Friday, September 15, 2017


Description of the World - Part 68


Yet Another Resumption of Unclear Jesting in the Atmosphere

Michael Johnston, Political Corruption and Public Policy in America (I’v got this book because it happened to be published by a company I was working for. I also knew its author. He was a freshly minted PhD at the University of Pittsburgh when I met him but already a pretty well known mavin on political corruption. I gather he’s still working on that topic as an emeritus prof at Dartmouth. He’s hardly a fan of graft, but he doesn’t look at it as simply something to be ritually deplored. It is, among other things, a way of getting things done, some of them worth doing, so as with so many other things, it depends. Patrolling the potholed byways of Pennsylvania, you could easily understand why people reacted to the bit about the road to Hell by saying “at least it’s paved!” And if bad intentions work as well or better than good ones? The blogger Atrios wished out loud the other day that the crooked pols of his end of the state would figure out how to make their corrupt profits improving the roads instead of subsidizing useless shopping malls and impractical technologies. We could certainly use a better class of grifters. My wife had very little use for Johnston, who was a big sloppy man who chugged beer with abandon—I thought he was jovial; and big or not, he could certainly play softball. Rita predicted an early death for him, but he’s still around 40 years later. Apparently her actuarial instincts were no better than her taste in husbands.)

David Hunt, Parents & Children in History: The Psychology of Family Life in Early Modern France (Earthquakes have aftershocks of decreasing intensity and so do books. This small volume is an aftershock of Phillippe Aries, Centuries of Childhood, which was officially a BFD in the 1960s, though Aries’ claim that children were regarded as merely little adults before modern times, that childhood was, at it were, invented has lost a lot of ground, in part because of the efforts of people like Hunt. His response to Aries reminds me of the way Foucault was received. “Very interesting,” said one friend of mine apropos of Madness in the Classic Age, “but has he done his homework?” Foucault turned out to be much more fecund than Aries, but the knock is the same. On the other hand, some of the archival material Hunt reviews from the time of Richelieu shows that childhood has certainly changed even if it wasn’t exactly invented. Nobody should really be surprised at this. After all, in the same years when the juvenile Dauphin of France could gaily wave his cock (coq?) in front of the ladies in waiting without getting investigated by the FBI, the young Gargantua was conducting extensive research on the best way to wipe your ass. [Since nobody but me reads old books any more, I should perhaps pause here to report his conclusion in the interest of science, if not hygiene. The optimal butt wipe is a live goose, but you’ve got to keep the beak under control.])

Richard Hofstadter, The American Political Tradition (I was going to say that I never got around to reading this book, but the underlinings show that I did. [here, I took a tenth month break in writing this paragraph the better to enjoy the disaster that probably verified Hofstadter’s conclusions if I could remember what those conclusions were.]

Peter  Vansittart, Voices from the Great War (As I’ve probably remarked too many times already and probably in almost the same words, World War I remains the real Great War for me. The sequel was bigger, vastly more expensive, deadlier, and had much better special effects; but it couldn’t improve on the horror of the founding stupidity of the short Twentieth Century. I also keep up an interest in WWI because I’ve been able to experience how what was still a living memory of a shattering event became the answer to a multiple choice question or, at most, another filler for the History channel. For most Americans, the war has failed to qualify as sacred history, i.e. to pass muster as one of the handful of foundational myths like Washington or the Civil War; but it hasn’t failed by that much, which makes it an interesting case.

But back to the book. This little compilation of very short contemporaneous reports, quotations, and poems arranged in chronological order is depressing rather than challenging unlike Nicholaus Baker’s corresponding effort, Human Smoke, which commits premeditated outrage on pieties about the Good War. Still, there are enough surprises in Voices to remind us that objects as complex as major wars can’t be defined by simple adjectives. For example, it’s easy to think of the famous denunciation of dulce et decorum est as the fundamental message of the war poets, but Wilfred Owen could write:

       As bronze may be much beautified
       By lying in the dark, damp soil,
       So men who fade in dust of warfare fade
       Fairer, and sorrow blooms their soul.

