Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Curmudgeon corner: The plague of popular culture

Today we are surrounded by the effluvia of popular culture. Magazines and TV--not to mention the Internet--keep us ceaselessly posted on all the most trivial occurrences in the lives of celebrities. I just learned that Tom Cruise had a “bad week.” Which one wasn’t bad for that creep? Yet very little attention has been paid to a landmark decision in France, sanctioning his so-called religion, Scientology.

This huge cauldron of bilge has spilled over into what passes for high culture. Some even regard the charlatan Andy Warhol as the greatest artist of the twentieth century. And worse was to come with the vacuum cleaners of Jeff Koons (sublime!) and the shark tank of Damien Hirst (epoch-making!).

A propos of Hirst and company, the NY Times published an insightful piece by Denis Dutton (Oct. 15), a professor of the philosophy of art who is based in New Zealand. Aptly, his piece is entitled “Has Conceptual Art Jumped the Shark Tank?” (“Jumping the shark” is a term common in TV circles for the point when a silly gimmick reveals that a show has passed its expiration date.)

In his piece, Dutton goes all the way back to prehistoric hand-axes to show that some of them are not just practical items, but reveal, even across the millennia, a palpable sensitivity for aesthetic values. He hails these objects as “literally the earliest known works of art—practical tools transformed into captivating aesthetic objects, contemplated both for their elegant shape and virtuoso craftsmanship. Hand axes mark an evolutionary advance in human prehistory, tools attractively fashioned to function as what Darwinians call ‘fitness signals’—displays like the glorious peacock’s tail, which functions to show peahens the strength and vitality of the males who display it.”

Skill was an important factor in achieving this result.

Yet much of contemporary art has been deskilled. In the new regime that has flourished under the evil star of the late Marcel Duchamp, it is only the concept that matters. Dutton questions the staying power of this approach.

“Does this mean that conceptual art is here to stay? That is not at all certain, and it is not just auction results that are relevant to the issue.” Such works may have an inherent investment risk, he thinks.

"Beginning with prehistoric times, beauty and skill have gone together. From this link certain consequences follow. “We ought, then, to stop kidding ourselves that painstakingly developed artistic technique is passé, a value left over from our grandparents’ culture. Evidence is all around us. Even when we have lost contact with the social or religious ideas behind the arts of bygone civilizations, we are still able, as with the great bronzes or temples of Greece or ancient China, to respond directly to craftsmanship. The direct response to skill is what makes it possible to find beauty in many tribal arts even though we often know nothing about the beliefs of the people who created them. There is no place on earth where superlative technique in music and dance is not regarded as beautiful.”

Dutton continues:

“The appreciation of contemporary conceptual art, on the other hand, depends not on immediately recognizable skill, but on how the work is situated in today’s intellectual zeitgeist. That’s why looking through the history of conceptual art after Duchamp reminds me of paging through old New Yorker cartoons. Jokes about Cadillac tailfins and early fax machines were once amusing, and the same can be said of conceptual works like Piero Manzoni’s 1962 declaration that Earth was his art work [and, I would add, Manzoni’s celebrated canning of his own faeces], Joseph Kosuth’s 1965 “One and Three Chairs” (a chair, a photo of the chair and a definition of ‘chair’), or Mr. Hirst’s medicine cabinets. Future generations, no longer engaged by our art ‘concepts’ and unable to divine any special skill or emotional expression in the work, may lose interest in it as a medium for financial speculation and relegate it to the realm of historical curiosity.”

As one who made his living in the professor game, I regret to say that academia has been deeply complicit in this process of dumbing down. The cloister has made its own not inconsiderable contribution to the gauntlet we must daily run as we are subjected to the barrage of popular culture and to its corruption of what still passes for high culture.

I was reminded of this point by an obituary in today’s NY Times. It reports the death of Ray Browne, 87, the patriarch of the popular-culture studies trend in academia. At his death, Professor Browne was a distinguished university professor emeritus at Bowling Green State University, where he had taught from 1967 to 1992. In 1967, the year he arrived at Bowling Green, Professor Browne founded both its Center for the Study of Popular Culture and The Journal of Popular Culture, the field’s first scholarly journal.

Because of these achievements, Browne was sometimes credited with coining the term “popular culture.” Yet according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the expression goes back at least to 1854, when it appeared in print in a newspaper, The Defiance Democrat in Ohio.

The Times obituary recites the following megilla: “Popular culture casts a wide net. It takes in dime novels, tabloid newspapers and TV weathermen; the Monkees, the Muppets and “The Love Boat”; T-shirts and G-strings; baseball cards and tarot cards; infomercials, Chatty Cathy dolls and needlepoint pillows; Bob Hope, Tiny Tim, Archie Bunker and Erica Jong; Tupperware, cream pies and Spam (both kinds); hood ornaments, Harlequin romances, “Leave It to Beaver” and a great deal else. For some, this ecumenicalism [sic] is part of the field’s appeal. For others, it is precisely what makes it seem unfit for scholarly consumption.” Hear, hear.

Yes, this garbage exists and it proliferates all around us. There is no getting arround that dismal fact. But why must universities join in promoting the stuff? Is this not a waste of taxpayer money?

At first, it is true, the new “discipline” became the object of widespread derision. It figured in attacks by traditionalists during the canon wars of the 1980s. The two-credit course on roller coasters, rides included, that Bowling Green offered in 1978 was singled out as a particular object of scorn. Why, in fact, should one even take the course? The university could just give credit for having ridden on the things in the past. That is “life experience,” you see--another academic fad, though one that I hope is receding.

Absurdly, Browne claimed: “Popular culture is the voice of democracy, democracy speaking and acting, the seedbed in which democracy grows. . . . It is the everyday world around us: the mass media, entertainments and diversions. It is our heroes, icons, rituals, everyday actions, psychology and religion — our total life picture. It is the way of living we inherit, practice and modify as we please, and how we do it. It is the dreams we dream while asleep.”

Bull. In reality most popular culture, as we experience it now, is the cynical product of Hollywood moguls and their lackeys, not to mention their numerous collaborators in other fields and regions of the world. Perhaps the true patron of the trend was not Marcel Duchamp or Andy Warhol, but Salvador Dali, aka Avida Dollares in Andre' Breton's revealing rendering.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Does lesbianism exist?

What an appalling sexist question to ask! Only the most benighted male could ever venture to formulate such an absurdity.

Let me explain, if I may, what I mean.

I do not share the view of some predatory men that lesbians are just unlucky women who are desparately pining for for the attentions of a "true man" (their very own belching, pot-bellied, tobacco-chewing selves, in fact) to liberate them from their sad state of relegation. Not at all. Nor do I think that lesbians are typically ugly harridans, so that, spurned by men, they are forced to seek consolation in the company of other unfortunates of their own sex. This claim is risible on its face. Many, perhaps most "fem" lesbians are attractive by any conventional standard. And butch lesbians have their own authority and dignity.

What may be the case is that female same-sex attraction and behavior is very different from those of men. In my previous posting on biological factors, I have not mentioned women. The reason is that one cannot simply transpose discoveries about gay men to lesbian women.

In fact the parallel betwen gay men and lesbians has only been commonly invoked since 1869, when K. M. Kertbeny introduced the term "homosexual." In surveys of many countries the finding has been repeatedly confirmed that there are only about 40% as many female same-sexers as there are male ones. This fact suggests that the etiologies must be different.

More subjectively, I noted a good many years ago, when I attended consciousness-raising groups consisting of men and women, that over and over the women described life histories of malleabiltiy. That is (from a male point of view), they wove back and forth between heterosexual and homosexual relationships.

In my previous posting I noted the persistent stability of sexual orientation--at least as men experience it. As the Latin proverb has it, no matter how we may seek to expell Nature with a pitchfork, she comes right back. So it has been for most gay men. But not necessarily for gay women. They may, many of them, have achieved the flexibility that seems so much prized in sexuality nowadays.

I do not know whether that is good or bad. I am simply trying to describe, haltingly to be sure, what I perceive as the situation.


Sexual orientation and biology

For several decades now scientists have been seeking evidence of biological factors conditioning sexual orientation. Many educated persons tend to be suspicious of this approach because of its apparent right-wing pedigree, yielding more than a whiff of the social Darwinism of a hundred years ago.

Moreover, these ideas of determinants operating outside our conscious control seem to pose a limit to human freedom, which we should be seeking to maximize instead of reducing. Yet most gay and lesbian people have known for a a long time that their orientation is not a mere choice, a pattern of behavior that we can assume or discard just as we choose. In some sense it chooses us.

In everyday life most would recognize that there is such a thing as gaydar. The pitch of the voice, the gait, the style of clothing--all these things may provide a clue. Clustering together, the traits suggest a near-certain conclusion. In a less sensitive era, we would have said that such a person was an “obvious” homosexual.

Well, yes, but this everyday approach is still more intuitive than rational. And what about the millions who are not “obvious”? Gaydar provides little help in detecting their orientation. Moreover. this common-garden approach tells us little about the underlying causal factors.
So why not explore the possibility of some element of biological or constitutional conditioning in the formation of sexual orientation? In fact, for some time now scientists have been doing just that. In this endeavor, they have had successes as well as failures.

Statistically, it has been claimed that gay men and lesbians have about a 50 percent greater chance of being left-handed or ambidextrous than straight men or women. The relative lengths of fingers may offer another hint. The index fingers of most straight men are shorter than their ring fingers, while for most women they are closer in length, or even reversed in ratio. But it has been noted that gay men are likely to have finger-length ratios more in line with those of straight women. Or so it seems.

Other markers may be less immediately discernible, but more significant. Researchers have traditionally used twin studies to try to distinguish genetic influences from environmental or other influences. One common type of twin study compares identical twins (known as monozygotic or "MZ twins") who both have a particular trait to non-identical or fraternal twins (known as dizygotic or "DZ twins") with that same trait. Since identical twins have the same genetic makeup (genotype) while non-identical twins share an average of 50% of their genes, a difference between these types of twins points to a genetic component. For example, if a high percentage of identical twins both have red hair (while a low percentage of non-identical twins both have red hair), that concordance implies that red hair has a genetic basis. On the other hand, if identical twins share a characteristic just as often as fraternal twins (such as love of music), that fact suggests that there is not a genetic basis for that trait.

