The Labor of Living

Founders of company towns ranged from dreamy idealists to fast-buck Freddies.

When Tennessee Ernie Ford gave the full weight of his bass-baritone to “Sixteen Tons” and boomed that he owed his soul to the company store, the phrase evoked images of stooped miners living in tar-paper shacks under what Hardy Green calls the “super-exploitative conditions of life in a coal-mining company town.” But Mr. Green shows, in “The Company Town,” that such communities have also been social experiments, alternative forms of capitalist enterprise that encompassed everything from prophet-blaring to profit-sharing.

Typically in a company town, “one business exerts a Big Brother-like grip over the population,” providing employment, domicile, entertainment and even governance. Founders of such settlements have ranged from dreamy idealists to fast-buck Freddies; the fruits of their labor stretch from Hershey, Pa., to Gary, Ind.

Taking in textile, coal, oil, lumber and appliance-manufacturing towns, Mr. Green’s survey is a useful one, though the early utopian ventures he profiles are far more interesting than his pallid examples from the postwar era. Classic company towns could not withstand automobiles and suburbanization. No one owes his soul to an industrial park or a corporate campus.

Francis Cabot Lowell, eponym of Mr. Green’s first subject, the textile mill town in Massachusetts, had been appalled by an 1811 visit to Manchester, England, which he found air-blackened and overrun with “beggars and thieves.” His mills, he resolved, would improve their workers (as well as his bottom line). So Lowell employed young women drawn from the surrounding farms, who lived in boarding houses run by stern matrons “who made sure the girls were in by 10 p.m.” With libraries, lectures by the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson and even a literary journal, Lowell had “a lively intellectual and cultural scene.”

Yet there was a trade-off. Once serenaded by birdsong, the mill girls now woke, worked and worried to the peal of factory bells. This was no life for young women who styled themselves “daughters of freemen,” so turnover in Lowell was high. Paternalism along the Merrimack waned once this work force of native milkmaids was replaced by Irish immigrants. The boarding houses were sold off and deteriorated into tenements, and strikes replaced strophes.

The textile industry shifted southward to places such as Kannapolis, N.C., where Charlie Cannon of Cannon Mills ran what one janitor called “a one-man town, but he’s a good man.” Cannon Mills, the “largest manufacturer of towels in the world,” built thousands of “tidy clapboard” houses for its workers in a town whose trash, police and fire departments were all under Cannon’s purview. Mr. Charlie, as he was known, hated the New Deal, though he did not object to state intervention in the form of National Guardsmen busting strikes.

The prince of “The Company Town” is Milton Hershey, the chocolatier who dreamed of a city with “no poverty, no nuisances, no evil.” Hershey, Pa., located far from the candy-craving crowd but surrounded by dairy farms, clean water and “industrious folk,” was informed by the Mennonite values of Milton’s childhood. Milton frowned on drunkenness and immorality on Chocolate Avenue. He despised the uniformity of other planned communities, so his streets, he decided, would exhibit more variety than his candy bars. Hershey provided a zoo, a library, a golf course, free schools, a model orphanage and a “cornucopia of benefits” for workers. “Employees seemed to find contentment in the well-appointed town of Hershey,” writes Mr. Green. He also singles out Maytag (Newton, Iowa), bane of appliance repairmen, and Hormel (Austin, Minn.), bane of gourmets, as companies that, in their heyday, cultivated a sense of community.

The idealistic company towns shared “an initial vision and daily existence articulated and elaborated by a capitalist father figure,” Mr. Green says, but when that figure died so, usually, did the dream. Idealism is seldom heritable. The Indiana steel city named after Elbert H. Gary—the chairman of U.S. Steel when it essentially built the city in the early 1900s—seems no longer modeled on its founder’s “Sunday school principles.” The least nurturing company towns were based on industries that relied on immigrants or the “cracker proletariat,” especially mining. Contra John Denver, West Virginia, at least for miners, was not almost Heaven.

Although Mr. Green ignores Washington, D.C., the company town that never recedes, he shines a harsh light on Oak Ridge, Tenn., created by the feds via “arguably the United States’ most astounding and disruptive exercise of eminent domain.” Thrown up in 1943 as a laboratory for the Manhattan Project and populated by 80,000 newcomers, Oak Ridge was a case of government gone wild, as thousands of Tennesseans—including families who had farmed the land for generations—were booted out by Uncle Sam with two weeks’ notice. Oak Ridge was a monument to statism, with informants, armed guards, “federally financed schools” and cheaply made public housing. Workers ate “mediocre food served in grim cafeterias” and toiled without “any sense of participation in the larger win-the-war effort,” since the Manhattan Project was conducted in the strictest secrecy.

