I read the Sunday New York Times, so you don’t have to: July 3
First coffee of the day, last of some excellent Kenyan; Java Joe, I need some help here! First music of the day: A gospel album by the melancholy alt-country chanteuse Eilen Jewell, delivered earlier this week by my pal Big Al. The Lake Ontario brown trout has already been smoked for the next two day’s round of parties.
1, A relative found Sam French “face down in his carport ‘talking gibberish’, according to court records,” the Times writes. “He later told medical personnel that he had been conversing with a bear in his back yard and hearing voices.” For the fourth time in five years, French was ordered hospitalized; his daughter and son-in-law, in the meantime, removed 15 rifles and three handguns from his house. Ten months later, after a new round of mood-stabilizing drugs had been established for French, his was in a Virginia General District Court – “the body that handles small claims and traffic infractions,” the Times reports – asking for his gun rights to be re-established. His wish was granted, although French’s history of relapses in the treatment of his bipolar disorder was not discussed during the brief hearing. New state laws are now coming into effect that will almost certainly allow people with mental illnesses to recover their gun rights in decisions that the Times story characterizes as haphazard. “This surge, ironically, can be traced to a law passed by Congress after the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech that was meant to make it harder for people with mental illness to get guns,” the Times writes. “As a condition for its support for the measure, the National Rifle Association extracted a concession: the inclusion of a mechanism for restoring firearm rights to those who lost them for mental health reasons.” The long story cites many cases in which gun rights eclipses the expectations of citizens as a whole that reasonable thinking goes hand in hand with gun ownership. “In case after case examined by The New York Times,” the newspaper writes, “judges made decisions without important information about an applicant’s mental health.” Here’s something I personally find curious: The NRA zealots who so insistently pursue looser gun laws, allowing this situation to fester, are probably the same folks who express dismay over the unsuccessful prosecution of criminal suspects because some piece of evidence or testimony was ruled inadmissible.
2, The case against former IMF Chief and French presidential candidate Dominique Strauss-Kahn has fallen apart (I looked at The New York Post cover story on Saturday while at the grocery store; it alleges the hotel housekeeper who accused him of rape was also a hooker working the high-end hotel). Questions are now being asked of the competency of the Manhattan district attorney’s office, run by Cyrus Vance Jr. “What’s most curious is hearing the line prosecutors saying early on that they had a strong case, a very strong case,” said a defense lawyer who worked on Vance’s 2009 campaign finance committee. “Obviously they hadn’t looked very hard.”
3, Robert H. Widmer has died at age 96 in Fort Worth, Texas. He designed the B-58 supersonic bomber, the F-111 and F-16 fighters and the Tomahawk cruise missile, “helping to enforce the cold war strategic balance known as mutual assured destruction,” the Times writes. “His daughter, Gail Widmer Landreth, said he saw lethal airplanes as instruments of peace.”
4, In Sunday business, “the median pay for top executives at 200 big companies last year was $10.8 million. That works out to a 23 percent gain from 2009.” In other words, despite the poor economy, the rich are richer than ever.
5, In Week Two of the Sunday Review section, replacing the old Week in Review, we see how the new section is striving for elegance and factual exactness, thanks to this awesome correction: “A news analysis article on June 26 about the pervasive reach of petroleum into everyday life misstated a substance used in the 18th and 19th centuries to make cosmetics. It was spermaceti, a waxy solid obtained from the oil of cetaceans and from the heads of sperm whales; it was not whale sperm.”
6, In reviewing itself, Public Editor Arthur S. Brisbane writes, “the introduction last week of Sunday Review, the successor to the venerable Week in Review, marks a decided turn toward more opinion journalism.” Brisbane says the strongest reaction he’s noted was the readers’ favorable view of mixing news and opinion in one piece. He cites Joshua Benton, director of the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard, who says readers want, “someone to make sense of all the information we’re confronted with every day.”
7, The Long Island home where John Coltrane composed his great album A Love Supreme has been wrestled away from bulldozer-armed real-estate developers, and it’s now on the National Register of Historic Places. However, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has just placed it on the endangered list. A jazz-loving engineer, Steve Fulgoni, wants to turn the home into a cultural destination, but estimates it needs $1 million in work; and that’s with the raccoons having already been evicted. “It is easy to share Mr. Fulgoni’s enthusiasm when you see the faded lime-green shag carpet in the practice room, and the living room’s fancy wood paneling,” the Times writes in an editorial. Fulgoni acknowledges the difficulty in acquiring the repair funds, but, “if there are masons or carpenters who love jazz and could help fix things, he says, he would love the help.”
8, Project Nim is new documentary about Nim Chimpsky, a chimpanzee who in the 1970s was taught sign language in an attempt to disprove Noam Chomsky’s assertion that only humans can construct a sentence. The experiment was a big deal in its day, with Nim appearing on the cover of New York magazine and on Sesame Street, but the results are in the eye of the beholder. “We smoked weed with him occasionally,” says one of the research assistant who worked with the chimp, who died in 2000. “When you do something and he’s not included, he knows it.”
9, In the Book Review, we see a common question addressed in Manstein: Hitler’s Greatest General. That being, were the men who carried out the orders responsible for Hitler’s rise in Germany? In the case of the war architect Albert Speer, and the tank-battle theorist Manstein, the answer is simple. “Most soldiers did not have the option of refusing military service, but officers of Manstein’s background and rank certainly did,” writes book reviewer Alexander Rose, in trashing the defense that these men were only doing their duty to a professional cause greater than Hitler. “The worst punishment for balking was early retirement or a transfer. Manstein stayed, and was promoted.”
10, Bill Keller offers a look into the e-mail responses to “The Tom and Jerry Problem,” a piece he wrote in the magazine last week on Sarah Palin. For the most part, they say more about the respondents than they do about Keller’s essay. “Are all you liberal pseudo-elite journalists really this stupid?” one writes. Ads another, “You are an elitist twit.”
11, Peter Nadin was a fairly prominent New York City experimental artist of the 1980s who one day packed it all up and moved to the northern Catskills. He still creates art, but raising pigs as well apparently makes him happier about it. “If you eat ham from one of my pigs or honey from my bees, then you’re ingesting the landscape here itself – it’s not an objectification of it,” he tells the magazine. Randy Kennedy, the piece’s writer, agrees that “such a quasi-mystical agrarian quest can be difficult to take at face value.” Indeed, “The pigs, for their part, might not agree that it such a good thing to happen, I suppose,” Nadin says a few paragraphs later. But he seems willing to give it a go himself: “I wouldn’t mind being eaten, you know? Meet your end in the forest somewhere and the coyotes and other animals eat your body? In fact, I think it would be quite a dignified way to go.” That’s the kind of commitment that we love in our artists.
12, In “What Does Newt Know?” writer Andrew Ferguson put himself through reading 21 books authored or co-authored by the self-proclaimed idea man. Is Newt really the smart guy that so many people, including Newt, claim him to be? “Over my years in public life, I have become known as an ‘ideas man,’ ” Newt writes admiringly of himself. Yet consistent with the lack of evidence of any real Newtonian smartness out there (particularly in the midst of this disastrous presidential campaign), Ferguson apparently can’t find much in the books, either. Newt’s biggest idea, repeated ad nauseum, is actually a literary cliche: We’re at a crossroads. He uses the metaphor in the first sentence of his first book. “We stand at a crossroads between two diverse futures.” Various Apocalyptic threats leap from book to book. In his latest book, Newt’s still citing crossroads. “The election of 2012,” he writes, “will bring us to a historic crossroads.” Newt’s problem is, the map keeps changing.