When I wake up at 3:20 in the morning with thoughts of climate change, the destruction of the rule of law, the erosion of voting rights, the return of overt racism to the political environment, the prosperity dishonesty enjoys, the collapse of the Atlantic alliance, etc., in my head, I go downstairs and write recommendation letters. It’s my way of saying, “Damn it, there will be a future, and these are the young people I choose to shape it.”
If somebody you know, are friendly with, or consider a close ally is accused of e.g. sexual harassment, plagiarism, or other scurrilous crimes, here are some things not to do if you’re invited to sign a petition in his/her defense.
— Don’t announce to the world that you know all the facts and evidence. You probably don’t, unless you are the accused or the plaintiff (and even then…).
— Don’t couch your petition in the mode “X is so brilliant and distinguished that s/he deserves special treatment unlike that meted out to ordinary mortals.” That won’t play well when the letter’s leaked.
— Even if you would probably say, on the street or in a bar, “I can’t believe X would do a thing like that!” do not write a letter in which you claim publicly that “The brilliant and distinguished X, whom I know extremely well, is incapable of such actions and therefore the accusations must be dismissed.”
— It would also be to your and the accused’s advantage not to try the tribalism move, i.e., “An attack on X is an attack on all who belong to our set (or: intellectual distinction in our age, all that is good and holy, etc.).” What if X turns out to be guilty? Then you’ve handed your entire tribe over to the hostiles (who may have no stake in the present accusation but will surely be glad for a chance to dunk their rivals in hot water).
— Above all, don’t attempt to blame the (professed) victim for causing the mess. It looks bad and may make you a co-conspirator in retaliation, should things come to that.
You may, I think, say how much you admire the person’s work, how vital his or her teaching is to an academic program, how deep your trust in him or her runs, how many times he or she has helped you with a problem– in other words, you can step up as a character witness. Not as a witness of fact unless you’ve observed facts. And don’t confuse character (ethos) with acts (praxis) unless you have a really ambitious theory of how the two intertwine. It’s easy to be taken the wrong way. A rule of thumb: if you would be outraged to read a letter if only it had been written in defense of a Republican, don’t sign it.
And yet, we are oppressed by one nightmarish idea: if a dictatorship in Hitler’s style should ever rise in America, all hope would be lost for ages. We in Germany could be freed from the outside. Once a dictatorship has been established, no liberation from within is possible. Should the Anglo-Saxon world be dictatorially conquered from within, as it were, there would no longer be an outside, nor a liberation. The freedom fought for and won… over hundreds, thousands of years would be a thing of the past. The primitivity of despotism would reign again, but with all means of technology. True, man cannot be forever enslaved; but this comfort would then be a very distant one, on a plane with Plato’s dictum that in the course of infinite time everything that is possible will here or there occur or recur as a reality. We see the feelings of moral superiority and are frightened: he who feels absolutely safe from danger is already on the way to fall victim to it.
Karl Jaspers, The Question of German Guilt (tr. E. B. Ashton), 93.
(“Technology” was not yet in use as a euphemism for computers. In 1945 it pre-eminently meant the atomic bomb.)
Sure sounds like somebody wants an excuse to call off the midterms.
DONNY. Vlad, I really admire what you’ve been able to do. Strong leadership, not a peep out of your national press, the Duma is 100% behind you, and you can just reach out and grab Ukraine by the Crimea, and no problem, everybody’s fine. What’s your secret?
VLAD. Easy. I get people in a position where I have leverage over them, and then I have them poisoned if they don’t do as I say.
VLAD. Now about those emails…
Convenient round-up of today’s indictments. Wikileaks, Roger Stone, Guccifer getting into the DNC’s sock drawer in order to blow up HRC-Bernie reconciliation. See
or you could read the whole indictment if you had time.
Do you know why I would like to be named director of the Imperial Roman Space Agency? So I could launch the Petronius Orbiter.
I know Anne Fadiman, and she’s not stupid, blinkered, or chauvinistic. Yet how impenetrable English-speakers can sometimes be to the fact that other languages exist, and count as means of communication and record! See her New Yorker piece on not liking wine, which mentions by-the-by that
Haut-Brion is generally considered the first wine ever to receive a review—by the diarist Samuel Pepys, who visited London’s Royall Oak Tavern, on April 10, 1663, and, as he noted in his journal, “here drank a sort of French wine, called Ho Bryan, that hath a good and most particular taste that I never met with.” Haut-Brion was drunk by Dryden, Swift, Defoe, and Locke. When Thomas Jefferson was the American minister to France, he bought six cases of Haut-Brion and sent them back to Monticello.
