Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Extolling McCarthy

NOVELIST CORMAC MCCARTHY IS at the center of a most unusual concomittance. In 2007, his bleak apocalyptic novel, The Road, captured the Pulitzer Prize for fiction while just a few months later the film version of his novel, No Country for Old Man, snatched the most Academy of Award nominations-- including, of course, "Best Picture." Thus, for the first time, a living writer has a corner on both the literary and the film market, making McCarthy's vision one of the most prevalent around.

So, what does it say about the literary and film cultures at this moment in history when one of the most violent, most seemingly nihilistic writers has seized the imagination of America's creative class? More interestingly, what is it about McCarthy that appeals to the likes of the Pulitzer board, The Coen Brothers, and Oprah?

The first question is easier to answer. Since 9/11, American cultural production has trended toward the violent, the bleak, and the expansive, and McCarthy's work plays into this weltanschauung like no other American writer. In McCarthy's world, evil is a living, moving force that is both tangible and stubborn. What we might think of as "good," never actually wins, but it also never suffers overt defeat. Rather, men enact these forces across the battlefield that is the Old West, the deep racialized and class-segregated South, and, in the case of The Road, an atavistic post-apocalyptic landscape.

In No Country for Old Men, a man's life depends on the toss of a coin. Literally. The protagonist is killed half-way through the book (and the movie), and his young wife suffers the same fate. In McCarthys' texts, violence looses itself upon the world. Good people die; bad people die. There are never easy answers. Such is the case in America right now. The country is at war. Our enemies are hard to pin down, and morality seems to have no bearing on actions or policies. Good and bad are unpredictable; they seem to flow in and out of each other. Not surprisingly, Hollywood has experienced difficulty developing narratives with the same complexity and contradictions as our current social and political climate, so McCarthy's vision resonates with unusual clarity. His otherness feels familiar.

For example, the issues that are the engines of No Country and The Road differ from those driving Titanic or The Lord of the Rings. However, they are themes that have framed American discourse, ranging from Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage to The Searchers to the novels of William Faulkner and Toni Morrison: What is duty? Why do men kill each other? Is there justice when there seems to be no justice? What is heroism? For what will a man risk his life and betray his moral code? McCarthy loves probing large issues that never get resolved, though they do get injected with a philosophical emotion that is nearly religious.

What we see, ultimately, in McCarthy's McCarthyness is a metonym for America. Whether we like it or not, the ontology of the United States is violent. Part of our national psyche understand the degree to which the fiber of America's vast blanket is dyed with crimson. Though No Country is not an allegory of Iraq, The Cold War, Vietnam or the colonization of Native lands, aspects of the movie and book get at each. In No Country and The Road, a lone man (a McCarthy favorite, perhaps a symbol of American self-reliance) must survive a hostile landscape in order to live and protect his family. In one case, the anti-hero fails at both; in another, one dies and one may or may not live on. There is no resolution; only indeterminacy.

To me, it is fascinating that as Barack Obama hypnotizes America on a platform of hope, America's most vaulted institutions of creative expression are honoring what some would call America's least hopeful living author. But, to read McCarthy as devoid of hope, as nihilistic, is to misread him. As the tag line for the film suggests, you can't stop what's coming, but as McCarthy's novels say over and over, we have never been able to stop what's coming. All we can do is adjust to the arrival. In my mind, writing novels and making films about these issues are themselves projects of optimism.

Contrary to what many believe, such works do not depress; they don't make us more pessimistic. They give us faith in our storytellers because they show us a world we already know but don't acknowledge. Most important of all, McCarthy's novels and the Coen Brothers film remind us that endurance, attention, and reflection are the ultimate goods. They remind us that in a world of unpredictability and terror, communication is more important than ever.

Grading The State of the Union Address

STATE OF THE UNION addresses always receive the scrutiny of pundits and politicians, but they rarely fall in the lap of a writing professor the way a student paper might. To be sure, a state of the union speech is no freshman essay, but a long talk from a lame duck president is not unlike a final paper from a graduating senior who knows he's about to graduate. The only thing missing is the end-of-the-semester kegger, but then again, no one parties like the GOP. If you crash the White House's website to read the full text of the speech (http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2003/01/20030128-19.html), you will notice the inviting all Republicans in the West Wing after the talk for Jaeger shots in Dick Cheney's office.

