Thursday, May 25, 2006

The Pedagogic Sublime

'Tis the season for push-back. Charles Weise, Associate Professor in the Economics Department at Gettysburg College and Chair of the department, responds to student evaluations:

"Herewith a response to my critics.

1. Ouch, that’s harsh!

2. “God’s gift to Gettysburg College” is going a bit too far. Let’s just say that I think they’re very fortunate to have me.

3. But every time I slowed down one of you fell asleep.

4. The two of you are going to have to have this out between yourselves. I clearly will not be able to please both of you.

5. At least spell it right – it’s A-R-R-O-G-A-N-T P-R-I-C-K.

6. Why thank you, I believe you’re right. I attribute the fact that I “understand the material” to my 25 years of study in the area, including four years of undergraduate study, six years of graduate study, a Ph.D dissertation, thirteen years doing path-breaking research in the field, and the fact that this is the twelfth time I’ve taught this exact course.

7. I’m sorry you feel that way, but you see I have tenure. Bite me.

8. I cannot help you if you do not ask for help. Next time please raise your hand if you require assistance getting your head out of your own ass.

9. The Provost’s office requires only that I “be in my office” during office hours. Nowhere is it written that I cannot be under my desk with the door locked and my lights out.

10. Boxers." (Charles Weise or "Maynard," "A response to my critics," Creative Destruction, Monday May 15, 2006).

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Affirming the Abstract

Hollowentry on the logic of whiteness:

"There is a tactic on the part of many whites (myself included) to shift an argument away from the concrete to the metaphysical.

So if whites hear: 'racism is institutional', they throw back a seemingly existential parallel: White persyn says persyn of color bad = persyn of color says white persyn bad. Neither recognize each other's authentic humanity. Therefore equally bad.

Way closer to the truth: 'Fanon argues for an end to oppression' =/= 'KKK argues FOR oppression'. When concrete examples are presented, when reality intrudes, the bad faith fake existentialism breaks down.

If whites want to be good existentialists, I'd suggest they read Fanon. He never said whites are bad. He said racism is bad, colonialism is bad. At least my limited reading of Fanon is that anyone subjugated by either, and recognizes themselves and others as people of color whose humanity is not recognized, CHOOSES a solidarity and a recognition with other people of color against dehumanization. This is a creative affirming act. A white too can actively CHOOOSE not to contribute to racism and to colonialism, and live authentically and treat other people authentically, but that means more than doing nothing, it means getting involved in stopping organized systems of racist oppression, and way more than saying 'both sides are at fault' or whatever abstraction." (Hollowentry ,
comment on Woman of Color blog, 4/14/2006, Monday, April 10, 2006, “Immigration, Blogothropology, and a Day of Protest.”)

Ai Mu

Stephen Hunter nearly makes lust respectable:

"It's one of those Washington things. You'd know it in a second. It's a "big event," generated entirely by large entities as they lumber through the universe in search of small amounts of leverage to use against each other. "Entities?" The corporations, governments, departments, associations, all those, er, units hiding behind monumental buildings on K or 16th or Massachusetts with their logos and receptionists and discreet plantings and high-end office suites, which never seem to make or sell anything, yet somehow, mysteriously, are at the center of power.

So it is with the "China Film Festival -- 2006 U.S.A.," which has been brokered by a litany of entities: the Motion Picture Association of America, the National Geographic Society, the China Film Bureau, among others, and from which everybody benefits, everybody has fun, everybody experiences a frisson of goodwill. Does it help the prospect of world peace? Probably not, but maybe it cuts down DVD pirating by 0.005 percent. It may also be a part of a Chinese Foreign Ministry charm offensive to coincide with President Hu Jintao's visit.

What can be seen is: important men in well-fitting dark suits dominating one end of an auditorium in a building as solid as Earth itself. All hair is trim. Age: roughly 40 through 65. It is the face of professional Washington. Some are American, some are Chinese; but after a bit you cannot tell them apart.

This is the opening event of the "festival" (most of which was closed to the public): A parliament of speakers was convened and a lot of words were spoken along the lines of this actual quote, "Therefore we can say that the film community is a bridge which can shorten the distance between countries." Blah, blah, or, to make the point more precise, blah, blah and, of course, blah.

