Up In Arms, For No Reason

May 27, 2010

Social media empire Facebook is in hot water, again, for taking what critics allege are too many liberties with its users’ personal data. Specifically, the online networking site has seemed willing to provide, and may have provided, information about users’ tastes and preferences to advertisers.

Advertisers can use that information to target particular demographics more accurately. Patrons of Facebook are up in virtual arms (torches, pitchforks, and DSL modems angrily brandished) at the magnitude of this invasion of their privacy.

Problem is, Facebook users have no privacy to be invaded. By way of explanation, excuse a brief legal interlude: when deciding whether or not a warrant is required to search somebody, and especially to listen to or watch him without his knowledge, courts must determine whether or not that person has a “reasonable expectation of privacy” in the action that’s going to be spied on. If he can reasonably expect privacy in that action (say, bathing in his house with the blinds drawn and the door locked) then a warrant is required before police can watch him doing it. If the action is one in which he cannot reasonably expect privacy (say, talking loudly to a friend in a crowded bar), no warrant is required. Police can spy at will.

We have no reasonable expectation of privacy in information we willingly post to the internet. This is especially true when the information is posted via Facebook, the sole purpose of which is to help folks keep up with the likes, interests, and status of their friends. Facebook has long tracked its users’ friendships and social webs, using the information to suggest potential new online pals. Anybody with a Facebook account knows this. Further, it’s a rare news day that lacks for stories about identity theft, hacked government offices, cyber warfare, and the like. The internet is a glass house. Anybody can see in. And if you live in a glass house… don’t expect privacy.

Extinguish your torch, drop your pitchfork, and go back to your farm, irrate villagers. Put down the placards and cancel the pickets. If you’re concerned for your privacy, redirect all that righteously indignant energy into your keyboard: log into your Facebook account and, if there’s something there you’d rather keep private… delete it.

Imagine that.

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WASPs Take Flight

May 25, 2010

Assuming Elena Kagan, President Obama’s anointed successor to Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens (himself an illustrious knight of the Protestant realm), is confirmed to the Court, she will become part of the first Supreme Court entirely devoid of WASPs.

Of the 111 (mainly) men and (less often) women who have served as Justices on the high court, nearly a full third have been white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants… what sociologist E. Digby Baltzell identified in 1964 as the American ruling class. A good amount of Catholics have cropped up lately, notably Justice Antonin Scalia, and the Jews have enjoyed a foothold for a while, starting with Louis Brandeis. (Kagan herself is Jewish: a member of the group most often cited by sociologists like Baltzell as having supplanted the Protestants in wielding influence disproportionate to their numbers.)

Of course, the North American WASP has been a species long declining, thanks in part to what researchers call “generational degeneration.” Centuries ago, a strong Protestant work ethic and Yankee ingenuity made for a lot of fortunes earned; entitled heirs made for a lot of waste. Jamie Johnson, heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune, explains: “The generations of affluence bred a certain kind of casual, passive approach to life and wealth building. Lots of people just got lazy.” Southern money might put it differently: fat dogs don’t hunt.

So old-line money and its (sometimes honorable, sometimes insular) values are being swept away, and in their place we expect a shiny new meritocracy, exemplary to the world. It’s not about who you know, but what you can do! Our leaders, including Justices of the Supreme Court, will become a more representative lot, drawn from common stock and full of common virtue. Of course, Ms. Kagan’s proponents hold, there’s no stock more common and popularly representative than Upper West Side Jewish girls with Ivy League degrees.

So we seem in the process of trading one aristocracy for another, and all that really changes is the royal religion. And, given Americans’ generally lax proclivities toward faith, this probably isn’t a terribly important shift. What will be more telling is whether or not the old WASP ideals of grace, charm, style, economy, family, and tradition will stay on. As the late Louis Auchincloss, white-shoe attorney and author, noted: “The tragedy of American civilization is that it has swept away WASP morality and put nothing in its place.”  

Victims of regime change.


Pretenders To The Throne

May 19, 2010

Rush Limbaugh is an author, in the most sluttish sense of that word (that is, its loosest and most non-discriminatory application). So are Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, and Sean Hannity. They’ve all published (and, to some extent, written) books. “Books” is another loosely and generously applied word, but it’s true all their books share some commonality: they’re double-spaced, published in large font, and don’t include any words requiring a dictionary. These guys know their audience, and it’s not the Harvard political science department. Rush himself has less than a year’s worth of Southeast Missouri State University under his belt.

