Nov 292002

Officially now; and in honor of the holiday let’s look at the all-time British favorite Christmas story, A Christmas Carol, and the all-time American one, It’s a Wonderful Life. These are both dedicated to the remarkable proposition that businesses ought to act as charities. The spirit of Christmas turns out to be altruism.

Poor Ebenezer Scrooge gets probably the worst rap in all of literature. He is of course a banker. Evil businessmen are often bankers, because their activity is too abstract to appear productive. They seem to do nothing but count their money.

Scrooge’s punishment for grousing about giving Bob Cratchit Christmas Day off is a series of supernatural visits, first from his long-dead partner Marley, who has been condemned to wander the world as a ghost in chains. Scrooge asks him why:

“But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,” faultered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.

“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

The common welfare was my business. Scrooge, to his credit, is not yet persuaded; he is hard-headed, and requires three more ghosts to bring him completely around. And when Scrooge finally sees what a miserable old miser he has been and how poor Tiny Tim Cratchit will die without his aid, what does he do? He gives Bob Cratchit a raise, not to reward him for efficacy or deter him from seeking other employment, but out of pity and nothing else. Penance for attending to business is drawn from the business itself. The counting house becomes a going social concern.

If Dickens had less charity for his characters and more for his readers, he would dispense with the preternaturally chipper Tiny Tim altogether, or kill him off early at the very least. Oscar Wilde once remarked of The Old Curiosity Shop that one must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing. His views on A Christmas Carol are unfortunately unrecorded.

Looking a bit wobbly Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life is even more wholeheartedly dedicated to the proposition that altruism alone makes life worth living. To summarize, for recent visitors from another planet: George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) finds Bedford Falls to be a sort of roach motel. His father dies suddenly and he inherits the local savings and loan. He courts and marries a local girl; the losing suitor, Sam Wainwright, leaves town and gets rich in plastics, of all things, twenty years before The Graduate. (For Capra, business success is tolerable, so long as it’s off screen and away from the action.) George’s younger brother Harry enlists in the Army for World War II and becomes a war hero; George sits it out with a bum ear.

The evil presence of Bedford Falls is the richest man in town, wheelchair-bound Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore). (Typically for Capra, It’s a Wonderful Life conjoins a sound morality with a sound physique.) Potter, like Scrooge, is a banker. George Bailey is a banker too. But Potter is a solvent banker, while George runs Bailey Savings & Loan with a generosity of spirit and cheerful disregard for collateral that makes him a popular figure in town and keeps him perpetually on the verge of bankruptcy. George barely staves off one bank run by appealing to the good nature of his depositors.

Potter does his best to put Bailey Savings & Loan out of business, going so far as to offer George an extremely well-paid job as his business manager, but never quite manages. Finally, one Christmas, Potter gets his chance when George’s dotty Uncle Billy absently wraps an $8,000 deposit in a newspaper and hands it to Potter, who keeps it. George, unable to raise the money (he appeals to Potter, who of course turns him down on the grounds that he has no collateral) and faced with financial ruin, decides on suicide.

He is about to jump off the bridge, when Clarence, the bumbling angel, jumps in before him. This is a master stroke. George forgets about killing himself and goes in after Clarence instead. Again, happiness comes from helping others. The two dry off, and then we get the lengthy counterfactual for which the movie is justly famous, the sojourn in Pottersville, the alternate Bedford Falls. I agree with this guy that Pottersville, with its pool halls, dance halls, neon lights and actual prostitutes, looks like a lot more fun than Bedford Falls, where watching the The Bells of St. Mary’s at the local movie house appears to be the only entertainment.

Yet in Pottersville George’s brother Harry, whom George saved from drowning as a boy, has died. Mr. Gower, the pharmacist, whom George saved from accidentally poisoning a customer, has become the town rummy. George’s wife has become a spinster who haunts the library (her other suitor, Sam Wainwright, being mysteriously absent from Pottersville). The townspeople all live in shanties because Bailey Savings & Loan wasn’t around to give them mortgages. (Why Potter should find a poor citizenry more profitable than a rich one is a nice question, but Capra is always a bit vague on business details.) George should live, he finally comes to realize, not for any reason of his own, but for all the happiness he has brought to others.