However, in all this official celebration and meshing of big gears, the oil of well-paid smilers and handshakers . . . there was a moment when it all went away.

I mean vanished, as if vaporized. The whole entity-oriented assemblage of purpose-driven pilgrims, doing business in the capital of the free world on a rainy Monday morning, doing important work -- bingo. Gone.

Longtime observers are familiar with the phenomenon: As a part of the quest for attention and respect, Entities A, B and C will somehow get Celebrity A to join them, and Celebrity A's presence briefly galvanizes the dreariest, most corporate of events.

In this case, that celebrity is the 27-year-old daughter of an economist and a kindergarten teacher, a slight but not short (or tall) young woman of regal bearing and lively, intelligent eyes who seems almost a little embarrassed that such focus is beamed so brightly on her. Call it good breeding or good genes, but the moment when she enters National Geographic's Grosvenor Auditorium for her part in the "panel" (I can't stop using quotation marks!) you sense an audible gasp, the oxygen level in the room seems to dip as everyone sucks up an extra-large lungful of raw air, and then the flashbulbs start cracking off.

Standing nearby is Dan Glickman in a very nice suit as bespeaks the president and CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America, and, guess what, nobody cares. He's a very important guy, but right now he's just another Joe Doakes with his mouth hanging open. He's also something he's never been before: He's in the way. Get out of the way, big boy, so we can see her!

Standing nearby is also the important Chinese official Zhang Pimin, bearing the exalted rank of China Film Bureau deputy director general, also in a very well-fitting suit, a man of dignity and power and prestige, and nobody cares. And it would help if the general would amscray, too; he's in the way.

Yours truly was sitting about 30 rows back, doing his usual imitation of Adlai Stevenson on a really fat day, and as exquisitely self-tuned as I am, I immediately ceased to notice myself, much less brood on my ample, deeply interesting problems.

For Ms. Zhang had come to Washington.

Star of heaven, star of night, blind us with your wondrous light. And she did.

Western audiences first saw Ziyi Zhang (that's her name Westernized, now permanently, from its Chinese form, Zhang Ziyi) in the phenomenally successful "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," of 2000, in which she was a sprite of martial-arts energy, all adorable, headstrong cuteness and ambition. To see her was to love her instantly, forever.

Oh, it gets better.

No one else from "Crouching Tiger" stayed big for long -- including poor Chow Yun-Fat, once the biggest star in all the world except the Americas -- but Zhang continued to prosper. She zoomed through "Rush Hour 2," she appeared in "Hero," then two years ago she blew the roof off in a romantic knife rhapsody called "House of Flying Daggers," in which she cavorted with a dancer's grace and a wood fairy's magic and a siren's beauty and won the hearts and minds of millions. Hollywood beckoned; soon she was fronting Steven Spielberg's production (Rob Marshall directed) of the phenomenal bestseller "Memoirs of a Geisha," at the very center of a major advertising campaign that featured her perfect features behind a pair of blue contact lenses.

Now she's here, lifting a wan wave and a brave smile in her Washington premiere, offering soporific quotes from behind the dais at the actual event. Other Ziyi obligations of the week included lunches and dinners, a screening of "House of Flying Daggers," standing still for the eternal pressing of flesh and unwanted eye contact that is at the heart of an official public appearance. And somewhere in there a sit-down with all the Johnny Reporters of Our Media Age, of whom there is, for unfathomable reasons, only one.

This lucky fellow finds himself alone with her -- but for a translator and a photographer; and next to her on a couch where she proves surprisingly warm and funny, yet at the same time a committed saleswoman for her client, the Chinese film industry.

She's wearing -- if you must know -- a black taffeta knee skirt, full and billowy, almost like a crinoline petticoat; a kind of tan tunic over a tank top; some discreet diamonds around the neck and on a big-faced wristwatch. Her hair is a thick cascade almost down to the waist, raven black. Her skin is unbearably flawless, her legs lithe and muscular. Are we missing anything? Sigh. Yeah, she also smells really good.

She looks -- well, a humble newsroom hack could try for years and never get her right, so let's turn to poets, who know a thing or two about adjective-slinging.

