Purity and Danger

Dear Ms C*d*,

I write to protest your astonishing lack of consideration in sending my client, Mx. ****, a letter about holiday songs without affixing a conspicuously visible Trigger Warning and Content Label. Mx. **** has been my patient for several years now. They have been diagnosed as suffering from Major Depressive Disorder, Non-Psychotic (ICD-10 F33.3), With Suicidal Ideation (ICD-10 R45.851), and your message awakened many of the symptoms characteristic of this disorder:

  • Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” mood
  • Feelings of hopelessness, or pessimism
  • Irritability
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities
  • Decreased energy or fatigue
  • Thoughts of death or suicide, or suicide attempts (Source: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/depression)

Your letter conveyed the judgment of the music staff of the school that Mx. ****’s children attend, that “Jingle Bells” and other seasonal songs must no longer be sung at the school. The reason adduced was that

the music department has started to research the background of songs we’ve used and found out some have a problematic past: racist or derogatory terms or themes, questionable authenticity, and/or appropriated origins. December songs we are no longer singing at school include: Jingle Bells, Baby It’s Cold Outside, Winter Wonderland, and Chestnuts Roasting, you can click on the links to learn more. We take responsibility for singing these songs in the past and are committed to our continued work to evolve as educators. … Song repertoire is a piece of the larger school-wide identity scope and sequence as we support each other in raising a generation of changemakers.

Mx. **** has always sung “Jingle Bells” in the comfortable belief that, unlike many year-end holiday songs, it was neither racist nor anti-Semitic. To the untrained ear, its lyric has to do with dashing through the snow in a one-horse open sleigh (presumably without cruelty to the aforenamed horse), over the fields, laughing all the way (attention: laughing from mere physical exhilaration, not laughing at any person, creed, ability status, or nationality). The idea of bobbing a horse’s tail and affixing bells to it (as in “Bells on bobtails ring”) has caused Mx. **** some pain in the past, but in therapy I suggested they simply sing out “Bells on bumpers ring” loudly enough that they will not hear the offensive “bobtail” word as sung by others, and this method seems to have been well-tolerated, by my patient at least.

But now your message and the linked essay have informed them that “Jingle Bells” was apparently sung as part of a minstrel entertainment in 1857. The fact that its composer wrote tunes to be performed by white actors wearing blackface, and the suggestion that “Jingle Bells” might at one time have figured amongst the numbers on stage, condemns it forever in the eyes of properly vigilant people, for we all know that, just as in the old South one drop of the “wrong” kind of blood was sufficient to exclude a person from the category of free white people, so too, in our enlightened era, the possibility of tracing any element of culture to a situation, a person, and/or a connotation that are in any way “problematic” suffices to justify removing it forever from the repertoire. It doesn’t matter that “Jingle Bells” is not usually sung in blackface. The fact that a historian has found evidence that it might have been sung in blackface at least once condemns it. It also doesn’t matter that evidence has never been brought forth that singing “Jingle Bells” promotes racist attitudes in white children, or induces problems of self-esteem in non-white children. I will gladly concede the bit about the bobtails, but the larger point is that any suspicion of complicity with evil (by which we mean attitudes that are derogatory, exclusionary, appropriative, or otherwise non-nice) calls for prompt action to remove the offensive cultural object. The moral imperative– who will think of the children?– is plain. Even the pleasure that generations of children have taken in singing “Jingle Bells” must be sacrificed on the altar of this demanding ideal.

No person aspiring to virtue today could possibly disagree with your strategy of cultural correction. But my patient, who although non-psychotic is subject to rumination and insomnia, was, I regret to say, profoundly triggered by your mail. How many times have they, unawares, sung “Jingle Bells” in public? How many times have they hummed it in private? How can they bear the knowledge of having done that, understanding as they now do that to hum “Jingle Bells” is the moral equivalent of sailing to Africa, clapping chains on innocent villagers, and dragging them across the Atlantic to serve without salary and die early after decades of back-breaking labor? Not to put too fine a point on it, singing “Jingle Bells” is spiritual lynching. What other customs, cultural artifacts, or activities in which Mx. **** has engaged over a lifetime, though apparently harmless, could be traced to a similar origin? Can anyone be pure?

My patient is a White Liberal American, and to make things worse, a Protestant [gender withheld by patient’s request]. They have tried to do all the right things in their life. They have not spoken the N-word. They have not discriminated against Jews, or Muslims either. They have left the room when relatives told jokes about chitlins or nose operations. They have marched against the war in Iraq and for Black Lives Matter. They have given to the right charities (small problem: they omitted to brag about it). They have voted regularly. They do not belong to any segregated clubs. They have looked into their genealogy and discovered many individuals in the past fifteen or so traceable generations who owned slaves or benefited from the slave economy, who considered heterosexuality normative, who believed their own religion or nation superior to others. All this self-scrutiny they have faithfully performed since attaining the age of reason.

And yet your message was allowed to reach my patient’s ears without so much as a warning that its content would trigger bouts of guilt, self-doubt, and suicidal ideation. How can I guide my patient toward healthy self-esteem if they are constantly reminded that their very DNA is soaked in the blood of criminals, that their profession and hobbies glitter with privilege, that their desires, pleasures, and dreams cannot be innocent? What short of a quick exit from this vale of tears could put right the injustice that is the life of a person who has inherited so much of American majority culture? How, moreover, can I keep my patient from snapping into an opposite subject position and espousing White Christian Nationalism as a flight from constant guilt and self-recrimination? Or turning to Fox News in order to externalize these guilt feelings into hatred and resentment of the Other?

Worry about how to be a worthy person has sent my patient into a tailspin. They are unable to sleep, they avoid friends, conversations, and public places, their consumption of alcohol to deaden the pain of being themself has gone up. All this could have been avoided by simply affixing a label that reads: WARNING. WHITE LIBERAL GUILT TRIGGERS BELOW. AVOID READING IF AT ALL SENSITIVE.

