We're living in the Golden Age of Mediocrity. Our government has set new records for venality and incompetence. Our captains of industry plumb new depths of corruption and excess. Even our children are dumber, fatter, and more rotten than any generation before. Surrounded by failure and fiasco, the motto of our era could be summed up thus: "Worse is better."
In this brave new world of underperformance, only the old-fashioned are ashamed of their shortcomings. The Peter Principle rules, and the dregs rise inevitably to the top. These are the days of Paris Hilton celebrity and Sanjaya super-stardom, of crooked referees and proudly clueless presidents. Never before has excellence at sucking been such a bankable commodity.
It's no longer enough to suck with moderation. To the one who fails most profoundly fall the largest rewards. The burden of perfecting failure falls upon our superlatively unworthy shoulders. We've noticed with alarm and dismay that the title of "World's Worst Poet" has remained undisturbed for nearly a century. Surely, we can do worse. In order to encourage the pursuit of execrableness, Slate is hosting its first "Bad Poetry Contest."
We're inviting you to share your worstest verses—snippets of doggerel doodled on the train, screams of teenage angst scribbled in journals, odes to lovers you were a fool to woo. To compete, all you must do is submit your poem to the Bad Poetry Contest Fray. A panel of distinguished Slate authors and editors will be charged with sifting the dreck from the dregs.
Entries will be judged by Dahlia Lithwick, Daniel Politi, June Thomas, and Daniel Engber. Our judges will deploy their finely calibrated sense of revulsion to select the winning entries. You too can cast your votes by assigning each poem a "thumbs up" or a "thumbs down." The poem with the greatest number of negative votes will be deemed the worst poem by popular choice. All winning entries will be featured in this space.
The contest results will be announced on Aug. 18, America's official "Bad Poetry Day."
You can enter your own poem into the contest, or read the submissions of others, by clicking on the Bad Poetry Contest Fray. GA … 4:15 pm PDT.
Monday, July 23, 2007
I've never had much patience for people who disclaim ideology. All of us have things we support and things we oppose. Though it's naive to mistake this constellation of opinions for an ideology, the system of thought by which we reach these conclusions definitely counts as such. However muddled and incoherent it may be, the process by which we separate the good from the bad marks us as ideologues at work.
Because our political identities are shaped by the totality of our convictions, spotting our ideological fellow travelers can be fraught with confusion. Only the loneliest of souls pass out comprehensive manifestoes as calling cards. By and large, we spot our comrades through flashes of insight into mutual allegiances and mutual oppositions. Too often, we spot a false ally by noting a shared against-ism, only to discover that we're consorting with supporters of causes that fill us with revulsion.
It's always easier to win friends by finding points of common disagreement. This is why Rudy Giuliani has opted for such a strategy, defining himself as an opponent of Democrats rather than a supporter of moderate social positions. The Onion took this position to its logical extreme, announcing John Edwards' campaign to end bad things. Even Al Qaeda plays this game, as demonstrated by Reza Aslan's review of Bin Laden's litany of populist grievances.
Slate, too, engages in such collusive antagonism—especially in the weekly column of our curmudgeonly neighborhood polemicist, Christopher Hitchens. Any regular reader of Fighting Words certainly knows that Hitchens is opposed to Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime and any of it's colorable supporters. We know that he's against God in general and His Islamic terrorist supporters especially. And, he's opposed to any kind of muddle-headed liberal thinking which might plausibly enable or excuse such depraved conduct. In Hitchens' world-view, we're not just engaged in a pitched battle between us and them. We're engaged in a battle between us and those of us who are too tolerant of them. According to Hitchens, "the advocates and apologists of bigotry and censorship and suicide-assassination cannot be permitted to take shelter any longer under the umbrella of a pluralism that they openly seek to destroy."
While I often find it hard to disagree with much of this righteous outrage, the Fray has posed a question—asked by fingerpuppet nearly a month ago—which has lodged like a burr in my brain, stinging whenever I read the Fighting Words column: what would Hitchens have us do?
