I may have mentioned before that I subscribe to a few email lists dedicated to somewhat out-of-the-way topics. One of these is a list for people interested in the ancient Greek and Latin languages and literatures. Of course, in the nature of the case, many of my fellow listers are paid schoolmasters (though a surprising number are not). As a result, questions of interest only to the schoolmaster guild take up a fair amount of time on the list.

Several topics recur. Two of the most perennial are 1) How do you keep kids from cheating and plagiarizing in these here Interwebb days, and 2) How can we keep our jobs when nobody wants to learn Latin and Greek?

The two questions collided interestingly in a recent post:

I have a distinct memory of busting a college student back in about 2006 who had cheated from the online Wheelock(*) answer key, and I put so much immortal terror in him he actually dropped the class a week later. I call that a success.

Dear reader, I did not make this up, or change, or omit, a word of it. This is a schoolmaster who is happy about having caused so much ‘terror’ in a student that the student dropped the course, and will probably hate the whole idea of Classical studies for the rest of his life. The lipsmacking tone of the narrative, and the police phraseology — ‘busting’ — depressingly ice the dismal cake.

Really, I think the point may have arrived where we must destroy education in order to save it.

(*) A fine old students’ Latin grammar. I learned Latin out of it, which tells you just how old it is, if not how fine.

Keep the castle

Credit where it’s due: The Israelis are great sloganeers, though they do have a weakness for melodramatic word-choice. The latest catch-phrase, it seems, is ‘keeping the castle‘(*):

Netanyahu and other leaders continue to see Shiite Iran and its nuclear program as the primary threat to Israel, and Hezbollah as the most likely to draw it into direct battle. Still, the mounting strength of extremist Sunni cells in Syria, Iraq and beyond that are pledging to bring jihad to Jerusalem can hardly be ignored.

As the chaos escalates, Israeli officials insist they have no inclination to intervene. Instead, they have embraced a castle mentality, hoping the moat they have dug — in the form of high-tech border fences, intensified military deployments and sophisticated intelligence — is broad enough at least to buy time.

Translation: They prodded Obie into trying a Syria intervention, as part of the strategy to encircle Iran; the American public and even the English House Of Commons didn’t buy it; the ‘realists’ now have the upper hand in the White House, at least for the moment, and the Empire is talking to Iran as any reasonable, realistic empire would talk to a smaller, though not negligible independent state, too considerable to conquer outright. Meanwhile Israel still owns Congress — and hasn’t given up on getting back in the driver’s seat as regards the US’ Middle East policy.

But of course, even within the castle, counsel seems to be divided. The real hard-line Likudniks will never give up their own variety of anti-Iran jihad, but the less ideological local experts — who no doubt have a few US ‘realist’ phone numbers on speed-dial — are inclined to back off, at least for the moment. Hence the ludicrous battle of the frogs and mice over who was responsible for this appalling atrocity:


Was it Hezbollah, as the True Believers say, or the semi-mythical Al Qaeda, as the experts say?

Whoever did it, I’m with ’em, and only wish it had done a good deal more damage.

(*) Prior to this one, my favorite swords-and-sorcerers slogan from the Promised Land was ‘securing the realm‘.

Laptop bombardiers take over NPR


A recent car trip to Maine and back refreshed my acquaintance with NPR. I was shocked. It’s become amazingly jingoistic. There used to be a pretense, at least, of ‘balance’; but that’s all gone.

I was gobsmacked, in particular, by a program called America Abroad — just the title seems to call for some unpacking, doesn’t it?

The particular segment I listened to was one long propagandistic infomercial for intervention in Syria, complete with alarming booms and bangs in the background — bad, dictatorial, tyrannical booms and bangs, not at all like the humanitarian booms and bangs our friendly bombs(*) produce. And of course there was the obligatory Israel stooge presented as an ‘expert’. In this case, that role was played con brio by one Michael Abramowitz, the ‘Director of the Committee on Conscience, which conducts the genocide prevention efforts of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’.

This Holy Joe may perhaps be another reputation.com customer, since there’s nothing interesting about him on the Web, except that he has gone into the family business; his father was the once-notorious Morton Abramowitz, a real permanent-government type, who did the Foreign Office dirty work of presidents from Carter through Bush I, and then retired, like a dim-sighted but sharp-toothed old moray eel, into the crevices of the foundation sector, and from thence contributed his own fangs to the dismemberment of Yugoslavia.

