Roger’s Rules

Roger’s Rules

A Modest Proposal for the New York Times

July 8th, 2015 - 4:46 am

The New York Times is very keen that somebody, anybody, “lend” Greece more money so that it can stay in the eurozone a bit longer.

I put scare quotes around the word “lend” because, as everyone knows, any money that is shoveled into Athens’s coffers will be spent and not repaid. “Neither a borrower nor a lender be,” advised Polonius, “for loan oft loseth both itself and friend, and borrowing dulleth the edge of husbandry.” Shakespeare is not popular by the Piraeus.

No, Greece faces what the economist Steve Moore, writing yesterday in the Wall Street Journal, called “financial oblivion.” There are about 11 million Greeks. They owe some $350 billion. That’s 350,000,000,000.  You do the math.

Moore thinks that “the big loser” in Greece is socialism. Maybe. Moore is right that “the natural and unavoidable consequence of socialism everywhere it has been tried” is that financial catastrophe he warns about. And in a rational world, people would notice the regularity of this process — install socialism, ruin the economy (among many other things) — and they would conclude that socialism was a bad idea.

That’s in a rational world. In this world, we have the New York Times, which just yesterday had at least three handwringing articles about the situation in Greece. An unsigned editorial argued that, “for Europe’s sake,” Greece must be kept in the eurozone, cost be damned. OK, the Greeks have been profligate, the editorial concedes, but “European leaders have made the crisis worse by their mismanagement.” (I bet that staggered you.) Now it is incumbent upon “Europe,” i.e., Germany, to save “a small, paralyzed country.”

While you wipe a tear away at the spectacle of a country that is presented as a hurt puppy, consider “Soften the Greek Deal,” Roger Cohen’s article in yesterday’s Times. Oh, it’s a “tough” decision, Cohen allows. The Greeks have been naughty. Still, on balance, taking everything into consideration, keeping an eye on the long view and being statesmanlike and adult about the issue, Germany ought to fork over more money lest “medicines and imported foods disappear from pharmacies and supermarkets within a week or two” and the euro suffer a “body blow.”

But my favorite of yesterday’s pieces about Greece in our former paper of record was by Old Reliable, the Times’s resident economic Dadaist, Mr. Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman. According to Mr. Krugman, Europe must act now to stop the “bleeding” in Greece. Those nasty Germans have been like doctors of yore, bleeding patients because they didn’t know what else to do. And when the patient failed to improve, they prescribed more leeches. “If the money doesn’t start flowing from Frankfurt,” Mr. Krugman warned, Greece will have to start using Monopoly money, aka the Drachma, to “pay” its bills.

What do all these pieces have in common — apart, that is, from that insufferable tone of unearned moral superiority that comes with publication in the Times? Yes, that’s right, they all grandly recommend that someone else fork over the truckloads of cash that Greece wants. Everyone knows Margaret Thatcher’s quip about socialism: sooner or later, you run out of other people’s money. Sooner or later, and it is looking more and more like it might be sooner, the Germans are going to run out of money to pay for the Greeks’ lavish pension plans and retirement schemes.

But all is not lost.

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A couple of summer offerings

July 6th, 2015 - 6:01 am

This is the season where various publications ask their friends and acquaintances for some suggestions for summer reading.  National Review has just published their roundup  here, to which I have contributed several extremely brief suggestions (along with the suggestion of one entire book).  I will only be giving away a little if I reveal that the centerpiece of the miniature chrestomathy is a tidbit from the Declaration of Independence. Remember the “self-evident” truths that Thomas Jefferson enumerates?

The list begins with what the philosopher Harvey Mansfield described as “the self-evident half-truth” that “all men are created equal,” and  proceeds with some other thought-provoking assertions. Consider: we are all, said Jefferson, endowed by our “Creator”—hey, wasn’t Jefferson supposed to be an atheist? Then why did he speak of a rights-endowing “Creator”? Er, um . . . Anyway, according to Jefferson we have these “unalienable Rights,” e.g., “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

One other side track: Some churls have pointed out that happiness is not a possible goal of human activity and that John Locke’s original phrase, the pursuit of life, liberty, and property, would have been better. Logically, perhaps, but in the 18th century, as today, “happiness” produced more emollient psychological vibrations.

But let’s leave the happiness/property issue to one side. Since we are now being ruled by a majority of nine unelected, black-robed lawyers from Harvard or Yale (apparently no other institution will do), it is the next clauses of Jefferson’s literary firecracker that seem to me especially pertinent. One: “That to secure these rights [life, liberty, etc.], Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”; and Two: “That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, . . .”

