Monday, May 29, 2006

"Explaining it better"

An Internet friend, an American, lives in Norway. There he continues to write his well-researched nonfiction books. Fluent in several languages, he also tracks the local media. According to his report the Scandinavian media lean strongly to the left. In large measure, this tendency is responsible for diffusing the political correctness that has led to the neglect of the growing Islamist problem in those countries.

Having lived in Europe myself, I do not doubt that this analysis is generally correct, though I would note that there is greater variety of opinion in Britain and France, where a few conservative newspapers still exist.

My friend and I differ on the current Iraq war. He was (and, I think, still is) in favor of it. I have always been against it. So we have agreed to differ. The friend points out that pro-war coverage has been very thin on the ground where he sits. Again, just so.

Still, how much “balance,” how much pro-war coverage, would be needed to bring European public opinion around to supporting the launch of the Iraq war? I doubt that any amount would have sufficed. One can debate the reasons for this resistance, but it would certainly have continued no matter how much exposure to the other point of view had been on offer. In this instance, then, my friend’s point is academic.

This brings me to a larger issue, and that is the current popularity of a meme that goes like this: “Our policies are sound. We just didn’t explain them properly.”

We saw a version of this technique the other day in the joint press conference given by president Bush and his British sidekick Tony Blair. When asked about errors with regard to Iraq, the most that Bush would concede was to acknowledge some mistakes of tone. The war itself is still just fine—-we must stay the course, and so forth.

A moment’s reflection suggests that this ploy has limits. Was the Holocaust simply “not explained properly”?!!! Of course, those who hold to the “we didn’t explain it right” meme believe that their causes are different. Perhaps so, up to a point. All the same, this claim has become a self-serving mantra that operates to rationalize the obstinate pursuit of bad policies. To judge by the flurry of his speeches on Social Security reform a few months ago, Bush seemed to think that a barrage of talk would do the trick. It did not, and could not, because most people do not want the Social Security system tampered with. End of story.

Of course there is plenty of this kind of delusion among the stalwarts of the Democratic Party, as seen in the current popularity of "framing”(a theory advanced by a pop linguist). According to this view the voters will come around if only the right language is used—-if things are put in the right frame.

That outcome is not likely. Some years ago my apartment was burglarized. I will not be reconciled to this invasion by being told that the perps were “property-relocation specialists.” In Washington it is not reassuring to learn that lobbyists are merely “helping our Congresspeople better to formulate their legislation.” Opponents of “affirmative action” are not assuaged by the magical utterance of that bit of weasel wording, though supporters think they are.

This notion that “all we need to do to get the policy accepted is to say it right” seems to be peculiarly American-—though of course it forms part of the overarching category of propaganda.

It was in the United States that the field of Public Relations arose. The invention is usually ascribed to Edward Bernays (1891-1995—can these dates really be correct?). Some hold that that title properly belongs to some other early PR practitioner, such as Ivy Lee. However, Bernays’ importance is undeniable. Born in Vienna, Edward Bernays was both a biological nephew and a nephew-in-law to Sigmund Freud. Bernays' public relations efforts helped popularize his uncle’s psychoanalytic theories in the United States. The PR guru also drew on psychology and other social sciences to design his public persuasion campaigns. "If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing about it? The recent practice of propaganda has proved that it is possible, at least up to a certain point and within certain limits." Bernays termed this technique of opinion molding the "engineering of consent."

In Propaganda, his most influential book, Bernays maintained that the scientific manipulation of public opinion was necessary to overcome chaos and conflict in society:

"The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. ... We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society. ... In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons ... who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind."

Not everyone was deceived. In a letter to President Roosevelt, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter characterized Bernays and Ivy Lee as "professional poisoners of the public mind, exploiters of foolishness, fanaticism and self-interest." Ironically, Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Minister of Propaganda, was a close student of Bernays’ methods.

Today, of course, defending the indefensible continues. Through their flunkies, third-world dictators use the United Nations as a major sounding board for their odious policies. And the “new” UN Commission on Human Rights has almost as many offenders as the old one had.

It is understandable that dictators should think that such methods would be effective. After all they seem to work in their own countries, where the media are strictly controlled. At first sight, it is more surprising to see such propaganda methods deployed in the United States. For that, it seems, the discipline of Public Relations is responsible.

Friday, May 26, 2006

The coming bilingual regime: a sober look

As a thought experiment, let us assume that some sort of interplanetary overlord will very shortly visit earth and decree that the United States must become bilingual. However, we are not obliged to choose Spanish. We can select any partner language we deem best.

In the early years of the Republic some patriots proposed that, in keeping with the heritage of democracy and the overall eminence of classical culture, we Americans must speak Greek. Adopting this sublime tongue would forever secure us from the hateful domination of England. At length, however, a different proposal carried the day—or at least half of it did. It was decided that we Americans would keep English; it is a prize we deserve to have. It is the English who must be compelled to speak Greek. Ever obstinate, the limeys still have not complied with this stipulation.

