Daily Office:


Matins: Given the lunatic tone of national discourse these days, it’s refreshing to hear the “P” word spoken with such vigor and clarity:

Obama is sometimes faulted for conducting government by speech. But this speech was part of a patient strategy that, despite August’s rough weather, is looking increasingly sound.

Hendrick Hertzberg in The New Yorker.

Lauds: Museum Director Thomas Campbell outlines his plans in an interview with The Art Newspaper’s Joshua Edward Kaufman.

Prime: President Obama’s Federal Hall speech yesterday elicits interesting responses from Felix Salmon and James Surowiecki.

Tierce: As deeply as our eidtor sympathises with Malcolm Gladwell, Sean Macauley’s totally high-school prank makes us laugh, even if it is a bit nasty. (What high school prank isn’t at least a bit nasty?)

Sext: All of a sudden, everyone’s a racist. Well, simmer down. As Abe Sawyer suggests at The Awl, it’s probably anarchism. Racism is just one of the “tools currently available with which to ‘win’.”

Nones: Mark Garlasco’s hobby — collecting Nazi military memorabilia — will probably cost him his job, now that it has “armed right-wing fanatics” critical of Human Rights Watch, the humanitarian organization which Mr Garlasco served as a military analyst.

Vespers: On the anniversary of David Foster Wallace’s death, Jean Ruaud writes about the rewards of struggling with Infinite Jest all the way through to the end. [fr]

Compline: An interesting, if not quite lucid, essay on the problem of giving unconditional love to a badly-behaving child, by Alfie Kohn. Oremus…

§ Matins. Before praising the President, Mr Hertzberg points out an unpleasant truth about modern wingnuttery:

What is different now is the evolution of a new political organism, with paranoia as its animating principle. The town-meeting shouters may be the organism’s hands and feet, but its heart—also, Heaven help us, its brain—is a “conservative” media alliance built around talk radio and cable television, especially Fox News. The protesters do not look to politicians for leadership. They look to niche media figures like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Michael Savage, and their scores of clones behind local and national microphones. Because these figures have no responsibilities, they cannot disappoint. Their sneers may be false and hateful—they all routinely liken the President and the “Democrat Party” to murderous totalitarians—but they are employed by large, nominally respectable corporations and supported by national advertisers, lending them a considerable measure of institutional prestige. The dominant wing of the Republican Party is increasingly an appendage of the organism—the tail, you might say, though it seems to wag more often from fear than from happiness. Many Republican officeholders, even some reputed moderates like Senator Chuck Grassley, of Iowa, have obediently echoed the foul nonsense.

Nothing chills us more horribly than the prospect of misgovernment by pep rally.

§ Lauds. Mr Campbell certainly sounds like the right man at the right time.

If I’m bringing a slight shift of focus at this moment it’s in two respects. The first is that…we’ve been mounting around 30-35 exhibitions a year, putting huge creativity and resources into that side of our operations…I want to bring more of that back to our own collections. That’s something I would want to do irrespective of the economic circumstances, but they make that a necessity. We mount so many exhibitions even our most loyal visitors see only a portion of them. The danger is we are only competing with ourselves.

What I want to do at the same time is bring more attention back to our own treasures. What does that actually mean? It means partly getting our curatorial body, who are so focused on exhibitions, to also put more of their energies into our collections. Of course this happens when we reopen a new wing—it’s all hands on deck to rebuild the American Wing or the Greek and Roman Galleries. But so much of the museum is not under construction, and there is a great deal more we can do to enliven, inform, invigorate the visitor experience to those parts of the museum. We’re talking about a range of issues from traditional signage, the quality of the information we deliver to them in the galleries—whether traditional label copy or audio guides or other media platforms.

§ Prime. As you might expect, Mr Salmon is rather more pessimistic than Mr Surowiecki, but he does see something new that he likes very much (as do we): a variation on the teacherly gambit of making the whole class suffer until the malefactor steps forward.

And then there’s Obama’s promise that any future bailouts will have to be repaid — if not by the company being bailed out, then by its competitors:

If taxpayers ever have to step in again to prevent a second Great Depression, the financial industry will have to pay the taxpayer back – every cent.

The financial industry. This is big, and important. Because what it does is it turns the whole industry — every bank, every banker, every hedge fund manager — into a mini-regulator, the eyes and ears of the systemic-risk regulator. All too often, those with eyes to see try to monetize their insights, rather than sounding a more general alarm. But if they ultimately end up paying for the cost of any bailout, they might stop just quietly putting on short positions, and start taking their analysis to the Fed instead. Which, under Obama’s plan, will have the ability and authority to put an end to activities which pose major systemic risk.

If Mr Surowiecki counsels optimism about the prospect of real reform, it’s for a good reason: 

But I think there’s also a danger in adopting a completely bleak view of the possibility of reform, because it amplifies the danger that we’ll adopt an attitude of learned helplessness toward Wall Street. The idea of learned helplessness, which was introduced in the late nineteen-sixties by the psychologist Martin Seligman as a result of experiments with dogs, is that when people are subjected to repeated negative events that they have no control over, it’s easy for them to become convinced that they’re permanently helpless, and that there’s no point in trying to change things, because all such efforts are doomed to failure. Certainly Wall Street has subjected the U.S. economy to repeated disasters over the past thirty years, and the fact that we haven’t done anything to change this meaningfully may make it seem that we can’t do anything to change this. But what was doesn’t have to be what will be. The government is not, in fact, helpless. It has the power to restructure the financial industry in useful ways. And the public will to do this is there, too. We need to be realistic about how hard the fight for reform will be. But deciding in advance that we’re doomed to fail is going to make it less, not more, likely that the program Obama advocated today will become reality.