I am past believing that the torpid American people will rise up to protest anything short of an effort to take away their central heating or access to Netflix and HBO. Who needs the “consent of the governed” when 320 million people have a majority of nine lawyers to rule them—not, note well, to interpret the law (that was the original job description) but to make policy by dint of hermeneutical ingenuity, e.g., the statute says “exchanges establish by the state,” where by “state” was meant one of the fifty states that compose the (once) United States.  It is the work of a moment for our masters to say that by “state” Congress, which framed the law, didn’t mean “state” but rather meant “the federal government.” Or squash pie. Or whatever.

Which brings me to Jefferson’s main event. He thought that “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.” He then went on to enumerate the many ways in which the king of England had trampled on the rights of the colonists, e.g., “He has erected a Multitude of new Offices, and sent hither Swarms of Officers to harrass our People, and eat our their Substance.” Who knew that the EPA, the IRS, and other such entities were of such long tenure? Or consider this complaint: “ He has combined with others to subject is to a Jurisdiction foreign to our Constitution, and unacknowledged by our Laws; . . .”

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Justice Kennedy’s Matryoshka Doll

June 27th, 2015 - 12:29 pm

At a small dinner party last night, our host glided lightly over the activities of the Supreme Court this past week in order to canvass the table’s thoughts about who the candidates might be for the 2016 presidential election.  The usual names percolated through the sands of our discussion. My suggestion that Hillary Clinton’s candidacy was by no means a sure thing was met with friendly disbelief.  The Democrats do not have another plausible candidate, ergo, the Hillary is it. I still have my doubts. The aging activist clearly has health issues and is so festooned with scandal—not to mention her utter lack of accomplishment as a senator or secretary of State—that even James Carville must be worried. “No, no,” it was explained to me. “The Hillary is it.  It doesn’t matter what she’s done. Someone could turn up a video of her selling Libyan women and children into slavery and she would still get the nomination. It’s not her against the other chap (or, as it may be, the other lass), it’s their team against ours, blue against red. American politics are increasingly polarized, which means they are increasingly nasty. What matters is power, not principle.”

Maybe so. Or rather, indubitably—at least so far as the concluding observations are concerned.  We’ll see about the Hillary. My friend’s observations about the character of contemporary American politics were still echoing in my mind when I read Andy McCarthy’s essay “Let’s Drop the Charade: The Supreme Court Is a Political Branch, Not a Judicial One.”

McCarthy began by noting the risible anguish of Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote in his dissent from the Court’s support of same-sex marriage yesterday that “the Court is not a legislature.” No? A scant 24 hours earlier he had joined the majority in saving Obamacare—what Justice Scalia memorably rebaptized as SCOTUScare—by the simple expedient of hermeneutics (that’s Greek for “dissimulation”). The law that Congress wrote states that in order to qualify for health care subsidies people must be “enrolled in through an exchange established by the state.” But the law that the Supreme Court wrote Thursday says that “established by the state” didn’t mean “established by the state.” It meant “established by the federal government.” It’s the Cole Porter school of  legal interpretation: “good’s bad today,/ And black’s white today,/ And day’s night today, . . . Anything goes.”

Amid the cataract of commentary on the Court’s SCOTUScare and same-sex marriage decisions —gloating and ecstatic on one side, anguished and despairing on the other—there has been a curious obbligato from some precincts of the Right, namely, that the decisions are a “gift” to conservatives because now these hot-button issues will not be part of the 2016 presidential campaigns. I think that Michael van der Galien comes closer to the truth when he says: “Conservatives Should Rejoice at the Supreme Court Same-Sex Marriage Ruling? Are You Kidding Me?” The Tenth Amendment to the Constitution states that “the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” Which Chief Justice Roberts might want to gloss as “are reserved to the federal government, not the states, and certainly not the people,” because, after all, who’s to say that the Tenth Amendment does not suffer from what the Chief Justice deplored as “inartful drafting”? Whatever.

Andy McCarthy, in the column I link to above, touches on one of the most disquieting features of this orgy of  judicial legerdemain. “[F]or all the non-stop commentary,” McCarthy notes, “one detail goes nearly unmentioned”:

Did you notice that there was not an iota of speculation about how the four Progressive justices would vote?

There was never a shadow of a doubt. In the plethora of opinions generated by these three cases, there is not a single one authored by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan, or Sonia Sotomayor. There was no need. They are the Left’s voting bloc. There was a better chance that the sun would not rise this morning than that any of them would wander off the reservation.

Think about that for a moment.  “Jurisprudence,” as McCarthy observes, “is complex.”

Supple minds, however likeminded, will often diverge, sometimes dramatically, on principles of constitutional adjudication, canons of statutory construction, murky separation-of-powers boundaries, the etymology of language, and much else. Witness, for example, the spirited debate between the Court’s two originalists, Scalia and Clarence Thomas, over a statute that, in defiance of Obama policy, treats Jerusalem as sovereign Israeli territory.