If not Greek, then maybe another G-language. From time to time one hears that there was a real chance that German might become the official language of the US. Ostensibly, Bismarck thought that this might happen. Yet there seems little documentary support for the claim, despite the fact that German was the leading foreign language in our nation from at least 1700 to 1900.

At any rate in the putative vote decreed by our overlord, I nominate Chinese. One fantasy deserves another. This choice will open to us an almost limitless cultural storehouse—and of course give us that competitive edge to make the twenty-first century not the Chinese century, but the American-Chinese century. Odd as it may seem, the greatest advantage is practical. As the Japanese have demonstrated, Chinese logograms (“characters”) can be used to write any language—only the pronunciation differs, so that the character for king, wang in mandarin, is read o in Japanese. The French would read it “roi,” the Germans “koenig,” and so forth. As the principle spread throught the globe, humanity would be united in a single written language (standardized apart from a few grammatical markers to indicate plurals, past tense, and so forth; these could easily be standardized).

End fantasy. Let’s try reality. It seems as if we will have no choice in our partner in the brave new world of bilingualism. If the US Senate has its way, not only will eleven million (or more) Spanish-speaking persons who now live within our borders be naturalized, but also we will have to make way for another sixty million over the following twenty years. Our business interests have an inexhaustible appetite for cheap labor, and politicians will cater to the Hispanic lobby by welcoming new waves of millions. These developments will fundamentally alter the demography of our country. In this light it is worth weighing the pros and cons.

First the advantages. On the whole Spanish is relatively easy to learn. The grammar is straightforward and there are no difficult sounds, such as the German ch and the French r. Historically Spanish is related to other Western European languages including English, and this relationship provides many cognates, a great aid to learning. Some 320 million people, with whom we could readily communicate, already speak Spanish.

And what of the downside? One that is frequently cited is that it would sever our connection with the founding documents of our Republic. This is only partly true, as English speakers would continue to consult them in the original. Of course, bilingualism tends to be divisive-—but this goes with the territory and the effect is not exclusive to any particular language partner.

The real problems, and here I enter a highly radioactive zone, have to do with the primal inadequacies of Hispanic culture. Anthropologists assure us that all cultures are equal. Political correctness taboos any attempt to draw up a report card of cultures. Yet we know in our gut that all cultures are not equal.

The blight of Hispanic deficiency dates back at least to 1492, when the Spain of Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Jews, to be followed by the forced departure of the Moors in stages over a period of time. These expulsions were most cruel to the victims. They were also cruel, though in a different way, to the remaining Christian population, as Spain changed from being a complex, relatively open society to a closed culture in which normative Catholicism was imposed on everyone. The stifling consequences on intellectual life are incalculable. Moreover, it was Catholic Spain, with its insistence on limpieza de sangre, purity of blood, that invented modern racism. And the noxious effects of this drastic narrowing of horizons are not just ancient history. They lasted until 1975, when the caudillo Francisco Franco finally died.

The centuries of intolerance were unfortunately the very centuries of expansion of Spanish power, preeminently in the New World. The conquistadores and the friars who accompanied them brought conversion by force. The also introduced a new system of racial stratification based on caste, with the peninsulares (those born in Spain) at the top, the white criollos just below them, then the growing stratum of mestizos (people of mixed race), and at the bottom the native Americans. All this depended, of course, on the foundation laid by the principle of limpieza de sangre. Anti-Jewish and anti-Moorish exclusionism became the models of the inferiorization of teh indigenous population. Mexico, Guatemala, and Peru, among others, are still struggling with this baleful legacy of caste. Finally, the economic regimes imposed on the New World, first by the Hapsburg rulers, then by the Bourbons, were mercantilist. In this view, trade must be strictly controlled for the benefit of the ruling circles. There was no room in mercantilism for the entrepreneurship that has made America and Western Europe rich.

Today Spain has rejoined Europe. It is prosperous and free. But the tragic irony is that the repressive legacy of the conquistadores persists in the Spanish-speaking Americas. To be sure, as historians relate, the Aztecs and Mayas were not perfect either. Cutting out the odd heart and running cactus through penises are not exactly exemplary practices. Still the peoples of the Americas had their own culture, as the magnificent remains of such sites as Monte Albán and Palenque, Machu Picchu and Tihuanaco remind us. The conquistadors did every thing they could to stamp out these cultures.

To be sure, since the 1920s Mexico has sought to honor the indigenous heritage through symbolism (in the national flag, for example). Yet these gestures only serve to mask the continued rule of the white elites. The perfect exemplar of this domination is el Presidente Fox, that Euro-King Kong, towering over his mestizo subjects. Included in the repertory of indigenismo is the legend of Aztlan, the supposed Aztec homeland in our Southwest. This irridentist claim makes some Latinos not just eager to live alongside gringos in those states, but to dominate them, creating a new nation of Mexifornia. Properly to honor the heritage Aztlan, though, would mean to give up Spanish, the language of the oppressor and adopt Nahuatl. Here, where de-Hispanization is strongly indicated, there seems little appetite for change.

