Monday, December 20, 2010

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The WSJ and Me

I wrote a piece for the Penn Political Review a while back that I thought had been shelved, but without any warning it resurfaced. It's a rueful account of my brief appearance on the Wall St. Journal's opinion pages over the summer. There was some significant editing done without my knowledge, so parts of it don't sound at all like me. That ending, for instance: the business about the open sea?  Yeah, not me. But the structure's intact. So it goes.

Friday, December 17, 2010

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Drop that iPad!

As you contemplate buying your loved one an e-reader for Christmas, I dip into the archives in a last-ditch plea for you to reconsider. Books smell better!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

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Good to Be Young

Senior year of high school, towards the end of first semester: my creative writing class is sitting in Mr. Moran's spacious, half-darkened room, M204. My classmate Eric Lampe is either offering a critique of someone else's story or explaining his own (I cannot remember which). It's a relaxed, informal class that we all look forward to attending, and we're all suffused with cheer thanks to the fast-approaching Christmas break. In his spectacularly low voice, Eric says, "We've all had one of those perfect nights, where everything goes exactly right."

Everyone in the room is silent and listening closely, because we all know what Eric means: the type of night that John Updike was writing about in his story "In Football Season," nights where there is nothing but goodwill between you and your friends, a romance is just getting off the ground, perhaps a kiss is exchanged, you come home and say a few words to your sleeping parents—you're grateful for them—and you fall asleep with a smile. I can't speak for everyone else in the class, but I stored Eric's words away immediately, still think of them now, three years later, because I knew as he was uttering them that he was describing something I had that was fading away. Sitting in the classroom with guys I'd known for four years, some my best friends, some whom I would never see after graduation, I felt the five remaining months of high school swirling around towards nothing, like water around a drain. For four years, my life was enclosed within the walls of my high school and my house and the ten miles of I-64 that lay between them; everything else was an interruption.

Last week, in another creative writing class, this one at my second college, another line is uttered that I know I'll remember. "It's a very human feeling, right? We've all had it: being in one place and wanting to be somewhere else," my teacher said (again, I've forgotten to what he was referring). It's the feeling that has defined my two and a half years of college; the few months when I've managed to feel at home, I've never figured out how to hold on to that feeling. This seems due in large part to the fact that I've never felt that young, and so am not very comfortable in college, the Jerusalem of youth. Even in high school, when I was being young—free of major responsibility, eager, curious, learning new and wonderful things about the world every day—I tended to identify more closely with my English teachers than with my peers. And in college, when I've tried to do the things that young people do in college, going to parties and being as irresponsible as my Catholic upbringing would allow, it's been nothing more than acting; I derive no satisfaction from it. This worries me, because I can see how in the future, when I actually am no longer young, I'll look back on these years and chide myself for not appreciating youth, for wasting the one opportunity I had at the years we all covet.

Another quote that has been playing in my mind lately: a few weeks ago, my uncle and sister were both visiting St. Louis from San Francisco and Boston, respectively. I called my dad to say hello to the family, and, after a chorus of hellos were conveyed to me by speaker phone, I told them about an article I'd agreed to write for the student newspaper that entailed my going on a blind date in order to review a restaurant. Amidst the chorus of laughter, my uncle said wistfully, "A blind date. Man. It's good to be young, isn't it?"

I went on the date and had a wonderful time. And I published the article, which, as my dad pointed out, contained jokes that could be construed as ageist. I love my grandparents and have deep respect for them, and so ageism is a prejudice I like to think I've been particularly fastidious about condemning, just as I've been fastidious about worrying over war and pollution and global warming and overpopulation and the state of literature and my future and my sister's future and whether I'm failing to appreciate my youth, worries that I momentarily kicked to the curb in order to more fully submit to the student newspaper's general tone of snark and youthful brashness, two attitudes that I have largely avoided and scorned altogether in my years of being eighteen while feeling forty.

"It's good to be young," my uncle said, and he is right.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

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Frampton is Still Alive!

Frampton Comes Alive! is the album I most remember being played around the house when I was a kid, narrowly edging out offerings by Steely Dan, the Moody Blues, and the Marshall Tucker Band. Not yet a music snob (I was in the single digits), I enjoyed the way it sounded coming through our Mitsubishi speakers, filling the house with the cheers of late '70s stadium rock. So I was excited to have a chance to write about the album in Penn's paper, a brief ode to Frampton and my pal Lucas.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

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WikiLeaks' Paranoid Style

In Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49, the protagonist, Oedipa Maas, becomes increasingly obsessed with a shadowy organization known as Tristero, a mail-delivery syndicate with unclear but ominous designs. Obsessively searching for clues, Oedipa is never able to discern if the group is a powerful conspiracy, a hoax, or the product of her own ever more paranoid mind. But as long as there's a sliver of a prospect that she's on the trail of a massively powerful and mostly unknown group, Oedipa refuses to cease her search.

