"Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored." -Aldous Huxley

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wWednesday, November 30, 2005

ANOTHER SATISFIED CUSTOMER: A show of hands, please. How many writers out there just hate dealing with stupid liberal readers? Every so often, one such will write to call me a hack or an ignoramus or a monster, based on something he's misread in a piece. I find that all attempts at explanation fail, because he doesn't really want to understand. Here's how I ended the most recent exchange:

You wrote to me because you wanted to vent. Now you've done that and you've spectacularly misread my review and my views about a lot of things. I'm not going to
correct you on these things because you reach for absurdist conclusions based upon an inflexible ideology.

I write to try to understand. You write to try to show everybody how smart you are. I'm not convinced. Write to somebody else.

posted by Jeremy at 2:13 PM

wTuesday, November 29, 2005

HERE COMES THE SUN: As I've been writing away on the book it's dawned on me that this is the last gasp of my largely misspent youth. I don't know how it will be received but I think that when some readers work through it they may realize only a young man would attempt such a thing. If I pull it off, the artistic achievement will be due largely to the brashness of youth and the young man's refusal to defer to received wisdom. And once this is over, that's it.

I'm sure I'll write more books, maybe even better books. But in terms of ambition and wordplay, you shall not see its like again. I'll get as close to the sun as I dare with this one.

posted by Jeremy at 11:20 PM

wSaturday, November 26, 2005

CONJECTURES AND REFUTATIONS: I'll be quite busy for the next few days. Might post, might not. If you're just dying for new material, I weighed in on a few comment threads of the blog of my pseudo-roommate* Dave Weigel. Here I mount a defense of right wing media critic Tim Graham's non-dumbness and here I say that Iraq may have hurt our ability to wage future wars whether or not Bush lied us into it. Also, I tried to pick a fight over at Gene Healy's blog about economics and religion. So far, no takers. Finally, I disagreed with one small point by Tim Lee but pretty much agreed with the larger point that congressional Republicans are scum. (Though, you know, the lesser scum.)

posted by Jeremy at 2:35 AM

wThursday, November 24, 2005

SOMETHING TO BE THANKFUL FOR: You didn't have to write this. I threw a Thanksgiving number together in an hour or so at the request of the powers-that-be in my extended family to add to the festivities. We'll see how the reading goes:

Thanksgiving, by Fits and Starts

Thanksgiving is something old and something new. Traditionally, the first Thanksgiving has been traced back to the Pilgrims in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in the fall of 1621, but there are earlier recorded large-scale celebrations of collective thanks to God for his blessings in what would become the United States of America.

Spokesmen in Florida, Virginia, and even Texas have all made the claim that people from their locales were really the first to give thanks. Massachusetts has jealously guarded its claim to number one. This year, the state attorney general threatened to bring criminal charges against a supermarket chain if it remained open today.

Anyway, about the Pilgrims' Thanksgiving. Just over 100 colonists arrived from Holland during the winter of 1620, very far north of where they had planned to land, on the western shore of Cape Cod Bay. The climate of Plymouth was not the greatest and at the end of the harsh winter half the Pilgrims were dead from cold, disease, and starvation. If they didn't bring in a bumper crop in 1621, they would have had to disband the colony and look for supplies and a better settlement.

For expertise on what to grow and how to grow it, new leader William Bradford turned to the Wampanoag "Indians" who told colonists what to plant, how to cultivate the ground, that sort of thing. On the advice of natives, the colonists grew ear upon ear of corn.

Farming wasn't the only thing that sustained them. They also learned how to fish for cod and to hunt local game. Wild turkeys, in particular, were then plentiful and easy to hit.

Come fall, the Puritans had one heck of a crop of corn and fish and other foodstuffs. Bradford declared a festival day to give thanks to God and invited several members of the Wampanoag to the three day celebration. They all ate plenty of corn, cod, turkey, and, I'm sure, cranberry salad.*

Pilgrims held other days of thanksgiving but it wasn't an annual occurrence. They held Thanksgiving-type feasts when things had gone well and there was a good crop to be thankful for. When things didn't go so well, they declared fasts, which might not be the worst advice for tomorrow.

President George Washington declared a "national day of Thanksgiving" in 1789 but it took President Lincoln to declare a permanent holiday in 1863, and people have been putting on five pounds in November ever since.

Lincoln decided that Thanksgiving should be celebrated in the final Thursday of November. It continued to be held on that day until President Franklin Roosevelt pushed it back a week in 1939.

