Monday, December 21, 2009

Best Books of Poetry, 2009

APOLOGIES FOR CRIBBING MY own list from the San Francisco Chronicle, but deadlines and grading take precedent over originality. I'll call special attention to my stocking stuffers--excellent books of poems that may fly under the radar of most lists.

The Selected Poems of Wallace Stevens, edited by John N. Serio, (Knopf; 327 pages; $30). A gorgeous and generous selection from the most important American poet of the previous century. Stand in awe at the bling in Stevens' first book, "Harmonium," but linger longer on his final collection, "The Rock," especially gems like "The World as Meditation," "Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour" and "The Planet on the Table." Amazing and enduring work.

Inseminating the Elephant, by Lucia Perillo (Copper Canyon; 93 pages; $22). Perillo's insightful work is less silly and more philosophical than Billy Collins', but just as funny. Imagine William Carlos Williams poems on roller skates, holding Roman candles in each hand, wearing a Viking costume, and racing down an abandoned waterslide, and you'll get an idea of what reading Perillo is like.

Face, by Sherman Alexie (Hanging Loose Press; 159 pages; $18). Alexie's poems are razors. Watch him lather up the faces of pop culture, Indian reservations, basketball and family. Then marvel at how his crazy sharp poems scrape them clean. This collection is Alexie's least angry and his most formal.

Archicembalo, by G.C. Waldrep (Tupelo Press; 64 pages; $16.95). Limning the line between verse and prose, this ingenious book takes the form of a 19th century "gamut," a kind of self-help primer that prefaced early American sheet music. The poems, forged in music's fire, instruct the reader not just about music and language but also about what we might call the internal symphony of the self.

Chronic, by D.A. Powell (Graywolf; 78 pages; $20). San Francisco remains one of the world's great cities for poetry, and Powell is its best poet. Powell's poems map the mysterious spaces where the internal and external world overlap, ultimately calling attention to the chronic afflictions affecting both.

Stocking stuffers:
Slamming Open the Door, by Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno (Alice James Books; 80 pages; $15.95). A harrowing book about the murder of the poet's 18-year old daughter. The poems manage to be affecting and sorrowful without being exploitive, dramatic, or sentimental.

The Looking House by Fred Marchant (Graywolf; 63 pages; $15). An accomplished book about the problems of war and coming home from war. Meditative and introspective, these poems feel particularly relevant as America steps up its involvement in two wars.

The End of the West by Michael Dickman (Copper Canyon; 96 pages; $15). A better and more mature book than his brother's more lauded effort. These poems feel like they are about everything.

And How to End It by Brian Clements (Quayle; 122 pages; $14). See my previous post about Clements two recent books. Great stuff from small but outstanding presses.

Sightmap by Brian Teare (University of California Press; 96 pages; $16.95). The ghost of Robert Duncan lives on in these fragmented poems that catapult across the map of the page. I just love what Teare does with language here.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Onward Christian Assassins or “Oh, Lord, please do that voodoo that you do so well” - A Guest Post by Scott Andrews

OUR FRIEND SCOTT ANDREWS is back with another guest post. Last time it was about werewolves; this time, voodoo.

Recently a Southern Baptist preacher from California was in the news because he was praying for the death of President Barack Obama. Wiley Drake of the First Southern Baptist Church in Buena Park was practicing what he called “imprecatory prayer.”

To imprecate is to pray for or invoke a curse or harm upon another person. Drake has said there is a biblical mandate for such a prayer. In an interview, Drake made it clear he was praying not for an inconvenience, an embarrassment, or a bad fortune – a lost ATM card, party crashers at a state dinner, etc. No, he wanted Obama dead.

And he wasn’t alone. A handful of other pastors were doing the same. Pastor Steve Anderson of Faithful World Baptist Church in Tempe, Ariz., said he did not feel moved to pray for the benefit of the president, whom he described as “the socialist devil.” He said, “Nope. I’m not gonna pray for his good. I’m going to pray that he dies and goes to hell.”

First, I wondered how these pastors described their sermons on those bulletin boards you see outside churches, out by the sidewalk, announcing that week’s topic: “This Sunday: Opening God’s Can of Whoop-Ass”?

Second, I wondered why no one had charged them with attempted murder or conspiracy to commit murder.

There is a precedent for it.

In 1989, two men in Mississippi were charged with conspiracy to commit murder when they attempted to hire a voodoo priestess to kill a court judge with her special powers. John Henry Ivy and his half-brother Leroy were caught in a sting operation trying to obtain some hair belonging to Circuit Judge Thomas Gardner. They were upset with Gardner because of his sentencing of John Henry for armed robbery.

