Thursday, October 12, 2006

Rehab as Political Sanctuary

The announcement that Mark Foley had entered rehab for alcoholism was immediately decried in many quarters as a hapless attempt at spin. Certainly, it will never really work as spin; nothing can resurrect Foley's political career after this. But rehab has uses for a disgraced politician or celebrity, aside from any plea for "victim" status.

Thirty days of alcohol rehab means thirty days safe from the media.

Thirty days of alcohol rehab is thirty days of not having to answer any questions.

You can simply sulk in your house for a month, of course. But the reporters will be outside on the lawn. They will be calling your home phone, and doubtless your cell phone. You can refuse to answer questions, but that won't slow the requests, and the reporters will make your refusal to answer questions into a story. Your spokesman can say you are unavailable, but the reporters will demand an excuse and do their best to debunk it.

Rehab, at this moment in our history, is the perfect and unchallengeable excuse for solitude. You can check into a quiet inpatient facility (which no one can stake out for fear of insensitivity to the other patients), and be cut off from the world for thirty days without an excuse. In fact, violating even a disgraced celebrity's privacy in rehab would be taboo, where violating a celebrity's privacy at home is a condition of some people's employment.

Rehab is the closest America in 2006 comes to the notion of sanctuary. Even if Mark Foley weren't an alcoholic, the thirty days would be healthy for him.

Hastert's Folly

Dennis Hastert (and various other Republicans) would like us to believe that the Mark Foley scandal is a result of a dastardly plot by Democrats to discredit the Republicans by revealing an, ahem, inconvenient truth just before the midterm elections.

They actually have no evidence of this accusation. And some of their claims have actually been debunked. But let's say for sake argument that Hastert was right. How can you stop the Democrats from leaking damaging and scandalous information to the press just before election time?

The answer is painfully simple: tell a Democrat.

As soon as any impropriety on Foley's part came to Hastert's attention, he should have made it a point to notify the Democrats on the House Page Board. Not simply because it would be sound policy and morally right, but because it would have been wise politics. In fact, if Hastert couldn't reach the Dems on the Page Board, Hastert should have grabbed any other Democratic House members available, and told them about Foley's behavior even if he had to physically force them to listen.

You see, if you want to hold someone accountable for keeping a secret, it helps to have them know it.

Blaming "the Democrats" in general is a losing proposition. If Hastert wanted to make an effective counter-accusation, he would need to be able to name names. Which Democrats are to blame? Who should be forced to answer for their conduct? Who can the media go pester? "The Democrats" doesn't do it. If you want to shift even part of the blame onto another party, it needs to be a specific recognizeable individual, preferably one running for reelection him- or herself. (And frankly, the only people who are going to get exercised about a shadowy pan-Democratic conspiracy are already so deeply committed to the Republican base that their votes can be taken for granted.) This is another version of Hillary Clinton's "vast right-wing-conspiracy" mistake. Voters don't get angry at vast anonymous conspiracies. They need to focus their dislike on an individual bogeyman. But poor Dennis. He doesn't know which Democrats to finger individually, because he doesn't know who knew. Because he didn't tell them.

Also, Hastert is inconveniently unable to say how long the hypothetical wicked Democratic conspirators held on to this information, because he doesn't know how long they've known it. Have they been sitting on the information for half as long as Hastert has been sitting on it? Three-quarters as long? One-third? Impossible to know once you've neglected to tell them. And then you're in the absurd position of attacking the people who brought up the subject first, on the grounds that they didn't bring it up sooner. In any case, they brought it up before you did.

I mean, what kind of political saboteur reveals something like this just before an election? Why not wait like a civilized person until just after the election? That's what the Speaker would do. Not for political gain, of course.

Hastert's also in the odd position, since he didn't tell any Democrats about the Foley situation, of being unable to say how the Democrats could have known. His own primary line of defense is that the actual e-mails he saw were not enough to raise any real suspicions in his mind. If seeing the Louisiana page's e-mails isn't enough of a tipoff, how are the Democrats supposed to have worked it out about Foley without even seeing those e-mails? It's quite a pickle.

