It’s Friday, and that means it’s time to fit the irregular detritus of the week into a taught chain of causal, um, links. The problem with contemporary life—if I can just jump right into it here—is that it’s increasingly non-narrative. Ever since the basic unit of work went from stalking a mastodon over the frozen plains for two weeks to franking insurance forms in a cubicle for eight hours, human life has become more and more episodic. That’s great for creating a mood but bad for developing character, to put it in workshop terms. Maybe that’s why the character of our nation has been so moody lately, with alternating factions declaring crisis amid recovery, victory in stalemate, strategem in disaster and vice versa, pretty much anew every morning. There must be a narrative in there somewhere, since yesterday will definitely not be happening again today, but sometimes the story seems hard to follow. Maybe we’re just looking at another week’s episode in the long-running melodrama of stupidity versus sense. Maybe stupidity has won, and the rest of the performance will be a puppet show, with shrieking socks debating each other in the same idiot’s voice. The fact of the matter is that not everything happens according to some plan, and our best evidence for destiny is still assembled in retrospect. This week, retrospect reveals only a startling refusal to cohere. As you move from the structure of your workweek to the short-form improvisations of the weekend, consider Camus’s assertion that meaning is only something we make for ourselves, and therefore so is meaninglessness. It is the edge between our desperate understandings and an indifferent universe where stories are made, and it’s the friction in the joint that gives them heat. It’s a cold morning in the Combat! blog offices, so let’s get a little fire going, huh?
First off, good news for people who hate to think: a new study suggests that something called “cognitive fluency” makes simple ideas easier to believe, and therefore more likely to become popular. Props to Mose for the link. Researchers in cognitive fluency have found that test subjects are more likely to believe declarative statements that are expressed in simple language, printed in an easy-to-read font, or even just rhyme. Those of you who have disastrously placed bros before hos or confidently consumed liquor before beer, believing yourself to be in the clear, know the pernicious ability of rhyming to create the illusion of fact.* Researchers at NYU’s Stern School have found that companies with easy-to-pronounce names perform better in the stock market, and a similar phenomenon can be observed among political candidates. According to psychologist Robert Zajonc, our affinity for cognitive fluency probably has an evolutionary underpinning. “If it’s familiar,” he reminds us, “it hasn’t eaten you yet.” Good news for Jeb Bush.
Jeb Bush is still in banking, right? He’s had a great week, then, as attempts to push through a new financial regulatory reform package have foundered in Congress. According to Chris Dodd (D-CT)—who has been so loyal to insurance interests over the course of his political career that he is sometimes referred to as “the senator from Aetna”—negotiations between Republicans and Democrats in the Senate Banking Committee have reached an impasse. Dodd cites senior committee member Richard C. Shelby (R-AL), who informed him that, while Republicans are committed to a bipartisan bill, at this point no further agreement can be reached. But wait—isn’t that the same Richard C. Shelby (R-AL) who just placed a blanket hold on the President’s unconfirmed nominees because he isn’t getting two big earmarks for his home state? If you’re wondering when the Republican obstructionism strategy will backfire, I’ve got a hint: when the story of the Senator who tied up confirmation hearings and blocked banking reform so he could get a crime lab built in Alabama becomes simple enough for the American people to understand. Don’t make me make a blog category for you, Richard Shelby.
In the meantime, the title of Story Simple Enough for the American People to Understand is still held by the proposed repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Lord of icy Faswell Manor Ben Fowlkes sent me this column by Bill Kristol, in which the wealthy, bright pink fifty year-old who never served uses the magazine he inherited from his father to argue that gay guys would completely mess up the army. As in most of Kristol’s work, his most questionable assertions are afforded the least supporting evidence, the way shame discourages fat people from going to the gym. Consider this gem: “Advocates of repeal will say sexual orientation is irrelevant to military performance in a way these attributes are not. But this is not clearly true given the peculiar characteristics of military service.” Kristol elaborates on this notion no further, but I think his implication is clear: gay dudes can’t fight. I’m not saying that Andrew Sullivan should challenge Bill Kristol to some sort of cage match, but I’m also not saying I wouldn’t watch.
Even an army composed entirely of that kid from Monty Python and the Holy Grail who wants to sing could still beat North Korea, if Christopher Hitchens is to be believed. In a book review that mentions the book at hand maybe twice, Hitchens alleges that North Korea is communist in history only, and is now held together by a sort of fascist racism that casts the rest of the world’s people as mongrels and barbarians. The irony, Hitchens says, is that decades of malnutrition and weird, made-up education has turned North Korea into “a nation of racist dwarfs.” I think we can all agree that that is awesome, but probably not good. Also not good is this sentence near the conclusion of Hitchens’s essay, asserting that “Unlike previous racist dictatorships, the North Korean one has actually succeeded in producing a sort of new species.” Like Combat! blog, Christopher Hitchens appears to belong to the great tradition of writing everything in one draft, but I advise him not to claim in print that certain Koreans belong to a different species. We get enough of that from our Japanese grandmothers.
You know what else this was a great week for? Videos. A picture is worth a thousand words, and 23 pictures a second would require more explanation than that for which we have room or patience. So why not just let them wash over you? There’s this Norwegian music video, full of oddly familiar yet still inappropriate hip hop gestures. There’s Jon Stweart’s appearance on The O’Reilly Factor, which was like watching a man sitting through a job interview with a cobra. And there’s Rush Limbaugh, dancing exactly as well as you would expect Rush Limbaugh to dance but with much, much more enthusiasm, and then nearly slipping away to the land of wind and ghosts afterwards. Don’t worry, though—he’s okay. I’m sure next week he’ll do something equally dignified, as will we all.