Back on the Chang gang

>> Monday, April 13, 2015

This is too good to not share: over at Esquire, Charles Pierce draws attention to Marco Rubio's magic sword, in turn leading us to Steve M., Timothy Noah, and Brad DeLong quoting the Gainesville Sun:

After more than an hour of solemn ceremony naming Rep. Marco Rubio, R-West Miami, as the 2007-08 House speaker, Gov. Jeb Bush stepped to the podium in the House chamber last week and told a short story about "unleashing Chang," his "mystical warrior" friend. Here are Bush's words, spoken before hundreds of lawmakers and politicians: "Chang is a mystical warrior. Chang is somebody who believes in conservative principles, believes in entrepreneurial capitalism, believes in moral values that underpin a free society. I rely on Chang with great regularity in my public life. He has been by my side and sometimes I let him down. But Chang, this mystical warrior, has never let me down."

Bush then unsheathed a golden sword and gave it to Rubio as a gift. "I'm going to bestow to you the sword of a great conservative warrior," he said, as the crowd roared. The crowd, however, could be excused for not understanding Bush's enigmatic foray into the realm of Eastern mysticism. We're here to help. In a 1989 Washington Post article on the politics of tennis, former President George Bush was quoted as threatening to "unleash Chang" as a means of intimidating other players. The saying was apparently quite popular with Gov. Bush's father, and referred to a legendary warrior named Chang who was called upon to settle political disputes in Chinese dynasties of yore. The phrase has evolved, under Gov. Jeb Bush's use, to mean the need to fix conflicts or disagreements over an issue. Faced with a stalemate, the governor apparently "unleashes Chang" as a rhetorical device, signaling it's time to stop arguing and start agreeing. No word on if Rubio will unleash Chang, or the sword, as he faces squabbles in the future.

The reason this is wonderful, however, isn't the prospect of Rubio (who is expected to announce a Presidential campaign sometime today) going all Connor MacLeod on Congress, shrieking "There can be only one!" and embarking on an arguably overdue and much-needed decapitation spree.  No, what's wonderful about it is that Rubio may be an even bigger ignoramus than previously suspected, while George H.W. Bush once again offers evidence he spent much of his career hiding his light under... (sigh)... under an archaic word for some kind of basket or bucket container used to measure volumes of dry goods, okay?  Take it away, Mr. Noah:

"Unleash Chang," or the more historically precise "unleash Chiang," is something Jeb Bush's father, the 41st president of the United States, liked to say when he was about to smash a tennis ball over the net. It meant "give you the best that I've got," and it was partly an expression of sincere competitive spirit and partly a self-mocking acknowledgment that he had what his daughter Doro Bush Koch, in a memoir, lovingly describes as "a bit of a weak serve." (I use the past tense because, at 87, former President Bush has, I assume, given up tennis, but with these old Wasps you never know. According to Doro, Poppy was still unleashing Chiang on the tennis court in 2006.)

Doro explains in her book that "Unleash Chiang!" is a reference to the nationalist Chinese exile leader, Chiang Kai Shek. Specifically it was a battle cry of the American right during the Korean War. It meant that the U.S. should remove the Seventh Fleet from the Taiwan Strait (there to keep the peace between the mainland and Taiwan) so that Chiang could re-invade communist China and whup Mao. One of the principal reasons Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the great postwar right-wing hero, was relieved of his duties by President Truman was that he bypassed the White House and publicly urged Congress to allow him to unleash Chiang. Unleashing Chiang would not have been a good idea because Chiang could not win (he'd already been whupped once by Mao's army) without the U.S. dropping a few atom bombs on mainland China, and perhaps not even then. (You'll recall we had a hard enough time with the Chinese in Korea.) [internal links omitted]

I was not a fan of the elder Bush when I was a younger man, and I can't say I've changed my mind about his Presidency.  Still, I have to give the man grudging credit for having a sardonic sense of humor that appears to be lost on his sons' generation of conservatives and an independence of thought that doesn't appear to have been widely inherited within the modern GOP (unless you're counting awkwardly misplaced libertarians like Rand Paul).  Using "Unleash Chiang!" as a battle cry for your lousy tennis serve isn't just a reference to Asian history, it's grade-A, high yield snark of startling purity.

