Will's Coffee House

John Dryden, Dramatist, Critic, Poet Laureate, and my ancestor, frequented a coffee house called Will's almost daily, where he would hold forth on sundry subjects with great wit and aplomb. Same deal here, only without the wit or aplomb.

Location: Large Midwestern City, Midwestern State, United States

I am a stranger in a sane land...

Thursday, July 28, 2005

We're In SO Much Trouble--Here's Some Healthy Reading For You

I worry about the times we live in, I do. Revolutions come with a price. Industrial Revolutions breed events like World War I. Technology lends itself to abuse, especially when it exceeds our understanding of its consequences. The Information Age is going to start delivering backlashes--severe ones--and soon. Not sure what they'll be--but consider what would have happened if the Y2K crisis had been real--something like that. In the meantime, consider this (it's about a month old, but I find myself coming back to it again and again):

Couple's online gaming causes infant's death

Korean press picks up tale of tragedy when couple plays World of Warcraft to excess, infant perishes from neglect.

In a story out of Korea, which is just now surfacing in the Western press, a couple in Incheon, South Korea, were arrested last week when their 4-month-old daughter died after being left alone by the couple for hours. The mother and father reportedly had gone to a nearby Internet cafe, lost themselves in playing Blizzard's massively multiplayer online PC game World of Warcraft, and returned to their home only to find the infant dead from suffocation. "We booked the pair on criminal charges, judging that when you consider the situation, they were responsible for their daughter's death," a policeman told the Chosun Ilbo newspaper. The couple reportedly told police, "We were thinking of playing for just an hour or two and returning home like usual, but the game took longer that day." The infant was the couple's only child.

I think back to a piece written by Matthew Arnold, "The Function of Criticism at the Present Time," where he notes that the decline of critical thinking--that thinking that responds not only to art but to life and its variety of meanings--can only spell disaster for society. He too mentions the death of a child. This section is lengthy, but much better written than anything else you'll ever see on this blog:

It is because criticism has so little kept in the pure intellectual sphere, has so little detached itself from practice, has been so directly polemical and controversial, that it has so ill accomplished, in this country, its best spiritual work; which is to keep man from a self satisfaction which is retarding and vulgarising, to lead him towards perfection, by making his mind dwell upon what is excellent in itself, and the absolute beauty and fitness of things. A polemical practical criticism makes men blind even to the ideal imperfection of their practice, makes them willingly assert its ideal perfection, in order the better to secure it against attack; and clearly this is narrowing and baneful for them. If they were reassured on the practical side, speculative considerations of ideal perfection they might be brought to entertain, and their spiritual horizon would thus gradually widen.

Mr. Adderley says to the Warwickshire farmers: --"Talk of the improvement of breed! Why, the race we ourselves represent, the men and women, the old Anglo-Saxon race, are the best breed in the whole world. ... The absence of a too enervating climate, too unclouded skies, and a too luxurious nature, has produced so vigorous a race of people, and has rendered us so superior to all the world."

Mr. Roebuck says to the Sheffield cutlers: --"I look around me and ask what is the state of England? Is not property safe? Is not every man able to say what he likes? Can you not walk from one end of England to the other in perfect security? I ask you whether, the world over or in past history, there is anything like it? Nothing. I pray that our unrivalled happiness may last."

Now obviously there is a peril for poor human nature in words and thoughts of such exuberant self-satisfaction, until we find ourselves safe in the streets of the Celestial City. "Das wenige verschwindet leicht deln BlickeDer vorwärts sieht, wie viel noch übrig bleibt -- " says Goethe; the little that is done seems nothing when we look forward and see how much we have yet to do. Clearly this is a better line of reflection for weak humanity, so long as it remains on this earthly field of labour and trial.

