Friday, June 29, 2007

The Senate does right

The so-called comprehensive immigration bill has died in the Senate–a very good thing. The sponsors had hoped to ram this legislation through without any hearings or full discussion. Our masters know what is best for us.

As regards the Iraq war, so far Bush has been able to cow the Republican base, at least most of it, by invoking the talismanic mantra “support the troops.” In the matter of immigration, the mantra “amnesty” worked the other way.

The defeat of the bill means that the Bush administration will not have a single positive achievement to its credit. If George W. Bush is not the worst president ever, he is doing a very good imitation.

I trust that that this event also scuttles the candidacy of John McCain, the arch-warmonger. To be sure, this defeat is a little like getting Al Capone for income tax evasion, leaving his main transgression untouched, at least so far. But it assures, I think, that that particular militarist will never become president.

As regards immigration, the present situation amounts to a huge program of corporate welfare. Three successive administrations, those of Bush 1, Clinton, and Bush 2, have essentially looked the other way while the human tide washed over. That is what the Wall Street Journal wants. Business loves illegal immigrants because it can keep their wages at rock bottom, and cow them with the implied threat of deportation. There is no good reason for the prolongation of this flagrant illegality. Existing legislation would allow massive arrests of the cynical employers, but of course the lobbyists’ strangle hold in Washington blocks such salutary steps.

Since the earlier legislation has not been enforced, critics were rightly concerned that the new provisions would not be either. The human tide would not be reduced but increased. That is what the Chamber of Commerce faction wants. Typical of capitalism at its worst, the employers of illegal aliens care only for profits and not for the welfare of the nation.

In the wake of this defeat we may expect to hear more calls for muzzling talk radio. These calls come most vociferously from the liberal side, where the commitment to freedom of expression has long been, in my view, distinctly wobbly. Of course, as the comments of Trent Lott indicate, “controlling” talk radio has bipartisan appeal.

There are plenty of liberal voices, including the New York Times, NPR, Air America, and the major TV networks. But some liberals long for the good old days, when they were hegemonic. Some might even applaud the policy of Mussolini’s Radio Italiana: “Freedom of expression for those qualified to hold it.”

Of course I read the New York Times and listen to NPR. But I am glad that other voices can be heard too.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Don't just do something; stand there

I’ve been trying to prune my library, some 20,000 volumes, of unneeded items. Yesterday my harsh gaze fell on a clump of books on academic freedom, especially in the perspective of the threats posed by political correctness, speech codes, and false allegations of sexual harassment.

Many have sought to make light of these problems. Yet through my teaching at the City University of New York, together with my work with the National Association of Scholars, I learned that such infractions are all too real. Some professors, generally of a left-liberal persuasion, retaliate against students who refuse to toe the line and echo their views. These zealots may be few in number, but (since the overwhelming liberal leanings of academic faculties are well known to students) the recorded incidents must have a chilling effect. Better not to take a chance, students reason, by seeming to advocatie “reactionary” or non-PC views.

Ironically, this tendency to enforce political orthodoxy may have had a reverse effect, as students resolve to think outside the conventional box once they leave campus. Many of these students turned out to be “South Park conservatives,” combining iconoclasm with skepticism regarding liberal pieties. Recently, to judge by an article in the New York Times today, this pattern may be changing in its turn, as students again turn leftwards. How could they do otherwise in view of the grotesqueries committed by Bush, Cheney and their minions?

No doubt such academic interventions, intended to promote conformity instead of original thinking, are still going on at many campuses, especially at elite ones with the highest concentration of PC faculty. Yet the matter has been thoroughly aired, as seen in the books that I no longer need. Possible victims are alerted. As a result, the whole issue has receded in significance. Moreover, who ever thought that American universities were--or ever could become--perfect?

Here is another burning issue that gradually faded in significance. During the 1970s, when I joined the gay activist movement for a few years, the burning issue was the conflict between the reformers, who wished to address gay rights within the context of American society, and the (would-be) revolutionaries, who believed that gay rights could only come as the result of a fundamental restructuring of social and economic arrangements. This controversy chugged along, taking a new form in the 1990s, when the Queer Nation folks spoke out against those they labeled “assimilationists.” As more and more gay men and lesbians aspire to a stable middle-class lifestyle, it may be that (as my friend Paul Varnell has argued) that the forces of embourgeoisement have won out. Still, as we were reminded a few days ago, the “excesses” of the Pride Marches show that there remain some--exhibitionists and others--who have not been won over to the assimilationist template. At all events, the whole controversy has come to seem almost archaic. We have moved on to other concerns.

