Ee-lim Anate the Negative

Jun 2nd, 2003 1:20 pm | By

Well I’m always telling people, in my annoying way, that ‘negative’ doesn’t mean bad or critical or disapproving or pessimistic or skeptical or cynical or hostile. That if you want to call something any of those, you should use those words, and not the word ‘negative’ which 1. doesn’t mean any of those and 2. if you do use it as a pointless euphemism for those other words is vague and woolly and non-specific and confusing. By the same token ‘positive’ doesn’t mean approving or friendly or optimistic or patriotic or cheerful or warm or helpful. There’s a bizarre kind of covert thought-control going on in the translation of all words conveying disagreement and dissent into ‘negative’ and all words conveying acceptance and approval into ‘positive.’ We are being told that it is bad and wrong to dislike anything, which means we are also being told that it’s wrong to judge and analyse at all, because it’s impossible to judge and analyse properly if an unfavourable verdict is ruled out in advance.

I’ve been droning about this for years, as I say, and now here’s an amusing example. Richard Lewontin uses the word to mean what it does mean, in a review in which he mentions a book by Evelyn Fox Keller, and Fox Keller understands it to mean what it doesn’t mean and rebukes him for it, whereupon he has to explain (without actually quite saying so) that he was using it to mean what it means, not what it has come to mean lately in mush-speak.

My reference to Keller’s “negative view” of a unified theory of biology was in no way meant to imply that she places a higher value on one kind of explanation than on another. Her view is negative in the simple sense that she characterizes the attempt to create a unified theory as having failed up till now.

See what happens when words go all fuzzy? Confusion, misunderstanding, corrections and corrections of corrections in newspapers. Terrible business. Quite funny though.

Nonsense at Hay Festival

May 30th, 2003 4:17 pm | By

Oh really, what crap. It’s only snobs and supercilious critics who think bad novels are bad novels. Excuse me, but sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes a bad novel is just a bad novel.

Trollope, whose restrained prose is as elegant as the lady herself, poured haughty scorn on the pretensions of the literary genre, and in particular the “grim lit” the critics seem to adore “that makes you want to slash your wrists”.

Well that’s wrong for a start. ‘Restrained’ prose? Well sure, I suppose. That’s one way to describe it. One might say the same of a train timetable, or a laundry list, or a tax code. That couldn’t be a nice evasive way of saying bland and dull, could it? Or could it. True enough, Trollope’s style isn’t florid or frenzied or melodramatic, but it’s not very interesting, either. It’s an okay, serviceable stringing-together of flat, banal language that gets the story told, and nothing more. I would hardly call it elegant! Though whether it’s as elegant as the lady herself or not, I have no idea. For all I know she’s a slattern on a level with Don Quixote’s Aldonza, and what looks like patronizing newspaper boilerplate is actually a hilarious joke that means Trollope’s prose is about as elegant as a Paris urinal. Or to put it another way, here’s a journo talking about literary style in language that shows she doesn’t know what it is. No wonder she takes Trollope and Cooper at their word.

An “inherent puritanical strain in the British psyche” was responsible, Trollope claimed, for this “silly” prejudice against popular fiction. Happy endings, or even ones offering a glimmer of hope were considered outré. “Reading shouldn’t be this much fun, we think. Naturally, we are hung up on this, we distrust anything that is readable and fun…”

That may or may not be true, but even if it is, does it necessarily follow that Trollope’s novels are good? Of course not. The way to answer the question whether they’re any good or not is to look at the novels themselves, not the putative motives of the people who think they are not good.

And she found an unexpected ally in the critic and novelist DJ Taylor, author of a new book on George Orwell, the paragon of the simple, well-crafted sentence, who managed to be both popular and literary.

More sly implication and non sequitur. Leaving aside the question of Orwell’s popularity, which was pretty non-existent for most of his career, what would his being both popular and literary have to do with the matter in any case? Does the fact that one of his several biographers agrees with one thing Trollope says somehow make Trollope an Orwell-equivalent? If so, how?

One bad move after another; perhaps I should hand it all over to Julian.

Dyslexic, Perhaps?

May 26th, 2003 12:22 am | By

But then, the person who wrote that article concluded it with this bit of wisdom by way of her nomination for the 100 Worst Books list:

To kick off, mine is Wuthering Heights – it has all the emotional depth of sixth-form poetry and I feel an intense desire to give all the characters a good slap and tell them to stop being so self-indulgent. Mysteriously, it’s considered a landmark of English literature by many people whose judgment I usually admire.

So clearly I shouldn’t be surprised if she uses words in a silly way. In fact I should be surprised that she’s writing for a major newspaper, that’s what I should be surprised at.

What Overtones?

May 25th, 2003 11:46 pm | By

All right. Clearly one of these days I’m just going to have to drop everything and make a real effort to figure out what in hell people are talking about when they call someone or something ‘elitist.’ I’ve said it before but I’m afraid I’m just going to have to say it again, and no doubt I’ll have to say it many more times in the future, because it just keeps on happening – people use it for anything and everything! Snob, clever clogs, intellectual, nerd, bookish person, someone who thinks some things are better than other things, conceited person, anything and everything within a fifty mile radius of either Cambridge or Oxford, quiche-eater, in the UK. In the US the word makes even less sense. It means everyone to the left of Rush Limbaugh, anyone who thinks the 43d president might possibly be wrong about anything, anyone who favours a progressive tax system, anyone who isn’t passionately fond of Sport Utility Vehicles. Put the two ‘definitions’ together and you have total incoherence.

Consider this comment from a Guardian article about the BBC’s 100 favourite books list, for example.

