causus belli

I've just read a story in The New Yorker that everyone should read. Unfortunately, the magazine doesn't put most of their content online, but it has posted a Q&A with the author, George Packer. This article is probably the most clear-eyed, perceptive piece I have read about the war in Iraq. Everyone should read it -- the acquired heft of its import moved me to tears.

The article is essentially a profile of a father whose son died in Iraq, but it's much more perceptive than, say, the Lila Lipscombe section of Farenheit 9/11. This is more than just a parade of grief. It's mostly about the disturbing ambivalence and the ideological pettiness that this war has prompted, qualities that distinguish it from other wars in our history. In a long middle section of the article, Packer tries to come to grips with the conflict's strange character:

Iraq provided a blank screen onto which Americans projected anything they wanted, in part because so few Americans had anything at stake there. The war's proponents and detractors spoke of the conflict largely in theoretical terms: imperialism, democracy, unilateralism, weapons of mass destruction, pre-emption, terrorism, totalitarianism, neoconservativism, appeasement. The exceptions were the soliders and their families, who carried almost the entire weight of the war.

Packer presents a scathing indictment of the Adminstration's conduct, arguing that "what prevented open and serious debate about the reasons for war was, above all, the character of the President." But he also scrutinizes ideologues and media voices on both sides who have seen in the war vindication of some narrow political position, as well as a Democratic opposition whose policies are bankrupt. He asks what happened to an anti-war movement that included millions of Americans in the buildup to the invasion but has essentially dissolved once the war became real.

The other night I was sitting with friends, discussing the state of the nation and asking what was the differecne between this conflict and Vietnam. Packer's article points out that Bush's behavior, his projection of a completely unmerited optimism, demonstrates that he's not "waiting up past midnight for the casualty figures to come in, like Lyndon Johnson in the Situation Room." No one in America is. For all of us, including the anti-war left, the conflict has become an empty echoing chamber into which all of our talk fades into nothingness. Public dissatisfaction with the war, the media blared last week, has reached record levels! Does that mean that the course of the war will alter significantly? Not likely.

I feel as if my own response to the war has been curiously neutered. Anesthetized. Packer and the father he profiles argue for a discourse based on truth rather than ideology, on trying to bring the reality of what's going on over there home to us. They call for leaders who can accept the "cognitive dissonance" of a war that was begun under false pretenses, which certainly did overthrow a despotic regime, which has brought about a certain form of democracy, and yet which may end up in only bringing more years of chaos to the nation it ostenbily was intended to save. That cannot be summarized into a few talking points. It's not as simple as "stay the course" or "bring the troops home now." We need leaders who are adult enough to begin that conversation, and who trust that the American people are adult enough to handle it.

I've started to think that the only way to effectively take action as a citizen in regard to the conflict is to argue for the re-instatement of the draft. An unlikely proposition, especially given recent poll figures about the war's popularity. But only with a universal draft, only if every family in America had some stake in what we were doing over there, only if every young man had to make a choice about what he was willing to risk his life for, would the war that we are all paying for be brought to the forefront of everyone's minds. Only then would we be compelled to demand the truth.


do not call list

I've never been very good at games.

The type at which I excel fall into a couple of limited ranges. I'm great with games of factual recall, trivia games where all I have to do is unfailingly come up with the correct answer. Similarly, I'm good at games where all I have to do is consistently demonstrate some preternaturally charming and precocious skill -- parlor games like charades that require one to engage in creative thinking and mimicry, to act things out to the delight and amusement of others.

Don't get me wrong, though, I'm competitive. Anyone who's played me in Trivial Pursuit can attest to that. But I suffer from a complete lack of strategic skill. When all I need to do is come up with the right answers time after time or to keep acting things out to the best of my ability, I flourish; when I need to choose between any number of options in order to dupe, outsmart, or deceive my opponent, I'm hopeless. I've never been very good at athletic contests for this reason (which, I would contend, trumps even my relatively unexceptional level of physical development). I'm no good figuring out when I should be on defense and when on offense, who I should kick the ball to, when's the right time to go "in for the kill." Tennis has always seemed more like an excuse to bat a ball back and forth than a system for idenifying my opponent's weaknesses and placing the ball in the part of the court that best takes advantage of them. I'm no good at that.

