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Archive for March, 2011

Another Wednesday

with 4 comments

This term, Wednesday is my sort of worst day of the week–worst because I have to be up really early and I don’t end until late; sort of because the day that really kicks my ass is Thursday, when, in order to stay on some kind of schedule, I get up at my usual time and then spend the next several hours walking into walls.

This Thursday is going to be worse because Greg has his pre-op doctor’s appointment, and then we’re on the long countdown to the two surgeries.  

It might be a little better if the rest of my life were sane–but this is me, and that’s not how I do things.

Anyway, I thought I’d just sort of check in on a few things, and then go off and listen to why “Bartleby the Scrivener” sucks.

The thing that’s suddenly impinged on my consciousness, somehow, is whatever the hell is going on in Lybia, and I don’t mean the insurrection against Ghadaffi. 

If that’s how we’re spelling it these days.

I have never been a supporter of the Iraq war, but I do understand the rationale for our being there, both the actual one (credible threat) and the one given out for public consumption (WMDs). 

I never found those rationales compelling, but they were rationales and I could see them.

In this case, we seem to be intent on overthrowing Ghadaffi all of a sudden because–because why?   Because he’s a bad man?  Because it turns out we can now more or less prove he was complicit in the Lockerbie bombing?  What, exactly?

I keep coming in on speeches and sound bites that amount to “of course we need to remove Ghadaffi” without giving me a “why,” and to the extent that there seems to be any kind of why, it seems to amount to “because he’s a really bad man.”

What we–and most of Western Europe–seem to be doing is taking the opportunity afforded to us by the rebellion in Lybia to do a little quick regime change.

And I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad idea.  It’s just that I need some kind of rationale for it that I can see makes at least internal sense. 

I am also, I admit, made generally uncomfortable by idealistic rationales for war.

I understand war, both preemptive and reactive, as a way to pursue national interests.   That seems to me to be what war is for, and always has been for.  That’s what war is for even if it is defensive, since it is certainly in the national interest not to be overrun and conquered by an invader.

Right now, though, what I’m getting sounds like incoherent mush–we must intervene because…I don’t know. 

And I really don’t know why everybody seems to be so enthusiastically in favor of it, including a lot of people who were violently opposed to the war in Iraq.

I may, of course, simply be missing something here.  I really haven’t had time to pay attention to the news the last few weeks. 

But, you know, if somebody could explain this to me, I’d appreciate it.

And now I have to go do something sensible about the day.

Which makes me tired even thinking about it.

Written by janeh

March 30th, 2011 at 5:39 am

Posted in Uncategorized

The Milton Problem

with 6 comments

What follows is likely to sound a bit confused, because I’m not sure how to approach what I want to say here.

I spent an awful lot of time on this blog talking about education, and how it should be structured, and all the rest of it.  You would think, since I’d gotten that far in my thinking, I would also have made a comprehensive attempt to make sure that my own education corresponds to what I want for everybody else.

And yet, today, I find myself wondering if it is even possible to deliver the kind of education I want, at least in a comprehensive way.

Which is what brings me to my Milton problem.

My tendency is to associate Milton almost exclusively with Paradise Lost.  This is because that is the work of Milton’s I’m most familiar with, and I, like most “English majors” of my generation and before, was required to take an entire semester long course in which we read nothing else.

There’s a lot that can be said about Paradise Lost.  For one thing, the reading most of us have of Genesis and the story of Adam and Eve almost certainly comes from Milton and not from “scripture alone,” although Milton himself thought he was presenting a fact and not an interpretation.

What he was presenting was actually a fairly standard seventeenth century Puritan reading, and that itself is unsurprising, since Milton was himself a seventeenth century Puritan.

Americans, especially, tend to think of Puritans as dour people in funny hats carrying muskets and shooting turkeys.  If we envision them as “political’ at all, we see them as “conservative” in the sense of “didn’t like and actively resisted change.”

But Puritans were not conservatives in this sense.  In fact, they were nearly the opposite.  The seventeenth century saw a Puritan revolution in England. 

And that revolution was not entirely religious, although it saw itself as having religious foundations. 

Along with the religion–and on the assumption that the changes they were making were supported by religion–the Puritans executed a king and made a Parliament supreme in England for the first time in its history.   The men who made that revolution also argued–and also on religious grounds–for things like freedom of speech and of the press.

In fact, one of the most ardent and prolific defenders of all these things in that same Puritan revolution was…John Milton.

And that odd thing is–I knew that.

I knew that Milton was the author of Areopagitica, the first great defense of freedom of the press in English, and of In Defense of the English People, which championed a republican state without a king.

I knew it both because I’d taken history courses in school and college that dealt with those facts, and because I’d read the short works involved.

In fact, I even have them around the house, in an edition put out by a small press in Indiana.

The problem was that I’d never put the two things I knew about Milton together.   And putting those things together would have helped me solve an intellectual problem that has puzzled me–and annoyed me–for some time.

The intellectual problem is this:  if you look at the writings and web sites put out by Christian conservatives, you’ll often find the claim that the US Constitution is “based on biblical principals.”

The problem with this claim is that, if all you know about anything is what is going on now plus what was directly written about the Constitution at the time of its adopting, this makes no sense.

I’ve actually read the Bible, both old and new testaments, and I have always found it impossible to find the basis for things like freedom of speech and conscience, for instance, or a republican government instead of a monarchy in its pages.

The Bible is, like most of what was written in the seven thousand years leading up to the twentieth century, determinedly and unashamedly monarchical.  And Christian writers leading up to the Puritan revolution in England and for a century and a half after it tended to rely heavily on the “divine right of kings” trope for explaining what the Bible did and didn’t want in a government.

