the right to strip, since she’s, well, working her way through college. In real life, the U.S. Supreme Court wouldn’t catch up fully with Ronnie’s vision for almost 50 years, in Erie v. Paps A.M., 529 U.S. 277 (2000).

Back in 1942, it was a measure of Thurber’s status as a Manhattan-only phenomenon that his name is nowhere to be seen on the poster for the film version of The Male Animal. (The same would be true in 1948 for The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.) Still, his notoriety was growing. Unfortunately, his eyesight was failing. By 1940 he was unable to recognize friends’ faces in photographs. In the early forties he would undergo a series of painful eye operations,1 suffering severe headaches and numerous other complaints at the same time. The operations, if they had any positive effect at all, simply delayed the onset of blindness. Thurber drew his last illustration in 1951.

All of this made it into his next collection, My World and Welcome to It, which appeared in 1942. “Mitty” is there, with its wonderful segues in and out of fantasy, along with the overbearing Mrs. Mitty, one of Thurber’s least attractive females and perhaps the most castrating woman this side of Lorena Bobbitt. “You Could Look It Up” is a wonderful exercise in vernacular, a baseball tall tale that reads like a cross between Ring Lardner and Mark Twain.

Thurber first ventured to Hollywood to work on The Male Animal with Nugent and ended up staying for months. One result was “The Man Who Hated Moonbaum,” a deadpan take on Hollywood surrealism as “Tallman” (Thurber) all but silently endures a wildly self-dramatizing monologue by a tiny, megalomaniac Hollywood producer who leads him through a gigantic mansion in pursuit of some Napoleon brandy.

The piece offers more than a whiff of both New York and anti-Semitic condescension. The Hollywood producer is a Sam Goldwyn/Leo G. Mayer-style vulgarian utterly lacking in taste who has, thanks to his limitless wealth, absolutely the best of everything. Tallman listens to his rant, both contemptuous and helpless, because he has only taste and no cash—the writer’s perennial plight.

It’s all a bit unattractive, for several reasons. Hollywood moguls were immensely rich, but no richer than Wall Street millionaires. Thurber had surely been on Gatsby-class Long Island estates that were a match for anything on the West Coast. And, according to Thurber biographer Harrison Kinney, the producer’s florid rap was actually based on the verbal stunting of Leo McCarey, an Irishman, not a Jew. Furthermore, McCarey put together a pretty impressive record as a director for such stars as Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers, and W.C. Fields. Furthermore, McCarey directed two of Hollywood’s seriously legendary films, Duck Soup and The Awful Truth. Thurber himself had been a near film buff as a young man, but once he went “New York” it was hard for him to admit in writing that anything counted except Broadway.

My World and Welcome to It has two of Thurber’s darkest stories, “A Friend to Alexander” and “The Whip-poor-will,” which especially reflects the agony he endured during his eye operations. Both stories deal with dream worlds, dreams that grow darker and darker and ultimately invade the real world. “A Friend to Alexander” reflects Thurber’s wide reading in American history—getting “behind” the textbook tales of American greatness that his generation grew up on. It’s a long, carefully wrought story about “Andrews,” a man who finds himself dreaming obsessively about Aaron Burr. He associates the story of Burr and Alexander Hamilton with his own life, with the death of his brother, killed by a “drunkard,” a story that makes him so angry that his wife has never been able to understand what actually happened. In his dreams, Andrews sees Burr kill Hamilton in their famous duel, but the dreams don’t end there. Burr insults him in his dreams, and Andrews begins to prepare himself for a final confrontation. He seizes on opportunities for pistol practice, and his bizarre behavior when he has his hands on a gun naturally frightens those around him.

PART 22 


  1. Thurber understandably told his friends that he had undergone the tortures of the damned. His surgeon, who rather petulantly felt that he had inflicted, if not actually endured, far greater agonies, thought that Thurber exaggerated.