Various Mags, Rags & Definitions of “Integrity”

Written by John Strausbaugh on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.


 

I’ve had one of those weeks where I was too scattered and agitated to sit down with
a book. But I’m like you, if I don’t read I die, so I spent the week
grazing a lot of papers, magazines and Web writing.


I did start
one book, but it was beginning to annoy me so I set it aside. Maybe I’ll
come back to it in a few weeks, because it may deserve fuller discussion. It’s
Popular Culture: An Introduction, by a UC-Santa Cruz literature professor,
Carla Freccero, another NYU Press title (202 pages, $16.95). It is what it says,
a primer for college students in Cultural Studies and the theories of late-90s
campus Marxism, complete with a glossary of pomo jargon and p.c. buzz. One thing
that’s interesting about it is watching Freccero struggle to maintain some
intellectual integrity and freedom of thought even as she, as a late-90s academic
leftist, must renounce these qualities as misplaced values of the patriarchal
hegemony of Western democratic capitalism. That is, she’s no Amy Taubin
kneejerk dummy, but she does her part by citing Amy Taubin kneejerk idiocies.


There’s
a point early on in here where Freccero expresses her deep misgivings about
Western democratic ideals like the rights of the individual and private property,
which creeped me out: I guess it’s been a while since I’ve read a
campus lefty espouse such clearly and profoundly antidemocratic politics. I
admire the chutzpah, but she can still kiss my ass. She does not, at that point
in the book, lay out just what kind of grim collectivist lesbionic beehive state
she’d like to replace democracy with, but I’m sure she sees herself
running at least one of the committees. She moves on instead to a discussion
of Madonna as transgressive gender icon that I suspect is based on some paper
she must have written several years ago, back when college students would still
recognize and give a fuck about Madonna as transgressive gender icon.


It’s
there that I put the book down, but maybe I’ll go back to it when I’m
having a week where too many other things aren’t getting on my nerves.
If nothing else I’m always intrigued by this absolutely bellhooksian need
these types have to maintain the fantasy that you can fight the power and fight
for tenure simultaneously; that the simple condition of being black or female
or gay or someone who saw Is Paris Burning? and “got” it is
a revolutionary act. I can’t help it, it’s a mindset I find fascinating.


Another
sort of academic publication altogether, Lingua Franca keeps improving, getting
better and better at reaching out to intelligent life off-campus. Once a stuffy
trade journal and job opportunity billboard for professorial types, it’s
become a lot more readable and a lot less p.c., widening its scope to cover
a variety of intellectual issues, both scholarly and real-world, in plain English
and even, at times, with humor.


The current
September issue was the most brain-engaging magazine I read last week. Laura
Secor has a huge, sad piece about how Yugoslavian intellectuals fell in line
behind Milosevic; Scott McLemee has a funny piece on the irony of Objectivist
courses being taught by the very eggheads Ayn Rand despised; Tom Scocca, a writer
from City Paper in Baltimore, has a thing about astronomers elbowing
one another for limited telescope time; and there are other good bits on Derrida’s
publishing track record, Arthur Koestler’s dueling biographers and a big
scholarly argument over the–how would Freccero say this?–gendering
of domestic violence studies.


Then again,
I still have trouble adjusting to the friendlier, dumbed-down Scientific American.
I’m like an old-New Yorker type. I find myself missing Scientific American
when it was written in a language that was almost-familiar English but just
off enough that you had to work at it, read every paragraph over again to get
the whole meaning, like Chaucer. I never got through more than one article an
issue, but that one would stick. The outreaching Scientific American is like
a kids’ exploratorium to me, with its (in the current September issue)
pullout illustrations of T. rex, its excerpts from sci-fi novels and its National
Geographic-style human interest stories (“The Throat-Singers of Tuva”).


