Thursday, February 23, 2012

Wrong About All the King's Men

I've been wrong before about classic works of literature (like the Odyssey), but in my defense, this is what it says on the back of the book:
Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men is generally considered the finest novel ever written on American politics. Set in the 1903s, this beloved book traces the rice and fall of Willie Start, who resembles the real-life Huey “Kingfish” Long of Louisiana. Stark begins his political career as an idealist man of the people but soon becomes corrupted by success.”

Let's start at the end of this summary. At the end of the book, Willie Stark's ultimate goal is to build a state-of-the-art hospital who's care would be free to all residents of Louisiana. He's willing to twist arms, use his influence, bribe, and blackmail whoever gets in his way to get it done. Previously, he's used questionable techniques to raise taxes on the owners of coal miners and land owners. Regardless of how he accomplished his goals, every single won of his goals was populist at the very least and quite often altruistic.

One might then argue that the corruption of the summary is evident in his methods, but he never once believed in the primacy of morally pure techniques in achieving goals. He is introduced into Louisiana state politics when he is asked to run in the Democrat gubernatorial primary, not because the askers actually wanted him to win, but in order to draw rural votes away from a different candidate. From then on he knows, as he later explains, “you've got to make the good out of the bad.”

But that makes it seem as though All the King's Men is about Willie Stark. Willie Stark is a dynamic force of action in the story of Jack Burden. The vast majority of the actual words that make up the novel are the observations, philosophies, emotions, memories, and thoughts of the narrator himself, Jack Burden. It is a story about becoming the person you are meant to be, finding yourself in relation the world and people around you, and confronting the questions posed by both the problems you face and how you face them. Big questions. Small moments. What could be considered the most tortured love story in American literature. And it's all told in a style not that far from Jack Kerouac or Hunter S. Thompson.

Early on, I was reminded of The Great Gatsby, and there is certainly some similarities between the relationships of Nick Caraway and Jay Gatsby and Jack Burden and Willie Stark. However, Caraway does his best to vanish into the story, projecting all of the tough questions onto Gatsby. But Burden confronts everything. Stark shows up, makes some things happen, and Burden processes all of the implications of the action. If this is a title to be proud of, Jack Burden might be American literature's greatest and most prolific brooder.

There are lots of different possible sources for an entire culture being completely wrong about a book it values. In this case, I think it comes back to America's obsession with action. Willie Stark is a character Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler would write. He bangs on desks. He gives speeches. He does things. He is filmable. For more reasons than can be explored in a blog post, we've come to identify ourselves as doers. So even though the book has very little to do with, well, doing, we latch onto the doer and convince ourselves he is the hero.

Which is too bad, because Jack Burden is one of the most interesting and compelling characters in American literature. He doesn't always understand the people around him, but it's not for lack of trying. Furthermore, he has a commitment to thought, to understanding, that we rarely see in our pop culture. He left his career as a historian because he realized he could not understand the man whose story he was trying to tell. And without that understanding, every word he put down would have been a lie.

Near the climax of the book, Jack learns something that shakes him to the very core of his being. And in response he drives from Louisiana to California, stays in California for a few days and then drives back with a clearer mind. In doing so, he is aware of recreating the escaping American's journey, for since the colonizing of the land by Europeans, those of its citizens who have found themselves with no options in or understanding of their home have moved West. Over the course of those couple of weeks, Jack confronts things about himself and about the world around him that are beyond specific terminology. They are the experiences and feelings you cannot share with the rest of the world because the act of sharing them alters them so radically as to be rendered meaningless. If knowing thyself can be heroic, Jack Burden is a hero of it.

Of course, this whole business might come down to something even simpler. And what implications this has I shudder to draw. But the reason we might all be so wrong about All the King's Men is because it is called All the King's Men. We assume it's about Willie Stark, because is the king in the title. And though taken as a whole, the title tells you Willie Stark is the character this book is most likely to be least about, it's hard not to latch on to that key word. And though Jack Burden is many important things, he is not a king.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

If Every Game Were the All-Star Game

The NHL is approaching a crisis point. The more we learn about concussions, and the more mysterious concussions remain despite our increased knowledge, the more pressure is put on the NHL to find ways to keep players safe. And, since the Marc Savard hit, the NHL has been doing a respectable job at changing itself; adding new rules, fining and suspending players who break those rules, and, in general, raising the awareness of hits to the head. For what it's worth, the NHL, from the commissioner to the coaches, to the players have bought in to the idea of changing the NHL.

