Monday, May 31, 2004

A Tale of Two Cities

If you doubt that a region's major newspaper plays a crucial--perhaps THE crucial--role in setting that area's emotional, political and business temperature, take a moment to consider these two very different initiatives. One is an "ideas" conference to be convened next week by the Boston Globe and a couple of far-sighted local partners, the Boston Federal Reserve Bank and local PBS affiliate WGBH. It looks to be a sumptuous and exhilarating exploration and celebration of the intellectual and civic bounty of the city and its surrounding region. Are Boston's leaders dim-witted idiots? Don't they know that the area has problems that must be dealt with? Do they think they can sweep them under the carpet by focusing on positive developments?

The only remotely parallel initiative by our own Plain Dealer similarly teams with public broadcasters in taking a broad look at the area and its health--economically and otherwise. But the Quiet Crisis, of course, has instead come to be a ham-handed and seemingly endless exercise in spiritual pummeling, driving the region's morale ever lower with its reductive glass-is-half-empty analysis.

When I moved back to town about 15 years ago from Chicago, after having also lived in Washington, D.C., I used to tell people that I longed to live in a town where it took more than about four minutes to read all the important articles in that day's newspaper. I couldn't have imagined then how that complaint would eventually come to pale in comparison with deeper problems with our town's newspaper. Instead, it has come to not merely chronicle our civic crisis, but to actively lead and drive it along as well.

Saturday, May 29, 2004

Commencement Season Again

To mark commencement season last year, I pointed you to a memorable and touching speech given at the 1988 Wesleyan University commencement by my friend and writing guru, William Zinsser. And since it wasn't online anywhere, I reprinted it in its entirety.

This year, thankfully, I can merely link to the most memorable commencement speech. The uber-comedian Jon Stewart recently went back to his alma mater, William & Mary, and gave one of the most rousing, funniest and most bone-deep honest talks ever to be presented at an American university. In doing so, he proved once more why he resonates so deeply with so many millions of people. My two favorite lines: "What piece of wisdom can I impart to you about my journey that will somehow ease your transition from college back to your parents' basement?" And: "We declared war on terror. We declared war on terror—it’s not even a noun, so, good luck. After we defeat it, I’m sure we’ll take on that bastard ennui." And he even had a serious core to his message, which most commencement speakers would take 20 minutes to impart, but which he expressed with poetic brevity: "Love what you do. Get good at it. Competence is a rare commodity in this day and age. And let the chips fall where they may."

And speaking of poetic brevity and of Bill Zinsser, the venerable one has a new book out, which I can almost promise will raise the hair on the back of your neck (if you haven't already shaved it off). Do check it out when you get a moment.

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

A Bit of JFK-Era Celluloid Prophecy

'Little by little, the country changes because of the men we admire.'

--The traditionalist/moralist father, played by Melvyn Douglas, to his hard-drinking playboy son, played by Paul Newman, in the 1963 movie "Hud."

Monday, May 17, 2004

The Prez is Sinking Like a Stone in the Polls

The latest poll numbers don't look good for Bush. Yes, there's a long time to go before the election, but there isn't much precedent, if any, for an incumbent surviving pre-election poll numbers such as these. Proving once again that empty posturing and B.S. only work for so long in a free society, where people eventually find out what's happening.

But that doesn't necessarily mean I'm thrilled with the alternative, Kerry. And I'm not alone. This election blog entry in The New Republic nicely outlines why Kerry is far from a November shoe-in, despite Bush's mushrooming problems. Of course, some of that is accounted for by the din of the Republican attack machine. But be honest: who among even the most hardened Dems aren't wondering aloud these days whether this grave loner is really up to the world's toughest job? About the best case that many people can make for him is that he'd make a less-disastrous hash of it than Bush has. And that's not a very compelling case to go to the polls with in November.

Here's That Glass Half Full I Mentioned Earlier. The Washington Post does a good job of profiling the soldier who blew the whistle on abuse at Abu Ghraib. Shamefully, but perhaps not surprisingly during wartime, Joe Darby is being met with more than a little hostility in his Maryland hometown. No one ever said being a hero is an easy way to go. But doing the right thing has its own rewards.

