Opera fans have a tendency to live in the past. “Yes, I’ve heard so-and-so, but if you listen to someone else’s 1951 mono recording of ‘Voi che sapete,’ you will see that this new singer is just an epigone.” If one has time and a record library, the years seem to drop out. I can hear Ring cycles by half-a-dozen conductors across the whole of the twentieth century, and when I am enchanted, I forget that three of those conductors were Nazis; there are just voices in time. But time does advance, leaving a trail of dead singers who now represent marketing opportunities for the record labels. I expect bookcase-breaking sets of Ms. Freni’s back catalog by fall; I will likely buy one. I admire her integrity, her skill, and her art; people seldom get to be so good at what they do.
I remember the day in 1982 when I read Jonathan Schell’s first chapter of “The Fate of the Earth,” which ran in the New Yorker, depicting events as an 80-kiloton nuclear bomb exploded 500 feet above the Empire State Building.
Immediately, my mind went to the idea that the President would know about it as soon as the Soviet missiles were launched, and that he would have to address a nation that might not still be alive minutes after his broadcast. The President would have to be serious, comforting, dignified.
I do not want my last minutes of life on this earth to be spent listening to Donald Trump whine from his Doomsday Plane.
I am afraid I have adopted the fallacies of the war between the little-endians and the big-endians. Beans for everyone!
My music purchases tend to come from Franklin, Tennessee. Naxos has eaten up every classical music distributor in the country, and the resulting warehouse probably holds upward of 3 million items. It’s a good location, close to Nashville’s airports and supplied with trucking arteries. But when I started looking at the area with Mapquest, I noticed this:
Franklin is entirely surrounded by plantations. It is as if the 13th Amendment never dawned. Likely the plantation owners send their chattel to the warehouse, where they pack and ship all day. I have known all along that Klaus Heymann would do anything to keep his costs low on his Naxos CDs — he is famous for inducing lesser musical organizations to record with him without royalties — but taking advantage of a rift in time to avail himself of Confederate labor practices goes beyond ingenuity. It may be difficult to find anyone in William Barr’s Department of Justice who will investigate this situation, let alone mount a prosecution. I hope that Franklin and its plantations will come to the attention of the next administration.
I don’t know if you’ve seen this opinion piece from the nether regions, but the NSA wants US business to develop its technology, build its infrastructure, and staff its projects. There is actually a compelling reason for this, which I will get to shortly. The given reason is that the clear and present dangers facing the intelligence community, and, by extension, the world, warrant it. These dangers also warrant weakening the Fourth Amendment in order to save it, a point of NSA argument which one could see coming a mile away.
Here is the actual reason the NSA wants US business to hand over its technology, infrastructure, and staff. It is one of the worst places to work in the tech industry. It couldn’t keep talent if it tripled its pay and brought in massage chairs and free dry cleaning. The word from my friends in Silicon Valley is that they are besieged by NSA workers longing for freedom (and higher pay). This means not just the hot young talent who can field offers from Facebook and Google, but the “lifers,” the people who crafted the MS-DOS exploits of the 1980s in hand-tuned 8086 assembler. They all want out. First of all, management has done for creative hacking what the TSA has done for air travel. They were stung by Snowden, so they are consumed by making sure the exact same thing never happens again. That means an environment of complete distrust by management, insertion of cumbersome steps into processes to make them “more secure,” and interrogations of harmless workers to make sure they feel the heat. I cannot think of a worse place for people who have to be supremely creative and imaginative. Second, I cannot imagine what the NSA is being asked to do under the Trump administration. I cannot see the bottom of it, and probably most of the remaining employees can’t, either.
So, the NSA wants US businesses to do its recruitment, training, and retention. This means that no one has to work at the NSA. They will work at the Big Five, or perhaps as defense contractors. But NSA HR, government pay scales, and the puppet masters themselves are not supposed to be visibly part of the deal. It’s the kinder, gentler way of getting to know everything about everybody; Facebook has collected this information from citizens voluntarily for more than a decade. As for the clear and present dangers, it’s between them and climate change. Simon and Garfunkel wrote, “When you’ve got to choose/Every way you look at this you lose.” Cold-War-style “We’ve got to keep up before they do to us what we want to do to them” has no traction compared to implacable climate change. By the time the NSA achieves its goal of total information hegemony, Fort Meade will be underwater.