The sootiest coal camp sounds like paradise by contrast. As Mr. Green writes, company towns, whether run by “utopian paternalist or exploitative despot,” were constrained to some degree by the market. Oak Ridge, wholly a creature of the federal government, was beyond any such discipline.

But if Uncle Sam’s company towns were gray and regimented, the company towns overseen by Milton Hershey, Francis Cabot Lowell and even Charlie Cannon were communities enlivened by quirks and passions and idiosyncratic visions. Edens? Hardly. But they had soul, and you can neither buy nor sell that at the company store.

Mr. Kauffman’s books include the recently published “Bye Bye, Miss American Empire” (Chelsea Green).


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Poem of the week

Pier by Vona Groarke

Filled with vitality and physical exuberance, this week’s bank holiday choice is that rare thing: a happy poem

Pier in Southwold

“Gulp cloud; / fling a jet-trail round your neck like a feather boa … “

This week’s choice, “Pier”, by one of today’s most interesting younger Irish poets, Vona Groarke, seems to be that comparatively rare thing: a happy poem. It centres on the thrill, in the author’s words, of “jumping into the sea from a high fishing pier.”

It might stir your own nostalgia for childhood and teenage derring-do, but if you’re lucky – and wise – you won’t have outgrown such experiences, nor save them only for bank holidays. “Pier” isn’t designed to deliver a message, but it nevertheless says something about the nature of the good and happy life. Our muscles, extensions of our minds, have “a need for joy”. Fascism exploits that fact, as regretted in the Auden sonnet which provides the poem’s epigraph. But the “sport” here has a different goal. It’s private and it’s fun; an act not of conformity but rebellion.

Vona Groarke was born in Edgeworthstown in the Irish Midlands, but, as she says in this too-brief interview, she thinks of the west of Ireland as her home. “Pier”, from her 2009 collection, Spindrift, is set in Spiddal in County Galway. Initially, what’s noticeable is that there’s no direct first-person narrative. This emphasis on active verbs turns out to be an excellent device, recreating how it feels to be fully absorbed in physical activity, the mind, that often unwieldy “organ”, streamlined into unity with the body. The body of the poem – its rhythms and syntax – is not a container, but a sinewy consciousness.

The poem begins with a series of signposts or instructions. The abbreviated style helps focus process and movement. The speaker seems to be doing something she’s done before – remembering, as well as reporting, a familiar sequence as she moves steadily to her goal. Each point of the landscape has its associated physical accompaniment. Past, present and future seem uncannily fused.

The noun “snout” suggests the shape of the land, and maybe the speaker’s orientation: the nose leads when you are following an instinct. It’s a nice, gristly, Germanic word, contrasting with the limitless space evoked by the latinate “America”. The diction is taut and spare: “flip-flop over/ tarmac” economises, possibly, by compressing foot-wear into verb-of-motion; “exchange the weather” wastes no time on chit-chat. Movement and purpose, are all outward-directed, a brisk negotiation with solid facts such as the “gangplank rooted barge”. The pier is seen as a workaday place, without charm or grandeur.

There’s a sense of arrival in line seven, but only a moment’s hesitation, enacted by the caesura, the full-stop, after “up to the ridge”. There’s no trembling on the brink. “And then let fly,” the poem commands. Airborne now, it opens up imaginatively with the idea of “blue nets” (not literal fishing-nets, I think, but impressions of the sky and the light-patterned water below). Altitude and vastness are conveyed by the dizzy, fantastical instructions to “gulp cloud” and “fling a jet-trail around your neck like a feather boa.”

A “you” has entered the poem, and with it a stronger mood of self-determination. No, the poem’s not simply about “fun”. The physical commands hint at a spiritual exercise. When the poet says “Enter the tide as though it were nothing, /really nothing, to do with you” the command is to deny encroaching consciousness. The sea-leaper has to work at her prophylaxis. If you “go with the flow” the fear recedes; the danger itself is reduced.

For the poet, this may also sound a reminder to beware the tense search for epiphany. How often, if you write poetry, or even fiction, do you find yourself ultimately writing up those very aspects of an experience which you didn’t record eagerly in your mental (or actual) notebook? Writers learn to duck in and out of manipulative states of mind – athletes, too, perhaps? But this is not a poem about the virtue of being passive. It’s more about achieving the active-passive balance.

As the narrative develops, so does the willed action. There is an almost violent wrestle with the water, which has to be “slit” and “dragged” open for the jumper to surface and breathe again. “You” need to “kick back”, escape from the tide’s “coiled ropes” and then “Haul yourself up into August”. This is the joyous free-fall in reverse, an ascent that demands deliberate hard work, fighting water and gravity to make the wide sky visible again, and the next jump possible. Yes, of course, there must be another jump! And this time, the speaker will set herself a bigger challenge.