Here is a third example of crisis subsidence. During the 1970s it seemed that crime rates in American cities were just going to increase year after year. But in the eighties these rates began to decline. Various reasons have been advanced for this success, ranging from better policing and decreasing tolerance for social acting out, to stabilization of drug-dealing turfs and even access to abortion. To be sure, there are still horrific crimes, as the media with their “if it bleeds, it leads” policy keep telling us. But the fear that just leaving one’s residence means the danger of becoming a victim of crime has pretty much disappeared. Again there has been a gradual abatement. The problem has not disappeared, but it has become manageable.

I conclude that this pattern of crisis recession is much more widespread than is generally assumed. The lesson? “Don’t just do something. Stand there.” This precept may not be universally valid, but if one can just hang on it works in a surprising number of cases.


Monday, June 18, 2007

Compromise: our national tradition

The genius of the American system is compromise. The primal compromise is enshrined in our very name: the United States. The identity of the component units is signified by the word “states.” “United” attests their resolve to remain a whole.

Successful compromises are not easily attained. It took us several tries to get it right. The first attempt, the Articles of Confederation of 1781, gave too much power to the states. The Constitution of 1789 found a better balance between the states and the central government, as well as setting the pattern for the separation of powers among the branches of the federal government. Ultimately, this arrangement was not consolidated until the Civil War, which established the principle that the states are not entitled to go their own way, breaking the union.

A good example of compromise at work is our national compact on religion. The Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, while at the same time barring government intervention in favor of a particular religion. Not everyone is happy with this arrangement. Some Christianists want to have their religion ensconced as the law of the land. A much smaller group--the atheists who have recently found their voice in the writings of Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and others--would severely limit the role of religion in our national life. It is safe to say that most people are satisfied with the present compromise. At all events, the constitutional safeguards protecting it are firmly in place.

While the principle of compromise belongs to the “deep structure” of the American Republic, its effects are not always benign. After Reconstruction failed in the South in 1877, the appalling system of racial segregation set in throughout the region. It took the sustained efforts of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s to right this wrong.

Today the outlines of an unfortunate compromise are emerging with regard to same-sex marriage. To be sure, I am glad that Massachusetts turned away the effort to challenge gay marriage in that state.

We hear some rather expansive jubilation. “Hooray, equality has been achieved!”

The sobering truth is that equality has not been secured. Massachusetts provides the honorific title of marriage to the gay and lesbian citizens who want it. But it has not, and cannot, offer the more than 1000 federal benefits that are the immediate perquisite of any and every heterosexual couple who get married in that state. Equality has not been achieved in Massachusetts.

Moreover, it is widely assumed that Massachusetts is the model for the other states. In a sense it has been for those states, mainly in the northeast, that have some form of civil unions. Yet so far, Massachusetts is the only state that has “full” marriage--and as we saw even there true equality is not the norm.

I take no joy in this patchwork. Only lawyers could do so, and I trust that they will be discrete enough to curb any public enthusiasm for what is happening. The lawyers will take the situation to the bank, though, for the complexity of jurisdictions is inevitably leading to all sorts of disputes regarding cross-state recognition, divorce, child custody, and many other matters.

Since there are quite a number of red states that remain adamantly opposed to gay marriage, the stalemateå is likely to last for a long time. Given the present composition of the Supreme Court we cannot look for help in that quarter.

If there is a silver lining in this tangle it is this. The patchwork assures the defeat of one particular conservative concept of gay marriage. That is to say, the idea that same-sex marriage will bond with the efforts to strengthen marriage in general in order to create a new regime of virtue. For such advocates, “promiscuity” (that is individual choice in the matter of sex and partnership) is the ultimate horror. Yet as we move in the direction of Scandinavia, that particular rollback is not in the offing.

Some of the same-sex-marriage virtuecrats remain hopeful Yet as Jonathan Rauch, the most eloquent and tenacious of their number, recently conceded, most of those who are seeking the benefits of gay marriage and civil unions tend to see the matter in individualistic terms. That is to say, they seek security and dignity for themselves, their partners, and their children. They are not enrolling in a new campaign for moral rearmament.

Dismal realities in Israel/Palestine

While not entirely unexpected, the violence accompanying the Hamas takeover in the Gaza strip is deeply disquieting. It calls for a major reassessment.