A number of twin studies have attempted this kind of comparative study. Since it is important to use individuals of twin sets who have been raised apart (to guard against environmental contaminants), the numbers tend to be small. These are the ones who show a high degree of difference in orientation when identical twins (MZ) and fraternal twins (DZ) are compared. Critics say the studies are too small to guard against sample bias.

Later studies, performed on increasingly more representative samples, showed less concordance among MZ twins, although still significantly larger than among DZ twins. A recent second-order analysis by Hershberger (2001) compares the results of eight different twin studies: among those, all but two showed MZ twins having much higher concordance of sexual orientation than DZ twins, suggesting a non-negligible genetic component. Here are two additional examples: Bailey and Pillard (1991) in a study of gay twins found that 52% of MZ brothers and 22% of the DZ twins were concordant for homosexuality. In additiion, Bailey, Dunne and Martin (2000) used the Australian twin registry to obtain a sample of 4,901 twins. Self reported zygosity, sexual attraction, fantasy and behaviors were assessed by questionnaire and zygosity was serologically checked when in doubt. MZ twin concordance for homosexuality was found to be 30%. Averaging over all studies suggests that roughly 50 percent of the variance in sexual orientation can be attributed to inherited factors.

A recent study of all known adult twins in Sweden (more than 7,600 twins) found that same-sex behavior was explained by both heritable factors and individual-specific environmental sources (including prenatal environment, experience with illness and trauma, as well as peer groups, and sexual experiences), while influences of shared-environment variables such as familial environment and societal attitudes had a weaker, but significant effect.

In short, some of the causation seems to be environmental and some of it hereditary. The hereditary factor is still very significant, and this finding tells against the hyperenvironmental approach which denies any biological component in the formation of sexual orientation.

At this point perhaps a touch of levity is warranted. One wag puts it this way. “The etiology of homosexuality is complex. Fifty percent are born that way; the other fifty percent just get sucked into it.”

Still, the question of the actual mechanism remains. A famous answer has been provided by Simon LeVay, a British-born neuroscientist who works in California. In 1991 LeVay published "A difference in hypothalamic structure between heterosexual and homosexual men" in the prestigious weekly Science. For his study he obtained brains from 41 deceased hospital patients. The subjects were classified as follows: 19 gay men who had died of AIDS, 16 presumed heterosexual men (6 of whom had died of AIDS), and 6 presumed heterosexual women (1 of whom had died of AIDS). The AIDS patients in the heterosexual groups were all identified from medical records as intravenous drug abusers or recipients of blood transfusions, though only 2 of the men in this category had specifically denied homosexual activity. The records of the remaining heterosexual subjects contained no information about their sexual orientation; they were assumed to have been mostly or all heterosexual "on the basis of the numerical preponderance of heterosexual men in the population."

LeVay’s article reported a difference in average size between the third Interstitial Nucleus of the Anterior Hypothalamus (INAH3) in the brains of heterosexual men and homosexual men: INAH3 was more than twice as large in heterosexual men as in homosexual men. And yet the INAH3 size of homosexual men was the same as that of women. LeVay concluded that "This finding indicates that INAH is dimorphic with sexual orientation, at least in men, and suggests that sexual orientation has a biological substrate." LeVay added, "The existence of 'exceptions' in the present sample (that is, presumed heterosexual men with small INAH 3 nuclei, and homosexual men with large ones, hints at the possibility that sexual orientation, although an important variable, may not be the sole determinant of INAH 3 size. It is also possible, however, that these exceptions are due to technical shortcomings or to misassignment of subjects to their subject groups."

A few years later LeVay cautioned against misinterpreting his findings: "It’s important to stress what I didn’t find. I did not prove that homosexuality is genetic, or find a genetic cause for being gay. I didn’t show that gay men are born that way, the most common mistake people make in interpreting my work. Nor did I locate a gay center in the brain. The INAH3 is less likely to be the sole gay nucleus of the brain than a part of a chain of nuclei engaged in men and women's sexual behavior." Some critics of LeVay questioned the accuracy and appropriateness of his measurements, saying that the structures are difficult to see in tissue slices and that he measured in volume rather than cell count. LeVay has been criticized for "his small sample size and for compiling inadequate sexual histories." The use of brains of men who died of HIV/AIDS is also problematic. Some of the difference might be due to the pathology induced by the disease.

Chromosome linkage studies of sexual orientation suggest the presence of multiple contributing genetic factors throughout the genome. In 1993 Dean Hamer and colleagues published findings from a linkage analysis of a sample of 76 gay brothers and their families. Hamer et al. found that the gay men had more gay male uncles and cousins on the maternal side of the family than on the paternal side. Gay brothers who showed this maternal pedigree were then tested for X chromosome linkage, using twenty-two markers on the X chromosome to test for similar alleles. In another finding, thirty-three of the forty sibling pairs tested were found to have similar alleles in the distal region of Xq28, which was significantly higher than the expected rates of 50% for fraternal brothers. This feature was popularly (but inaccurately) dubbed as the “gay gene” in the media, causing significant controversy. Later studies have offered some, though limited support for this finding. Other genetic factors may be involved. For reasons that are not entirely clear, the approach does not seem to be a promising area of research.

For some time now, there has been widespread enthusiasm for using birth order as an explanation for human behavior. Blanchard and Klassen (1997) hold that each older brother increases the odds of a man being gay by 33%. This, they claim, is now "one of the most reliable epidemiological variables ever identified in the study of sexual orientation." To explain this finding, it has been proposed that male fetuses provoke a maternal immune reaction that becomes stronger with each successive male fetus. Male fetuses produce HY antigens which are "almost certainly involved in the sexual differentiation of vertebrates." It is this antigen which maternal H-Y antibodies are proposed to both react to and “remember.” Successive male fetuses are then attacked by H-Y antibodies which somehow decrease the ability of H-Y antigens to perform their usual function in brain masculinization.

The idea that male homosexuals are deficient in masculinity is inherently problematic. Moreover, Peter Bearman (2002) questions the sampling method of Blanchard and other scientists who report a link between fraternal birth order and sexual orientation. He says that the studies work with nonrepresentative samples and indirect reports on siblings’ sexual orientation. After repeating the experiment done by Blanchard, Bearman found "no association between same-sex attraction and number of older siblings, older brothers, or older sisters.”

As if all this were not enough, a surprising new finding has been added to this bewildering heap of evidence. Richard Lippa, a psychologist from California State University at Fullerton, has joined the ranks of the cataloguers of the many ways in which gay people are different. The University’s press release sums up the matter this way: “If the hair whorl on the top of your head circles counterclockwise and you are left-handed, then it’s possible that you are gay and that your sexual orientation can be biologically explained.”

Professor Lippa, author of “Gender, Nature and Nurture,” has examined about 500 male head whorls and is becoming convinced that that there is a connection. Women are excluded from the survey because they tend to have long hair, making it hard to ascertain their whorls.

As part of the study, Lippa also is collecting DNA samples by swabbing the inside cheeks of his subjects. The samples will be analyzed to determine whether there is a common gene responsible for causing hair whorl direction and whether people are left- or right-handed.

Preliminary results are “implicating a biological explanation because you are born with your hair whorl,” Lippa said. “You can’t change the direction in which it swirls. It sounds weird that hair whorl patterns could be associated with sexual orientation. I was very skeptical when I started this study, but I’m becoming convinced that there is a connection between hair whorl, left-handedness and sexual orientation.”

Perhaps sexual orientation is determined in the womb, he said. “If this is true, then that will be a remarkable finding.”

His broader horizons of research have led Professor Lippa to conclude that gay men and lesbians are more likely than heterosexuals to be left-handed; the more older brothers a man has, the more likely he is to be gay; the higher a woman’s sex drive, the more she desires both men and women; men prefer good looks in a mate while women prefer honesty, humor, kindness and dependability.

Specifically, more gay men (13 percent) than heterosexual men (11 percent) and more lesbians (11 percent) than heterosexual women (10 percent) reported being left-handed. In my view this is not a significant finding. However, Lippa goes further, saying that more bisexual men (12 percent) than gay or heterosexual men (8 percent) described themselves as ambidextrous, and more bisexual women (16 percent) than lesbians (12 percent) or heterosexual women (8 percent) described themselves as ambidextrous.

However, even Lippa hesitates to say that gay people are essentially different from straights. "Essentialism," he explains, "is the enemy of a lot of academics," because it shuts down inquiry into all the possible influences. Perhaps there are a dozen possible routes to homosexuality, any combination of which might produce a number of the traits being catalogued now. It might be that there is no single thing called homosexuality-that there are instead dozens of homosexualities, scores of potential outcomes in terms of personality, and endless potentials for describing them. "For example, do gay men who have older brothers show more or less feminine? Do gay men with counterclockwise hair have more masculine traits? One cause might create a more feminine homosexuality than another."

These caveats are useful. It is hard to miss the recurrent note of overconfidence that runs through so many of these studies. All the same. there is something important going on here, and the passage of time is sure to make the picture clearer.


Monday, October 26, 2009

Shlomo Sand at NYU

A few months ago I reviewed an important new book by Professor Shlomo Sand, from the French version. Now, I am happy to say, the book has appeared in an English-language version. Because of the significance of this research I am reproducing in full an account by the redoubtable Philip Weiss of (")

Here is Weiss's report:

Professor Shlomo Sand takes on thorny issue of Zionist myths at New York University.
By Philip Weiss - NEW YORK

At NYU, devilish Shlomo Sand predicts the Jewish past and pastes the Zionists

Of all the events I’ve covered surrounding Jewish identity and Israel in the last year, none has given me so much pleasure as the lecture last night by Shlomo Sand at NYU on the Invention of the Jewish People. Most events I go to are grinding, awful, heartrending, often with lamentations and pictures of mutilated children. This one was pure intellectual deviltry of the highest order by a Pavarotti of the lecture hall. And while it was fiercely anti-Zionist and included references to the mutilated children, it left me in just an incredibly elated mood. For I saw real light at the end of the tunnel, and not the horrifying dimness that surrounds almost all other events that deal with Israel politics here–-for instance with the neoconservative Weekly Standard’s disgusting pursuit of J Street.