It will be objected that Scrooge is a sour old miser and Potter is a thief. Yes; and yes. These are two particularly nasty instances of what Ayn Rand used to call “package-dealing.” Instead of attacking the idea of running a business for profit directly, you sneak up on it by associating irrelevant personal characteristics with the one you’re really after. This is especially flagrant in Potter’s case. He is shrewd, and tough, and unpleasant, but nothing marks him as a thief up to the very moment Uncle Billy’s deposit falls literally into his lap. Every time I watch this scene, as Potter hesitates for a second, then hides the money in the newspaper, I half-expect him to give it back. But he never does.

(Update: On aesthetic grounds, Kernon Gibes defends A Christmas Carol (the 1951 movie version, with Alastair Sims) and Colby Cosh defends It’s A Wonderful Life. And I agree with them both, though more with Colby than Kernon. Bad art is useless propaganda.)

Nov 272002

I began writing this post ten minutes ago, and it has been sitting on my hard drive since then, mostly gathering dust, if posts could gather dusts on hard drives.

Now, however, I have decided it’s time to take a stand.

I can no longer include on God of the Machine‘s blogroll any weblog that has provided a permanent blogroll link of its own to the site known as Rittenhouse Review or “RR.”

It is with great regret, considerable lament and substantial redundancy that I have adopted this position — or been forced to adopt this position — as I am normally a passionate advocate of amusing one’s readers. However, it has become painfully clear that RR does not share these values.

I am determined to distance myself in every possible way from their endeavor and those who support it. Lest I be tainted in any way, I shall exclude from my blogroll not only those who link to RR, but also everyone who links to those who link to those who link to RR, and to be on the safe side, everyone who links to those who link to those who link to those who link to RR.

I fully expect to be disparaged with merciless unfairness and obloquy and…what’s that? There won’t be anybody left for me to link to at all? And no one gives a fuck who I link to anyway? Oh. Then never mind.

Nov 252002

As catalogued by John Cartan. I know only a few of the books on the list, but anyone who lists Frederick Crews’ The Pooh Perplex, the one book about literary criticism to read if you’re reading only one, ought to be attended to. (Swiped from Ishbadiddle.)

Nov 252002

Alan Reynolds in The Washington Times, via Radley Balko, through some complex blogging chain that I’m too lazy to reconstruct, makes this anti-war argument:

Those who claim to be certain Iraq has a formidable arsenal of fearsome weapons also express inexplicable confidence that those weapons pose no danger to U.S. troops. They declare that an invasion will be fast and easy. “I guarantee it will be over within 10 days,” says Mort Zuckerman of U.S.News. Such assurances that Iraq is a feeble military power contradict the rationale for war namely, the assertion that Iraq is in possession of terrifying weapons. Iraq may be a dangerous predator or an easy prey, but it cannot be both.

Radley labels this “the Hawkish Paradox.” Even if we grant the implicit (and obviously false) assumption that any “fearsome weapon” that could kill a lot of civilians could also kill a lot of well-prepared and equipped soldiers, Dovish Paradox would be equally apt. Doves may argue that he has these weapons and will use them against American soldiers if attacked, inflicting severe casualties, but not against American civilians, because he is a rational actor. Doves may argue equally that he doesn’t have these weapons and thus poses no threat to us. Neither of these positions is cogent, but neither is prima facie illogical. What doves may not do is argue both positions at once.

Same with hawks. Zuckerman is perfectly entitled to say the war will be over in 10 days provided Zuckerman does not simultaneously argue for Iraq’s fearsome arsenal. Reynolds notably fails to produce such a quote from Zuckerman, and even if he did it would indict only Zuckerman, not hawks in general. In reality there is no paradox here at all, for hawks or doves. The author merely illustrates the necessity of taking a view.

Radley calls this “maybe the best anti-war argument” I’ve seen yet, which makes me wonder what the bad ones are.

Nov 242002

The girlfriend and I caught the Maysles brothers’ documentary Gimme Shelter on IFC the other night. It’s about the disastrous Rolling Stones show at Altamont in 1969, and it’s very good as those things go. There’s a lovely bit of moral catatonia from the Grateful Dead, who arrive to be informed that there have been scuffles and that Jefferson Airplane singer Marty Balin, trying to break up a fight, has managed to get himself knocked unconscious. “Oh bummer,” Jerry Garcia says. “Beating people up like that…that just doesn’t seem right,” Bob Weir adds.