‘America Abroad’ has quite a list of sponsors, which pretty much tells the tale. Personally, I don’t know whether I’m happier about the Qatar Foundation or the National Endowment for Democracy.

Somebody — not me — needs to do a job on the show’s guiding spirit, one Madeleine Brand. I don’t think I have the right cultural background. I’ve spent time in Southern California, but I don’t really quite get it.

(*) A tip of the Father Smith biretta to Sir John Betjeman for one of the good Father’s favorite poems.

Ariel Sharon, gone at last

Areil Sharon replica

The gruesome image shown above is not the real, much more gruesome Ariel Sharon; rather, it is a life-size wax effigy, part of an art installation. What the artist was thinking of I do not know, though I suspect an intention, not badly realized, of biting, transgressive drollery.

There is something about the mouth that reminds me of Saul Bellow.

I’m superstitious about saying that I’m glad people are dead, though if there’s anybody I might be tempted to say it of, it’s this monster. Not that it matters; the Golem-state he helped create, and juice-up, remains, whether or not his bloated carcass is sucking in life support that might be better used. Apart from that niggling economy, his final corporeal dissolution benefits no one and harms no one.

Not being God, I am also hesitant about consigning him, or anybody else, to eternal torment, even in imagination. One — the merely human one — does rather feel that eternity is a long time, no matter how bad a person has been. Which of us, in Sharon’s circumstances, can be sure that he or she would not have become Sharon? It’s a serious question, and well worth pondering.

At the same time one also feels that a nice long stretch at the Mount Purgatory Correctional Facility would do the guy good. Say a millennium or two. In the white phosphorus spa. But this is as far as my own merely human sense of justice extends.

As Richard Stallman said of Steve Jobs: I won’t say I’m glad he’s dead; but I’m glad he’s gone.

I note with pleasure that there is to be an Ariel Sharon Park, outside of Tel Aviv. It’s a-building, even now, on top of an old garbage dump, which was in turn placed on top of a Palestinian village, whose inhabitants were either killed or chased out during the ’48 atrocities.

Really, it would be difficult to find a better metaphor for modern Israel.

The all-holy Middle Class


Facebook has its uses. A pure Facebook friend — a fella I haven’t actually met in the 3D world, but would like to — passed along a link to a very nice essay at Gawker, of all places. I recommend the essay, but it’s not the burden of my song tonight. Rather, it’s a particularly smarmy bit of Oblather the writer cites:

I believe that the free enterprise system is the greatest engine of prosperity the world’s ever known. I believe in self-reliance and individual initiative and risk-takers being rewarded. But I also believe that everybody should have a fair shot and everybody should do their fair share and everybody should play by the same rules, because that’s how our economy is grown. That’s how we built the world’s greatest middle class.

The platitude density is high enough here to create a black hole, an all-devouring intellectual singularity from which no stray thought can escape, so let’s heave to, well away from the event horizon, and just consider the last sentence at a safe telescopic distance.

I like the idea of the ‘middle class’ as something which has been ‘built’ — like a brick shithouse, presumably — and built, moreover, by ‘us’.

Who is this ‘us’, exactly? The Great Smarmer’s intent, no doubt, is to suggest that he and you, dear reader, and I, even, in spite of myself, have all collaborated in this world-historical construction project, an achievement that makes the Pyramids blush and hang their pointy heads, so thoroughly are they cast into the shade by the great American middle class. He and you and I have done this together, along with Marse Tom Jefferson and that dear little bear Teddy Roosevelt and Duke Nukem Truman and, for all I know, Ronald Reagan, a person whom he says he admires very much.

But regardless what giants of old ‘built’ this mighty edifice, what does it consist of? The answer is simple: a negation. The ‘middle class’ is a doughnut hole. It’s the people who aren’t obviously rich or obviously poor. It’s like erecting a category of people who are neither red-headed nor left-handed and calling them the Freds.

(We do this a lot, by the way; ‘white people’ is a similar categorical non-category.)

The myth has a certain grip on people, though. To that extent its implicit mystification has succeeded. I remember being told by an older relative of my own, when I was a kid, that we were ‘middle class’. I knew exactly what she meant, though it puzzled me a bit even then. We obviously weren’t rich — nobody needed to say that; the street address told that story. What needed to be stressed, it seemed, was that we weren’t poor either.