In the eyes of the district attorney, whether the two men could kill the judge with voodoo powers was irrelevant. What mattered was that they believed they could, so their actions were taken with the intent to kill another person.

The case never reached trial. The half-brothers pleaded guilty to reduced charges.

The case is included in a popular law school textbook, Criminal Law: Case Studies and Controversies by Paul Robinson, who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. The voodoo murder case is in a chapter that discusses a defense based upon “Impossibility.” A fuzzy area of the law is whether a person is guilty of attempted murder if it is impossible for the planned course of action to result in the intended victim’s death. For instance, we often say “if looks could kill,” but probably no one will be charged with attempted murder for giving the stink eye, even if he or she believes that look could kill.

But there ARE people who believe in voodoo. It is a religion, after all, and so it has faithful followers. They certainly believe in its powers. Perhaps they even believe in its powers to rob others of life or turn them into the undead – as Bill Pullman’s character found out in “The Serpent and the Rainbow” or as Star Jones discovered after she left “The View.”

And there certainly are people who believe in the power of prayer, since there are about 150 million Christians in the United States. I was raised in Southern Baptist churches, and I never heard prayers like those offered by Drake and Anderson. So I do not think their effort to recruit God in a regime change is indicative of some widely held sentiment or practice. But there probably is some kind of consensus among American Christians about the power of prayer. And the idea of charging Drake and Anderson with conspiracy to commit murder through “imprecatory prayer” has some interesting implications for those faithful millions.

Ronald Rychlak is a law professor at the University of Mississippi College of Law, and he commented on the 1989 case to the Associated Press: “The fascination is when you prosecute people with conspiracy to commit murder with voodoo, are you acknowledging the existence of voodoo?”

If Drake and Anderson were tried for conspiracy to commit murder, would that be the U.S. government acknowledging the power of prayer?

If the two preachers were found innocent with the Impossibility defense described in Robinson’s textbook, would that be the U.S. justice system saying that prayer is powerless?

Would Glenn Beck herniate a tear duct if that came to pass?

And wouldn’t Drake and Anderson reject the Impossibility defense for themselves? Accepting it would be sacrilegious for them, wouldn’t it? Certainly they would not say their public prayers were in vain.

Drake, at least, is off the hook. He says he has stopped praying for Obama’s death. He wants Obama to live now – so the president can be tried for treason.

That’s not exactly turning the other cheek, but it’s a start, I guess.

Scott Andrews teaches American and American Indian literatures at California State University, Northridge.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Grading President Obama's Speech on Afghanistan

HOW GOOD WAS PRESIDENT Obama's justification for sending 30,000 troops to Afghanistan?

You would hope pretty good. Placing 30,000 young Americans in harm's way has more at stake than the rationale for watching Old School over Office Space.

If you're committing that many people to a war-ravaged country on the brink of toppling to the Taliban, you would want your rationale to be air tight, your methodology ultra sound. So, politics aside, just how convincing was he? Or, put another way, if his speech were a college essay, what kind of grade would it receive?

Most professors of freshman composition would be paying attention to Mr. Obama's organization and reasoning. Was his argument based on sound principles or easy fallacies? Did he provide a thesis? Did he lay out his points? Did he provide specific details to support his arguments? Did his arguments cohere? Interestingly, his immediate audience of cadets and his frothy but physically distant audience of congressmen were, no doubt, asking similar questions.

One of the key strategies to a good essay is making sure the author and the audience are on the same page regarding the terms and facts of the topic. To ensure this, Mr. Obama gave a brief and, I would say, rather objective history of the nation's military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11. He refrained from criticizing President W. Bush's ridiculous troop buildup in Iraq (over 100,000) but noted the staggering imbalance between those in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the Taliban and al-Qaida lurk. This backstory may have been a little long, but it was important to set the stage, to bring everyone up to speed so that they could all start this surreal race to troop deployment on the same foot.

To his credit, the president did put his thesis foot forward. He stuck it out there and, sort of fearlessly, he ran with it. Never one to shy away from his plan of attack, Mr. Obama stuck to his guns. He also avoided cliches, unlike the author of this post.

His thesis is impossible to miss:

These facts compel us to act along with our friends and allies. Our overarching goal remains the same: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future.

To meet that goal, we will pursue the following objectives within Afghanistan. We must deny al-Qaida a safe-haven. We must reverse the Taliban's momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government. And we must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan's security forces and government, so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan's future.

We will meet these objectives in three ways. First, we will pursue a military strategy that will break the Taliban's momentum and increase Afghanistan's capacity over the next 18 months. . . Second, we will work with our partners, the U.N., and the Afghan people to pursue a more effective civilian strategy, so that the government can take advantage of improved security. . . Third, we will act with the full recognition that our success in Afghanistan is inextricably linked to our partnership with Pakistan.