The same format would not have worked with books, because it would have carried such undertones of elitism. The BBC could have asked people to nominate the 100 ‘best’ books – contemporary and classic works of literature that stand out for their fine writing, profound explorations of the human condition and their impact on the direction of world literature. But it probably would have received less than one-tenth of the votes, excluded most children and produced a very different Top 100 which would have looked more like an English undergraduate’s reading list and would have been of interest only to the very small number of people who regularly tune in to book programmes.

How does the writer know that’s how people would have defined the ‘best’ books? But more to the point, why would it have carried overtones of elitism? What does that even mean? That only the very rich read the best books? That only upper class twits do? Only the royal family does (now there’s a joke)? Why is it ‘elitist’ to read what someone might possibly consider the ‘best’ books? When did elite stop meaning the rich and powerful who run everything and start meaning educated and/or intellectual people? And why does no one seem to realise how idiotic that is? How it simultaneously ignores the real sources of inequality and unfair influence, and denigrates what ought to be accessible to everyone and a source of curiosity, joy, excitement, and adventure for everyone?

But answer came there none. I’ll just have to keep asking.

Small World

May 22nd, 2003 8:20 pm | By

The Jayson Blair saga continues. There is a staggeringly bizarre interview with him in the New York Observer today. It’s interesting (to me anyway) that he chooses the same sentence from the long Times article on him that I remarked on the other day.

In The Times’ lengthy May 11 account of Mr. Blair’s long trail of deception, it reported that “the porch overlooks no such thing.” Mr. Blair found this funny. “The description was just so far off from reality,” he said. “The way they described it in The Times story—someone read a portion of it for me. I just couldn’t stop laughing.”

We must have noticed the same thing, or perhaps different angles on the same thing. The hint of emotion in that phrase – ‘the porch overlooks no such thing.’ It is such a giveaway, isn’t it. I could tell the reporters were angry, and no doubt Blair could tell that and a great deal besides. So he laughed and laughed…

But in truth Blair is not the only odd thing about this article. The reporter – the one reporting on the reporter – says some fairly peculiar things too. This, for instance:

Why had a promising 27-year-old reporter with a career in high gear at the most respected news organization in the world thrown it all away in a pathological binge of dishonesty?

I’ve read and heard that characterization of the New York Times many times since the Blair story broke. The most respected news organization in the world? Really? Are you quite sure about that? Is it just barely possible that that’s a somewhat parochial and unexamined view of the matter? Is it conceivable that there are one or two other fairly good news organizations somewhere else on the planet? Is it also possible that the New York Times is in fact not all that good in any case? That its reputation is a good deal larger than its merit? That we’ve (we in the US that is) been hypnotized by that reputation into simply assuming that it’s the best not only newspaper but ‘news organization’ in the world? Or that other local newspapers in the US are so bad that the Times in comparison seems like a miraculous shining star? Whatever the explanation, I would submit that the BBC, for example, is rather well thought-of, and that there may be one or two German or French or Australian or Canadian newspapers that aren’t dramatically worse than the New York Times.

And then there’s this:

He was one of those rare people who seemed preordained to be a journalist—a reporter suffused with a kinetic combination of charm, drive and ambition that compelled his co-workers, even in the wake of his scandal, to describe him as “talented.”

Those are the attributes that mark someone out as a preordained journalist? Charm, drive and ambition? Not intelligence, curiosity, dedication, verbal ability, observation? Charm? Charm? What is this, high school? A popularity contest? A presidential election? What’s charm got to do with anything? Journalists are supposed to find out what the truth about a given subject is and then write about it, aren’t they? They’re not supposed to flash a cute smile around the room while they make up the story out of their own adorable heads. No thanks; keep the charm and give us accuracy, attention, evidence, reliable sources, fact-checking, and other charmless staples of good journalism.

Hills of Beans

May 15th, 2003 7:33 pm | By

Hard on the heels of the story about New York Times reporter-trickster Jayson Blair comes this Guardian examination of the Jessica Lynch ‘story’ and the various forces that played into that exercise in media manipulation. Saving Private Lynch is one of the stories Jayson Blair was reporting on when he concocted the porch overlooking the tobacco fields and the herds of cattle, the porch that ‘overlooks no such thing,’ as the Times account says so acidly that I found myself wondering what the porch does overlook. A pile of rusting cars? A still? A tennis court? A swimming pool?

I thought when I first read the long Times story – so, they had him covering the Washington sniper, and then the Jessica Lynch story, that is to say the talk to the family part of the story. The final, undoing charge of plagiarism came with another human interest, talk to the family story. I did think, in passing, that perhaps the Times has had a touch of the old hoist by its own petard here, in grubbing after all this Capraesque sentimental cloying Peggy Noonanish real Amurica human interest ‘how did you feel?’ stuff. Rick had it right: the reactions of two little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. No, they don’t, and nor should they; not disproportionately. In the larger scheme of things, the human interest stories are not really the ones we need to know about. Is it possible that if the New York Times didn’t feel a need to cover general human interest stories it wouldn’t be hiring young unfledged reporters with journalism degrees in the first place? That it would instead hire people with more solid knowledge and expertise, people who could report on diplomacy, politics, world affairs, Islam, history, economics, sociology? Anybody can go and ‘interview the family’ or, indeed, pretend to; not anybody can analyse and explain the context of wars in the Middle East.

Surely our bottomless appetite for gossippy ‘news’ serves us badly, and the willingness of serious papers like the Times to feed (and keep nurturing and increasing) that appetite has some connection to the ability of a reporter to fool his editors with fairy tales and boilerplate ‘reactions of the family’ stories. Maybe the Times should make that part of its understanding of this particular bump in the road.

