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3.20.2004

Martha and Julia: A Comparison

by John O'Connor, expert gourmet

The fall of Martha has provoked a great deal of commentary, much of it interesting in its own right. But almost nobody I have read has asked why. Why would a very wealthy woman do such a dumb thing? Greed is one reason, of course. But perhaps there is another.

Nobody could actually practice Martha Stewart living without a staff of 12. This is widely conceded by all but the most die-hard Stewartistas. In other words, the idea that she is offering some version of the simple life, or even the possible life, is simply a scam.

Also, it transpires that, to the surprise of few, Martha is not a terribly nice person. She is particularly a not-nice person to her subordinates -- ie, to people she can mistreat with impunity. So the image of the happy, nice, always-smiling person is also a scam. This woman is Imelda Marcos in a kitchenette.

There is a third area of delusion, which is that Martha is always well-dressed, well-groomed, and svelte -- not exactly what you might expect in a woman who made a career of cooking and eating.

Looking it over, these truth-shortages may the actual cause of Martha's demise. The entire package is based on illusion, a kind of Potemkin-village designed to deceived the American woman. These villages are nice to look at, but you can't live there. Yes, there is a moral angle to the story. But there is an ontological aspect as well, which is that this person wasn't living in the real world, and was marketing a fake world on television. To my way of thinking, the strain of living a lie -- of living several lies at once -- was what made Martha do something incredibly dumb. Viewed one way, she didn't need to do it, because she didn't need the money. Viewed another, she had to, in order to escape from the prison of her life and lies. She is not entering a prison, she is simply transferring.

A comparison with Oscar Wilde is not out of place. What Wilde actually did to bring about his own downfall doesn't make a great deal of sense. But Wilde's life, like Martha's, was based on things which were the opposite of his true self. He, like her, put on shows for the public and had a mask to go with that. He, like her, was a very different person in real life. My own view is that, in both cases, the strain of the sustained dishonesty proved too much, and led to an act which, however self-destructive, did end a structurally dishonest situation.

Yes, Martha did commit some dishonest things. But to focus on those details is to miss the big picture, which is that the entire act was a sham. If she goes to jail, it will be for the technical legal things she did wrong. But her whole oeuvre is a piece of fiction, and it is the most damaging piece of dishonesty she has committed: telling the American woman, in effect, you can have perfect hair, perfect clothes, a perfect figure, and also whip up perfect dinners, in a perfectly decorated house, without being hurried or ever once losing your temper. If this is not a lie, nothing is. Tbis is consumer-lifestyle pornography, and it amounts to an agenda which SuperWoman would reject.

By contrast, I would offer Julia Child, as an antidote and possibly an anti-Martha. Child's humanity is very much in evidence. For starters, there is the question of appearance. Julia looks as though she has spent much of a long life eating rich food and drinking good booze with it, and enjoying both activities enormously, thank you very much. There is no question of perfect clothes or hair. There is also no evidence I have ever heard of pertaining to a hidden cruel streak. I have never had a meal with either woman, but I can tell you right now who is probably the better cook, and whose house I would most prefer to be invited to. No, I will probably never master the art of French cooking. Hell, I'll never even finish a book on the subject. But Julia is a real person in a way that Martha is not, and the available evidence suggests that she is a good person as well. She is a far more appropriate icon of what an American cook is capable of achieving.


3.19.2004

President Arnold
A fair and balanced look at the reasons why

By John O'Connor, champion bodybuilder.

There has been a lot of loose talk going around lately about Arnold not being a future president of the United States. This is bosh, balderdash, and wishful thinking. The same people who think he can't become president are the same people who said he would not be elected governor. California likes to send ex-actor governors to the White House, and this is simply the next one.

Accept this. Or face my wrath.

Arnold's vices may prove to be his virtues. The Republican party is currently in the throes of a fundamentalist takeover. Reagan's empty and insincere promises to the religious right are now a thing of the past. This is increasingly a party of true believers, and theocracy is not far from their political ideal. Bush & Co. may have their greatest problem in dealing with terrorists, not in their unwillingness to use force, but in their unwillingness to articulate the ideal of a free society -- a society in which church and state, or mosque and state, are separated. The Middle East practices what the American South preaches. I don't see how the Republicans are going to get very far with the introduction of an alternative social order. Yes, they have the muscle to fight terror. No, they can't articulate an alternative to religious domination without alienating their base.