Not bad. Direct. Clear. Hard to misinterpret. Those of you expecting a one sentence thesis statement like the one you wrote for your five-paragraph essay on why recycling is good for the earth may be puzzled by this multi-paragraph assertion. But, for a longish speech, this is actually a fairly concise thesis. He numbers his points (three is standard; five or six are way too many and one or two can feel skimpy).

One could quibble over certain terminology. Can anyone, for example, ever agree on what, exactly, a "more effective civilian strategy" might look like? What does it mean to "defeat" al-Qaida? Defeat how? Military personnel and Christian congressmen may have different ideas about this. He gets marked off a few points here for unclear phrasing, but it's certainly forgivable. Justifying deployment into minefields is a real minefield.

Also, interestingly, Mr. Obama employs another classic rhetorical strategy. He names and refutes the major criticisms of his thesis.

I recognize that there are a range of concerns about our approach. So let me briefly address a few of the prominent arguments that I have heard, and which I take very seriously. . . First, there are those who suggest that Afghanistan is another Vietnam. . . Second, there are those who acknowledge that we cannot leave Afghanistan in its current state but suggest that we go forward with the troops that we have. . . Finally, there are those who oppose identifying a timeframe for our transition to Afghan responsibility.

Notice each of the sentences in the above paragraph are the first (and topic) sentences of Obama's body paragraphs. Notice how short they are--how to the point. This method of stating and refuting the major arguments against your ideas does not show weakness; rather it demonstrates that Mr. Obama has thought about his plan, has weighed the opposite approaches and has, with full knowledge of contrary opinions, made a decision.

Grading such a speech is tough because how valid you think an author's ideas are can largely depend on your level of agreement with the author's political or social views. For example, someone who is a conservative Christian would probably find an argument mandating prayer in school entirely rational and perhaps even objectively on point, whereas someone more progressive would find the same argument an objective violation of the separation of church and state and, therefore, specious.

So, how convincing you think Mr. Obama's arguments are could depend on your own cultural and political barometer for rightness.

That said, I'm going to undermine my own argument. Though I am personally opposed to sending more troops to Afghanistan, I found Mr. Obama's rationale surprisingly convincing. I buy (for the most part) his argument. He made me alter how I think about this issue; he got me to consider his point of view. When it comes to a persuasive text, that is generally as much as you can hope for.

So, for this speech, Mr. Obama gets an A-.

Monday, November 30, 2009

The Technology of Craft: Cormac McCarthy's Typewriter

TECHNOLOGY COMES FROM THE Greek word technae, which means "art" or "craft." One wonders what the relationship might be between the technology of Cormac McCarthy's typewriter (above) and the art produced on it. Form does, after all, follow function. Or, in the case of clipped sentences, does function determine form?

McCarthy recently announced that he plans to sell his Olivetti typewriter since it's showing signs of wear and tear.

A couple of years ago, while in Havana, I saw the typewriter Alejo Carpentier wrote most of his novels on. A piece of paper was still spooled around the roller, part of a manuscript page frozen in time, partially typed and intertwined like a clingy but devoted lover around the body of the machine. I remember how stirring it was to see the implement of art-making making art. Its tactileness was just so much cooler than my laptop.

It's those love hickeys, disguised as battle wounds, that stand out on McCarthy's machine.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Mad (that the season is over) Men or Mad Men and the Middle East


Important enough for George Packer--the New Yorker journalist whose main projects have been dissecting the complex inner workings of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the American military--to take time out from analyzing the Middle East to address the lure of this beguiling show. Exactly how leapable is the chasm separating Karzai from Don Draper? "Mad Men is all about repression," asserts Packer, "every

character has a tell-tale tic, and stiffness reigns over every scene—but it’s also about the license to indulge
impulses that would soon be socially forbidden."

Packer would never claim that Mad Men is a tenable lens through which the problems in Afghanistan might come into clearer focus, but it's not a stretch to claim a cultural and semiotic overlap. The ability to see through layers of cultural coding, the interpretative ability to understand how social norms shape human behavior play similar roles whether you're trying to figure out the representations of Kabul today or Manhattan in 1963.

The boardroom is war, we know this. But, the workplace--the contact zones between desks, the closed-door battlefields of mid-level managers--is its own form of combat. We have been throwing ourselves into the capitalist line of fire for so long now, we've internalized this struggle not in military terms but economic ones. But, as Packer will confirm, the distance between the two might be narrower than those separating Don and Hamid.

