A few years ago, on a rainy summer’s day, I was browsing around a secondhand bookshop on the east end of Long Island, breathing in the musty wonder of the overstuffed shelves, when an elderly man approached me. I had in my hand a first edition of William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. The man started up a friendly conversation about the Second World War, asking me whether I had watched a recent television documentary on the subject.
He continued talking, perhaps unaware that he wasn’t allowing me to respond. I didn’t take this as an insult. Most people prefer to hear themselves talk; this isn’t necessarily a sign of malice or rudeness on their part. I find it’s especially true of the elderly, who are usually lonelier and thus more desperate for the ear of a stranger. So I stood there and listened as politely as I could, not altogether uninterested in his views of fascinating matters like the Nazis and other dictatorships, which are subjects that I could eat with my breakfast cereal.
I am not one of those people who reflexively think European goods are superior to American ones—you know the kind of people I’m talking about—but boy do I sometimes wonder about the coffee in this country. The average American takes his or her daily caffeine in the form of a tepid, mud-like beverage that delis, diners, and commercial chains have chosen to call “coffee.” Is it? It can’t possibly be. Even the coffee at Starbucks, which is supposed to be something special, more often than not tastes like the business end of a drainpipe. It’s a shame so many people have been duped by words like “venti” and “macchiato.”
This dislike of mine has nothing to do with snobbery. I don’t care about price, brand, origin, or other markers of prestige. I know precisely nothing about the agriculture of coffee beans or the chemistry of brewing. I do know, however, that the proof of the coffee is in the drinking, and the motor oil served at most American establishments is barely potable.
I suspect I’m not alone in this judgment. If not, follow me, dear reader, on a mental trip to the beautiful city of Lviv, in western Ukraine—a place where I found some of the best coffee I have ever tasted. This was after I had tried the product of Vienna’s famous Cafe Hawelka. In fact, to imagine what Lviv is like, picture Vienna, only not as well preserved, with extra grit and grime on the buildings, and with occasional glimpses of drab Soviet architecture.
My first memory of thinking about dictators is a day I spent with my grandmother at age six or seven. Staying at her house while my parents worked, I was “reading” my latest edition of MAD Magazine, in which was printed a humorous depiction of such masters of malice as Pol Pot, Augusto Pinochet, Anastasio Somoza, and Hafez al-Assad. I asked my grandmother what this interesting new word “dictator” meant, and she informed me, as best she could to a child, that it was a leader who enjoyed absolute power in a country. Even at that young age, my instincts as an American were strong: I bristled at the idea of tyrannical authority, but naively suggested that the people suffering under these monsters could be free if only everyone agreed all at once not to listen to them.
As the years passed, I learned that I was utterly intrigued by these odd men—all of them bizarre in so many ways, always grotesque morally and usually physically as well.
A few weeks ago, I was in New York City to meet someone for drinks, and got on the subway at 34th and 7th to head downtown. I dislike the New York subway for many reasons. It is the only such system in a major Western city to look as if it had been swapped with the metro of a third-world backwater. Pick any otherwise dodgy country on Earth, and chances are the subway of its capital city is a gleaming tube with smooth rolling stock and palatial stations. Not New York. The trains lurch between filthy platforms like winos stumbling to and from tenement doorsteps.
It is also a place in which I am continually confronted with the human condition. Sometimes it takes the form of rudeness; other times, drunkenness. On this particular day, it was poverty. Immediately after the doors closed, a disheveled man entered the car at the far end, battered cap in hand, and made the following announcement to us passengers:
“Ladies and gentlemen, if I could have your attention for one moment, please,” he said loudly. “I don’t want to bother you, but I am a homeless veteran. If you could spare some money, I would greatly appreciate it.”