Arnold, say what you like, is not that much of a hypocrite. Even if he were, he couldn't pull it off. He cannot, at this point, do the George Bush trick of finding Jesus and pretending to be a different person. Arnold is a former bodybuilder and actor, and not really bothered by either fact. He may be Hollywood, but he isn't fake. The Republicans are not Hollywood, but they are fake beyond the possibility of redemption -- their astonishing hypocrisy in religious matters simply beggars belief. Were it not for the fact that I have seen it occur.

Let's say you wanted someone who exemplified the values of the gospel. He would be heterosexual, monogamous, hard working, not proud, concerned about the poor, disposed to turn the other cheek, etc. In a word, Jimmy Carter. By contrast, imagine someone who got the heck out of his small town origins and never went back, never went to church, did go to Hollywood, did marry a movie star, did divorce her, did marry a second wife of highly questionable morals, did inaugurate the no-fault-divorce revolution, did cater to the rich, did ignore poor people, did like pride and did like war. In short, Ronnie.

I am not saying Reagan was a bad president or Carter was a good one. What I am saying is that, if you take the gospels as your guide, Carter is your man. The Republicans, with a great deal of sanctimony and self-righteousness, chose Reagan and have yet to look back. Bush II is currently running as Reagan's heir. None of this is wrong per se, but is wrong to maintain that you like Christ when your actions say (or rather scream) give us Barabbas. Jesus may be their favorite philosopher, but Herod is their favorite candidate. This sort of dishonesty is typical of the Republican approach to religion, and it is the main reason their domestic agenda has so little appeal for me. They have made the political equivalent of a pact with the devil -- promising to give lip service to all these Christian things when their actual values are something else entirely.

None of the true believers are electable. John Ashcroft, for instance -- who, unless I am much mistaken, would very much like to be President. The half-believers, such as Newt Gingrich, are even less so. The Republicans must compromise themselves to win, and they know it. That is why they are pushing to alter the law to get Arnold elected. None of their other people have a prayer. I do mean that literally.

Arnold is electable -- a very important point in American politics. First, people like him. Second, he's strong. Third, he is perfectly bright, and, to top it off, has mastered the art of playing or acting dumb or silly -- a trait Americans usually reward in their statesman. Fourth, he has a sense of humor. Put those first and fourth assets and together and he is already ahead of most politicians. Fifth, he is a self-made man and, because of his wealth, will probably be not terribly corruptible. He won't have to make $100,000 in trading cattle futures, for instance -- he doesn't need the money. If he does favor the rich, it will be on principle, or because he is one of them already. Americans like a success story, and Arnold has everything Americans like in a president. Once the law is changed, he is a shoo-in.

And they will change the law, because the Republicans know -- the smart ones know -- Andrew Sullivan knows -- in their hearts, they all know -- what a collection of losers, sex-fiends, hypocrites, closet-cases, baby-seal-clubbers, Eddie Haskells, fascist wannabes, whiners and mullahs they have in their tent. None of them are electable.

Arnold is presidential. The question is not if, but when.

John O'Connor

What If They Mated?

Fresh Air's Terry Gross interviews Left Behind's Tim LaHaye -- the unbearable interviewing the unreadable.

It's like a blonde apocalypse.


Lost In Translation

The current political alignment between American fundamentalists and the state of Israel is rich in irony and paradox.

The thumpers maintain that Christ is returning, and that, when he does, the Jews will cease to exist -- either they will convert to Christianity, or they will be destroyed. Or both. The melodramatic scenarios currently on the market probably allow both options, although I have to say I have not read them. Notwithstanding Christian disdain for money, those authors seem to be doing well enough financially that they don't need my nickels.

Imagine Tel Aviv being run by Southern Baptists. The mind boggles. Of course, you might not need your mind anymore anyway. Just your faith.