I'm worst at poker. Or any other card game that requires you to mask yourself, to act stealthily, to make wagers on a hand that you know is not strong, and to read your opponent's moves in the hopes of deciphering the reality behind his similarly encoded actions. I am a natural actor but not a natural con-man. Part of the reason is genetic -- I was bequeathed a face with absurdly, almost grotesquely expressive features that inadvertantly register the smallest flicker and variation of my internal mood. My features are so big that they play beyond the back row of the balcony, with a mouth as rubbery as a Kabuki warrior's painted one. And the skill that I've developed in acting classes is transparency, the ability to dredge up feelings and wear them on my sleeve. When I was acting in college and graduate productions, I perfected a type of thin-skinned emotional sensitivity, an art of expressing incredibly clearly the painful pathos beneath the surface. But even on the elementary playground I could impress my friends by making myself cry. I didn't do it by pretending to cry (i.e. fooling them), I just dipped into my well of sadness. I got sad in order to act sad.

All of which leads me to the game I am currently involved in. Right now, as we speak. It's one of those long ongoing games that continues, waking and sleeping, for the duration of play. Like a long-distance chess match conducted by post -- or telegraph or text message or email. Or in my case, conducted by the absence of telegraphs, text messages or emails.

I'm playing hard to get. That is, I'm taking the advice of more strategic friends and, against my natural inclination, refusing to contact someone. (Those up-to-date on recent developments in my personal life will be able to figure out who it is. Needless to say, I'm not quite as detached about the whole thing as I was when I wrote that relationships post a while back.)

I've played hard-to-get before, with quite a bit of success. The New York dating scene (especially, I think, between men) almost requires it for some reason. The hard part is not the not-calling. That's easy enough to go cold turkey -- you just declare that you will not call him, will send no emails, will send no text messages, and that when he calls you will let it go to voicemail without picking up. Easy enough, especially if you have friends monitoring you to make sure you don't fall off the wagon.

The hard part is the mental transformation required. To play effectively, you have to get into the right mindset -- meaning that you have to really be in it for the long haul. You have to internalize the fact that your decision to play hard to get may result in the relationship existing in a state of uncertainty for a good two weeks or so. You can't expect him to notice the fact that you're not calling for at least a few days, probably longer. (Hoping for anything sooner means that you've probably got an unrealistic sense of how big a part you play in his life -- or at least how big a part he wants it to appear you play. See how it gets tricky?)

You know you're in the mindset when friends suggest that you do things with them five days hence and instead of thinking, "Saturday night? But what if _____ calls me and wants to do something? I better keep the evening open," you start thinking, "Perfect! That way when he calls and asks what I'm doing Saturday, I can tell him I've already got plans."

And, yes, as long as there's a little bit of something there to begin with, this strategy is almost certain to inflame his desire eventually. I don't even think you have to worry about the possibility of his meeting someone else, due to the perverse logic that someone who doesn't seem to want you is always more attractive than someone who does.

The unfortuate part is that getting into the mindset seems to inevitably result in spite. You start hating the person. The longer this goes on, the more you start thinking, "Fine! I'll schedule a whole bunch of things so that bastard will feel even worse!" When you inevitably do end up spending time together again, every interaction will have become a mini-competition to prove who's more disinterested. Isn't it unfortunate that the very skills conventionally considered necessary to snag a man (competitiveness, deceit, acting in one's own self-interest) are the opposite of the ones needed to sustain a healthy relationship in the long term?

Moreover, the more time you spend not calling him and filling your appointment book with other pursuits and interests, the more you realize how unimportant he really is. You start to feel that peculiar form of loneliness known as autonomy, which is both heart-breaking and empowering and probably makes you a healthier person. It may have the unintentional side effect of making you totally bored with the guy and no longer feeling that he's the center of your universe, which is probably healthier, too, but doesn't do much for romance.