We’ve just purged our user database of bot/one-shot logins, and there have been quite a few of them. If you’re not an agent working for one of the nation-states we’ve crossed over the years, or a running dog of dictators, feel free to create a new login and comment.
National Weather Service
1325 East West Highway
Silver Spring, MD 20910
Dear Sir or Madam:
Your cowardice under fire from a tweet will make you the laughingstock of every downstream consumer of your data and products, many of whom have both your data and your algorithms. I daresay that you have also earned the derision of every doctoral program in meteorology in this country.
Subordinating empirical data to political dictates is never a good idea – look at the biologist Lysenko in the Soviet Union. There are people on this planet who have undergone the keenest hardship to maintain the integrity of scientific theories and information. The greatest example of this has to be the Pisan astronomer Galileo Galilei, who was forced to recant and spend the rest of his life imprisoned in his house because of his idea, derived from that of Copernicus, that the earth revolved around the sun. Privately, he did not recant, saying “Eppur si muove.” History does not make much of that Pope and his Inquisitors; it has made Galileo both a secular martyr and one of the first true scientists.
The next time you get a nastygram on Twitter, trust in your data and your algorithms, and forecast accordingly. I realize that you have spouses and children, and have to eat, but there are many jobs you can do, out of the sphere of the public trust, that will feed you adequately.
I happened to be reading the Federal Register and came across this choice gem. The Trump Administration’s Department of Health and Human Services is poised to modify Obamacare in a curiously Trumpian way. It is withdrawing health care facilities’ mandate to serve people who speak little or no English. No more multilingual placards. No more mail in a patient’s native language. No more translators to tell staff what a patient is saying and vice versa. This will make it much harder for people who know little English to find appropriate and safe health care, to be informed about the care that they are getting, and to give informed consent to that care.
The draft legislation, which is about 400 pages, can be found here:
At the top of the document is a big green button saying “SUBMIT FORMAL COMMENT.” Do it. Push that button, and write your heart out about about the inequity of treating people with limited English as pariahs, the false economies given as support for such treatment, and the consequences of letting someone into the ER who has Ebola who can’t tell you because he only speaks French and there’s no interpreter.
The closing date and time for comments is August 13th at 5:00 PM EDT. As of this writing, you have 16 days to submit a comment.
The shortest Yiddish curse I know, excluding epithets, is “Geh’ in drerd!” It’s the equivalent of “Drop dead!,” but if we expand it a little, it means “Go into the earth! Die and be buried!” And that is what I wish for George Herbert Walker Bush. “Go into the earth!” He will not get a week of mourning, a month of mourning, or eleven months of mourning. All he gets is this day, which is nearly over. Tomorrow, the mail comes.
I’ve been thinking about the Sokol2 hoax, in which various conspirators sent improbable manuscripts to twenty journals of “ethnic/identity studies.” Seven journals went ahead and published the manuscripts even though the manuscripts’ contents were avowedly nonsense. This builds on the work of Alan Sokol, who tried the same thing with literary theory journals, “showing” that their discourse was likewise nonsensical. Both of these moves attempt to discredit an entire class of journals by targeted attacks on a small sample of journals; the intended principle is contamination. This principle may not be applicable; there are those of us who have taken a brown spot out of an apple and eaten the rest.
I am helping a faculty member with a paper in an ethnic studies journal; there are four pages of painstaking comments from the editor, along with the mostly positive comments from two reviewers. I disagree with the editor, but I don’t think anything got by him; he had the extraordinary virtue of finding everything that was wrong or could be construed as wrong. I find it completely impossible that a nonsense article could have gotten by him. He would have rejected it, period, and it probably wouldn’t have gotten through peer review, either. The peer reviewers were pretty sharp, and one pointed out a legitimate hole in the argument that needed patching.
What was lacking from the ethnic/identity studies journals that published the Sokol2 papers? One guess is that they didn’t have enough money to hire a good editor with subject matter expertise and relied on an overtaxed board member to vet the article. But I have another guess.
