"Where else would you go when you have an ax to grind?"

Saturday, March 20, 2004

Would you both shut up and think?

Book review from The Daily Yomiuri, 

Kevin Wood Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

Dude, Where's My Country?
By Michael Moore
Warner Books, 249 pp, 24.95 dollars


Shut Up & Sing: How Elites from Hollywood, Politics, and the UN Are Subverting America
By Laura Ingraham
Regnery Publishing, 342 pp, 27.95 dollars

Liberal satirist and documentarian Michael Moore's Dude, Where's My Country? and conservative talk radio attack blonde Laura Ingraham's Shut Up & Sing are the literary equivalent of the sort of smug, self-satisfied invective and creative misinterpretation of the facts one would be disappointed to hear in a "did not!--did too!" argument between 7-year-olds. Taken together they are a one-two punch that make the reader long for the gentlemanly rhetoric and Wildean wit of pro wrestlers' pre-bout trash talk.

Ingraham graduated from the Ivy League bastion of Dartmouth, worked as a speechwriter in the final years of the administration of former U.S. President Ronald Reagan and as law clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, became a defense attorney for white-collar criminals and finally a political commentator for NBC. She currently hosts a popular syndicated radio talk show in the United States.

Michael Moore, a college dropout, magazine editor, writer and activist, made his first film,"Roger and Me" (1989) about his unsuccessful efforts to confront General Motors Chairman Roger Smith. In terms of objective journalism, it was one-sided, shallow, manipulative and unfair. As a satirical documentary, it was brilliantly funny, razor sharp and original. It won numerous awards and its rags-to-riches success story (Moore maxed out numerous credit cards and even organized bingo games to raise the money needed to make the film) made the director a progressive populist hero to many and launched his career as a professional gadfly.

"Roger and Me" and the recent Oscar-winner "Bowling for Columbine" are Moore at his funniest--shining his klieg lights on absurdity and hypocrisy in U.S. society by playing the bewildered everyman and bushwhacking corporate sleazeballs, gun nuts and assorted conservative ne'er-do-wells.

Dude is Moore preaching to the choir. He lists all the faults, real and imagined, of the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush in an outraged rush. Unsurprisingly, Moore does not like or trust Bush, and considers him a lying weasel and corporate shill. Moore goes on to illustrate why he thinks this by quoting Bush and his inner circle and pointing to his well-known connections to the oil industry. Its all meticulously footnoted, but there is nothing new or especially interesting here, just Moore working himself into a frenzy of righteous indignation.

Humor, normally Moore's strong suit, gets short shrift, though his chapter on "How to Talk to Your Conservative Brother-in-Law" has a few good laughs and some sensible arguments and suggestions for helping convert orthodox Republicans back to the middle of the road. More strained however are his rhetorical questions for "George of Arabia" and his hinting at some sort of dark conspiracy between the Bush and bin Laden families.

Moore would be better advised to stick to comedy and leave the journalistic heavy lifting to guys like Greg Palast (The Best Democracy Money Can Buy), who are better equipped to handle it.

He makes a number of factual errors regarding the departure of bin Laden family members from the United States following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, U.S. aid to the Taliban, and the long since debunked myth about Wesley Clark being asked by the White House to use his position as a commentator on CNN to connect former Iraqi President Saddam Hussien to the 9/11 attacks.

While Moore is no poet and might make a better comedian than a journalist, Laura Ingraham makes him look like Edward R. Murrow, H. L. Mencken and Shakespeare rolled into one. Shut Up & Sing: How Elites from Hollywood, Politics and the UN Are Subverting America is not a book, but 339 pages of incoherent paranoid ranting between hard covers.

Like most of her U.S. talk radio siblings, Ingraham is outraged about just about everything. In this instance she is writing to warn us all of a terrifying threat to the United States: celebrities. Ingraham says that the elites that make up the entertainment industry, the "ivory tower" of academe, the business world, the media, politics and international organization are poised to destroy the United States. Aiding them are miscellaneous elites including, but not limited to: "trial lawyers, multiculturalists, God-haters, and the race-relations mafia," college-educated professionals, feminists, city dwellers--essentially everyone but the banjo-playing inbred hillbilly kid in Deliverance. It's surprising she leaves the Freemasons, the Trilateral Commission and the Elders of Zion off the list.

"Elites are defined not so much by class or wealth or position as they are by a general outlook. Their core belief--embraced with a fervor that does not allow for rational debate--is that they are superior to We the People. They know better."

So does Ingraham. She tells us exactly how all elites think: "They hate America" and "They think we're stupid."