“He was, in an idiom he would have understood, a petty bourgeois individualist who esteemed collectivism at least some of the time but never submitted to it himself. He resented the rich and powerful but enjoyed their company.” As I read these words, which appear in the prologue of a new book by Richard Seymour, I made an incomplete mental list of people to whom they could apply: George Bernard Shaw seems to fit quite nicely, as does J.K. Galbraith. Moving along the spectrum from alleged intellectuals to proven fools, one could add Oliver Stone, Sean Penn, and Edward Asner. It becomes clear rather quickly that the only ones susceptible to this charge are those who base their politics on a distinction between the individual and the collective—a dubious premise in itself, and thus one that is bound to lead to stark differences between theory and practice.
The target of the charge, therefore, is usually those on the Left, who are to varying degrees comfortable with the distinction, and who face the ire of both foes on the right as well as their more puritanical comrades. The accused this time around is Christopher Hitchens (Peace Be Upon Him), a man whom Seymour regards as the quintessential “apostate leftist.” Titled Unhitched: The Trial of Christopher Hitchens, this book (excuse me: “extended political essay”) is published by Verso, ironically the same radical press that put out many of Hitchens’s own books, including The Trial of Henry Kissinger, from which Seymour draws his subtitle. The tradition of Verso is to perform surgery without anesthesia, to get the job done in a hundred pages or less, and to use a shotgun instead of a scalpel. The aim is always nothing less than the pure destruction of one’s opponent: to burn him and scatter his ashes and then send wilted flowers to the mourners.
I only saw a few minutes of the Oscars, always an edifying spectacle if only because it has taught me how not to act in life: self-righteous, dolled up in Tom Ford and Karl Lagerfeld while speaking the language of Mother Jones and Karl Marx, prone to accepting little gold statues from a faceless politburo and then thanking them profusely for the honor, etc. This year the crapfest was hosted by Seth Macfarlane, who I actually think is more talented than people give him credit for.
Immediately after the crapfest was over–well, during it, too, thanks to asocial “social media”–all the hags and eunuchs on the blogosphere and in the glossy mags went into PC-status-seeker mode and began moaning about Macfarlane’s “sexism.” What do you think, dear readers? Was he sexist?
I’m not against denouncing genuine sexism, but I’m basically immune to the word now, except in its most extreme and virulent forms, thanks to its constant presence in our culture. (You can thank the hags and eunuchs for basically making it impossible to identify real racism and sexism in this country.) From what I can see Macfarlane said the word “boobs” too much, and this has offended certain people. Funny how it is now the progressive crowd that’s more offended by sexual language than Methodists and Baptists. On a lighter note, it’s interesting and somewhat refreshing that a media liberal like Macfarlane is finally the one being accused of an -ism. Nevertheless, Billy Crystal seems like the best choice from here on out.
Previously from Robert Wargas at PJ Lifestyle:
It is understandable that those of us who voted against Barack Obama, the Community Disorganizer, should be upset over his triumph. Like Joe Biden reading an Umberto Eco novel, we cannot help but feel rather listless and disoriented these days. Feelings of vulnerability can very easily transmogrify into anger, so one must never lose one’s sense of humor; apropos, I draw your attention to the New York Times of November 10, in which Maureen Dowd reflects on Mitt Romney’s loss:
Team Romney has every reason to be shellshocked. Its candidate, after all, resoundingly won the election of the country he was wooing.
Mitt Romney is the president of white male America.
Maybe the group can retreat to a man cave in a Whiter House, with mahogany paneling, brown leather Chesterfields, a moose head over the fireplace, an elevator for the presidential limo, and one of those men’s club signs on the phone that reads: “Telephone Tips: ‘Just Left,’ 25 cents; ‘On His Way,’ 50 cents; ‘Not here,’ $1; ‘Who?’ $5.”
In its delusional death spiral, the white male patriarchy was so hard core, so redolent of country clubs and Cadillacs, it made little effort not to alienate women. The election had the largest gender gap in the history of the Gallup poll, with Obama winning the vote of single women by 36 percentage points.
Forgive the lengthy quote; writing like that is harder to swallow than grape Dimetapp. Note, for instance, the cliches attempting to pass for edgy turns of phrase: white guys in mahogany rooms with moose heads over the fireplaces. (Aren’t Bentleys more suitable to these images than Cadillacs?) Dowd really knows how to squat over the page and deliver nuggets of wisdom. And isn’t that just like an intellectual: her only knowledge of millions of Americans (whom she slanders but whose tax money she craves and craves) comes from Edith Wharton stereotypes and episodes of Mad Men.