While my political views are eclectic, it is fair to say that my approach to the I/P problem has been in broad accord with the more moderate elements of the international left. In these circles a variation on the Rodney King principle has prevailed: “Can’t they all just get along?” Since the Israelis hold most of the cards, it seemed to follow that they should grant concessions in order to make a solution work. Regrettably, the continuing establishment and enlargement of the settlements on the West Bank, together with the accompanying system of highways and checkpoints and the fence, constitute major obstacles to an agreement.

That agreement, as even the Bush administration has conceded, would require a two-state solution. Yet that goal no longer seems possible, as we now have three states. Or to be more accurate, one real state (Israel) and two that are disastrously failing.

As I have emphasized in previous postings, poorly designed Israeli policies have contributed to this failure. One must ask, though, whether, even under the most benign conditions, the Palestinians would be able to get their act together. The problem transcends the Palestinians as such. There are more than twenty Arab states. Yet not one has a decent government. Today, with the collapse of the hoopla about spreading democracy, there is talk about settling for “consensual authoritarianism,” that is, the system that prevails in Egypt and the Gulf monarchies. What is “consensual” about these states?

The real truth is an ugly one. In the Arab countries self-rule entails misrule. It means suppression of freedom of the press and expression, limitation of the rights of women, and persecution of homosexuals. The reasons for this dismal situation are partly to be sought in history. For centuries, most of the Arabs were ruled by the Ottoman Turks, an autocracy with an elaborate caste system (the millet). In 1920 the British and French took over. They did no better.

One reason democracy was able to reassert itself in Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Hungary after the end of Soviet domination is that many people there could remember a previous system of pluralism under conditions of civil society. Arab countries, dominated by a fanatical bodies of religious savants known as the ulema, have no such heritage to fall back on.

So even if the Israelis were simply to turn over the keys and walk away--a solution covertly desired by the crazy faction of the international left--conditions for the Palestinians would not be promising. In the light of what is happening in Gaza, their situation might well turn out to be worse, as gun-toting factions fought over the spoils. From the Israeli point of view, then, there can be no other solution than containment. Those of us like myself, who were formerly in the Rodney King camp, need to acknowledge this necessity.

Just as with individuals, every country has an inherent right to assure its own survival. Doubtless this possibility will still not be conceded to Israel by the extremist in the “anti-imperialist” camp. It remains a foundational truth. But by the same token, no country, including Israel, should have an unchallenged right to subordinate another to its foreign policy.

And that subordination is what we have seen all too often in the US. Criticism of policies of particular Israeli governments is automatically equated with anti-Semitism by the Alan Dershowitzes of this world. Such slurs are likely to increase, rather than diminish the number of real anti-Semites.

Particularly disquieting is the current agitation in Israel for bombing Iran. This sentiment plays into the hands of the Cheney gang in Washington, which is relying upon an armed showdown with Iran to mask our failure in Iraq, and to lock us into a Middle Eastern imbroglio that will last for generations. We must not allow that outcome to happen.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Blogging and elitism

I am a serious consumer of political opinion, probably more than is good for me. The other day I spoke to a friend who says he turns his television set on only every two years or so. Admirable! Once upon a time I was in that position, but gradually the addiction creeps up on one. So I spend a fair amount of time looking at MSNBC and CNN. I also listen to National Public Radio.

I never used to read the New York Times, except on weekends--until my ex-partner convinced me to subscribe. Now looking at the rag is part of my morning ritual.

Paradoxically, if one takes this political opinion stuff seriously, one should disregard most of it. But that is hard to do. The asymmetry of the relationship eventually becomes maddening. As the tide washes over one’s consciousness, one feels twinges of rage. “I’m mad as hell,” etc. Well, one can write a letter to the New York Times or NPR. I’ve had a few published at those venues, but the results are scarcely satisfying. For a long time there has been a tremendous disparity between the punditocracy--largely ensconced nowadays in the Heart of Darkness, Washington--and the educated person who is “merely out there.” As we found recently when they almost unanimously drank the Kool-Ade on the way to war in Iraq, the arrogance of the punditocracy can pose a serious national danger. Millions of us siting in our living rooms knew that the war was a very bad idea, but it was as if we didn’t exist.

What to do? Well, along came blogging some eight years or so ago. There was a kind of first-past-the-post advantage to those who jumped in right away. I was a little slow on the uptake, but three years ago I started blogging at There were indications that I had some readers abroad, in Britain, France, and Germany. Occasional commentary appeared. But gradually these gratifying results diminished.

To be sure, I still have a faithful band of readers, and I am grateful for the attention. But my pieces are rarely copied and when I oppose the next Iraq war I doubt if my voice will register at all.

