The Global Citizen


THE HUMANISTIC INTELLECTUAL: Richard Rorty writes eleven notes in defense of true humanists in the academy, which he defines as folks who "people trying to expand their moral imaginations." That's as opposed to "people busy conforming to well-understood criteria for making contributions to knowledge." And this wonderful blast of common sense: "Two groups are currently staging a sham battle about how to construct reading lists ... Reading lists should be constructed so as to preserve a delicate balance between two needs. The first is the need of the students to have common reference points with people in previous generations and in other social classes ... The second is the need of teacher to be able to teach the books which have moved them, excited them, changed their lives -- rather than having to teach a syllabus handed down by a committee.

VONNEGUT SPEAKS: From the June 2003 Progressive (sorry no link), I couldn't disagree more with KV that "I don't feel that we are in any great danger." But I admire his Christian-Socialist bent and his flair for epigrams. Like: "Bush is entertaining us with what I call the Republican Super Bow, which is played by the lower classes with live ammunition." And: "To expect somebody to read a book is like having someone arrive at a concert hall and he is immediately handed a violin and told to go up onstage. It's an astonishing skill that people can read, and read well." And: "It's perfectly ordinary to be a socialist. It's perfectly normal to be in favor of fire departments." And my favorite: "The two most radical ideas inserted in the midst of conventional human thought are E=MC2 and 'Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.'"


CHEESY: Here's this year's winner of the Bulwer-Lytton Prize for worst opening sentence of a novel: "They had but one last remaining night together, so they embraced each other as tightly as that two-flavour entwined string cheese that is orange and yellowish-white, the orange probably being a bland Cheddar and the white mozzarella, although it could possibly be provolone or just plain American, as it really doesn't taste distinctly dissimilar from the orange, yet they would have you believe it does by colouring it differently." Hah! A worthy winner.


IN MEDIA WE TRUST, NOT: Only 36% of the U.S. public thinks the press gets its facts straight.


SIX DEGREES TO JAYSON BLAIR: So now the story is told. In a long interview with The New York Observer, Jayson Blair makes clear what happened. He brought the story line of John Guare's play, Six Degrees of Separation, right to the newsroom of The New York Times. This guy plays on white liberal guilt like Van Cliburn plays the piano. He's a con man. End of story.

GUNS, GUNS, GUNS: My recent columns on gun control have plunged me into the issue. I'm presently working my way through a ton of material sent in by some really thoughtful people who favor of widespread private gun ownership in the United States. It's a complicated issue with roots going straight to the ideas of American exceptionalism and identity. I've yet to make up my mind completely, but doesn't this piece add weight to the argument favoring strong gun control. In a country where you are patted down for nail clippers, but can go to the corner store and buy a shotgun, don't you worry about enemies of the state finding all the weapons they need inside these borders to carry out their deadly missions?


SETH MYDANS IS AMAZING: This New York Times reporter has quietly been trekking across Southeast Asia, writing about the poor and the forgotten, for several years now. Invariably his reports are close, often wrenching portraits of people in need. They are often stories of incredible bravery and dignity. Mydans is often courageous himself in pursuit of these stories, as a couple of weeks ago, when he trooped into a Cambdian village where a mysterious virus has been cutting people down for months. Here's his latest, about a small village of war amputees in Cambodia. Read and learn.

THE WORST THING ABOUT IT: Here's what bugs me the most about The New York Times' story fabrication scandal. Ordinary people who were misquoted, mischaracterized, and incorrectly described by Jayson Blair only rarely tried to correct the record. Reason: they expected to be misquoted, mischaracterized, and incorrectly described by any member of the press. Where's the "sacred bond with readers" we talk about all the time? Vamoose.


ON THE ROAD: At the Poynter Institute last week I gave a keynote speech at a conference for editors and reporters trying to cover the world from small- and mid-sized towns in America. It was called "How to Increase Newspaper Readership by Improving International Coverage."

THE JAYSON BLAIR AFFAIR (1): Friends have been asking me what, as a former New York Times reporter, I think about this. I haven't felt anything other than what you'd expect, which is sick. My stock e-mail answer to the question "What do you think of the Blair case?" is that I'm:
A. Not surprised. Liberal guilt is one of the Times' achilles heels, triply and quadruply exemplified in Howell Raines, an Alabama guy who prides himself on his civil rights reporting and racial magnanimity. He won a Pulitzer for his remembrance of his family's black maid.

B. Saddened, obviously, as an ex-Times guy. The jerk besmirched us all. At the same time ...

C. ... happy that the Times, a virtual fourth branch of government yet without a single check or balance, is now getting checked and balanced.

THE JAYSON BLAIR AFFAIR (2): The above are my gut reactions. A week later, here is my stab at discerning the lessons of this episode:

1. There were two betrayals here, of the Times by Blair, and of Blair by the Times. The former is obvious. The latter is the betrayal that occurs when affirmative action and diversity initiatives get out of hand. By Raines' own admission, he gave Blair too many chances simply because of his race. That's an abuse of power and a betrayal of Blair the person and of other black journalists who are trying to compete in the profession on equal terms.