But here’s the thing–the Puritan revolutionaries did not read the Bible that way, and they did read it, and press an interpretation of it, to support freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and elected government.

And people like Milton explain why.

What’s more, the Puritans who landed in New England in 1620 held to this same reading of the Bible, and were intent on establishing not just a religiously pure “city on a hill,” but a politically “Biblical” one as well.

I have no idea whether they people who make these arguments now understand the arguments on which the original Puritan thinkers presented republican government with rights to inquiry, speech and press as “Biblically based.”  My guess is that they don’t, because their work does not present those same arguments, or really any arguments that can be said to be coherent on any level.

But I was wrong to think that such arguments did not exist, and my mistake was all the more curious because I understood that Paradise Lost represented a significant break with most of the Christian theology that preceded it.

Neither Augustine nor Aquinas ever saw anything fortunate about the fall, or saw Adam’s sin as being in any way “understandable,” never mind excusable.

In a properly ordered world, I would have made these connections years ago, because my education would have led me to make them.

In this world, we study “subjects,” and Milton’s poetry is one “subject” while Milton’s involvement in the Puritan revolution is another, and never the twain did meet. 

I suppose that if I’d concentrated in the seventeenth century instead of in the tenth through fifteenth, I’d have found all this out eventually–but I want undergraduates to find it out, not just specialists.

This seems to me to be an enormously important bit of information, one that impacts the understanding of American history as well as British history, of American government as well as British literature. 

And Milton’s essays are worth reading in and for themselves.  Whether or not you think he makes his point for a Biblical foundation for representative government,  they represent some of the first passionate defenses of the rights we now all think of as “American.” 

And that provide much of the foundation for government in contemporary Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand as well.

Okay, maybe I’ve been less incoherent than I feared.

I’ve got to go put on disc two of The Well-Tempered Clavier.

Written by janeh

March 29th, 2011 at 6:12 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Liberation and Limits

with 3 comments

So, a couple of days ago I posted what amounted to a half-assed book review, and I said, in doing so, that I’d put it on a list of intelligent conservative books if anybody ever asked me for one–and that on that same list I would include a number of other works, includind Roger Shattuck’s Forbidden Knowledge:  From Prometheus to Pornography.

Then I had one of those days where I wander around without a book to read wondering what to do next, and I found the Shattuck book sitting on my worktable.

It really is  work table, too, and not a desk–a great, long industrial-strength thing my parents gave me when they gave up their big house in Connecticut and moved to Florida more or less full time.  It was in our basement in one of the storage rooms and used for holding tools, and my brother got its twin.  It’s gone with me literally everywhere since then.  It’s moved continents.  I can’t live without it.

This does mean, however, that it is of such a size that things easily get lost on it.  I must have put the Shattuck on it some time in the past and forgotten about it.  It was then buried under papers, other books, and stray articles of equipment until I came on it yesterday.

And once I found it, I started to read it.  It wouldn’t have occurred to me to go looking for it for that purpose, but there it was, and, like I said, I had nothing to read.  So I started to reread it.

Let me say, first, that I have no idea why I had it fixed so firmly in my mind that Shattuck is a “conservative.”  

In any of the ways in which most of us would define that term in contemporary society, he’s anything but.  He is a long time advocate of a unilateral nuclear freeze, for instance. 

I think my confusion might have come with the fact that Shattuck is not a structuralist or a deconstructionist.  He doesn’t seem to think that all truth is just a matter of structures of power.   He knows a lot about Medieval and Renaissance literature and about the literature of the world’s great religions without needing to explain how they were all really racist, sexist, fascist whatever…

In other words, Shattuck was trained as a Humanist in the old-fashioned sense of the term, as a person who has been educated in the Humanities.  Maybe I’m just so used to thinking of “liberal” literary critics as being people who can’t shut up about politics long enough to actually read the books that I’d forgotten that the great liberal tradition in American universities was something very different from that.

If you don’t believe me, read Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination.

 The second thing is this:  if you want to know what people are actually supposed to learn to do with an education in literature, you should read this book and see it at its best.

When I say see it at its best, I don’t mean that I necessarily agree with its conclusions, to the extent that there are conclusions.

What Shattuck does in this book is to carefully trace the existence, in Western literature, of the them of knowledge–of the quest for knowledge, of the triumph of knowledge, and (especially) of knowledge as sometimes bad for us.

In the bad for us category, Shattuck identifies two types:  one is the usual mad-scientist, Faust narrative thing, knowledge we can’t handle that brings us destruction rather than happiness (think atomic bomb); the other is knowledge that, if we had it, would make us no longer human in the way in which we are not defined as human.

In that second category, Shattuck puts things like ESP–the ability to read minds, to know the content of another’s thoughts and intentions. 

The reason for that second category is complicated, and I don’t want to go into it at the moment.  I will admit it wasn’t something I had thought of before.

 What seems more important to me here is that Shattuck traces these ideas through the imaginative literatures of the world and not–except every once in a while, as sidebars of a sort–through actual historical events.

He begins with the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden–certainly the most influential Faust narrative of all time–and with Pandora’s box, goes from there to Milton in Paradise Lost and on down through the ages. 

Along the way, in those asides, he points out actual public conflicts and events for which those stories provide the frame for the discussion, even when we aren’t aware that they’re providing that frame.

In a way, this is the essence of the Canon–not just things everybody should have read, but things that shape our lives whether we’ve read them or not, because they’ve become part of the very air we breathe.

By the way, in case you’re wondering, the man is in no way restricting his examination to somebody’s Required Reading List.  Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is there, along with Frankenstein and the Marquis de Sade.

