Judge Kavanaugh’s story is evolving every day and so it is useful to try to stand back and make some observations that may withstand whatever else happens this week much less how Dr. Ford comports herself on Thursday, should that hearing actually go forward. These observations may seem obvious but they are accurate and they do explain where we are now in the interconnection between politics and sex.
The first thing to observe is that accusations of sexual harassment are the Communism of our time. A career and a reputation can be ruined by such an accusation just as was the case when charges of having been a Communist lost people their jobs and reputations during the McCarthy period. Judge Kavanaugh will always have a cloud over his head even if he makes it to the United States Supreme Court, just as Clarence Thomas does, who is associated with the Anita Hill testimony more than he is with the judicial record he has piled up since he joined the Court. The violation of sexual decorum leads to outrage, even if we do not know how prevalent this is in American society even if Feminists claim that this is a long standing scourge that has malformed the lives of many women, and even if it is not clear how serious the allegation is, since both exposing oneself and attempted rape are this week thought to justify similar responses. The accused perpetrator becomes the outcast, the Other, separated by the rest of us by his (or her) mark of Cain. Read More
In Shakespeare’s major tragedies, there are two kinds of movements. The stages of a plot are symmetrical in that an initial situation, such as Hamlet coming home to the wedding of his mother so soon after the death of his father, is complicated by developments that reach some kind of climax in Act III, and then what follows is the unraveling of those events, which usually means that a person who has risen high, such as a Hamlet welcomed home with much pomp, is brought low, thought a madman, before he is done in because he is now disposable, in a duel arranged for that purpose. The same thing happens to Macbeth, who is amazed at his good fortune until he comes to bear the weight of his deeds and so sees a ghost and so drives forward to what he must know is his inevitable fate. Anthony arrives in Egypt as king of the world and ends as the tool of the queen. Read More
Alfred Bierstadt’s 1870 painting, “The Rocky Mountains: Lander’s Peak”, is an iconic representation of the American West whose formal properties tell a lot about the American landscape and also about the art of landscape painting in general.
“The Rocky Mountains: Lander’s Peak” covers a lot of territory. In its center is an ice covered peak, and below that is a lake, and further in the foreground is an Indian settlement, with tepees under the trees or grouped out in the open and Indians congregating or moving their horses, all the bustle of a well organized community. The Indians are dressed so as to show that it is not warm in this part of the Rockies, but they are comfortable and so as civilized as a pre-literate society can be. There is an unimpeded view from the Indian camp across the lake to some waterfalls and then to the giant mountain behind. The unimpeded view is the key to the painting, more than its contrast of colors, the green of the trees and the land on the apron of the lake, the blue of the lake, and then the increasing white of the waterfalls and the mountain behind. The Indian community can consider itself nestled next to the lake, with nothing to fear from nature, because they have so many layers of separation between themselves and the uninhabitable mountain, that just a part of their scenery. The scene is welcoming. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have such a vista from your own front porch! That would not be the case if a viewer saw the area abundant in fog coming from the lake and the mountain, or if the Indian community were hidden behind a ridge that gave it some shelter from the weather. Maybe, at another time of year, the landscape would be more foreboding of what nature might have in store, but here it is not, and I think the unimpeded view accounts for that. Read More
Jane Addams wrote her 1910 book, “Twenty Years at Hull House”, in the form of a memoir. Education deserves this kind of treatment when what is being laid out is an experimental approach based on institutional innovation. Indeed, many of the writers in the Reform education movement of the Sixties and the Seventies, such as Jonathan Kozol and Herbert Kohl, pursue that same genre: how I came, in my own experience of the world of education and the people I met there, and the programs in which I took part, to develop my ideas about education. Addams supplies a biography of the institution she founded along with the interesting people she met there in addition to a good deal about herself: how she was as a little girl frightened at night and it was only the soothing voice of her father that calmed her down, which is very much the recipe she wants to apply to the poor. This shared writing strategy may be the result of the fact that educational reforms are always in the making, hardly ever completed and, by the way, almost inevitably disappointing, in that success stories don’t manage to get themselves replicated, and so you point out the success story as long as that lasts, rather than tell the statistical story which documents that success rarely lasts very long. Read More
W. E. B. Du Bois is still important both for what he says about the education of Black people and as that applies to the education all other people as well.