In an understated way (provided we allow that the poet is the protagonist of her own poem) “Pier” seems a feminist work. Exposed in bathing-togs as she “flip-flops” past the fishermen, the woman here is untroubled about body-image. There’s no shrinking from either visibility or danger. Next time, in fact, she’ll claim even more visibility, and take a bigger risk: she’ll dive from the pier head-first, and she’ll shout. While not as blissfully at one with the environment as her project at first suggested, the speaker embraces the growing sense of power and liberation her risk-taking gains her. We might also infer that, where Church and state attempt to control women’s bodies, rebellious leaps and shouts may be fun but are also more significant politically than they may first appear.

“Pier” is reproduced here by kind permission of the author and Gallery Press. Enjoy – but if you’re inspired to jump into the sea from a height, please do it with due care.

Pier by Vona Groarke

Speak to our muscles of a need for joy

                      • W H Auden, “Sonnets from China” (XVII)

Left at the lodge and park, snout to America.

Strip to togs, a shouldered towel, flip-flop over

the tarmac past the gangplanked rooted barge,

two upended rowboats and trawlers biding time.

Nod to a fisherman propped on a bollard,

exchange the weather, climb the final steps

up to the ridge. And then let fly. Push wide,

push up your knees so the blue nets hold you,

wide-open, that extra beat. Gulp cloud;

fling a jet-trail round your neck like a feather boa,

toss every bone and sinew to the plunge.

Enter the tide as if it were nothing,

really nothing, to do with you. Kick back.

Release your ankles from its coiled ropes;

slit water, drag it open, catch your breath.

Haul yourself up into August. Do it over,

raucously. Head first. This time, shout.


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Time stands still in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Say what you will about the Arab world, it’s hard to earn its gratitude. President Obama went to Egypt and not Israel. He demanded that Israel cease adding new settlements in the West Bank. He treated Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu with a chilling disdain. For all of that, though, Obama’s approval rating in Arab countries has sunk. Unlike almost a fifth of Americans, the Arab world clearly knows Obama is no Muslim.

The polls show some startling numbers. When this spring the Pew Global Attitudes Project asked residents of Islamic countries what they thought about Obama, he got good marks when it came to such matters as climate change. But when the question was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the numbers not only declined in Indonesia and Turkey, they nearly went through the floor in the three Arab countries polled. In Jordan, 84 percent disapproved of the way Obama was handling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In Egypt, the figure was 88 percent and in Lebanon it was 90 percent.

For Obama, the figures must be disheartening. They strongly suggest that his attempt to woo the Arab world, to convince it that America can be an honest broker between Israel and the Palestinians, has dismally failed. In fact, the extent of this failure is most stark in Lebanon. There, 100 percent of Shiite respondents — in other words, Hezbollah and others — have no faith in Obama and his good intentions. This may be a setback for Obama, but it is paradoxically a success for American values.

What the Arab world seems to appreciate is that America will never agree to what the Arab world most wants — an Islamic state where a Jewish one now exists. This entirely reasonable conclusion is based on what has long been American policy — not what the State Department wanted but what the American people supported. America has always liked the idea of Israel. The Arab world, for totally understandable reasons, has always hated it. Nothing has changed.

A fundamental document in this area — a once-secret CIA analysis from 1947 — was unearthed (to my knowledge) by Thomas W. Lippman and reported in the winter 2007 issue of the Middle East Journal. The CIA strongly argued that the creation of Israel was not in America’s interests and that therefore Washington ought to be opposed. This was no different than what later diplomats and military men (most recently, David Petraeus) have argued and it is without a doubt correct. Supporting Israel hurts America in the Islamic — particularly the Arab — world and, given the crucial importance of Middle Eastern oil, makes no practical sense.

The CIA further argued that the so-called Arab-Israeli conflict would soon widen to become an Israeli-Islamic conflict — another bull’s-eye for what was then an infant intelligence service. That process was already underway, which is why some non-Arabs (Bosnian Muslims, for instance) fought the creation of Israel, and has only intensified as radical Islam, laced with healthy doses of anti-Semitism, has gotten even stronger.

But where the CIA went wrong — and not, alas, for the last time — was in predicting that the Arabs would defeat Israel and that the state would not survive. The CIA was pretty sure of the outcome, what a later CIA figure might have called a “slam dunk.”

What neither the CIA nor, for that matter, the anti-Israel State Department recognized in the late 1940s is that America’s interests are not always measurably pragmatic — metrics, in the jargon of our day. Sometimes, our interests reflect our national ethic, an affinity for other democracies, sympathy for the underdog. These, too, are in America’s interests and they may be modified, but not abandoned, for the sake of mere metrics.

This is why Obama’s overture to the Arab world, clumsily executed, was never going to succeed. America can please some Arab governments — Egypt and Jordan, for instance — but not the Arab people. What they want, and what they have been told repeatedly they deserve, is a return of Palestinian refugees to what is now Israel and control over all of Jerusalem. These are both out of the question as far as Israel is concerned. It is not willing to give up its capital and, in a relatively short time, its Jewish majority.