I'm not sure where Hitchens is going with this rhetorical campaign. Given that the vast majority of the non-Muslim world already agrees that terrorism and religion-based hatred is bad and needs to be fought hard against, and that appropriate steps are being taken by the proper authorities, what does he want us to do? Many of us might disapprove of the attitudes and practices of some of these extremist communities, but even if these might be seen as being breeding grounds for anti-western violence and attempts at political insurrection, until laws have been broken and conspiracies uncovered, what else is there to do? Is condemnation and verbal abuse supposed to make a positive contribution to our security, or add to anything that the police and intelligence services are already doing?
Sure, we're all outraged that these mindless thugs keep trying to bomb Londoners and other innocent would-be victims. It's appropriate to express our contempt for the mentality that inspires such obsessive hatefulness. But I get the feeling that Hitchens wants us to do more. What "more" could that possibly be, and what good would it do? Should we be out in the streets burning flags like the idiots on the other side of this culture clash? What else, then? Does Hitchens want us to start banning people from wearing veils or otherwise expressing the (constitutionally protected) aspects of their faith? Should we put police cordons around their neighborhoods or allow police to indiscriminately spy on them? Should we arrest them and imprison them without charges being filed or allowing them access to legal counsel? Should we torture them?
Once posed with such clarity, it's impossible to miss the recurrence of this bemusement in responses to Hitchens' weekly jeremiad. In this week's discussion of Your Black Muslim Bakery (which, incidentally, really did provide quality baked goods) Hitchens accuses the Oakland police department of "collusion" for "respecting" a nominally "faith-based" organization that doubled as an organized crime syndicate. As The Chemist asks, what more could one expect the police to do than investigate criminal organizations?
Would you rather the cops had raided before they had a case, thereby facilitating the charges being thrown out of criminal court? Now who's being irrational about Muslims?
I hate organized religion as much, if not more, that you, Hitch. But I can't see how you're advocating anything less than rounding up people based on ethnicity or religion and the fact that others of the same ethnicity/religion have done some very bad things. I thought that WW2 had taught us that lesson, more than any of the other lessons that the Bush administration likes to take from WW2.
There's no difficulty to retrospectively denouncing the murder of journalists or the detonation of car bombs. It's much harder and less honorable to label villains in advance of villainous conduct. As American citizens, who among us issues exculpatory press releases every time an American soldier commits an atrocity abroad? Is it fair to expect American Muslims to lead the cry of dismay every time a depraved co-religionist commits a crime in the name of Allah or in the pursuit of Mammon?
In the world I experience, pluralism is more like the atmosphere we breathe than the umbrella beneath which we shelter. If liberal values require coercion to propagate or defend themselves, then we're already fighting an unstoppable tide of history in the name of a dead ideology.
It's hard not to feel there's something ugly behind Hitchens' torrent of invective. While I wouldn't yet go so far as the_slasher14, who identified echoes of totalitarian racialism in his observation that British Muslims account for 70% of that nation's birth defects, I have reached one firm conclusion. Whatever vision of society Hitchens may have in mind, it's pretty clearly not the pluralist and liberal society that I support. Whatever it may be that Hitchens is standing for, I'm certainly against it. GA … 1:30 am PDT.
Monday, July 23, 2007
Last week, Elizabeth Edwards injected some excitement into the Fray, taking John Dickerson to task for misunderstanding her latest campaign commercial. My fellow Fray Editor, Adam Christian, has ably summed up the ensuing discussion. Though the issue danced around the margins, her appearance sparked an equally compelling conversation about her husband's signature issue – the plight of America's poorest.
Many readers were downright disdainful of the "Two Americas" theme, decrying it as the worst kind of divisive demagoguery. Some found concern for the impoverished by the privileged to be inherently hypocritical. Others thought it diverted attention from the eternal suffering of America's beleaguered "middle class."
As the debate unfolded online, I was on my own short trek through this "other America"—riding the dog from Los Angeles to Oakland. Among my myriad traveling companions was a single mother of four—children ranging in age from one year to seven. I can't say she had a gentle disposition, but for someone trying to raise four kids with few resources, she was doing an admirable job. Her kids seemed happy and well-behaved, trained to recite their home address, and adequately clothed and fed. At one point, the three-year old cheerfully volunteered that his father was dead. His older sister reprimanded him, insisting that Dad was just in jail for a very long time. A telling insight into the gulf between the lives of these children and that of the Bazelons came when the toddler spotted two police cars along the side of the road with their lights blazing. "Look, guys! Police cars!" A pause. "Everyone hit the floor!"