       Like pearls which noble women wear
      And, tarnishing, awhile confide
      Unto the old salt sea to feed,
      Many return more lustrous than they were

That’s not quite 

      I sometimes think that never blows so red
      The Rose as where some buried Caesar bled.

but it isn’t froth corrupted lungs either.

E.P.Thompson, Customs in Common: Studies in Traditional Popular Culture (This late work of Thompson about the nature and political meaning of English customs is less forceful that his earlier and better known writings. The ifs, ands, and buts accumulate in the ideological arteries of the old lefty as they do, for that matter, in the circulatory system of any scholar who hasn’t become a booking agent for own greatest hits tour. You keep pouring over the evidence and adjusting your conclusion so that eventually the parts where you take it back choke off the parts where you put it out.

Thompson always knew this much: the lived experience of ordinary people can’t be boiled down to formulae; and the culture of the people is a moving target, not a mass of eternal mores. The Levi-Strauss bit about cold cultures is misleading—the folk have a history same as everybody else. They just they have less ability to remember it, and that creates an effect of antiquity. Seventy years ago is time out of mind for them so folkways of fairly recent vintage seem vestiges of the Dreamtime and are treasured as such. In fact, it’s the people in the big houses that have durable records, though they also overestimate their powers of memory. What they don’t forget is what you owe, which is why burning the charters is such a standard feature of peasant revolts.

Mikhail Heller, Cogs in the Wheel: the Formation of Soviet Man (There’s the event, its tendency, how it was remembered, when it was remembered, how its remembering at a given time was itself an event… Evidently we’re dealing with very few scalars and the tensors in question are of a fairly high order. It’s like writing a time travel story and finding that there just aren’t enough tenses in the English language. This book is interesting to me to look over in 2017 as much because it was written in the middle of the 1980s and translated into English in 1988 as because of any interpretation it supplies of Soviet history. I’m not suggesting it’s dated. All books are dated, though some of ‘em are more suited to having their dates ignored than others.* Fact is, I don’t remember Heller’s book well enough to make a reasoned judgment about that; and, in any case, you have to take into account the time of the initial reading and the time of the reading of the marginal notes by a being who is surely dated himself and unlikely to be eternalized and who, anyhow, read Red Plenty between time t1 and time t2.

Heller was a refugee from the USSR and had an emigre’s chip on his shoulder. That hardly disqualifies his analysis, but the polemical point of his book makes more sense in terms of the time when he escaped Russia than the time when he wrote the book. I’m reminded of a textbook of historical geology I once read that was written by some profs in Michigan. When these fellow started out to write, the pre-tectonic plate understanding of continent formation was still credible and must have seemed very natural to geologists who had done field work all their lives hammering away on ancient metamorphic rocks from the North American craton. By the time they finished, as they admitted in a rather remarkable preface, the evidence for plate tectonics had become overwhelming. Heller’s timing was even worse. The introduction to the English edition was mostly a long warning that Gorbachev would turn out like all the others. It was as if Frege had got the book out before he got the postcard from Bertrand Russell. Heller had a deeper problem, though. He seems to have treated the Soviet system as more monolithic and unchangeable than it ever actually was. Although it’s useful to learn that glasnost and perestroika were invoked by earlier incoming party leaders, even early on in the Gorbachev era—before Heller wrote his Introduction, in fact—it was pretty clear that the meaning of these cliches were mutating. Both the insiders and their external critics had a motive to deny that anything ever changed. The ridiculously stilted party argot was useful to both sides to prove their point. The Reds were always building the new socialist order and creating a new man. The Communists were always constructing an infernal machine to turn men into cogs.

Heller didn’t think that the Soviet system would go on forever. He knew that empires get old and fall, either by internal decay or the intervention of external forces; and he was aware that the technological change was presenting the Reds with a challenge they were especially ill prepared to meet, the advent of the information economy. Still, I tend to be more of a Hegelian about what actually happened than Heller for whom the end of the game must have seemed like the bursting of a bubble. The regime could have persisted for a long time if its leaders continued the old policy of hypocrisy and band aids. It was Gorbachev’s sincerity that finished it off. Trying to live up to the Communist promise was fatal. He actually believed the dream. 

