The Goldberg Variations Variations

Glenn Gould’s 1956 album of the Goldberg Variations– I’ve lived with that record for as long as I can remember. I also have Gould’s 1981 version, the thoughtful rather than impetuous one, but the 1956 record comes first. First chronologically, but (somehow) axiologically. When I hear other people play the score– accomplished artists with something to say– it’s as if every note comes marked with a little aside: “Glenn hit this one a little harder,” “Glenn sustained this one for a tenth of a second longer,” “Different from Glenn’s ornamentation,” “Glenn chose to bring out the tenor voice in this bar.” Not that I am a GG unconditionalist, but that’s the reference recording in my ear and brain, so help me Gould.

Now Sony has issued a 7-CD compilation of the session tapes that went into the making of the album, and it’s like looking into Flaubert’s manuscripts. Gould (23 at the time) put in long days at the studio, doing one take after another, trying out this way, that way, giving up after ten bars of something that he could see wasn’t going to be good enough, reminding himself of the bass figures, humming to himself (of course), going fast, then slow, with more or less attack, laying down competing tracks for later selection. You hear the variants that lay behind what was to become the canon. It’s like peering into the Language Module of someone’s brain, or a Borgesian library of permutations. And it’s like being in the house while someone practices Bach all day, which brings up some of the pleasantest memories I have.


Thoughts and Prayers

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.


My Cousin the Bot

One of the many reasons for unplugging from Facebook is the spectacle of many of my relatives avidly reposting falsehoods generated by Russian, Serbian and Montenegrin troll farms. They don’t seem to have the wit or energy to write up their own lies, but just push “Share” on items posted by nonexistent users like “jamesjo76415286,” “Survive Our Collapse,” “Sunday Gunday,” “@GenJohnKelly” (an acknowledged parody account) and “Kim Daskam.” Here’s how you relativize treason, by treating as facts a lie in multiple layers by the current occupant of the White House:

And here is how you make gun control sound like a bad idea: it “didn’t work,” supposedly, in the towns where a lot of black folks happen to live:

But an Ivanka Trump lookalike in a cowboy hat? Hell, give that girl a an AK-47 with a bump (heh heh) stock.

From an alternate universe in which numbers count for something, here’s a handy tally comparing gun laws and per-capita gun deaths. (Safehome.org.)

And here’s the international ranking:

For once, I’m not proud to see the USA as #1. (A roundup from Vox here.)

I’ve discovered that sending a friendly message suggesting that these relatives might like to check Snopes before posting doesn’t help– for them, Snopes is another liberal conspiracy, and there is no shame in being found wrong. As one cousin wrote to me, “You still believe Snopes? We don’t know anything.” If you don’t know anything, you aren’t responsible for anything, ain’t that convenient. So: The kid who shot 17 students at his former high school the other day did so, if you listen to some of my relatives, because Hillary bought him a gun and sent him out to use it, or because the FBI somehow set him up. There’s no abyss of stupidity too profound to be shared by these over-sharers, who somehow think they are saving the Republic by doing so. Team Trump over Team Truth!

Should I move to a cave in the mountains? Or am I already in a cave in the mountains and just don’t know it?

For example, a few days after the Parkland massacre, one of my relatives had this to say (or rather, repost):

So: the real issue, apparently, is not taking action to protect human lives. The important thing to do is nitpick about something Obama said, push the NRA’s long-discredited interpretation of the Second Amendment (“a well-regulated militia” was never about citizens’ right to resist their government), and cheer for upcoming civil war on our own territory. If a kid murdered people with an assault weapon, it was (a) somehow Obama’s fault, and (b) justified in the larger scheme of things, because if you disapprove of mass murder, you must have been brainwashed that way by Soros and the globalists. That’s what you might call some deep thinking from the world of suburban Southern white folks.

Another analysis shows you how my kinfolk work the moral calculus.

Fortunately, it’s just talk; but talk kills, with a little help from accompanying material factors.


Unlike Fine Wine

At an editorial conference today, trying to get my colleagues to see the point of a piece I’d written with a small edge of polemic, I realized that the argument in the piece is a version of one that I’ve been making for twenty-five years, and it’s still not getting anywhere. Not for any lack of empirical accuracy or logical consistency (I’ve checked). People just don’t want to hear it. Though stubborn, I don’t expect things to improve.