And, of course, so are those asides, which include things like the great debate between Thomas Henry Huxley and the leaders of the Anglican Church over Darwin’s theories and the descent of man,  Francis Bacon’s  radical break in the conception of the purpose and meaning of “science” (the quotes are because Bacon still defined “science” as any systematic attempt to know anything, which of course included theology).

A bit further along than I am now, there’s definitely going to be something on the trial of the Marquis de Sade.

And, of course, since no book writtens since the Enlightenment can do without it, he’s made extensive reference to the Galileo affair.

The Galileo thing is my best argument for why we should study literature–for why we should learn to identify a narrative as a narrative and to be suspicious of its factual basis.

The myth of Galileo as the great scientist persecuted by an anti-intellectual theocratic Church for his pursuit of knowledge is so ingrained in this culture that it doesn’t matter how much evidence you bring out to show that it isn’t true, people not only go on believing it, they go on insisting on its veracity even after they’ve seen the falsity of it.

Galileo, by the way, is the reason I always take the protestation of the New Atheists that they deal in reason while religion deals in myth with a grain of salt.  The story of Galileo Persecuted for His Science is a myth and yet it is trotted out as “proof” of the anti-science nature of religion five or six times a week on any atheist web site or forum.

Shattuck would say that the myth matters more than the reality does, because the myth defines our reality.

And he’s right, but you have to be a Humanist–in the original sense of the world–to k now that.

Written by janeh

March 27th, 2011 at 9:21 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Split Personality

with 7 comments

So, in the middle of everything else I’ve been doing, I’ve been reading a book.  The book is called The Wages of Appeasement:  Ancient Athens, Munich, and Obama’s America and it’s by Bruce Thornton, who is Victor Davis Hanson’s second-most-published writer on the VDH Private Papers website.  He’s also a professor of classics at CalState/Fresno.  At least, I think it’s Fresno, but looking at the book, I’m not sure why.

At any rate, a few things about the book before I start:

1) In spite of the title, the book hasn’t much to do with the Obama administration.  In fact, most of the space in the part of the book that is about the US covers Carter and Reagan.  I’ve suffered through enough editorial strongarming over titles in my day so that I’m not sure if the subtitle was Thornton’s or the geniuses at his imprint.

2) I get stuck, with Thornton, as I do with VDH, trying to find a way around the labels “liberal” and “conservative.”

Thornton is a “conservative” in the sense that he’s an anti-terrorist hawk, but he’s not a “religious conservative” (or even religious, as far as I can make out) and he is almost as critical of Reagan as he is of Carter. 

If I had to define a divide between one side and the other on religious matters in a book like this, it’s not between believers and nonbelievers, but between people who think bin Laden and company mean it when they say they’re doing what they’re doing for Allah and people who think bin Laden and company are only claiming a religious reason because it sounds good and what they really want is lots more money and jobs and things, because nobody can believe that stuff any more.

3) This is definitely going down on my list of books to hand people who declare to me that liberals are intelligent and conservatives are stupid.  It goes on the list with Roger Shattuck’s Forbidden Knowledge and Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions and Black Rednecks and White Liberals.

Because I want to go on record here as saying that I wish there were more books in the world like this.

I don’t mean I wish there were more books on this topic, or taking this slant to this topic, although I largely agree with it.

I mean I wish there were more books whose design was to line up similar situations in different eras in history and to outline those similarities and also the differences.

You keep hearing that you need to learn from  history, but you have to do something like this in order to do it, and there’s very little of that kind of thing out there.

The book itself is more difficult to pin down, as a book, because it seems to change tone and focus about halfway through, when Thornton leaves history and begins to analyze the more or less present.

It’s important to understand that what he’s analyzing is not particular policies per se, although he has a go at some of those.

His more insistant focus is the habit of mind evident in most of the post-Vietnam US and the idea that democracy brings with it a tendency for societies to individualize beyond what is feasible to keep a society together.

That is, the tendency for democracies to morph from societies in which each person sees the “government” as something he does and therefore owes a duty to, to something that dispenses benefits of various kinds that he does not need to do anything to deserve.

Okay, I feel like the writing here is absolutely awful, but I can’t help myself.  It’s a complicated book.

The critique of democracy is so strong,  however, that I got to the last chapter wondering if he was about to come out against the idea of democracy altogether–or if he wasn’t, but that the implications of what he’d written were that no democracy could last for long in the face of its own interior contradictions.

In that last chapter, however, he suddenly goes “well the benefits of democracy are so great, they’re worth the risk” and takes off from there.

But I think it’s an interesting question:  is it possible for democracies to survive as democracies?

A fair number of the nominally democratic countries of Western Europe are only nominally democratic.  They are really largely bureaucratic aristocracies–places in which the “will of the people” has been replaced by top-down for-your-own-good regulation that cannot be significantly affected by anything but the most extreme responses of the populace. 

And the US, although nowhere near as far gone as, say, Belgium, seems headed in the same direction.

The simple fact is that the dirty little secret of democratic government is that the “will of the people” is not always the most intelligent choice, and intelligent people get frustrated with having to put up with voters who simply refuse to see what is good for them.  Left to themselves, actual voters tend to want to eat red meat, smoke cigarettes, drink liquor, and exercise only when they have to.  It drives health care costs up. 

Okay.  I’m being sarcastic.  But you know what I mean.

One of the things democracy needs to survive is people in it–specifically the most intelligent and well educated people in it–understanding that there are some things they don’t get to control.  And we all hate not having control.

But I also wonder if democracies lead inevitably to affluence and affluence leads inevitably to self-centeredness and fear.

Somebody I read once said that it’s much easier to be poor if poor is all you’ve ever been.  Once you’ve been rich, subsequent poverty feels much worse than it might have if you’d never have the contrast.