But I was a literal-minded, metrically-inclined kid, and it seemed to me that our condition, while certainly not poor, was a good deal closer to that of the poor than it was to that of the rich. That is to say, we weren’t in the middle in any arithmetically intelligible sense; and characterizing us that way was, in effect, a lie. It overstated our distance from the poor and understated our distance from the rich.

No doubt that’s precisely the great usefulness of it, as a national myth. If Joe the Plumber is in the middle, presumably he has an equal chance of rising or falling in the great Brownian churn. This false sense of situation is perhaps one of the things that keeps us so docile — and is, no doubt, the very reason the brick shithouse was ‘built’ in the first place.



I’m getting a maddening number of spam registrations — hundreds of bogus users per day — and it’s begun to annoy me. I’ve disabled registration of new users for the moment, until I can figure out a way to stop this. Any newcomers who want to register, get in touch with me through the contact form.



Since I’m not on the boat at the moment, and haven’t had to drive anywhere lately, I haven’t had to listen to NPR. But occasionally I walk into the kitchen unexpectedly, to find one of my household furtively tuned in to Fresh Air or something. I never object, but even so, it’s like an old Radio Free Europe TV ad I remember from my youth: A ragged, frostbitten Eastern European family huddled around an ancient tube radio of vaguely Gothic design, a single, naked, flickering light bulb suspended from the ceiling casting Fritz-Langian shadows. Then a peremptory knock at the door, terror on every pale, high-cheekboned face, the dial rapidly twirled to WCOMMIE…

One of these early-morning raids on my part was rewarded the other day by hearing some ‘journalist’ or ‘analyst’ or ‘political scientist’ burbling on about Congressional ‘gridlock’ — a fine durable old cliche, that. She predictably bemoaned the fact that nobody was willing to ‘compromise’. So far, the usual NPR white noise.

But then she made my jaw drop.

She mentioned –approvingly — the notorious Compromise of 1850, and held it up as an example of what the Administration and the Democrats ought to do. Instead of pushing for what you might call a comprehensive compromise, covering all the contended topics, break it up into half-a-dozen smaller bills and assemble slightly different coalitions to pass each.

I don’t recall whether she mentioned the Fugitive Slave Act, one of the crown jewels of the Compromise. If so, it was in parentheses. I was too stunned by her chipper sum-up: “It postponed the Civil War for ten years!”

Now among historians, of course, one finds many Lords of The Subjunctive, who will tell you very confidently what would-have-happened-if. And among this tribe there are those who say that if the war had come earlier the North would have lost. The extra ten years bought time for the North to industrialize, etc. A little like the Hitler-Stalin pact. And though the slavers got ‘popular sovereignty’ in the Utah and New Mexico territories, abrogating the earlier Missouri Compromise in their favor, the Subjunctivists will assure you that these territories would never have gone slaver.

What there’s no ‘if’ about is that the slavers got out of the Missouri Compromise box; they got ten more years to lash their chattels; the federal government and all the free states committed themselves to assist the said lashing, under the Fugitive Slave Act; and the monster slave state of Texas was created in its present bloated bounds, an acquisition I for one could have done without.

In short, an approving reference to the Compromise Of 1850 is an excellent illustration of the Madness Of The Center, a topic which is becoming a downright hobbyhorse for me.

I think my disembodied radio expert was mostly impressed by the ingenuity of the manoeuvre; a matter of the means justifying the end. For more ponderous thumbsuckers, the case for the Compromise is that it was good for ‘the country’ — which is to say, that it set ‘the country’ on course to become the monstrosity it now is. Had the Compromise not occurred, some other monstrosity would have resulted. Would it have been a worse monstrosity, or a better one?

The Subjunctivists are sure they know; and I’m sure they don’t. What I do know is that the Viral Center is in love with the monstrosity we have, and is happy to speak well of whatever brought this particular rough beast to birthing.

Fugitive Slave Act and all. Hey, you can’t make an omelette without beating a few slaves.

You, Anthony Trollope


Strange, isn’t it, how deeply consoling a novel can be. Amid depths of distress that no therapeutic or amicable or even connubial lead-line can sound, the words of a Trollope or a Nabokov or, I suppose, for some, a Dickens, can send the noonday or the midnight devil into a corner and shut him up. For the time being.

