How we deal with the dead.

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June 18 2008 11:05 AM

"Canonization, Backlash, Backlash-Backlash"

How we deal with the dead.

Where do Slate readers stand on obituaries? As of today, in two camps, snarling across the Potomac at each other about Tim Russert. One tendency dislikes the way the magazine's admittedly irreverent tone will not be toned down for a death, and the fact that Slate will highlight—in "Recycled"—older and often deeply uncomplimentary articles on the dead person. Recently this happened with Sydney Pollack—an archived and rather grumpy "Assessment" was paired with a more respectful "Obit," and some readers were unimpressed. When the inventor of Dungeons & Dragons, Gary Gygax, died, and Slate published an unfavorable commentary, we had to devote a whole "Fraywatch," to reader reaction ("don't mess with the game people" we concluded). But then, there's another whole army of readers who say that that's what they come to Slate for—a contrarian view, a refreshing and unsentimental look at what's happening. That's not how the other side describes it, of course.

So, to Tim Russert. First there was a "Recycled" item linking to past articles on him: Several readers said how inappropriate they found that. Then, Jack Shafer wrote a "Press Box" about the eulogies on Tim Russert. Too much, he said. Readers responded—boy did they respond.  More than 200 posts on the topic, proving at the very least that Russert's death touched a nerve—though also proving the second rule of Fray responses: Get featured on the MSN home page and a lot of non-Slate regulars will read the article, and comment.

A few careful readers appreciated the observation made by Right By Choice: "I didn't see an unkind word in the whole article about Russert himself"—but for most people this was neither noticed nor relevant. More to the point was Lucabrasi's phrase "Canonization, backlash, backlash-backlash," which summed up the situation so well that we're using it to define the responses.

Canonization: An outside observer (like your foreign Fray Editor) might be surprised by the number of readers saying how much they identified with Russert—"My entire family reacted to Tim's death as though we had lost a member of our family" as JoAnn put it, a thought repeated by many others. He was "someone of blue collar roots who used his position as the moderator of Meet the Press to engage in a dialog with prominent politicians and get straight answers for mainstream America" according to Slate1234.

There were tributes from those likeRithorn, who admits to "Potomac fever" and says "We out here in the hinterland came to look forward to his observations and commentary." JTully was firm: "I am the common man ... [the coverage] was for all of us, I frankly, didn't miss a minute of it … Tim Russert was fair … brilliant, and yet a common man from a common background." Many, like AberdeenJessica, wanted to mention their own working-class roots while praising "his ability to keep a foot proudly in two worlds."

The Backlash community—Shafer's supporters—comes with this bracing comment from mdfine: "I have been a Slate reader and occasional poster for some time now and I can honestly say that I have never agreed with a single thing that Jack Shafer has written until now." HebrewHammer says his piece with grace: "I don't want to seem cold, but it seems to me that we used to embrace a tragedy with quiet grace and self-reflection. Now we flaunt it by showing the people around us how much we can mourn." WhiteCamry was sharper: "Tim Russert's middle name wasn't Diana, was it?"

There were other comments on Russert: TheRealRML said "He was the Elvis of political commentators: He was everywhere and even his competitors wanted to capture his qualities"; GregLDixon went with the "he was everywhere" theme too: "Russert, champion of time management." And we (respectfully) laughed at TheMexican's comment: "He was a great guy, let's name a potato after him!"

Then there was the Backlash-Backlash: people who saw the point of the article but had another take. The question of what the Russert coverage displaced on the news channels was much mulled over, and Dbguy asked "You really missed folks pontificating as to how Obama would do with Hillary women in November that much? We'll know that soon enough." Another reader, nancyacramer, said that "on some level, for many of us, actors, broadcasters, and personalities of every sort find their way into the fabric of our lives more deeply than we realize" and went on to tell us that some friends who'd felt Russert's loss deeply had then been glad to be able to watch Tiger Woods in the U.S. Open golf tournament. Esteban had a peace-making suggestion: "How about an 'in the ground' rule in which all would be fair in love, war, and media criticism after the funeral?"

