Daily Office:


Matins: Two related safety stories this week, at Infrastructurist: Rail/Road Safety; Cells and Speed.

Lauds: Alexander Hemon’s playlist for writing.

Prime: In “Too Small to Fail?“, Jay Goltz issues a call for better training for small business owners.

Tierce: Even though the 13 week-old Marshall trial hasn’t even gotten to the defense, there seems to be a wilting factor, as if everyone from the judge on down were just too tired of all this nonsense. In any case, no reports have been filed this evening with any of the papers. Or hadn’t been, when we last looked an hour or so ago.

We were going to invent something, and tell you that the Marshalls, having followed our coverage of the coverage, took advantage of an early recess to drop by our apartment, and that, while Mr Marshall took a little nap, Mrs Marshall turned on her Southern charm (to which we’re so susceptible!), and we suddenly realized what a lovely woman she is. That we’d be posting soon from a guest room at North Cove, or Cove Point, or Cape Fear, or whatever they call the place up in Maine.

Sext: Coming soon to Pi Mensae: Howdy Doody.

Nones: Kudos to President Obama for weighing in on the “stupidity” of the arrest of Henry Louis Gates in his own Cambridge home.

Vespers: Mark Athitakis, at The Second Pass, writes about an out-of-print novel by Ward Just, a writer whose work we almost always find totally engaging.

Compline: This weekend’s indispensable reading is Slavoj Žižek’s essay, in the London Review of Books, “Berlusconi in Tehran.” New meaning is given to the phrase, “constitutional democracy.”  

Bon weekend à tous!


§ Matins. By now, everyone know about

how in 2003 some miserable stooges at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration iburied plans for a long-term study of the safety implications of driving while using cell phones and also deep sixed a fact sheet that already made a pretty strong case it was unsafe. They did this for bureaucratic reasons–afraid that they’d run afoul of Congress and might endanger their funding.

(We’ll be coming back to this story at Compline.) As for speed limits, they’re due for a re-think. Drivers ought to bear far more responsibility in judging a safe legal speed. Anything over 35 MPH is probably always going to be reckless in Manhattan, even on the off-chance that traffic lights made it possible. But 80 MPH is a reasonable speed for long and straight roads in the heartland, at least when (as if often the case) no other vehicle is visible.

As for the rail/road safety comparisons, they’re so outlandish — 300 to 38,000 deaths annually — that it’s hard to believe that private automobiles (as we know them) are tolerated in populated areas. Eventually, they won’t be, but we won’t live to see it.

§ Lauds. Readers of Mr Hemon’s fiction won’t be surprised, exactly, but they may learn a few things. We had never heard of Mostar Sevdeh Reunion, for example, nor of Amira (never mind how much that cost). We doubt that we’ll line up to hear Nick Cave, though; we don’t much care for rebarbative music, and that’s what Mr Hemon makes Mr Cave’s sound like. The classical selections are more interesting, really; Bach and Mahler alike combine utter seriousness with thematic beauty. We love this:

Speaking of sorrow: this aria from Bach’s magnum opus might be the saddest piece of music in the Western canon. I remember turning on the radio some time in the early nineties and hearing the most beautiful music I had ever heard. I did not know what it was but sat down and listened for three or so hours, not daring to move, lest it disappear like a dream. It was St. Matthew’s Passion, which, for a while, became the soundtrack for my life. I come back to it often when I write.

“Blute nur” is certainly a wail, but, at least when the words and dramatic context are figured in, there is no beating the sorrowful shame of “Erbarme dich.” 

§ Prime. It’s clear that our business expertise is on the fritz. With economists like Bill Dunkelberg —

The surprising part of the story is not that Scott Peterson still climbs up the poles the way his grandfather did 80 years ago. It is a comment from Bill Dunkelberg, chief economist at the National Federation of Independent Business, who was quoted as saying the market is being “cleansed” of unneeded goods and services. Hmmm, might those unneeded services include the work of economists?

— who needs economic. More to the point, Mr Goltz notes that business education is skewed toward big.

I’m talking about providing training in accounting, pricing, management and marketing.

Before 1,000 people write in to tell me that these workshops already exist, please send me an outline of the course. Maybe they do exist, but from what I have seen, they don’t cover the subjects from a real-world perspective. They tell you what to do but not how to do it. I have an accounting degree. It is valuable, but I was not taught how to oversee the accounting of a small business. School is geared to big business. Besides which, many people in small business don’t have business degrees anyway.

§ Tierce. So that’s just what we did — and you weren’t fooled, were you?

Meanwhile, in New Jersey, 44 perpetrators were arraigned in batches of 12, ranging from pious old rabbis to underage mayors. Huge money-laundering/bribery case! Who needs Law & Order?