But the most interesting part has to do with Meredith Hunter. You all remember Meredith Hunter, right? He’s the 18-year-old teenager who was set upon and stabbed to death by a bloodthirsty mob of Hell’s Angels, high on bad acid and the $500 worth of beer they were paid to provide security for the show. Hunter, the 60s martyr whose death marked the beginning of the end of Flower Power. Except that’s not what happened at all. In the movie Mick Jagger watches the crucial footage in slo-mo, and it is clear that Hunter rushes the stage and pulls a gun before any Hell’s Angel lays a hand on him. He may also fire a shot. There is a brief orange flash in the film but it is inconclusive, and eyewitness reports differ. What is absolutely clear is that Hunter started it; whether he should have been stabbed five times is of course another question. Yet to this day many accounts of Altamont, like this one or this one, don’t even mention the gun. Others claim Hunter pulled it in self-defense, which the movie clearly contradicts, or not at all. I confess that neither the girlfriend nor I knew the gun even existed, and I doubt we were the last two.

This description from Dick Carter, owner of the Altamont Speedway, jibes in every particular with what you see in Gimme Shelter:

Most of the books and articles about Altamont are filled with bull. Like the Hell’s Angels were the only security, and they were hired for $500 worth of beer. We had every off-duty police officer available and every security guard in Northern California there. There were about 17 Angels who came to the concert because they were in Oakland for a convention. Sam Cutler, the Stones’ manager, asked if the Angels would escort the Stones through the crowd on motorcycle and then sit around the stage during the show to protect the band. We had purchased $500 worth of beer for the bands, and Cutler told the Angels they could have some.

The Angels were blamed for the death of Meredith Hunter. But that kid was waving a gun and screaming that he was going to shoot Mick Jagger. One of the Angels jumped his back, after Hunter fired a shot at the stage, and stabbed him with a knife several times. The audience was going to tear Hunter limb from limb, but the Angels formed a circle around him and got him out of the crowd and into a bread truck where he could be moved to get medical attention. He died in the racetrack office, but the Angels tried to save him.

A few days later, the district attorney of Alameda called me and said that I was going to be blamed for the murder of Hunter, along with the Hell’s Angels and the Rolling Stones. I said, ‘For crying out loud, the kid had a gun, it was self-defense! You can see the gun on the film from the concert!’ The DA told me I needed to produce the gun. So I tracked down Sonny Barger [a prominent Angel] by calling every lawyer in the phone book. He said he would make some calls, that one of three Angels might still have the pistol. Later that day he called me and said, ‘We have the gun.’ So I called the attorney, Melvin Belli, who told me to bring it to him in a shoebox. The charges were dropped after that.

The three people besides Hunter who died at Altamont were not violent, merely stupid. Two were run over while sleeping, and one drowned in an irrigation ditch.

Nov 232002

The Daily Dose, Letter from Gotham, Clay Waters and Dodgeblog (admittedly a borderline case) have all folded in the last two weeks it must be a trend, because that’s four examples, one more than Mickey Kaus says I need. I have enjoyed reading all of these people and am sorry to see them go. But enough about them! The important question is, if they’ve all found paying work, can I be far behind?

(Update: Letter from Gotham lasted two weeks, and then she couldn’t take it any more.)

Nov 222002

I was beaten to this by Allan and Elizabeth, in that order, but I don’t mind — really! — because the poem is very good, as undiscovered poems almost never are. The artist can generally be trusted to publish his best stuff. It was awfully sentimental of old Larkin not to have published this:

We met at the end of the party
When all the drinks were dead
And all the glasses dirty:
‘Have this that’s left’, you said.
We walked through the last of summer,
When shadows reached long and blue
Across days that were growing shorter:
You said: ‘There’s autumn too’.
Always for you what’s finished
Is nothing, and what survives
Cancels the failed, the famished,
As if we had fresh lives
From that night on, and just living
Could make me unaware
Of June, and the guests arriving,
And I not there.