Sunday, April 27, 2014

On Will and Teddy

Being, in part, a review of The Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin and, in larger part, a meditation on a particular beautiful epoch and on the little-recognized friendship that shaped it and the world that came after.

What did I learn about William Howard Taft from this book?  I learned that he was a big-hearted, good-humored man who made a friend of everyone he met, a dedicated public servant with a passion for the law, an all-too-human figure with an unfortunate tendency toward inertia and a desperate need for approval.
What did I learn about Theodore Roosevelt?
That he was one nutty sumbitch.
Roosevelt was for war.  He had this need to prove himself manly enough to dodge bullets and laugh in the face of death that led to some unseemly personal and private statements.  This was a guy who declared he would leave his wife’s deathbed to prove himself in mortal combat continents away.  There’s something weird in the head of a guy who could take a father’s benign advice to ‘get strong’ so literally and so seriously, to make himself into the perfect Rough Rider, despite hailing from an elevated social class with no particular need to cultivate Davey Crocket-esque Renaissance Men.  That he did so anyway is both a credit to him and somewhat pathological-seeming.  

What else to say about Roosevelt? His was a life of manic, astonishingly effective lunacy: ushering guests through his office on a revolving basis, somehow completely engaging with each of them while reading three books, writing four more, fighting the bosses in the Republican Party with one hand, drafting progressive legislation with the other, and doing an end-run around Congress by scribbling an executive order to declare 105% of the North American continent protected wilderness.  With his feet.  Oh, and probably giving dictation for about 300 pieces of personal correspondence, including florid letters to his wife (whom he dearly loved, despite his willingness to abandon her should duty call).  And that’s just during his presidency, after which you could count on him to be hunting big game with all the crowned heads of Europe while firing back telegrams on the upcoming 1912 presidential election alongside chapters of his memoir and editorials on gun control to run in all the major papers….I’m tired just thinking about it.

In this review as in life, Teddy is sucking all the air out of the room thanks to his huge personality, his boundless ambition, and his constant need for recognition.  Taft’s is a quieter presence, but one deserving of attention.  It’s a shame he’s known today mainly as the president with the giant tub; I am not exaggerating when I say he may be the most underrated public figure of the 20th century.  From his humanitarian work as Governor-general of the Philippines, to his troubled tenure in the White House, to the fulfillment of his life’s goal to preside over the Supreme Court--to say nothing of his much-cited decisions in his early judicial career--Taft left a great mark on the United States in the early 1900s.  Besides all that, Taft could have given a master class in sensitive familial relations and in honorable political sportsmanship.

(The third, and most atrophied, leg of this book’s narrative tripod consists of the muckraking journalists whose efforts awakened the American conscience and spurred on reformers like Roosevelt and Taft, with varying degrees of success.  The McClure’s magazine gang is interesting and important to the story of the progressive advances of the era, but I could have hoped for muted coverage of their personal lives—it bogs down the story and distracts from our presidential protagonists.  But the story of the magazine’s eventual schism is fascinating--tense, even, in a political thriller kind of way.  But now back to our dynamic duo.)

What surprised me was to learn that these two men were close, intimate friends.  Now, it’s easy to say that two public figures who served together and exchanged letters were friends without it necessarily being so, not by the standards of friendship most of us hold today.  But Doris Kearns Goodwin demonstrates that T.R. and W.H.T. were just that: a pair of public servants who met early in their careers in Washington, mingling their families, enjoying some of each other’s pastimes, corresponding constantly, and, most importantly, serving as each other’s sounding boards at every stage of their policymaking.  In each other they found strong political allies, full-throated advocates, and--so Roosevelt believed--a one-two punch of Progressive Presidential Power.  (That is to say, following his term in office, T.R. anointed Taft his heir, and the Republican Party did as their frustrating, beloved chief bade.)
When Taft takes office, the big issues of the day get a lot drier than Roosevelt’s dramatic wrangling of the trusts and imposition of regulations on America’s burgeoning industries.  Ironically, though, they take on greater implications for the success or failure of the administration.  Drab-sounding debates over the staffing of the conservation department and appropriate levels for the federal tariff turn into scandals that threaten to implode the presidency of Teddy’s hand-picked successor—and bring the two friends into direct conflict.
The differences between the political fortunes of the two can be best expressed by extending the qualities of their respective inaugurations.  For Roosevelt it was, almost literally, all bright skies and elated crowds, while for Taft it was often blizzards and calculated division.  Taft, a more methodical and conservative brand of politician, was ill-served by the brash style of his predecessor, finding the Republican Party ready to fracture; in any other circumstances, he probably would have made for a strong conciliatory leader, but not in the age of Teddy.
Roosevelt, for his part, seems to suffer a mild psychotic break after leaving office.  Gone is the charismatic firebrand who, for all his passion, was quick to forgive his friends’ opposing positions, to find a common ground.  One would be forgiven for thinking that Roosevelt’s tour of the European capitals, hailed by world leaders as the most famous American, rather went to his head, convincing him that any concessions to the realities of politics made by his successor must necessarily be out of line.  He is certainly cool to the beleaguered Taft upon his return to the States, and soon erupts into an all-out rival who threatens to exacerbate the growing rift in the Republican Party.  He, to paraphrase Christopher Nolan’s Harvey Dent, lived long enough to be unaware of the fact that he became the well-meaning, ego-driven villain.