As I indicated, few will consent to violate the multiculturalist taboo, joining me in drawing up a balance sheet of what advancing Hispanization might mean. In brief compass I have taken a first step. Refute me, if you can.

Examined soberly, Hispanic culture has been a marginal component of the European symphony. Its participants have been playing out of tune for centuries. What melody will they play in our country when bilingualism is fully implemented?

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

A convenient untruth

In an earlier posting I questioned the view that the debate on global warming is over. This opinion doubless led to some head shaking among you Happy Few, the readers of these pages.

I still haven't changed my mind. I don't doubt that some significant global warming has been occurring. Yet there is an important distinction between global warming as a consequence of the earth's internal homeostatic system and anthropogenic global warming, the consequence of human behavior such as the burning of fossile fuels.

In a New York Times op-ed today Gregg Easterbrook, one of the more sensible environmentalists, cites six official bodies, from the American Geophysical Union to the Climate Change Science Program, who say that global warming is now a certainty. Then Mr. Easterbrook says: "Case closed."

I'm sorry, but it isn't. Of the six authoritative bodies, three seem simply to say that global warming is happening, without seeking definitively to assess the cause. The other three cite anthrogenic factors, but use such language as "a substantial human impact" and "human influences on the climate system."

From these opinions two questions arise. In all likelihood global warming stems from two main factors: the earth itself and human activity on the earth. What percentages are to be assigned to each? Even an expression like "substantial human impact" sugggests that the effect might be no more than 40%. Perhaps it is as low as 20%.

The second question is this. How much can we reduce the human contribution to the effect? Unless we go back to a Neolithic economy, advocates concede that even advanced industrialized countries can only reduce their output of fossile fuels by a fraction of the total. In the meantime, newly industrializing countries, primarly China and India, are increasing their contribution to pollution enormously. The savings made up in advanced industrialized countries will more than be made up new transgressions elsewhere. So why must we pay the price, while India and China merrily pollute as much as they want?

Mr. Easterbrook now admits that "President Bush was right to withdraw the United States from the cumbersome Kyoto greenhouse treaty, which even most signatories are ignoring." Wasn't the Kyoto Treaty one of the main accomplishments of Al Gore?

The brings us to the final question--the cui bono. If the evidence about global warming is ambiguous, and I think it is, who benefits from trumpeting the cause? In an obvious trivial sense Al Gore does, because the movie will advance his newly revived presidential ambitions. More generally, the global-warming frenzy has been a bonanza for the media. You don't sell newspapers by saying that the evidence is moot. A more direct economic benefit will accrue to those who are making devices to reduce the effects of global warming. If this production means cleaner air and cleaner water, I'm all for it. But why must the effort be sold by mongering the new chicken-littlism, an apocalypse that isn't coming?

Language policy

I generally avoid short posts because brevity (at least my brevity) fosters misinterpretation. My immediately previous post, on the Senate's pseudoaction about English as our official language, was an attempt at humor, fueled by frustration at the incompetence of Congress--even greater, it seems, than the incompetence of the Bush administration.

Let me comment further about language policy. I speak five languages--as readers will learn when they look at my other blog, [plug]. This all started, I suppose, when I discovered my stepfather's Italian-language textbooks at the age of 13. Eventually I learned to speak Italian with considerable fluency, owing to the need to communicate with an Italian boyfriend who knew no English. In common with Thomas Jefferson I still regard France as my second country and the French language as, in some sense, my intellectual home. (I am currently surrounded by Symbolist texts, as I struggle to get the hang of Mallarme', Villiers de l'Isle Adam, and Huysmans.) For art history I had to learn German. Probably because of wartime propaganda I am not comfortable in that language, even though I have read hundreds of books in it. My parents required me to study Spanish, starting on junior high school--four years of it. This language has come in handy in my visits to Latin American countries, where I am passionate about pre-Columbian archaeology.

I try constantly to keep up in my languages, though my Italian has now faded alarmingly. I deplore English-language triumphalism, with its lazy assumption that if any book is important it will be translated into English. On the positive side, learning another language affords a window into another culture. I feel sorry for those who deny themselves this experience.

All this notwithstanding, I am a supporter of efforts to make English our sole national and official language. This is true in part for cultural reasons--the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and all the vital law interpretations that stem from them are written in English. (On the other hand, I don't see any reason to prefer Dickens, say, to Balzac--Balzac is much more profound.)

The key point is this. There have been several successful multilingual societies. However, these are usually like the Roman empire or the old Soviet Union in which one language (Latin and Russian, respectively) has been dominant. Switzerland is officially quadrilingual, but since German speakers constitute 80% of the whole German is de facto dominant.

By contrast in every society I know of bilingualism has been a disaster. My Ph.D. dissertation involved Belgium. When I visited that country I found that if you addressed people in the "wrong" language, hostility would ensue--even in some cases where I felt sure that they understood. A hundred years ago Flemish intellectuals, Maeterlinck, Rodenbach, Verhaeren, wrote in French. That is impossible to imagine today.

