Jimmy Carter, a Better President Than We Deserve

Jimmy CarterIt is hard to believe, but Jimmy Carter is 90 years old today. Like any president, he is a mixed bag. For one thing, he was the proto-New Democrat. He was very good on most issues, but when it came to the economy, he was pretty conservative — at least for that time. Now conservatives would have to come up with new ways to describe them. “Double plus bad communist double socialist plus plus Marxist”?

But he still has a bad reputation — especially among conservatives. About the worst thing a conservative can say about a Democratic president is that he is like Carter. This is a remarkable thing and shows the total lack of knowledge among conservatives. In terms of foreign policy, he negotiated that little Nobel Peace Prize winning Camp David Accords. This not only has kept the peace between Israel and Egypt for 35 years, it is also the last really helpful thing we’ve done in the region. Of course, he also did things I don’t like. He ended Nixon’s détente policy and revved up the Cold War. Conservatives should love this, of course. But they don’t, mostly because they don’t even know about it.

On the economy, it was Carter who appointed Paul Volcker to the Federal Reserve and it was Volcker’s policies that ended stagflation. It also was a major factor in making Carter a one-term president. And the end of those policies was what cause “morning in America,” which pretty much everyone alive thinks was due to Ronald Reagan’s policies. (In fact, Reagan’s policies made the economy worse.) Carter also deregulated the airline industry. Again: this is something that I think was a mistake, but something that conservatives should love.

One thing that everyone should love is that Carter is a man of integrity. While it is true that during the early part of his political career, he was less than forthright about his beliefs against segregation, it is hard to fault him. An increasing percentage of Republicans are just fine with segregation. And as president, he was quite good. And since being out of office, he has often acted as the conscious of America. He has been very clear of his criticism of Republican and Democratic administrations — and rightly so. I don’t remember him ever being far off the mark.

Jimmy Carter

In the end, conservatives especially, but everyone generally, tends to give Carter less respect than he deserves. And it is really all because he didn’t win a second term. There is also this feeling — which is totally ridiculous — that if only the smiling Ronald Reagan Action Hero™ had been president, there would have been no oil crisis (even though it started under Nixon), there would have been no stagflation (even though it was going strong under Ford), and there would have been no Iranian hostage crisis (even though it was the result of decades of bad American policy in the country). I am so sick of all of this.

Above all, I’m sick of how ignorant Americans are about their history. If you want to hate Carter, then hate him for what he actually did and not how you remember feeling during his presidency. The same thing happens to Reagan in the opposite way. People felt so great in 1983 when the economy was booming because of Paul Volcker that now they “know” that Reagan was a great president. Well, he wasn’t. He was one of the worst president in the last century. Carter was one of the better ones. Yet as we head straight into climate catastrophe, I still hear conservatives scoff at the solar panels that Carter put on the White House and how cool it was when “manly” Reagan had them taken down. As I watch the American empire fray and disintegrate, I can’t help looking at us and not thinking we don’t deserve it. I can’t say that Carter was a better president than we deserved in in the late 1970s, but he is certainly a better president than we deserve now.

Happy 90th birthday Jimmy Carter!


See also: Jimmy Carter Is Not Dead

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“One Hundred Ways” as Romantic Advice

James IngramTo some extent, you have to hate Quincy Jones. He’s one of those massive talents who seems to rub it in your face. Okay! We get it! You’re better than we are! But I suppose that is made up for by the fact that he provides us with such great music.

In 1981, Jones released the album The Dude. It’s not a great album. But you might see it is the ur-Thriller. Much of the sound of the album is very much what Jones would create for Michael Jackson the following year. None of the songs are written by Jones — in general, he didn’t write much on his albums. He depended upon songwriters he often worked with like Rod Temperton. And the singers included a variety of people, especially Patti Austin.

But the album is particularly notable because it is the debut of James Ingram who sang the two hits off the album. And those two songs kind of sum up 1981 for me. (Or 1982?) The reason I’m thinking about it is that stupid Apple iPhone commercial that features “Just the Two of Us.” It was a huge hit in 1981 — three weeks at number one.

The strange thing is that the two James Ingram songs that I thought were so big were not. The first was the “Just Once” by Mann and Weil. It’s a fine song, but it kind of annoys me. It only reached number 17 on the “Hot 100.” The other did a bit better: “One Hundred Ways” made it to number 14. The thing is that I think it is just a wonderful song and I never get tired of it. It is one of the most romantic songs ever written. And Ingram is fantastic on it and the production is that perfect light jazz infused rhythm and blues.

