Sunday, September 28, 2008

Reading the Palin/Couric Interview

TWR ENDED ITS PREVIOUS post with a claim that it had no interest in telling people who to vote for. In the days since Alaska governor Sarah Palin's interview with CBS anchor Katie Couric, TWR has changed its mind.

Before the interviews, we here at TWR headquarters were willing to entertain the notion that Governor Palin was capable and intelligent, if inexperienced and misguided. But after watching both segments of her interview with Couric, it's clear that the Alaska governor's dominoes are missing some dots.

As a semiotic text, the interview was a study in the politics of scrambling. Believing she was bolstered by her bump in the polls, her affiliation with McCain, and her righteousness, Governor Palin was no doubt convinced was fitted with a kind of protective armor a fellow cute female couldn't pierce. No Seymour Hirsch, no Sam Donaldson, Couric is about as far from a bulldog as one can get, and yet, even she found herself stifling growls and howls at some of Palin's remarks.

David Brooks, George Will and other conservative columnists have intimated that Palin should drop out of the race for the good of the GOP. And, most recently, the National Review's Kathleen Parker argues that even issues of gender have to take back seat in this regard:

Only Palin can save McCain, her party, and the country she loves. She can bow out for personal reasons, perhaps because she wants to spend more time with her newborn. No one would criticize a mother who puts her family first.

On one hand, it's easy to understand why conservatives--even middle of the road Americans--might "like" Ms. Palin. They see themselves in her, and in so doing, believe that she will represent their interests. But, that's what congress is for. The president and vice-president must lead. They must articulate, and they must envision. Knee-deep in a disastrous war and on the brink of the most cataclysmic financial shock wave in nearly a century, it's obvious what the toll can be when one's leaders are neither articulate nor visionary.

When one reads the interview, one sees not guile, nor even, really, scary conservatism. One sees an amateur. One sees fear, and one sees a narrowness of scope. Capable neither of thinking through an issue or constructing a persona that would command respect in the face of uncertainty, Ms. Palin made thousands of hearts sink as viewers imagined her in high-level talks with foreign leaders or, even worse, in the chambers of the senate. Folksy affability should not be a criterion for president. The stakes are too high.

In the debate on Friday, John McCain claimed he does not need on the job training. Good thing, because his running mate does.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Reading the Palin Swag

WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN Palin swag and a pit bull? One wears you out; the other, you'd never actually wear out.

And yet, the world's speediest entrepreneurs are hoping to cash in at the Palin picnic. The question is, are the ants already marching toward the cupcakes? Sure, our friends over at SemiObama are doing a fine job reading images of the Democratic candidate in popular culture, but who is paying attention to Saracudda?

To be sure, the McCain buttons, t-shirts, and tote bags were among the lamest since the Michael Dukakis gimme caps, but the addition of Alaska governor Sarah Palin to the ticket has put the t & a back in "political."

To wit:

The t-shirt to the right is a little dirty, in part because it plays off of the geeky fantasy of the naughty librarian with that buttoned-up outfit, the neo-hair bun, and the nerdy glasses. But, the shirt's double entendre is notably more suggestive than your typical political bumper sticker.

That said, the series of MILF and VPILF options take this one step further.

I'm almost never shocked, but I have to say, these particular products caught me off guard. I was surprised how quickly Palin's image has been sexualized--much more than Hillary Clinton, for whom sex, sexuality, and the discourse of sexuality has long been part of her macro political persona (whether she's liked it or not). Interesting also is how much more eroticized the Alaska governor has been than Cindy McCain or Michelle Obama, both of whom are attractive women in positions of power.

The button to the left, like the one above, also points to another mystifying tendency--the need to Photoshop Governor Palin's face and beehive onto a lingerie model's body. If she's so naturally attractive, why falsify or fake her comeliness? I wonder if both the MILF/VPILF and the Photoshopping are a way of humiliating her, reminding her and everyone else she can still be objectified.

A similar thing might be going on in this t-shirt as well. Dogs, lipstick, type A moms, bitches . . . I don't know. I may be reading too much into it, but I don't think so.

To be sure, part of the fun of Palin in pop culture is the newness of gender on the vice-presidential ticket in this age of fast images, visual media, and buzzy buzz. There is so much to make fun of, so many puns, so much discourse to riff on, comment on, and riff on again. So many lines to repeat, edit, and culturize; so many jokes. So many comments about Tina Fey . . .

The best of the lot also plays with gender but of a gendered strength from a different era. Here, sexuality is less a weapon than it is potential.

TWR has no interest in telling people how to vote, but we're not sure if anyone should take Governor Palin's candidacy for president seriously. Ultimately, we wonder if the comic, over-sexualized, destabilizing images above don't also make the same argument.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Essay Review of the Salt Earthworks Series

HOW IS IT THAT laziness sidles up to TWR yet again? We apologize for substituing a rather boring link for the standard Tuesday post, but we also want to drive traffic to the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review--an excellent review edited by Oscar Villalon--that has had to cut back the number of pages devoted to books reviews.

