Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Should Kids Study 9/11?

The Atlantic asks, "What should American schoolkids learn about 9/11?" Offering yet more proof of the stunning effectiveness of the American public school system, increasingly, it seems, US school kids are not entirely clear what happened on 9/11/2001. "When Ms. Engelhart asked her class what happened on 9/11, eight out of 24 of her students knew that something bad occurred but were not sure what, while the rest of her class did not know the day is significant." Ms. Englehart: teacher of the year.

The memory hole is widening quicker than the ozone hole at this point. General knowledge about history seems to go something like: "1. The Life of Jesus, 2. America kicked some Nazi ass!, 3. I was born." It's not just kids either. Last year, a director of our university's general education program ended a meeting by telling us, "The next meeting is on November 22nd. So, everyone remember November 22nd, although honestly, I have no idea how you could remember that date!" And, trust me, she was absolutely 100% serious about that.

The problem with 9/11 is that teachers aren't sure what lessons students can take from the event. Ms. Englehart wonders if the event has a "teachable moral" that students can "take away" from it. How about "Even psychotics, if they work hard and sacrifice, can accomplish their dreams"? People are still unsure what the attacks meant in the long run. Was the War on Terror an appropriate response, or even a decent reading of 9/11? Did the US mistake a group of criminals' psychotic reaction for a military action? Has anything that happened, before or since, made any sense, in any sort of context? Does history make any sense? Are our historical narratives works of interpretive genius? Or are they workable delusions?

Of course, though, we don't study the past looking for portable life lessons. We study the past to understand the present, and the world today is different than it was in August, 2001; that's a good argument for studying 9/11/2001. Sometimes random and senseless acts of violence have unforeseeable but sweeping consequences. But, here's the thing: every event has unforeseeable consequences. History can be fleshed out and understood, but still be meaningless. For the most part, we're stumbling around about 95% of the time, which is a good argument only for stumbling as slowly as possible. But, perhaps, that's the lesson worth learning. Just a suggestion.

Postscript: Poor Ms. Englehart! It occurs to me that she might have been asking that question as a way of introducing the subject, in order to teach her students about 9/11. And here I am kicking the poor woman!


Movie Notes: Antichrist (2009)

Lars von Trier's film Antichrist has been controversial since its showings at the Cannes and Toronto film festivals earlier this year, and that judgment is not likely to change when it gets a wider release. To be frank, many of you reading this will not want to see the movie Antichrist. To be even more frank, at about an hour and twenty minutes into the film, Charlotte Gainsbourg mutilates her genitals with a pair of scissors, in extreme close-up. And maybe the most shocking thing about that scene is that it's actually totally germane to the plot of the film. It pretty much belongs there. Not a date movie.

Okay, now that we've lost pretty much everyone, did I like the movie? Well, not if you mean, did I have an enjoyable time? But, it is a visually-stunning film that deals quite directly with the eternal tension between nature and culture, and tries to evoke, or even explain the history of religious misogyny in Western civilization. It's hard to think of any other current filmmakers who would, or even could, aim so high. So, I would give it the award for audacity. It's a daring, brilliant, maybe even a great movie. No, I didn't like watching it.

Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe play a couple (listed as He and She in the credits) whose child falls from a window while they are distracted by lovemaking. This sends She into a serious depression, which He tries to treat with intensive psychology- Dafoe plays a therapist in the film. The couple goes to a secluded cabin in the woods in order to confront her fear of nature and things go from bad to worse. His rationalist psychology is defenseless against the increasingly malicious natural surroundings and increasingly irrational partner. From the point in which a dying fox tells Him that "chaos reigns", the movie begins its descent into full-blown madness.

The woods are called "Eden" and, as that suggests, the film makes extensive use of symbolism. How you feel about the movie might depend on how you feel about symbolism. For me, symbolism works if the filmmaker goes all the way with it, which von Trier certainly does. Also, I tend not to see symbols as having one correct answer, but evoking any number of things in a sort of dream logic. There is a funny scene in Antichrist in which She says, of His nightmares that dreams don't matter in modern psychology. "Freud is dead, isn't he?"

Freud is dead because the irrational subconscious has been explained away. But, for von Trier, the irrational corresponds to nature, which is disordered and violent. As She becomes irrational, He tries to control her, and finally fails. The Apollonian and Dionysian battle through the last half hour of the film. Ultimately, his rationalist Western worldview has to resort to "gynocide" in order to survive; but nature has its revenge in the final shot.

Watching the film, I was reminded of everything from Bergman's Hour of the Wolf and Persona, to Medea. The visuals draw explicitly from Medieval woodprints of witches and other Christian imagery, and are often startling. The dialogue includes such gems as "Nature is Satan's church" and "Women do not control their own bodies; nature does."

It's probably best not to have any opinion of Lars von Trier before watching this film. He is often called a "provocateur", a slur that roughly translated means: "Don't pay attention to his work; he's just trying to get a response". I sort of wonder of von Trier made the film for anyone but himself. He is often criticized for "misogyny", and there is no doubt that he will be for this movie. While I think the film's subject is misogyny, I think his point is that woman-hatred comes from a masculine sense of frailty in the face of a natural world that cannot be controlled. Ultimately, I think he's making a horror film that suggests misogyny is at the core of all horror films and religious parables. Actually, to go even further, I think his attack is on the misogynist underpinnings of western rationalism as such.

You get the point that this movie is not fluff. Judging by the reviews I've seen, if you don't take von Trier seriously from the outset, you'll think Antichrist is pretentious nonsense intended to piss off the viewer. If you take the director and the movie seriously, you might come to the same conclusions, but you'll still spend hours thinking through the movie, trying to figure out just what was intended. I think that's the proper response.


Michael Moore, Catholicism, and Poverty

Here's a clip that I think gets at what has always bothered me about Michael Moore. It really isn't so much that I think the questions he (maybe) raises aren't good ones, and I suppose one could say his heart is in the right place, although I'm skeptical. But I think it's an issue of his tone: I find it hard to get past the self-aggrandizement and smug ill will that he projects. Here, Wolf Blitzer asks him a fairly anodyne question and he acts like he's deeply offended, both as a person and as a Catholic. More on that in a second.

Admittedly, Claire and I watched a Canadian documentary called Manufacturing Dissent that did a fairly good job of deflating Michael Moore, and I think made it sort of impossible to take him seriously. The filmmakers are liberals and their film began as a celebration of Moore, but eventually, they found it hard to square his supposed ideals with the way he treats his employees, interview subjects, and ultimately his audience. I watched it thinking "Okay, well Roger & Me was still good, right?" And then they explained that well, no, Moore really was allowed to interview Roger Smith and just faked the footage in which his mic is turned off at the shareholders meeting. So, there goes that one too.

Manufacturing Dissent
is interesting too because the critiques they make are specifically Canadian. They're arguing that the American political system has been poisoned by these celebrity mountebanks whose primary allegiance is to themselves, and then maybe to some party that also wants power, and they believe Canadians should avoid growing its own Michael Moores or Rush Limbaughs. Of course, Canadian politics come with their own dysfunctionalities; but that's not to say the filmmakers don't have a point.

