Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson

The Finkler QuestionThe Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

After I finished reading The Finkler Question I felt moved to go back to Mark Twain's essay on Fenimore Cooper's literary offenses, because I am convinced that Jacobson is guilty of some of the same offenses. Specifically, he should have taken the time to make his main characters at least slightly believable as human beings, but that apparently would have been too much trouble.

The Finkler Question is meant to be an examination of Jewish identity, as depicted through the actions of a self-hating gentile who by means of a series of incredible events becomes convinced he is actually Jewish. Jacobson asks us to believe in a book with an utterly unbelievable main character. Julian Treslove, the protagonist, is a 49-year-old former BBC employee who makes his living masquerading as celebrities at parties. We learn that his looks are so generic that he can easily pass for Brad Pitt or Colin Firth, or be mistaken for Dustin Hoffman or Adam Sandler. You can believe me when I tell you that there is nobody who could be mistaken for all four of those men, no matter how generic his appearance.

He is also a university graduate whose two best friends are Jews, but has no idea of what goes on at a seder, or even what a seder is. And for some reason, because Finkler is the first Jew he ever met, he internally refers to Jews as “Finklers”.

He has two sons by two different women who dumped him, yet we are expected to believe that both women were moved to name their sons after characters in the operas he was listening to when he lived with them.

There are other characters who are more believable, but having to slog through the life of a character you neither believe in nor care about is a serious drawback.

So is trying to slog through a book that is supposed to be riotously funny and not finding the jokes. Or, to be more accurate, recognizing what are supposed to be jokes but for the glaring problem that they aren't funny.

So the plot, character, and humor in the novel are utterly lacking, what about the politics? If Jacobson is seeking to present a novel of ideas he falls short, because he takes pains to make sure that one of the sides of the debate has nothing going for it. The political debate is about Israel and the Palestinians, naturally, but Jacobson has his thumb on the scale. The supporters of the Palestinians are buffoons, from Finkler’s ASHamed Jews group (Why capitalize the ASH? No explanation is offered) to the frankly anti-Semitic, whereas the pro-Israel side is represented by the family of a young Jewish man who is stabbed and blinded by a Palestinian terrorist. Yeah, real subtle.

Ultimately all the major plot lines get resolved, and some of them are even believable, although I wouldn’t go so far as to say satisfying. Overall, though, this is another one of those Booker Prize winning books that leaves you wondering, “Really? For this?”

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Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Uncle Tom's CabinUncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Did I "like" Uncle Tom's Cabin? That's pretty much beside the point.

Uncle Tom's Cabin is a historic, important work, one which was famously credited by Abraham Lincoln for the start of the Civil War.

There is no question that Uncle Tom's Cabin meets Stowe's goal of making the horrors of slavery vivid and concrete. She presents all the evils of slavery and the participants in the slave economy, from the beatings and other tortures visited on the slaves, to the anxiety of the slave at the prospect of a new owner, to the almost unimaginable pain of family separation; she also presents a range of owners, from the seemingly benevolent but cynical and negligent St. Clare, to the vicious Simon Legree. (Unlike Uncle Tom, Simon Legree truly earns the evil reputation popular lore has attached to the name.) She also presents the courage and dedication of Northern allies who assist escaping slaves without sparing sanctimonious and frankly racist northerners, and she presents some believable and memorable characters, sometimes even in minor roles.

The shortcomings? An overly sentimental religiosity, the frankly incredible purity and redemptive death of Little Eva, and a creaking writing style that many readers will have difficulty enduring.

If it is her best-known work, Uncle Tom's Cabin is not the only anti-slavery book by Harriet Beecher Stowe, including A Companion to Uncle Tom's Cabin, which sets forth documented cases supporting her portrayal of slavery. Probably one is enough, but as a powerful and influential element of American history, Uncle Tom's Cabin merits a read.

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Sunday, June 19, 2011

A tale of two bishops

How an organization treats is employees can be instructive as to that organization's core values.

Especially if that organization is the Catholic Church.

That thought is occasioned by the treatment of the bishop of a place called Toowoomba in Australia. You've probably never heard of the place, or the bishop, but the story is worth knowing about. That's because this particular bishop, William Morris, has recently been fired.

People get fired all the time, although not usually bishops. It's not unheard of for someone to be hired for a job, turns out not to be very good at it, so they get rid of him. No big deal, right?

In this case, though, the bishop got fired for a thought crime, the crime of entertaining the idea that the church might be well served if it considered the idea of women or married priests.

UPDATE: Last night the Vatican confirmed the resignation of Catholic Bishop William Morris and released him from the governance of the Diocese of Toowoomba in an official statement from Pope Benedict XVI.

“Catholics stand with the Pope as the successor of Peter and his role is to strengthen his brothers and to defend the apostolic tradition, and it’s now Catholic teaching that women cannot be ordained priests. That’s not an optional belief; it’s now part of the Catholic package,” said Cardinal Pell.

So that's pretty clear: the church has said that it will not tolerate disagreement when it comes to its core principles and values. It doesn't care what people think, to be in the club you need to think whatever they tell you to think.

It's a private organization, they have the right to set their own membership standards.

But who doesn't get fired?