The song was written by songwriter Kathy Wakefield, producer Ben Wright, and Tony Coleman, who I believe is a drummer and King Coleman’s son. All of this is just by way of introduction. I love the song. And here is James Ingram on Soul Train lip-syncing to it:

Point of order: this is probably not the best romantic advice. If you do “find one hundred ways” you are most likely to spoil her and look desperate. Everything in moderation, my friends. It is true that, “Being cool won’t help you keep a love warm.” But being too warm will make love overheat. On the other hand, in my experience, most men tend to error on the side of coolness and lack of engagement. And in the end, maybe you don’t want to be in a relationship where you have to play these games. Maybe the song is right and you should just show what you feel. That’s the right thing to do. But don’t blame me if she leaves you for a guy who is cooler and doesn’t let the violins play.

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Bernie Sanders and the Political Revolution

Bernie Sanders[W]e need a political revolution in this country and that’s not just rhetoric. What I mean by that is that we need — and a president certainly can play a very, very important role in this — we need a massive change in citizen participation and in political consciousness. There was a poll that just came out I think yesterday. Gallup tells us that… I believe it is 63 percent of the American people cannot name which parties control the US House and the US Senate. So you have consciousness so low, a significant majority of the American people who are very concerned about what’s going on for themselves and their kids, they don’t know who controls the House and the Senate. They can’t name which party controls both bodies. You have what the political scientists tell us is a situation where in this coming election, 60 percent of the American people will not bother to vote. That means 70-to-80 percent of low-income workers and young people will not vote. So before you can talk about changing America, you have to change the political consciousness and the way that people relate to the political process.

Now, there is a group that relates very strongly to the political process, [and] that is the billionaire class that is now prepared to spend many hundreds of millions of dollars to elect candidates to represent their interests.

So you ask me, what can a president do? The main thing, I think, that the president can do is understand that no kind of progressive agenda can take place unless the American people are involved in that struggle and are prepared to put real pressure on the establishment to make it happen. It’s not going to happen in back rooms. It’s not going to happen in White House negotiations. If students, for example, want to see the cost of college go down and want to see their very high levels of debt be significantly reduced, they’re going to have to take it up with the members of Congress. They’re not doing that now. If low-income workers want to see the minimum wage raised, it cannot be a situation where only 20 percent of low-income workers vote. They’re going to have to be actively involved. That’s what a president can do…

What I am telling you, as somebody who likes Obama and respects Obama, is that the key mistake that I believe he made, and it’s perfectly understandable, is he got into office, and he said, two years after he was in, “I’m gonna sit down and negotiate with the Republicans. I know I can’t get everything. We’ll work on some kind of compromise.”

What he didn’t catch on to is that the Republicans had no intention of compromising with him and they have no intention of compromising at all. They have an agenda. It is an extreme right wing agenda backed by the Koch brothers and other billionaires, and the only way you defeat that right-wing agenda is when the American people rise up and demand real change. It can’t be done within the confines of Congress. It has to be part of a strong and active grassroots movement.

—Bernie Sanders
Longterm Democratic Strategy Is “Pathetic”

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Romney Won’t Take Responsibility for Saying the Poor Won’t Take Responsibility

Mitt Romney - NopeIt seems to me that Mitt Romney is the failed presidential candidate who will never go away. Really: he’s not in office, why is there still so much news about him? I really don’t know. Just the same, I still find him fascinating because he is sort of the perfect Republican. And in a recent interview story by Mark Leibovich, Romney came up with a new excuse for his “47 percent” comment. It’s interesting that the comment was about how the poor wouldn’t take responsibility for themselves. But every couple of months, Romney comes up with a new reason why he isn’t responsible for what he said.

Romney said that he had just be asked a long and rambling question. He continued, “My mistake was that I was speaking in a way that reflected back to the man. If I had been able to see the camera, I would have remembered that I was talking to the whole world, not just the man.” Okay. So his mistake was not knowing that there was a hidden camera? If he knew he was being recorded, he would have be more truthful? The mind boggles.

Brian Beutler hit back on this at New Republic today, Mitt Romney Blames His “47 Percent” Comment on a Donor. Paul Ryan Blames… Mitt Romney. That title refers to the fact that Paul Ryan now says the comment was wrong, but he still (along with the whole of the Republican Party) sees the world that way. That’s the fundamental problem. The video wasn’t a big deal because everyone was surprised that Romney would say such a thing. The video was a big deal because no one was surprised. They already knew this was exactly what Romney thought and the video was just a handy example of it.