If the previous century was about the regimes of aggression, this new one is showing itself to be a century of the regimes of repression. No surprise, then, if a show like Mad Men feels like it is about more than smoke and mirrors.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Guest Post: Scott Andrews on Teen Superheroes

THERE ARE FEW GENRES more conducive to obsession than those of the teen-meets-love-and-danger variety. Here, Scott Andrews takes a look at the recent phenomenon of Teen Superheroes movies.

Andrews is an enrolled member of the Cherokee nation of Oklahoma and teaches American and American Indian literatures at California State University, Northridge. His reviews, essays, poems, and stories have appeared in a variety of journals including Arizona Quarterly, American Indian Culture and Research Journal, Studies in American Literatures and others.

Smells like Teen Superheroes

“New Moon” will be in theaters soon, and with it will come another wave of vampire-mania. Perhaps I should not write “another,” since the present wave has not subsided. In fact, it has swelled further, with EVEN MORE novel series and TV series about beautiful bloodsuckers.

It was a couple of years ago, while watching previews for “Twilight,” that I began to wonder about possible connections between this tidal wave of hemophiles and other trends in popular culture that appealed to young Americans. There seemed to be something swirling in the collective American ectoplasm that had coalesced into some critical mass.

First there was “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” published in the United States in 1998. The first X-Men film was released in 2000, though the comic book had been around for decades. “Twilight” was published in 2005, though Stephanie Meyers says the story came to her in 2003. “Heroes” arrived on NBC in 2006. “True Blood” on HBO in 2008, though it doesn’t clearly target a young audience. “The Vampire Diaries” on the CW this year.

The life of an American teen is often times filled with anxiety, emotional turmoil, and alienation. This is true whether one is wealthy or poor, male or female. This is true regardless of race. There is something about being a teenager that makes one feel apart from the crowd, unusual. While my generation (I am in my 40s) identified with our sense of being lovable but damaged goods -- for instance, the short-lived TV series designed to appeal to my generation’s sense of nostalgia, “Freaks and Geeks” – the current batch of teenagers and college-goers seem to find it more pleasurable to imagine themselves to be different because they are special.

Misunderstood rather than misbegotten. Gifted and powerful rather than awkward and fearful and acne-plagued.

They have taken the leap from the John Hughesian question “Why can’t I date a cheerleader?” to “Save the cheerleader, save the world.”

But I am not thinking of just wizards, mutants, and vampires. “American Idol” started rocking America’s world in 2002. “America’s Next Top Model” walked the runway in 2003. And before them, even before Harry Potter, came the grandfather of all Reality TV: “The Real World” on MTV in 1992. Young people, previously unknown, were instantly important and famous, though not necessarily talented. The emotional, social, and sexual problems of young people were no longer the subject of “After School Specials” – they were primetime, they were ratings hits. The American fascination with these young people was understood as a measure of their importance. Notoriety was understood as noteworthy.

For many decades, people were familiar with the “American Dream.” For the immigrant, this was the belief that one could come to the United States, work hard, and save money. Eventually one could obtain a comfortable lifestyle – and an even better lifestyle for one’s children. For a long time, the American Dream for the immigrant was similar to the American Dream for the citizen. You know, the dream of the happy family and the house with the white picket fence. Eventually the American Dream changed. You could say it got “super-sized.” It became the belief that if one worked hard, saved money, and took advantage of opportunities for investing or starting one’s own business, eventually one could obtain a more-than-comfortable lifestyle – one might even become rich. You know, that happy family and a house with the white picket fence, a deck in the backyard, a shiny Viking refrigerator, a sedan and an SUV in the garage, two Sea-Doos, and a time-share on the lake.

I think perhaps the American Dream has morphed again. I think it includes getting rich, but I think it has skipped the “work hard and save money” elements. In their place has been added “get famous” and “right now.” The work ethic of my parents that was based on delayed gratification became the credit-card fueled consumer culture of my generation that wanted instant gratification. And the generation that has been raised by my generation has gone a step further into instant great-ification.

The advent of instant celebrity status is thanks largely to the Internet and its inbred cousin, reality television. Think Tila Tequila. Think that strange kid singing “Chocolate Rain.” Perhaps we should thank Paris Hilton, the Queen of Instant and Talentless Celebrity Status, whose career was launched in 2003 with a sex video that was viral on the Internet and, later that year, with “The Simple Life.” She is the T-1000 to Puck’s T-1.

I see a wave of narratives about young people who discover they are not just dorky and weird – they are different with a difference. They have special powers! And they have them right now! Not after years of training but now! Even Harry shows up at Hogwarts with abilities other students do not possess. Instant wealth has been symbolically replaced: They can fly! They can stop time! They are indestructible! Their powers, like wealth, allow them to go places and do things that other people (normal or middle class) cannot. Or in a more mundane setting, there is no need for years of apprenticeship – get up on stage, you 20-year-old, and sing so Simon can make you famous tomorrow!