The old media were dominated by A-list elite, those who had privileged access to the public prints by columns and news beats. Blogging, it seemed, would make everything democratic. Any number can play. Yes, we do play after a fashion. But the high-rollers always elbow us out.

Of course blogs come in all sorts of forms. Quite common are the diary blogs, in which the proprietary offers a continuing rundown of his or her personal experience. These sites have a therapeutic function--and may sometimes offer something more. Then there are the “short burst” blogs, generally dealing with current events. At these sites the blogger may post fifteen or twenty times a day. A serious form of blogging has to do with local issues. For some reason, Brooklyn is one of the best represented of these regions. A good friend writes a thoughtful blog largely devoted to issues of the state of Virginia. Since I don’t know much about Virginia politics I only consult it once and a while.

A common stereotype is the “pajama person,” a blogger who sits in a room without going out much. So what? Some people are shut-ins, and access to the cybersphere enriches their lives, and quite possibly those of their readers as well. Another point is that most bloggers have no editor. This can be a disadvantage when the blogger veers off into some idiosyncrasy that has little to do with the topic at hand. In my classes (and blog entries too) I have been charged with a propensity for digression. I guess I am guilty. Yet some journalists report that their editors sometimes repress their interest in writing about topics that actually are important. Editorial control works both ways.

The type of blogging I prefer consists of essays of 800-1200 words. I am particularly interested in the history of ideas. I like to connect past and present, so that my findings often have a contemporary application. Only rarely though do I succeed in finding a “hook” (as I did with the film Kinsey and the Foley affair) that generates attention outside of a small circle of friends.

The upshot of the recent flurry of blogging is that democratization didn’t work. The A-list reasserted itself, though with a few new members. Only a few elite blogs get the hundreds of thousands of hits that guarantee influence.

The result is an extreme version of Wilfredo Pareto’s 80-20 law. Pareto’s original study showed that in Italy a hundred years ago, 20% of the people owned 80% of the land. He went on to document these effects in other fields, including his humble efforts to weed his own garden.

The situation that has set in now in the new media is the same as the old. We have hyper-Pareto. 1% of the people have 99% of the influence.

The A-list reasserts itself: the iron law of oligarchy. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

ADDITIONAL NOTE (July 11). Footnote to blogger pessimism

A few years ago James Surowiecki made a splash with his book “The Wisdom of Crowds.” Here is the gist:

Our society, like most others, generally trusts experts and discounts the wisdom of the masses. The latter is virtually an oxymoron. In his incisive, though counterintuive book, the New Yorker business columnist Surowiecki argues that ‘under the right circumstances, groups are remarkably intelligent, and are often smarter than the smartest people in them.’ The writer offers much supporting evidence, exploring problems in cognition, coordination, and cooperation. Provided that four basic conditions are met, a crowd's ‘collective intelligence’ will produce better outcomes than a gaggle of experts, even if members of the crowd don't know all the facts or elect, individually, to act irrationally. ‘Wise crowds’ need (1) diversity of opinion; (2) independence of members from one another; (3) decentralization; and (4) a good method for aggregating opinions.

The operative term, I suppose, is “under the right circumstances.” Still, there are many confirming instances. The most egregious recent one occurred during the run-up to the Iraq war. Millions of us humble folks, sitting in our living rooms, recognized that the case for the war was nonexistent. Yet the elite media, centered in Washington, DC and environs, bought the whole package. They drank the Kool Ade. These experts then did their best to sell it to the whole country, with the disastrous results that are still unfolding.

Now comes Andrew Keen with his new book “Cult of the Amateur: How today’s Internet Is Killing Our Culture.” Contradicting Surowiecki, Keen forcefully argues that a sea of amateur content in the cybersphere threatens to swamp the most vital information. Blogs, he holds, often reinforce one's own views rather than expand horizons. Yet his jeremiad about the death of "our cultural standards and moral values" seems overstated.

Keen should be told not to worry, for the “sea of amateur content" is yielding to the old domination of elites, as I sought to show in my piece.


Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Sopranos, baldly

After 88 disgraceful episodes, The Sopranos series has come to an end. Thank goodness. I don’t have HBO, where this farrago first appeared, but have glanced at a few episodes now that they are being rerun on regular cable TV. I find the enthusiasm for the show disgusting and preposterous.