Beutler noted that the question Romney got was neither long nor rambling. The guy just asks how Romney can convince people that they have to take care of themselves. And after losing the election, Romney claimed that it was because Obama was giving poor people free stuff. This clearly shows that Romney really did think that half the nation were a bunch of moochers. What I’ve always found funny but also shockingly offensive is that Romney pandered far more than Obama.

One of the biggest attacks Romney made against Obama was that he took $716 billion away from Medicare. And what was Romney going to do? Give it back! And what was the biggest thing in Romney’s budget? His $5 trillion in tax cuts going mostly to the very wealthy. But in Republican-think, giving money to your constituencies is not giving them “free stuff.” Giving “free stuff” only applies when it is given to “those” people. Romney’s tax cuts were worth more than total Medicaid spending. But those poor parents who got free checkups for their kids were being bought off. Billionaires were not.

The final word about the “47 Percent” comment comes from Romney, himself. I’m sure over time, he will change his explanation as it becomes clear to him that he said far more than he meant to in this interview. Romney really thinks that there are a whole bunch of loafers out there in America. And he thinks that the only distinctly progressive tax in the United States is the one that defines such people. Note that he didn’t talk about sales taxes or state income taxes or payroll taxes — all of which the poor pay in abundance. No, he picked the one tax that is reasonably fair in the United States. And so the video shows what he actually thinks about his fellow Americans. We all understand that he wouldn’t have been so blunt if he had known non-millionaires were watching. We don’t like Romney, but we don’t think he’s an idiot.

The issue in the United States is not people who don’t take responsibility for their lives. The issue is people like Romney who want to take responsibility for things they didn’t do. He won’t admit the fact that his success is mostly luck. He was born reasonably intelligent. He was born into a rich family. He was sent to good schools. He knew lots of people who could help him out in life. Even at Bain & Company, Romney didn’t see the opportunity with Bain Capital. He only started it because his boss gave him the deal of a lifetime to start it: not only would he get his old job back if he failed, the company would cover for him so it didn’t reflect badly on him. Romney is the one with the responsibility issue. And now he’s trying to push responsibility for his “47 percent” comment onto some anonymous donor, who regardless totally agrees with Romney about what they see as the moocher class.

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(My) Democratic Freak Out!

United States SenateThere has been a lot of bad polling news for Democrats in the Senate recently. In fact, the Princeton model’s daily forecast yesterday had the Democrat’s chances of holding the Senate in the low 20 percents. It’s come back up to 39% today, but The Monkey Cage is down to 23%. Generally, however, the models are right about where they were two months ago with the Democrats having about a 40% chance of holding the Senate. Should we freak out? Of course not. But we should prepare ourselves for a less than sunny election night, at least as far as the Senate goes.

Nate Silver wrote an excellent article, Senate Update: When Should Democrats Panic? His main point is that people tend to think in terms of trends and waves, but that’s not what’s happening at all. There have been some good polls for Republicans in the last week or so, just as there were some good polls for Democrats a month ago. It doesn’t mean that the polls are going to get better and better for the Republicans.

Another important point is that this is a bad year for Democrats based upon the “fundamentals.” Yet the Democrats are generally doing better than expectations. This is actually a very big issue for me. I’m okay with the Republicans taking over the Senate. For well over a year, I’ve known there was a very good chance of this. But what I dread is watching the election results coming in and hearing pundits say things like, “Well this just shows that the people are unhappy with President Obama’s policies.” Or, “When all is said and done, America is a center-right nation.” Or, “Liberalism is dead.”

No! No! No! This is an election where the vast majority of Senate seats up for election belonged to Democrats — most in red states because the Democrats had a shockingly good year in 2008. What’s more, Democrats are poised to have a rather good year in terms of governorships. Of course, these facts won’t matter. I know that on election night, I will be seeing people say these things. It’s what they always say because nuance is not allowed on television.

From my perspective, a neutral result should have been Republicans getting 53 or 54 Senate seats — which is still quite possible. Most of the models are now predicting 52 seats. If that comes to pass, the reporting really ought to be that the Republicans did poorly. It’s funny that when it comes to something like presidential debates, the commentariat are totally focused on how well the candidates do compared to expectations. But when it comes to elections, it is only the absolute numbers. If the Republicans end up ahead it means the country has turned right and if the Democrats end up ahead, the country has turned left.

If the Democrats do manage to maintain control of the Senate, the reporting should be along the lines of, “In a year where the Republicans had every structural advantage, they failed to succeed. This does not speak well of the party during this election cycle.” But instead, it will mostly be pitched as a wash, with some even claiming it is a big win for the Republicans because they picked up five seats.