Peter Elbow spoke of a reader who might play one of two games: the Doubting Game and the Believing Game. The editor whose commentary I was looking at was playing the Doubting Game at grandmaster scale – characterizing writing by what you can find wrong with it. This will induce fear and shame in the author, and the author will revise the paper ruing how bad it was. The faculty member whom I was working with had resubmitted the paper four times, and each time had gotten back pages and pages of withering “advice.” So, that’s one game. In the Believing Game, you focus on what’s right with someone’s writing. You err on the side of charity. You see what the author is getting at, and you help the author to get there. I am guessing that with some of these journals, one of the principles is to get the thoughts of underrepresented voices out in the world, and charitable principles mean a greater chance for the author to be heard. Sokol2 exploited this charity and used it as a weapon to attack the credibility of the journals and the views they stood for.
So, do we have to worry about Sokol3 perpetrators gaming more journals to disparage them? Yes. Should the journals spend an extra $90K a year on a master editor? (There aren’t that many of them around.) Should they play the Doubting Game to make themselves impregnable? Do they want to strike fear and shame into their authors, so that the authors regret having written anything at all? Or do we simply say that the Sokol2 perpetrators are like WWI German submarines: very effective at sinking ships, with very advanced torpedos, but sinking ships is in no one’s interest but theirs. No one is going to claim that the Lusitania was a legitimate target because she presented a very broad attack surface underwater.
Alas, there are no metaphorical depth charges that can be dropped on the perpetrators, and neither can the Humanities declare war against them. Probably the most solid defense against the perpetrators is PR — some kind of damage control operation, as used by rich people and corporations to mop up the consequences of their dirty business. Perhaps the MLA can put them on retainer. Nullify the PR explosion by investigating the perpetrators and publicly making clear what they have to gain. Explain the principles by which the journals stand. The perpetrators’ fraud will vanish into the dustbin of history. That is where fraudsters go; quick, without a Google search, who was Yi-Fen Chou?
I just read Sven Birkert’s meditation on his top-flight literary magazine, AGNI, casting its lot ever more definitively with online over print. The one thing that sticks out is online’s lack of concern for the future. When you send out print issues, you are lodging them all over the world. They are seeds. A central server, on the other hand, can go down. Its contents may not be able to be restored, even when there are backups. (Printculture is a case in point.) An organization may close, or go bankrupt, or decide that it is not worth transcoding old material to ever-newer media. At that point, all of what has been produced dies. The Wayback Machine shows almost no evidence that any of the websites I produced in the 1990s ever existed. If “the center will not hold,” there is nothing. So I look at Sven Birkert’s guardedly self-congratulatory message, and think that the words have a SELL BY date and that afterwards, the electrons will disband and go back to their chaotic realms in the universe. This is not a way to record our literary history.
I realize that “thoughts and prayers” are being widely mocked as superficial and thoughtless. Prayer is far from useless, though. In a situation like last year, in which our best friend died of a brain tumor, losing her mind by inches, there was nothing empirical that we could have done. We could not have increased the efficacy of her treatment or the expertise of her doctors; we could not have altered the course of her cancer. It is in this kind of situation that prayer is useful because it goes beyond the usual channels of causation. Prayer addresses our Creator and asks Him to provide what we cannot supply ourselves.
Prayer requires focus and intention; it is not a little thought that from time to time surfaces in one of the eddies of the mind. Sustained prayer takes a while. On Yom Kippur, for just over a day, we do nothing but pray (except for the congregants gossiping and the kids running around in the synagogue courtyard); if we take the day seriously, we pray for our very lives. Now we feel it; our own lives may be forfeit in the coming year. Sholem Asch’s story of a fool/sage, “The Village Saint,” makes the stakes no lower; in the end, the fool/sage, who does not know how to read, communicates with God on Yom Kippur with a whistle, and it is enough to avert God’s severe decree.
But prayer does not substitute for action. You did not see the religious leaders of the SCLC, in the late 1960s, immure themselves in their churches and assume that their prayers would change everything around them. They had to go out, to march, to sit in, and to stand up. They had to stand up to the worst our society had to offer them, and they did so without regret. They likely did pray for their own lives and those of their congregants, but they went out and faced the policemen, dogs, and water cannons.