Some Italian Americans disapprove of The Sopranos because in their view the TV series gives a false picture of persons of Italian heritage in this country. From what I can tell this is not the case. Much of the appeal of the show rests on the fact that it portrays all too accurately the criminal behavior that continues to flourish among a segment of the Italian American community.

A cliché heard endlessly nowadays is that this country was built upon the labors of immigrants. While this statement discounts the contributions of native Americans, it is basically true. What is questionable is the unspoken second premise, namely that the contributions of all immigrant groups are equal.

For one thing, immigrants participate in our society in different ways. Here in New York City Koreans dominate the mom and pop stores, especially those that offer fresh produce. South Asians have increasingly taken over as news agents and stationers. As often as not, today’s pizza makers are Albanians and Kosovars. Having largely abandoned the pizza parlors, Italians continue to dominate the construction trades. This industry, long a byword for corruption, interfaces with the mob.

If a point system had been instituted for immigrants in the 19th century the ancestors of today’s US Mafia would not have been admitted. With a point system we would still have had such productive immigrants as A.P. Giannini, founder of the Bank of America, and Mayor Fiorello La Guardia. Both had roots in northern Italy. To be sure, we would still have to put up with Mr. Justice Antonin Scalia, whose father was a college professor. No system is perfect.

To many these comments about Italian Americans must seem off-the-wall. For one thing, it is deeply un-PC to criticize any ethnic group as such. With one exception, they are all just wonderful. The exception is WASPs; they are fair game. Be it noted that I am not a WASP; my DNA shows that my ethnic roots trace back to the Emerald Isle. For a later piece I reserve some well merited criticisms of Irish Americans. Let me just mention four, though: alcoholism; anti-intellectualism; clericalism; and, to a significant degree, support for the IRA terrorists. Let the chips fall where they may.

Then there is the halo effect of such figures as Leonardo, Michelangelo, Monteverdi, and Galileo. However, these people lived a long time ago, and made their homes in north-central Italy. A more appropriate comparison might be with Silvio Berlusconi.

There are immigrants and immigrants. Good immigrants are surely to be found in every ethnic group--but not in the same proportion. Hosting a flood of the wrong sort, from whatever country, produces an overall deficit, not an asset.


Saturday, June 09, 2007

"True conservatives"

In recent days there has been much hand-wringing among the National Review crowd. It seems that these stalwarts have discovered that George W. Bush is not a true conservative. One is tempted to ask the classic question, “No shit, Sherlock, when did you get the first clue?”

It is sometimes hard to remember the atmosphere of the days before Bush assumed the presidency in 2001. One of the selling points of candidate Bush was that he was, ostensibly, a “compassionate conservative” (CC). Hope springs eternal among some liberals that Republicans will turn out to be RINOs, that is Republicans in Name Only, who will espouse liberal policies. To be sure, when it became clear that the conservatism of compassion involved channeling vast sums of money to religious organizations, any para-liberal constituency for George W. Bush wilted. (And as David Kuo, once a true believer, has shown, not much money was allocated to this possibly unconstitutional end.)

The alliteration is nice, but can any form of conservatism be compassionate? After all, in the view of many, conservatism means the ethic of “personal responsibility.” It accepts the logic of Joseph Schumpeter’s creative destruction. There are winners and loser in life, and we must not interfere with the salutary process of winnowing. To be sure, some libertarians argue that, paradoxically, conservatism is inherently compassionate, because in the long run it is better than society prosper instead of stagnating. In this case, the “compassionate” is built into conservatism. There is no need for the adjective. I suspect that few find this argument persuasive. Liberals are inclined to think that if we must have conservatism (though they would rather not) it is best that it be tempered with a little social engineering. Hard-edge freemarketeers will have nothing of such tinkering, and hence view the first c-word as a parasitic, noxious intrusion.

Of course this infraction of conservative principles, if such it is to be termed, turned out to be a mere bagatelle. The CC rhetoric was to be followed by truly horrendous actions: collusion with the Republican Congress in the most extravagant spending spree the nation has ever experienced; the launching and mismanagement of an unnecessary war; authorization of torture; dismantling of civil liberties; and rampant cronyism and deceit.

For every one of these horrors a conservative defense can be mounted. Supply-side economics holds that spending, no matter how profligate, serves to grow the economy. Deficits? They don’t matter. As for foreign wars, “every once and a while we need to take one of those small countries and slam it up against the wall,” as Jonah Goldberg would put it. We just didn’t slam hard enough. Torture is a legitimate way of getting back at the bastards. And surely the loss of a few paltry civil liberties is a small price to pay for obtaining security. Screw the ACLU. What is termed cronyism is actually loyalty, a prime conservative virtue. And deceit is permissible, in fact it is essential, on Straussian grounds.