William F. Buckley, Jr. wrote real books. The single-spaced kind, with no pictures. He graduated from Yale University and published his first, God & Man at Yale, shortly thereafter. It was revolutionary for its time, and he followed up with over 50 more; some political discourse, others spy novels, travel journals, or biographies. He also served briefly in the Central Intelligence Agency, as a field officer in Mexico, and hosted the talk show Firing Line. He wrote a nationally syndicated newspaper column, On The Right, ran for mayor of New York, and founded a magazine, National Review. NR is still a bastion of conservative thought… not just of party line conservatism, but of conservative thought. Through it, he mentored young thinkers like Dinesh D’Souza and Richard Brookhiser.

Rush & co. are noisy, arrogant pretenders to Buckley’s throne. Buckley earned the title Lion of The Right; today’s pundits are hyenas cackling over the lion’s leavings. None enjoy his intellect or joi de vivre; Buckley was playmaker, coach, and commissioner of a game in which the rest are Monday morning quarterbacks. They abstain from play, whereas Buckley launched a movement and defined conservative thought. Limbaugh and the others define only conservative rhetoric, and trust their audience not to spot the difference.

William F. Buckley, Jr.


Authenticity, Faked

May 17, 2010

With narrow exception, the fashion web logs out there, especially those inclined to advise, are worthless. To be fair, some aren’t bad (and some of those which aren’t, or are less bad than the rest, are linked to herein). Few of them lurch across the line into “good” and none of them demonstrate anything beyond a passing familiarity with the English language. Than is usually then, or vice-versa; there are lots of words spent on “The Ivy League Look,” very few on the places where that look grew up: schools which would be ashamed to have turned out most of these bloggers.

The style bloggers are enamored of what they call sprezzatura, an idea of affected nonchalance. They love the concept in parts nearly equal to their disdain of grammar. Think of rumpled shirt-collars, ties tied so that the back-end (the “blade”) hangs down as far as, or more than, the front, and working buttonholes left unbuttoned on jackets. That’s the idea: “I’m too stylish to care about style, so these casual mistakes are actually indicative of my sophistication… I’m so fashionable that I’m above caring whether I’m fashionable or not, and that makes me even more hip.”

This is obviously stupid, but alerting the sartorial blogosphere won’t do any good. Those people have enough trouble on their hands already, sounding out words in their heads as they write.

So we’ll leave this between us, you and your editorial staff, and we’ll do our best to lay it out quickly. If you make an effort to outfit yourself in a way that looks like it didn’t require effort, and go so far as to prove your lack of effort by making the additional effort to introduce into that outfit some small foible like unbuttoned shirt cuffs, you’re not too fashionable to care about being fashionable: you’re a fraud.

What’s worse, you’re an obvious fraud because no man who cares enough to spend $500 on his necktie would not care enough to tie it properly. So the improperly tied tie must be done that way on purpose, we all know, and since we all know, you’re not fooling anybody but yourself. You’re the trust fund brat who eschews “Capitalist materialism” to travel the world and find his poetic soul in Amsterdam but doesn’t mind, or get, the irony of undertaking the soul-searching on his parents’ dime. Again… a fraud.

A few come by their artful slovenliness honestly: they’ve been wearing ties and blazers since prep school and reach for the repp so absentmindedly that the way it’s tied really is honestly absent-minded; those guys aren’t the type on the fashion blogs. And if you’ve spent $2,000 on a sport coat with functional buttonholes so you can leave one artfully unbuttoned, you’re not one of them. Don’t pretend you are.

Chuck Bass: too cool to care?


The Great Unknown (Or, Caveat Emptor)

May 11, 2010

United States Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens’ imminent vacation of the bench means the Obama administration will have another chance to add a friendly jurist to the Court, and Solicitor General Elena Kagan is the President’s pick.

Typically, proposed justices are vetted against their judicial records: were their decisions often overturned by higher courts, or upheld? Did they hold fair trials? Did they often commit reversible error, as decided by reviewing judges? Have they written thoughtful, scholarly opinions which carefully set out their reasoning? The judicial history assembled by each judge reads like a resume, and those resumes are the yardsticks by which candidates for the nation’s highest court are measured.