This week, Palestinians and Israelis will once again talk peace in Washington. But until both sides, particularly the Arab peoples, give up on what they really want, the clock will remain where it has been. Those Pew polls show that’s around 1947.

Richard Cohen, Washington Post


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The Paula Abdul Theory of Foreign Policy

Self-esteem does not make for good policy (or singers).

Is it better to be a sucker?

Consider three examples where conventional wisdom tells us, in effect, that it is. Tomorrow, negotiations resume in Washington between Israelis and Palestinians. A fool’s gambit? Not at all, says U.S. envoy George Mitchell, who likes to say that, in negotiating peace in Northern Ireland, he had “700 days of failure and one day of success.”

Next is Iran. The Obama administration is fond of explaining that last year’s outreach to the Islamic Republic was a no-lose proposition, since it meant that either diplomacy would succeed in curbing the regime’s nuclear bids, or its failure would expose the regime’s duplicity and obstructionism, thereby facilitating tougher measures.

And then there is the Ground Zero mosque: Among its virtues, say supporters, is that it will advertise American tolerance and strengthen the hand of moderate Muslims in America and abroad.

To all this, one might say that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results; that there’s no such thing as a free lunch; and that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

But put the clichés aside: The deeper political idea at work here is that moral inputs are the essential ingredients to—and ultimately more important than—pragmatic outputs. Charitably speaking, this means leading by persuasion and example, always going the last mile for peace, giving others (or, “the other”) the benefit of the doubt and so on. The real-world benefits are supposed to flow naturally from there, but if they don’t, so what? Doing right is its own reward.

Uncharitably speaking, this is what might be called the Paula Abdul theory of foreign policy, after the famously forgiving former judge on American Idol. Never mind that you can’t sing, or that you’re letting yourself be played for a sucker: What counts is that you feel good about yourself, presumably because you’re doing something good. Another name for this kind of thinking is moral narcissism.

No wonder there’s something slightly frantic about all the testimonials—more often asserted than demonstrated—to the “moderation” of Feisal Abdul Rauf, the would-be imam of the Ground Zero mosque. In fact, the imam’s record of political and theological pronouncements is mixed, often slippery and sometimes disturbing, as when he urged last year that President Obama endorse the theocratic foundations of Iran’s government.

Paula Abdul

But none of that really matters much to Mr. Rauf’s supporters, not because they are his fellow travellers politically, but because supporting the mosque is an opportunity to flaunt their virtue by the simple means of making a political declaration. Question to mosque supporters: Has your check to Mr. Rauf’s Cordoba Initiative been mailed already? Or would you rather the Saudi government pick up the tab?

The Obama administration’s approach to Iran is another instance of moral narcissism in action. It took a peculiar political conceit to imagine that the Islamic Republic was a misunderstood creature, offended by Bush administration arrogance, that would yield to President Obama’s charm offensive.

Then again, President Obama’s approach wasn’t dictated by a long train of examples of the Islamic Republic rebuffing every diplomatic overture made to it, or by a sober assessment about the drift of its politics in recent years. Nor did the president seem much concerned about the consequences of Iran playing the U.S. for a fool while it again played for time for its nuclear programs.

But, again, none of this really matters, because the real point of the diplomatic outreach wasn’t pragmatic; it was about the administration and its supporters demonstrating that they were the good guys vis-a-vis Iran. I doubt even Glenn Beck needed proof of this.

Finally, the Israeli-Palestinian talks, whose chances of success may be safely predicted at nil. Yesterday, I spoke with Aaron David Miller, the former U.S. Middle East negotiator now at the Woodrow Wilson Center, to ask him what was wrong with the view that it is better to try and fail than not to try at all.

“That’s what Bill Clinton said to us,” he replied. “I was inspired; it’s quintessentially American. But it’s not a substitute for a serious foreign policy on the part of the world’s most consequential power.” The risk, he added, “is that when the small power says no to the great one without cost or consequence, whether that’s Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Arabs or the Israelis, we lose street cred. Right now, we are neither feared nor respected nor admired to the extent we need to be consistent with our interests in the region.”

Mr. Miller is a liberal, but he’s also what Irving Kristol would have called a liberal who’s been mugged by reality. Part of that reality is that foreign policy is blood sport not beauty contest, and that those who suppose the latter will be defenseless when they discover it’s the former. Which is all to say, it sucks to be a sucker.

Bret Stephens, Wall Street Journal


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Defining the Afghan Deadline Down

The president’s advisers agree: We’re not leaving next July.

If you are among those who think Barack Obama gives too many speeches, you may not be tuning in this evening when the president takes to the airwaves to speak to the American people about the end of the combat mission in Iraq.