Ingraham takes Bush's "You're either with us or with the terrorists" rhetorical excess a step further--you are either with her or you probably have fangs, three eyes and eat babies

As opposed to Moore's relatively careful footnoting, Ingraham rarely backs up her claims with any sort of evidence or logic, instead engaging in obvious sophistry: For example, she claims H.G. Wells believed patriotism and religious belief caused war and was a "burning" anti-Semite and cites a passage from George Bernard Shaw that appears to favor scientific extermination of "the sort of people who do not fit in," and then goes on to try to tar all liberal intellectuals with the same brush.

Particular venom is reserved for entertainers who dare to comment on politics, especially Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon and Barbara Striesand--who should "shut up and sing." Most of a chapter is taken up attacking Michael Moore for making money and being fat. Moore may occasionally try to make two and two add up to five, but Ingraham seems more inclined to insist two is a million and that anyone who adds two and two and gets four is an "elite" who thinks they are smarter than everyone else.

A similar mixture of false logic, specious argument and misinformation that would make Joseph Goebbels turn green with envy is used to attack anyone opposing the mixing of church and state as being on a crusade against religion, and to prove that "Antiwar rallies are really hate rallies. Hate-America rallies, that is." Ingraham attacks the United Nations for trying to "control America" and opposing capital punishment; nongovernmental organizations for being "undemocratic"; Europe and especially France for disliking Bush.

It seems like Ingraham made a bet with fellow conservative pin-up and talk show rottweiller Ann Coulter (Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism) to see who could make the most outrageous claims and still get into print. So far it's a close race.

Dude may not be Moore's best effort, but its main sin is not being funny enough. Ingraham's poisonous diatribe makes it look like Pulitzer material. Shut Up & Sing is the kind of book critics read so that you won't have to.

Copyright 2004 The Yomiuri Shimbun

Friday, March 19, 2004

And you thought your high school was run by Nazis...

"Sideways ballcap lands youth in jail"


Sunday, March 14, 2004

A nice article on whisky tasting can be found at Slate today

Too much chatter means too little thought, Oe says

Kevin Wood / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

While Japanese cultural exports in the form of pop music, manga and anime may be gaining ground abroad, novelist and Nobel laureate Kenzaburo Oe says Japan's cultural power is waning as true critical thought drowns in a sea of polite conversation.

Oe argued in a March 5 speech in English at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan in Yurakucho, Tokyo, that the relentless growth in the publication of interviews, panel discussions and collections of speeches threatens to supplant written intellectual discourse and is leading to the cultural impoverishment of Japan.

A prolific novelist and noted activist, Oe won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1994 and is widely considered to be one of the leading intellectual figures in the nation.

In his speech, Oe referred to the work of U.S. scholars Edward Said and Masao Miyoshi in the early 1990s, when the two theorized that while bubble-era Japan was a dominant economic power, the nation's contemporary verbal culture was "austere, even impoverished, dominated by talk shows, comic books and relentless conferences and panel discussions."

Oe commented that while Japan's economic fortunes had since ebbed, Said and Miyoshi's comments on the state of the nation's culture were an accurate reflection on the present situation. He added that the current recession is casting a further shadow as companies cut back spending on cultural activities.

Japan, more than other nations, faces a crisis of written culture due to the relentless publication of ideas presented in a conversational mode. This conversational style of communication, which seeks compromise, conformity and consensus, is replacing real intellectual critical discourse, Oe said. He pointed out that there are no longer any national magazines catering to an intellectual audience, and that the remaining outlet for criticism--the newspaper book review--has become shorter and seems to include less and less analysis of theme, methodology and style.

"Japanese writing style has been undergoing a radical change lately, and whether the change is a cause or an effect, conversationalism is the dominant mode," Oe said. Where once writers felt the need to back up their assertions with facts and logical argument, he said, conversational writing assumes certain level of persuasive consensus. When confronted with disagreement in a conversation, one can apologize or ignore it, said Oe.

The superficiality and celebrity culture engendered by this conversationalism in publishing is beginning to infect other areas of culture and even politics, Oe contended, citing the "frantic support" enjoyed by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi when he first took office on the basis of structural reform slogans that offered little substance.

The result of the "washing away" of Japan's intellectuals by this flood of conversation is that Japanese no longer give serious thought to how the world should be or to the creation of ideas. The kind of serious discourse that dominated Japanese intellectual life in the immediate postwar period has disappeared, Oe said, and it may never return.

Japan today is dependent on the West for cultural input, soaking up Western culture, but exerting little influence in return, he said. Japanese pop culture may be a leading export commodity, but Pokemon and Hikaru Utada are unlikely to change the way people around the world think, in the way Oe said critics such as Said and Noam Chomsky have.

Oe said the nation must nurture an intellectual leadership and an audience that will not circumvent the logicality of written discourse, if the current situation is to be rectified.

Copyright 2004 The Yomiuri Shimbun