If Hastert had told the Democrats, then when the scandal broke those Democrats would have been on the hook. Why didn't they step in and do something? Did they tell any of the Democratic House leadership about the situation? Why not? Or why hadn't the House leadership acted? At the very least, the Republicans would be able to counterattack in the districts of the tainted Democrats. But alas, there are no Democrats who can be personally leaked to the scandal.

Of course, if Hastert had notified the Dems something else might have happened entirely. Perhaps they would have insisted on getting rid of Foley years ago. Perhaps the Republican leadership would have had to find another candidate for Foley's Republican-leaning district. Maybe that subsitute candidate would be running for re-election in Palm Beach right now. What a hassle that would have been.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

I Thought I Loathed Dinesh D'Souza ...

But apparently James Wolcott is much, much better at hating him.

2.1 Futures of the Novel

Slate has declared this week Fall Fiction Week, and I'm all for that. Fiction week involves, among other things, a high-minded discussion between Walter Kirn and Gary Shteyngart about the future of the novel in the age of the Internet, by which the editors at Slate "mean not just the web itself but also the notion of constant connectivity. " They set the terms of Kirn and Shteyngart's conversation as follows:
Today, in this age of the virtual network, the concept of being "out of reach" has begun to seem quaint, and our experience of the world has become more fluid—with, perhaps, less room for solitude and concentration. So, we've asked our critics to address the following questions: Does the new age of connectivity have any ramifications for the novel? Has human experience been altered? Have the conventions of storytelling begun to change—and if not, should they?

Slate's editorial heart is understandably set on the idea that The Internet Is Changing Everything, and that Video Will Kill the Radio Star. To some extent, of course, they're right. There's no use pretending that new technologies don't change anything, and still less use trying to pretend that on your blog. But the questions in Slate's ante are artfully phrased to work both as undeniable inquiries about the self-evident and as cues for breathless utterances about our new post-human existence. Have things changed? You bet. Has Everything Changed in some fundamental, epochal way? The jury's still out on that one.

Kirn and Shteyngart's perspectives suit the preferred slant well. Both seem to agree, as Shteyngart puts it, that novelists have to keep up with "this fragmented, distracted, levitating new world" of text-messaging and roll out some form of Novel 2.0 or lose their "relevancy." But what to do? Kirn proposes one strategy, and I can think of at least one other, for the novel's survival in the Internet Age:

1) Back to the Epistolary Roots

Kirn gestures at dealing with the fragmented world of the hyper-connected by a return to the 18th century epistolary tradition:
I have a suspicion—that's all it is now—that the answer lies in the form's origins. I'm thinking of epistolary novels such as Richardson's Clarissa. That was the revolutionary mode once, when novels broke out of being mere prose "romances" and started to grapple with subjectivity. It's also when they discovered the modern fact that we communicate in stylized bursts and through specific technologies. That's truer than ever now. E-mails, phone calls, Web sites, videos. They're still all letters, basically, and they've come to outnumber old-fashioned conversations. They are the conversation now.

This is a very reasonable suggestion, so reasonable that it's already being done. I think novelists of all stripes, whether aspiring to money or popularity or artistic renown, have been incorporating e-mails and text messages and voicemail into their works almost as fast as those new technologies have appeared, just as novelists have used letters and diaries and newspaper accounts and telegraphs and newsreels and every other form they could get their hands on. Isn't a book like Nicholson Baker's Vox (published in January of 1992), consisting entirely of phone conversations (and phone sex) between its two protagonists, already a "21st-century" novel about telecommunications and absent presence? Isn't including a few imitation e-mails or text messages already a standard ploy in chick lit?

Novels have always incoporated other genres and other media into their narratives, as fast as those rivals have arisen. You could look at Richardson and Fielding, transforming the standard collections of sample letters for young girls into something enitrely different. You could look at the changes Joyce rings on magazine fiction in Ulysses or the collage of texts Dos Passos mimics in U.S.A. If those last examples seem too highbrow, you can open Bram Stoker's Dracula, and find Dr. Seward keeping his diary on the new, high-tech phonograph cylinders. There's the emerging technology being absorbed right away. This, famously, is what novels do: take over other genres and put them to new uses. If we're going to go back to "the form's origins" we should go all the way back, to Don Quixote hijacking those old "prose 'romances'" and turning them into something radically new.

