True colors


Occasionally people send me links to those undercranked little chalk-talks that Bobby Reich does. Sometimes they’re not so bad. He’s clearly an intelligent guy, intelligent enough to grasp the obvious — which is actually a more rare quality than you might think — and tactless enough to say it. Sometimes.

But the apple doesn’t fall far from the Clintonian tree. Bobby was an understrapper of Bill’s, in the first CLinton regime. He has a pretty cushy job now, and I have no reason to believe that he wants to be back in Washington.

(Who would? But people do. Go figure.)

He recently delivered a very sharp little spanky to Bernie fans. Lasciate ogni speranza, was more or less the burden of his song:

My advice for Sanders supporters: Be prepared to work hard for Hillary Clinton if she gets the nomination…. Which brings me to those of you who say there’s no real difference between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

That’s just plain wrong…. Trump could do huge and unalterable damage to America and the world…

[Y]our conscience should know that a decision not to vote for Hillary, should she become the Democratic nominee, is a de facto decision to help Donald Trump….

[M]y morsels of advice may be hard to swallow….

But swallow it you must—not just for the good of the Democratic Party, but for the good of the nation.

“Swallow it you must!” That’s the real, authentic note, isn’t it? The scolding, admonitory, schoolmasterish note that the Democratic Party has lately perfected. I suppose it is both familiar and congenial to people who Did Well In School.

Which is, come to think of it, about the only constituency the Democratic Party has left.

Ignoramus (in the etymological sense)


Day by day the hysteria mounts. I really don’t know how my Hillariphile friends can possibly keep this up for the next — what (*counts on fingers*) — five months. Surely there is a limit. Surely, even Chicken Little must take a break, now and then, from preaching the gospel of ruet-coelum.

No sign of it so far, however. The crescendo relentlessly crescendoes. We got past quadruple-forte sometime last week –even the elephants in Verdi’s orchestra have Trumpeted themselves hoarse, and the timpani-skins are shredded. I fear that my friends won’t have any throats left after November.

Doubtless, however, the injured tissues will have healed well enough, a year or two into Clintrump’s first term, that the choir will start tuning up again, for the next upcoming quadrennial apocalypse. They may sound a little ragged and rusty, but you’ve got to give them an ‘A’ for effort.

Something I now notice a lot: my friends are playing the ignorance card. I suppose this is a by-product of the Sanders campaign. Old Dobbin has at least exposed Hillary as the reactionary corporatist warmonger she is. Given that, what have we to fall back on?

Answer: Trump’s ignorance. Q: Can you find Zanzibar on the map, Mr Trump? A: Fuck you. I can look it up.

I don’t suppose anybody has asked Hillary to find Zanzibar on a map, and while I’m not entirely sure she could, the smart money would bet on her as a Jeopardy contestant over the small-fingered chap from Queens.

So: Trump is ignorant, and Hillary is well-informed. My friends like well-informed. They all went to college. Depressing, I know. What happened to my friends who didn’t go to college? Oh, that’s right, I only meet them on the boat, where they have saved my bacon more than once.

Time to get on the boat and turn off the radio.

The missionary position



Educational institutions are very good at keeping track of their alumni. Since my kids have passed through many such ateliers — or do I mean usines? — we get a good deal of correspondence from these worthies, all tending to demonstrate what deserving recipients they would be of our generosity, should we happen to be feeling generous, and in a position to indulge the feeling. Little do they know.

I have before me one of these productions. The cover story is about an alum who has been spending her time lately enlightening the poor heathen. Let’s call her Diotima:

Diotima played soccer in high school…. When she was working… for the Harvard Summer School in Zanzibar… she noticed that many people viewed women’s soccer as immoral due to cultural gender norms….

To abridge the tedious and cliche-ridden tale, Diotima made a documentary film about a women’s soccer team in Zanzibar, and got a grant to go screen it there —

…to show other girls that they could be Muslims and soccer players at the same time… and to offer soccer clinics for women… [H]er screenings and clinics sparked debate, changed minds, and empowered women.

(You see what I mean about the cliches, right? Believe me, it’s all like that.)

There’s a conversion story about a village ‘chief’ — this is the word they use, ‘chief’ — who ends up proclaiming that ‘Soccer is a sport, and religion is something inside you.’ Clearly a good candidate, now, for the first Rotary Club in Zanzibar — a mainstream middle-class American Protestant Muslim.

What strikes me about stories like this — and we hear them all the time, if not in alumni bulletins, then on NPR — is how identical they are with 19th-century missionary testimonials. There is the same absolute assurance that we know what’s what; that the objects of our missionary activities do not; and that we have a plain duty to drag them to enlightenment, which they really want, whether they know it or not:

From Greenland’s icy mountains,	
  From India’s coral strand,	
Where Afric’s sunny fountains	
  Roll down their golden sand,	
From many an ancient river, 
  From many a palmy plain,	
They call us to deliver	
  Their land from error’s chain!