The Kraken
You have to remember that throughout WWII and well into the postwar era there was a great deal of dissension in American political circles, and particularly within the American right, over the headaches caused by  Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek or whether he was really a headache at all.  America's "China Lobby" considered Chiang to be the world's great hope in the face of the International Communist Conspiracy's expansion into China.  This despite the fact that during WWII Chiang was not only helpless before Japanese invaders, but also proved himself incapable of uniting a country divided among a motley of local regional warlords and a surprisingly effective insurgency led by Mao Zedong.  Indeed, Chiang's ineptitude was so gross he was kidnapped and held hostage by his own generals in 1936.  Postwar, Chiang's Nationalist government haplessly gave ground to the communists until they literally had nothing left under their feet to give--in 1949, he withdrew with what remained of his forces to the island of Taiwan, where he pretended he was still governing China.

And yet, many on the American right nevertheless continued throughout the 1950s to insist that Chiang's Taiwanese government-in-undeclared-exile had some miraculous potential they'd simply never been able to muster when fighting the Japanese, the communist insurgents, and their own damn selves through the 1930s and '40s.  To say that "Unleashing Chiang would not have been a good idea," is one of those transcendent understatements that is so severe it's nearly false in its truth.  Those in the United States who clamored for the chance to unleash Chiang were at best fools and at worst disingenuous to a horrifying degree: the only way to "unleash Chiang" would be to use a Nationalist re-invasion of the mainland as cover for a full-scale invasion of China or an atomic bombardment, so the suggestion was either a nadir of foolhardiness or a thinly-veiled plea to begin a holocaust (there were people, like Air Force General Curtis LeMay, who plainly wanted to bomb somebody into the Stone Age and lobbied at every opportunity).

"'Unleashing Chiang'--watch this, I've got nothin'," is basically what H.W. Bush was saying, and the former Ambassador to China and WWII Pacific veteran knew it.  It's funny stuff.  I've got to give the old man credit, that's a good one.

But then what do we make of Jeb Bush picking this up?  Did he get the joke?  Not get the joke?  Did he tell Marco Rubio about "unleashing Chiang" and Rubio misheard him and didn't get the reference, or did Jeb really say "unleash Chang" and they're both really that gormless?  And they both apparently want to be President, eh?

I'm not quite sure just how educated and historically-literate a Presidential candidate needs to be.  Given that the collapse of China played directly into the fiascoes of the Korean and Vietnam Wars, I also can't say that not-knowing about the history of mid-Twentieth Century China is relatively harmless the way not-knowing some other historical subject might be; that is, you can learn something useful from almost any historical subject, however trivial, but in the specific case of Chinese-American relations in the Twentieth Century you have a trove of cautionary tales about backing bad horses, throwing good resources after bad, getting swept up in one's own fantasies, not repeating recent mistakes, the limits of American power and influence, keeping a line between domestic and foreign politics and the proper boundaries of party politics, etc..

Plus, there's this enormous irony in what Steve M. correctly observes: "Jeb took a joke about conservative zealotry and turned into a celebration of conservative zealotry."  Yes, this.  Even if Rubio had the right "mystical warrior" (and there's an ironical expression when you're referring to Chiang Kai-shek right there), you'd still have to grapple with H.W. Bush's snark being turned into some kind of triumphalism.  Chiang Kai-shek was never someone who you wanted by your side because he'd never let you down; he was the "buddy" who'd beg you to loan him money for the electric bill that he'd set aside for back-due rent he wasn't going to pay, either, and who'd eventually end up sleeping on your couch and double-parking his busted, oil-leaking, fume-spewing, can't-pass-inspection, expired-tag hoopty in the neighbors' assigned spots.

So what have we (re)-learned?  Marco Rubio is probably kind of dumb.  Jeb Bush is also probably kind of dumb.  And George Herbert Walker Bush was a lot funnier and smarter than some of us usually gave him credit for.  Unfortunately, only one of those men is ineligible for the Presidency.






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The Presidential Job Application: Seven even better questions we should ask anyone who wants to be president

>> Thursday, April 02, 2015

Al Gore said that a presidential campaign is like a job interview. If that’s true, then when these candidates announce, we should hand them a few preliminary questions at the start of the process. After all, that’s even required of the average Starbucks employee. Presumably this job is harder.

Fair enough, but unfortunately Dickerson's questions just... well, they aren't that good.  I like Dickerson alright: he's an entertaining regular on Slate's "Political Gabfest" and he recently started his own solo spinoff podcast about American political campaign history, "Whistlestop", that's a lot of fun to listen to.  But these questions....  "What's the biggest personal crisis you’ve faced and how did you handle it?" is a question all the candidates are going to answer even if we don't ask them, and will possibly be an entire chapter in each one's Obligatory Campaign Memoir (a chapter with a title along the lines of, "A Time of Crisis," natch, just in case you weren't sure where to find it).  Ditto, "What’s your greatest governing triumph?"  And the superficially best question, "Tell us a joke," is (1) actually an imperative sentence, not a question, and (2) can probably be answered by most of the candidates' fiscal policies.  Indeed, in some cases, the candidate themselves can be regarded as a kind of conceptual performance art joke following in the footsteps of Andy Kaufman's Tony Clifton... unless... oh gods, some of them are serious, aren't they?