Is the novel going to change in our new era? Sure. But when has it stopped changing? It's a famously protean form, so gifted at mutation and mimickry that literary critics don't even have a real definition for it. The novel has famously been defined by its adaptability and its lack of boundaries, for its generic ingenuity. The novel is going to change in our next new era, too, whether we count new eras in centuries or in fashion seasons.

The novel may die in a future where no one reads, but it won't die because it can't keep up with changing times.

2) Focus on the Things That Only Novels Can Do

Of course, one strategy is to adopt and adapt the new forms. But there are things those new forms can't do, weaknesses that happen to include some of the novel's strengths.

We are creatures of five senses, but most of our media only appeal to sight and hearing. Mediocre novels go along on rival media's terms and attempt to depict a world of sights and sounds. This reduces the book to a cinema manque, a glorified treatment for some future screenplay. But prose, and only prose, can capture taste and touch and smell, senses that can only be rendered through art but without which the human experience is drastically incomplete. No matter how interconnected and high-tech we become, we remain animals, living in our bodies here in the physical world. Smell and touch and taste are, in fact, connected to our emotions in a more direct and powerful way than sight and hearing are; recalling an old lover's scent is more powerful than remembering an old lover's face. Proust knew what he was doing when he started his odyssey of memory with the taste of that madeleine; he knew the emotional power of that sense. What novels can do that text messages (and voice mail and movies and video clips on YouTube) can never do is speak to that primitive and powerful aspect of our being, our physical self in all its complicated, passionate sensuality. The world of the novel is a world where wine has its own taste, where the rain gets in our shoes or runs down our collar, where we can itch and ache and tickle and feel calluses growing on our hands. It is a world where two characters can actually have sex with the lights out. No other art form can make a claim on that territory, and there's no reason to cede an inch of it.

2.1) If All Else Fails ...

If, despite these strategies, fiction writers still feel intimidated by the new media around them, we can always quote the first great novel about the Internet, written back in 1984 and still available in a 20th Anniversary Edition:

"Don't let them generation-gap you."

And that, my friends, is timeless advice.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Theodore Roosevelt on North Korea

What would that great Republican, Theodore Roosevelt, have told his distant successor George W. Bush about dealing with North Korea?

Most likely a basic piece of Roosevelt Republican advice:

"Speak softly and carry a big stick."

The speak-softly-and-carry-a-big-stick strategy is about holding power in reserve, but letting that power you're holding back set the shape and terms of the negotiation. You don't hit your opposite number with the stick. You don't even swing the stick around. You just keep the stick lying quietly near your hand, where the person you're speaking softly to can see it. And you let the fact that you have the stick while they do not magically work for you.

The greatest power comes not from landing a blow, but from the enemy's anticipation of a blow. Once you've actually used your stick (whether that stick is military actions or trade sanctions or whatever else), your bargaining position is at a low ebb. They no longer fear the consequences of displeasing you, since they've already incurrred those consequences. And they now have a chance to evaluate the price of displeasing, to weigh it against other interests and perhaps to conclude that taking your blow is an acceptable cost of business. Worst of all is the other party's decision that it cannot avoid your blow in any case. Then it has no reason to cooperate with you at all.

One of the beauties of the big-stick model is that it derives diplomatic advantage from military strength without diminishing that strength. You can achieve far more by diplomacy underwritten by the credible threat of force than you ever could through force alone. Once you commit to using force, you give away all of your other tools of persuasion, but the implied threat of force strengthens those tools.

George W. Bush's approach to diplomacy might be described as "Shout, shout louder, and break your stick over the table just to prove you mean business." This approach increases the odds of facing a hostile crowd with nothing but splinters in your hands.