*Reading sub specie aeternitatis is a rather specialized activity. You have to be taught how to ignore context in philosophy school, though a number of history majors seemed to have acquire the skill through independent study. A naive reading looks like the default approach because it is superficially similar to a reading simplified by mere ignorance when it is actually the willful scrubbing of the paint off all those marble statues. We’re talking here about a premeditated innocence. Incidentally. To admit that is not to criticize the approach.

Saturday, February 11, 2017


A Data Point


I had occasion to recall an incident of my youth in a Quora thread. I repeat it here to establish a reliable historical record.


When I was young, I walked in my sleep. Once while I was at college I woke up with muddy feet, dressed only in a tuxedo jacket. What was especially alarming about that was that at the time the campus was being terrorized (if that’s the right word) by some guy who urinated in the dead of night on the flower beds in front of the women’s dorms. I was afraid I might have been the mad pisser (as people called him). Fortunately for me, the real mad pisser kept getting madder and soon revealed himself in broad daylight by urinating from a bell tower on a passing philosophy professor.
 


In the Quora thread, somebody misunderstood the story and asked “Philosophy Professor? That seems most appropriate. Why did they consider him mad?” I responded:



The philosopher professor certainly wasn’t mad. In fact he was a rather eminent man in his field—he’s got a Wikipedia page—and was regarded with great respect and affection by the students and faculty. His moral earnestness—I almost wrote innocence—did strike some of the more irreverent among us as amusing, which probably accounts for the “improved” versions of what happened at the end of the mad pisser saga. The story ran that eyewitnesses saw the prof holding out his palm as if to see if it were raining and then looked up… That picture is almost too perfect, and I didn’t include the detail in the interest of journalistic accuracy. It is mere hearsay. On the other hand, it is true that the bell tower, a then recent addition to the school paid for by a rich alumnus named Smith, was known locally as Smith’s last erection.
 

Monday, December 19, 2016


Residual Karma


I search for the ripening remains of what were once desires,
Circling the place where I forgot some great event
Long ago, when my wings weren’t black.
The body lives but the soul is carrion.

In the Aztec eschaton
To reach their ultimate annihilation,
The dead must journey a hard journey
On the other side of the grave.
I pace that stony road before the furnace,
A dung beetle rolling his own corpse.

Well,
Not being is nothing to be concerned about:
There’s no bad weather in that abyss,
And lots of interesting company:
Heroes, philosophers, saints,
Achilles, Immanuel Kant, four-sided triangles,
Rabbit-ducks,
Hopping and paddling through lakes of clover,
Things red and green all over,
Virtual particles in perpetual motion,
And even the edifying notion,
Which should end this lament.
All these things aren’t and will be my companions there,
But it’s the death I live that oppresses me.
Somebody forgot to turn the lights off.

Friday, November 11, 2016


Self Reliant to the End, He Drove Himself to the Autopsy

In many of the postmortems I'm detecting what I'll call the fallacy of intellectual optimism, the notion, understandably popular among thinking people, that understanding things solves all problems. I don't doubt that Clinton and her supporters could have been done things better—when is that ever not true?—but I don't discount the possibility that some sort of disaster was inevitable. Small differences in the votes in a few states might easily have resulted in an electoral as well as a popular majority for Clinton, but nearly half the country would still have been rabidly against her. I'd certainly prefer to undergo the Purgatory of a bitterly contested Clinton administration than the Hell of a Trump regime, but there are deep reasons why a happy outcome may have been impossible. We underestimate how profoundly the transition of America from a white Christian country to a genuinely multicultural and multiethnic nation affects the would-be Herrenvolk. They actually are losing out, at least relatively; and a better analysis of the situation isn't going to change that anymore than a definite diagnosis of end stage lung cancer means you aren't going to die. The rise of women in business and politics is perhaps even more difficult for men, white, black, Asian, or Hispanic, to stomach. If you're a man and doing well, the equality of the sexes may be unproblematic or profoundly welcome. For a great many men, however, that is not the case. On top of all this, modestly skilled and educated people are simply less valuable in a high tech world. That is also a fact. Trump is offering this huge group imaginary solutions to their declining fortunes, but over the medium term, there aren’t anything but imaginary solutions apart from the usual weak tea. How is understanding the plight of the Trump voters in the face of this pile of social and economic revolutions supposed to help politically?  We all have an obligation to try to find answers, but that doesn't mean there are any, at least in the short run.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016


