Their Name Is Legion

Pace the plausible deniers, there exists a blog devoted to exploring, in a spirit that is a ghastly echo of secular openmindedness, the idea that Obama is the Antichrist, and its readers take McCain’s recent web ad “The One” very much in earnest. In the comments section of this blog, a woman reports describing her enthusiasm over the news about the Antichrist to her psychiatrist, who then “gave me more meds.” Perhaps the McCain campaign would like to reimburse her health insurer? And then there’s the commenter “Assasinforfather” [sic], who is angry because the world is controlled by Satan and because, in what seems to have been a special revelation, he discovered that at the end of the world there will be no rapture, only universal tribulation. He writes that of “all the men in my lifetime who have been accused of being THE antichrist, Obama is the only one that the Spirit of Father has warned me of,” and warns that “I know who will give the beast the deadly wound.” Perhaps the McCain campaign would like to reimburse the Secret Service for the cost of paying this fellow a visit?

Under the cover of unacknowledged messages, a contribution can be made to the pool of irrationality in a culture. I’m not blaming the internet, by the way. Nixon was able to summon the silent majority from the vasty deep long before the internet existed. It is thanks to the internet, in fact, that one may see the process of summoning at work. One may watch an advertisement preying on superstition and fear one day, and then read the words of the mentally unstable, as they take courage from it, the next. The mentally unstable cannot be held to account, but the suits who stir them up may be.

PS: There’s a comprehensive round-up of Obama-as-Antichrist-alia here.

The Rove style

In his recent ads, John McCain has forfeited any claim he may once have had to a high-minded, statesman-like character. I am persuaded by Bob Herbert’s argument, in a New York Times op-ed published on August 2, that the McCain campaign was playing on the lowest racial stereotypes when it featured Paris Hilton and Britney Spears in its recent anti-Obama ad, “Celeb.”

McCain campaign, The One, 2008 (still from TV ad)

But evidently the gratuitous coupling of an ambitious black man with two highly sexed white women was not low enough for the McCain campaign. Now, as Scott McLemee, Maud Newton, and a number of others have been quick to perceive, the McCain campaign is toying with nothing less than armageddon. The new McCain ad, titled “The One,” suggests, in its imagery and language, that Obama is the Anti-Christ. The ploy is either blasphemy, an attempt to prey on religious fears, or both, depending on your convictions.

Left Behind, 2001 (still from movie trailer)

Some people will no doubt claim that those who see apocalypse-mongering in the ad are seeing things, and that it’s just a bit of humor. But humor and apocalypse-mongering aren’t irreconcilable; jokes often have unseemly subtexts. Just to call out one detail, I don’t think it’s an accident when, toward the end of the ad, the words “But Is He Ready” remain on the screen by themselves for a few moments. Eventually they are followed by “. . . To Lead?” but until then, they’re bound to raise a different possible ending in the minds of some viewers. I wish I could also claim that the style of the ad, as seen in the screen shot above—the stentorian mixture of caps and small caps, superimposed on an ominous cloud pattern—was unique, but alas, portentousness is widespread, and the resemblance to the screen shot to the left, from the trailer to Left Behind, may be no more than coincidental.

Obama examines the constitutionality of anti-gay legislation

This afternoon, the New York Times released an article by Jodi Kantor on Obama’s career as a law professor. In a sidebar, the Times posts a syllabus of his and quite a few of his exam questions, along with the corresponding answer memos.

Not that there was any doubt, but the new evidence suggests Obama has a formidably sharp mind. I didn’t expect, however, that the academic documents would cause me to tear up. In 2003, the first question on the final exam in Prof. Obama’s Constitutional law class asked for a brief on behalf of a monogamous gay couple in a relationship of ten years’ standing who want to challenge their state’s defense-of-marriage act and its legal restrictions on gay adoption. Of course the question, like most legal questions, could be answered merely as an intellectual exercise, but after the way that gays have been hung out to dry in recent elections, it moved me to discover that Obama, who supports the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, knows the legal terrain in such fine detail.

