Canada’s special relationship

What are friends for, if not to politely ignore the fact that you’ve become an alcoholic and started beating your children? In such a spirit, Canada proved itself once again a faithful and utterly harmless pal of the United States yesterday when our government fell all over itself to retract a “torture awareness” manual given to its diplomats which listed the United States and Israel as states where prisoners are at risk of torture. Declared foreign affairs minister Maxime Bernier, “It contains a list that wrongly includes some of our closest allies. I have directed that the manual be reviewed and rewritten.” Even Liberal foreign affairs critic Bob Rae, after admitting that torture might indeed be “a live question” in American politics, finally threw his support behind the United States: “The idea that you would equate the government of the United States with the government of Iran with respect to the treatment of prisoners is a little hard to fathom,” he told the Canadian Press.

The reason why our government wrote such a manual in the first place? Because in 2002 the United States arrested and shipped an innocent Canadian citizen, Maher Arar, off to Syria to be tortured for ten months. According to CTV, it was felt during the inquiry into Arar’s case that Canadian diplomats should be taught to notice signs that prisoners had been tortured, as well to be made aware of countries in which such signs were more likely to appear. Quite rightly, the United States was placed on this list. But now we are expected to accept the Canadian government’s declaration that the United States — despite all of the evidence, all of the memos, despite even the Bush administration’s own clear intention that it be allowed to waterboard and otherwise abuse prisoners — is not such a country.

If friendship means the willingness to allow a powerful neighbouring country to take your people, torture them, hand them back to you grudgingly without apology (or simply detain them indefinitely), and then expect you to pretend that such things do not happen, well then, we are fast friends indeed. Of course, in international politics, we call such a situation “Finlandization”. In prison they’ve got another term for this kind of friendship, and it’s not a polite one.

Updike’s Hamlet Trilogy

A scene from Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet.

John Updike doesn’t like to do anything once or even twice. His preferred modus operandi is to work in clusters of three, four or five. Four books about Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom plus a sequel about his kids (the novella “Rabbit Remembered”). Three books about Henry Bech plus an omnibus volume. Three novels which rewrite Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (A Month of Sundays, Roger’s Version and S.). The Witches of Eastwick, with its supernatural theme, also nods toward Hawthorne. In an interview with Charlie Rose, Updike said he’s attracted to the number four, it’s comfortably square like the sides of a table or the legs of a chair. (I’m quoting from memory).

Just before the end of the last century, Updike developed a mild obsession with Hamlet which manifested itself in three very different books. The inspiration for this Hamlet-mania was Kenneth Branagh’s adaption of the play, which Updike enjoyed. The slightest connection to Shakespeare’s play was Updike 1999 essay collection More Matter. The title is from Gertrude’s curt injunction to Polonius, “less art, more matter.” A rather self-deprecating title, a typical trait in an Updike essay collection (other titles: Assorted Prose, Picked-Up Pieces, Odd Jobs) where he tends to downgrade his work as a critic in comparison to his primary achievements as a fiction writer and poet. The title seems to cast Updike the essayist as a Polonius-type figure, a garrulous old man forced to rein in his arty flights of rhetoric in the service of mundane media-induced matter.

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Talking Comics

Gary Panter’s mind-numbingly beautiful cover of Raw #3.

Over at the Inkstuds radio program, I spend an nearly an hour yakking about comics with Tom Spurgeon (of The Comics Reporter website) and Dan Nadel (publisher and impresario at PictureBox Inc , editor of the excellent book Art Out of Time). 

 Major topics covered: 

Which comics look better on the museum wall and which work better on the printed page; fine art versus mechanical reproduction; Gary Panter versus Ernie Bushmiller. 

The achievement of Gary Groth and The Comics Journal. 

Criticism and timing: why Edmund Wilson was lucky to be a literary critic in the wake of The Waste Land and Ulysses, Pauline Kael equally fortunate to be a movie reviewer during the salad days of Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese. 

What Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez learned from Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. 

