Monthly Archives: January 2012

Caleb Crain’s Copyright Arguments Aren’t Worth A Dog’s Breakfast

“Why Matt Yglesias is wrong about copyright”, explains Mr. Caleb Crain, giving three very poor arguments for his position. I believe there may well be very strong arguments in opposition to Mr. Matthew Yglesias; these aren’t them.

Last week, for example, Yglesias belittled the damage of online piracy with this rationale:

Even when copyright infringement does lead to real loss of revenue to copyright owners, it’s not as if the money vanishes into a black hole. Suppose Joe Downloader uses Bit Torrent to get a free copy of Beggars Banquet …and then goes out to eat some pizza. In this case, the Rolling Stones’ loss is the pizzeria’s gain and Joe gets to listen to a classic album. It’s at least not obvious that we should regard this, on balance, as harmful.

This, I believe, is a slight misrepresentation. This was a tangential aspect to the issue in the original article that every download is necessarily a lost sale. If I read a book at a library, rather than buy it, is that necessarily a lost sale? Or is that a book I enjoyed mildly, but not enough to buy it? If I listen to a stream of an album and again, find it interesting but not compelling enough to listen to it again, is that a lost sale? The tangent that Mr. Crain addresses is not a justification for a piracy but an explanation that disposable income not spent on such an album is necessarily lost to the economy, but will still be spent on goods. Mr. Crain misses the point with his counter-example, confusing goods that are consumed entirely (no one else can eat that lunch now), versus those that might be enjoyed, or at least listened to, ad infinitum or nauseum, by many. If Mr. Crain eats Mr. Yglesias’ lunch, Mr. Yglesias cannot eat it, and he must purchase another lunch. If I buy a Ke$ha record, listen to it, think this is terrible, I am able to then give it to a friend with terrible taste of music, who may go on to use the disposable income they would have spent on terrible music on an extra snack. The distinction between these two products, I think, is trivial.

Mr. Crain then acknowledges that a lunch and a piece of music, but then, wrongly, claims “that this is a separate issue”. That a lunch, which can be consumed once, and a virtual piece of music are very different things does not imply that there cannot be property rights for both; that their very different qualities affect their property rights is very relevant, and not a separate issue at all. I may download a public domain book, and there is no possibility I am stealing. This is not the case of downloading a book whose copyright is extant. In contrast, if I steal a physical book from a book store or library, whether it be public domain, such as Jane Austen, or extant copyright, such as The Tiger’s Wife, by Tea Obreht, I am stealing. Again, I believe this is a simple, trivial, distinction.

Mr. Crain then shifts ground to the idea of a violation of moral integrity in the case of a virtual document being duplicated. He employs two analogies, both of which I consider poor:

Suppose I were to start claiming that I’d been awarded a Purple Heart. (The truth is that I
have never even served in the military.) I wouldn’t be taking anyone else’s Purple Heart away. The award is felt to be valuable, but it doesn’t have a clear price, and probably no one could prove that I had gained money by my false claim. Nonetheless most people would be likely to agree that by such a lie I would be harming soldiers who had rightfully earned the award. This example may seem too heavy, morally speaking, as I’m willing to admit, but I think it does prove at least this much: Whether it is right to take a thing from a person does not depend on whether it is abstract, and does not depend on whether the original owner is thereby deprived of his possession. A lighter example: sneaking into a half-empty movie theater through the exit. True, it’s not a felony, but it is wrong. If they catch you, they do call your parents.

The claim of a purple heart is not a claim of possession of an object, material or virtual, but a claim of a particular experience – great service to one’s nation. The signifier is irrelevant, and has no inherent value – it is the experience itself which is crucial. One is making a claim of false achievement, rather than possession – actual possession is irrelevant. It is of no concern if a soldier who served valiantly, is awarded a purple heart for righteous and truthful sacrifice is awarded a purple heart and then he somehow loses it in a house fire or a theft – it is the experience itself not the medal. A similar analogy would be a claim to authorship of a work, for which one had no part. In this case, it would make no difference if the works were in the private or public domain.

If I re-write small parts of Martin Chuzzlewit or Harry Potter, then submit them as my own work to a novel writing contest or a publisher, I am making a wrongful claim of achievement, whether copyright is extant or not. The half-empty movie theater is equally wrong as analogy. In the case of a movie theater, I am paying for rental of the seat for a period of time. Whether or not the rest of the theater is empty or not is irrelevant – the fees are assumed to go towards the upkeep and maintenance of the theater, as well as the projection of the films. I am in the wrong sneaking into a half empty theater without payment, just as I am for sneaking into a half empty parking lot without payment. The copyright of the film is irrelevant; there is no possible violation of law if I watch a public domain film on youtube. When I sneak into a theater, I am avoiding fees for rental of the theater seat, whether the film is public domain, such as Georges Melies’ Voyage to the Moon or Ghost Protocol.

Mr. Crain continues:

Yglesias notes that it isn’t correct to assume that every act of piracy “represents a lost sale.” But it doesn’t represent nothing, either. You pirated the work because you wanted it, so it did have some value to you.

The fact that I wish to listen to something does not necessarily imply that I wish to purchase it, or that we always provide funds at retail value of the product if we enjoyed it. According to this logic, if I listen to several songs on youtube to determine if I’d like to buy them on itunes, I must pay a fee for each trial listen, as this has some value. If I greatly enjoy a novel I bought used, or which is in the public domain and was downloaded from Gutenberg, I must now buy those products at full retail value to reflect my enjoyment.

Attacking from another angle, Yglesias suggests that illegal piracy reduces “deadwight loss,” an economic term of art for the value lost to the market when prices aren’t set merely by the intersection of supply and demand curves. If the government subsidizes corn, the resulting increase in corn-syrup-sweetened colas drunk is a deadweight loss…To say you approve of copyright infringement because it reduces deadweight loss, therefore, is a little like saying you approve of tax evasion because it reduces the market-distorting appropriation of citizens’ money by the government.

No, it isn’t. Your taxes pay for a wide variety of services, a fraction of which goes to agricultural subsidies, many of which you or your family employ or will employ at a future point. You are not paying fees, in other words, on products you fully consume on the grounds that you object to some of the products consumed by others. This analogy has nothing to do with deadweight loss; it is an argument for someone who refuses to pay full price for Lana Del Rey, even though they consider Lana Del Rey excellent and greatly enjoy her music, but because the money that the record company will get will partly go towards the record career of Rebecca Black.

Mr. Crain’s conclusion:

According to the Constitution, the purpose of copyright is “to promote the progress of Science and useful Arts.” For that purpose I’m willing to not only eat Yglesias’ lunch but cash his paycheck, too. Jeffrey Rosen of the New Republic recently suggested that “There is certainly a price below which authors and journalists won’t produce good work in the first place.” Sure, answered Yglesias, and “the price is almost certainly negative.” In other words, Yglesias thinks that writing, music, film, and television can prosper as hobbies—that in the copyright-free future, people might even pay for the privilege of writing and creating. Corporate bean counters of Slate! Did you read this?

Mr. Yglesias does not believe that the various cultural industries can prosper as hobbies. This is a mis-statement. I will give Mr. Yglesias’ statement a more honest airing:

[Let] me pick a new fight with Rosen’s dubious claim that “There is certainly a price below which authors and journalists won’t produce good work in the first place.”

There certainly is such a price, but the price is almost certainly negative. Obviously financial rewards are a factor in people’s activity. But in a world in which it was strictly impossible for law professors to earn extra living by offering opinions on newsworthy legal issues, plenty of them would continue to do so. People have strong feelings about things and want to share them with the world! If nobody had a full-time job as a writer, we’d presumably have less writing but not none.

As an example, I provide this post: it is an attempt at a refutation of Mr. Crain’s article, for which he was presumably paid, with a rigor and diligence which I hope at least equals Mr. Crain’s original. This would be an example of an attempt at uncompensated, quality work.

I do not, however, consider this as a possible substitute for content on Slate, and neither would Slate or Matthew Yglesias. A periodical, of whatever format, requires its writers to deliver content on some decided topic, or range of topics (Mr. Yglesias is expected to write on economics, he cannot hand in a review of The Grey instead) at a particular length, by a particular date and time. Most likely, there is demand for several such filings during a day. That Mr. Yglesias acknowledges that people will write, our of their own urgent desire, and sometimes produce very good work, would not give any relief to the tyrannical overlords of Slate, who do not simply require that there be good content somewhere out there, but good content on approved topics, by an approved time, in conformity with the style parameters of their publication. Again, I think this distinction is a simple one, and these points are not in contradiction.

A simple conclusion: I believe Mr. Crain did good, thorough work in “Fair and Balanced: On Copyright and Fair Use” and there is the possibility of his making a counter-argument to Mr. Yglesias, but not with these weak points.

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Mitt Romney’s Chief Strategist Stuart Stevens, Switzerland, Mississippi, Jon Hinson, and my Lousy Math

Part of an on-going attempt to illuminate the life and career of a political consultant, in this case, Stuart Stevens; other posts include “He Hates You”, a summary profile, a brief look at his China travel memoir, Night Train to Turkistan, his memoir of the 2000 Bush campaign, a look at his travel memoir Malaria Dreams, an analysis of his novel Scorched Earth, an analysis of his book Feeding Frenzy, his interview with Charlie Rose promoting Feeding Frenzy, an analysis of an episode of “Commander in Chief” which he co-wrote, and his defense of Newt Gingrich on “Charlie Rose”. Outside profiles and mentions, all excellent, are “Building a Better Mitt Romney-Bot” by Robert Draper, “An Unconventional Strategist Reshaping Romney” by Ashley Parker, “The Coming Tsunami of Slime” by Joe Hagan, and “Mitt Romney’s Dark Knight” by Jason Zengerle.

This post is related to this previous lengthy post, most specifically the last section.

An article by Mitt Romney’s chief strategist Stuart Stevens, “Thank God This Will Only Get Worse” that caused me great puzzlement. The relevant parts of the quote are bolded:

All this changed when I discovered track skiing — Nordic racing. It happened in my late 20s when I was living in Switzerland, where my wife was teaching. I coached the school’s rugby team, but it would be a charitable understatement to say that I had a lot of time on my hands. One of the faculty members had raced cross-country at Middlebury, and he convinced me to tag along to a nearby ski area for a training session.

A year later, my entire life revolved around cross-country skiing. Any pretense of career or nonathletic ambition had been tossed aside for a slavish devotion to training, technique, equipment and racing. Actually, the races were just a small part of the equation. It was the 20-plus hours a week of skiing I craved, the two and sometimes three workouts a day, that blissful, purposeful exhaustion that made staying awake through dinner a legitimate challenge.

As I immersed myself in cross-country skiing, I learned of a circuit of long-distance events called the Worldloppet: 10 races (later it would expand), each in a different country, 8 in Europe and 2 in North America. In my cross-country frenzy, I decided to do all of them in one eight-week season. It was a silly idea, but of course that only increased the appeal. To do all 10 races, I’d have to spend back-to-back weekends flying across the Atlantic, racing on Saturday, then catching an overnight flight to make the start of another race Sunday morning.

I had played sports since I was 3 and had been on a million teams, but racing the Worldloppet was the first time I began to define myself as an athlete. Even though I was mediocre on my best days, my obsession with cross-country skiing gave me an entirely new perspective on life and self.

Then, when the season was over, I told myself it was time to grow up and get serious about pursuits worthy of an adult. Reluctantly, I moved on, working as a writer and as a political consultant, which, if nothing else, served as an outlet for my violent tendencies. But it didn’t take long to realize that my taste of the endurance life had created a hunger that normal life didn’t come close to satisfying.