There's one more post we really want to feature: from Schoolie, who says he liked Russert, but "I've never seen a bigger celebration of banality in my life than last weekend on the TV news. Dad! Football! Jesus! I generally hope for more secret perversity in my public figures." We've said it before: It's hard to define our ideal Slate/Fray reader, but we know him when we find him.—MR ... 4 p.m. GMT

Saturday, June 07,  2008

With the long nomination fight finally over and the long-knives dulled from months of overuse, attention now turns to uniting a Democratic Party that has been at war within itself through this long and fiercely contested campaign. Later today, Hillary Clinton is scheduled to formally concede the race to Barack Obama. In The Fray, an environment where polarization is a state of nature, partisans of Obama and Clinton have been bellowing at one another for months. Like the candidates they've supported, many Democratic Fraysters have already begun the awkward negotiations necessary to come back together on the same team. The liveliest and most fruitful discussion has been occurring in the XX Factor Fray, where readers have been sorting through the host of sore feelings and broken hopes that this historic campaign has left in its wake.

In one thread, Ann Newton asks "Why do Hillary supporters hate Obama?" To which female engineer offers this compelling response:

Obama is not the candidate they are looking for. In fact he is their recurring nightmare; Obama represents the guy who was promoted over them because he was smooth, cool, etc. not because he did the hard work, paid his dues, and yes, waited his turn.

A lot of women had to live through that and, rightly or wrongly, they actually empathize with Clinton and feel what she is going through. These women did the work for their daughters, they don't need Obama to do it for them.

John Heartfield, not exactly a Clinton supporter, offers another perspective on Obama-skepticism:

Perhaps what disturbs me about Mr. Obama's campaign is what disturbs women, working class white men, and others who have chosen to vote for a candidate they were told had no chance of winning the nomination rather than vote for Obama. It speaks volumes that Obama supporters still don't understand that their candidate lost the popular vote of their own party, and only won the nomination by the grace of the very super delegates they had previously said should not be the ones to determine the winner. The media was so focused on the idea that Hillary Clinton acted as if the nomination was hers by right, that they failed to see the arrogance and obnoxiousness of her opponent's campaign. That elitism (for lack of a better word) was not lost on the rest of us.

In the 40 years I have followed American politics, never have I seen a candidate (and her supporters) treated with such disrespect by the media. I found one spokesperson for the Obama campaign saying on the Larry King Show that, yes, the two candidates agree on most issues, but, for example, Mr. Obama's position on the Iraq War is deeper, more complex, more significant than Mrs. Clinton's. The spokesperson actually said, "You don't understand," and threw in a quote from Carl Jung.

Mr. Obama will probably win the election because John McCain is simply unacceptable. But this elitism, the idea that the people who support Obama are in a superior class and the rest of us ordinary mortals cannot possibly understand the complexities of his policies, will stifle and eventually bring down his presidency.

Despite their candidate's victory, many Obama supporters are still nursing their own share of grievances over the course of the long campaign. Davelias12 feels genuinely insulted by the way Clinton spoke of her opponent's supporters:

What steams a lot of Obama supporters is the fact that Hillary constantly derided them as being delusional, and Obama as being "elitist" and inexperienced. When in fact, she embodies those adjectives so much more than him, and her supporters demonstrate the same "cultish" enthusiasm for her that they levy against Obama supporters.

Somehow Clinton has convinced so many people that she has all of this viable toughness and experience, except her record points to the contrary. She's the underdog? She had a double-digit lead at the outset and the media was calling it her coronation. She fought the dirty campaign, but Obama's the sexist.

It's the double-speak and the "up-is-down" that frustrates so many.

Woolley, a relative late-comer to commitment, describes how praising the speech on race backed him into Obama's corner:

I was undecided until the race speech. When that speech was completed, I wrote a piece here on it that was checkmarked and got at least 15 thumbs up. I did not bash her at all, it was a piece on how remarkable that speech was and how I felt about Obama.

That single post was on the first page of "The Fray" for about 2 weeks and it drew attention. I got vicious attacks for even suggesting that the speech was a great one. It was a shock to me to find out just how much some folks did not want Obama to be given his due.

That opened up my eyes to the insane passion that was just under the surface of this race. Up until then, I just wanted a Democrat. By the time I had been insulted many times over, I was pissed. To be honest, I have been over the top and I know it. But none of this started with the Obama camp or supporters. Its been a defensive reaction all along and that is why now that the race is over, you are seeing Obama supporters lashing out.

It will end. Its time to call it over. Obama has been gracious and above it all. I think Hillary has come to grips with it too. Democrats need to do the same, soon. The alternative is McCain.

NJ Gal has been working valiantly to find the common ground in all this acrimony:

It's called values and life experiences. They don't see the same big negatives you do in Clinton - but they see big negatives in Obama that we don't. I have read some pretty awful words about [Clinton] supporters written by Obama supporters in XX, other blogs and the MSM - her supporters must be extremely ignorant, stupid or racist to support her. Or they must be bitter old hags. Please, how is that constructive? I dont want someone to talk about my mother that way! [...]

