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Bush Remains a Bubble Boy at Thanksgiving: Holiday Speech is by “Invitation-Only”

Little Bubble Boy Bush

Thanksgiving Talk to “Invitation-Only” Guests at Berkeley Plantation

In his first six years in office, the president has made little mention of Thanksgiving, beyond the ceremonial turkey pardons, but yesterday Bush traveled to Charles City, Virginia, for his first speech devoted specifically to the holiday. “[O]ur nation’s greatest strength is the decency and compassion of our people,” he said. “As we count our many blessings, I encourage all Americans to show their thanks by giving back.”

The New York Times reported that this was part of a White House initiative “to show a more contemplative side of Mr. Bush.” The Times added that yesterday’s message stood in contrast to the “go shopping” message in the aftermath of 9/11. Now, Bush asked Americans to consider the “many ways to spread hope this holiday: volunteer in a shelter, mentor a child, help an elderly neighbor, say thanks to one who wears the nation’s uniform.”

The problem, in this case, wasn’t with the president’s inoffensive message, but rather with his audience. You might think that a presidential speech on Thanksgiving would be open to all comers. But no, even when President Bush is talking about something as uncontroversial and inclusive as the essential goodness of our country, he wants his audience pre-screened for obsequiousness. In the event carefully calibrated to emphasize his compassionate side, as usual he wasn’t talking to all Americans. At least not in person. Admission to the event was tightly controlled by White House and Republican party officials.

Tyler Whitley and Mark Bowes wrote in the Richmond Times-Dispatch: “President Bush found something to be thankful for yesterday — a friendly, invitation-only Virginia audience. . . . ” “We love you!” one woman yelled as Bush prepared to deliver a 16-minute Thanksgiving message to a standing-room-only crowd of about 800 people standing at Berkeley under a tent facing the James River. Yes, it appears Bush can’t even wish Americans a happy Thanksgiving without the comfort of his ever-present Bubble.

Dan Froomkin points to some helpful historical analysis from University of Texas political science professor Jeffrey K. Tulis:

The tradition of presidents traveling the country — “seeing and being seen” — dates back to George Washington. Washington felt that public appearances were important for the president — and his appearances were indeed open to the public. . . . Washington was intent on establishing the precedent that the president was chosen to represent the whole country, not just his partisan supporters.

Certainly, in the past, presidential advance teams have on occasion taken steps to assure friendly audiences. It has not been uncommon for presidents to seek invitations to speak at friendly venues. But systematically screening audiences for an array of speaking tours . . . may be a new phenomenon, and one that the president should be asked to defend and justify in terms of his constitutional obligations. Well, we’re probably far too late to ask Bush to “defend and justify” this nonsense, but we can probably get started urging his would-be successors not to follow his ridiculous example.

On a related note, it’s probably worth mentioning that professors at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania have started a project called the Soapbox Alliance that seeks to “ban politicians from holding closed meetings restricted to supporters on all campuses in the nation.” It sounds like a very good idea that received a positive write-up in USA Today. Responding to the idea, Trent Duffy, Bush’s former deputy press secretary, said, “It’s a nice concept, but people tend to misbehave.” Well, here’s a radical idea in response to that: if audience members become disruptive from a presidential event, remove them (preferably without tazing them). If they heckle or refuse to allow the president to speak, escort the trouble-makers from the room.

The notion that some people might “misbehave,” and that this justifies seven years of shielding the president from being in the same room as Americans who disagree with him, is demonstrably ridiculous.

Bubble Boy Bush Gives Thanksgiving Speech

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Battles: Tonto

Battles: Mirrored/Tonto

2007 has been quite a year for Battles. With the release of their highly accomplished and frankly peerless debut album Mirrored in mid-May, 2007 transformed Battles from a hot transatlantic buzz band with an exemplary live reputation , some say the taste-maker’s choice, to a band that has become internationally renowned.  The release of Mirrored captured the imagination of all manner of music lovers and with it came immediate critical acclaim and a sell out two month European tour that ended in June with an audience of 5,000 at Barcelona’s Primavera. Even more impressively (though unsurprising considering the quality of their live show), July saw Battles play to 10,000 people at Fuji Rock, and the area had to be cordoned off due to overcrowding.  And this is from a band who released their debut album just two months earlier.  The marketing blitz has turned out to be highly justified.

Battles: Tonto

Battles: A Short Introduction to the Band

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W. H. Auden: A Reactionary Tract for Our Times

W. H. Auden (1907-1973)

W. H. Auden: A Reactionary Tract for Our Times

In June 1946, Harvard University observed its long-awaited Victory Commencement. For the first time since the end of WWII, alumni and graduates had a chance to gather in Harvard Yard. The ceremony was a time for the University to appraise all the changes the war had caused, and the even more profound changes that peace was about to bring. Twenty-six thousand Harvard alumni had served in uniform during the war, and 649 of them had died. The University itself had been integrated into the war effort at the very highest level. President James Bryant Conant had consulted with President Truman about the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan, and William Langer, a professor of history, had recruited many faculty members into the newly formed Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the CIA.