This pleasure was entirely Shlomo Sand’s achievement. He walked by me going down to the lectern and I noticed his physical vanity at once. He had expensive shoes on, designer jeans or cords, a zipup black jacket and a black shirt under that unbuttoned to the sternum. He is lean and mid-60sish, and behaves like a player. His beard is cut in an interesting manner, he wears designer glasses. I wondered if he dyed his hair. All glorious devil.

Sand has an excitable, self-referential style, and he began the lecture by breaking his guitar. “Jewish history is not my field.” No, but once he had discovered that the story of the connection of the Jewish people to the Holy Land was a myth, he decided that he would secretly explore the history but not publish until he got tenure for doing other work. Because if he published this first, “there would not be any chance of being a full professor. Not only in Tel Aviv. But at NYU too.”

Everyone laughed, but Sand said, “That is not a joke. I must write the book after I see that no one could touch me really.” More devil. Though Sand is right. This is no joke.

Sand studies European history, but Israel has a separate department in every school for Jewish history, and Zionists run these departments. “I have not a right to write about Jewishness.” The Zionist history holds that the Jews have an ancient connection biblically to the land, and were exiled from the Middle East in 70 AD, in what became the Diaspora. The Jews of New York and Warsaw. Sand began to question this story when he saw archaeologists’ work about the early Christian times and also when he saw scientific data. The exile is absurd. The Romans persecuted the Jews. They didn’t exile them.

At this point came the first interruption by a Zionist. A bald man in the third row or so called out, “What about Bar Kochba?” And: the Jews weren’t exiled because they were killed.

Sand seemed to live for this interruption. He walked up to the audience with his eyes gleaming, and congratulated the man for his knowledge of the Bar Kochba revolt of 135 AD, after the Second Temple destruction, and agreed with him, but also dismissed him. Yes many Jews were killed. And for the rest of the lecture Sand would dance toward this man and tease him that he was Jewish—he was—and urge him to buy the book to discover the gaps in his knowledge, or by the end of the lecture, say that he would buy the book for him himself, to improve him. More deviltry.

Back to the exile myth. The expelled diasporic Jews went in a straight line north to Europe, made a right into the land between the Caspian and the Black Seas, Kazaria, and also north to Russia and Poland; and when they got there in the 1800s they made a u-turn and started back to Palestine. The absurdity of the myth is that there were always Jews in the Middle East. The Jews were peasants and mingled with other populations. The Jews were not passive actors. They were at times a majority in the Holy Land and conquerors of the Arabian peninsula before the Arabs, and of North Africa too. For a time, they did not have a bar against proselytization. The Maccabees were the first to undertake forced conversion. In the 8th century the Jews and the Muslim Berbers were likely the invaders of Spain.

Sand offered very little by way of evidence. You will find that in his “boring” book, he said. This was an aria not a chalktalk. The Jews of the Middle East made several kingdoms over the years. One in Yemen, another in Babylon, another in North Africa, where they fought the Arabs. Sand said he loves the curly hair of the Yemenite Jews. More deviltry, with some concupiscence thrown in.

The Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe originated in Kazaria. They were hugely successful and founded a great city, Kiev. We can claim to have founded Kiev, but not Jerusalem, he said. Because the Jews who lived in the Holy Land stayed in the Holy Land. Many of the people we now call Palestinians were originally Jews. The chance that someone who lives in Hebron today and speaks Arabic is a direct descendant of a Jew in ancient times is 1000 times greater than the possibility that I am descended from a Jew, Shlomo Sand declared.

Let’s move on from the mythology to the issue of national identity. Identity is formed by many many associations. “I don’t deny Jewish identity. I’m not fighting against someone’s identity. There is identity of homosexuals. They are not a people. We are composed of a lot of identities.” Two Catholic share a religious identity, but again, that is not a national identity with a tie to land.

Nationalism took root in human political development in the 1800s. The Germans and French began the project by inventing the idea of a German and French people. The French history books declared outright in the first sentence that the Gauls were their ancestors. It was a way to valorize the nation state, which was an essential part of modernity.

What is a people? A people generally shares a way of life, a language, a food, a geography. There is no Jewish language. Shlomo Sand stumbles proudly in English, while of course many of the people in the audience were Jews speaking English. Food the Israelis have–stolen from the Palestinians—and still you must say that there is an Israeli people. But they are not the Jewish people. They are Israeli people, and the Palestinians are Palestinian people. Both made by Zionism.

The Zionist project began inventing the idea of a Jewish people in the 1870s as a reflection of other nationalisms. The Zionists turned to the Bible for the foundational myth. The biblical myths are taught in Israeli schools from before children are taught mathematics and language–taught about the biblical associations of Jews to this land. But the Exodus is a complete myth. “As a historian, I try and predict the past. I’m not a prophet.” And what are the true predictions of the past: at the supposed time of the Exodus, the Egyptians also controlled Canaan. The kingdom of David and Solomon was not a kingdom at all, but a small settlement around Jerusalem.

Sand had run over his 45 minutes. In the Question and Answer period, his passion and intellectual majesty announced themselves. He sought to engage with the Zionists in the crowd, and did so out of moral fervor. When Sand said that Israel was not a democracy, and a Zionist called out, “It is a flawed democracy,” Sand bellowed. No: a democracy is founded on the idea that the people are the sovereign, that the people own the state. That is the first principle of a republic going back to Rousseau. Liberalism and civil rights are not the core. Yes, Israel is a liberal society. It tolerates Shlomo Sand’s heresy, for instance, and puts him on TV. But it is a liberal ethnocracy.

Down the row from me were two Arabs. I recognized the man from other events I have been to. I noticed how fulfilled they were by the talk, how quietly approving, and it was in this connection that we saw Sand’s passion: on behalf of the Palestinians. This part of the lecture brought tears to my eyes, it was so forceful and unapologetic. The idea that Joe Lieberman has a right to move to Israel tomorrow and a Palestinian whose ancestors have lived there for centuries cannot is an outrage, Sand said. But for 50 years the Palestinian Israelis were afraid to speak out.

“They were afraid because of the Nakba. They were afraid because of the military regime. Today this is a generation of young Palestinian Israelis that stop to be afraid. They become more anti-Israel in their politics the more they become Israelis.”

Ravishing fire.

Sand said that Gaza was just an intimation of the violence that might come when the Palestinians declare that they want a genuine democracy, a state of their own citizens in Palestinian-dominated Galilee. These are young Palestinian Israelis who don’t want to be part of the West Bank or of Gaza. They will be like the Kosovars of Serbia, who when the Serbs started to make an ethnic regime of the former Yugoslavia, did not want to be part of Albania, with whom they share religious connections, no they wanted to be their own country. (And got it, by the way, 60 years after the world falsely promised the Palestinians that they could have a state.) “They will build in Galilee a state of their citizens. That will start to be the end of Israel. Israel won’t let Galilee become a state of its citizens. It will be a mass murder, I’m afraid.”

Don’t we want to get past the idea of the nation-state? Of course we do, Sand said, but that is the era we are in. And tell that to the Palestinians. They want a state. Sand is for the two-state solution because the Palestinians ought to get a state after being denied it forever. As soon as the occupation, which has denied these Palestinians any civil or human rights for 42 years—more fire!—is ended, that is the day we throw ourselves into the project of making a confederation of Israel with Palestine and Jordan. The one-state solution is a utopia. “Utopia has to direct politics. Not replace politics. It’s too dangerous.” (Something like Hussein Ibish’s new book in that.)

When Sand spoke to Palestinian professors at Al Quds University, they told him to speak Hebrew, because they had all learned Hebrew in Israeli jails. And he told them that just because Israel had begun with a great crime did not mean that it had not begun. “Even a child that was born from a rape has a right to live. ’48 was a rape. But something happened in history. We have to correct and repair a lot of things.” The next day the Palestinian papers had his rape line in big headlines.

You have not talked about anti-Semitism, or self-hatred, said another Zionist, with a cap on. “I am anti-racist. And an anti-anti-semite,” he said. “But look at me, do you think I hate the Jewish?” More devil eyes flashing. “I don’t hate myself… I hate the Jewish people? But that doesn’t exist. How can I hate something that doesn’t exist?”

More Zionist claptrap from the claque: You say that a Jew can’t marry non-Jews in Israel, but two men can’t marry each other in this country! Sand laughed. Men should be able to marry each other here if they want to, and anyone should be able to marry anyone else in Israel. Why won’t the state recognize such marriages? Not because of the orthodox. No: the secular Jews gave the rabbis the power over marriage when they founded the Jewish state in ’48. They did so because “they were not sure of their identity, and needed religious criteria.”

What do you think of Israel Shahak, whose work says that ethnocentrism and chauvinism are built into the Jewish religion? Sand said that Shahak was a chemist and a man of tremendous moral force, but he didn’t know the material. (I say he’s right about this; all religious doctrines are interlarded with racism.)

Why are you not on Charlie Rose? asked a man with a beard. The man said, I watch Charlie Rose every night and I’m up to here with the Zionism on the show. He held his hand at his neck. Not just the Israelis, the American journalists who imbibe Zionism. Sand didn’t seem to know who Charlie Rose was. He has been on lots of Israeli TV shows. And been 19 weeks on the bestseller list in Israel. “Also in France.”

I thought, Why has Yivo not asked Sand to debate Michael Walzer? Two years back at Yivo/the Center for Jewish History, Walzer declared that the Jews are a people, a people like no other, without national borders. They have maintained a political community for 2000 years without geographical sovereignty, through a religious-legal structure. Interesting ideas. And it would be a fabulous debate. Where are you chickenshit Yivo, when these great ideas are bursting forth from the Jews who hate what Israel is doing to our identity?

I hope I am conveying something of the power of this event, and its incredible optimism and second sight. Sand challenged every Jew in the room to reimagine the future. “Most of the Jews [in the world today] are a product of conversion… I see the shame. And it is a shame. If you are born in the 20th century, and we were all born in the 20th century– to base your identity on biology.”