So, if we look at the president's talk through a pedagogical lens, what do we see? As a teacher, the first thing I notice is the repetitive phrasing and nearly cliched deployment of big but empty phrases. In all fairness, tradition demands the president present his state of the union to congress, but we all know his true audience is the world. Every rhetor knows to direct his text to his true audience, keeping in mind what they expect and what it will take to make them sympathetic to his message. So, the false front of the U. S. congress creates a counterfeit setting--a kind of set--that disguises the real speaker-receiver.

All that aside, paragraphs two and three puff up the tone, but they say very little. Full of code words and tag phrases, the president tries to reassure his audience through a strange progression using the classic noun-verb-verb construction. Note how each paragraph moves forward in time (we have ____, we can _____, we will _____) maintaining a rhythm that makes us thing meaning is being conveyed, and yet, nothing specific has been mentioned. We have an opening, we can see where it is going, and we will likely, based on this, be disappointed.

If we return to our audience and assume it is not congress but the majority of the United States, we might expect the speech to address to the concerns of that demographic; what we might call middle class concerns. At present, 90% of the country makes less than $100,000 per year, and they are likely very aware that if the economy is a tea bag, it is steeping in the warm cup of recession. They are thirsty, but they are afraid to drink. They are also growing increasingly impatient with rising health care costs, the wars in the Middle East, climate change, and the shrinking dollar. So, one way of evaluating how effective the president's speech actually is is to compare its content with the daily realities of its intended audience.

One of the great mysteries of the Bush presidency is his popularity among American demographics about which he knows very little. He is a bizarrely vague president; rarely able to be pinned down, rarely putting a fine point on anything, except the target of his arrows. But, there again, his targets are those most of us never aim at. The same holds true here. For instance, I could be wrong, but I don't think blaming global warming on unfair regulations or hitching the health care issues to the wagon of malpractice suits will make anyone cotton to him at this particular moment in history. Similarly, when given the change to reassure the American populace about the status of our troops in the Middle East, I'm not sure I'd give them: "We have the terrorists on the run. We're keeping them on the run. One by one, the terrorists are learning the meaning of American justice."

Of course, we have and shall debate what, exactly, the terrorists are learning, just as we'll continue to pour over this particular flavor of "American justice." But, what does this tell us about the state of the union? What is going on with our country? What are people afraid of? What do we want, and what will we settle for?

If these questions are our grading criteria, we have to assign the president a C-. His speech is below average because it doesn't seem to jive with what most Americans say they care about. To his credit, the president mentions AIDS, health care, and drug addiction--which would have been great if he were reflecting on The Wire--but these topics only daub at the vast mosaic of American concerns and anxieties. In my count, education is mentioned only once. Once. And, that was a veiled reference to his failed "No Child Left Behind" program. There was no mention of inflation, the sub-prime fiasco, or a timetable to bring the troops home from overseas. Stagflation, thy name is 2008, and yet I know thee not. He loses a letter grade here.

Worst of all, in a president's final state of the union, after 7 years of steering the country through choppy waters, one would expect some sort of consummatory statement not simply on the voyage but a musing on what we have learned from our travels. One would hope our president might say, "After these seven years of listening to Americans, I have come to see the world this way." Or, perhaps, if he were a thinker, he might help translate the past and present into a vision of the future that is accessible to all Americans.

Instead, we were frequently served up oddly religious platitudes that many Americans (even Republicans) have admitted they are tiring of. The president gets points off for his closed-minded version of Christianity and his funky Old Testament rhetoric that has the effect of dividing rather than uniting. Similarly, audiences don't need to be told they are resilient; audiences need to be told what a plan is, what that is the plan, why it will work, and what their life will be like in the meantime.