The problem I have with people like Michael Moore or Rush Limbaugh is that, instead of seeing a discussion as a way that we mutually arrive at truths about the world, they see it as a war, in which one takes positions whose value is not based in truth at all, but in how devastating they are to the other "side". They instrumentalize "ideas" in order to beat the other guy and see their relative truth values as irrelevant. When Moore makes an empty statement, like saying we should replace capitalism with Christianity, I have no sense that he means it, or how such a thing would even be possible; and I doubt that he either knows or cares.

In a sort of oblique way, Moore gets at an interesting question about what moral obligations we have in a capitalist society, although I don't think he sees it as a question. I often say that I was not raised Catholic, but I was raised by Catholics. And I hear the Catholic dog whistle he blows here. It's probably the same with other religions, but indeed I was raised with the idea of having a responsibility for the world, particularly for the oppressed and the poor. My parents certainly were not believers in "liberation theology", or even Catholic theology, to be honest. But, we still had the sense that caring for the sick and the poor is just the duty you're born with, which most of us, myself highlighted, fail to carry out.

do we have a moral obligation to provide for the sick and the poor, if we can? And, if so, how should we carry it out? Should Catholics be out tubthumping for universal health care, or welfare, or a stronger social safety net? I suspect that's what Moore is getting at, and honestly, I don't know. I wish you could safely ask the questions without people getting angry!

Or should these things just be a matter of individual charity? I always took Dostoevsky's grand inquisitor parable as suggesting that a state that buys its people's love with food and shelter will also remove the conditions of their freedom, and hence their chance for individual salvation. And many critiques of "socialism" take the same position; if you remove chance or contingency from people's lives, they won't be free, and therefore unable to do good or evil. But, then you start wondering if the idea there isn't that poverty is a good motivator to religious faith and so maybe the church is buying devotion instead. Maybe there are no atheists in soup lines.

And, of course, some people, at least seemingly, see poverty as the result of immorality.
Sometimes, when I talk to people about things like health care reform, or welfare, or other sorts of social safety nets, they'll say something along the lines of, "It's just not right to take money from the good people who work and give it to the deadbeats who don't." In a sense, I see what they're getting at, and I can't see how paying taxes could be a moral act. And there certainly are deadbeats in the world, although in my experience, no social group has a monopoly on them. But, I suppose I was raised to see the issue of whether the poor are "deserving" or "undeserving" as being beside the point, and basically a way of avoiding your obligation. Because, in the end, Christ didn't say, "Whatever you do for one of these least brothers of Mine, you do for me.... but, uh, don't do anything for the deadbeats, especially Chuck!"

Maybe it's different with the other Christian denominations. I always got the feeling that Protestants, with their work ethic, see being poor as a sign that you're probably not a member of the elect. On the other hand, I also had the feeling that Catholics see being wealthy as a sign that you're in trouble! But I haven't really got any idea what sort of ethical system actually teaches that poverty is the result of immorality. Well, aside from Objectivism, which is just horseshit anyway.

Of course, I'm not a believer. And I've likely pissed off any believers who might be reading this! Sorry about that. I will say that, personally, I have no idea what our ethical obligations are in modern society. I'm not exactly sure what Moore expects from Catholics. But, he does sort of raise an interesting question, at least to me. Finally, I'm probably wrong here too, but one question that's been on my mind as of late: I always thought that, when it came to "universal health care" the Catholic position was: 1. No abortion, 2. No euthanasia, but 3. if the first two requirements are met, Catholics want universal health care. So, it would be good to hear from practicing Catholics on the issue, and not some guy trying to score political points.


Tuesday, September 29, 2009


Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Lobster Index

I just talked to my father for a while on the phone. As you might remember, my father is a lobsterman in Maine. He has his own boat and a few hundred traps; this is pretty much how he makes his living. Anyway, currently lobster is selling very cheap because many people consider it to be a luxury food. It occurs to me that "the lobster index" might be one way to gauge the state of the US economy. I don't know if lobster is a "lagging indicator", but for my father and most of the people on his island, it is pretty much central to the economy.

So, currently the going price for lobster is $2.75/lb. I will update if the price goes up or down. I'll also note that, for those of you who like lobster, it is possible to get it for about the same price as hamburger currently.


Friday, September 25, 2009

Appropos of Nothing

Just one of those moments, while waiting for the tram. The rain, the light, the graffiti. The stupid red boat of a building.


Today in Latin

Actually, here's one I posted a little over a year ago, whilst in France.

Tondere: To clip, to shear, to mow.
French: Tondre: To clip, to shear, to mow.

Ovid: Boni pastoris est tondere pecus, non deglubere.
The translation I like is: "A good shepherd shears his sheep; he doesn't flay them."

It's a nice line to remember right around tax time!


The Qusayr 'Amra Hall

The hall known as Qusayr 'Amra is the most famous of the desert castles in Eastern Jordan, and one of the world's best relics of early Islamic art and architecture. It was built during the Umayyad Dynasty by the Caliph Walid I, most likely between the years 711 and 715. It is close to Amman off of Highway 41, and is a popular tourist destination. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is currently being restored. The site is important for Islamic history, and offers a surprising peek at European History.

This peek comes in the buildings famous murals, like the following:
Probably the most memorable fresco features bathing women. It is something of a surprise to see nudes in Islamic art. Actually, my sister, who lives in Morocco, was surprised to hear that images of humans were once common in Islamic art, including images of Muhammad. In this case, we should remember that the Qusayr 'Amra hall was not a religious building; it was probably a hunting lodge for the Caliph and his friends.

This image gives a nice idea of the people of the dynasty in the 8th century and how they lived.
Here is the dome. Note the signs of the zodiac. This was part of the intellectual milieu of the medieval era, although again, it is something of a surprise.
For me, the most interesting mural is the one known as the image of the six kings. The caliph is shown with other rulers of the time, who he is understood to have surpassed. Some suggest that this draws from a tradition in the ancient and medieval world of a family of kings. In several Persian sources, such as Ferdowsi, the kings of the world are all brothers. The Greek word for victory was found nearby, suggesting the caliph's supremacy. The Umayyad Dynasty is thus shown as the conqueror, but also the inheritor of the dynasties it conquered.

The first four figures in the painting are the Byzantium emperor, the Persian Shah, the Ethiopian Negus, and the Visigothic king, Roderick, confirmed through Greek and Arabic inscriptions superscribed over each leader. The last two are the Chinese Emperor and the Turkish Khan, who were not conquered by the Caliph.

The reason this is an interesting source for European History is that it is a nearly contemporary image of Roderick, the last Visigothic king, who was killed when the Muslims invaded Spain in 711. He died in either 711 or 712. The first written account of him appears in 741, but very little specific information remains. We know that he ruled parts of Iberia, it is believed that he was an usurper of some sort, and we know that he died. The story of his ill-fated passion for the beautiful La Cava is repeated in several Spanish myths, and is the basis for Handel's Rodrigo.

But this is the closest thing we have to a newspaper picture of Roderick.


The Afghan School Project

Yesterday, we talked about the non-military steps that could be taken to create a functional society in Afghanistan. Moreover, we started asking about ways that we can pitch in. Allow me to suggest The Afghan School Project. The Project is a Canadian grassroots initiative that serves the Afghan-Canadian Community Center (ACCC), an educational facility in Kandahar. According to the site: "The ACCC provides more than 700 women and men with the opportunity to receive education in Business Management, Information Technology, English and Health care, while providing members of the community with access to the Internet and online classes from Canadian and international institutions."

