Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Archive for October, 2009

When Your Enemy Is Trying To Commit Suicide…

with 6 comments

Seveal years ago–it might have been all the way back in the Clinton administration, I don’t remember–Reason magazine ran an article about the health insurance mess that amounted to one long exasperated scream.

Faced with an increasingly hostile political climate and a populace increasingly convinced that they were nothing but lying, deceitful dirtbags–the insurance companies kept insisting on behaving like lying, deceitful dirtbags.

As the writer pointed out, the only group in America capable of changing us from a country of private insurance to a country with government insurance was the private insurance companies themselves, and they often seemed like they were working overtime on just that project.

In a way, that’s what Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story came down to. 

Oh, it’s just as tendentious as any Moore film, and it ends with the “Internationale” being played over the credits (there are a lot of credits–Woody Guthrie got the second half).  It was an odd version of the “Internatioale,” too, in a style reminiscent of 1950s nightclub music, as if Bobby Darrin had recorded it right after “Mack the Knife.”

But there was less of what could be labeled outright lying in it, and I  know why that was.

Faced with an increasingly hostile political climate and a populace increasingly convinced that they are nothing but lying, deceitful dirtbags, the financial services sector has insisted on behaving like lying, deceitful dirtbags.

I do know that there are people out there who go bankrupt or lose their homes because they gamble or because they borrowed too much money irresponsibly, but there are enough hardworking, decent people who have been screwed by the practices that became prevalent after financial deregulation that Moore didn’t have to make stuff up.

And, I’ll admit, most of the stories he used were ones I’d already heard of–like the county in the Midwest that turned their juvenile detention facilities over to a for-profit company, who promptly made financial arrangements with two judges, who then funneled as many teen-agers into jail as possible, sometimes on charges that did not carry a a jail term in the law.

The judges got prosecuted, the kids wrongly imprisoned got let out–but many of them had been locked up for a year or more, and they had, you know, issues.

And the mechinations of the mortgage brokers I knew about, too–the outright lying to clients about the way adjustable rate mortgages worked and what the real rate was going to be after the introductory peiriod was over, the pressure to take larger loans over smaller ones (the brokers get a commission) regardless of ability to repay (the brokers don’t have to care, because the mortgages were going to be sold anyway).

I went to this movie at least partially because I didn’t care if it was tendentious–I’ve had enough of the way these people behave.  And I think it’s related, really, to the way the insurance companies behave.

When I was growing up, the insurance industry was still based largely in Hartford, Connecticut, and the execs all lived out in a suburb called West Hartford.  The insurance execs made lots of money, but there were very few mansions in town.  The companies insisted.  If they caught you building some kind of monstrosity, they’d either fire you, or slow your career to a crawl.  They didn’t think it was good public relations to have the public think that they were getting rich off other people’s misery.

I always thought that was a little stodgy, but at the very least it was evidence of an industry that had some clue about the way most people think and feel.  These guys–in insurance and in finance both–are completely oblivious.

That said, the movie doesn’t do insurance companies, since Moore beat up on those in Sicko. but it does Wall Street and AIG and the big mortgage lenders.

He beats up on the Bush administration, naturally, but he’s not very nice to Democrats, either, especially to Connecticut’s own Chris Dodd.

With Obama, it’s mostly a wait-and-see kind of thing, coupled with a “we voted for you to change this, and you get that, right?”

It was a good movie, and I liked it.  I’ll admit to being rather amused by the end bit, where Moore wraps yellow crime scene tape around the AIG building in Manhattan. 

And hating the bail-out is something ranke and file  Democrats hate as much as rank and file Republicans, so maybe there’s a point of contact here that there often isn’t with Moore films.

In the meantime, I’m going back to my conservatives–and I apollogize for mispelling Donohue’s name, which has two o’s, and no a. 

And I agree that there’s nothing intinsically wrong with an anti-defamation league for Catholics.  Donohue himself, however, is a little…well.

Unsophisticated might be the nicest word for it.

Written by janeh

October 18th, 2009 at 8:52 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Thesis Antithesis. Synthesis.

with 3 comments

Okay, so here’s the thing.  I’m about to have a very odd week-end.

First, you have to understand one of the n icer peculiarities of my life.  People send me books.  Fans send me books.  Students and former students bring me books.  And people in the business pack up and ship out whatever they think I’m just dying to have. I don’t mean that people just send me books they think I’ll like.  They also send me books they thing will drive me crazy.

On the drive me crazy front, I have a little stack that has been accumulating in my living room since around the first of the month.  This consists of Arguing with  Idiots, by Glenn  Beck; Secular Sabotage, by William Donahue; and A Bold  Fresh Look at Humanity, by Bill O’Reilly.

Now, here’s the thing.  Just about everybody knows by now that Beck makes me nuts, so that’s fully understandable.  And most of my proudly liberal friends know that I often rather like O’Reilly, even when I don’t agree with him. 

(I caught O’Reilly on air the other day agreeing with something Michael Moore said about Wall Street, and admitting it.  The man has an interesting mind.)

But the Donahue–ah, the Donahue.  Donahue is the founder and head of a group called the  Catholic Leaue, which has as its stated purpose combatting discrimination and disrespect for Catholicism.  If most of you have heard of him, ill will be because of one of the endless protests the man has staged against various art exhibits–the  Brooklyn one with the Madonna painted in elephant dung being the most famous.  

