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Archive for April, 2009

Ad Hominem

with 5 comments

So, here’s the thing.  Wor is going really well lately, and that means that I sometmes don’t get around to the blog.   Then there is the fried chicken situation, but that’s something else.

I’ve been thinking today about a book I read some time ago.  It’s still in print, as far as I know.  It’s called The Intellectuals, and it’s by a man named Paul  Johnson, who is sort of an interesting person.

Johnson is a Brit, and all I can say is that elementary and secondary education in the UK of his time must have been stellar, because he did not attend any university.   Instead, he worked for a long time as a journalist, and in his spare time he started a second career as an historian.

A good historian.

He’s written books on the history of Christianity, the history of the United States and the history of the Jews.  He wrote this book called The  Birth  of Modernity, which is about a fifteen year period near the beginning of the nineteenth century that gave us the habits of thought we have now.

The Intellectuals, however, is something of a departure from his usual stuff, because instead of being a single, well-reasoned narrative on an historical period, it’s a series of long essays on a number of important thinkers and writers. 

All of these thinkers and writers can be at least nominally defined as “left wing,” although in point of fact some of them lived before such designations had entered the language and some of them are “left wing” only in the sense that they’re obviously not conservative.

Living in a world where everything is supposed to fit into a bipolar scheme makes things difficult sometimes.

Johnson’s book covers the obvious figures–Rousseau, Marx, Sartre–and some less obvious ones, but the reason it’s been on my mind is that it asks the question that continues to bother me.

There’s a logical fallacy called the “ad hominem,” which is the practice of ignoring what someone is saying in order to attack him personally.

This is a fallacy because the truth of a statement most usually inheres in the statement, not in the person pronouncing it.  The earth would still be round if Hitler was the one who discovered it was not flat.

Any short acquaintance with the Net will reveal that people love ad hominem arguments, and that most of them adhere stringently to the idea that proving that the guy making the statement is a jerk or worse is enough to disprove the statement, or at least render it beneath consideration.

I don’t usually have much patience with ad hominem arguments, but I find myself coming up short when the  person I’m considering is a philosopher.

It’s not just that philosophers are supposed to tell us how to live, and that there might be some merit in knowing whether they can follow their own advice, or, if they follow it, what results it has.

It’s certainly perfectly possible for someone to give good advice he’s not able, or willing, to take himself.  There’s a wonderful article in this month’s issue of Skeptic magazine about  Ponzi schemes.   It’s written by a university professor who specializes in investigating gullibility and the way it leads people to buy into collective delusions and do all sorts of things they wouldn’t do if they were thinking straight.

The guy also had a lot of his mone wiped out in the Madoff mess.

I’m also very aware of the fact that there is no such thing as a perfect person.  Even the saints had flaws, and often big ones.  There isn’t a single historical figure, thinker, writer, novelist, grocery bagger, whatever, who hasn’t done something discreditable at some point in his life.  If you’re not going to liten to anybody unless they’re perfect, you’re not going to listen to anybody, and you should probably stop listening to yourself.


The fact is that I’m also aware of the human capacity for self-justification and rationlization.  I know people can build vast mansions in the air to absolve themselves from guilt.

Deconstruction–the idea that what a text says on the surface is not what it really means; you have to “unpack” it, and sometimes it means the opposite–turns out to have been developed largely by people who had significant histories of wartime collaboration with the Nazis in France.   An awful lot of the various forms of moral relativism out there seem to be promoted by people who want to get away with things a non-relative morality wouldn’t allow them to touch.

Think of  Peter Singer.

I wis I knew where I was going with this, but I don’t.  I do know another book of essays could be written that concentrated on “right wing” writers and had pretty much the same effect, but at the moment that only book of this kind I have on offer is Johnson’s.

And I think I’m going to reread it if I can find it in the office. 

Because the issue of how we treat each other, how we make ourselves live civilization, isn’t minor for me. 

All the rest of it–Canons, and education, and English departments, and whatever–seems secondary. 

I wis I understood the process by which some human beings stop seeing other human beings as human beings–how they get to the place where they feel justified in treating other human beings as less than human.

Mostly when we pose this question, we’re asking about something big, like the Holocaust, or the Rwandan genocide.

The smaller things are more important, though, in the long run.  The way some of us feel that lying and manipulation is just fine when we’re dealing with that person, that gossip and defamation is just a lot of fun, that it’s all right to cheat and maneuver behond someone’s back because, hell, they don’t know what’s good for them anyway.

Yeah, okay, I’m back on this.

But it’s been a long couple of months.

