Saturday, March 18, 2006


Tomorrow's New York Times features an article about happy days at National Public Radio. The network has $230 million to throw around, thanks to a bequest by Joan Kroc, widow of McDonald's impresario Ray Kroc.

Great, great, but the article reports this about NPR's managing news editor Bill Marimow, who didn't listen to much public radio at his old job as managing editor of the Baltimore Sun:
"To be honest, I was usually too tired at the end of the day to listen to anything thoughtful," he said, adding that he preferred listening to country acts like Emmylou Harris and Johnny Cash, or rock standards like the Beatles and Beach Boys.
You mean the music of Emmylou Harris, Johnny Cash, the Beatles and the Beach Boys isn't thoughtful?!

Friday, March 17, 2006


Nothing puts an anal-retentive writer and editor more on edge than the writing and editing in a copy of the neighborhood newsletter. I'm not naming neighborhoods or newsletters, but let me just say:
  1. If an article doesn't have a byline, the writer shouldn't use the first person.
  2. The opposite of short is not big. It's long, or tall. The opposite of big is small.
  3. The possessive of people is not peoples. It's people's.
I feel better now. We thank you for your support.
Too cute

Should I have stopped myself last night, when the World's Greatest Lovers played the Shamrock, the gay bar in downtown Madison, before I told the audience that the World's Greatest Lovers do play weddings?

That was tacky, I know. But I had to go there.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Good word

"I've always found that one of the most fascinating aspects of this business is that, coming into an interview with no preconceived notions of what the person is going to say, usually sources end up giving me something altogether different -- and far more interesting -- than what I thought they'd say."

-- Steve Weinstein
Good word

"Sure, centuries from now our great-great-great-grandchildren will look back at us with amazement at how we could allow such a precious achievement of human culture as the telling of a story to be shattered into smithereens by commercials, the same amazement we feel today when we look at our ancestors for whom slavery, capital punishment, burning of witches, and the inquisition were acceptable everyday events."

-- Werner Herzog

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Grim reminder

The death of Slobodan Milosevic takes me back to graduate school. That is where, for three years, I worked toward being a political scientist with a particular interest in the comparative analysis of genocides. Milosevic was at the heart of much what of what I was studying back in the late '90s. The horror of Bosnia was fresh then, and the Kosovo crisis was getting worse and worse.

Genocide scholars are kind of a weird bunch, as you might imagine. The ones I met wore a lot of black. What motivates them? What motivated me? I've thought a lot about that, and the best answer I've come up with, and not to sound flip about this, is that genocide is, you know, a problem. And what we do with problems is to try to understand them. This is what academic research is all about. Quantum physics, linguistics, statistics -- each has it own set of problems, and people fascinated by the problems go to graduate school to study them.

Most academic disciplines, however, don't involve villagers being hacked to death with machetes. But stuff like that is indeed what this budding academic thought about a lot. It wasn't necessarily the very process of killing that fascinated me, although I participated in more than one seminar that examined state-sponsored mass murder in very gory detail. What interested me more was ideology, and how political tools like nationalism and the mass media helped bring about the cataclysms that everyone pretty much agrees were -- are -- genocides. And there have been just a handful of them.

Horrible stuff. My books from graduate school are on a shelf near my desk, so I look at those titles every day: The Tragedy of Cambodian History, The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hitler's Willing Executioners. But although the topic still interests me, it certainly no longer feels like my calling. The death of Milosevic is personally significant, as was the death of Pol Pot in 1998; and the ongoing massacre in Darfur makes me want to scream. (The Bush administration called Darfur a genocide, and my understanding is that by treaty, America was then obligated to stop the bloodshed. Oh well.) But I don't think about mass slaughter all the time, not anymore.

Call it a phase. I struggled with some demons in my late 20s, and I think my interest in genocide was one way I allowed myself to get distracted from my problems. For example, and this may sound crazy: I was a closeted gay man through most of my 20s, and rather than face my own fear and shame, I delved deeply into contemplating the worst things humankind has done to itself.

I also was motivated by a sort of reform-minded concern. I imagined that if academics thought hard enough, they could help devise policies to stop the killing. This may indeed be true; easing global poverty, for example, would likely forestall some violence, and political economists would be happy to talk to you about how to go about doing this. But there was something pathological about my thinking in this vein, too. Save the world? When I can't even live honestly?

Now all the violence just scares me. If I found myself on the ground in Darfur, facing a janjaweed division, what, really, would I say? That identity is contingent? That Arab Sudan is an imagined community? I would be chopped to bits.

I'm disappointed Milosevic died when he did. Humanity would have benefited to see someone like him in the dock. I'm not sure whether in future we'll mention Milosevic in the same breath as Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot. Perhaps not. But we don't get many chances like the one we lost when Slobo kicked off.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Good word

"You're going to make me give myself a good talking to."

-- Bob Dylan, "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go"
Words to live by

Ask yourself: What Would Bookish Barbara Do?

Monday, March 13, 2006

It's only funny because it's true


Don't forget to come to the Shamrock Bar this Thursday, March 16, for the World's Greatest Lovers will be playing the country music you love so well.

Showtime is 10 pm, and there is no cover. The Shamrock is at 117 W. Main St. in downtown Madison. See us on the web at

Sunday, March 12, 2006

I forget how you pronounce slainte

I'm not particularly Irish. And although I lived on the South Side of Chicago for ten years, real South Siders generally reject any claim I make to being one myself, mostly because my old neighborhood of Hyde Park exists in a different universe from the rest of the South Side. (Indeed, Hyde Park exists in a different universe from the rest of the universe.)

Nevertheless, I love the South Side Irish Parade, which took place today. It began almost 30 years ago as a neighborhood alternative to the Windy City's downtown Irish parade, which was thought to have gotten too extravagant. Now the South Side parade is every bit as extravagant as the original, and politicians jockeying for attention make it a point to march in both. In 1996 I watched as GOP presidential contender Pat Buchanan marched near the head of the South Side parade, then ran to the back, put on a satin union windbreaker, and marched a second time.

The South Side Irish are well represented at the University of Chicago, my alma mater, and as a result I'm lucky to count members of that community among my friends. That is how I learned that one identifies one's provenance not by neighborhood, but by parish ("St. Rita's!"). That is also how I became a regular at the South Side Irish Parade. I grew to love the yearly ritual of corned beef and Bushmills, and "Erin Go Braless" stickers. Good times.

Here's a picture of me partying at the South Side Irish Parade.