But neither Mr. Adderley nor Mr. Roebuck are by nature inaccessible to considerations of this sort. They only lose sight of them owing to the controversial life we all lead, and the practical form which all speculation takes with us. They have in view opponents whose aim is not ideal, but practical, and in their zeal to uphold their own practice against these innovators, they go so far as even to attribute to this practice an ideal perfection. Somebody has been wanting to introduce a six-pound franchise, or to abolish church-rates, or to collect agricultural statistics by force, or to diminish local self-government. How natural, in reply to such proposals, very likely improper or ill-timed, to go a little beyond the mark, and to say stoutly: "Such a race of people as we stand, so superior to all the world! The old Anglo-Saxon race, the best breed in the whole world! I pray that our unrivalled happiness may last! I ask you whether, the world over or in past history, there is anything like it!" And so long as criticism answers this dithyramb by insisting that the old Anglo-Saxon race would be still more superior to all others if it had no church-rates, or that our unrivalled happiness would last yet longer with a six-pound franchise, so long will the strain, "The best breed in the whole world!" swell louder and louder, everything ideal and refining will be lost out of sight, and both the assailed and their critics will remain in a sphere, to say the truth, perfectly unvital, a sphere in which spiritual progression is impossible.

But let criticism leave church-rates and the franchise alone, and in the most candid spirit, without a single lurking thought of practical innovation, confront with our dithyramb this paragraph on which I stumbled in a newspaper soon after reading Mr. Roebuck: --
"A shocking child murder has just been committed at Nottingham. A girl named Wragg left the workhouse there on Saturday morning with her young illegitimate child. The child was soon afterwards found dead on Mapperly Hills, having been strangled. Wragg is in custody."
Nothing but that; but, in juxtaposition with the absolute eulogies of Mr. Adderley and Mr. Roebuck, how eloquent, how suggestive are those few lines!" Our old Anglo-Saxon breed, the best in the whole world!" -- how much that is harsh and ill-favoured there is in this best! Wragg! If we are to talk of ideal perfection, of "the best in the whole world," has anyone reflected what a touch of grossness in our race, what an original shortcoming in the more delicate spiritual perceptions, is shown by the natural growth amongst us of such hideous names, -- Higginbottom, Stiggins, Bugg! In Ionia and Attica they were luckier in this respect than "the best race in the world;" by the Ilissus there was no Wragg, poor thing! And "our unrivalled happiness;" -- what an element of grimness, bareness, and hideousness mixes with it and blurs it; the workhouse, the dismal Mapperly Hills, -- how dismal those who have seen them will remember; -- the gloom, the smoke, the cold, the strangled illegitimate child!" I ask you whether, the world over or in past history, there is anything like it?" Perhaps not, one is inclined to answer; but at any rate, in that case, the world is very much to be pitied. And the final touch, -- short, bleak, and inhuman: Wragg is in custody. The sex lost in the confusion of our unrivalled happiness; or, shall I say? the superfluous Christian name lopped off by the straightforward vigour of our old Anglo-Saxon breed! There is profit for the spirit in such contrasts as this; criticism serves the cause of perfection by establishing them. By eluding sterile conflict, by refusing to remain in the sphere where alone narrow and relative conceptions have any worth and validity, criticism may diminish its momentary importance, but only in this way has it a chance of gaining admittance for those wider and more perfect conceptions to which all its duty is really owed. Mr. Roebuck will have a poor opinion of an adversary who replies to his defiant songs of triumph only by murmuring under his breath, Wragg is in custody; but in no other way will these songs of triumph be induced gradually to moderate themselves, to get rid of what in them is excessive and offensive, and to fall into a softer and truer key.

Me again. "Wragg is in custody." That couple in Korea are not Wragg--she acted out of fear and desperation and a horror inflicted upon her by an uncritical society. But the Korean couple (I identify them as Korean not out of racism or nationalism, but because their names are not given) acted out of ignorance--indifference--and yet, out of a horrific mindset that the world is pushing upon them: that the world of the Internet and its immediate, illusory gratifications is more important than the drudgery of real life. That existing in a fake world is better than existing in a real one. I worry--the story has shock value, which means that it's the exception, rather than the rule--there were far more Wragg's in Arnold's England than such couples in modern Korea (or America.) But where does this revolution lead us? We have to ask--we have to think critically. Otherwise...