Written by janeh

April 6th, 2009 at 6:42 am

Posted in Uncategorized

The Uses of History

with 3 comments

I finally settled in to a book, and the book I found is called The Concord Quartet. It’s by Samuel A. Schreiner, Jr., and it has a lot of virtues given my state of mind.  For one thing, it’s relatively short.  For another, it’s very cleanly written.  And for a third, it’s one of the books I have stacked up to read for the essays I’m writing on the New England Renaissance.

But there’s soemthing else this book is:  it’s the kind of history we used to get in school before everybody got all sophisticated and confrontation.  That is, it’s a celebration of America, a presentation of the people and ideas involved in the Transcendentalist movement that accentuates the positive in every possible way.

One of the reasons I’m interested in the Transcendentalist movement, and in that entire New England flowering in the years just preceding the Civil War, is that it was our first flirtation with what we later called the Sixties Counterculture.

These were people who founded communes and went back to the land, who ditched orthodox Christianity for “spirituality” that saw God in every man and woman, who championed the emancipation of women and the emancipation of slaves.

And they were, as well, tourists at the revolution, or a lot of them were.  (Hawthorne, for all his faults, had more sense.)

Many of the New England Transcendentalists praised and feted John Brown the way Leonard  Bernstein and company entertained the Black Panthers.  Unwilling to engage in violence themselves, squeamish almost to the point of risibility, they romanticized it in Brown and romanticized it as a response to the continued existence of slavery in the south.

A lot f people like to say that the Sixties were a total waste, that nothing good or constructive came out of them, that they ruined the country.

But that isn’t true, any more than it would be true to say that Transcendentalism was a total waste.

The  Sixties brought equal rights for women in a way even Susan B. Anthony never imagined was possible, and they pushed for full equality for African Americans, which was a good thing, too.

It wasn’t wrong for the Transcendentalists to be opposed to slavery, or to champion total abolition instead of one of the more cautious approaches favored by even most of he anti-slavery politicans in Washington.  Thoreaus essay “Slavery in Massachusetts” is one of the great moral manifestoes in American literature, and when Emerson emerged from his fuzzy moods to write straightforwardly, he produced significant defenses of reason, science, education and political equality.

But here’s the thing–to the extent that there was anything not quite admirable in all these people, it is hardly mentioned in the book I’m reading.  The bad parts have been carefully excised out, or are presented in such a way as to make them seem negligible.

There is nothing particularly odd about this approach.  Up until a few years ago, this was the way history textbooks for elmentary and high schools were written, and going straight through the 1950s, there was a fair amount of history for adult general audiences that did the same.

Every culture has to recruit its members to its own defense, and this is one of the ways to do it.   There’s nothing more honest about accentuating the negative, which is what a lot of textbooks do now.

Somehow, however, it still bothers me.  I read about Bronson Alcott and the wonderful experiment at Fruitlands and I can’t forget that this was a feckless and destructive man, who made the lives of his wife and children miserable.  This was the man who told his daughter Louisa May that she was the evil one because she was dark instead of blonde like her sisters, who periodically called family meetings to announce that he didn’t believe in marriage and was going to leave it, who could never be bothered to make a living and lived most of his life off the generosity of Emerson.

Then there is the matter of John Brown, presented here, as he was in my fifth grade history class, as a fierty, righteous crusader for justice whose tactics may have been a little extreme but whose heart was in the right place.

In reality, Brown was a thug, and he’d raised his sons in the same mold.  He had no compunction about cold blooded murder as long as the victim could somehow be connected to “slavery,” even if the connection was so tenuous as merely being suspected of intending to vote in favor of it in Kansas.

Brown wasn’t a Transcendentalist, of course, but many of the Transcendalists loved him, supported him with money and aid, and were willing to pay to have him speak to them.  They threw parties for him.   They protested the attempts of the federal government to capture and stop him and in one case they helped him avoid arrest.

Like the guests at Lenoard Bernstein’s famous party more than a hundred years later, too many of them were thrilled to be standing right next to a “real” revolutionary, the kind that got blood on his hands.

I think there’s good reason to celebrate the Concord writers and the people who helped them and followed them.  They represent the first truly  American culture we ever had.  They gave us our first serious novelists and poets, and the essays of  Emerson and Thoreau outline a distinctly American sensibility in politics and morals.  

I’m not so happy with the idea that we should present these people as if they had no flaws, or as if what they wrote and thought was wonderful just because it happens to be ours.  

For one thing, there’s the danger that readers or students will stumble upon the darker side of the truth eventually, and will, in reaction, decide that “real” is just the bad and not the good.