Most of the prayers I have made, either from the prayer book or my heart, have not been “successful.” It may have been due to my intention being less than complete, or to my having sinned in various ways and not taking care of that before my petition. It may have been due to hypocrisy on my part, or due to my having told someone of my intention to pray. And as for the greater problems that affect us in this country and this world, God may have already decreed that they take place. As the angel Gabriel says in the Martyrology on Yom Kippur, “You must accept this, my righteous, beloved ones, for I have heard from behind the heavenly screen that you have been ensnared.”
And yet still I persist — as some friends would say, holding an imaginary dialogue with a nonexistent old man with a white beard. The greatest effrontery of the “thoughts and prayers” locution is that prayer seldom takes place, even for a second. Perhaps if the “thoughts and prayers” people took ten or twenty minutes to pray from the heart, not to comfort themselves but to offer something up whose chances are unknown, the balance of our merits would change. Perhaps they would realize that it was still within their power to go out and change things and that the old man with the long, white beard was waiting for them.
Il y a quelque trente ans, pendant que je faisais la queue devant Louis’s Lunch, le stand à hamburgers célèbre de New Haven, j’ai entendu deux chercheurs en langues antiques se plaindre de ce que le glyphe qui revenait le plus souvent dans la tablette qu’ils étaient en train de lire ce jour-là était “hépatoscopie.” Apparemment, les Hittites, ou c’était peut-être les Akkadiens, pratiquaient l’art de l’aruspice à tout bout de champ.
Le procédé consistait à ouvrir le corps d’un petit oiseau ou d’un animal pour étudier la conformation de l’un de ses organes. Ce soir, je me suis soudainement rendu compte que ces Hittites, au lieu d’être simplement superstitieux, étaient angoissés par l’avenir, et qu’ils l’étaient toujours en dépit du nombre de prédictions qu’ils faisaient faire. Pour eux la conscience de ce que nous appellerions des “événements au niveau d’extinction” persistait malgré tous leurs efforts.
Nous autres Modernes, nous nous occupons de notre temps, et nous n’avons plus d’aruspices. Pendant un temps nous disposions de sondages et de têtes pensantes, mais désormais nous nous débattons dans le noir. Nos dieux étant à usage privé, il est difficile de les voir à l’oeuvre dans le monde. Nous avons la capacité de faire ce que les Hittites n’auraient pas pu faire: détruire le monde, rompre son mécanisme. Aucune civilisation future ne prendra la relève de la nôtre pour déchiffrer nos disques, nos rouleaux et nos bandes sonores, pour se pencher sur l’énigme représenté par ce glyphe qui revient sans cesse, “Tr*mp.”
I will never make another self-referential MacArthur Foundation grant joke again.
On Sunday, September 11, 2016, it will be the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11. Sad to say, the terrorists did win. Not only did they demolish a piece of historic New York real estate, and kill three thousand people, but they also paved the way for America increasingly to resemble the autocratic Wahabiite kingdom from which they came. We saw it in the PATRIOT Act, and all the succeeding reauthorizations and expansions, which made it licit for not only the Three Letter Agencies, but local police, to delve into your past and present communications and interactions. We saw it in the retargeting of the Two Minute Hate away from the dimly remembered Communists and towards Muslims. We saw two unjustifiable and costly wars, and some less-documented quasi-wars, none of which made us in any way safer, and served primarily as a vehicle for turning our soldiers into mental patients. Our conduct of the first Gulf War led to the birth of ISIS, as all of Saddam’s generals and bureaucrats, barred by Rumsfeld from participation in the occupation government, needed jobs, and ISIS provided them. Our nominal “victory” — the assassination of Saddam Hussein captured live on video so that Obama and Clinton could view it in the Situation Room like tonight’s Netflix movie — led to no pause in our drone-enhanced military endeavors. And finally, let us not forget extraordinary renditions, “black sites,” intentionally inflicted US torture, at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib — hooded figures, stress positions, sexual humiliation, waterboarding — that told the world that, yes, the Geneva Conventions were so much meaningless paper. So the terrorists did win. Their acts corrupted our essential nature, but we did have a choice, in the middle of our patriotism and jingoism, to preserve it. Some told us to do just that, and we rejected them, calling them unpatriotic and sympathetic to the enemy.