I wonder if part of the problem is just a matter of myopic self interest–I’m comfortable, and I don’t want anything to interrupt my comfort.  And if something is out there looks like it’s going to interrupt my comfort, I’m just going to deny it exists.   

That makes, at least, something of a rational explanation for the refusal of so many people to take jihadist rhetoric seriously, and then to excoriate anybody who tries to get them to take it seriously.

But I also wonder about religion.  Forget, for the moment, whether religion is true or not.

Just ask yourself this:  if you think that the only meaning in your life is the joy you experience living it, are you going to be more or less willing to die for your principles (free speech, freedom of religion, whatever) when those principles are threatened?

I know that I am not religious and that I can yet answer for myself that I would find it imperative to fight and even to die if necessary for the way of life I am committed to.

I don’t think that attitude is general to people who believe as I do in matters of religion. 

And for people for whom the comfort of the present has been accepted unthinkingly, I’m not sure such a feeling of duty to the whole exists at all.

But I also don’t know why I feel differently, or why people like Thornton and Davis and Dalrymple do, even though they’re no more religious believers than I am.

And that is, I think, enough blithering for the morning.

Written by janeh

March 25th, 2011 at 7:57 am

Posted in Uncategorized


with 3 comments

So, here is a link, posted by several people on FB, including a couple who sometimes post comments here:


It’s an interesting link, and I’ve got no argument with it in theory.   In fact, I think it sums up the definition of “rational argument” pretty well.

My problem is that I think it largely misses the point. 

The problem in discussions these days, on the Internet or off it, is not that some people accept that they have to have evidence for their arguments and the other side doesn’t, but that everybody, on both sides, assumes that what the other side asserts as “evidence” is a lie.

If you look at the chart, you’ll find, towards the top:

If one of your arguments is proved to be faulty will you stop using this argument (with everyone).

It’s a nice principle, but when do we know that an argument has proved to be “faulty”?

Start here:  an argument can be faulty in three ways.

First, it can be invalid factually while being invalid formally.  That is, it can be wrong in every sense.  OR

Second, it can be invalid factually while being valid formally.  If you don’t think this can be done, you need to get out more.  OR

Third, it can be valid factually while being invalid formally.  Meaning, you could have the truth and not know how to present it in a valid argument.

For an example of number three, try this: “the world is round.  I know it because everybody believes it.”

That’s an invalid argument.  It’s called the ad populam fallacy.   It is not the case that something is factually true just because “everybody,” or a lot of people, believe it. 

But although the argument is logically  invalid, the fact that it asserts is true. 

The problem comes with deciding what is factually true, and it really isn’t as easy as you think. 

For one thing, most arguments are not about such straightforward issues as whether the earth is round or flat.  They tend to be about things a lot squishier.

Let’s try the topic that is central to the last third of the book I’m reading now–book report later.

What is the reason terrorists attack American and Western European targets?

One side says the reason is a long history of Western and American crimes against humanity–colonialism, imperialism, racism, you name it.

The other side says the reason is religion, and specifically a religion whose theology calls on it to rule the world in order to benefit all mankind with God’s law and to suppress or eliminate the affronts to God’s honor such as tolerance of homosexuality, women’s rights, general debauched adultery and the treatment of all religions as if they were equal.

Now, if it were me, I’d have a good run at defending the second proposition above, because it seems to me to be supported by the facts.  This is especially the case of the fact that the people committing these terrorist attacks say that this second line of thought is their rationale.   In fact, they keep saying it, over and over and over again.

When I assert such a thing in an argument, however, my opponents do not challenge the fact–that the Islamists say it–but the meaning of the fact.

They say that’s all rhetoric, that the real causes of the terrorism are material poverty and corporate exploitation of the resources of Muslim countries.  If we fixed those things, we would find the rhetoric changing and an end to attacks which would no longer be necessary because these countries would control their own resources.

In the long run, this argument will be resolved by facts on the ground, and I tend to think it will be resolved my way.

The problem is that in the short run, the issue is not the facts but the interpretation of the facts.  Both sides agree, without quibbling, that the pronouncements of people like Osama bin Laden and the Muslim Brotherhood say that all the world must Islam, that democracy and “human rights” as proposed by the West are an abomination that must be eliminated from the face of the earth, that Shari’a law must be the law in all places at all times, and that the struggle will not be over until no Muslim must live under the rule of any infidel, anywhere.

We just don’t agree on what all that means.

The other big problem concerns something this chart doesn’t deal with at all:  the tendency of modern arguments to actually be twofold–that is, based on a set of assumptions that are left unstated and therefore cannot be directly countered unless the opponent understands what’s happening and backtracks to do it.

This is true of nearly all the climate change arguments, which appear on a public level as shouting matching about  whether or not climate chane exists at all or whether or not climate change is being caused by human beings. 

But this is not really what the problem is.  The problem is not “does climate change exist?”  The problem is “assuming climate change exists, what (if anything) do we do about it?”

Most of the people arguing that climate change exists or that it exists and is caused by human beings then go on to assert that these facts (and let’s stipulate to them–let’s say we all accept that both are in fact facts) mean that we must do a laundry list of specific things, most of which involve large multinational organizations imposing government-mandated policies meant to change the way people live  in order to halt or reverse it.

But this is a nonsequitor.  Accepting that climate change exists and that human beings cause it does not necessitate any specific set of policy initiatives.  It doesn’t even necessitate the idea that we have to do something to stop or reverse it.

You can go on and make the argument that a specific set of consequences will result if we do not stop or reverse it, and then you can argue which of those projected consequences are in fact facts and which mere speculation–but even if the very worst scenarios anybody has asserted up to now were to be stipulated as true, that still wouldn’t necessitate any specific set of policy initiaves.