If you do tune in, and you are hoping for some encouragement about the ongoing fight in Afghanistan, you may go away more alarmed than reassured. For when it comes to war speeches, President Obama likes to combine his firm statements of purpose with even firmer statements about heading for the exits. In other words, expect the usual quotient of wince-inducing moments.

Here’s the good news: The Obama policy is better than the Obama rhetoric.

Only three months ago, President Obama told us that Afghanistan today is “no less important than it was in those days after 9/11.” As a candidate who became a Democratic contender largely because of his opposition to the war in Iraq, however, Mr. Obama has used his speeches to shore up his left flank. He knows that the left doesn’t want to hear anything about Afghanistan unless it has to do with deadlines and departure dates.

That’s probably one reason he simply doesn’t talk about the war unless he absolutely has to. If you want an eye-opening sign of administration priorities, go to the White House website and search in “speeches and remarks” for “health care.” You’ll find 400 items since he took office. Now plug in “Afghanistan” and you’ll find just 202.

The rhetorical detachment is provoking second thoughts among many who otherwise support the president’s surge in Afghanistan. Their logic is unassailable. If the president is not fully committed to victory, does it not become absurd, even immoral, to continue to send Americans there to die?

One answer is that his actions may be a better indicator than his words. Notwithstanding his uncertain oratorical trumpet, President Obama’s Afghanistan policy began with more troops. He has escalated the drone strikes against the enemy hiding in neighboring Pakistan. When the McChrystal flap put him in the position of relieving his top general in Afghanistan, he replaced him with an even stronger one: David Petraeus. As if to underscore the point, he put Gen. Jim Mattis—a Marine’s Marine—at Centcom. It’s hard to think of a better team.

It’s true that these good decisions have been undermined by his rhetorical aloofness, as well as by his announcement that we would begin withdrawing troops next July. Indeed, only a few days ago, Gen. James Conway, the Marine commandant, said that the July 2011 date is “probably giving our enemy sustenance.” Though this president is not likely ever to admit that setting this date was a mistake, he and his team have done the next best thing: defined the deadline down.

It’s not only Gen. Petraeus. Presidential spokesman Robert Gibbs (“conditions on the ground will determine the slope of that withdrawal”), Vice President Joe Biden (“conditions-based transition to Afghan security leadership”), Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (“it’s a conditions-based withdrawal”), and Defense Secretary Bob Gates (“the pace and the number are going to depend on the conditions on the ground”) have all made similar comments walking back the deadline.

The point is that there are withdrawals, and there are withdrawals. Back in 2007, when Gen. Petraeus famously testified before Congress about the progress in Iraq, we forget that the first, post-surge withdrawal of troops—2,200 Marines from Anbar—had already begun. Likewise next July marks only a beginning, and the administration can define that drawdown however it wants.

Gen. Petraeus says we can prevail in Afghanistan. Surely he has earned the chance to try, as well as the trust that he will speak up if he finds himself shortchanged on time or resources. Even Gen. Conway, who was so blunt about how talk of a withdrawal has emboldened the enemy, was quick to add that the Taliban is likely to be extremely disheartened when the date comes and goes and most of our forces are still there.

When it comes to war rhetoric, manifestly Barack Obama is no Winston Churchill. Yet having arrived at the Oval Office, he appears to have discerned a truth that continues to elude other members of his administration: However weary Americans may be of long wars, they don’t like losing them. In the same vein, whether this president goes down as a new FDR or a new LBJ will likely be determined by how the U.S. leaves Afghanistan.

On issue after issue, President Obama stands accused of a huge gap between word and deed. In the long run, this contradiction is not sustainable, especially for a war president. At least for the short term in Afghanistan, however, it’s our best case for hope.

William McGurn, Wall Street Journal


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Social Security Bait and Switch

‘Harry, am I making this up?’ Yes, Mr. President, you are.

Democrats are trying to keep control of Congress by scaring the wig off grandma with a phantom GOP plot against Social Security. That is not news. Social Security scare tactics have been regular campaign themes since FDR. President Obama’s unique contribution is to do this even as he’s begging Republicans to help him reduce the deficit and reform entitlement spending.


On the one hand, Mr. Obama has charged his deficit commission with crafting a bipartisan plan to restrain entitlements. “Everything’s on the table. That’s how this thing’s going to work,” he said when he created the commission in February. “We now have to, in a gradual way, reduce spending, particularly on those big ticket items” like Social Security, he later added in Racine, Wisconsin. “That’s going to be our project for the next couple years.”

Yet even as Mr. Obama beseeches Republicans, he and his political allies are playing the Social Security card for all it’s worth in this campaign season. This has all the earmarks of a political bait and switch designed to ambush Republicans if they’re gullible enough to believe his bipartisan pleas.