You have put yourself in the position of authority, the judgment seat. Yours is the voice that decides if my patient deserves to live or die. However, were they to die by suicide, their life insurance policies would be invalidated, and being a White Middle-Class Person, they could not accept that– the very thought of losing their death benefit might kill them. Such are the unendurable double-binds of the guilt of privileged people.

Please allow me in conclusion to express my sincerest envy of your moral unassailability.

Yours sincerely,

Dr. Narziss Goldmund Fort-Da


“Ἕλληνες ἀεὶ παῖδές ἐστε”

Benjamin Moser’s meditation on translation struck me as muddled and inconclusive in some ways that are fairly typical of our moment. Accusing English of colonizing the planet, finding fault with translation into English as somehow advancing that process, and then letting off a snobbish vibe when talking about foreigners with their nakedly functional, “airport” English, the essay left me feeling that another writer would have served the topic better. And speaking of snobbery, I couldn’t suppress a tiny giggle of superiority when I read Moser’s brag that

Ours was one of the oldest continually written literatures in the world, an uninterrupted stream that goes back beyond even Beowulf

Well, yes, Caedmon and Cynewulf lived at least a couple of hundred years before the Beowulf-poet. But a tradition that begins around 700 CE isn’t really all that old. If you want to meet a “continually written literature” with some history to it, I recommend Greek, Chinese, Hebrew, or Farsi; and with a quibble on the qualifier “written,” you could learn Sanskrit too.

Moser’s meditations begin with encountering a book collection that reminds him of his grandmother’s, containing hundreds of volumes of writers nobody (he says) reads. Mostly writers in a certain kind of modern American English; lots of translations into that idiom too. Like Moser, I grew up climbing around the shelves of my grandmother’s library (she was born in 1906). From it I got my first acquaintance with Dante, Baudelaire, Homer, Cervantes, Tolstoy, as well as Poe, Henry James, Melville, Faulkner, and the Fugitives. I still have on my shelves her copy of Ulysses and her Analects of Confucius. In some ways she wasn’t sophisticated: her critical sense was rooted in a kind of realism that wouldn’t get you far in the seminar-room today (you’d find on those shelves Edmund Wilson and How We Live, The Shock of Recognition, Bright Book of Life). But although we were living in a middle-sized town in the South, and basically monolingual people with a smattering of other languages, she was conversant with Lin Yutang, Auden, Stephen Spender, Hannah Arendt, as any intelligent person in the postwar West had to be. When I think about that library, my feeling isn’t mournfulness at its obsolescence, but gratitude that I got to read freely in it and readiness to share what I got there.


The How of the What

I hope it isn’t a questionable position to say that in college we need to teach people not what to think, but how. Learning how to think, and acquiring a base of knowledge to think about, leaves the learner free to come to whatever conclusions.

I was thinking about this basic question today as I was trying to pull together a syllabus for next quarter’s course– an existing course called “Philosophical Perspectives” into which I get to slip a bit of my own favorites and favoritisms. There’s always too much stuff that I’d like to show the class. And I have to remind myself that if I give them too much stuff, the course becomes a survey of the “what,” a nickel tour of thumbnail sketches of condensed summaries of hasty opinions of preordained conclusions. Teaching fewer texts allow us to explore how each one of them is put together, how they dialogue with earlier texts and with the difficult-to-persuade reader, as well as how they deceive and dissemble. There’s a trade-off, then, between What and How, and I would rather have a smaller number of Whats and spend more time unraveling their Hows. The loss can be absorbed. I tell myself that if someone has watched one careful reading take place, and been affected by it, they may want to go home and do the same thing on their own. And that’s the point.


“It’s like the Sounds Came Out of the Mud”

The origin-story of the Muscle Shoals hybrid of musical styles.

These are people my father knew in the 1960s and 70s, and whom I must have met occasionally. (Norbert Putnam, who features in the picture, was bassist on two of my father’s albums.) Watching the movie, you learn what astonishingly hard lives most of them had, unlike my father, a Tampa lawyer’s son from a big Savannah family. Segregation was indeed a parchment barrier, keeping apart groups of people who had in common desperate poverty and sparks of musical genius.

As always, the Muscle-Shoals-adjacent heretical bard R. Stevie Moore must be mentioned:


The Things They Said in 1828

La littérature, science expérimentale au plus haut degré, s’étend, se renouvelle, se rajeunit suivant tous les accidents de la pensée humaine, sans pouvoir jamais être encadrée dans un type de principe, ou dans un type d’exécution, fait par le génie des hommes qui l’ont précédée.” / Literature, this supremely experimental science, grows, renews itself, rejuvenates itself in response to every new twist of human thought, without ever being contained by the principles or types of execution that the genius of earlier generations has made.

Sounds pretty good for us fans of experimental literature! But Abel-François Villemain was actually talking about history-writing in this passage of his Cours de littérature française, tableau du dix-huitième siècle, deuxième partie, lesson 4 (Paris: Pichon & Didier, 1828), pages 2-3, to which I was happily misdirected by a citation in the Littré. Still, I’ll take it: “literature, this supremely experimental science…”

Paging Dr. Claude Bernard!


As Others See Us

Being Chinese is no hindrance to understanding what’s messed up in this society. This heartbreaking poster (or pair of posters– I’m not sure if they have the same or different authors) was on a bulletin board in a building I teach in:


The Furies Never Left Town

Yesterday Judith Butler came and gave an in-person lecture on the implications of the ending of Aeschylus’s Eumenides (The Furies, last play in the Oresteia trilogy). She was, as usual, dry, witty, persistent, demanding — a speaker who invigorates and reminds us of how good an event an academic talk can be. The house was full. A livestream accommodated the overflow (I’ll link to it when it’s posted). I was lucky to get one of the last seats.