Of course the stupidest thing one could do when playing hard-to-get is writing a big, long, self-analytical post about it on one's blog. But I guess I'm going to take that risk. You see? I can't supress my innermost feelings -- they just pour out of me! The entirety of this blog attests to that.

Maybe what I really should do is drop the whole game paradigm and think about it as a science experiment. I'm not trying to "gain the upper hand" or anything like that. I'll drop all the competitiveness. Instead, I'm trying to resolve some doubts. I want to figure out if ____ really is inclined pro-actively to include me in his life. When I call him, I can never know if he would have sought out my company of his own accord. By not contacting him, I'm simply controlling one of the variables in hopes of determining the truth of the situation. That's a much less dramatic way of thinking of it.

But I've never been good at science either.


city of dreams

Author Tom Wolfe may be a self-important conservative blowhard (not that I've read any of his novels, I just know him by reputation), but in today's New York Times he offers a very incisive, accurate accessment of the strange foundations of New York City at the dawn of the 21st Century (one that seems in line with things that I often try to say here, but never quite can). Since the article is weirdly clumped in with others on the Times' website (when you check the link, be sure to advance to the next page to read the whole thing), I'm going to cite the most pertinent passages below:

None of Gothamland's stocks in trade are tangible. Rather, all offer the sheer excitement, even euphoria, of being ... "where things are happening."

Humanity comes to New York not to buy clothes but, rather ... Fashion ...not to see musicals and plays but to experience "Broadway," which resembles the turn-of-the-19th-century trolley town one finds himself in upon entering Disneyland in California. If the traffic on Broadway should ever lack congestion, if the people ever stop spilling over the sidewalks and out into the street, if they ever stop hyperventilating in a struggle to get to the will-call window before the curtain goes up, the producers and theater owners should hire hordes of the city's unemployed actors to serve as extras and recreate it all...

After all, what does our city now live on? Why, something about as solid as a sharp intake of breath: the world's impression that Gothamland and only Gothamland ...is where things are happening.


upon further investigation...

...I discovered that Johnny Depp's (and Julianne Mooore's) ad for Mont Blanc pens is some sort of charity tie-in. What I said in the previous post still holds generally true, but at least we now know that the man who embodied shoe-string filmmaker Ed Wood is not a total corporate sell-out.


hey, big spender

I have many talents, but there's one thing I do better than absolutely anyone I've ever met. I am a fucking genius at identifying celebrity voiceovers. Whereas some viewers of advertisements are lulled into a state of ripe consumerism by the voice of a familiar actor that they have not consciously identified as familiar, my ears will perk up and I will almost always be able to identify whose voice it is before the end of the ad.

Julia Roberts for AOL.
Richard Dreyfus for Nissan.
Stockard Channing for AIG Insurance.
Patricia Clarkson for BMW.

All of these recent examples, however, prompt the question, "Why the fuck are so many celebrities doing ads these days?" This interesting article in Slate examines the phenomenon in the context of the history of advertising, but I don't think it goes deep enough. It seems like every celebrity is doing this these days, and we're not talking minor league celebrities like Suzanne Summers hawking the Thigh Master. This is Julia-highest-grossing-female-actress-Roberts we're talking about!

Of course, when it's a voiceover you're hidden by a cloak of anonymity. But there are big name actors who aren't afraid to put their mug right out there for a product (think of those American Express ads with Robert DeNiro, and now Kate Winslet). I'm excluding fashion ads from this, because I think we all can see why stars might be in fashion ads. But pens??? Both Julianne Moore and Johnny Depp (for the love of God!!) can be seen on a number of telephone billboards in the Gramercy Park area promoting some classy fountain pen. How did this come about? Did the pen representative approach them at the Independent Spirit Awards or something and demonstrate his wares? Using Johnny Depp (who's so famously anti-establishment) to promote your product is a brilliant strategy. You're like, "Whoa, if Jonny Depp likes that pen so much, it really must be good! It must, like, save starving children in Africa or something!"