One no-prize to the first True Believer who photoshops
this into a Teddy-Two Face.
The vicious three-way campaign that follows (hi, Woodrow Wilson and the genesis of the modern Democratic Party) has the unfortunate effect of driving the moderate-Progressive Taft deeper into party conservatism, as he feels compelled to defend the Republican brand from what he sees as Roosevelt’s radical, unconstitutional views on the judiciary (and if there’s one thing to know about Taft, it’s this: you do NOT mess with his judiciary).  Even as I understood and appreciated Taft’s reasons, I couldn’t help but be dismayed at his retreat from Progressivism—and I certainly lay a good amount of the blame for it at the feet of Theodore Roosevelt.  This is a good lesson for today’s radicals about how, with the best of intentions, they can shift the mechanisms of power away from their lofty aims and deeper into reactionary conservatism.  Let those of us with good hearts work together to take confident steps toward progress, rather than faltering leaps that land us on our liberal faces.  (In other words, liberals, enough of this “I stand with Rand” nonsense.)

The issues faced by Roosevelt and Taft--and those covered by the muckrakers--are eerily similar to those of today, much of them related to the role of privilege and wealth in our society, the power of government to regulate business, and the plight of the common folk in a highly striated class system.  What takes up most of our heroes’ time in a political sense is equally familiar as they contended with the radicals of both parties, crowds of firebrands who bear great resemblance to the current era’s Occupy Wall Streeters and Snowden-philes.  Taft and Roosevelt, like our present leaders, had to make hard choices between gratifying and combating these bases, and their actions reaffirm my faith in the sort of tack taken by President Obama today: that progress cannot be won by capitulation to the demands of such agitators, even when we might agree, in a broad sense, with the world they earnestly hope to establish.  At one point Roosevelt delivers a remarkable approximation of President Obama’s much cited exhortation not to let “the perfect be the enemy of the good”--and, not coincidentally, Roosevelt’s administration, like Obama’s, is known for its many progressive, epoch-shaping achievements, in spite of the hand-wringing of the radicals of both eras.  (Roosevelt and Taft, fortunately for them, didn’t have to deal with any serious equivalent of the Tea Party.)

The American century was kicked off by the turbo engine of these two men’s disparate personalities, and in many ways we can thank them for the shape of the society we enjoy today.  I’m glad Teddy didn’t win the election of 1912; I shudder to think about the alternate history emanating from a Great War with the Bull Moose at the helm.  But I am gratified that the planks of his separatist Progressive party have become an inextricable strand in the modern American social contract, with never a serious question as to their excision, but merely an ongoing effort to actualize and extend them. And I am glad that Taft was there, during Roosevelt’s tenure and after, to moderate the excesses of an enthusiastic but perhaps self-destructive Progressive movement--and to do so with admirable humanity and tact.

Like so many of these popular histories do, this one ends with a heart-wrenching coda on the lives of its central figures.  I turned the pages with apprehension, afraid to close the book on a great friendship still in ruins.  I’ll leave it to you to discover if my fears were realized.  Regardless, the great lesson I draw from this book is, corny as it may be, the power of friendship: the century just past was irrevocably altered because these two men, so dissimilar, one day moved to lodgings in the nation’s capital just up the street from one another.  The rupture of that friendship some decades later altered the course of history again.  What will you accomplish with your best friend?