To wit: According to the answer memo for the exam (I at first thought that this answer memo had to have been written by Obama himself, but a commenter on the NYT‘s Caucus blog points out that law professors often distribute the best student answer in lieu of writing an answer memo themselves, so its authorship is uncertain), the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment will likely prove a stronger basis for the hypothetical couple’s case than the same amendment’s due protection clause. Because homosexuals are not considered a protected class under current interpretations of the amendment, the rationale for a law that singles them out need not be narrowly tailored to a legitimate state interest, but it does have to be “rationally related” to such an interest. “However, antagonism or a bare desire to harm a politically unpopular group cannot constitute a legitimate governmental interest (Romer).” The answer memo concludes that “if the [Supreme Court] finds that denying homosexuals marriage demeans their existence, it is likely that this statute, as written, will fail rational basis review.”

UPDATE, 11:50pm: The New York Times has deleted its link to the answer memo that I quoted above (though the link above still seems to be working) and has added a note reading, “In a previous version of this post, student answer memos were posted in addition to Mr. Obama’s memos.” So it seems that the answer memo was not written by Obama personally, though it remains true that he chose it as the best answer any of his students were able to provide.

Audacity of list-making

According to this morning’s New York Times, three Harvard child psychiatrists were paid more than $1 million each by pharmaceutical companies between 2000 and 2007, and failed to report most of the payments to the university, as they were obliged to. The omissions were uncovered by Charles E. Grassley, a Republican senator from Iowa, who has sponsored legislation that might help to solve the problem: He proposes a national registry of payments to doctors by pharmaceutical companies. This sounds like a wonderful idea to me, but my first thought as I read the article was, Of course it’ll never happen. Over the last eight years, I’ve learned to hope for no more than the occasional quashing of a really pernicious innovation (Cf. the privatization of Social Security). On second thought, however, I realized that my pessimism is a trained response, and that I am capable of unlearning it. In fact, I could start unlearning it now, because the Bush administration is about to be canned. I seem, after all, to have been carrying around in my head a list of regulatory and legislative changes that I’ve been hoping the next administration would put into effect. Herewith, in the spirit of very amateur punditry, in no particular order:

  1. A national registry of payments, in cash and in kind, to doctors by pharmaceutical companies and medical-device manufacturers, to be made publicly accessible in a searchable online database.
  2. Health care reform. My own personal horror story, with a creepy postscript: A couple of years ago, I woke up at 3am with excruciating pain. It was midwinter, and sleet was coming down outside. Seeing me curled up on the floor howling as I have never howled before, Peter called 9-1-1, and an ambulance soon arrived and took me to a nearby emergency room. It turned out that I was passing a kidney stone. Months later, our insurer, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois, refused to pay for the ambulance ride, which cost slightly less than $500. They weren’t trying to claim that I hadn’t needed an ambulance. They were claiming that the ambulance I rode in was an out-of-network provider. I called them up and asked whether, as an Illinois-based company, they considered any ambulances in New York City to be in-network providers, because if they didn’t, they had no right to be offering insurance to companies located here. Oh yes, they said, they did have New York City ambulances in their network. Just not the one that took me. The name of the fly-by-night ambulance service I used? The Fire Department of New York. I tried arguing, in my appeal, that Peter wasn’t at 3am in any mental state to sort through which ambulance providers were in and out of network, that it probably wouldn’t have been medically appropriate to take the time to do that anyway, and that it wasn’t at all clear to me that New York City 9-1-1 operators let you specify which ambulance will come pick you up. They didn’t buy it; I had to pay out of pocket. Fast forward to 2008, when the city is considering a new program to send special ambulances to pick up people who’ve just died, so their organs will reach the hospital fresher (more on the concept here). A University of Pennsylvania bioethicist explained to the New York Times a potential objection:

    “There are a lot of Americans who have a hard time getting into a hospital because they don’t have insurance or they have poor insurance,” Dr. Caplan noted. “They will not necessarily find it a good thing when they find out that they can’t get into the hospital, but that a hospital will send a special ambulance to bring their body to the hospital when they’re dead.”

    My case is less dramatic, because I had no trouble getting into the emergency room and didn’t die. Still, if I had died, and such a program had been in operation, the ambulance would have been paid for. To make an unnecessarily long story short: The morality of not providing for health care for everyone will become more and more dodgy as medicine advances into such domains as high-speed organ recycling.