As a writer, an effective way to tell whether you’re full of crap is to imagine yourself face-to-face with the person or group you’re criticizing and to ask yourself whether you would then have the guts to say out loud what you’ve written for your fawning readers. Oh, I can picture it: Ms. Dowd in front of the unemployed white blue-collar workers in Michigan and New Jersey. “You’re just white patriarchs,” she might say. “Your days in power are over.”
Here’s Ms. Dowd in front of a crowd of white middle-class men in Long Beach, New York, fishing what’s left of their belongings out of modest houses flooded by Hurricane Sandy: “It’s about time men like you put away your cigars and brandy and stepped outside your mahogany country clubs!” And here’s Ms. Dowd in front of the white Marines in the 2nd Battalion in Afghanistan: “All you who voted for Romney represent the dead-enders of white male domination.” (Note: “dead enders of white male domination” actually appears in Dowd’s column.)
One consequence of studying the contemporary Middle East is the two-fold worry that all new writing on the subject will, first, say what has already been said and, second, say it in a particularly long and tiresome way. To both of these points, ask yourself how many more turgid Edward Said-like riffs on “neo-colonialism” or “neo-imperialism” you could stomach, or how many analyses of the sociopolitical effects of Islam you could read, before you resolve to cast off such an ossified field for good.
It is refreshing, therefore, to pick up a collection of brief personal essays on the subject of what has been naively termed the “Arab Spring” and to be relieved with both clarity and brevity. Arab Spring Dreams, edited by the reformers Nasser Weddady and Sohrab Ahmari, brings together the personal vignettes of brave young writers from the region. The genre is what one might call flash non-fiction: brief, searing, emotional snapshots of life in repressive environments. Flash non-fiction works on the micro, not macro, level. We are spared geopolitical theorizing in favor of local color, to wit:
“The screech of tires snapped him back to attention, replacing the thoughts buzzing around his brain with an anxious immediacy. He stared at the cab driver behind the wheel, her mouth opening and closing over and over for no apparent reason. Her fillings flashed silver at him every few seconds. Her windows were up, rendering her comically mute despite her traffic-induced rage. He had had enough. He would walk the rest of the way. As he did, his mental disarray did not prevent him from giving due respect to the nonexistence of traffic laws in Cairo.”
The very slightly confusing pronouns aside, this passage could be many things: the beginning of a Frederick Forsyth novel, for instance, or one of those off-beat profiles of global eccentrics from The New Yorker. In fact, we have just been introduced to the twenty-two year old anonymous author-narrator of a piece titled “I Am Not Ayman!” Why is he not Ayman? Well, Ayman, a pseudonym for the author, is a gay man in Egypt, which is kind of like being a Jew in 15th century Spain: your identity is contingent on the whims of creed-obsessed despots. You can pretend to be something you’re not or you can take your chances on being who you actually are. In this case, the narrator is contemplating whether to identify himself to a potential lover. Doing so brings with it the possibility of being “outed” to the Egyptian secret police, as well as the more revolting possibility that the potential lover himself is the secret police.
Indeed, sexuality and intimacy figure prominently in many of these accounts, and this may be because these are always the first human impulses to be squashed by any kind of tyranny. We are reminded elsewhere that in Iran, gays are faced with the “choice” of either execution or “sex reassignment.” This is only slightly better than the Sudanese notion of “corrective rape,” which is as literal as it sounds.
Other stories come from writers in Morocco, Yemen, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia. The themes are similar — political repression, inequality, family tension — but each story is beautifully unique in its style and delivery. It is hard to imagine a more enlightening and human book on a subject that is most often the province of robotic wonks and “analysts.” If there is one problem with the book, however, it must surely be the foreword by the aging feminist carnival-barker Gloria Steinem. This mendacious and pointless essay is written in the self-promoting tones of someone long out of ideas.