As always with elections, this one will all come down to how many Democrats manage to show up to the polls. Robert Erikson and Christopher Wlezien at The Monkey Cage wrote an informative article about this last week, Why Likely Voter Polls May Be Misleading. As I pointed out just after the 2012 election, a lot of polls were wrong because of their “likely voter” screens. Only 87% of those who said they were sure to vote actually voted, and more surprisingly, 55% of those who said they were unlikely to vote did vote. Now 2012, was an on-year election, so it is different but the same thing goes on.

The article at The Monkey Cage noted that most of the recent shift in the polls toward the Republicans is not about people changing their minds; it is about the polls providing data on likely voters. Registered voters are still polling the same way. This is potentially cheerful news for the Democrats. Supposedly, the Democrats are spending big money on “get out the vote” efforts. So if they really do succeed at this, the final composition of the Senate might not look that bad.

But I won’t be shocked if the Republicans have 54 seats in the Senate next year. We’ll get through it. There is no reason to freak out.

Le freak n’est pas chic!

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Forgotten Film Legend Lewis Milestone

Lewis Milestone Reading All Quiet on the Western FrontOn this day in 1895, the great film director Lewis Milestone was born. He was one of “those” directors. You know the kind: directors who did consistently excellent work but who are never really held up as great. People like Michael Curtiz. Meanwhile, people write dissertations about Alfred Hitchcock, even though the main thing I think about him is that his films never looked very good. I don’t get it.

One reason that Milestone may not have quite the reputation he deserves is that he worked his way up in the Hollywood system. As a teenager, he emigrated from the Ukraine. While serving in the army, he worked with the Signal Corps making short films like, “The Toothbrush” and “Posture.” (Really!) After that, he went to work under Henry King and eventually William Seiter, as editor, writer, and assistant director. And he made his debut as writer-director in 1925 with, Seven Sinners — a wacky silent comedy about a couple of thieves who rob a house, only to find that three other groups are doing the same thing. It sounds like a lot of fun, but good luck finding it anywhere.

Milestone is best known for making one of the greatest war films ever, All Quiet on the Western Front — for which he won an Academy Aware for Best Director, not that it means anything. When he is remembered, it is as a great director of war films. There were others such as Edge of Darkness, A Walk in the Sun, and Pork Chop Hill. But he was so much more than that. He did it all and he did it well. He directed an excellent version of The Front Page, a couple of Steinbeck stories (Of Mice and Men and The Red Pony), and even musicals like, The General Died at Dawn Anything Goes.

But in the 1950s, Milestone was “graylisted” — never called before Congress, it was generally believed that he was a commie sympathizer and so he found it hard to find work. I figure it actually all goes back to All Quiet on the Western Front. Real Americans, then as now, are supposed to love war all the time. So he was forced to work in television and in England. Eventually, he came back with Pork Chop Hill. Then he made the hugely successful Ocean’s 11. And then, he made the mistake of taking over for the great Carol Reed in the troubled production, Mutiny on the Bounty. (For the record, I quite like the film. I think the problem with it is that films often get reputations before they are released. Check it out if you haven’t seen it. In addition to everything else, it is gorgeous.) It lost money and he basically never worked again in feature films. (He was hired to direct a couple of films but was quickly replaced.)

He went back into television for a while and then retired — living another 16 years pretty much forgotten. He was, after all, old. And who in Hollywood wants to be around old people? He was brilliant. And who in Hollywood wants to be around brilliant people? And Hollywood owed him a lot. And who in Hollywood wants to be around someone they owe things to?

Happy birthday Lewis Milestone!

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Demigod Bill Gross Never Was

Bill GrossIf you follow the financial news, you are well aware that Bill Gross has left Pimco. In general, I do not follow the financial news, because it makes my brain hurt. But I’m well aware of Bill Gross. He’s a big bond trader with a huge reputation. I’ve never really understood it. People like him are never wizards. They are smart people, but usually depended upon a huge amount of luck. Let’s consider that for a moment, shall we?

The way bonds work is kind of weird because they work the opposite of the way that stocks do. Let’s suppose you have a stock and you think the stock price is going to go up. Then you hold onto it so that when it is worth more, you can sell for the higher price. But a bond just pays you a set amount of money. So if you think bond rates will go up, you want to sell. Let’s suppose you have a bond that pays you 2%. If you think the rate of new bonds will go up to 4%, you should sell your 2% bond now so that you can buy the new higher paying bonds when the rate goes up. That’s the kindergarten overview, which is about as much as I know. But it is enough to understand the politics.