Now, fifteen years and $4 trillion later, are we doing any better? What have we gained? What are we celebrating? Our 33,000 military deaths, the 1 million Iraqis and Afghans killed as “collateral damage,” some new, symbolic real estate?
Despite the Kissinger-like Machtpolitik which will probably be emanating from Washington only a couple of months from now. I would say that we should bring the troops home. Spend a couple of trillion dollars on them for their mental health. Leave Afghanistan for the Taliban; we tried bribing the Afghans into democracy, and it was like feeding $100 bills into a shredder. Leave the Syrians, the YPG, ISIS, and the Taliban to work things out; they could hardly be worse than they are today. If Russia gets a toehold in the Middle East, just remember that we have had our toehold for over six decades, in Saudi Arabia and Israel, and think of where that has gotten us.
This Sunday, exceptional America will be celebrated with processions of men in uniform, candlelight vigils, and NYFD T-shirts. We are mourning the loss of our buildings and our people. We cannot see that we have lost what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature,” and we do not know where they have flown.
So, about thirty-five years ago, my mother’s parents were alive and well, and in the summer, went to bungalow colonies in the Catskills. These were the abode of elderly people of modest means; the younger people went to the big hotels for nightlife. There was no development, no noise — just Jews in the country. As it happened, at one of these bungalow colonies, I noticed that most of my grandparents’ social interactions were with these strange, quiet people with numbers on their arms. They dressed modestly, but they didn’t cover the numbers up. And at some point, as a kid, I had to yell out the question, “Hey, Dad, why do Grandpa’s friends have numbers on their arms?” The resulting discussion was very brief; it had little to do with history, and dealt more with my asking the wrong question at the top of my lungs. But I was told that these were survivors of the Holocaust, and that they should be treated very kindly and gently. I think they adopted my grandfather because he had been very visibly maimed by the Cossacks in the run-up to the Russian Revolution, and they loved my grandmother, because she was so kind and was a wonderful cook; many of them ate very simply.
From these survivors, I learned a few things.
- Life could change very quickly.
- Hitler explicitly wrote and said what he was going to do, years in advance.
- People could not believe that Hitler could come to power in a democratic election
- The rich people sat the election out on the theory that they would make deals with Hitler once he gained power.
- Once Hitler gained power, he did everything he said he was going to do, and more.
- The day that they lost their citizenship and human rights dawned like any other.
- Everyone tried to save themselves, but most died trying — or of depression, or of disease, or of starvation, or of bullets, or of gas.
- They survived for a reason — to tell young people like me that it should never happen again.
- Always support the State of Israel, because it will be your home when America spits you out, as it will in time.
I believed them, little Zionist that I was. Now, of course, things look different. Israel is not a place for Jews like me. So, what’s left is America. And who appears when I check off the first few boxes on the above checklist? You know, exactly.
So, for me, this election is not about good or bad policies, ways of governing, styles of leadership. This is about life and death. And it’s about those elderly people, thirty-five years ago, who had a message to convey to me as a little boy. Never again.
On Yom Kippur, my former synagogue would substitute for the traditional Martyrology a Kaddish for the victims of the Holocaust. The words of the Kaddish were interspersed with the names and places of the victims of extermination. Today, I am interspersing its words with the names of unarmed black people killed by U.S. police in 2015. My source for this information is http://mappingpoliceviolence.org/unarmed/.
di v’ra khir’utei
v ‘yam’likh mal’khutei
uv’chayei d’khol beit yis’ra’eil
Y’hei sh’mei raba m’varakh
l’alam ul’al’mei al’maya
Michael Lee Marshall
James Karney, III
v’al kol yis’ra’eil
hu ya’aseh shalom
Billy Ray Davis
v’al kol Yisrael
May the One who dwells on high make peace for us, all Israel, and all who dwell on earth.
And let us say, Amen.