It is easy to think of these changes as the product of young people being spoiled by the relative wealth of their parents’ generation. I wonder, though, if it might speak also to a fear. Perhaps the world that lies ahead of these young people is so scary, so confusing, filled with so many choices as to be paralyzing, that imagining superpowers and immortality is reassuring.

I can totally relate.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

How The Sunrise Rock Cross Controversy is about Semiotics

WHY WOULD SOMEONE WANT to take down a cross that has stood as a symbol for American soldiers who have died during combat?

Well, in part because it is a cross.

Yesterday, the Supreme Court heard an unusual case that pitted freedom of expression against freedom of (and from) religion. In the Mojave Desert, a large metal cross looms above a rock outcropping. The cross is not part of a church. It does not belong to a religious organization. It was erected by the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) to honor their fellow military men whose lives were lost during war. Now, some want to see the cross taken down, claiming that it privileges Christianity, when many soldiers were Jewish or Muslim or Buddhist or agnostic. And, since the cross stands on public land, there is a concern that it butts up against the Constitution's Establishment Clause--or what Thomas Jefferson called "the wall of separation between church and state."

At the crux (pardon the pun) of the argument is what the cross stands for.

Can a cross, for example, symbolize something more than Christianity? Or, more importantly, can a cross symbolize something that is not Christian? Is it even possible to see a cross and not associate it with religion? Judge Scalia argued in court that the cross is the default marker in the United States for the dead. Crosses in church might signify "Jesus" or "religion," but crosses on the side of the road, Scalia would say, signify "death" or "memorial."

Previous courts have held that the cross is a religious icon and breaks the law. In fact, it's been boarded up for two years now. The image of a boarded up cross raises its own issues, but the very notion that a cross could stand for many things but not one thing is a provocative notion.

Semiotics is the study of signs--what they mean, how we interpret them, and how they carry power and affect our lives. Every semiotic text has a signifier and a signified. The signifier is the object, the sign, the symbol; the signifier is what that symbol or sign means or stands for or evokes. In the United States, if we see a red octagonal sign with the markings S T O P on it, we know to stop moving. If we see an American flag, we don't think of Albania. In America, the signifer "flag" evokes many, many, signifiers.

In this case the signifier is the cross. What is at stake, though, and what remains the source of the lawsuit is what is being signified.

How can such a widely recognized and such a wholly sacred siginifier like a cross carry such different meanings? Well, in truth, loaded signifiers are the most likely to cause offense. Take the Confederate flag, for example. For some Southerners, the signifier of the flag signifies "heritage," "pride," "tradition," and "a way of life." For others, though, the very same object connotes "hatred," "slavery," and "racism."

The cross is no different. For Christians, it might signify "Jesus." For militant Muslims, the cross might carry connotations that are more about the West than about religion. The cross can also be a signifier for the Ku Klux Klan. And, if you are a vampire, the cross enjoys a whole different set of signifying powers--none of them good.

To be sure, Judge Scalia is correct that in the United States we tend to assume a cross in a graveyard signifies death. But, the setting of a cemetery helps you read the cross as a burial marker, not so much as a religious symbol. This is a good example of a signifier being contextual. A cross on fire in a front yard means one thing; a cross with a singular flame and a halo means something else. In the case of the Sunrise Rock Cross, there is no cemetery. There are no other markings to indicate that the space is a place of burial or mourning. It is public land and fairly vacant.

In this setting, a cross, in general, probably signifies a church is nearby or a Christian has simply erected a big cross on his land to show the world his level of religious commitment. The question is, does a big cross like this on public land with nothing else around it to signify "war dead," mean that the federal government is privileging Christianity and sanctioning one religion (and one religious symbol) over others.

The answer is yes.

Does that mean the cross should come down?

Well, that's complicated. And it shall, at this point, have to remain the subject of another post.

But, I'd love to hear what you have to say about this topic.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

My Favorite Recent Album: The Granville Hicks

LAST WEEK WHILE ENJOYING hip pizza in a hipster pizza joint in the hip Mission District of San Francisco, I overheard a table of hipsters talking about The Granville Hicks. "Have you seen the album cover?" one asked. "They look like retarded Avett Brothers."

With various densities of facial hair, The Granville Hicks, do, in fact, resemble the Avetts, though, it must be said, the Hicks seem slightly less evolved.

That's until you listen to the music.