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Fate of 42nd

This is a pretty direct transposition of an exchange I had on Facebook with a friend in response to this Humans of New York post.  I decided to present my mostly off-the-cuff response here, unedited and unalloyed, because I've seen a petition going around combating the contentious situation described by the Human of New York in question.

You're entitled to your opinion on the matter; this is mine.

[Context: my friend posted the entry to my Wall with the comment "DO NOT LIKE."  To which I go...]

I'm of two minds about this.  The gut reaction is, of course, that this must be a bad thing (and I'm willing to give more credence to it as bad due to my own experience and the fact that this is a sentiment held by at least one employee of the institution).  There's history here, and more importantly, there's access.  We don't want to lose those.


In today's day and age, there's really no reason we need to take up space on-site with research material in many locations--especially not in midtown Manhattan, where space is at such a premium, and where that space might be better spent fostering creativity and community in an all-too-often cloistered culture.

What about all that lovely research material, you say?  Well, depending on the system NYPL is able to put in place, there's no reason why it shouldn't remain just as accessible to the conscientious researcher as it is now.  People don't realize all the time that the main library there is a closed stacks environment anyway--you can't just walk around browsing and take what you want.  With the collection removed, if you're going to spend a few hours researching, you can submit requests and probably have what you need in your hands within the hour.  The canny researcher may well submit such requests ahead of time and have it all waiting for him upon arrival.  (Now, whether that works out in real life will probably be a process of working out kinks and dealing with the reality of the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels.  Not ideal, but for the trade-off...)

And on top of that, most of the research people are going to do these days probably won't involve dusty tomes from 1850.  Maybe some, but even a lot of that is being digitized.  So that being the case, why should we take up seven stories of the most premium real estate in the world with books that people might want to use out of nostalgia, but don't actually *need* to use?

I'm a proponent of what detractors sneeringly refer to "library-as-internet-cafe."  Because that isn't what it's about--we're not trying to be Barnes and Noble.  But we do have to compete with Barnes and Noble (and, increasingly, Amazon).  So we might offer some superficial perks here and there to get bodies in the building.  What's awesome is the stuff we do with the bodies once we have them.

Wait, that came out wrong.

(Disclaimer: Though I have been somewhat following this story, I don't know all of what NYPL plans to do with the research collection and how it plans to provide access to it.  My comments are based primarily on the models offered by certain other institutions but which, if NYPL is smart--and it is run by some very smart people who write job descriptions I will never qualify for--they will emulate.  And no, this doesn't answer the shameful reduction in the business etc. materials, which I hope they are making sensible provisions for as well.)


(PS This article confirms many of my dim recollections and assumptions, and adds a few more details and heartily-worded statements of support for the new model:
I do hope that what NYPL is trying to do, in its considered and professionally vetted way, won't be subverted by the kneejerk reactions of people wedded to the past and with no knowledge of oncoming trends.)

And the more I think about it, the less leeway I'm willing to give Chicken Guy, because he seems the most overly-nostalgic and kneejerk of them all.


Now, my fellow librarians--where do you stand on this issue?  And anyone else, feel free to chime in.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Spoiler Alert: You're a Jerk

Warning: This post contains spoilers for the first three seasons of Game of Thrones and some pre-2014 Marvel Cinematic Universe films.  It does NOT contain spoilers for GoT s4, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, or any future MCU films.

I’ve had a couple unfortunate incidents relating to spoilers in the past week, which is a big peeve of mine.  And, as it’s Game of Thrones season, as well as new Marvel movie season--basically the two things I care about most in TEH WORLD--it feels especially like I’m traipsing through a social media minefield.

But what bugged me this week weren’t the spoilers themselves--both were relatively mild--but the attitudes that seem to come with them.

The Shape of Things to Come

The first incident came about on my go-to source for Game of Thrones news,, which I’ve been casing all the more regularly as the fourth season has approached.  I know, I know: how can I complain about spoilers when I frequent fan news sites?  Well, I’ve gotten pretty good at reading the kinds of things that, as a previous fan of the books, I’m comfortable knowing about the show, and avoiding the posts that give away things I don’t want spoiled.  We all have to set up these buffer zones of desired ignorance these days.  For me, casting news and crew interviews and things like that are okay because they tend only to reveal, sometimes indirectly, the inclusion of elements of the story I knew had to show up on the show sooner or later.  The things that I avoid are those that threaten to reveal particulars of adaptation and the shape of the season as a whole--which I think makes sense; since I know the story from the books, one of the vestiges of viewerly surprise for me is in the pacing of the season, how the creators choose to dole out incidents, and what level of significance they assign them.