I’m going to skip over whether or not I think such protests are counterproductive, to note two things.  The first is that if I had been the one to stage a protest against that particular portrait of the Virgin Mary, I would have worried a lot less about the elephant dung than I would have about the fact that the rest of the picture was composed of a collage of pornographic photographs.   Very explicit pornographic photographs.

The second thing is this–the woman who sent me the book, the full title of which is Secular Sabotage:  How Liberals Are Ruining Religion and America,.this woman–

Must have gone out and paid for the thing.  It isn’t published by her house, or distributed by her house, either, as far as I can tell. 

And people don’t buy me things as a geneal rule.  They send me their copies.  They send me what their publishing house is putting out (and then they don’t even have to pay postage).

The only time they buy me a book is when they honestly think that if I read it, I’m going to bust a gut. 

Which is a very interesting thing.  I’ve actually started in on this thing, which so far seems to be mostly the standard stuff–and some of which I actually seem to agree with–so we’ll see how the week-end goes.

But in the meantime, I’m doing something I do very rarely today, and going out to see a movie.  Okay, I’m doing that to a  matinee on a bargain day–when did movie tickets get to be so ridiculously expensive?–but this is a special case.

I’m going to see Michael Moore’s Capitalism:  A Love Story.

By the end of the week-end, I may be a little puddle of mental short circuits.

We’ll see.

Written by janeh

October 17th, 2009 at 8:42 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Common Cultures

with 4 comments

So, I’ve been thinking about Cheryl’s post.

And I do think it is true that, these days, a number of Western cultures have started to think as she indicated–to assume that there is not, and should not be, a common culture that everybody ought to be part of.

But I don’t think that that’s true of the United States.  If there’s one thing the US does very well, it’s cultural pluralism, as opposed to “multiculturalism.”  We take disparate cultures and turn them into just another way of being American.

In the process, we do impart a core set of assumptions–that’s a better word than “values,” I think–that tends to hold as the default position even when people verbally and explicitly reject them.

One of these is the emphasis on the individual–what matters about  you is not your “culture,”  but you, and whatever “culture” it is that you’re supposed to be part of shouldn’t get in the way of your self-determination.

I’m continually struck by the differences between my experience of Muslim students–even Muslim students who have immigrated here, rather than been born here–and what is endlessly portrayed in the European press. 

The most impassioned defense of the rights of gay people, including the right to marry, came from a Muslim girl from Albania, and a few weeks after she’d handed in that paper, she was defending a separation of church and state so extreme it would make the ACLU blush.  A young man from a Muslim family spent one of his papers denouncing Muslim clerics who advised against the use of vaccines.  I never did figure out what it was in Islam that would forbid the use of vaccines, and I suppose it isn’t general, since that was the first and last I heard of that as a specifically Muslim issue.

For the US, I don’t think the issue is if we have a common culture that all children should learn–with the exception of a few professional grievance masers, that’s understood–but just what should be included in it.

Some things are obvious–the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, for instance.  Others make the list by the sheer weight of years and masses of audience–Poe, Dickinson, The Scarlet Letter, even Jonathan Edwards’s “Sinners at the Hands of an Angry God.”

Where things get stick is the point at which we begin to approach the present, and then there are questions that need to be answered and never are.  For that, I blame the complete idiocy of the modern university departments of English.

Let me back up here a minute to make an historical note:  back at the turn of the Twentieth century and into the Thirties, or even Forties, the first great waves of American literary critics (not reviewers) started to try to construct a framework for a peculiarly American high culture.  Yvor Winters, Cleanthe Brooks, Alan Tate, and a host of others worked hard and long to define the Americanness of American writing, especially fiction and poetry writing.

And they made a very good start.  They were, however, men of their time and place, and because of that they had a very restricted field of works to use in getting them where they wanted to go.

A lot of the books we were taught as children in school–Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, for instance, and the minor Hawthorne, like The House of Seven Gables–exist as part of the canon not so much because of their intrinsic excellence, as because they amounted to the only available material in a very thin field. 

There’s some wonderful work in that field, but there’s no really first-rate American novelist until Henry James (Melville, with the exception of Moby Dick, is much better in the novellas than in the long work), and there’s some seriously bad fiction in the mix.  Take, for instance, Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark.”

But the other thing that isn’t there is any work by “minority” writers.  I’m putting the word in scare quotes for a reason.  It’s not their minority status that interests me, but their position as outsiders who had to integrate and become American.

As we march toward the 21st century, this literature of becoming is vast.  Almost every ethnic group to melt in the melting pot threw up a novelist or two to write about the life of somebody with one foot in each world and the difficulties such a person faces.

If Americans share a common culture, a very important part of that common culture is this very process of becoming American, both as individuals and as groups.  First generation immigrants look back to the old country.  Their children are pulled toward the old country by their parents and towards the new one by everything else around them.  Their children think of their “ethnic pride” mostly in terms of the great food you get every year at the Greek church street fair.

In this literature of becoming American, the African-American component is unique on two fronts:  first, because it arose among people who had already been here for generations by the time they got a literary voice; and second, because unlike all the others, it does not spend half its time denigrating the people still mired in the old culture.