Ezra Pound, before he went mad as a March hare, played with the Japanese form of haiku and came up with: "Petals on a wet, black bough."

That gets the extraordinary clarity of her beauty, the way it cuts through fog and light and buzz to assert itself. The neck has vaselike grace; the skin must be silk, the face, with its fine porcelain bones, suggests another tiny perfect dynamo, Audrey Hepburn, though intensified by virtue of the Asian DNA information at play throughout. Who knew they made waists that tiny, limbs that smooth?

"Beauty can pierce one like a pain" -- Thomas Mann, expressing in seven words what the above dozen odd paragraphs grope toward.

"I'm tired of all this nonsense about beauty being only skin-deep. That's deep enough. What do you want, an adorable pancreas?" -- the humorist Jean Kerr.

She knows all this, or at least she must.

We have to speak. It is part of the "interview," is it not, the idea that the reporter throws Q's and the subjects responds with A's?

Of course, my mind goes totally Zen. Empty of all. A perfect stillness, otherwise known as the Big Duh. I am no longer the doughnut, I am the hole.

Then finally a Q: Everywhere you go, lights, attention, flashbulbs, people pressing toward you. Yet there must be another you who looks at all that with suspicion.

Wait a second: She is not asked that. She answers that, but what she was asked was something like, "As a film star, you're a citizen of the world; yet you appear here in an official capacity as a representative of your country. Do you see any contradiction to the roles?"

"When I walk on a red carpet," she says, in English, though at times she diverts to Chinese for the translator to handle the subtler ideas, "and there's all the excitement, I am thinking only, 'It's a part of my job.' But I know: it's not me . It's for my work. It's part of what I do, and what I really enjoy is the process of making film. Every single shot, I give my best effort. That is my true self."

The process is not easy.

"Every time I accept a role, I have to feel I'm right for it. I like to take a long time -- two months, sometimes -- to get to know the character. On paper, it's flat; the character doesn't jump out. I think of it as a dress; you have to find the right person to wear it. Every time I put on a dress, I hope I can carry it well. So it is with a character; you have to try it on, get comfortable with it."

She is not a trained martial artist, but is a trained dancer -- and in her two biggest successes, she says, her dance background has been quite helpful.

"I had six years of dance. . . . I can express myself through movement very well. But it was perfect timing when I stopped. I was ready to find something else."

The something else occurred when she was chosen in a blind audition by the great Chinese director Zhang Yimou for a hair commercial, of all things. But quickly enough, she'd caught the eye of Ang Lee and made her international debut (her second film) in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" as the feisty, young Jen Yu.

She'd work with Zhang Yimou, of course, in "House of Flying Daggers."

But now, "I'm looking for something I have never tried. Something new for me." She has nothing set. Perhaps this is a reflection of fatigue after the rigors of "Memoirs of a Geisha."

Next question: Speaking of things you've never tried, have you ever considering giving up your career and running off to Idaho with a fat, bald man 30 years older than you with a very nice gun collection?

No, no, no. Of course not. It was something hopelessly banal like, "Could you tell me about how hard that experience was?"

"It was a very long-lasting process. There were so many expectations from all the people involved. I could not let them down. There are so many Asian actors and to give us -- three Chinese women [Gong Li and Michelle Yeoh were the other two] -- a chance made us very conscious of our responsibilities."

As for the controversial casting of Chinese women as Japanese, when memories of World War II in Asia have yet to disappear, she says, "I didn't think of the politics. I just thought of it as a great chance for us as artists. It was hard to learn the Geisha ways, to be another person so different from myself. I'm proud of what we did. We did pretty good work."

Since then she's made but one film, a Chinese version of "Hamlet" called "The Banquet."

"I hope you like it," she says.

Big Critic thinks: I will. Oh, I will!

The offers since haven't been fabulous. "They now offer me stereotypical roles -- waitresses, victims, the poor girl who is sold. I want something else, which is why I take my time."

And she's wary of the Hollywood system, where the flattery quotient is higher ("Chinese directors never praise you") but so is the treachery.

"You have to have a balanced view, a neutral view of what's happening. People flatter you. You have to maintain integrity. I don't feel as though I'm a part of Hollywood. I feel like I'm just passing through."

