Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Dueling mandarins: Vidal & Buckley in 1968

One of the better moments in The Best of Enemies, the currently playing documentary about the TV encounters between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr. in 1968, is a three-minute side-by-side comparison of the two men's origins.  Both came from privileged if not especially 'old money' backgrounds, both went to elite prep schools, both rode horses well as teenagers, or so the photographs on the screen indicate.  Both were intellectuals.  Both spoke with the sort of upper-class accent that has now almost vanished.  Both ran for office (Vidal more than once).  A Marxist -- or anyone else, really -- from another planet might wonder how in the world these two men ended up calling each other names on prime-time TV during the Republican and Democratic presidential nominating conventions in That Year, 1968.

Class is not always destiny, would be a five-word answer to that question.  And yet, as one of the many (too many) interviewees in this movie suggests, it is possible that each man saw a bit of himself in the other, maybe just enough to nudge dislike over the boundary into loathing.  Despite -- or, who knows, perhaps because of? -- his utterly despicable political and ideological stances, it is Buckley whose charm and air of insouciance (for lack of a better phrase) are more evident when the two square off in front of the ABC-TV camera.  Vidal was, as the person with whom I saw the movie remarked, more self-contained, his gestural, non-verbal language a bit less naturally suited to TV.  There was nothing shabby about Vidal's verbal performance, however, even if, as Hendrik Hertzberg points out with reference to the most infamous exchange, it was not actually true that Buckley was a crypto-Nazi, though he was unquestionably a reactionary.  Still, it's not difficult to see why Vidal, responding to a somewhat loaded question from moderator Howard K. Smith and faced with an annoyingly interrupting Buckley, reached for an insult.

The Best of Enemies is a thesis movie, i.e. it has an argument, and that argument is that the Buckley-Vidal encounter was the ur-moment that shaped TV punditry as it came to exist in the U.S. in the ensuing decades.  Maybe, though I think the argument is pressed a bit too hard.  I have no recollection of watching the Buckley-Vidal encounter at the time: my memories of 1968, somewhat sketchy in general given my age then, are not primarily televisual, though I do have a couple of memories of the Democratic convention that I think must derive from having watched some of it.

In the end, despite this movie's best efforts to convince one otherwise, the Vidal-Buckley debates must be considered, I think, basically an interesting footnote to a tumultuous, historic year -- even if it was a footnote that generated subsequent essays and lawsuits by the protagonists -- rather than a central event.  However, as many of us know, footnotes are not necessarily unimportant; and The Best of Enemies, despite its flaws as a movie, will help ensure that this particular footnote will continue to be remembered.

Monday, August 24, 2015

A few insular notes

1) Just heard on the NewsHour that it was nine years ago today that Pluto was demoted to the status of a dwarf planet.  Not something I'd ordinarily take note of, but given this blog's title, why not.  Btw, the title was decided upon on the spur of the moment when I started the  blog; my first couple of choices (I think Cries and Whispers was one of them) were already in use and thus unavailable.

2) It was well more than a year ago (two years? longer? whatever, not bothering to check) that I tried unsuccessfully to move this blog to WordPress.  There was a glitch involving my registration that WordPress, despite my notifying them of the issue on the help forum, never fixed.  Hence there is an inactive, empty WordPress blog of this name just sitting there, gathering dust, because of WordPress's negligence. Hooray for WordPress.

3) Google Analytics does not give a complete picture of this blog's readership but I think it gives a reasonably good indication, and its figures suggest that average daily readership of Howl at Pluto is probably at its lowest point since the blog's launch in May 2008.  Also, this year is on track to feature the fewest number of posts of any year since the blog's launch. Speaking of which, I think this will be my last post in August.

Politics and sex

"If politics is concerned with who gets what, or with the authoritative allocation of values, one may be pardoned for wondering why it need involve so much talk.  An individual or group can most directly get what it wants by taking it or by force and can get nothing directly by talk.  The obvious difficulty is the possibility of resistance, and it is counterforce that talk may circumvent.

"The employment of language to sanctify action is exactly what makes politics different from other methods of allocating values.  Through language a group can not only achieve an immediate result but also win the acquiescence of those whose lasting support is needed.  More than that, it is the talk and the response to it that measures political potency, not the amount of force that is exerted.  Force signals weakness in politics, as rape does in sex."
-- Murray Edelman, The Symbolic Uses of Politics (Univ. of Illinois Press, 1964, paperback 1967), p.114 (footnote omitted)

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Quote of the day

"The rhetoric [of the Republican presidential candidates] is really out there. On foreign policy, this is the most-aggressive kind of stuff I've ever seen."
-- Richard Herrmann of Ohio State Univ., as quoted in this Aug. 2 article in The Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Human trafficking, Andaman Sea version

I've mentioned the Rohingya and their plight here before.  This NYT piece from last month (h/t HC) gives some interesting background on the human smuggling business that has grown up in recent years focused on, but not restricted to, stateless Rohingyas eager to flee Bangladesh for Malaysia.  Increasingly, the article notes, "ordinary Bangladeshis" are trying to get to Malaysia: "By early this year, Bangladeshis made up 40 to 60 percent of the migrant traffic, according to the United Nations’ refugees agency." 

