App Locally

There’s been some grumbling on the web about neighborhood information services such as NextDoor — the gravamen is that such services are inherently racist, or foster racism.

There’s a solution. Move to a different neighborhood. I live on the South Side of Chicago and while I wouldn’t call the NextDoor service here spellbinding, you don’t see messages from people freaking out because they saw a black person drive by. The astonishing reason behind this is that 80 percent of the people in the neighborhood are themselves black. Instead, you have requests for information about house painters and dog walkers, announcements of festivals, complaints about noise, calls to pester the alderman about this or that traffic issue. Normal people dealing with normal stuff. Some lifestyle scuffles, but Pantone numbers don’t enter into it.

It’s not the apps that “have a racism problem.” It’s the composition of the neighborhoods. Do something about that before you blame the software designers. Or have the apps become the reality itself?



Further to the Man who Forgot Words

At the aquarium the other day, a perfectly warm-and-fuzzy slide show meant to raise the public’s ecological awareness was prefaced with the title screen:


Now of course I know what they wanted to do: harness two slogans that people normally respond to in push-button, sleepwalking fashion, “one world” evoking those feelings of kinship with animals and nature, “making a difference” prompting us to get out our checkbooks and do something for the human-created organizations that are supposed to protect bits of nature. But having spent months reading the wrong kind of books, I couldn’t help thinking that if you are all about “One World,” “making a difference” must be the beginning of the downhill trend. If Laozi had been on that advertising account team, “One World: Stop Making Those Differences” or “Unmake a Difference” might have been the more consistent message (but then, who would have written checks?).


An Unhelpful Thought

Zhuangzi– the great Zhuangzi, who seems to go everywhere with me these days– is credited with a nugget of wisdom that in virtually all translations reads similarly. 荃者所以在魚,得魚而忘荃;蹄者所以在兔,得兔而忘蹄;言者所以在意,得意而忘言。吾安得忘言之人而與之言哉?

I take Burton Watson’s translation as the baseline for English versions: ‘The fish trap exists because of the fish; once you’ve gotten the fish, you can forget the trap. The rabbit snare exists because of the rabbit; once you’ve gotten the rabbit, you can forget the snare. Words exist because of meaning; once you’ve gotten the meaning, you can forget the words. Where can I find a man who has forgotten words so I can have a word with him?”

Fair enough. No need to paraphrase. Zhang Longxi pointed out that “a man who has forgotten words” wouldn’t be much use as a conversation-partner, so we should probably read that clause as meaning “a man who will forget words” (and, by implication, capture my meaning). Also good.

But one problem remains, and that’s the parodic quality of Zhuangzi. He constantly picks up some pearl of wisdom, fits it into a slingshot, and uses it to shatter another vessel of wisdom that had been gathering dust on the shelf. Were it not for the lack of corroborating texts, I would be tempted to think that the first three segments, about fish, rabbits, meanings and their respective traps, were quoted from some source that took them straight as a proof of the priority of meaning over words; and that then Zhuangzi (whoever that might be) took things to their logical endpoint by saying, “Well, if you think that, then you’d probably advise me to find somebody who has forgotten words and have a word with him, right?” In other words, the problem Zhang Longxi fixed might not be the problem that needs fixing; Zhuangzi might have been laughing at the solemn ends-and-means calculus of conventional attitudes about language. The first three segments would be as it were in quotation marks, and the absurd conclusion would be where our author wants to go. Zhuangzi fans, your reaction? Or have you all obediently forgotten words? (Must go check on those fish-traps.)



A friend from Beijing brought me a bottle of rice wine with a pagoda on the label: 塔牌紹興酒, or “Pagoda Brand Shaoxing Wine.” It reminded me of an earlier incarnation of that apparently famous brand, made in Taiwan: different bottle shape, different label, almost the same name, but complemented with an English transliteration: TART-PIE. There’s a whole theory of language in that designation.

The word for “pagoda” or “tower” is, in fact, borrowed in Chinese as a transliteration of “tart”: you can buy shuiguo ta, or fruit “pagodas,” in Taiwan. Before anyone gets excited, let me point out that they’re one-storey affairs. Knowledgeable consumers are aware that the “ta” is there as a transliteration, not as a unit of meaning. “Pie” is sometimes represented as pai (meaning “send,” fourth tone, 派). But every unit of sound, every syllable, in Chinese writing carries some kind of meaning. The translator of the Taiwanese rice wine label must have assumed that English works in the same way. If you wanted to translate the Pagoda Brand name, then, you would have to find words in English that had meanings and were phonetically similar, thus Tart-Pie. The absence of any relation between the wine and tarts and pies initiates the English reader into the way Chinese pastry buyers deal with “sendings” and “pagodas”: they just step over the misunderstanding and enjoy a fully semantic though partly nonsensical universe.



the First Seven Jobs meme

  1. Lutenist of fleas, Wallace Stevens Industries
  2. Apprentice dragon butcher, Nanhua Zhengjing Supply Co.
  3. Supreme Court justice
  4. Secretary-General,  NATO
  5. Golf
  6. Drink
  7. Television

Ebola and Ethics

Ebola and ethics? Sure. Don’t listen to anyone who thinks that an emergency calls for desperate measures including the suspension of that pesky distinction between right and wrong. In fact the existence of an emergency calls for us to be especially attentive to all that ethics stuff, not to treat it as annoying paperwork that you sign your way through on the way to doing something ruthless and necessary. See the Letters column of the British Medical Journal if you don’t believe me.