The real template for the argument about climate change is as follows:  I find the idea of X so horrendous, I’m willing to put up with a lot of Y to avoid it.

So, for the “climate change proponents,” the argument is:  I find the idea of the possible results of a warming earth so horrendous, I’m willing to put up with a lot of large, centralized bureaucracies with power over my life to avoid it.

And for the “opponents” of climate change the argument is:  I find the idea of large, centralized bureaucracies with power over my so horrendous, I’m willing to put up with all those possible results of climate change to avoid it.

And that’s what we’re really talking about, although we never actually talk about it.

Part of the reason we never actually talk about it is something that’s not on that chart:  each side thinks the other side doesn’t really mean it. 

Take this to another argument for a minute–the one on smoking.

I’ve got a very good friend with a family history of depression.  Bad depression.  There are lots of alcoholics in her family, and lots of suicides. 

She tried, for many years, to do the Sensible Thing and get antidepressant drugs.  They sort of worked, in that she no longer felt suicidal.  In the meantime, however, she also had no sex drive, no ambition, and very little energy.

Then she found something out: she could self medicate with cigarettes.  Nicotine lifted the depression and left her with all her drives and energy intact.  She got promoted at work over and over again, had a series of relationships she was very happy with, socked away a ton of money.

And someday she may get lung cancer, and she knows it.

Her rationale is:  fine, I will, but I find that less awful than a life lived the way I was living it with the antidepressant drugs.

Almost universally, people listening to her make this argument say:  oh, but that’s the addiction talking!  You don’t really mean that!

I would say that response is far more a bar to real, rational discussion than most of the things listed on the chart. 

I’m not dissing the chart.  It’s good, as far as it goes.  I just think it’s superficial.

Because the real issues are not the ones it outlines, but the unstated assumptions of all the parties and the definitions accorded to things like “reason” and “facts” that are not in fact common to all sides of any of these arguments.

Written by janeh

March 23rd, 2011 at 6:36 am

Posted in Uncategorized


with 2 comments

I know when I’ve been away from the blog for a longer time than usual, because the program suddenly starts to demand that I sign in. 

And then, of course, I start to worry that I can’t remember my password.

This appeared as a link on Arts and Letters Daily this morning:


What it actually is is a book review from The New Republic.

As a book review from The New Republic, it is what I think of as a hopeful sign, even if it does announce–as though it’s an insight–that “cultural relativism” is rarely actually relativistic.

And it does that thing, common in certain publications, about talking about “progressives” as if they’re the only ones in the room.

But the book, although short, sounds good–and it occurs to me that if you could have really cheap paperback copies of it printed up,  you could buy it in bulk to hand out to people who are taking umbrage at whatever this morning.

The idea of being able to handle it out to Germans who lecture you on how all things American are evil and wrong…well, I guess it would be more constructive than my usual habit of telling them that, for obvious reasons, I don’t take moral criticism from the descendants of the Reich.

In the meantime, though, I found myself in the curious position of having something I say frequently clarified for me–that is, I now know how to say it better.

It’s been my theme, and not only on this blog, but in a lot of places for a very long time, to tell fellow Democrats that they are never going to be able to get the votes to get what they want if they don’t learn to respect the people who do the voting.

Specifically, if they can’t learn to respect the Christians, fundamentalist and otherwise, or the NASCAR guys, or the Tea Party people.

Every once in a while, when I go into one of those rants, I get responses that say things like:  how am I supposed to respect stupid people who believe in Creationism?

Or things of that kind.

And I finally figured out how to say what I was trying to say.

When I say that you need to respect your opponents, including the ones who really, really, really don’t agree with you, I don’t mean that you should think that their ideas are just as good as your ideas, or that they’re not wrong about the things they think.

It means that you should do them the courtesy of actually believing that they think them.

Too much of what I see of liberal/progressive/left criticism of political ideas on the right comes down to:  this isn’t what they really think, they’re just duped by big corporations and evil establishment Republicans; this isn’t what they really think, they’ve just been fed a lot of lies by Fox News so they don’t get it;  they say they think this, but it is really just a cover for something else.

That last one is the staple of abortion arguments–the pro-life people aren’t actually opposed to abortion because they think it’s infanticide, they’re opposed to it because they’re afraid of women’s sexuality, or they want to oppress and control women on all fronts, or because…

The net result of this is that the abortion-is-infanticide argument doesn’t ever get countered directly, and to the extent that it gets encountered at all it does so sort of flippantly and dismissively in ways that do not address the core issue at all.

What’s more, bits and pieces of the pro-choice argument are left floating around in ways in which even their proponents wouldn’t like if they actually realized what they were saying.

Saying, for instance, that one of the reasons abortion should be legal is that some fetuses are badly malformed and the child when eventually born (if born) will be severely disabled leaves you open to the argument that, if it is such a horrendous thing to be disabled, possibly we should terminate the lives of born individuals who are disabled in that way.

And the first step in that argument has, in fact, been made, by our old friend Peter Singer, who has argued that parents should be allowed to decide to terminate the lives of their newborn children in the first 28 days after birth if they decide that that birth will “negatively impact” the “quality of life” of the rest of the family over time.

Most people, of course, don’t want to go there, but they also don’t know that they’re setting themselves up for that as a destination. 

One of the positive results of taking the other side’s arguments seriously–that is, assuming they mean what they say, learning to understand what it is they say, and then engaging it–is learning to refine your own arguments so that you get out of that kind of hole. 