Back in February 2011, Bill Gross decided that all of our government debt and the end of quantitative easing was going to cause US Treasury bond rates to go way up. If you follow economics at all, this must sound very familiar. Ever since Obama moved into the White House, conservatives have been screaming that the government is going to have to pay oh so much more to borrow money because… Well, to be honest, no one really has any good reasons for why this would be the case. For most people, it is just an excuse to do what they always want to do: cut Social Security. Bill Gross may be a smart guy, but I’m sure that he heard all of this. Or maybe he listens to Rush Limbaugh every day. I don’t know.

Regardless, at that time, Pimco’s Total Return fund had as much as 22% of its money invested in US Treasuries. Gross got rid of it all. The 10-year rate was then 3.7%. So Gross was betting big time that the rate was going to go up. It didn’t. Within eight months, the rate was down to 1.8%. (These are straight rates, not inflation adjusted.) It was around this time that Bill Gross wrote his angry column, The Ugly Side of Ultra-Cheap Money. You see, the problem wasn’t with his lack of understand of economics, it was those meanies at the Federal Reserve were keeping money too cheap.

This makes no sense. People either buy bonds or they don’t. And the quantitative easing that the Fed was doing was having at best a marginal effect on the economy anyway. But no matter. What’s really interesting is that Gross seems to think it is more important that people like him continue to make ridiculous sums of money rather than people like you and me have actual jobs. That is after all the trade-off. Most people would rather have jobs. But the super rich would rather get a great return on their bonds. Tighten that money supply so that people who already own things can make even more money off them!

But I was really struck by a couple of things in a column by Michael Hiltzik today, How Bill Gross and Pimco Got Too Big for Each Other. The first is just that what Gross did with Pimco is not that surprising, if you look at what happened to US Treasuries, “Since its launch in May 1987, the yield on the 10-year US Treasury bond has fallen from 8.61% to 2.52% and bond prices have risen commensurately.” Again, I don’t doubt that he’s smart and very good at his job. But as with most things, aren’t there at least a million people on the planet who would have done as well or better given his opportunities? That isn’t something I say because he works in finance. I’d say the same thing of just about every job.

More interesting is just what a weird person Gross has turned into:

At Pimco, the peculiarities of the 70-year-old Gross’ personal management style were beginning to overshadow his storied success as an investment manager. This was exposed by his widely remarked squabbling with Mohamed El-Erian, the economist who served as co-chief executive and co-chief investment officer with Gross and was once regarded as the latter’s heir-presumptive. El-Erian left Pimco earlier this year.

In the wake of El-Erian’s departure, stories leaked out about Gross’ imperious behavior — traders were forbidden to speak to him or even make eye contact on the trading floor, the Wall Street Journal reported. He brooked no discussion or debate about his trading strategies and became hostile to rising talents on the floor.

He didn’t want the little people making eye contact with him? That’s disgusting, but entirely typical of the super-rich. Gross was apparently paid $200 million per year. He has a net worth of over $2 billion. Here in the United States, we don’t have an aristocracy. He have “job creators.” Except they don’t create any jobs. And those like Bill Gross do everything they can to destroy jobs.

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Don’t Forget Cervantes

Jáuregui's CervantesEven though we’ve already had our birthday post, the day cannot go by without mentioning that Miguel de Cervantes was born on or around this day in 1547. I often find myself reminding people that I’m a bit of a Cervantes fan, even though all they have to do is look at the header of this website. The site has had three headers since it was started almost five years ago. The first was the René Magritte header, which was super cool but took up too much of the page. Then we had the phrenology header, which was interesting but I never felt comfortable with it. That’s when we came up with the current “Lego” Don Quixote header. Or rather I should say that Andrea did. She’s done all the art and all the thinking.

But the header does give one incorrect impression. Although I think the two Don Quixote novels are amazingly awesome works, it isn’t just that. Cervantes himself was a really interesting guy. He’s a lot more than those two books. He did quite a lot of great work in his later years. I think it is because he really started showing who he was on the page. It’s clear that he was a very funny guy. He had a wry outlook on life. And especially at this point in my life, I need that.