Faculty Psychology

I confess to a fondness for the old psychology of the faculties, where neatly differentiated components like Sentience, Judgment and Will are labeled, articulated and shown to work like the parts of a pinball machine. Assume that these faculties are housed in distinct organs, like the ones down in the belly, and phrenology is the result. Within the disciplines of the mind sciences, this way of thinking is way out of date, just one step up from the homunculus or “little man inside the head” model. But if we adjust the scope to focus not on the individual brain, but on the organized group, it begins to make some sense; and since, as Vygotsky, Dewey and so many others tried to teach us, thinking is a social act, the transfer from mind to social practice is easy.

I think of the newspaper– the classic newspaper developed under liberal-democratic governance, in stages from around 1750 to just recently– as an example of faculty psychology write large. It is a way of organizing intellectual labor for certain ends and against certain defects. To idealize somewhat (so don’t object that this is indeed an idealization), you have the Fact department, the Editorial department, and the Business office. The Fact reporters are out there working the pavement and the telephone lines. What happened, who did it, to whom, how, why, and what happened next. The Editorial writers sit in their cubicles wreathing elaborate smoke rings of fantasized verdicts and futures around the odds and ends brought in by Fact. What does this mean, what must we think, if we accept this, what possible objection will be have against that, where are we going. The Editorial writers have no business intervening with the Fact seekers. If anything, the Fact people have the right to go upstairs and spike a story concocted by the Editorialists if it turns out to be based on no facts or an incorrect assessment of facts given. Meanwhile, the Business office is drumming up advertising and subscription revenue– autonomously, it is expected. It would raise a stink if a story reported by Fact or a view suggested by Editorial were to be swayed by considerations of Business (say, by a threat on the part of a major tobacco advertiser to pull their full-page cigarette ads if the paper goes ahead and prints a story about smoking and lung cancer). It would also raise a stink if the editor-in-chief decided that an important piece of reportage needed to be shelved because the readers wouldn’t like it. Of course, when I say I idealize, I don’t mean that such interventions across the boundary of “church and state” (newspaper slang for the division between news and sales) never happened. Of course they happened, probably all the time, and it’s a wonder that the Fact people ever got their jobs done. But when we find out about it, we’re scandalized, and we are right to be so because the large-circulation newspaper, purporting to represent facts as they are together with opinions reasonably arrived at, is a form of thought-processing, and its corruption is a menace to the general interest. “Corruption” in the circles I inhabit means the subornation of the fact and judgment processes by the business process– not the other way around. (I suppose there are hard-core monopolists who usually take corruption to be the production of untoward facts by people heedless of the bottom line. Such people tend to denounce everything newsworthy as “fake.”)

Compare this differentiated and constitutionally hierarchicized processing of news with the non-transparence of e.g. Facebook. You don’t know where the facts come from, who represents them, and the role of money-making interest in publishing them is completely obscure. Enough reason to refuse to pay the slightest attention to that channel.

And as a further thought on the differences between Mother Jones and the New York Times on reporting the Steele/Russia/collusion story: it seems to me out of place to blame the NYT as a whole for shoddy work. I know this brings satisfaction to some; I have often hated the Times’s stupidity in reporting on and instigating American murderous intent and action in Haiti, Iraq, and a few other places. It would be good to know– for the health of the Times and of democracy in this country– exactly how the decision was taken to report in early November 2016 that there was no news about collusion, when every indication since then has been that there was.



The content of the remarks– don’t pretend you didn’t already know that that’s how the man thinks.

The purpose– to assert dominance. Over refugees and potential refugees, certainly. Over political opponents (shamelessness sends the signal “this is what I say and you can’t do a damned thing about it”). And, with the addition of a gaslighting episode on the day after, the power to assert control over reality (“it never happened if I say it never happened, see?”).

I hope some minds that needed changing are changed.


Man Sees Horse 人見馬 (Reprise)

In Ernest Fenollosa’s essay The Chinese Written Character as a Medium of Poetry, made famous by Ezra Pound, some quaint things are said about Chinese writing as a system of “shorthand depictions” of material things, “moving pictures” of objects and actions, and possibly the future language of the whole world. I’ve written about this primitivist paradox before, but never stopped to think what the Fenollosa/Pound piece would mean to people who really do experience language as a sequence of moving images. By that I don’t mean “the Chinese” (the only Chinese who qualify under this description would be scribes who have forgotten what languages they spoke) but, for example, Deaf people, and preeminently the poets who have wrestled ASL away from its status as an accessory language useful only for mediating English to non-hearing people. If you know Peter Cook’s work, you’ve seen ASL poetry in all its resourcefulness, grabbing, twisting and sculpting its signifiers and pointing toward meanings that it would take a long, patient gloss to make available to mere English-speakers like me. Here are a couple of short poems based on Chinese-character anecdotes taken from Fenollosa (Youtube, at 32:40; but you ought to watch the whole presentation).