So I must underline this point. The current discussion willfully and mischievously confuses multilingualism with bilingualism. Multilingualism is good. As an official policy bilingualism is bad. Yet we seem gradually, inexorably to be drifting into this situation. Making Spanish a second language alongside English is also oddly unrealistic. In most of the Hispanic/Latino families I have observed, both in New York and California, knowledge of Spanish becomes vestigial by the third generation. The influence of popular culture is overwhelming, and that phenomenon is mainly in English, a world-wide situation. A sociolinguistic study of Chicano youth in LA showed that they communicated among one another in their own variety of English. They had to, because some members of the group did not speak Spanish.

Left alone, English will prevail. But politicians, anxious to shore up a stable ethnic voting block, want to interfere with this process. At the same time they cater to fantasies about Aztlan, the mythical homeland of the Aztecs, supposedly corresponding to our Southwest. These people should be asked: How did the people of Aztlan come to speak Spanish? Shouldn't we be bilingual in English and Nahuatl (the Aztec language)? Or perhaps it can be Cherokee (the language of some of my ancestors) and Nahuatl.

I also do not buy the idea that we should learn Spanish because it is the exclusive Latin American language. It isn't: 186 million people in Brazil speak Portuguese. I have read a fair amount of Portuguese literature, and it seems just as rich as Spanish literature.

For cultural and political reasons the language we all should be learning is Mandarin Chinese. (I had a course in college, and have been trying to get it back.)
Chinese literature is hors concours--incomparably the richest. Chinese is a vehicle to accessing major currents of thought. I am currently engaging Daoism, which is much more complex than the Daode jing would suggest, invaluable as that pithy classic undoubtedly is.

So I say: long may multilingualism flourish! But beware the specious arguments of bilingualism.

Friday, May 19, 2006

English as the national language?

Earlier today it seems that the US Senate adopted two separate amendments declaring that English is the national language. Not to worry, though, the amendments will have no practical effect.

Even if they did, this is clearly one of those legislative provisions from which Congress, following its custom, exempts itself. In any meaningful sense use of English is practically extinct on Capitol Hill. The language was always an endangered species there, but the immigration bill seems to have done it in. Never, even in a body that excells in verbal deception of every kind, have I heard so much euphemism, circumlocution, and unwillingness to call things by their proper names. If we are going to have amnesty, as maybe we will and should, why not call it that? Oh no, we are told, it is monstrous even to t h i n k of calling it by its proper name.

If Congress could meet minimum standards of intelligibility and honesty, I would be happy if all the deliberations were conducted in Spanish--or Sanskrit or Esperanto.

Introduction: start of Homolexis

[The following posting may seem a little mysterious. It is a aample, the opening paragrsphs of my new book HOMOLEXIS, which I experimentally turned into a blog--Homolexis (to be found at I thought that the experiment was a success, until the system stopped accepting my posts! With a little coaxing, I think I have solved that problem, though a few glitches remain. Anyway it's safe to view the site now. Enjoy!]

HOMOLEXIS (opening paragraphs)

Sexual terms are inherently fascinating. Sex is one of humanity’s most intense experiences and the ways of discussing it range from outright crudity through clinical detachment to a decorum sometimes marked by timidity and reticence.

This study addresses the character and historical development of the body of words used for homosexuality—-the homolexis or homolexicon-—in the five major Western European languages, English, French, German, Italian, and Spanish. Technically, the individual words are termed homolexemes. A number of valuable studies have been published for the five languages individually. Yet as far as I know, a broader, comparative approach has not been previously attempted. Given the limitations of my own knowledge it has not been feasible to treat the languages with uniform depth. The English tongue will remain the base.

Readers should not be surprised to find that some favorite term is lacking, for the coverage is illustrative rather than exhaustive. For example, one scholar has collected more than 150 different instances of expressions employing “queen” as the second element (drag queen, opera queen, etc.). Only a few of these will be noticed here. The purpose is to determine the principles governing the appearance, survival, and function of words. To achieve this goal a representative sample suffices.

Moreover, even dictionaries that attempt to be comprehensive must ultimately fail in the realm of sexual terminology, because the vocabulary continues to grow and change. That is particularly true for homosexuality. Equipped with various survival skills, gay people tend to be creative with language. This knack engenders a continuing stream of ad hoc expressions. A few of these survive; most do not. Moreover, because of long-standing prejudice and discrimination, the host society has generated a disconcertingly large body of terms of disparagement.

Periodicals for eggheads

I preface this post with a comment on the blog Gay Species ( The title does not do this site justice. Thoughtfully and comprehensively, the writer, Mr. Heersink, comments on a great range of subjects. The Gay Species is a whole university in itself. I would consider the Gay Species the twin of my blog (so to speak), except that it far supasses mine in coverage and geniality. As many have noted, I tend to go for the jugular, which has turned off no end of possible allies. "Molti nemici, molto onore," many enemies, much honor, goes the Italian proverb. All in all, I don't recommend this strategy (says he, finger in anybody's eye who gets near). Well, no use crying over spilt venom.