As if to symbolize that intimacy, the 1946 Commencement awarded honorary degrees to the Chiefs of the U.S. Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force. More questionable was the choice of that year’s Phi Beta Kappa orator: Byron Price, who had served as Director of the Federal Office of Censorship, in charge of monitoring press coverage of the war. Price used the occasion to deliver a rather ominous exhortation to “the man of letters,” whom he accused, 10 months after the war ended, of still not doing enough for national morale. “How often,” he asked, “shall the seeker find between these myriad covers an ounce of literary beauty, or a thimbleful of spiritual elevation? We are served a fare of dissoluteness and destruction. We are asked to sneer at man and regard him as no better than the worm. We are invited to improve our minds by studying the endless sagas of criminals and harlots, moving in sordid surroundings, and worshiping only the flesh.”

Under Which Lyre

It was against this backdrop of war and peace, and a university caught between them, that W.H. Auden, that year’s Phi Beta Kappa poet, got up to deliver his own contribution to the festivities. If Auden was listening when Price issued his “commissar-like” advice to writers, he would have been revolted, but not surprised. In fact, his poem, Under Which Lyre, impishly subtitled A Reactionary Tract for the Times, was intended to be a retaliation against Price’s brand of official uplift. In 174 witty, neatly rhymed lines, Auden set out his prophetic vision of the challenges facing postwar America in general, and the postwar university in particular. Occasional poems usually fade pretty quickly, but even in 2007, the year of Auden’s centenary, Under Which Lyre remains one of his most charming and perceptive works.

Under Which Lyre begins by setting the scene, in language that is by by turns colloquial and quaintly literary. “Ares at last has quit the field,” Auden proclaims, invoking the Greek god of war. Drawing upon his memories of a bombed-out Germany, which he had visited in 1945 as an analyst for the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey, he writes, “in their convalescent state/The fractured towns associate/With summer flowers.” He then turns to a less somber kind of postwar scene, one that his listeners at Harvard would have recognized with a laugh:

Encamped upon the college plain
Raw veterans already train
As freshman forces;
Instructors with sarcastic tongue
Shepherd the battle-weary young
Through basic courses.

Yet even as Harvard returned to its civilian pursuits and petty vanities, with students struggling with the poems of Donne, and “professors back from secret missions” bragging about their adventures, Auden saw another kind of conflict beginning to take shape. This was the war between two opposing sensibilities, the two social and spiritual visions, that Auden named Apollo and Hermes. Apollo, the Greek god of light and music, became for Auden “pompous Apollo,” the patron saint of “official art.” Against him, Auden set Hermes, the trickster god, protector of thieves and liars, who is “precocious and undisciplined.” Both of these gods can make a kind of music, but Auden asks the reader to decide “under which lyre” he will take his stand.

The comedy of the poem lies in Auden’s description of Apollo, the ruling spirit of what he called “the fattening forties.” The danger to postwar America, Auden suggested, lies in the soft tyranny of institutions, authorities, and experts, of people who know what’s best for you and don’t hesitate to make sure you know it, too. Auden gives a wonderful catalog of the things these Apollonians want to impose: colleges where “Truth is replaced by Useful Knowledge,” with courses on “Public Relations, Hygiene, Sport“; poems that “Extol the doughnut and commend/The Common Man“; even processed foods: “a glass of prune juice or a nice/Marsh-mallow salad.” In short, Auden was already predicting the dullest, most conformist aspects of American life during the Cold War years, the kind of prosperous mediocrity that gave the 1950s a bad name.

Auden’s Commandments for Free Spirits

But if it’s impossible to dislodge Apollo from his throne, Auden suggested thay you can still follow Hermes in private. That is why the last stanzas of Under Which Lyre offer a set of commandments for free spirits who refuse to fall into line:

Thou shalt not do as the dean pleases,
Thou shalt not write thy doctor’s thesis
On education,
Thou shalt not worship projects nor
Shalt thou or thine bow down before

Thou shalt not answer questionnaires
Or quizzes upon World-Affairs,
Nor with compliance
Take any test. Thou shalt not sit
With statisticians nor commit
A social science.

His advice was half-joking, but only half. Auden was reminding his Harvard audience that all the official apparatus of the university is superfluous to its highest purpose, which is to cultivate freedom and inwardness. It is a message that still needs to be heard today, when the expense of higher education forces so many students to look at it as an investment, rather than an adventure.

Auden knew that a society run by Hermes would be a disaster; but a society without any followers of Hermes in it would be a true nightmare. That message makes Under Which Lyre a truly American poem, a defense of the individual against the masses. The continued life of Auden’s Phi Beta Kappa poem is a reminder that, when the generals and censors and other powers of the earth are forgotten, it is the mere poet who remains.

h/t to Adam Kirsch at The Harvard Magazine.

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Photo of the Day: Window Virgin at Night

Photo of the Day: Window Virgin at Night

Photography by: Joseph O. Holmes, NYC

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