When was the last time you saw such debate and principled differences of interpretation on what Latinists might call the Court’s sinister side? Take your time. On the Court, as well as in electoral politics, it’s increasing us against them, our team against theirs, red v. blue. This is not a reassuring development.

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Thoughts on satire

June 26th, 2015 - 6:51 am

I have often noted here the difficulty our progressive and enlightened age poses for the art of satire.  Satire depends on some palpable distance between common reality and the thing satirized. “Ha!,” we say, we feel viscerally, when confronted by effective satire, “that exaggeration, that caricature, that satire dramatizes a dangerous tendency in our culture. Of course, no one really tries to extract cucumbers from sunbeams, as Swift suggests in his great satire Gulliver’s Travels, but the idea that they might shows you how absurd so much academic culture is.”

But what if it turned out people really did try to distill cucumbers from sunbeams? What then?

To bad for Swift’s narrative. For the satire only works if the extreme thing it presents really is some distance from the quotidian world.

What absurdity, what outrage, what assault on common sense (to say nothing of common decency) is safely beyond enactment that the satirist can rely on its being safely beyond the pale? For decades now, the art world (which is not to be confused with the world of art) has specialized in mounting raids to efface the distinction between outré  and acceptable: the ne plus ultra is now the status quo, the surreal the new documentary.  The same is true in the world of education, where delicate feminist snowflakes recoil from the perturbations of Ovid even as they broadcast videos of their sexual escapades. The normalization—that is to say, the currency, for there is nothing normal about it—of transexualism and attendant phenomena from the Baedeker of Kraft-Ebbing might make for a pandering line in Barack Obama’s State of the Union Address,  but it is hard, hard on the would be satirist, for if the world can celebrate Bruce-Caitlyn Jenner, it’s pretty much knock-off time all around. And then there is the world of politics. It’s almost sweet that some conservatives are scrambling to explain how Chief Justice John Roberts’s assault on the Constitution  and what Antonin Scalia mournfully called the plain meaning of words is really, deep down, an opportunity  for conservatives and a good thing because now they won’t have to dealing with the yapping disruption of the Left. How can you satirize that? 

I was chatting (that is to say, emailing) with a percipient friend yesterday who, having cast a doleful eye about the mad, mad world we inhabit. “You ought,” he said, “write something on Juvenal.” Ever happy to oblige, I pointed out that I had done just that. Lessons from Juvenal appeared some years ago in The New CriterionI hope and expect that most of my readers will have functioning subscriptions to that beacon of sanity, but since the piece is behind a paywall, I post it here free and for nothing for the delectation and guidance of neophytes and random web travelers. I begin with a few eipgraphs:

It is difficult not to write satire.
—Juvenal, on the Rome of his day

J’ai en ce moment une forte rage de Juvenal. Quel style! quel style!
—Flaubert, in a letter of 1853

Satire, if it is to do any good and not cause immeasurable harm, must be firmly based on a consistent ethical view of life.
—Kierkegaard, The Present Age

Probably the most politically incorrect Roman poet, certainly the most caustic, was the satirist Decimus Junius Juvenalis—Juvenal to us. We expect satirists to expose hypocrisy, injustice, corruption. Juvenal does this. We also expect satirists to exaggerate, to caricature, to lampoon. Juvenal does this, too, in spades. But satire, like liquor, comes in a variety of flavors and potencies. There is mild satire, whose means are gentle and whose aim is comic. Gilbert and Sullivan are satirists in this sense, as, in his satirical forays, is Horace, Juvenal’s meticulous, urbane precursor. Gentle satire pokes, but gingerly, in fun. Its goal is enlightenment, yes, but also laughter.

Juvenal belongs to a different tribe. When he pokes, he pokes hard, to hurt. His satire is bitter—an adjective that is never far from the poet’s name. The phrase “savage indignation”—often in Latin—is another epithet unfailingly applied to Juvenal, though it does not, I believe, occur in his work. Jonathan Swift, a rival in acerb satire, employed it in his epitaph, which pictures him happy at having finally escaped the saeva indignatio that so lacerated his heart during his life. There are plenty of hilarious passages in Juvenal. But in the end, as F. H. Buckley notes in The Morality of Laughter, Juvenal’s “savage indignation stifles our laughter.” Juvenal aims primarily at the catharsis of exposure, only incidentally at justice and reform. The element of humor is but an intermittent companion to his verse.