Which segues quite naturally into Standing On The Shoulders of Giant Midgets' "The Presidential Job Application: Seven even better questions we should ask anyone who wants to be president," starting with:

1)  Are you serious?

Because, honestly, a lot of the people who we can expect to run for President--including all of the people who have officially announced they're running as of this date--really have to be joking, don't they?  Surely.  Surely they must be.  In fact-- 

2)  No, really, are you serious?

Because we're really hoping you're kidding.    We're hoping you're pulling our legs, or at least-- 

3)  This is just a ploy to sell books or promote a reality show, right?

Remember when Newt Gingrich was on that book tour in 2012 and accidentally won the South Carolina Republican primary and Sheldon Adelson bought, like, a million billion copies of The Battle of the Crater but for some reason never came by Gingrich's table to pick up any of them (which was probably pretty good for Newt, actually: he was not looking forward to signing that many copies because he only brought five or six Flair pens along and maaaaan his wrist was going to be hurting after a bit)?  Yeah.  That was pretty fucked up.

4)  Are you trolling?

You know, I already mentioned Tony Clifton, and I would just like to point out that I don't think I've ever seen Bob Zmuda and Rick Santorum in the same room together at the same time.  I mean, maybe I'm wrong and you can find a picture and show me, but I'm just saying.  I have not seen any evidence, myself. 

5)  How do we know this isn't just a mad scheme to get access to the nuclear access codes so that you can get back at the French for that time you went to Paris when you were in college and went into this lovely little bistro and were having a great time until you tried to order an off-menu item and they relentlessly mocked your accent and pronunciation even though you took, like, three whole semesters of college French and thought you were "parlaying lah Franssaissse" like a native, or at least better than Peter Sellers in the Pink Panther movies?

That's too specific.  Sorry.  Let me edit that: 

5)  This is about the nuclear launch codes, right?  C'mon.  'Fess up.

There we go.  Let's just leave Rick Perry's humiliating junior-year summer-break European trip out of it and ask a question we can ask any of the prospective likely candidates, especially Hillary Clinton who still occasionally gives off that evil supervillain vibe when she thinks no one is looking.  And this really gets to the heart of one of the things we most want to know about our possible future overlords: are they going to nuke somebody?  Matter-of-fact-- 

6)  Alright, let's just say this is not not about getting access to nuclear launch codes: who gets it in the ass and why?

Do we expect an honest answer to this question?  Probably not.  But it's still a good one, albeit maybe with some tweaking.  The way I figure it, what we do is we change the subject after question #5, make idle chitchat with the candidate, and then abruptly, while they're on a rambling tear about Friedrich Hayek, someone shouts, "Who ya' gonna nuke?" and when the candidate unthinkingly blurts out, "Australia," we know how Senator Paul really feels about Iggy Azalea. 

7)  I know we already asked you this... but seriously?  I mean, really?

The ultimate truth is that there's one thing Republicans, Democrats and independents will agree on in 2016: that other guy (or gal) who I'm not voting for?  Really doesn't need to be President, yeah.  Christ on a unicycle doing the highwire act while juggling baby penguins, I really can't stand the candidate I'm voting for, but mercy and forgiveness upon us if ______ wins this goon show.

Okay, so that's not completely true: there will be some subset of the Democrat/Republican (circle one) party faithful who will have somehow managed to be excited by somebody's nomination.  But a huuuuge chunk of the electorate is voting against the other party, which is why a lot of the punditry (even that of relatively reasonable pundistas like John Dickerson) is worth less than an investment in a Bitcoin-style cryptocurrency based on Confederate dollars.  "Will Democrats be able to get over the Clinton State Department e-mail controversy?"  Yes.  Yes, they will, because as soon as they see whatever shambling parody of a candidate survives the shearing forces of the Republican primaries, they will vote for Hillary Clinton even if she shows up in an ISIL decapitation video.  "Will [insert name of shambling parody of a candidate who survived the shearing forces of the Republican primaries here] be able to bring Republican voters to the polls?"  No, but Clinton is going to bring them out in droves so it won't matter.