The problem Butler addressed was: what really happens at the end of the play? Supposedly the raging Furies, demanding blood for blood and crime as payment for crime in the first two plays of the trilogy, become tamed in the third after Orestes is acquitted for the murder of his mother (actually not his mother, in the sophistical argument of the defense*). Although they have threatened to “spread poison through the land” if their demands are not heard, Athena placates them with an offer of an honored position in the city:

ἔξεστι γάρ σοι τῆσδε γαμόρῳ χθονὸς
εἶναι δικαίως ἐς τὸ πᾶν τιμωμένῃ.

πάσης ἀπήμον᾽ οἰζύος: δέχου δὲ σύ. (890 ff)

That is, “You have the chance to become settlers in this land, justly honored forever more… and relieved of all pain: accept this offer.”

The Furies do accept the offer, according to Aeschylus, and agree to delay their demands for vengeance, redirecting their anger into the public forum: accusation, trial, and punishment will now take the place of pursuit and murder. Athena sees the advantage in this alliance with her erstwhile antagonists:

ἐκ τῶν φοβερῶν τῶνδε προσώπων
μέγα κέρδος ὁρῶ τοῖσδε πολίταις. (990-991)

“From their terrifying faces I can see a great benefit to come for these citizens.” Better to have them inside the tent, as the political saying goes. Now at this point Butler switches to discussion of classicists’ commentaries on the passage. Kitto, seeing here a foundational moment of civilization, applauds the new deal as the emergence of light and goodness from irrational (and feminized) passions, the victory of right over force, of law over lawlessness; Butler is not so sure. For the passions certainly remain passions even if redirected. The faces of the Furies are still “terrifying.” And what does terror come from? Imbalance of power. Athena knows what she’s doing: earlier she asked, τίς γὰρ δεδοικὼς μηδὲν ἔνδικος βροτῶν; (“can a mortal who fears nothing ever be just?”). Fear, transformed into reverence, is the very basis of religion, the atmosphere in which the gods bathe. Butler sees the ambivalence of this situation: as Freud has taught us, when we drive a desire out of our conscious minds, it is apt to reappear somewhere else, as symptom or sublimation. Where have the Furies gone?

They have gone, as Butler sees it, into the apparatus dedicated to preserving the majesty and terror of the law. Police, courts, prisons stand as perpetual threats discouraging us from going astray. You might think that the law stands over against violence, protects us from violence, but law incorporates violence, is in its essence violent. Here Butler cited law-review articles by Paul Gewirtz and Robert Cover that confess this fact. I haven’t looked up the Gewirtz, but Cover’s contribution was the famous “Violence and the Word,” Yale Law Journal 95 (1986) 1601-1629. She cited with a raised eyebrow and delicate sarcasm the passage where Cover says:

The act of sentencing a convicted defendant is among [the] most routine of acts performed by judges. … If convicted, the defendant customarily walks — escorted — to prolonged confinement, usually without significant disturbance to the civil appearance of the event. It is, of course, grotesque to assume that the civil façade is ‘voluntary’ except in the sense that it represents the defendant’s autonomous recognition of the overwhelming array of violence ranged against him, and of the hopelessness of resistance or outcry…. If I have exhibited some sympathy for the victims of this violence it is misleading. Very often the balance of terror in this regard is just as I would want it. (1607-1608)

Then Butler shifted to contemporary issues: the carceral state, the murder of innocent civilians, mostly Black or Brown, by police officers, the question of whether due process is required or insufficient in the context of #MeToo accusations. She concluded with a summons to reform the prison system, to make prisons places where inmates are educated, not left to rot or to marinate in violence — maybe this is the way, finally, to deal with the Furies, by education.

I agree with her condemnations and I endorse her endorsements. I think any decent person would. Violence performed in the name of the state should fall under extreme scrutiny, because it is done in our names and engages us, the citizens. “The monopoly on the legitimate use of force” (Weber, Politics as Vocation, 1919) has long been recognized as a defining characteristic of the state — but that means it must undergo a legitimating process, not be wielded arbitrarily.

And this is where Butler’s scenario seems to me to have fallen apart. Yes, what passes for peace and order in any state is built on fear and repression, as Athena recognized in addressing the furies. Peace relies on violence or the threat of violence. But the men in blue who killed George Floyd or the suburban busybodies who killed Trayvon Martin, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many others, were not legitimately carrying out a state interest. It is important to say this. Wearing the uniform does not confer license to kill. Shouting “citizen’s arrest” does not sanctify your murderous intent. Police unions and juries have for too long banded with the offenders in these cases and kept them from being prosecuted for actions that in any other situation would be recognized as crimes. Such protection networks define mafias, which should not be confused with the state, unless we are ready to give up on the idea of legality altogether (if that seems attractive, I recommend you take a study tour of the major kleptocracies, list available on demand).

Violence is not simply or even preeminently exercised by state actors. The example to which Butler’s reading of Aeschylus allusively led spotlights only such cases (though, as I’ve just mentioned, some of the most egregious are not proper examples). Yes, we need to be attentive to legal violence and minimize it. We need to be attentive to pseudo-legal violence and prosecute it, as a way of making clear the difference between it and the authority it misappropriates. But even if we do so, we will not have eliminated violence in this country. It surrounds us and threatens us, makes us live in fear, not of the law but simply of our neighbor. It was particularly painful to notice the partial spotlighting of Butler’s talk inasmuch as she was speaking in Chicago, two days after the cold-blooded murder, by gun, of a young man on a street two blocks from campus. That young man, (Dennis) Zheng Shaoxiong 鄭少雄, died not by reason of any state action, but… No, I went too fast. He would not have met this death so easily if it were not for a particular federal action in repression of a state and city code that might have saved his life and many more.