Juvenal’s signature disposition is rage—rage against women, foreigners, and pandering homosexuals; against cruel and decadent rulers, unresponsive patrons, uppity parvenus; against greed, pomposity, extravagance, vanity, innovation, stupidity, bad manners, and urban blight. Why write satire? “I will enlighten you,” Juvenal tells us in his the first Satire:

When a flabby eunuch marries, when well-born girls go crazy
For pig-sticking up-country, bare-breasted, spear-in-fist;
When the barber who rasped away at my youthful beard has risen 
To challenge good society with his millions; when Crispinus,
That Delta-bred home-slave, silt washed down by the Nile—
Now hitches his shoulders under Tyrian purple, airs
A thin gold ring in summer on his sweaty finger
(“My dear, I couldn’t bear to wear my heavier jewels”)—
Why, then it is harder not to write satires; for who
Could endure this monstrous city, however callous at heart,
And swallow his wrath?

“Today every vice/ Has reached its ruinous zenith. So, satirist, hoist your sails.”

Juvenal’s loathing is visceral, breathtaking, unforgettable. His ninth Satire (he wrote sixteen altogether) is a conversation between Juvenal and an unpleasant, discarded rent-boy who rails against the perfidy and stinginess of his even more unpleasant former keeper. (“‘I paid you so much then,’ he says, ‘and a bit more later, and more that other time.’”) Gilbert Highet, the great classical scholar and an expert on Juvenal, called it “one of the most shocking poems ever written” but also “a masterpiece.”

Highet is right on both counts. The shock stems not so much from overt obscenity. There are only a few passages that the Loeb deliberately euphemizes (only once, I believe, does it render Juvenal’s Latin into Greek). Many classical poets outdo Juvenal in the deployment of four-letter words and the depiction of the actions they name. But no poet exceeds him in portraying the chilly perversion of human affections—not just sexual affection, but all the many forms of intimacy that bind us one to another. Juvenal was a connoisseur of contempt. But he was a dazzlingly eloquent connoisseur. His stinging hexameters glitter with linguistic brilliance and moral outrage. (They glitter, too, with a demanding vocabulary: of the 4790 words in the Satires, 2130 are hapax legomena.)

Who was Juvenal? We hardly know. If he wrote letters, none survives. For all their panoramic detail, the Satires contain only a handful of autobiographical tidbits. There are no contemporaneous accounts of Juvenal’s life or work. He savaged his fellows; they responded with a consuming silence. In the introduction to his excellent translation of the Satires (Penguin, 1974), Peter Green notes that Juvenal is among the most elusive of classical writers. We do not know where he was born, or when. We do not know whether he was married (probably not), or whether he had children. Highet conjectures that Juvenal was or became homosexual, chiefly on the evidence of his fearful contempt for women. But “probably” is the best we can do about even basic signposts. Juvenal was probably born between AD 55 and 70, which is to say during or just after the reign of Nero (54–68): a period of ostentatious corruption and moral breakdown. He was probably born in Aquinum, a town about one hundred miles north of Rome. His father seems to have been a well-to-do Spanish freedman. It is possible that Juvenal saw military service in Britain—there are some scattered allusions to Agricola’s campaign in the Orkneys (84–85) in the second Satire—and it seems likely that he embarked on a career in the civil service. Some speculate that he studied with the great rhetorician Quintilian (c. 35–c. 95).

Juvenal was obviously in and about Rome a good deal: his vivid, omnivorous descriptions of life there bespeak intimate knowledge of the city. He may have been exiled—possibly to Egypt—by Domitian around 92. If so, it may have been because Juvenal made a slighting remark about an actor called Paris, one of Domitian’s favorites (until, that is, Paris was suspected of pursuing an affair with the emperor’s wife, at which point he was promptly executed). Those who suffered exile had their property confiscated, which would explain Juvenal’s bitter depictions of impoverished writers seeking favors from indifferent patrons.

Exile in Egypt would also help explain Juvenal’s loathing for all things Egyptian (an animus he cordially extended to all things Greek). Would Domitian really have exiled someone simply for criticizing Paris? Probably not. Probably he would have had him executed. That, after all, is what he did to a poor chap who just happened to look like Paris. Ditto for some youths who put flowers on Paris’s grave. Domitian was—or became by the end of his reign—a paranoid, murderous tyrant. If Juvenal was exiled, he might well have been recalled when Nerva became emperor in 96 and issued a sort of general amnesty for those exiled by Domitian. The sixteen Satires—we possess a full fifteen and a fragment of the sixteenth—were probably begun in the late 80s. They amount to some four thousand lines of verse. Juvenal published them in five books between about 110 and 130—during, that is, the relatively benign reigns of Trajan (98–117) and Hadrian (117– 138). The only contemporary reference to Juvenal is by his older friend Martial, “the fashionable social pornographer” (Green’s phrase), who mentions Juvenal a couple of times in his Epigrams. In one epigram from the 80s, Martial called Juvenal “facundus,” “eloquent,” but he probably referred not to the Satires (as yet unpublished) but to Juvenal’s skill at oratory. Juvenal mellowed with age. His last satires lack the biting invective and linguistic pyrotechnics of the first dozen. After a period of poverty, Juvenal seems (judging from some hints in the Satires) to have acquired a modest competence: a small farm at Tibur where he could quietly entertain a few friends.