Which brings us, of course, to the political implications of all of this. I think a lot about celebrity voiceovers (especially since identifying them is my most unique talent), but it wasn't until the other night when I heard George Clooney's voice on TV extolling the virtues of Budweiser that I got worked up enough to write this post. There's no way that George Clooney drinks Budweiser. In fact, I would suspect that -- like most limousine liberal Blue Staters -- he has almost no respect for Budweiser as an organization. Yet, he'll use them to earn some extra spending cash.

This pandemic of celebrity endorsement is further evidence of the long reach of the tentacles of multinational corporations. It has started to get me worried about art as a pursuit. I'm not going to get all sanctimonious on you; I know that art and commerce have been intertwined since the age of Shakespeare. And I certainly don't fault George Clooney for doing a stupid commercial film like One Fine Day (remember that one? romantic comedy with Michelle Pfeiffer?) so that he can produce more edgy, less bankable work. I understand the principle behind that and I accept it. But at least in that situation, the artist is still functioning as an artist and not trading in on his associations (which for George Clooney make him the Hollywood equivalent of Eliot Spitzer, a leftie heartthrob) to be a salesman pure and simple.

Maybe it's always been this way and I've only just now cottoned on to the extent of the corruption. It was only really this past year, for example, that I thought to myself, "Hey, the Tony Awards are just one big advertisement!" That's what they are -- a commercial advertisement created by an exclusionary cabal of capitalist racketeers intended to lure impressionable Midwesterners to the Big Apple to "experience the joys of live theater." If the purpose of the show were really the awards, then the bulk of it would not be taken up by huge glitzy musical numbers for show that aren't gonna win any awards (Sweet Charity). If it were really about honoring artistic work, then the nominees would not be restricted to work that was performed in a handful of specific theaters not distinguished so much by their geographical location (i. e. "Broadway") as by the people who own them.

Commercial structures can produce great art (cf. Elizabethan theater or much of the output of Hollywood before 1945); they can create great popular art, which is harder to do. It's easy to make acclaimed work that appeals to a limited group of overeducated, elitist snobs or to affluent philistines looking for a little intellectual cachet to rub off on them (which is essentially what all "non-commercial" theater in America does these days).

In America, we have one big come-on masquerading as a culture. When supposedly "liberal" stars and media outlets are falling all over themselves to be just as profit-hungry as the robber barons they scold, you realize that everyone, everywhere is buying into corporate culture, some are just afraid to show their faces doing it .


i beg to differ

Normal people use their weekends to do relaxing things. They spend long mornings reading the newspaper and sipping coffee. They go for a stroll around town and pop into a flea market. They sit out in sidewalk cafes and let the hours pass, chatting and sipping drinks.

Normal people. Normal, upper middle-class New Yorkers. Les bourgeois.

I don't know if I'm worried, but I am changing. The first paragraph of this entry is a relatively accurate description of the weekend I just had. I did a couple of other "less normal" things -- such as attending a teacher training for a volunteer arts school for disadvantaged young people, and taking some time (not enough) to work on revisions of a play of mine. But my bourgie buzzer has been sounding a lot more frequently these days and I don't quite know what to make of it.

It all has to do with settling in. It's a form of cultural tropism, through which you gradually and involuntarily acquire habits and attitudes characteristic of your environment. The pull of Manhattan living is just too strong.

Come to think of it, I went through a similar evolution when I was studying at Oxford. I arrived relatively militant and countercultural, rejecting the culture of weeknight pub-going, fancy dinners and overall lounging as an affront to productivity, even morality. We'd been given all of this privilege, this time removed from the hustle and bustle of the workaday world, in order to think deep and work hard and contemplate serious issues, not just to sample life's pleasures like latter day Sebastian Flytes! By the end of my stay there, of course, I was sipping champagne on the manicured lawns with the rest of them, eating strawberries in a punt and justifying it all by saying, "You only live once."