For another thing, the lives and works of the New England Transcendalists have a lot to tell us about the culture the Sixties wrought.  The issues in politics and morals  then were very similar to what we’re ealing with now.

And, most of all, I think, there’s virtue in letting people understand that real life is not a children’s movies, that people who are truly great in some aspects of their lives are often condemnable in others. 

Or something like that.

Written by janeh

April 4th, 2009 at 7:17 am

Posted in Uncategorized


with 2 comments

Last night, Robert sent me an e-mail abou an article he’d read about small presses that print a number of copies of a ook and then, if the demand exceeds that number, print the rest as  POD.  I’ve been looking around for the article on the internet, but haven’t been able to find it.  It sounds funny, all about silly people who are horrified to realize that they copy they’re holding is not a “rea” book, but a  POD, which is unacceptable because…because.

Here’s the thing.  There actually is a because, and it’s the opposite of snobbery. 

The problem with print on demand is not that it’s print on demand, but that so much of it is vanity publishing.

And there’s a reason they call it vanity publishing.  You’d be amazed how many people there are out there who sincerely believe the’re great writers who are being held back from publication and success by a cabal of toffee nosed snobs who just won’t touch anything that isn’t written by their own little in-crowd.

And you’d be even more surprised to find how many of these people are wrong.

Look.  There are some fields where there is no shame in self publishing–most of the sports and gaming communities support self-published work with no problem at all.

But they can do that because the number of such books, or of any books, is relatively small compared to the audience and the reviewers who re intereted in it.   A decently sized gaming community that sees fifty or so books published a year can handle that number without too much trouble.   People have time to read through the available offerings and determine what’s bad and what’s good.

The last time I checked–and it was a few years ago, so the numbers may be down by now–there were 40,000 books published in the United States by commercial publishers alone.

Look at that number for a minute. 

Even dedicated review organs, the magazines that concentrate on reviews and nothing else, don’t manage more than about twenty reviews per issue.  Most review organs manage much less.  Any major reviewer with any major outlet, magazines or newspapers or websites, will be inundated with books on a daily basis.  We’re talking about ten to fifteen to twenty of the things coming in every day, and more for things like the New York  Times, which are perceived to be important to sales.

The original reason for restricting the books that can be considered for such attention as reviews and awards–or as qualifications for acceptance to professional writers’ groups–was n ot snobbery but volume control, and the rationale made perfect sense.

Publishers are in business.  They need to make money.  If they accept your book, they put a fair amount of time and money into its publication–they invest in you and your book.

And that means that they must think there’s something there worth investing in, that something about what you’re written will command the attention of an audience.

If I get a book from such a publisher, I know that somebody thought that that book was worth inventing in and put his money on the line to do it.  What’s more, the people who made this decision are professionals in the field who have seen hundreds of books and followed hundreds of publishing histories and who know something about what will and will not work.

I’m not trying to say here that such people are infallible.  They aren’t.  T.S. Eliot turned down Animal  Farm when he was a reader for  Faber and  Faber, and Kon-Tiki, one of the great commercial successes of its year, was turned down by fourteen or fifteen places before somebody decided to pick it up.

But mistakes notwithstanding, “this book is worth risking tens of thousands of dollars of my money to publish” isn’t a bad standard by which to judge the worth of the thing before you pick it up.

For one thing, it demands that writing have the reasonable expectation of an audience, that it not be the equivalent of the French film industry, where government pays the tab for what it decides is “worthwhile” whether any actual people want it or not.

No matter how insulated the publishing industry can seem–and it can not only seem, but get, pretty insulated–it’s driven by the numbers of books sold.  To insist that a book have a legitimate publisher to be considred a “real” publication is to insist that the book have a reasonable expectation of finding an audience.

This is not snobbish, and it’s not stupid.  It does assume that not every book is good enough, in a myriad number of ways that define “good,” to merit publication.

Maybe something will show up in the future that will make it more possible to handle the volume of novels that appear every year, but I don’t see how we’re going to manage it–or the nonfiction, either–without some way of sifting through the dross.

Written by janeh

April 3rd, 2009 at 6:17 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Waiting Lists

with 4 comments

Well, I suppose we could go around in circles some more, but I still come down on the side of teaching what is necessary to know, not in trying to pick those parts of what is necessary to know that you think students might like, or giving up on what is necessary to know in order to pick other things students might like.

Robert thinks that what gets taught in  English classes is inevitably boring, and I’d agree, except that a lot of what he finds boring I found, and find, completely fascinating, and a lot of what he thinks is “a good story” I find dull, repetitious and predictable.  