The major info to avoid in that regard, then, are the episode titles, which usually start trickling into the press a few weeks before a season premiers.

So, I go to read a post featuring an interview with a cast member, and what do I get in the very first sentence, before I have time to stop myself, but the title of a late-season episode? And it’s one that clearly betrays the episode’s focus on a particular character--and it’s not, like, “The Tyrion Episode” or something equally expected, but something a bit subtler.  Sad pandas for Alex!

So, annoyed, I post a little comment (prefaced with “Bah”--oh, the temerity!) suggesting that the site runners, who are, after all, not amateurs anymore, might consider being more considerate of those of us who consider episode titles to be overly spoilerly.

Cue the arrogantly snotty reply from the site’s resident unnecessarily aggressive mod (hi, OursIsTheFury!  You picked an apt handle), basically questioning my intelligence for reading pre-season news at all and my manhood (ha, I have to laugh) for being so sensitive.

I recognize the dilemma here.  I can’t expect my standard of appropriate spoiler policies to be in effect everywhere I browse; the onus is on me to be a careful reader.  But the outright dismissal of this as a category of sensitive material left me even angrier than before, implying that it won’t matter how careful I am--on this site, at least, episode titles will be fair game, no one cares about my objection, and I won’t have a way to avoid them unless I avoid the site altogether.  

That won’t do, so I’ll suck it up, and if I learn too much in advance, I’ll put on my big boy pants and try not to let it ruin my enjoyment of things.

But man, that guy’s attitude bothered me.  He didn’t come in contritely and patiently explain that their policy doesn’t cover my concern.  He didn’t express understanding of my feelings on the matter.  He went right for the diminishment and the dismissal.

Are we not your customers, sir?  Do we not click your links and share your posts and provide you with the status you now enjoy?  Can you not, then, treat my concern with appropriate tact, with an understanding that spoiler frontiers are not fixed, and that you should at least be nice to people who feel like you’ve messed something up for them?  
I can understand, definitely, how people might see my personal spoiler comfort zone as really restrictive, but it is my right to define my limits as I see fit and to at least ask you to respect them.  

But even if you’re scoffing at my personal spoiler limit, I ask you to consider this:  It’s one thing for book readers to expect the Red Wedding as it approaches on the show.  We knew it was coming and expected where to find it regardless of whether we knew episode titles.  The show had established a pattern it was not likely to break in this instance.  A momentous event like that one takes on Shakespearean qualities--it doesn’t matter that you know the end.  The impact will be the same--heightened, even, by the sense of expectation.

The same can’t be said of the numerous details, less-epochal shocking events, and hints of character arcs whose coordinates can be revealed by seeing the episode titles early.  Thus, I don’t think it’s unreasonable for some fans to consider titles to be spoiler territory, and to ask that that info be guarded behind spoiler warnings.

It’s especially important for readers of the series like me to conserve what surprises we may, since many of the broad strokes of a given season are known to us.  Yes, a large measure of what remains to thrill us is how those events are adapted--the visual elements, the pacing, the dialogue, and so much more.  But a part of it is also the order that the adapters place them in, and the importance they ascribe to events, both of which can be revealed through episode titles.

Texture and Grace Notes

I avoid casting news on minor characters in Marvel Cinematic Universe movies (read: one-off ‘events’ farther from the adapted source material than Game of Thrones is) for the same reason I tend to avoid episode titles before any show’s release: these characters are small details that inform the texture of a work in the motion picture entertainment medium.  Additionally, in the MCU in particular, they provide a great amount of fun as the studio mines forty-plus years’ worth of bit villains and supporting cast members to round out their world-building.

So I was both heartened (initially) and annoyed (just after) when a “spoiler-free” review of Captain America: The Winter Soldier offhandedly mentioned the appearance of a small, silly classic foe whom I am inordinately fond of.