The reputation of W. E. B. Du Bois is firmly established on the basis of his accomplishments as an editor, advocate, and as a sociologist who a hundred years ago produced numerous statistical studies of the conditions of black life. The breadth of his vision and accomplishments is admirably spelled out in David Levering Lewis’s magisterial two volume biography. Du Bois, however, is deeply involved, early in life, as someone who teaches reading to ex-slaves and then is a young professor explaining poetry and literature at Atlanta University, an all Black institution. He is deeply involved in considering what an ethnic education means for a group that is not even as of yet considered to be an ethnic rather than a racial group. Read More
In my mind’s eye, I am watching tow television screens, one showing the response to the anonymous N Y Times editorial citing resistance to Trump within the inner circles of the White House, and the other screen showing the hearing on whether or not to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to a seat on the United States Supreme Court. Some commentators have claimed that the two dramas are interconnected in that a President under such a cloud as is Trump should not press forward with such a weighty nomination. But Trump is still President. The issues involved in the two dramas are very different and so let us explore them separately. One is about an unprecedented breakdown in the organization of the White House and the other is about what it means to be a very, very conservative judge, which is hardly a new question. Read More
The underlying context for so many ideas and practices regarding government is territoriality. A government presides over a particular geographical area even if its borders are uncertain, enforcing laws and customs as it sees fit on the people who live in that territory rather than having jurisdiction over people because those persons belong to some group, whether ethnic or religious, whose interests the government sees as its own. That means governments intrude in the lives of nomads who pass through their territory, as well as native Indian tribes whose land has become incorporated into some jurisdiction defined by the government. This idea of territoriality is traced by anthropologists to the time when agriculture became domesticated and so the wealth of a territory was something worth fighting over and so warlords and kings gained power by conquering one territory or another and so gaining access to its cultivated acres. But it might also be the case that warlords took to the domination of territory because that was all they could do, which was something short of commanding the hearts and minds of the inhabitants which were at the disposal of the gods of the local territories if even that, given that religion was ceremonial rather than deep. Moreover, government may have preceded territoriality in that it may not amount to anything more than the warlord deciding he and no one else has the power over life and death, and that he can enforce that on any territory or set of clans that come under his rule even if only temporarily before he moves on to another site. Either way, nations and tribes become identified with their territories more than with their values or customs. America is beautiful from sea to shining sea and a tribe regards its traditional lands as sacred. Read More
John Singer Sargent is such an excellent portraitist that he not only shows different faces to be different, which is very different from when Rubens painted a number of Rubens faces, he also uses different techniques to paint each of those faces. It is as if each face is an experiment in finding a way to render it. This focus on faces, however much Sargent dresses up his often not very pretty subjects in glamorous and carefully painted colorful gowns, replaces, for the most part, a concern with setting that would place the subject in their social context, as would be the case with Gainsborough. The faces speak for themselves to the extent that faces can speak to us at all and so makes of Sargent, often dismissed as a mere society painter, the greatest portraitist since Vermeer. Read More
A trope is a storyline that can be applied over and over again. So the hero off on a quest or the girl left at home to whom he will return are two tropes or part of the same one, this one as old as Homer, in the case of the Odyssey, the girl not being a young thing but his long separated wife. One things learned from studying literature is not to be caught up in tropes that seem to be the common wisdom when all they are are ways of imagining a situation that excludes other ways of doing so. If I, myself, have made a contribution to the #metoo debate in this blog, it is that the trope of males being obnoxiously aggressive is not the only way to imagine the interaction between employers and employees, however much that may be an accurate way of describing Hollywood and its casting couch culture. I remember a time when the organizing principle for interpreting the relation between men and women was romantic, men and woman sparring with one another until they engaged in a clinch and a kiss, the aggressive bully an exception rather than what is always to be looked out for. Better to think of Beatrice and Benedict or Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan than of Harvey Weinstein. Read More
Ambition, which is usually understood as a psychological attribute and so either a virtue or a vice, can also be understood as an inevitable social process, and that shows how enlightening sociology can be.
