When Romney pollster Neil Newhouse said last week that the Romney people were “not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers,” it reminded me of George W. Bush’s aide’s (rumored to be Karl Rove) claim to a journalist, nearly eight years ago, that the Bush administration did not belong to “the reality-based community.” Progressives love to point to quotes like these and snicker, as if there’s basically no difference between saying you’re against the “reality-based community” and admitting you’re insane. But an insane person—even a stupid or competently manipulative one—would never say they were not in the reality-based community, or that they were not going to be limited by facts. Evidently, the men making these statements (political operatives, after all) believe they are communicating something more than a disdain for the truth. What could they think they are communicating? Not, I don’t think, that there is no longer any difference between truth and lies in politics (which doesn’t mean they don’t act like they believe that), nor that a Bush-style religious faith trumps analysis and deliberation. Maybe, I sometimes think, that the Republican Party is more concerned, as the Bush aide told the journalist, with changing reality than with studying it. And definitely that politics is (and should be) about more than facts. What is surprising about that last assertion is just how surprised contemporary progressives always seem when events (and elections) bear it out. It’s helpful to point out, as today’s progressive blogs have become expert at doing, when a candidate is not telling the truth. But Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney just spent two days articulating an apparently seductive vision of American society—if we want to stop them from changing reality the way Bush did, we had better find a way to question something bigger than their facts.
The two most important pop acts in the world couldn’t be more dissimilar. K-Pop rapper Psy’s vocals are repetitive and sound auto-tuned, his beats are standard pop-cheese. He’s not attractive; he’s old; you’ve probably heard people mock-rapping his Gangnam Style. Pussy Riot make three-chords-and-a-scream punk, have released one song, but are also imitated by others thanks to their bright balaclavas and performance in Russia’s tallest cathedral. They’re united, though, by more than the letters p, s and y. Foreigners, for instance: we, and our media, love the shit out of these people. The media coverage of them, too, is strangely alike: the Atlantic and the New York Times both claim that this stuff wouldn’t have such an impact here. In Korea and Russia, we’re told, dissent and satire are new and a little childish: Psy’s work is “no Born in the U.S.A.” Members of the radical art group Guerilla Girls give Pussy Riot the stamp of approval while saying—a little smugly?—that thanks to our living in America, “we can pretty much do what we want.” Yes, we have freedom, and a truly critical popular culture. That must explain why Rick Ross writes all those songs mocking the Hamptons; why the Guerilla Girls protest the links between capitalism and the Religious Right in Lakewood Church rather than attacking the art establishment that would inevitably embrace them; and why young women would never be arrested for wearing neon balaclavas in the Free world. Yeah, go us!
A few days ago, the American public was once again treated to its favorite political occurrence: the harmless gaffe. After a decade of blowing Bushisms out of proportion, media and electorate alike are still enamored with the trivial mishaps of our nation’s leaders. When Mitt Romney finally announced his running mate, he mistakenly introduced Paul Ryan as “the next president of the United States.” Needless to say, the internet exploded, and Romney was roundly mocked. This all despite the fact that Barack Obama, four years ago, made the very same mistake when introducing then-prospective veep Joe Biden. It’s no secret that today’s youth, in aggregate, disagree with social conservatism. As a registered Democrat and Obama supporter, I am one of them. But though the trope of the stupid, bumbling conservative may often be warranted, the Romney-Ryan ticket can simply not be labeled as such. They are two smart, legitimately qualified candidates. We ask our politicians to focus on important issues—on the economy, on healthcare, on education. Us, though? We’re fine with talking about how you screwed up that sentence.
Observers of the Olympic Games in London have frequently been asked to view them as a triumph of liberal cosmopolitanism: all the peoples of the world united in peace and harmony. Even John Lennon said so. And despite the Games’ military flavor, despite the violent associations—or plain violence—of so many of the events, despite the raging patriotism of uniforms, anthems and national teams, it may really be the closest thing we have. So what will the United World be like? The economic prosperity of you and of your region will overwhelmingly determine your chances of success; meanwhile successful individuals will thank their families and tell simpering onlookers that it all came down to hard work. Public expression of political views will be prohibited in the name of tolerance. Formerly or allegedly counter-cultural figures who have won the victory over themselves will be publically humiliated in ceremonial rituals. And, yes, it might be fun to watch.
