Tuesday, June 7, 2011
Kathryn Schulz, in New York Magazine:
For as long as some people have fretted about expletives in literature, others have seen fit to laugh at them. Here is Cole Porter, mock-lamenting the profanity of writers back in 1934: “Good authors, too, who once knew better words / Now only use four-letter words writing prose / Anything goes!” That was sometime after James Joyce and D. H. Lawrence, and sometime before Allen Ginsberg, Norman Mailer, and Erica Jong. Yet the idea persists that the use of swear words by writers is fundamentally uncreative and indolent—that the lazy man’s “Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” is “Fuck this shit.”
This idea rests on the assumption that “bad” words really are bad—and ditto writers who use them without exceptional justification. In crime fiction, foul language is justified on the ground that it is lifelike. (Art just imitates that shit.) In Go the Fuck to Sleep, foul language is not simply justified but justification: The whole book is about the taboo status of the word fuck. By contrast, outside of books like Jesse Sheidlower’s The F-Word or Harry G. Frankfurt’s On Bullshit, it’s difficult to justify profanity in serious nonfiction.
But do we need such a justification, beyond the one a writer might mount for any word—i.e., that it works? There is, after all, no such thing as an intrinsically bad, boring, or lazy word. There is only how it is deployed, and one of the pleasures of profanity is how diversely you can deploy it. In The Mother Tongue,Bill Bryson argues that okay is “the quintessential Americanism” and “the most grammatically versatile of words.” Okay. But surely it has a rival—or a compatriot—in fuck. Wherever it originated (the jury is out), the F-word has flourished in our adolescent American soil. And pace Bryson, its grammatical versatility cannot be topped: You can use it as noun, verb, adverb, adjective, or interjection, not to mention in any mood whatsoever, from exultation to rage.
I know of no better rebuttal to the “bad words are bad writing” equation than film critic Anthony Lane’s brutal 2005 takedown of Star Wars in The New Yorker. Listen to Yoda for a moment: “Mourn them do not. Miss them do not. The shadow of greed that is.” Now listen to Lane demolish—with awesome precision, as one demolishes a single building in a city block—that mangled syntax and ersatz wisdom: “Break me a fucking give.”
Bad? Boring? Please. Pulitzer him a fucking give. Writers don’t use expletives out of laziness or the puerile desire to shock or because we mislaid the thesaurus. We use them because, sometimes, the four-letter word is the better word—indeed, the best one. In The Debt to Pleasure, John Lanchester provides an astute breakdown of three words that, at first, might seem interchangeable. “Compare,” he writes, “the implication of mismanagement, of organization going wrong, in the Gallic debacle with the candidly chaotic, intimate quality of the Italian fiasco, or the blokishly masculine and pragmatic (and I would suggest implicitly reversible and therefore, in its deep assumptions, optimistic) American fuck-up.”
The rest. And,
Monday, June 6, 2011
The above is an ad that will run against Rep. Paul Ryan in Wisconsin's 1st district. It's the lowest of the low. I won't defend Ryan's insincere budget, nor Rand's nutbag individualism, but unfortunately this piece implicitly smears Ryan and other conservatives for worshiping Ayn Rand the atheist, and the message is certainly not one alleging hypocrisy. It is almost impossible to imagine a political ad smearing its target by association with a writer of Christian or Jewish faith. Though different, this guilt by association with a hated minority is reminiscent of the bigoted insinuations of this ad, which I posted last year:
Friday, June 3, 2011
"He who warned, uh, the… the British that they weren’t gonna be takin’ away our arms, uh, by ringin’ those bells and um by makin’ sure that as he’s ridin’ his horse through town to send those warnin’ shots and bells that, uh, we were gonna be secure and we were gonna be free… and we were gonna be armed.”Sarah Palin's understanding of Paul Revere.
Wednesday, June 1, 2011
As protest movements sweep through the Middle East, few countries exemplify the opportunities and potential pitfalls of political change as well as Syria. Beginning on March 15, Syrians took to the streets in large numbers, demanding a more responsive and democratic government. After an initial promise of reform, the government of President Bashar al-Assad has cracked down on protestors with increasingly brutal force. The continued unrest in Syria has serious implications for Iran’s role in the region, the Israeli-Arab conflict, the stability of Lebanon, and organizations such as Hamas and Hezbollah.
As Syrians face al-Khatibian style brutality, explains why undertaking intervention to facilitate overthrow in Syria is vastly more complex than doing the same in Libya, though moral justifications obviously exist for both. Unfortunately, Assad seems to be somewhat protected, at least from international force, by circumstance. Also from CEIP:
First: Syria's military is far stronger than Libya's. Syria has one of the largest, best equipped, and trained armed forces in the Middle East. It also has chemical and biological weapons and its paramilitary forces are among the largest in the world. In contrast, Gaddafi kept the Libyan military fragmented, ill equipped, and poorly trained.
Second: War fatigue. Libya exhausted the little appetite left in the United States to engage in wars that are not justified by clear threats to its vital interests. Syrian dissidents are suffering the consequences of the long and costly wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the recent raid on Libya. U.S. military support for remote causes will henceforth be more limited and selective. And, as far as wars are concerned, Europe won't act without Washington. This leaves the heroic Syrian dissidents all on their own.
Third: Thorny neighbors. Libya has Egypt on one side and Tunisa on the other--the jewels of the Arab Spring. Syria borders with one of the world's most volatile mixture of countries: Lebanon, Israel, Iraq, Jordan, and Turkey.
Fourth: No allies. Gaddafi has no friends and even his own children wanted to marginalize him. In an unprecedented move, the Arab League supported the establishment of a strictly enforced no-fly zone in Libya. In contrast, Bashar al-Assad has powerful allies inside and outside the region--starting with Iran (and, therefore, Hezbollah and Hamas). It is not even clear if Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli government would welcome a chaotic transition of power in Syria. Even Vogue magazine was smitten with this family and wrote a sycophantic article about Asma Assad, "the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies" endowed with "dark-brown eyes, wavy chin-length brown hair, long neck, an energetic grace." It's hard to bomb someone like that.
(h/t Josh Lockman)