At all events the following thoughts reflect a question recently raised in the columns of the Gay Species. In this age of transition, what intellectual periodicals should one read?

As a teenager in LA I started reading one that is now (deservedly) defunct. That was The Saturday Review of Literature. That weekly was a classic case of dumbing down to reach a broader audience. I do remember encountering a fascinating piece by Denis de Rougemont on the "invention of romantic love," which he dated to the 12th century. While I have become convinced that this pinpointing is mistaken, the article opened my eyes to the possibility of the history of ideas, an approach which (later guided by the incomparable Arthur Lovejoy) I have pursued ever since. However, Norman Cousins (the editor of SRL) tried to turn it into a liberal political rag. This approach has been adopted more successfully by The New York Review of Books (sic), but I still think that it is a mistake. A literary review should do the best it can--as a literary review. (I put "sic" in the sentence above, because the NY Review actually reviews very few books.)

Anyway a half century ago I moved from the sticks (as Southern Cal. then was), to the Apple--as it was and is: sometimes nourishing, sometimes rotten. We still are afflicted with a number of worms, one them being, I think, the refusal to accept that this country has a two-party system. Not that I retain any affection for the Republicans, but knee-jerkism has its limits. I remember that after the November election in 2004, the streets were deserted. People were stunned. To adapt Pauline Kael (only slightly): "How could Bush have won? No one I know voted for him."

Anyway, not long after I arrived in the Gotham in 1956, I noticed that there were two types of intellectuals. The first type were well dressed individuals living in comfortable pads on the Upper East Side, the silk-stocking district. Their elegant coffee-tables almost invariably displayed the latest issue of The New Yorker. The other type of intellectual sported The Village Voice on their coffee tables, which were probably recycled packing cases or old doors lying flat and set up on legs--so much more chic, you know. I never met anyone who would admit to reading both.

Despite its original antigay policy I gravitated to The Village Voice. With its early opposition to the Vietnam War and championing of all sorts of dissident groups, the VV was a bellweather of what was to come. In the late sixties it provided the template for the underground press, which flourished luxuriantly but briefly in the flower-power era. Like it or not, we experienced a cultural revolution in those days. The hippie silliness notwithstanding, we are all the better for the freedoms secured in those heady days. Today, of course, the Village Voice can be obtained gratis throughout the city. If I had a dog, I would pick it up as a pooper scooper, but I don't. Through stridency and raunchiness, it seeks to recapture its former relevance. Alas, that is gone forever, but this sad end does not detract from the paper's historic role.

The New Yorker was another matter. To be sure, it did publish a number of pioneering multipart articles. From the early sixties I remember particularly Hannah Arendt's articles on the Eichmann trial. These were the source of a continuing seminar among my friends.

Despite such services, The New Yorker remained firmly Establishment. In fact it defined a kind of smugness that the cultural revolution overthrew. Eventually, the New Yorker tried to reinvented itself under the disastrous Tina Brown. Now things are back to normal. I get it in the mail, but only because the subscription is so cheap. About half the articles I do not bother to read. In no way is The New Yorker cutting edge, a retardataire status proved by its dithering about the Iraq War, which the editor the "oh so savvy" wunderkind David Remnick initially supported. In addition to deja vue, it's the Best and the Brightest all over again.

I agree with the Gay Species that it is good to have a balance of liberal and conservative voices. However, I dropped The Weekly Standard several years ago (it was an interesting phenomenon when it started, but it has become descredited with the Bushbot crackup). I do read the New Criterion (where I once had an article) in my local Barnes and Noble branch. For nuanced conservative commentary the best source is Andrew Sullivan's blog, The Daily Dish, at the Time site. I read it every day. As far as the left goes, The Nation is looking better and better.

I've dropped most of my magazine subscriptions, finding it more convenient to get the material on line. Aldaily is an excellent source for many things. I would like to put in a plug for the Times Literary Supplement, which I have read faithfully for many years. I fear it is not long for this world, but it still reviews more books than any of its competitors.

Well, with the Internet the world is our oyster now. There is no need to restrict one self to such feeble stuff as the old Saturday Review, which is where I began. If some weekly fizzles out (as The New Republic did for me) there are an enormous number of substitutes.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

"Christianism" and Andrew Sullivan

In common with many educated people I am apprehensive about the growing power of hardcore evangelical Christians in this country. They are seeking, many of them, to erase the boundaries between church and state, and to impose their own narrow concepts of morality. Following a half-baked version of medieval Millenarianism, millions seem to believe that they will shortly be swept up into the sky in the Rapture. Politicians increasingly cater to these people, some even claiming tbat their policies are authorized by God.

In a piece in Time Magazine, followed by discussion on his blog (available at the Time site), Andrew Sullivan has advocated that this vein of evangelicals be rebranded "Christianists." The term is modeled on Islamism. When one of his readers objected that, unlike radical, puritanical Muslims, Christianist do not go about chopping people's heads off and forcing women into purdah, Sullivan remarked that evangelicals would do so if they could.