§ Sext. You have to wonder how long it would take the folks out at Aldebaran to recognize that Terran TV comes in many languages.


In other words: how typical of earthly conceit, to wonder what they’ll think of The Honeymooners on Iota Horologii when most fans of the show can’t even speak Chinese — a language spoken by billions of more closely-situated life forms.

§ Nones. Until rather recently, Mr Gates was more celebrated than Mr Obama. The younger man enjoyed supposing what would have happened if it had been he, at his house.

“Now, I don’t know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts, what role race played in that, but I think it’s fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry; number two, that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home; and, number three, what I think we know, separate and apart from this incident, is that there is a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. And that’s just a fact.” He added later that the incident was “a sign of how race remains a factor in this society.”

He also used biting humor, grinning broadly as he imagined being in Professor Gates’s seemingly preposterous circumstance of being arrested after trying to get into his own home.

“Here, I’d get shot,” Mr. Obama said, referring to his new address of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Police forces also need a re-think. It occured to us that the monastic way of distinguishing priests (brains) from brothers (brawn) might be useful; unlike the current model, in which smarter officers eventually become detectives, a liberal arts education would be a prerequisite for promotion. In the future, police work is going to require not just brains but real humanism.

§ Vespers. It turns out that the original edition of Mr Just’s The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert and Other Washington Stories may never be reissued, because Mr Just himself has prepared a second edition that does not include all of the original’s stories — one of which, “Nora,” appeals to Mr Athitakis not least for its perennial timeliness.

Just takes Washington seriously, which means he’s aware of its paradoxes and hypocrisies and the humor therein — and “Nora,” relatively mechanical though it is, is one of Just’s most pointed studies of that humor. (My copy of the 1973 edition has, folded inside its pages, a couple of yellowed Nixon-skewering cartoons by Herblock clipped from the Post. Reading the gags and then the snippets of reports about Watergate and the Pentagon Papers on the other side of them feels appropriate, like Just’s M.O. in miniature.) In the years since The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert, Just has written a host of novels that drill into the emotional life of the Federal city. The most effective of them is 1997’s Echo House, along with 1982’s In the City of Fear and the recently published Exiles in the Garden.

Just’s mission, to examine the emotional life of D.C., is more audacious than it first sounds. Few bother to think that the corners of the city that house wealthy politicians and diplomats, Georgetown and Capitol Hill, have much emotion worth investigating. Countless authors of thrillers turn these people into hacky functionaries. The world that Just inhabits is one that even those who think and care about Washington assume isn’t worth the fictional trouble, but he manages to make it read like the easiest and most rewarding one to write about.

§ Compline. Why do voters elect people like Silvio Berlusconi, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and George W Bush. Why does anybody vote for men who radiate disrespect for everything except nationalist regalia? Why did anybody vote for Adolf Hitler? This problem with democracy is, in Mr Žižek’s view, a built-in one; we need something better than parliamentary democracy.

‘If democracy means representation,’ Badiou writes in De quoi Sarkozy est-il le nom?, ‘it is first of all the representation of the general system that bears its forms. In other words: electoral democracy is only representative in so far as it is first of all the consensual representation of capitalism, or of what today has been renamed the “market economy”. This is its underlying corruption. At the empirical level multi-party liberal democracy ‘represents’ – mirrors, registers, measures – the quantitative dispersal of people’s opinions, what they think about the parties’ proposed programmes and about their candidates etc. However, in a more radical, ‘transcendental’ sense, multi-party liberal democracy ‘represents’ – instantiates – a certain vision of society, politics and the role of the individuals in it. Multi-party liberal democracy ‘represents’ a precise vision of social life in which politics is organised so that parties compete in elections to exert control over the state legislative and executive apparatus. This transcendental frame is never neutral – it privileges certain values and practices – and this becomes palpable in moments of crisis or indifference, when we experience the inability of the democratic system to register what people want or think. In the UK elections of 2005, for example, despite Tony Blair’s growing unpopularity, there was no way for this disaffection to find political expression. Something was obviously very wrong here: it wasn’t that people didn’t know what they wanted, but rather that cynicism, or resignation, prevented them from acting.

In other words, multi-party democracy in the age of capitalism fosters the rise of meretricious leaders who truly represent the plutocrats. There are no alternatives, no candidates who do not represent plutocrats. The system winnows such figures from electoral politics long before high office is at stake. In a plutocratic democracy, bureaucrats fearful for their budgets will conceal information that might displease legislators. In a plutocratic democracy — and only in a plutocratic democracy — a wretched and perverse Supreme Court decision, Buckley v Valeo, actually makes sense. You don’t have to be a leftish dialectical materialist to see that.

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