The relevant points here are these: Stevens, while in his late twenties, lived in Switzerland where his wife taught, coaching rugby. At some point during this period, he became involved in the Worldloppet skiing competition. After this competition, he moved on to become a political consultant.

A brief side note: we have here an example of the money available to Stevens that he assumes is available to everyone. He speaks of competing in the Worldloppet, which would involve travellng to every continent of the world, yet never mentions the scrounging and scraping almost every other person would need for the extraordinary expense of what is frivolous recreational expense. This, however, is a side note.

In the very good piece from December last year, “Building a Better Romney-Bot”, Stevens’ age is listed as 58. I take the late twenties to be between 25 and 29. So, Stevens would be in his late twenties between 1978 and 1982 – though I should emphasize this may be a miscalculation as my math skills are often poor. So, it is between 1978 and 1982 that Stevens is in Switzerland with his wife teaching rugby.

It cannot be before 1978, since 1978 is the year the Worldloppet started, according to the official site:

Worldloppet Ski Federation (Worldloppet) is an international sports federation of cross-country skiing marathons. The federation was founded in 1978 in Uppsala, Sweden.

It is, again, according to the piece written by Stevens, after this period of Switzerland and the Worldloppet that he becomes a political consultant in Mississippi.

The only problem with this theory, and this may, again, be my lousy math skills, is that Stevens is already a media consultant in Mississippi, in 1978, at the age of twenty-five on.

From Mississippi Politics: The Struggle For Power 1976-2008 by Jere Nash and Andy Taggart (relevant portions are available at (link), describing the 1978 election of Jon Hinson:

In 1978, Hinson’s family roots were in the southern part of the district; John Hampton Stennis’s home was Hinds County. Hinson won the election with 52 percent of the vote.

Handling the television advertising for Hinson was a young Jacksonian named Stuart Stevens, who over the next thirty years would become one of the premier Republican media consultants in the country. Stevens would end up back in Mississippi in 2003 to coordinate all of the advertising for Haley Barbour’s gubernatorial campaign.

Again, this may be my lousy math skills.

Stevens is still there in 1980, showing up early on in this section, whose details may or may not be contemporary relevance. They detail the fall of Mississippi congressman Jon Hinson, one of those endless line of american figures that are fascinating, heroic, and wrongfully obscure.

I quote it at length; I may edit it later out of respect to the authors; but I do believe it is well written, very insightful, and should be better known, as Mississippian political history, and the persecution some face:


The 1980 general election was shaping up to be an easy reelection for Congressman Jon Hinson. The Democratic nominee, Britt Singletary, was a relatively unknown Jackson lawyer. Even more critical was the independent candidacy of Les McLemore, a Jackson State University political science professor who had roots in the civil rights movement reaching as far back as the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. When asked years later why he ran for Congress, McLemore said: “I got involved through the displeasure of the black community with the elimination of the co-chair of the Democratic party. And when William Winter said there was no need for that, a lot of the black leaders felt very strongly that Aaron [Henry] should be continued as a co-chair. We wanted to show them that blacks could not be taken for granted.”

Then Stuart Stevens got a phone call from his client Jon Hinson. Stevens had produced Hinson’s television commercials in the 1978 campaign and was set to help him again in 1980. Hinson began: “Stuart, there’s something I didn’t tell you back in the ’78 campaign.” Stevens thought to himself: “When a political consultant gets a call from a candidate who says ‘there’s something I didn’t tell you,’ you know he’s not calling to tell you good news.” On Friday, August 8, 1980, Hinson divulged publicly what he had confided to Stevens – in September 1976, he had been arrested in Arlington, Virginia, while committing an obscene act. He had settled the matter by paying a $100 fine. Thirteen months later, he was at an X-rated movie theater in Washington when a fire destroyed the building, killing nine people. Hinson was one of the four survivors, and in early June he had given a deposition to lawyers handling civil suits filed by families of victims of the fire. Hinson’s startling admission: both of these sites were “frequented by homosexuals.”

After hearing the news, Billy Mounger, one of Hinson’s earliest supporters, immediately called the congressman and arranged for a meeting. Mounger asked him point blank: “Are you a homosexual?” Hinson denied he was gay, said his minister was backing him, and convinced the conservative Republicans that it was all part of a troubled past. The meeting broke up with his candidacy intact. Wirt Yeager Jr., another early backer, told the press: “These things took place at a time when he was caught up in emotional problems, before I ever heard of the guy. He had solved the problems and put them behind him by 1978 and he’s done an outstanding job since then.” A week later at another press conference, Hinson, with his wife at his side, explained his reasoning behind the disclosures: he was “sick and tired of worrying they would become public…I was reasonably certain that others had the information, but I didn’t know when it would come out.” And Hinson was compelled to declare flatly: “I am not, never have been, and never will be a homosexual.”

Reporters then began the process they do best: digging and peeling back the layers. Bit by bit they found information Hinson had withheld. The Jackson Clarion-Ledger soon disclosed the theater that burned was more than an X-rated movie house for homosexual films. It was also a club with more than 22,000 members where a “full range of sexual activities [were] conducted in empty rooms adjacent to the viewing area.” A couple of weeks later, the Clarion-Ledger devoted a front-page story to the revelation that Hinson had been to the theater on numerous other occasions. Even more damning: Hinson had delayed the deposition until June 6, three days after the Republican primary.

Then the Jackson Daily News broke the most detailed report yet of Hinson’s 1976 arrest. The “obscene act” – which took place at the Iwo Jima Memorial in Arlington, Virginia, a gathering place for homosexuals – occurred when Hinson exposed himself to an undercover detective. Hinson was immediately arrested. He was photographed and fingerprinted at a local jail and released. A court date was set for September 23, 1976, at which Hinson failed to show. The judge issued a summons for him to appear on October 7, a date he ignored. A third court hearing was set on October 21, and once again there was no Hinson. The judge issued a warrant for his arrest, and only then did Hinson respond. On October 28, he pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of creating a public nuisance and was fined $100.

In a campaign, when potentially damaging but truthful information becomes public, the goal becomes simple: discredit the source of the information. To the Hinson campaign and his GOP supporters, the newspaper reports were roundly criticized as “junk journalism” and “journalism of hysteria.” The reluctance of the Republican leaders to give serious consideration to the disclosures may have been explained by Mounger:

You’d think that a man who had acknowledged frequenting a homosexual theater would have been run out of Mississippi. But he’s got a great voting record. He’s been with us conservatives on every issue right down the line. There are folks that think we would rather have a queer conservative than a macho, all-man liberal, and they may be right, but he says he is not and was not a homosexual, and never performed a homosexual act, and I believe him.

On election day, Hinson received only 39 percent of the vote, but it was enough to win with a plurality. McLemore came in second with 30 percent, leading Singletary by 656 votes, who finished third. A relieved Hinson told his supporters on election night: “It’s been a hard three months. The worst three months I’ve spent in my life. I felt like Lazarus, returned from the dead.”

The End

All was well in the Hinson world until the morning of February 4, 1981. Jon Hinson left his office by a private door, walked over to an adjacent congressional office building, to an isolated restroom, and met Harold Moore, a twenty-nine-year-old Library of Congress clerk. Unbeknownst to Hinson, the Capitol Police were watching the restroom through a peephole, following a tip that homosexuals gathered there. A few minutes later, Hinson and Moore were arrested on felony charges of committing oral sodomy. Hinson posted a $2,000 bond and was released from jail at 4:25 P.M. Jackson time. The word, however, had already reached Mississippi. The legislature was still in session, and within five minutes of the news hitting the capitol, the Jon Hinson jokes were making the rounds. His career was over.

There was no forgiveness this time. Party Chairman Mike Retzer announced: “I’m calling for his resignation.” Billy Mounger was distraught: Hinson is “sick…We trusted him and he just didn’t play the game straight with us. I think he should resign.” That afternoon, the Jackson Daily News editorialized, “Jon Hinson has pushed his own self-destruct button.” That evening, ABC News carried the story to the nation: “The voters of the district may have believed Hinson enough to reelected him, but today’s Hinson’s Democratic opponent was saying I told you so.”

By the next day, Hinson was in a psychiatric hospital, ignoring the demands back home for his resignation. The Clarion-Ledger was reporting on its front page that the Hinson arrest was the “talk of Washington.” It took Hinson nearly a month to officially resign from office. Hinson’s minister defended the wait: “I don’t think people realize that an emotional and mental sickness is just like any other sickness. Your mind can’t do some things when you have an emotional sickness…People kept asking him to do something [resign] that he just wasn’t capable of doing.” Several months later, Hinson pleaded no contest to the charges and received a one-year probation.

The Republican transformation of Mississippi was perhaps best captured by a shopper in Hinson’s hometown of Tylertown, the day after his 1981 arrest, who said “he had figured all along that Hinson was gay, but had voted for him just the same because a gay was better than a Democrat.”

The Aftermath

One reason Hinson gave for making public the extraordinary disclosures was the fear that his Democratic opponent – Britt Singletary – knew about them and would use them in the campaign. Hinson alleged that his 1978 Democratic opponent – John Hampton Stennis – had learned about the incidents and had perhaps passed the damaging information along to his law partner, John Holloman, who was serving as Singletary’s campaign manager. The first that Holloman heard about the arrest and fire was from Hinson’s press conference.

At the time of Hinton’s 1976 arrest, he was a member of then Congressman Thad Cochran’s staff. In response to questions about what he knew, Cochran told the Clarion-Ledger that he was campaigning for reelection in, ironically, Hinson’s hometown of Tylertown when Capitol Police called to notify him that a warrant had been issued for Hinson’s arrest: “I knew that it was alleged to have occurred at the Iwo Jima Memorial and that had to create suspicions in my mind, but he told me that it was a mix-up and frankly I gave him the benefit of the doubt,” Cochan said he did not know the original charge was for “an indecent and immoral act,” only that Hinson told him it was for disturbing the peace and that he had been under a lot of emotional strain and pressure. Both Cochran and Hinson were in Tylertown on October 21 for a campaign event, the day of the scheduled third court date.

On New Year’s Day, 1984, Clifton and Lyndell Hinson – Jon Hinson’s parents – were killed in a fire that swept through their house in the early morning hours. Clifton Hinson had recently been reelected to his fourth term as a Walthall County supervisor. Lyndell Hinson was assistant librarian at the Walthall County Library.

Jon Hinson died at the age of fifty-three at his home in Silver Spring, Maryland, on July 21, 1995, from respiratory failure associated with AIDS. In a 1993 article he wrote for the Roll Call newspaper in Washington, Hinson said of the 1980 campaign: “I was not yet emotionally ready to confront what on some deeper level I knew I’d eventually have to face – specifically that my sexual orientation is homosexual.” In early 1994, he returned to Mississippi to speak at a fund-raising benefit for a gay community center in Biloxi.

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Today’s Moment Of Sanity With Nicolas Cage

From Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

A nurse, BINNIE, wheels an old woman, MISS ANTOINETTE, in a wheelchair into the room of an upscale rest home.

Detective Terence McDonagh (Nicolas Cage), hiding behind the door, pushes it slowly aside. He is shaving his face with an electric razor.


MISS ANTOINETTE: Binnie, call security.

MCDONAGH: Nobody’s calling anybody. Where’s your grandson, Binnie?

BINNIE: I don’t have to tell you anything.