§ Tierce. We’re not being sarcastic when we say that we found this remark really poignant.

“I write books. I’m a private person.”

Sounds like HR at Condé Nast isn’t doing its job. Don’t they have a Public-Figure training module?

§ Sext. If nothing else, it’s the best explanation for Glenn Beck that we’ve come across.

An attempt to understand and explain Glenn Beck in particular is a dead end. To explain his actions would mean he has a motive. He does not. Beck’s not a racist. He’s an anarchist. He’s that boyfriend you had and hated because he exists only to criticize and play devil’s advocate. The image of Obama as the Joker from The Dark Knight has been taken up as a badge of the Beckian right’s battle against what it perceives as seeping socialism. But the irony is that nobody could be more like that Joker character than Beck himself. In the film, the Joker says, “Do I really look like a guy with a plan? You know what I am? I’m a dog chasing cars. I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I caught it. You know, I just… do things.” And of him, Alfred says, “Because he thought it was good sport. Because some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.” Now, is there anyone on the national platform that that describes more than Glenn Beck, a man who bills himself as a comedian?

§ Nones. There’s a reasonable explanation, of course.

Mr. Garlasco, an American, was not only a collector, he has written a book, more than 400 pages long, about Nazi-era medals. His hobby, inspired he said by a German grandfather conscripted into Hitler’s army, was revealed on a pro-Israel blog, Mere Rhetoric, which quoted his enthusiastic postings on collector sites under the pseudonym “Flak88” — including, “That is so cool! The leather SS jacket makes my blood go cold it is so COOL!”

But today’s polarized politics have no time for reason. Mr Garlasco appears to have been “outed” by Helena Cobban, a human rights activist who doubtless found the memorabilia collection distasteful. To her opponents — Israeli hawks who don’t wish to be criticized for their treatment of Palestinians — the collection is proof of Mr Garlasco’s anti-Israeli bias, and, of course, by imputation, that of Human Rights Watch.

The problem is serious: how can we tolerate personal privacy in an era of hidden agendas?

§ Vespers. Jean confesses to having been seduced by the sheer massiveness of the novel when he stumbled across it at Galignani. Did he guess that it would take three years to read?

J’achetais cet énorme bouquin et mis trois ans à le lire, par intermittences, retours en arrière, lâchages et reprises. La langue particulièrement ardue, la structure de la phrase alambiquée, le vocabulaire rare et choisi me causèrent beaucoup de difficultés, l’histoire compliquée et décousue me décevait souvent. Néanmoins je persévérais dans ma lecture parce que le ton, ironique, sarcastique, caustique, mordant, désespéré et néanmoins plein de compassion pour nous, pauvres humains, plein de questionnement sur les passions humaines même les moins compréhensibles pour lui, m’accrochait. Et me plaisait aussi cette capacité à décrire l’indescriptible, à pénétrer dans le cerveau des personnages et à en démonter les rouages comme ceux d’une horlogerie hyper compliquée, les sentiments, les opinions, les passions, et ce soucis constant de tout montrer jusque dans les petits détails, ce soucis encyclopédique, cet art de tout décrypter sans perdre ce ton caustique et amusant qui me plaisait tellement. Passé la barrière – et quelle barrière! – de la langue, David Foster Wallace apparaissait dans Infinite Jest comme un formidable analyste de l’humain et comme un écrivain sacrément doué, quoiqu’un peu verbeux.

“A damned gifted writer — if a bit verbose.” We meant to read Infinite Jest this summer, along with folks at The Morning News, and we got as far as buying the book (which, when it first appeared, we declared that we would never read). Maybe next summer?  

§ Compline. If nothing else, Mr Kohn collects the advice of an array of conditional-love proponents.

Thus, the talk show host Phil McGraw tells us in his book Family First (Free Press, 2004) that what children need or enjoy should be offered contingently, turned into rewards to be doled out or withheld so they “behave according to your wishes.” And “one of the most powerful currencies for a child,” he adds, “is the parents’ acceptance and approval.”

Likewise, Jo Frost of Supernanny, in her book of the same name (Hyperion, 2005), says, “The best rewards are attention, praise and love,” and these should be held back “when the child behaves badly until she says she is sorry,” at which point the love is turned back on.

Conditional parenting isn’t limited to old-school authoritarians. Some people who wouldn’t dream of spanking choose instead to discipline their young children by forcibly isolating them, a tactic we prefer to call “time out.” Conversely, “positive reinforcement” teaches children that they are loved, and lovable, only when they do whatever we decide is a “good job.”

Even Bruno Bettelheim advocated a form of aversion therapy (making a misbehaving child anxious).

It seems pretty clear to us that approval and disapproval not only need not have anything to do with love but ought not be connected to it, not in any way. The big problem is that so many people don’t have a clue about expressing love except in terms of positive reinforcement.

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