HAVE YOU DRIVEN A FNORD LATELY?: We went to see the artcars today. There's always a few of these parked around the American Visionary Art Museum, once-standard vehicles that have been pasted, painted, sculpted, and covered with stones, phones, toys, severed doll-arms, or anything else the driver fancies. But they congregated there today, some from Baltimore and some from far away: they parked there for an hour then paraded en masse to Artscape, an annual festival that I'd be visiting right now if it weren't so bloody hot outside.
Everyone's seen customized cars before, and some of them are amazing sights. But these are far madder than that. There's a van decorated with eerie sculptures, all of them made from melted buckets; a car covered with Finster-style portraits of soul, country, and early rock'n'roll stars, plus Jesus; a black auto coated with handwritten jokes and Discordian slogans, its Ford logo altered to say Fnord. One car has a note attached to it explaining why the driver decided to join the artcar movement. Another bears a note saying that artcars aren't a fucking movement, thank you, and he doesn't get any grants to do this, and no, he's not some damn hippie. It also asked for donations.
"People speed up when they drive past me, to get a better look at my car," one guy explains. "So I slow down, and then they slow down too. I can't shake them." He pauses. "I've missed so many exits that way."
HOW TO GET AWAY WITH PLAGIARISM: I've decided that Blair Hornstine is a genius. The infamously litigious grade-grubber was just de-admitted from Harvard because, while writing columns for the Cherry Hill Courier-Post, she committed repeated acts of plagiarism. The targets of her larceny included a platitude-pumping speech by Bill Clinton and a sedate paper from the Nautilus Institute; they were not words that a woman of literary ambition would want to pass off as her own. I was prepared to declare that she deserves the worst just for her poor taste in prose, but then I actually read what she wrote. And lightening struck.
Here is the passage Hornstine lifted, more or less intact, from Clinton's Thanksgiving proclamation of 2000. I dare you to try to read the entire thing:
At Thanksgiving this year and every year, in worship services and family celebrations across our country, Americans carry on that tradition of giving, sharing not only with family and friends, but also with those in need throughout their communities.
Every generation of Americans has benefited from the generosity, talents, efforts and contributions of their fellow citizens. All of us have been enriched by the diverse cultures, traditions and beliefs of the millions of people who, by birth or choice, have come to call America their home. All of us are beneficiaries of our founders' wisdom and of the service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform. While Americans are an independent people, we are interdependent as well, and our greatest achievements are those we have accomplished together.
As we celebrate Thanksgiving, let us remember with gratitude that despite our differences in background, age, politics or race, each of us is a member of our larger American family and that, working together, there is nothing we cannot accomplish in this promising new century.
Can't do it, can you? My mind was wandering before I got through the first sentence, and reading bad writing is part of my job. Hornstine's chief creative act was to make Clinton's words even worse: Where the president was satisfied to tell us that "there is nothing we cannot accomplish," Hornstine had the inspired mediocrity to add "in this promising new century."
If a writer's going to plagiarize, this is obviously the best way to escape detection. To catch her, you don't just have to stay awake through her alleged work; you have to remember hearing those exquisitely unmemorable words sometime before. And if you do remember hearing those words before, you'll still have to shrug off the obvious conclusion that that's because they're all clichés anyway.
Yes, I know: Our little Tracy Flick did get caught, so her method didn't work. But that's only because she got greedy and sued her school for the right to be its sole valedictorian, an act so egregiously petty that it launched an army of levelers itching to take her down. If she had left well enough alone, surely her thefts would have remained undetected. They would have served their purpose: not to delight or inform those who read them, but to let her add another extracurricular activity to her Harvard application.
1. The majority of the people who trumpeted the "children's prison" story will not feel bad about circulating what turned out to be misinformation, on the grounds that Saddam's regime did a lot of other bad things and, besides, it says here that conditions at the orphanage were pretty lousy anyway.
2. Despite that, almost none of them will cease to bash us folks on the other side of the war debate when we cite stories that are believable when they first appear but then turn out to be untrue. That's the way these things work. Everyone makes mistakes; everyone focuses all their attention on the other crowd's mistakes; everyone gets all self-righteous and declares that they'll never believe anything they hear from The New York Times/the BBC/The Wall Street Journal editorial page/InstaPundit/whatever again; no one makes the same declarations about the erring organs on their own side.
I actually believed the children's prison story myself, and I'm a card-carrying dove. So what does that make me? Open-minded, or just a more catholic sap?
CHAN IS MISSING: The Fox Movie Channel says that it "will discontinue the broadcast of the Charlie Chan mystery films. Originally restored to meet the requests of mystery fans and film preservation buffs, Fox Movie Channel scheduled these films in a showcase intended to illustrate the positive aspects of these movies such as the complex story lines/ characters and Charlie Chan's great intellect....However, Fox Movie Channel has been made aware that the Charlie Chan films may contain situations or depictions that are sensitive to some viewers. Fox Movie Channel realizes that these historic films were produced at a time where racial sensitivities were not as they are today."
By contrast, my favorite cable channel, Turner Classic Movies, broadcasts these films frequently and without excisions. One of them actually had Charlie Chan onscreen with Steppin Fetchit, which I suppose is the racist's equivalent to teaming up Superman with Batman, Dracula with Frankenstein, or Domingo with Pavarotti.
Was it offensive? Yes, but it's also part of our history, and I'm glad it's available to those of us who happen to be interested in the past. Besides, one or two of those movies are actually pretty good, if you can get past the racial stereotyping. I recommend Charlie Chan on Broadway, a surprisingly well-crafted piece of pulp. Don't worry: It isn't the one with Steppin Fetchit.