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Don't Know Anything

...about this guy. (You know the guy I'm talking about...The one who's up for the job where he can show up late and drunk and reeking of bong water every day and they still can't fire him, and he gets to decide whether you can read porn, marry a member of the same sex, and have that abortion you've been putting off?) So a lengthy blog post on him at this point would be premature. We've had a whiff or two that give a sense of his conservative bona fides, as a trial lawyer he represented folks who were what the left would call "anti-environmentalist," though his legal argument was based on the law they were claiming as justification, and was concise, witty, and--I hate to say it--correct.

And truth be told, though I'd love a Supreme Court that went about making this country into an image of my own personal utopia, it's rather better for them to be sticklers on matters of legal interpretation. Plus, he can write, which is always a good sign. (Though so can Scalia, so it's not an infallible touchstone.) He did, of course, assist in the composition and filing of a brief on behalf of the odious Ken Starr (then Solicitor General), who wanted family planning clinics to have the consititutional right not to even mention the possibility of abortion as they went about their counselling. In this brief, the words "We continue to believe that Roe was wrongly decided and should be overruled" were used, which should send a chill up many spines. But. He was one of many hands who toiled on that document, and we've no way of knowing how much those words reflected his views or were simply the work of a team member who wanted to produce a forceful statement of principle. Regardless, he's also said elsewhere that Roe was a legal principle he didn't think needed changing, which supports the latter interpretation. Either this guy is a stealth arch-conservative who's spend his whole career pretending to me a moderate conservative on the incredible slim chance that he might be called up to the majors, or he's just what he appears to be--a moderate conservative who bases his decisions on an intelligent interpretation of the law rather than on a rigid ideology. He's not Patricia Owen, is what I'm saying.

But now the fun begins. I think the NY Times mentioned, and I believe it, that many conservatives on the Hill still remember the Bork fiasco of the mid-'80s--the Hindenberg of confirmations--and they'll be gunning for any Dems who want to recreate that process, but they won't have to--I think these proceedings will be closer to the Thomas confirmation, without the distraction of the Anita Hill scandal--Thomas, who minus the murder is the O.J. Simpson of justices (got his success, married a white woman, and proceeded to turn his back on the community that supported him with a cold-blooded viciousness that suggests an ugly soul underneath it all)--a confirmation which, in retrospect, reminds one of the strange, subtle progress of African Americans in this country, since, like Simpson, if Thomas had been white, he'd have gone down, hard. Nobody had the balls to call him on his "high-tech lynching" claim, as grotesquely self-serving a statement of historical insensitivity as can be--can you image if Ginsburg had claimed to have been suffering "a high-tech pogrom" during her hearing? Rgeardless--the GOP is in charge, and they'll defend him with enough vigor to get him through.

I think Roberts smells like a swing-vote. Barring any Hill-like skeletons in his closet (and, post-Hill, if you think this guy wasn't vetted with a proctoscope, you're just not thinking this through), he'll be confirmed in a wink. But that might not be bad. Looking back at history, conservative nominees tend to do two things--stay conservative (Scalia, Thomas--we knew what we were getting, and we got it), or become moderates who occasionally skirt liberalism: Souter, Kennedy, O'Connor. Yeah, they all voted with Bush in 2000--yeah, it was partisan, not legal--but they've been on the left side of a lot of votes (you always love those votes because Scalia's vitriolic dissents are always so hilariously scathing.) I am not panicked by this choice. Not yet. But as the title of this post suggests, these are just my first impressions. We will have to wait and see.

Karl Rove must love the fact that nobody's bugging him these days. But I think that will not last. With a Supreme Court justice they don't have to fight tooth and nail, the Dems can focus all their attention on his slug-like butt. (Is it just me, or does he look like a larval form of Jabba the Hutt? Just me? OK, fine.)

