Monday, January 22, 2007
in the penny press! dodos and Ramsey Clark!
Interesting tidbits in the penny press this time around, starting with the latest issue of Esquire.
We here at Stevereads have a certain fond indulgence for Esquire - it's resolutely moronic and reductive in tone (its endless style tips and lifestyle guides only reinforce what the rest of us have suspected all along: that all those interchangeable-looking young business-suited drones we see crowded at the crosswalks on our way to work really ARE interchangeable - not that they're extremely similar to each other, but that they are, in fact, the SAME PERSON, cheaply mimeographed hundreds of times), but it has the financial clout to commission some first-rate pieces. And since hunting for first-rate pieces is the first duty of truffle-sniffing in the penny press, we must go everywhere, even to the depths of cash-and-titty-worshipping magazines like Esquire.
And it's not all uphill! Every issue of Esquire is guaranteed to produce something eminently worth reading. Fortunately for the rest of you, we here at Stevereads do the soup-straining.
One quick bit of fun comes from the always-reliable Answer Fella, who gets a peculiarly theological question: a reader asks if a cloned human being would have a soul.
The Answer Fella gathers testimony from various experts and comes down in the affimative. To quote one of them: "If humans have souls, then clones will have them, too."
Well, not hardly. As many of you know, we here at Stevereads were trained in our youth by Jesuits - and so we are, in young adulthood, completely atheistic. There are no gods, and all their appurtenances are and always have been mortal folly.
But.... that having been said, if we allow the premise, the Answer Fella and his experts are still well and truly wrong.
The problem lies in an all-consuming faith in the powers of science, alas. These experts say that if you reproduce the biology with complete fidelity, the soul must surely follow. The fallacy of this is obvious: it mistakes the soul for being a PRODUCT of biology.
Of course, from a theological standpoint (we have our own experts on this, in addition to knowing the enemy's territory quite well in our own right), this misses one crucial point: the soul is not a product of biology. It comes from God - it is the singular gift that God gives to human (and, according to Holy Scripture, only human) beings. It's not biological - it, like God, stands outside the biological process.
Fortunately, not everything in this issue is fraught with theological implications. For instance, John Richardson's wonderful piece "How the Attorney General of the United States Became Saddam Hussein's Lawyer" is purely secular, a delightful piece of research and extrapolation regarding former attorney general Ramsey Clark.
Before reading this article, we here at Stevereads would have assumed the present age had long since forgotten Ramsey Clark. Once upon a time, in a long-lost age, he was one of a brace of fearless greyhounds in the kennel of the Kennedys. He caught from them the bug of doing good work, and he pushed on with that good work even after they were gone (and new boss, Lyndon Johnson, was, shall we say, considerably less interested in doing good work).
Surprised therefore at finding Ramsey Clark in the latest issue of Esquire, of all places, we dispatched one of our Stevereads interns to conduct a thorough search of the Interweb in order to confirm the stuff we read in the article.
Turns out it's all true. He's been defending Nazis, the PLO, Lyndon Larouche ... and Saddam Hussein. And there in the article is Clark's face, once matinee-handsome, now suddenly old. Through the rice-paper skin can be seen one last flickering of the light that was Camelot.
Ramsey Clark is a virtuous man, but this has become an almost unbelievably wicked world. He looks like an anachronism, jetting from one self-evidently guilty client to another, always self-effacing, always quietly reposing his deepest faith in the rule of law. Robert Bolt's Thomas More in 'A Man for All Seasons' was written with a different person in mind, but his most famous bit of dialogue might well have been spoken by Clark.
It's no mystery in our current world that pundits and commentators would feel free to mock and malign Clark. We live in a vicious, 'Mission Accomplished' world in which the powerful routinely break the law, where they're the FIRST to break it, and then sneer transparent lies to a fawning media.
We here at Stevereads wish him well. There's nothing he can do about the way of the world, except keep doing what he's always done, even though virtually nobody believes in doing it anymore.
We took that slight feeling of disenchantment with us when we moved over to the latest issue of New York magazine, which (amidst its usual gathering of great stuff) featured an article in which writer William Georgiades tries Allen Carr's celebrated 'method' to quit smoking. Georgiades is a smart, savvy writer, so we were happy to watch him explode the manipulative myth that Carr's book has been slinging since its publication.
You don't need to do much more than attach 'the easy way' to ANYTHING to make it bestseller in America. 'Lose Weight in 10 Days - And Eat as Much as You Want!'- and such titles crowd the bookstore shelves and trumpet the quintessentially American mindframe that results should never be bought at the cost of work - surely nowadays, a pill or a program will suffice?
Contrary to the jejune speculations afloat here at Stevereads (that we were tormented with cigarettes as a small child, or even that we ourselves were once addicted), our hatred of tobacco addicts stems from the particular TACK they've always taken in rationalizing their addiction, the particular TACK the 10 billion-dollar tobacco adverstising industry always takes - i.e. that tobacco addiction is the THINKER'S addiction, that standing outside philosophically dragging on a cigarette is somehow synomymous with ... well, with pausing, with re-assessing, and most of all with ADULTHOOD. Those bitter minutes we adults take outside, burning our own lungs and bestenching ourselves for hours afterwards, are what SEPARATE us from more shallow thinkers, goes the advertising. We're not callow anymore; we realize that THIS is the price we pay for being adult, artistic, realistic, REAL.
Needless to say, any pretence that presumes superiority is guaranteed to tick us off (the typical pothead assertion that they hear music 'better' when high comes close to being the same thing). So we were glad to read Georgieades tear the program to pieces. It doesn't work for Georgiades, and his backgrounding for the article reveals how many others have been similarly let down. This only makes sense: tobacco addiction is the fiercest of all addictions to even barely control, much less 'beat.' Now if only 'The Easy Way to Stop Smoking' would stop selling so well ...
And lastly, over in the New Yorker, there's an interesting article by Ian Parker on the long, strange afterlife of the famously extinct great Mauritius dodo. Parker very gently, very forgivingly writes about the eccentrics and, to speak plainly, the lunatics who staff the 2006 Mauritius Dodo Expedition.
The picture is that of a hopeless muddle, a pathetic tangle of island politics, petty scientific rivalries, and of course the money-guys getting everything wrong (at one point they half-seriously joke about cloning a dodo, and you can just hear all the scientists within earshot cringe).
The story is ultimately sad - reading Parker's piece, you get the distinct impression that it's way, way too late for any kind of clear-eyed science to take root on Mauritius. But then, the dodo's story is a sad one anyway - you picture these big fat birds so docile and unaccustomed to mankind that they were all dead within just a century of their first contact with humans.
But there's one silver lining in the story: it gives us here at Stevereads a chance to offer a shameless plug for one of the best science fiction short stories ever written: "The Ugly Chickens" by the criminally underrated Howard Waldrop. We have yet to quiz our interns on whether or not this gem of a story is available on the Interweb, but if it is, oh, you should all read it! It's a smart, playful, pitch-perfect exercise in adumbration and irony.
Needless to say, if the story ISN'T available online, we here at Stevereads will provide as many copies for my little guppies as they require ... I am, as always, their humble servant ...