Escape fiction? Perhaps; but what other kind is there? Why would we make up stories, otherwise? And as somebody once observed, every prisoner wants to escape; why shouldn’t he? Modernism is a doctrine that teaches us to love our chains. Or try to. So the hell with it.

I would like to record here my personal gratitude to Anthony Trollope, fox-hunter, post-office bureaucrat, ‘advanced Conservative Liberal’ as he described himself, and a very present help in time of trouble for me since I was sixteen.

There are so many things to like about old Tony. For one thing, he has no use for suspense. He says somewhere — I am quoting from my very fallible memory, so forgive me — ‘I disdain to be in possession of any secret not known to the reader’.

For another: he has no use for the arc. His characters don’t develop. The bad ones get worse and finally throw themselves under a train, or emigrate to North America and are heard of no more. The good ones — or rather, the good-enough ones — blunder around, shoot themselves in the foot, entertain all sorts of crazy notions, and after they’ve been beaten up for a while, through their own folly, finally come round to a certain grudging accommodation to their circumstances. And godlike Anthony rewards them with a Trollopian happy ending.

No writer was ever better at the happy ending — not even the divine Jane Austen. What’s lovely about the Trollopian happy ending is that it goes on for a hundred pages. Most novelists, once they have contrived their marriage-cum-inheritance, polish off their protagonists with an audible hand-washing: At last I’m rid of those tedious puppets. They lived happily ever after. Finis, and not a page too soon. Splash. Somebody hand me a towel.

Tony doesn’t do that. He follows the assembly of the trousseau, the selection of the bridesmaids — not altogether satisfactory to anybody, especially the bride — the backward glances at paths not taken — the perfectly justifiable, and usually justified, anxiety about how it will all turn out — the deplorable smarmy demeanor of the oleaginous Low-Church clergyman who will preside over the nuptial solemnities.

So what, you ask, is so consoling about this? Doesn’t it just sound like the usual depressed bleak modern fiction?

But it isn’t. Tony, the old fox-hunter, was often disappointed in his sport, but always ready to saddle up anyway. Clear-eyed as he is, he recognizes that the odds are always against a good run, much less being in at the kill; yet he retains a certain rational openness to the possibility. So his creatures can rise to the occasion, when the occasion demands it; sometimes fire off a good quip and even, once or twice, land a telling punch; often die resigned and true to themselves and their friends and faith, and leave a kindly and generous will.

This is not an impossible demand. It is within the scope of humankind. Tony is realistic but not hopeless.

A good guy to read, early in the New Year. May all our stories be Trollopian rather than… oh, let’s say Faulknerian.

If this is progress…


… I don’t want any, thanks.

Somehow I got myself on this outfit’s mailing list and receive an email newsletter every five minutes or so called ‘Thinkprogress’. Recently I got a particularly stupid one about Israel and Iran — the problem, it seems, is that those dumb knucklehead Likudniks are stubbornly ignoring the advice of the experts in Mossad. Fools that they are. I had meant to write a little squib about this remarkable piece of imbecility, but then I got distracted by CAP itself, which is, of course, the Democratic Party’s answer to the Heritage Foundation etc.

A half-hour of superficial research confirmed my long-standing view that anybody who mentions ‘progress’ in an approving tone, or characterizes himself as a ‘progressive’, is just begging for a kick in the teeth. CAP’s web site offers a great deal of fun — Larry Summers is a senior fellow, for example, and if he stands for progress, I’ll take regress any day. And the corporate supporter list is juicy. But among many delights, this was the best bit:

Building on the achievements of progressive pioneers such as Teddy Roosevelt and Martin Luther King…

I read this and rubbed my eyes. I was sure that I had fallen asleep and dreamt it. But no. It’s really there.

‘Teddy’ Roosevelt — that cozy, cuddlesome, dear little bear, with his big shiny teeth — and Martin Luther King. As always: where do you start?

It does, of course, rather vindicate my theory of the madness of the Center. No doubt there are sensible, judicious people — people in positions of reponsibility and emolument — who would read this line and nod approvingly. Yes indeed, that’s what we need. Imperialism — with diversity!