Life and Times

Cervantes is also my kind of guy. He always wanted to be a poet, but he wasn’t from a rich family and he wasn’t a very good poet. So he joined the army and went off to war. This was at a time when soldiers had to be hunter-gatherers to get fed. They often waited years to get paid. Spain was at war with the Ottoman Empire, and Cervantes fought bravely — even heroically. In the process, he lost one of his hands. It has never been clear to me whether it was amputated or simply useless. Regardless, on his way back to Spain, he was captured by Algerian pirates. Because of some mix-ups in communication, his captors became convinced that he was well connected and thus would bring a high ransom. He wasn’t and didn’t. He spent five years in captivity, during which time he tried escaping four times — a couple of them quite involved schemes. Eventually, his family was able to provide a small ransom and get him released.

On his return, he tried to get a military commission, but the government wasn’t interested. He continued to write plays, but no one was really interested in them either. This is about the time that he and Lope de Vega became literary enemies. Cervantes was a traditionalist, as far as theater was concerned. And de Vega was revolutionizing the theater. It’s an interesting irony that when Cervantes finally found success by revolutionizing the novel, de Vega was disparaging.

Regardless, without any other way to make ends meet, Cervantes became a tax collector. This does not mean what you probably think. He would go into townships and negotiate with the entire town to pay what it owed. These negotiations could go on for months and Cervantes didn’t have a great deal of leverage. What was worse was that like being in the military, the government only paid him afterwards — often long afterwards. And they provided no stipend for him to get by on while working in the field.

Because of this work, he was twice thrown in prison because of irregularities in his accounting. One time it was simply a matter that he deposited government money in a bank that went bankrupt. So you can see, life for people like Cervantes was not easy and it was extremely unfair. He had constant financial problems throughout his life, although things did seem to get a bit better at the end.

The way publishing was done at that time was a writer sold a work to a publisher. That was all the money the writer got. The publisher owned it. (It is technically different now, but as any writer will tell you, don’t expect to make much more than your advance.) So when Don Quixote Part 1 was a huge hit, it didn’t make Cervantes rich. But it did make it much easier for him to publish things — and for more money. And this is when he wrote his greatest works such as Exemplary Stories, Eight Comedies and Eight New Interludes, Never Before Acted, and his masterpiece, Don Quixote Part 2.

Appearance

A couple of years ago, I wrote an article, This is Not Cervantes. It is about that image at top of this article. Everyone uses it because it is the only thing we have that might be considered an image of him. In his preface to Exemplary Stories, Cervantes talks about how a young artist could have painted a portrait of him to go into the book. As Cervantes’ scholar Melveena McKendrick noted:

This innocent remark, which could be taken to mean either that Cervantes had been painted by Jáuregui or that the painter could, if asked, produce such a portrait, predictably sent posterity haring off on a wild goosechase in an effort to discover the authentic likeness of the great man. But alas, there is none, and the portrait most often reproduced as being that of Cervantes, dated 1600, bearing the name Jáuregui and entitled Don Miguel de Cervantes, is not genuine… The painting is almost certainly a nineteenth-century fraud.

We have the same problem with Shakespeare. There is no painting or etching of him from when he was alive. The closest we come is a sculpture on his tomb, where he looks rather bloated, that was doubtless done from his corpse. Better than nothing, but forget all those images you’ve seen. Regardless, it doesn’t really matter what either man looked like. At least Cervantes was good enough to provide us with a self mocking description of his appearance in Exemplary Stories:

This person whom you see here, with an oval visage, chestnut hair, smooth open forehead, lively eyes, a hooked but well-proportioned nose, & silvery beard that twenty years ago was golden, large moustache, a small mouth, teeth not much to speak of, for he has but six, in bad condition and worse placed, no two of them corresponding to each other, a figure midway between the two extremes, neither tall nor short, a vivid complexion, rather fair than dark, somewhat stooped in the shoulders, and not very lightfooted…

Plays

Cervantes wrote at least eight full length plays. They are generally not well regarded. But I wouldn’t know. I’ve never read them. Just recently, his two best regarded plays The Bagnios of Algiers and The Great Sultana have been translated by Barbara Fuchs and Aaron Ilika in, Two Plays of Captivity. More important to me, no one has ever translated Eight Comedies and Eight New Interludes, Never Before Acted. There are individual plays translated here or there. Some day I may do it myself.

A couple of years ago, I wrote about Cervantes’ short comedy, The Cave of Salamanca. It is very funny. Here is the beginning of it from a translation by Edwin Honig:

[Enter Pancracio, Leonarda and Cristina]

pancracio: Mistress, dry those tears and stop your sighing. Remember, I’ll be away four days, not centuries. On the fifth day, at the latest, I’ll be back, God preserve me. But if it upsets you so, just say the word and I’ll break my promise and give up the trip altogether. Surely my sister can get married there without me.

leonarda: Pancracio, dear lord and master, I don’t want you to be discourteous because of me. Go now, God speed you, and meet your obligation, since the matter is so pressing. My grief I’ll keep to myself and spend the lonely hours as best I can. Only, I beg you to come back and not stay any longer than you promised. Oh, help me, Cristina, I’ve a pain in my heart!