They take small donations and it's possible to "adopt a student" for $10-20/ month. Or about what it costs to buy lunch at my university!

I agree with Brian that opportunities for trade will enrich Afghan society, and I will try to post more microfinance organizations here as I find them. But, even more importantly- a society needs people with the education and skills to make a life for themselves, no matter what they decide to do. For me, one of the few bright spots in the Afghan engagement has been the dramatic uptick in enrollment of girls in schools. This is an unquestionable good.

Maybe I should admit my bias as a future educator: of course I believe that education is central to living a happy life. And, as a child of the Enlightenment, I remain convinced of the centrality of an educated citizenry to the survival of an open society. The ideal of a country filled with intellectually independent and enlightened citizens has, admittedly, never been fully achieved anywhere. But a society in which only certain citizens can develop their ability to reason for themselves is in no way free, democratic, or open. And I think this is why the insurgent attacks on schools for girls are more ominous and upsetting, to my mind, than any other terrorist attacks. Attacking educators with violence is as much an indicator of a pathological psychology as torturing animals. There are, of course, always legitimate critiques to be made of educators and educational systems; that's something I do here. But, mark my words: He who takes violent steps against educators today will be goose stepping tomorrow.


Thursday, September 24, 2009

Today in Art

Caravaggio, "Salome with the head of John the Baptist" 1609. Most likely the old woman in the background is Herodias, the mother of Salome. Herodias had urged her daughter to obtain the killing of John the Baptist because he had stated that her marriage to Herod was unlawful. Hence Salome's unquiet look here.

"But she being instructed before by her mother, said: Give me here in a dish the head of John the Baptist. And the king was struck sad: yet because of his oath, and for them that sat with him at table, he commanded it to be given. And he sent, and beheaded John in the prison.

And his head was brought in a dish: and it was given to the damsel, and she brought it to her mother. And his disciples came and took the body, and buried it, and came and told Jesus."
-Matthew 14: 6-11

Caravaggio is known for the deep darkness of his images. Perhaps his most famous image is also a decapitation- 'Judith beheading Holofernes'.


Hell and Back

Should I stay or should I go now? If I go there could be trouble. But if I stay, it could be double. Come on and let me know...

The United States is currently trying to decide just what to do in Afghanistan, partly because the US-backed government there is starting to smell fishy (i.e.- corrupt and ineffectual), and partly because of an unexpectedly-declassified assessment of the situation by General Stanley McChrystal, which you can read here. Not too many people have read it, apparently, because the newspaper reports make it sound as if McChrystal is a college student writing home to his parents. "Mom, Dad, things are pretty desperate. I need a lot more money. And, while you're at it, send more army guys. Thanks."

That's not quite the long and the short of it though. McChrystal actually argues in the report that focusing on resources would be missing the point. Instead, the military needs to change its overall strategy in two key ways:

  1. They need to walk the streets, so to speak. The military is too isolated from Afghan villagers and needs to get out of the tanks and spend as much time as possible in the villages interacting with people.
  2. The various military and security forces there, particularly the US forces and the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) need to get on the same page and coordinate their efforts.
Contrary to what's been reported, he places quite an emphasis on the failings of the Afghan government and how it is percieved (rightly, from the sound of it) as illegitimate by the populace. McChrystal believes that time is short for building a workable state and so it has to be now or never. If the ANSF and a legitimate government can be built up, coalition forces can go home. Hypothetically.

One big problem is that coalition troops are fighting three or more insurgent groups that are loosely connected and apparently all working out of Pakistan. Since the US isn't going to invade Pakistan, and the government there is as weak as the government in Afghanistan, it's hard to see how the US is preparing the ANSF for anything but open-ended war with insurgents. Or, if not that, preparing itself for open-ended war with insurgents.

Similarly, most of McChrystal's suggestions seem like they would lead to the US military acting as the police force in Afghanistan. He says they need to be more involved with protecting the individual villagers, which is hard to argue with. But how does "winning" ultimately end up looking different than colonial administration?

One big advantage the US has, over the Soviets for example, is that the populace wants to see the same outcome they do. While McChrystal does describe the finish line- functional government, strong local security, safe villagers- the big problem is that his strategy- local interaction and coordinated efforts- doesn't actually get us to the finish line. Instead, it gets us to a point in which the US acts as the local police, or the country collapses and becomes a haven for terrorists. Which sounds a lot like the language of colonial administration.

Advocates of continued engagement have the same problem: Nobody seems able to explain what winning would look like, but people who want to stay are able to describe in great detail what losing would look like. Not only would the US have failed to protect a country that supports its own aims, but there would be great bloodshed and instability, failure, and the enemy would have a new stronghold. The end of the Vietnam Conflict, then.

More directly, Republicans claim that, if Afghanistan falls, terrorists will be able to mount attacks on the United States, something that, incidentally, is happening already. However, the problem for Obama is, if the US pulls out, and there are any successful attacks on US soil, he will be blamed. Of that you can be sure. Even in the absense of attacks, if he pulls out the troops, Republicans will lose their shit. Admittedly, though, they seem to lose their shit no matter what he does. So, maybe, that's just background noise.

But there are many on the left who want to stay too, if only to fight the "good war" to its conclusion. There's really no doubt that Obama would love to be the President when Bin Laden finally gets killed. And, let's make no mistake- the "insurgents" are the same sort of vicious gangsters who would, without doubt, make life in Afghanistan a living hell once again, if they won. There are plenty of good reasons to want to make the Taliban a non-viable option in the entire region. However, it's hard to see how McChrystal's plan does much more than to forestall the worst.

I'll be honest: it looks like staying is going to be a costly, open-ended, miserable slog; while the results if the US leaves are too horrible to imagine. As Woody Allen once quipped: "More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly."

So, what is to be done, if not withdrawal? It sure sounds like open-ended occupation to me. I remember hearing an American diplomat once say, "If the US is an imperial power, it's the only one that it always trying to get out of its imperial possessions". It's a good line, until you remember how many imperial powers got stuck with possessions they didn't want either, for basically the same reasons. "We should leave. But, if we do leave, the colony will become a safe haven for the sort of radicals and extremists who want us to leave; plus we would lose face in the eyes of the world, and all of our soldiers would have died in vain". In other words, it's always much clearer what "losing" would mean than what winning would look like.

Not all of the people who want continued occupation are naive about what that would mean. Ed Morrissey writes:
"If we hope to prevail, we will need a political commitment for more resources over a much longer period of time than most politicians have been willing to report. Michael Yon has insisted that means decades of Western involvement, to make sure that an Afghanistan we eventually leave will not slide back into the Afghanistan of the post-Soviet period, where radical Islam prevails and terrorist networks build central offices for attacks on the world."
I think decades is right.

As for Obama, it's fairly easy to predict that he will do just what he's done with every crisis thus far: stake out the "left wing" position- in this case leaving- and the "right wing position"- sending at least 40,000 more troops- and then do something in the middle. The drawback of this approach is that he pisses everyone off at the time. The benefit is that he probably looks more reasonable in retrospect. So, I would be surprised if he either called for pulling out completely or sending 40,000 troops. I am not getting my hopes up either way.