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Summer Solstice

June 21st, 2015 - 7:43 am

Where I live on Long Island Sound, something noteworthy is scheduled to happen today at about 12:30 post meridian. The sun will reach its northernmost point of the year, pause briefly, and then begin the (at first) slow movement to the south, bringing with it shorter days and colder temperatures.  Today, the summer solstice (“solstitium,” Latin for “sun-stopping”) in these parts, we’ll have 15 hours and five minutes of daylight. By the time the winter solstice rolls around near Christmas, we’ll be down to 9 hours and 8 or 9 minutes. Brrr! And, turn on the light!

I remember as a child overhearing my mother remark to other grownups early in July that summer was “basically over” once the 4th of July had come.  “What, are you nuts?” I thought at the time. The 4th of July might not be the very start of summer but think about how many glorious days and weeks lay ahead.  So many you could hardly count them. Now that I am at least as old—in truth, a good deal older—than my mother had been when sharing that observation, I have a visceral appreciation of her point.  Time, as I’ve had occasion to point out here before, really does seem to speed up as you get older. We’ve hardly stowed the bunting from the July 4th festivities before people are talking about Labor Day and back-to-school sales. What happened to the intervening dispensation?

In a charming essay about growing up at the rural fastness of Great Elm in Sharon, Connecticut, Bill Buckley recalls his discovery of the awful truth:

It was about that time that I came upon nature’s dirty little secret. It was that beginning on the twenty-first day of June, the days grew shorter! All through the spring we has had the sensual pleasure of the elongating day, coinciding with the approach of the end of the school year and the beginning of summer paradise. My knowledge of nature and nature’s lore has never been very formal, and so . . . I came to the conclusion from the evidence of my senses that in late July it was actually getting dark when it was only 8:30! I wondered momentarily whether we were witnessing some sign of divine displeasure.

By rights, today, the summer solstice, should be a dazzling sun-drenched day.  At the moment, thanks to emissaries from Hurricane Bill down south, it is wet and foggy.  The weather report (to which for some reason I pay much more attention these days than I ever did in the past) is hinting at a break in the weather this afternoon. “Partly cloudy” is what I am reading, though I prefer to describe it as “partly sunny.”  And besides, the days ahead will shorten so gradually and gracefully that no one will notice for months that the days are actually getting shorter. Right?

UPDATE: As I had hoped, partly, even mostly, sunny!

 

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The heavy hand of the judiciary, in the form of a subpoena followed by a gag order, descended upon the great Reason magazine early this month.  The story, thankfully, has been widely covered by the alternative internet press (nary a byte, the last time I looked, from such legacy outlets as the New York Times) beginning with the redoubtable and amusingly named Popehat (which also has a roundup here). The background: the U.S. government, in the person of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, demanded that Reason magazine turn over all the identifying information they had about six people who left hyperbolic Website comments sparked an online story about the conviction of Silk Road founder Ross Ulbricht. The object of the commentator’s rage was Judge Katherine Forrest, who, going beyond what the prosecutors asked, sentenced Ulbricht to life in prison.

Now Silk Road, a sort of black-market internet emporium where users could get just about anything they wanted, legal or not, was a dubious enterprise. But the US government’s heavy-handed attack against Reason was disproportionate and ill-conceived. The government claimed to be investigating threats against Judge Forest. It was interested, for example, in the identities of the authors of such comments as these:

  • “Its (sic) judges like these that should be taken out back and shot.”
  • Why waste ammunition? Wood chippers get the message across clearly. Especially if you feed them in feet first.” (Movie buffs will recall a famous scene from Fargo.)
  • “I hope there is a special place in hell reserved for that horrible woman.”
  •  “I’d prefer a hellish place on Earth be reserved for her as well.”

What do you think, Dear Reader, threats? Or typical, if juvenile, letting off of steam on the internet?  I think it’s clearly the latter. And what bothers me much more than such over-the-top comments is the display of naked coercion on the part of the government.