[Leonarda faints]

cristina: Ah, weddings and holidays—such dreadful things! Indeed, sir, if I were you, I’d never go there.

pancracio: Run inside, girl, and get me a glass of water to throw in her face. No, wait, I know a few magic words I’ll whisper in her ear: they can revive people who faint.

[He speaks the words and Leonarda recovers, saying]

leonarda: Enough. It can’t be helped. I must be patient. My dear, the more you linger, the longer you delay my happiness. You friend Leoniso should be waiting for you in the carriage. God be with you and bring you back as quickly and safely as I could wish.

pancracio: If you want me to stay, my angel, I’ll be like a statue and not budge an inch.

leonarda: No, no, sweet comfort. Your wish is my desire, which means you must leave and not stay here, for your honor and mine are one and the same.

cristina: Oh, mirror of matrimony! If all wives cherished their husbands as my mistress loves hers, they’d sing a different tune.

leonarda: Go get my shawl, Cristiana. I must see your master safely off in his carriage.

pancracio: No, I beg you. Kiss me, but stay here, please. Cristina, be sure and cheer up your mistress, and I’ll get you a pair of shoes when I return.

cristina: On your way, sir, and don’t you worry about my mistress. I’ll see to it we both enjoy ourselves so she won’t miss your absence.

leonarda: Enjoy myself? Me? What a fantastic idea! Without my love beside me, I can know no bliss or joy, only grief and sorrow.

pancracio: I cannot bear this any longer. Ah, light of my eyes, farewell; I’ll see nothing to delight me will I gave upon you once again.

[Exit Pancracio]

leonarda: Good-bye, and good riddance to you! Go, and don’t come back! Vanish, go up like smoke in thin air! Good God, this time all your bluster and squeamishness don’t move me a bit!

cristina: And I was afraid your sweet nothings would keep him here and spoil our fun.

leonarda: Do you think our guest will really come tonight?

cristina: And why not? I’ve been in touch with them, and they’re just dying to come.

Cervantes was a little devil. Eventually the husband’s carriage breaks down and he comes back and it all turns into something like a Marx Brothers movie.

Translations

When it comes to Don Quixote I still get asked a lot what translation is the best — or at least which one they should read. The standard answer to that is, “Anything but Peter Motteux.” But in general, I wouldn’t even go that far. I would say you should read any copy you can get your hands on. The standard translation is John Ormsby’s, which is absolutely free and available in a number of formats from the Gutenberg Project. Walter Starkie’s 1957 translation seems to always be available in abundance at book sales for a quarter. Or you could get The Portable Cervantes, that provides Samuel Putnam’s lightly abridged Don Quixote, two stories from Exemplary Stories, and a tiny bit of The Troubles of Persiles and Sigismunda.

I don’t think it is necessary to pay more for one of the recent translations like the one by Edith Grossman. But if you do, I would recommend taking a walk on the wild side and trying one by Burton Raffel or John Rutherford. But like I said, it doesn’t too much matter. Since Cervantes is above all a character-oriented writer, his voice comes through regardless.

The main thing to remember is that both the books are a romp. They are comedies. Cervantes had a keen eye for the absurdity of life and people and it finds its greatest expression in Don Quixote. And given that, it is perfectly all right to skip the poetry, which is, with very few exceptions, mediocre. And that’s when it is well translated. Grossman, for example, doesn’t even pretend to care.

Cervantes is still alive. If you read him.

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Dean Baker on the Vicissitude of the Marketplace

Dean BakerOf course the problem of the last three decades is not the “vicissitudes of the marketplace,” but rather deliberate actions by the government to redistribute income from the rest of us to the one percent. This pattern of government action shows up in all areas of government policy.

For example an explicit goal of our trade policy is to put our manufacturing workers in direct competition with low paid workers in the developing world. This has the predicted actual result of driving down the wages of manufacturing workers and less-educated workers more generally. At the same time we deliberately depress their wages we largely protect the most highly paid professionals (eg doctors, lawyers, and dentists) from the same sort of international competition.

The government has strengthened and lengthened patent and copyright monopolies. This allows for absurdities like a treatment with the hepatitis C drug Sovaldi costing $84,000 when the drug would sell on the free market for less than $1,000. There would be no hand-wringing moral dilemmas about treating people with hepatitis C at less than $1,000 per person. If we just had a free market the government would not be putting people behind bars for 16 months for allowing people to download recorded material.