A Charitable Hope 

In the Last Emperor there was a scene in which the imperial eunuchs, suddenly out of a job because of the revolution, are dismissed from service. Each one is given a little black bag that contains his balls so that all of them would leave service with everything they came into it with. One hopes that at the end of this election, Trump will have the decency to give Pence, Giuliani, Christie, and Priebus their little black bags....

Monday, September 26, 2016


Description of the World - Part 67


Richard Jenkyns, The Victorians and Ancient Greece (The past is always with us, but it isn’t the same past. I’m still waiting for the publication of The Greeks: Who the Hell Were They? because it’s been a long time since I’ve had any confidence in my ability to distinguish my own blurry view of antiquity from the images in the hall of mirrors. The Greeks themselves began the process of idealizing their own reality in Hellenistic times by selection and editing, and the work of definition and redefinition has proceeded ever since. There’s a heavy element of recursion at work in this process since we not only have a changing view of the Greeks but a changing view of the various takes that have been taken of the Greeks before us and even some appreciation of the effects of becoming aware of the history of the interpretations. Maybe each layer of reflection is only 1/137 as important as the one before—I don’t know if there’s such a thing as the fine structure constant in hermeneutics—but the summed result is an enormous, baroquely complicated object of thought.

Francis L. Wellman, The Art of Cross-Examination, Fourth Edition (I don’t know if I’ve every used the methods suggested in this eminently practical book, but some of the quoted transcripts are memorable. Thing is, though, I found myself sympathizing with the witnesses caught up by the cleverness of the lawyers that crossed ‘em like the paranoid at a commitment hearing who was jollied along for a couple of hours until he was disarmed into simply admitting, “Yes, I am the Christ.” The downfall of Oscar Wilde comes across rather differently now than it must have when Wellman commented on it. Well, I’m guessing that whether you root for the prosectors or defendants on Law and Order rerurns reveals a great deal about a person.)

Interlinear Greek-English New Testament, ed. George Berry (The volume is out of place. I moved it from the other room a couple of weeks ago to check my memory on how the Bible winds up. I had thought that the last verse of Revelation was “Verily, come quickly lord Jesus.” Close but not quite. It’s the next to last verse that testifies (literally) to the impatience of the believers for the end of the world and the language is a bit more indirect than I remembered: “He which testifieth these things saith, Surely I come quickly. Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus.” To be fair (or merely accurate), the fact that the Bible concludes with an apocalypse doesn’t mean that Christians always obsessed about end things. Much as the Jews were always nervous about Ezekiel, the Christians, especially the establishment ones, tended to soft-peddle the Revelation of St. John because eschatology is politically dangerous. As Nietzsche knew, religions tend to moderate the craziness that gave them birth, as per the self-sealing radiator theory of the sociology of religion. Unfortunately, religions are as likely to neutralize what was good as what was bad in their origins. The Zen Buddhists say “If you meet Buddha on the road, kill him” The Christians didn’t waste any time when they met their founder on the road.)

Theodore Zeldin, France 1848-1945: Intellect and Pride (This is the first section of the author’s much longer book on France. I read the long version again last year. Oddly, I don’t think I ever got through this excerpt, which I must have acquired in the late 70s. It’s a damning inditement of my character that I find it easier to slog through two fat volumes than to read a shorter work.)