So it seems that George W. Bush may be a faithful conservative after all. Not so fast, though, for there is a deeper problem. No one can say for sure what a “true conservative” actually is. There are similar problems with defining “true liberal,” “true Marxist,” “true Darwinian,” “true Christian,” and many others.

All this is as it should be. These labels are examples of essentially contested concepts. That is, they survive precisely in order to be battle grounds for the clash of different views.

We owe the idea of essentially contested concept to the neglected British social theorist W. B. Gallie (1912-1998), who first advanced the notion in a 1956 paper in Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society. Gallie argued that it is impossible to provide a conclusive definition of key appraisive concepts such as “social justice,” “democracy,” “Christian life,” “art,” “moral goodness,” and “duty.” Instead, we can offer reasons for holding one interpretation over competing ones. Clarification of essentially contested concepts relies not on the examination of predictive relations (as is the case with most concepts in the natural sciences), but rather calls for a careful consideration of how the concept has been used by different parties throughout its history.

This means recourse to the discipline of the history of ideas, a task that can be more arduous than it seems at first sight. In reference libraries one can choose between two editions of The Dictionary of the History of Ideas. For the first one (1973), I wrote an article on the “Concept of the Gothic.” In this piece I showed how the Gothic meme arose in the Renaissance as a term of disparagement, meaning “barbarous,” “misshapen,” and “tasteless.” As part of a massive shift in aesthetics in the 18th century a more favorable view emerged, contributing greatly to an enhanced appreciation of the cathedrals and medieval art generally. Already in the previous century some English theorists had written of the “Gothic balance,” ascribing the principle of division of powers to the practical wisdom enshrined in the common law tradition.

A further semantic twist lay waiting in the wings. Writing in 1973. I did not anticipate the rise of Goth fashions among young people. This purported lifestyle includes dress, makeup, interior decoration, and music.

I hasten to assure readers that I had nothing to do with the appearance of this fad among the young. Yet its existence does illustrate the inherent malleability of the concept of the Gothic. Mutatis mutandis, the same principle applies to “true conservatism.”

Some cherish precision of language above all else. Maybe they are right. Still, it is not my purpose to lecture writers on political topics, adjuring them, “please be careful with your language; there is no such thing as a true conservative.” Indeed, there is not. Yet the purpose of the term is precisely to serve as a site in which policy issues can be debated, with each party asserting the supremacy of its view. By all means let us have true conservatives--and true conservatives and true conservatives--as many types as possible, each one differing from last. I am tempted to say “let one-hundred flowers of evil flourish.” Yet that would judgmental. Perish the thought! It is consolation enough to realize that we will never know for sure what a true conservative is, any more than the arguments over who is a true liberal, Marxist, and so forth will ever be settled.

Let the wrangling continue.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Grad student days

My previous posting gave some details of my experience as a translator in the sixties, when I undertook such work in order to finance my graduate studies. I turn now to the substance of those studies.

I had come to New York City in 1956 to begin work on a Ph.D. in art history. I enrolled at the Institute of Fine Arts of NYU, then the leading institution in this field. Its standing was assured by a superb faculty, mostly formed by scholars of the Transatlantic Migration, driven from their posts in Europe by Hitler. Heirs to generations of philological excellence, these figures were, of course, formed in the ebullience of Weimar Germany. Yet they generally eschewed discussing this experience, and we students were reduced to forming some idea of it from the Three Penny Opera and other epiphenomena.

To this day I am grateful for the training in precision I obtained from my NYU professors. Still, when I got to London in 1963 on a Fulbright grant, I was determined to obtain a broader education for myself. In English universities in those days supervision was lax, if not nonexistent. I could do whatever I wanted to. Of course I went to plenty of plays and opera performances (so cheap in the British capital then). But I spent my days in Bloomsbury, at the British Library (then housed in the British Museum) and the Warburg Institute. The latter was described by a fellow student as the place where one didn’t learn the ABC of culture, but instead the XYZ. Nonetheless, it was there that I first acquired one of my abiding interests: the history of science.

My boyfriend at the time was pursuing a D.Phil. in English history at Oxford, so for a time I threw myself into the theory of history. England had a strong classical tradition, so I read a lot of Greek and Latin classics. I did this mostly in translation, not feeling the need to expand my undergraduate Latin (something I now see as a mistake). For a time I focused on German literature, especially of the Goethe-Schiller period. Not to be left behind, I looked at the works of the nascent French structuralist school. At the London School of Economics I attended some classes by Karl Popper, and read all of his works, together with some writings by pupils and opponents.