I thought as always of the American Jewish project: to end the Israel lobby and to end the myth of Jewish outsiderness. Sand had addressed this too. “The destiny of Israel. And the destiny of the Middle East depnds a lot on you, Americans.” This was a subject for its own lecture. But it was necessary for the Americans now to “save us from ourselves. I’m not joking about this.”

Do you fear for your life? someone asked.

“I’m worried in New York. Not in Tel Aviv. It’s not a joke. Really, I’m not joking.”

[Shlomo Sand is Professor of History at Tel Aviv University in Israel and the author of The Invention of the Jewish People. This article appeared in]

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Persiflage (or maybe not): the Great Oomph

One takes it as axiomatic that all the strong versions of theism--monotheism, polytheism and so forth--are inoperative. They have been kaputt since Darwin’s time, if not before. However, that collapse does not spell any automatic adhesion to atheism as the default setting .

Our universe may have been set in motion by a kind of indeterminate force, call it the Great Oomph. With sovereign dexterity, this entity stipulated the physical laws of our universe: the speed of light, gravitation, the periodic table, and so forth. As brane rheory posits, though, there may be sister universes, each set in motion by its own Great Oomph. In their own domains, these initiatory forces may have prescribed different physical laws, ones we can scarcely imagine.

Yet having set the rules and given the primal heave, our Great Oomph retired--for good. Sayonara. It is not coming back. If it still lingers at all, this demiurge is indifferent to all that happens after, which must play itself out on its own terms.

The New Atheists, it seems to me, create a soft target by assuming as their opponent a personal deity who studies and controls the minutest details of our environment and our behavior. ("Not a sparrow that falls," etc.) Yet personality and providence are in no wise necessary--at least not in the stripped-down version of theism I am envisaging here. I have put God on a starvation diet. In fact, the critter was always a kind of wispy thing. Perhaps it has wasted away, to die its lonely Nietzschean death--sa belle mort, as it were. But once it was a Contender. Once upon a time.

(I owe this somewhat bizarre set of thoughts to the religious minimalism of the novelist Thomas Hardy, who was much wiser than I.)


Heidegger controversy

Many years ago, I was talking to one of my mentors, the late, great Meyer Schapiro about my struggles to understand the German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976). Schapiro, who had met Heidegger in the 1920s, told me that there were many poetic insights in the German thinker’s 1927 magnum opus Sein und Zeit. Yet there was no need, Schapiro implied, to try to discern some overall system in his philosophy. Heidegger wrote a great deal--102 volumes (not all published) in the German Gesamtausgabe--some of it pretentious bloviating, other items little more than childish nonsense.

I retain the Schapiran caveat I have noted. All the same, adepts (many of them at least) have reached some sort of consensus about the basic concerns of Heidegger’s thinking. The litany goes something like this;

Heidegger's philosophy rests on the attempt to conjoin what he considers two fundamental insights.

The first of these resides in his observation that, in the course of over two thousand years of history, Western philosophy has addressed all the beings that can be found in the world (including the "world" itself), but has shied away from asking what "being" itself is. This issue constitutes Heidegger's "question of being," his most fundamental and abiding concern. Western philosophy has neglected "being" because it was considered obvious, rather than as worthy of inquiry for its own sake. Focusing on the history of the forgetting of being requires that philosophy retrace its footsteps through a productive "destruction" of the history of philosophy.

The second major preoccupation animating Heidegger's philosophy derives from the influence of the phenomenologist Edmund Husserl, a thinker largely uninterested in the history of philosophy. Rather, Husserl argued that all that philosophy could and should be is a description of experience (hence the phenomenological precept, "to the things themselves"). But for Heidegger this meant understanding that experience is always already situated in a world and in ways of being. Hence Husserl's understanding that all consciousness is "intentional" (in the sense that it is always intended toward something, and is always "about" something) is transformed in Heidegger's philosophy, becoming the insight that all experience is grounded in "care" (Sorge). This is the basis of Heidegger's "existential analytic," as he develops it in Being and Time.

Heidegger argues that to be able to describe experience properly means finding the being for whom such a description might matter. Heidegger thus conducts his description of experience with reference to "Dasein.” Dasein is a key term that is hard to define in Englsh, though it may be termed “(ordinary) existence” or “presence.” The individual finds him or herself thrown into the world thronged with things and with others, a situation fraught with the possibility, and indeed inevitability of one's own death. The need to assume this burden, that is, the need to be responsible for one's own existence, is the basis of Heidegger's ideas of authenticity and resoluteness—that is, of those specific possibilities for Dasein which depend on escaping the "vulgar" temporality of calculation and of public life.

The marriage of these two observations depends on the fact that each of them is essentially concerned with time. The existential analytic of Being and Time was intended as only a first step in Heidegger's philosophy, to be followed by the "dismantling" (Destruktion) of the history of philosophy. This project would have entailed a transformation of its language and meaning, making the existential analytic only a kind of "limit case" (in the sense in which special relativity is a limit case of general relativity).

Regrettably, Heidegger did not write this second part of Being and Time, marginalizing the existential analytic in Heidegger's subsequent corpus.

For a general account of Heidegger’s thought I warmly recommend Rüdiger Safranski, Martin Heidegger: Between Good and Evil (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998). This book is outsanding for its lucidity--a notable achievement in this realm.

Heidegger’s reputation will always suffer from his adhesion to Nazism, which took place in the wake of Adolf Hitler's assumption of power on January 30, 1933. Heidegger was elected Rector of the University of Freiburg on April 21, 1933, and on May 1 he joined the Nazi Party. On May 27 he delivered his inaugural address entitled "The Self-Assertion of the German University," which became notorious for its praise of Nazism.

Despite this act of conformity, from the outset his tenure as Rector was fraught with difficulties. Some Nazi education bigwigs viewed him as a rival, while others saw his efforts as almost comical. Some of Heidegger's fellow Nazis also ridiculed his philosophical writings as gibberish. On April 23, 1934 he finally tendered his resignation from the Freiburg rectorate. Yet Heidegger remained a member of both the academic faculty and of the Nazi Party until the end of the war.

In 1945 Heidegger composed a kind of defense of his term as rector, which was published in 1983. In it Heidegger referred to his 1933–34 involvement in the following terms:

“The rectorate was an attempt to see something in the movement that had come to power, beyond all its failings and crudeness, that was much more far-reaching and that could perhaps one day bring a concentration on the Germans' Western historical essence. It will in no way be denied that at the time I believed in such possibilities and for that reason renounced the actual vocation of thinking in favor of being effective in an official capacity. In no way will what was caused by my own inadequacy in office be played down. But these points of view do not capture what is essential and what moved me to accept the rectorate.”

Clearly, Heidegger’s attempt to explain himself falls far short of the repentence that one might expect. However, it is probably a mistake to retroject the view of his Nazi period back into the earlier years in which he wrote Sein und Zeit. Consider the parallel case of Ezra Pound. Prior to moving to Italy in 1924 Pound showed no particular interest in Mussolini’s fascism. While he had been essentially apolitical, the earlier Pound had sometimess expressed his sympathy with left-wing and feminist views. It is possible, of course that the seeds of Pound’s later political aberrations lurk in his earlier writings. As far as I know, however, this claim has not been substantiated. Absent this demonstration, it is a mistake to project, as do some superficial critics, a fascist mentality onto his earlier work, which is at all events radically different from The Cantos, with their outright praise of Mussolini.

To be sure the Heidegger-Nazi controversy is hardly new. Not so long ago there was a stir about the book of the Chilean philosopher Victor Farias (Heidegger et le Nazisme, 1987), and that of the historian Hugo Ott (Martin Heidegger: Unterwegs zu einer Biographie, 1988).

Next month Yale University Press will issue an English-language translation of Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism Into Philosophy, by Emmanuel Faye, an associate professor at the University of Paris (Nanterre). In the French original, this big book has already attracted a good deal of attention. The author’s judgment is harsh: "We now know," Faye asserts, "that [Heidegger's] attempt at self-justification of 1945 is nothing but a string of falsehoods."

Faye’s work relies on a detailed analysis of writings from the crucial period of 1933, most of them neglected or unpublished. There is no doubt that these texts allow one to examine Heidegger’s thinking at that time--though the operative expression is "at that time."

The work of Fritz Stern and George Mosse has exposed a vein of German conservative thinking extolling the Volk that goes back to the end of the nineteenth century. While this body of “völkisch” writing influenced Hitler, it is not identical with his Nazism. Yet Faye makes a fatal mistake in asssuming that it was. In fact, Hitler and Heidegger were proceeding from some similar premises, but only in 1933 did their thinking converge--and even then not perfectly, as Heidegger’s difficulties with official Nazi circles show. Some earlier commentators, such as Karl Löwith and Maurice Blanchot, have argued that Heidegger's Nazism was the logical outcome of his philosophy. One can certainly make that case, though it is by no means an inevitable one.

Yet Faye, it seems, goes further, claiming that his philosophy grew out of his Nazism. He seems to believe that Heidegger was some kind of “eternal Nazi.” In my view there were affinities, allowing the philosopher to be first seduced, and then swept away. However, he could have followed the more cautious path of other conservatives, such as Stefan George and Oswald Spengler, and declined to offer his actual adhesion. They stepped back from the brink.

Faye does not allow this possibility. According to Faye, "we witness, in the courses and seminars that are ostensibly presented as 'philosophical,' a progressive dissolving of the human being, whose individual worth is expressly denied, into a community of people rooted in the land and united by blood." The unpublished seminar of 1933-34 identifies the people with a "community of biological stock and race. … Thus, through Heidegger's teaching, the racial conceptions of Nazism enter philosophy."

“Enter” is fair enough, but when did these extreme views first take shape?

The "reality of Nazism," asserts Faye, inspired Heidegger's works "in their entirety and nourished them at the root level." This notion of the basic invariability of Heidegger’s writings strikes me as naive. As with all of us, the German thinker’s ideas evolved. Faye does not seem to take this dynamic sufficiently into account.

Over against his view we have the eloquent testimony of Hannah Arendt, who had been his student in the 1920s. While deploring his later evolution, she was able to retain her respect for the insights of his “first philosophy,” just as Meyer Schapiro did.