Jews, on the other hand, basically are not expecting Christ. Based on the first 2,000 years or so of his earthly kingdom, they probably shouldn't expect too much of him at this point. On the perfectly reasonable assumption that his followers resemble him, Jews really don't have much to look forward to in that department. Maybe Christ will come through in the clutch, like a great basketball player. (A great Jewish basketball player, that is . . . ) But the Jews are not planning on this.

It's a strange partnership, and yet it has the advantage of giving Israel some very strong American backers. Much silliness should be overlooked for this, I think.

The fundamentalists I have known have shown an increasing willingness to learn Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic precisely because of their need to know the original message. Anything that makes an American learn a non-English language can't be all bad, can it?

John O'Connor, fervent defender of fundamentalism

3.18.2004

Searchblog

Check out John Battelle's Searchblog for all things search and some different perspectives on searching the net. Pretty cool stuff.

-D.O'C

3.17.2004

Winston Churchill Vindicated or George Bush Beware: Ingratitude in Parliamentary and Presidential Democracies
-S. Schudy

This ends not so much with a conclusion about what Machiavelli called Ingratitudine in politics but several questions left for more knowledgeable individuals as to whether British elections for the House of Commons are more generally referendums on the Party or the Prime Minister, and more particularly Winston Churchill in 1945.

The questions stem from Andrew Sullivan’s column "The Churchill Paradox: Why Bush Could Lose," in the March 1 edition of Time Magazine where he argues that President George Bush, despite his successes in Afghanistan, Iraq and the war on terrorism, may be in a similar situation as Winston Churchill who after leading Great Britain to victory in the European Theater did not retain the Office of Prime Minister after parliamentary elections in July 1945.

Sullivan writes-

"Wartime leaders have always faced the worst fear: defeat in battle. But in democracies at least, war-leaders also confront another danger: success. The qualities that make for great statesmanship in wartime - determination, a single focus on victory, a black-and-white conviction of who is friend and foe - can often seem crude or overbearing when peace comes around. The most dramatic example of this in Western history is, of course, Winston Churchill. It is no exaggeration to say that, without him, Britain may well have been destroyed by Hitler. He was the difference between victory and defeat. But almost the minute that victory was declared, the voters turned on their hero. He lost the post-war election. Even more striking, he lost it in one of the biggest electoral landslides in Britain's parliamentary history. He wasn't just defeated. He was buried."

To some British readers, this may make perfect sense; it may make less sense to an American reader. Contrary to the literal sense, Churchill did not lose his election to parliament but was instead returned by the electorate of Woodford by 17,000 votes over his Independent opponent. His Conservative Party however received fewer seats in the House of Commons than the Labour Party which won 393 seats to Conservative's 197.

Sullivan goes on to say-

"The British people ejected Churchill not because they disapproved of his war, but because they didn't think he was the man to lead them in peacetime. Churchill's opponent in 1945, Clement Attlee, was, like John Kerry today, no heavy-weight. In Churchill's words, Attlee was a 'a very modest man with a great deal to be modest about.' But he still crushed Churchill at the polls."

Here it should be noted that the British electorate could not vote for Churchill directly or his deputy Prime Minister Clement Attlee nor did the two run against each other the way Presidential contenders like Bush and Kerry will run in this November’s election. Under Britain's Parliamentary Democracy, the party with a majority of seats that forms the cabinet normally selects the Prime Minister from its own party while the main minority party takes over the Opposition and chooses its own leader. In many respects, the selection of Prime Minister is similar to the selection of the Senate Majority Leader or the Speaker of the House both of whom are elected by the majority parties. Because Labour in 1945 had 196 more representatives than the Conservatives, they picked the Prime Minister, Clement Attlee.

It should also be noted that unlike Presidents who have gone down in defeat like Herbert Hoover and George Bush Sr.--with John Quincy Adams a notable exception--Churchill did not retire from politics after his party's defeat. He not only remained a Member of Parliament but also became the leader of the Opposition until Conservatives took the majority in 1951 and reinstalled him as Prime Minister.