Look, of course it’s no surprise that TWS would be the Cap, Black Widow and Falcon show--that’s fine, there are your marquis characters right there.  But the surprise of that little “boss level” villain would have given me more of a thrill if I had discovered it on viewing the movie, not in an article beforehand.  I know because I have been pleasantly surprised by previous MCU movies (Kurse!), and even by a better-kept-secret about the current film, which I certainly won’t spoil here.  (I might consider even this hint too spoilery in some cases, but I have to draw the line at some level of insanity.)

These movies also contain what I think of as “grace notes”--entirely unnecessary elements that nonetheless contribute to fans’ overall enjoyment, and often set up future movies--reminding us that we are in the midst of the biggest ongoing film story ever attempted.  Nothing epitomizes that wondrous quality of every Marvel movie better than their now-famous “post-credits” scenes.  Here’s a hint about those in relation to your social media etiquette, folks:

DON’T SAY ANYTHING ABOUT THEM.  Don’t even HINT.  Don’t say one word about the substance of these scenes.  That’s doubly true for those of you who don’t know the source material and don’t know, then, what single word might be a giveaway to a friend who has to wait til the end of the week to hit the theatre.  If you thought it was cool, you can say so; confusing, sure; funny, annoying, bad--any of those basic descriptors, have at them.  But avoid specifics, at the very least until after the opening weekend, and regardless, MARK SPOILERS.  And even saying “Oh, that wasn’t really a setup for any future movie,” as has sometimes been the case, is too much--because that deflates our anticipation for what may be coming in these scenes, and tempers our enjoyment of what may be meant to be humorous or cathartic.  BE SMART.

That’s just some friendly advice.  People will like you better.  Ruining stuff like this is like making a fart noise during a Chopin etude.  Just don’t do it.  Think about whether what you’re planning to say would have ruined things for you, and plan your divulgence appropriately.  (For that matter, all those smug jerks who were talking about “something called the Red Wedding, wink-wink,” you’re guilty of the same kind of thing.  “Gee,” thought no show-viewer ever, “I have no idea what that might refer to and will thus not ascribe any special importance to the much-mentioned wedding coming up in the traditionally-climactic ninth episode.” HINTS AND ELBOW-RIBBING AND COY REMARKS ARE SPOILERS.)

A Few More Kids I Have to Get Off My Lawn

And what’s with saying “spoiler alert” as a mid-sentence parenthetical and then continuing to the spoiler with absolutely no space in between?  My brain doesn’t stop on a dime.  The momentum of reading has carried me forward into more than one patch of spoilage.  ALWAYS SPACE YOUR SPOILERS.

For that matter, what’s the statute of limitations on spoilers, anyway?  The Red Wedding is spoken about pretty openly these days, but I would contend that it’s too soon to dispense with warnings for the few people who have not seen it (remember, I gave an alert at the top of this post!).  Heck, if it were up to me, we’d still be tiptoeing around the first season’s big shockers--you know who you are.

Most of the universe seems to disagree.

I also got into an argument with a friend about a comic book event from decades past that may or may not be due to make a film appearance in the next year or so; I said that all discussion of such an event in relation to the film should be treated carefully, while he maintained that it happened so long ago it is pretty much common knowledge.  But at least 50% of the point of all these film adaptations is to reach audiences unfamiliar with the brilliant source material, who wouldn’t know Hank Pym from Scott Lang, the Nova Corps from the Green Lantern Corps, or a Hobgoblin from a Green Goblin.  They should have no idea of what’s to come--not a hint--and they should be shielded from foreknowledge in the interest of their maximum enjoyment.  Just like we all got to enjoy stuff for the first time, hopefully.

For the record, I’m not saying that discussion of these kinds of plot points should be shut down entirely--I merely contend that we should remain liberal with our use of spoiler warnings when getting into sensitive material.

I feel like this is all an important series of considerations in the modern media consuming era (a topic I also talk about here, from a different angle)--a matter of artistic justice, as it were.  The speed at which we consume, the eagerness with which we approach our material, and the nature of communication in the social media world mean we have to develop a new sensibility when it comes to safeguarding our enjoyment of our favorite media--as well as the enjoyment that our friends seek.  No longer is the water cooler the only front in spoiler wars, and the stories on offer tend to have higher stakes, and thus more emotional resonance, than when America’s main concern was whatever Ross and Rachel were up to the night before.  We all cared so much about that--just a couple of doofy New Yorkers’ romantic life--how much worse is it to ruin the latest life-and-death, bated-breath developments with Tyrion, Dany, Cap and Tony?

Consider yourself warned.