The Friendship Train, Get on Board (Shake a hand, shake a hand...)

OK, so it's Monday and I leave early to teach all day and so I can't really do justice to these wonderful comments.

If you're interested, this, I suspect, is the post that inspired those comments. And no, if you were wondering, I do not give interviews as Jacob Heilbrunn, who told the Times' Patricia Cohen, “I think some people are pretty shocked” at the announcement that John Podhoretz, movie critic for The Weekly Standard and a political columnist for The New York Post, is the new editor of Commentary. Cohen reported that Podhoretz " 'isn't seen as a heavyweight intellectual,' said Mr. Heilbrunn, who has discussed the appointment with several neoconservatives. Rather, 'he is seen as being a beneficiary of his parents' fame in the George W. Bush mold.' " (Did John refuse to shake his hand 20 years ago?) Nor am I the Commentary contributor who told The New York Observer, “On the one hand it's obvious, but no one saw it coming.” The contributor said: “The nepotism is shocking. This is a magazine, not a little family business.” The contributor went on: “The people who have worked there a long time have been misled about the succession. These are people who are in the prime of their careers who would not have been putting in year after year as editors if they knew Norman's son was going to jump over their heads.” Or “A lot of people think John is a hack,” for that matter.

Extra credit: Which presidential candidate and mother of a grown teenage daughter did this handsome fellow say he didn't find to be “sexy” ?

Mama Midge must be so proud...

Python Corner I:

John Stuart Mill of his own free will, on a half pint of shandy was particularly ill, but he was a great guy. Check out this quote fresh from the quote page of Why We're Liberals:

“I never meant to say that the Conservatives are generally stupid. I meant to say that stupid people are generally Conservative. I believe that is so obviously and universally admitted a principle that I hardly think any gentleman will deny it.”

OK, now read this piece.

Python Corner II:

Immanuel Kant was a real piss-ant who was very rarely stable. These guys forgot that one. Seriously, Kant on lying is ridiculous. Benjamin Constant is a far more reliable guide to the Big Questions here, methinks.

From When Presidents Lie:

In his short treatise “On a Supposed Right to Lie from Altruistic Motives,” Immanuel Kant takes the rather extreme position that “Truthfulness in statements that one cannot avoid is a human being's duty to everyone, however great the disadvantage to him or another that may result from it.” Kant holds this duty to be unconditional, a “sacred command of reason,” and “not to be restricted by any conveniences.” His French contemporary Benjamin Constant argued that Kant's principle, “if taken unconditionally and singly, [would] make any society impossible.” He pursues Kant's own example of “whether it is a crime to lie to a murderer who asked us whether a friend of ours whom he is pursuing has taken refuge in our house.” Constant takes the answer to be self-evident. To tell the truth in such a case is to aid in the commission of an evil deed and to put one's friend's life at risk. The relative injustice of telling a potential murderer a deliberate untruth obviously pales in comparison. But Kant refuses to grant Constant's point. He insists that “if you have, by a lie, prevented someone just now bent on murder from committing the deed, then you are legally accountable for all the consequences that might arise from it. But if you had kept strictly to your word, the public justice could hold nothing against you, whatever the unforeseen consequences might be.” For Kant, truth telling is ultimately “a rule that by its essence does not admit of exceptions.”

Extra credit: As a college student, Kant came in second in the national philosophy (or something) essay contest. Who won?

A: Moses Mendelssohn. Read all about him here.

Alternative Universe Quote of the Day: What if Marty Peretz had been born a Muslim?

Marty Peretz, 9/14/06:

The real issue is whether Judaismic thought is now suffused with fascist characteristics and whether it has been open to these all along. ... Militant Judaism captures an adherent's life, children, thought, associations, views of good and evil, and empowers him or her to kill with a sense of righteousness. If that isn't fascistic, I don't know what is.

Posted by M. Duss

From TomDispatch:

Back in February of this year, writing about the history of turning-point elections at, Steve Fraser, author of an acclaimed history of Wall Street, Every Man a Speculator, asked a question, but didn't answer it: In the wake of the 2006 Democratic takeover of the House and Senate, would campaign 2008, he wondered, turn out to be a rare presidential election of historic proportions? Now, he offers that answer loud and clear, in as remarkable a piece of Election 2008 analysis as you are likely to see anywhere.

And it is, simply put: Yes -- no matter how hapless the Democratic opposition may be -- and the reason: “War, economic collapse, and the political implosion of the Republican Party will make 2008 a year to remember.”

Fraser cites (and analyzes) three key factors in the coming Republican disaster: The Iraq war, “an albatross that, all by itself, could sink the ship of state” ; the fact that, for the first time since 2001, the “politics of fear” may finally be operating in reverse ( “To paraphrase Franklin Delano Roosevelt, for many people now, the only thing to fear is the politics of fear itself.” ); and, most important, the way Enronization has finally, through the subprime mortgage crisis, become normal life.