You know, we shouldn't be asking the candidates anything, when you get right down to it, because it's a waste of time, breath, energy, ink, pixels; it's just a way to kill time and measurably increase net entropy in this small corner of the universe by unleashing more chaos and irrelevance into the junkyards of our foolish minds.  If we want to ask somebody something meaningful about American politics, perhaps we ought to be asking ourselves why we allow ourselves to remain saddled with a screwy, Eighteenth Century, late-Enlightenment, pseudo-democratic, crypto-oligarchical, dysfunctional, better-on-paper-than-in-practice, everybody-gets-represented-by-nobody, lowest-common-denominator-is-zero-which-is-indivisible system of governance?  Why do we stick with a system that was state-of-the-art around-about the same time as the discovery of electricity when everyone else in the world ever sense who has admired our Republican values has elected to not actually model their system of government after ours?  ("Great idea for a democracy!  Let's set up a multi-party coalition parliamentary system!")  Why do we cling to a system where every four years we go symbolically vote for the least-offensive choice of evils so that the Electoral College can actually choose a President who may or may not have a majority of the American people behind him (or her) and certainly doesn't have anything like a mandate, and so that this newly-elected President can then be paralyzed by a Congress created by gerrymandering and bribery?

Seven questions or seven hundred: there's no conceivable universe in which I vote for a candidate who survives a process in which he promises to discriminate against immigrants, subvert a living wage, denies science, and swears he'll do everything in his power to eliminate the Affordable Care Act (unless he's going to replace it with a proper single-payer system, which he isn't).  Nor am I going to repeat my campaign 2000 ill-fated experiment in third-party politics; been there, done that, no thanks.  And on the other side, there's a few million Americans who aren't going to vote for a Democrat no matter what kind of raving and drooling lunatic their own party proffers--as long as he's older than thirty-five and a natural born citizen and not to the left of Richard Nixon, he's their guy even if he has an IQ of 38 and the bathroom habits of a feces-flinging resident of the local zoo's Primate House.  So tell us a joke; I know, here's one:

You're running for President.















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Dumb quote of the day--Basically, I have no idea what the fuck this man is talking about Edition

>> Wednesday, April 01, 2015

...A few decades ago, if you saw a lovely spaceship on a book cover, with a gorgeous planet in the background, you could be pretty sure you were going to get a rousing space adventure featuring starships and distant, amazing worlds. If you saw a barbarian swinging an axe? You were going to get a rousing fantasy epic with broad-chested heroes who slay monsters, and run off with beautiful women. Battle-armored interstellar jump troops shooting up alien invaders? Yup. A gritty military SF war story, where the humans defeat the odds and save the Earth. And so on, and so forth.

These days, you can’t be sure.





Riiiiiiiiiiight--







I have that particular edition of Princess Bride on my bookshelf by the way, and read it a couple of years before the movie came out; yes, it's that Princess Bride, the one with Wesley and Buttercup and Inigo Montoya and the Six-Fingered Man and the Cliffs of Insanity and "Mawwiage" and "Have fun storming the castle!"  The book is a bit different from the film--it's a send-up of all those great 19th Century epic novels by the likes of Hugo, Dumas, Melville et al. wherein one finds dozens of pages of rousing adventure filled out by hundreds of pages of interminable essay-like passages about architecture and fish, and the book's message ends up being "Life Isn't Fair" instead of "True Love Prevails" or whatever.  But it's not nearly as different as the Ballantine paper cover from the '70s might lead you to believe; no snake-humping nekkid ladies, for instance, an absence shared by book and film.

This was on my parents' bookshelf.  I must have been in junior high school.  My literary precociousness as a reader was inversely proportional to my sexual precociousness, so I grokked Goldman's satire and enjoyed the book despite the contents having nothing at all to do with the obvious reason I must have pulled it off the shelf when I didn't think the 'rents were watching.

Anyway, it's what comes to mind reading Torgerson's blog entry, though it can't even be the best example.  Honestly, if there are two literary genres most notorious for false and misleading advertising on the covers, it's got to be Science Fiction and Fantasy.  And this isn't a new thing.  Go into your local used bookstore and find the shelf where they've stashed the SF/F paperbacks published from the tail of the '50s to, oh, the mid '70s, say, and study the covers.  You'll have no idea what's going on in half of them.







I mean, what the hell is that?  I'm pretty sure it's probably Ian Miller,  whose work I adore, but what the hell are you getting when you crack the spine?

I haven't read The End of Eternity, so maybe it really is about... about... can someone tell me what this one's about?  I'm mostly wondering about the giant ball:




[EDIT, 4/2/15: So apparently this one's a bad example.  See the comments below....]

Okay, okay, maybe I exaggerate a little.  Sometimes the cover really does let you know what you're in for.  F'r'instance, yes, this one is a book about drugs:


This PKD cover, on the other hand, is possibly less helpful:




There are tears in the title and in the image, 'tis true.  So... success?