Well, I won’t go on. Suffice it to say that I acquired at least a veneer of learning in many subjects. This erudition has earned me, from time to time, the not-too-pleasant sobriquet of “know it all.”

In later life some academics have come to look upon their graduate years as a kind of hell. They had to take courses they hated. and to toady up to capricious professors, whose mission seemed to be to make them miserable. That was not my experience. For me, those Lehrjahre were instead a kind of paradise. One of the reasons I read so voraciously was that I knew that that era would never come again.

For some who had a favorable experience of graduate school there is a tendency to linger in the values and learning inculcated in that era. Ancora imparo, “I am still learning,” is a wonderful motto. But many feel that it is time to apply what they learned. That is a reasonable plan, but it means that what one learned in graduate school becomes fixed in aspic.

Recently I have been sparring on the Internet with Frank Kameny, the noted pioneer of the gay movement. About ten years older than me, Kameny had earned a Ph.D. in astronomy at Harvard in the years immediately after World War II. As a result he assumed a lordly supremacy in all matters scientific. Eventually, I learned though that he had never heard of Thomas Kuhn, who was beginning to make his mark at Harvard in the very days that Frank had studied there. I am not an unreserved admirer of Kuhn, but anyone who doesn’t have at least some acquaintance with his contributions to the history and theory of science is just not a player in this field today. Similarly, Frank had no views about string theory.

Frank Kameny’s case is perhaps extreme. After he was fired from his government job in Washington DC some forty-five years ago, he understood that he must devote all of his energies to the gay movement. This choice is commendable, but it did mean that he ceased keeping up with advances in his original profession.

There is one other formative influence of the sixties that I failed to mention. My best friend Charles McCracken was pursuing a doctorate in philosophy at Berkeley. On several occasions I visited him and his wife there, attending some lectures and parties given by graduate students in his field. This was a good way to “test the pulse” of the then nascent analytical tradition in philosophy. On my return to NYC I ordered some books from Blackwell’s, and dutifully read them.

One British philosopher who impressed me at the time was J.L. Austin ((1911-1960), a professor at Oxford. How to Do Things With Words was the first book of his I read. It remains the most influential. In this book he rejects the conventional wisdom that the chief purpose of sentences is to state facts, and thus to be true or false based on the truth or falsity of these facts. By contrast Austin holds that truth-evaluable sentences form only a small part of the range of human utterances. After noting several types of these “nonfactual” sentences, he turns to one particular class f these these sentences, which he terms “performative utterances.” These have two characteristics. First, to utter one of these sentences is not just to “say” something, but rather to perform a certain kind of action. Secondly, these sentences are not to be judged true or false. Instead, when something goes wrong in connection with the utterance then the utterance is, as he puts it, “infelicitous” or “unhappy” He later assigned these sentences to a category he called speech acts.

Today, Austin is read mainly by professional philosophers of the analytic tradition. He did, however, experience a posthumous breakout when the deconstructionist Jacques Derrida briefly took him up. This led in turn to Austin’s adoption by that high priestess of postmodernism, Judith Butler.

The work of Austin and some of his Anglo-American contemporaries was sometimes termed “ordinary language philosophy.” Others began to write of the “linguistic turn.” In my delvings at the British Library I gained some understanding of the field of linguistics. I quickly ascertained that the “ordinary language” philosophers knew very little about the field that they had supposedly entered. Ask them what epochal discovery in linguistics was due to Sir William Jones or what contribution had been made by Walter von Wartburg and they would probably be stumped. All too often, their observations about grammar and semantics were often puerile and misinformed. They had simply not been doing their homework.

I will leave for another time what I gleaned from such analytic philosophers as 
Gilbert Ryle, Willard Van Orman Quine, and Sir Peter Strawson. Suffice it to say that my learned friend of Gayspecies retains a much higher opinion of these figures than I do. For me they are very much old news, and not of much use in confronting the intellectual challenges of the 21st century. To his credit, Gayspecies writes about many subjects, being scarcely limited by the horizons of his philosophical training. Nonetheless, I find that his not infrequent references to these fading stars of analyticity has a nostalgic element, one that I do not share. This is the syndrome of graduate-student formation, one to which many (including probably myself) are subject. (Full disclosure: I get more ideas for blogging from Gayspecies than any other source.)