“This collection of brave and honest voices from the Middle East will inspire you,” writes Steinem, doing her best impression of a moderate. Those with longer memories may recall Ms. Steinem’s interview last year with Newsweek, in which she claimed that Mohammed Atta, leader of the terrorist-murderers of American Airlines Flight 11, was driven by his being “ridiculed by this authoritarian lawyer father who told him that even his older sisters were more masculine than he.” Therefore, “he became addicted to proving his masculinity. How clear is that?”
I recently returned from Vienna, Austria, and was intrigued to see this report from Reuters that the Leopold Museum has decided to self-censor posters throughout the city advertising its exhibit on male nudity. As it happens, I encountered these posters during my stay: they depict three male soccer players, naked except for their socks, standing in the middle of a confetti-filled stadium, facing the camera in full-frontal glory.
The first time I saw this poster, as I walked from my hotel to the U-Bahn station at Schottenring, I did a double-take. I realized that, while I don’t know exactly what the laws are in New York regarding nude advertisements, I certainly had never seen one walking down Broadway. I wouldn’t call it culture shock — more of a quick poke, actually. Austria generally has a more lax attitude toward nudity, despite being a nation that is very particular about etiquette and manners (and this despite its more well known reputation as a laid-back version of Germany).
Those attitudes notwithstanding, the Viennese public was evidently perturbed by the posters, and the museum agreed to cover the men’s genitals with a large red bar (running horizontally, in case you’re wondering).
“Many people told us that they wanted to or had to protect their children,” said a museum spokesman. Some Viennese warned that “if we won’t cover it they would go there with a brush and they would cover it with colour. Already somebody did that.”
Related at PJ Lifestyle:
I must commend Kathy Shaidle for effortlessly encapsulating what is most likely to earn a man a boost on the sexy scale. It really is quite simple. If I could offer an even more thoroughly abridged version, it would be: get some nice clothes, learn a few skills really well, and look people in the eyes when you talk to them.
One of Kathy’s lines, however, touched me in particular:
No one is ever surprised to learn that [Mark] Steyn is a big James Bond fan.
As a shameless Bond fan myself, I must comment on this. There is a tendency to view Bond fans as the equivalent of, say, Trekkies or gamers or sci-fi geeks: we are lumped in with sophomoric wannabes living in a fantasy world. I find, however, that most male Bond fans are much more dedicated to transforming themselves into their fictional hero (or a more realistic analogue) than are the sci-fi crowd.
Allow me to traffic in a few stereotypes here. Think of every comic-book geek you’ve ever known. Do any of them ever make an effort to transform themselves into the manly heroes they idolize? No. Most of them are idle, indolent, and inactive. If they’re scrawny, they don’t work out. They can’t fight, and they don’t take up boxing. They wear ugly super-hero shirts and argue over the canonical minutiae of whether Yoda’s lightsaber style would beat Mace Windu’s. This is horrendously un-sexy to females of any age.
According to a report, microbiologists at M.I.T. have “swapped out the genes of the R. eutropha bacterium so that it can create isobutanol — an alcohol that can replace or blend with gasoline used by vehicles.”
“We’ve shown that, in continuous culture, we can get substantial amounts of isobutanol,” said one researcher.
Bear in mind, however, the opening paragraph of the piece:
A humble soil bacteria has become a genetically engineered factory capable of making fuel for cars. But the project still has to get out of the lab and scale up to industrial-size production.
That “but” means everything. Biotechnology moves very slowly. There is always a gaping disconnect between the knowledge and abilities of applied scientists at any given time and the hyped media portrayal of them as ushering in an immediate revolution in medicine or energy. For instance, when compared to the hype that has accompanied every major advance in cancer research over the past four decades – including the discovery of recombinant DNA methods – the fruits of such advances have been relatively modest.
This research project still sounds in its primitive stages. What tipped me off? The fact that the reporter had to resort to writing about the hopes of the researchers rather than the actual results:
For their next trick, the MIT researchers hope the genetically engineered bacteria could eventually transform carbon dioxide into fuel — a way of using up the greenhouse gas that contributes heavily to global warming. The bacteria already naturally use hydrogen and carbon dioxide for growing.