“Generally considered” by people whose world is bounded by the approximately five hundred years of the English language that’s easy going for non-philologists, I guess. Isn’t it a pity that over the four thousand or so years that wine drinking has been going on, none of the Greeks, Romans, Italians, French, Spanish, Portuguese, etc., ever conceived of the idea of writing down their thoughts about a particular vintage? Or does something count as a “wine review” only if it’s written for English-speakers? Good thing that Pepys, Dryden, Swift, Defoe, Locke and Jefferson were on the job, otherwise the world would never have known of Ho Brian. And it’s really a pity, then, that Odysseus’s words were wasted, inasmuch as he spoke them in a remote provincial palaver unknown to humanity:
With me I had a goat-skin of the dark, sweet wine, which Maro, son of Euanthes, had given me, the priest of Apollo, the god who used to watch over Ismarus. And he had given it me because we had protected him with his child and wife out of reverence; for he dwelt in a wooded grove of Phoebus Apollo. And he gave me splendid gifts: of well-wrought gold he gave me seven talents, and he gave me a mixing-bowl all of silver; and besides these, wine, wherewith he filled twelve jars in all, wine sweet and unmixed, a drink divine. Not one of his slaves nor of the maids in his halls knew thereof, but himself and his dear wife, and one house-dame only. And as often as they drank that honey-sweet red wine he would fill one cup and pour it into twenty measures of water, and a smell would rise from the mixing-bowl marvellously sweet; then verily would one not choose to hold back. (Odyssey, book 9, tr. Murray)
And likewise the consumer report filed by Archilochus:
I know how to strike up the fine dithyrambic song of Dionysos,
when I’m blitzed with wine
For locals only?
C’est parce que, dans ce pays lointain et peut-être imaginaire, il se trouve quelques centaines de passionnés des lettres pour s’en entretenir comme cette bande d’énergumènes. J’ai bien dit “lettres,” pour souligner le fait que ces lecteurs emballés ne se confinent pas à la “littérature,” mais discutent (et bien) de la philosophie, de la théologie, des lois, de plusieurs époques de la littérature latine et grecque, pour critiquer comme des supporters de foot les choix et le calendrier de la série “La Pléiade” de chez Gallimard. Leur amour sans provincialisme des choses de l’esprit me fait revivre.
“If the President does it, it’s not illegal.” Back in the Watergate days, we used to hoot at that assertion, because we recognized it as a formula for dictatorship. And we’re a country of laws, not of men, or so said the civics textbooks. In our back pocket was the ultimate argument, the courts. And the Constitution, which with its separation of powers and brokering of functions, protected us from would-be dictators. We slept securely with that knowledge.
So Kennedy, the occasional swing vote on the Court, has retired. Within a few months– probably before the midterms– we will have to come up with answers to the slogan, “If the President does it and the Supreme Court condones it, it’s not illegal.”
The newspapers are all about the likely outcomes for Roe v. Wade. An important liberty was established by that decision, but not the only liberty. Let’s not forget what else might happen.
First, corruption, gerrymandering, voter suppression, the quashing of civil liberties, draconian anti-immigration measures and other devices to ensure an aging minority of very rich people retains the whip hand in this country. The Bill of Rights will be declared unconstitutional by a majority on the Court that won’t care about stare decisis, case law, controlling instances and other technical matters where law regulates itself (boiling down to such imperatives as “face the facts” and “be consistent”). The First Amendment will be reconstrued in ways that limit permissible speech and cripple the investigative powers of the press. The Second Amendment’s “well-ordered militia” clause will be reinterpreted restrictively, enabling the unlimited possession of arms by bands of irregulars, call them Tontons Macoutes or Siloviki, who terrorize the unarmed population in support of whatever the dictator’s hate campaign of the month is. And so on. If you want to know the future, look to Russia these days, or perhaps the Israel-Gaza relationship: an utterly asymmetrical power ratio between the rulers and a significant party of the ruled, and a lot of pillage going on with the approval of rubber-stamp courts.
But so long as there is enough to eat, five hundred channels of television, and some ongoing celebrity scandal, people will be cool with it, I guess. Those who aren’t cool with it are likely to put up resistance, and it will hurt. I don’t want anybody to get hurt, which is the deep reason for my belief in democracy and the separation of powers: they make it possible to mediate conflicts without the spilling of blood.