Ambition can be considered either the desire or the process of moving through your work career so that you wind up better off socially, financially and in terms of accomplishment than when you started out. Most people are, in this sense, ambitious, though we sometimes reserve that as an adjective for people who are particularly ambitious, like Richard II and Macbeth, and do not consider as ambitious those who are ordinarily ambitious, which is to succeed at their jobs or in their careers. Being ambitious is an all but inevitable feeling for people employed or functioning in a society with an even rudimentary division of labor and a social hierarchy that is age graded in that people in such societies enter into their work lives and do things which either move them up or not and so I can say that ambition is not a feeling but a process. You have to show your mettle as a warrior before becoming an Indian chief and people without any ambition are generally regarded as social misfits rather than as people who have chosen not to compete in a race. Read More
Coincidence and cause are supposed to be polar opposites. Coincidence refers to events that are not connected to one another and cause refers to events where one is a necessary precursor to the other. Sometimes what seem to be coincidences are moved up into being causes. I would suggest to students that sunspots, which might seem unrelated to the course of human events, may in fact have been the cause of the modern world in that they led to what was called the first part of the Little Ice Age which lasted in Europe from the twelfth to the fifteenth century, and that the recovery from that, which led to longer growing seasons and crops grown at higher elevations, and the cessation of the illnesses that had lingered in cold and misty Europe during the cold period, as well as the efficiencies in farming made necessary by a cold climate, allowed a prosperous Europe to emerge, even if that movement was seconded by the intellectual and technical developments from the fifteenth century onward. So coincidence can be reclaimed as cause, though the two remain objective matters. I want to challenge that view and suggest that the difference between the two has to do with how the story of intersecting events is cast: if there is some dramatic conversion of events so that one casts light on the meaning of the other, then the events will be seen in terms of cause rather than coincidence. Let us review the issues so as to see that how we resolve this problem has a bearing on how we regard contemporary issues having to do with history and society. Read More
“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” is an Amazon Prime original series that depicts the life of a Fifties housewife who wants to become a standup “comedienne”. (Just to be clear, Google no longer recognizes the word, preferring the term “comedian”. This is progress but there was a time when female comics deserved a separate title because they faced their own special problems.) The series captures the New York downtown culture of that period, complete with the mildly scatological humor that I remember from my own visits to Greenwich Village at the time and the all too ordinary guitar groups and the lousy poetry that was also recited from the stage. Most of all, though, it captures the relations between men and women, at least those who lived in a comfortable Jewish household on the Upper West Side, Rachel Brosnahan in the title role capturing the intonations of the ten year younger girls I knew from that time. The series is a welcome relief from “Madmen”, which portrays women as victims, the secretary with the big chest saved from being a laughing stock only by the fact that she is super capable, and the heroine at the ad agency finding no way out of an abortion. Here the women are simply living their lives under the parameters set for them and altering those as best they can. No one need be sorry for anyone. Read More
Is there enough evidence out there to support the claim that Trump has already committed treason? That depends on whether you take a legal or a political approach to the question. If you take a legal approach, where it is necessary to provide evidence for the elements of a crime, such a determination is perhaps premature in that Mueller is developing the evidence that is relevant to the question. But if you take a political approach, which means to judge actions by their fruits rather than their motives, then we already know that the federal government cannot trust secret information to the President because he is likely to leak it to the Russians whether inadvertently or by design, something he has done in the past. He told the Russian ambassador of intelligence we had gotten from the Israelis and we have no idea what he said to Putin in Helsinki. Read More
The issues surrounding the doctrine of free speech are long standing even if the current debate, as it involves what to do with the Internet, and how foreign powers tried to influence the American election in 2016, raises some new wrinkles. Both Plato and, for most of its history, the Catholic Church, favored the view that the right of free speech was limited in that ignorance or untruth did not have the same standing as truth and could lead people into error. It was therefore necessary for authorities to limit what people could be exposed to. The Catholic Board of National Review gives its imprimatur to wholesome films that are tastefully done even if they deal with difficult material. That, I suppose, is about as good as censorship can get. Morning Joe supports this view because he believes that Alex Jones’ view that the Sandy Hill shootings were staged is too unbelievable to warrant public attention. By those lights, however, Donald Trump would have been barred from having his views on the airwaves because he furthered the Birther controversy which was also just ridiculous. That would have been a serious infringement on the right of voters to select any primary candidate they care to. On the other side are the Founding Fathers, and various liberal theorists such as John Stuart Mill, who hold free speech as itself of the highest priority in that any limitations on it, short of libel, are likely to interfere in the political process and, even more important, in the feeling of individual liberty, which is always thwarted by the values of the community. So free speech is an unending battle between the forces backing freedom of conscience and those siding with tradition. How do these perennial doctrines fare in the present communications environment? Read More
Fiction is only sometimes an attempt to present a straightforward presentation of a story from beginning to end, which is what we would be led to believe by Aristotle’s dictum that stories have beginnings, middles and ends. To the contrary, writers tell their stories by wandering around between what is presumably past, current and future, each with their own way of doing this, and that in part is what makes their storytelling into an art, something controlled by the artist, So a story may have a beginning, middle and an end, but the telling of it is in the hands of the storyteller. Let us consider some of the ways authors do this. Read More