The researchers “hope.” These are supremely intelligent, talented scientists. But “hope” in the world of biotechnology is measured not in years but in decades.
Image courtesy shutterstock / Julien Tromeur
More on Science and Futurism at PJ Lifestyle:
Fifty-one years ago yesterday, on August 13, 1961, the Berlin Wall (Die Berliner Mauer) began to go up in that divided city. It started as a barbed-wire fence and eventually became brick and mortar.
Nevertheless, Konrad Adenauer, the West German Chancellor, could not concede to a divided German spirit. “They are and remain our German brothers and sisters,” he said of the eastern portion of his country.
Unfortunately, there are many Germans today who would feel uncomfortable uttering that same statement. Rightly or wrongly (I think wrongly), to them the words “brother” and “sister,” as applied to national sentiment, trigger images of Nazism in too many heads–not their own, but others’.
It’s interesting to note that Nazism today is illegal in Germany, while Communist parties are free to run in open elections.
In my previous post, I lamented not being able to find the source of The Law of the Infinite Cornucopia, also known as Kolakowski’s Law. Internet searches turned up a bunch of similarly worded references on blogs, all with no citations to original works.
A reader has pointed out that, using Google Books, a reference to the law can be found in a few philosophy books in which the original work by Kolakowski is cited. Google Books is not yet a part of my search habits, and in the past Google Books results have turned up in regular Internet searches, so I didn’t think to use it. My mistake.
It still strikes me as odd, though, that such an interesting argument from such a famous philosopher, with implications for political theory as well as the philosophy of religion and other fields, has not been cited to its original source far more often than it has.
The book in which it appeared is a 1982 work entitled Religion. Sadly, the section of this book containing an exegesis of the infinite cornucopia does not appear on Google Books. One of the secondary texts that mentions the law, however, cites the following quote from Kolakowski:
“The law of the infinite cornucopia…applies not only to philosophy but to all general theories in the human and social sciences: it states that there is never a shortage of arguments to support any doctrine you want to believe in for whatever reasons. These arguments, however, are not entirely barren. They have helped in elucidating the stats questiones and in explaining why these questions matter.”
Interesting: the law originated in a discussion by Kolakowski not of Marxism but of religion. According to Google Books, the law is also cited by the perennial sophist Cornel West and by the anti-Cold Warrior novelist John le Carre.
My next task is to get a copy of that book by Kolakowski and further explore the law’s implications.
Thank you, reader.
Some years back, I came across the phrase “the law of the infinite cornucopia,” more tersely named “Kolakowski’s Law.” This beautiful piece of wisdom, apparently offered by the late Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski, states that for any given position, there are an infinite number of arguments to support it. A Marxist who became a staunch anti-communist, Kolakowski might have agreed that the utopian Left argues the way Mike Tyson fights: they want to put you down quickly but, if pushed, will resort to anything and everything, including biting your ear.
Since then, I have seen passing references to Kolakowki’s Law in many blog posts. (It has even appeared in the New York Times.) I happen to think the law is correct, and, as proof, I can give you an infinite number of reasons why I think so. I was thus pleased to see it gaining currency in political discussions. As I came across more references to the infinite cornucopia, however, I noticed that each explanation of it was phrased in almost exactly the same way, and that all were most likely taken from the short Wikipedia page devoted the law.
As someone who currently makes a living as a historian, this was not good enough for me. I wanted an original document. I wanted to read Kolakowski’s own explanation of this law, so I decided to seek out the source in which it first appeared. This has proved much more difficult than I had originally thought. Google searches of the relevant phrases turn up only blog posts that regurgitate the brief Wikipedia explanation. There is no essay or article or even so much as a quotation from Kolakowski himself on the Internet explaining the law of the infinite cornucopia.
Where does this law come from?!
To the uninitiated, boxing looks easy—just a couple of palookas hitting each other for a paycheck. Hey, most of them can barely speak English, right? Check out the diction and syntax on Larry Holmes or James Toney. It is easy to dismiss what is traditionally known as “the sweet science” as, at best, a barbaric experiment.
