Points

108

The list of Nominees for the National Book Award for Fiction is out. Let’s look at the novels’ first sentences, from worst to best: 1.) ”I’m not a bad guy.” 2.) ”Alan Clay woke up in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.” 3.) ”The men of Bravo are not cold.” 4.) ”The war tried to kill us in the spring.” 5.) ”Small trees had attacked my parents’ house at the foundations.” Anthony Burgess, himself an award winning author, once said: “The virtues of the plain style have been presented to us too often; we’ve been bemused into forgetting that plain English is too often emasculated English (ironical that this should be the medium preferred by the most vauntedly masculine of writers).” Here’s to a resurgence of literary interest in syntax, verbosity and sound.

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107

Writing in The Atlantic after the first presidential debate, James Fallows reiterated what has already become the conventional frame for evaluating the event: “I am not talking about whether I agree with the two candidates’ positions. Obviously I agree more with Obama, and I believe that more of his facts and assertions are ‘true.’ I am talking about crispness in presenting positions within the constraints of this particular format, and the air of overall ease in the encounter. If you had the sound turned off, Romney looked calm and affable through more of the debate than Obama did, and the incumbent president more often looked peeved.” Fallows, like so many in the American media, is so deep into second-guessing electoral psychology that he can no longer even stomach the word “true” without a dose of scare-quotes. He wants to present himself like a dispassionate zoologist, predicting cause and effect on the basis of outward signs and putting normative questions to one side. A presidential debate isn’t an opportunity to make a case for being elected through facts and argument, but an opportunity to display yourself as an alpha male. We can all agree that it shouldn’t be like that, that debates are not supposed to be for that, but come on, let’s be realistic. Those in the know watch with the sound off. The trouble is, of course, that this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Journalism is not like zoology. It shapes our perceptions. It changes its object. I chose to watch the debate with the sound on, as it happens, and Obama clearly won: he hit Romney over and over with a charge—if your plans are so good for the middle class, why won’t you say what they are?—that Romney couldn’t answer without lying. Can anyone name a single point on which Romney similarly skewered Obama? Whether or not Obama failed to use all his ammunition is immaterial. Watching the post-debate shows, I began to doubt my own impressions as I heard more and more about Romney’s controlled aggression and Obama’s failure to attack. My opinion began to shift. And I wasn’t alone: in a Google poll conducted during the debate, 38.9% said they thought Obama was “doing a better job in the debate,” and 35.5% said Romney; when the same poll was conducted after the debate, the numbers had reversed, with 47.8% for Romney and 25.4% for Obama. It seems reasonable to conclude that the media’s post-debate analysis changed our perceptions of what had actually happened. Given this influence, the media has a responsibility to think about the role it should perform with respect to these debates. But then the same problem recurs: we can all agree that in an ideal world the media would focus on who won the argument, not on how well each candidate played his cards—but come on, let’s be realistic. Those in the know watch cable news with the sound off.

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106

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103

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.

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102

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!

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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.

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