  3. A ban on the sale of sweetened drinks (including juices) and candy from all schools, and a ban on advertising food to children in print or on television.
  4. A national bully-pulpit campaign to urge energy conservation.
  5. The elimination of ethanol subsidies, because the math doesn’t add up on growing corn with natural-gas-produced artificial fertilizers in order to make a gasoline substitute. It’s an agribusiness boondoggle.
  6. The reform of U.S. farm policy generally. Drastic reform, if not elimination, of subsidies for corn, wheat, and soybeans. Failing that, support for the cultivation of fruits and vegetables at levels comparable to the support for commodity crops.
  7. A continued acceleration of fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks.
  8. A national commission to investigate all acts of torture perpetrated by U.S. agents or at their behest since 2001, to be modeled on the 9/11 Commission, with borrowings from South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission as necessary.
  9. The repeal of the Military Commissions Act, the shuttering of Guantánamo Bay and all secret U.S.-run prisons abroad, the end of the practice of rendition, and the closure of the military tribunal alternative justice system. The restoration of habeas corpus.
  10. The taxation of carbon.
  11. An end to obstruction by the Environmental Protection Agency, which should be enforcing laws that require coal-burning fuel plants to reduce their mercury emissions.
  12. More and safer bike lanes.
  13. The establishment of a national Financial Product Safety Commission, so that people may feel as confident when taking out a credit card or a mortgage as they do when buying a toaster.
  14. A Bill of Rights for non-citizens. Sixty-six immigrants died in detention between 2004 and 2007, according to the New York Times, which recently reported on one of them, Boubacar Bah, “a 52-year-old tailor from Guinea who had overstayed a tourist visa.” Bah suffered a head injury in detention, and when he came to, he yelled in his native language and threw up. His guards decided he was a “behavior problem,” put him in shackles, and took him to solitary confinement. His family didn’t hear of the accident until four days later, by which time he was in a coma, from which he never emerged.
  15. The repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act.
  16. Canadian-style packaging on cigarettes.
  17. An end to state-run lotteries, which are a tax on the poor. Yes, many of them give a portion of their income to state arts agencies, but that’s not a good thing: it’s a blatant and for some reason not transparent effort to buy the compliance of the intellectual class.

Ghastly Sights

Lynn Hunt’s Inventing Human Rights: A History is the subject of a lovely, insightful review by Gary J. Bass in the 7 May 2007 issue of The New Republic. Last month I wrote about Gordon Wood’s New York Times review of the book, because I was taken with Hunt’s suggestion, as relayed by Wood, that novels, by teaching empathy, fostered the development of human rights. Wood was skeptical of the link, but Bass thinks it reasonable:

The point that literature has been a cause of empathy is not a new one, but it is still a good one. . . . [T]his closing of the distance between people represented, in Hunt’s view, a huge leap of the moral imagination—the sort of leap without which the idea of human rights would not have been possible.

Bass has high praise for Hunt’s book, but he notes that she hurries through the history of human rights in the nineteenth century, and therefore provides his own capsule summary of the missing years. His survey ends with the observation that a liberal reader might look back “with a certain sense of satisfaction” at the progress made between the sixteenth century and now. “Human rights is not triumphant, to be sure; but the idea is holding its own.” But then he adds a note of concern:

Yet there is one element of this era of human rights that is in retreat: print capitalism, and thus foreign press coverage. Print and capitalism are not getting along. . . . Under heavy pressure from investors, some of the country’s best newspapers have decided to go local. . . . When the suits decide to shut those [foreign] bureaus, they fritter away a hard-won achievement of centuries. They are reversing the moral gains of modern empathy.

This adds a new wrinkle to the speculation that has been worrying me, namely, that as novel reading gives way to the enjoyment of streaming, visual media, we may no longer be able to take for granted that people will feel the kinds of empathy they used to. Newspaper executives shut their foreign bureaus, of course, for the same reason they shut down their papers’ book-review sections: they have to cut something, because profits are down, and they suspect their readers won’t mind their absence.

Bass’s review provoked another speculation in me. In passing, he jokes that public executions and public state-administered torture were the eighteenth-century equivalent of “the slasher movies of our time” in their capacity to draw an audience. He writes that Declaration of Independence-signer Benjamin Rush

denounced public punishment for its attempt to block the public from empathizing with the sufferer. For Rush, it was crucial to realize that even convicts “possess souls and bodies composed of the same materials as those of our friends and relations.”

