Tweets for 2009-04-30

Only through the exercise of candor

Salon published an interesting piece today from Boston University professor of history and international relations Andrew Bacevich called Farewell to the American Century. Bacevich goes further than the WaPo’s Richard Coen — who declared the American Century ended — and suggests it could scarcely end…it was all an illusion in the first place.

In its classic formulation, the central theme of the American Century has been one of righteousness overcoming evil. The United States (above all the U.S. military) made that triumph possible. When, having been given a final nudge on Dec. 7, 1941, Americans finally accepted their duty to lead, they saved the world from successive diabolical totalitarianisms. In doing so, the U.S. not only preserved the possibility of human freedom but modeled what freedom ought to look like.

So goes the preferred narrative of the American Century, as recounted by its celebrants.

The problems with this account are twofold. First, it claims for the United States excessive credit. Second, it excludes, ignores or trivializes matters at odds with the triumphal story line.

The net effect is to perpetuate an array of illusions that, whatever their value in prior decades, have long since outlived their usefulness. In short, the persistence of this self-congratulatory account deprives Americans of self-awareness, hindering our efforts to navigate the treacherous waters in which the country finds itself at present. Bluntly, we are perpetuating a mythic version of the past that never even approximated reality and today has become downright malignant. Although Richard Cohen may be right in declaring the American Century over, the American people — and especially the American political class — still remain in its thrall.

While I agree with Bacevich that the myths of 20th-century America were well and truly exaggerated, I’m not sure his list of American shortcomings would remove from them the title of 20th century powerhouse. Even acknowledging the overblown role in WWII and the failures of Cuba, Iran and Afghanistan, I’m not sure another country could stake a claim to being the preeminent nation of those hundred years. Was it as glorious as Americans seemed to believe? No. But it may have been glorious enough.

Still, Bacevich’s contemplative advice is good medicine for any country who starts to fawningly buy their own patriotic press:

What are we to make of these blunders? The temptation may be to avert our gaze, thereby preserving the reassuring tale of the American Century. We should avoid that temptation and take the opposite course, acknowledging openly, freely and unabashedly where we have gone wrong. We should carve such acknowledgments into the face of a new monument smack in the middle of the Mall in Washington: We blew it. We screwed the pooch. We caught a case of the stupids. We got it ass-backwards.

Only through the exercise of candor might we avoid replicating such mistakes.

Strike my last; this is good advice for us all, countries or no.

Tweets for 2009-04-30

  • All this global pandemic talk is making me a little nervous. If I see Cillian Murphy running around with a machete, I am SO out of here. #
  • I love that @JayOnrait, funniest man on TSN, is on Twitter. His 30 Rock “Jackie Jormp-Jomp” reference this morning makes more sense now. #

Why I don't have favourite books

Do you have a favourite book?

I don’t think I do. I have favourite films. I have favourite songs. But I don’t have favourite books.

That’s not to say there aren’t tons of great books that I was really in love with. I just wouldn’t describe them as favourites. I’m not sure exactly how I define that word, or how my definition might differ from the standard interpretation, but I would loosely describe it this way: a favourite is something I will go back to again and again. I have watched the 13 films referenced in the above link countless times, just as I’ve listened to the songs in the other link so many times I have them all memorized down to the quarter note. On the other hand, I don’t think I’ve read any book twice.

So why is that? Well, I think I’m looking for something different in books than I get from films or music. I want to be challenged, I want to learn something, I want to have my mind changed. I suppose this is why I also don’t have a ‘favourite’ documentary, even though I usually prefer them to feature films. I expect from a documentary the same thing I expect from a book: to get my brain going.

Maybe that’s the difference. It’s hard to label something a ‘favourite’ when it might push me, challenge me, make me work. None of my favourite movies or music qualify as terribly difficult or avant-garde, but they all impressed me with their artistry or nuance (yes, even Hoosiers) while still being entertaining. A great book or documentary will teach me something, or disturb me, or change my mind about something…but none of those impacts will make me want to go back to it. The moment is passed, the effect has been felt.

But that documentary vs. feature film distinction tells me something about my books: that I prefer non-fiction to fiction. Truth be told, I buy and read much more non-fiction than fiction; were I to consume as many novels as I do films or albums I would almost certainly have a list of favourite books, but as it is the books I remember having a real impact on me were all non-fiction. Much as I distinctly remember them, I can’t say I feel the need to read any of them again.

What I do crave, and what I’ve missed recently when reading A Fine Balance, enjoyable as it was, is the engagement I get from non-fiction books. Reading a book the likes of The Coming Of The Third Reich or The Shock Doctrine makes my mind race about in all directions, to the point where I have to re-read paragraphs because I’ve wandered off on this tangent or that, formulating questions or testing hypotheses. I don’t get that same engagement from fiction — which is often a testament to the writer’s pacing or narrative skill, but also reflects the nature of fiction. It’s a story, not a study.