'Random Acts of Journalism.' In some circles, the controversy over whether blogging constitutes journalism is a never-ending one. Much of that debate is too overheated for me to bother you with, dear reader. But occasionally I come across a story that sheds more light than heat. This transcript of a conversation ran in the Online Journalism Review, an excellent online-only journal affiliated with the University of Southern California's journalism school. It includes some smart observations, including a guy who opines that bloggers tend to perform "random acts of journalism." There's also an interesting riff on how gossip and news are merely points along a continuum, something little understood by most civilians...

Saturday, May 15, 2004

More On Why Josh Marshall is the Best

Whenever I get the chance, I try to point people to Josh Marshall and his Talkingpointsmemo, which is simply one of the finest examples of informed and lucid political commentary and reporting available today (and which also happens to be in the form of a blog). Not long ago, I wrote about why I like him so much, also linking to his splendid piece in the New Yorker, one of the sharpest assessments yet of the Bush gang and their collosal Iraq mistakes. And today, in posting an answer to a disappointed reader, who complains about a perceived shortcoming, he again reminds us why he's become such a go-to: his honesty.

You've just misjudged how I run the site and why I do so. I don't write
about everything I think. I don't write just to say that X is good or Y is
bad. I write when I feel I have something I can add to a discussion, and only
then...This isn't a publication of record. And you're not in a position to
judge what I think based on my silence.

A Nice Note From Columbus. After writing briefly about teachers the other day, saluting those who try to color outside the lines a bit, I got a nice note from a new readers, a teacher in Columbus named Jen, who makes a good point that I hadn't thought about: "It's pretty difficult to be an outlaw with No Child Left Behind. No outlaws need apply under this system of Bush's-way-or-the-highway! It seems to me that the best teachers are the ones who ask "why not?". It's sad that this type of thinking gets them labeled "outlaws". In a society like ours that is so fear-based I guess it's not too surprising." Thanks for the note, "Fers." And just keep looking for your own small ways to rebel against the strictures of the current testing mania as you try to do right by your kids. Your bed's already made in heaven...

Friday, May 14, 2004

Finally, He Says Something With Which I Can Agree

'All great teachers are outlaws.'
--former Secretary of Education William Bennett

In fact, I would add, that's pretty well true of high achievers in just about every area of human pursuit you might imagine. Think about every genius you know--and come on, we all know at least a handful of minor geniuses--and ask yourself if they're not really rebels and outlaws by their very nature. But through that rule-breaking, path-blazing, egg-cracking activity they create something new, and perhaps useful, interesting and challenging as well.

At the same time, an innate refusal to blindly conform to the norms of groups--another hallmark of the strong creative personality--can come in handy in certain situations. A story in today's Times delves into the issue of the psychology behind the three brave Army soldiers (one of whose official complaints touched off the military's investigation) who refused to be pressured by the mob mentality of the Abu Ghraib prison and join in the torture and humiliation of detainees. They are the inspiring heroes of this otherwise tawdry saga, and the half-full glass on which I hope we might begin focusing just a bit. The Times rightly understands that their bravery provides some deep and abiding lessons for the rest of us.

And for parents, it immediately summons the question: are we somehow providing our kids, through our own example and in the things we say, with the psychic tools and inner resources they would need to do the right thing in similarly difficult circumstances. We can only hope so. But then, there's no time like the present in which to begin.

Thursday, May 13, 2004

'Feel Like a Double Album Coming On'

From the incomparable Bookslut (which you simply must read occasionally), an unusually wise and knowing ode to women writers and the special cross they must bear. Working With Words belatedly dedicates this as a Mother's Day tribute to all our favorite female scribes who are also moms, and who know far too much already about their double burdens. Remember what Nietzche said: 'That which does not kill me makes me stronger.' So read and think and write and be a good mother. And don't worry, you're getting stronger all the time.

Q: The topic of "Conversations with Famous Artists" (career versus family) seems to be a uniquely feminine quandary. Did your own life affect that story?