If there’s a stereotypical plot for the child-of-immigrants coming-of-age  novel, it’s definitely got to do with how embarrassed we all feel when Mama and Papa act like such–well, old country hicks.  If you don’t believe me about this, go check out something like, say, Good-bye, Columbus.  Or any of the early novels of Philip Roth.

African-American literature has been singular in its concern for the people who get left behind by progress. 

I don’t mean that it’s nostalgic.  It’s not. Alice Walker has no interest in going back to living in the rural Georgia where she was grown up, and she doesn’t romanticize it.  What she does do–as does Gwendolyn Brooks, and Langston Hughes, among others–is recognize that some people cannot get with the program, no matter how much they may want to.  The floodgates open, and suddenly there are places in the best colleges for people like you, jobs at the best companies, partnerships at the best lawfirms. All you have to do is be bright enough and brave enough and dedicated enough to take hold of them.

But some people are not bright enough.  Some people are not brave enough.  And some people are just not young enough.

If English departments were still doing what they should be doing–where is Yvor Winters when you need him?–there’s be work out there tracing the various becoming-American novels and short stories and comparing and contrasting them. 

As far as I know, there isn’t.

But I do know that if you asked a hundred people on the street, they’d make that particular narrative as an essential part of “American culture” that they’d expect everybody to know at least something about.

So, to get back to where I started:  I don’t think the problem in the US is that we lack commitment to a common culture.

I think it’s that we seem to have allowed “majority rules” to trump every other possible consideration, in every single area of life.

And it makes me nuts.

Written by janeh

October 15th, 2009 at 9:06 am

Posted in Uncategorized

So, A Couple of Notes

with 7 comments

Late in the day.

First, I think there’s a misperception that I’m bashing libraries–I’m not.  I know something about the constraints on how libraries operate these days.

My question is this–when did we, as a society, decide that libraries had to run this way?

I’m fairly sure that, back in the dim Fifties, nobody at my small town library was totting up how often books were taken out, at leasst not on a regular basis.  The mission of the public library used to be different than what it is now–just like the mission of the university used to be different. 

In the last thirty years or so, we seem to have slid everything into an accounting model.  Why?  When did we do that?  And is it really a good idea?

To answer a question, however–no, I was not totally homeschooled.

It was just that all through my school life, until my senior year in high school, my father took me out of school for the months of January, February and March while he moved the entire family to Florida.

He didn’t usually stay down South himself for all that time–he had a Real Job in a Law Firm–any more than he stayed for the entire summer, when we were also there.

But for those three months each year, I was home schooled.

Sort of.

He started off getting tutors for us–apparently, I used to eat the tutors for breakfast, so he went on witha tutor for my brother and left me to myself.

I read my way through his library, and then did all my math homework in the three days before we came North again.

My father’s library was like the public library, in that I tended to pick up books I knew nothing about just to give them a try–the thing you can’t do on interlibrary loan, really, which is why that (which I’ve used often in my life) doesn’t answer to what I was talking about in my first post.

The year I was twelve–in seventh grade, because my father, who had been skipped ahead when he was in school and hated it, absolutely refused to allow me to be skipped ahead–anyway, the book I picked up was this little brown book of philosophy.  I tried it for a day, put it down, and my father ended up asking me what had happened to it.

“I decided not to finish it,” I said.  “I don’t think I understood it.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” he said.  “Try again.”

So I did, and we talked about it.  It turned out that I’d been understanding it just fine, I just hadn’t believed what I was reading.

That was Beyond Good and Evil, by Frederich Nietzsche. 

I’d never have thought to go looking for a book like that.  I might never have read any philosophy at all if I hadn’t just happened to pick that one up.  And I still have that little brown-covered edition.

But I’m with whoever said that schools don’t teach the classics.  They didn’t in the Fifties, either, although the rationale then was sex–Madame Bovary?  No, no–not for children.

The rationale these days is that all that stuff is “too hard” and “not relevant.”

But we don’t want to get me started on schools again.

Written by janeh

October 14th, 2009 at 5:04 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Who Watches the Watchmen

with 10 comments

So the comments yesterday brought up some interesting points, the most interesting of which was Jem’s mention of  a basic list of books that all libraries had to have, a list that no longer binds libraries on any level.

I’d never heard of such a list, but it doesn’t surprise me that there was one.  When I was growing up, we spend half the year in Connecticut and the other half in Florida–my father pioneered homeschooling before it was even legal–and one of the things that drove me crazy about the Florida portion of our year was that the public library in the town where we lived had, as somebody else said (Lee?), absolutely nothing that I wanted to read.

This was a big, enormous deal in the late fifties and early sixties.  There were no superstores with ten thousand volumes covering every conceivable area of interest in reading.  Little local bookstores, both in the Florida town where we stayed and in the small town in which I grew up in Connecticut, tended to sell as many little knitted fluffy things as books, and certainly nothing of Aristotle, say, or Stendhal.

My father would patiently explain to me, every year–okay, I was a nudge (noodge?)–that the Florida town where we had our house was mostly inhabited by seasonal people who only came for vacations, and that the local library catered to the tastes of people who were on vacation and din’t want to work too hard. 

I persisted in declaring that the place ought to have a “real library,” which that one wasn’t.

Here’s my question–why isn’t there any longer a list of books that every library “has to” have?  When did libraries stop being custodians of the culture, and start being just one more stop on the popularity train?

