Friday, January 21, 2005

Smells like The Nation: The worst anti-gay Lincoln cartoon yet

As I've already noted, the "Gay Lincoln" brouhaha has freed the homophobic imaginations of left-liberals and conservatives alike. First, the Weekly Standard ran an offensive cover of a limp-wristed Lincoln, sporting a large hoop earring. Then imagined Lincoln as a Gay clone, also with limp wrist and earring. But crypto-socialists at The Nation, not to be outdone where Gay-baiting is concerned, have presented the most offensive Lincoln cartoon of all, Robert Grossman's "Babe Lincoln."

Not content with the usual depictions of effeminacy, "Babe Lincoln" depicts Lincoln as a man in a woman's body -- with woman's lingerie, to boot! Lincoln bends suggestively over an ax, his large, round breasts all but exposed and his lace-covered fanny turned up in the air. It's the sort of pose that made Jane Russell famous in The Outlaw, though it's much less attractive here. Lincoln's raised eyebrow and fey leer contribute to the cartoon's overall repugnance.

The caption reads: "Newly discovered daguerrotype lends support to theory in a recent book that the sixteenth president was gay. Log Cabin Republicans take note." How quaint. Apparently, the leftists at The Nation still believe Gay men are women trapped in men's bodies. Even James Dobson, Robert Knight and Jerry Falwell know better than that.

Still, unlike the Weekly Standard and, the editors at The Nation have offered a pro forma defense of their anti-Gay content: "We regret if the cartoon unintentionally offended anyone."

Yes, they said "If." It's a classic apology-that-isn't-an-apology. But "Babe Lincoln" is a major debacle (as well as a godsend to Gay conservatives, like me, who claim that the Left and the Right are equally homophobic). Unless a few managing editors get sacked for it, The Nation will no longer be taken seriously as a progressive magazine. Not that anyone takes it seriously anyway.

Update (1/22): The anti-Gay cartoonist speaks in his defense:

I knew that gay men were not necessarily effeminate, cross-dressers or bearded ladies but I couldn't let that prevent me from having my laugh. Better a cheap and infantile joke than no joke at all, or so I thought. Now I hereby apologize to anyone I have offended. I also want to thank the editors of The Nation for their playfulness and/or insensitivity in allowing my perky pin-up to get into print.

Look at the word "necessarily" in that first sentence: Is Grossman claiming that his representation of "Babe Lincoln" has some basis in human truth? That's the first defense offered for any bigoted remark. Does he honestly believe his cartoon was nothing more than a "perky pin-up," meant to elicit a simple, innocent laugh? Then he's even more clueless than we imagined.

If America's leftists allow this drivel to pass for a sincere apology, they will prove they're as incapable of contrition and humility as they claim Republicans are. Still, Grossman's words effectively implicated the entire editorial staff at The Nation in what can only be called a "supergaffe." Here's hoping their day of atonement draws nigh.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Bush's Finest Hour

Given the President's penchant for modesty, it's fitting that his finest hour (so far) should last a mere twenty-one minutes. The Second Inaugural Address presented Bush at his most statesmanlike. Gone were the veiled Gay-baiting and religious ballyhoo that marked and marred his re-election campaign. Instead, Bush expressed fundamentally conservative policy goals in language that even his left-liberal critics could embrace, if they cared to.

That language, however, alarmed some conservative pundits. In today's National Review Online, Peter Robinson finds considerable fault with Bush:

On domestic policy, a "broader definition of liberty?" Citing as useful precedents the Homestead Act, the Social Security Act, and the G. I. Bill? Compare what Bush said today with the inaugural address of Lyndon Baines Johnson and the first inaugural address of Ronald Reagan and you'll find that Bush sounds much, much more like LBJ.

Well, perhaps Bush does sound like LBJ, superficially. Social Security and the G.I. Bill are holdovers from the FDR administration, and their favorable inclusion in a Republican inaugural speech should give any fiscal conservative pause. But if Robinson were to listen more closely, he might discover one major difference between Bush and his Texan predecessor. Bush gave pride of place not to these New Deal programs, but to the 1862 Homestead Act, which suggests that Robinson's concerns may be misplaced.