Thanksgiving is much more than a nationalistic holiday because its roots predate the American nation. It goes back to our first colonists, and the people who were part of the land before that play more than a bit part. Lincoln issued his Thanksgiving proclamation in the middle of the Civil War but he tried to at least pretend that it wasn't propaganda.

The year that was almost over, Lincoln wrote, had been full of material blessings in the midst of hardship. The fields were "fruitful" and the skies remained "healthful" (i.e. temperate). He said that these "bounties" are so "constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come."

Lincoln expressed gratitude that the war and taxes that fueled the war effort "have not arrested the plough, the shuttle, or the ship; the axe ha[s] enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle field; and the country ... is permitted to expect continuance of years, with large increases of freedom."

He continued:

"No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.

"It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens."

To which I can only add, amen, and pass the mashed potatoes.

* Er, the Pilgrims didn't have cranberry salad, but it's an old family recipe and likely to get a laugh.

posted by Jeremy at 5:51 PM


THINGS TO BE BITTER ABOUT: Ah, Thanksgiving. Last year, I was stuck in D.C. for the holiday but back to Lynden in time for Christmas. This year it will be quite the reverse. Bother.

posted by Jeremy at 2:44 PM

wTuesday, November 22, 2005

THE PASSION OF THE ECONOMIST: The recent success of "economics explains everything" books has been a surprise. The most successful example of the genre, Freakonomics, really isn't much of a book, but it sold more copies than you can shake a growth curve at. And similar books (in subject matter, not quality) appear to be doing well. Witness the success of Tim Harford's The Undercover Economist. At this writing, it has climbed to number 164 on Amazon's sales rankings for books.

Harold Winter's Trade-Offs: An introduction to Economic Reasoning and Social Issues is of the same genre but hasn't done nearly as well as some other entries. That's a shame because it has a much more entertaining introduction:

Hello. My name is Harold Winter and I am a professor of economics at Ohio University. My main field of interest is economics of law, and my job description involves basically two things -- teaching and research. But as a bonus, I often get the opportunity to use economic reasoning to frighten people.

For example, a couple of years ago my mother was visiting me. I have a nice relationship with my mother, but we don't often talk about social issues. One night, however, she asked me what I had talked about in class that day. Usually I would have little to say about what I teach, especially when I am teaching formal economic theory courses. But that day was special: I was doing an independent reading course with a very bright student. We were reading a book about the American health care system written by an intense free-market-oriented legal scholar. In one of the chapters we discussed that day, the author argued that it may be sensible social policy to allow overworked emergency rooms to refuse care to patients who couldn't pay or who didn't have insurance. As I told my mother about this, I went into "professor mode" and ranted on for about ten minutes, showing her my passion for economic reasoning. When I was finished, she had a scared look in her eyes and then simply said, "You're a monster!"

posted by Jeremy at 5:17 PM

wMonday, November 21, 2005

MORE HYPOCRITICAL THAN EVER: The book is coming along. I have a rough cut of the first four chapters. That gives me two weeks to finish the two chapters before I blast off, and then I'll write the conclusion from D.C. For some reason, that seems like a far better environment to put down my final thoughts about hypocrisy.

posted by Jeremy at 11:26 PM


KEEPING UP WITH THE JONESES? PROVE IT: This piece grew out of a false start in one of the chapters for my book. Never got around to placing it anywhere but I though readers might enjoy. So, here it is:

Trending Downward

The trend story has become a staple of modern journalism. Reporters use anecdotes together with the opinions of experts and what data are available to track change across society. The point is to announce a new "trend." These stories tell us about new diets that are sweeping the nation ("Eat Fat, Lose Weight"), the latest drug scares ("Glue Is the New Crack"), employment and investment fads ("Gen-Xers Work Less, Save Less"), political movements ("The Aging Youth Vote"), and shifts in religion or social mores.

Trend stories are often mocked because they lack scientific rigor. To many critics, they seem more like bad creative writing than insightful journalism. Slate media columnist Jack Shafer routinely holds such articles up to ridicule. "Bogus trend stories," he explained, "combine low-budget sociology, cheap thinking, sweeping generalizations, available anecdotes, and audience pandering to fatten readers with idiocy." So: lock and load.

What prompted those particular remarks by Shafer was the publication the other week of an article in the financial section of USA Today. The piece tried to grasp at the expectations and career ambitions of young workers that are part of the demographic group labeled Generation Y. It argued that those expectations are likely to reshape the workplace to allow much greater flexibility in hours, dress, and location.