I don’t mean to beat up on libraries here, and I really don’t mean to beat up on librarians.  It’s just that it seems to me that one of the most significant changes that has come over this culture since my childhood has been just this–a headlong stampede into democratic reductionism, where popularity is the only legitimate standard by which to judge anything.

And I do mean anything.  We go back and forth sometimes over what some of you like to call “Bush derangement syndrome,” but it’s not a quality restricted to the left or to people who couldn’t stand W.  Before Bush derangement syndrome, there was Clinton derangement syndrome, and since then there has arisen Obama derangement syndrome. 

And before a dozen of you start pelting me with protestations that it’s all about policy, let me remind you of then-Congressman Bob Bar shooting bullets into pillows at backyard parties to “prove” that the Clintons must have had Vince Foster murdered, and the endless attempts of idiots who can’t read the Constitution to “prove” that Obama isn’t really an American citizen.

(An aside–will SOMEBODY please explain to the “birthers” that any child of an American citizen born anywhere in the world is himself an American citizen, and if they want to prove that Obama is not one, then they have to prove not that he was born in Kenya, but that he didn’t come out of his mother’s womb?)

The derangement syndromes, however, make perfect sense if you look at them as panic attacks coming from people who assume that the only possible foundation for a moral code or a sense of identity is its democratic ratification.

That may sound a little confusing, but it’s simple.  Traditionally, the foundation for Christian morals, for instance, has been the word of God, whether that was identified with the Bible or with “scripture, authority and tradition” as in the Roman and Eastern Churches. 

But these days, I think even American Christians feel largely illegitimate if their point of view does not have majority support–that they feel, possibly unconsciously, that lack of such support radically undermines the truth of what they believe.

For the non-religious participants in this debate, there’s virtually nothing else for them to use as a foundation–or at least, nothing else they’re willing to accept, since the possible options (like the reality, inateness, and immutability of human nature), have consequences that make them distinctly uncomfortable.

This development is paralleled by the other one, the one that says that making money is the only criteria of success–“gangstas” with cash and lots of bling are celebrated almost culture-wide, while working at something important but not remunerative (teaching literacy skills to prisoners, running a soup kitchen, doing medical research instead of a highly paid-speciality) is either denigrated or ignored.

Books are “good” if millions of people buy them.  Religions are “deserving of our respect” if millions of people believe them.  Bernie Madoff is “important” right up until the day he enters the federal pen, and maybe after.  Making a billion dollars selling pet rocks makes you “successful.”  Tending to the lepers on a remote Hawaiian island–well, not so much.  And who ever heard of Father Damian, anyway?

I don’t think I’m being silly here to note that there used to be more than one system of value on which we judged success and failure, that this reduction of all values to the “democratic” is not only new, but maybe not such a good idea.

And–just to show you how disorganized I am this morning–I have a feeling that this particular fixation is related to the one that says we must always gratify our wishes and desires right now, without delay, and without interference.

A list of books every library must have is the act of a culture that assumes that it is more important for a library to be a custodian of culture than it is for the local populace to get its bestsellers right this second because that’s what they want.  

Sometimes some of you get crazy about the tendency of this society to take the political pronouncements of actors and rock stars seriously–but why shouldn’t such pronouncements be taken seriously?

After all, if the only criteria for seriousness is the numbers, the actors and the rock stars have the numbers, far and away over anybody who is just, you know.

Dedicated to silly stuff nobody pays attention to, like political philosophy and political principal.

Just ask a random sample of the American people, and I’ll guarantee they’ll tell you how boring all that is.

Okay, I’m blithering.

Written by janeh

October 13th, 2009 at 9:24 am

Posted in Uncategorized

In Media Res

with 5 comments

It’s not Sunday, of course, it’s Monday, but it’s a national holiday, so I’ve put a CD on, and in honor of it being only the second time I’ve had to put on the heat since last April, I’m listening to actual Hildegarde, as well as things Hildegarde herself probably heard–Anonymous 4’s O Yoolis Night and 11,000 Virgins. The book I’ve got is not something I’d recommend to the general pu blic.  It’s not that it’s actively bad, although it is that, sometimes. It’s mostly that it’s written at a level suitable for a brightish high school freshman, and it’s as tendentious in its cheerleading for the Middle Ages as any Enlightenment era tract ever was in its denigration of the same period.

And it’s interesting for me to know that I get just as annoyed with innacuracies about the middle ages when they’re on my side as when they’re on the other. 

At any rate, the book is called How The Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, and I do thank it for reminding me about Father Francisco di Vitoria, whom I hadn’t thought about in many years.   He’s the Catholic priest in the early Sixteenth Century who came out with the first declaration that, all men having been born to natural liberty, all–regardless of race, religion, or level of civilization–had natural rights “to life, to culture and to property.”

Honestly, intellectual history is an interesting thing.

What got to me this morning, though, was looking on the spine and discovering that the book had been published by Regnery, a small Christian house that has become something of a powerhouse by producing Christian-right political work over the past fifteen or so years.

That in itself isn’t much of an issue.  Every book I could think of that would directly counter this one has been published by Prometheus Press, an arm of the Council for Secular Humanism and its Centers for Inquiry.  