I know more Clinton supporters than Obama supporters. They don't need us to validate what they feel. They don't want us to judge their choices. Clinton's loss is not the biggest tragedy in their lives. They are very disappointed, but they've seen presidents and other leaders assassinated, and buried their parents, kids and husbands. They know they will be able to move on in a few days.

Do they like Obama. No. Will they vote for Obama? Maybe.

If mainstream press accounts leave you wondering which rank-and-file Democrats need reconciliation and why, The Fray abounds with insightful examples. Notable entries include this defense of Obama's accomplishments by thdcnx; Adrasteia's account of the moment she turned away from Clinton; and this conversation between eric2500be and Munich about Obama's off-putting elitism.

Today, the closing credits are set to roll on one of the most exciting primary campaigns in American history. As the heat gradually dies down, the time has come for cool reflection on what these extraordinary elections have been and what they have meant. We'd love to hear your thoughts in The Fray. --GA11:15 pm PDT

Wednesday, June 04,  2008

Update: Which Frays are which Sex and the City women? Bright_virago came up with such good suggestions (possibly even better than mine) that they really need to be featured:

Carrie is "Dear Prudence."

Charlotte is "Family."

Miranda is "Jurisprudence."

Samantha is "Shameful Conduct."

OK, definitely better than my choices. --MR4.00 p.m. GMT

Tuesday, June 03,  2008

If the Fray were a Sex and the City heroine, which one would it be? Perhaps, like Lord Running Clam, "turns out I'm a Charlotte who thinks he's a Miranda." But no, we can't be that general. We'll judge the women as different Frays (let us know if you have better assignments):

Carrie*********Best of the Fray
Miranda*******.Moneybox Fray
Charlotte******.Poems Fray
Samantha******XX Factor Fray

The movie was being discussed all over Slate, at the "XX Factor" and on Dana Stevens' review, the item on labels, and the  discussion at "IM." "Movies" Fray stalwart lucabrasi (perhaps not surprisingly in view of his Frayname) laid out a great comparisonbetween the TV series and The Sopranos, inspiring Topazz to imagine a fight between Carmela and Samantha:

Carmela would knock her flat before she ever knew what hit her. They could've gotten a lot of mileage out of that ... it would've even had that little touch of Joey Buttafucco thrown in for good measure.

Mikestand liked a threadon the men-women divide on the movie, and was surprised to find "SATC isn't really about, you know, sex with a man, which would seem to be the point as well as the motivating factor for the whole works, but rather a sort of self-contained sex video game, using the concept, imagery, plumage, etc, but not accessing or even necessarily interested in the real thing."

Was SATC just a soap opera? Absolutely not, explainsMarzipan:

Daytime soap opera narratives exist in a world outside of and apart from our own; everything—including designer names and labels—is kept out of the frame in service to what's left in: namely, relationships of all stripes (lovers, yes, equally, family relationships within large,established clans). … Whether or not one perceives as "vapid" television serials whose central focus is relationships (as opposed to those whose focus is, say, police procedurals as per Law and Order) probably depends on one's personal taste. Me, I don't care for the manner in which daytime soaps explore relationships—but I don't consider the subject matter of human relationships to be vapid, in the least.

In fact, Sex and the City's finest moments have been the relational ones. … I've just let the parade of designers pass by in a haze, while I wait for the good—at, least, the better—stuff.

There were some melancholy posts in there: katidid0913 couldn't escape"the feeling of being handed a glass of flat champagne"; some troubleabout the concept of renting the Vuitton; and wmccomninel posted a haunting descriptionof watching the TV series in Iraq ending with a rather desolating line about "those long desperate nights. Turns out that they were actually better than these are."

So—not much about the sex then? Do we need to go looking elsewhere? After reading the " Human Nature" item on oral sex, AmericanAbroad was inspired to share thiswith us:

I want to know if an enthusiasm for oral sex is an American thing. What's the rest of the (adult) world doing? Having watched my share of porn, it seemed the French were into anal, the Germans were into fantasy/costume, the Japanese like it when she looks like she hates every moment. But the Americans are cheerful and happy and going down. Right?

Elsewhere, a  poster read the "XX Factor" discussionon women and adultery and examined her sex drive:

In the interest of science I pulled out my phone list from work and ranked the men in the office (out of 35 men total). I have fantasized about 15 (43%) of them, I wouldn't mind having sex with 8 (23%) of them, 6 (17%) of them leave me cold and there are 6 who I would not want to have sex with. I work in research and development so these are not above-average attractive people in general.