Having been served with a gag order, prohibiting its editors from speaking about or even publicly acknowledging the subpoena, Reason only Thursday managed to get the order lifted.  Yesterday the magazine’s editors Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch published a long and disturbing piece on the episode under the title “How Government Stifled Reason’s Free Speech.” It is very much worth reading. “Reason’s experience needs to be understood in a larger context,” they write.

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Checkpoint, Charlie

June 6th, 2015 - 5:28 am

 

The British travel writer Alexander Kinglake (1809-1891) once suggested that the legend “Interesting, if true” be inscribed on the lintels of the Churches of England.

That was a mildly amusing mot, not least because of its pertinent application in so many other circumstances. If the doctrines of the Church of England strain one’s credulity, or one’s allegiance, how much greater is the strain exerted on those moral resources by our intercourse with certain other institutions.  Consider, to take just one example, our institutions of so-called higher education.  You know as well as I how thoroughly that “so-called” is merited by sodden, politically correct swamps that our colleges and universities have occupied in recent years.  Those scenes of spurious “micro aggressions” and  “trigger warnings,” of mephiticrievance mongering, sexual inversion, and infantile political posturing: is there any aspect of American society more distaste, more pampered, more epicene?  I doubt it. Kinglake’s wry observation might be justly applied to those portals of inanity, but a friend who recently visited Berlin had an even more appropriate label.  It is this advisory from Checkpoint Charlie, which divided the American from the totalitarian zone of Berlin.

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Really, is there any more pertinent sign for most colleges and universities?  Cigarettes manufacturers are required to ornament their wares with all manner of alarming advisories, why shouldn’t institutions of higher education face similar requirements?  After all, the noxious atmosphere they diffuse is perhaps even more dangerous than cigarette smoke, which harms only the body.  A college education threatens to eat away at a student’s soul and capacity for a healthy, robust, adult emotional life.  “You Are Leaving the American Sector.”  For many, perhaps most colleges and universities today, that about sums it up.

Towards the beginning of Edgar Allan Poe’s macabre romance “The Fall of the House of Usher,” the unnamed narrator describes his first sight of that gloomy old pile. Among other eldritch features, he noticed  “a barely perceptible fissure, which, extending from the roof of the building in front, made its way down the wall in a zigzag direction, until it became lost in the sullen waters of the tarn” below the house.

Careful observers will have noted analogous fissures in what, for lack of a better term, I will call the “progressive consensus.” “Progressive” is not quite right, because there is no progress—if by progress you mean movement from a given point to something better. But “progressive” is preferable to that other favored verbal specimen of evasiveness, “liberal.” As the word’s etymology suggests, “liberal” has to do with liberty, with freedom, and there is no mainstream ideology in modern Western democracies that is more inimical to freedom than “liberalism.” If you doubt that, try starting a business or uttering a “non-progressive” sentiment on college, running a bakery, hobby shop, or jeweler’s. It is a curiosity of our times that many words now signify more or less the opposite of what they originally meant.  This is not, of course, an entirely new development. “Sanctimonious” once meant “holy.” Now it means “pretending to be holy, while actually being venal.” Just so, “liberal” once meant “on the side of freedom.” Now it generally means “pretending to be on the side of freedom while actually working to enforce conformity and intolerance.” Again, a quick look at life on almost any college campus today will illustrate the truth of this assertion.

The interesting, the hopeful, development is that House-of-Usher-like fissures seem to be penetrating the adamantine carapace of that “liberal” consensus.  You can infer that partly from the increasingly surreal quality of what goes on under the aegis of so-called progressive ideology. The level of hysteria is a good index of the extent of their desperation. Consider this bulletin, just sent to me this morning by a friend,  from the Board of Trustees of Bryn Mawr College outlining their new “inclusive” guidelines for undergraduate admission:

After months [Months!] of study and consultation, the Board of Trustees of Bryn Mawr College voted at its Feb. 7 meeting to accept the recommendation of its board working group charged with reviewing the College’s mission with regard to transgender, non-binary [!] and gender nonconforming applicants.
Specifically, the board-accepted recommendation . . . more clearly articulates the eligible undergraduate applicant pool. In addition to those applicants who were assigned female at birth, the applicant pool will be inclusive of transwomen and of intersex individuals who live and identify as women at the time of application. Intersex individuals who do not identify as male are also eligible for admission [Whew!]. Those assigned female at birth who have taken medical or legal steps to identify as male are not eligible for admission [Too bad!].
In cases where an applicant’s gender identity is not clearly reflected in their application materials, the College may request additional information, which could include verifiable legal or medical steps taken to affirm gender. In evaluating such additional information, the College fully intends to be as flexible and inclusive as possible [Who would doubt it?].