History is Bunk

May 13th, 2003 8:39 pm | By

But it’s not very surprising if we don’t value learning, effort, apprenticeship, craft, if we’re not eager to spend years learning to play the cello or write real poetry that rhymes and scans, or to read Gibbon or Montaigne or The Tale of Genji or any of those long-winded books people used to write because they had nothing better to do – it’s not all that amazing if we don’t want to do that, when our leaders have such a squalidly practical, utilitarian, narrow, worm’s-eye view of the value of education. School is for job training, and that’s that. At least, that’s that when it comes to publicly funded education: they don’t mind our getting purely curiosity-driven education if we pay for it ourselves.

This recurring issue came up yet again a few days ago when the Times Higher Education Supplement reported that

Education secretary Charles Clarke has again attacked learning for learning’s sake by saying that the public purse should not fund “ornamental” subjects such as medieval history. Mr Clarke told a gathering at University College Worcester that he believed the state should pay only for higher education that had a “clear usefulness”. He reportedly said: “I don’t mind there being some medievalists around for ornamental purposes, but there is no reason for the state to pay for them.” This follows his earlier comments that studying classics is a waste of time.

Clarke disputed the account given in the Guardian, saying his remarks had been taken out of context. But he has made comments of a similar import, and historians are not pleased; one unnamed Cambridge medievalist is quoted as calling him a ‘Philistine thug.’ And a spokesman for the Department of ‘Education and Skills’ (ominous name) delivered an impeccably utilitarian elucidation of the Secretary’s remarks:

He is basically saying that universities exist to enable the British economy and society to deal with the challenges posed by the increasingly rapid process of global change.

But a long article in the Guardian detailing the historical interests and education of many prominent Labour figures, including four colleagues of Clarke’s in the Cabinet, showed up that blinkered argument for the impoverished thing it is.

Good Old Flow

May 12th, 2003 12:35 am | By

Well, life is short, time is short, we’re busy, we can’t do everything – I mean, come on! There’s the job, the commute, the gym, the spirituality seminar, the assertiveness refresher course, the holistic meditation group, the energy healing hour, there’s therapy, and shopping, and catching up on tv – does that leave a lot of time for reading? Get real! So shortcuts are always welcome. Shortcuts like reading fewer books by particular great writers – or like reading only selections from fewer books by particular great writers – or – oh the hell with it: to be perfectly frank, like not reading anything at all by any great writers whatsoever. Like reading two pages of one novel by one prize-winning contemporary novelist every night before falling asleep, that’s what. For five years or so we read The English Patient, and then when we finally read the last page of that, it was that Indian one, you know, the cover was grey…

Yes, shortcuts are handy. In the ’50s the shortcut was Leavis’ The Great Tradition, which breezily told us life was too short to read Tom Jones. Whew! That was a lot of pages taken off the menu. Now it’s those helpful caring multiculti types, who sweep away not just Tom Jones but the whole poxy old ‘canon’. It’s all just a disguised power-play, you know: away with it!

Or if we don’t like that excuse, there’s the Anxiety of Influence alibi. We don’t want to read Yeats or Wordsworth or Donne because they might upset us, by making it too obvious how exiguous our own talent is by comparison, so we just won’t read them! Then we can carry on blissfully writing and writing and writing, sublimely unaware of our predecessors or anyone else. Just as all of them are sublimely unaware of us, and rightly so.

Katha Pollitt is incisive on this point in her well-known essay ‘Why We Read: Canon to the Right of Me…’

I, too, am appalled to think of students graduating from college not having read Homer, Plato, Virgil, Milton, Tolstoy – all writers, dead white Western men though they be, whose works have meant a great deal to me. As a teacher of literature and of writing, I too have seen at first hand how ill-educated many students are, and how little aware they are of this important fact about themselves. Last year I taught a graduate seminar in the writing of poetry. None of my students had read more than a smattering of poetry by anyone, male or female, published more than ten years ago. Robert Lowell was as far outside their frame of reference as Alexander Pope. When I gently suggested to one student that it might benefit her to read some poetry if she planned to spend her life writing it, she told me that yes, she knew she should read more but when she encountered a really good poem it only made her depressed.

Yes, I daresay it did.

Compare the haunting line Barney McClellan quoted in his article on this site:

i’m (sic) trying to get out there,/to make myself known,/ i dont (sic) read other poets/ afraid they’ll mess up my flow.

It all works out so well, really. We don’t have time to read long-dead writers, and fortunately we have discovered that they only depress us and mess up our flow, so we don’t need to! His eye is on the sparrow, know what I mean?

It’s All so Difficult

May 12th, 2003 12:12 am | By

Another thought or two on the fabulating reporter. The whole story, at least as presented by the reporter’s colleagues (and there are no doubt further stories behind that, or further truths), is a case study in how difficult it can be to get at the truth. Difficult in a variety of senses – difficult just in the sense of grind, slog, graft; difficult in the sense of having to overcome obstacles; difficult in the sense of beset with uncertainites, doubts, confusing evidence; difficult in the sense of painful, ethically and emotionally; difficult in the sense of stumbling in the dark, of not even knowing there is a truth to be found.

The investigation suggests several reasons Mr. Blair’s deceits went undetected for so long: a failure of communication among senior editors; few complaints from the subjects of his articles; his savviness and his ingenious ways of covering his tracks. Most of all, no one saw his carelessness as a sign that he was capable of systematic fraud.

It happens all the time. Afterwards, of course, with perfect 20/20 hindsight, everyone can see what went wrong, but life doesn’t happen afterwards, and it’s often not obvious which person is having problems but doing better and which is a dedicated fabricator. So Blair’s editors didn’t tell the editors on his new assignment about his record of mistakes, and as a result the new editors didn’t check up on him as they would have if they’d known.