And on that note, the adventure of Ziyi Zhang is over. She is fetched, she must return. Swarms of men and women in suits sweep down like Brooks Brothers ninjas to take her away, and as she steps out in public view again, the flash strobes begin to pop, a hungry public begins to press inward.

I watch her swallowed by the crowd and I think: God, what an adorable pancreas. (Stephen Hunter, "This 'Crouching Tiger' Tames Her Audience," Washington Post, Sunday, April 23, 2006; N01).

Who Is Afraid of Communitarian Decency?

Amitai Etzioni does not take away the right lesson from the tragicomedy he recounts below, but still.... :

"The University of California recently joined a growing number of schools that have placed a ban on “romantic or sexual” relationships between professors and students. In particular, the rule prohibits relationships between professors and any students that they advise or evaluate in any way, as well as those students who they may be “reasonably expected” to advise or evaluate.

Some students, and even some professors, have claimed that this policy violates their right to engage in a relationship between two consenting adults. However, as one professor argues, the rules are necessary because of the power gap that exists between professors and students, which precludes such relationships from ever being truly consensual.

(Source: New York Times, 10/1/03)

I have been there. I am familiar with the complications that are inherent in teacher-student and employer-employee relationships and how the dynamics of these relationships have the potential to ruin careers. The following passage from My Brother’s Keeper should serve as a cautionary tale:

The communitarian drive was humming right along, when I hit a bump in the road. A young, lanky woman applied for a position as a research assistant. I interviewed Jean in the same format I always follow: door wide open; my secretary within eye-line and earshot. The reason I follow the open door policy is that I have seen professors’ careers ruined after they have been charged with sexual harassment, even if, in the end, the courts or hearings fully cleared them. (I, of course, do not speak of those actually guilty of such actions.) Hence, I bend over backwards to avoid such accusations. For instance, I avoid riding in crowded elevators, just so nobody can claim that I touched them.

Jean brought with her an impressive resume and answered questions brightly. A few days later, when I called to inform her that we were ready to hire her, she informed me, “You ought to know that I am applying for a job at the CIA. However, my security clearance is going to take many months because I used to live in Poland.” This seemed to make sense and Jean started working for us, doing a credible job, although she did not quite click with the other staff.

After a short period on the job, Jean suggested that her work would improve if she could take a course that she believed was germane to her research assignment. She asked that we pay several hundred dollars for the course. I reluctantly agreed but wondered, “What if you do get clearance in a few days?” Jean countered, “In that case, I will pay you back the tuition fee.” She had barely started when her clearance came through, and within a day she packed to leave. When I asked for the refund, she simply refused.

At this point I made a mistake. I instructed the university to hold her last paycheck until the matter was resolved. When she found out about it, she stopped by. She spoke briefly and calmly: “If I do not have my money by five o’clock, I will accuse you of sexual harassment and tell your wife that we had an affair.” I should note that we had no personal relationship of any kind, not even a cup of coffee nor a walk in the campus yard. I realized, though, that I was defenseless, and soon called the university to release the funds. I never heard from or saw her again.

For quite a while I felt violated. True, I was wrong to block her pay. People who work are entitled to their compensation even if they did not abide by some agreement they made. Despite this belated insight, I felt pushed around and unable to defend myself against ludicrous charges. Worse, I had to face the fact that the same thing could be done to me, again, any time, by anybody.

My sense of being abused and powerless festered for a while until I decided that these feelings might help me be more empathetic to other victims of harassment. When a research assistant working at an institute nearby came crying to my motherly secretary, and I mean crying, because his professor was giving him a hard time, I visited with him. I very well may not have done so before Jean taught me a lesson. When one of my colleagues jokingly complained about co-eds rejecting his advances, suggesting that they should enjoy older, experienced men, I did speak up with a little more vigor than I might have done before my short course on what it is like to be at the receiving end of such treatment.