You might think I am making this up.  I wondered at first whether it came from The Onion.  But no, the link to the Bryn Mawr site seems legit.  I submit that the correct word for this new policy is not “inclusive” but “insane”—“sad” and “pathetic,” too, no doubt, especially for the creatures it is intended to cater to, but definitely “insane.” Any parents who were thinking of sending their delicately brought up progeny—especially the ones that were “assigned female at birth,” or, in ordinary language, are girls—any parents, I say, who were contemplating Bryn Mawr will want to ponder carefully the implications of this extraordinary directive.

I do not discount the element of cynicism in this trendy new policy. Heck, even the president of the United States is on the transexual bandwagon, having mentioned this specious new category of victims in his State of the Union speech. What new opportunities for padding the administration the new policy offers! You may have a dozen deans of diversity, but how many administrators looking into the “legal or medical steps taken to affirm gender” do most campuses have? It is an opportunity for growth at a time when many colleges are facing cutbacks. And what’s to prevent an enterprising chap from applying as a woman and then deciding that “she” is a lesbian? But beyond the opportunities for fraud, emotional grandstanding,  spurious claims of victimhood, and outright hucksterism,  there is something else fueling this pathological bilge. The truth is, our nation’s higher educational establishment really has entered definitively upon that realm of “polymorphous perversity” and “primary narcissism” that the Sixties guru Herbert Marcuse extolled in his crack-pot countercultural bible Eros and Civilization. Is that what you want to spend $60K or more per annum financing, a celebration of perversity?

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Kierkegaard and ‘Trigger Warnings’

May 26th, 2015 - 12:47 pm

“The Rotation Method” is one of the most amusing sections of Kierkegaard’s early classic Either/Or. The second most famous melancholy Dane has some good advice for dealing with irritating absurdity: cultivate arbitrariness when confronted with flagrant examples of  it.

There is someone whose conversation you find insufferable. Circumstances often throw you together. What to do? Kierkegaard’s narrator has some useful advice:

I discovered that he perspired copiously when talking. I saw the pearls of sweat gather on his brow, unite to form a stream, glide down his nose, and hang at the extreme point of his nose in a drop-shaped body.

Presto! What had been unbearably tiresome was suddenly transformed into an entertainment. Now, instead of avoiding that bore, you seek him and egg him on, waiting with breath bated for the drop-shaped pendant to form.

There is much about contemporary academia that can be profitably approached armed with the Rotation Method. Consider, to take one recent example, “Our identities matter in Core classrooms”. It’s a sad little effusion by Kai Johnson, Tanika Lynch, Elizabeth Monroe, and Tracey Wang in The Columbia Spectator, the chief student newspaper of that once-great university. Columbia still has a vestige of its famous Great Books “core curriculum” program, and one of the monuments of Western literature that students had the opportunity to read this year was Ovid’s Metamorphoses. This was a problem for Mesdames Johnson, Lynch, Monroe, and Wang.

As they report, a student had gone before the university’s — wait, the sweat is beginning to coalesce — Multicultural Affairs Advisory Board on Literature (yes, really) to complain that reading Ovid made her feel bad.

To appreciate the formation of that little pear-shaped opalescence, however, you have to get the story in their own inimitable words:

During the week spent on Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” the class was instructed to read the myths of Persephone and Daphne, both of which include vivid depictions of rape and sexual assault. As a survivor of sexual assault, the student described being triggered while reading such detailed accounts of rape throughout the work. However, the student said her professor focused on the beauty of the language and the splendor of the imagery when lecturing on the text. As a result, the student completely disengaged from the class discussion as a means of self-preservation. She did not feel safe in the class. When she approached her professor after class, the student said she was essentially dismissed, and her concerns were ignored.

Time was I would feel alternately embarrassed and angry reading this tripe — embarrassed for these privileged twits, who are sufficiently ungracious and self-absorbed to fritter away the opportunity of a serious education on such exhibitions of romper-room feminist histrionics, angry that their bleatings should find a home at a serious university. I have since learned better. The proper response to such drivel is delectation, not debate or dialectic. Really, if you step back and contemplate it as a prodigy of fatuousness, what these skirling young scholars have to say is quite deliciously funny. Attend:

Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” is a fixture of Lit Hum, but like so many texts in the Western canon, it contains triggering and offensive material that marginalizes student identities in the classroom. These texts, wrought with histories and narratives of exclusion and oppression, can be difficult to read and discuss as a survivor, a person of color, or a student from a low-income background.