MCDONAGH stops shaving and puts the razor away.

MCDONAGH: Yeah you do.

BINNIE: I haven’t done anything. My grandon hasn’t done anything. If he doesn’t want to be a witness, he doesn’t have to be a witness.

MCDONAGH: This was bigger than want to. This was a massacre. ChildrenWERE EXECUTED.

BINNIE: Well, maybe you shoulda thought of that before.

MCDONAGH: I need to know…where he is.

MISS ANTOINETTE: Young man, I would like to know the name of your superior.

MCDONAGH: Right now…I’m working on about an hour and a half’s sleep…over the past three days. And I’m still trying to remain courteous…and I’m beginning to think that that’s getting in the way of my being effective.

MCDONAGH approaches MISS ANTOINETTE and BINNIE, brushes MISS ANTOINETTE’s cheek tenderly. BINNIE brushes back MCDONAGH’s hand.

BINNIE: What are you doin’?

MCDONAGH, in a simple unhurried gesture, removes MISS ANTOINETTE’s breathing tube from her nose.

BINNIE: What…what are you doin!

MCDONAGH: I want to know…where…Darrylis.

BINNIE reaches for tube, MCDONAGH slaps her hand away.

MCDONAGH: Nobody saw me come in. Nobody knows I’m here. This old woman’s going to run out of air and you’re gonna have a tough time convincing people that it wasn’t (points finger violently at BINNIE) YOU that did it to her. And even if (slaps BINNIE’s hand again) and even if you do convince them (points finger violently at BINNIE again) YOU didn’t kill her on purpose (slaps BINNIE’s hand again) you’re still gonna have a tough time selling them that (points finger violently at BINNIE again) YOU took care of her worth a fuck. (slaps BINNIE’s hand again) Now listen to me. Wherethe fuckishe? (Pulls out gun and points it at BINNIE’s head) I said where the fuck is he?

BINNIE: He’s on an aeroplane! Mrs. Antoinette bought him a ticket! And sent him to live with her family! In England!

MCDONAGH puts pistol away.

MCDONAGH: All right. That’s okay, that’s okay. (puts breathing tube back in, MISS ANTOINETTE is whimpering from anxiety and need of air) That’s a good girl. Suck, suck it up. There you go, there you go, that’s it. Take it in. That’s a good girl. Take it in. Gooooood. Good. That’s right. Breathe. (To MISS ANTOINETTE) Maybe you should drop dead, you selfish cunt! You ever think about your kids? Or your grandkids? Huh? Sucking up their inheritance with that fucked oxygen tube? And Binnie’s fucked intensive care? You fucks. I hate you. I hate you both. I should, I should just (takes out gun again and points it at MISS ANTOINETTE)FUCKIN’ KILL YOU BOTH! (puts gun back again) You’re the fucking reason this country’s going down the drain.

MCDONAGH leaves, and closes the door, but without slamming or any violence at all.

This concludes our moment of sanity with Nicolas Cage.

All images copyright Millenium Films and associated producers

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Feeding Frenzy, A Book By Stuart Stevens, Chief Strategist For Mitt Romney

(Since initial posting, additions have made and edits for style purposes have been made. A small note on Oxford attendance was made on January 24th. An addendum was made on January 27th.)

Part of an on-going attempt to illuminate the life and career of a political consultant, in this case, Stuart Stevens; other posts include “He Hates You”, a summary profile, a brief look at his China travel memoir, Night Train to Turkistan, his memoir of the 2000 Bush campaign, a look at his travel memoir Malaria Dreams, an analysis of his novel Scorched Earth, his interview with Charlie Rose promoting Feeding Frenzy, Stevens and Jon Hinson, an analysis of an episode of “Commander in Chief” which he co-wrote, and his defense of Newt Gingrich on “Charlie Rose”. Outside profiles and mentions, all excellent, are “Building a Better Mitt Romney-Bot” by Robert Draper, “An Unconventional Strategist Reshaping Romney” by Ashley Parker, “The Coming Tsunami of Slime” by Joe Hagan, and “Mitt Romney’s Dark Knight” by Jason Zengerle.

The focus during a presidential campaign usually gives an over-emphasis to the candidates, with the same dull thing said too many times. It seems a truism that candidates come and go, but consultants and managers are eternal, and to write about the latter might give some fresh insight. When I read Robert Draper’s excellent article “Building A Better Romney-Bot”, and came across the detail that his chief strategist had written for TV, I thought here was a great source of possibilities. Unmentioned in the article are the number of books Stevens wrote as well, including the subject of this post, the travel memoir Feeding Frenzy, published over a decade ago. A quick introduction on Stevens can be found in this Times piece, “An Unconventional Strategist Reshaping Romney”; Stevens also makes an appearance in the very good, though ominous, “A Tsunami of Slime”. An early profile can be found here: “Image Makers Hard at Work In the Selling of a Candidate”.

It is a strange book of privileged consumption, excessive in the late nineties, obscene now. The book’s premise is simple: Stevens and a former model, Rachel “Rat” Kelly (she is referred throughout the book almost always as “Rat”) travel through Europe with the goal to eat only at expensive restaurants given a three star rating by the Michelin guide. I won’t give an in-depth examination of the memoir as I might another, as I think its significance lies in the writer’s current position in the Romney campaign, and as a long-time Republican political consultant, than with anything else. I’ll make a list of interesting quotes from the book, bookended by two points about themes in the text, the first on the wealth of the characters, the second, a more obscure one about the author Stevens. A traditional review of the book at the time of its publication can be found, again, at the Times: “Three-Star Binge” (The reviewer is skeptical whether the trip took place based on differences in restaurant rankings cited in the book and those current at the time of publication; this discrepancy might be explained by the book being published in 1997, but the trip taking place in the summer of 1993 with the book’s mention of the June 1993 cruise missile attack against Iraq serving as a date marker).

The first noteworthy theme, is that the two main characters, Stevens and Kelly, appear to have a great deal of money and exist in a world where it is assumed you have a great deal of money. For most, almost all of us, to take such a trip would require great consideration of how we would be able to pay not just for the travel and the food, but how we would manage to afford not to work for a period of time while taking this vacation. Were we to write such a memoir, we would feel a need to explain the very fortunate circumstances that allowed us to take a simple month long trip through Europe to the reader, who, we’d safely assume, carried the same burdens as us. Stevens, on the other hand, never speaks of breaking from work or how he’s financially able to take such a trip. It is not just taken for granted that Stevens has a great deal of money and can afford to do this, but that the reader comes from the same class and requires no explanation. Kelly has a rich lawyer boyfriend and can afford to do this as well. Reading about the lives of Stevens and Kelly, the givens are that people have a great deal of money. Work is something you sometimes, occasionally, do.

A good idea of these assumptions is given in the opening pages of the book, a brief synopsis of the lives of Stevens and Kelly. They know each other from the gym:

Anyway, we were working on incline presses and she put it something like this: “What if we went to Europe and ate. Ate a lot.”

“Europe?” I asked her how, as we changed weights ferociously.

“I think we should go,” she said decisively. “Just to eat.” She said this last bit because I was looking sort of skeptical.

We liked to eat and did it a lot. It was really all we did together, go to restaurants and the gym, which made, I suppose, for an appallingly shallow sort of New York nineties-styled friendship. This never bothered me at all. Rat was an inspiration in the gym and a pleasure around the dinner table and neither one of us cared to ask a lot of difficult questions.

“What restaurants?”

“Three-stars,” she said without a moment’s hesitation. “Just the Michelin three-stars. The best food in the world.”

“When do you want to go?” I asked.

“How about next week?”

Then they leave, with the plan to eat at every three star, on consecutive days, starting in England, then Belgium, Germany, France, and Italy, over the course of twenty-nine days, including Pic, Pierre Gagnaire, Paul Bocuse, Georges Blanc, Lameloise, Troisgros, Boyer “Les Crayeres,” La Côte Saint Jacques, L’Espérance, Le Côte d’Or – I am unfamiliar with these names, but I assume they’re good. Stevens buys a vintage candy apple ’65 Mustang convertible, with the possibility of selling it at the end of the trip. The outlay necessary for such a purchase is never discussed. There is never any talk of the need for the final sale of the car, because there’s no need to – again, these characters have a great deal of money. There is the possibility that if Kelly and Stevens eat the meals according to schedule, her wealthy boyfriend will pick up the tab – but there is no urgency to this. Stevens seems entirely indifferent whether he will have to pay for the meals or the boyfriend will. Talking about how they can afford such things is as pointless as asking how a celebrity gets into a club or how a starship travels through space in a science fiction movie. You can stop thinking about the how once you have a great deal of money.

I emphasize this point because the question often brought up is how Romney, in his public appearances, can be so tone-deaf to the massive gap between the wealth of his world and ours. A possible answer: his chief strategist is equally tone-deaf, closer to Romney’s world of great money than ours, where work is a necessity, not an occasional distraction.

I’ll now just go through some of the more interesting points of the book, before turning back and looking at an unusual theme in the text. A good way to get a sense of most of the book is to quote some of the mentions of the food – variations on descriptions of expensive meals serve as a major part of the memoir.

A sample paragraph:

There were a half dozen things I would have liked to order. For a starter – the real starter – I was torn between the Salade de Homard aux Pommes Vertes in an émulsion au curry léger or th Coussinet De Raie Aux Pinces De Homard ina vinaigrette à la tomate. And for the main course, the Dos De Barbue Poelee Aux Epices sounded wonderful, or Filet de Bar De Ligne “Dos Bleu” with tartiné au caviar d’Iran – I did not know that Iranian caviar was considered superior – and the Ravioles De Celeri Aux Truffes aux essences aromatiques was appealing, if only because I couldn’t imagine what it would be like.


An example of the richness of the meals is provided by the full listing of the courses of one of the last ones at Gagnaire:

1. Sautéed perch with pine nuts, served warm.
2. Clams with carrots and assorted vegetables, minced finely, with a slice of very creamy regional chèvre.
3. Toast with a thick anchovy paste, warmed.
4. Clear tomato gelée with pureed artichoke, served cool.
5. Cool cannelloni stuffed with spinach, with a tomato confit on the side and a red curry sauce.
6. Mille-feuille shell with shredded radishes with an onion confit.
7. Gnocchi with crabmeat and scallops over a layer of white truffles.
8. Omble, a fish from Lake Leman, with frogs legs in a rich brown sauce (of cream, fish stock, and chives), along with a pea sauce with shelled peas and cream splattered around.
9. A baked tomato with girolles, carrots, and a beet-juice sauce.
10. Dorade royale with cracked wheat, shredded cabbage with beurre montée, a fried cabbage leaf on top.
11. And for dessert, peach juice with rose-petal liquor.