On August 7, 2012, a new mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, was finally granted permission to open, following a lengthy delay that saw vandalism, protests, and legal action by groups opposed to Islam and fearful of terrorism. Though badly belated, it was a victory for the American way of life, to which the free exercise of religion is fundamental—yet not a victory to be taken for granted, when public sentiment about the youngest great Abrahamic faith often fails to distinguish between moderate and extreme, modern and reactionary, and sometimes, it seems, even between Muslim and Sikh. Of course, The Islamic Center of Murfreesboro is probably fated to be little more than a footnote in the ongoing debate about the role of Islam in the United States. When it made national news two years ago, a rancorous controversy was unfolding around a plan to build an Islamic community center in lower Manhattan, a few blocks from the former World Trade Center site. Most politicians of note, including Romney and Obama, weighed in; even those in favor of the project granted that the situation was unique, for where the Twin Towers once stood had become “hallowed ground,” sacred to the memory of those lost in the 9/11 attacks. On August 7, 2010, the New York Times referred to the site of the Tennessee mosque as one of several “far less hallowed locations” than that proposed for the so-called “ground zero mosque” (then occupied by a defunct Burlington Coat Factory). It was a comment made in passing, and quite understandably. Yet we should remember that ground zero is hardly the first bloody soil to be dedicated to the memory of martyrs for the American cause of freedom. Because of Lincoln’s masterful, simultaneously humbling and stirring rhetoric, everyone is familiar with the Gettysburg Address, and knows of the battle it commemorated as the turning point in the clash between North and South. Lincoln was right: the world cannot forget what was done there. But Middle Tennessee also saw a number of major battles in the Civil War. If you fought in the Battle of Murfreesboro, for instance, your odds of being killed or wounded were greater than if you had been at Gettysburg; there were more casualties in absolute terms than at Antietam or Shiloh. What occurred at ground zero will likely remain seared in my generation’s memory, and so it should. But the fact that the Times and most everyone else have forgotten what was once done in Murfreesboro might be reason for guarded optimism about the future of Islam in America. Recent and present conflicts need not define us forever. Historians remember and the rest of us—eventually—move on.
I had a cat I almost never saw. Big and old, Mr. Pops had filmy yellow eyes, coarse black fur, and an endearing snaggletooth. Apparently Pops was affectionate before he came to live with me, when he was confined to a four-by-four-foot pen. We fosterers mistakenly assumed that he would prefer the freedom and light of my bedroom to the confines of the pen. Instead, the change made him anxious. Stubborn and nervous, Pops made his dim cloister anew in my room, only this time he wasn’t as friendly. He spent all of our time together hiding behind my couch. When I touched him he’d purr before scurrying off to his next hideout. Senior cats don’t often enter the foster circuit, and when they do, they are rarely adopted. But after two months a lovely old French woman whisked Mr. Pops away to the apartment she’s lived in since 1972. She regularly adopts elderly cats, and once one dies she takes on another. I assumed, perhaps too quickly, that she does this to regularly face and cope with death. I assumed this because I started fostering cats, in part, to get accustomed to growing attached and then distant—something I thought I should work on as I become an adult, like building credit. But as I looked around the woman’s quiet apartment I realized that it wasn’t fear of mortality but a sense of empathy that led her to adopt old cats. She might just know how lonely it can be for somebody like Pops. I dropped Pops off in her small, sparsely furnished study. Realizing he didn’t have anywhere to hide, and frustrated that the door was closed, Pops turned and hissed at the old woman. In her thick French accent she calmly and assertively replied, “No, no, Mr. Pops, you will not hiss at me.” Then she picked him up, tossed him over her shoulder, and stroked his back, assuring him that they would “very much enjoy each other.” Pops gave a begrudging purr, which eased into a thankful meow. She’d found a way to help him. And instead of speculating why or how, I watched. They enjoyed each other.