Here's a book that's sitting on the nightstand because I'm re-reading it some evenings.  It's an anthology by several authors working in the style of the mannered, post-Gothic cosmic horror of the primarily-featured author in the volume, and that emphasis on atmospheric, purple-yet-scholarly prose is why the cover features... a face... skull... head... with... uh... I think that's brains?... or mushrooms...?--




Also, he seems a bit miffed that something (steam? albino broccoli florets?) is squirting out his head.  Which is a common reaction of Lovecraftian characters upon being brought face-to-face with cosmic horrors from the bleak abysses beyond space and time--they get a little peeved by the inconvenience of being squashed by squamous godlike non-Euclidean entities.  I feel for the guy, anyway: from the look on what remains of his face, I imagine he was on his way to a job interview, or possibly getting ready for a date, when this happened.  Grrr.  Arrgh.  Empathy, am I right?  It's like having a zit pop up at the worst possible time, except with... really tiny white trees?

I could go on forever, possibly, but I'll wrap this up with the Ace unauthorized paperback of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Two Towers, featuring an artist's interpretation of the famous passage in which a Ringwraith rides his pegasus across Utah:



(Spoiler: he falls off just outside Provo and has to catch a bus the rest of the way.  Lucky hobbits!)

(My thanks to everyone I'm stealing images from.  That's probably bad form.  Sorry.  Thank you for taking the trouble to scan these, whomever/wherever/whenever you are.)
 






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Aid and discomfort to the enemy

>> Monday, March 09, 2015


"It has come to our attention while observing your nuclear negotiations with our government that you may not fully understand our constitutional system … Anything not approved by Congress is a mere executive agreement," the senators wrote. "The next president could revoke such an executive agreement with the stroke of a pen and future Congresses could modify the terms of the agreement at any time."

Ah, gee guys, thanks for clearing that up.  You probably should have addressed that to everybody in the world the United States does anything with, seeing as how everybody else in the big wide world was probably wondering if they could trust any of our agreements, compacts and treaties for more than four years.  Evidently they can't, because we're craaaaazy.

On the one hand, this seems awfully close to, oh, what's the word?  Treason.  That's the one.  I mean, no, not technically--18 U.S. Code § 2381 officially defines treason as "lev[ying] war against [the United States] or adher[ing] to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort within the United States or elsewhere," leaving us several elements short of forty-seven convictions.  We're not actually at war with Iran, for instance, and so they're not officially our enemies even if we, you know, don't especially like the Iranians all that much and consider them at odds with our confused strategic and economic interests in the Middle East.  For that matter, I'm not sure that broadly hinting to the Iranians that they shouldn't negotiate with Americans because we're unreliable is even "aiding and comforting"; it might even be discomfitting them.  And if talks about limiting Iran's development of nuclear weapons fall through, there's the dim prospect of us waging war on them at some point in the future, so that part's a little backwards in the treason context.  But still.

On the other hand, from a broad perspective, this would hardly be the first time in this country that an opposition party has tried to undermine a President's foreign policy, though this is one of the baldest and most brazen efforts I can think of.  I'm (still, slowly) listening to the audiobook version of Alan Taylor's The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, & Indian Allies (I hardly have the time to listen to audiobooks at all, and generally only in half-hour clips), and have learned from Taylor that the Federalists spent a fair bit of time and effort trying to nix the Democratic-Republicans' war efforts, going so far as to get chummy with British military officials and prominent citizens and reassuring them that the war would be over soon, telling them that nobody was really in favor of it, etc..  I don't recall Taylor specifically mentioning whether they explained Constitutional law to the Brits, but it would have been on par if some Federalists had actually promised the War would be settled on favorable terms the moment James Madison returned to Virginia.  And this in an actual war with people shooting one another and everything, and this perhaps constituting actual comfort to an official enemy, and these are Founding Fathers and their generation we're talking about here.

But still, again.

One might disagree with the President's policy on Iran, but he is the President.  We've elected him and given him this thankless task, and we've legally empowered him to act on our behalf.  It seems that scuttling his best efforts by telling people he's negotiating with that they shouldn't respect the United States' word or trust us to act in good faith because everything we do is temporary and subject to the vagaries of politics is both sketchy and un-American.  I mean, certainly, members of Congress can vote to withhold their advice and consent on anything that's purposes to be some kind of treaty between the United States and Iran and whomever, but who actually benefits from this kind of posturing?  Do we really want to send the message we're untrustworthy?  Isn't it possible the President could come away with a deal even a Senate Republican could live with?  Have the signatories to the open letter thought through what the options are if negotiations fail and are they prepared to live with those?