But forget
me. The September issue has two articles I found interesting, which is a 100
percent increase over my former average. One is on a new theory of planetary
drift, challenging the conventional view of a stable system with the planets
now in pretty much the same positions where they were born. This one has the
outer planets (from Jupiter out) migrating to their current positions, especially
Neptune and Pluto, with the latter’s orbit getting more and more eccentric
over time as the two interact. There are two points in Pluto’s 248-year
orbit around the sun where in effect it cuts in front of Neptune, getting closer
to the sun. Why do I like knowing this? Because I’m drawn to descriptions
of the universe as lopsided, wobbly, lumpy, unruly. They conform to my intuitions
of how things are.


The other
good article here is a well-timed–I’m sure fortuitously so, given
magazine lead times–survey report regarding scientists and religion. No
mention of the knotheads in the Kansas state legislature, but their presence
looms over the piece. In 1914 and 1933 a Bryn Mawr psychologist surveyed American
scientists and found both times that about 40 percent believed in God and an
afterlife (though it was only 20 percent of what he called “greater”
scientists, the elite astronomers, biologists, etc.). When the authors repeated
the survey in 1996 and ’98, the results were, to me, surprisingly consistent:
40 percent of all scientists still have some belief in God–it’s highest
among the “lesser” fields like engineering–and 10 percent of
the elite.


The authors
discuss these results in light of recent attempts to achieve some sort of rapprochement
between, on the one side, the hard-science materialists who dominate and, on
the other, the creationists and other religious-minded scientists who, if they
can’t change their colleagues’ minds, are increasingly influential
in the public and political sectors.


What do
creationists make of rainmakers, I wonder. Will they pressure them to stop tampering
with God’s weather, now that they may actually be showing some success
at it? The Aug. 21-27 Economist reports that after a rather dismal half-century
of trial and mostly error, cloud-seeding may be on the verge of paying off.
An experiment now under way in Mexico suggests that rainfall can be increased
when promising clouds are seeded with salts that attract moisture and become
raindrops.


Puts me
in mind of a website Knipfel showed me last week, representing a convergence
of weird science and kabbalah study of which I was previously unaware (http://home.fireplug.net/

~rshand/streams/science/machine2.html). In the late 70s, British engineer George
Sassoon, son of the poet Siegfried, was leafing through The Kabbalah Unveiled,
one of those terrible Victorian translations of the Zohar, by S. L. Macgregor
Mathers. He became particularly intrigued with the descriptions of The Ancient
of Days–”Eternal of the Eternal Ones, the Ancient of the Ancient Ones,
the Concealed of the Concealed Ones”–whose body is described in great
but bizarre detail, from his testicles to his head, where “Within His skull
exist daily thirteen thousand myriads of worlds, which draw their existence
from Him, and by Him are upheld.”


The more
he read, the more Sassoon convinced himself that it’s not a deity being
described, but a machine. Specifically, a “manna machine,” a food-generating
device that fed the crew of an Earth-visiting space vehicle (well, it was the
70s) and was left behind to be picked up by the Israelites just in time to keep
them from starving as they trekked across the desert. The Ancient One’s
beard and hairs must be wiring, its “cardinal lamp” a nuclear reactor,
etc. Based on his reading of the “specifications” given in the Zohar,
Sassoon built a model of the manna machine; photos of it looking like a space
probe in a first-generation Star Trek are on the site. I’d take
a small one for the coffee table.


Sometime
after the Israelites reached Jerusalem, Sassoon figures, the machine either
broke down or just fell into disuse, and either was or became confused with
the Ark of the Covenant. He pictures the alien device safely hidden away in
the innermost sanctum of Solomon’s Temple, periodically attended to by
the High Priests with oily rags, until the sack of Jerusalem, at which point
it is lost to history. Though, as long as he’s speculating, he wonders
if it might have something to do, inevitably I guess, with the Grail and the
Templars and such.


I know National
Review is a conservative magazine, and there’s a certain retro spin built
into conservative thinking, but what’s up with the Aug. 30 issue’s
cover story? “American Travesty,” the hed shouts, followed immediately
by the denouement of a subhed, “How justice failed the Rodney King cops.”