The incident had another lasting effect on my relationship with the young people who work with me. When one of them was mugged and brutally assaulted in Georgetown, I helped her regain her composure over the weeks that followed, but did not feel free to show her how deeply concerned I was. I wanted to give her a shoulder to cry on but I kept her at arm’s length. The same was true when the father of one of the younger staff members suddenly died, and she was grief-stricken. Another young staff member dropped by my office often and unnecessarily, looking deeply into my eyes, and asking to accompany me to meetings to which I was invited, often at the end of the day. I tried to transfer her to another part of the university, but she refused to be reassigned. Luckily, she was accepted into a top medical school, and broke away.

The “communitarian” lesson of all this is far from easily drawn. All too often in the academic world in which I live, young women are pressured to engage in sexual acts by people who have power over them, co-eds by their professors, junior faculty by those who will rule on their tenure. A New York colleague of mine damaged more than a student, which is bad enough. He got her a PhD degree (which was relatively easy, because two other members of the committee had mistresses they had to keep happy), and then an assistant professor post. He really got us all abuzz when he refused to leave the room when her tenure was voted on. In short, there is not and never was any doubt in my mind that those who do so abuse others--and academic standards--should be exposed and properly punished. But there should also be a way for someone to clear his or her name, in full. Currently even those who are found not guilty in various hearings are still assumed to be guilty by many in their campus communities.

There must also be some clarification of the code of conduct. A colleague was charged with sexual harassment because a co-ed claimed that he was staring at her through his goggles in a swimming pool. The charge was brought under the rule that harassment can take the form of creating a “hostile environment” and--that what constitutes such an environment is determined by those who declare themselves to be its victims. These kinds of rules are too fungible, and undermine any notion of due process and fairness that should be extended even to old, white males.

Maybe it is impossible to have a close personal relationship with one’s staff or students--without fearing that it might be misunderstood, mischaracterized." (Amitai Etzioni, Amitai Etzioni Notes blog, October 7, 2003; 04:02 PM).

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Illusio, Irony, and Hegemony

Mark Kaplan wrote a while back:

"You will remember that Baron Munchausen, drowning without hope of rescue, so concentrates his mind that he pulls him self out of the swamp by his own hair. We, lacking the Munchausen option, have only the labour of critical thought.

One of Pierre Bourdieu’s most significant contributions to critical thinking was the notion of ‘illusio’. ‘Illusio’ is basically our libidinal and cognitive investment in a particular – historically contingent – form of life. From a removed point of view, this investment will always appear somewhat absurd:

When you read, in Saint-Simon, about the quarrel of hats (who should bow first), if you were not born in a court society, if you do not possess the habitus of a person of the court, if the structures of the game are not also in your mind, the quarrel will seem futile and ridiculous to you.”

And so:

Illusio is the fact of being interested in the game, of taking the game seriously, being caught up in and by the game, of believing the game is “worth the candle”, or, more simply, that playing is worth the effort. [it is] to recognise the game and to recognise its stakes.”

Paradoxically, this means precisely not seeing it a as a ‘mere game’. Once you see it as a game you are already outside it, and the game loses its power to compel. Knowledge changes the thing known. Such ‘games’ would include, say, parliamentary politics, journalism, business meetings and, indeed, academia itself. It is evident that many of the props and rituals of these practices, the customary modes of address, the required rhetoric, the shibboleths and in-jokes, will one day appears as ridiculous as the game of the hats, cited by Bourdieu, does today. Our natural inclination, of course, is to see the game of the hats as quaint and costumed history, but our own way of doing things as just plain ‘natural’ or the ‘way things are’ and therefore just to get on with them. This attitude is illusio at its purest. So it is, that the mere fact that a form of life exists seems to be sufficient proof that it should, or, at least, its mere existence induces instant amnesia that it was ever otherwise.

But, to repeat: once you see such a form of life as a historically specific game with rules, you remove yourself, albeit by a fraction, from the ‘plane of what is'. You pull yourself out of the swamp. There is however a certain mode of removal which is mere lip service – it is of course called irony, and it is nothing more than a device allowing one to participate all the more effectively in the game. At the level of belief you make ironic jokes about it the futility of what you’re doing, but at the behavioural level you continue to act as if it were not simply a historically contingent game at all. Irony is thus a kind of false consciousness, a part of the game masquerading as critical commentary. What is needed today is an irony towards irony - which, i suppose is a bit like pulling yourself up by your own hair." (Mark Kaplan, Charlotte Street blog, Wednesday, August 18, 2004).