Thisislissa—and we're guessing you're a Samantha—we warmed to you. But then, we don't work in R& D. … MR …1 p.m. GMT

Wednesday, May  28,  2008

Slate readers are tireless and generous: They read our articles and give us their advice and predictions. It's been a busy time for these dedicated commentators, what with (among other items) the finale of American Idol, the return of Indiana Jones, a new Narnia film, a TV program on a Lohan, and a lot of " XXFactor" discussion on sex. So, here's a time-saving guide to the best of their recent comments. (The short, snarky ones anyway. More serious discussion at the end of the articles.)

1) What Spiker has learned about sex: "In the end the sole quality that is attractive in a woman--a person--is imagination…Keep the first deviant with imagination that you find."

2) Advice to Lindsay Lohan's sister Ali, from redmenace: "Run away from home. Seriously."

3) The losing finalist on American Idol will not have any long-term success because he is, according to Texwiz, "the boy with the voice of an angel and the stage presence of lawn furniture."

4) Rinkrat, here, knows what's the best bit of Narnia: "riding around on a horse with a totally awesome crown."

5) Einhard has taken the right message, here, from an award-winning luggage ad featured in "Ad Report Card":  "I did notice though, that the only shot of a bag consisted of the weepy lady walloping her beau with hers. Maybe that's the tag: Louis Vuitton, better than Mace for getting rid of unwanted male attention."

6) Christopher Hitchens and John McCain wonder if the USA should have a British-style Question Time. Well, Screwjack2008 has a better idea: "I personally always thought we should select a mob of say, 1000 citizens from all walks of life to descend on Washington D.C. once a year, drag our elected officials out into the street and beat them within inches of their lives. Just to keep them in line."

7) That Indiana Jones movie? SartoriThroughAllegory  says: "The Jungle Book had more plausibility." (Something to do with better performances from the monkeys, we think.)

8) The next big issue: "Nobody cares or even notices the problem. This is what's wrong with America. How can we invent the Next Big Thing that will rescue our economy and assure our dominance for another generation, if we can't even solve …" What? What is it that ghjm considers so important? The answer is Stretch-O-Vision: He is unhappy about having to watch wide-screen HDTVs with inadequate signals in restaurants and sports bars, and blames John McCain. You read it first here. MR 8.30 p.m. GMT

Tuesday, May  20,  2008

If you are finding it hard to make sense of John Hodgen's " Just A Tranquil Darker," which the poet reads aloud for us here, we might venture into Poems Fray to see what our fellow readers are saying.

First, I advise you to buckle your seat belt. The level of brutality we associate in the Fray only with exchanges in Ballot Box (or more recently, in Medical Examiner over a certain pharmaceutical-funded radio program) can readily emanate from the literati crowd when it feels that a "graceless note" has been sounded in its department.

I am quoting Artemisia, who speaks up in defense of the poem's subject, an elderly woman having her sunglasses adjusted at the optometrist: "I wish these marketplace writers would leave old ladies alone and realize that it is they and not their subjects who need a new lens for glasses or a corneal transplant from a real poet."

In this must-read post, MaryAnn skillfully unpacks Hodgen's various literary allusions for us. Her overall assessment: "John Hodgen goes way overboard in his use of poetic techniques."

Bottomfish professes to be exhausted by the poem's overly dense layers of meaning, but nonetheless finds the energy to elucidate its central theme:

Joseph Conrad said "My task, above all, is to make you see." Since the optometrist provides what you need to see correctly (or see the way you want, as with Hodgen's old woman), he might be ironically said to have a Conrad-like role. But obviously this is a joke. "Seeing" is a common synecdoche for "understanding", but seeing is by no means all of understanding and in fact is often not even part of it. (Old joke: "I see" said the blind man.)

Hodgens' poem is about seeing in this double sense. I have a feeling that the last six lines, which are the core, were written first. Their tone is different from the elaborate irony (and I would say archness) of the rest. The old woman wants to see everything in a certain way and goes to the optometrist to obtain the visual mode she wants,and he, like a poet in the double sense just discussed, provides it. (Actually the poet ought to provide more than just confirmation of what people want to see anyway.)

Foobs even rewrites the poem in more simplistic language, presumably to bring its godly themes down to the level of mortals. Indeed, if anything encapsulates the stinging spirit of Hodgen's critics, we need not look any further than Foobs' final stanza—too harsh to be requoted here—in which "berated" is rhymed with "sated."

The reviews are still rolling in this morning, so continue to check back and see if the final consensus is just a tranquil nicer. AC10:42 a.m. PST

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