I refer to attempts by the City of Chicago and the State of Illinois to regulate the possession of firearms, attempts repeatedly batted down by the Supreme Court in the name of the Second Amendment. I would say that state and city strove to pit law, with its inevitable violence, against the violence of lawlessness. They failed when a superior authority voted on the side of lawlessness. “The right to bear arms shall not be infringed.” And so we are all left living under the gun, in a climate of fear that makes none of us wiser or more virtuous.

By personality, education and friendships, I feel a particular affinity to the Chinese students who come to this country to sharpen our wits and theirs, to experience a different kind of life, to burnish their qualifications, to prepare for a crushing competition for success in their professions. Zheng Shaoxiong was not the first young Chinese man to be killed in an arbitrary confrontation on the borders of the University of Chicago campus in the last few years. The Chinese students I have spoken with see a pattern. It is a pattern of exposure to random, senseless violence activated and energized by the availability of high-performance weapons — exposure heightened by bias.

And similarly, as we have seen, we who read the papers, that availability makes it possible for any aggrieved worker, any complaining incel, any resentful or depressed person to pull out a credit card, acquire a semi-automatic (or a dozen!), and join the band of the Furies. I had not expected Butler to come out in favor of the Second Amendment (nor, I think, did she; I am just drawing the unexpected consequence, for which I beg pardon), but when she cites mockingly Cover’s rather candid admission that in a well-ordered state “the balance of terror… is just as I would want it to be,” perhaps throwing shade at him for being too comfortable with that state of affairs, the implication is that a less lopsided balance of terror would be fairer somehow. Exactly what the stockpilers of AK-47s, the Sovereign Citizens, the flyers of the Gadsden Banner, the doomers, preppers, and adherents of “Q” would like to think. Now indeed if it were possible to reestablish effective arms control, that would be a step toward a “balance of terror… as I would want it to be.” I don’t think my wishes in this regard are particular to the subset of the population that shares my skin color, educational level, residential zone, or income bracket. Some countries experience ideologically-based terror from organized bands; in America, land of do-it-yourself, we just declare a free-fire zone and watch the show.

It’s a terrible situation and it doesn’t lend itself to good-versus-evil, underdog-versus-baddie schematization. Are the victims of this violence outside the law “ungrievable”? (For the term, see Butler, Antigone’s Claim.) Not to me.

  • Reason to declare a mistrial: as Athena admits, she, the judge, never had a mother, so she doesn’t even know what one is. And note that the jury’s vote is 50/50, with Athena casting the deciding ballot. Shaky jurisprudence indeed, especially when taken as foundational.


Hey you! Yeah, you.

The concept of “interpellation” is familiar to anyone who’s taken a course in literary theory, cultural studies, twentieth-century Marxism, postmodernity, etc. Most accounts of the word’s currency trace it back to Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” (1970). I want to ask, how does the concept of interpellation, as currently understood, interpellate the reader? What kind of subject does it shape us into being?

In Marxist theoryinterpellation—the process by which we encounter a culture’s or ideology’s values and internalize them—is an important concept regarding the notion of ideology. It is associated in particular with the work of French philosopher Louis Althusser.[1] According to Althusser, every society is made up of ideological state apparatuses (ISAs) and repressive state apparatuses (RSAs) which are instrumental to constant reproduction of the relations to the production of that given society. While ISAs belong to the private domain and refer to private institutions (family, church but also the media and politics), the RSA is one public institution (police/military) controlled by the government. Consequently, ‘interpellation’ describes the process by which ideology, embodied in major social and political institutions (ISAs and RSAs), constitutes the very nature of individual subjects‘ identities through the process of “hailing” them in social interactions. (Wikipedia)

Interpellation is the constitutive process where individuals acknowledge and respond to ideologies, thereby recognizing themselves as subjects. … Althusser emphasizes the ubiquity of ideology and interpellation by noting how subjects are consistently constituted by Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs) such as the family, educational institutions, and media such as literature, radio and television. (Cindy Nguyen, for The Chicago School of Media Theory)

The term interpellation was an idea introduced by Louis Althusser (1918-1990) to explain the way in which ideas get into our heads and have an effect on our lives, so much so that cultural ideas have such a hold on us that we believe they are our own.  Interpellation is a process, a process in which we encounter our culture’s values and internalize them. … Ideologies, therefore, play a crucial role first in constructing our identities and then giving us a particular place in society. (Christopher McGee, Longwood University)

Inasmuch as a person does so and embraces the practices associated with those institutions, she has been successfully “hailed” or “interpellated” and recognized herself as that subject who does those kinds of things. As the effect of these recognitions is to continue existing social relations, Althusser argued that a Dictatorship of the Proletariat is necessary so that Ideological State Apparatuses productive of the bourgeois subject can be replaced with those productive of proletarian or communist subjects. (William Louis in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Louis Althusser,” 4.2)

(Reiteration, the crudest form of word-magic, does a lot of the arguing in the examples I’ve clipped above.)

Anyway, you get the idea. Interpellation is supposed to turn the hearer into the object that it designates. The word “constitutive” does some not-negligible ideological work here. As in the theology that was Althusser’s first taste of philosophy, the God who created you of course has all authority to tell you what to do or be. If you have freedom in such a theological world, it is just freedom to fall, in other words, to become a bad example of the thing you were interpellated to be. But did nobody ever laugh at the pretensions of word magic? Popularizations of the theory of interpellation present it as something that constitutively cannot fail.

And apparently, it works, even on a higher level: The theory of interpellation, being itself a kind of interpellation, is supposed to turn the reader into the sort of person who cedes to authority the power to create and manage human subjects. Note the insistence on “we” and “our lives” in the above descriptions of the ensorcellment. Congratulations! You have been interpellated by yet another institution that counts on your passive acquiescence.

I think it can fail, but you’re on your own to figure out how.


Built on sand? (should have been a tent)

The ideal campus to which I alluded yesterday (Bigger Pond, Please) was attempted, not just once but several times– I think of Santiniketan, Beida in the 1920s, the Southwestern Associated Universities during the Pacific War, and Yale-NUS College, and I’m sure there are more examples out there.