Still the NHL is approaching a crisis point. Sidney Crosby is out again. So is Nathan Horton, on a late blind-side hit to the head that somehow didn't get called in the game. There is a chance, as was argued in this Grantland article, that the tweaks and changes aren't going to be enough to keep players safe, that hockey, as it is played now, with the speed and strength of the players now, is just too dangerous.

At the moment, I believe there is still room for tweaks. I think changes to the equipment, not just helmets, but elbow pads and shoulder pads, can help. I also think there's more room to wiggle in how the penalties are called and punishments applied. Furthermore, I think there has been a change in the game. Players are now letting up on their hits. There are still big hits, but fewer of them behind the play, and, it seems, at least to me, that players are making an effort to ensure that the primary point of contact is not the head. Also, I do believe the players enter into a contract that, at least on some level, accepts the risks to their health for playing. There are others who might stretch that idea further than it should go, finding permission for all kinds of things because “players knew the risk,” but I think there is an element of truth to it that needs to be considered as a solution is sought.

The fundamental problem for the NHL is this; how long are they willing to risk another Marc Savard (or worse) while it tweaks the game? At the moment, the NHL is comfortable with that risk, but what if another career is ended before the league gets it perfect?

Which leads to the title of this post. What if every game were like the All-Star game? Because that is what the NHL will look like if it needs to fundamentally change the nature of the game in order to keep its players safe. What if the NHL formalized the gentlemen's agreement that keeps hitting out of the All-Star game? How bad would that actually be?

First of all, how many highlight reel hits actually happen in a game? One? Two? Three? I think I've seen a couple of games over the years where there were four or five, but never more than that. (Pretty sure those were Bruins vs Flyers games.) Because of how hockey is reported, the role of big hits in the game is radically amplified. Most of those hits are only possible when a player makes a mistake, and at the NHL level, players don't make many mistakes. A lot of people talk about preserving the culture of the game and protecting a key element of it, and though big hits are a part of the game and a big part what is entertaining about the game, they really only make up a tiny fraction of how the game is actually played.

Secondly, even with big hits removed, games aren't going to all be 12-9 shoot outs because they won't all be played by all-stars. Defensemen and goalies will get the chance to practice their craft because they won't always have Malkin and Datsuk, on the ice at the same time, or any of the forward combinations that skated in the game. Furthermore, it wasn't just the big hits that were cut out of the All-Star. It was the intensity of all the checks, of, well, everything but goal scoring. Grinding it out in the corners. Hip checks along the boards. Fighting for position in front of the net. Pretty much everything that makes hockey such a gritty, tough, entertaining game, would still be there.

Finally, would a change from 3-2 to 6-5 be that bad? Hockey fans on principle consider the All-Star game a boring cardboard cut out of the game, and they have a point, but I find it hard to believe none of them found at least some of the skating, shooting, and scoring entertaining. I didn't watch the whole thing (I work on Sundays and didn't realize NBC Sports was replaying it that night until far too late) but seeing Sequin skate unhindered was pretty exciting. In some ways, a dramatic rule change could make the game even faster, as players could blast through the neutral zone knowing no one is going to clean them out from the blind side. The best players in the league would still be the best players in the league; even the best defensemen because they make their mark more on positioning than hitting. Tough teams would still be tough teams. Ultimately, the game wouldn't look that different.

At the heart of this problem is entertainment. Hockey players would play hockey no matter what; but they can play it professionally, and be paid a lot to do so, because other people are entertained by watching the players play. If fans stayed away because of fighting, the NHL would get rid of fighting. For all the concerns people raise about the safety of the game, economically speaking, the NHL can't take actions that will drive fans away, because that would destroy itself. This isn't an apology or an excuse for the NHL to construct a dangerous game, so much as it is a challenge to fans of the NHL. If you only tune in for the one or two big hits in a game or only to see the fights, then you are missing the best parts of the game.

And, it is your responsibility to learn how to see more in the game. How do you learn to see the whole game? If you watch the Bruins, watch Patrice Bergeron. He might be the most complete player on the planet. Live in a different market; Pavel Datsuk is the next best thing. I'm a big fan of the St. Louis, Lecavilier, Stamkos line in Tampa as well, though they haven't been having a great year. Dustin Byfuglien's 200ft game is pretty good too. One last aspect of this point, before I start sounding too preachy; I'm not sure hits-and-fights-only fans really exist, at least not in enough numbers that their loss would end the NHL. Unfortunately, there might be only way one to know for sure.