The first cut on the new EP, "I Want to be a Marxist Cowboy," underscores the band's earnestness--both in terms of musicianship and political leanings.

If Toby Keith can link anti-Muslim sentiment with the triumphalism of American culture, then The Granville Hicks can link the blue collar working-class value system of the American cowboy with the philosophy of Karl Marx. There has long been a secret handshake between country music and capitalism, but with this new album, The Granville Hicks give the latter the finger.

Like many Merle Haggard or Conway Twitty songs, the Hicks interlace talking with singing. However, what distinguishes these tracks from classic talking songs like "Hello Darlin'," is the fact that the Hicks begin some of their songs with readings from Marx. Casual listeners might expect "Back in the Party Again" to be about tequila, but in fact, it's about Communist Party enrollment.

From a musical perspective, it's hard to figure out what all three of the Hicks do. With only one voice and one guitar on most of the tracks, it has lead some to speculate that the three members of the band rotate duties, so as to share, equally, in the labor and distribution of their musical goods.

Having dubbed their brand of music "Communist Country" and "Marxist Twang," the Hicks might swim in dangerous waters. Country music has pretty much staked out patriotism. Its lifeguards tend to let only certain kinds of swimmers in the pool, and our fear here at TWR is that they will let the Hicks drown.

Unless readers and listeners like you become the life vest the Hicks need.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Grading Obama's U.N. Speech

IT'S A CLASSIC RHETORICAL move. Define who who you are by articulating who you are not. At his speech before the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday, President Barack Obama made it pretty clear that he is not George W. Bush.

The President's talk, shorter than Moammar Khadaffy's and less racist than Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's, not only addressed the responsibility of steering the ship of state through the gnarly waves of the present moment, it also charted the ideological course of the next three-plus years of his presidency. How did he do? If his speech were a freshman essay, what would his grade be?

In truth, his plan (or "pillars" as he calls them) looks beyond three years, in an attempt to ensure the future that "we want for our children:"

non-proliferation and disarmament; the promotion of peace and security; the preservation of our planet; and a global economy that advances opportunity for all people

I know what you're thinking--the president plagiarized George Bush! It sounds so much like the former Commander-In-Chief, Mr. Obama must have bought a speech online and passed it off as his own. Well, rest assured, I ran the text through, and it seems okay.


Who wants two Joe Biden's in the White House?

It's hard to imagine the former president believing such things, much less talking about them at the U.N. One has to wonder what the audience was thinking as they heard Mr. Obama speak. Are the two men (Obama and Bush) really as different as they appear? What must the American populace be like to have elected, back to back, such radically different souls?

I would say that the America who voted for George W. Bush is the America driven primarily by pessimism: fear of the other, concern over what some see as a deteriorating moral fabric, and secret man crushes on Karl Rove. Those who swept Mr. Obama into office are those Americans who, at least for the moment, are driven by optimism: the now over-used sense of "hope," the promise of change from the politics of pessimism, the secret comb-over envy of Joe Biden.

There is a fine line between naivete and optimism. How you see Obama will determine how you would grade his speech. If you are inclined to find him more rhetorically gifted than politically so, then you are likely to agree with The Weekly Standard's Steve Hayes who described the address as both "embarrassing" and "dangerous."

Juan Williams on the other hand, thought the speech was "terrific" because "President Obama laid out concrete steps that his administration has taken since coming into office to prove that they, in fact, want to work with the rest of the world."

I'm more inclined to agree with Williams here. Like any good essay, his speech had a thesis. Its tone was neither too lofty nor too chatty. He was funny but serious; humble but presidential. Most importantly, as Williams notes, he gave specific examples of how we wanted to construct his pillars. Or, in the parlance of writing pedagogy, he supported his thesis.

As for content, it evoked MLK (without the biblical overtones) and JFK (without the triumphalism). This spooked Charles Krauthammer, who waxed nostalgic about American rhetoric of superiority:

Obama's speech is alarming because it says the United States has no more moral right to act or to influence world history than Bangladesh or Sierra Leone.

It diminishes the United States deliberately and wants to say that we should be one nation among others, and not defend the alliance of democracies that we have in NATO, for example, or to say as every president has said before Obama that we stand for something good and unique in the world.

And so, there you have it. Arguably the dividing line among Americans in regard to Mr. Obama. Either America is morally superior and should determine policy in other countries, or . . . not.

There is a pretty well-documented track record throughout history when empires try to impose values on other cultures. So, even when both content and form are taken into account, Mr. Obama does well here. He gets an A-.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Ten Commandments of Blogging

ABOUT A YEAR AGO, the Evangelical Alliance, an evangelical Christian organization in the U.K, hit the breaking point with bad behavior among Christian bloggers. Name calling. Flaming. Death threats. Sexist and racist posts. Inappropriate jokes about Luther and Calvin.