Examples, I’d say, of open inquiry conducted by students and teachers in institutions sited in Asia, dealing with materials and questions specific to Asia, independently from and when necessary in opposition to the ruling authorities. This rough definition would exclude the kind of education conducted in places subjected to political constraints on subject matter and analytic approach; it would exclude education that is primarily intended to replace Asian modes of inquiry with imported ones seen as better or higher; it would frown on missionary, nativist and technicist programs alike. It would put aside models of education that conceive of the teacher and the textbook as authoritative and put the student in the position of accepting that authority. It would have as its basic activity the parsing of texts, the questioning of assumptions, the search for implication and application. The place where this activity occurs would be protected from political and economic threats and manipulation. Habits of creative and destructive hypothesis-formation, hierarchy-neutralization, and platform-sharing would go out into the wider society from the small society constituted by the educational project.

That’s more or less what the examples I mentioned were trying to achieve, each one, of course, in its environment and subject to different conditions.

I was shocked the other day to learn that Yale-NUS College was disbanded all of a sudden, in a single meeting at which faculty and students had no opportunity to speak. Students currently enrolled will be able to complete their degrees by 2025. Thereafter the whole purpose-built operation will be absorbed into the undergraduate programs of the National University of Singapore, which, though a fine institution, was not created to offer a small-group, liberal-arts option under conditions of cultural pluralism. Pluralism— including possibilities of dissent.

An admirable experiment vanishes by bureaucratic fiat.(*)  

Yale put the best face it could on the matter, since there wasn’t anything they could do. The venture was, contrary to popular belief, entirely paid for and owned by Singapore’s Ministry of Education. Yale lent its name and its expertise. Which is not nothing! Yale got, as far as I know, no financial benefit from the deal.(**) If the whole thing had crashed and burned somehow, Yale would have lost some prestige, but I don’t think Yale was expecting this dénouement: I think Yale had expected that an institution bearing the Yale name was such a catch that the Singaporean administrators would have been swayed to bend to Yale’s model of education, at least until some impossible conflict had forced them to the pass. I’m not aware of any such conflict. Perhaps it is just the inertial tendency of one-party states to crush or absorb whatever falls in their jurisdiction and is not theirs.(***) I suppose somebody in NUS or the MOE thought it was time to capture a pawn. 

It’s too bad that the pawn was unprotected.

There have always been nay-sayers. One favored avenue is to accuse the partisans of such institutions of “missionary zeal.” As if the underlying argument was: we in the West (or in the Ivy League) have this thing called liberal education, and out of the goodness of our hearts we have chosen to bestow it on a uniquely favored group of Asians, so that they will convert to our ways and lead their benighted societies toward the light. I find one mark of the prevalence of this argument in a bit of punctuation. (When something has filtered down to the level of punctuation marks, you can be sure it has acquired the power of unconscious assumptions.) The excellent article by Colleen Lye and Petrus Liu in Interventions 2016, “Liberal Arts for Asians,” is often cited with a question mark at the end, as if the very possibility were inherently dubious. I energetically reject that hypothesis. People in Asia are just as good at forming a liberal culture of discussion as people anywhere else. Circumstances have sometimes favored their doing so, sometimes not. There’s a long history to be examined.

Another kind of critique is the pseudo-absolutist one. “You say ‘free from constraint,’ but your institution is constrained from the beginning by the élitist economic assumptions that allow some students in but not others, validate some teachers as having knowledge but not others, and thus your supposedly egalitarian seminar room merely confirms the massive inequality of society– you might as well be the Tory Party at prayer.” Such an Original-Sin theory of institutions makes it hard to start small and build. Unfortunately, opportunities to issue a cry from the hilltop and achieve instantaneous demolition of all bad things are rare. I’ll take the gradualist approach over the comfort of “I told you it wouldn’t work.”

I never had the chance to teach at Yale-NUS College, but I was involved in the initial discussions and outlining of the plan of studies that the first generation of faculty refined and improved. There were six or seven of us on the committee to form the college’s intellectual skeleton. How many majors, and of what kind? What role would general education play, versus professional formation? How could we integrate, not in a tokenistic spirit but seriously, the understanding of Confucius and Machiavelli, Mudan ting and Shakuntala, the Heart Sutra and Russell-Whitehead? And how could we make an impractical, impolitic academic program desirable to the Singapore educational ministry, accustomed to measurable and cost-adjustable markers of success?

We knew that we were dealing with a bossy state with a history of bearing down on journalists and opposition figures through laws that were not open to fundamental discussion. Article 377 was a particular focus of our worry. That is the law, inherited from British legal codes, that makes “sodomy” (i.e., same-sex sexual relations) punishable. The ruling party interpreted Article 377 in such a way as to prohibit “advocacy,” i.e., normalization, of homosexual relationships. To tear out the corresponding pages of the multicultural canons that we wanted students to read would mean leaving a lot of binders flapping emptily. We heard assurances from the Singaporean partners that society was changing, it was just a matter of time, the law was a relic on the books and awaited a controlling court decision to be voided, one couldn’t risk alienating the Muslim minority, and so on. We got what we thought were satisfactory guarantees of freedom of speech, opinion, inquiry and research. Those guarantees were later tested in practice– as we expected them to be–and proved to be less than iron-clad. Some talented faculty and students left or stayed away for that reason. Meanwhile, in the US, we attended the same-sex weddings of our friends, observed that civilization did not collapse, and hoped the rest of the world would come to think the same way.

One sign that the cultures– not of Asia and the US, but of Singapore’s ruling party and of liberal democracy–were crashing and clashing was a course cancellation in 2019. I would not have made that call. I would have invited those made nervous by the course to offer a reasoned statement of their views and to deepen the college public’s understanding of what dissent and resistance mean. Of course, that’s why I don’t get invited to head colleges, not that I am in the running anyway.