The Tuscan menu of L’Enoteca Pinchiorri, eight courses:

Coccoli col pesto toscano (deep-fried pasta with basil, pine nuts, and anchovies)
Triglie in Bianco e frittura d’erbe (red mullet fillets flavored with lemon and garlic)
Gamberoni allo spiedo e passato di gran farro (big shrimps wrapped into pancetta slices and served with bean and pearl-barley cream)
Bavette al ragno (homemade fettuccine, with sea bass, tomato, and hot pepper)
Tortelli di Altopascio (ricotta and spinach tortelli, with pecorino and cinnamon)
Faraona in tegame (guinea fowl, vegetable, and potato stew)
Tortino di riso allo zafferano, salsa Morellino (rice and saffron tart, tuscan sweet wine sauce)
Biscotti di Prato e piccola pasticceria

The Tuscan menu seemed like far too much, too many courses, too many tastes. So naturally, I ordered it. I had to.

tuscan menu part one tuscan menu part two

Stevens devotes a paragraph to the ordeal of day after day of gorging on rich food:

This three-star eating binge was going to ruin me and in ways I’d never anticipated. What had worried me most about the prospect of twenty-nine days of unending gastronomic overkill was the logical assumption that such gross indulgence of superb eating would ruin my enjoyment of the food. It seemed inevitable that I would come to dread each evening as a duty and my body would rebel at being inundated with daily doses of foie gras and butter. But the scary reality was that I found it perfectly normal to spend three or four hours an evening eating. With horrifying rapidity I had become adjusted to the idea that the biggest decision of the day was what to order for dinner. In my heart, I knew if I ended the three star streak tomorrow, I would go into a long painful withdrawal of deprived sensory overload. My options were clear: I had to keep on eating my way through France or face terrifying prospects. My fate had been sealed: I had become a three-star junkie.

three star junkie

There are almost no references to the extraordinary costs of the meals. I include a brief one here, because of Stevens’ current client.

Living in New York, I had long ago developed a psychological defense to absurd restaurant prices based on specious rationalizations along the lines of “Well, it’s cheaper than a car” or “Mormons pay this much every couple of months to feed the average family of fifteen.” It helped, sort of.

mormons joke

Between the meals there are episodes that could be called comic if they were funny. They involve their car breaking down and dealing with various people in Europe. The characters encountered are almost always grotesques; throughout the book, Stevens has violent fantasies about the people he meets. These may have a humorous intent.

Though he enjoys the cuisine of Europe, Stevens appears to have contempt for much of the population and many of the countries, especially Germany and Belgium. An overview.

From the beginning, it is important for Stevens that they not be mistaken for French or English:

Sitting in New York it had seemed most important to make the trip in a very American car, and an old Mustang convertible was perfect. That way no one could think we were English – a particularly disturbing notion – or French, which would also be highly regrettable.

mistaken for english or french

A description of the English crowd at a restaurant:

The crowd was Typical English Country – which is to say, a mostly unattractive bunch with too many teeth and a consistently thick subcutaneous layer of fat that wasn’t going to be decreasing by the evening’s end. But this was a little world that had been designed to hold these people, and just as a basically disagreeable piece of furniture can look inviting if surrounded by complementary pieces, the clientele seemed perfectly appropriate.

english country crowd part one english country crowd part two

A young englishman, with a bad haircut who loves the idea of Iraq being bombed. Interesting for the context: this book was published in 1997. Stevens worked on the campaigns both to elect and re-elect George W. Bush.

Everyone seemed to be reading one of the London tabloids – the Daily Mail or Sun – and the headlines screeched of a fresh U.S. bombing attack on Iraq, the first for President Clinton.

“I feel better when we are bombing them,” the very tall young man across from me said without a hint of a smile. He was maybe thirty and had an unfortunate haircut that seemed to involve a pair of shears and an oval bowl. With his reddish nose and angular features, he reminded me of a military recruit on his way to his first posting.

“Them?” I asked, not because I didn’t understand but because I was startled and had to say something.

“Iraq,” he explained, a bit exasperated. “Our bedouin brothers. Rug merchants to the stars.”

“You feel better when we’re bombing them?” I asked.

“Don’t you?”

It was not a subject I really had an opinion on. I had to admit that it certainly didn’t bother me that we were bombing Iraq.

“Should have marched right into Baghdad when we had the chance. The best thing that could have happened to them. Put a Marks and Sparks right smack on Saddam Avenue. Bloody marvelous.” He laughed.

He arched his eyebrows and whispered urgently, “Hung ’em up by the lampposts.”

“What?” I asked, startled.

“That’s what Saddam did to everybody that opposed him when he came up. Those fundamentalist-type, junior-grade ayatollahs in training? Drove nails right into their heads. While their families watched.”

He said this with a certain glee, eyes widening in appreciation. Rat stiffened and, I suppose, so did I.

“Nip that stuff right in the bud. Marvelous.” He said this slowly, for dramatic power, no doubt. He was a great performer.

“Beautiful scarf,” he observed casually to Rat. It was a long, soft thing. “That’s the stuff the baby Jesus would have loved to have been swaddled in, you can bet on that.”

madman with the scarf part one madman with the scarf part two

An encounter with a group of English workers reading the Daily Mail:

“How’s the war going?” I asked good-naturedly as I passed the men, wondering if the U.S. had launched more missiles against Iraq.

“You’ve seen this, have you?” one of the men asked. He waved the paper angrily.

“Bomb ’em back to the Stone Age,” I said, in what seemed like a proper macho show of solidarity.

A cheer went up from the men. I seemed to have struck a chord. Maybe, I thought, they are all Falklands veterans who liked the idea of the U.S. bombing Iraq on a regular basis.

I stopped and focused on the screaming headlines that seemed a foot high.


The Daily Mail‘s crack investigative squad ha apparently just completed a lengthy undercover investigation of pubs and discovered that bartenders were routinely shortchanging customers, delivering less than a full pint for the price of a pint.

At the bottom of the page was a tiny box, “U.S. BOMBS IRAQ, details on page 13.”

“Unbelievable,” I agreed.

iraq and pint war iraq and pint war part two

Though Stevens spends much time in France, he has this small criticism:

My theory had always been that the French embraced Jerry Lewis just to prove the superiority of their own culture. This notion that somehow he was an unappreciated comic genius languishing in America was nonsense. Deep down, reveling in Jerry Lewis’s supposed greatness was a deeply condescending notion. Oh, yes, he is amusing, the best America has, no doubt.

jerry lewis

Stevens on Belgium and the city’s difficult to navigate tunnels of Brussels:

As some sort of man-made anti-invasion defense, the tunnels would have worked ingeniously – sinister, hideous diversions intended to swallow whole tank divisions and spit them up miles from their intended destination…Of course, that presumed the Belgians must actually have been willing to fight instead of rolling over and playing dead – a trait they have seldom evidenced this century.

belgians rolling over and surrendering

On Brussels and Belgium:

Brussels is a place that likes to take itself seriously. It’s a culture based on international trade and diplomacy, endeavors that make a virtue of blandness and neutrality. It’s probably a preview of how all of Europe will end up if this crazed rush to European unity continues: big bland cities without cultural distinction. The Belgians pretend to love all of this and actually act as if it’s important that they are the home of the E.U. – the European Union.

It probably makes sense that the Belgians have embraced with great fervor the concept of eradicating national distinctions, since they have never been very good at establishing a national distinction in the first place. A country for only a little over 150 years, they’ve tried to cobble together a national identity from bits of France and Holland, never with great success.

Having been twice conquered in their brief history tends to focus a nation on unoffensive tasks, like making money. The Swiss have done this deliberately and have at least managed to preserve some national dignity with the notion that they are in control of their own destiny, intentionally neutral, backed by a civilian army of great, if untested, repute.

It’s clear the Belgians never should have tried to be important. When your own king – Leopold II – sums up the national character as “Petit pays, petit gens” (“Small country, small people”), this is hardly a call to national greatness. Perhaps out of boredom, Leopold tried to convince his country that they should play a role on the world stage, and certain delusions of grandeur were inevitable. But a colony or two can not obliterate a national culture, so when the Germans set up field kitchens in the Grand Palai in the central square of Brussels – as they’ve done twice so far this century – the Belgians reverted to form and did not take to their modest forests with pledges of eternal struggle. Yes, there were heroes and, even more prominently, heroines, like Gabrielle Petit, but these were no mujahideen. They mostly decided to act as if they just didn’t care and called it passive resistance, an oxymoron if ever there was one.

belgium hatred part one brussels passive resistance

Strasbourg, in contrast to Brussels:

It has a simple, direct charm, and after the self-aggrandizing Euro-loving phoniness of Brussels, I found this quite appealing.


Above all, he really doesn’t like Germans:

[He] was German. They were all German. Which was very troubling when I quickly realized what a likable, genuinely friendly person he was. It always troubles me when I come across Germans I like. It makes maintaining my rabid anti-German fervor all the more difficult, which, naturally, I resent terribly.

but they were germans

A three-star restaurant in Germany:

Life is an ironic business. Why else would it be that my faith in three-star greatness would be revitalized in Germany. Germany? I’m not making this up.

You see there’s a three-star that lurks just over the border from Strasbourg in the Black Forest. “The sport hotel and health clinic Traube-Tonach…which is internationally renowned.” That`s how their charming propaganda read. It was the “internationally renowned” that I liked. Ah yes, internationally renowned. But what? The hotel? The Black Forest? And more importantly, renowned for what?

This is Germany after all.

They have problems with their Mustang.

We had gone about a kilometer down the road when cars behind us started honking their horns. This, naturally I ignored. If there was something about my driving that was troubling to some BMW-driving German in a hurry to get to their bunker in the Black Forest, this was not a bad thing.


Kelly proposes abandoning the Mustang, and going with a rental. Germans, again:

“And leave the Mustang! Just like that?” [says Stevens]

“Yes. With any luck at all, some German will steal it and be driven mad with frustration.”

She knew I disliked Germans. The idea did have some appeal.

A few cars, not many, had passed us without stopping.

“A German wouldn’t know the brakes were bad. They might get in and drive away and plow right into a tree.” This enjoyable scenario began to unfold in my head.

“Or maybe a big tanker truck. Lots of flames.”

“But that would snuff the truck driver too,” I cautioned.

“He would be German as well.”

“Ahhh…” It was a delightful notion.

maybe it would kill some germans

Stevens puts unleaded fuel into the car, causing it to spout a toxic gas. A conversation with Kelly. An episode of violent fantasy, and the Germans.

“What do we do?” [says Stevens]

“We could stop and siphon out the old gas and put in new.”

“Siphon? Siphon with what?”

“A hose would probably be best, don’t you think?”

I thought about killing her, maybe with a hose wrapped around her neck.

“Just a thought,” she added, when she saw my look.

We were driving up a long incline, heading into steep hills.

Suddenly I started to laugh.

“Yees?” Rat asked.

An insane image had crowded into my brain, that here we were plunging into Germany and were actively going about the business of gassing Germans! I giggled maniacally and tried to nurse the very sick Mustang over the foothills of the western Black Forest.

“Tell me!” Rat demanded, laughing. “Tell me!”

gassing germans

At dinner, with a german diplomat, Stevens gives us an idea of what he thinks of Brussels, the E.U., the International Court, and the world in general.

[The german] immediately wanted to know what we thought of Brussels. But before we could really answer, he threw in that he thought it was “the future of Europe.”

“That bad, huh?” I asked.

He didn’t quite seem to get this. “All this Euro-government nonsense,” I elaborated. “It’s ridiculous! The E.C., the International Court in The Hague. Please. The whole thing gives me a headache.”

“But your own president, he spoke of a New World Order!”

“That was a good name for half a million soldiers and a bunch of laser-guided bombs beating the crap out of Saddam Hussein. That is the new world order, not impressive offices full of Eurotrash bureaucrats trying to feel important.”

“Like me,” he said, but with a smile. “I am with the Human Rights Court here in Strasbourg.”

“The Human Rights Court,” I repeated slowly. “Now that is impressive. Can you tell me, please, exactly what the Human Rights Court does?”

He paused for a moment. “That is somewhat difficult,” he finally said.

human rights court

Occasionally, Stevens will mix these European grotesques with fantasies of aggression. These fantasies recur again, and again. Stevens, whatever he may be in reality, comes across in this book as the very wealthy man who has much less to be ill tempered about than most, but is ill tempered to the point of violence anyway.