To this extent CAP has already succeeded. They have grafted Martin on the stock of ‘Teddy’ — an admirable black guy joined at the hip to an unspeakable white guy. Result: An unspeakable light-skinned black guy:

Barack Obama

The Sunni-Trotski Pact

I remain bemused by the passionate cheerleading for the Syrian ‘insurgency’ exhibited by so many of my Lefty comrades. In the case of The Great Wet Hen himself, Louis Proyect, the mania seems to have tipped him over into taking sides in what is, after all, a religious war — to the extent that any war is really a religious war. I refer of course to the Sunni/Shia aspect of recent events in the Middle East. Louis appears to be on the verge of a conversion to Sunnism. (Of course I have a Proddie weakness for Shiism myself, so who am I to talk?)

The GWH recently penned a furious essay which took its starting point from a creepy little Israeli rumor site called Debkafile. Louis writes:

Today a Debkafiles item titled “US and Iran’s First Joint Military Venture: Fighting al Qaeda in Iraq” turned up on Facebook. As you might know, Debkafiles is an Israeli intelligence website committed to the “war on terror” so you can assume that they are pleased with Obama’s turn against a common enemy.

Now this is so muddled that it qualifies as Not Even Wrong.

First of all, who cares what appears on Debkafiles? Does even the GWH believe that a pipsqueak operation like this gives us a window into the deepest counsels of Netanyahu et al.?

But even if we join the Hen in his curious enthusiasm for Debkafile, he doesn’t seem to have read the piece he cites very alertly. It’s written in a superficially straight, journalistic style, but clearly reflects a certain dividedness of mind. An undertone of dismay about hints of a US rapprochement with Iran coexist uneasily with the usual sloganeering about al-Qaeda, ‘terrorism’, ‘jihadists’ and so on — these latter being the people that the US and Iran have supposedly teamed up to defeat. The GWH’s comment that ‘you can assume [Debkafile] is pleased’ seems manifestly wrong if you actually read the piece.

But of course, as noted, Debkafile is of no consequence. Let’s step back a moment from this kind of offal-reading and just do a little thinking about Israel and its situation.

The most important fact about Israel is that all its neighbors hate it — with good reason. Israel has no friends in the region. How could it? Everybody there understands perfectly well that the Israeli game plan is to become the unrivalled regional hegemon, and its tactical approach, of some decades’ standing, is to weaken, destabilize, and if necessary dismember all the states in the region who might offer any competition. Even the Sunni petroligarchs of the Gulf can hardly be expected to sign on to this proyect project.

But fortunately for Israel, its neighbors are also divided among themselves.

The gingham dog and the calico cat
Side by side on the table sat;
‘T was half-past twelve, and (what do you think!)
Nor one nor t’ other had slept a wink!
The old Dutch clock and the Chinese plate
Appeared to know as sure as fate
There was going to be a terrible spat.

So the obvious tactic is ‘both ends against the middle’. It seems unlikely that the Israeli regime wants either the petroligarchs or the Iranians and their allies to achieve an actual clear-cut victory. Rather, as with the gingham dog and the calico cat, the hope is surely that they eat each other up.

At the strategic level, of course, Iran is more worrisome than the Gulfi states; it’s a real country and not just a postcolonial contrivance ginned up on top of an oil field. Syria is nearby, and plays a role in Lebanon, also nearby; and Hizbollah and Hamas are thorns in the Israeli side, as ‘Qaeda’ is not. And this, I think, is the reason why Israel’s amen corner in the US is so wildly enthusiastic about the Sunni reptile-funded Syrian insurgency. Not to mention the Hipster Insurgency in Iran itself, a few years back.

But then again, time was that Iran — back in the dear old Shah’s day — was a useful counterbalance for the Israelis against Arab nationalism; and who knows but what a chastened, globalized Iran might not someday play that role once more? Hey, even the Sunnis have been known to get frisky from time to time.

All this seems like Politics 101 to me — an improvisatory muddle, reeling from crisis to crisis. States collude and simultaneously contend. To update an old observation, states have neither friends nor enemies — only frenemies.

The Hen doesn’t think this way, though. For him, as far as I can tell, it’s all a question of trivial lemmata derived from deep essences. All the bad guys are of course on the same side. Hey, they’re bad, aren’t they? What deeper bond could there be?