Comics as a phoenix art form: constantly dying, constantly being reborn. (I muffed this though and didn’t use the great word “palingenetic” on the public airwaves). 

Living with a fictional character for decades, until they accumulate the weight of reality; Maggie Chascarrillo compared to Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom. 

Tom Spurgeon made the case for Joe Sacco’s Palestine, argued for an un-ironic appreciation of Fletcher Hanks and compared superhero comics to musicals. Dan Nadel enthused over Jesse Marsh and Omega the Unknown.  

For the truly masochistic there is also an earlier Inkstuds program  where I talk about George Herriman and Krazy Kat.

Conservative Scholarship, then and now

The dunce cap. 

I’ve been upbraided for dealing with Johan Goldberg’s book Liberal Fascism in an elliptical fashion, by talking about National Review‘s history of philo-fascism, rather than directly. But Goldberg’s book is being widely reviewed and commented on. It would be redundant for me to simply echo what smart writers like Dave Neiwert, Matt Yglesias and Ezra Klein have already written. (And in time real historians of fascism will also be tackling the book). My philosophy as a blogger is to always try to make points that aren’t being articulated elsewhere.

Having said that, here is one fresh point that no one, as far as I know, has made about Goldberg. The book is about the relationship between fascism and American politics. Goldberg, on the evidence of the book, can’t read German, Italian or Spanish. These are the main languages you need to possess if you want to read the primary sources and major scholarly literature on fascism. The endnotes in Goldberg’s book are monolithically English.

Imagine writing a book on Shakespeare without knowing a word of English, or a book on the American Constitution while being unable to read Madison and Hamilton without the aid of translators.

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Freedom of Expression in Canada

Two Canadian journalists are currently fighting separate battles for freedom of expression. One, a flamboyant, and over-the-top conservative publisher, is angry that he has been forced to attend a government hearing. The other, an equally flamboyant and over-the-top leftist publisher, would love nothing more than to receive a hearing from the government. In their different ways, the two cases raise important questions about the limits of freedom of speech in Canada.

Everything you might want to know about the politics of Ezra Levant can be summarized in one word: Stockaholic. That was how Levant described himself when he was a spokesman for Canadian Alliance leader Stockwell Day—the same politician who was so gaffe-prone that Mark Steyn suggested he was actually “Stockbot,” a robot created by the Liberals to discredit conservatives. After parting ways with Day, Levant became publisher in 2004 of The Western Standard, a right-wing Alberta magazine (which now operates exclusively online and with a new publisher).

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Performance Problems in Philip Roth’s Fiction

Philip Roth as rendered by David Levine.

In Philip Roth’s latest novel Exit Ghost, Nathan Zuckerman is recovering from prostrate cancer, which leaves him impotent. The effects of the disease were described with graphic, flinch-inducing vividness: Zuckerman’s manhood has been reduced to a “spigot of wrinkled flesh”. Roth likes to play with the line separating fact from fiction and Zuckerman’s life over the course of many novels has long mimicked, like an elongated shadow, Roth’s own biography. So some reviewers, notably Philip Marchand of the Toronto Star, worried that the author’s own health might have taken a Zuckerman-like downward turn.  

“I have not had, fortunately, prostate cancer and, subsequently, none of the side effects of cancer operations,” Roth reassured Marchand in a phone interview.  

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Hope Springs Eternal

The ever-optimistic Wile E. Coyote. 

 In the Iowa Republican primary on January 3rd, Rudy Giuliani came in 6th and got 3% of the vote.

How did his supporters respond?

John Podhoretz: “The result in Iowa could not have been better for Giuliani tactically.”

David Frum: “Yet as the smoke clears, it’s going to become apparent that Rudy was the night’s big winner.”