Further evidence that progress is a thing of the past: George W Bush’s Cabinet was full of Nixon-era revanchists. Trump’s is full of WWII-era revanchists.
— is not a good argument. It’s a Republican talking point, which in itself warrants suspicion. But more than that, it distracts our attention from policies to personalities. Obama was good in many ways, but he wasn’t perfect, and like any American president he let some terrible policies be enacted in his time. It was (and is) our job as the American public to let Obama and any successors know when things are going wrong and justice is not being served. Our job is not to cheer on the sidelines of some fantasized Obama-Trump or Hillary-Trump smackdown.
Disgust, ethologists since Darwin and Richet tell us, is an emotion rooted in self-preservation. You have an instinctive aversion to tastes, sensations, and things that are likely to be harmful. (The history of the concept by Wilfried Menninghaus is worth a read, though it’s definitely the work of a Germanist.) Moral disgust, I suppose, is the same emotion projected onto an ideal body, the body of laws, habits and conventions that make us an “us.”
I find the repeated experience of moral disgust to be corrosive, and thus undermining of the supposed original purpose of the feeling. But there’s no way to let go of it. Perhaps it will outlive me.
For hundreds of years, people who were unable to write attested their consent by scratching an “X” on documents they were unable to read. Why X? Why not A, or I, or O?
Of course, there’s the thought of the cross, which in Christian countries might stand as the sign of any individual.
I’ve long thought— perhaps whimsically— that the validity of “X” as a marker of intention comes from its intersection of two opposite lines. Anything, even a branch falling from a tree, can scratch a diagonal line on a surface, but to do the same thing in the opposite direction and have the two lines meet at a point bespeaks awareness and intent, which a judicially recognized signature aims to confirm. The second line of the “X” is supposed to be a minimal extra added on to nature, and once you’ve done that, you’ve started to act in the world, to “persist and sign” as they say in French.
I often think denouncing others from a position of self-asserted moral purity is a narcissistic way of engaging with an imperfect world. Here’s something from today’s Inbox that reminds me of how things can go askew. The allusion to current US policy is particularly well-aimed.
Lavengro: Scholar, Gypsy, Priest by George Borrow, first published in 1851, is a sort of autobiography, with sections that cross over into the domain of the novel and others that reek of polemic or lyric. As autobiographies go, it is as non-standard as Tristram Shandy, in its own way, is. We could not affix to it the subtitle Wordsworth gave his Prelude,“The Growth of a Poet’s Mind.” Nor could we see in it, as in Augustine’s Confessions,the steady underhanded working of Providence. Nor even the working-out of the destiny that matches a character, as with Rousseau. The narrative proceeds by chance events, coincidences, and one long-term addiction. Borrow’s first-person narrator is born into a military family in Norfolk and relocates again and again through the British Isles with the reassignments of his father’s regiment. The father is a conventional Englishman who honors King and Country and hopes that his son will find secure employment, perhaps in the army, perhaps in the Church, or as a clerk to a lawyer (Lavengro133). But the son is useless in any useful employ. His passion is for language. Posted to Ireland, his father’s regiment passes a couple of drovers who say something that makes a young officer ask, “Strange language that! What can it be?”
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.
This is just to extend a point I made in “The Sky is Falling,” and to tease out some of its implications, so: there is no natural state of the humanities. There is only the state of the humanities in a situation.
Part of the argument I’m making is that the situation in which the humanities function in the US university has changed, in the following ways:
- Economically. There’s plenty of evidence to show that students and their parents are price-sensitive when it comes to choosing majors. The cuts in state funding following the 2008 crisis and the weak job market that continues to plague the US (don’t be fooled by the unemployment rate; labor force participation continues to decline) mean that students do not feel free to major in fields they know produce less certain financial outcomes than others.
- Culturally. A recent survey shows that 58 percent of Republicans think that colleges/universities have a negative effect on the way things are going in this country. We know why they think this, and we know they’re wrong. But obviously in a situation in which about 30 percent of the country identifies as Republican, this is going to affect humanities majors.
In both these cases of course the causes have nothing to do with anything particular to the humanities or to the work we do as professionals. And one solution to the problem would be to attack it at the two levels I’m describing above (via politics and state governments in the first case, and via the culture war in the second). But of course we have no special leverage at those levels, so attacking the problems there is hard. The question is how we might respond to them at the levels at which we do have some professional leverage. See my ideas in the piece.