Stevens encounters an english policeman, and asks him where he could get a salad.

“A salad?” he asked, in highly suspicious tones, as if I had inquired about the best place to purchase a Stinger surface-to-air missile. “A salad,” he repeated, stunned. He thought for a moment and then asked, “Why?”

I wanted to stick my face right in front of his nose and scream, “Because I’m an alien from another galaxy and if I don’t get a salad at least once a day, I have no choice but to rip out the heart of any passing policeman and eat it before his dying eyes. Any more questions?”

english policeman and the salad

Marc, a Belgian nostalgic for when they had colonies.

“They were a colony of ours, you know. Zaire.” He said this scornfully.

“What would you do with the Congo if you had it?” I asked.

“The Congo.” He toyed with the abandoned name of the country. “Is finished. But we don’t have a lot of colonies. We were never greedy.”

They were a colony of ours Zaire underlined

An argument over how to fix the car again ends up with a fantasy about violence:

Marc, Marc, Marc, I begged, please. Let’s just fill the thing up, and when it overflows, we stop. One liter, three quarts, who cares.

He shrugged, then asked. “Where is your transmission fluid?”

I stared hard at him. If, by chance, I’d had a quart of transmission fluid I would have gleefully poured it over his head. The image was clear and pleasing: a river of red, warmish fluid cascading over his dark hair and paratrooper’s face.

marc and transmission fluid

An old woman in Brussels and more violent fantasy:

“Can you recommend a hotel?” I asked an elderly woman walking her tiny Pekingese pup.

“You have a problem,” she said.

Immediately I felt like strangling the woman. A problem? A problem? Just because I’m riding around in a car with no brakes in a city with man-eating tunnels and I’ve got a dog on the back seat who is just dying to eat your silly little dog and, besides, I’m about to be late for dinner at Comme Chez Soi, you think I’ve got a problem? PROBLEM?!

Several other pedestrians stopped and stared, and I wondered if they could read my mind and were gathering to defend this poor woman and her soon-to-die dog. They all shook their heads and clucked their tongues disapprovingly.

Tony, an acquaintance in Brussels he doesn’t really like, but he’s one of the only people he knows there. Again, a grotesque and the fantasy of violence:

I’d met Tony through politics, when he had wanted to cover a “real American campaign” and had talked me into letting him report on a race I was working on in South Dakota. My misguided effort to be helpful resulted in four long days of Tony at my side murmuring, “The vastness, oh, the vastness,” every few minutes. He actually wore a Savile Row bespoke suit; I’m not making this up, he really did. And brand-new cowboy boots fashioned from the skin of some unidentified endangered species. He also wore bow ties and was fond of quoting Kevin Costner from Dances with Wolves. We spent four days in South Dakota, and had we spent a fifth, I’m confident he would have been sent back to Brighton in a box, disemboweled by some disgruntled South Dakotan who couldn’t take another word from this bow-tied, Savile-suit-wearing dandy in iridescent cowboy boots.

south dakota man

Mike, a mustang salesman, when told that the Mustang’s brakes are broken, carries on this idea of violent fantasy by proxy:

“I tell you what I think happened,” Mike pronounced, sounding like a detective closing fast on his prey. “I think some fat-ass dockworker slammed his big feet down on the brake so damn hard it shattered the brake drum. I could kill him!” Mike shouted, and had the guilty dockworker been standing right in front of Mike, even if the heavy-footed fellow had weighed in at over three hundred pounds…I would have put my money on Mike to teach the clumsy oaf a thing or two about how to treat a 1965 classic with love and respect.

dockworker part one dockworker part two

No doubt in the coming election, Democrats will once more be chastised for their lack of sympathy for flyover country. If it’s any comfort, Stevens, who may well be organizing the media which will hammer away at that theme, doesn’t think much of it either.

In this meeting between Stevens and an English Mustang fan, North Dakota comes up:

I asked, as ritual demanded, where he had been in the United States.

“North Dakota,” he said almost reverently.


“North Dakota, that was my trip, wasn’t it?”

“Only North Dakota?

“Well, there was New York too, but only to change planes. An uncle I’ve got in North Dakota.”

I started to offer my condolences.

“Grand place, it is,” Charles proclaimed. “The most friendly people in the world, I believe.”

“Friendly?” I asked, startled. I could have imagined a lot of adjectives to describe North Dakotans – stoic leading the list, followed probably by durable – but friendly would not have been on the list. Warm and cozy, a friendly place, that’s North Dakota?

north dakota part one north dakota part two

The South:

The proprietor was a woman somewhere in her forties or fifties; she had the stylishness of the French that masked her age well…It was a manner that reminded me of certain Southerners, without the sugary, over-the-top, incessantly cheerful quality that could make Southerners so annoying.


A diss of the food of his native Jackson, Mississippi, and a refreshingly different take on immigration from the Republican party’s platform. A comment to a compliment on the Alsatian wines of Germany:

This is, for my tastes, a most modest compliment, rather like saying that the cuisine of Jackson, Mississippi – my home town – had been improved by the influx of Vietnamese refugees. This was true, but it still did not mean that you would go out of your way to find yourself in the Big J. for a meal.


For that matter, the very same so-called focus on quality food that Michelle Obama makes, and which she is chastised for by conservatives, is made here by Stevens:

In America, there seem to be two competing forces. First, there is the negative pull of mass-produced food tugging everything down to a tasteless mediocrity. Waverly Root and Richard De Rochemont sum it up this way in Eating in America:

“Were it possible to envisage in one great glob the totality of what is now eaten in a single day by our fellow-citizens, whether at home, in institutions, in fast-food joints or in expensive restaurants, and to judge it in the light of what the country has produced in the past, and what it might produce again, the word ‘garbage’ would rise inevitably to mind and gorge.”

John and Karen Hess, in their brilliant attack on American food, The Taste of America lay much of the blame on the rise of mechanized farming and the spread of huge agricultural corporations:

The taste of the seasons is gone; it has been replaced by “carrying quality.” More and more of the produce grown in those far-off factories of the soil is harvested by machine. It is bred for rough handling, which it gets. A chemical is sprayed on trees to force all the fruit to “ripen” – that is, change color – at once, in time for a monster harvester to strike the tree and catch the fruit in its canvas maw.

This “garbaging” of food seems to be at war with the other force, which is driven by ever-growing numbers of crazed foodies who find it a personal insult that every chain grocery store in America doesn’t sell fresh radicchio. These are people who have given up pretending that food hasn’t taken an inordinate place in their lives or that they aren’t hopeless snobs when it comes to restaurants.

People like Rat and me, in other words. Which was probably the main reason we found it hard not to live in New York.

garbaging of food

New York, the bastion of east coast values, isn’t the enemy. It’s one of the only places where you can get great quality and variety in food.

At one point, Stevens quotes approvingly from A White House in Gascony: Escape to the Old French South by Rex Grizell. The places where they eat which Stevens enjoys the most are in the south of France that Grizell writes about. Here there is a hostility to the European Union, but also modernity itself, increased mechanization, the great god of the Republican party that is expected to bring prosperity and relief to all.

“‘The land is beautiful, and benevolent and spacious…farming country – fruit, vegetables, cereals, wine and livestock. It has been so from time immemorial, and so it still is.'”

His portrait is a bittersweet, familiar one, of a people increasingly threatened by an unfriendly modern world, the economic base of their agricultural lifestyle jeopardized by “inflation, increased mechanization and the establishments of EU quotas.” These are the farmers you see on television dumping unsold produce in the street, protesting the disruption of the E.U. Still, despite their sense of encroaching dangers, they maintain a “lifestyle where a village may have three baker, each baking their own “real” bread, and where farmers still have their own vineyard and make their own wine, and where there are markets in every town which have been taking place on the same days every week for a thousand years, and are still crammed with the produce of the local fields and woods and orchards.”

bittersweet portrait

Indeed, Stevens resembles in many ways the sneering, skeptical progressive who is the centerpiece villain of any Republican campaign. This forthcoming election season may well be full of pious baloney, some of it produced by Stevens, but Stevens shares the East Coaster’s acerbic skepticism to all of this:

[A] copy of Paris Match [featured] a cover story on Princess Diana’s revelations that she’d had sex with other humans besides Prince Charles. It seemed to be important to her that Everyone Know This. Soon, no doubt, she would be appearing on daytime American television sharing the pain of bulimia with millions.

princess diana

As for the casual contempt for the working class that is, strangely, supposedly associated with progressives, I think it is blatantly on view here in this Republican strategist’s portrayal of Carl, Rat’s boyfriend, who shows up at the end of the book. He is a wealthy lawyer, but manners and details suggest he has risen to this class. He is a Viet Nam vet, former Special Ops:

“I was SOG – Special Operations Group. We were the black-arts guys. In country, no uniforms, Laos, Cambodia.”

“Got to tell you, man, I loved it. Nasty, nasty but I loved it.”
“What did you do?” [asks Stevens] It was a stupid question.
“Jumped out of helicopters and shot a lot of people. Great time.”
“Sure”, I said.

Carl comes across as another grotesque, a simple-minded swoony lunk.

Carl put his hand on my shoulder and looked me hard in the eyes. He was a big, impressive guy. “What’s your honest-to-God take on rat?”

“Rat?” I repeated bravely. I thought for a fleeting moment about denying knowing Rat, but that did seem a bit preposterous. I wasn’t sure how smart Carl was, but I knew he wasn’t that dumb.

“Do you think she hates me?” he asked.

He had a sudden look of vulnerability that made him resemble a scolded puppy.

“No,” I answered. “That’s ridiculous.” Which was true.

“But she thinks I’m stupid.”

This was a tougher call. “Not stupid,” I answered. “I wouldn’t say that.”

“But close. I know. You know why she thinks I’m stupid? Because I make a lot of money. She still has this whole hippy-dippy Wyoming thing about guys in New York who make a lot of money.”

“That sounds right to me,” I said.

Carl slapped himself on the forehead and wheeled around, a startling gesture from a man this large. “See!” he shouted. “I told you!”

“But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t love you,” I said.

It’s one of the last paragraphs, I think, which captures the perspective best.

There were times when Carl resembled nothing so much as a big, love-struck palooka who’d follow his bombshell gal anywhere. It was strange to see so much vulnerability emanating from a millionaire corporate lawyer. The truth was that I really didn’t have a good sense of what Rat thought of the guy. But it was clear he was drop-dead in love with her. I kept thinking about poor Buddy Ebsen in Breakfast at Tiffany’s coming to claim his child bride from the clutches of New York City. “Lulamae? Lulamae? It’s time for you to come home.”

Carl may be special forces, but even he becomes a subject of one of Stevens’ violent fantasies. Near the end of the book, when the Mustang catches fire:

Through a rising cloud of thick smoke, I pulled the car over, crushing a long line of the wildflowers I’d been admiring.

“Where’s your fire extinguisher?” Carl demanded, reverting to his years of military training.

“I don’t have a damn fire extinguisher,” I shot back. “Who carries a fire extinguisher, for cryin’ out loud?”

“People who don’t want their old Mustangs to burn,” Carl said.

If I’d had a fire extinguisher, I would have definitely used it to slide the nozzle down his throat. Then a little squeeze of the handle…It was a delicious notion.

The grotesques and the violent fantasies dovetail with the author’s strange lack of empathy with anyone outside himself. First, a small quote which demonstrates the writer’s astonishing lack of perspective.