What brought down Yale-NUS was not, as far as I can see or suppose, Article 377, unbridgeable cultural difference, or the wickedness of neoliberalism. It was bureaucratic overreach, standardization, the managerial intolerance of an exception. Admirers of the supposed efficiency of dictatorship were seen to gloat.

So, okay, imperfect conditions, plus a hope of refining imperfection through dialogue. Sounds like Habermas, but Mencius, Zhu Xi and Wang Yangming would feel at home too. Imagine that a disciple of Mencius or Xunzi had taken the uncompromising stance of some of the opponents of “liberal arts for Asia”: that of the various kings of the Springs and Autumns period, none was practicing the actual Way of the Sage-Kings, and so none was worthy of engaging in dialogue. That would lead to a Daoist-hermit mode of non-engagement, which is fine– let’s boycott those wicked kings, and remain pure!– and since it correlates with a stance of “letting the world be the world, and reforming nothing,” we putative Liberal Arts Pioneers can wave them off into the woods.

Confucius, bless him, said 三軍可奪帥也,匹夫不可奪志也。 Which is, being interpreted: “A vast army– you can capture its general and take him away. But an ordinary man–you can’t capture his conscience and take it away.” That realization is really all you need to found a program in the Liberal Arts: an awareness of the difference between institutionalized power and intellectual conviction. I do believe (and if you want to accuse me of missionary zeal, here’s a big target painted on my back, have fun) that the slow tendency of world civilization is toward the validation of the claims of individual conscience over those of institutionalized power. But it’s never been easy, and if you want an easy life, you should probably not get mixed up in this stuff.

(*) Bureaucratic fiat— not quite the right term, because “fiat” means “let there be,” as in the memorable creation of light by You Know Who; and this is rather the opposite, a “let there not be,” which as a Latinist I should like to call a “neget” or a “deleatur.”  But that’s cumbersome. How about “ne-fiat”?

(**) The finances of the College are not disclosed to the public, but it doesn’t seem that a reverse subsidy to Yale occurs. See https://theoctant.org/edition/vi-2/allposts/news/yale-nus-release-financial-reports/. However, it is a curiously obsessive theme with Yale-NUS College’s detractors that Yale must be in it to “make a buck.” Failure of imagination induced by ambient neoliberalism?

(***) Singapore has more than one party. But the effective control of affairs has been in the hands of one party, and indeed of one dynasty, ever since independence, and there are significant obstacles to anyone who might wish to challenge its dominance.


Bigger pond, please

The other day I read this tempting Nugget of Nerdy Knowledge in Prospect, a UK magazine that’s not supposed to be for illiterates.

“Early indexes, concordances and distinctiones had been around for a long time before the index blossomed into something like its modern form. It was the arrival of printed page numbers that helped firm things up. At the Bodleian Library, [Dennis] Duncan gets his hands on the first extant example of the printed page number, in a short sermon produced in Cologne in 1470, and describes it as ‘the most intense experience that I have had of the archival sublime’.”

Ha! It took me approximately 12 seconds to pull up an image of a Chinese printed book (an edition of the poems of Du Fu) with page numbers from some 250 years previous, https://www.loc.gov/resource/lcnclscd.2014514276.1A000/?sp=3&r=-0.067,0.247,1.362,0.558,0

And I make no claim for this book’s being the first of that kind. Sorry, Duncan, your “archival sublime” was grape juice mislabeled as Thunderbird.

My personal dream is to teach in a classroom where that kind of myopia doesn’t get off easy— where “the earliest one I know about” isn’t the same thing as “the earliest one in the world.” Or “the best,” “the greatest,” “the most significant,” etc., in the world; a classroom, in short, where we all know that there is a lot of history outside of what we’re used to seeing presented as History, and that such history is accessible and discussable.

But on that, more in another post.


Another elephant

And now Yu Yingshi 余英時 is gone. Nobody wrote more broadly, more searchingly or more wisely than he about the intellectual class of China, from ancient times to now. Though you might think of him as a pillar of the establishment, with his teaching posts at Harvard, Yale and Princeton, his membership in august learned societies and his distinguished prizes, he was remarkable to me for his skepticism about the worldly rewards that are sometimes extended to writers and thinkers. He was not easily impressed and certainly not intimidated. He left Yale for Princeton because he liked the East Asia library there. When people around him got excited, he had the calm tone, the command of counter-examples and the long view. He was careful to know what he was talking about. Push-button solutions did not enchant him.

I was lucky to be his student, in a peripheral sort of way, when I was young, curious and confused. I knew I wanted to do something about ideas and language in China. Armed with not much beyond the Chinese-philosophy manuals of Feng You-lan and Alfred Forke, and a couple of neophyte observations about Chinese grammar which, like all early-stage language-learners, I thought explained big things about Chinese thought, I sat in on his “Song Dynasty Classicism and Philosophy” seminar at Yale. I didn’t always grasp what the classroom discussions were about and floundered through the readings, mostly in Chinese. But being there was like being a child at the opera: no idea what was going on, but such a lot of goings-on! I turned in a rather cookie-cutter paper about Cheng Yi and Cheng Hao’s interpretations of the Yi jing, processed through a simplistic understanding of John Austin’s performative/constative distinction. He read it, didn’t leave many comments, yet was always friendly and open to conversations thereafter. I suspect my paper wasn’t even wrong, but he took a long and charitable view of this awkward student who might do something someday, or might not.

He left Yale soon thereafter for Princeton, trained up many fine students, ran a kind of salon in his and Monica’s house, was a prominent voice for decency and democracy against chauvinism and oppression, and had the honor of seeing his books banned in the PRC. He had a long and admirable life and leaves behind the gratitude of those who encountered him. Even the contingent and confused, like me.

Another elephant gone. The forest is poorer.