Now, there were two different ways that one could have read the piece. You could do what Shafer did and complain about the generational clichés and overgeneralizations that author Stephanie Armour employed to fill out a large canvass (USA Today: "[N]early half of employers say that younger employees are dismissive of their older co-workers." Shafer: "What rising generation didn't hate the previous generation?"). Or you could read it as I suspect many people read trend stories, as food for thought, something that is worth pondering but not necessarily authoritative.

Me? I pity the poor trend writers. It isn't easy to interpret the decisions of millions of people in a way that is both timely and not open to serious challenge. On balance, I'd rather live in a world with trend stories than in a world in which us lowly journalists were too afraid to try to wrestle a slippery truth to the ground.

And of course some trends are more open to verification than others. Proving that more parents are successfully feeding their children broccoli these days is difficult, but it could probably be done. You could look at demographics and broccoli sales over a long period, and survey a large but random sampling of parents about their children's eating habits. You'd have pretty good proof of a trend, if one existed.

On the other hand, take adultery. Could you gauge how often it actually occurs? People are not above lying to pollsters or even to fudging answers on survey questionnaires, and the fear and guilt that are built into the topic are incentives to be less than forthcoming. Any counts of the incidence of adultery are likely massive undercounts.

Reporters often have to use some guesswork to fill in the gaps. They string anecdotes together with inconclusive evidence and the testimony of people who know something about the subject, and then they take their best guess (i.e., "Mother's Little Helper," "The New Monogamy") and make the case for why that is plausible. Occasionally, this process yields up valuable new insights. Failing that, trend stories often amuse. They've survived in spite of heavy criticism because readers are interested in how things change.

posted by Jeremy at 7:17 PM

wThursday, November 17, 2005

THE FIRST RULE OF FIGHT PLAYGROUP IS: Do yourself a favor. Go to Brooke Oberwetter's blog and read this post all the way to the end.

posted by Jeremy at 1:34 PM

wWednesday, November 16, 2005

HEY ALL YOU WANNABE MEDIA CRITICS: I meant to link yesterday to a comment in a thread over at Reason's blog, but I couldn't figure out how to cut straight to individual comments. But I see that Jesse Walker has reposted it on his own blog, so it's all good. Here are Three Things Anyone Who Wants to Do Media Critisism Should Always Remember, especially in re: the war in Iraq:

1. "Media bias" is usually a euphemism for "insufficient bias in the direction I'd prefer."

2. Never attribute to prejudice what can be explained by inexperience. Most reporters today have never been in the military and are unfamiliar with military jargon and procedures; as a result, they are easily misled by sources with axes to grind, both pro-war and anti-war. (By the same token, most bloggers have no idea how a newspaper works, and are prone to produce similar howlers when they write about the press.)

3. Anyone who thinks the most important news from Iraq involves soldiers helping build schools or infrastructure is deluded. Iraqis can build their own infrastructure. The more important question is the effect the soldiers are having on the folks who want to blow that infrastructure up.

posted by Jeremy at 2:13 PM


QUESTION OF THE DAY: What do you do if your whole life is structured around pessimism and even that fails?

posted by Jeremy at 2:06 PM

wTuesday, November 15, 2005

THE POINT AT WHICH I STOPPED READING: From the national greatness evangelicals at World magazine:

Jarhead (rated R) follows a group of Marines from boot camp to Operation Desert Storm, where they are supposedly traumatized for life, even though they never go into combat. The book the movie is based on, a memoir by Anthony Swofford, is labeled nonfiction. If this portrait of Marine life is factual, it still distorts the truth with what it leaves out. Jarhead drains the military life of any kind of honor, patriotism, faith, and virtue—leaving only bad language, filthy minds, and brutal behavior. [had enough?]

Truth to tell, I'm surprised I made it that far.

posted by Jeremy at 3:27 PM

wMonday, November 14, 2005

MEANS TO END?: OK, I am not an alarmist on matters economic, but this piece by Washington Post columnist Robert Sameulson has me worried. Samuelson begins by noting,

Ours is a wealth-driven era, when huge increases in home values and (before that) stock prices make people feel richer and cause them to buy more. They spend more of their regular incomes, borrow more or sell something, most likely stocks. You can imagine this "wealth effect" as a powerful afterburner that's boosted the economy for roughly 20 years.

Then he worries that

While everyone is now worrying about the economic impact of Katrina and Rita -- on consumer confidence, energy prices, inflation and the federal budget -- the real story may be whether the afterburner is flaming out.

Again, I'm not a down-on-capitalism type or a peak oil obsessive, but Samuelson makes a good point. Everybody's been lamenting Americans' lack of savings but we have largely ignored the criticism and continued to prosper. We've generated and extracted massive sums from the stock market and then we mortgaged our houses to take advantage of the rapidly rising values.