But it seems to me that an awful lot of issues oriented publishing is now taking place through small presses, and that so is a lot of the publishing of classical works.  One of the things I have on my coffee table waiting for me to have the courage to start in on it is a volume called The  Great  Tradition, an anthology of writing about the nature of education starting with sources from the Greeks and coming down to the Twentieth Century.  I’m a little afraid to start reading it because the damned thing is big and heavy enough, even in paperback, to serve as furniture.

It’s also published by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, which is an organization working to promote the teaching and study of the Canon–meaning all of it, including works of philosophy and geometry–in American secondary and high education.

I’ve got no problem with organizations like ISI–or CSH, for that matter–publishing what they think are important works in the fields in which they are concerned.  I just find it odd that so little of this sort of thing is being published by major mainstream publishers.

It’s true enough that the audience for classics is limited, but it’s also true that  classics are not very expensive to publish.  By definition, most of that work is in the public domain, and even where it is not–translations, after all, carry their own copyright–payments to interested parties tend not to be high.  And if they are, any classic that has been around long enough has translations that are in the public domain too, although the language might be a little archaic in some ways.

I’m not saying that we are in any way hurting for available texts of the great works of the Great Tradition.  We’re not.  There’s a lot available out there, from the relativel expensive to buy (like Penguin Classics) to the admirably cheap. Barnes and Noble has a publishing program in classics that’s absolutely wonderful, including a two-volume, chronologically arranged edition of the complete  Sherlock  Holmes that is the best portable collection available, anywhere.

What strikes me here is what seems to be a major shift in the self-understanding of the business by the people most heavily engaged in it.  In the Thirties, Forties and Fifties, publishers routinely produced volumes of philosophy, history, literature, poetry, drama, whose sales must have been majorly to libraries–works fifty or a hundred or a thousand years old, but part of that Conversation that is Western Civilization.

These days, though, not only do publishers do very little of this–or, at least, the majors do very little of it–but more and more of the libraries I walk into don’t seem to have much in the way of this stuff, either.  In most of the smal towns around here, somebody who wanted Jane Austen or Thomas Hobbes or Cicero would have to get them on interlibrary loan. 

Connecticut has an excellent interlibrary loan system, one that allows readers to take books out of any library in the state, but such a system only goes so far.  It assumes, for instance, that the reader already knows what it is he wants to read.  I’d never heard of Jane Austen the first time I walked into the library in my small town.  I discovered her by systematically raiding the shelves of the second-floor classic literature section–Austen and Dickens, Dostoyevski and Tolstoy, Balzac and Flaubert.

The philosophy came later, in high school, when I discovered the Yale Co-op, the bookstore of Yale University and therefore carrying all the important works in the Humanistic tradition you could want.  But in those days, most decent sized bookstores carried ‘all that stuff,” and I don’t believe it was because the sales were great.

I suppose you can forgive the smaller bookstores because space is money and they’re barely keeping their heads above water as it is–and I can’t fault Barnes and Noble or Borders, because the superstores cary a wide selection of classics–but I don’t understand what’s going on with the publishers, or the libraries.

Too many of the publishers seem to have redefined themselves as “entertainment content providers.”

Too many of the libraries seem to be forced into chasing popularity over principle.

Written by janeh

October 12th, 2009 at 11:24 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Peace and Swords

with 3 comments

So, okay, I’m usually pretty good at keeping up with the news.

In fact, I’m usually something of a cable news junkie, the kind of personwho has to see all three twenty-four-hour-channel reports of any situation, and then the commentary shows on the same situation, just because…just because.

Never mind.  There isn’t a because.  This obviously comes from the same place inside me that really likes chocolate.

Yesterday, though, I had a pretty cramped day, so that I not only didn’t watch my usual round of stuff, but I didn’t even listen to Ed Flynn on the radio when I was driving around.

Or rather, I did listen to Ed Flnn, but only for a couple of minutes, and he was talking about dogs.  Ed Flynn is our local talk radio wing nut.  He’s been on a local station for about thirty years, and he makes Glenn Beck look positively left wing.  He must hae said something about Obama getting the Peace Prize, but I didn’t hear i.

What all this means, of course, is that I didn’t hear about Obama getting the Peace Prize until I started getting e-mails fairly late in the evening, and then I was just too tired to deal with them.

And what I want to talk about isn’t exactly the Peace Prize.  The Peace Prize, like the prize in literature, has become so politicized by now that it doesn’t mean much of anything I can tell.  On a couple of occasions, I’m fairly sure it was given out–Jimmy Carter especially, but also Al Gore–to insult the Bush administration in particular or the United States in general, and I’ll never forgive Carter for going to Stockholm and bashing his own country.

Some of the right wing pundits I’ve been able to catch since I’ve heard about this say that Obama was given the Price because he “apologizes” of America when he gives speeches overseas–in other words, for the same reason Carter and Gore were given it, which makes me wonder if Moore is going to get Peace or Literature when the time comes.

The more I think about it, though, the more I think it may have been something else.

Americans are always being castigated–sometimes deservedly–with knowing nothing of what is going on in the rest of the world.

In the case of the issue of immigration into Europe and immigrants living in Europe, though, I think the problem is not so much lack of knowledge as excess of history.  Americans have generally done well with immigration, at least in the long run.  The Irish came, the Italians came, the Jews came–and in the end, each group ended up not only assimilating, but establishing a whole new style of “being American” that the rest of us tended to enjoy.