That’s what I thought until 2004, when I started taking boxing lessons from a 60-year-old man at a local gym. A couple months in, he suggested that we spar for the first time. Why not? This is the first test of a young fighter’s prowess and, by extension, a young man’s pride. During practice, my combinations were sharp; my defense was quick (“impregnable,” as Mike Tyson would say). More important, I was 19; he was 60 and had an artificial hip. I didn’t think it would be easy, but I thought I could at least walk away with some sense of masculinity left intact.
I barely lasted two rounds. I’ll resort to cliche and say it was like fighting a ghost. My punches missed by a foot. I had no timing. I got hit with even the slowest jab. Before I knew it was a jab, I was hit with another one. I moved my head too late. My feet and legs felt heavy, as if wrapped in wet towels. I was out of breath after one minute. I couldn’t land anything. The old man was too quick for a teenager. Eventually, after another year of training, I was able to go eight or nine rounds with a younger sparring partner, but those first few experiences were like nothing I had ever felt before. No workout can compare to boxing—real boxing, not that aerobic postiche that middle-aged women do. You can’t breathe; you can’t see; your shoulders hurt so much you can barely hold your arms up; you’re getting popped in the nose, the solar plexus, the liver; and, worst of all, you have to fight back.
Try doing that for fifteen rounds, which was how long championship bouts used to be (it was changed to twelve during the 1980s). There’s a certain nostalgia among boxing historians for the fifteen-rounder. It is supposed to represent a titanic age, when no fighter lifted weights and when the rings were free of advertisements. Smokin’ Joe Frazier was a member of that generation, and part of the sadness over his death is not only that we lost one of America’s best gentlemen, but that we lost one of the last living symbols of boxing’s glorious past.
I once fought a grandfather and lost. I can only dream, or have nightmares, about what it felt like to fight Joe Frazier in his prime. He could, with his left hook, put most men in either the hospital or the morgue. Again, to the uninitiated, Frazier’s style looks sloppy and reckless: he seems to charge into his opponents with no concern for strategy. When he bobs and weaves, he leans forward a bit too much and looks down at the canvas. That’s what most people see. What they miss are the subtle shifts in weight and the slick and relentless head movements that prevented his opponents from hitting him as he moved inside. Every good infighter, from Tyson to Toney, has learned from watching Joe Frazier close the gap on an opponent.
Unfortunately, there’s a substantial but often overlooked political angle to the whole story. Regarding Frazier’s feud with Muhammad Ali, Daniel Foster of National Review Online has aptly observed:
The Frazier–Ali split is supposed to be a conservative–liberal thing, and according to some, preferring the former to the latter is supposed to be vaguely racist, to boot.
This is because Frazier was calm, modest, respectful, and disdainful of empty rhetoric. Ali, to the guardians of respectable opinion, was the “real” black man, the radical who ditched his “slave name” Cassius Clay and who refused to fight in Vietnam. But with time, it became clear that Ali’s persona was designed to evade as well as to provoke. Though a brilliant fighter, he always relied more on speed than on perfect boxing technique. As he got older and slower, his showmanship became more crass, as if he was desperate to cover up his eroding skill with profanity. Ali’s lowest point was when he, borrowing racialist tactics from the Nation of Islam, referred to Frazier as a “gorilla.” The subtext to Ali’s taunting was that Frazier was nothing more than an Uncle Tom, the white man’s black hope.
As usual, the subject of race keeps us from seeing what is most salient. Smokin’ Joe was never anybody’s tool. He devoted the rest of his life to teaching kids his own version of the sweet science in order to keep them off the streets. Most older boxing fans lament the degeneration of the sport into the Don King world of glitzy corruption, with loud-mouthed punks in shiny trunks. They are Ali’s legacy, to be sure. And though Frazier was forever haunted by Ali’s larger shadow, its Frazier’s persona—that of the quiet warrior, a la Joe Louis—that true fans are nostalgic for. His legacy is therefore much greater.