Mr. Roberts and Mr. Fox said in interviews last week that the statements would have raised far more serious concerns in their minds had they been aware of Mr. Blair’s history of inaccuracy. Both editors also said they had never asked Mr. Blair to identify his sources in the article. “I can’t imagine accepting unnamed sources from him as the basis of a story had we known what was going on,” Mr. Fox said. “If somebody had said, `Watch out for this guy,’ I would have questioned everything that he did. I can’t even imagine being comfortable with going with the story at all, if I had known that the metro editors flat out didn’t trust him.”

And then of course it’s just plain hard work, isn’t it, getting out there and talking to a lot of people, traveling, hanging around in airports, checking facts, asking questions. It’s so much easier to stay home and make it up, even if you factor in all the trail-covering that involves. So the reporter apparently took a shortcut, and then another, and then a whole bunch. All very trendy, in a way. The readers didn’t know the difference, they got their story about Jessica Lynch’s family on the porch overlooking the non-existent tobacco fields, and their heart-warming story about the injured soldier in the military hospital who said the bravely self-deprecating thing that he never said. The readers probably enjoyed the story. One wonders if the reporter thought of it that way.

And when there were serious suspicions at last – when the San Antonio Express-News complained about plagiarism of one of its stories – Blair made the truth as difficult to find as he could.

In a series of tense meetings over two days, Mr. Roberts repeatedly pressed Mr. Blair for evidence that he had indeed interviewed the mother…”You’ve got to come clean with us,” he said – and zeroed in on the mother’s house in Texas. He asked Mr. Blair to describe what he had seen. Mr. Blair did not hesitate. He told Mr. Roberts of the reddish roof on the white stucco house, of the red Jeep in the driveway, of the roses blooming in the yard. Mr. Roberts later inspected unpublished photographs of the mother’s house, which matched Mr. Blair’s descriptions in every detail. It was not until Mr. Blair’s deceptions were uncovered that Mr. Roberts learned how the reporter could have deceived him yet again: by consulting the newspaper’s computerized photo archives.

It’s simply an unending, impossible, unforgiving chore, figuring out what the truth is. No wonder some people would like to do away with the task altogether.

Truth and the Times

May 11th, 2003 7:11 pm | By

The New York Times has a compellingly if morbidly fascinating story today. I feel a little ashamed at being so fascinated: it seems like Schadenfreude, the matter being obviously such a nightmare for the paper and for so many editors who supervised the perpetrator. It’s such a basic malfunction, like those mortifying occasions when fast food restaurants serve up E-coli-laced hamburgers or salmonella in the salad. But I can’t help it, La Rochefoucauld and Burke (‘I am convinced that we have a degree of delight, and that no small one, in the real misfortunes and pains of others’) notwithstanding, or do I mean confirmed, fascinated I am.

And it’s fair enough. There is plenty of human interest or gossip appeal in the story, but the core issue is of course entirely serious and at the center of Butterflies and Wheels’ reason for existence: truth. It is interesting and encouraging even if not altogether surprising that at a time when the very hippest and most knowing and (in their own eyes at least) sophisticated intellectuals like to smile skeptically at the very word ‘truth’, the Times forthrightly announces that truth is their most basic commitment.

Every newspaper, like every bank and every police department, trusts its employees to uphold central principles, and the inquiry found that Mr. Blair repeatedly violated the cardinal tenet of journalism, which is simply truth.

There you have it. No hedging, no raised eyebrows or smirks, no scare quotes, no bows to the deities of situatedness or anti-Eurocentrism or social construction, no playful ruminations about solidarity or what we can all agree on or what works for us to believe, just a flat-footed assertion that journalism is supposed to get it right as opposed to making it up.

And they keep saying it, too. Quite stubbornly. Over and over, as the story unfolds, as various editors try to teach and discipline their productive but ‘sloppy’ reporter to make fewer mistakes.

“Accuracy is all we have,” Mr. Landman wrote in a staff e-mail message. “It’s what we are and what we sell.”

What haunts Mr. Roberts now, he says, is one particular moment when editor and reporter were facing each other in a showdown over the core aim of their profession: truth. “Look me in the eye and tell me you did what you say you did,” Mr. Roberts demanded. Mr. Blair returned his gaze and said he had.

And the whole story is also an interesting object lesson in the fact that the truth is not necessarily easy to find, as juries, law enforcement investigators, prosecutors and defence lawyers, historians, scientists and many others know perfectly well, and as in fact all of us know perfectly well via everything from differing memories of shared events to differing ideas about childcare or politics. The reporter’s supervisors knew he made a lot of mistakes, but then all reporters make some, and he was very energetic and productive, and he seemed to be improving, and…so it goes.

But it’s good to have this little reminder that everything is not just a story, that we don’t get to make it up when we don’t know, that history isn’t just whatever someone decides it is, and that it’s not good enough to write an eye-witness account of events in Cleveland or D.C. or West Virginia by means of a laptop and a cell phone in Brooklyn.

Whither Poetry?

May 10th, 2003 9:07 pm | By

The Condition of Poetry is a perennial subject, and for good reason: there’s a lot to say. So, prompted by Barney McClelland’s trenchant essay on the woolly confusion of poetry with self-expression, I thought I would mention, and where possible link to, a few more jeremiads on the topic.

We could begin with Plato’s notorious dissing of poets in The Republic, or we could leap forward to the 16th century and compare Philip Stubbes’ Anatomy of Abuses with Philip Sidney’s derivative but eloquent Apology for Poetry. Or we could start with Peacock’s mocking Four Ages of Poetry and Shelley’s reply in the brilliant though far less amusing Defense of Poesy. Or we could start with Edmund Wilson’s ‘Is Verse a Dying Technique?’ of 1934, or Joseph Epstein’s ‘Who Killed Poetry?’ in Dissent in 1988. I would have liked to begin with Epstein, but alas it’s not online, so instead I’ll start with Dana Gioia’s 1992 ‘Can Poetry Matter?’, which is.