Historians, hagiographers and statesmen disagree as to why the Conservative Party lost so many seats in 1945 and the effect Churchill as Prime Minister may have played. Some put the blame squarely on the Conservative Party while others put some blame on Churchill. Lord Beaverbrook could write that "the unpopularity of the party proved too strong for the greatness of Churchill and the affection in which he is held by the people" while Anthony Eden could write that though there was "much gratitude to W(inston) as war leader, there is not the same enthusiasm for him as PM of the peace."

Where Churchill's prolific biographer Martin Gilbert mentions in passing that Churchill had been reelected by Woodford with a majority of 17,000--perhaps leaving the impression of a substantial victory--another, more critical biographer John Charmley could look at his election differently. "Even in his own constituency where an 'independent' had stood against him," Charmley wrote, "10,488 votes had been cast against Churchill."

But most historians do not draw the stark conclusions that Mr. Sullivan draws in part because of the indirect way the Prime Minister is chosen. Furthermore, according to Martin Gilbert, many of the British electorate hoped to vote in a Labour government and keep Churchill. "There were many reasons for the Conservative defeat, not least the feeling among many voters that they could vote out the Conservative Party but that Churchill himself would remain Prime Minister." Though possible, it became unlikely that Churchill would have been picked especially after Labour won its huge majority, the extent of which convinced Churchill to resign as Prime Minister soon after.

Historians have looked for more general reasons for the Conservative Party's defeat. Henry Pelling cites several: Conservatives had been in power for 10 years; the electorate were hostile to the Conservatives whom they thought had left England undefended in the 1930's and whom Churchill himself had battled; the promises of a socialist-Labour economy.

What does this mean for George W. Bush? First, the democratic people in Great Britain may not have been as ungrateful to one of President Bush's heroes as suggested by Mr. Sullivan. Second, and perhaps more importantly, if the United States voters are to show ingratitude, they may be more likely than the British electorate to show it since they vote more directly for their President.

This is because a presidential election may be more likely to center on the candidate than the party, perhaps more than parliamentary democracies, due to the division between the executive and legislative branches. Voters can elect representatives to enact majority party ideas in the Congress while electing a candidate from the opposite party as President based on his personal qualities.

Dwight Eisenhower could very likely have captured the White House in 1952 as a Democrat over a Republican rival like Sen. Robert Taft even with the scandals and low popularity of the outgoing Democratic President Harry Truman. Other examples are the military generals of the 19th century who more often won the Presidency based on their standing as heroes than their party affiliation. Had Ulysses S. Grant been a Democrat, he may still have defeated his Republican opponent only three years after Appomattox simply because of his popularity, even though the nation still would have returned Republican majorities to both Houses of Congress.

If presidential elections were about the parties, one would expect at least the majority party in the House of Representatives to match the party of the newly elected or reelected President. Yet a popular Eisenhower who was reelected in 1956 and overwhelmed his Democratic rival Adlai Stevenson was unable to win back the House of Representatives or the Senate from the Democrats who had retaken it two years earlier. Similarly Ronald Reagan faced a Democratic House throughout his two terms as President while Democrat Bill Clinton saw a House Republican majority reelected in 1996 despite his own reelection by a comfortable margin over Republican Bob Dole.

But while the US electorate could show the ingratitude described by Mr. Sullivan more directly than the British, US history suggests they do not.

Instead, they have traditionally rewarded their leaders with election and reelection for military victories: Washington in 1788 and 1792 following the Revolutionary War; Lincoln in 1864 in the closing months of the Civil War; McKinley in 1900 after the defeat of Spain in Cuba, the Philippines and its revolutionary aftermath; Theodore Roosevelt in 1904 after declaring the Philippine War over two years earlier; Franklin Roosevelt in 1944 while US armies were marching to victory in Europe and the Pacific.

In the end, George W. Bush doesn’t need to keep Winston Churchill in mind. The loss of his own father in 1992 Presidential election after the victory in Gulf War I should provide plenty of motivation.