Thursday, July 14, 2005


The thing is, why are we acting like Claude Rains in Casablanca, claiming to be "shocked, shocked" that Karl Rove would do such a despicable thing? We've known for years what Karl Rove is--and notice I say "what" and not "who"--he passed the point of humanity a long way back. Rove understands what Nixon understood--that politics is simply about not getting caught--and he who does get caught had better have a back-up plan, like a "Checkers" speech, or a war in Iraq. But Machiavelli already taught us a lesson that these guys never learn--that a leader can have justice, power, foreplanning, intelligence, and everything but the rubber stamp of God on his side, and still lose. It's called "luck," and as any gambler will tell you, you'd better be prepared for it to walk out on you. Rove pulled a little dirty trick--and, in fairness, it really was little--Valerie Plame wasn't suddenly looking down and seeing the red laser-points covering her torso, she just couldn't do her job anymore--and with the aid of a true, unadulterated scumwad, Robert Novak, he sent it out into the world, and it backfired.

Because it didn't shut the critics of the war up, it gave them resolve. Because if the motives for war were so tenuous that one guy's low-level criticism was enough to cause the White House to go after his wife--you know, even the Mob doesn't stoop that low--then there must have been something to hide. Watergate--textbook example of how not to handle a potential PR disaster. Cut loose, disavow--and if that doesn't work, for God's sake, apologize right away. But no. Rove is the proponent of the Nixonian adage of "Apology Concedes Weakness" ideology, so there will be no apology. And Bush won't fire him--why would he? It's not as if his numbers could sink much lower unless he started spending weekends at Neverland Ranch. We've all come to realize in this second term what 9/11 and a phony war (phony except for all those dead and maimed Iraqi citizens and American soldiers) obscured: Bush is a terrible, terrible president. And not a very nice man. He was perfectly willing to play Faust to Rove's Mephistopheles, but now the tune has gotten old, and people are realizing he's a shallow fraud. The Downing Street memo proved the Iraqi lie--again, one thinks of Captain Renault going through the motion of "rounding up the usual suspects" when he's already made up his mind whom to arrest--God but that's a well-written movie. Every week produces a new story from the CIA/FBI/NSA about how this administration doesn't give a rat's ass about "intelligence"--that it's policy that drives decisions, not evidence. And now Rove reveals just how much contempt he and his coven hold for the people who theoretically are busting their butts to prevent the next 9/11--he dumps one because her husband spoke his mind (and told the truth, no less.)

And yet we're going to pretend to be shocked and appalled. But again, why? We knew what he was. We always did. Many of us, blinded by partisan hate, just didn't care--and many of us, blinded by partisan hate, allowed ourselves to be driven into frothing hyperbole about his evil (see my earlier comparison with Mephistopheles as an example). But it's time for both sides to just stand back and reach a compromise: The Republicans have to concede that Rove is scum. The Democrats have to concede that, his scumminess notwithstanding, he ain't goin' nowhere, so just get used to it. But be comforted for now, liberals--Bush's 2nd administration has, thus far, produced nothing in the way of further legislative obscenities. We're no worse off than we were before. (Except for the families/friends of those dead soldiers, whose numbers continue to multiply.) And the Rove thing couldn't have happened at a better time--with his gonads cut off by the scandal, Bush can't try to ram through a total lunatic to the Supreme Court--or, if he does, he'll fail. In many ways, Rove's exposure is very good news indeed. It stops Bush from having the clout to pull his most heinous presidential s***. And for that, we thank you, Karl.

I really would like to see Bob Novak hooked through the jaw and dragged behind a team of horses through the streets of Washington, though. Seems only fair, what with Judith Miller going to jail for doing the same thing he's not doing--Naming The Name. But I don't share much of the public's sympathy for Ms. Miller, because I remember what she wrote about the war--how she shirked her journalistic duty completely in order to join the popular drumbeat of "The Administration Would Never Lie To Us So Let's Go Kick Some Iraqi Ass, Huh?!" Didn't question the adminstration's claims--took 'em at face value and touted them as if they were the stone tablets. She helped create the war. And for that, I'm kinda happy to see her being left to twist by the same people she abetted in this endeavor. Still, between her and Novak--well, let's just say, I don't want to see her hooked through the jaw and dragged behind a team of horses through the streets of Washington.