Among Christians, you say? Impossible!

Apparently, it was so possible that the group (EAUK) published a Ten Commandments of blogging in hopes that these rules of the virtual Moses might keep the Joe Wilson of Christian blogging in line.

So, we thought in the spirit of bad blogging behavior in general, we'd look at the various ways TWR has violated these commandments:

1. You shall not put your blog before your integrity.

That ship pretty much sailed when we graded Sarah Palin's speech, wrote about MIke Huckabee and Chuck Norris, and printed anything by Greg Barnhisel.

2. You shall not make an idol of your blog.

We broke this forthwith.

3. You shall not misuse your screen name by using your anonymity to sin.

TWR always sins in public, even when we cheat.

4. Remember the Sabbath day by taking one day off a week from your blog.

Okay, we didn't break this rule. We take too many days off the way it is.

5. Honour your fellow-bloggers above yourselves and do not give undue significance to their mistakes.

We did not honor, but we did acknowledge, Stuff White People Like and their mistakes.

6. You shall not murder someone else’s honour, reputation or feelings.


7. You shall not use the web to commit or permit adultery in your mind.

Busted again!

8. You shall not steal another person’s content.

Even if it's for noble causes? Or in service to the Lord?

9. You shall not give false testimony against your fellow-blogger.

What if, as in this case, the blog sucks?

10. You shall not covet your neighbour's blog ranking. Be content with your own content.

Are you joking? TWR wouldn't envy the hits of, say, Stuff White People Like. Would it? Would it?

Friday, September 4, 2009

Fox News Leaks Draft of Obama's "Welcome Back to School Speech" -- A TWR Exclusive

BELIEVE IT OR NOT, TWR is one of the first media outlets to see a copy of the original draft of Obama's speech to America's schoolchildren. Fox News has obtained a copy of the original draft of the speech and has leaked it to selected venues.

No doubt the final version will look very different after the president's handlers get a hold of it. But, the following gives us a fair and balanced look at how our leader truly thinks:

Good day Comrade Children!

On behalf of Vice-President Biden, Secretary of State Clinton, all of my advisory staff, the Black Panthers, and lesbians who want to marry, I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for looking very, very deeply and in a very relaxed manner into your tv screens or monitors.

Nothing is more important to us than the clear and malleable minds of America's youth, and nothing is more sacred than the unity of the world's workers and future voters. That's you!

You're probably wondering why I've chosen to talk to you today. It's very simple. We've come to take over the world. In fact, it's already begun. See how easy it is to disrupt the American educational system? How fun and simple to grab your attention inside the walls of your very own school? Well, we do stuff like this all the time. In fact, we've been watching you since January, and you know what, we're watching you right now! In fact, let me take this moment to offer my condolences to you, Billy Carlson, in the Rutabega County school in Iowa. Tough break about your dad. Our death panel just gave him the thumbs down.

One reason we want you to pay attention to us, to pay very, very close attention to us, is because we have removed your textbooks. That's right. You no longer will use textbooks written by people who like Jesus. Instead, you'll just read Mother Jones and posts from The Daily Kos. This way, we can feed you all of the right information.

Indeed, recent studies show standardized test scores in history have fallen over the past decade. History is very important, especially if you know how to tell it. Under my regime, we'll let you know what history is so that there will be no confusion come voting and donation time. For example, in our chapter on the two party system, the entry on Republicans describes them as rich men who hate sick people, who want to replace swing sets with oil wells, and convert every rain forest into a golf course. We also give evidence of their plot to kill Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins,

And, killing people is bad---unless of course, it's babies. But, that's part of your homework assignment for next class period. Tonight, I want you to go home, laugh at your father for not having a gun, then play this very cool liberal establishment game (compatible with both X-Box and Wii). When you're done and before you refuse to say your prayers, write a 500 word essay on why we should raise taxes to support Planned Parenthood.

As you know, the major aim of liberals as stated by its atheistic leaders more than 30 years ago, is to create a Red America, thence a Red Israel, wash it with a Red Pacific and then enslave America. It is a task for which we can claim no special credit for doing. It is one which we are obligated to perform. It is one of the tasks for which we were brought into this world and for which we were born. If we fail to use all the powers of mind and body which Marx gave us, then I am sure our mothers, wherever they are tonight, may well sorrow for the day of our birth.

Let the conservatives tremble at an Obama revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. You have a world to win.