Gioia argues that poetry has become damagingly narrow and insular. Poets used to live and survive in a variety of settings and by a variety of means, everything from banking, insurance or medicine to odd jobs and poverty in bohemian enclaves. They were read by a broad educated public, and they wrote about a range of subjects and ideas. But with the rise of creative writing programs there also rose a dreary mutual backscratching arrangement whereby poets produce journals and fat anthologies of each other’s work. The operating principle is inclusion rather than judgment and the result is an ocean of mediocre poetry in which the good poetry gets lost.

In art, of course, everyone agrees that quality and not quantity matters…But bureaucracies, by their very nature, have difficulty measuring something as intangible as literary quality. When institutions evaluate creative artists for employment or promotion, they still must find some seemingly objective means to do so. Poets serious about making careers in institutions understand that the criteria for success are primarily quantitative.

Philip Lopate wrote a brief essay in the New York Times Book Review in 1996, in which he said that he found nine out of ten poems he read disappointing.

I open the pages of a literate weekly, stopping at a poem barely longer than the traditional sonnet. The poet ”botanizes” for about eight lines — that is, acts as though it were some kind of miracle his clematis is in full bloom — then he mentions a phone call from his former wife and the twinge of retrospective guilt or regret her voice gave him. I think: That’s it? If a prose writer tried to get away with so unformed a vignette or so few ideas in a paragraph, he would be in trouble. Perhaps the chiseled language makes the poem worthwhile, I tell myself; but the language seems, on closer inspection, more cautious than eloquent.

And finally, Thomas Disch wrote a witty essay for the Hudson Review, ‘The Castle of Indolence,’ examining the smugness and sense of entitlement that writing workshops tend to foster.

Being accredited poets, they know themselves to be above reproach: their hearts are pure, and they wear them on their sleeves. For if the workshops have taught them nothing else (which is usually the case), they do know that if they have written what they really, really feel, it’s poetry, and as such, beyond odious comparisons.

There is too much of it, it’s not good enough, many of its practitioners mistake it for therapy or primal scream. Other than that, poetry is in good shape.

Clothes Make the Academic

May 4th, 2003 12:30 am | By

In the very first Note and Comment of this year I linked to a heart-warming little story (the link is now dead, unfortunately) in the New York Observer about those wonderful hip folks at the Modern Language Association, which featured the profound, almost Gnostic aphorism, ‘Theorists are the snappiest dressers.’ What is it about lit crits these days, people often, often wonder; why are they so full of themselves, so grandiose, so deluded about their omniscience? It couldn’t be mere physics envy could it? Surely they’re too wised up and knowing to fall into that old trap!

Leonard Cassuto takes a look at the issue in this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. He had to talk to scientists about a very technical subject recently, and was surprised at how friendly, helpful and non-condescending they were. It is not like that among the humanists, he says mournfully, and includes himself in the indictment. He attributes much of the difference to the peer-review system.

Physicists told me that peer review in the sciences has an ethical code built into it. There can be personality conflicts, of course, but the scientists share the belief that the peer-review system can deliver trustworthy assessments of their work. That enables them to relax and treat each other with respect.

It is different in the humanities because of the subjectivity of the work. The ‘softer’ fields, Cassuto says, are conspicuous for their social hierarchies, their status anxiety, their celebrity culture, and their jargon and turf-protecting.

Attempts to popularize have often been met with the special hostility that attends defense of hierarchy — consider the philosopher Judith Butler’s assertion on the op-ed page of The New York Times that her ideas were so complex they couldn’t be expressed in a way that regular people might understand.

Rebecca Goldstein includes an amusing riff on this subject in her 1983 novel The Mind-Body Problem:

Observers of the academic scene may be aware that there are distinct personality types associated with distinct disciplines. The types can be ordered along the line of a single parameter: the degree of concern demonstrated over the presentation of self, or “outward focus.”…At the low end, with outward focus asymptotically approaching zero, we find the pure mathematicians, closely followed by the theoretical physicists…At the other end, with the degree of outward focus asymptotically approaching infinity, we find sociologists and professors of literature…The degree of outward focus is in inverse proportion to the degree of certainty attainable within the given methodology. The greater the certainty of one’s results, the less the concern with others’ opinion of oneself.

So there you are. Literary theorists are the snappiest dressers.

L.A. Book Festival

May 1st, 2003 8:15 pm | By

There was a tiny local skirmish in the ongoing battle between scientists and their various critics, teasers and self-appointed scourges a few days ago at the Los Angeles Book Festival, which was shown on the defiantly uncommercial tv channel Cspan. The critic was one Jeffrey Schwartz, who made a bizarrely impassioned, over-emphatic near-oration on the perils of ‘scientism,’ the putative belief of scientists that only what can be measured is real and that science claims it knows everything worth knowing. Schwartz spoke fervently about the importance of inner experience (do a lot of people dispute that nowadays? Isn’t behaviorism kind of, like, over?) and claimed that it too should be treated as science, that there were ways (not specified) of making it measurable and reproducible, and that it’s very very important. (Odd – he’s against scientism and yet wants science to encompass inner experience and inner experience to be made measurable and reproducible – isn’t that kind of ‘scientistic’ itself?)