Also also: if you're going to write a letter explaining the American Constitution to Iranians, wouldn't it behoove you to actually explain the "advice and consent" clause of Article II, Section 2 correctly?

There's an irony in the earlier-linked Rogin piece that broke this news.  Rogin writes:

Republicans also have a new argument to make in asserting their role in the diplomatic process: Vice President Joe Biden similarly insisted--in a letter to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell--on congressional approval for the Moscow Treaty on strategic nuclear weapons with Russia in 2002, when he was head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Which might, if you didn't follow the link in the paragraph through, suggest that this was yet another example of "Well, the other side did it first, and no one cared."  Which is a stupid argument in any case, although it happens to not be true at all in this one.

What you find when you chase the link is an example of what a proper Senate letter might look like: in 2002, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell testified before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations about arms reduction negotiations that were being held with Russia at the time.  The CFR responded to the Secretary of State with a letter signed by the Committee chair, Senator Joseph Biden, and the ranking minority committee member, Senator Jesse Helms (the notorious left wing pansy and appeasement fanatic).  This letter set out the Committee's position that a binding arms control agreement with the Russians would implicate provisions of existing treaties (specifically START I), and thus "no Constitutional alternative exists to transmittal of the concluded agreement to the Senate for its advice and consent."

And then the CFR really lays down the law and makes a bold stand for Congressional primacy and authority by offering to "work closely with the Executive Branch on this matter, and we respectfully expect close consultation with the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations as negotiations with Russia proceed."  Ooh!  Burn!

Sigh.

So, yeah, "Vice-President Joe Biden similarly insisted," if by "similarly" you mean the alternate usage of "not similarly at all" that I'm sure appears in the OED somewhere.  No one could possibly dispute that Senate CFR Chair Senator Bob Corker (who, by the way, didn't sign the open letter) and ranking member Senator Bob Melendez could send a letter on behalf of the Committee to the Secretary of State--and/or to the President--explaining their reservations and expressing a desire to be consulted on a matter that might ultimately come before them for their advice and consent; that would be routine, a sign our republic was functioning about as well as it might be expected to.  However, I don't believe anyone with half a brain or a lick of sense would expect the Committee to bypass the Executive Branch and send a letter straight to the Iranians (which is probably why Senator Corker didn't make a prat of himself by doing so), and one telling the Iranians not to expect anything from the United States.  And, good gravy, on top of that: preemptively doing so; then-Senators Biden and Helms wrote to Secretary Powell about the necessity of sending concluded agreements to Congress for advice and consent; their desire to be kept in the loop in the meantime would appear to be nothing more than a perfectly sensible wish not to be sent a concluded agreement with no hope of being consented to.

This was a stupid stunt by Senator Cotton and the forty-six other jerks who went along with it.  It was irresponsible, dangerous, and dumb.  If it wasn't without precedent going back to the early days of the Republic, it must be remembered that we're talking about precedents that flirted with death-penalty eligible treason back in the day, and precedents that stand in stark contrast to responsible Constitutional participation by the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in earlier eras.





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The ten percent

>> Wednesday, March 04, 2015

But if we’re talking strictly about feature film franchises, it is curious at worst, fascinating at best, how many so-called iconic franchises rest their entire reputations, and thus the core of their fandom, on the initial one or two entries out of a handful of respective films in each respective franchise. Point being, and I ask this with no judgment and genuine curiosity, can you call yourself a fan of a given film franchise if you dislike the vast majority of the franchise’s entries?
Forbes, February 19th, 2015.

"Ninety percent of everything is crap."
- Theodore Sturgeon, supposedly.

An Onion A.V. Club piece handwringing over whether fans will embrace Neill Blomkamp's Alien sequel with as much fervor when it actually hits screens as they did when it was first tweeted about leads one to a Forbes piece full of similar concerns, wondering aloud how someone can say they're a fan of a franchise when they really only like a third of it, or a quarter of it, or even less.

Which further reflects a complaint that often comes up whenever fanboys fling feces at one another over Prometheus or The Phantom Menace or any other project that causes a vocal and loud partisan outcry.  (Mind, I write this as a seasoned shit-slinger.)  No true fanboy would castigate Prometheus as the worst film ever made, or only a true fanboy who has his head up a space jockey's arsehole with misplaced reverence for Alien would, or something.  You see both.  And why?  Why can't fans ever be satisfied, for pity's sake?