And, to be honest, while I'd be fine with seeing the US pull out in a big way, I'm not sure that I have any good answers to this uber-fustercluck. Could a possible solution be to pull a number of troops out now, and put more pressure on the Afghanistan security forces to step up to the plate? But then what to do about the government squandering its legitimacy? Should there be another election? Would anyone in the country take the results seriously?

The only thing I can say for sure is that I'm glad I don't have to make this decision.


Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Today in Art

Gustave Moreau painted a number of images of Salome, but Salome Dancing Before Herod from 1876 is considered to be his masterpiece. I love the fertility statues in the background and the lurid, dreamy 'Oriental' atmosphere of the painting. Click the picture to see a larger version- it's worth it.


Book Notes: Sodom and Gomorrah (Proust)

Wow, it's been a while since I posted one of these! I got sort of sidetracked by reading as much of Stefan Zweig and Arthur Schnitzler as I could get my hands on. Also, I'm still writing what's either going to be a dissertation or a letter of recommendation to an insane asylum. (Cough!) It's sort of a strange life being a grad student- I wake up and read old books and old documents all day, eat dinner, relax with a half-hour of Latin, watch a movie or cuddle with my wife, and then read Proust until I fall asleep. And yet, I never feel like I get much chance to read!

Anyway, we're up to the fourth book of Proust's epic and our narrator is deciding whether or not to marry Albertine. She's probably a good pick, but he's becoming consumed with suspicion about her supposed secret life, which will have devastating consequences in later books, and which mirrors Swann's suspicions about Odette and Robert Saint-Loup's suspicions about Rachel in previous volumes. Proust seems to believe that all relationships end in jealousy. In his world, everyone seems to have a secret life of some sort; they all belong to various "circles", which are somewhat unaware of each other. A major theme in this volume is the secret life of M. de Charlus, who was behaving oddly at the end of the third book.

The nature of his secret life might be obvious from the title; in the opening chapter, Proust's narrator is observing a bee in the courtyard of the Hotel de Guermontes and oversees Charlus with a young male lover. Proust was one of the few writers of the era to deal with homosexuality, and he does so in a fairly straightforward way. The scene is very well described in the "Reading Proust" blog, which makes an interesting point:

"The long disquisition about inverts and solitaries (gay men who remain alone all their lives rather than reveal their sexuality) feels like a curious departure from the encounter between the two men in the courtyard. For the overriding imagery that flows through the whole section is organic, botanical, and natural."
Proust's narrator, you see, explains homosexuality as inversion- men with women's souls and vice-versa. The blogger sees this as being at odds with the natural historical tone of the passage, but recognizes that Proust and the narrator are not one and the same. Personally, I see the narrator as something of an anthropologist, who tends to divide and subdivide groups within society and explain them to the best of his ability. While Proust was homosexual, the narrator is not. Therefore, it's hard to tell how Proust saw homosexuality from the text.

Admittedly, I do see some value in talking about sexuality in terms of a "soul" or "spirit". I think a "gay spirit" that is less determinate than a "gay gene" might make sense. So people with a "gay spirit" are inclined to behave and feel in a certain way, likely from early childhood, which leads the society around them to respond in a way that nudges them towards adult homosexuality, or maybe doesn't. I don't see sexuality as being so set in stone as to call it "biological", or so fluid as to call it "cultural". But, that's maybe just me.

Anway, Charlus's homosexuality is one of the main themes of this volume. Proust is fascinated with the ways that Charlus tries to hide the fact, and the ways that others respond to him. It is interesting how many of the high society circle around him know anyway, including the narrator, and are just too sophisticated to care. There is a parallel here to the Jewish "tribe", which was an earlier theme. Again, Proust sees it as a circle overlapping another circle awkwardly.

The narrator has more of a problem with Albertine's potential lesbianism, as commented on by a bystander watching her dancing with a friend, and partially catalyzed by his changed understanding of Charlus. In the next books, as I remember, the narrator becomes an unlikeable jealous husband; but there are hints of that aspect of his character in his overwhelming need for his mother in the first book and his quasi-stalking of Mme de Guermantes in the third book. We must note the amazing fact that Proust planned the entire work in advance.

The narrator also sees this pattern in his own life, in this long, but important passage:
"...they reminded me that it was my fate to pursue only phantoms, creatures whose reality existed to a great extent in my imagination; for there are people- and this had been my case since youth- for whom all the things that have a fixed value, assessable by others, fortune, success, high positions, do not count; what they must have is phantoms. They sacrifice all the rest, devote all their efforts, make everything else subservient to the pursuit of some phantom. But this soon fades away; then they run after another only to return later on to the first. It was not the first time that I had gone in quest of Albertine, the girl I had seen that first year silhouetted against the sea. Other women, it is true, had been interposed between the Albertine whom I had first loved and the one whom I rarely left now; other women, notably the Duchesse de Guermantes. But, the reader will say, why torment yourself so much with Gilberte, why take such trouble over Mme de Guermantes, if, having become the friend of the latter, it is with the sole result of thinking no more of her, but only of Albertine? Swann, before his death, might have answered the question, he who had been a connoisseur of phantoms. Of phantoms pursued, forgotten, sought anew, sometimes for a single meeting, in order to establish contact with an unreal life which at once faded away, these Balbec roads were full."
In the end, he is cursed to never fully know any of the women he loves. Proust sees the paradox of romantic love: we have the urge to fully know and be with the other, but if we followed the need through to its satisfaction, we would make them into a prisoner and therefore miserable. The narrator's central character trait, I would say, is his fascination with the people around him, particularly the women in his life, driven by his insatiable need to know and possess them. This trait makes him, and Swann, Saint-Loup and even Charlus, miserable. But, it's also what will make him an author.


Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Today in Latin, French and Spanish

Here's a word that accounts for nearly half your life...

Dormio, -ire, -ivi, -itum: To sleep, to fall asleep, to be idle.

Romance language speakers should easily recognize this one; for instance, "dormir" means "to sleep" in French and Spanish. English speakers might find it a bit stranger, unless they're college students who generally sleep in dormitories, often after alcohol consumption has left them lying dormant.


Bibliodyssey, killer picture blog


The Advantages of Flesh and Blood Education

Now that it's fairly easy to take courses online, numerous writers are contemplating the coming demise of the "brick and mortar university". I rather like that term. There's something charmingly wonky about the terms techno-geeks come up with to describe (or perhaps demean) the offline world. "Dead tree media", "brick and mortar stores", and the like evoke "flesh and blood" in my mind.

The problem with these articles is that they tend to be written in what I'd call the "bullying nerd" voice. The writer, understandably, wants to promote some new technology, so they make fun of or threaten those sticks in the mud who stand in the way of progress. "Yeah, it's nice that you still like your farty old bricks and mortar schools and moldy old books, Poindexter! But, guess what?! The Internet is here now and it will ROCK YOU!!" With online universities, they often seem to be surprised or offended to find that academics tend to be very skeptical about sweeping social changes. It's not exactly a revelation though.