Mr. Obama personally teed up the campaign theme earlier this month when he celebrated Social Security’s 75th anniversary by claiming that “privatizing Social Security” is “a key part” of the Republican “legislative agenda if they win a majority in Congress this fall.” He went on to say that this plan, which does not in fact exist, is “wrong for America” and “I’ll fight with everything I’ve got to stop those who would gamble your Social Security on Wall Street. Because you shouldn’t be worried that a sudden downturn in the stock market will put all you’ve worked so hard for—all you’ve earned—at risk.”

The President’s speechwriters missed an opportunity to invoke boll weevils and Tom Joad, though they did find room for a paean to partisan comity. In an echt-Obama touch, he added that “I’m committed to working with anyone, Democrat or Republican, who wants to strengthen Social Security.”

Democratic House campaign chief Chris Van Hollen did it again last week at the National Press Club, discovering “a plan that would steer, by the way, billions and billions of dollars of American Social Security retirement savings to Wall Street.” Also by the way, this plan would “abolish Medicare in its current form” and “throw seniors to the whims of the uncontrolled costs of the private-insurance market.”

This Obama-Van Hollen line of attack is figuring in races across the country, and union groups are spending heavily to give it a political impact, the facts notwithstanding. Earlier this summer the Strengthen Social Security Coalition magically emerged, its backers a roll-call of the progressive left: the AFL-CIO, SEIU, American Federation of Teachers,, Campaign for America’s Future, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees.

In Nevada, Harry Reid & Co. are inundating the airwaves with claims that Republican challenger Sharon Angle favors cutting off Social Security checks. Mr. Obama showed up at a Las Vegas fund-raiser to chime in that “she wants to phase out and privatize Social Security and Medicare. Phase out and privatize them. . . . I’m not making this up. Harry, am I making this up?”

Cognitive dissonance evidently does not afflict this President. Not long after this Socratic dialogue with Harry, at a recent event in Columbus, Ohio, Mr. Obama explained that “what we’ve done is we’ve created a fiscal commission of Democrats and Republicans to come up with what would be the best combination to help stabilize Social Security for not just this generation, but the next generation. I’m absolutely convinced it can be done.”

This campaign strategy won’t stop huge Democratic losses in a year when the economy is the dominant issue, but it surely will reinforce Republican fears that the deficit commission is nothing but a political trap. Mr. Obama wants the GOP to support entitlement reforms in exchange for tax increases, but when they do he’ll pocket the revenue and slam the GOP for the entitlement “cuts.”

The irony is that the fiscal condition of Social Security could be substantially improved simply by readjusting its actuarial formulas to slow the growth rate of benefits. But Republicans are unlikely to sign on even to that if they’re going to be demonized for such a modest “cut” anyway, much less endorse a reform like raising the future retirement age. Mr. Obama says he wants to cut a deal, but encouraging Democrats this year to box themselves in against any change will make serious reforms that much harder next year.


The President’s bad faith is all the more notable because Social Security is less a GOP reform priority than it should be. Republicans never even brought President Bush’s private account plan to the floor in 2005. To the extent these attacks have any basis in reality, they’re targeting Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan’s “roadmap”—even as Mr. Obama praises him for being serious about the fiscal crisis and knows he’s a member of the deficit commission.

This Social Security ploy perfectly illustrates the Obama political method: Bipolar rhetoric that lurches between partisan distortion and bipartisan entreaties—all the while governing hard to the left with Democrats in Congress running the show.

Editorial, Wall Street Journal


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The World Trade Center Mosque and the Constitution

The plan to erect a mosque of major proportions in what would have been the shadow of the World Trade Center involves not just the indisputable constitutional rights that sanction it, but, providentially, others that may frustrate it.

Mosques have commemoratively been established upon the ruins or in the shells of the sacred buildings of other religions—most notably but not exclusively in Cordoba, Jerusalem, Istanbul, and India. When sited in this fashion they are monuments to victory, and the chief objection to this one is not to its existence but that it would be near the site of atrocities—not just one—closely associated with mosques because they were planned and at times celebrated in them.

Building close to Ground Zero disregards the passions, grief and preferences not only of most of the families of September 11th but, because we are all the families of September 11th, those of the American people as well, even if not the whole of the American people. If the project is to promote moderate Islam, why have its sponsors so relentlessly, without the slightest compromise, insisted upon such a sensitive and inflammatory setting? That is not moderate. It is aggressively militant.

Disregarding pleas to build it at a sufficient remove so as not to be linked to an abomination committed, widely praised, and throughout the world seldom condemned in the name of Islam, the militant proponents of the World Trade Center mosque are guilty of a poorly concealed provocation. They dare Americans to appear anti-Islamic and intolerant or just to roll over.