“An Armed Society is a Polite Society”?

Really? People go around saying it. But, please, ma’am or sir as the case may be, I beg to differ, if you don’t mind. Seek the proof in the pudding. We have got ourselves the most heavily armed society on earth, and I don’t see us being any less rude, overbearing, hot-headed, irrational, stubborn, nasty or mean than any of the neighbors– indeed, our behavior speaks louder than the words of a hack sci-fi writer, sometimes abusively attributed to Jefferson. Pretty soon the only form of politeness we’ll know is the twenty-one-gun salute.


Inflation Prophets

Around 2008– that is, for the non-USAns, two presidential election cycles ago– I remember a lot of dark muttering around various dinner tables about the “messianism” of Obama supporters. People on the left, that is, and some of the most philosophically and historically alert ones, were afraid that the expectations lifting the candidacy of the previously little-known senator from Illinois were going to swerve into something sinister. As it happened, nothing less messianic than Obama’s presidency could be imagined. Obama has governed within the limits of the law, not even testing those limits; far from that, he has failed to take a lot of opportunities that the law would have allowed him, and that would have made possible a deep change in our political culture (such as allowing war-crimes investigations to go ahead for the Bushocracy, before he got too deeply involved in the criminality of war himself). In Max Weber’s terms, he has let routine, not charisma, run the show. That’s the sign of a virtue. Maybe not the virtue we needed foregrounded for all of the last eight years. But a virtue nonetheless.

Messianism is certainly something to worry about. It is a symptom of an impatience that wants to throw off all legal restraints, the very restraints that make possible the “freedom” that Americans, those masters of paradox, trumpet loudest when they are trying to anoint someone as lord and master over them. For this we have historical parallels.

Countless “saviors of the twenties”… achieved a position of “great significance especially in the years of inflation from 1919 to 1923 and then again during the Depression of 1929 to 1933″… In 1922, a Berlin correspondent for the Kölnische Zeitung described these “prophets of the street” as follows: “For the past one or two years, the advertising boards in Berlin have been covered with announcements of disciples of the future and prophets who are advertising their lectures (often at considerable admission prices). Catchwords and quotations from the Bible always play a role in the advertisements. The old constellation of ideas surrounding the apocalypse has gained new life, as it did in earlier times of crisis… The existence of such prophets is a dangerous symptom of the mental state prevalent in Germany today.” (Klaus Schreiner, “Messianism in the Weimar Republic,” 311-362 of Peter Schäfer and Mark Cohen, eds., Toward the Millennium: Messianic Expectations from the Bible to Waco [Leiden: Brill, 1998], 338-339.)

The important thing about these saviors is that they promise to suspend all existing laws, treaties, and institutions, and simply “emerge as the bearer[s] of divine powers of mercy and fate” (337). One enthusiastic student essayist wrote in 1920:

In our misery, we long for a Leader. He will show us the way… The true Leader surely has no selfish motivation, just one, regal motivation, that he must be the Leader because he is it by nature…. The Leader is not guided by the masses, but by his mission; he does not flatter the masses; he proceeds harshly, uprightly, and ruthlessly, in times of good and evil. The Leader is radical; he is wholly that which he is, and he does wholly that which he must. The Leader is responsible; that is, he does God’s will, which he embodies…. God grant us the Leader and help us to achieve true fealty. (Käthe Becker, “Führerschaft, eine Rede vor der Vereinigung ‘Deutsche Jugend,'” in Deutschlands Erneuerung, vol. 4 [1920]: 563, cited in Schreiber, “Messianism,” 336.)

I have replaced “Führer” in Schreiner’s translation with the more ordinary term “Leader” in order to downplay the connotation that the word “Führer” has acquired in English as applying to one moustachioed individual only, because the date of the quotation proves that it’s not a matter of a manipulative individual or an evil genius, but of the fervent passivity of a mass movement begging to be led, pleading to be dealt with “harshly and ruthlessly.” There was a demand for a Führer, a howling demand, already years before the author of Mein Kampf stepped upon the stage. A well-prepared stage. I blame the preparers: the ones in Versailles as well as the pamphleteers, flag-wavers and revanchards.