To help you in this battle, we have removed all of the American flags from the room and replaced them with banners featuring my face surrounded by golden light and a basketball. Pledging allegiance to me will help keep you focused on the task before us. Remember: Obamaism may be summed up in the single sentence: "Abolition of private property." "From each, according to his ability; to each, according to his needs." Okay, that's two sentences, but in my school, we don't worry about fuzzy math.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Sex, Religion, and Politics: The Trinity of Submission

WE THOUGHT OUR RETURN from summer hiatus should be gentle and gradual, so we decided to focus this week's post on the most innocuous of subjects.

Actually, the topic was generated by Red Room, a San Francisco-based social networking site for writers, who sought provocative dialogue on those very topics polite conversation ignores--sex, politics, and religion. The topic and its very verbotenness both annoyed and intrigued.

A number of concepts connect sex, politics, and religion--strong belief systems, rules of transgression, long complicated histories of bad behavior, some unyieldingly bad poetry, and saddest of all, Mel Gibson movies. But, what makes these three arenas of human participation particularly powerful is the degree to which they are ultimately about submission.

We like to imagine all three as forms of proactivity, which, of course, they can be. But, really, for this triumvirate to accrue any power at all, they require us, on some level, to submit. Theirs is the world of the relinquish, the bequeath, the surrender. They ask not only that we dominate but that we be dominated. We rarely like to think in these terms about such important aspects of our lives. As Americans, we hate to think about being dominated by transcendent forces. We think it undermines our agency, our identity, our ability to control destiny.

Think, for, example of the supplicant. The beggar and the believer, the subject and the subjected. He who bows; she who is bowed to. That image fits in any of these three puzzles and perhaps explains the intense and interrelated intimacies of politics, sex, and religion. Supplicate is Latin for "kneeling down." Submission (sub-missio) is Latin for "letting down." In public, we are all about being upright, but in private, any number of things might make us drop to our knees.

This is one reason these topics are off limits. In public settings, it's uncomfortable to talk about private submissions. But, it's also the main reason they make for such good novels, compelling movies, and voyeuristic reality TV. In the lockbox of our hearts, we know we are shaped and shadowed by these concepts; in fact, almost nothing has more control over the moral contours of our lives.

And so the secret conservative, the closeted believer, the passive dominatrix all go about their lives engaged and active, prostrate and submissive, perhaps overcompensating in one area of their lives as a means of seeking equilibrium: the calm surface of life's mirrored pond.

Thing is, we know we all dive in to drown.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Hiatus Haiku


goes on summer hiatus
until mid-August.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Banning Alexie?

"I BEGAN READING, AND I started to cross out sections that I didn't want him to read," she said. "Soon I thought, 'Wait, this is not appropriate; he is not reading this.' "

The "she" is Antioch, Illinois parent Jennifer Andersen, the "he" is her 14-year old son, and the book is Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, last year's winner of the National Book Award for Young Adult Fiction. As it happens, The Absolutely True Diary is also a recent addition to the Antioch High School's curriculum for incoming freshmen.

Andersen, who is quoted in a Chicago Times article, claims the book does not meet community standards and wants it removed from the curriculum. She and other parents have complained about vulgar language and overt sexuality in Alexie's short novel, arguing the book's content is at variance with what should be condoned in high school.

Andersen, who is clearly well-meaning, falls into the trap that plagues many parents, lawmakers, and even other students--she assumes that teaching a text is the same as condoning the content of that text.

For example, one of her complaints is that the book contains curse words that would not be allowed in the halls of the school. And so, by having students read this book and these words, the school is, in effect, putting its stamp of approval on those words.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Teaching is not endorsing.

In fact, some of the best teaching arises out of difficult material--material the teacher and student find objectionable, complex, and problematic. In truth, you actually want your child to work through potentially inappropriate material, and ideally, that will happen in a sound educational environment. This is because you want your kids--and other kids--to have good reading and interpretation skills. You want them not to misread. You want them armed with the ability to know the difference between advocating and expressing.

Sure, I think it's probably not a good idea to have high school freshmen reading Tropic of Cancer, but it's a great idea for students to read Alexie's novel--written for and about young kids--in high school.

Back to this notion of community standards. Education is not a strip club, it's not church, it's not the public pool. Education is about ideas, and it's about acquiring skills and abilities that make young people smarter and more capable older people. I'm fascinated by the fact that the parents ignore the theme of the book, whose message is entirely positive and totally in line with community standards (whatever that might mean) and focus instead on language their kids probably use on a daily basis.

Americans have never been good readers; we often choose surface over substance. This is a fine example.

Ignore the message; kill the messenger.

Repeat the cycle.

It's refreshing, then, to read that Antioch school board President Wayne Sobczak thinks the book will get to stick around.

Good news for now, but what if they want to teach Huck Finn?