Any good argument requires a statement of a thesis, assertions of that thesis, and evidence to back up those assertions. As though it were a metaphor for his entire presidency, Mr. Bush never really asserted a thesis tonight, which is why his points were nebulous, vague, and rehashed. Sophomore mistakes, but still, mistakes. It is unclear if it is better or worse for the American people that he'll never have a chance to revise.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Norris Hearts Huckabee: We Respond to our Favorite Private Investigator

Our favorite Private Eye, Mike Spencer of Oakland, California wrote with a comment and question about the Mike Huckabee/Chuck Norris connection. Not known for its investigative journalism, The Weekly Rader did some poking around nonetheless. We now know the feeling many reporters have experienced when there is just not much of interest out there in part because there is not much of interest out there.

Let us condense for the reader.

As I note in an earlier post, Norris, an avowed conservative, Christian, and Republican has been writing a regular column for the conservative WorldNetDaily since 2006. He is also, literally, a Texas range-r: Home Skillet owns a rance outside of Dallas.

In October of 2007, Norris endorsed former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee in his column in WorldNet (http://www.wnd.com/news/article.asp?ARTICLE_ID=58255). According to the column, Norris was struck by Huckabee's position against evolution. And when Mr. Norris discovered that Governor Huckabee had a poster of Chuck Norris Facts on the wall of his study (http://www.chucknorrisfacts.com), it was a match made in this earthly heaven.

Actually, I'm pretty sure Huckabee has still never seen the Chuck Norris Facts, but it is fun to imagine. Since the endorsement, Norris has done TV spots for the Hope Arkansas native, and Huckabee has taken Norris' wife to her botox appointments.

That too is a joke, but I'm not joking about how much the two men seem to enjoy each other's company and position. In fact, if you could combine the two personalities into one man, you would, in fact, have a super-human black belt politician who could even kick Dennis Kucinich's ass. Imagine Norrisbee roaming the backwoods of Arkansas, rounding up rogue Democrats and bringing them to justice. If that doesn't make you feel safe, I don't know what would.

Thanks to Mike Spencer for the question. We liked it so much, we've linked to his fun website:
http://www.spencerpi.com/index.shtml. Next time we want some investigation, we'll hire Spencer.

New Hampshire Primary Breakdown: Could the Press Coverage Be Any Worse?

TONIGHT'S COVERAGE OF THE New Hampshire Primaries reinforced what has been evident for some time--the press has done a phenomenally bad job covering the 2008 presidential elections.

We are used to a certain amount of palaver by now, but tonight's over-the top characterization of Hillary Clinton's victory as a "comeback" or in the words of Chris Matthews, one of the greatest upsets in the history of American politics, pinpointed the gap between how seriously Americans take the media and how seriously the media takes themselves.

Before the Iowa Caucuses, pundits claimed Barak Obama would be out of the race if he didn't win Iowa. On Friday, after Obama's impressive showing there, it was suddenly putative knowledge that if Clinton did not snatch New Hampshire, she would be done for. All of this with over 99% of the country yet to vote.

The need to overdramatize the present has hindered broadcast news since the arrival of channels like CNN and in particular since the ubiquity and immediacy of the Web. None of these are new observations, but rarely has so much been heralded to ride on so little.

Self-selected voters in two small, White states cannot determine the presidential candidate in this unprecedented year. For the first time ever, an African American and a woman have won a caucus and a primary. Those kinds of accomplishments can, of course, lead to over-rhetoricized discourse, but they are also the kinds of epoch-defining events that undermine the dialogue of the over-hyped and under-analyzed. Of all the moments in American political history, this is one of those times when we need a press that is insightful, restrained, useful, and trustworthy. In one of the great ironies of American public discourse, the politicians are more on point, more in touch, more . . . enjoyable . . .than the press.

How painful was it to have Anderson Cooper's "best political team on TV" turn out to be Bill Bennett and Ralph Reid? The only difference between the two is that one is 30 years younger and 30 pounds lighter. Otherwise, they drink from the same Right Wing Republican straw.
These are the voices, though, that are supposed to pilot us through the murky waters of exit polls, tide riding, momentum, and the pulse of the voter. If these are our captains, we shall drown.