What’s more, our present immigration problem–the millions of largely  Latino immigrants streaming across our Southern border–looks to be headed in the same direction.  Whatever the problems we may be having with it in the short run, the children of even our illegal immigrants speak English, and their children tend to speak only English.  California got rid of bilungual education in its public schools largely because Latino parents, not just Anglo ones, opposed it.

It gets better than that.   The children and grandchildren of our illegal immigrants, and a fair number of new legal immigrants themselves, join the armed services at higher rates than the people whose families have been being born here for many more generations.  America takes immigrants and turns them into Americans, and the immigrants themselves seem to be very enthusiastic about taking part in that process.

For that reason, a number of writers–including Christopher Caldwell, whom I mentioned here a few days ago–tend to compare the immigrantion problem in Europe not with  American immigration, but with American problems with race.  I don’t think that will work, either.

In spite of the Jeremiah Wrights–and Jimmy  Carters–even the inner city kids I meet don’t view the country as being irrepably evil, and most of them get indignant when they read or hear things that suggest we are.   Jimmy Carter’s claim that the resistance to Obama’s administration was mostly about racism got my black students even more angry than it got my white students. 

What’s happening in the huge, growing and largely Muslim immigrant “communities” in Europe has no precedent in the United States, not even during Jim Crow.  In several countries (including Sweden, where Obama will go to accept  his prize), there are large no-go zones in and around the major cities where the police don’t dare to enter and the law does not apply.

The result is always disastrous for two groups of people–women and Jews.  In some neighborhoods in London, Birmingham and Leeds, even non-Muslim women wear the jeadscarf, because n ot to wear it is to risk sexual assault in broad daylight and a constabulary whose basic attitude is that it’s your fault if you got raped, you should know better than to walk around asking for it.

In the midst of the non-stop deniggration of Israelthat is the theme music of much of the European media, there’s another Jewish problem nobody is mentioning–a large-scale emigration of Jews out of Europe to Israel and the United States.  Sixty years after the Holocaust, and the determination that it would never happen again, Jews once again have to fear for their lives walking in certain neighborhoods in Berlin,  Paris, Amsterdam, and  Brussels–and have to fear for their lives because they are Jews.

There’s a lot more to this than I have either the time or the inclination to go into here, including a rising level of sheer brute phsical violence that is making a hash out of Europe’s vaunted social progressivism.

It just occured to me that giving Obama the Peace Prize might have something to do with recognizing the fact that the United Sttes has, somehow, manged to confront the challenges of immigration and race and, make it all work more often than not.

In Europe, they’re not making it work, and it’s no longer possible for them to pretend that it doesn’t matter.

Written by janeh

October 10th, 2009 at 9:24 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Variations on a Theme

with 4 comments

So, okay, it’s Thursday, which is my worst day of the week in terms of having my act together.  I have a late night on Wednesday–I’m teaching an adult night class–and an early morning today, and I tend to be walking into walls.

Today, I’m even more messed up than usual, because when I got home last night my younger son insisted that we stay up and watch the ten o’clock encore showing of Keith Olbermann’s Countdown  Yes, I know, Olbermann is not unbiased, but neither is O’Reilly, and Greg watches him, too.

Last night’s Olbermann was a special edition of the show, a single long rant on the health care debate, occassioned by the fact that he had just seen his elderly father through a bad health care crisis.

And although I quibbled with some of his stuff–he takes the “45000 die every year from lack of health insurance” thing seriously, which I don’t think is warranted by the facts–I couldn’t quibble with the basic thrust of the thing, which is this:  it is completely insane that Americans are not furious with their health insurance conpanies.

Furious enough to get rid of them, I mean.

Because listening to this, I kept thinking that there are really two issues in the health care debate here, and getting them mushed together isn’t helping us any.

One of those issues is, of course, how we’re going to manage to make sure everybody in the US has not only access but full access to the care they need. 

The other one is what we’re supposed to do about a health insurance industry that has become little more than legalized organized crime.

I’m not exaggerating here. 

Too many of the arguments against significant change in this debate seem to be running on the assumption that health insurance and the companies that issue it behaves as it did in, say, 1960, 

Even in 1960, of course, there were signs that something was likely to go badly wrong, eventually.  Medicare exists not because Lyndon Baines Johnson wanted to socialize medicine, but because private health insurance companies were refusing to insure the elderly.

After all, the elderly are the people most likely to get sick.

Right now, the insurance companies have managed to erect a nearly perfect bait-and-switch scam, thanks to both Medicare and Medicaid.

It works like this:

First, they charge significantly high premiums for health insurance coverage, usually paid all or partially by employers.

Then, if you get sick, they do whatever they can to deny you any payment–incidents have included finding “pre-existing conditions” the patient couldn’t have known about, declaring the patient should have known about it and then declaring his contract void because it was “fraud” since he didn’t disclose what he didn’t know about.  That’s my favorite one, but some of the excuses on this front are truly astounding.

But say you get past that, and you end up getting benefits.  If you’ve got something really bad,  a catastrophic illness or an expensive chronic one, then chances are pretty good that you’re going to have to leave work eventually, because you’ll be too sick to keep going.