Online courses are cheaper, which is, of course, a big argument in their favor. Instead of having a professor teach 30 students, you can have them teach 400 students, and even, hypothetically, recycle the lecture videos. This could save students a lot of money. There is a loss of quality, perhaps, but a lot of big universities are handing the courses over to grad students who haven't even learned the subject yet, so the quality of teaching isn't exactly a focus at present. And the price of a university education has reached a tipping point.

Writing on the topic, Don Tapscott, makes the same point, noting that "the big universities that regard their prime role to be a centre for research, with teaching as an inconvenient afterthought, and class sizes so large that they only want to “teach” through lectures" are particularly "vulnerable, especially at a time when students can watch lectures online for free by some of the world’s leading professors on sites like Academic Earth." Indeed, junior faculty who could spend their prime years becoming great teachers- many of whom genuinely love teaching- are instead put on the "publish or perish" treadmill and told that focusing on teaching is a bit unprofessional. I've actually been told, "you should focus on research and give as little energy as possible to teaching". The undergrads suffer because the system treats them as little more than a meal ticket. As a result, a startling number of them drop out. None of this, incidentally, is much of an argument for making instruction less personal via the Internet, but it suggests why already alienated undergrads might not shed any tears to see their profs go.

Online courses seem, to me, best suited for older students who just want to learn the subject and get done. For undergraduates, the advantage is that they can do the course work whenever they'd like to, and they're on the Internet all the time anyway. They don't have to schlep to class three times a week and they can let their own motivation guide their progress. If, that is, they are especially self-motivated. The advocates of online education assume that all students are especially self-motivated at 17 or 18. Even stranger, they sometimes get offended if you suggest that putting an 18 year old in front of a computer and telling them to do their coursework for four months might not be a winning bet. Parents of 18 year olds, I find, think differently.

And, let's be fair, it isn't just teenagers who have trouble doing their work on their own! Lately, I've been schlepping to my university to work on my dissertation in one of the offices in the department. Why? So I'm not... doing this, basically! There's something about being surrounded by other people who are learning the same subject- a community of junior and senior scholars, in other words- that is not just a great inspiration, but also keeps you on your toes. I work better when I am around other people who are working. And I feel like I'm actually accomplishing something, instead of lonely scribbling. Another word for "flesh and blood" and "brick and mortar" is real. Thus far, nothing compares to the give and take of human interaction.

I also teach a lot better in front of human beings. Things I had planned out for my class discussions that seemed dynamite in my study suddenly fizzle and I have to change plans on the ground. And the reason I can tell when I'm boring them, or over-explaining something, is by observing their body language. Eighteen year olds have very direct body language! I can't see how an online lecturer can intuit when they need to move on to the next point before everyone falls asleep!

The "step with me now, into the future!" people do have a point- for me, an ideal course would be a veritable salmagundi: blending lectures, discussions, online content, documentaries, projects, and lots of books. It wouldn't be an afterthought. And I am certainly keen to create more web content that educates and inculcates a love of my subject. For me, teaching is the main course, not an appetizer.

They have less of a point when they start talking about the supposed "monopoly" that professors jealously maintain over "privileged information". Academics have different reasons to prefer human interaction to lecturing over Youtube, but I have yet to meet one who sits up nights worrying that too many people will learn about their favorite subject. Professors admittedly do maintain the elitist belief that they should get paid to teach- imagine that!- but many of them already post their course requirements, lecture notes, and even lectures online. And, if they have the time, most of them are thrilled to dicuss their subject with anyone who asks, whether or not they've paid tuition. Just ask. You'll see.

But, I think my problem with the new technology bullies is that, in their enthusiasm about the newest and the latest gadgets, they treat the students as an afterthought. I have talked to dozens of undergrads, and not once have I been told that the problem with their education is that it's too engaging and personal. When they envision a university education, they still see it as an "experience". They still want to be challenged and interact with senior scholars who genuinely care about their personal development. Contrary to adult belief, they like structure. They resent the faceless bureaucracy of our huge Mall University, and I do too. But none of them tell me they'd rather be alone, in their room, doing online exams. They still see it as a rite of passage and part of their personal development. As should be obvious by now, personal development always happens in the real world, offline.

Lastly, it's hard for me to envision parents who, instead of sending their children to be educated and mentored by experts in their chosen field within a larger community of peers, would rather put them in an apartment and have them work online for four years. Sure, they'd like a cheaper university education. But, if you asked parents and students- and their administrative spokespeople seemingly never do!- whether universities should save money by cutting back on their ridiculously bloated and top-heavy administrative structures, or by teaching in a way that is less personal and individualized, well, I think they'd make better choices than some of the experts.


Monday, September 21, 2009

(hopefully, this won't read like a spam email from an older relative!)

A bit too tired to post any French, Latin, or ranting tonight. But I liked this wisdom story, passed along by Jeffrey Goldberg, from Rabbi David Wolpe:

The Dubno Maggid told a story that should be learned by every Jewish child. He told of a father in a small Eastern European village who was walking his child to cheder, to school. Suddenly they heard a fanfare of trumpets and an elaborate coach pulled by beautiful horses rode down the road. The coach stopped right by them and out stepped a man wrapped in lush furs and dripping with jewels, dazzling the onlookers.

The father whispered to his son: "Take a good look, my child. For unless you learn and live Torah, that's what you are going to look like!"


Sunday, September 20, 2009

Closer to the Golden Dawn

“Will I understand it?” he said. “Probably not. Will it disappoint? Probably. Will it inspire? How could it not?” He paused a moment, seeming to think it through. “I want to be transformed by it,” he said finally. “That’s all there is.”
-Jungian Scholar, Stephen Martin.

W.W. Norton is planning to finally publish Carl Jung's personal account of the delusions he... basically explored during a psychic breakdown he suffered in 1913. Jung considered the book, which has never been published and very few people have even seen, to be the urtext to his entire life's work. Admittedly, Jung's prose can be a bit foggy, and Jungians can be insufferable; but his work is a lot more valuable than is generally recognized, I think. From the sound of it, this book will either be the psychoanalytic equivalent of Dante's Inferno or a bewildering puzzle, or both; probably both. If anyone is wondering what to get me for Christmas...


Friday, September 18, 2009

Today in Art

When I visualize Salome, it's pretty hard not to think of Aubrey Beardsley's illustrations.


where the wind comes sweepin' through the brains...

According to a recent study, 75% of Oklahoma public High School students cannot identify the first President of the United States. Happily though, 80% of homeschooled students were able to identify that the first President was Jesus. And 95% of private school students were able to identify which of the Presidents were held in high regard at their country club.

But, seriously folks... What should be done? These studies come out every year and they just keep getting worse. I'm assuming we'll eventually see something like, "Study reveals that 95% of American students are unaware that they are students; also not clear on the differences between their own butts and a hole in the ground." Out of curiosity, I asked Claire, who was educated in Canada, and she was indeed taught that George Washington was the first President.