Unfamiliar with Solicitor Kagan’s judicial record? Not sure, based on her published opinions and decisions, how she feels about pressing issues or how she behaves as a judge?

So is America, because Ms. Kagan has never been a judge. She has no record in the courtroom, no library of opinions, no history of having decisions upheld or overturned… in short, she has no judicial resume which might hint at even a whiff of qualification.

Perhaps the President based his support on her commendable record of service in the Solicitor General’s office? If so, there must be some stellar example of federal advocacy in it, because she’s barely been on the job one year. Hardly enough time to have compiled anything even close to a reviewable record of performance, good or bad.

True, she did well as the Dean of Harvard Law School. She strengthened what was already the world’s finest law school and made a demonstrable effort to reach out to conservative factions of the faculty, earning a reputation as a concensus-builder. But running a school is much different from serving as a justice on the most powerful country in the world’s most powerful court.

Ms. Kagan is likely a very deft administrator and a skilled attorney; you have to be, to run Harvard Law and to represent the United States government in court as Solicitor General. Unfortunately, neither of these things begins to hint at, let alone establish, her qualifications as a judge, let alone one sitting on the Supreme Court. And, considering the lifetime appointments which justices enjoy, there is little room for error in their selection… and even less for the dangers of the unknown, untested, and unproven.


Watering Holes: O’Connell’s Pub

May 7, 2010

4652 Shaw Avenue, St. Louis, MO

(314) 773-6600

As local pubs steeped in antiquity go, O’Connell’s is spot-on: located in mid-town Saint Louis, the business traces its ancestry to that city’s Gaslight Square neighborhood, which once played host and haven to local notables Ernie Trova (sculptor of Falling Man) and symphony conductor Leonard Slatkin. The walls are stained, the floors are dirty, the pictures are dusty, and a pair of giant buffalo heads are held precariously up on small nails, which are stuck in walls quickly shedding plaster.  

Gaslight Square took its name from the Gaslight Bar, which belonged to Dick Mutrux and which, a century ago, anchored a street filled with jazz clubs, dance halls, gambling rooms, taverns, playhouses, and most every variety of thief, pickpocket, strong-armer, gambler, drunk, cardsharp and reveler. Some gaslights were there also. By 1972, Gaslight Square’s star was sinking in equal proportion to the national fashion sense, and O’Connell’s proprietor Jack Parker sought greener pastures in midtown.

The bar at O'Connell's.

When Parker moved, he took his furniture and furnishings with him, down to the beveled-glass windows and two brass chandeliers which had been cast in England for the 1904 World’s Fair, during which event they hung in Belgium’s exhibition hall. The only piece not saved was an enormous fieldstone fireplace, which had heated the original rooms through an intricate rat-maze of iron pipes and vents. The pipes were kept in good repair by the bartenders, each of whom ended his O’Connell’s service as something of a journeyman welder and mechanic.

Parker’s new bar took up space formerly occupied by an Anheuser-Busch company tavern, which had closed up in 1905, but to which August Busch III returned in June of 1997 to film a Budweiser commercial. The O’Connell’s commercial did well enough that the brewery filmed a second one there in August.   

Above the tavern, Jack Parker still operates an antiques store, Jack Parker’s Fine Arts & Antiques; since turning over the daily operation of O’Connell’s to his nephew Fred, Mr. Parker now involves himself primarily with the store, which specializes in works by American Painters and furniture from the Arts & Crafts movement.


Bulls & Bears & Horses

May 1, 2010

Institutions, to maintain longevity and relevance, must sometimes realign their interests and approaches. Given its duration, our recession may be well down the road to recognition as an American institution. Still, Louisville, Kentucky seems intent on forcing a realignment of its approach.

As Derby season draws near down there, big names prepare to party like it’s 2007. The horsey set and their attendant social scene are quickly easing into full gala gallop, with parties planned around guests like Olympian Johnny Weir and Ashley Simpson, who are both expected at an event co-sponsored by aptly-named socialite twins Patricia and Priscilla Barnstable. Unidentified members of the Jackson Five are expected to perform.

Elsewhere, milliners are busy with another American institution, ladies’ Derby hats, orders for which have been pouring in all year. Reported trends this year included wide brims and metallic hues. In some shops, business this year is twice what it was last year. If this year’s Derby is any barometer, hopefully current economic climes will be long-gone before they begin to rival the race for institutional longevity.

The sisters Barnstable.