Still Harping on about Factoids

From the 2018 MLA panel on science studies in the age of “alternative facts.”

Many of us have felt that we’re living in a time out of joint, when evidence and reasoned argument can be thrown aside by people with enough money to buy enough megaphones to promote their vested interests; this is not how it’s supposed to work, because facts are supposed to be stubborn things, and a lie should always be weaker than the truth. In his 2004 essay “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?” and his recent Facing Gaia, Latour shows that if the unyielding stubbornness of the fact has been an article of faith for modern people, the invincible power of interest has caused many people to put their efforts into rolling back modernity, and in doing so they’ve echoed the language that many of us used to prise apart the grip that other vested interests held on such “facts” as immutable human nature, racial and gender determinism, the hierarchies of class, and so forth. As the Republican strategist Frank Luntz never tires of saying, in trying to gainsay the consensus on the part of geologists and climatologists that global warming is real and human industrial activity has accelerated it, one doesn’t need to offer a single fact in evidence; one merely needs to drum up a discussion that will be taken for a “lack of scientific certainty” about the conclusions. The climate deniers will create an ambiance in which the threshold for proclaiming something a “fact” is impossibly high, and then parlay that into an illusion that the spread of yes/no answers on the question is something like 50/50, when it is really something much closer to 100/0, although the preponderance of money and megaphones is with the minority that has an interest in perpetuating uncertainty and thus delaying any action to slow the pace of global warming.

I don’t endorse climate-change denial and I think the pretense of a debate around the issue is one of the more deplorable tricks in the history of manipulation. But I do acknowledge that some of the moves used by those manipulators have been indispensable to me in my own career of teaching and learning—and indeed they should be. Uncertainty, if I may echo James Bond, is my business, and it’s yours too if you want to make your hearers analytic rather than dogmatic thinkers. Whenever I come on a buried certainty in my repertoire of thought positions, I try to loosen it by asking: Is this really a regularity, or am I indulging in confirmation bias when I tell myself that “Xs always do Y?” Do the regularities amount to a rule, or a delicately cultivated anecdote? Do further examples confirm the scope of the category, or undermine it? Where are the counterexamples? And so on. Outside of my personal thinking and reading practice, I use such techniques in the classroom, always with the intent of dislodging, with this rhetorical WD-40, the frozen certainties of students who tell me, fresh as they are from family or hometown preconceptions, that individualism is un-Chinese, that God created Adam and Eve in preference to Adam and Steve, that men are rational and women are emotional, or what not. What about this counterexample? What about that fact? Are you so sure? Maintaining a lack of certainty about many positions that come naturally to the people of this or that milieu is how we in the humanities earn our keep. We make sure that debate goes forward, that positions don’t get dug in, and (maybe) that new kinds of identity and interest get a chance to speak up. We can do this without ever breathing the heady syllables of “postmodernism,” which some editorial-writers in a race to file copy by deadline have blamed for the era of “alternative facts” in which we now are said to live. As if a philosophical critique of one epistemological model had somehow paralyzed the critical faculties of a 350-million-member public and left us with no means of crying foul when nonsense is promulgated.

Latour’s solution is like that of the driver in the snow. You all remember the rule: when your car begins to spin and lose traction, don’t clamp on the brakes and try to achieve an already long-gone stasis, but turn the steering wheel in the direction of the skid and try to get out of it by going into it. Latour discerns in the appeal to facts-as-they-are a remnant of that old fact-vs-interpretation distinction, correlative to the nature-vs-culture distinction, that marked a long moment in the sociology of knowledge but was never really satisfactory anyhow, and now comes up against its nemesis, the newly tightened citizenship qualifications for admission to the realm of fact that exclude almost every possible candidate and leave us all floundering in a snowscape of “perceptions,” chacun à son goût. His proposal is to improve the quality of debate by agreeing that a fact is a socially constructed thing, but to point out that a social construction is by no means a fictive cobweb that can be dispelled with a gesture of the voluntarist hand. Criticism is never just a matter of pointing out the other person has got the facts wrong! Let us enlarge the definition of “society” that impels the social construction, by widening the group of stakeholders to include the agents and networks so prominent in his account of epistemological behavior. Let us not make everything hinge on the existence of facts, a supposedly apolitical starting point, but on the recruitment of a majority among these newly nominated agents.