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Top Ten Underreported Humanitarian Stories

For the past decade, Médecins Sans Frontières has been releasing a top ten list of the world’s most underreported humanitarian emergencies. They were inspired to do so after a major famine that occured in Sudan in 1998 received almost no coverage in the American media. The list for 2007 is now out, and, as it previous years, certain crises zones continue to reappear:

The [Democratic Republic of Congo] and Colombia, both wracked by ongoing civil conflict and massive internal displacement of civilians, have dominated the list over the past decade, each appearing a total of nine times. The humanitarian consequence of war in Chechnya has appeared eight times. Somalia has appeared seven times, most recently because renewed fighting centered in Mogadishu in 2007 has killed thousands of people and forced hundreds of thousands to flee their homes, only to endure disease and extremely precarious living conditions.

According to Andrew Tyndall, publisher of the online media-tracking journal, “The Tyndall Report,” the countries and contexts highlighted by MSF on this year’s list accounted for just 18 minutes of coverage on the three major U.S. television networks’ nightly newscasts from January through November 2007. . . . Chechnya, Sri Lanka, and [Central African Republic]—where many villages were burned to the ground in fighting between government forces and rebels and tens of thousands of people fled into inhospitable forests seeking safety—were never mentioned.

Eighteen minutes is not a lot. The tsunami that hit Asia in 2004 generated massive media coverage. There is a Nobel prize waiting for someone who can figure out how to ensure that political disasters someday receive the same attention as natural ones.

Tom Cruise: Not Gay, Flaming Scientologist

I will get back to more substantial posting soon, but in the meantime, there’s a new unauthorized biography of Tom Cruise out. Slate has the highlights. Author Andrew Morton rejects the gay rumours:

Page 68: Remember the sex-on-a-train scene in Risky Business? Morton alleges that “while Tom and Rebecca [De Mornay] were nervous before playing the scene, those who snuck onto the closed set are convinced that the answer to the question of ‘did they, didn’t they’ really get it on on camera is a firm yes.”

Page 195: High-school girlfriend Diane Van Zoeren doesn’t give any credence to the “Tom is gay” rumor: “I don’t get it. I find these stories just hard to believe. We romanced in my dad’s Oldsmobile doing what you are not supposed to.”

Even if Crusie were gay, the right respose would surely be, “So what?”. If any aspect of Cruise’s lifestyle deserves sniggering over, it is his not-so-closeted religious views:

Page 289: Without naming his sources, Morton spins the following yarn: “Some [Scientology] sect members sincerely believed that Katie Holmes was carrying the baby who would be the vessel for L. Ron Hubbard’s spirit when he returned from his trip around the galaxy. True believers were convinced that Tom’s spawn would be the reincarnation of L. Ron Hubbard.

Page 123: When Tom accepted an invitation to the Scientology Gold Base in the California desert, head honcho David Miscavige allegedly announced to his staff: “The most important recruit ever is in the process of being secured. His arrival will change the face of Scientology forever.”

Page 171-172: By 1993, Morton says Tom “progressed to what Scientologists call ‘the Wall of Fire,’ or Operating Thetan III, where the secrets of the universe according to Hubbard [are] revealed.” Allegedly, “Tom found the knowledge he had just received disturbing and alarming, as he struggled to reconcile the creationist myth with the more practical teachings contained in the lower levels of Scientology. . . . It was recalled that around this time relations became ‘ugly’ between David Miscavige and the Hollywood actor, Tom complaining that he had studied all these years and the whole faith was about space aliens.”

I know the kind of let-down Cruise is talking about. I felt the same way after sitting through War of the Worlds.

Goodbye to the Good Death

This Republic of Suffering

Worth reading this winter: This Republic of Suffering (Knopf, 342pp) Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust’s study of the changing nature of death at the time of the U.S. Civil War, and the ways in which such changes in turn helped to transform Americans’ relationship with their government. A graf from my San Francisco Chronicle review:

The displacement of death from its natural family context worked a strange social and civic alchemy. Average citizens who had never known the deceased began to show up at Confederate funerals; “the emergence of this impersonal connection with the dead, one independent of any direct ties of kin or friendship, was a critical evolution in the understanding of war’s carnage,” writes Faust. A soldier’s death was no longer solely a private tragedy, and the dead no longer belonged exclusively to their families. They had become the nation’s dead, too.