余英時著作余英時著作– AODUS

Ten years

We’ve been in our Chicago house for ten years now. Ten eventful years. This morning, out on my dog walk, I confronted this Benjaminian allegory:


A la mémoire du Père Fritz Lafontant

Je me méfie en général des gens aux opinions carrées et qui s’expriment sans ambages. Je me dis que le monde est trop compliqué pour être saisi dans des formules à l’emporte-pièce. Mais le Père Lafontant qui ne s’embarrassait pas de nuances quand il s’agissait d’exprimer la condition des pauvres d’Haïti a eu très tôt mon adhésion complète. Pourquoi? Parce que, en premier lieu, il avait toujours devant lui un cas d’inégalité scandaleuse. Les paysans du village de Cange, aux côtés de qui il a lutté pendant plus d’un demi-siècle, s’étaient réfugiés sur la crète aride de l’Artibonite après avoir été chassés de leurs terres par un barrage hydro-électrique. L’eau, l’un des besoins primaires de l’espèce humaine, avait saturé leurs vallées et elle leur était déniée. Et à quelle fin? Pour un projet dit “de développement,” une usine qui avait bientôt cessé de fournir le pays en courant électrique et qui en tout cas n’avait jamais livré un seul watt aux habitants de Cange. Pour qui voulait comprendre les ironies, les hypocrisies, les corruptions du développement “par le haut,” l’exemple était assez parlant.

Des étrangers bien intentionnés, aux solutions préfabriquées, il en avait vus. Je me souviens de sa formule cinglante: “Ceux qui nous parlent de ‘technologies appropriées,’ de ‘développement doux,’ veulent imposer de la merde aux gens pauvres.” Mais ce n’est pas seulement la force de son verbe qui a marqué tous ceux qui l’ont connu. Il donnait la preuve par l’action des principes qui l’animaient. C’est en se formant sur son exemple que les jeunes étudiants en médecine et autres partenaires qui se sont réunis dans l’association Zanmi Lasante ont résolu de rester au plus près des gens dans le besoin; de solliciter leurs initiatives, de les écouter et sans cesse de les incorporer aux suites de l’action; de s’engager pour le long terme, de ne jamais accepter qu’on eût fait “assez.” Plus et mieux, c’est ce que demandent les gens de Cange, et ce n’est que justice. L’injustice, c’est qu’on leur propose d’accepter moins et moins bien, au nom d’une répartition irrévocable des biens de ce monde.

L’amour, le respect, la bonté envers le prochain s’alliaient chez lui avec un humour taquin et une loyauté sans faille. Je suis convaincu d’avoir connu en lui l’un de ceux en qui “Le vent souffle où il veut, et tu en entends le bruit; mais tu ne sais d’où il vient, ni où il va. Il en est ainsi de tout homme qui est né de l’Esprit” (Jean 3:8). 


Ikea jacta est

The first and fifteenth of every month in our studenty neighborhood see a flowering of particle-board bookshelves, dressers, and chairs, plastic storage tubs, and chunky mattresses. People are moving out– moving back home, moving to another city, moving to a job or a grad school or the Army– and leaving their Ikea stuff behind.

The economic-rationality argument is double. This type of furniture is cheap enough that it makes sense to buy another suite (pronounced “suit,” at least by people on the radio when I was a kid) of the same stuff in Austin, Cleveland, Walla Walla or wherever you’re going. Cheap in the sense of price. And it’s cheap enough (cheap in the sense of quality) that you can’t give it away. The piles of Ikea furniture left in the alleyway will not, I warrant, be gathered by other students looking to fill a room. Especially if the rain has deformed the fiberboard.

And I’m sorry to say that it’s doubled by a social rationality. It used to be that when you moved, you took some furniture with you and you gave some to other members of your grad-school cohort, or whatever pod you swam with. I still have the odd pot that belonged to X, a bookshelf that once housed Y’s Hegel Gesamtausgabe, a pair of record crates from Z. Buying furniture was inconvenient and expensive enough that we kept it circulating in the gang. Some of my old junk may still be enjoying this form of distributed immortality. When I moved cross-country, my only regret was that I hadn’t given away more stuff.

Now when I see these heaps of Ikea detritus left on the street, I also see the intersecting curves of devaluation and social desolidarization. The “Bowling Alone” ethos leaves people with no one to give the stuff to, as the price/quality ratio gives no reason to take it. Recycling has devolved into decycling. “Bad for the planet!” you may say. Yes, and bad for the global villagers too.


A Voice for literary autonomy

Langston Hughes interrogated by the Committee on Un-American Activities, 1953: “That is a poem. One can not state one believes every word of a poem.”





I’m reluctant to treat people as exemplars of a category, but here goes: did anyone else notice that the two mass murderers in this week’s headlines were both guys aged 21?

I was pretty ignorant at 21. I mean, I had learned several languages and read a lot of hard books, including the Phenomenology of Mind and The Interpretation of Dreams, but my understanding of the world was minimal. And egocentric.

The sort of weapons those young men used should be forbidden to anyone under the age of, say, 45. That might slow things down a bit. In a good way.

(Actually I would prefer to reserve them for people over the age of 102, but if it involves legislation, you have to water down your ideals.)

A continuation of this thought. It makes me wretched to think that these murderers were only 21. To have given up on life and other people to that degree, at only 21: how does that happen?

Aside from what we call mental-health issues. This is a seriously screwed-up place and time.

And then I thought some more. The “normal America” I refer to tacitly is the one where we have learned from some of our mistakes, repudiated Thurmond, Goldwater and Wallace, and started to figure out how to live together with and despite our differences. Everything since Reagan is for me a distortion and a lie: plutocracy, leukocracy, kleptocracy. But kids born in 2000 have known only this distorted country. And, for the record, the Summer of Love, 1968, is farther in the past to them than the Wall Street Crash of 1929 was for me, born in 1960.


Politics by Scandal

I didn’t like having my country’s character be identified with an illiterate, criminal loudmouth for the last four years. Nor do I like seeing it today identified with a drug-addled, 21-year-old racist mass murderer.