Rove's "got to go," as Strom Thurmond once said of Ed Meese. But Meese went nowhere. And neither will Karl. Still, the 2nd term quagmire of scandals begins...Grab your popcorn, this is gonna be fun.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

You Know...

I should say something about Tom Cruise. Except that I shouldn't. He's just noise. Mean-spirited noise--going after Ms. Shields when she wasn't in the room to respond/rebut was the act of a coward, and talking down to Matt Lauer--well, OK, talking down to Matt Lauer is something we're all entitled to do. The hosts on E! get to talk down to Matt Lauer. But still, he's claiming education he doesn't have--that he can't have, because you can't study something as intensively as he claims to have (awk. sentence structure) without spending years of doing nothing else. And, he hasn't. I talk about him, then, not because Scientology is a wack-job religion--most religions are, on some level, but you can generally tell the good from the bad by the kind of people they produce. Mormons are, in general, so freaking nice you can't quite believe it (setting aside the evil bastards in Southern Utah who rape their nieces), and Jews and Buddhists who are sincere are just ducky folks. Muslims--the real ones, not the ones you see on TV--are so polite and spiritually refined you just relax a little the minute they walk in the room. Episcopalians, Anglicans, we're so cool we're barely religious at all. But, with apologies, Pentacostalists have a paranoid and kinda mean streak somewhere in there--they seem to get off on condemning as much as celebrating. And Scientologists act like they're members of some dark sect of the Illuminati--"Oh, it's wonderful--my eyes have been opened to the true workings of the world--but you are not ready yet to receive such knowledge. You must join us...or you will forever remain ignorant of...The Truth." Is it just me, or do you imagine they have a dank, golden-laced temple in the Basement of the Center, with a 100-foot icon of L. Ron on an altar, where they regularly sacrifice the blood of homosexuals who refuse to be 'cured'? Just me? OK, no problem.

Point is--

I'm not slamming Tom for his beliefs. They're idiotic--they make fundamentalist Christianity look positively sane--but they're his beliefs, and inasmuch as there's nothing in them that explicitly encourages violence against others, I'll let the silliness slide. I'm slamming Tom for being a loud-mouth non-expert who claims knowledge he does not have, and offers lies (psychiatry is a Nazi endeavor?--yeah, Tom, so I guess all of Hitler's claims that it was "jew science" was just a COVER for his REAL agenda--yep, that Sigmund Freud, you know he had to be a favorite of the boys in the Brown Shirts) as truths. That's the mark of a bad person. Look. I'll be fair. He once saved a hit-and-run victim, Heloisa Vinhas, and then paid her hospital bills. For that, the world is a better place for his having been in it, and I give him a conditional pass. But he still needs a ruler across the knuckles for the last month or so. Oh, and date women your own age--he'll be treading into Humbert Humbert territory soon.

Friday, July 01, 2005

I Think I Speak For Everyone...

...hearing the news of Sandra O'Connor's decision to retire this year, when I say, "Welp, that's it for Roe v. Wade." Renhquist is on his way out--he'll be gone before Bush is out of office. That's two. The Republicans have a solid grasp on both houses of Congress and their recent--incredibly unethical--threat to use the Nuclear Option on any filibusters will certainly come back to haunt us. So that swing vote is gone. O'Connor, as I understand, was not a fan of "Roe," but she leaned always towards the moderate side of conservative--which, come to think of it, is not a bad place for a Supreme Court Justice to be. But she's gone. And the Bushies will nominate someone, in the words of Bill Maher, "just slightly to the right of the Sherriff of Nottingham." And the Republican will guarantee the appointment. And we'll get another Scalia, another Thomas. Do the math, folks--five out of nine equals: the liberals lose. God help us all; that move to Canada is looking better and better...