The other panelists were David Baltimore, John Maddox, Timothy Ferris, and Brenda Maddox, and they all disagreed with Schwartz, though Ferris also thanked him for making the discussion more interesting than it would otherwise have been. Ferris also advised Schwartz not to try to get published in Nature, to which Schwartz replied, laughing a good deal, that he had tried, several times, and been rejected. John Maddox was the editor of Nature for many years, and he did indeed seem particularly unimpressed by Schwartz’ comments. He wondered how one would go about making inner experience measurable and reproducible, and he pointed out that there are many things science doesn’t know yet, such as how life began and how the mind works. Timothy Ferris talked about seeing a panel of scientists line up to ask hostile, probing questions of researchers and remarked that one would wait a long time before seeing that happen at a panel of theologians. In short it wasn’t much of a victory for the anti-science team.

Bigger, Realer America

May 1st, 2003 12:04 am | By

I generally do my best to ignore political commentary and rhetoric, especially of the right wing variety, because all it does is annoy, not to say infuriate. But once in awhile I bump into some by accident, and it’s invariably even worse than I had imagined. A few evenings ago for instance I tripped over some absurd person on tv (and not even on Murdoch’s Fox channel, but on Gates’ msnbc) ranting about those liberal elitists who dare to disagree with President Bush. That’s the definition of elitism? Disagreeing with Bush? Because…what? Bush was born in a mud hut? Bush is the twelfth child of Mississippi sharecroppers who got where he is today by sheer force of brains and talent? Bush wouldn’t know an elite if it sat down next to him and thanked him for eliminating the estate tax? Is that how that is?

And then last night I heard Geoff Nunberg on Fresh Air discussing a piece by Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal that was even more ridiculous, not to say downright sinister in places. All about the ‘stunning’ patriotism of good old ‘bigger and realer’ America.

American journalists still fear that, being called biased in favor of America. So do intellectuals, academics, local clever people who talk loudly in restaurants, and leftist mandarins of Washington, Los Angeles, New York, and other cities. For all cities have them. But there was always another America, and boy has it endured…They came from a bigger America and a realer one–a healthy and vibrant place full of religious feeling and cultural energy and Bible study and garage bands and sports-love and mom-love and sophistication and normality.

It gets even worse, with a lot of drivel about the pope, but I’ll spare you. I’ll spare you so that I can give myself plenty of room to look at Noonan’s sly, nasty, and frankly sick-making rhetoric. Note that intellectuals and clever people are from a smaller and less real America than the one those other, Good people inhabit. Note that cities are bad places. And note (if you can without turning pale and having to rush for a basin) the cheerleading for religious feeling and ‘Bible study’ and…sports-love? and…mom-love? mom-love?? Philip Wylie where are you when we need you. Chatting with Norman Bates, probably. And then of course the clincher. Normality. Ah yes. Normality. Because of course all those other, bad, wicked, urban, eddicated people with their mandarin leftism and their fear of patriotism, they are not normal. They are weird. Odd. Strange. Or, not to put too fine a point on it, abnormal and perverted and sick.

And there is, again, the question of why it is intellectuals who are mandarins, whereas overpaid CEOs who pocket huge bonuses while cutting the pay of their workers are the salt of the earth. There is the even more pressing question, do Republicans never talk loudly in restaurants? I’m not absolutely sure that conforms to my experience of the world. There is the slightly Talibanish air of the desired bigger America – religious feeling and Bible study? One wouldn’t have been enough?

But most of all there is the horrible blinkered narrowness of it, the suffocating parochial smallness, and the disgusting message to the readers: stay as sweet as you are, be little, don’t try to be more, don’t leave, don’t learn, don’t become curious, don’t expand, don’t aspire. Just stay right there in your healthy, vibrant, religious world and never change, or else you will become abnormal and unhealthy. This is particularly repellent coming from someone who herself writes for the Wall Street Journal and other big city publications. She seems to be having an interesting and (sort of) intellectual life, so why all this sneering, why the attempt to discourage other people from broadening their horizons beyond dear mom and the garage? If Peggy Noonan, former White House speechwriter and now columnist for the WSJ, is not a mandarin, who is? Intellectuals and academics? Please.

I wonder how long this is going to go on before all those bigger realer Murkans start to see through it. Start to wonder why it’s intellectuals who are the elitists and mandarins, while rich people are the salt of the earth. Why buying and selling elections and allowing lobbyists and corporate lawyers to write legislation is perfectly fine but disagreeing with George W. Bush about anything is corrupt mandarin city behavior. But then I would wonder, wouldn’t I, because I’m just a sick abnormal citified mandarin myself. Where’s my Bible…

A different, and very minor point that Nunberg made in his commentary is that Noonan uses a rhetorical device in this piece that is more popular with rightists than with leftists. It is that string of ‘ands’ (and Bible study and garage bands and). It’s called polysyndeton. This interests me because it’s a device I use a lot myself, as a friend and editor of mine likes to point out. It could even be said, he hints, that I overuse it. I am now more convinced than I was. I looked it up in a literary dictionary, which said that Hemingway ‘was particularly addicted to this device’ and that ‘in the more extreme instances of his pseudo-biblical style (ouch!) it becomes the equivalent of a verbal tic’. Oh dear.


Apr 25th, 2003 7:10 pm | By

There was an interview with John Brady Kiesling on Fresh Air last night. He is the former mid-level diplomat who wrote a letter of resignation shortly before the war in Iraq started. The interview was both interesting and depressing, though not very surprising. Kiesling thinks nation-building and democracy-establishing in Iraq will require far more money and attention than the US has any intention of bestowing on them, that the tensions between Kurds and Shiites are going to be even worse than Saddam was, that the US has thrown away the good relations with Europe that the State Department has spent years and the efforts of people like Kiesling building up, and that the US fails to realise how much it benefits from the UN.