(One more thing before you go, NHL Overtime Live is pretty damn close to the worst sports show on television. God, I turn it on every now and again to, you know, see what's been going on in the NHL, but Jeremy Roenick is a talking aneurism. And the other guy spends most of the show paraphrasing Jeremy Roenick. I mean, there must be somebody else out there. Steal someone from the CBC for godsake. Though, this is the network that tapped Mike Milbury, so...)

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Review of The Green River Killer

In some ways, the graphic novel is the perfect genre for crime writing. The artwork allows writers to highlight the atmosphere that is such a key part to crime writing and the visual presentation allows writers to cede the mechanical logistics of getting guns in hands and dames in cars—which tend to reveal weak writing skills—to the visual artists. The best comic crime writers, Ed Brubaker, Darwyn Cooke, Frank Miller (though this bastard doesn't get a link), are able to merge the best parts of each genre to create a totally unique and compelling product. Furthermore, comics allow crime writing to stretch its boundaries, as in Steven Niles Criminal Macabre series and John Layman's and Rob Guillory's Chew series. And, of course, one of our most important and powerful cultural creations is really graphic crime writing; Batman.

However, I'm not sure the advantages translate as directly for true crime writing as it does for crime fiction. There is a lurid kind of voyeurism to true crime writing, one that can be mitigated with a legitimate sense of anthropology, sociology, and psychology. Most read to see the blood and guts, and all are comforted that, regardless of the thrill, we could learn something about ourselves and the world from those blood and guts. But written descriptions of a corpse mutilated by a serial killer are very different from illustrations of a corpse mutilated by a serial killer. One of the reasons Art Spiegelman, decided to tell his father's story with mice and cats, was because the illustrations would have been too gruesome if they had been illustrated people.

The Green River Killer by Jeff Jensen doesn't seem to have figured out exactly what it wants to be. It opens with a brutal, but not gruesome, scene, one that we don't feel is over the top only because it is true, but all of the other brutality inherent in the story Jensen tells is muted. It feels more like an homage to his father, the detective who put, by far, the most hours into solving the string of murders in the Seattle area, and there is now doubt Detective Tom Jensen deserves the honor. But most of Jensens' work was data compilation; the absolutely indispensable police work at the core of all successful investigations, that always gets left out of crime fiction because it is so boring to watch.

Over 40 women, mostly prostitutes, were murdered and their bodies found near Green River in the Seattle area. For decades Jensen pursued hundreds of different leads for thousands of different suspects, pioneering the use of computers in detection. For most of it, they couldn't be sure whether it was all the work of one killer or whether there were copy cats. Eventually forensic technology caught up with their needs and they were able to get a DNA identification of one of their early suspects, a man named Gary Ridgeway. Eventually, Gary confessed to being the Green River Killer in order to plea bargain a life sentence from a death sentence.

Most of the story is of the interviews conducted with Ridgeway as he gave evidence of his murders. Flashbacks filled in details of the investigation and showed some of the effects of the work on Detective Jensen. Though the book has little to say about the greater questions of justice and law of life and of murder, it's clear why his son wanted to write an homage for him. Detective Jensen is one of those heroes whose unshakeable persistence and unquestionable decency is almost guaranteed to go unnoticed.

I'm sure there is a book in Detective Jensen's story, but it's not this one. In this world of data-overload, a book about how Detective Jensen pioneered and mastered computers in detecting might be the most important, and, if the writing is successful, the most entertaining version of his story. Someone interested in the Green River Killer story would likely appreciate the straight forward presentation of one of the major plot lines in those horrific events and connoisseurs of true crime might want it on their shelves. But for everyone else, it might be better to stick with Brubaker and Batman, and hope someone else taps the potential for the true crime graphic novel.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Contemporary American Politics Explained in Two Campaign Ads

Everyone expected attack ads against Elizabeth Warren when she became the de facto Democrat nominee for the Senate race this fall. Given how she came to national attention by actually working to actually regulate banks, credit cards, and other financial products and industries (you know, the people who caused the 2008 economic collapse), and given how vocal and intense she was in the struggle to create a bureau that would effectively regulate those aspects of the economy, no one was surprised by this ad, paid for by Karl Rove's PAC.