As I read Latour’s recent work, they led me to think of two readings of the following passage from James Weldon Johnson’s great novel Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, first published anonymously in 1912. I’ll first introduce and read the passage, then summarize it under reading A, then under reading B.


[A Texan, a Yankee profiting from the Southern economy, a Unionist veteran, a Jew, and the novel’s title character, a mixed-race man able to pass for black or white according to the circumstances, are all together in the smoking car of a train discussing American racial politics. Some approve of segregation, some question it, some proclaim it a necessity owing to the inherent superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race. After hearing out arguments to the effect that the Anglo-Saxon race never invented anything, does not deserve its present supremacy, and is fated to go down like every other master race in previous history, the pro-segregationist Texan answers by pulling out and passing around a flask of whiskey, saying, “Well, that may be, but facts is facts, and we’re not gonna have no colored people ruling over us, and that’s the end of it.”


            “The Texan’s position does not render things so hopeless, for it indicates that the main difficulty of the race question does not lie so much in the actual condition of the blacks as it does in the mental attitude of the whites; and a mental attitude, especially one not based on truth, can be changed more easily than actual conditions. That is to say, the burden of the question is not that the whites are struggling to save ten million despondent and moribund people from sinking into a hopeless slough of ignorance, poverty and barbarity in their very midst, but that they are unwilling to open certain doors of opportunity and to accord certain treatment to ten million aspiring, education-and-property-acquiring people. In a word, the difficulty of the problem is not so much due to the facts presented, as to the hypothesis assumed for its solution. In this it is similar to the problem of the Solar System. By a complex, confusing and almost contradictory mathematical process, by the use of zigzags instead of straight lines, the earth can be proved the center of things celestial; but in an operation so simple that it can be comprehended by a schoolboy, its position can be verified among the other worlds which revolve around the sun, and its movements harmonized with the laws of the universe. So, when the white race assumes as a hypothesis that it is the main object of creation, and that all things else are merely subsidiary to its well being, sophism, subterfuge, perversion of conscience, arrogance, injustice, oppression, cruelty, sacrifice of human blood, all are required to maintain the position, and its dealings with other races become indeed a problem, a problem which, if based on a hypothesis of common humanity, could be solved by the simple rules of justice.” — James Weldon Johnson, Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912), in Writings (New York: Library of America, 2004), 101.


Reading A: The doctrine of white supremacy is as absurd as the geocentric hypothesis. In cosmology there are facts, which everybody who is modern since Copernicus has already learned to accept. You white supremacists are, like the remaining geocentricists if there are any, backward, brainwashed, dogmatic and are wasting your mental energy trying to prove a thing that is inherently and obviously false. You are obsolete. You can go on deluding yourselves until the end of time, and if so, good luck to you, but you’ll never achieve anything that way. On the other hand, the simple rules of justice would do away with the problem (proving the superiority of the white race) and the means for its pseudo-solution (oppressing everyone who is not white).


Reading B: We, the actually existing majority, have agreed on a hypothesis (a matter of concern) that entails certain facts, and these facts are different from the ones that are required by your hypothesis; moreover, the consequences of the majority’s hypothesis are beneficial whereas the consequences of your hypothesis are entirely destructive, even to yourselves. At least one book that represents this point of view exists; it is in your hands, you have just heard our arguments, and others will follow to present better and richer arguments. We tell you therefore that you may have your so-called facts, but only to be voted down again and again, and the Occam’s Razor that will doom you to futility is the greater epistemic efficiency and broader appeal of the hypothesis we are putting forth.


– Faith in progress. The geocentric cosmos giving way to the heliocentric cosmos is not just an illustration—it is the example of examples, the displacement that put us all in our proper place and taught us how to think and observe. Social equality is inevitable, like the victory of science over ignorance.

As I used to read the passage, this was the main ingredient. Now when I reread it with attention to the orchestration of “matters of fact” with “matters of concern,” other components push their way forward and become more and more the drivers of the passage’s logic:

– Its refusal to engage in the reality of “races” (the vast domain of dubious “facts” that constitute race science, alas alive and well in popular thought today).

– Fantasy of democratic efficiency. If only voices were not suppressed, truth would out. The energy that currently goes to suppressing them could be reoriented to productive ends.