In my experience, there are indeed two Americas. From what I've observed, the "other America" doesn't vote, fears rather than respects the law, and fights like mad just to get by in this world. So far as I can tell, political America largely ignores them, resents them, and prefers to rally behind the banner of Bush's self-interested slogan: "It's your money."
While I agree with drdorin that the Edwards are performing an admirable service by injecting this issue into the 2008 campaign, Daniel Gross' piece on law-firm charity most sharply spot-lighted this issue last week. Gross took to task the charity lunch program of a prominent New York law firm. The program encourages summer associates to cut costs on sponsored lunches and donates the savings to legal service charities. Gross criticizes the program, finding it inadequate, pompous, and self-interested.
The former manager of a non-profit, Pierce N. V. Post, points out that charities don't care whether donations make you smug: "We just want the money." Recent law school grad, MADMouse, considers the program an act of resistance to "the decadence of the summer associate experience." An idealistic law student, bennyprofane, feels personally slighted by Gross' analysis. "Many [law students] are middle and lower middle class kids who want to change their position on the socio-economic ladder and pay off their substantial debts." Such programs empower students saddled with tremendous debts to nevertheless direct some money to charitable causes. Acidtongue reminds readers that even such token gestures force one to "stop and think" about the needs of the less fortunate.
First-time Frayster Dare Not Walk Alone offers a powerful anecdote of self-interested altruism:
For the last two years, my wife and I have been involved in the life of very poor family in the small town in North Florida in which we all live. Although this family resides less than two miles from us, they are, in so many ways, a world away. The head of the household, Mary, is now 60 and for nearly two decades she has been raising three of her daughter's children, two girls and a boy, while their mother has been in jail. One granddaughter is 13 and still in school, the other is 18 and in jail. The grandson is 21 and mentally disabled. Mary's own son is 20 and just went to jail for what could be the next 20 years. At various times Mary has nursed numerous family members in her home, including the grandmother that raised her. Contrary to popular stereotypes, our country's welfare programs do not keep this family fed and housed and cared for.
Mary was born and raised on a share-cropping farm in Georgia. She was 16 the first time she saw a dollar bill. She worked as a dish-washer at a large hospital here in North Florida for nearly two decades but received no pension or long term benefits when she quit. She had to quit because the engine in her car died and she didn't have the money to fix it. Most cities in Florida have little or no public transportation and with a heat index that is often over 100 degrees in the Summer, a four mile walk or bike ride to get to work is hardly a realistic option for a woman whose blood pressure is currently around 220/140.
When we met Mary she still needed a car to get to work. We found her one and sure enough she found a job and went back to work. But then her house burned down. The fire broke out from a dilapidated stove used for heating. Right after the fire, the Red Cross put the family in a motel, but would only pay for three nights. Through the kindness of strangers, and my wife's abilities as a negotiator, the family spent two months in an ocean front condo while she corralled all the paperwork required to get Mary into the County's one federally subsidized housing project. That is where Mary and her family live for now.
After 60 years of raising a family, working hard, and caring for others, Mary's one and only capital asset is the tiny lot on which her house once stood. The cost to rebuild the house so that she has her own home again: about $50,000. Mary may not have much in this world but she definitely has pride and principles. Even so, it is ridiculous to think she would turn down a new house for her family just because the funding came from rich lawyers for whom the gift was a PR stunt that cost nothing.
The American economy is often described as a game, producing winners and losers. This analogy seems to underlie arguments such as gringo_911's, that "people who fail in a rich country with very small unemployment and abundant opportunities [don't] deserve to get free housing, free health care, jobs, dignity, respect and voice."
Not all games treat their losers the same. In "Butts Up," the savage recess game of my youth, winners pelt losing players with tennis balls. In conventional games, when winners behave with graciousness towards the defeated we call it "sportsmanship." In the context of the American game, what does sportsmanship look like? Where is the line between honorable victory and vindictive abuse?
If you've any thoughts about the role of class, charity, and politics in America, we'd appreciate hearing from you in the Fray. GA … 3:00am PDT