Gordon W. Prange, At Dawn We Slept: the Untold Story of Pearl Harbor(Prange was an obsessive researcher who piled up the materials for this definitive work on the outbreak of war for something like 35 years but never got around to finishing it. Donald Goldstein and Katherine Dillon finalized the book. Prange served as MacArthur’s house historian during the first several years of the occupation of Japan so he had access to huge amounts of information. As with any historical event, there are plenty of things we don’t know about what happened. There aren’t any grand or nefarious mysteries, however. Nevertheless, 700 (or 7,000) pages of documentation won’t convince conspiracy mongers from insisting that FDR let the whole disaster take place as part of his plan to get us in the war. Long before I read Prange, I wondered how anybody could believe that the government wanted half the fleet sunk. After all, a failed surprise attack on Hawaii would have gotten us into the war just as surely as a successful one. That argument didn’t work on my mother, who was sure that Roosevelt and Churchill planned the whole thing.)

Thomas Carlyle, The French Revolution, Thomas Carlyle (Long before Hunter Thompson, Carlyle pioneered a style of prose that leaves you out of breath even if you read it silently. Of course this work is especially dash ridden, even for Carlyle, at least in part because the version we have is actually a rewritten work, a long book reconstructed after the original manuscript was accidentally burned up by John Steward Mill’s valet. Some of the mannerisms also hark back to a German writer almost unknown among English speaking people, Jean Paul Richter. A random sample that can stand for many others: “It is the baptism day of Democracy; sick Time has given it birth, the numbered months being run. The extreme-unction day of Feudalism! A superannuated System of Society, decrepit with toils (for has it not done much; produced you, and what ye have and know!)—and with thefts and brawls, named glorious-victories; and with profligacies, sensualities, and on the whole with dotage and senility,—is now to die; and so, with death-throes and birth-throes, a new one is to be born. What a work, O Earth and Heavens, what a work! Battles and bloodshed, September Massacres, Bridges of Lodi, retreats of Moscow, Waterloos, Peterloo, Tenpound Franchises, Tarbarrels and Guillotines;—and from this present date, if one might prophesy, some two centuries of it still to fight! Two centuries; hardly less; before Democracy go through its due, most baleful stages of Quackocracy; and a pestilential World be burnt up, and have to grow green and young again.”  For the record, the day Carlyle describes wasn’t the Fall of the Bastille or even the Tennis Court oath but simply May 4th, 1789, the ceremonial opening of the Estates General. Excitable kid.)

Tuesday, September 20, 2016


We Have Met the Enemy

Seven years ago I quoted this passage from Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism.  Seems like it’s time to quote it again:
“A mixture of gullibility and cynicism had been an outstanding characteristic of mob mentality before it became an everyday phenomenon of masses. In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think everything was possible and that nothing was true. The mixture in itself was remarkable enough, because it spelled the end of the illusion that gullibility was a weakness of unsuspecting primitive souls and cynicism the vice of superior and refined minds. Mass propaganda discovered that the audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow. The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.”
That’s very well and calmly said, though it had to help that the fascist nightmare she was writing about was over with when she wrote it. The same ideas probably need to be rephrased now in cruder and more imperative terms, especially for folks for whom the Hitlerzeit is no longer part of living memory. Trump’s transparent lies work because they have a ready audience. It’s hard to con an honest man, but not hard to con 40% of the American population. Trump may be a distorted reflection of the character of half the nation; but, to reverse an old joke of Lichtenberg’s, if an ape is looking out of the mirror, it’s not because an apostle is looking in. Trump doesn’t have supporters. He has accomplices.
Trump isn’t the truth of America, but he’s one of the truths. When people talk about the natural conservatism of the country, they’re really pointing to the deeply entrenched strains of racism and aggressive nationalism that are just as much a part of our heritage as respect for law or generosity towards other people. Conservatives haven’t won elections since Eisenhower because the people are determined to limit the size of government and bolster federalism. They’re voting white. They’re voting for bomb ‘em and take their oil.
That said, pointing out that Trump’s supporters bear the responsibility for Trump is probably not good politics. It’s probably smarter to come up with explanations for why otherwise good people might be tempted to vote for him even though most Republicans and many non-Republicans support him not because they don’t understand what he is but because they damned well do. I just figure we better get used to dealing with the dark side. It’s not going to go away even if Trump loses.