Critics have pounced on the politics behind the opening ceremony of the London Olympics. Some have seen a riposte to Beijing in the sheer ungovernable chaos of Saturday’s proceedings, but most have focused on the Leftist elements—most obviously the song and dance tribute to the NHS, but also the almost unceasing display of marginalized groups, epitomized by the integrated deaf-and-hearing children’s choir that sung the national anthem. One Tory MP tweeted that it was “multicultural crap”; Rupert Murdoch found it “a little too politically correct.” I felt just the opposite. On another occasion it might well have been tedious and tokenistic, but this was the Olympics, and the whole point was to tell a story in which division is overcome by unity: class division by national healthcare, colonialism by multiculturalism, disability by compassion. If anything, the most offensive thing—if one has to be found—was the absence of the one group who find themselves mocked and shamed by the very existence of the Olympics: not Tory MPs, but fat people. Despite the fact that fully one-third of the UK population is now clinically obese, even liberal do-gooders would rather keep this particular underclass out of sight and out of mind. Is it because the obese have authored their own fates, unlike the disabled and the oppressed? Or is it because their ugliness contradicts another, more ancient Olympic ideal, one whose triumph must go unspoken in these pseudo-democratic times—the aristocracy of the beautiful body?
It was curious enough when the (now former) New Yorker writer Jonah Lehrer was hailed as an “important new thinker” for a book that attempted to use brain science to prove such banalities as that creativity could be fed by daydreaming, or that it was a good idea to put people from different specialties in the same building. It was even more curious when it turned out that Lehrer had cherry-picked scientific evidence, presented a misleading chronology, and (as it now turns out) completely fabricated a series of quotations from at least one of the creative geniuses whose “process” he describes in his book—mostly to support arguments with which no sane person would disagree. (Obsessing about a problem all the time is not always the best way to solve it? Really?). But the thing that was always most curious about Imagine: How Creativity Works was how many people seemed to think it offered, in a series of purple passages about brain waves and neurochemistry, some kind of answer to questions that philosophers have been debating since Plato. Now that we know he committed the unforgivable sin of misleading fact-checkers, Lehrer’s star will dim, but it would be a nice bonus if his demise prompted us to re-examine our culture’s broader belief that brain science may (someday, if not today) serve as a suitable substitute for philosophy. If you look at the elaborate praise that Lehrer’s book originally received, you come often across some version of the statement that Lehrer stood “at the crossroads of neuroscience and the humanities.” But does such a place really exist? And if so, who stands there besides the public relations experts who seemed almost intuitively to recognize the best use for Lehrer’s talents?
Close your eyes and imagine the “American Dream.” Freedom. Equality. Opportunity. Did you imagine “Walmart?” I think this is the fundamental economic and political question of our time.
Amid all the debate about the political implications of Dark Knight Rises—its treatment of class inequality, the presence of Occupy Wall Street, the menace of Bane Capital—we’ve lost sight of some of the inherent strangeness of Batman. Why does it take a bat costume to fight crime? The answer given by the series is fairly simple. Bruce Wayne was traumatized by seeing his parents murdered. This trauma was linked to his childhood fear of bats, present at both his parents’ death and beneath the family mansion. Psychically, fear of bats equals powerlessness, and overcoming this fear allows Bruce to seek vengeance. So far, this is all straightforward reaction formation. But what if something stranger is at work? What did Bruce really see and hear in that alleyway when he thought his parents were being murdered? And why was he so preoccupied with the dark, furry cave under his house? The Freudian theory of the primal scene suggests another answer: like Freud’s Wolf Man, young Bruce caught his parents in the act of intercourse, (which, to a child, appears as a murder, complete with screams and blood), then spent the rest of his life to re-staging the scene in hopes of exorcising himself of the hold it had on his mind. Primal scene trauma normally leads to sexual perversity, exhibitionism, and voyeurism. Psychoanalyst Henry Edelheit notes that it also leads to a heightened affinity for animal-human hybrids and compound mythological beasts as figures of the intertwined parents. That’s pretty much the combination you’d expect in a vigilante wearing a latex cowl with pointy ears and driving a rocket-propelled phallus. This reading helps resolve a few of the discordant elements of the Batman myth—Batman’s fixation on childhood, the obsession with caves and wells, the nighttime scopophilia, his preference for the company of other fetishists, the vinyl, the suit. It might also restore something that has been sorely missing from the superhero genre—a dose of psychological realism. After all, being a citizen may take nothing more than a willingness to trust your own judgment as much as you do that of your fellows. But to be a hero, to devote yourself to public service, to throw yourself into fighting corruption and crime—does that take dedication and public-spiritedness, or perversion, exhibitionism and obsession?