2. Hollywood values creeping into newspaper journalism are a major culprit. As Barbara Crossette points out in one of the best commentaries on the scandal, writing values increasingly take precedence over reporting values in the newsroom. That's dangerous. The older generation -- Mailer, Wolfe, all the "new journalism" masters -- at least knew the difference between fact and fiction when they started to blur the line. What's troubling is that the younger generation, as exemplified by Blair and Stephen Glass, don't appear to have the foggiest notion about this line, what it is or why it's important not to cross it. Stephen Glass is now making a smooth transition right into writing novels; and Blair is reported to have already hired a literary agent to sell his book. In their minds, they must not know what all the fuss is about as they waltz right into the next chapter of their career to sell their storytelling talents to the highest bidder. From The New York Times to Hollywood, see?

HOLY HECTOR: Check out this verse from Christopher Logue's All Day Permanent Red, his hip translation of the Iliad:

See an East African lion
Nose tip to tail tuft ten, eleven feet
Slouching towards you
Swaying its head from side to side
Doubling its pace, its gold-black mane
That stretches down its belly to its groin
Catching the sunlight as it hits
Twice its own length a beat, then leaps
Great forepaws high great claws disclosed
The scarlet insides of its mouth
Parting a roar as loud as sail-sized flames
And lands, slam-scattering the herd.
"This is how Hector came on us."

Wow. That's the most impressive poetic entrance I've seen since Tennyson's The Eagle:

He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ringed with the azure world, he stands
The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls
And, like a thunderbolt, he falls.

I've been hearing about Logue's translation but after I read those words above, can't wait to read Red and his other Illiad translation, War Music.



HATE CRIMES RISE AS GUN LAWS LIBERALIZE: In Rochester and in Minneapolis, hate crimes are flaring up. Now this. Bad timing. Bad combination. Bad everything.


ELMER ANDERSON WEIGHS IN ON THE CUTS: Everyone gets a chance to name the one thing they don't want cut in the next few state budgets. Our great former governor's choice: the humanities. What a great choice, and what a class act he is.

A TREE IS A FINE EXAMPLE: Alicia Maye, a 15-year-old from Minneapolis, won third prize in the national "Kids Philosophy Slam" with this 500-word essay on (leave it to the adults to come up with a shaggy theme like this) "The Meaning of Life." She got the bronze but her essay reads like gold to me. Check out the last sentence:
I want to seek all that is true to me, and to absorb all that I am meant to see, for this world has so much beauty, mystery, drama and contrast, which invigorates us all.
Put a frame around that one.


PUTTING NORTHWEST INTO PERSPECTIVE: The Strib's Mike Meyers really puts Northwest's woes into perspective for Minnesotans. Bottom line: We'll survive. Check it out:
In 2000, air transportation -- a category that encompasses Northwest and all of its commercial airline rivals, charter carriers and companies such as Federal Express and United Parcel Service -- was a $2.7 billion industry in Minnesota. But the gross state product, the value of all goods and services produced in Minnesota, came to $185 billion. In other words, all air carriers doing business in Minnesota together represented 1.5 percent of the state economy. Air transportation nationally represented 0.9 percent of the U.S. economy.
This wonderful piece is from April 7; better late bloggin than never I say.

OVER THERE: Good piece from the Strib's Chuck Haga on how Minnesotan's feel about the war. The same sense of ambiguousness and unease that characterized our prewar thoughts continues to pervade our thoughts now. This nice passage:
For Dick Hagen, an agriculture marketing consultant in Olivia, the war "made me feel better about being an American than ever before because I believe what we're doing over there is noble."

Over there.

Here, there are no mass graves, no rubbled avenues where heavy artillery sheared off the fronts of residential buildings, exposing kitchens and bedrooms suspended like empty theater sets.

We can find Iraq on a globe now, many of us, and maybe Qatar and Syria, too. We know that Sunnis are not the same as Shiites. Maybe we've come to care and feel a little guilty about the Kurds.

Will that last?

That's the question.

"I'M NOT SCARED NOW, BUT I WILL BE:" Toufong Fang writes the most sensible comment I've seen yet on the foolhardy and tragically retrogressive "concealed carry" bill that's poised to pass soon into Minnesota law. He says he doesn't pack right now because he feels safe living in Minnesota. As soon as the bill passes, though, he'll feel fearful as so many thousands of Minnesotans will be packing heat. So he plans to buy a gun at that point.

WHAT'S OUR AMBITION? From Richard Rorty's essay "Global Ambitions" in the Jan. 31, 2003 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education (sorry it's password protected):
Only by shifting attention from the question 'How can the United States make itself more secure?' to the qeustion 'How can the world make itself more secure?' can we begin to reverse the tide of events that are sweeping us into the world that Orwell foresaw. Whether our grandchildren feel pride or shame will be determined by whether we become the first great empire to have higher ambitions that to be a great empire.