But that doesn’t explain why I am now in one of those periods when I can’t find a book to read.  It’s not that I don’t have books around the house.   I’ve got tons of them, and a couple of weeks ago my editor sent me a nice package full of things wrritten by my fellow authors at SMP.  So I’ve got books I’ve had around for a while and new books both, and none of them seems to be what I want.

I  have no idea why this happens.   Most of the time, I can go from reading one thing to reading the next without a hitch.   My biggest delay in going from one book to another is finding out where I put the thing I want to read next.

But every once in a while, I get to a point where I just get stopped dead.  I’ve got books all over the house.  I’ve even got a book or two that I thought would be the next thing up.  I take them out and put them on the couch or the loveseat or the coffee table and stare at them.  I pick up one or the other and read a few pages and just can’t make myself go on.

Sometimes this happens because I’ve got something on my mind that would distract me from anything, but at the moment I don’t think that’s the case.  I do have something on my mind at the moment, but it’s not so pressing that I’m unable to read any more.   I got through my book of essays on  Renaissance art in a very happy frame of mind, and  was sure, when I did, that I was going to go on and read this big book of essays by  Samuel Johnson I’ve had sitting around the house for forever.  

I’ve never read anything by Johnson except scraps and quotations, and several writers I like a lot think he’s wonderful, so  I thought  I’d try him and see what he was like.  But I can’t make myself get into the book, no matter how hard I try, and I keep running up against a real weird road block:  I keep picturing  Robbie  Coltrane playing  Johnson in series three of Blackadder

If you don’t know Blackadder, you ought to try it.   Not only is it funny, but it stars Rowan Atkinson, who was one of the few people in British public life to stick up for freedom of speech and expression after the Danish cartoon mess.  Somehow, I don’t think he’s going to be in favor of the new UN ania for making “respect for religion” a “human right.”

Sometimes the reason  I can’t read something new is that the old writer had such a strong narrative voice that I can’t get it out of my head, and the new writers I’m looking at are nowhwere near as distinctive.

In this case, however, the last thing I read was an academic book, which was well written enough but hardly dramatically singular.  

And I have projects goin, which means I have books I need to read to complete them, but I can’t get myself interested in any of those, either. 

And sometimes, I just get sick of reading.  I’ve been reading and writing as a vocation as well as an avocation most of my adult life, and there get to be spots where I just want to chuck the whole thing for a month or two and go on safari or something.

This is not the same thing as not being able to read, because you just can’t focus, the way I was a few weeks ago.   This is more a feeling that  I’m getting stale in some ultimate way, that the world and life has to consist of more than words on a page.

And yet words on a page is what  I’ve loved for as long as I can remember.

And it’s words on a page, too, not “a good story” or whatever is “interesting.”   I read and have always read nearly everything–I read Nietzche for the first time at thirteen, and Aristotle before that.   By the time I hit junior high school, I’d made my way through most of the classics of nineteenth century fiction and fallen completely in love with the American expatriates in the Paris of the 1920s.

By the time I  hit high school proper I was infatuated with Camus and Sarte and Jean Annouilh.  Which I’ve probably just mispelled.  

There was a point in the Sixties when there were a lot of modern writers who were actually very good, and writing about something other than their insular lives.  That was the time when movies became something more than entertainment, too, so on top of what I was reading I had Lawrence of Arabia and A Man for All Seasons.  My big movie at that period, though, was Becket, which was of course by Jean Annouilh.

I saw my first serious stage production around this time, too, and it was a production of Dylan  Thomas’s Under Milk Wood put on at the summer stock theater in Westport.  Over the last few years, just before he died, Paul Newman was involved in a project to revive and revitalize that theater, and it always makes me a little depressed to think it ever had to be revitalized.

But you see where I’m going here–without the help of a single English teacher, I stumbled on just the kind of “literary” writing that makes some people here bored and annoyed. 

My English teachers, in fact, probably knew next to nothing about the contemporary stuff I was reading, and most of them wouldn’t have understood it if they had.  They were good at classics and at those squishy Tells A Moral Lesson contemporary books that elementary and junior high schools live and breathe on, but I’d have been lucky if they’d even heard of Camus.  Some of the other stuff I was reading–Ginsberg and Kerouac, for instance–would have horrified them.

This feeling that I’ve just spent too much of my life reading is very recent.  It started showing up about three or four years ago, and it comes and goes at uncertain intervals even now. 

It’s always difficult, because I read the way some people take in air–I just do it, it’s almost an automatic reflex, and everything feels wrong if I go too long without doing it. 