A: Sure. When I had children, the kind of introspection a writer needs to work was just about 100% blown out. My identity up to then had always been as a woman who earned her living by thinking and writing. It was challenging for me to find a way of joining up the earth shattering love I felt for my children and the need to be alone, think, read, have some financial independence. It is very important to me that women spin their ideas and thinking into the world and this takes time, solitude and a certain kind of courage. But here's the uniquely feminine quandary: It is equally important to me to have children and to experience the enduring love I have with their brilliant father. This too takes time, involves no solitude and a certain kind of courage. It is a uniquely "feminine" quandary because it is women who give birth and it is she who the children most need in the early years. But I reckon all of life is one sort of quandary or another -- the best thing to do is laugh a lot, cry a lot, swim a lot, know how to make a really good margarita and sooner or later the shattered mother who is also a writer will, as Morrissey once put it, "feel a double album coming on"

Yes, I had another of my long quiet spells, when I occasionally go silent in order to keep up with the rush of things happening in life. As a wise writer once observed, sometimes you're too busy standing up to live to sit down to write. It's been an especially lush and bountiful 10 days, when I reveled in some especially engaging new projects, in a couple of catalytic speaking assignments and especially in the thrill of watching my little boy Patrick star in a life-changing production of Grease (more about which later). It's been a period full of promise and possibility, of learning and of reaching out to others and of being touched so much more in return.

But it's also been a time of almost crushing sadness for my country, when I've had to watch what feels like an inevitable conclusion to the ahistorical arrogance of some foolish ideologues who thought they could ignore the entire world and the more enlightened half of their own population while casually remaking the globe as if it were some kind of elite graduate school seminar. Instead, they've squandered America's goodwill, touched off a new round of Ugly Americanism that may have bruised our self-respect for years. They deserve whatever they have coming to them. But we'd better get focused on fixing this mess.

Monday, May 03, 2004

Couldn't Have Said it Better Myself

'I've increasingly become convinced that in order to be any kind of a public-intellectual commentator or combatant, one has to be unafraid of the charges of elitism. One has to have, actually, more and more contempt for public opinion and for the way in which it's constructed and aggregated, and polled and played back and manufactured and manipulated. If only because all these processes are actually undertaken by the elite and leave us all, finally, voting in the passive voice and believing that we're using our own opinions or concepts when in fact they have been imposed upon us.'

--Christopher Hitchens, Writing in The Nation, in 2001

Byron Strikes Again

No, not the romantic poet... I've somehow never mentioned the incomparable Christopher Byron before, for which I assign myself a self-imposed 50 lashes. Suffice to say that the veteran columnist, business writer and book author is the kind of guy who finds a way to go over much of the same ground as hack colleagues before him, while always finding something fresh and stimulating to say about his subjects. That's because (surprise, surprise) he does more and better homework than others, and bravely faces down all roadblocks to find out what really happened. And he always gets the goods on whatever or whomever he focuses upon. His book on domestic diva Martha Stewart, an almost forensic examination of her many pathologies, probably played at least a small role in her going to jail, because his devastating portrait was read by much of the media that subsequently covered her.

And now comes word that the reason he's been quiet for the last two or three years (about the time he gave up his splendid column in the New York Observer) is that he's been working on what ought to be a delicious little thriller: an investigative examination of the out-of-control behavior of American CEOs. And the worst offender of them all, GE's Jack Welch, is blowing a gasket about it. If you thought all the tales of impossibly high-spending even after his retirement (emanating from his divorce filings) showed him in the worst possible light, Byron has undoubtedly assembled far more damaging details, judging from the hysterical reaction of Welch, whose lawyer is publicly threatening to go after media outlets covering the book after failing to halt publication of the book itself. Good luck, counselor--you'll have your work cut out for you. The best defense against libel is the truth, and Byron has about a 35-year track record of getting his facts straight and having a document attached to every key assertion. So my money's on him. And it'll also soon be forked over for a copy of this book, which reputedly provides a definitive answer to the persistent rumor that Welch ordered NBC to go soft on its corporate owner. We'll see if the book also answers the equally persistent story about Welch ham-handedly ordering MSNBC to give Bush the benefit of the doubt during the Florida debacle in the 2000 election.