Democratic Socialism is the political philosophy that believes that you can combine an elected government that fully protects civil liberties with the nationalization of the means of production so that you produce a society which provides for the welfare of all its citizens. Such a government was put in place by the Labor Party in Great Britain after the Second World War. Deeply committed to democratic practices, they nevertheless created government ownership of the coal and steel industries, the railroads, and medicine. These reforms were largely turned back by Margaret Thatcher, leaving only the National Health Service and a university system that had been remodeled into a meritocracy where the government paid tuition to whatever level institution a student was qualified to attend. So nationalization was not of the industries key to the economy but of those services which, over the course of the post-war years, were taken to be a matter of right rather than a luxury purchase, like a fine car, which the consumer might care to buy if the consumer could afford it. In the United States, fair wages and fair working conditions were not instituted by the government. The New Deal left that to collective bargaining, that generally jimcracked system of negotiation which worked because it was cheaper for employers to negotiate than face strikes. Collective bargaining was therefore successful for the American coal, steel, and automobile industries. Read More
The Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington is an impressive presence. I wondered how those who commissioned it had decided on the final design given that so many very different designs had been rejected in favor of this layered latticework of upturned terraces, and with whether the architecture would seem dated in a generation or so. The actual collection, covering the origins of slavery up through Jim Crow and the Second Reconstruction, begins in the deep basement, reached through an elevator, and then the visitor moves up in space as he or she approaches the present. I was impressed by the ability of the museum to move along its crowds, still quite large now that it is more than a year since the museum opened. I was also impressed by the various guards who were very helpful in assisting visitors, which is very different from the guards at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where they are likely as not to give you incorrect information about how to proceed to a room you want to visit. I was less impressed, however, by the narrative supplied by the placards that accompanied the artifacts, dioramas and other illustrations for the history of black slavery in the United States. Read More
Writers are often praised for being concise. Their sentences lack flab and are full of information and comparisons. Their plots get started right away without buildup or much preparation and various plot elements overlap so that the story or play or novel is at once an allegory, an insight into character and motivation, and also casts light on the society being observed. That is certainly the case with the sprawling novels of the English Nineteenth Century, where you learn from Dickens that Peter Dombey is at once imperious and weak, too readily the tool of his assistant and that tells you how an English law firm of the time works as well as how that will get in the way of the hero and heroine of the novel.
Concision, however, is not just a virtue demonstrated by a good writer. Rather, concision is implicit in all story telling which is, after all, the telling of events in a sequence which may not at all be the sequence in which the events described are purported to happen and where material not regarded as necessary to the telling of the tale is left out. You don’t depict every time a businessman has coffee or takes a bathroom break but deal with relating what you are trying to describe about business. An author also has to deal with the inevitable longueurs that occur in real life, nothing much happening until the next event important to telling the story. So days may go on before a break in a murder mystery a screenwriter is unfolding and that will be dealt with in a quick cut. News organizations face similar problems in telling their own stories. There may be an announcement by the Justice Department about the ongoing investigation of Russian interference in American elections, and then the news media will spend a few days or a week milking whatever is announced or turning to something else, like a cave disaster, to fill their airtime before returning to the main story when something new is anticipated or is revealed. News programming is a constant fight to make news into a story. In fact, the reader relies so heavily on the author to do his job properly that when there is a description or an interlude that is included that seems merely comical, as when Bloom goes to an outhouse in “Ulysses”, the reader has to ask himself what that incident signifies, for why else would it be included? The sophisticated reader is well trained in what he or she has to bring to the reading of a story. But there are very different ways in which authors handle concision and that is what I want to discuss. Read More
As the midterms approach, and there are even hints about what the next Presidential election will be about, such as that Elizabeth Warren will make a run for it, commentators come up with a lot of conventional wisdom to frame their remarks about breaking news. I want to point out that these are largely shibboleths that don’t stand the weight of analysis, while there are other generalizations, such as the idea that midterms favor the out-party, that do, because those can be backed up with statistics and case studies while the shibboleths are mostly just faulty phraseology for what is not there. Let us look at a few of these cliches that pass for political wisdom. Read More
Naive readers often claim that story tellers should just summarize the point they want to make in a few sentences rather than dress it up in a story where the reader has to do the work of extracting meaning. The answer to that is that most of the time writers are doing other things than making particular points. They are describing the customs of a society or giving you a sense of a particular character or showing how dialogue advances or impedes people understanding one another. They are rarely making philosophical points and the ones who do, like Saul Bellow or other writers of the midcentury, will simply pause in the story to tell the reader what is on his or her mind. For the most part, writers will use their learning to give their descriptions greater detail rather than the other way around, use the detail to help make an abstract point. That was certainly true of Thomas Mann’s masterpiece, “Joseph and His Brothers”. Mann was steeped in all the Biblical scholarship of his time and that allowed him to create a story where the reader is enveloped in the ritualistic culture of the ancient Middle East and sees striking characters in actions detailed enough so that the reader gets a sense of how their minds work and the reader can draw from that the observation that in some ways all people whatever the age think alike while also thinking differently. That moral is drawn by the reader as a way to organize the material in hand rather than the purpose of the author, which is to describe what life is like. But there are exceptions, times when authors are indeed trying to give you a handle on a philosophical question. One of these is the story of Balaam and his ass, told in the Book of Numbers 21-23, where the author seems intent on resolving a philosophical dilemma, which is the nature of free will, even though, for the most part, the Old Testament is not given over to metaphysical speculation but, rather, avoids it. Read More