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
After a year of my working with my Basic Literacy student, the program did an official evaluation of her progress. The main gain was in reading, on which I had focused pretty relentlessly. She’d gone up three reading levels; given the wide tranches of the evaluation system, this means that she started at about a third-grade reading level and ended up at a high school level. Other gains were less obvious, and there were a few goals we’d never gotten to, but on two hours a week for a year, I think she did well.
I mention this not to apply for a medal, but because it validates something I have believed since I started tutoring back in 2010: one-on-one tutoring is by far the most effective means of moving students ahead. It is one of those things where the apparent high cost of extending individual services is mitigated by the high cost of traditional remediation and the increasing penalties imposed by governing and certifying agencies for student failure and non-completion of degree. Tutoring puts a human face on a college or organization, and gives the student the idea that someone cares about him or her. There is no better way of giving a student confidence.
I am not a great motivator; I cannot make someone who doesn’t want to be there suddenly care. But give me someone who knows that they’re in trouble, and that reading and writing are barriers to what they hope to achieve, and I am good to go.
I am under no illusions about administrators’ search for a zero-ongoing-costs solution. There will eventually be robots in the tutor role, and that’s all students are going to get, because it’s easier for a bureaucrat to have a one-time-expense of $150,000 for a robot than to keep paying a few people what’s now $15 an hour year after year. But I’ll keep doing this as long as I can.
From 1993 until last week, I interviewed high school students for admission to Yale, under the aegis of a branch of the Admissions department called the Alumni Schools Committee (ASC). For the first twenty years, it was a rewarding experience, one where I saw immense possibilities for some students and hoped that Yale could help make those possibilities happen. I worked hard in my interview reports to convey who and what the students were. About five or six years ago, I got a Lucite paperweight and a certificate from the ASC, indicating that I had done better than expected.
In the year or two after, the students took on a different character. There were many fewer given to me, and those were most often students who had been programmed with activities and spurred to excel by well-meaning but desperate parents. I saw only one student from that time who actually seemed capable of changing the world. The competitive world of college admissions meant that many were now provisionally admitted, through a little bit of legalistic chicanery, before an interviewer ever came on the scene, rendering my role almost superfluous. And I had a shock when, after many years, I was put into the same room as my fellow interviewers and discovered that all the stereotypes of Yalies had instantly come true. Representative was one jowly man, slightly older than me, wearing a tailored navy-blue Brioni suit, who worked for UBS, and who was very concerned lest he and his colleagues be held responsible for the financial collapse of the country. “She’s going after our people!” he said of Elizabeth Warren, with no small outrage. As the prophet Hosea put it, “You are not my people.”
The final thing that made me think about leaving interviewing was that, due to new rules, quite sensible, I could not interview in my home. I am an independent contractor, and have no office of my own. The ASC local director was kind enough to ask a fellow interviewer, a very high-powered lawyer in an international firm, whether I could use some of the lawyer’s office space. It was palatial, taking up the top floor of a skyscraper. There were huge, marble walls, enormous volumes of space, marble topped conference tables, and a conference room looking out fifty miles to the mountains to the east. The office manager offered me food, soda, and water whenever I came in. I felt like an imposter whenever, at home, I put on my one acceptable suit, knotted my bulldog tie, and, a half hour later, ushered a student into the panoramic conference room. I felt as though I was conveying a rather Mephistophelean message: cast your lot with Yale, and all earthly success shall be yours. Given that I was a glaring example of that not happening, I felt completely out of place, especially given how deferential the students were after they gaped at the panoramic conference room.
Last year, I had to do something I had never had to do before: ask ASC to reassign a student. Foolishly, I had forgotten that the AAAS conference was at the same time as the crunch interviewing week. I was upset about it, but that turned to relief in a very short time. This year, I had one student reassigned due to my being sick, and realized I didn’t want to interview anymore. I got a nice note from the ASC director, but now I am free.
I am not sure how to give back to Yale anymore—I surely cannot do so financially. The Yale of today seems fundamentally different from 25 years ago. Perhaps Yale needs more interviewers from younger generations. Perhaps Admissions will rely more on computers to home in on the precise data that determine a successful applicant, and fewer interviews will be needed. For now, I can take off the wolf’s mantle of “success,” and try to be more consistently who I am.