I would go further than Kaplan and argue that the genius of liberal capitalism is its inculcation of the illusio of irony. That is, irony is a structurally built into the system -- what with the high stakes gambling that is capitalism as seen, for example, in the stock market.

Let's turn to Lance Mannion for an elaboration:

"When you think about it---and you're not meant to. The world continues on its merry self-destructive but profitable to them what's in on the deal way because we don't think about what we're not meant to think about---the clubbiness of after-hours Washington is a grotesque joke on the rest of us that even Satan wouldn't have the bad taste to perpetrate.

Milton's Satan. Job's Satan would enjoy a good horselaugh over it, being the kind of evil entity that gets a kick out tricking the Almighty into massacring an innocent man's family, wiping out his fortune, and covering his hide in weeping pustules just to prove to the poor schnook, who never doubted it anyway, that He is the Lord God Almighty. Milton's Satan was a sophisticated wit by comparison with the playful, puckish sense of humor of an Oxford College don on Boat Night.

But I digress.

The idea that once they clock out, unzip the coveralls, and gather together at the old brass rail, Senators, Congressmen, Presidential aides, the boys and girls of the Press, and the lobbyists buying the round are, Republicans and Democrats, Liberal and Conservative, really just a bunch of bosom pals forced by circumstances to work in different, rival departments of the same firm and what happens during the day is just the dirty job of earning a paycheck and their real lives begin after the cocktail hour is, I suppose, necessary to their sanity and useful for getting laid.

Whenever I hear a Washington insider bemoan the polarization of politics I know that person is either a Republican about to launch a vicious attack on a Democrat, a Democrat terrified of being viciously attacked, or a journalist who just hates all the muss and fuss because it makes picking which parties to attend a trickier business---choose wrong and some miffed hostess will cross your name off the guest list for a whole month's worth of A-list fiestas.

Insider Journalists seem to have found the path to their self-congratulatory "objectivity" by way of the sports pages. At least when they appear on TV, they adopt the detachment of New York baseball writers forced to cover a crucial series between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the San Diego Padres---it's interesting because it's baseball, but it's not the Yankees, so let's not lose our heads here.

This is one of Shakespeare's Sister's themes. They cover politics as if it is a game, as if the people involved, the "players," are players, colorful characters whose quirks and foibles make their stories funnier or more dramatic, but whose political views are no more important than a ballplayer's pet superstitions or diligent pursuit of an arcane record. It's not just Joe Klein. He's the model. That Tom DeLay is a thief and a thug and he posed a real threat to the useful functioning of the government never seems to figure in the coverage of him, even as he disappears back down the sewer from which he crawled. The Bug Man, the Hammer, he's just contemporary Washington's Ty Cobb, isn't he?

(As if Cobb's racism and sociopathy were of no real consequence.)

The assumption underlying and propping up all this chummy let me buy you a drink and we'll call it even bonhomie is that "We're all in this together." Everybody in Washington is there for the same reason. To do a job. And that job is to keep the country moving. We may have different ideas about how to get there, but finally we all want to end up in the same place, don't we?


Not true.

It's probably never been true, except for, maybe, the four years during World War II, when we all wanted to beat the Nazis and whip the Japs. But even then there were serious disagreements about what should happen afterwards.

For the whole history of the country there has been a struggle between two sides. There's the one side that wants a democratic-republic with as much democracy as is possible without disorder. And there's another that wants to re-establish some form of aristocracy with as much liberty for those few who have power and money as they decide they need and with as little for the rest of us as the rich and powerful can be forced to begrudge.

That second side, the would-be aristocrats, keeps switching Party affiliations. At one time, many of them were Democrats. But that was a long time ago. Over the course of the 20th Century the racist aristocrats left the Democratic party and joined forces with the Big Business aristocrats who'd taken the Republican Party away from the Progressives.

These two factions, which control the Republican Party today, believe that the United States should be able to do whatever it wants in the world, that rich white people ought to be able to boss the rest of us around, that men get to boss their wives and children around but those who aren't rich must submit to bossing from those that are, that money and status and power are the definers of worth, and that we should have two goverments---or a government with two faces: A harsh, authoritarian one that keeps the rabble scared and in line, and a genial, tame, complicitly winking one taking orders from the aristocracy.