In many ways the Gods of Michelin behaved not unlike the Weather Gods of agricultural life. Both were aloof forces that operated from on high with inexplicable capriciousness. Their whims could bring great prosperity or total financial ruin with little warning. Farmers who have blown their brains out after a crop-killing hailstorm or flood are really no different than the chefs who have been driven mad by the loss of a Michelin star.

loss of a michelin star

I think I say this absolutely without qualifier: the bankruptcy of a farmer after the collapse of his crops is nothing like the loss of a Michelin star.

A second passage I find even more disturbing, because it involves a direct experience of the writer. I think it’s an obvious point that the moments when we are most often taken outside of ourselves and have some sense that our lives are not like ours, and what we are fortunate to have, is when we come across abject squalor or hunger. This does not seem to be the case in this book. In one episode, Stevens comes across wrenching poverty and he quickly shifts the focus back to himself.

The episode is framed as Stevens having the problem. When in China, he keeps ordering duck again and again, despite the greasy, poor quality of the meat. Finally, a beggar provides relief.

I was a prisoner of my own lack of imagination, and as my own jailer, I kept serving up the canard equivalent of prison fare. Until finally it dawned on me that the gate was open and I could just walk out into freedom. That little epiphany came one February night in Beijing when it was, typically, about zero degrees and the restaurant, also typically, was only about ten degrees warmer. There were no doors, only heavy blankets that flapped in the fierce wind, and I was staring at what seemed like my hundredth duck of the winter. A beggar dashed over from the edge of the room and grabbed a slice off the serving plate in the center of the table. This happened not infrequently and was greeted by the regular patrons with the same calm disdain that a homeless beggar outside of a restaurant in New York elicits from the exiting patrons. It wasn’t that anyone liked it, but there was a certain guilt of the well-fed at work and no one vociferously objected, including the management.

The beggar, who was a few years older than me, wore fingerless gloves, highly functional attire for keeping the hands warmish but the fingers still nimble for the quick snatch. I was wearing similar gloves, the notion of which – wearing gloves in a restaurant – would have struck me as bizarre just a few months earlier but now seemed no less odd than putting on a coat in a snowstorm. It was freezing, and the fact that you were inside dining could not obscure the looming discomforts of frozen digits.

I did not begrudge the beggar a piece of my sad pile of duck remains. He darted in, snatched, and retreated to the sidelines. We looked at each other across the restaurant, the air crowded with the smoke of the little fires heating Mongolian hot pots and the haze of bad cigarettes, and though he said not a word, I know as he bit into his largish hunk of duck, he was thinking, “This is really bad.”

Across the room, I gnawed a piece of the duck, and he knew I was thinking, “Do we really have to eat this?” But we did because this was 1987 Beijing on a February Saturday night and you had to eat something and better choices were elusive.

chinese beggar part one The beggar who was a few years older than me und

“Better choices are elusive”: are they really equally elusive for a wealthy westerner and a chinese beggar?

Perhaps because Stevens worked for the Bush campaign, both in 2000 and 2004, and because of some of the horrors of those years, I’ll conclude this series of notes with an interesting contrast to another time, when one particular word could be reduced to mere shock value, before the reality it connected with became a grim common presence, the great gift of all wars:

“I think you may find it is an amputee,” he suggested. Maybe it was his phrasing…or maybe it was the amputee that made us want to talk to him.

“An amputee?” Rat said. “An amputee?”

“I found it had no legs,” he continued. “But perhaps I was having a difficult bottle.”

“No legs?” Rat looked at me, a glint in her eye. “You mean like my brother Juan, who had both his legs chopped off in a car accident. Like that, you mean?”

The man blanched. A look of genuine horror flashed over his friendly face.

“I was thinking in his honor I would have the Pied et Oreille de Porc truffés en Crépinette.”

He stared at her for a moment, then burst out laughing.


Here’s a funny joke I thought of after I read this: thanks to the two administrations Stevens helped elect, many american families will have to imagine what that bad wine tasted like, because they won’t be able to afford it for quite a while. But an amputee brother won’t require any imagination at all. Many american families, suffering great want and tending their wounded, might ask what good came of eight years of George W. Bush? Well, they can perhaps cheer themselves that at least one man probably got a lot of great french food out of it.

Now I end this post by noting a second, slightly strange theme that runs though the book, and which I will have to be a little careful in describing here. This is a memoir in which a good looking, successful man travels through Europe with a woman, a former fashion model who, from the reactions of those encountered, is someone of extraordinary beauty, with both the man and woman close in age. The woman’s boyfriend has no issue with the man, Stevens, escorting his girlfriend, and soon to be wife, throughout Europe alone. Stevens never describes any sexual tension between him and Kelly, or any explanation of why such attraction does not take place. No mention is made of any relationship left to languish or forfeit by going on this trip with a beauty that any woman would consider a formidable rival. It is entirely a blank space, one which makes the reader construct an obvious hypothesis for an explanation. This hypothesis may be wrong, and sometimes I feel like I construct this hypothesis for some ambiguities over and over again.

This ambiguity gives a substance to certain short, opaque scenes.

At one point in their travels, Kelly and Stevens encounter an attractive older woman with a man in his twenties. They become an object of fascination for Kelly and Stevens.

Off to the side, out of the corner of my eye, I could see the woman kissing her date and stroking his face. She smiled at Rat across the table, as if to say Look what I have. Isn’t this nice? Rat giggled. “I like this woman,” she whispered.

“You’re jealous,” I said.

“Of course I am, don’t be ridiculous.”

“Do you think he feels stupid, being fondled over by her?” We were both laughing conspiratorially.

Rat laughed. “He looks happy to me. He looks like the happiest guy in France to me.”

I glanced over, trying to seem casual. She saw me and knew what I was doing. She winked and I whipped around.

“You’re blushing,” Rat laughed.

“No, I’m not.”

“You’re jealous,” Rat said.

“That’s ridiculous.” But I was, if only a little. He did seem to be having fun.

strange couple first part

It would seem like here that Stevens would find solace with Kelly, or try to, but there’s nothing of the kind. The scene ends. Kelly and Stevens later run into this couple again, Anne-Marie and Lucien. Kelly mentions her boyfriend, Carl.

“Who’s Carl?” Anne-Marie asked.

“Her boyfriend,” I said. Then after a pause added, “It’s complicated.”

“You can explain at dinner. I introduced Lucien, no?”

The scene moves to dinner. No explanation is given. What I find strange here is that the very curiousity the reader has about Kelly and Stevens, the two characters have over this new couple.

We sat at a table on the edge of the terrace, overlooking the vineyards. “My husband and I discovered here ten years ago,” Anne-Marie said.

“Not Lucien,” she said, laughing at our looks. “Lucien is the nephew of close friends. I have known him since he was just a little boy.”

I nodded nonchalantly, or so I thought. I waited for her to elaborate, but she only smiled and picked up the menu. Lucien shrugged and looked ill at ease. I plunged ahead.

“What do you do, Lucien?” I asked. Under the table, Rat kicked me, as if I’d asked him how long he had been sleeping with his mom’s best friend.

“I’m a student,” he answered. “A student of political science.”

Rat jumped in to tell him that I directed television commercials for politicians. He lit up and immediately began to ask me long, insightful questions about politics. What I really wanted to talk about, of course, was his relationship with Anne-Marie, but I stumbled on, as if we were having a little political seminar perched on the back hills of Grimaud.

strange couple last part part one new strange couple last part

Their relationship is never discussed, and this is the last time we see the characters.

This open question of the relationship between Kelly and Stevens hangs over another scene, when a train official tries to pick up Kelly. It’s made clear that the obstacle between Kelly and Stevens is not her boyfriend back home.

“You like to go to clubs?” the ponytailed train official asked.

“Is the pope Catholic?” Rat demanded.

He concentrated on this for a moment and then smiled. “I like clubs.”

“Great!” Rat made it sound like he had just told her that she had won the lottery. “Let’s meet later on!”

He glanced quickly at me.

“It’s okay,” Rat explained. “He’s not my boyfriend.”

She said this with the dismissive tone of a big sister explaining the presence of a younger brother.

The conductor’s face brightened – and then fell when Rat added, “My boyfriend is in New York.” She paused, seeing his disappointment. “And New York is a long way away. We’ll have lots of fun. Where should we meet?”

There is also a strange aspect to the Mustang that Stevens drives. On several occasions, men mention the aphrodisiac qualities of the car, the way it makes it easier to meet women. Stevens never makes reply to this or speaks of success or disappointment in meeting girls with the car.

Ray, a repairman who tries to fix the Mustang’s problems:

“Had one,” he said…”Not like this, mind you. Had me a Cobra. Fastback. Never got so many girls in all my life.” He paused, as if thinking about it. “Had to be the car. Couldn’t have been me, eh?”

The Eastgate Ford manager – Nigel was his name – smiled an embarrassed smile and shot me an apologetic look. Nigel’s last name was Lombardo, and he looked to have escaped from a fashion magazine, a preposterously handsome fellow of about thirty. I wondered if Ray’s comment had something to do with the reputation Nigel might have as a ladies’ man. Or maybe Nigel was gay. Or maybe Ray was just talking.

nigel and ray

A man who he meets outside a restaurant who loves Mustangs:

“When I have my own restaurant,” he said with more certainty than wistfulness, “I’ll get a ‘sixty-seven Cobra with the original Pony interior, four-speed. I’ll park it out front every night.”

I laughed. “Do you think it will help attract customers?”

“I think it will help attract women, don’t I?” he said with a smile. “Like that fellow in New York I read about, David Bouley. He drives a big Honda bike and he sleeps with a different model every night, right?”

“It’s a big Harley,” I corrected. “And maybe not every night.”

“Every other then, fine. I’ll settle for that. Particularly after a couple of years down here. Don’t have a lot of single women wandering around Eugénie-les-Bains, now do we?” he said. Then, looking over at Rat, he asked, “Is that your wife in the car with the dog?”

David Bouley Models

The scene ends there. No answer is given about Kelly and Stevens. Now, a piece of writing that I find extraordinarily poignant. Throughout the book, Stevens comes across as an aggressive, somewhat nasty individual. In this one brief scene, there is a moment of, what seems to me, to be of extraordinary vulnerability and apartness. It takes place during a morning run.

Vespas darted about, with girls riding sidesaddle, clinging to their boyfriends. Long lines wound in front, of the gelato stands. A club team of bicycle riders leaned against their Campignola Bianchi bikes watching the pretty young girls in tight dresses parade through the greenery. Everyone tried to stay in the shade and everyone smoked.

The park was decidedly untidy, very un-French. It felt wild and decrepit, as if almost abandoned. There were no neat rows of potted flowers, no intricate flowerbeds or well-kept fountains. Newspapers blew across the cracked asphalt walkways.

