The Long View 2005-08-30: Corrections & Short Reviews

John didn't follow Harry Potter closely, but he guessed the shape of the story pretty well.

Corrections & Short Reviews

Disturbing information about John Roberts, President Bush's nominee for the United States Supreme Court, was revealed in a frontpage New York Times story on Monday. The revealing piece was entitled In Re Grammar, Roberts's Stance Is Crystal Clear. Apparently unmindful of the real implications of the information it was presenting, the Times praised Judge Roberts' long history of making grammatical and stylistic comments on any text that comes across his desk, whether the quality of the prose was his business or not. Consider this chilling example:

MARCH 16, 1983 In a memorandum on the draft of a presidential statement concerning crime control legislation, Mr. Roberts caught an error on the first page. In the sentence "As a result of these efforts we're socking more criminals away where they belong ---in prison," he guessed that the president had meant to say "locking" instead of "socking."

There was nothing wrong with President Reagan's choice of words: "to sock something away" is a common expression meaning "to hide or save something." It evokes an image of hiding a small object, or a large number of small objects, in a sock or other container. The expression "to lock away" does not mean the same thing, and only a lead-footed editor would make a change like that.

What do I mean by a "lead-footed editor"? I mean the kind of editor who would need the expression "lead-footed editor" explained to him. Yes, they do exist, many of them in law offices.

In general, my view of John Roberts has been "what's not to like?" Even with this new information, he is still an acceptable candidate. Once again we see that if you did deeply enough, you will find something discreditable about anybody.

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Worse than editors was Hitler. However, that point was not emphasized in Oliver Hirschbiegel's film, Downfall (Untergang in German), which was released last year, but which I just recently saw. It's about the final days in the Chancellery bunker in Berlin in 1945, based chiefly on Joachim Fest's books, but with heavy doses of Albert Speer's successful attempts at self-exoneration thrown in. Bruno Ganz plays Hitler. No one here has tried to make the Nazis look good (the film was shot in St. Petersburg, I gather), but the story does not elide that fact that Himself was generally thoughtful and gracious to the people around him. Ganz gives his all during Hitler's frequent rages, but the fact is, these are so intense and abrupt that they come off as comical. It's a commonplace of drama that there is not much difference between a devil and clown.

The end of the Nazi regime was apparently punctuated by end-of-the-world parties, which makes sense, on several levels. Sometimes it seemed as if a sequel to Cabaret was about to break out. That makes sense, too, if you accept the interpretation of the Nazi era as continuous with the Weimar Republic, except that the Surrealists had taken over.

One jarring note about the casting, if you have seen the film The Ninth Day. That one is about a priest from Luxembourg who is released from a concentration camp in the hope that he will persuade his bishop to cooperate with the Nazi occupation. The man who plays the priest is a tall, bony fellow named Ulrich Matthes. He also plays Goebbels in Downfall. He does a good job, unless you are bothered by the fact Goebbels was was a tiny man with a bad limp. In any case, someone seems to have gone to the trouble to find out just how Frau Goebbels (Corinna Harfouch) poisoned all but one of her numerous children. It's still hard to believe.

The DVD of Downfall is in German, with English subtitles. Altogether, it's the best German lesson to come along since Das Boot.

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Having already written at length about Harry Potter here, I felt obligated to actually read the most recent book, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince to see whether the series had taken a radically different turn since the first volume, which was the only other one I read. I find not; and I still like the series, though I can't say it engages my enthusiasm. One thing that struck me was how much the dread of terrorism is the background for the latest book. The terror comes from Lord Voldemort's Death Eaters rather than members of Al-Qaida, but the effect is remarkably the same. The searches for dangerous objects are done with magical wands rather than with magnetic ones, but the machinery of security parallels that of the real world so closely that I feel more confident about my thesis that Hogwarts is essentially an engineering school.

I am also confident that Professor Snape is Not As Bad As He Seems.


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A technical aside:: I just got a new computer, a Dell Dimension 3000. I got it 22 hours ago; I have just finished getting it to do at least as much as the old machine did. That makes it the fastest upgrade I have ever done.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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