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Translator days

During the 1960s I mostly earned my living as a translator of printed materials--scholarly articles and books. I had an ideal apprenticeship, because for the first five years I was a translation editor for McGraw-Hill. I would send out the foreign texts, and correct them, line by line, when they came back. In this way I observed a plethora of typical mistakes--syntactical errors, overliteralness, unidiomatic English, “false friends,” and simple carelessness.

Experience showed that it was generally unwise to employ translators whose native language was not English. Lacking the requisite Sprachgefuehl, they would write sentences that were technically correct, but not something that one would actually use. Recently I saw a book, translated from the French, that bore the title “Argenteuil during the Monet Time.” One knows what it means, but the effect is grating and barbarous. Better to say “Argenteuil during Monet’s Time,” or maybe even “during the age of Monet.”

In the case of nonfiction it is desirable to have a good knowledge of the subject matter. Someone like myself, who doesn’t even drive a car, would have no business translating a book on automobile maintenance.

During the second half of the decade I went free-lance, translating a number of books from French, German, and Italian, while I pursued work on my dissertation. It was if I had just jumped in and swum. Or rather I had been swimming for some time, and kept it up.

Only towards the end of my practice of this useful trade did I feel the need to look into the theory of translation. I still have a shelf of books of this type, which have been gathering dust for many, many years. Those that can do.

In these delvings I can only recall four principles that I found useful. The first stems from Eugene A. Nida, a translator of the Bible into obscure tribal languages. Nida distinguished between the Formal Equivalent (FE) and the Dynamic Equivalent (DE). Suppose, for example that one has to translate into a Central African tongue the biblical trope of making one’s sins white as snow. Of course, one can simply render it literally (FE). But since most of the target readers in Africa will never have seen snow, it may be best to attempt a DE: “white as egret feathers.” Unfortunately, this dynamic principle has opened the door to some politically incorrect emendations of contemporary translations of the Bible.

The second principle came from my understanding of Noam Chomsky’s sentence diagrams in terms of surface structure and deep structure. With the often troublesome matter of German syntax, I found it useful first to cast the foreign sentence down into the abyss of deep structure, and then to drag it back up into an English surface structure.

The third principle was the commonplace distinction between denotation and connotation. I picked this up from Ogden and Richards’ book “The Meaning of Meaning” of 1923, though it is usually referenced to John Stuart Mill. Denotation is the literal meaning of a word, while connotation refers to the various overtones it evokes. In contemporary English, for example, “escort,” “sex worker,” and “whore” have the same denotation, someone who regularly consents to perform sex acts in exchange for money. However, the connotative auras of the three expressions are significantly different. This distinction was to loom large for me in my work on the language of homosexuality, first published in my book “Homolexis” twenty years ago.

The final useful bit was the concept of the Sprachfeld, or semantic field. For example, the semantic field of the Italian word stanza encompasses two English expressions, “room” and “unit of poetry.” Only the latter may be designated by our word stanza. We divide the Italian semantic field into two; or, if you will, the Italians merge our two fields.

One can see the bearing of this last principle on the discussion in the previous posting of the Greek words for love. According to C.S. Lewis we cover the matter in a single semantic field. In his view the ancient Greeks apportioned it into four: eros, agape, philia, and storge. Imagine first a large square; and then four smaller fields that fit into the same space:

L O eros agape

V E philia storge

None of this, I think, addresses the central feature of the phenomenon I alluded to in the Greek posting. In our language and in many others it is common to endow borrowings from a prestige language with a special halo. Thus Japanese boasts thousands of borrowings from Chinese, which have a noble cast merely because of their distinguished origin. They may also seem to have a precision that is lacking in humble native terms. For the Japanese, Chinese is their Greek and Latin.

During the nineteenth century and after many Americans went to Germany for graduate study. Returning students and their friends would sprinkle their conversation with remembered Teutonisms. One could speak airily of Weltschmerz and Schadenfreude. When analyzed, though, the effect is less impressive. Weltschmerz is “cosmic sorrow”--but can sorrow really be cosmic? And Schadenfreude is perfectly captured by the English word “gloating.” Curiously, many who cling to the fancy German term Schadenfreude refuse to concede this point.

So is it true, more enduringly, with Greek terms taken into English. The classical tradition has taken many knocks, but Athena stubbornly refused to relinquish her throne for the African counterpart championed by Professor Bernal. Resorting to a Greek term is still nifty. The practice may also be pretentious and pseudo-precise. That was the point I sought to illustrate in my previous posting.