Of course, the conservatives do this kind of thing as well–but I’m not particularly interested in conservatives, since I’m not one.    If they want to do self destructive things that kick themselves in the foot, that’s their problem.

All that said, I’m still waiting for a real conversation about policy–one in which everybody is actually talking about the same subject. 

It’s one of those things that would be nice for a change.

Written by janeh

March 22nd, 2011 at 9:04 am

Posted in Uncategorized


with 7 comments

Well, it’s Wednesday.  And since Wednesday is the only day of this week when I really need to have gotten some sleep the night before, I did not, of course, get much in the way of sleep tonight.   I got so little, in fact, that I’m pretty much walking into walls.

Beyond that, there are some things.

First, I seem to be practically the only person on earth who has not decided that the damage from the tsunami in Japan means that we shouldn’t have nuclear power plants. 

I tend to think about nuclear power plants the way other people think about flying on airplanes–yes, when they have an accident, they do a lot of damage and you’ll probably die.  But they very rarely have accidents. 

They also provide a really necessary and useful service, so if I’m playing the odds, the likelihood is that I’m going to fly.

Consider the really pressing need to free up as much of this country’s energy supply from Middle Eastern oil, I’ll take the nuclear reactors.  Paris has something like 40 of them ringing the city, and I doubt that they’re going to stop because of the tsunami.

Next is that I really wish I understood what just went on in Wisconsin.  I know this is supposed to be simple, a complete no brainer, but it really isn’t to me.

The little town where I live has a paper that comes out once a week, and last week’s edition–this thing comes out on Thursday–was full of letters from people talking about “the haves” and “the have nots,” and identifying “the haves” as “government workers.” 

I know the people in this town, and I know the people who wrote those letters.  They don’t have lots of money.  They don’t own big businesses, and only two of them have ever owned any kind of business. 

I don’t tend to accept arguments that go, “well, they’re just so stupid they’ve been duped by the Republicans and they’re acting against their own best interests.”   In almost every case where I’ve heard this argument made, it’s turned out to be wrong.

So I end up sitting here wondering what this is actually about.   This is especially the case because there isn’t a chance in hell that Connecticut will go the way of Wisconsin on union issues.

I don’t much like my present governor.  He was, for me, screamingly on the wrong side of Kelo.   And he’s made it perfectly clear that he’ll raise taxes as much as necessary to maintain the present level of services and state worker pay scales. 

Maybe this is just another case where it seems to me that people are just not paying attention.

In the meantime, the big thing people are not paying attention to just goes on and on, and I don’t see it stopping.

Back in the Fifties, when each little town made its own decisions about its own schools, nearly everybody was willing to support those schools to the death.    Then came Brown vs. Board of Education, which was a necessary thing–but instead of it being a one-time exceptional decision meant to rectify an exceptional wrong (the legacy of slavery), it became a template for everything.

Now our public schools are controlled by state boards of education, national professional associations, and court decisions–and more and more people hate and resent them by the day.

I’d think there was a connection, but apparently nobody agrees with me.

I really am remarkably screwed up here.  I should probably go find more caffeine.

Let’s just say that today, I not only don’t think we can solve our problems with reason.

I don’t think we can solve our problems at all.

Written by janeh

March 16th, 2011 at 7:19 am

Posted in Uncategorized

The Truman Capote Syndrome

with 2 comments

Well, sort of.  This was at Arts and Letters Daily this morning:


As articles about this kind of thing–the craving some intellectuals have for power and celebrity, not necessarily for themselves,  but in other people–it’s rather standard stuff, not anything we haven’t noticed before.

I think the quoting from Rousseau on the utter vileness of the (professional or otherwise) “man of letters” is kind of funny, because it applies at least as much to himself as it ever has to anybody else.

Rousseau thought he was writing about Voltaire.

But the reason I linked to it today was that I have been thinking about a parallel problem–the problem of writers and intellectuals who suck up not to tyrants but to socialites, who spend themselves on the nearly endless flattery of people with lots of money and lots of fashionable “in.” 

Which is why I’ve been calling it the Capote Syndrome in my head.  As far as I know, Truman Capote was not political in any way.  He didn’t suck up to tyrants or champion socialism or do any of the other fashionable political things that were the public stock in trade of people like Noam Chomskey.

Capote sucked up to “ladies who lunch,” to people with very little to show for their lives except the money to spend on ridiculously priced handbags and overnight flights to parties in places the tourists hadn’t discovered yet.

They were, I suppose, the precursors of Paris Hilton.  They didn’t “do” anything, although some of them had husbands who did (and therefore made lots of money).  Instead, they went to lunch with each other, gave parties for each other, got invited to auctions at Park-Bernet and fashion shows at Mainbocher–and then, when that was over, went home and did it all again.

I don’t suppose there was anything terrifyingly wrong with these people.  They were just shallow and aimless and lacking in both character and distinction.  That made them like a lot of other people.  They just had more money than other people did, and they used that money to make a life that was all about who they didn’t want to know.

Who they kept out was always more important to them than who they let in.

There are, as I said, almost certainly people like that today, although Paris Hilton may not be one of them.  She seems sort of relaxed about who she lets in.

I was thinking about all this because I was reading a book, called The Two Mrs. Grenvilles, by Dominick Dunne.   It’s a book of a type I don’t really care for, but it’s tremendously well done, and I reread it every couple of years ago.

It’s a book about the lives of the kind of people Truman Capote spent his life desperately chasing from one party to the next, and there is a character in it that is a thinly disguised Capote to boot, probably because Dunne took the basic outlines of his story from the account of the same incident that appeared in Capote’s Answered Prayers.

The book itself would have been enough to remind me of all this, but I was also reminded that Dunne was a lot like Capote.  Reading his memoir, The Way We Lived Then, is enough to make your teeth hurt.