The Homestead Act, a signal achievement of the Lincoln administration, redistributed government-held lands to individuals, in the form of small land grants. It is the largest, longest-lasting, and most successful example of "privatization" in American history. At first, the bill was intended as a security measure: When the Civil War began, American settlement was largely confined to the Eastern states and the West Coast; the Great Plains remained largely empty, a "Great American Desert." This region was vulnerable to attack and recolonization, whether from the Confederacy or a foreign power. Yet Lincoln believed that the Great Plains could be peopled with minimal government interference, through a remarkably simple series of personal incentives. Under the Homestead Act, any adult male could claim a 160-acre "section" of government land, and if in five years he made a few basic improvements on that land, it became his property, to do with as he pleased.

This bill made the United States a highly attractive destination for European emigrants. For the cost of overseas passage, train fare and a nominal filing fee, a European peasant could own his own farm, a privilege reserved for the nobility in most of Europe. Newly emancipated African-Americans also saw a major opportunity in the Homestead Act, and formed "Exoduster" communities throughout the West after the Civil War. The result was the diverse, multicultural, polyglot society chronicled in the novels of Willa Cather and O.E. Rolvaag. You can see remnants of this "ownership society" today, in the small farming communities and ethnic enclaves that dot the American plains and prairies.

By linking the Homestead Act to Social Security and the G.I. Bill, Bush has proposed a new, conservative approach to these left-liberal social programs, and provided a concrete historical example by which we can measure their success. If Social Security were remodeled along the lines of the Homestead Act, it would reduce the role and resources of the federal bureaucracy, and offer more options to private individuals. A similarly redesigned G.I. Bill might replace direct federal benefits, like free medical care at a government-run Veterans' Hospital, with vouchers that could be used at any medical facility.

The Second Inaugural Address didn't make these specific suggestions, nor should it have: An Inaugural Address is hardly the time for wonkish detail, especially when it's delivered outdoors in near-freezing weather. Yet Bush accomplished something no less remarkable today: He spoke to his harshest critics in their own language, and finally became "a uniter, not a divider," as he promised he would be. He deserves credit for that.

Hat tip: Andrew Sullivan.

Update (1/21): A loyal reader weighs in:

Tim, you have said some dumbass pollyanna shit before but this takes the cake. You totally missed what Bush said about the terror war! Face it, those Jon Stewart watching "left-liberal critics" (WTF?) you keep talking about don't think terrorists are the problem, they think Bush is the problem and THE ONLY PROBLEM. Terrorists are nice guys who just got pushed too far by America, and Bush is a stupid fascist whack job who wants to blow up the world so Jesus can come that much sooner. When he talks about freedom they run and hide like bugs. They don't want to listen to him because they hate his guts. If Bush is trying to say something to these looneys he's dumber than Dan Rather.

I didn't cover Bush's references to the "War on Terror," because I didn't find anything controversial there. His position was awkward and convoluted, combining Wilsonian "safe-for-democracy" rhetoric with contemporary multiculturalism. I found it the weakest link in a strong speech, but innocuous on the whole. Surely a sane left-liberal couldn't object to things like freedom, liberty and democracy.

Leave it to Democratic party hack and frequent columnist Joe Conason to prove me wrong. Since 2000, Conason has made a career out of perpetual anti-Republican rage. I suppose someone had to satisfy the market for left-wing bile, but if I were him, I'd grow tired of the one note after a while. He hated Bush's speech, he hates Bush, he hates the GOP and he hates America while the GOP is in charge of it. I wonder, though, why he claims that Bush wants to send the world to a quick, fiery apocalypse. As far as I know, nothing in the President's public rhetoric suggests an eschatological motivation for the War on Terror. If Conason has evidence to the contrary, he could at least present it before jumping to conclusions.

Again, I still think Bush's Second Inaugural was a great speech.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

"America, F*#% Yeah!"

The official inaugural youth concert, "America's Future Rocks Today," should not have been a newsworthy event -- after all, Hillary Duff was the headliner. But thanks to Brett Scallions, lead singer of alt-rock group Fuel, the preteen girls and their mommies in attendance got an unexpected sample of the real Republican party. In a classic Dick Cheney moment, Scallions told the crowd, "Welcome to the greatest fucking country in the world!"