In conclusion, Heidegger’s involvement with Naziism has engendered two opposite mistakes. First, it is not a minor excrescence, a kind of fungus parasitic on the work of a great thinker that can be easily scraped away. On the other hand, Nazism is not the sempiternal essence of his thinking. Significant philosophers cannot be characterized in this way.

As the career of the charlatan Richard Rorty shows, sustained devotion to the shibboleths of “political correctness” does not a great philosopher make. But neither does a tragic error remove one’s name from this roster of significant thinkers in the Western tradition. Despite the hideousness of some of his views and actions, Heidegger still belongs in that company.


Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Martin Duberman a.k.a. Dubie

Doug Ireland is a gay journalist who has done important work regarding the persecution, execution and assassination of gay people in Iran and Iraq. He has now written a piece extolling the New York “queer’ scholar Martin Duberman as a “national treasure” (available at Despite his merits as a journalist, I do not think that Ireland is qualified to assess scholarly work. In fact his Duberman piece is little more than a love letter to his idol.

I first met Martin Duberman in 1973, when we were both charter members of the Gay Academic Union in New York City.  At first we were allies, based on a common interest in feminist theory.  Yet the more I learned of that endeavor the more I became convinced that it was not intellectually sound.  Always the stalwart lesbyterian, Dubie (as we called him) went the other way,

Because of this heresy, Duberman tried to read me out of the community of gay scholarship.  From the beginning I was excluded from his CLAGS effort at the CUNY Graduate School. A CUNY faculty member, I was excluded nonetheless: I was “politically unreliable.”  Later a group of his allies succeeded in getting Garland Publishing to put my Encyclopeda of Homosexuality out of print: it was not PC.  Despite this attempt at censorship, the set is still widely available.

I submit that CLAGS is not a legitimate academic group, because participants must pass a litmus test of political correctness--they must subscribe to multiculturalism.

Duberman's scholarship, as evidenced by his 20 books, is dutiful and prolific.  Yet it is not innovative.  In fact he has been hoist with his own petard, in that some feminists he has championed, notably Judith Butler and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, have far surpassed him in influence and reputation. To be sure, there are problems with the work of both those scholars, but today they are inarguably far more influential than Duberman.

Is anyone really interested in reading three self-serving volumes of autobiography?  In fact the Wikipedia notice, from which Ireland cribbed much of his information, bears a private note by one of the editors questioning whether Duberman actually merits an entry.  Just so.

Perhaps the matter is best summed up by a piece of subway graffiti from a few years back:

Shakespeare said: To be or not to be.
Descartes said; To be is to think.
Sartre said: To be is to exist.
Sinatra said: Dubie, Dubie, do.


Monday, October 19, 2009

The stages of human life

Today’s New York Times (op-ed page) has an interesting compilation by Ben Schott, a popular writer who likes to make up lists. This one concerns various schemata for the stages of human life. Numerically, the stages range from three to fifteen. In literature the best-known example is Jaques’s speech on “the Seven Ages of Man” in Shakespeare’s As You Like It.

Curiously, Schott neglects to mention the ultimate touchstone of these schemes: the tripartition proposed by the riddle the Sphinx put to Oedipus: “What is it that goes on four legs in early morning, two legs at noon, and three legs at dusk?” The answer of course is Man.

Interestingly, this scheme invokes a parallel: the course of a single day. In this way we speak of the dawn of our existence and the twilight of life.

However, the bedrock of the tripartite scheme probably lies in the recurrent human tendency to divide things into threes--chronologically into Early, Middle, and Late. Even today it is most common to apportion life into 1) childhood; 2) adulthood; and 3) old age. Aptly, the French refer to the last as “le troisième âge.”

Gerontologists nowadays divide old age itself into three phases. First is early old age, beginning about 65 or so, depending on the individual. During this phase one can do most of the things one did formerly. Then, as disabilities begin to mount, comes middle old age, ca. 75-85. Finallly, should one live so long, there is deep old age, when one is seriously enfeebled.

Speaking as someone who has recently entered the second phase (at 75), I am not sure how the notion (hype, I am sure) of one’s “golden years” fits in. Perhaps I am now in the "tarnished" golden years--to be followed (deo volente) by the fool’s-gold years.

Certain numbers possess a special fascination, among them three. four, seven, and ten, During the Middle Ages, the doctrine of rhe Holy Trinity reinforced the appeal of three, which is an almost universally important cross-culturally. By constrast, four was regarded as the terrestrial number, because of the old theory of the four elements (air, fire, water, and earth); there are also the four seasons and four directions. Dante Alighieri posited a quartet of ages: adolescenza (adolescence), gioventute (youth), senectute (old age), and senio (senility). Jaques's seven ages have already been mentioned. Before Shakespeare, Hippocrates had also noted seven. A seeming anomaly is the early medieval polymath Isidore of Seville, who recogized six: infantia, pueritia, adolescentia, juventus, aetas senioris, and senectus. However, this scheme is based on the biblical Six Days of Creation--with an implicit Seventh Day, representing Eternal Life. The Athenian Solon is credited with a decad, that is, ten, created by slicing the traditional three-score and ten into a series of seven-year segments.

None of the studies that I have seen mentions the simplest scheme of all, which has but two phases. This is the dyad recognized by many legal systems: nonage followed by adulthood. As Kant ruefully pointed out, in those parts of the world that are still dominated by feudal subordination most people never get beyond nonage. For these toiling masses there is only one age.

For a fascinating (though now somewhat antiquated) account, see Samuel Chew, The Pilgrimage of Life (1962). There are also two more specialized studies devoted to the medieval era: J. A. Burrow, The Ages of Man: A Study in Medieval Writing and Thought (1986); and Elizabeth Sears, The Ages of Man: Medieval Interpretations of the Life Cycle (1986)


Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The green umbrella

In theater circles the following story is sometimes told about the great Austrian director Max Reinhardt (1873-1943). The master had hired an experienced actor for a particular part, but somehow the fellow just couldn’t get it right. During the rehearsals Reinhardt’s constant scolding made it seem certain that he would soon be fired. In desperation, the hapless actor bought a green umbrella and put it under his arm at the next rehearsal. “Now you’ve got it!” exclaimed Reinhardt. The next day the actor appeared without the umbrella, and the director again said that it was all wrong. “Get that green umbrella,” he admonished. The actor did so, and all went well thereafter.

Deriving from this anecdote, a green umbrella is a personal object which, when it is carried, “works” for the bearer. The green-umbrella meme may be regarded as a subcategory of the talisman, an amulet or other object considered to possess supernatural or magical powers. Talismans generally derive from religious contexts, such as those of the ancient Egyptians, the ancient Israelites, and some modern Jews. For example, in modern Orthodox Jewish observance the tefillin, also called phylacteries, are a pair of black leather boxes containing scrolls of parchment inscribed with verses from the Bible. The hand-tefillin, or shel yad, is worn by Jews wrapped around the arm, hand, and fingers, while the head-tefillin, or shel rosh, is placed above the forehead. According to tradional belief, they are worn to serve as a "sign" and "remembrance" that God brought the children of Israel out of Egypt. Reputedly, Madonna has taken to wearing these amulets; whether they assure her success as a performer is uncertain.

By contrast, “green umbrellas,” to use the term generically, differ from such traditional amulets in the following way: the power of the object resides not in its religious charisma, but stems from its personal significance for the individual who has chosen it,

The term green umbrella may also be used in an extended sense to describe a belief system that serves to empower the person who has adopted it, without its necessarily being literally true.

An example from a century ago is the role of Theosophy in the work of the pioneering abstract artists Kandinsky, Kupka, and Mondrian. Theosophy is a New Age religious philosophy devised by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky in 1875, utilizing Egyptian and South Asian sources. In my view it has no inherent cognitive status. However, the belief system proved catalytic for some avant-garde artists, who held that Theosophy provided authorization for their departure from the accepted norms of representational art.

In our own day, Queer Theory has served a similar purpose for some scholars in the realm of gender studies. A few months ago I wrote a piece that I circulated on the Internet about Queer Theory, which I find incoherent and probably destined to have a short life. This piece elicited a passionate rebuttal from the British scholar Dan Healey.

Healey has produced important work on Russian and Soviet gay history. His book “Homosexual Desire in Revolutionary Russia” investigates the private worlds of sexual dissidents during the pivotal decades before and after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Using records and archives available to researchers only since the fall of Communism, Healey has revisited the rich homosexual world of ordinary Russians who lived extraordinary lives, recording the voices of a long-silenced minority.

How can I reconcile my admiration for Healey’s work with my belief that he subscribes to a failed ideology? The answer seems to be that Queer Theory functions for the British scholar as a green umbrella. In my view, the ideology is not intrinsic to the success of the study, but serves to bolster its adherent’s commitment and sense of mission. In this way we all benefit--indirectly in my view--from a dubious ideology. It works because it works.


Monday, October 12, 2009

Dynamic duos

We are all familiar with the experience at the optometrist where the examiner brings out a series of lenses, placing them before our eyes in a dual sequence. “Better A or B?” we are asked.

This principle of binary choice often operates in the realm of aesthetics. For those of us who are still quaintly committed to the cause of classical music, it common to hear the question: do you prefer Mahler or Bruckner?

When I was young, way back before the Punic Wars, neither of these Austrian composers was well known. I remembering how in high school I was excited to discover Gusstav Mahler’s first symphony, not realizing that this was but an hors d’oeuvre, so to speak, of his imposing body of work. So I came to put my bets on Mahler. Eventually, though, I discovered Anton Bruckner and transferred my admiration to him. Eventually, I tired of this variety of lush late romanticism, and now don’t care much for either.

This example shows how, over one’s life span, such preferences may be dynamic rather than static. Is Dynes a Mahlerian or a Brucknerian? Well, one of the other--at certain times---but ultimately neither.

Such preferences are, of course, independent of the aesthetic contribution of each figure. Mahler, for example, by introducing such demotic melodies as “Ach, du lieber Augustin” into his serious work, pioneered in tearing down the distinction between high and low in the arts. He essayed this before it happened in the other media (Picasso, Eliot, Joyce). In this respect and others, Mahler will always be honored for his contribution to the evolution of Western music.