We actually sang this hymn — a lot! — when I was a wee choirboy, back in the Pleistocene. I always liked it, not so much for the moral as the imagery. Sunny fountains! Golden sand! Ancient rivers! Bring it on!

The image up top shows an “artist’s conception” of the death of the Revd John Williams at the hands of ‘cannibals’ in the South Seas. Here is another image of the reverend gentleman, at a more propitious phase of his ministry:


Note the chap behind the padre offering trade goods — a mirror; machine-spun and -woven cloth; and of course the inevitable beads(*). You can be sure the un-enlightened will get the short end of the trade, once the padre has retired to his evangelical bed. Quite apart from the sinful self-assurance of the missionary himself, the fact that the entrepreneur is always his companion ought to give him pause.

The funny part is that the churches now get it, but the secularists don’t.

The churches that used to send missionaries out to preach the gospel of trousers and shirts to the naked heathen are now deeply embarrassed about this history. But the secularists, or perhaps I should say the soccularists, are still True Believers.

Of course they’ve reversed the sign on all their great-grandparents’ obsessions. The older missionaries were all about covering up. The new missionaries are all about uncovering.

But the underlying impulse, I think, is the same.

(*) It occurs to me that this triad might conceal an allegory: A manufactured self-image, labor time arbitrage, and of course the ample category of things that are utterly useless but bright and shiny, and therefore irresistible.

Mr Shylock, PhD


On one of my recherche mailing lists — largely though not entirely peopled by academics — a recent contribution sounded the alarm:

[Trump] apparently will propose to make it harder for those wanting to major in the liberal arts at nonelite institutions to obtain loans.

To those of you who were wavering about whom to support, this may be decisive.

I know the guy who wrote this — let’s call him Pericles — and he’s a good guy, on the side of the angels on most topics. I’m not being ironical here. He really is.

So it’s with some reluctance that I use this as an opportunity to ruminate. Forgive me, Pericles — should you ever read this — for treating you as a corpus vile.

The article linked to — more or less an interview with a provincial economics prof who is associated in some way with the Trump campaign — doesn’t really say exactly what Pericles indirectly quotes: “… make it harder for those majoring in the liberal arts at nonelite institutions to obtain loans”. This is, in fact a bit of an inferential stretch — depending on a number of assumptions — from what Professor Trumpophilus Rusticus actually says. But let’s say Pericles has got it right.

The question that immediately occurs to me is this: Isn’t anything that discourages anybody from taking out student loans a good thing — ipso facto — as far as it goes? Even if it doesn’t go far enough?

Admittedly, the Trump plan, as sketched by Rusticus, isn’t nearly sweeping enough. Trump may be more of a liberal than he, or his supporters, like to think. This tinkering at the margins is more or less the hallmark.

Surely, by this time, the student loan racket is thoroughly exposed. It depends on a mendacious sales job: forty and fifty and sixty years ago, people who got a BA did X% better in life than people who didn’t, so certainly this law holds in saecula saeculorum. Never mind that more and more people are getting BAs, or that a BA means less and less.

Pericles is a liberal-arts guy himself, and so perhaps he sees in this measure another stroke of the axe at the root of the tree in whose branches he, and his reference group, have found themselves a nest.

In fact, I think he is right about that. It gives me a pang. Some of the people I admired most in life, and learned most from, and am most grateful to, nested in those same branches.

But this is the world we will be living in for the foreseeable future. The humanities — if you have to pay retail for them — are simply too expensive, on contemporary terms, for anyone except those with money to burn. And those with money to burn will take to the humanities less and less.

So perhaps we are looking at a new Dark Age — an outcome with which our masters will surely be quite happy. They would like us to have no literacy beyond what’s needed to write a memo, using no nouns but abstract ones, and no verbs in the active voice. They certainly want us to have no knowledge of history at all. Philosophy has a deplorable tendency to encourage the asking of questions, and in particular to questioning the question — always a bad thing. Rhetoric is best left to those whose job it is — namely, speechwriters, admen, and so on. Math is a silly study, except insofar as it qualifies you to be a Wall Street ‘quant’. And as for logic — what could be more subversive?

Humanists, I suspect, will have to become hedge-priests, and find ways to impart their learning and reflection to those who seek it, without official standing or institutional support, without grading, without the ability to bestow a credential, and without compensation.

Good Lord, that sounds great. Ovid as subversion. Where do I sign up?

Experimentum Cruzis


The only thing I ever found interesting about Ted Cruz was his face. I always thought it looked like one of those Identikit reconstructions of a subway frotteur. Wanted, for inappropriate rubbing. $500 reward.

The thick, cinderblock cranium — he might have borrowed it from Mr Netanyahu — but then the curiously soft features, and the sad, pained, wincing expression. Those curved and recurved sigmoid eyebrows, as if he were undergoing a perennial colonoscopy, without anaesthesia. Then the crazy crinkled nose, borrowed from Richard Nixon and much improved upon.

One suspects — as with Nixon — a very tortured soul behind this Mannerist grillework.