But, the other questions weren't much harder. The questions, and the percentage of Oklahoma High School students who got them right:

* What is the supreme law of the land? 28%
* What do we call the first ten amendments to the Constitution? 26%
* What are the two parts of the U.S. Congress? 27%
* How many justices are there on the Supreme Court? 10%
* Who wrote the Declaration of Independence? 14%
* What ocean is on the east coast of the United States? 61%
* What are the two major political parities in the United States? 43%
* We elect a U.S. senator for how many years? 11%
* Who was the first President of the United States? 23%
* Who is in charge of the executive branch? 29%

Also, 75% of them didn't know who Kanye West is. No, just kidding! Of course they know that!

Honestly, I don't know what the problem is here. I do understand that public schools aren't the best environment for learning. Some adult had the weird idea decades ago to stick children in what amounts to an office building for 13 years and hope they'll get inspired to do busy work. I see the kids that just graduated when they're university freshmen and they remind me of the guy at the office who mentally checked out a while ago. It's obviously a stultifying environment.

Also, of course, the teachers shoulder much of the blame here. If this was a movie, Robin Williams would arrive and inspire the teenagers to learn by performing a rap song about the Bill of Rights. Ideed, for me, half of these questions triggered memories of School House Rock songs! But, even if the teachers are all uniformly boring, how hard is it to review the Bill of Rights and then just flunk the kids who fail to learn them?

Actually, I think I probably could have answered these questions by the time I was through elementary school. And, trying to look back and figure out just how I learned this stuff, I don't really remember the teachers making much difference at all. Some were definitely better than others. But, as I remember it, the real reason I learned these things was that my parents would have been mortified if I didn't learn them. They never really did angry or yell much; but my parents could definitely do mortified.

My grandparents were the same. I can see my grandfather now, if I was in High School and had failed to identify the supreme law of the land on an exam. Gramps: "Hey! You'd better crack open that book, buddy! This isn't a joke! You'd better know this stuff, or you'll be in trouble later." (He never specified what the trouble was.) It was not hard to bring shame on my family, but man, was it hard to know that you had embarassed them. That was worse than any punishment. So, when I read stories like this, a big part of me thinks, "God, their parents must be humiliated!" But, I sort of doubt that they are.

Really, I don't know what the deal is with Oklahoma students. And I certainly wonder what the teachers have been doing all day, just like everyone else does. But, there's a part of me that suspects that American kids don't know very much simply because they really don't care to and the people around them don't really care if they do.


Thursday, September 17, 2009

Today in French

Réveiller: (transitive and reflexive noun) To wake up.

And this is why the bugler plays "Reveille" at sunrise.


Buy American, lose jobs

Like I said a few days ago, the "Buy American" stuff might make people happy, but it's still not a good trade policy. For instance, the current administration's stimulus package specifies that money will only go to purchase American materials for building projects. This makes some people very happy; after all, their tax money 'aint going to a bunch of damn foreigners and their steel. They believe that this is how you "save jobs"... by cutting back on who you do business with. Sort of like a store that greets its potential customers with the middle finger.

But, if you live here on the border, it's like telling the businesses in Virginia not to sell to Maryland; it makes absolutely no sense. Canadians are pissed off about it, too. They didn't make stupid choices that nearly tanked their economy, so why should their largest trading partner punish them? In response, a few Canadian cities are boycotting American goods, which means the US businesses that usually sell to them are in trouble. Other countries are retaliating with tariffs. Also, the new US building, and hence the recovery, is stalled because they can't find all this stuff in the states.

The punchline:

"The U.S. Chamber of Commerce released a report this week that says 176,800 jobs could be lost in that country because of the policy, mainly because other nations could implement local procurement rules of their own that would erase any gains for U.S. firms.

If retaliation escalates, losses could be even deeper, the report said...

The way to get other countries to buy American products “is through an open trading system where consumers – not the government – decide what they are going to buy,” he said."
That would be smart, if perhaps a bit unpopular. But, in tough times, I think it's better to have a smart leader than a popular one.


Today in Latin

Donum, -i (N): Gift, offering, votive offering, sacrifice.

English derivative: Donation.


Today in Art

"Le festin d'Hérode", by photographer Bettina Rheims.


Belligerence of Arabia

O Camille, where art thou?

It's hard to remember now, but Camille Paglia's Sexual Personae was an academic bombshell when it came out in 1991, and it remains, at least in my opinion, quite an impressive work of scholarship. She never did write Vol. 2, as promised; instead, she now cranks out a regular column for Salon that blends invective, comedy, pop cultural analysis, and rambling nonsense. I don't know you would characterize one passage from her most recent column. She wishes that the United States would have bombed the mountains of Afghanistan to kill Osama bin Laden, but now wants to leave, and she writes:

"In a larger sense, outsiders will never be able to fix the fate of the roiling peoples of the Near East and Greater Middle East, who have been disputing territorial borderlines and slaughtering each other for 5,000 years. There is too much lingering ethnic and sectarian acrimony for a tranquil solution to be possible for generations to come."
This really is the common wisdom today, isn't it?

I mean, the idea that the Middle East is populated by a bunch of "roiling peoples" who only stop killing each other in order to pray in the direction of Mecca five times a day. They've been that way for 5,000 years, apparently. What can you do?

And it's not an entirely new opinion- I stole that Mecca joke from Voltaire, after all. And, let's be honest, if you read the news, they do seem to show the same crowd of young Arabs screaming in the street every few weeks. I think it must be an after school club of some sort... The Young Business Screamers? Lastly, she is right that the territorial borderlines, many of which date to the mid-20th century, as well as the sectarian divisions, will probably make tranquil solutions unlikely in the near future.

But, what's fascinating to me is that I'm currently reading the accounts of Europeans who traveled the region in the 1800s, such as Chateaubriand and Lamartine, and at their time, the common wisdom is completely different.

At the time, the Ottomans still controlled most of the Levant; to be sure, some writers who believed this was because they had read the Koran, which taught them all about conquest. But, that didn't explain all those people, particularly the Arabs, who were under the Turkish yoke. They had submitted to the Ottoman authority for a few centuries at this point, and most Europeans believed they were uninterested in becoming independent. In their case, there were two cliches that supposedly explained their submission:

1. The Koran had taught them to submit. Supposedly, they were uncommonly fatalistic and willing to bow to any sort of tyranny because they believed it to be the will of Allah,

2. People who live in "southern" climates were held to be more indolent by nature. The heat made them lazy and excessively passive, according to a body of thought that was popularized by Montesquieu.

In other words, the common wisdom was not that the people of the region were acrimonious and violently aggressive; instead, they were supposed to be submissive, accepting of their fate, and so passive that it's almost as if they had frozen in time! It's amazing how many books and paintings of the time detail these placid people lounging around and smoking, while quietly acquiescing to whoever wants to rule them. And all "southerners" were supposed to be this way; Chateaubriand even writes, in 1810, that the Greeks should be free, but that he is sure they'll never have the will to demand their independence. (The Greek War of Independence began in 1821.)
I'm doing great violence to Chateaubriand's ideas, but the point is that the "common wisdom" has changed greatly from the vantage point of "The West". And, in general, it's fairly easy to generalize in any way you wish from that sort of distance. If we take a time span of the last 5,000 years, it would be pretty easy to look at Europe, especially during the 19th and 20th centuries, and find enough examples to prove that the roiling peoples of that region are inclined to keep slaughtering each other endlessly over territorial divisions. Similarly, you could look at that region and probably argue that European people are unnaturally submissive to their rulers- in fact, I've heard Americans make both arguments numerous times!