Theodore Sturgeon
Thing is, this is shallow water lapping at the ankles of people who have been genre fans long enough to remember when we all communicated much the same damn things in the letters pages of Starlog or in fanzines with much less gloss and much more reek from the mimeograph fluid causing lightheadedness, back when the Internet (such as it was) was still used for transmitting DARPA thermonuclear yield models and ASCII renderings of Playboy centerfolds.  We've been having this kind of thing about science fiction in general for decades, almost a century since at least the 1920s when SF fandom was probably invented.  We fans have hated the bulk of science fiction as long as we've been loving it, and that's how it came to pass (or probably didn't) that one Theodore Sturgeon was asked a question along the lines of, "How come so much science fiction is crap?" whereupon he looked up (maybe not), blinked, paused, and said (so the story goes), "Ninety percent of everything is crap."

One of those stories, as you may know, that's totally apocryphal and probably didn't happen, and yet it definitely should have.  Because Sturgeon (let's pretend the whole thing really happened) was completely right, the bulk of popular culture is frankly pure crap and most of it will be forgotten in ten years and nostalgically recalled as kitsch in twenty.

With SF in general, 90% of it is despised (although not always by the same people), even by fans, because it's despicable.  It's horrid.  Some of it, admittedly, is fun and horrid, or enjoyable in some kind of non-enjoying manner--ironically, for instance, or pruriently or lazily.  But, still: horrid.

And when you think of the Aliens franchise in those terms, let's say, and you take the number that Mr. Mendelson does and say that there are only two good Alien films in the entire bunch and the franchise therefore "has a batting average of 28%," well, you have to then conclude that 28% is better than 10% and therefore Alien is still nearly three times as good as most of what else is out there.

Which, I think, goes a very long way towards explaining why hope springs eternal for the Alienists.

But there's more to it than that, methinks.  Let's go back to SF in general (and you can replace SF with any genre you'd like and have the same discussion--Sturgeon's Law can be applied fractally to Romance, or Westerns, or Whodunnits): if 90% of science fiction sucks, why are there any science fiction fans at all?  Aren't they wasting a good bit of their time?  How can they be fans if they passionately hate the overwhelming mass of what they profess to love?

There's a very simple answer, really: because maybe 90% sucks, but omigod the other 10%!

And in fact, this solves the whole mystery when you get right down to it.  SF fans get worked up about crap SF because they love the good stuff so goddamn much.  Because the 10% that doesn't suck inspires a passion for the genre as a whole, because the 10% seems worth fighting for, because they care so greatly for what's good and wonderful they have to care about all of it.  Because to hate Battlefield Earth is, at some level, to defend Dune and Foundation.

And if you want to break it down to the franchise level, Star Wars fans ultimately hate The Phantom Menace because The Empire Strikes Back is worth love and devotion.  Alien fans hate Prometheus not because they have this unfulfillable yearning for the same exact experience all over again that makes them impossible to please (although there may be some faint whiff of that in the mix, granted), but because they believe Alien is worth a perfect sequel or none at all; and they hold out hope for Blomkamp's take on the material because they will always hope a particular project is part of the 10% (or 28%) and not another drop into the 90% cesspool.

We're fans for things because we believe that something, at its very best, is worth fighting for and fighting over.  Because we love.  And so the number could be much, much lower: it could be five percent, or one percent, and if we fell in love with it we'd continue to say that when this category was good, it was very good, and all the times it wasn't makes us sad and angry because we knew what it was capable of being.  We're bitterest about our disappointments, naturally.  But the ten percent?

Ten percent is enough to love on.




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RIP, Mr. Nimoy

>> Friday, February 27, 2015





I'm sad there will be no more blooms in his garden, honored that he invited us all into it, full of memories of those perfect moments he had in the public eye.  I'm not sure there's anything else I can say, except maybe to thank him, and to tell his family (should they ever come across this) what they surely already know: that Leonard Nimoy was beloved, honored and made an enormous difference to millions of people who will not forget him.
 
This was a much longer piece, originally.  But it wasn't the right piece.  The only part of it worth keeping besides the previous paragraph, which was originally the last paragraph, is simply to say that Nimoy made a powerful impression on me in later years for his thoughtfulness, gentleness, kindness, and the way he seemed at peace with his place in pop culture.  He appeared to be happy taking his photos and writing his poems, and popping up occasionally as Mr. Spock or to talk about Star Trek.  The sole word I could think of and can still think of, absurdly enough, is Douglas Adams' facetious neologism, frood: a really amazingly together guy.  That's how Leonard Nimoy came across, whether it was in interviews or cameos or car commercials--effortlessly charming in the way he simply seemed to have it all together.

I could write about what Star Trek meant to me, and about Nimoy's part in that franchise, but that was the mistake I made in the first draft.  He was more than that, obviously.  We'll miss him, and he gave us so many good reasons to miss him.  And that's all there is to it, really.