The vicissitudes of the market would also not have bailed out the Wall Street banks, ensuring that many of the top 0.1 percent or 0.01 percent did not lose their fortunes due to their own greed and ineptitude. It also wouldn’t exempt the financial sector from the same sort of taxes imposed on all other industries. And the vicissitudes of the market would not have a Federal Reserve Board that is prepared to raise interest rates in order to keep people from getting jobs and keep workers from having enough bargaining power to get wage increases.

—Dean Baker
The Vicissitudes of the Market Would Be a Big Improvement

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Tribal Atheism

Seth AndrewsOver the weekend, I heard a talk by Seth Andrews. He’s a prominent atheist who runs The Thinking Atheist podcast. He is very good, which is not surprising. He had worked in Christian broadcasting before becoming an atheist. And he has a gorgeous radio voice and he’s pretty smart and knowledgeable. But I made the mistake of listening to more of his work. None of it is bad. It is just that he presents an extremely common and troubling outlook on life.

Again and again, he talks about atheism in terms of science and what we can prove. Most annoyingly, he claims to base his life on rational thought. It is such an arrogant view. And untrue! We humans are very strange and how we make decisions is only very slowly coming into any kind of focus. But what we do know is that we aren’t nearly as rational as we think we are.

Belief in God, at least today, is more silly than irrational. Most people believe in God for the same reason they vote Republican or root for the Raiders — it’s a cultural thing and they really don’t think much about it. The houses build by fundamentalist Christians are generally as sound as those build by atheists. So theists may be misguided in their belief in specific myths, but they aren’t irrational in a general sense.

I never believed in God. From a fairly young age — from about the time I understood what death was — I wanted to believe in God. But it always seemed too stupid to believe in. Even at the age of ten, I could not see any more reason to believe in Jesus than to believe in the Greek myths I read about in school or the Norse gods I saw in comic books. So perhaps I have a different approach to atheism. I didn’t start off in one culture and move to another. So it isn’t necessary for me to make religious belief or non-belief into a tribal issue. And I believe this is what Andrews has done.

Hemant MehtaThat doesn’t mean that Andrews is bad. He’s actually charmingly inclusive. One thing I really like is that when I listen to him, I feel like I am an atheist. Too many in the atheist community make me feel like I’m a heretic. But a big part of why Andrews includes the great range of non-believers is just that he is so focused on his former Christianity. And I’m glad he clawed his way out of that tribal association. But let’s not go too far in claiming the intellectual high ground.

Much better than Andrews is Hemant Mehta of The Friendly Atheist. Of course I would think that: he is a former math teacher. But as much as I like him, he exhibits some of the same issues. For example, I came upon the following video, “Atheists, where did the universe come from?” I was very exited to see that title, because too few atheists will even engage with the question. But I was really unhappy with his answer:

I don’t have a problem with the answer, “We just don’t know!” That’s a perfectly fine, if incredibly boring, answer. But he makes a critical mistake in framing the question as he does. He says, “Scientists can come up with theories of what may have been there [before the big bang], but the truth is, right now — and maybe forever — we won’t be able to answer that question definitively.” This makes the same mistake that theists make when they claim that God created the universe: it just pushes the question back a step. What if scientists proved that our universe is just part of a multiverse? That would be no more final an answer than the Big Bang is.

When it comes to this ultimate ontological question, I find science and theology equally useless. But theologians understand that the existence of “God” is a real problem — that it must exist in a form that we cannot comprehend because of our being locked into this universe. Scientists largely don’t see the real problem. They are like mechanical engineers thinking that they might figure out the structure of the periodic table by building better bridges. They won’t, because they aren’t even approaching the question.

I understand that we ask the kind of questions that we have tools to answer, and we really don’t have the tools to answer this question. But what a great opportunity this provides! There ought to be common ground here among scientists and theists. The scientists ought to look out at the universe as the theists look out at “God.” Because it is the same thing: the great unknown. I understand that theists are, in general, annoying in their dogma and fear of anything that might counter it. But they aren’t any more irrational than anyone else. What’s irrational is the universe.

I think that people who claim to be science-based and rational are generally people who don’t understand science all that well. Science is a fantastic tool for learning things about the universe. But it is, thus far, limited to the universe. And math has shown us that logic itself is not necessarily consistent if you push it far enough. Thus I see no contradiction between science, atheism, mysticism, and macro-scale rationality. Who wants to join my tribe?

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