So, to be safe, let's just say that:
1. Human beings are "roiling peoples" who constantly dispute borders, slaughter each other, and act in ways that are acrimonious, and
2. Human beings are rational, civilized, good-natured peoples who love their siblings and want to live in peace.

Fair enough?


Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Today in Art

"Women in the Street", a painting by Pyke Koch (Netherlands ~ 1901-1999)


Education, Indoctrination, and Subversion

How dangerous are educators?

Recently, there has been concern floating around about the role of education in either "indoctrination" or "subversion". In the US, some parents worried that a speech by the President, aimed at school children, might indoctrinate the kids into a socialist ideology. In Venezuela, protestors claim that recent changes to education, made at the behest of the Chavez government, will amount to indoctrination. In Iran, the government has demanded that universities not only crack down on subversion, but turn in their students who oppose the new regime. And reading around the Internet, I find that a lot of people believe that American academics are indoctrinating university students into left-wing ideologies. Personally, I'd rather start with brainwashing them into doing the required reading.

Of course, this isn't exactly a new charge. Socrates, after all, was executed for corrupting the youth of Athens, a charge that stemmed, at least according to Plato, from his asking uncomfortable questions about a great Athenian war hero. Basically, he asked, if the man was so great, why did his son turn out to be such a shitbird? Eventually, Socrates was held responsible for casting aspersions on the local gods as well, the lesson being that societies need their gods and heroes, while philosophers tend to ask uncomfortable questions.

The Renaissance students of the studia humanitatis were not called subversives, as far as I know, but there were occasional tensions between town & gown. I've read a few accounts of students and townies getting into physical altercations; the students were seen as unproductive snobs, if that sounds at all familiar! Back then, the advantage for students was that they paid their own way, so at least, nobody was griping about subsidizing the deadbeats.

Education becomes a state imperative in the nineteenth century, so often the universities aimed at indoctrination- Prussian schools were known for it actually! In Europe, you start reading complaints about subversive academics in the early twentieth century, when nationalism was at a high point. In the US, of course, the complaints start with the Cold War, and indeed, there were professors in the 1950s, who found that they could not be both Red and tenured. Much of the language about "indoctrination" and "subversion" originates at this time. The campus protests of the 1960s, which occurred around the globe, solidified the image of the university as a place that turns good kids into bomb-throwing anarchists. Sometimes, it's true.

I would imagine it's actually pretty hard to indoctrinate anyone. From what I understand, it's a bit like boot camp: you isolate them, yell at them frequently in order to break down their resistance, repeat the same ideas over and over, and make it clear that their acceptance and happiness depends on their absorbing those ideas. This might be possible in an elementary school classroom (and it actually reminds me of summer camp!), but I can't see how you could easily brainwash university students, who are there, among other reasons, because they want to get away from their parents and start thinking for themselves.

But, it is easy to ask questions or say things that are "inappropriate" or "subversive" while lecturing in a classroom. This comes down to two different ideas of what lecturers actually do. One idea, which is quite popular with university administrators, is that lecturing is information delivery: you have a body of facts to get across and you deliver it by a lecture. Theoretically, therefore, an actor could be hired to lecture. Some universities have actually started getting copies of lecture notes from older professors so that TAs can deliver the lectures too, and thus there would be more classes offered.

What you find, when you try to memorize a set of lecture notes and recite them, is that it's actually pretty boring. So, the other idea of lecturing is that you're thinking aloud. In this case, you have points that you want to get to, but you allow for digressions, interesting examples, sudden inspirations, jokes, etc. It is more fun to watch, I think, but it's also easier for the lecturer to let slip something that offends someone in the class. I think it's worth it, if only to allow students and lecturers to think together; but I notice that many accounts of "tenured radicals" making the students uncomfortable revolve around incidents like a history professor letting slip that he hates Bush, or something. They sound more like a breach of "decorum" than a program of indoctrination to me. I think the concern with decorum comes from a general bureacratic notion of civility, and should be ignored as much as possible.

If people are concerned about "indoctination" or "subversion" in universities, what they should probably do is to encourage more people with a larger pool of opinions to go to work in academia. I'm a big advocate of intellectual diversity in colleges. But we don't even see much variety in our grad school applicants. Oh, our department has a handful of conservatives, but we've only seen one doctoral applicant from a religious university in three years, and we did everything we could to court her, unsuccessfully. If anything, more variety would make conferences a lot more interesting. It probably doesn't help to encourage the conservative or religious students to aim for academia, when people are telling them that other academics are all a bunch of atheistic Maoists. Most of us aren't nearly that exciting. I'm militantly boring myself.

And, maybe just thinking your way around questions is a subversive act. Ideologies are attempts to impose intellectual certainty on a chaotic and contingent universe. None of them can explain everything, and so they all have questions that they can't tolerate. Maybe just thinking aloud goes against political, religious, or philosophical ideologies. For myself, I've pretty much come out of a decade in higher ed unsure of what I think about anything! Maybe uncertainty is the condition of intellectual freedom. If so, we should embrace it.

But, it's probably a good idea to keep an eye on the back door if the authorities come knocking!


Scholastici Canadianae

According to Inside Higher Ed, many Canadian universities are seeing increased enrollment in Latin courses. And yet, it's probably too soon to say if this is because of my influence. Inside Higher Ed: "Experts say that modern pop culture -- from HBO's "Rome" to Angelina Jolie's Latin tattoo -- is increasing student interest in the ancient language." Well, yes, it could be that too. I'm not sure what it says about Canadian students that their educational choices are influenced by Angelina Jolie's tattoos...

I'm really glad to see that students are still signing up for "impractical" courses during a recession. They get so much pressure from their parents and peers to sign up for courses like business management and computer science, and stay away from the things that won't further their careers; and that's when the economy is humming along! The pressure must be much more intense now. I'm glad they're still eager to explore whatever subjects interest them. Whether you're interested in Business Accounting or in Medieval Studies, it's always the best policy to spend your life doing what makes you happy.

Also, it sort of puts the lie to the idea that interest in the humanities will just keep declining at a steady pace until the Latin teachers are all living in caves and eating insects. I don't imagine that in ten years time Canadians will all be wearing togas and speaking Latin. But I do think these things go in cycles and any renewed interest in the Western heritage is welcome news.


Tuesday, September 15, 2009

François de Roubaix - Dernier Domicile Connu

They sure don't write film scores like this anymore. I like this song because it shows how art constantly cross-pollinates between cultures and countries. Artists find artists.

François de Roubaix is beloved by the French for his numerous film scores, including this one from 1970. It should also be familiar to fans of American hip hop- it's been used in quite a few songs, including tracks by Missy Elliott and Snoop Dogg.


Monday, September 14, 2009

Au revoir, Grad Student Madness?

I'm kinda thinking about sticking the fork in this thing. Or, more accurately, I'm thinking about reconjiggering it to the point that Grad Student Madness would cease to exist as it is now. It's getting to be a bit of a slog to write & post this stuff, and I think it's all a bit unfocused anyway. If it's less-than-pleasurable to write, it must be no fun to read. But, even when it is a blast to write, I tend to be voluminous- sort of the anti-Twitter, and I am told that blog posts should be short and pithy. I lack pith. Thorry.