But the opposition to what they propose is no more anti-Islamic or intolerant than to protest a Shinto shrine at Pearl Harbor or Nanjing would be anti-Shinto or even anti-Japanese. How about a statue of Wagner at Auschwitz, a Russian war memorial in the Katyn Forest, or a monument to British and American air power at Dresden? The indecency of such things would be neither camouflaged nor burned away by the freedoms of expression and religion. And that is what the controversy is about, decency and indecency, not the freedom to worship, which no one denies.

Although there is of course no question of reciprocity—no question whatever of a church in Mecca or anything even vaguely like it—constitutionally and if local codes applied without bias allow, there is unquestionably a right to build. Reciprocity or not, we have principles that we value highly and will not abandon. The difficulty is that the principles of equal treatment and freedom of religion have, so to speak, been taken hostage by the provocation. As in many hostage situations, the choice seems to be between injuring what we hold dear or accepting defeat. This, anyway, is how it has played out so far.

The proponents of the mosque know that Americans will not and cannot betray our constitutional liberties. Knowing that we would not rip the foundation from the more than 200 years of our history that it underpins, they may imagine that they have achieved a kind of checkmate.

Their knowledge of the Constitution, however, does not penetrate very far, and perhaps they are not as clever as they think. The Constitution is a marvelous document, and a reasonable interpretation of it means as well that no American can be forced to pour concrete. No American can be forced to deliver materials. No American can be forced to bid on a contract, to run conduit, dig a foundation, or join steel.

And a reasonable interpretation of the Constitution means that the firemen’s, police, and restaurant workers’ unions, among others, and the families of the September 11th dead, and anyone who would protect, sympathize with and honor them, are free to assemble, protest and picket at the site of the mosque that under the Constitution is free to be built.

A reasonable interpretation of the Constitution means that no American can be forced to cross a picket line in violation of conscience or even of mere preference. Who, in all decency, would cross a picket line manned by those whose kin were slaughtered—by the thousands—so terribly nearby? And who in all decency would cross such a line manned by the firemen, police and other emergency personnel who know every day that they may be called upon to give their lives in a second act?

Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York, says of those who with heartbreaking bravery went into the towers: “We do not honor their lives by denying the very constitutional rights they died protecting.”

Mr. Mayor, the firemen, the police, the EMTs and the paramedics who rushed into those buildings, many of them knowing that they would die there, did not do so to protect constitutional rights. They went often knowingly to their deaths to protect what the Constitution itself protects: people, flesh and blood, men and women, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, sisters and brothers. Although you yourself may not know this, they did.

The choice is not between abandoning them or abandoning the Constitution, for although the liberties the Constitution guarantees sometimes put us at a disadvantage even of self-preservation, they also make it possible for 300 million Americans to prevail—reasonably, peacefully, and within the limits of the law—against provocations such as this.

They make it possible to prevent the construction of the mosque at this general location—with no objection whatsoever to, but rather warm encouragement of, its construction elsewhere—not by force or decree but by argument, persuasion, and peaceable assembly. These are rights that the Constitution guarantees as well, and clearly it is one’s constitutional right to oppose the mosque, not to participate in the building of it, and to convince others of the same.

This small and symbolic crisis is not a test of constitutional liberties, for in regard to the question at hand the Constitution allows discretion. It is rather a test of how far America can be pushed, and America is not at all as powerless as it has been portrayed.

That is because the street in front of the mosque that the Constitution says can be built can be filled with people who can effectively protest it because the Constitution says that they are free. Those who do not fear to do so need only go there and stand upon their convictions, their beliefs, their reason, their laws, their history, and what is in their hearts.

Mr. Helprin, a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute, is the author of, among other works, “Winter’s Tale” (Harcourt), “A Soldier of the Great War” (Harcourt) and, most recently, “Digital Barbarism” (HarperCollins).


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Contemplating Death From Above

In World War I, it was the trenches that captured the imagination of poets. In World War II, it was aerial combat.

American B-29s bombing Yokohama, Japan, in 1945.

Randall Jarrell’s “Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” is one of the few poems of World War II to have achieved wide renown. It reads in its entirety: “From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State, / And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze. / Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life, / I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters. / When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.”

As we are reminded in “Bomber County,” Daniel Swift’s eclectic account of World War II in the air and the poetry it inspired, Jarrell was moved by the fetal image of a machine gunner hunched in the belly of a B-17. With brute concision he captured one of the two great ironies of airpower: Airmen don’t fight in a war-scarred battleground but in an untouched cloudscape, and the lucky ones return to home base after each sortie. The remains of the gunner in Jarrell’s poem are washed away by ground personnel—who likely have never heard a shot fired in anger—no doubt while the dead man’s crewmates are off dressing for a meal. The interludes of comfort are incongruous with a combat airman’s life expectancy: a mere six weeks in the European theater during World War II.