Friday, August 21, 2015

The most dangerous candidate?

The most dangerous of the current bunch of presidential candidates may be Ted Cruz.  He strikes me as a demagogue par excellence.  Of course I realize he has competition for that title.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Solitary confinement in Mississippi and elsewhere

TBA posts on an NYT piece about a county jail in Mississippi holding a mentally disturbed teenager in solitary confinement (for much of two years).  This inhuman practice has not been confined to Ms., as recent stories about Riker's Island indicate.

ETA: There are also a fair number of prisoners being held in solitary in federal prisons (though I don't have time to look up the numbers right now).

ETA (again): on a different but somewhat related issue, see here (h/t to a commenter at CT).

Monday, August 10, 2015

Roots and implications of the Iran nuclear deal

Peter T., who has guest-posted and commented insightfully at this blog, sent me an analysis (link) of the Iran deal by Sharmine Narwani.  She argues, essentially, that the changed strategic situation in the region represented by the rise of ISIS and its gains in Syria and Iraq (and continued strength of other extremist Sunni groups, e.g. the Nusra Front) drove the U.S. to make an opening to Iran in 2012 in order to take "the old American-Iranian 'baggage' off the table..., allowing [the U.S. administration] the freedom to pursue more pressing shared political objectives with Iran."  Iran stood up to 'the Empire' and its allies, Narwani maintains, rode out UN sanctions, and emerged with an agreement that, in exchange for sanctions relief, blocks it from doing something it never wanted to do in the first place: namely, acquire an operational nuclear weapons capability.

While Narwani's assessment has its strong points, it perhaps goes too far in painting a rosy prospect of Iranian-U.S. strategic cooperation in the region.  The two countries do not have formal diplomatic relations; unilateral U.S. sanctions on Iran that are unrelated to its nuclear program but relate to its support for groups such as Hezbollah are, afaik, unaffected by the nuclear deal; and 36 years of 'baggage' cannot be entirely taken off the table, istm, in one fell swoop. The past several decades must have left a substantial residue of psychological scar tissue between Iran and the U.S. that no agreement, no matter how 'win-win' in its basic structure, can remove overnight.

Narwani's piece looks behind certain statements of the principals to get at what she thinks are the real motivations behind the deal.  This mode of proceeding is not without merit, but it risks overlooking some points.  The main U.S. ally in the region, for better or worse, is Israel, to the maintenance of whose military superiority -- its 'qualitative military edge', in the ghastly-sounding bureaucratic phrase -- the U.S. is committed to the tune of several billion dollars a year (a commitment that may go up).  This fact standing alone imposes certain limits on the degree to which Iran and the U.S. can jointly pursue their "shared political objectives".  Iran's human rights record and the fact that it still has several American citizens, one of whom is an American-Iranian reporter for The Washington Post, in custody also tells against an immediate warming of U.S.-Iran relations in the wake of the deal (assuming the deal survives congressional scrutiny and Obama retains enough congressional support to sustain a veto of a disapproval resolution, which I think he will).

Finally, it might be worth scrutinizing the "shared political objectives" of the U.S. and Iran a bit more closely.  Iran is of course a major backer of Assad.  And the fact that the Pentagon, as detailed for example in a front-page NYT article of July 31, is trying (with very limited success to date) to train 'moderate' Syrian fighters primarily to attack ISIS, rather than Assad, might suggest, as some other developments (including arguably the deal itself) do,  a convergence of interests between Iran and the U.S.: ISIS is the main perceived threat by both.  And yet the very same NYT article of July 31 pointed out that the CIA still has a covert program in place to train Syrian fighters to battle Assad, noting that the CIA and Pentagon programs are working somewhat at cross-purposes.

Narwani may be right that the nuclear deal represents a quasi-epochal shift in strategic alignments in the region.  I would be inclined however to a more muted judgment.  The Obama administration was not motivated to reach, along with its allies, a deal with Iran mainly because of the rise of ISIS, contrary to what Narwani suggests. The Obama admin was also facing a situation in which the pressure for a military "solution" to the perceived Iranian nuclear "problem" was rising, both domestically and also from Israel.  What the nuclear deal most obviously and immediately does is remove much of the pressure for a military "solution," pressure to which the Obama admin was unlikely to have succumbed but which might have grown increasingly irksome and irritating. This, it seems to me, is perhaps the deal's most significant implication.

Note: Minor edit after initial posting.

Added later: For another perspective, see this article in Counterpunch (7/15/15), which views the nuclear deal as a move toward U.S./Iran détente and examines the forces impelling it as well as the motives behind the opposition.  

Friday, August 7, 2015

Sewell on the capitalist epoch (and its possible end)

Following someone's Twitter trail, I came upon an entire issue from 2014 of the journal Social Science History that has been made freely available (link). It contains an address by sociologist William Sewell, as well as a piece by Julian Go on British imperialism 1760-1939, among other things.