And if someone had dealt with the root causes of the frenzy in a timely manner, perhaps the hero cult would have subsided. Inflation prophets will arise. They aren’t the evil itself but “dangerous symptoms” thereof. It shouldn’t be impossible to tap the top tax bracket, employ a few million people in infrastructure repairs, have an honest discussion about race, immigration and exclusion.

I didn’t worry too much about messianism in 2008. Perhaps I should have worried about disappointed messianism. But I do worry about it in 2016.


Commemoration in Another Key

My father would have been 80 yesterday (that’s how far it is to July 3, 1936). We slipped out to a jazz club in the South Loop by way of celebration. Think of it: in July ’36 Fats Waller and Jelly Roll Morton were still in their prime, Miles Davis was ten years old. An unpredictable zigzag was born.



Quasi-Domestic Situation

I know these people– let’s call them B and E. For years now, B keeps threatening to leave E. Every time, E makes concessions and allows B to renegotiate the terms of the relationship, always in B’s favor. Finally, after a new installment of threats, B has departed– but is now trying to reestablish visiting rights on B’s own terms, presenting this as a favor done to E.

E’s friends are relieved that B is gone and are telling E to change the locks. A court order might be necessary.


Ha’nacker Mill

This poem expresses what I think of as the Leaver mindset—the pastoral nostalgia of fascists.

Sally is gone that was so kindly,
Sally is gone from Ha’nacker Hill.
And the Briar grows ever since then so blindly
And ever since then the clapper is still,
And the sweeps have fallen from Ha’nacker Mill.

Ha’nacker Hill is in Desolation:
Ruin a-top and a field unploughed.
And Spirits that call on a fallen nation
Spirits that loved her calling aloud:
Spirits abroad in a windy cloud.

Spirits that call and no one answers;
Ha’nacker’s down and England’s done.
Wind and Thistle for pipe and dancers
And never a ploughman under the Sun.
Never a ploughman. Never a one.

—Hilaire Belloc, 1923


The Play of Analogy

Republicans have dismissed as a “publicity stunt” a continuing sit-in protest over gun laws by Democrats in the US House of Representatives.

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan said the protesters were more interested in headlines than tackling gun violence. (BBC News, 23/6/2016)

Would you let a poisonous snake wander around your house while children and guests were there?

Although Goebbels, no stranger to killing, went around with a cyanide pill hidden on his person, and I suppose that was his right, he didn’t think to carry a dose sufficient to carry off another fifty or three hundred people, or to toss it in the water supply. We Americans are a generous people.

A theology professor in our neighborhood shot himself and his wife the other day. Why was he in such a hurry? Because convenience was right at hand, and we Americans love convenience. I am reminded of something about “seventy times seventy,” from a guy who must have lived in a more slow-moving era.

Rikki Garni said it best: “The dictionary is the only loaded gun we keep in the house.”


And So I Sat Down to Write my Academic Memoir

I am privileged to have spent much of my adult life in the company of people for whom fat-shaming is a more grievous injustice than starvation.

(With an opening line like that, it will have to be a posthumous memoir. I couldn’t stand to read the reviews.)


Liberal Education as Radical Proposition in the Late Ming

(A talk for the 2016 Weissbourd conference, “Does Liberal Education Need Saving?”)

Just at the moment when the liberal arts are under attack in America as being a merely ornamental excrescence, Chinese university administrators are trying to reform the curriculum in order to include more general education and more seminar-style teaching. Cao Li 曹莉, a professor and dean at Tsinghua University, finds this risky. “Many universities,” she says,

are rushing to join in the adventure of internationalizing higher education with foreign capital. All these shifts and transformations pose severe challenges to the Chinese university, one of which is the problem of how the identity of a Chinese university can be defined and upheld. In this regard, liberal education cannot ignore the strategic importance of maintaining national identity and cultural self-consciousness…. [T]he model of the American university is being invoked to rationalize and standardize university of education. We will have to realize that one of the most disturbing results of globalization is the standardization and homogenization of cultures, which threatens to deconstruct nationality and dismantle national consciousness as well as cultural confidence…. To break out of such a globalizing paradigm both culturally and intellectually is a challenge to all nations and their educational enterprises.[1]

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Lying About Sex

“We demand that sex speak the truth… and we demand that it tell us our truth, or rather, the deeply buried truth of that truth about ourselves wich we think we possess in our immediate consciousness,” you’ll remember that Foucault said. He also insisted that that “truth” was a scam, the more so the more it became obligatory.

I guess it’s usual to lie about sex– the sex one is having or not having (or used to have or not have). But lying about the kinds, occasions and purposes of sex that other people are having, or have had, touches my fiber of moral disgust. It happens in all sorts of places and ways. Let’s do less of this.