It’s intriguing that an eighteenth-century human rights activist (to describe Rush loosely) was concerned that the spectacle of punishment would deter empathy. Rush, a doctor, thought and wrote about the human nervous system, so his interest in the problem is understandable. Rush’s comment reminds me of Charles Dickens’s famous description of the “wickedness and levity” of the London crowd that gathered to watch the 13 November 1849 hanging of the husband-and-wife murderer team Frederick and Maria Manning:

Fightings, faintings, whistlings, imitations of Punch, brutal jokes, tumultuous demonstrations of indecent delight when swooning women were dragged out of the crowd by the police, with their dresses disordered, gave a new zest to the general entertainment. When the sun rose brightly—as it did—it gilded thousands upon thousands of upturned faces, so inexpressibly odious in their brutal mirth or callousness, that a man had cause to feel ashamed of the shape he wore, and to shrink from himself, as fashioned in the image of the Devil. When the two miserable creatures who attracted all this ghastly sight about them were turned quivering into the air, there was no more emotion, no more pity, no more thought that two immortal souls had gone to judgement, no more restraint in any of the previous obscenities, than if the name of Christ had never been heard in this world.

The novelist, too, worried about the moral effects that such a spectacle had on its observers. (Herman Melville, as it happens, was also watching that day, and wrote in his journal, more laconically, that “The mob was brutish.”) I’m wondering, I suppose, whether, having been taught by novels to value empathy, reformers recognized such spectacles as enemies of empathy and therefore sought to quarantine them, and whether we risk something in allowing them to multiply.

While on the subject, I ought to correct a misstatement. I wrote, a couple of weeks ago, that David Griffith’s A Good War Is Hard to Find “starts by comparing the novel and movie versions of the torture scenes in Deliverance.” Not so; that was my misunderstanding of an email from its publisher, Richard Nash of Soft Skull Press, who was kind enough to send me a copy. Now that I’ve read it, I can say that Griffith does compare the novel and movie versions of Deliverance, but his comparison is in chapter 4, not chapter 1:

In the film, the scene lasts only a few minutes, whereas in the book, narrated in the first person, the whole episode lasts for nearly thirty pages. . . . Dickey’s book forces us to meditate on the ugliness of violence through images that are not neutral and objective but that call attention to the way violence, as Simone Weil argues in her revolutionary essay on The Iliad, can make a human being into an object. . . . Dickey captures the language of empathy that compels us to see the violence as despicable, not funny. . . . There is no way to flinch, to turn away, or close our eyes to it; there is no soundtrack to dull the senses.

Griffith doesn’t think the movie of Deliverance irresponsible in its handling of violence; his implied comparison here is actually between both versions of Deliverance and Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, which he finds “ultimately destructive.”

The distinction between novelistic description and filmed depiction of torture is not, however, Griffith’s main concern. What he’s after is the distinction between representations of evil that are merely entertaining and those that allow the reader or viewer to understand his own complicity—his sin, actually, because Griffith is a Catholic, and his book is not only a meditation on the roots of the Abu Ghraib scandal in American culture but also an essay in theology. It’s an idiosyncratic, highly personal essay in theology, written with an appealingly broad yet lightly worn erudition, citing sources as disparate as Flannery O’Connor and Wayne Koestenbaum, but it is theology nonetheless. I was reminded, in reading it, of how rich the vocabulary of serious theology is, and how infrequently it is spoken in the public sphere on such topics, about which it has much to say. As a lapsed believer, I couldn’t follow Griffith in all of his arguments. I agree, for example, that American culture is evasive on the subject of its own potential for evil, but I’m not sure that an awareness of one’s potential for evil is necessarily salutary for the soul. I also don’t think that the best way to re-introduce moral questions into the legal sphere is by a turn to religion, and I’m not convinced that an improved understanding of what it means to be a Christian nation would bring about the outrage and energy for reform needed in America on the subject of torture—though of course I’d be very happy if it did. Griffith’s is nonetheless a tremendously likable book, and it was uncanny how often I agreed with his aesthetic judgments—thumbs up for Blue Velvet, and down for Andy Warhol. I found myself wanting to push Muriel Spark on him, if by some chance he hadn’t already read her.

A final, utterly miscellaneous, but not altogether unrelated note: While reading J. Gabriel Boylan’s brilliant and quirky essay on Vangelis’s soundtrack to Blade Runner in a new journal called The Crier—an essay that prompted me to wonder, “If you Googled for William Blake, Isaac Asimov, and Frank Lloyd Wright, would you land on the Wikipedia page for Blade Runner?” only to discover, no, you land on Boylan’s essay—I found myself recalling the machine in the movie that distinguishes humans from replicants through a series of questions about empathy—in one case, empathy for an animal in pain—as if it were the most distinctive trait in human nature.