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Swallower

>> Tuesday, February 24, 2015

An Idaho lawmaker received a brief lesson on female anatomy after asking if a woman can swallow a small camera for doctors to conduct a remote gynecological exam.

The question Monday from Republican state Rep. Vito Barbieri came as the House State Affairs Committee heard nearly three hours of testimony on a bill that would ban doctors from prescribing abortion-inducing medication through telemedicine.

Barbieri later said that the question was rhetorical and intended to make a point.

Dr. Julie Madsen, a physician who said she has provided various telemedicine services in Idaho, was testifying in opposition to the bill. She said some colonoscopy patients may swallow a small device to give doctors a closer look at parts of their colon.

"Can this same procedure then be done in a pregnancy? Swallowing a camera and helping the doctor determine what the situation is?" Barbieri asked.

Madsen replied that would be impossible because swallowed pills do not end up in the vagina.

"Fascinating. That makes sense," Barbieri said, amid the crowd's laughter.

The thing was, was that it was fascinating.  They'd wondered about this so often when they were small children: his sister and he, sitting out in the summer heat, and she would eat things--at least she seemed to put them in her mouth, and she seemed to swallow them--and seeing if they would come out when she peed.  He would do it, too, would put bugs in his mouth and swallow them to see if they would come out his pee-hole, but they never did.

And then, of course, inevitably, he had a thought: what if she was cheating?  What if she put something up to her mouth, like so, and covering her mouth with her tiny fat hand she palmed the clover or the ant or the pebble or the bottlecap?  And then pretended to swallow, like so, and then smiled and said, "Well, that'll be a while coming out, now you try something."  And naive, innocent he, he picked up a bloated drowned earthworm from a drying puddle, and he put in his mouth--"Don't chew," she instructed--and he swallowed it whole.  And waited for it to come out.  But what if it was all a trick to get him to eat the worm?  Or the beetle?  Or even, that one time (and how did this not end in a hospital visit?) a rusty nail pulled from a rotten board out by the shed in back?

Years went by.  And sometimes he sat up, even now, even as an adult, and he thought about the betrayal with bitterness that swallowed him like a swallowed baby.  Then, other times, he imagined himself full of all these things, all these things still in his belly, wondering when he would pee them.

There was one time his pee turned dark and he felt the worst pain he'd ever felt, pain like his back was breaking.  And he was certain, just absolutely certain all the things he swallowed as a child were going to come out, having waited all these decades to finally work their way from his stomach to his penis.  He was doubled over and just screaming, and so frightened, and he couldn't explain it to his wife, couldn't tell her that he knew the rocks and the worm and the beetle and the ants and the old nail and the twigs and the grass and the little seashell from the beach that was white on one side and rainbow the other were all returning to him like eaten sin.  She drove him to the hospital telling him he would just be all right, just a little further now, just a little; and he wanted to tell her, no, no it wasn't alright, it would never be alright his pee-hole was about to rupture forth with his misspent childhood and his sister's bad joke.  But at the hospital, they told him it was a kidney stone, and they would give him something to dissolve it; confused him, because he'd eaten stones but never, to his recollection, a kidney.

But when he told Dr. Madsen he was fascinated, it wasn't the word he meant most; the word he most meant was relieved.  Because there was one thing worse than the guilt and shame he felt over the wicked game he played with his sister, the eating and swallowing.  There was this: that his sister and he were the oldest of six children.  Two of them twins.  And he'd asked her, his sister, the inevitable question when his younger brother was en route, momma's belly swelling over the summer of swallowing.

"Why does momma have a babbie in her belly?" he asked her, and his sister told him--well, she asked him a question, first, asked him how anything got in someone's belly, the question that had prompted so much chewless swallowing this summer and last and the next several.  And he said, "You eated it."  And she looked knowing and wise and smiled and nodded; and his eyes went wide and white with terror like a mad horse a-feared.  His mouth parted and a little sound came out of it, and she just smiled and nodded twice and said uh-huh.

And he couldn't see anything else when he looked at momma anymore.  Even at the funeral, when he looked at the big silver box they put her in before a mouth opened in the ground and swallowed her whole like a bug, a rock, or almost anything; he had the picture in his head, the picture of momma craning her neck back, back like she was watching the highest airplane in all of heaven fly over, and her jaw dislocating like the blacksnake in Miss Pearson's class (and why, he wondered now, didn't the Miss Pearson's blacksnake ever have a litter of white mice? that surely should have said something, he realized of a sudden), her neck muscles working, and with her throat all ready Momma lifted the next babbie, the new brother, the new sister, over her face and dropped the pale pink hairless thing down her gullet which swelled up with life in digestion.

Probably, she'd never eaten a baby ever at all.





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