The Warren campaign was expecting this. They were prepared for this. And when the ad first aired they probably all said to themselves something along the lines of, “OK, this is the fight we're going to have.” Sure it distorts the Occupy movement, and yes, it greatly exaggerates (but does accurately identify) Warren's association with the Occupy movement, and sure, it is fear mongering, and yes, it is trying to appeal to those of us still fighting the Cold War with the Soviet Union, but Warren is an actual liberal and that's how you attack liberals these days. It's histrionic, but its histrionics have been industry standard since Daisy counted down the bomb.

But then the exact same organization, Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS, like a month later, ran this ad (Warning: Watching these two ads consecutively may result in acute Brain-Splody syndrome):

A month ago Elizabeth Warren was the “Matriarch of Mayhem,” the philosophical godmother of the Occupy Wall Street movement. The next month she was too cozy and too supportive of Wall Street. And no, they're not ads against two different Democrat candidates for Senate that just both happen to be named “Elizabeth Warren,” they're attack ads against the same person. These are two mutually exclusive ideas and yet Crossroads GPS managed to hold them at the same time. (By the way, that's one of the definitions of insanity, but you didn't need me to tell you American politics is insane.) So what was different between the times when the first ad and second ad were run. This just fucking kills me. The Occupy Wall Street movement had succeeded in changing the national discourse to focus (if however briefly) on the crimes of Wall Street against the middle class.

And there you have contemporary American politics. Karl Rove wants Elizabeth Warren to lose. When he ran the first ad, the Occupy Wall Street wasn't polling well, so he exaggerated an association between Occupy Wall Street and Elizabeth Warren. When he ran the second ad, Occupy Wall Street was polling really well and the banks were not, so he just made shit up. It didn't matter that a month earlier he presented a mutually exclusive argument. It didn't matter that it was about the most ridiculous accusation you could level against Elizabeth Warren. (“Blood and teeth on the floor” doesn't sound too cozy to me.) It didn't matter that he completely and totally made shit up, as Warren was constantly fighting for more oversight of the banks AND, it didn't matter that in the course of 32 seconds the ad argued that there needed to be much more oversight over the bailout process and that we need a smaller government presence in the economy. (Your ears might also bleed. Probably should have added that to the warning. Maybe your eyes.)

The only thing that mattered is that, at the time, Crossroads GPS calculated that this particular representation of Elizabeth Warren would hurt her chances of winning the election regardless of what representation they decided on last month. If they do some polling in a couple of months that shows voters are particularly concerned about the well-being of polar bears, you'll see a Crossroads GPS ad that attacks Warren's lax attitude towards helping polar bears. If those poll numbers flip for some reason the next month, I'm sure we'll learn that polar bears have never had a better friend than Elizabeth Warren.

How do these two ads explain contemporary American politics; because they show politicians just don't give a shit; not just about facts, politicians have always had a, oh, let's say “complex” relationship with facts, but also about making a shred of fucking sense. Whole swaths of American politicians, pundits, and campaigners don't give a shit about anything...but winning.

And that pretty much explains everything that has gone on over the last four years or so. Hell, Mitch McConnell came right out and said it after Obama won the election that the Republican goal was not leading the country, but winning the Presidency in 2012. Right now, the only standard that politicians hold their statements to is whether they think those statements will help them win. Nothing else matters. If John Bolton thinks it will help a Republican win in 2012 he will say Obama's decision to lead from behind in Libya would result in a long drawn out civil war and then a month later when the rebels overthrow Gaddafi, he will say Obama should have slowed down the Libyan revolution in order to ensure a more stable transition, and he will say it, even though we have him on video him saying the exact opposite thing, and without even mentioning that he is arguing against himself. And the media will still interview him for his opinions even though his opinions are clearly shit.

But. There is something that could be called a sliver of hope. And that something is...Mitt Romney.

Or rather, it is Mitt Romney's inability to sow up the Republican nomination. The reason Republican voters are sampling all the other candidates and the reason Romney can't seem to grab a full majority of Republicans is simple. He will say whatever it takes to win the nomination and everybody knows it. And just about everybody is disgusted by it. This is why, despite being the only candidate even remotely capable of running this country, and despite the obviousness of that fact, he can't seal this deal. Who knows what will happen over the next few years and in the presidential campaign, but Romney's struggles are an indication that the public is approaching its bullshit limit. There is only so much say-anything-to-win the public will accept. Of course, that means that political strategists will just develop techniques so their candidates SEEM like they're not just saying anything to win, but there's a chance, a slim one, that some strategist will discover that the easiest and most efficient way to SEEM like a capable leader, is to actually be one.