best of 2010

Best Book of 2010 (fiction)--The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

Mitchell is my favorite author writing in English today. Set in Shogunate Japan at the turn of the 19th century, it is both his most and least ambitious work to date. Least, in that it is not the genre-hopping, voice-shifting, globe-spanning experimental work that Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas were, and most, in that he tries (and succeeds, I think) to explore many of the same themes as those books within the constraints of a pretty conventional historical novel. As before, it is beautifully written--Mitchell is clearly in love with language--and a cracking good story that is pretty much impossible to anticipate. I can't recommend this book enough.

Honorable mention: Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart

The collapse of the American empire has never been funnier.

Best Book of 2010 (nonfiction)--Hitch 22 by Christopher Hitchens

Love him or hate him, Hitchens is one hell of a writer. Even the chapters overloaded with name-dropping and digressions are worth your time. The footnotes are often priceless. The rapier wit and fierce moral clarity for which he is alternately loved and loathed shine throughout. His account of an American soldier who had volunteered for and died in the Iraq war inspired by Hitchens' writing left me nearly in tears.

Honorable mention: Game Change by Heilemann and Halperin

Basically a long-form US Weekly for political nerds.

Best TV Show of 2010--Mad Men

To be fair, there are only a handful of TV seasons produced in 2010 that I actually watched in 2010, so this may be subject to revision at a later date. But seriously, if you are one of the 298 million Americans not watching this show, it's your loss. We watched Don descend into a pathetic alcoholism and I still want to be him because that's how fucking cool he is.

Honorable Mentions: Party Down and Archer

By the time anybody noticed Party Down, it was already over. Find the DVDs and laugh your ass off. Archer is so funny it hurts, and I can't wait for it to come back next month.

Best Film of 2010--I'm pretty sure I haven't seen it yet. I'm waiting for a lot of DVDs. After blowing too much money seeing colossal disappointments like Alice in Wonderland and Iron Man 2, I just lost most of my motivation to go to the theater. I enjoyed Inception, but I don't think it would stand up to repeated viewing. Shutter Island was way overrated.


enough about religion...let's lighten up and talk about race

"You forgot Lesson 3. Avoid young black men in Capitol Hill."

--a commenter on the Capitol Hill Seattle blog, in reference to an armed robbery story.

What makes me uncomfortable about what he said, is that I've thought the exact same thing. Not about avoiding young black men, generally, but specifically avoiding them in Capitol Hill. Because if you look through all of CHS' coverage of street crime on the Hill, the perpetrators 95% of the time are young, black, and male. And if you look at the census data for the neighborhood (zip 98112, especially tracks 74-76), the African-American population is between 0 and 10% of the whole.

So...if I don't see that many black people walking around in my neighborhood, and the overwhelming majority of street crime in my neighborhood is committed by young black males, is it rational to be suspicious of the young black males that I do see walking around my neighborhood? I honestly don't know.

In contrast, if you look at my old neighborhood on the census maps (zip 27704, track 102), where there are slightly more black people than white people, it wouldn't make sense to me to view every young black male on the street as a potential threat, because the odds are they are my neighbor and most of my neighbors aren't out to rob me. And you know what...unless they were acting in a suspicious manner, I really never gave young black guys in that neighborhood a second thought when I lived there.

I'm not saying this to try and make some case that I'm not a racist. I know I'm not a racist, and I don't think anyone who knows me would think that I am. But it is interesting (and disquieting) to me how much I find my gut-level reactions being shaped by the neighborhood in which I live. Particularly as I now live in the whitest and most affluent neighborhood I've ever lived in as an adult.

Somehow, this scene seems appropriate.

he got game, ct'd

After getting "shellacked" 6 weeks ago, President Obama has gotten a compromise on tax policy, the end to DADT he promised in his campaign, and it looks like the Senate is going to take up the START treaty after all, all before a less friendly congress comes to town in January.

Whether you like his policies are not (for me, it is a split decision), I think it remains true that anyone who underestimates Barack Obama does so at their extreme peril.


"You’ve got to stop this war in Afghanistan."

--Richard Holbrooke's reported last words.


why are people in the south fat?

For me, going to my home county is an occasion for culinary culture shock, because middle-class people there simply do not have the same outlook on eating – especially for their children – as middle-class people do in my liberal city. Put plainly, people eat whatever they want, and lots of it, without giving it a second thought. More to my point here, they see the idea that one ought to care about such things as a sign of effete, high-handed liberalism.

It comes as news to my churchgoing conservative friends here in Coastal Liberal Land that making sure your kids limit sugary snacks and junk food is something only liberals care about. None of us are what you’d call foodies, and none of us go to the gym. It’s just understood that living responsibly, especially in a culture that celebrates the abolition of limits, requires a great deal of vigilance, especially when it comes to child-raising. That’s why though fasting is not really a part of American religious life today, there is still among my conservative friends real moral awareness of a religious duty to live a self-disciplined life, and to avoid the sin of gluttony. Why is the South – the most culturally conservative part of the country, in most respects, especially in Christian piety – so thoughtlessly permissive about eating?