Today's link is an essay penned by one of the staff members here at TWR. It is a short review of the fabulous Earthworks series, put out by Salt Publishing. This series, edited by Janet McAdams at Kenyon College, is the first series of books of poems written by contemporary American Indian poets. In my mind, it is one of the most important poetry projects in the United States.

The essay was also picked up by Poetry Daily (thanks to Brian Clements for that head's up).

Finally, here is a link to the Earthworks site itself.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Grading John McCain's Speech

THERE IS A SUBTLE but important distinction between winning and victory.

Generalizations are tricky, but, by and large, Democrats like winning; Republicans like victory. To be victorious is to triumph, and without question, there is a palpable air of triumphalism at the Republican convention. As a friend noted last night when he called to talk about Sarah Palin's speech, Republicans are uncommonly attached to the "U-S-A" chant, which has become a kind of mantra for American supremacy. Nationalism or Patriotism--it's often hard to tell the difference.

These, and Sentator McCains jowls, are the distractions one endures when one watches McCain speak rather than read the transcript. For better or worse, the overfed, over-eager audience and their boos and cheers affect not just the rhythms of McCain's text but its impact. To be fair, the convention speech is a tough gig. Punctuated by cranky protesters, applause, jeers, and howls of support, it's hard to build and sustain momentum, since the very design of such speeches arrange themselves to pause for dramatic sound bytes and thunderous applause--the aural semiotics of victory.

As a speech, McCain's text was less bitchy than Palin's and less humorous. But, it was more specific. He actually proposed things--it wasn't policy he put forth but reassurance.

Most notable, though, was his thinly veiled critique of the Bush administration's low points, the transgressions of Republicans like Jack Abramoff, and the hardness of Karl Rove and Dick Cheney (though none were mentioned by name). To his credit, he acknowledged that in many ways, Republicans have failed.

As New York Times reporter David D. Kirkpatrick has noted, no politician has gotten more mileage out of the apology than McCain, and tonight, McCain used that oft-ignored rhetorical device as a kind of trampoline to catapult him over the dismal record of George W. Bush. Short on Obama insults and long on pro-military jargoning, McCain argued that the disease of the Iraq war has infected all aspects of American life. Curing that ill--which, he implied, he is best able to do because of his military background--will cure America's ills.

Toward the end, McCain's crescendos of "fight, fight, fight" got the already puffy crowd even more frothy. Was that the same John McCain of 2000?

Hinging your entire platform on Iraq is packing a lot of bullets into one holster. What if Americans are tired of fighting? What if they want to start talking?

As it turns out, it wasn't the McCain of 2000. That McCain would not have been a shill for the mainstream Republican platform. That McCain would not have foregrounded drilling in Alaska, school vouchers, and blindly cutting taxes. That McCain would not have chosen a anti-choice, creationist running mate. In this sense, his speech was not nearly as maverick-ish as it could or should have been. It did not appeal to moderates or independents, and it said absolutely nothing about race, gender, or class.

For that reason, I give his speech a C. He gets a B for his denture-rattling close but a D for lame policy, easy cliches, and that drowsy portion halfway through when I wanted to switch over to college football.

Did he galvanize hardcore Republicans? Probably. Did he convince people on the fence? Probably.

He convinced them victory is likely going to be found in Obama.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Grading Sarah Palin's Speech

NO ONE KNEW WHAT to expect from Sarah Palin on Wednesday night at the Republican National Convention. Actually, I think most people had an inkling of what dishes would be on the menu--Alaska drilling, small town values, lower taxes, nuclear family, praise for the military. What people were unsure of is how she would serve the meal.

How would she, for example, handle talking about the obvious details of the Republican platform? On a more human level, would she falter in the spotlight as the unexpected and questionable candidate for vice-president? Would she call attention to her pregnant daughter? Would she exploit her son with Downs? Would she bust out the beehive? How good would her jokes be?

If I were to grade Gov. Palin's speech as though it were a student assignment, I would be impressed by some parts and troubled by others. On one hand, she delivered her talk with confidence. She's a better--or at least a more natural--public speaker than Hillary Clinton. She's softer, less stiff, and more convincingly folksy. So, from a presentation perspective, I think she surprised up. Part of that though is the classic expectations game. Most had low or virtually no expectations, so anything short of a Truman Capote drunken insult-laden tirade would probably be some form of success. Palin didn't disappoint.

Content, though, is a different story.

Students often confuse "topic" and "thesis," and this seems to have been Ms. Palin's stumbling block as well. A topic is the subject of your talk, the items and themes you plan to cover. A thesis, though, is a different set of go-go boots. A thesis is the argument you make about your topic--what you assert. Though Ms. Palin certainly had topics--Alaska drilling, her husbands, snow machine prowess, Obama's rhetoric--she never really asserted a thesis. She tried here and there, but she always came back to the same messages, none of which were ever argued, merely passed on.

Her talk can be broken down into three main components: who I am, who Barack Obama is, who John McCain is.

That's it.

That is the structure of her talk. On a micro level, she did a fine job of telling us what we already know: her hockey momness, her momness, her governorness. But, she told us little about what ideas, what thinkers, what texts shape her thinking, galvanize her ideology, and motivate her to public service.