An outer loop ringed the park, exposed to the bright sunshine. I ran it in complete isolation, passing only an occasional cyclist. When I turned back into the heart of the park to the green tunnels, dazed by the sun, it was like stumbling onto a hidden world teeming with life. Everyone stared at me as I ran past, dripping wet.

hidden world

Finally, I’ll just quote what might be the best passage in the book. It’s very evocative, and feels very true. The frank eroticism is a contrast to the utter lack of sexual tension or electricity between Stevens and Kelly during their travels:

I looked across the garden. A young couple dressed in white sat across from us drinking Mumm’s champagne. They were maybe twenty at the most and looked at each other with a first-date longing that filled the air with sex. With their white clothes and prim haircuts, the ostentatious champagne, the two could have been period pieces of twenty, thirty, fifty years ago. They spoke in guarded conversation that never steered close to the lust that hung between them – just a little bit of English repressed desire perfectly captured for the ages.

young couple

The assumption made by a reader might be that the couple must be a man and a woman – but why make this assumption when there’s nothing in the details to indicate gender? Again, a reader constructs a hypothesis. Whether it is correct or not, I cannot say. There is the qualifier of a few teenage infatuations (female) mentioned, that some might think renders this hypothesis false; that there is nothing more recent mentioned, might provide support. I will note one example of these (I believe there are two total in the text – in both the woman is indistinct). On a memory of the first great meal Stevens ever ate:

We were in a little restaurant on the side of a cliff in a town called Eze, wedged between Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat and Monte Carlo. I was nineteen, I think, and on one of the many interminable vacations that Oxford likes to provide. She was a few years older, an American, but she had lived in France for a while, which seemed very impressive and somehow important. It was late March and not far away there were almost nude women lying on rocks they called a beach.


The one unusual detail here is that Stevens refers to being an Oxford student; human nature being what it is, Oxbridge being what it is, I expected this attendance to be mentioned in every profile – it is not mentioned in anyone I come across, whether this one, this one, or this one. The last mentions his going to the University of California Los Angeles; it is perhaps a notable omission that Stevens, despite writing and producing TV, does not appear on their list of alumni for either writers or producers. The lack of any mention of Oxford in the profiles might be the result of journalistic oversight or humility on the part of Stevens.

I am indifferent either way on the issue of this last hypothesis; it is a commonplace in literature and in life, only an issue of note because of the political opportunism of Republican candidates.


After reading several articles by Stevens I believe my last hypothesis is refuted, though I remain a little confused on some things.

As already stated, in Feeding Frenzy, Stevens is at Oxford when he is around nineteen. In the piece “Thank God This Will Only Get Worse”, on endurance sports, Stevens writes “I’d tried it once in college when an exceptionally gorgeous girl of a Nordic type suggested a trip up Pikes Peak in Colorado as something of a first date”, so he also attended university in the States near Colorado – one obvious possibility being UCLA. In “My Secret Life As A Muslim” for The Atlantic, he is also at Oxford as a grad student: “From my formative years as a grad student at Oxford, where there were many Muslims, there exist photographs of me attending a lecture entitled, “The History of Islam.” I was spotted many times riding my motorcycle in the vicinity of the Mosque on Bath Road. That I was visiting a girlfriend who lived nearby may only have been a clever deep cover deception. As proof of my success as a Muslim organizer, there are now four Mosques in Oxford, where there was only one when I was a student.”*

Subsequent to this, he was married and in Switzerland in what I assume were the late seventies to, possibly, the early eighties, according to “Thank God”: “All this changed when I discovered track skiing – Nordic racing. It happened in my late 20s when I was living in Switzerland, where my wife was teaching. I coached the school’s rugby team.” (Stevens, according to “Building A Better Romney-Bot” was fifty-eight last year) This would imply a period of time, perhaps as long as a decade, spent in England and the continent, right next to France. I was a little surprised to read this, as the following from Feeding Frenzy implied time away from Europe after his undergrad at Oxford:

We were in a little restaurant on the side of a cliff in a town called Eze, wedged between Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat and Monte Carlo. I was nineteen, I think, and on one of the many interminable vacations that Oxford likes to provide…I swore then that before long I would come back and eat in every good restaurant in France.

Which, of course, I never did.

Instead I seemed to be drawn to countries with the worst food imaginable, places like Turkistan and Africa, where every day you woke up hoping you could avoid gustatory terror but knowing that before you slept again, horrible things would be going inside your mouth.

oxford time after oxford

That Stevens may have had two degrees from Oxford, but was coaching rugby in Switzerland, I hope makes him sympathetic to the employment difficulties of today’s students. That he may have two degrees from Oxford, but does not mention them on his book jacket, I commend him for the greater humility than that shown by most Oxford attendees.

As for my last hypothesis, I was indifferent to its eventual validity as I am to someone’s hair color, and whether it’s achieved genetically or through dye. I made it because were I to travel alone through Europe with an ex-model I would attempt the obvious possibility. I commend Stevens on his greater gallantry and self-restraint. It is through such great virtue that I now more fully understand how the Republican party can realistically advocate chastity for teenagers.

* I believe there were actually three at the time that “My Secret Life As A Muslim” was written; the Bath Street mosque had been closed for several years (“Call to reopen Bath Street mosque in East Oxford”)

(UCLA moved its alumni information on its site since the initial publication of this post; the links here were appropriately updated. Stevens continues to not be listed among UCLA alumni.)

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Dear Blaise Pascal

With regard to your replies on this page:

William Faulkner didn’t write As I Lay Dying so some Wikiquote Wunderkind could pull that one quote about Pickett’s Charge out of context.

If every southern boy harks back to Pickett’s Charge and thinks This Time, maybe Ta Nehisi ought to read the whole goddamn book this time around before he meanders over to Wikiquote to haul out a few choice lines.

Why should I remain level headed when TNC goes for the cheap Wikiquote version of one of the strangest, saddest books on the American South?

Heh heh. Google and Wikiquote make geniuses of us all, now don’t they?

Leaving aside my disagreement with you on the many substantive issues here, and the overwhelming imaginative brilliance of this wikiquote comeback, you might want to avoid using the same putdown four times on a single web page, or you could be mistaken for i) a drinking game ii) someone with Tourette’s iii) one of the many beloved characters on Saturday Night Live played by Chris Kattan.

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A Last Note From Milan Kundera On Kafka

This post overlaps with, and serves as a complimentary fragment to the posts here and here. I quote so much from Milan Kundera because his investigations are so diligent, and his findings sound so truly. As always, this is from The Art of the Novel.

First, an anecdote:

In one of his books, my friend Josef Skvorecky tells this true story:

An engineer from Prague is invited to a professional conference in London. So he goes, takes part in the proceedings, and returns to Prague. Some hours after his return, sitting in his office, he picks up Rude Pravo – the official daily paper of the Party – and reads: A Czech engineer, attending a conference in London, has made a slanderous statement about his socialist homeland to the Western press and has decided to stay in the West.

Illegal emigration combined with a statement of that kind is no trifle. It would be worth twenty years in prison. Our engineer can’t believe his eyes. But there’s no doubt about it, the article refers to him. His secretary coming into his office, is shocked to see him: My God, she says, you’re back! I don’t understand – did you see what they wrote about you?

The engineer sees fear in his secretary’s eyes. What can he do? He rushes to the Rude Pravo office. He finds the editor responsible for the story. The editor apologizes; yes, it really is an awkward business, but he, the editor, has nothing to do with it, he got the text of the article direct from the Ministry of the Interior.

So the engineer goes off to the Ministry. There they say yes, of course, it’s all a mistake, but they, the Ministry, have nothing to do with it, they got the report on the engineer from the intelligence people at the London embassy. The engineer asks for a retraction. No, he’s told, they never retract, but nothing can happen to him, he has nothing to worry about.

But the engineer does worry. He soon realizes that all of a sudden he’s being closely watched, that his telephone is tapped, and that he’s being followed in the street. He sleeps poorly and has nightmares until, unable to bear the pressure any longer, he takes a lot of real risks to leave the country illegally. And so he actually becomes an émigré.

Then: a precise detailing of what might be meant by the “Kafkan”, and further notes on Kafka’s prophecies.

The story I’ve just told is one that would immediately call Kafkan…But what is the Kafkan?

Let’s try to describe some of its aspects:


The engineer is confronted by a power that has the character of a boundless labyrinth. He can never get to the end of its interminable corridors and will never succeed in finding out who issued the fateful verdict. He is therefore in the same situation as Joseph K. before the Court, or the Land-Surveyor K. before the Castle. All three are in a world that is nothing but a single, huge labyrinthine institution they cannot escape and cannot understand.

Novelists before Kafka often exposed institutions as areas where conflicts between different personal and public interests were played out. In Kafka the institution is a mechanism that obeys its own laws; no one knows now who programmed those laws or when; they have nothing to do with human concerns an are thus unintelligible.


In Chapter Five of The Castle, the village Mayor explains in detail to K. the long history of his file. Briefly: Years earlier, a proposal to engage a land-surveyor came down to the village from the Castle. The Mayor wrote a negative response (there was no need for any land-surveyor), but his reply went astray to the wrong office, and so after an intricate series of bureaucratic misunderstandings, stretching over many years, the job offer was inadvertently sent to K., at the very moment when all the offices involved were in the process of canceling the old obsolete proposal. After a long journey, K. thus arrived in the village by mistake. Still more: Given that for him there is no possible world other than the Castle and its village, his entire existence is a mistake.

In the Kafkan world, the file takes on the role of a Platonic idea. It represents a true reality, whereas man’s physical existence is only a shadow cast on the screen of illusion. Indeed, both the Land-Surveyor K. and the Prague engineer are but the shadows of their file cards; and they are even much less than that: they are the shadows of a mistake in the file, shadows without even the right to exist as shadows.


Raskolnikov cannot bear the weight of his guilt, and to find peace he consents to his punishment of his own free will. It’s the well-known situation where the offense seeks the punishment.

In Kafka the logic is reversed. The person punished does not know the reason for the punishment. The absurdity of the punishment is so unbearable that to find peace the accursed needs to find justification for his penalty: the punishment seeks the offense.


The tale of the Prague engineer is in the nature of a funny story, a joke: it provokes laughter.

Two gentlemen, perfectly ordinary fellows (not “inspectors” as in the French translation), surprise Joseph K. in bed one morning, tell him he is under arrest, and eat up his breakfast. K. is a well-disciplined civil servant: instead of throwing the men out of his flat, he stands in his nightshirt and gives a lengthy self-defense. When Kafka read the first chapter of The Trial to his friends, everyone laughed, including the author.

In speaking of the microsocial practices that generate the Kafkan, I mean not only the family but alo the organization in which Kafka spent all his adult life: the office.

In the bureaucratic world of the functionary, first, there is no initiative, no invention, no freedom of action; thee are only orders and rules: it is the world of obedience.

Second, the functionary performs a small part of a large administrative activity whose aim and horizons he cannot see: it is the world where actions have become mechanical and people do not know the meaning of what they do.

Third, the functionary deals only with unknown persons and with files: it is the world of the abstract.

To place a novel in this world of obedience, of the mechanical, and of the abstract, where the only human adventure is to move from one office to another, seems to run counter to the very essence of epic poetry. Thus the question: How has Kafka managed to transform such gray, antipoetical material into fascinating novels?

The answer can be found in a letter he wrote to Milena: “The office is not a stupid institution; it belongs more to the realm of the fantastic than of the stupid.” The sentence contains one of Kafka’s greatest secrets. He saw what no one else could see: not only the enormous importance of the bureaucratic phenomenon for man, for his condition and for his future, but also (even more surprisingly) the poetic potential contained in the phantasmic nature of offices.

But what does it mean to say the office belongs to the realm of the fantastic?

The Prague engineer would understand: a mistake in his file projected him to London; so he wandered around Prague, a veritable phantom, seeking his lost body, while the offices he visited seemed to him a boundless labyrinth from some unknown mythology.

The quality of the fantastic that he perceived in the bureaucratic world allowed Kafka to do what had seemed unimaginable before: he transformed the profoundly antipoetic material of a highly bureaucratized society into the great poetry of the novel; he transformed a very ordinary story of a man who cannot obtain a promised job (which is actually the story of The Castle) into myth, into epic, into a kind of beauty never before seen.