And as soon as you leave work, you have two choices–lose your health insurance altogether, or buy COBRA.

COBRA is billed at full rates, which means that in the middle of having an illness too bad to allow you to continue working, you’ve got to come up with $1000 a month or more to keep your insurance.

And even if you manage to do that, it only lasts for eighteen months.

At that point, your options for private insurance are functionally nil.  So what happens to you?

Well, you pay for what you can, and when you can’t anymore…the government pays.

Note the sequence here–the government ends up paying for your care when it is most expensive. 

The big whacking hunking medical bills at the end of a catastrophic illness end up getting covered by Medicaid or Medicare, leaving the insurance conpanies off the hook.

And now, the insurance companies are demanding provisions in the new health care reform bill that would REQUIRE individuals to buy insurance whether they want to or not, at the risk of being fined.  People too poor to afford it would be subsidized by the government, but what amounts to “too poor” is, shall we say, contentious.

I mean, look at this situation.

We’ve somehow managed to erect a system where one group of people–insurance companies, their executives and employees–gets to collect really enormous sums of money on the basis of “contracts” that are binding on only the purchaser–a health insurance company can change the provisions of your plan any time it wants to, just because it wants to, and you have nothing to say about it; what’s more, no “competition” is available if you’re already sick, because your “pre-existing condition” means you can’t move companies.

I mean, seriously.

This is not the free market.  This is not capitalism.  This is not limited government, either, since it depands on the governments willingness to enforce “contracts” that aren’t really contracts for one of the partners.

And this is not the doctors charging this, or the hospitals. 

Olbermann ended his show yesterday by calling for a strike–for all of us who have insurance to just stop paying the premiums, cold turkey.

And that actually would be the best possible response to this.

The problem is that most people do not dare do it, because in the present legal framework, it would result in nothing but an opportunity for the insurance companies to get rid of all the sick people. 

Oh, one more thing I didn’t mention–if you happen to have insurance that you pay for yourself, in the “individual” market, the insurance companies can simply cut you from the rolls as soon as you get sick. 

So you pay all this money in case you get sick.  You get sick.  The insurance company sens you a note that says you’re “no longer insurable” and there you are, on your own again.

You just paid–in one case I know of, for fourteen years–for absolutely nothing.

I go back and forth about how I feel about single payer systems, government systems, private systems, whatever.

But I do not go back and forth about this.

I’ll wait on the provisions for covering everybody, if the Obama administration will just put an end to the ability of insurance companies to do this sort of thing and do it legally.

If the answer is that it is not possible to make a profit providing insurance contracts and fulfilling them honestly, then whether we like it or not we will need a government system.

If the answer is that it can be done profitably, but with an earnings ratio of closer to 4% than 17%, then that’s the nature of the business and if that’s not the kind of investment you want to make, you shouldn’t be in it.

What we don’t need is what we’ve got, and it’s got to end.

Written by janeh

October 8th, 2009 at 9:51 am

Posted in Uncategorized

News from the Front

with 5 comments

So, today–

I had a student who didn’t know that pig Latin was different than actual Latin.

I’m not really writing a post here.  I’m just sort of completely floored.

Not that it was the only wrong note in the bunch today, because there were a lot.  But you see what I’m up against.

I tried explaining that Latin had evolved into Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, French, Romanian, etc, and got indignant demands to explain why there’d be so many different ones–I don’t know if my explanation that there was no Internet or television or radio to keep everybody on the same track worked or not.

I suppose this beats the time one of them thought that “Latin” meant “Spanish,” and refused to believe that there was ever a separate language.

But I protest–good writing is not a lot of emotional, airy stuff.  It’s concise, strongly worded, particular and strong.

Unlike all those polite little epiphanies about, I don’t know, life lessons in the apple trees.

Or whatever.

I’ve got to go see if my next class knows…well, anything.

Written by janeh

October 7th, 2009 at 4:59 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Terms of Confusion

with 9 comments

I have odd relationships to words–to some words–sometimes for reasons I understand, and othertimes for reasons I don’t.

Among the terms that bug me for reasons I understand are “brainstorming” and “joystick.”  I understand those because they’re a function of the fact that I’m old, and while the definitions of those terms have changed, their meanings inside my head have not. 

When I was growing up, a “brainstorm” is what we would now call a psychotic break–a short furious period when somebody’s synapses suddenly all exploded at once, in an “episode,” which required everybody around him to figure out what to do with him next. 

As for joystick–well, let me just point out that there were no video games when I was growing up, so when some guy talked about his “joystick,” he wasn’t referring to a piece of electronic equipment.

It was “brainstorming,” that got me going this morning, though, because it’s a word I now have to encounter on a daily basis.  This is because the response of academia to the fact that so many students can’t correctly spell their own names and write them in crayon has been to try to industrialize the teaching of writing in such a way as to “guarantee results.”

I’ve gone off on this subject on a number of levels, the most important one being my conviction that it isn’t possible to teach somebody to write if that person will not read, or read much.

But today it’s the process itself that’s on my mind.

Let me start by saying that the process isn’t by any means all bad.  If  you have absolutely no ear for prose, if you’re learning to write like a tone deaf person would learn to write music, this is probably about as good as it gets.   You start by “brainstorming”–this means thinking of ideas that might relate more or less to a general topic–and move carefully and methodically through outlining, drafting, revising, rervising, until you’re left with something that looks like coherent English prose.