His dissent is all the more interesting in that he is not an across-the-board anti-interventionist. In fact he was one of a group of twelve diplomats who wrote a document in 1994 urging the Clinton administration to intervene in Bosnia to prevent the genocide there. The administration in fact did listen and did change its policy, and Kiesling and the others won an award from the American Foreign Service Association for ‘constructive dissent’. He is neither a pacifist nor an ideologue, he is apprently in fact someone who learns from experience, observation, evidence and other such bits of the world around him that don’t always agree with our preconceptions or wishes. He is correspondingly unimpressed by the president who doesn’t share that ability. He was more explicit about these criticisms in an interview in Salon recently [the interview is premium content but can be read after watching a brief and not-too-revolting advert].

But what I’ve discovered from the people who’ve searched me out is that there seems to be this incredible unhappiness in the traditional American internationalist foreign policy community that the president, just out of ignorance and ideology, is taking apart what these people had built through careers…Since he is not intellectually equipped to understand why such a huge part of the world could have these negative feelings about us, he’s looking for a simple answer…a president who apparently tunes people out if they disagree beyond a certain point.

Butterflies and Wheels is all about not letting our preconceptions and wishes, our entrenched positions (as my colleague says) and even our loyalties, get in the way of our ability to notice and understand things like changing circumstances, complicating factors, evidence, competing goods. Kiesling mentions the notion that loyalty may be over-valued in this administration.

So much of the debate in the United States is not a debate over interests, but a debate over loyalty; are you loyal to the president or not? And put in those terms, the sort of pack mentality does prevail. I guess you could argue that the good of the group requires solidarity in the group, even though that solidarity leads the group to do something insanely stupid.

I have to agree. Particularly, loyalty to someone who is not intellectually equipped, who looks for simple answers, who is both ignorant and ideological (what a godawful combination), who tunes people out if they disagree with him beyond a certain point. Those may be good qualifications for some kinds of work, but they simply aren’t for the line of work Bush II had the conceit and temerity to think he was fit for.

Simple Gifts

Apr 22nd, 2003 9:52 pm | By

I linked to this essay about George Bush in the Atlantic Monthly a few days ago. I was and still am particularly interested in the depiction of Bush’s narrowness that Richard Brookhiser gives.

“Practically,” Brookhiser writes, “Bush’s faith means that he does not tolerate, or even recognize, ambiguity: there is an all-knowing God who decrees certain behaviors, and leaders must obey.” While this clear-cut belief structure enables him to make split-second decisions and take action with principled confidence, it also means that he is limited by “strictly defined mental horizons.”…”Bush may be a free-range animal, but he has a habitat, in which he stays. If he needs to know some facts that his advisers don’t know, he can discover them. But if he needs to think some thoughts that they can’t, he may have a hard time doing it.”

But Brookhiser claims that Bush is a ‘reasonably intelligent man’ despite all this. But is that right? Surely someone who cannot even recognize ambiguity, who stays permanently in a mental habitat, who has a hard time thinking unfamiliar thoughts…Surely that is a pretty good working definition of stupidity? Because it’s wrong, it’s obtuse, it’s unobservant and myopic and unhelpful, to oversimplify things. Isn’t it? Doesn’t that stance indicate a fundamental and damaging mismatch between a person’s ideas about the world and how the world in fact is? How can someone who doesn’t notice something so blindingly obvious – that the world is a complicated, multifarious, difficult, patchwork place, not a simple single easy one – be considered ‘reasonably intelligent’? The world is not a simple, easily grasped, easily managed place, is it. It’s vast, complicated, confusing, contradictory, unpredictable, dangerous. Simple solutions obstinately adhered to no matter what happens or what new research shows or what new evidence reveals is not only a mistake, something that gets a tick in the margin, it’s likely to be the wrong bad harmful destructive thing to do. Which is not to say that leaders should go on pondering forever and never do anything, it’s simply to say they should have the kinds of minds that are aware of a range of possibilities from the beginning.

Iraqi History and Archaeology

Apr 19th, 2003 7:48 pm | By

The story of the looting of the Iraqi National Museum and other museums in Iraq is an interesting and deeply discouraging one. A giant hole has been blasted in the world’s stock of available knowledge that will never be completely repaired. Even if all the missing artworks do eventually turn up on the black market (a highly unlikely if), that still leaves all the books and manuscripts that went up in flames at the National Library, and all the artworks that are not missing but smashed. Whatever the neglect or indifference of the Pentagon in not protecting the sites, the damage is done now, and people who think history and knowledge are good things are in shock.

Slate has a thorough story here. The Guardian has one on the warning the Pentagon had here. The New York Times reports some further details here. The Wall Street Journal gives its own peculiar view of things here and here. There are useful pages here, here, and here.

The Washington Post reports the Pentagon was warned of the risks to Iraq’s archeological heritage and the National Museum in particular here. The San Francisco Chronicle reports here that the Pentagon did warn the military to spare archaeological sites where possible. The Washington Post reports here that there were not enough troops to do the job.


Apr 19th, 2003 6:00 pm | By

Ian Buruma says in this article in Prospect that the source of the bitterness between France and the US is that they are the two great missionary-revolutionary countries, the two great believers in universals, only they have different ‘universals’ (quite a paradoxical outcome). Both are idealist nations, both are the proud inheritors of institutions and values born in violent revolution, but the ideals and institutions and values are not the same ones. So we come to Liberty fries and Liberty toast and a deluge of Francophobe jokes on the Internet.

But it’s possible that Buruma overestimates US idealism at times.

Unless one believes, like Noam Chomsky, that the war was fought for the sake of corporate interests, that too was at least partly the result of American idealism. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson thought they were protecting Asian dominoes from falling to communist tyranny.

