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Free Expressions

THE GRIPES OF ROTH: “Another instance of the new patriotism?” That’s what TAP columnist Frank Rocca asked when he sent me the following:

“Criticizing McDonald’s is pure idiocy. McDonald’s is a café for the poor, the elderly and the lonely, and as such it carries out an admirable form of social service. It’s clean, cheap and well-lit. It has the best French fries in the world and it allows you to use the toilet without ordering anything. I go there all the time. It’s my café, too.”

The speaker is none other than the austere Philip Roth, in an interview with “Corriere della Sera.” Frank saw the quote in the paper’s English-language “Italy Daily” sister publication, though it remains unclear whether the words are as they were originally spoken, or whether they’re a rerendering into English from the Italian translation of the original. This is no small matter; curious literary scholars will want to know. They’ll conclude that Roth is again playing games with them.

As Frank notes, retranslations can be great fun. “Remember the old joke about the English-to-Russian-to-English translation of the Gospels that yielded: ‘The ghost is ready but the meat is raw’?”

KNOCKDOWN PITCH:The new patriotism reasserts itself in unexpected ways. A letter in the April 1 issue of the New Yorker slaps down the knee-jerk liberal creator of “West Wing” for what he said in a much talked about Talk of the Town column a month ago. This time not even Peggy Noonan is around to save him. Listen:


“Aaron Sorkin, the creator of ‘The West Wing,’ complains to Tad Friend that ‘we’re simply pretending to believe that Bush exhibited unspeakable courage at the World Series by throwing out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium. . . . The media is waving pompoms, and the entire country is being polite’ (The Talk of the Town, March 4th). If this act wasn’t courageous, then what is? At an uncertain time, soon after the attacks, Bush walked out into the middle of a baseball field surrounded by fifty-five thousand people, any one of whom could have been a threat. Has Sorkin ever been in a comparable position? Sorkin, who admits that Bush has handled the crisis well, also says that ‘it’s absolutely right that at this time we’re all laying off the bubblehead jokes.’ He’s not doing the President any favors; lately, Bush just hasn’t done anything bubbleheaded.”

The letter is signed by Joseph Duh of Bridgeport, Conn., and there’s no second letter to balance Duh’s point of view. But what about the New Yorker’s patented fact-checking? Surely Yankee Stadium would contain more than 55,000 for a World Series game. (Both the A.P. and L.A. Times said more than 57,000 attended the game in question, no including more that 1,000 extra police. A two-thousand plus disparity may seem negligible — but as the magazine’s Hendrik Hertzberg would be the first to tell you, that amount would have been enough to clinch Florida and the presidency for his man Al Gore.)

OUT WITH THE OLD:How unfortunate that National Review Online doesn’t have a Correspondence section. Maybe then we’d see many heated reactions to NRO’s redesign, which debuted yesterday. Clearly the new look is cleaner, but the site also seems diminished, at least if the main-impression forming home page is any indication. Before, the home page let ever user know NRO had a corner on the market. Now I’m not so sure. Without the old clutter, the site now appears less busy and clearly more staid than it should. Worst of all, the previous day’s entries are relegated to a tiny-print area near the bottom of the home page, as if to tell readers: don’t bother, yesterday is old, only today matters. Conservatives and carpe diem didn’t used to get along so well.

LETTER RIP Correspondence sections can be a thing of beauty. Clearly they’re a must for any publication that respects its readers, or at least publishes writers who crave feedback. Of course not every letter to the editor writer necessarily respects his potential readers. James Carville, for instance, spat out another unseemly wad of gunk in a letter to the Washington Post earlier this week in which he again attacked Kenneth Starr as a “cigarette lawyer” but also implied the Post was corrupt for not divulging its indebtedness to Starr owing to a 1987 libel case in which his ruling supposedly saved the Post a million dollars. (Carville must write from personal experience, having worked for a guy who apparently could be bought for a lot less.) After an encounter like that the first thing that comes to mind is why Mrs. Carville is tolerated around the White House. Then you walk yourself through a carwash.

One curious thing about Carville is his insistence on claiming the ethical highground right after he’s resorted to malicious slander against a former legal officer of the United States. There seems to be a pattern to such moral posturing. On the Post correspondence page one can get away with it easily enough, since most of the letters that appear there are respectable in content and tone. But go, say, to the “Fray” part of, and you’ll be amazed at the low quality of discourse that seemingly respectable site attracts. Yesterday, for instance, Slate’s Timothy Noah pummeled man of “conscience” David Brock as a liar. Brock immediately replied. Before that reply was posted right after Noah’s piece late last night, it appeared first amid the free-for-all letters the unvetted Fray attracts. So there was Brock, literally bottom-feeding alongside the likes of a letter writer named “Pussdick,” who wants to date him. There’s got to be a better way.

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