And, I’ll admit, it astonishes me. 

Truman Capote was an enormously talented man, no matter what else he was.  In Cold Blood is not just a very good book, it changed the world of writing nearly overnight, and it’s still the benchmark for true crime writing. 

He had things to offer that the people he chased after did not.  He drowned what should have been a very long and distinguished career in social climbing, parties, and substance abuse, and I can never figure out why. 

Dunne was not so talented, but he wasn’t untalented either, and he’d done quite a few things in his life.  He was something of a noise in television in the early Sixties, one of the producers of Bewitched.   He followed that with a series of best-selling novels, a popular true crime television show, and dozens of other accomplishments that most writers working freelance would have been proud.

And yet, somehow, somewhere, there was something in his head that just could never rest on that, that was always hungering after the right invitation to the right party by the right people.

Maybe it’s just the result of the fact that I am so spectacularly not a social person–I virtually never go to parties, I hate talking on the phone, I haven’t had a picture taken of me in a decade–but I remain completely and utterly mystified by the phenomenon.

I mean, even the dictators have done something with their lives.  It’s a bad something, but they’ve done it.  What is the point of Mrs. North Shore-and Sutton Place whose last really big accomplishment was giving a Marie Antoinette Party where all the guests were required to come looking as if they were headless?

I wonder sometimes what Capote would have written if he’d just, well, written, instead of doing what he did. 

And I wonder if it’s any accident that the people who do this–the artists and writers who do it, but also a lot of the non-artists in the core group who do it–require such huge reservoirs of chemicals to get through it.

There.  I’ve been depressing enough for the day.

Written by janeh

March 14th, 2011 at 4:11 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Wilsonian Rag

with 5 comments

Every once in a while, somebody commenting on this blog will have a conniption because some book or the other that he (or she) wants to buy and read isn’t in print anymore and isn’t available.

I’ve got a similar complaint–there are too many books out there I don’t really want to spend money on that are, in fact, still in print, and therefore cannot be had on the Internet for free.

One of these is the collection of essays by Edmund Wilson that includes both “Why Do People Read Detective Stories” and “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?”   Last I checked, if I want them, I’ve got to buy the very expensive Library of America edition.


You’ve got to understand that I’ve got a very odd relationship to the work of Edmund Wilson.  I’ve read very little of it, and what I’ve read has seemed to me to be completely assinine. 

Wilson is not considered a serious critic in academic literature departments.  Neither in college and graduate school was I assigned a single one of his essays, although I got a lot of Yvor Winters, Cleanthe Brooks, Allen Tate and F.R. Leavis.  If you’d asked one of my old professors about Wilson, he’d have told you that the man was a “journalist” and that his audience was…well…you know. People who weren’t trained in the field.

To put it politely.

Over the years, I’ve heard people say that Wilson is “worshipped” as a critic, but he isn’t in the circles in which I move. What people seem to like about him, when they like him, is that he tried to “mold the taste” of the general public.

Most of us find the idea of a critic “molding our taste” to be annoying.  The thing is that people who admire Wilson think he did it successfully.  I’m more than a little skeptical.  Wilson carried on a forty year war against detective novels and Ernest Hemingway both.  Detective novels are still going strong–yes, even the country house ones–and Hemingway is not only going strong but even more firmly established as a Great American Writer than he ever was.

I’m not sure why it is people think that the course of American literature was ever actually “molded” by literary critics. 

It’s true that the past of American literature was, because the idea of a distinctly “American” literature with its own canon, separate from the British, was essentially invented in the Twenties and Thirties by people like that same Yvor Winters mentioned above.

But that project was a matter of hindsight, of taking what already existed (Hawthorne, Poe, Melville, Cooper) and organizing it into a coherent whole.

That works because it’s an essentially evidence-based project:  here is what has lasted.  What does it mean that it has lasted?

What Wilson and the other Sheridan Whitesides of the American literary scene tried to do–and still try to do, today, sometimes–was to change the public in a way that would predestine certain kinds of things to succeed and others to fail, thereby determining in advance what would count as “literature.”

In general, they failed miserably, even during the time when they were actively being published and read.   I don’t think it’s something new that people don’t really want their taste molded.

But the idea that this once was the case, that a critic like Wilson or a stolid middlebrow institution like The Book of the Month Club could “mold” public taste into something more “intellectual” than it would have been otherwise persists.   You can find it in Susan Jacoby’s Age of American Unreason as easily as in Salon’s article about how Wilson “devastated” the country house mystery. 

I actually ran into a personal case of it a few weeks ago, when I went to give a talk at a library in northern Connecticut.  My hosts quite graciously took me out to a very lovely dinner–and brought to the signing a cake with a picture of the cover of Wanting Sheila Dead on it.  I’ve got a picture of that cake.  It’s wonderful.

We were talking about a recent contretemps at the library over a showing of Michael Moore’s Sicko, when one of the group told me positively that until the Sixties, there had been “consensus.”  Most people had agreed on most things.  There wasn’t all this rancor and division.

And he was at least as old as I am, which means he should have known better.

It doesn’t surprise me that people should want such consensus.  It only surprises me that people think it ever existed.  God only knows I get as tired as anybody else of all the yelling and screaming, but I think I know that there was always yelling and screaming.

And I think this was especially true, as it is especially true, in the public taste for literature of whatever kind.  The haydey of Edmund Wilson was also the haydey of the pulp magazines and the dime novels–and of Christie and Hemingway, neither of whom he wanted to public to be able to stand.

And, like I said, fifty years later, Hemingway is in no danger of being outshone by Wilson and the detective novel is actually having something of a surge.