The American Revolution ended monarchism here but it did not do it by changing the minds of the local monarchists, any more than the Civl Rights movement ended bigotry once and for all. Monarchists will always be with us because it's part of human nature. There are some of us who like to boss, and there are lots of us who like to be bossed.

The Founders got rid of a king but they were under no illusions that they had innoculated the American people against tyranny for all time.

If any of them came back from the grave today they'd be amazed that the democrats had been able to hold out against the aristocrats for so long. But they'd have no trouble recognizing that the two sides are still there, fighting it out. And they'd be appalled to see that so many Washington insiders appear not to see it or be sufficiently concerned about what's at risk.

As Digby says:

I suspect that many others who are engaged in the netroots like me became radicalized in their 30's and 40's by a Republican Party that started to behave as an openly undemocratic institution. Why so many of these establishment Democrats and insider press corps aren't exercised by this after what we've seen, I can't imagine. Perhaps they just can't see the forest for the trees. This past decade has not been business as usual.

History has many examples of societies that enabled radical political factions to dominate, through inertia, cynicism or plain intimidation. It happened in Europe in the 25 years before I was born and almost destroyed the whole planet. I know it's unfashionably hysterical to be concerned about such things, but I have never believed that America was so "exceptional" that it couldn't happen here.

The stakes are incredibly high. Without the cold war polarity, the US has bigger responsibilities than ever. And instead of behaving like a mature democracy and world leader, we have been alternating from adolescent tabloid obsessives to playground bullies. This is serious business.

Which brings me to Steve Colbert.

I'm not surprised that many members of the Club, like Richard Cohen, are tut-tuting over Colbert's performance, calling it "inappropriate," suggesting that Colbert crossed some line of common decency, taste, and tact. He violated the Club rules. He came there and told them that what happens in Washington matters. He told them that they aren't playing a game or watching one. Lives are in the balance.

It'd be amusing to ask the Club members what they think someone like Mark Twain would have said if he'd come to their chummy little hoedown. I'll bet most of them admire Twain. Many of them probably read him and sigh out their wish to write like him with a pen warmed up in hell. It doesn't seem to occur to them to act on the wish, but nevermind. Think Twain would have made a couple good natured cracks about President McKinley's bald pate and called it a night?

My favorite post about the Colbert Affair is John Rogers' at Kung Fu Monkey. Rogers has been a working comic, but he's not being funny when he writes:

As for Colbert crossing the line -- how? Did he make remarks about the President's wife? About his children? His sex life? His draft dodging, his drinking and drug use before he found the Lord? No. Every joke used a well-known fact of public-record. Does anyone deny the poll numbers cited? Does anyone deny that the government response to previous crisises have been deficient? Does anyone deny that Administration officials outed Valerie Plame (hell, even the Administration officials now have to rely on he idea it was accidental)? Does anyone deny that the Administration has actively opposed global warming discussions? Listen -- if the President could do a long routine about not finding WMD's and laughing about it, while US soldiers died in the resultant war ... then to be frank I think he set the bar. Oddly, I think that if Colbert had done the routine the President did a couple years ago, THAT would have been crossing the line for me.

If his sin was incivility, then what the audience/bookers were looking for wasn't comedy. Comedy is by its nature uncivil. Comedy is, in both linguistic structure and overall psychological impact, hostile. Sometimes overtly, often not. But there is no such thing as a joke structured like: "You know what makes me happy? Yeah, that same thing that makes everybody else happy. (sigh)" There is no laugh there.

This is how the Club thinks. Colbert was rude and uncivil when he made jokes that told the truth, but President Bush was being a good sport when he made a joke out of the lies that were getting American soldiers and Marines maimed and killed.

The reason is that Bush's "joke" keeps the game going. Colbert's jokes spoiled the fun of pretending it's all a game. Besides, if the wrong person saw you laughing there goes your big speaking fee and that invite to the beach house next weekend.

Even worse, if the wrong people got Colbert's jokes, your editors and readers if you're a journalist, the voters if you're a politician, they might ask you why you're not doing your job." (Lance Mannion, Lance Mannion blog,