Here, she makes another classic undergraduate mistake by confusing data with context.

Eager to provide lists of accomplishments, zingy one liners about Obama's spooky speechmaking, and narratives about McCain's manliness, Palin assumes that providing information does the same kind of work as providing context. But, there is a different between reciting lists and giving backstory, filling in gaps.

For example, in what way does being a hockey mom prepare you to help run the country? What manner of mayoring enables one to engage in foreign policy? How has serving as the Commander in Chief of Alaska given you a better understanding of the military and a war mentality?

Because she has no context, she has no bones on which to hang the flesh of her argument. That's why there was no argument. There were only topics.

Topics can go a long way. They can get a room riled up, they can make for good sound bytes, and they can make Americans cry. But, topics don't get people to vote; topics get people to read or to listen to talk radio. Ideas, arguments, plans, and vision get people to vote.

Mostly, I was disappointed there was no vision. Again, vision and data carpool, but they live in separate houses. I thought Gov. Palin might have the key to that house, but she may have left it back in Alaska, where John Kerry must have dropped his a few years back.

I wanted to be inspired by the Governor's talk, but instead I was just not disappointed. Compared to Obama's and even Biden's, Palin's felt like a menu describing what you might get if you ordered correctly. But, Obama's and Biden's came across as a deluxe prix fixe, a chef's assortment of the best available options.

On delivery, I would give Governor Palin high marks, likely an A. On content though, it would be quite low, more like a D. That would average out to a B, which is probably about right. As it happened, I watched her talk along with my students in my honors class on "The American Experience," most of whom are women. Judging by their reactions, they would have given the governor an even lower grade--not a good sign for the McCain camp.

My food metaphor in the first paragraph is not meant to be a gendered gesture calling attention to Ms. Palin's domestic abilities or her gender. It's a rhetorical tool designed to remind the reader that during this time of year, many of us devour politics and politicians. We consume the process and the product. Tonight's product was okay.

The problem is that her opponent cooked a similar meal three years ago, and it tasted great.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Paper Delivery: Bridge of Sighs, Richard Russo


None of the arrows found in the standard quiver of contemporary fiction stick to Richard Russo. He is perhaps America's least postmodern writer of serious fiction. And yet, his not-wacky, not-inventive novels continue to win awards (and readers).
Russo's most recent book, Bridge of Sighs, marks the debut for a new regular feature here at TWR--the paperback release.

Sure, the hardback publication gets the spotlight, the review in the New York Times Review of Books and all of the author shwag, but for most of us, the real event happens when a popular, well-received book hits the shelves for $11 or $12. Plus, the paperback version is lighter, easier to fold, and more likely to get passed on to a friend (or student).

Russo is the paperback of American fiction. I don't know what that means exactly except that he is more accessible, more easy going--more regular than the average hardback novelist appearing in east coast review publications. If novels could walk around the house, Russo's would paddle in socks or slippers; if they could drink beer, his would guzzle Bud Light; if they could watch TV, they would flip on Rosanne.

Like his other books, Bridge of Sighs focuses on a seemingly under-performing middle-aged male in a small upstate New York town. The town, like the protagonist, has fallen on hard times but is still loved. This is a novel in which absolutely nothing happens except life. People make choices, they go to work, they screw up, and, most importantly, they figure out ways to keep bad luck from becoming collapse. It would be an oversimplification to say that the characters in Russo's novels "settle" for mediocre lives of near minimum wage, broken families, and under-cooked dreams. Rather, Russo takes his time, layering detail on top of detail, rounding out his story with the long, tedious, and often numbing realities of context.

Like Raymond Carver, Russo makes his fictional provenance the seemingly impossible country of the ordinary, but unlike Carver who opts for bursts of weirdness amidst a life of monotony, Russo shows how a life of monotony blurs weirdness and normalcy, making revelation not just elusive but embedded.

Russo is our Charles Dickens. He loves the underdog, the blue collar underdog, and in Bridge of Sighs, he gambles by making his narrator not entirely likeable. I mean, the narrator is fine, but he's not the brightest, not the most openminded, and not the most self-reflexive. But, he's good hearted, and he works hard, and he embodies mainstream and almost conservative American values with not even a trace of irony or resentment.

Though Bridge of Sighs is not as good as Empire Falls nor as funny as Straight Man it is a fine book. No one--and I mean no one--writes books like Russo any more. He is a voice from a different era helping make sense of this one. He is also one of the only writers who, consistently, tackles the incredibly complicated issue of economic class in American society. That he does so in rural (as opposed to urban) America is even more impressive and important.

If Bridge of Sighs contains a singular theme it's that human lives don't just happen. Events happen; people make decisions. The poorer people are, the more decisions they have to make in response to things that happen. Is the novel a map, a guidebook for weathering the storms of lower-middle class winds? Not really. It's more of a series of notes scrawled on bar napkins and sewn lovingly into pressed boards.

In a time of economic uncertainty, Bridge of Sighs borders on required reading. It reminds of us of the possibilities we all may soon find out of reach.