Coming from a Catholic (Sullivan's faith) this remark is simply outrageous. It was not evangelical Christians who burned Joan of Arc for heresy. And it was not evangelical Christians who decreed the death penalty for sodomites. Some sense of humility, fortified by historical knowledge, is called for.

Sullivan's ploy is of course familiar in other realms. I remember having heated discussions with Marxists in the seventies who insisted that one must distinguish "genuine Marxism" (their version) from the "excesses" of Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot. What if, I answered, that it was the beliefs and practices of those three which actually constituted genuine Marxism. The general point is that such dichotomies are generally self-serving. Marxists need to take responsibility for the crimes committed in the name of their faith. So do Catholics. Inventing specious dichotomies is not the way to accomplish this.

Several years ago Sullivan's friend and fellow gay conservative, Bruce Bawer (who is not a Catholic) published a book called Stealing Jesus.This book contains some valuable information about liberal protestantism in the US in the 1920s, together with an analysis of the Dispensationalism currently rampant among evangelicals. However, the whole idea of "stealing Jesus" is ludicrous.

A hundred years ago, in his Quest for the Historical Jesus Albert Schweitzer showed that Jesus, in so far as we can apprehend him, was a shape-shifter who has meant many different things to many people. Such an individual cannot be the victim of identity theft--he has no single identity. (The fact that later Schweitzer backslid, claiming that HE had detected who the historical Jesus actually was, does not detract from the value of his scholarly demonstration.)

Since Schweitzer's time, the complex heritage has continued. And some new features have been added.

I note just a few of the interpretations that have been offered of this protean figure. There is the gentle Jesus who suffered little children to come to him so beloved of Victorian painters. There is Jesus the situational ethicist who found a legalistic reason to save the adulterous woman from being stoned to death. Contrasting with these is the stern eschatolical Jesus, who foresaw the Last Judgment, with sinners being consigned to eternal damnation. Then there is Jesus the zealot, leader of the Judaean Liberation Front. And it is hard to escape the conclusion that Jesus, a believing Jew, was not a rabbi.

The twentieth century has added some new themes. Bruce Bartlett opined that Jesus had created the finest business model that anyone could imagine. He took twelve uneducated trainees and made them the core of a bustling worldwide concern--in fact several such concerns. The sixties gave is Jesus the Hippy, with his band of scruffy followers. And Holy Blood, Holy Grail suggested (not for the first time) that Jesus was a family man, espoused to Mary Magdalene and the founder of a secret dynasty. Some gay Christians, not content with erasing the antihomosexual content of the notorious Clobber Passages in the Bible, have suggested that Jesus was homosexual. And so on.

Jesus can be all sorts of things. In this light it seems implausible to suggest that there is only one construction of his personality (the one embraced by the writer) and to suggest that other concepts are thievery. By the same token, Sullivan's ploy of trying to separate out the Christianity of other people by labeling it "Christianism" will not fly.


Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Gay Marriage and Me

Fifteen years ago I had given little thought to gay marriage. It did not seem to be on the radar screen, though I knew that several gay eminentoes had come out in favor of it. My detachment was to change. I was compelled to think more about it as a result of joining a lively Internet group--a group not (to the best of my recollection) originally intended to serve as forum for this matter, but which became so. (As the group was private, I am not at liberty to say much about it. However, one can get a general idea of the approach from its public cousin, the Independent Gay Forum:

Going back to those closing years of the last century, I had become thoroughly weary of the many twists and turns of the gay left, notably the academic fraud known as Queer Theory and the obsession with Identity Politics symbolized by the letters LGBTQ. It was time for a new approach, which my little group seemed to be fostering. The left was on the ropes in this country (a reward, I felt, it richly deserved), while conservatism seemed to be ascendent. It was worth seeing what the new approach had to offer.

Alas, the gay marriage advocates shot themselves in the foot as often as not. First came the Hawaii debacle. I won't rehearse the intricate details. Suffice it to say that the game plan was to secure gay marriage in that state, and then export it throughout the other forty-nine via the Full Faith and Credit clause of the US Constitution. We never got that far, but legal friends tell me that this interpretation of FFC, granting immediate national recognition of same-sex marriage, would never fly.

Over the years I saw various utopian claims made about gay marriage that seemed unconvincing. Jonathan Rauch, one of the principle spokespeople of the cause, seemed to think that gay men were "broken" and needed the discipline of gay marriage to rescue them from their dreadful promiscuity and irresponsibility. Gay marriage, it was improbably claimed, was really a conservative device, which would shore up marriage (which many granted needed shoring up). I need scarcely underline that these were fantasies, yet Mr. Rauch remains in high regard.