“He doesn’t speak for me” worked then as now.

Since I still choose to live and work here, I don’t have the luxury of seeing those lunkheads as anything other than aberrations. It’s the responsibility of every person with a shred of decency to abhor, abjure and execrate such schmucks. Get them off the air and into jail. Then let the rest of us repair the damage they’ve done.

When attention spans are short and analytical abilities are frayed, the loudest, most emotionally wracking spectacles take the place of historical perspective, judgment, comparison, and constructive courses of action. I can see the community of interest between Covid and schlocky journalism. If we are just eyeballs for sale, captive animals scrolling all day long, we bounce from scandal to scandal because nothing else is attention-worthy.

I don’t think it’s good. Which is not to say that I think the people who are having emotional reactions are wrong. I just am wary of the actions of keyed-up and suggestible people. All of them.

Then again, somebody I know (Asianist, not Asian) thought this was the designated moment to harangue his Facebook audience about the lack of MLA sessions devoted to Asian literature.* Academic self-promotion disguised as concern: classic opportunism. I guess every murder has a bright side for somebody.

* For those unfamiliar with the organization, the Modern Language Association began to take an interest in Asian literatures– and then only a small number of them– about ten years ago. The Association for Asian Studies is still the main forum for Asianists. Both are perfectly ok professional organizations. The latter includes anthropologists, economists, historians, and even a few soldiers, diplomats, and spies, making it quite a bit more interdisciplinary than the MLA. I have belonged to both organizations for about thirty years.


Empathy, Explanation, and Tagging

After the horrifying string of murders around Atlanta, we’ve seen demonstrations and statements against “Asian hate.” With reported hate crimes, large and small, against people of Asian appearance, on the rise in the last year and a half, no decent person can fail to join the “Stop Asian hate” campaign. I hope I may be excused for taking a closer interest in it.

“Stop Asian Hate.” Of course. (However, I don’t like the phrase “Asian Hate” because it is syntactically ambiguous and inert.) If taken as meaning “oppose the violence done to people just because they are Asian,” the slogan is compelling but it undercounts a lot of factors. It’s a tempting explanation in some ways, because it says to the pharmacist, the hedge-fund manager, the architect, the cowgirl, the life coach, the florist, who are of Asian descent, that whoever they are, recent immigrant or sixth-generation American, white-collar professional or minimum-wage laborer, they are liable to be attacked in public on grounds of appearance alone, that they are all equal in the face of this violence and that they must band together. That’s a powerful adhesive. But in its admirable universality it disregards a lot of things that I think are more significant actuators of the violence and so blocks us from figuring out what is going on (and thus, what to do about it).

Statisticians, start counting: when and where are incidents of aggression against Asian people committed? Who perpetrates them? If state databases don’t recognize the category of anti-Asian hate crime, then reconstruct it on whatever basis you can. And then, analysts of narratives and concepts, it’s your turn to examine each case and figure out what are the stakes and the apparent motives.

Continue reading

Deal No Deal

Tessa Morris-Suzuki writing in the Asia-Pacific Journal has drawn most of the possible educational value from J. Mark Ramseyer’s article on contracts signed by wartime “comfort women.” As Ramseyer’s article contends that the women entered into these contracts of their own free will, the implication is that there is nothing to get excited about, no harm done and nothing for successive Japanese governments to apologize for. Most of the response to Ramseyer’s article, now withdrawn, has dwelt on the obvious causes of outrage: the insult to the women’s memory, the minimizing of the harm done to vulnerable people, the reiteration, by the analysis, of an imperial bureaucracy’s devaluing of the lives of women deemed inferior (by class or nationality) to those to be “comforted.” It’s the kind of thing that attracts immediate emotional investment. And Ramseyer has gone this way before, so he obviously could have anticipated, maybe welcomed, the reaction. (A working paper on the same subject dwells on the cabal of “activist historians” and “leftists” whom he sees as having precipitated a “pile-on” and “censorship” of contrary views.) Some have suspected him of doing the bidding of nefarious and shadowy nationalists who resent Koreans, feminists, historians, and the like. Rather than raging at the scholar on moral grounds, Morris-Suzuki examines the scholarship and finds it flawed. This sets up Ramseyer to be critiqued, not for having the wrong opinion about comfort women (he’s entitled to his opinion however dismal it may be), but for ignoring, cherry-picking, and cooking the evidence in order to arrive at a predetermined conclusion. Why, I wonder, is that conclusion so valuable to him that he would undermine his own good name for it?

I suspect it’s an error to assume that Ramseyer’s aim is to curry favor with irredentist or revanchist elements of the Japanese political spectrum. Maybe it was; but that’s small potatoes and impugns only himself. More consequentially, I think, we can seek a motive in the desire to demonstrate, through this unpromising example, “basic game theoretic principles of credible commitments” (“Contracting for Sex in the Pacific War,” p. 7). For rational-choice theorists, every person is a free agent making bargains based on the best available information. Thus, if you’re a country girl from a family deep in debt, and someone comes along offering you a vaguely-worded contract for three years’ service as a “hostess” with payment up front, it’s your own problem if you find yourself a few weeks later in Rangoon or Shanghai receiving “visits” from twenty-five or thirty soldiers every day with no option of calling it quits. For rational-choice theorists, “whatever is, is right.” I wonder if Ramseyer has similar views on deceptive contracts in our own time and place — is the mere fact of a signature on a piece of paper adequate proof of legality? There are a lot of historical injustices out there that could be papered over in this way, sir; when you’re done squeezing all human history through the sieve of rational choice, there won’t be anything to get mad at.

Mindful of the gallery, Ramseyer even throws in a nod to “the intelligence and resourcefulness of the women involved” (p. 2). Oh yes, agency! We love that stuff. Especially when it puts the victims on the hook for their own troubles.