In my youth Arnold Schoenberg was commonly contrasted with Igor Stravinsky. René Leibowitz, a partisan of Schoenberg, wrote a whole book largely devoted to showing how superior Schoenberg was to his Russian contemporary. Nowadays, this binarism seems out of date. Except for a few early works, Schoenberg is hardly ever performed, and is of interest chiefly to musicologists. In my view, that relegation is unfortunate, since I continue to revere Arnold Schoenberg, but it has happened.

Other such pairs introduce other valences. In his fresco of “The School of Athens,” Raphael makes a fundamental contrast at the center of the painting between the figures of Plato and Aristotle, the one representing high theory, the other the application of philosophy to daily life. Simplistic? Perhaps, but this is the way such binary contrasts often work.

For a long time a conventional paragone (to use a term from the Renaissance itself) was between Raphael and Michelangelo. With his lucent clarity and perspicuousness of composition, the former exemplified the rational side of the High Renaissance, while Michelangelo, imbued with his famous terribiltà, showed how one could bend the rules in a ceaseless quest for the sublime. Since Raphael was mainly a painter and Michelangelo was mainly a sculptor (despite his grandiose frescoes in the Sistine Chapel), the two titans can stand for the contrast of the two major media in the representational arts.

Moving forward a century (into the seventeenth), another contrast occurred between the architecture of Bernini and that of Borromini, with the first representing, so to speak, normality, while the second stood for innovation, sometimes bizarre innovation.

In modern architecture one may prefer either Frank Lloyd Wright or Le Corbusier, depending on whether one thinks that the art of building should retain its links with the past, or (conversely) cast aside such associations altogether.

French nineteenth-century painting manifests the contrasting pair of J. A. D. Ingres, the neoclassicist, and Eugène Delacroix, the romanticist.

Somewhat similar is the distinction a century later between Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. Picasso had his neoclassic period to be sure, but was more generally associated with formal exploration. Like Delacroix, Matisse excelled in the use of color. Several years ago New York’s Museum of Modern Art mounted an exhibition offering specific comparisons of works by the two modernists.

Other duos may have resonances within their national context. Goethe and Schiller represent such a pair, with the former excelling at many things (a fox in Isaiah Berlin’s famous image), while Schiller doggedly stuck to drama (making him a hedgehog). In Russia, there were Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky (see George Steiner’s monograph comparing the two).

Proust was the last representative of the great European tradition of the mega-novel. James Joyce, almost equally verbose, adopted a series of radically innovative techniques.

Recently literary critics have been debating who was the dominant figure in Anglophone poetry during the twentieth century. The time used to be referred to as the Age of Eliot, now it is more common to speak of the Age of Pound. Despite his innovations, T. S. Eliot succeeded in turning himself into an establishment figure. Ezra Pound remained a rebel until the end. I suppose that one could make a similar contrast in French literature between André Gide and Louis-Ferdinand Céline, though I have not seen this done.

In creating Relativity, Albert Einstein produced a new, unified world picture. Yet Max Planck, in laying the foundations for the quantum theory, upset Einstein’s synthesis. The contrast between the two approaches still troubles the world of physics.

In politics Stalin and Hitler came to personify the stark choices of the 1930s. In 1937 the opposing German and Soviet pavilions at the Paris World’s Fair symbolized their rivalry. Fortunately this was one case where a stark choice proved not necessary. Today, both models have been fortunately retired—or so we must hope.

The remainder of this piece concerns a rivalry of this kind in philosophy—that of WITTGENSTEIN and POPPER.

An instructive and amusing book, Wittgenstein’s Poker: The Story of a Ten-Minute Argument Between Two Great Philosophers (2001), by David Edmonds and John Eidinow, sets the scene. In the austere Cambridge of 1946 two Viennese Titans met for one duel in Cambridge, England. At this encounter did Wittgenstein threaten Popper with a hot poker? Did he intend to push the implement up his rival's ass, Edward II-style? Well, no one goest that far, though the facts remain in dispute to this day.

What is not contested is the fundamental difference between the two: are there genuine philosophical problems that must be addressed, as Popper maintained, or are there simply puzzles that must be dissipated (Wittgenstein's position).

Though they had found a haven in England, both Wittgenstein and Popper shared a common Continental background. They were both assimilated Jews formed by an especially creative period of Viennese cultural history. One need only think of Mahler and Schoenberg, Freud and Kraus, Klimt and Loos. During the 1920s Wittgenstein was to build a townhouse reflecting Adolf Loos' ultramodern ideas.

Not everything in the Vienna of those days contributed so harmoniously. In the case of Wittgenstein one must reckon with the noxious influence of Otto Weininger, a self-hating Jewish homosexual, not unlike his more famous admirer. Yes, Wittgenstein was a closeted homosexual. During the 1930s Wittgenstein recorded a number of observations, which can only be termed anti-Semitic, under the influence of his unfortunate Viennese guru. As late as the 1940s Wittgenstein was still commending the vile magnum opus Sex and Character (Geschlecht und Charakter) of this author to his friends . In fact there was a powerful irrational and illiberal streak in Ludwig Wittgenstein. Other influences that go against the picture of Wittgenstein's work as strictly logical are Schopenhauer, Tolstoy, and Spengler, the dubious philosopher of world history.

Unlike Wittgenstein, Popper was never a member of the Vienna circle. In fact his first major book, Logik der Forschung (1935), demolished their cherished principle of verification, replacing it with the more daunting criterion of refutability. Shortly after this book appeared, Popper succeeded in emigrating, going first to New Zealand. While in exile in that remote land Popper wrote his masterpiece, The Open Society and Its Enemies. The kernel of the idea stems from Henri Bergson, whom Popper scarcely deigns to acknowledge. Nonetheless, his achievement was massive. The book contrasts the open societies of democracy with their totalitarian opponents. Popper spends little time attacking the usual targets, such as Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin, though they clearly come within his crosshairs. He analyzes the contribution of such major thinkers as Plato and Hegel to totalitarianism. Equipped with a certainty, wholly unjustified, that they understood the groundplan of history, these thinkers created the basis for the repressive polities of the twentieth century. Naturally, Popper’s critique, especially of Plato, produced an outcry. This massive work in two volumes was intended as a contribution to the war effort. Yet its beneficial effects far outlasted the victory of 1945. The book produced its most imposing effect during the closing decades of the twentieth century, when it made a major contribution to delegitimizing Communist tyranny.

Apart from Austria, the two paladins of philosophy shared another country, England. Wittgenstein went there to live permanently (in Cambridge) in 1929. Popper received an appointment at the London School of Economics in 1946. Thus, apart from Austria, the two shared another country: they were Anglo-Austrians. The self-effacing triviality of English middle-class life ("What would happen if I dropped the tea tray?"), together with the common-sense philosophy that went with it, proved seductive to Wittgenstein (though he sometimes groused about Cambridge, where he actually had it good). Popper always struggled against the more complacent aspects of the English life, encouraging his new compatriots to make more strenuous efforts.

In both countries, the unifying thread of Wittgenstein’s effort was concern for language. It is generally thought that he created two important philosophies, one during World War I and the second, which drastically amends the first, in the 1930s and 40s.

Wittgenstein's Tractatus (the only book he published in his lifetime) was written while he was a soldier in the Austrian army during World War I. This book seeks to state the criteria for meaningful statements as against those that are not meaningful, in effect nonsense. As such it was taken as the charter for the Logical Positivism of the Vienna Circle, with its claim to be working towards a purely scientific philosophy, which would relegate traditional concerns with metaphysics, ethics and aesthetics to the dustbin of “meaninglessness.” Further consideration suggests that they only understood one side of the Tractatus. In addition to its attempt to demarcate one type of statement from another, identifying a strain of mysticism. This mystical, indeed irrational tendency became more pronounced as Wittgenstein grew older.

Widely influential though it remains, Wittgenstein’s later philosophy strikes me as incoherent. Wittgenstein busied himself on such questions as "If it is three o’clock in Cambridge, what time is it on the sun?" and "If a lion spoke to us, would we understand him?" Wittgensteinians suggest that concentrating on such statements is a caricature—that these instances of persiflage are only the outer husk of a profound series of inquiries about the mind and language. At all events Wittgenstein left a lot of loose ends, making considerable work for his exegetes. Some of the profusion of secondary writing that surrounds the thinker’s own works represents an effort to clarify what he said—or rather what he might have said, had he been able to think more clearly.

Of course the general public does not see the matter in this way. For those who know only a few tags from his work, Wittgenstein remains a fascinating character, a mystic and ascetic, who inspired fanatical loyalty. Even his tormented homosexuality (still downplayed by the exegetes) seemed to contribute to the enhancement of his status as a mythical figure.

Popper was by contrast a workaholic rationalist. He certainly was not endowed with tact. He could be very cutting, as I found when I briefly attended his London School of Economics seminar in 1964. But he could claim to have changed the world with his masterwork, The Open Society and Its Enemies. Popper has been honored in Eastern Europe for bringing tyranny down. In this way his ideas helped make life better for millions of human beings. Perhaps even now Popper's beneficial influence is beginning to take hold in Africa and other places where the residues of totalitarianism persist.

The authors of the book Wittgenstein’s Poker book suggest that Wittgenstein was ultimately victorious in the long-running contest of the two men for philosophical influence. They report the claim, to me bizarre, that one professional survey ranked Wittgenstein as one of the top five philosophers in the history of the world. Hans Sluga's observation seems more just: "It is more likely that, like Pascal and Nietzsche, he will remain an uneasy presence in philosophy."

By contrast Popper’s work transcended the realm of thought, spilling over into the real world. As has been noted, his writings are credited as having wrought change in the real world, as seen in his influence in Eastern Europe, especially during the 1980s—and perhaps in Africa today.