By expanding a bureaucratic setting to the gigantic dimensions of a universe, Kafka unwittingly succeeded in creating an image that fascinates us by its resemblance to a society he never knew, that of today’s Prague [Art of the Novel was published in the 1980s, when the Soviet Union still existed, Czechoslovakia still existed, and Prague was behind the iron curtain].

A totalitarian state is in fact a single, immense administration: since all work in it is for the state, everyone of every occupation has become an employee. A worker is no longer a worker, a judge no longer a judge, a shopkeeper no longer a shopkeeper, a priest no longer a priest; they are all functionaries of the State. “I belong to the Court,” the priest says to Joseph K. in the Cathedral. In Kafka, the lawyers, too, work for the Court. A citizen in today’s Prague does not find that surprising. He would get no better legal defense than K. did. His lawyers don’t work for defendants either, but for the Court.

In a cycle of one hundred quatrains that sound the gravest and most complex depths with an almost childlike simplicity, the great Czech poet [Jan Skacel] writes:

Poets don’t invent poems
The poem is somewhere behind
It’s been there for a long long time
The poet merely discovers it.

For the poet, then, writing means breaking through a wall behind which something immutable (“the poem”) lies hidden in darkness. That’s why (because of this surprising and sudden unveiling) “the poem” strikes us first as a dazzlement.

Kafka made no prophecies. All he did was see what was “behind.” He did not know that his seeing was also a fore-seeing. He did not intend to unmask a social system. He shed light on the mechanisms he knew from private and microsocial human practice, not suspecting that later developments would put those mechanisms into action on the great stage of History.

The hypnotic eye of power, the desperate search for one’s own offense, exclusion and the anguish of being excluded, the condemnation to conformism, the phantasmic nature of reality and the magical reality of the file, the perpetual rape of private life, etc. – all these experiments that History has performed on man in its immense test tubes, Kafka performed (some years earlier) in his novels.

The convergence of the real world of totalitarian states with Kafka’s “poem” will always be somewhat uncanny, and it will always bear witness that the poet’s act, in its very essence, is incalculable; and paradoxical: the enormous social, political, and “prophetic” import of Kafka’s novels lies precisely in their “nonengagement,” that is to say, in their total autonomy from all political programs, ideological concepts, and futurological prognoses.

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Juliette Morgan: Great Non-Fictional Character

For several years, the minister at Trinity had been Nelson Trout, a Negro Lutheran who felt somewhat excluded as the head of a minuscule congregation outside the mainstream of Negro religion.

On leaving Montgomery in 1955, he failed to anticipate the social friction that his new personage would cause – mostly because he assumed that his successor would be a Negro. Lutheran policy changed …and when a white minister named Robert Graetz finished his seminary training that year in Ohio, he found his missionary assignment list…posted to Trinity Lutheran down in Alabama. Dutifully, Graetz had personal stationery printed up bearing a biblical quotation: “And the angel of the Lord spoke unto Philip saying ‘Arise, go toward the South.'” Along with his wife and their two toddlers, Graetz headed for Montgomery, where they became the first of Trinity’s white pastoral families to live in Trout’s parsonage among the Negro parishioners.

The Graetzes discovered instantly that the social efforts of the new location were severe. Previously, Montgomery whites had allowed Trinity pastors to live among them and preach to Negro Lutherans, on much the same social calculus that allowed doctors to visit a brothel in a medical emergency. Now that they were living in the brothel, however, the Graetzes forfeited their modicum of acceptability. Local whites shunned them everywhere from the laundromat to the supermarket.

The Graetzes almost never got to laugh at such absurdities. There was too much tension. Besides, the daily ostracism caused too much hurt within the family for its excesses to be funny. Not all the hostility came from whites. Many of the Trinity’s members had been happier with Negro pastors like Trout. Some of them said out loud that they did not need a white man to tell them how to live. At first, even those who tried hardest to welcome them were saddled constantly with awkwardness, as nothing came naturally to the Graetzes. In most situations outside the Lutheran worship service, they did not know what to eat, say, or do. Drawing on their best natural defense, they became sincere – too sincere, even by the standards of the clergy. At sessions of the Montgomery Human Relations Council, Reverend Graetz met most of the others who made up the town’s handful of white liberals…Like him, they were all sincere, and some were timid, or brilliant, or damaged. Juliette Morgan, the kindly city librarian, was a recluse by night who shut herself up in a dark house with her mother.

After Rosa Parks, and the subsequent Holt Street meeting, which was the start of the organization of the Montgomery bus boycott:

A few days after the Holt Street mass meeting, one of the teachers at a Methodist missionary school near Nagpur, India rushed outside to investigate a bellowing noise that had pierced the early morning stillness. In the hut next door, he found his colleague James Lawson still in a fit of shouting and clapping and foot-stomping. Such joyous abandon was almost as alarming to the teacher as the violence he had feared, because he knew Lawson as the essence of the cerebral personality – a man who had worn spectacles since the age of four, whose superior manner and precise articulation smothered any hint of emotionalism in his character. Yet now, even after Theopolis burst through the door, Lawson was still dancing, and could only point to a story in the English edition of the Nagpur Times about how thousands of Negroes were refusing to ride segregated buses in a small American city.

This was the beginning, cried Lawson. This was what he had been dreaming about, what he had gone to prison for, what he had come halfway around the world to find at its source, only to discover that Gandhism without Gandhi was dissolving into power politics and petty quarrels. Lawson was overwhelmed by the ironic news that the spirit of the Mahatma was breaking out only six or seven hundred miles south of his home in Ohio. He sensed immediately that he would come to know M.L. King, who was described in the Nagpur Times as a man of exactly Lawson’s age, race, and profession.

In Montgonery, Juliette Morgan, the reclusive city librarian, watched the empty buses roll for a few days and then penned a letter to the Montgomery Advertiser. “Not since the First Battle of the Marne has the taxi been put to as good use as it has this last week in Montgomery,” she wrote. “However, the spirit animating our Negro citizens as they ride these taxis or walk from the heart of Cloverdale to Mobile Road has been more like that of Gandhi than of the ‘taxicab army’ that saved Paris.” Morgan declared that the bus boycotters had “taken a lesson from Gandhi, and from our own Thoreau, who influenced Gandhi.” She recommended that her fellow white citizens read Edmund Burke’s speech “Conciliation with the American Colonies,” and warned them against “pharasaical zeal.” “One feels that history is being made in Montgomery these days, the most important in her career,” she concluded.

These last words confirmed her status as something of a ninny, even among those white people who admired the grandeur of her learning. Who of sound mind could write that a shift by Negro maids in their common mode of transportation was more important than all the past glories of Montgomery? Morgan’s letter brought down upon her a prolonged harassment by young people who threw rocks through her windows, insulted her on the streets, and played tricks on her in the library. Her flighty insensitivity only provoked them to do worse. A little more than a year later, she would be found poisoned in her house, an apparent suicide. By way of explanation, whites would stress her emotional vulnerability or alleged mental problems, while Negroes remained certain that she had been persecuted to death on account of the “Battle of the Marne” letter.

From Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63, by Taylor Branch.

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Seven Unexpected Sentences

“Putin Has No Time To Debate, But He Can Shoot a Whale with a Crossbow” (link)

“‘What would a Roger Corman cheapie from the late ’80s look like if written and directed by a talentless and hysterical Al Gore?'” (link)

“Flaming Lips nab Bon Iver for new collaborative album, hope to also recruit Ke$ha” (link)

“‘It’s raining soup, and Newt Gingrich has the blueprints for soup bowls.'” (link)

“Wait, is that really the devil’s gun? Because it looks like one of those T-shirt guns that they break out during half time at NBA games.” (link)

“Okay, I’m not in the news business, and I’m not going to tell anyone how to do their job. However, it’d be good to have news reporting that I could trust again, and there’s evidence that fact-checking is an idea whose time has come.” (link)

“Sorry- I like Soderbergh and Clooney, and this idea was a good one. But, unfortunately, politics in the US is no longer a laughing matter.” (link)

Newt Gingrich: The Hyperbolic Style Of American Politics

Make your sentences come alive. Turn an ordinary day into something extraordinary.

Around lunch, I thought a while about having a chocolate bar, a decision of massive global implications that cannot be understated. After, a colleague told me the new Coldplay album wasn’t any good, an astonishing denial of reality and contemporary musical genius. While walking on the street, a dog barked at me for no reason at all, an unprecedented event in the history of our great nation, now crippled by modern liberal ideas. A girl I texted about going to a movie never texted back, a mistake that no doubt will be cited by future historians as the chief cause of the end of Western Civilization.

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Milan Kundera on Kafka’s Prophecies

Again, from the essential The Art of the Novel.

Mystifications and legends aside, there is no significant trace anywhere of Franz Kafka’s political interests; in that sense, he is different from all his Prague friends, from Max Brod, Franz Werfel, Egon Erwin Kisch, and from all the avant-gardes that, claiming to know the direction of History, indulged in conjuring up the face of the future.

So how is it that not their works but those of their solitary, introverted companion, immersed in his own life and his art, are recognized today as a sociopolitical prophecy, and are for that very reason banned in a large part of the world?

The famous letter Kafka write and never sent to his father demonstrates that it was from the family, from the relationship between the child and the deified power of the parents, that Kafka drew his knowledge of the technique of culpabilization, which became a major theme of his fiction. In “The Judgement,” a short story intimately bound up with the author’s family experience, the father accuses the son and commands him to drown himself. The son accepts his fictitious guilt and throws himself into the river as docilely as, in a later work, his successor Joseph K., indicted by a mysterious organization, goes to be slaughtered. The similarity between the two accusations, the two culpabilizations, and the two executions reveals the link, in Kafka’s work, between the family’s private “totalitarianism” and that in his great social visions.

Totalitarian society, especially in its more extreme versions, tends to abolish the boundary between the public and the private; power, as it grows ever more opaque, requires the lives of citizens to be entirely transparent. The ideal of life without secrets corresponds to the ideal of the exemplary family: a citizen does not have the right to hide anything at all from the Party or the State, just as a child has no right to keep a secret from his father or his mother. In their propaganda, totalitarian societies project an idyllic smile; they want to be seen as “one big family.”

It’s often said that Kafka’s novels express a passionate desire for community and human contact, that the rootless being who is K. has only one goal: to overcome the curse of solitude. Now, this is not only a cliché, a reductive interpretation, it is a misinterpretation.

The Land-Surveyor K. is not in the least pursuing people and their warmth, he is not trying to become “a man among men: like Sartre’s Orestes; he wants acceptance not from a community but from an institution. To have it, he must pay dearly: he must renounce his solitude. And this is his hell: he is never alone, the two assistants sent by the Castle follow him always. When he first makes love with Frieda, the two men are there, sitting on the café counter over the lovers, and from then on they are never absent from their bed.

Not the curse of solitude but the violation of solitude is Kafka’s obsession!

Lyrical souls who like to preach the abolition of secrets and the transparency of private life do not realize the nature of the process they are unleashing. The starting point of totalitarianism resembles the beginning of The Trial: you’ll be taken unawares in your bed. They’ll come just as your father and mother used to.

People often wonder whether Kafka’s novels are projections of the author’s most personal and private conflicts or descriptions of an objective “social machine.”

The Kafkan is not restricted to either the private or the public domain; it encompasses both. The public is the mirror of the private; the private reflects the public.

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