Then there were the undemocratic means, which failed in Hawaii, while enjoying a success of a sort in Massachusetts. I say "of a sort" because Massachusetts cannot provide federal benefits, which are the most important aspect of legal marriage. When Vermont invented a different solution, Domestic Partnership, that was capable of delivering the benefits of the Massachusetts plan without the name, the SSM purists were aghast. They must have the name. All or nothing. As I noted, they do not have all in Massachusetts, and it seems that that state will be a long time in coming.

The key problem was that the gay marriage advocates approached the issue as a matter of entitlement. Equity demanded that the society grant gay marriage as soon as possible; otherwise we were living in "apartheid." As a historian I pointed out that there were no certain indications of gay marriage in institutional form in any society. Various claims have been made, citing (absurdly) Nero's mock marriage to Sporus and Boswell's mistaken arguments about Byzantine adelphopoiesis (a form of blood brotherhood, not marriage). Gay marriage is a novum. The fact that it is an innovation does not mean that we should not have it--after all the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, and Canada do. However, these countries do not constitute an irresistable tidal wave--at least not yet.

Then there was the matter of judge shopping. Over and over the gay marriage partisans tried to achieve it by judicial fiat, all the while denying that there was such a thing as activist judges. Fiddlesticks. In the last analysis the comment of Stephen Heersink is acute: Americans dislike coercion in these matters. It was the sense that gays were making an "non-negotiable demand" that, more than anything else, derailed the US gay-marriage movement.

These tactics were deplorable, and they constituted a disservice to the cause they claimed to advance. I should clarify that I have no objection to gay marriage in principle, though it is unlikely that I would ever avail myself of the privilege. But who knows? Never say never.

The point is that it is unlikely that I will have the option--at least in the rest of my present unnatural life. It is best to face facts directly. The cause of gay marriage is dead in this country.

The death of the gay marriage movement, it is said, is due to the irrational objections of evangelical Christians, concentrated in our "reactionary" red states. It's funny, though, that we don't see much enthusiasm in the blue states either. (Maybe Mass. is a bleu state--a fairly rare condition.)

The larger issue is the principle, well attested in the history of our nation, that one does not effect a major social change before bringing the majority along. Of course gay marriage is not supposed to be (according to its advocates) a major change, just a minor definition of marriage. Horse feathers.

The overreaching, and dare I say chicanery of the gay marriage advocates was a major cause of their defeat. Perhaps one day we will have gay marriage in this country--I hope so. But it will not come about by chicanery, legal activism, and other unacceptable ploys. Out people must accept it. We are a long way from that situation now.

Monday, May 08, 2006

The St-Tropez Syndrome

The following anecdote is attributed to Sam Goldwyn, among others. It was late morning at a studio conference and talk turned to taking lunch at a particular restaurant. “Nokay,” said Goldwyn. “That place is so crowded nobody ever goes there any more!”

A friend coined the expression “St. Tropez Syndrome” for this phenomenon. A century ago St.-Tropez was a quiet fishing town on the Côte d’Azur (also known as the French Riviera). Then artists and intellectuals began flocking there for the climate. After World War II the town emerged as a stop for the “beautiful people” of the A-list and the emerging jet set. Its bars and clubs were packed with seekers of “whisky à go-go.” La cage was definitely affolée. Well, I haven’t been to St.-Tropez in many years, and it would take a large sum of money to get me to return. Who knows? Maybe after some years of desertion the place is ready for a comeback. I doubt it.

Los Angeles is a gigantic version of the Syndrome. In my childhood there the city had no smog to speak of—-you could actually see the hills. There was even a functioning public transportation system, so that our family didn’t even own a car. Although the orange groves were miles away, symbolically we inhaled their wonderful aroma.

I needn’t emphasize the contrast with LA as it is now. Too many people, too much congestion, too much frustration, and too many frayed tempers.

The triggering of the perception of the Syndrome may be part of a larger problem known as “fading.” In contrast with St-Tropez and Los Angeles, there is an infinite amount of room on, say, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Yet I have heard that warhorse has been so many times that I hope I never hear it again. It may be different for youngsters discovering classical music for the first time. And so perhaps, too, LA.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Konnotations of the letter K

During the 1930s Ezra Pound published a book called Guide to Kulchur, an eccentric spelling chosen to place a personal stamp on his views, separating them from conventional notions of the subject. Pound sometimes referred to his fellow poet e. e. cummings as "the Komrade," presumably to reference some pro-Soviet leanings. We write Komsomol, but anglicize Comintern. (Russian has a C, but with the value of S.)

In World War II propagandists spoke scornfully of Nazi “kultur,” ostensibly a sinister caricature of the real thing.

In the 1920s manufacturers of products discovered the value of the letter in achieving a brand name, which could be trademarked. Hence "Kool-Aid," first developed in Nebraska in 1927. (It was originally spelled "Kool-Ade.") In his 1958 novel “Lolita” Vladimir Nabokov satirized this trend by naming a motel Kumfy Kabins.