In a way, it’s a more elaborate version of that old grad school standby, the “railroad paper,” so named because you shot straight through it as if you were on a track.  First you tell them what you’re going to tell them, then you tell it to them, then you tell them what you told them.  It sounds awful, and it was boring as hell, but it had the virtue of putting you in a position of never being technically wrong.

“Writing as a process” is like that–follow the rules, and you can never  be technically wrong.  That means that your papers will not fail, and your communications in business or the professions will not elicit groans and hairpulling from the people you have to deal with.

The problem with writing as a process is that nobody who actually is a writer–who makes money at it, either primarily or secondarily–would ever use it.

It’s not just that the process itself is far too self-conscious–although that’s a big drawback–but that it forces you to make what would actually be bad writing choices when you know better.

Good writing is vivid, direct and clear.  “Writing as a process” will give you direct, and help you towards clear, but it’s the enemy of vivid.  Everything in the process is meant to eliminate the kind of thing–hyperbole, judicious use of slang or bad grammar, sharp particularities of anecdote and expression–that makes writing actually worth reading.

“Writing as a process” is designed to make all students write like those “thoughful essays” that appear in textbooks, those essays where everybody sounds reasonable and calm and contemplates small things as if they were of inestimable importance: the day my mother told me she really liked my hat and I finally realized she loved me; the day I realized my math teacher was a Yankees fan and could therefore be called human…

In other words, essays about the kinds of things nobody in their right minds would either write or read about.

If the only result of this dedication to “the process”  was that people who have no ear for writing were enabled to write well enough to stumble through a life where writing is required for more and more things, then all well and good.

My problem comes with the fact that good writers get killed in classrooms where writing is taught as “a process,” for much the same reason why a friend of mine kept flunking math in junior high school–my friend was unable to ‘show all work” because he wasn’t doing any (at twelve, he could look at an algebraic equation with four variables and go, “oh, the answer to that is 42”), and good writers are unable to practice “writing as a process’ because they can’t make the process make good prose.  Acceptable prose, yes.  Good prose, no.

If all writing teachers were good writers themselves, this wouldn’t matter much–the teachers would be able to tell that the writing produced by these students who were not working within the process was in fact good writing.

Unfortunately, not all writing teachers are good writers.  More and more of them are products of instruction in writing as a process themselves, and know very little else.  They also don’t seem to read much in the way of good writing.

So you put a good writer into a class where writing is taught as a process, and his grades go south really fast.

Or they do in any class with more or less well prepared kids in it.  In a class full of people who should have been doing remedial work, a student who can manage to produce comprehensible prose by any method whatsoever will probably be okay in terms of grades.  She’ll be such a relief, her teacher will love her, process or not.

It still bothers me, however, that so much writing is taught in schools and universities by people who cannot themselves write, and who don’t even know how it is done, never having been acquainted with anything but “the process.”

I’m not talking, now, about fiction–fiction is a special case–but about the kind of ordinary prose that exists in newspaper and magazine articles, in op-eds, even in blogs.

The best of that kind of thing–judged by the sheer technical beauty of the prose, now, and not the particular content–ranges from the erudite and clean (like Theodore Dalrymple) to the sharp and skewering (like, say, P.J. O’Rourke). 

And some kinds of bad writing are actually better than the “good” writing as it is displayed in textbook essays about various people’s childhoods or small moments of epiphany on various kinds of trains.

No, I’m not making that up.

If I was going to teach people how to read and write, for instance, I’d much rather assign classes one book each by Michael Moore and Bill O’Reilly than your ordinary writing class textbook.    Both Moore and O’Reilly are partisan and unfair, but it’s on purpose.  They both, uh, let’s say stretch the facts a bit, but that’s on purpose, too, and they’re committed and passionate and capable of using words to cause sparks.

You’ll note here, though–I’m not talking about the kind of reading most of you have complained about from English class.  In writing classes these days, nobody reads novels or poetry.  The standard writing course has become an exercise in “the short essay,” and the standard textbook has become a collection of such essays from whoever knows where.

That last part was deliberate–I’ve been writing for a living for twenty five  years, and I’ve got no idea where you would place most of these essays.  There aren’t all that many little magazines left, and the larger outlets usually like some connection to the wider world.  Private people have priving little epiphanies about stuff in theirneighborhoods, immigrant grandmothers and people they went to high school with don’t usually find a place on the Op-Ed page of the New York Times.

Of course, maybe I’m making too much of it.  Good writing is something I love, and it’s like music, but a piece can be very good writing indeed and be otherwise worthless.  Consider the case of Stephen Glass, who did absolutely brilliant writing for The New Republic and half a dozen other publications, except that he was supposed to be acting as a reporter, and he was making the stuff up.

That’s a question–why is it that there is so little taste for, or respect for, fiction these days, so much insistence that what we read be “real?”  If Glass had been forn fifty years before he was, he’d have written short stories and been well paid for it, and that would have been that.

Okay, I’ve started wandering around in the wilderness again, and I ought to stop. 

By now, it ought to be obvious that this is one of those days I teach.

Written by janeh

October 6th, 2009 at 10:01 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Bad Behavior has blocked 313 access attempts in the last 7 days.