My idea, when I first started blogging, was to both chronicle the stress, boredom, and very great joy of graduate school, as well as advocating for changes in an academic system that is more dysfunctional than I had ever imagined as an undergraduate. I would be a crusader, like some of my favorite bloggers at the time and readers would flow like wine.

Crusaders make for interesting reading. Tacitus has a great line about this: "Sed ambitionem scriptoris facile aversis, obtrectatio et livor pronis auribus accipiuntur, quippe adulationi foedum crimen securitutis, malignitati falsa species libertatis inest." My translation skills are still crappy, but the jist is that we easily reject a writer's flatteries, while our ears are prone to accept spite and disparagement. And why? Because adulation is akin to the foul crime of slavery, while spite belongs to a false sort of freedom. Critics seem more independent-minded somehow. Some of the most entertaining blogs are written by crusaders.

Alas, I got off-topic in my crusade. Blogging also encourages mental wandering. This seemed perfectly appropriate for a blog about grad school, which also encourages mental wandering! Blogging about politics instead of dissertation-writing? Join the club! Eventually, I got to the point I'm at now, in which I explain to people, "Well, it's called Grad Student Madness, but it's not really about that..."

Sometimes, I still write about the maddening mess that is American academia. But, like most people in that system, the problems are so large and sweeping that actually describing how to solve them would take a book (yet another book on that topic!) and actually solving them would require starting over from scratch. Someday, I'd love to have the funding to found a new university. But a blog chronicling my gripes seems only enjoyable to the anti-academia cranks, who have plenty of other blogs on that topic to read. All I have to say on the topic could be summed up: I'm probably too old-school for the new school. Or maybe I'm too new school for the old school.

Quite often, I write about politics. The problem here is that many bloggers write about US politics and they're, again, a lot more focused than I am. You know what you're getting with Liberals Suck dot com! I'm sort of decisive and partisan on some issues. But, the truth is, I think that the Democratic government is doing a mediocre-to-lousy job so far, and will probably just get worse, while the Republican Party has ceased to have a viable governing philosophy of any kind. So, I'm not a great tubthumper. The Huffington Post has not come calling.

Actually, the things I really enjoy writing about these days are all cultural: movies, books, paintings, and history. I could go on all day about that stuff. The drawback there is that you get a lot less comments. Write that you think "health care is a human right" and at least one person will leave a comment, even if just to tell you that you suck. Write a post about the joys of Tacitus and what can the reader really say about that? "Yeah, he's cool"?

Ideally, I'd like to redo the whole site as an encyclopedic guide to the art, literature, and thought that turns my crank- sort of my own western canon (and sometimes eastern). Maybe call it Everything Good. I'd like to make it look better than this blog and foster a sort of ongoing conversation about the things that I can talk about all day, but know no one in Hamilton to talk about them with.

But, the real challenge is getting readers. For that sort of project to work, you'd need active comments and a good number of regular readers. Right now, I'm too lazy to do the dishes, much less get another blog going and advertise the thing.

So, stay tuned.


Thom Yorke Video (for Claire)

Thom Yorke, "Harrowdown Hill" from Bent Image Lab on Vimeo.


Chicken and Tyres

Ah, yes, the Brits call them 'tyres'. No matter; the Economist is right that the Obama administration is making a big mistake in imposing "punitive tariffs (35% for the first year, falling by five percentage points a year, to 25% in the third year) on Chinese-made pneumatic tyres." The Chinese are considering imposing their own tariffs on US chicken meat and auto parts (One assumes that auto parts made from chicken meat would be unaffected).

Tariffs are popular with that those voters who believes their economy will grow if the country closes its doors to trade. The US has also tried to impose bans on all "foreign steel" used in stimulus building projects, which as you can well imagine pissed off people in our fair Canadian steel city. Politicians support these sorts of things because they gladden American workers, and especially union members, who can be counted on to believe that everything would be better if America had a closed economy. Keep out foreign workers and products. Buy American, etc.

Nevertheless, nearly all economists will tell you that imposing tariffs and restricting trade in a global economy is monumentally stupid, especially if you're also trying to grow your economy. Starting trade wars in the tail end of a recession is suicidally stupid. The Economist: "Global co-operation has been crucial amid efforts to encourage economic recovery. It would be a tragedy if it that were derailed by posturing over tyres and chicken."

There is often talk in democracies about letting the wisdom of the people decide. In my experience, the average person's understanding of economics is low; I remember watching the passersby at a local open air market grumbling conspiratorially about the merchants, "You know they're going to get their money, they'll make sure of that!" Sometimes, the will of the people is dead wrong, and in situations in which two centuries of economic wisdom says one thing, and "the people" want something that is the polar opposite, a wiser leader would tell the people to cram it.


Sunday, September 13, 2009

Hamilton Views: The Lyric Theatre

Not too many Hamilton pictures around here recently. Here's the Lyric Theatre from downtown. It was built in 1913 as a 2300 seat vaudeville and motion-picture house. The theatre was named as the result of a promotional contest where $200 in gold was the prize for the best name. Eighty Hamiltonians suggested the name, Lyric, and the prize was split among them, each receiving $2.50. It closed in 1989 and is perhaps too water-damaged to be reopened. Unfortunately, the current owners are planning to gut the interior and put in condos. Hooray.
Link: Here are some people who sneaked in an explored the place. Their pictures are pretty great.


Pulling Good Stuff from the Depths

I've groused about the blogging wasteland. But, that's not to say that there aren't good things out there in the blogosphere!

Bonæ litteræ, a blog by the Renaissance scholar Dr. David Rundle, is just superb.

And, à la Rob, which I recently added to the links, has posted a baroque concert for Saturday (and one for Sunday), that I am enjoying tremendously.



Journalism and blather

In a well-reasoned and intelligent attempt to describe the current interaction between the American news media and bloggers, Mark Bowden pretty well describes why I no longer waste much of my time with the one or the other:

"I would describe their approach as post-journalistic. It sees democracy, by definition, as perpetual political battle. The blogger’s role is to help his side. Distortions and inaccuracies, lapses of judgment, the absence of context, all of these things matter only a little, because they are committed by both sides, and tend to come out a wash. Nobody is actually right about anything, no matter how certain they pretend to be. The truth is something that emerges from the cauldron of debate. No, not the truth: victory, because winning is way more important than being right. Power is the highest achievement. There is nothing new about this. But we never used to mistake it for journalism."
Right: it's polemic. And it's boring polemic. My side is right; the other side is wrong, or possibly evil: repeat over and over and over again. As far as I can tell, not actually watching it very often, US cable news is now either the exact same thing, or it's a series of staged face-offs between two or more polemicizing shit-heads.

It's why I don't get my news from television or the blogs- complain all you want about the dryness of The Economist, but its coverage is consistently well-reasoned, well-documented, intelligent, judicious, fair-minded, balanced, and cool-headed. It's journalism, in other words.

And you can read it for free on-line, if you're so inclined.

(This is not a paid advert for The Economist, although if they'd like to renew my subscription for free, I'd not quibble a bit.)