“Even in an American culture notorious for its loss of memory, there are certain happenings no one forgets, and the Great Depression of the 1930s is one of those. Yet, in the media, just about no one dares to utter the 'D' word because of its terrifying and toxic associations. And yet, Fraser argues, the onrushing economic crisis, now apparent to all, could indeed be hightailing in exactly that direction, while the Bush administration and leading Republican presidential candidates say virtually nothing about the economic storm clouds gathering.”

He asks (and answers) a last election question in a striking final passage -- and with a reminder of a history we've largely forgotten:

“What if the opposition is vacillating, incoherent, and weak-willed -- labels critics have reasonably pinned on the Democrats? Bad as that undoubtedly is, I don't think it will matter, not in the short run at least.

” Take the presidential campaign of 1932 as an instructive example. The crisis of the Great Depression was systemic, but the response of the Democratic Party and its candidate Franklin Delano Roosevelt -- though few remember this now -- was hardly daring. In many ways, it was not very different from that of Republican President Herbert Hoover; nor was there a great deal of militant opposition in the streets, not in 1932 anyway, hardly more than the woeful degree of organized mass resistance we see today despite all the Bush administration's provocations.

“Yet the New Deal followed. And not only the New Deal, but an era of social protest, including labor, racial, and farmer insurgencies, without which there would have been no New Deal or Great Society.”


I see PBS is broadcasting Jazz at Lincoln Center's “Red Hot Holiday Stomp” tonight in New York. I went to the show on Saturday evening. It is guaranteed to put you in a good mood; at least it will, if you're there and it's the same program as the one I saw. But you won't be, and so you'll have to take your chances. But I would, were I you.

Special once-in-a-lifetime Altercation musical name drop: I went to a holiday party yesterday at which Patti Smith was only the second-coolest person there. How is that possible, you ask? Two words: "Ornette Coleman." Spacey dude, I gotta say.

The House That George Built : With a Little Help from Irving, Cole, and a Crew of Fifty
Random House
By Wilfrid Sheed

Reviewed by Mickey Ehrlich

“Live your own time,” says a would-be mother figure to Bob Dylan's black, child alter-ego, “Woody Guthrie,” in Todd Haynes' film, I'm Not There. This is awful advice for a great American songwriter. It is impossible for him to live only in his time. His songs encompass what came before, predict what will come after, and remain perfect time capsules for the era they are written in. Haynes' literal illustration of this idea is spot on. The Dylan figures are only connected vaguely to one another; they transcend time, space, gender, color. Particularly poignant is the portrayal of the little black boy who we know (or wish) existed inside every great white American songwriter.

It is on this tradition of transcendence that Wilfrid Sheed wrote his charming book, The House That George Built, published earlier this year. It doesn't exercise the scholarly fastidiousness we expect from history and doesn't delve deep enough into these men's (and only men's) lives to be biography. As criticism, it spends little time on specific songs, only mentioning them to say whether they're worthy or ought to be dismissed, or which moment in his own life the author remembers when they're played. It's not a memoir, the author isn't the subject, but it feels like one. Perhaps it's best to call these essays not quite two-dozen of the best obituaries these giants of the American songbook could have asked for. Each is reverential and personal but honest. And he always brings us back to the songs, because without them these men would have been concert pianists, cantors, lawyers, layabouts, playwrights, playboys, drones and drunks -- though they were these anyway. He also attempts to distinguish between artists and mere craftsmen, and his conclusions are simultaneously definitive and ambiguous. He is convincing, but modestly suggests the book is only his “contribution to the great bull session in the sky” (xiii).

This low-stakes disclaimer allows us to believe he's inviting discussion, not debate, and that we ought to “feel free to scribble in the margin in agreement or raucous disagreement” (xiii). But to Sheed, there's nothing low-stakes about these songs: “The songwriter can be as crucial as the ... reporter” (xviii). And indeed, each is at once the interpreter of his own moment in history and part of a grand heritage. Sheed describes Stephen Foster, for instance, as both the first great white interpreter of African-American culture and musical tradition, and as America's first great songwriter. We may hesitate, though Sheed does not, when examining Foster, particularly over lines like those in his most famous song, “Old Folks at Home,” where the singer is “still longing for that old plantation.” Sheed tends to avoid arguing the authenticity of such interpretations of black life and attitudes. He prefers to emphasize that American songwriting was on a mission, from Foster onward, to reshape history in a way that included blacks rather than forsaking them.

Admittedly, there's a gap in years separating Foster of Pittsburgh from Berlin of the Lower East Side, but this, says Sheed, is largely a result of the “media of the day” (3). It was simply harder to get a song out there when one could only either write it on a page or sing it in a minstrel show. But when Izzy Baline got off a boat at Ellis Island at age 5, he entered a New York buzzing with the migration of Southern blacks -- as well as thousands of Jews like himself from Eastern Europe. Music was everywhere; and by the time he started making it, you sang it into a machine and it came out the other end. Irving Berlin developed an unapologetically American point of view that became a hallmark of his music -- and could not have come from anyone other than a Jewish kid who worked as a waiter at a Chinese restaurant called Nigger Mike's. In Berlin was the promise of the melting pot that America never really delivered on. Soon, the best songs were being taken out of the gutter as Gershowitzes became Gershwins and rolled their pianos from tenements to concert halls, theaters, and eventually Hollywood.