Similarly, Chris Matthews was utterly unable to describe Clinton's victory as anything less than a Hummer full of bombs that launched Satan's own grenades exploding into machetes of fire.
Even the New York Times Website described the New Hampshire result as an "upset." We should remember that Ms. Clinton was the de facto candidate (not just the favorite but the candidate) until a few days ago. For some reason, the mainstream press believed a demographic of voters who claimed to be wavering between McCain and Obama. That is to say, they took at face value the answers of people who have allegiance to no political system, no party, no poll.

The mantra the press keeps coda-ing is how independent and unpredictable New Hampshire voters are. And yet, things have gotten to such a point that they don't even believe themselves. The speeches of Clinton and Obama tonight told us more about what voters want and why issues matter than any of the bodies behind the desks.

The Wire: What Does It Mean To Be The Best Show On TV

ON SUNDAY, THE FIRST episode of the final season of The Wire aired on HBO. Much has been made of the elliptical Baltimore-based series, now in its fifth year. Ellen Gray of the Philadelphia Daily News claims it is the best show on television, and Jacob Weisberg, editor of Slate, has called it "the best show ever broadcast in America."

Even so, The Wire's visibility on the red carpet of popular culture is far overshadowed by the better dressed Mad Men, Dexter, The Sopranos (even in death; perhaps especially in death), Lost, Rome, and Pushing Daisies. In fact, The Wire made none of the top ten lists of 2007 on Metacritic. If so many viewers and critics appreciate the show, why don't they love it? Is there something about The Wire that both impresses and repels? Perhaps it is not possible, even in 2008, for America to fully embrace a project that foregrounds poor African Americans, violence, urban corruption, and an ambivalence about the drug war. Perhaps America is only ready to confront some of its values.

At its core, The Wire is about value: the value of human life, the value of drugs, the value of law, the value of the political machine, and, perhaps most importantly, the value of values. In a capitalist culture in which everything has a price, what is a life or a package or a vote or a body worth? What are neighborhoods worth? What is the value of skin color?

The show sets out to explore these questions, but we rarely get answers. The Wire is no morality play. Unlike The Sopranos, Deadwood, and Dexter, which present themselves as theater, The Wire refuses to position itself. For new viewers, this be confusing, but it is within the show's nebulousness that it arrives at clarity. That is, from no position, it can interrogate everything.

The Wire navigates the uneasy waters of drama, documentary, journalism, and comedy. We don't always know its argument; we don't understand all of its themes. We rarely know how to feel because the show upends typical value systems. In so doing, it enacts what we might call an "emotional ethic." By this I mean the character of the show, its project, is strong enough not simply to advance its own ethic but also to enable us to view our own ethical spectrum through the world of the show. The Wire makes the irrational rational, the ugly beautiful. It can make what should be wrong, right, and, sadly enough, the opposite.

One of the main plot points of the third season involves "Amsterdam," a moniker for an area of drug and gang-ravaged Baltimore that an aging police chief secretly converts into a legalized drug zone. It is a rogue move. None of his superiors know about the experiment because it flies in the face of the department's standard practice of juking the arrest numbers. But, on many levels, the experiment works. Hoppers and Cornerboys leave the corners. Residents fix up their houses and return to their stoops. Violence drops dramatically; in part because cops monitor Amsterdam. One of the great ironies of modern television is born--cops overseeing the legal sale and distribution of drugs to the benefit of local neighborhoods.

This is a provocative story line for any show, and in any other program, such a plot would have come off as farce. But, because The Wire embraces complexity and ambiguity, they can tackle themes that other shows merely bungle.

Their most important theme in this regard is race. No other show on television excavates the deep connections between race, identity, class, capitalism, and family like The Wire. Though scenes switch quickly--sometimes without commentary or exposition--from the White world to the Black world, the main focus are poor African Americans in inner-city Baltimore. Last season, the show moved away from the flashier subjects of sex trafficking and drug legalization and honed in on the daily challenges of teachers and students in an all-Black middle school. Here, every student is on the cusp of every possible bad choice. Every teacher is handcuffed by horrible facilities, atrocious funding, and a mandate for higher test scores.