Pynchon's novel appeared in 1966, a ripe time for discussions of conspiracy. John Kennedy had been assassinated three years prior, the event that would spawn more conspiracy theories than any other in the 20th century. Two years earlier, in 1964, the Columbia historian Richard Hofstadter had published his landmark essay "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," the first serious scholarly work to codify America's penchant for conspiracy theorizing. Tracing this propensity from Anti-Masonry to the John Birch Society (parodied in Crying of Lot 49 as the Peter Pinguid Society), Hofstadter concludes that conspiracy theorists are wont to view their illusory enemies as "sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel."

That last string of adjectives is also an apt description of how Julian Paul Assange, the enigmatic WikiLeaks impresario, seems to view all forms of government. As Raffi Khatchadourian wrote in a New Yorker profile, Assange's worldview sees "the defining human struggle not as left versus right, or faith versus reason, but as individual versus institution." By itself, this is not a paranoid paradigm, but it takes on that tint in Assange's eyes. Khatchadourian reports that Assange wrote a manifesto of his views entitled "Conspiracy as Governance," in which he argued "that illegitimate governance was by definition conspiratorial—the product of functionaries in 'collaborative secrecy, working to the detriment of a population.'" The theory behind WikiLeaks is that transparency disrupts these functionaries' lines of communication, and thus ends the conspiracy—and, by extension, the governments that operate them.

What separates Assange from the likes of the Birchers is that his theory doesn't rely on erratic evidence, on blurry NASA photographs or wacky interpretations of the Zapruder film, but on actual governmental leaks that his organization acquires. Such leaks are comparatively mainstream sources of information, long essential to the investigative efforts of major news outlets. But before WikiLeaks, such information has never been published in such quantities or with such persistence. Where organizations like the New York Times typically publish leaks in trickles, WikiLeaks opens the floodgates, most recently releasing a trove of some 250,000 American diplomatic cables, which the Times is selectively covering this week.

"Selectively" is the key word, for it is one absent from Assange's vocabulary. As Times columnist David Brooks recently pointed out, his newspaper's code of ethics dictates that it carefully filter the dispatches into articles and excerpts that do not threaten lives or harm national security. Assange follows no such code, publishing everything it obtains on its own website, including American soldiers' names and social security numbers. This double-barreled ethos puts a paper like the Times in an awkward spot: it has an obligation to publish information in the public interest, but it must simultaneously distance itself from Assange's addled mission. Assange, meanwhile, depends on the Times for publicity, but is probably scornful of its caution as bourgeois fidelity to corrupt governments.

The Times characterized its decision to publish the leaks as a fulfillment of its duty to provide the "careful reporting and thoughtful analysis [Times readers] expect when this kind of information becomes public." Obliquely, editor Bill Keller is here framing his decision as a way to cushion the blow dealt by the cables' release. Keller has a point, but it's not clear the Times needs to go to the extent that it has—devoting an entire week to detailed coverage of the cables' contents—to do this job. A single article generally outlining the leaks' topics and the circumstances of their release would seem to be a less harmful way of covering this story, especially considering that the cables themselves aren't terribly enlightening. 

Often gossipy and frequently unsurprising, the leaks stand in the same relation to diplomacy as C-SPAN does to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, demonstrating just how tedious and frustrating international relations really are. Bill Keller, describing the leaks' import, wrote: "[the leaks] shed light on the motivations—and, in some cases, duplicity—of allies on the receiving end of American courtship and foreign aid. They illuminate the diplomacy surrounding two current wars and several countries, like Pakistan and Yemen, where American military involvement is growing."

But these challenges are already well documented, not least by the Times itself. Perhaps repenting of its caution in the months leading up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the paper has chosen a risky course of limited value. It would be another story if, like the Pentagon Papers' exposure of government dishonesty in prosecuting the Vietnam War, the WikiLeaks trove contained any true revelations. But instead they contain "illuminations" (to use Keller's word), a commodity of small marginal value. 

Whether the leaks do long-term harm to international relations remains to be seen. But this much is clear: they do not disclose any vast governmental conspiracy. In this respect, Assange comes off less like Sherlock Holmes solving a murder than Geraldo Rivera opening Al Capone's vault to reveal nothing but dirt and debris. And the Times, in publicizing these relatively unenlightening (but potentially harmful) documents, is subsidizing Assange's paranoid crusade against all forms of government. But as Oedipa Maas learns the hard way in Pynchon's book, this crusade is not merely fruitless; it is nihilistic.