This cringe-making epistle has been treated to some small portion of the contempt and ridicule it deserves, both in the comments to the online version of the piece and elsewhere (here, for example). But the cri-de-coeur raises questions as well as offers diversion. For example, do you suppose the parents of these young ladies wonder, just a little bit, about the wisdom of shelling out tens of thousands of dollars to purchase a college education for their delicately brought-up progeny only to have them behave like this while postponing their maternity? As I say, there was a time when I would have posed such questions. Now I am just grateful for the display of unalloyed fatuousness: the bulbous globule of rancid fluid poised precariously on the snout of this insufferable pretension. Really, the hilarity is nearly endless:

[A]nother student who attended the forum shared that her Lit Hum professor gave her class the opportunity to choose their own text to add to their syllabus for the year. When she suggested the class read a Toni Morrison text, another student declared that texts by authors of the African Diaspora are a staple in most high school English classes, and therefore they did not need to reread them. Toni Morrison is a writer of both the African Diaspora and the Western world, and her novels — aside from being some of the most intellectually and emotionally compelling writing in the last century — should be valued as founding texts of the Western canon.

The student’s remark regarding Toni Morrison was not merely insensitive, but also revealing of larger ideological divides. This would have been an opportune moment for the professor to intervene.

In a sane world, a professor in a course devoted to great books of the Western canon would have intervened to point out that Toni Morrison is, among all the admittedly stiff competition for the title, probably the most overrated novelist of the last thirty years. Her works may deserve a place on the curriculum of a course in sociology, one that examines how race or some other external characteristic can substitute for merit in the cultural metabolism of decaying liberal democracies. But if it is a choice between  Dostoyevsky , say, or Jane Austen or Henry James or Anthony Trollope or Dickens, Thomas Mann or any of 100 other serious novelists and Toni Morrison, well, you get the picture.

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Memorial Day Notes

May 25th, 2015 - 9:09 am

We are up visiting friends in the Northwest corner of Connecticut for Memorial Day.  Yesterday was one of those rare brilliant days suffused with robust sun, mild breezes, glittering greens, and heady scents. At dawn, the thermometer read a brisk 47, but by late morning it was into the 70s.  I went to visit another friend up the street who with his wife is an avid collector of contemporary art and who maintains a swank private exhibition space. From time to time, they organize shows drawn from their collection and invite sundry friends and acquaintances for an afternoon of art and conviviality. The next of these jamborees is scheduled for a couple weeks hence, but as I was here now I was given an advance look around. 

My taste in art differs markedly from that of my friends, but the overall tenor of their latest assembly is quite remarkable, indeed moving.  The inspiration for the exhibition is a letter from 1942, written in German, and addressed to “Lidi Sara Israel.”  It was from the Nazi government occupying Luxembourg announcing “for the record” in echt Deutsch fashion the seizure and confiscation of her possessions. Thanks for the heads up!

The woman in question happened to be my friend’s mother. Hers was a story with a happy ending. Many others were not so fortunate. A copy of the Nazis’ courtesy notification occupies a quiet spot in the first room of the exhibition. Other objects include various WWII recruitment and propaganda posters, a skeletal representation, built to scale, of the Fat Man atomic bomb by Robert Morris, and a lithograph by Sigmar Polke of the infamous Nazi exhibition of Entartete Kunst—they organized one final showing of “degenerate art” before consigning  Kandinsky,  Max Beckmann, Klee, Mondrian, and all the rest to Nazi oblivion. There are other haunting pictures from the WWII section of the exhibition, including a terrifying  painting by the Norwegian artist Vebjorn Sand depicting a celebratory, glasses-raised moment at the conclusion  of the Wannsee Conference in 1942.  The raucous group of senior apparatchiks had something to celebrate.  They had just organized the administration of a huge and logistically complex government undertaking, the extermination of European Jewry. Sand’s painting, appropriately, is called Corpses I.

The exhibition is a sort of illustrated autobiography: signal world events from World War II, through the civil rights movement in the U.S., to 9/11 and its longaftermath. I am not at all sure my friends intended the exhibition to accompany the little town’s  Memorial Day festivities, but  it offered a thoughtful introduction. It was the usual thing.  Brief fly-over by — I think — F16s), parade with vintage cars,  trucks, and tractors, interspersed with veterans, boy scouts, local police and firemen, etc.  The best-decorated bike of boy and girl were awarded commemorative coin sets, and former Senator James L. Buckley delivered a brief address which, unlike most such effusions, was much more than a congeries of clichés. Buckley was not afraid to speak of, and praise, American exceptionalism, an idea that has been in bad odor among the beautiful people at least since Barack Obama took office and told us that he believe in American exceptionalism in the same sense that a Greek would believe in Greek exceptionalism, a Brit in British exceptionalism, etc.  We may leave aside the tantalizing suggestion that Obama has been doing everything possible to make America exceptional in the Greek sense. In fact, as Buckley noted, America emerged form the Second World War as the most powerful, prosperous, generous, and free  country the world has ever seen.

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