The point, I guess, is that when you first move to a new place you come with a set of assumptions -- and, if you're me, those assumptions often form the basis of an immediate cultural critique. I arrive in Oxford or Manhattan or wherever with a goal or a purpose in mind that is somehow contributive to my greater personal trajectory, the ongoing project of my artistic/professional vocation. And I have no time for whatever the local manifestations of the irrelevant hedonism of late capitalist culture happen to be. I arrive with my internal metronome set on a rhythm that does not stop. I try to cram in so much that weekends become precious resources -- "outside-of-work" time that's available for developing all kinds of side projects. It becomes time to accomplish something, not time to just enjoy.

But then, at a certain point (often around 1.5 years in), I start to realize why all those people around me are enjoying all of those pleasures. Because it is really nice to sleep in on a Sunday morning (especially if there's a nubile, recent Columbia graduate in the bed with you) and to get up and have breakfast and stroll around and do nothing and pop in and out of stores and read things and discuss. At times, I live my life as if Henry Ford were looking over my shoulder, urging me onward to be more productive. This syndrome is different from conventional "workaholism." It's the psychological predisposition towards activities that have impact, that will change society, better something, contribute something.

What a lot of people -- a lot of privileged urbanites, whether they live in New York or Europe -- have been raised on, though, and come to value is a culture of digestion. It's not just about sampling all of those pleasures, it's about savoring them, sitting and letting them work through your system. It's about appreciating the good things in life.

(Doesn't Martha Stewart always say that? "That's a good thing." I've come to realize that for a certain class of people the default use of good is almost always an aesthetic one, as you would apply the word to a wine. I'm more inclined to use the word in a grander, Kantian sense, with moral and social justice implications: "Sure this is all nice, but is it really good??")

I started out my life in New York self-consciously trying to be different. Different from my fellow Ivy League graduates, different from the other returning Rhodes Scholars and the grad school students. Different, too, from my fellow young aspiring artists whose main social goal so often seems to be conceived only in aesthetic terms. I wasn't going to live as other people do and whenever people asked me questions -- about where I worked or how I lived -- I wanted the answers, on some level, to raise eyebrows.

"Really? You have a communal living situation -- with Mennonites?" "You work 40 hours a week trying to 'end homelessness' while you're also trying to build a career in the theater?" My fundamental motives for living and working as I have been are genuine ones, but there's also an element of trying to live as differently as possible from everyone else around me, even my friends. To be in the culture, but not of it. And to an extent that's a worthy goal; taken to its self-serving extreme, it can become perverse.

Now, as I face the impending inevitability of my finding a new place to live (most likely a much more conventional place, where I have my own apartment and my own bourgeois trappings), I feel as if I'm at risk of over-normalization. Why not live communally forever? I love it so. The answer is, of course, that I could do that if I wanted to, but that would be a choice -- a choice that is not only different, but also difficult. My situation at Menno House doesn't put a lot of burdens on me -- it's cheap rent, a few minor obligations and really nice people. It's really a great deal, but it comes with the air of living on the edge, of challenging the cultural norm. Perpetuating that is a harder thing to do.

Bringing people back to where I live or telling them about how I live (whether they're friends or potential lovers) causes raised eyebrows and expressions of admiration, yes, but also sometimes responses of confusion. Why not take advantage of certain comforts if they're there? You're not a monk. What's so great about renunciation? "A lot!" I'm inclined to whine, and I still believe that. But there's also a lot that's great (and healthy) about enjoying yourself. It's a balancing act: when does enjoyment become indulgence? Especially since I was raised Catholic, this issue will probably always plague me.

The conclusion to draw, though, is probably that living counterculturally is not more worthy in and of itself. Things defined in opposition to something else tend, at their core, to possess a fundamental emptiness. What the heck do I value most of all? That's the question to ask. Little quotidian calculations of worthiness and justification, having faith that I'm being honest with myself and not being seduced into bourgeois self-delusion...

Well, I think and talk so much about the moral justification for every damn little thing I do that at least I know this much: it's not going to creep up on me. I'm gonna be choosing every step of the way.