Whether you follow reading A, emphasizing the matters of fact, or reading B, emphasizing the social matters of concern, the persuasiveness of the paragraph still depends on logic and the summoning-up of an as yet imaginary forum to debate it all. And unfortunately, in the United States, as in many places, we are still trying to get a quorum for social equality, as we are struggling to get one for many other matters previously thought to be in the domain of scientific authority and now allegedly left up to the whim of lobbyists and billionaires. And the notion of a community of Latourian agents might not be a definitive solution to the problem of bought opinion, because, as we know today, money can buy you quite a few bots, virtual humans often taken by physical humans to be fellow-beings, fully qualified as agents under almost any reading of Latour’s account of the sociology of science, and quicker to multiply than you and I are, though their purpose is to confuse and drown out rival views.

Still, I think there is a purpose in summoning-up. That would be our job, as professionals of language and argument: a linguistic act that requires us to exercise the phatic, conative, and poetic functions, rather than make everything rest on the referential/constative dimension of language which is not traditionally within our docket. Latour’s critical performance in Facing Gaia summons us, as the people most receptive to his summons, to go out and summon up the enlarged public along lines he sketches out. I think there are few more timely tasks for the imagination.



In Astonishing Victory for Feminism, Democrats Hand Over Control of Women’s Bodies to Republicans for Foreseeable Future

We send people to Congress to do a job: to write laws, vote on laws, and make speeches about legislation. If they do this job badly, we vote them out and send somebody else. We don’t send them there to be saints, to exhibit perfection of character, to be celebrities, or to be mirrors of our ideal selves.

If you think celebrities are what character and political principle are all about, then I can’t help you.

Watch television, go on Facebook, but don’t confuse these recreational activities with the making of laws. Now millions of people will be enduring the consequences of this skewed sense of priorities.

If this sends you into a tizzy and you think you have to accuse me of covering up for rapists, etc., no, that’s not what it’s about; it’s about keeping score where score-keeping counts. Your Purity League is, for me, an annex of the Trumpist Party (which has no Purity League; they couldn’t care less about the virtue of their representatives). Objective allies, as we used to say.


They Order These Things Better

A colleague at a conference gave a curiously incomplete description of the career of Lao She, and I wrote a friendly (at least, intended as friendly) email mentioning his suicide after persecution by the Red Guards, and alluding as well to the current push toward one-man rule, which I would have thought to be a matter of record. The reply read in part:

I’ve never met, on the PRC mainland, a Chinese who didn’t love Chairman Mao. And party members typically tell me that the censorship is not so much about politics as about resisting US consumer culture on the internet, that the CP want to maintain standards on education etc. that I personally find more sympathetic that American mass media.  Hong Kong resistance, for example, seems to me a combination of highly idealistic youth who are naïve about western “freedom and democracy” and disaffected businessmen who resent that Hong Kong is no longer the gateway to China’s markets. But all of us are struggling and all of us are concerned about the world we are leaving for our children.

Do you know, one of the best things we could do for our children would be to resist one-party rule of all kinds, especially those that depend on censorship for their appearance of legitimacy. The “US consumer culture” that my colleague deplores brings me, every day or week, The Nation, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, and Scientific American, not to mention permitting the delivery of The Guardian, Le Monde, and similar items consultable per Internet. My friends in China aren’t able to tap into such a range of information, and it seems patronizing to suggest that they are better off that way, under the paternalistic eye of the Party. I don’t know what makes my colleague so ready to accept this line of thought. Perhaps a traumatic interaction with a Disney character early in life is responsible. At my house, we keep “US consumer culture” at a distance– most obviously by not having a TV.

I should add that my colleague doesn’t speak Chinese but has a lot of professional contact with China. So perhaps this is a case of adapting one’s opinions to the source of one’s cornpone. In that case I would have appreciated a dose more cynicism.


Supplement (see: Supplement)

In one of the first reviews of The Ethnography of Rhythm (New York: Fordham University Press, 2016) to appear, Jenny Webb suggests:

I did find myself wishing for audible aids along with the visual. In a volume concerned with re-reading and reorienting prior expectations and conceptions, it does not seem like it would have been too far a stretch to include access to a few additional recordings (audio and/or visual) illustrating some of the more experiential items under discussion on a website, blog, or even YouTube channel. (Jenny Webb, review, _Recherche Littéraire / Literary Research_ 33 [2017]: 147.)

Splendid suggestion. Consider it already in progress. I’ll add a link here when it’s ready.