Rodney King?
In 1999? Okay, let’s grant there’s some reason for an update. As your
cover story? What next, the Madonna as transgressive gender icon cover?


Also in
this issue, Christopher Caldwell offers a jaundiced appraisal of Woodstock ’99
and the hypocritical response to it from boomers like Richard Cohen. He ends
the piece with a quote from a telephone conversation he had with me. I must
say he caught me by surprise with the call. All due respect, but Chris Caldwell
is not the first guy I turn to for rock ’n’ roll commentary. Yet he’s
been all over the place lately, commenting on the rock. Christgau Caldwell.
Besides the Review piece there was his weeklong chat with Spin’s
Chris Norris in last week’s Slate (also colonized by MUGGER last
week–what’s up with that?), discussing James Miller’s
rock history book Flowers in the Dustbin. For a Beltway pundit and a
Spin writer, they don’t do so bad. They basically agree that the
book sucks, which is good, and reading their back-and-forth on it helped me
crystallize my argument against it, which I may not have quite nailed in my
own column on it a week earlier: that it’s got a shopkeeper’s bourgeois
heart, that it’s a count-the-pennies, count-the-hits history of rock, as
though written from the perspective of the guy who runs the merchandising booths
at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.


Since we
first mentioned him a few months ago, Jim Romenesko of obscurestore.com and
mediagossip.com has been on a roll. I’m not suggesting cause and effect,
just that it’s another example of how attention snowballs. Once he got
the requisite b.j. in the Times, mediagossip.com suddenly became everybody’s
favorite media site.


Well, good
for him. Romenesko maintained the aptly named obscurestore.com through a couple
years of getting up very early to enter daily updates before trudging off to
his real job. The newer mediagossip.com is also well-named. It’s amazing
that the two sites are a one-man operation; it puts him in the Drudge category
of heroic solo effort.


And now
his reward: He gets to quit his day job. The Poynter Institute for Media Studies,
a nonprofit associated with the St. Petersburg Times, has hired him to
start up a media news and gossip site for them.


“Part
of the deal,” he e-mailed me last Friday, “is that mediagossip.com
is no more, but directs traffic to my stuff on Poynter. I really like the idea
of spending all day looking for media stuff. I’ll provide links and do
original reporting on the new site. It should be up by October 1.”


And I spent
my usual few minutes flipping through the Voice last week. I was expecting Jim
Ridgeway to weigh in on L.A. daycare center shooter Buford Furrow as just another
tip of the iceberg that is the vast neo-Nazi underground conspiracy, and he
did not disappoint. His “Mondo Washington” column, “Bringing
It All Back Home: Buford Furrow’s Journey of Hate to L.A.,” was a
veritable cavalcade of familiar Ridgeway villains, linking Furrow, sometimes
by the flimsiest of Ridgewavian paranoid-theory circumstance, to everyone from
Benjamin Smith and Timothy McVeigh to such famous Nazi nutcases as Tom Metzger,
Richard Butler, Bob Mathews and the man without whom no Ridgeway column is complete,
The Turner Diaries’ William Pierce.


I’m
not saying these characters aren’t evil fucks, just that this particular
sky has fallen on Ridgeway’s head so many times over the last decade that
if someday he does finally get his hands on irrefutable proof that the Aryans
are actually armed and organized and ready to pull a national putsch, who’s
going to believe him?


And my old
pal Cynthia Cotts pulled another dopey boner in last week’s “Press
Clips.” You may recall some weeks ago I went off on her after she wrote
a b.j. for a new literary magazine, Tin House, which she so outrageously
overpraised I could only speculate that the editors or publisher must be friends
of hers. Turned out, as she called to inform me, that while they weren’t
what she’d call friends, the editors were indeed acquaintances and former
colleagues. I say semantics aside, all she had to do was mention that in the
first place.