How about serial justice obstructer and aider and abettor of child molesters Bernard Law?

Also a bishop who climbed the greased pole to cardinal, but when things got too hot for him not only did they not fire him, they arranged a sinecure for him in Rome. A guy who by rights should be spending the rest of his days in a dank prison, wondering when the next assault would meet him, instead gets to live in luxury in a palace, apparently with the high regard of the congregation.

Well, given that his current boss told bishops that they'd better STFU about what they knew of child rape or risk being kicked out, I guess it isn't surprising.

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Thursday, June 09, 2011

Is this a fight, or are we just playing?

Okay, let's see a show of hands. Who takes politics seriously?

Really. Who thinks that the decisions made in Congress, and the balance of power in the Congress, are important?

Apparently not the Congressional Democrats, and you know how we can tell? Just look at what they're doing to Anthony Weiner.

Sure, he's got himself in a bit of trouble by his ridiculous and outrageous behavior, but the question is what should he, and what should the Congress, do about it?

The answer is clear: he should refuse to resign, stay in office, and keep fighting.

Matt Yglesias pointed out almost a month ago, before the Weiner story broke (I know, how do you ignore the punning potential?), that the way to win these sex scandals is to refuse to resign. If you don't resign, barring some significant illegality, you have a good chance of surviving. If you do resign, obviously, you're all done.

Look at admitted criminal David Vitter. When he was caught up in a prostitution ring he admitted that he had patronized prostitutes. He didn't admit what later came out, which was that apparently his kink had to do with prostitutes forcing him to wear diapers.

Where is he sitting now? In the United States Senate.

Did you hear any of his Republican colleagues calling on him to reisgn? Of course not, because they know that they'd rather have a criminal who consorts with prostitutes in their caucus than risk the chance of losing his seat to a Democrat.

In Weiner's case, while his activities may have been distasteful, creepy, or somewhat irresponsible, he did nothing against the law. His sexting interlocutors were adults, and apparently consenting. What's more, his constituents, who you would think have a legitimate interest in who represents them, want him to stay.

Elections have consequences, what is going on in Congress is a fight for the future of the country, and Anthony is an effective fighter for progressive causes. We can't afford to lose him.

Why isn't this obvious to Congressional Democrats?

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Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Evan Bayh still sucks

Here at Rational Resistance we've had problems with Evan Bayh for years, titling our first post on the subject "Evan Bayh sucks".

In case you're wondering, it's still true.

Yes, he's now part of a new "Dream Team" you might say at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, working with George Bush's boy Andy Card. As Ari Berman reports at The Notion, the group blog of The Nation,
Now he’s just a hired gun for big business. In a delicious bit of irony, Bayh will spend the summer denouncing the very financial reform legislation he voted for while in the Senate. Whatever principles he ever had are now long gone.

His mantra? Bipartisanship, or in other words, use a fake Democrat to get Democrats to start acting like Republicans.

So yup, in case you're wondering, Evan Bayh still sucks.

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Democracy in Wisconsin, again

Just a reminder of the commitment to democracy demonstrated by the Republican regime in Madison.

First off, if you're hoping to cover the political scene in Wisconsin by making a documentary film about the goings-on there, maybe you should think twice. Burlington filmmaker Sam Mayfield was arrested for doing just that at the Wisconsin capitol yesterday. In addition to Green Mountain Daily it's also being covered on Democracy Now.

Second, why would Republicans in Wisconsin work to get Republicans to run in Democratic primaries?

Pretty simple, actually. Right now six Republican state senators are facing recall elections this year, due to their undemocratic practices in this year's budget/union-busting fiasco. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel is reporting that, fearing a strong Democratic campaign, the Republican Party is running fake Democrats in the primary, with the idea that if they get on the ballot they will squeeze out any real Democratic candidate.

When it comes to running fake Democratic candidates in this summer's recall contests, top state Republicans have one thought:

The more, the merrier.

Sources tell No Quarter that state Republican Party officials are aiming to line up spoiler Democrats - loyal Republicans who run as Democrats with no intention of winning - in all six recall elections for incumbent Republican senators.

Finally, a court in Wisconsin has granted a permanent injunction blocking enforcement of Scott Walker's illegally passed union-busting bill.

In what is seen as a win for public labor Unions, Governor Scott Walker’s controversial Anti-Collective Bargaining law was struck down.

Thursday Morning, Dane County Judge MaryAnn Sumi issued a permanent injunction against the bill, effectively killing it until the Supreme Court is able to act. Sumi’s 33 page decision said there was “clear and convincing evidence” that Republicans who control the Legislature violated the state’s open meetings laws. This referred to GOP actions at March 9th committee meeting where the measure was passed without providing proper notice to the public. Also at that time, the Capitol building was locked down tightly keeping many members of the public away.

“This case is the exemplar of values protected by the Open Meetings Law: transparency in government, the right of citizens to participate in their government, and respect for the rule of law,” Sumi wrote. “It is not the court’s business to determine whether 2011 Wisconsin Act 10 is good public policy or bad public policy; that is the business of the Legislature. It is this court’s responsibility, however, to apply the rule of law to the facts before it.”

That's the good news: At least one branch of government in Wisconsin still believes in the rule of law.

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