Everyone knew that this second Bush inaugural would bring out the worst in some people. But who'd have thought those people would be his supporters?

Update (1/22): Bilious Young Fogey wonders if I object to Scallions' patriotism. Obviously not. I happen to believe my country is the greatest in the world, and I hope all my readers abroad can take similar pride in their respective homelands (if not necessarily in their governments). But Scallions' crassness -- and frequently, that of today's GOP -- gives honest American patriotism a bad name. I didn't want to let it pass without comment.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Turning Points in History: Von Drehle's Diplomatic Initiative

The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem -- and reporters at the Washington Post just realized they have a large problem indeed. They're not alone. After the November elections, liberal urbanites across the country received a rude awakening, when they learned that the destiny of their nation was no longer entirely (or even primarily) in their hands.

With one wrenching, seismic shock, the center of political gravity shifted away from the East and West Coasts, to an area that few political insiders had ever seen. Whether that area was known sentimentally as "the heartland," or simply described as "flyover country," it was clear that anyone who was going to write about American politics would have to penetrate this unknown territory, investigate its manners and mores, and get to know a few of the people who -- for better or for worse -- were now in charge of American political life.

So city-mouse reporter David Von Drehle embarked with two assistants on a quick road trip through the Great Plains, just to see the country mice in something like their natural habitat. For the most part, Drehle confined himself to interstate highways, dropping by small towns along the way and engaging in political conversation with the locals. He found them friendly but reticent; they had been "had" by condescending left-liberal reporters before, and wanted to be portrayed sympathetically in the media for a change, but they knew better than to believe Von Drehle was the man for the job. Although the exchange of ideas may have been brief, it seemed to signal, at long last, an unofficial opening of diplomatic relations between Blue America and Red America.

Alas, it couldn't last: Once home Von Drehle could not help sniffing at the barbarous lack of diversity among the natives. He writes, "I couldn't help noticing that among the people [Nebraska resident] Paul Kern won't likely hit with a far-flung snowball are black people, openly gay people and people born in foreign countries." This might be true for rural, east-central Nebraska (although openly Gay and Lesbian Americans are becoming more common even in the vast Great Plains), but Oklahoma -- another stop on Von Drehle's itinerary -- contains one of the most racially and ethnically diverse populations in the United States. In a typical, mid-sized Oklahoma town, you can find Native American, Hispanic, African-American and Anglo populations; in addition, several other communities exist as ethnic enclaves, where the descendants of immigrants continue to preserve and celebrate their heritage. Take, for example, the tiny community of Hartshorne, Oklahoma, just a few miles outside the city of McAlester: Among the fabled white-clapboard houses stands an onion-domed Orthodox Church from 1916 (Sts. Cyril and Methodius Church), one of the few churches of its type in the United States. It's still active.

The Great Plains abounds with evidence of a multiracial, polyethnic history, whether it's the African-American "Exoduster" community at Nicodemus, Kansas; the Jewish homes in Willa Cather's beloved Red Cloud, Nebraska; or the numerous Mexican restaurants in small towns, where Hispanoamerican families gather on Friday nights and speak nothing but Spanish to each other. People who hew too close to the interstate tend not to see these things, however. From that vantage point, the prairies and plains seem like so much empty space, punctuated every thirty miles or so by a sudden strip of budget motels, gas stations, fast food joints and Wal-Mart Super Centers. The Great Plains may seem homogenized and "wide open" to such a newcomer, but it hides its heart well.

Von Drehle couldn't cure his urban provincialism with a single trip to the Great Plains. Still, he deserves some credit for taking the first, most difficult step in that direction. I'm glad he has taken an interest in Nebraskans, Kansans, and even an Oklahoman or two. Hopefully, a few of his readers will follow his lead, and slowly discover the fascinating country which his article merely hints at. It's quite beautiful, and surprisingly inexpensive -- with some of the freshest steaks and biggest hamburgers anywhere.

Hat tip: Lileks.