When I finished the MBA last year, I figured that my brain was starved for fiction after reading textbooks for so many months, but it turns out I’m still hungry for non-fiction. I’m easing back into it with Almost Home by Damien Echols (the member of the West Memphis 3 on death row), and plan to read Dave Cullen‘s Columbine (which I blogged about last week) next. After that I may take up Niall Ferguson‘s The Ascent Of Money or The Age Of American Unreason by Susan Jacoby. Or I may finally pick up Don Tapscott‘s Wikinomics or resume my study of the buildup to WWII with The Dark Valley: A Panorama of the 1930s by Piers Brendon. All of those appeal to me more than the copies of Absalom, Absalom or American Pastoral sitting on my shelf.

For now, anyway.

Twitter and the Monkey Man

Since I stayed home sick today and had little better to do in between nose-blowing than read, I just finished A Fine Balance. I can tell it’s going to stick with me. It’s too bad I waited so long to read it, but I’m glad I finally did. I even learned a little history along the way. I knew precisely nothing about The Emergency in India in the mid-70s, likely because I was a month old when it began, but it’s a fascinating period in time, and Mistry spun within it an equally fascinating story with wonderful, tragic, inspiring characters.


You may have noticed some odd blog posts recently. Since I find my thoughts more scattered these days, a situation which lends itself more to Twitter than to the blog, my blog will automatically consolidate my daily (sigh…) tweets into a single post. Just in case you’re wondering.

Tweets for 2009-04-27

  • Few 2-word combinations freak me out as much as “jumping spider”. #
  • RT @ZoeSasha RT @shawnyeager: Finally! Easy-to-use bike rental scheme planned for Toronto LtDan: crosses fingers. #
  • Something like 7 Cdns die in traffic accidents on an avg day, and yet we’re spazzing about swine flu. Prioritize, boys & girls. #
  • Can feel a cold coming on. Motherpusbucket. #
  • New ringtone ho! #
  • The very definition of black humour. I cannot stop laughing. #swineflu #
  • Rick Springfield mashed up with Smashing Pumpkins works a little better than I would’ve thought. #

Tweets for 2009-04-27

  • So…apparently it was windy last night?? Didn’t notice a thing. #
  • Cold, wet Sunday is a harsh wakeup call from yesterday’s dreamy warmth. Good day for watching movies that rattle my brain. #
  • Car alarms: quite possibly the most poorly executed idea ever. #
  • Never thought I would experience hearing Neko Case played over a grocery store’s speakers. #
  • “Obsessed” #1, “17 Again” #2 and “Fighting” #3. 29%, 56% & 35% on Rotten Tomatoes. #cinematicapocalypse #

"It's important that you feel through this."

What a great weekend. Not because we did anything particularly dramatic or new, but because it was just so damn enjoyable. With work being the way it has lately (though it’s let up a bit for me in recent weeks, Nellie’s still hard at it) we’re usually happy just to relax and not feel guilty/worried about not working on the weekend.

Yesterday — easily the nicest day of the year so far — was a day to get out, stroll around, do some shopping at the market and visit friends. On the way over to see CBGB we spotted this little guy hanging out in a tree.

CBGB just got a new back patio and we helped them celebrate by taking advantage of their hospitality. They grilled burgers, served amazing cheeses (note to self: cranberry raincoast crisps + creamy applewood smoked cheddar = amazing), threw some beer in ice and welcomed us under the shade of the umbrella. The weather was perfect for sitting, drinking, laughing, eating and even hanging out with little LB, who was determined to get himself some beer. The oncoming rain forced us to wrap up, but not before we’d finished eating anyway. Inside we had more drinks and some delicious gelato — spiced chili chocolate mixed with blood orange, the latter being more of a sorbeto, really — before retiring once LB got his crank on a little bit. Awesome, awesome Saturday afternoon. I’ve been waiting for a day like that since, oh, October give or take.

Today wasn’t nearly as nice — cold, windy, grey — and started out a bit odd. The old gent next to us at breakfast seemed to be having his own one-man coot-off, yelling to his wife about how young people can’t do simple math anymore, and so on. No matter, it’s been more than satisfactory since then. We caught up on some TV. We got groceries and did laundry. We talked to our parents. We watched Snow Angels (imdb | rotten tomatoes) which, as with most David Gordon Green movies, was an excellent and textured slow burn leading to a few moments of raw violence. We lazed about and read. Nellie made pizza. Good, good day to cap off an excellent weekend.

Should work let up for both of us at once it’ll be nice to actually do something outside the city, or even explore something within it, but for now we’ll take these kinds of weekends no questions asked.