And the only time I hear about Wilson is when he’s mooned at by some journalist somewhere, or somebody here gets annoyed with him.

Written by janeh

March 11th, 2011 at 11:28 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Edens, Plural

with 2 comments

So, I am sitting here in my office, having had the first decent night of sleep I’ve managed in over a week, and a very odd thing is going on. 

Playing behind me is my favorite Bach piece–Concerto in D Minor–and the steady hum of my sons talking on and on about some ancient Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtles episode, or movie, or something.

Years ago, I told myself that I wanted to raise children who would be able to “like” Bach and Superman.  I guess this means I managed it, but it’s very odd nonetheless.

Anyway, in spite of the peculiarity, this is not what I am thinking about.

I am thinking, instead, about one of my favorite books in the entire world, Rest You Merry, by Charlotte McLeod. 

Bill and I knew Charlotte very well before her last illness, but I had heard of her long before I met her, and I once did one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever done in my life by not going to a signing she was doing at Murder Ink in Manhattan.

Let me explain.  That was before I’d met her, and Carol Brenner, who then owned the store, made a special point of contacting me when Charlotte was coming to sign, because she knew I liked Charlotte’s books.

I decided not to go, because I was sure she wouldn’t want people to “bother” her.  No, I am not making this up.  I thought a writer coming for a signing would be upset and put off by the fuss of people wanting to meet her.

I figure ever dud signing I’ve ever had since is probably punishment for that really ridiculous decision.

But, again, that’s not what I was thinking of.

I feel like Emily Latella–never mind.

Charlotee McLeod is largely the reason I am a mystery writer.  I found two of her books–The Family Vault and Rest You Merry–in Jacoby’s bookstore in East Lansing, Michigan, when I was completely strung out by teaching and graduate school and everything else.  It was the end of a term.  I was contracted to teach for the next term.  I read those two books, thought:  hell, I wish I could do that–and bought a ticket to New York.

McLeod writes what are honestly placed in the “cozy” category by definition these days, but she does it well enough that her books have none of the really awful qualities of most cozies.  Part of that is that she writes well, and part of it, I suspect, is that Charlotte took seriously what too many other cozy writers take as an excuse for cute.

There is certainly some cute in Charlotte’s work, but it’s never too much.

And, in the Peter Shandy books, there is the background: Balaclava Agricultural College.

Let me start by saying that I don’t think anything that will follow will constitute a spoiler.  I’m not talking about the mysteries here, but about the landscape in which the mysteries take place.

And that is something that every writer of a series, even of a series that is not cozy, takes some trouble over.  The background characters and the background situation are important.   They are what readers will follow from book to book, so much so that the mystery itself can often be weak if the background is strong.  Writers get away with a lot that way.

Balaclava Agricultural College is a small school in Western Massachusetts where all the students are working hard on rock-solid vocational majors.  They’re learning to become farmers, plant soil scientists, even restaurant owners.

As a means of teaching them to do all these things, the college has the students running everything–the cafeteria that feeds students, faculty and staff; the power system (run entirely on methane gas from the…output of livestock); the maintenance of the grounds (horticulture is a major).  Anyway, you name it.

And Peter Shandy, our hero, has become a reasonably rich man by inventing new forms of plant life and patenting the designs.

Of course, the college has become well off from this, too, since they get a cut.

I think I was more than usually susceptible to the charms of Balaclava Agricultural College because I was teaching at Michigan State, and MSU is the ultimate in “cow colleges.”   It was even called, originally, “Michigan Agricultural College,” as the name of its main thoroughfare–MAC Ave–attests.

If there was one thing I learned at MSU, it was a healthy respect for what somebody needs to know to do agriculture well.  I admit to being almost besottedly in love with all things having to do with horticultural majors, who spent their time planting things (in good weather) that were truly amazing to walk through to and from classes.

My favorite project of theirs was the spring tulip thing, where they planted nearly every available patch of ground with huge phalanxes of tulips in every conceivable color, arranged in patterns and pictures and I don’t know what else. 

I have no idea what the rigor of their coursework was like–the level of coursework in the courses I taught there was considerably higher than any I could ask of even my best students now–but I do know that I think there ought to be places for people to go to learn these kinds of things. 

And I’ve got no objection to my tax dollars being used to run institutions that do teach that kind of thing.

It’s also why I got so annoyed at Jane Smiley’s Moo, set at a thinly disguised University of Iowa, where she taught for many years.  But then, I get annoyed at Jane Smiley all the time.  We came out of the same undergraduate college English department, and yet she managed to say, on the publication of A Thousand Acres, that King Lear made no sense unless you assumed he’d been sexually abusing his daughters.

I mean, sometimes my head hurts.

There is, of course, no institution that runs as Balaclava Agricultural College runs, but that’s why you write a series background–to do perfectly what cannot exist perfectly in real life.

One of the things I find interesting about myself–okay, don’t all jump up at once yelling “but we don’t!”–is that I find such a varied group of series backgrounds congenial. 

I could live happily at Balaclava Agricultural College as Charlotte wrote it.  I could live happily in the New York  of Ed McBain and the London of Martha Grimes and the Indian reservations of Tony Hillerman.

So, whatever it is I’m responding to must not be the places themselves, but something about each one that is constant among them.

And I find, this morning, that I have no idea what.

A friend of mine sent me the latest copy I have of Rest You Merry, and I read it as soon as it arrived and then read it again and then picked it up yesterday when though I was going to explode.  So I’m reading it again.

But I’m not reading it for the mystery.

I know how that works out.

By the way, though–it’s a good one.  If you haven’t read this book, you really should.

Written by janeh

March 10th, 2011 at 12:04 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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