But what happens if housing prices stagnate or decline? Where is the next big pot of cash that Americans can tap into? Maybe there is one but I sure don't see it. Samuelson cautions that "this needs not be a disaster" but that's a phrase just calculated to bring out the inner paranoiac, isn't it?

posted by Jeremy at 10:36 AM

wSunday, November 13, 2005

ANOTHER POST TO MAKE PEOPLE DOUBT MY SANITY: I joke. The book is, well, it's coming. Too many false starts and blind alleys but several chapters are in good condition and most of the research is done. And, yes, I'm backing everything up, just in case. The heavy lifting for next week will consist of watching a lot of movies and taking detailed notes. The horror.

So what comes next? Short term, I head back to D.C. to resume my duties as manager of Orwellian services for a certain free market think tank. I'll be writing more often to get my name out there in the run up to the book and then I'll be hawking the thing. Come one, come all, get your hypocrisy here!

What else? Well, I might start dating again. That would certainly make for more intersting and traumatic blog entries, don't you think? But the problems there are multiple and not easy to resolve.

In terms of personality, I am a heavy man, best taken in small doses, and D.C. seems to bring out the worst in me. On an average day in our nation's capital, my mood fluctuates between amusingly dour and plain vanilla depressed.

Also, women have an amazing ability to piss me off. There are places where most guys will instinctively know not to go and most women just do not have a sense of boundaries. You could take that as a declaration of my rank misogyny, if you were so inclined. But know that I've always tried to treat women well, not out of some vague feminist sentiment but because it seemed the right thing to do.

Plus, I think that capital 'L' Love is a bunch of crap.

And, of course, I'd like to do another book. But that really is getting ahead of myself.

posted by Jeremy at 3:39 AM

wThursday, November 10, 2005

BOOK 'EM: Two quotes from Benjamin Disraeli, former British PM, novelist, and scoundrel:

Beware of endeavoring to become a great man in a hurry. One such attempt in ten thousand may succeed. These are fearful odds.


Books are fatal: they are the curse of the human race. Nine-tenths of existing books are nonsense, and the clever books are the refutation of that nonsense. The greatest misfortune that ever befell man was the invention of printing.

posted by Jeremy at 2:19 AM

wWednesday, November 09, 2005

MAINTAINING MY VAIOBILITY: Yesterday was frustrating. I went to Best Buy to purchase a new Sony VAIO and ended up having to wait for about five hours before I could walk out of the store with it. Also: Once I got it home, it took about an hour to hook up to the Internet, and the other two computers had problems to work out. No great point here, just thought I'd share.

posted by Jeremy at 11:41 PM

wSunday, November 06, 2005

I, RESENT: That was the title I stuck on my review of Maureen Dowd's new book for the Sunday books section of the Washington Times. My editor went with "Famed female columnist questions if men are needed." That works too. This was not the first bit of my writing to be carried by the Times, but it was the first piece written for the Times. Anyway, on with the review:

During the 1998 White House correspondents' dinner, President Clinton was having a bit of fun with the assembled ink-stained wretches. Most of the jokes were only so-so. Clinton's gag writers were never top notch and by that point in his administration, the normal second term exodus of staffers to gainful employment elsewhere was well underway. But the president did get a few laughs with fake headlines matched to names. Probably the best pairing was "Buddy Got What He Deserved," by New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd.

The reference was to the Clintons' chocolate Labrador, Buddy, getting neutered. Ms. Dowd was sitting in the audience and she was mortified. As fellow journalists laughed, she tells us, "I ducked down, praying the C-SPAN cameras were still on Paula Jones." After, she worried to the male colleagues at her table that "Now everyone will think I'm a castrating [rhymes with] witch." Their collective response was, "Now?"

In her new book "Are Men Necessary?: When Sexes Collide," the incident leads to overanalysis. Ms. Dowd begins by citing Sigmund Freud's observation that "humor is simply hostility masquerading as wit" and then frets and frets. She hadn't even "wanted poor Buddy . . . to go under the knife." She had simply used the dog as a way of getting at our "hound dog"-in-chief. And while the correspondents' dinner remarks were "all in the service of satire, a cause I cherish," she wondered how the joke would have turned if the scalpel was given over to fellow Times columnist Frank Rich.

You see, if a man "writes a scathing piece about some gaffe a politician has made, no one accuses him of hostility toward men," she explains. However, if a woman were to pen "the same scathing piece, the politician or his male aides will often suggest that her criticism is a reflection of some deep psychological problem. She is bitter about men. She hates men. She needs to get . . . a better love life. She is hormonally grumpy."