Update (2/1): As it turns out, David Von Drehle is a native Oklahoman, something I did not know at the time I wrote the above. He writes an elegant riposte, and I think it only fitting and proper to give him the last word:

I enjoyed your note on my Washington Post article. And I join you in
celebrating the diversity of Oklahoma. With four Oklahoma grandparents, two
Oklahoma parents, 10 Oklahoma aunts and uncles, 20-plus Oklahoma cousins,
an Oklahoma brother, sister-in-law, nephews, etc., I have had many
opportunities to see and enjoy Oklahoma.


David Von Drehle
The Washington Post

Martin Luther King Day: "Mohandas and Me"

In honor of Martin Luther King Day, I'm linking to another vintage My Stupid Dog essay: "Mohandas and Me" analyzes Mahatma Gandhi's failure as an activist, and concludes that nonviolent resistance can only work within a set of social, cultural and political limits.


Sunday, January 16, 2005

Edgar G. Ulmer alert!

This month, instead of highlighting a single director, Turner Classic Movies is focusing on a time period: Films of the 1940s. This week, they're featuring several films by one of my favorite directors, Edgar G. Ulmer. Ulmer worked as a set designer under Murnau and Lang and co-directed the classic, pre-Wehrmacht idyll Menschen am Sonntag (People on Sunday). The collaborators on this film eventually emigrated to Hollywood, and became bywords to cinephiles: Fred Zinnemann (of High Noon), Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity, Some Like It Hot), Robert Siodmak (The Killers, Criss Cross), and Curt Siodmak (the screenplay for The Wolf Man). Ulmer rose rapidly in the studio system with films like 1934's The Black Cat, the first (and strangest) of the Boris Karloff-Bela Lugosi pairings.

After an affair with the wife of a studio head, Ulmer found himself working on Poverty Row productions, where resources were scarce. But as Peter Bogdanovich noted, no one has made more interesting films for less money. He's probably best known for the 1945 film Detour, a six-day cheapie now considered the apotheosis of film noir nihilism. Some of my readers may also know of his involvement with low-rent Yiddish cinema in the late 1930s (even though he didn't speak Yiddish), or his direction of the 1939 Moon Over Harlem, often considered the finest of the "race movies" (films made with Black actors for segregated Black audiences).

This week, Turner Classic Movies is showing four movies by Ulmer:

Strange Woman (Jan. 16, 8:00 p.m. EST): Skip the Golden Globes -- you can read about them later -- and catch this 1946 film, one of Ulmer's few A-list productions. It shows what the director could accomplish with a solid budget. Hedy Lamarr insisted that Ulmer direct her in this period drama, and she gives a terrific performance as an unsympathetic hard-as-nails temptress who eventually succumbs to remorse. Surprisingly lurid and uninhibited (check out the Oedipal overtones to the stepmother-stepson dynamic!), the film manages to shock and scandalize audiences even today.

Strange Illusion (Jan 18, 10:00 a.m. EST): Andy Hardy meets Hamlet, with appropriately surreal flourishes. Along with Hitchcock's Spellbound, this was one of the first films to explore the hot new subject of psychoanalysis. Since Ulmer couldn't afford massive sets by Salvador Dali, he had to make do with the usual black backdrops and swirling mists. One of Ulmer's better Poverty Row efforts.

Detour (Jan. 19, 1:30 a.m. EST): Ulmer's cockeyed, no-budget masterpiece features an all-around loser (played by real-life loser Tom Neal) and the ultimate femme fatale. They drift across a void, featureless American landscape, as the loser is slowly enmeshed in an escalating web of fraud and death. Detour may be the most purely nihilistic American movie ever made.

Bluebeard (Jan. 20, 6:30 p.m. EST): Another Poverty Row production, this 19th century period drama features horror-movie legend John Carradine, in what he claimed was his favorite role. With a title like Bluebeard, you know some beautiful women will get slaughtered. Nasty, low-rent fun from a master.

If this doesn't satisfy your Ulmer appetite, I'm informed that his 1960 Italian epic Hannibal is out on DVD. I haven't seen it, but I hear it's not especially good: Mostly, it's noteworthy because Ulmer managed to craft a watchable Roman epic with the budget of a typical Steve Reeves movie. Ulmer's last film, Setto Contro Il Morte (The Cavern), was also an Italian production, and most people who have been lucky enough to see it think it's a minor masterpiece. Alas, like so much of Ulmer's late-period work, it's unavailable on DVD.

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