I think this question is actually much larger than the pseudonymous author realizes. But I'll venture a few guesses based on my own experience and observations.

The predominant culture of the suburban and rural south is evangelical protestantism in its various forms. Yes, I meant to say the predominant culture because I think that actually describes it more accurately than saying the predominant religion or spiritual tradition. By which I mean this: Christianity, for many in the south, is really more a matter of identity than of serious introspection, personal growth, or religious practice. This is not to say that there aren't many, many people for whom it is all of those things, and quite profoundly--there are--but I'm talking about a substantial portion, if not a majority for whom it is not (and I would be willing to bet many self-identifying southern evangelicals would share that assessment.)

Evangelicals--and again, I am really talking more culture than theology, here--place an inordinate emphasis on conversion. Indeed, the most effective (or at least the most celebrated) evangelists are the ones with the most dramatic conversion narratives. It's all well and good to listen to someone who spent years in seminary discourse at length about universal brotherhood or the importance of charity, but man if you've got an ex-drunk fornicator whom Jesus personally snatched from the jaws of hell--that's really something! They also tend to have tremendously puritanical views on lifestyle generally, but particularly on the matters of alcohol and sex. In other words, the predominant culture tends to frown on two of the most common (and effective) ways that humans have blown off steam and sought comfort for pretty much the entire history of civilization. I'll leave it to another time to speculate about why, but the point is that you have a worldview that really lends itself to living life at the extremes. You're a sinner or a saint. (Actually, you're all sinners, but if you've been saved, you're supposed to do your absolute damned best to live as a saint would.)

Very little room is left for moderation in this worldview. "Purity" is the watchword, particularly with regard to sexuality. Serial, committed monogamy outside of marriage is viewed as equivalent to rampant promiscuity, as adultery committed against god and your intended spouse-to-be. Masturbation is really just as much of an offense against purity, since it tends to involve fantasizing, which is lust, which is--and this is in the Bible--effectively the same thing as the act itself, as far as your soul goes.

(And of course, god help you if your preference is for anything other than sanctified, married, procreative penis + vagina sex...)

And on and on...

So what does all of this have to do with food?

Well, perhaps because in the times the various components of the New Testament were written, a world in which food was hyper-abundant to even the relatively poor was unimaginable, the teachings of Jesus and Paul are pretty mum on the question of sensible eating. Ergo, the human impulse towards indulgence gets funneled into what is readily available and no one (except those damn liberal hippy organic food nazis that live in the cities) is going to judge you for: food.

There's certainly more to it than that, but I think this aspect of things gets overlooked too often.


"Just look at what the U.S. Government and its friends are willing to do and capable of doing to someone who challenges or defies them -- all without any charges being filed or a shred of legal authority. They've blocked access to their assets, tried to remove them from the Internet, bullied most everyone out of doing any business with them, froze the funds marked for Assange's legal defense at exactly the time that they prepare a strange international arrest warrant to be executed, repeatedly threatened him with murder, had their Australian vassals openly threaten to revoke his passport, and declared them "Terrorists" even though -- unlike the authorities who are doing all of these things -- neither Assange nor WikiLeaks ever engaged in violence, advocated violence, or caused the slaughter of civilians."

----Glenn Greenwald

Are these the actions of a global superpower, confident in its purpose and moral standing in the world, or of an empire in decline?


deer hunting, machiavelli, and balancing the budget

This is the best argument for private gun ownership I've read in a long time:

The state of Wisconsin has gone an entire deer hunting season without someone getting killed. That’s great. There were over 600,000 hunters.

Allow me to restate that number. Over the last two months, the eighth largest army in the world – more men under arms than Iran; more than France and Germany combined – deployed to the woods of a single American state to help keep the deer menace at bay.

But that pales in comparison to the 750,000 who are in the woods of Pennsylvania this week. Michigan’s 700,000 hunters have now returned home. Toss in a quarter million hunters in West Virginia, and it is literally the case that the hunters of those four states alone would comprise the largest army in the world...

I wish [Machiavelli] was around today, if only to hear the praise he would have for a nation that every year assembles and then disbands the world’s largest army purely for the purpose of managing its deer population. For millenia, philosophers have pondered how one can maintain a well-armed population that can fend off all attackers, while simultaneously maintaining ordered governance. In America, we’ve fulfilled this dream, and we’ve done it so well and so effortlessly that no one seems to have noticed.

If this argument holds any water at all...maybe we could stand to spend something less than the rest of the planet combined on the military, hmmm?

(via Sullivan)


stuff i said elsewhere already

I wish I had time to put together a well-crafted post on Wikileaks, but I don't. RW's is quite good, though, and I don't find much there with which I disagree.

So I'll just get to the point. I think Julian Assange is a badass, and in my more optimistic visions of the future, his name is mentioned in the same breath as Gutenberg's. I'm probably overstating the importance of Wikileaks qua Wikileaks, here...but I do think we are seeing the beginning of a fundamental shift in the ability of institutions to maintain their hold on power by controlling information.

Whether or not you think this is a good thing...it's hard to avoid the notion that the future belongs to those who can adapt to this reality.