Having said this, I am the first to admit my lack of more particular knowledge on the British electoral system as well as the parliamentary elections of July 1945. For this reason, there are these three questions:

Can it be concluded that the British electorate is more likely to vote for his or her Commons representative, based on personality or party platforms, rather than for the party with the primary purpose of electing or re-electing the Prime Minister?

In contrast, is the electorate in a presidential democracy, with a division of the executive and legislative duties, more likely to vote for the successes or failures of the President himself rather than that of his party?

With these two questions in mind, is a Presidential democracy more likely to reflect its ingratitude with the executive than a Parliamentary democracy, but less likely to see its executive removed after a military or domestic success since the election of its executive is more direct? Would a Parliamentary coalition government make any difference?

In passing, one should also take note of Machiavelli’s comments on Ingratitudine in The Discourses, where he praises the errors of republics that offend citizens who should be rewarded and suspect citizens who should be trusted. “In an uncorrupted republic, they are highly beneficial and promote the cause of freedom, for owing to the fear of punishment men stay better and less ambitious for a longer time.” ("In una republica non corrotta sono cagione di gran beni, e fanno che la ne vive libera, piu mantenendosi, per paura di punizione, gli uomini migliori e meno ambiziosi.”) This, of course, is not intended to be an indirect endorsement for Bush, Kerry, Churchill or Attlee.


3.16.2004

What I'm Reading Now
The Man Who Ate Everything by Jeffrey Steingarten A well-written compendium of the author's pieces for Vogue. Vogue hardly springs to mind as a place to find good food writing, but after reading this book -- full of bite-sized chunks of writing -- I'll have to reconsider. --D.O'C
The Fresh Airhead

Since there has been a mention of Terry Gross on this site, I'd like to go on record as saying that I dislike her interviewing style and her show. Although she often gets good guests, she manages to gently slaughter them with her lighter-than-air comments and questions. I think of her as the "Fresh Airhead." -D.O'C
Funny blurb from John Ellis about Kerry's claim to be more popular with foreign leaders:

Those foreign leaders really do like me better. So says Senator John Kerry. As oddball stories go, this one does ring true. It's classic Kerry -- the grandiosity, the self-seriousness and the weird political value judgement. Who, after all, would think that the opinion of, say, a German Minister would matter in, say, Missouri? John Kerry would! If it's important to him, it's important to them, goddamnit!


Funny stuff. I don't know enough about Kerry personally to say whether this rings true or not. Maybe Ellis does, maybe he doesn't, but it's amusing.

-DO'C
The subject of translation came up on Friday’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Following a segment with Tim LaHaye, co-author of the Left Behind novels about the rapture and the Second Coming, Gross interviewed Gersham Gorenberg, associate editor and columnist for The Jeruslaem Post and author of The End of Days: Fundamentalism and the Struggle for the Temple Mount. According to Gorenberg, the millennial Christians claim they simply follow the literal meaning of the Bible when describing the end times. Gorenberg is critical of this:

“One thing that’s very funny about it, actually, is that oftentimes the literal interpretations are being offered by people who actually can’t read the original text. They are literal interpretations of a translation. And, of course, every translation is in itself an interpretation. So they’re taking the English text of the Bible and building these theories upon it.”

-S. Schudy


3.15.2004

Apropos of Scott's comment on translations, my college advisor had a quote on his door which read something like this: "Reading a translation is like eating a piece of meat that has been chewed by someone else previously; one gets a sense of the flavor, but it's nothing like the original." -D. O'Connor

3.14.2004

La Celebrite et Les Politiques:

Translations rarely capture the spririt and full meaning of the original with the possible exception of Mssr. Danton who took some of Mr. Paine's words and recited them to the new generation as "De l’audace, encore de l’audace, et toujours de l’audace."

The new generation took the advice and the new freedom and in 1802--by a vote of 3.5 million to some 8,000--answered in the affirmative the very simple question "Should Napoleon be Consul for life?" ("Napoléon sera-t-il Consul à vie?"). Not content with limits or complexties, the same 3.5 million went on to approve in another referendum their new Napoleon as "Empereur des Français" in 1804.

-S. Schudy

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