He has threatened North Korea repeatedly, but idly. He publicly denounced them as part of the "Axis of Evil" in 2001, while they were still keeping their plutonium fuel rods in a containment pool open to outside inspection. When the North Koreans broke the Agreed Framework in 2002 and began reprocessing that plutonium, Bush did nothing. The Clinton administration had made it clear to Pyongyang that reprocessing plutonium was a "red-line" violation that would trigger a United States attack. No such punishment was forthcoming from the Bush administration. Instead, he denounced North Korea again. Denounced and threatened for not using the plutonium; denounced and threatened for using the plutonium: the optimal strategy for any tin-pot dictator is clear.

Bush spoke as loudly as possible. But the stick was nowhere in evidence.

Bush and company took a "hard-line" stance on North Korea, refusing to negotiate with them separately, and calling for the maximum possible sanctions (indeed, for harsher sanctions than we could manage to implement). This superficially "tough" approach weakened the American position in two important ways. First of all , it made no distinction between major or minor offenses by the North Koreans. All of their misbehavior was met with the same harsh but impotent rhetoric, giving them the impression that in practice it didn't matter how much they provoked us. All provocations were met with essentially the same response, so they had no incentive to moderate their behavior. Second, our refusal to engage with them sent the message that they could not avoid our displeasure in any case. Why, then, try to please us at all? If the US could not be appeased, the chief remaining options were deterrence and blackmail. None of this is an excuse for Kim Jong-Il or his monstrous regime. But simply calling Kim Jong-Il's regime monstrous doesn't solve the problem of containing it, and for too long such name-calling was George W. Bush's primary strategy.

There's been a lot of tough-guy posturing, but much less genuine toughness, and in the end the United States's position has been immeasurably weakened. Now, thanks to four years of Bush's idle threats and inaction, Kim Jong-Il may have a big stick of his own. Let's see how softly he decides to speak.

How to Keep the Foley Scandal Brewing

The Republican strategy for managing the Foley scandal has been brilliantly effective so far. For the Democrats. Since the GOP is apparently hell-bent on self-destruction this week, here's a quick abstract of their kamikaze strategy.

1) Keep the story on the front pages by quibbling over as many details as possible.

You have a scandal that's a pure loser. You can't possibly win on the big things. So grasp at every detail where you can get at least the illusion of a little traction. Well, it was e-mail rather than actual sex. Well, one of the pages was 18 by the time that particularly explicit exchange took place. (Legal, you know, like Mariel Hemingway in the last reel of Manhattan.) Well, what about Gerry Studds in 1983?

It's not simply that each of these claims isn't terribly powerful. (One of the former pages was 18 ... but the kid asked to describe his masturbation technique wasn't.) It isn't just that making these claims makes you seem out of step with the shocked and horrified audience that you're trying to spin. The real power of this strategy is that it generates more and more coverage of the basic scandal itself, "feeding the monster." The more petty counter-claims you make, the more often you can get the media to repeat the basic charge. Well done.

2) Make charges based on the facts that have yet to be established, spurring people to investigate those facts.

Look, all the facts that have been established are ugly. So let's just claim that there are some yet-undiscovered facts out there which would look better. What facts? We don't know. They haven't been discovered.

One of the key desperation talking points of the moment is that the Democrats sat on this information until the end of last week, and so that somehow they are really to blame. The beauty of this charge is that the people making it don't actually know how those e-mails got to the media. Making the charge is rolling the dice. And, as in bullet point 1), the charge gives people a reason to investigate the charge, keeping the whole mess in the news. Bravo.

The really brilliant plan is to say, "At least Foley didn't actually get his hands on anyone," and then "At least he never actually got his hands on anyone under age." If you can't confirm that yourself, some journalists will be happy to see if they can confirm or deny it. Won't it be a thrill if you're wrong?

3) Try to bring up the most popular living member of the opposing party as often as possible.

Absolutely, mention Bill Clinton as often as you can. Make sure all the voters remember that guy with the approval rating in the 60s. And while we're at it, why not bring up the old adultery raps on JFK and FDR?

And say "hypocrisy" a lot. This isn't just a scandal about a pedophile. It's a scandal about a pedophile who voted to impeach Clinton. So "hypocrisy" will be a great issue here. Go, GOP, go!