Given the natural limits on the time allotted to us for such study, which philosopher is the more rewarding?. While The Open Society and Its Enemies is a big book in two volumes, it is relatively easy to assimilate, as are Popper’s other well-written and argued books. With Wittgenstein there are, in addition to various posthumous printed volumes, at least 4000 pages in the Nachlass. In much of this material, Wittgenstein seems to be struggling to make his thinking clear, but does not always succeed. It is of course possible that if one were to devote the huge blocks of time required, one would achieve enlightenment. Similar claims have been made for the opaque works of the charlatan Jacques Derrida. Without having made this commitment, one cannot be sure. So most fall back on their image of Wittgenstein as a great philosopher, perhaps even a mystical guru, taking pleasure perhaps in the “poetry” of his oracular writings.

I never knew Wittgenstein. When I was an undergraduate in California in the fifties I struggled through the Philosophical Investigations, the central work in his later thought. Despite the fact that I understood very little, I still cherished the illusion that Wittgenstein’s later thinking was THE philosophy of our time. If one could just understand it, we could see the world as it is. In due course this conviction faded: it had garnered little reward. Then, when I lived in London in the sixties, I actually attended Popper’s classes at the London School of Economics on a few occasions. I then read everything I could by him. Popper offered a comprehensive view of the philosophy of science, which I still feel is the most vital remnant of that embattled discipline. Moreover, I felt that Popper had helped me to reach creative solutions to the issues presented by my dissertation, which I was working on at that time.

Perhaps the difference can be put this way. Popper held that through the use of the tools of reason bequeathed to us by Western Civilization we can work together gradually towards achieving a better world. By contrast, Wittgenstein held that philosophy was merely "therapeutic." To avail oneself of this therapy, which seems even less certain in its efficacy than Freudian psychoanalysis, one must master a vast and growing mass of fumbling, oracular statements, as every last scrap of Wittgenstein’s graphomania becomes available, to be endlessly pondered by his adepts.

I know where I stand now. Popper’s works and some commentaries on them have found a place beside my bed, ever ready for consultation. Not so Wittgenstein’s corpus; it has been relegated to a dusty corner of the hallway.


Sunday, October 11, 2009

Is Evolution a fact?

In 1986 Stephen Jay Gould assured a group of New Zealanders that they had nothing to fear from Creationism. It was, he said, a distinctively American aberration--a case of negative exceptionalism. The rest of the advanced industrial world was much wiser.

Unfortunately that has not proved to be the case. Per capita, there are almost as many Creationists in Canada than in the US. The movement has been successfully transplanted to Australia, New Zealand, and Great Britain. It has been making great strides in Switzerland, Austria, Germany, and the Netherlands. One science writer in Amsterdam asks, “Is Holland becoming the Kansas of Europe?” South Korea represents a major bridgehead in Asia. And Turkey is now a major center for the spread of this knownothingism in Islamic countries.

This deplorable export parallels the flood of American products in popular culture: rock, rap, and heavy metal music; “action” movies featuring violent confrontations; and TV soap operas. Still, these things are offences to taste, but not to reason, as Creationism is.

All the same, there is evidence that some scientifically minded observers are overreacting, or reacting in a way that is counterproductive. One can understand how frustration at the advance of Creationism would produce sharp responses among the defenders of the scientific theory of evolution. Indeed, it must be defended. However, some excesses on part of the pro-evolution camp make them vulnerable to criticism.

Jerry Coyne is a professor at the University of Chicago in the Department of Ecology and Evolution. He is an energetic defender of evolution. Yet he has just published a book entitled “Why Evolution is True” (Viking), where he asserts that evolution is more than just a theory--it is a fact. These assertions have an air of dogmatism that is not helpful. Recently, in the columns of The Nation Coyne heatedly attacked Robert Wright’s book “The Evolution of God,” for being soft on the deity question. Now there are many problems with Wright’s argument as I have pointed out in two previous postings. Yet he does not actually affirm the existence of God; he is an agnostic. This is not enough for Coyne. Besides, Wright has taken the sacred name of evolution in vain, kidnapping it for his own theory. Coyne does not seem to realize that there is an ordinary use of the word evolution, which existed long before Darwin, to describe any orderly process. Thus one can speak of the evolution of the US Supreme Court and the evolution of classical studies.

Now the ubiquitous Richard Dawkins has weighed in with a new book “The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution” (Free Press).

In his review in today’s New York Times Book Review, Nicholas Wade, a science reporter for The Times, salutes the worthiness of Dawkins’ effort to discredit the Creationists. Yet he also makes some telling points about the line of argument the English scholar deploys.

“There is one point on which I believe Dawkins gets tripped up by his zeal. To refute the creationists, who like to dismiss evolution as “just a theory,” he keeps insisting that evolution is an undeniable fact. A moment’s reflection reveals the problem: We don’t speak of Darwin’s fact of evolution. So is evolution a fact or a theory? On this question Dawkins, to use an English expression, gets his knickers in a twist.

“Evolutionary theory is a mansion that has been under vigorous construction for the last 150 years and is still far from complete. A ballroom-size controversy is whether natural selection can operate at the level of groups as well as that of individuals. The evolutionary theory of aging, which predicts that many genes must be involved in determining life span, recently collapsed when researchers found that the lifetimes of laboratory organisms can be tripled or better by changing a single gene. If the theory of evolution is still in full flux — as befits any scientific theory at the forefront of research — how can evolution be said to be a fact?

“Dawkins is aware that evolution is commonly called a theory but deems “theory” too wishy-washy a term because it connotes the idea of hypothesis. Evolution, in Dawkins’s view, is a concept as bulletproof as a mathematical theorem, even though it can’t be proved by rigorous logical proofs. He seems to have little appreciation for the cognitive structure of science. Philosophers of science, who are the arbiters of such issues, say science consists largely of facts, laws and theories. The facts are the facts, the laws summarize the regularities in the facts, and the theories explain the laws. Evolution can fall into only one of these categories, and it’s a theory.

“Other systems of thought, like religion, are founded on immutable dogma, whereas science changes to accommodate new knowledge. So what part of science is it that changes during intellectual revolutions? Not the facts, one hopes, or the laws. It’s the highest-level elements in the cognitive structure — the theories — that are sacrificed when fundamental change is needed. Ptolemaic theory yielded when astronomers found that Copernicus’s better explained the observations; Newton’s theory of gravitation turned out to be a special case of Einstein’s.
“If a theory by nature is liable to change, it cannot be considered absolutely true. A theory, however strongly you believe in it, inherently holds a small question mark. The minute you erase the question mark, you’ve got yourself a dogma.

“Since the theory of evolution explains and is in turn supported by all the known facts of biology, it can be regarded as seriously robust. There’s no present reason to think it has any flaws. But when we learn how life evolved on other planets, evolution could turn out to be a special case of some more general theory.

“When Dawkins asserts that evolution “is a fact in the same sense as it is a fact that Paris is in the Northern Hemisphere,” it seems he doesn’t know what a theory is. Yet he is justified in his passion to demonstrate how beautifully the theory of evolution explains the biological world. How can his knickers be untwisted?

“The best way, in my view, is to distinguish between evolution as history and evolution as science. Evolution is indeed a historical fact. Every living thing and every fossil-bearing rock bears evidence that evolution occurred. But evolution is not a scientific fact as philosophers of science see it. In science it plays a far grander role: it is the theory without which nothing in biology makes sense. The condition of this high status is that it cannot be the final and absolute truth that Dawkins imagines it to be; it is liable to future modification and change like any other scientific theory.

“This brings me to the intellectual flaw, or maybe it’s a fault just of tone, in Dawkins’s otherwise eloquent paean to evolution: he has let himself slip into being as dogmatic as his opponents. He has become the Savonarola of science, condemning the doubters of evolution as “history-­deniers” who are “worse than ignorant” and “deluded to the point of perversity.” This is not the language of science, or civility. Creationists insist evolution is only a theory, Dawkins that it’s only a fact. Neither claim is correct.”


Thursday, October 08, 2009

Are the French too tolerant about sex?

There is an old Nichols-and-May routine in which the comic impressionists portray a French couple who are meeting in a hotel room for an adulterous encounter. The man arrives first. Then the woman enters, alone. "Darling," says the man, "I'm disappointed. Why didn't you bring Pierre [her husband] this time?"

A common stereotype is that Americans are just too hung up about sex. We need to learn from the tolerant, easy-going ways of the French.

Some observers have detected this contrast in the Polanski affair--until even many French observers spoke up to say that what the director had done was simply wrong. One of those who defended Polanski was the French culture minister, Frédéric Mitterand. Now Mitterand, who is gay, is being called to task for some earlier indiscretions. The moral of the tale, I suppose, is make sure that you are in the clear yourself before you rush to defend a morally challenged individual. The following story is from the British newspaper, The Independent.

"The new French culture minister, Frédéric Mitterrand, is fighting to save his brief ministerial career after opposition politicians expressed disgust at his autobiography, in which he justified sex tourism and admitted "paying for boys".

"Mr Mitterrand, 62, the nephew of the late president, François Mitterrand, was thrown on to the defensive after rival MPs homed in on memoirs in which he described his delight in visiting Asian brothels.

"The revelations, in his 2005 best-seller La Mauvaise Vie (The Bad Life), were unearthed by far-right politicians angered by his outspoken defence of the film director Roman Polanski, who was arrested in Switzerland for extradition to Los Angeles to face charges of having sex with a 13-year-old girl in 1977.

"Socialists from the party created by Mr Mitterrand's uncle also voiced outrage and suggested that his three-month tenure as Culture minister should be brought to an abrupt end.

"The furore is deeply embarrassing for Nicolas Sarkozy, who claimed to have struck a blow for "political openness" when he brought Mr Mitterrand, who is openly gay, into his centre-right government in June. The choice was reportedly influenced by the President's wife, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, who has been trying to broaden the her husband's cultural horizons.

"Mr Mitterrand admitted in his autobography that his attraction to young and implicitly under-age male prostitutes had continued even though he was aware of "the sordid details of this traffic". "I got into the habit of paying for boys," he wrote. "All these rituals of the market for youths, the slave market excited me enormously... the abundance of very attractive and immediately available young boys put me in a state of desire."

"The book, which won critical acclaim and sold 190,000 copies in France, was presented by Mr Mitterrand – then a popular television personality – as an "autobiography which is half real and half dreamed". It remains to be seen whether the suggestion that his descriptions of sex tourism were not strictly autobiographical will allow him to save his career. The memoir includes lurid scenes in male brothels in Thailand and Indonesia where boys are presented to Western tourists. An English translation is due out next year.