Well, that’s debatable. It’s debatable whether they really thought that at all, and how large a part the thought played in our ending up there, and how idealistic the thought was even if they really did think it. How much room did ideas about protection from tyranny have among other ideas about great power rivalry and ‘credibility’, along with thought-free zones of inadvertence and ratcheting effects (send just a few thousand troops to help the South Vietnamese, then send a few thousand more to help the first ones, then…)? And above all how much breathing room did they have among thoughts about domestic politics and the next election? There is a sobering conversation between Johnson and McGeorge Bundy in the summer of 1964, in Michael Beschloss’ book and tape Taking Charge, recordings and transcripts of Johnson’s phone conversations. Johnson expresses deep misgivings about sending young men, sons of people he knows, off to war, but then says he can’t possibly give the Republicans a chance to call him weak, and possibly lose the election.

And then there is the vexed question of how genuinely ‘idealistic’ the anti-communist stance really was. It can’t have been a purely idealistic opposition to totalitarianism or dictatorial rule, can it? Because if it had been, we wouldn’t have supported so many ferociously anti-communist but also just plain ferocious dictators, would we. Surely the anti-communism-trumps-everything policy had some roots whose idealism was at least debatable, such as hatred of atheism and secularism, and even more, hatred of economic egalitarianism. Communism was always hated and feared because it was a threat to profit and property rights and rich people. Some choose to see that as idealistic, but the matter is at least debatable. Ronald Reagan liked to get starry-eyed over the US as a place where someone can always get enormously rich. Other people are not so moved by a place that rejoices in by far the largest wealth and income gap in the industrialised world. Economic egalitarianism may be wrong-headed, foolish, an economic poison-pill, but I still find it hard to see devotion to markets and profits and vast inequality as idealistic.

Democracy or Freedom?

Apr 18th, 2003 7:00 pm | By

Sometimes it can seem as if Americans have a special gift for naïveté – something to do with living in a huge country bordered by oceans, thus distant from the rest of the world, and also to do with our dreams of exceptionalism and being the City on a Hill, and maybe also to do with vague notions that people who live right in the place where Levis and Hollywood movies and Big Macs actually come from have no need to do a lot of heavy lifting-type thought, that that kind of thing is for those poor deprived people in other countries who have to import their Jurassic Park and Kentucky Fried Chicken from us. Whatever the reason, we’re not awfully good at noticing the blindingly obvious.

One bit of common knowledge that always seems to come as a big shock, not to say an appalling violation of taboo, is the notion that democracy could be good and valuable in many ways, could be the best available possibility, and still have some aspects that are troublesome, still not be compatible with all other possible goods. Americans ought to know this if anyone does, given our history, the longevity of our democracy, our oddly mixed role as beacon and bad example, and a little book some French (Liberty?) guy wrote by the name of Democracy in America that took a good hard look at the subject. That little book inspired another, equally influential little book by John Stuart Mill, called On Liberty. And yet it still comes as a great surprise when anyone tells us that there could be tensions between democracy and other goods, particulary if the other good is our beloved freedom.

Fareed Zakaria is the latest to point this out in his new book The Future of Freedom, which is reviewed by Niall Ferguson in the New York Times. Zakaria was interviewed on Fresh Air a few days ago. I was particularly interested in what he said about his dismay at seeing India turn farther and farther away from its proud founding heritage of secularism over the last twenty five years. That’s another thing Americans don’t like to notice: that religion can be highly coercive. Democratic, yes indeed, but not necessarily anything to do with freedom.

Abstract, Imaginative Thinking

Apr 10th, 2003 7:24 pm | By

It is not very astonishing, but it is nonetheless highly unfortunate, that science is under attack, given an incurious, narrow, semi-educated, fundamentalist god-botherer in the White House. Some of the battlegrounds in that attack are discussed in this article in The Guardian, which points out the rhetorical skill with which the anti-science moves are dressed up in ‘scientific’ clothes.

…these aren’t the old wars of science versus religion. The new assaults on the conventional wisdom frame themselves, without exception, as scientific theories, no less deserving of a hearing than any other. Proponents of ID – using a strategy previously unheard of among anti-Darwinists – grant almost all the premises of evolution (the idea that species develop; that the world wasn’t necessarily created in seven days) in order to better attack it.

Intelligent Design, which soberly discusses cells and eyes and complexity in order to argue that there must have been a Designer (without, of course, answering the obvious next question, So who designed the Designer then?). An apparently scientific but evidence-free claim that viruses are small enough to get through condoms, in order to divert funding away from condoms and toward abstinence. Keen admiration for research, the more the better, in fact an indefinite amount is not too much when it comes to global warming, let’s keep doing research for years and years before we take any action. On the other hand when it comes to cloning, then we listen to the chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics Leon Kass, who believes and says that we should go with our intuitive disgust-reactions in these matters.

Cloning proponents like Howard Garrison, director of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, say that when they sit down with sceptics they go a long way in convincing them. But the president “listens selectively”, says a source close to one of the national academies, the learned societies which represent the elite scientists in the US. In the White House, an embryo is an embryo and must be protected at all costs.

Well, the president would listen selectively, wouldn’t he. That’s the kind of guy he is. The historian Richard Brookhiser, a conservative, says as much in the Atlantic.

Bush’s worldview is extremely rigid, circumscribed by the good-versus-evil religious convictions to which he has adhered since his recovery from alcoholism seventeen years ago…While this clear-cut belief structure enables him to make split-second decisions and take action with principled confidence, it also means that he is limited by “strictly defined mental horizons.” Abstract, imaginative thinking, Brookhiser emphasizes, is not the President’s strong suit. And though Bush does take care to draw upon the counsel of intelligent, informed advisors, each with a different point of view, those varying viewpoints tend to fall only within a range of perspectives that reflect his pre-existing inclinations.

And that range of pre-existing inclinations probably does not include a lot of that ‘abstract, imaginative thinking’ which is not Bush’s strong suit, but which is science’s. Unfortunate.