The show follows the lives of four young men, 12 and 13 years old, as they deal with their White teacher (a former cop from the previous seasons), the insanity of their home lives, and the pull of the corners. The layers of complexity in the lives of each of these boys could fill an entire season; so overwhelming are the obstacles around them. The show's brilliance lies in its patience. It takes its time peeling the onion away, revealing disturbing layer after mortifying layer. A palpable bravery lies in the decision to circumscribe what might happen. Some of the scenes in the classroom are exceedingly uncomfortable. David Simon, Ed Burns, and their team of writers possess an uncanny ability to capture the hoplessness and ennui of trying to teach and learn division and multiplication in this school in this city to these kids.

In many ways, The Wire resembles the social novels of the late 19th and early 20th centuries more than other contemporary television shows. Savvy viewers will see similarities in Zola, Dickens, Sinclair, and Ellison, especially in terms of how, even in the 1800s, we spend our children. Even the pace and plotting feels literary. So dense are the issues, so interwoven the stories, so precise is the detail, the narrative needs the patience of a novel to correctly unpack its story. The rise and fall of Frank Sobotka in season two is high tragedy Sophocles and Shakespeare would crib from.

To be the best show on TV, then, is to be not like TV.

I suspect when The Wire is no more, it will get some of the attention it deserves, but, just like the students in that middle school, it may not make a difference.

Iowa Caucus Analysis: A Special Mid-Week Dispatch

N AN ODD NIGHT, two of the oddest moments involved watching not the candidates themselves address the nation but the famous personalities on the dais near them.

In the case of Mike Huckabee, it was Chuck Norris. The plaid-shirted, red-bearded Norris captured as much of the camera's gaze as Huckabee himself. In Norris' countenance, one got a glimpse of the self-possessed smugness that comes with certainty--the certainty of right and wrongness, white and blackness, god and godlessness, gay and straightness. It was strange to see Walker, Texas Ranger asking to be taken seriously as a visual icon of the political process. For a little over a year now, Norris has been writing a pro-Republican, pro-Jesus column for WorldNetDaily, but Huckabee's decision to place him front and center during his Iowa victory speech says a great deal about both men, their values, and how each is asking to be read: Huckabee as badass and Hollywood cool; Norris as validated, anointed, chosen.

Similarly, during Hilary Clinton's subdued, seemingly rehearsed concession speech that conceded nothing, the real magnetism in the room was to her left--her husband, Bill. Clinton's third place finish was, clearly, a blow to her and her followers, but no one looked more devastated than Bill Clinton. It was difficult to know if his overt discomfort was caused by her address (more an argument as to why her experience and deep pockets qualify her for the presidency than an appeal to the heart and soul of the electorate) or by the stunning outcome of the caucus. Perhaps it was my own projection influencing my perspective, but he looked to be holding back the urge to grab the microphone and say everything that was not being said at his wife's presentation and all that would be coverd at Obama's. One also senses that the heaviness in President Clinton's features portends the potential crush awaiting his as he hits the campaign trail. If he pulls out all the stops stumping for his wife, he (and others) may see this as a statement, even a referendum, on his presidency. How painful this reality must be for him.

Watching both Norris and President Clinton drives home the fact that so much about the campaigns and elections are about more than the candidates. They are about what the candidates see when they look into the two-way mirror that is the American electorate.

Tonight's results confirmed what we all knew, know, and shall not forget: America is a divided country. Had McCain and Edwards both won, there would be compelling evidence that America's left and right wings might actually be able to fly the same bird. But, Huckabee's strong showing among Republicans merely reinforces the putative anxiety among the right wing about conservative values like anti-gay measures, hatred of Roe v. Wade, and skepticism of illegal immigration. Romney's second place finish and McCain's surprisingly distant third place showing indicate an urgency among conservatives, at least in Iowa.