["Half real and half dreamed"--that sounds a bit like "If I Did It," OJ Simpson's suppressed manuscript.]

On Monday night, passages from the book were read out on live television by Marine Le Pen, the daughter of the National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen. Yesterday, she said Mr Mitterrand should leave office to restore France's moral integrity. "Resign, Mr Mitterrand, and perhaps afterwards we'll be able to give lessons to other people," she added.

"After a long silence, leaders of the main opposition party, the Socialists, decided yesterday to follow the lead of a party that they usually abhor, or ignore. "As a minister of Culture, he has drawn attention to himself by defending a film-maker accused of raping a child and has written a book where he said he took advantage of sexual tourism. To say the least, I find it shocking," said the Socialist party spokesman, Benoît Hamon.

"Mr Mitterrand, however, tried to dismiss the attacks as politically motivated. "I am flabbergasted," he said after a cabinet meeting.

"If the National Front drag me through the mud then it is an honour for me. If a leftist politician drags me through the mud then it is a humiliation for him."

"Mr Mitterrand was one of the most vocal defenders of Polanski, who has French citizenship and has lived there for 30 years, following the film-maker's arrest in Switzerland 10 days ago. He has since qualified his support, saying he was "stunned" at the time, but accused the US of callous behaviour.

"Just as there is an America which is generous and which we like, so there is an America which is frightening, and that is the America which has just revealed its face," he said."

End of "Independent" story.

And, I suppose [WD says], that there is a France that has just revealed its face.


Tuesday, October 06, 2009

The National Parks

As a devoted visitor to our National Parks, I have been avidly watching Ken Burns’ PBS series on television this week. The segments combine gorgeous photography with historical accounts and personal diaries.

A few years ago I visited Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona, where I learned that, prior to federal protection in 1906, visitors had freely lugged away the colorful logs. Without that protection the logs would soon all have been gone.

For some time now I have regarded our National Parks as (among other things) giant refutations of the libertarian contention that matters go best under private ownership. Clearly in many significant areas this is not so. Unattended by government, the sites of our National Parks would constitute a chain of Coney Island tawdriness, or a constellation of strip-mining horrors. Or else everything of interest would simply have disappeared, the fate that threatened to overtake the Petrified Forest.

The story of the National Parks seems to be Government One, private enterprise Zero. The reality is more complex.

To be sure, petty capitalists did do a lot of damage. An egregious case is that of Ralph Henry Cameron who sought to privatize the Grand Canyon through spurious mining claims. He charged admission to use his squalid facilities, and proposed to add two ugly hydroelectric dams. Cameron continued illegally occupy large parts of the Canyon even after it became a National Park.

The role of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. was entirely different. He acted decisively to protect the Grand Tetons, just south of Yellowstone. Then he put up a huge sum of money to buy the land for the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, which was being ravaged by lumber interests. The Park was not without costs, however, when as many as 500,000 poor whites and Indians were removed from their homes inside the perimeter of the Park.

Still the message seems clear. Petty capitalists like Cameron turned out to be villains. Megacapitalists, at least John D. Rockefeller, Jr., were heroes. Of course Rockefeller could afford it.

The role of the government is considered entirely laudatory, but Washington often accepted responsibility for individual parks with great reluctance. The needed appropriations for maintenance were often lacking.

So the balance sheet between private enterprise and government is a mixed one--just the opposite of the simplistic message we are getting from Michael Moore’s latest visual screed, “Capitalism: A Love Story,” or for that matter from Paul Krugman's contentious columns, with their ongoing demand for ever more deficit spending.


Friday, October 02, 2009

Is a military takeover imminent?

A few days ago Newsmax, a conservative site I don’t ordinarily read, delivered a shocker--a piece by one of its columnists, John L. Perry. The contribution discusses the prospects for a military takeover of the United States. Here is an excerpt:

“There is a remote, although gaining, possibility America's military will intervene as a last resort to resolve the "Obama problem." Don't dismiss it as unrealistic.
“America isn't the Third World. If a military coup does occur here it will be civilized. That it has never happened doesn't mean it won't. Describing what may be afoot is not to advocate it. So, view the following through military eyes:
# Officers swear to "support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic." Unlike enlisted personnel, they do not swear to "obey the orders of the president of the United States."
# Top military officers can see the Constitution they are sworn to defend being trampled as American institutions and enterprises are nationalized.
# They can see that Americans are increasingly alarmed that this nation, under President Barack Obama, may not even be recognizable as America by the 2012 election, in which he will surely seek continuation in office.”

And so forth.

Even Newsmax readers found the piece extreme, so the editors yanked it.

It seems that the Times of London is made of sterner stuff. In an adoring interview conducted by Tim Teeman, the egregious Gore Vidal spilled the beans on several topics.

Here is the key passage. Vidal: “We’ll have a military dictatorship fairly soon, on the basis that nobody else can hold everything together. Obama would have been better off focusing on educating the American people. His problem is being over-educated. He doesn’t realize how dim-witted and ignorant his audience is.” Moreover, he declares: “Does anyone care what Americans think? They’re the worst-educated people in the First World. They don’t have any thoughts, they have emotional responses, which good advertisers know how to provoke.”

It seems that the right-wing nobody Perry and the brilliant intellectual Vidal have the same opinion: we will soon have a military dictatorship in this country. It’s not the same, some will say, because Perry welcomes this development, while Vidal deplores it. In reality, the two men are not that different. Perry concedes that militarization is not an ideal solution. For his part, Vidal thinks that the American people are so dim-witted that they cannot be trusted to govern themselves. Why not, then, let the military take over?

Politicians are certainly not the answer, he avers. “Has he met Obama?” asks the British interviewer. “’No,’ he says quietly, ‘I’ve had my time with presidents.’ Vidal raises his fingers to signify a gun and mutters: ‘Bang bang.’ He is referring to the possibility of Obama being assassinated. ‘Just a mysterious lone gunman lurking in the shadows of the capital,' he says in a wry, dreamy way.’

Isn’t this murderous prediction the same one that our liberal media have been indignantly denouncing whenever it emanates from conservatives?

There was some hope, Vidal thinks, with one politician, Hillary Clinton. That’s because she’s a “girl,” you see. But of course she lost her chance for the presidency.

Never fear, though, for there is one person Gore Vidal still admires, and that is the late Timothy McVeigh, with whom he exchanged an avid correspondence while the terrorist languished on death row. McVeigh blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City in 1995 killing 168 people. The huge loss of life, indeed McVeigh’s act of mass murder, goes unmentioned by Vidal. “He was a true patriot, a Constitution man,” Vidal claims.

Vidal is scathing about Edmund White, who took the correspondence as the basis for a play entitled Terre Haute, named for the jail where McVeigh was incarcerated before he was executed in 2001. White limns an erotically charged encounter between the bomber and the character based on Vidal. “That play implies I am madly in love with McVeigh. I looked at his [White’s] writing and all he writes about is being a fag and how it’s the greatest thing on Earth. He thinks I’m another queen and I’m not. I’m more interested in the Constitution and McVeigh than the loving tryst he saw. It was vulgar fag-ism.”

This outburst reveals, methinks, more than a touch of self-contempt. Of course Vidal has long adhered to his version of the Kinsey doctrine that there are homosexual acts and no homosexual persons. At least he is not one of those, thank goodness! Still, he has boasted that he had sex with 1,000 men by the time he was 25. And how many women? Zero, I suspect. Has any woman ever come forward convincingly to attest that Gore has gored her? Of course not. Vidal is a one-sex guy. After all these years, the great Truth Teller has never been willing to be honest about the most important thing: himself. Let's face it dude, you're a FAG.

Despite his haughty air of patrician indifference, Vidal is an incorrigible name-dropper. He seeks constantly to inflate his own wobbly status by spouting whoppers regarding those he knows or is related to. His father Eugene Luther Vidal, Sr., we are told, “founded the airlines in the 1930s.” Vidal senior was a pilot and worked for some of the airlines. He also served for a while in the Roosevelt administration. But he certainly did not found the airlines.

One might think that Vidal is slipping into senility (he’s 83). But in fact he has always been just as he is now: a pompous, self-serving fabulator. He is right about one thing though, for a substantial segment of the American people does seem to be easily fooled. But they are not those pathetic rubes in the red states, they are the adoring kneejerks who applaud everything Vidal says, even down to his adulation of the murderous Timothy McVeigh.

Things could be worse, though. We are lucky that Vidal did not know Adolf Hitler. Then we would have learned how splendid that chap was also. He was a Constitution man too, you see.

UPDATE (Nov. 5, 2009). As always with Gore--there's more! In an interview that has just appeared in The Atlantic, he was asked to comment on the Polanski case.

Demonstrating the huge vocabulary that comes with his humongous brain, he sagely remarked: "I really don’t give a fuck. Look, am I going to sit and weep every time a young hooker feels as though she’s been taken advantage of?"

To which the interviewer bizarrely resonded; "I’ve certainly never heard that take on the story before."

Vidal: "First, I was in the middle of all that. [A threesome? WRD] Back then, we all were. Everybody knew everybody else. There was a totally different story at the time that doesn’t resemble anything that we’re now being told."

Interviewer: "What do you mean?"

Vidal: "The media can’t get anything straight. Plus, there’s usually an anti-Semitic and anti-fag thing going on with the press – lots of crazy things. The idea that this girl was in her communion dress, a little angel all in white, being raped by this awful Jew, Polacko – that’s what people were calling him – well, the story is totally different now from what it was then."

Vidal knows a thing or two about anti-Semitism. Still, it is distinctly odd of him to label Hollywood a haven of anti-Jewish sentiment. What planet is he living on? One need only recall the first petition in Polanski's favor, which was signed by many Hollywood luminaries, including a number who happen to be Jewish.

But it's worse. It is OK to rape a thirteen-year old girl if she's Catholic. That's what they deserve. Besides, she was a whore.

This man is an utter pig, who should be ostracized from any decent company. If America is deeply decadent, as Gorebore claims, then he is one of the prime examples.