Arthur Platt, 1860-1925

In The Ethnography of Rhythm (p. 42) I briefly mentioned one Arthur Platt who responded with incredulity to one of Antoine Meillet’s best ideas, that the Homeric epics were composed out of stock elements passed down in professional lineages. “Things are said about the epic on p. 61 which make one stare,” was his brief verdict. I had a vague impression that I knew something, or should have, about Arthur Platt, but didn’t follow up at the time. I now make amends. The great A. E. Housman writes in his memorial piece that Platt

was a Fellow of the Zoological Society, frequented its Gardens, and inspired a romantic passion in their resident population. There was a leopard which at Platt’s approach would almost ooze through the bars of its cage to establish contact with the beloved object; the gnu, if it saw him on the opposite side of its broad enclosure, would walk all the way across to have its forelock pulled; and a credible witness reports the following scene. “I remember going to the giraffe-house and seeing a crowd of children watching a man who had removed his hat while the giraffe, its neck stretched to the fullest capacity, was rubbing its head backwards and forwards upon the bald crown. When the object of this somewhat embarrassing affection turned his head, Platt’s features were revealed.” (Housman, Selected Prose [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961], pp. 156-57)

Si monumentum requiris…


Word Needed

We need a pithy designation (one word would be best) for something that happens frequently in political and social life. The gist of it is as follows. People get furious about, say, the injustices of capitalism, and conditions license them to act. They can’t attack the actual capitalist, who lives on a yacht out in the bay, so they drag the owner of the corner store, who is barely more fortunate than they, out from behind the corner and beat him. What will we call this? Proximate resentment? Neighborly betrayal? Narcissism of small class differences? Power differential of the relatively powerless? I see a lot of it going on (viz., Chris Christie’s berating of school teachers and firemen for being featherbedders, which was well received by people who make about the same amount of money but can’t look forward to a pension; university politics…). Lexicographers, do me a solid, give that thing a name so we can direct more attention to analyzing it.


Free Speech in an Age of Trolling

At the University of Chicago, we’ve been discussing a report on sanctions for “disruptive conduct,” led by Randal Picker of the Law School. The committee had a difficult task: revising a code of conduct that itself derives from a university statute which only the Board of Trustees can amend, the so-called Statute 21, which hasn’t been revised since 1970. Lots of people wrote in to express their unhappiness with the very idea of sanctioning “disruptive conduct,” and saying, quite accurately, that sometimes disruptive conduct is the only way to get a point across. Here are my thoughts about the matter, prepared for today’s meeting of the Academic Senate, though I’m not sure I’ll be able to deliver them.

We are having a conversation about how the University should respond to disruptive incidents on campus: whether they should be treated as infractions of the student code, leading to disciplinary action, or should be accepted as free speech. This is naturally an issue about which each of us has passionate convictions. I want to address those convictions. I submit that the responses we have seen to the Picker Report are driven by implicit narratives—examples and scenarios of expected behavior. And many of these narratives are out of date. They miss an important point about the age in which we live: the age of free-speech trolling.

The U.S. Constitution, in the first of its Amendments, lays down that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” Though this formulation is negative, subsequent legislation has established the freedom of speech as a right possessed by citizens and not to be abridged or restricted by other agencies, public or private, except under certain well-defined and limited circumstances. Other democracies have similar laws guaranteeing the rights of speech, publication and assembly. Such provisions are in fact one of the most reliable tests for determining whether a state is a democracy or not.

Yet nowadays “Free Speech” is a slogan often brandished by people who are in favor of, for example, expelling immigrants, denying the benefits of citizenship to black people, privatizing public education, demeaning cultures outside a fantasy construct of “Western Civilization,” rejecting the conclusions of natural science in regards to climate change, and so forth. How did this come about?

Recent incidents at Berkeley, Middlebury, DePaul and other institutions follow a regular pattern. This is not surprising, because these are anything but random events; they follow a pattern because they are scripted and designed to achieve a certain outcome.