The best songs of the Jazz Age can withstand any performance. We don't associate them with definitive interpretations, because their writers wanted them to be universal. Anyone could convincingly sing “Stardust” (if he or she could carry a tune), and the song's splendor would be there still. Hoagy Carmichael receives one of Sheed's more perfunctory treatments, but we do get the sense that it takes a complicated mixture of personality, sensibilities, and tastes to turn out songs so universally appealing: “A divided soul, part nomad and part homebody, who seemed a little bit at home everywhere, but was probably more so someplace else, if he could just find it” (97). Sheed's talent for aphorism can be too cutely reductive, but here he is positively wise.

Oddly, it's in his only chapter about a black man that Sheed wonders at all about authenticity. In the first sentence he declares, “Duke Ellington undoubtedly wrote some of our greatest songs, if ... they really were songs and if he actually did write them” (104). Race plays a role here that it doesn't elsewhere in the book, and for good reason. Ellington was seen in his own time -- and is now -- as a black artist, in a way that we would not (anymore) label Jerome Kern a Jewish artist. Sheed suggests that Ellington's criticism of Porgy and Bess was on religious rather than racial grounds. In fact, Ellington's tone was less friendly. Gershwin biographer Rodney Greenberg quotes him: “The times are here to debunk Gershwin's lampblack Negroisms.” Though, remember the Jewishism of Gershwin's music, which owed so much to liturgical melodies of his childhood.

Some of Sheed's longest passages deal with the lesser-knowns, many of whom composed mostly for film, like Harry Warren and Burton Lane. Sheed includes them because he feels they've been left out of the bull session thus far. But they are still less important, and Sheed fails to convince us that they're somehow as good as the greatest. In any case, there's less to be said about the songs written for movie musicals. It's not just that they aren't always great (they're not); but the songs don't stand on their own.

However, the American story is also about the ordinary and the boring and so it's fine that Sheed refuses to leave the B team out of the game. And so, we count on him for a bull session in a beer hall. For questions of authenticity and musical integrity, some of us heard David Brooks complaining in a recent column that today “it's considered ... immoral for white musicians to appropriate African-American styles.” By whom, we ask? Amy Winehouse, a singer-songwriter who does almost nothing but appropriate, just got six Grammy nominations. Brooks also calls the 1970s “a great moment for musical integration,” as though it happened in a vacuum by accident. But turning to Sheed we're reminded that when it comes to American songwriting, there are no “moments” for integration; it is the history of musical integration. It turns Balines into Berlins and Zimmermans into Dylans, whose songs get recorded by Holidays and Hendrixes.

Mickey Ehrlich is a graduating senior at Brooklyn College. For more, please go here.

Correspondence Corner:

Name: Robert Hodierne

Senior managing editor

Army Times Publishing Co.

Mr. Alterman,

I just read the piece you and George Zornick wrote about how difficult reporting in Iraq has become. You guys were right on target -- until the very end. You described several books by veterans and said: “First-hand accounts like this obviously paint a picture that even the most aggressive reporters are simply unable to depict since they can't get this close to the perilous daily action in Iraq.”

Well, no, that's not quite right. Trying to interview Iraqis and moving about cities on their own is quite simply too dangerous for reporters. But embedding with the troops and going on combat missions is still quite doable, though fewer choose to do so these days, and it will get you as close to the action as you'd like. As an example of what you can get when you do embed I'd point you to a four-part series, "Blood Brothers," that our reporter Kelly Kennedy has done for our paper, Army Times. You can see the installments that have run to date at It is the unvarnished story of the Army battalion that has taken the most casualties since Vietnam.

Name: Chuck

Hometown: Chandler, AZ

From a “progressive” Christian in Arizona, who agrees that the teaching of abstinence should only be taught secondarily to a more realistic approach to sex ed, please don't mock our faith. And in truth, abstinence is the only 100% effective way to avoid pregnancy, regardless of how realistic an approach it may be.

But, to my point, I believe it's that flippant tone (re: the Virgin Birth) that sometimes drives more moderate Christian folk to vote Republican, even when they know deep-down that the GOP platform is the furthest thing possible from what Jesus would preach, and practice.

You may choose to be friends with people who think exactly like you; but to win an election in a 2-party system, don't mock those of us who continue to try to get other Christians to see the “light.”

Name: Barbara

Hometown: Portland, ME

This a.m., while I was riding into work listening to NPR, I was startled to hear a discussion about why religion was being discussed with regard to the presidential candidates. Apparently, the commenter was expressing concern that the candidates feel the need to discuss their religion, and couldn't understand why the public needed them too. DUH. The candidates are the ones who have brought the matter up. When they invoke their “core values” as being religious, that their faith is part of their values, it is only natural that the public question them on that. We question their answers on tax reform, diplomatic matters, economic matters, why not their religious beliefs, since they bring it up in every other speech?

Name: Phein


Thanks for the tip on TBogg's move. TBogg, like a lot of other good sites (but strangely, very few right-wing sites), was on Blogspot, which is blocked from a lot of Army networks. Now the snark can get to those of us who really need it.