Obama, on the other hand, is a model of progressive liberal values. To my knowledge, Iowa has never elected an African American to any position of note; and yet, this young, "inexperienced" junior senator ran away with the democratic votes despite pre-caucus polls showing a statistically even race among Clinton, Obama, and Edwards. One of the more anti-establishment, anti-run-of-the-mill-solution candidates in recent memory, Obama appeared to appeal only to the young, the naive, and the disenfranchised. And yet, in one of the Whiter states in the country, Obama defeated, soundly, two exceedingly White front runners in Clinton and Edwards. It is hard to overstate how remarkable his accomplishment is. His speech, unlike Ms. Clinton's, was transcendent, emotional, and, most important, unifying.

Oddly enough, Obama's endorsement by Iowans expands the Democratic party, whereas Huckabee's victory shrinks the Republican crew. Huckabee is a divisive figure. Iowa Republicans who are not Christian or Evangelical avoided him. Mainstream Republican voters in other states will likely not find what they seek in president in Mr. Huckabee. On the other hand, Obama is likely to parlay his surprising victory in the White, conservative, Bible-belted Iowa into an incredible bounce for the New Hampshire primary only five days away. McCain will likely win New Hampshire, which could, in fact, bifurcate Republicans; while the Democrats may just rally around an Obama win in Iowa and New Hampshire en route to South Carolina.

Lastly, Republican and Democratic turnout in Iowa may be a bellwether for the fall elections. So many more Democrats caucused than Republicans (and with such enthusiasm), the politics of xenophobia, restriction, and exclusion that have dominated American discourse for the last eight years, may just be giving way to a dialogue of engagement, integration, and collaboration.

When viewed through this lens, the values of Chuck Norris, despite their owner's martial arts proficiency, were scissor-kicked tonight by those of Bill Clinton's intellectual successor, Senator Obama.

The Weekly Rader - An Overture

HERE AT THE Weekly Rader home offices, we are a bit uncertain about the blog. Didn't blogs wear the oldest of hats back in 2006? Why, then, begin one now? Who will read it? What makes this space different from others in other hats?

For one, this space is not about me. It's not a diary or a journal; though it will be opinionated. Second, it's a kind of testing ground for a future book project. As someone who publishes in the fields of cultural studies, literature, visual culture, and the social and political arenas, I have become fascinated by the fact that no one really looks at the intersection of these disciplines. Almost no one writes about movies, books, music, and politics, despite the fact that each influence each other in provocative ways--especially at this moment in history.

Though my co-author, Jonathan Silverman, and I devote individual chapters to topics like these in our book, The World is a Text, even a frequently updated text like ours can't be as immediate or as current (or as freewheeling) as a publication like the one you're reading.

In our book, we advance the notion that everything--the entire world--is a text that can be unpacked, analyzed, read, and decoded. This blog will devote itself to reading the various texts that shape our lives and our cultures: politics, film, popular culture, literature, music, and art.

In some instances, I will write about topics I normally avoid. In others, I'll take issues I'm used to exploring in different directions. In any case, I'll value feedback and suggestions along the way.

My ultimate goal is to create a series of observations that are smart readings of public discourse. In so doing, I hope to help bridge the gaps between these areas so that we see the interrelation between art and politics, film and music, literature and social issues. Over time, these perspectives should create a kind of unexpected conversation with each other.

In general, new posts will appear every Tuesday. Feel free to contact me at any point. My website is deanrader.com, and my email is rader@usfca.edu. Here's hoping for an engaged 2008.

The Weekly Rader FAQ

The Weekly Rader Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Are you in any way affiliated with the respectable and long-established educational publication, The Weekly Reader?
A: One of their great fears is that people will assume we are connected.

Q: Are you sure your title shouldn't be The Weakly Rader?
A: That's a great suggestion!

Q: Since your site is all about reading texts, maybe your title should be The Weakly Reader. Have you considered that? That way the title would underscore the semiotics of your site but also its lameness.
A: That's a great suggestion!

Q: Do you have a regular website or just, you know, this?
A: I have a website some students helped me with, but I'm very bad at maintaining or updating it.

Q: So, like, where is it?

Q: Did you come up with that title yourself, or did you have help?
A: Yes.

Q: How often do you post on this site?
A: That's a great question. I don't know. I should figure out a way to indicate the frequency of posting in the title.

Q: Is this the last question
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