Ancient Greek has no letter C, and K (kappa) renders the hard c-sound. Some Hellenists insist that this trend be carried over into English, as Sophokles, Kore, Korinth and so forth. However, when the new spelling clashes with the established pronunciation, as it does with Thukidides, the word is usually sounded as formerly. One might call this general tendency kappacism, were it not for the fact that phoneticists and therapists already use that term to designate a defective pronunciation of the k sound.

In the 1970s, some opposed to the perceived imperialism of American foreign policy began to write "Amerika" or even "Amerikkka" (the latter referring to the Klu Klux Klan (an early instance of the expressive use of the letter k, by the way).

At about the same time, some black-power enthusiasts began to write "Afrika." Hence a curious paradox: while the k serves to delegitimize a nation (as noted above), it ennobles a continent.

The letter k is rare in Italian. By substituting k for c some writers in that tongue seek to convey a notion of menace (Amerikano, kompagno), to provide emphasis (kretino), or attach irony (kollega). A contemporary Roman gay poet and activist, Massimo Consoli, likes to write the word culo (ass), as “kulo.” The change in spelling seems to suggest that, in his view, this organ, normally regarded as vulnerable and passive, has power.

Be that as it may, recently, a somewhat similar trend has become evident with the letter z for plurals: thugz, happy dayz.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Galbraith versus Jacobs

Over the weekend John Kenneth Galbraith died at the age of ninety-seven. The New York Times saw fit to publish a full-page obituary--twice. Once a shining beacon of liberal interventionism, Galbraith lived long enough to see his policies discredited—though a dwindling band of acolytes thinks otherwise.

In the "Affluent Society" (1958) and other books Galbraith set forth an idea that seemed persuasive at the time. Americans had gotten rich individually, but at the cost of neglecting the public sector. Changing the balance could only be for the good. Well, under Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon we shifted the balance. The results were not what were expected. Most Great Society programs proved wasteful, and not a few exacerbated the problems they were meant to address.

Serendipitously, Jane Jacobs, ninety, died on April 24 at her home in Toronto, where she had lived for several decades. A native of Pennsylvania, as a young woman she settled in New York City, where she made the observations that led to her pathfinding book, "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" (1961). Immensely influential, the book is a strong critique of the urban renewal policies of the 1950s which, she claimed, destroyed communities and created isolated, unnatural urban spaces. Jacobs advocated dense, mixed-use neighborhoods. Opposing the arbitrary solutions of big government and business, she extolled the spontaneous invention of individuals. Although the connection is rarely noted, Jacobs was libertarian in the best sense.

Seeking to broaden her critique she went on to write four other books on the role of cities throughout history. She placed great store on her idea of import replacement as a motor for growth of cities. Redolent more of book learning than observation, these subsequent books have proven less successful.

Coming to NYC in 1956 I went to a party where I met a community organizer who condemned public-housing projects. As a New Dealer (in those days) I was deeply shocked. This encounter showed that Jacobs' ideas were in the air.

The synchronicity of the two deaths points up the fact that Jane Jacobs was a principal nemesis of Galbraith. In her first, monumentally great book she challenged the "conventional wisdom" and faced it down. Ironically, Galbraith described his own fate in the famous phrase. In the money quote (I believe) he said that the c.v. would be overturned not by ideas but by events---and so his was, with the failure of so many Great Society programs.

Moreover, JJ, in her successful campaign against the Lower Manhattan Expressway, hit upon the strategy of combining theory with activism. This strategy was to reemerge at Columbia University in 1968, though with mixed results.

Three years ago I heard JJ speak to a huge crowd at City College here in New York. It was inspiring to see for the first time "the little woman who made the big war" (so to speak), but she set forth a rather woolly theory of civilization from Sumeria to the present that was not impressive. Perhaps Toronto is not very stimulating intellectually--though it is in my experience quite a pleasant place.

While I continue to honor her "Death and Life" as a major milestone in my intellectual development, like all such theories it failed to be fully convincing. Every other day now I go for a walk in Morningside Gardens, a middle-class housing development just north of Columbia University that replaced several score of JJ's beloved brownstones. The achievement is in fact impressive, as Morningside Gardens does realize Le Corbusier's vision of the "skyscraper in the park." There are four highrise apartment buildings, centered on a delightful green center, with rambling walks and lots of flowers. With so many such developments elsewhere, the "park" has become a parking lot--but not in Morningside Gardens, maybe because the land is too rocky and hilly.

Another criticism is that Jacobs’ work is impractical and does not reflect the reality of urban politics, which are often totally controlled by powerful real estate developers and suburban politicians. The answer is that we m u s t not cede control to such interests. They were responsible for the vicious urban renewal policies of the 1960s and 1970s that devastated so many of our cities.

To be sure, Jacobs failed to foresee the full consequences of the automobile, ranging as they did from freeways (which are necessary) to edge cities and to the remote exurbs dominated by David Brooks’ Patio Man. Since we cannot reverse sprawl we should seek to humanize it. On the other hand, her ideas about the livability of center cities have helped to spark a return of older residents to these areas with their many amenities. And she has acquired a latter-day disciple in Richard Florida, whose ideas about livability are currently inspiring planners.