Then, on
Aug. 4, she wrote the lead piece for the online zine Feed. As it happens,
it was another b.j., this one for Talk, in which she did everything but
attach her resume to Tina’s attention, but that’s not the point. The
point is that two weeks later, in last week’s Voice, she leads off
her “Press Clips” with yet another b.j.–for Feed. In which
she fails to mention that she’d just written a lead item for Feed
two weeks earlier.


All right,
no need to call Brill. It’s not a career-threatening conflict of interest.
But it is a boner, and only confirms for me that Cotts remains an amateur in
her job. A simple parenthetical disclosure that she’d just written for
Feed, but that this had absolutely no impact on her suddenly and
coincidentally deciding to write an overhyping article about the four-year-old
zine, would have sufficed. I e-mailed her and asked her to explain.


“It
seems you and I have a difference of opinion about the purpose of Press Clips,”
she wrote back, and noted that “The Feed story is also similar to the story
I wrote on the literary magazine Tin House which you found so objectionable”–both
statements with which I heartily agree. She went on:


“Like
Tin House, Feed is a publishing venture that aims to make a profit off ‘quality’
editorial content. And like Tin House, Feed has recently had a positive interaction
with the market. If Tin House is selling out at St. Marks, or if the ad space
is selling out at Feed, that’s news, from a purely economic perspective.
I’m surprised that you don’t recognize the value of that kind of analysis,
given Russ Smith’s adherence to the libertarian political philosophy, one
of the central tenets of which is ‘Let the market decide.’ It’s
also the kind of analysis that is practiced every day by the Wall Street Journal,
i.e., ‘Is it profitable?’”


Now, in
neither case did she write “analysis.” She wrote press releases. Look
them up online if you don’t believe me. That she considers this analysis
reinforces my sense that she is among the most naive and amateurish media “analysts”
in town.


But anyway,
getting to the real point, she explained her Feed connection this way:


“As
for me and Feed, I wrote one piece for them, which was solicited in late July
by Alex Abramovich, who was a colleague of mine at The New Yorker. I’m
still waiting to get paid. I have never pitched any stories to Feed and have
none in the works. Shortly before getting the assignment from Alex, I ran into
Steven Johnson, who is also a professional acquaintance, and asked if there
was any news to report about Feed, which it turned out there was. Given that
I don’t pal around with people from Feed, and they have offered me nothing
of value in connection with what I wrote about them, including future assignments,
I don’t think I have a conflict of interest, and thus didn’t think
I had anything to disclose. It’s kind of funny that you want to accuse
me of hiding something (a single story I wrote for Feed) that your own paper
criticized so bitterly the week before. But you raise a semi-interesting point,
which is that my omission created the appearance of a conflict where there was
none. I hope this settles the matter, and that the Press has the integrity to
print my response in full.”


Again, she’s
right: She and I clearly disagree about the purpose of a column like “Press
Clips,” once a Voice flagship position (Stokes must be spinning),
now a venue in which Cotts writes press releases for people she admits (to me,
when pressed, but not in the column itself) she in some way knows. Not to disclose
these connections in her column, as her predecessor James Ledbetter so scrupulously
used to do, is, if nothing more, foolishness that leaves her open to charges
of conflict of interest. Ledbetter reminds me that he used to disclose so obsessively
that we actually made fun of him for going overboard with it. Well. Times change.
And his successor could use a pinch of that obsessiveness.


This Feed
piece very clearly is a conflict of interest, if on a minor scale. She
should have either taken the writing assignment from Feed or written
the blowjob for Feed, but not both; having done both anyway, she should
have at least mentioned the former when she wrote the latter. It’s standard
industry practice. For the Voice’s media columnist not to seem to
know this, and to shrug it off as “semi-interesting,” is, in fact,
very interesting.


In this
context, she’s hardly in a position to be bluffing me about “integrity,”
though I admit she’s got balls to try it.


Maybe there’s
no guiding or principled intelligence anymore in the grim collectivist beehive
of Voice editorial, but somebody over there really ought to speak to
her about this. I’m getting tired of doing it for them.


..