A controversial right-wing speaker is invited to a campus to give a speech about the inferiority of certain races or cultures, or the vapidity of liberals, or how the men’s rights movement is imperiled by feminists. The invitation is issued, not by the university, but by a student group; nonetheless, it registers as “Anne Coulter speaking at Berkeley” or the like. And there is outrage. Students converge on the site of the event, or on the administration building in advance of the event, chanting, screaming, waving signs. Maybe someone breaks a window, occupies an office, punches a rival demonstrator, sets a police car ablaze. The demand—that So-and-So not be allowed to speak on campus—is met. Or it is not, and the person declines the invitation, citing safety issues. Or the person comes anyway, and is met by screaming, heckling, flag-burning, and what not. The incident goes on Fox News: “Out of control liberals deny free speech rights of others on college campus.” “The thought police in action.” “First Amendment shredded at City College.” This is exactly what was expected, and the so-called “liberals” and “leftists” have played exactly the role they were supposed to play. The anti-racist, anti-misogynist demonstrators have been comprehensively manipulated by the right-wing agitators. Meanwhile, campus precedent about free speech, picketing and the treatment of visitors haven’t provided adequate guidance for handling the situation.

The scenario that many of us have in mind is a 1960s newsreel. Students are on the march—against the war in Vietnam, for civil rights, for gender equality, for considerate treatment of the disabled. Touchy or unfeeling university administrators direct campus police to arrest them and then, after hearings of questionable objectivity, expel or fine them. We all agree that it is a terrible shame and we wish that the university had been more understanding of the scope and purposes of the First Amendment.

The present-day ruckus is of a different kind. The purpose is to create a disturbance and to score propaganda victories. The calculation is that if riots ensue, “leftists” (who are actually in their great majority simply non-fascist supporters of an inclusive democratic society) will appear as emotionally-uncontrolled, violent suppressors of free speech, colleges will appear as agents of suppression in the service of hysteria, and the “conservatives” (i.e. fascists) will appear as victims and reasonable adults, winning thereby support for their cause on Fox News and other channels of communication already lined up to spread this narrative. Whether the university steps in and breaks up the demonstration or stands by and lets it rage, Fox News gets a story about campus chaos either way. That is how “free speech” becomes a fascist slogan.

In such usages “free speech” is hypocritically deployed in the furtherance of only one kind of speech. These right-wing activists are not interested in guaranteeing anyone else’s right to speak freely, nor are they seeking to discover the truth through reasoned debate or to arrive at solutions for pressing problems in a way that excludes none of the stakeholders. Their aim is to create cover for actions on the part of political parties and corporate interests that shorten, impoverish and thwart the lives of people who might be standing in the way of their ideal, an America in which only certain people enjoy the benefits of self-government and prosperity. Denial of health care through fiscal and distributive means, punitive sentencing, restriction of the right to vote, defunding of public education, demonization of groups of citizens on the basis of their skin color, ethnic origin, language, religion, or political beliefs, and a raid on the public treasury are possible at present only when the dominance of the few is submerged in a pseudo-democratic veneer. As a step toward achieving those aims, it is important to discredit universities as bastions of free inquiry and disinterested knowledge. Once you have convinced the Fox News viewer that colleges are nests of spoiled snowflakes demanding to suppress speech that disagrees with them, you have made it easier to discredit research into climate change, gun usage, early-childhood poverty, epidemic disease, industrially-triggered cancers, and a host of other questions. By marginalizing universities, more space is won for irrational, self-interested, collectively harmful discourse. This is what free speech trolling is about. With so much at stake, we must look into the issue of free speech and disruptive conduct analytically, broadly, and with attention to consequences. I do not think that we are ready to do this without a further study to which every member of the university has an opportunity to contribute.


Free speech is important, yes, but I hold that it is never the goal of goals; every theory of the desirability of free speech posits that it is an avenue to reasoned outcomes in an unpredictable world and a channel for non-violent resolution of social conflicts. Those are the desirables which free speech seeks to guarantee. Universities have an important role as laboratories and life-size experiments in democratic governance, precisely because we are the place where speech is freest and no statement goes unquestioned. If there’s anything we need to safeguard, it’s that. But how to keep the “free-speech commons” open without delivering it into the hands of the hypocritical manipulators and wily agitators? This will require thought, policy, and consultation. As you might expect, I have some ideas…

Partial bibliography:

Pete Grieve, “Disciplining Disruption: Inside the High-Stakes Faculty Debate.” Chicago Maroon, April 13, 2017.

Pete Grieve, “Faculty Senate Creates New Disciplinary System.” Chicago Maroon, May 23, 2017.

Frederick Schauer, “The Wily Agitator and the American Free Speech Tradition.” Stanford Law Review 57 (2005): 2157-2170.