Usually, the best solution to this mood, at least for me, is to find something very straightforward and analytical.  The perfect thing would be, maybe, Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American  Novel, which I’ve been looking for for a while, but it’s lost in the office at the moment.  It could be months before I find it again.

I’ve got a big hardcover called Cultural  Amnesia, by Clive James, but I’m put off by the fact that it isn’t a comprehensive book but a series of short essays.  I’m not sure I want to bop from essay to essay like that, and especially not sure I want to do it when the essays are arranged in alphabetical order by the last name of the subjects.  Maybe I care too much about historical progressions.

Ack.  It’s getting late and I have to go get something done, and I’ve had no sleep, because of course my son’s trip was late last night, and then there was fog.

Maybe my biggest problem is that I can’t think of what I would do if I wasn’t reading.

There doesn’t seem to be anything else.

Written by janeh

April 2nd, 2009 at 5:23 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Hating It

with 2 comments

Today and tomorrow are going to be messes of days, with schedules off and sleep minimal, and I’ve been thinking about why so many parents are at odds with schools these days.

In almost any discussion of education you see on the web, especially in any discussion of American education, you’ll inevitably run up against the complaint that, unlike in the old days, parents just won’t back up the teachers.  Give the kid a bad grade?  Parents complain.  Discipline the kid for behaving badly?  Parents sue.

The assumption in all these discussions always seems to be that it’s the parents who are in the wrong.  The teachers know best, and are only trying to uphold standards.

But is that really true?

The parents who are complaining are, by and large, the products of the great post-War sea change in American schools, where we went beyond teaching subject matter to concerning ourselves with the “whole child.”

Forget for a moment what objections you may have to this approach on a practical level–yes, it leads to dumbing down the curriculum and teaching mindless platitudes instead of real subject matter–and consider for a moment how intrusive this kind of approach really is.

All of us have thoughts, feelings, and fantasies that we keep to ourselves, or restrict access to only a close friend or two.  Sometimes we do that because we’re ashamed of what we think or feel, or think other people wouldn’t understand it or make fun of it, but sometimes we do it just because we want some parts of us to belong to ourselves alone.

The “whole child” approach implicitly denies that children get to have any privacy at all, and demands that they be judged not on their peformance but on their total being.  Every thought, every feeling, every daydream is tested against a standard of “emotional wellbeing,” and if it fails, the school rushes in to “address” the “problem.”

The cultures of sc hools eing what they are, teachers and staff often define as “problems” things that children themselves, and often their parents, don’t see as problematic at all.  Love to read horror novels and write your own horror stories for English?  Why are you so morbid?  Maybe you’re our next school shooter! Hate doing homework and love being a slob?  You’re probably being absued at home!  Like being off by yourself and making up fantasy stories about elves and fairy princesses?  My  God, that could be childhood onset schizophrenia!

Most of the reactions to ordinary variations in personality in children aren’t so extreme, of course, but they are indicative of a system that has, for nearly fifty years now, seen children not as human beings but as masses of problems that need to be fixed.

And those children grow up to be parents who hate schools, hate teachers, and don’t trust either as far as they can through them.

My parents’ generation supported the schools.  My generation grew up to assume that their most important imperative was to protect their children from the schools at any cost.

I don’t think most parents are championing fluffy self-esteem in opposition to reasonable standards.  I think they’re simply assuming that when the school says there’s something wrong with their child, the school is not just wrong, but maliciously so. 

All of this, believe it or not, comes back to that whole issue of English teachers trying to foster the love of reading.

What we love and what we hate are our own.   We may be introduced to things by schools and teachers that we end up deciding we love, but our inner beliefs, our feelings, our passions should be our own.  Their not the business of the school, or of anybody we don’t choose to share them with.

Schools should teach subjects.  The content of those subjects should be determined by the requirements of the field of study, or the overall mission of the school to provide a basic understanding necessary  concepts and skills. Most students will not develop a love of math, or reading, or music.   Those that will, will do better being left to develop it on their own than they will ever do by having their emotions consulted when the reading list is drawn up.

What I want, more than anything else, is for schools to do their job and stop doing the jobs they aren’t suited for.  

Students who feel threatened by a prying, judgmental system that has them as a captive victim group for better than half the year will grow into parents determined to fight their  children’s schools on their children’s behalf.

And they’ll do that even when the schools are right.

If we’re going to have schools at all, then let them do what they’re good at doing–teaching subjects to students who either want to learn them or not, and therefore do learn them or not.

And if they don’t want to learn what they’re offered, maybe we ought to accept their own decisions.

Written by janeh

April 1st, 2009 at 9:11 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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