Thursday, November 11, 2004

That's Clear, Isn't It?

'Have something to say and say it as clearly as you can. That is the only secret of style.'
--Matthew Arnold

By now, most readers of WWW probably know they've come to a place that's generally admiring of one Christopher Hitchens. Of course, we're not alone. His ferocious intelligence, married to a vast knowledge of history, literature and politics and a uniquely lucid style have made him into one of the most closely read and best-enjoyed writers now wielding a pen in the English language (for a comprehensive archive of his writing, click here).

At the same time, of course, his increasingly bizarre turn to the right since 9/11 has left him tied up in rhetorical knots. Like his fellow Brit ex-pat Andrew Sullivan, he's had an ever-harder time trying to somehow reconcile all he knows, believes and has written over decades with the ferocious no-nothingness of the Bush crowd. Sullivan neatly extricated himself a couple months ago by publicly turning against Bush because of the Republicans' crude gay-baiting (though the gay writer insists he's not a single-issue guy). Like Inspector Renault in Casablanca, Andrew was simply shocked, shocked to learn that these guys would stoop to such gutter tactics.

"Hitch," on the other hand, has been far craftier, using his considerable mental and verbal pyrotechnics to confuse the issues and buy himself some wiggle room between what he'd like to believe and what his senses plainly tell him. In recent weeks, as evidence of the Bush crowd's mendaciousness has mounted, he's gingerly begun tiptoeing away from their worst excesses. But I think he hit his real high water mark in tortured reasoning with this telling, confusing non-endorsement of either candidate in Slate a couple days before the election:

I am assuming for now that this is a single-issue election. There is one's subjective vote, one's objective vote, and one's ironic vote. Subjectively, Bush (and Blair) deserve to be re-elected because they called the enemy by its right name and were determined to confront it. Objectively, Bush deserves to be sacked for his flabbergasting failure to prepare for such an essential confrontation. Subjectively, Kerry should be put in the pillory for his inability to hold up on principle under any kind of pressure. Objectively, his election would compel mainstream and liberal Democrats to get real about Iraq. The ironic votes are the endorsements for Kerry that appear in Buchanan's anti-war sheet The American Conservative, and the support for Kerry's pro-war candidacy manifested by those simple folks at I can't compete with this sort of thing, but I do think that Bush deserves praise for his implacability, and that Kerry should get his worst private nightmare and have to report for duty.

If that seems impossibly unclear to you, don't worry. I can't fathom it either. No, Chris hasn't lost his usual clarity of thought generally. It's probably just that on this issue, after having served as an apologist for the Bush regime for three years, he's decided to quell some of the cognitive dissonance he's no doubt been experiencing. So cut him some slack. Then again, maybe his election-eve hair-splitting was just an exercise in maintaining his insider access, like the lobbyist who donates to both candidates, just in case.

Just for Contrast. On the other hand, consider this splendid little gem of a story (free registration required) from today's Times, a marvel of keen observation and careful word choice, by the paper's new Hollywood beat cop, Sharon Waxman. Profiling former Congressman Dan Glickman, the new head of the Motion Picture Association of America, she begins thusly:

"He's about as bland as Jack Valenti is colorful. A navy blue blazer and a combover. A long face with puffy eyelids that have yet to feel the sharp edge of Beverly Hills' finest technicians. One look at Dan Glickman and you think: Peter Sellers meets 24 years of government service."

With writing like that (reminscent, for me at least, of when Maureen Dowd bestrode the Clinton years as an impossibly acidic and colorful political feature writer, back before either Bush or column-writing apparently sent her a bit over the edge), it's no wonder why the paper went after recruiting this former Washington Post Style section vet with the kind of intensity usually reserved for the Yankees' hunt for 20-game-winners on the free-agent market.

Small Glimmers of Good News from D.C., Part III. You may remember the National Endowment for the Arts as one of the prime whipping boys for the Republican Cossacks who stormed the Congressional palace back in the earth-rattling '94 off-year elections. By calling attention to a handful of the NEA's admittedly bizarre funding decisions (like "performance artist" Karen Finley smearing feces on herself for the delight of audiences and Andres Serrano's angry "Piss Christ" bull whip crapola), Newt Gingrich and his minions tried their best to elicit enough general revulsion to enable them to close the whole place down. Thankfully, they failed. Now comes word of what I would consider one of the best NEA funding decisions ever: a grant to enable the Paris Review to deposit hundreds of its legendary "Writers at Work" interviews in a searchable online archive. The Review, founded in 1952, functioned as something of a literary government in exile for decades. In later years, it was edited, overseen and even subsidized by the independently wealthy bon vivant and man about Manhattan, George Plimpton. When he died just over a year ago at age 76, everything was thrown into limbo with the institution that had come to be synomymous with him. But thanks to the NEA, his irrepressible wit and spirit lives on, and online no less! I think the whole initiative has an appropriate name: the DNA of Literature Project. Enjoy it here, beginning today (theoretically, although it's not quite up yet). It's due to kick off with a 1954 interview with Bill Styron, and each month thereafter, a decade's worth of interviews will be added.

Finally, I loved this small item, which may have escaped your attention, because it has thus far escaped the entire media's attention, with the singular (and honorable) exception of NPR's Morning Edition. In running down the list of possible candidates rumored to be in the running for the then-vacant Attorney General's job, Maura Liasson yesterday dismissed the chances of former Montana Governor and certified Friend of W, Mark Racicot. Why? It seems he failed to pass an earlier ethics screening by the FBI for such sensitive federal posts. That's interesting, I thought. Wonder why that didn't also disqualify him for the only marginally less sensitive job he's been doing for the last several months, chairing the Republican National Committee and serving as a key spokesman for the Bush-Cheney re-election effort. Perhaps she can explore that topic a bit next time she sits in with her joshing colleagues on party-approved State TV, otherwise known as Fox News...


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