Stephanie Saul, “The Conservative Force Behind Speeches Roiling College Campuses.” New York Times, May 20, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/20/us/college-conservative-speeches.html



Dump the Trolls

Yesterday, President Obama came down to the University to have a little chat onstage with five or six “young leaders,” college-age and younger, and to pep-talk at them about getting involved in politics. A few hundred people were in the audience, and something like 12,000 were watching the livestream; I was in that second group.

The organizers of the event opened a sidebar for comments. That wasn’t a good idea.

As the lights went up, about thirty or forty people made more or less the same comment, “I miss him,”  “Nice to hear somebody who’s truly presidential,” “What a difference.”

Then the trolls came on. One kept going on about “BARRY SOETORO” and repeating “GO BACK TO KENYA.” When the camera swerved to one of the Young Leaders, this troll’s contribution to discourse was “That nose– OY VEY.” When someone named Freedman spoke, his name appeared in the now well-known antisemitic brackets as “(((Freedman))).” As the conversation went on, the loquacious zorg was reduced to typing again and again “Nobody cares” and “SHEEEEIIIT.” Another troll was reiterating Trump slogans, irrelevantly, just for the aggression high.

So that’s where we are in America in 2017. If these dolts had been causing a disturbance in a public venue, the management would, uncontroversially, have been empowered to eject them. The fact that they were stupid racists would also have been noted. Who knows what else might have happened IRL; even liberals have tempers.

But lacking the courage to appear in person, the trolls just cluttered up the screens of the people who were trying to watch the event. Unfortunately, the University of Chicago, perhaps putting too much faith in the power of free and unconstrained discourse, had omitted to add a “Hide comments” button. So the trolls trolled on. For a moment I considered logging on and telling them to shut their idiot Nazi traps, but realized that this would just be giving them the attention they craved.

The troll is a person who takes advantage of a public forum in order to discourage, inhibit or destroy that which makes it a public forum. The troll enters rational discourse with no intention of committing rational discourse, only that of subverting it, and for no constructive purpose. (At least not in the immediate. Perhaps destroying democratic forums in general corresponds to somebody’s game plan, e.g., as part of the construction of a new era of dictatorship.) In brief, the troll shits in the swimming pool and provokes all the other swimmers to get out.

This was, in its way, a response to Obama’s advice to get involved in politics and find ways to make life better for those around you. The troll wants to raise the cost of doing that. The troll wants all decent people to get disgusted by the very idea of political engagement.

Of course, the trolls were impotent to crash the actual event, and the inconvenience of being reminded of their existence didn’t ruin my day, or even my half-minute. But the trolls are living on the tolerance of others, a tolerance they don’t show anyone else. For reasons of fairness and public access to a public good, let’s throw them out until they agree to some ground rules (i.e., cease behaving like trolls). Free speech for the enemies of free speech is a waste of good speech. But we are living in the era of the trolls, not just disrupters of conversation, but rapists, hijackers, and pirates of the economic, ecological, sexual, etc., domains.



Chacun pour soi

« In like Flynn, » dit le proverbe irlandais, en d’autres termes: c’est passé comme une lettre à la Poste. Eh bien, pas cette fois-ci. Flynn est dehors comme un chien. Et à juste titre. Il avait tellement envie d’apporter de bonnes nouvelles à ses amis du Kremlin qu’il ne pouvait pas attendre le 20 janvier pour leur promettre la fin des sanctions. Las, ce genre d’intelligence avec l’étranger laisse des traces fâcheuses pour un futur directeur de la sécurité nationale.

Qu’il ait menti ensuite ne veut probablement rien dire; comment, dans une Maison Blanche remplie de mensonges, un menteur de plus serait-il impardonnable? C’est que la ficelle était pour une fois vraiment trop grosse. Peut-être y a-t-il plus dans cette histoire qu’un simple manque de confiance. J’y vois la confirmation d’une petite théorie qui me trotte dans la tête depuis des mois sur l’équipe Tr*mp.

C’est que ce businessman qui se vante d’être aux commandes, qui demande l’obéissance totale chez ses subordonnés, s’est entouré de gens qui ne rêvent que de faire passer leur coup d’état en douce, à la faveur de l’incurie du président touiteur. Flynn mettrait bien volontiers les organismes de sécurité à la disposition des Russes. Pour Bannon, c’est le KKK. Pour Tillerson, c’est Exxon. Pour Tr*mp, à la fin, c’est la marque Tr*mp. Chacun son petit coup d’état.

« Pour qui travaillez-vous? » Voilà la question qui devrait obséder le peuple américain. Ça peut commencer par Flynn. Espérons que ça continue.