That last line is probably a reference to her unfortunate nickname. Over the last several years, as the quality and tone of her column have declined some, several writers have started to call her the Times' menopausal columnist. Ms. Dowd, still single at 51, has taken to complaining in print about former boyfriends and writing about how depressing the holidays are, as married women slave to cook and wait on their privileged, fat, oppressive husbands.

posted by Jeremy at 3:06 AM


WORK IN PROGRESS: I finished the rough cut of the longest chapter of my book today. My sense is, it will need at least a thorough edit, if not a rewrite. Still, it's good to get that off my back ("Hey Atlas, how about a shrug?"). Also, I replied to a few readers in the comments section of Get Religion in re: hypocrisy.

posted by Jeremy at 3:00 AM

wThursday, November 03, 2005

ASLAN'S ROAR: Right now movie box office is off about six percent from last year. I'd check but I believe I'm safe to say the figure is between $500 million and $600 million. Now I'd like to make a prediction: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe will fill in most of that hole, if not heap money over the top.

posted by Jeremy at 7:17 PM


FIRST THINGS FIRST: OK, now I'll admit this one caught me off guard. I surfed on over to the website of First Things today. First Things is the highbrow monthly "journal of religion, culture, and public life," founded and overseen by Father Richard John Neuhaus, and edited by former Weekly Standard books editor, Joseph "Jody" Bottum.

The site has lately started a something of a blog, and today Bottum launches into a defense of the literary and legal merits of Lewis "Scooter" Libby:

Scooter Libby is due in court today. I reviewed his novel, The Apprentice, back when the Weekly Standard had just started as a magazine -- an astonishingly delicate book set in Japan in the early twentieth century, first published by the serious literary publisher Graywolf -- and we became friends, meeting in Washington for lunch every so often to talk about books and baseball. I've been too depressed about the whole roiling mess of the Plame Game to read everything about it. Has the New York Times been denounced as much as it deserves for deciding that the chance to get a scalp from the Bush administration is worth betraying its own reporter? Probably not. But someone should be on record saying that it is extremely doubtful a lawyer as smart as Lewis I. Libby would commit perjury in such a visible setting. And somebody should also be on record saying Scooter Libby is a good man who didn't deserve this.

posted by Jeremy at 7:06 PM

wWednesday, November 02, 2005

HMMM: Here's a thought from Henry Van Dyke, author of The Story of the Other Wise Man:

There are some kinds of failure that are better than success.

posted by Jeremy at 10:40 PM

wTuesday, November 01, 2005

THINK TWICE: I have a review of Ann Lamott's new book in the latest issue of Doublethink. It's not yet online but D.C.-based readers might want to grab a copy at an AFF event.

posted by Jeremy at 6:15 PM


HYPOCRITES IN FILM: I said I'd write about some of the suggestions early this week. First, a thank you to Matt Welch for the link and a few words on why I asked for reader input. The motivation wasn't laziness (well, it wasn't only laziness). I thought that in writing about hypocrites in film, I should get some idea from as many people as cared to reply about the great characters that seem like hypocrites to others.

I gave three stock examples to prime the pump, so to speak, and a few people objected to one of my examples. One reader said that Robert Duvall's character in The Apostle was a "faith-filled sinner," not a hypocrite.

And in the comments section of Get Religion, Steve Nicoloso questioned my competence. He wrote, "The Apostle is a complex story about a complex character, and for that character to be reduced to a mere back of the napkin hypocrite is...well...at least unobservant."

I've got to watch the movie again buy my initial response is that both gents have a too narrow, or too negative picture of what a hypocrite is.

Several readers asked how in the world I managed to leave off Elmer Gantry. Answer the first: My list wasn't meant to be comprehensive. Answer the second: Plus it was a bad day.

A few readers, including Eve Tushnet and KMG, voted for the Reverend Harry Powell from The Night of the Hunter, so I ordered the movie.

A few readers (including my old colleague Rick Hiebert) put in a good word for the obscure Seventies documentary Marjoe, about a traveling, crooked evangelist/faith healer. Sounds interesting but Amazon has it at $50 right now, so I think I'll pass.

Also, on KMG's advice, I ordered Paths to Glory and Dangerous Liaisons. I took a cue from Eve and picked up a copy of Election.

I'll write more later. Happy to entertain your suggestions, folks at JEREMYAL123 -- AT -- YAHOO -- DOT -- COM.

posted by Jeremy at 5:18 PM