The other irony is harsher: that warriors engaged in advanced and skilled air combat were pummeling a helpless (and mostly noncombatant) enemy many miles beneath them. Strategic bombing—aimed at civilian targets more than military ones—is a form of justified massacre. In June 1943, Winston Churchill was shown films of the five-month bombing campaign known as the Battle of the Ruhr, and, in his official biographer’s words, he “suddenly sat bolt upright and said to his neighbour, ‘Are we beasts? Are we taking this too far?’ ”

It is a question that Mr. Swift asks repeatedly in “Bomber County.” The U.S. and Britain dropped 1.6 million tons of bombs on Germany, causing civilian casualties of more than one million and rendering as many as 7.5 million people homeless. The seven-month B-29 firebombing campaign against Japan organized by Curtis LeMay is estimated to have killed a half-million people and to have left five million more homeless. It was so successful that the Air Force had trouble finding suitable targets for the atomic bombings at the end of the war. The Japanese, it should be noted, had used strategic bombing as early as 1938 in China, and Germany launched its own vast air assault on England in 1940.

Whether World War II’s strategic-bombing campaigns were justified remains a source of profound disagreement. In 1997, the German novelist W.G. Sebald delivered a series of lectures—published in English as “On the Natural History of Destruction” (2002)—about the absence of the Allied blitz from postwar literature and, as he saw it, the absence of a much-needed moral debate. His lectures caused a furor in Germany and elsewhere. While few take the extreme position of Eric Markusen and David Kopf in their 1995 book, “The Holocaust and Strategic Bombing”—that the Allied bombing campaign amounted to genocide—most commentators these days come down against the Allies.

In “Bomber County,” Mr. Swift tries not to takes sides. He is more interested in conveying the influence of airpower—the most glamorous and technologically advanced action of the war—on poetry. Remembering how important verse was to our understanding of World War I, he surveys the ways in which bombing and flying played out in contemporary poetry, both British and American.

Not every “war poet” was himself a soldier or airman. C. Day Lewis, Mr. Swift notes, viewed himself as heir to the trench poets of World War I, yet he did not fight—serving instead in Britain’s ministry of information—and his perception of the bomber war as a new version of World War I’s trenches was not based on personal experience. This is true of Jarrell, too, who served in only marginal roles on stateside bases, inventing the images and events of his bomber poems.

T.S. Eliot, too old for service, was a fire-watcher during the Blitz, scanning from a London rooftop for bomb damage that might spread. What he saw invigorated his last great work: the final of the “Four Quartets.” (“Dust inbreathed was a house— / The walls, the wainscot and the mouse, / The death of hope and despair, / This is the death of air.”) Stephen Spender was in the National Fire Service, having failed his medical exam when he tried to enlist at 35. His war poems focus on the destruction of bombing, seeing both poet and bomber similarly bound up together as creator and destroyer.

The American poet John Ciardi, by contrast, was a gunner on B-29s hitting Japan and worried in his diary that he would never reach the 35 missions that made a tour. Three missions before his plane would be shot down, he was reassigned to write official condolence letters—”We need somebody with combat experience who can write,” an officer told him. And so literature saved one life at the expense of another.

James Dickey saw aerial bombing up-close as a pilot. His great (if not well-known) war poem, “Firebombing,” imagines a middle-age suburban householder wondering if he can really be the same man who spread destruction and saw the terrible beauty of napalm igniting beneath him. (“Reflections of houses catch; / Fire shuttles from pond to pond / In every direction, till hundreds flash with one death.”)

Though the aerial war and its poetic legacy are Mr. Swift’s central concern, he adds yet another theme to “Bomber County.” The author’s grandfather, who worked in a rubber brokerage before the war, died flying a Lancaster bomber after a raid on Dusseldorf on June 12, 1943. Each of the book’s chapters has episodes of Mr. Swift and his father visiting the sites associated with the dead man’s life and attending reunions where former airmen look back on their experience with a mixture of sadness and longing.

The book’s multiple parts do not to fit together neatly. Mr. Swift’s grandfather was not a poet, and the author’s memoir episodes seem far removed from his passages about poets and their attraction to the aerial war. Yet “Bomber County” is never less than interesting.

Mr. Swift gives W.H. Auden the final word. He was skeptical of the special value of war experience to a poet. In “Memorial for a City”—a poem inspired by a 1945 visit to the bombed out cities of Bavaria—Auden noted how little the modern technology of killing changed the inherent facts of battle: “Plum-blossom falls on the dead, the roar of the waterfall covers / The cries of the whipped and the sighs of the lovers / And the hard bright light composes / A meaningless moment into an eternal fact.” Auden was struck less by the destructiveness of modern war than by the eternal ordinariness of its barbarism. But then he never saw combat.

Mr. Messenger is a senior editor of the Weekly Standard.


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‘Bomber County’

12 June 1943

After the air raid, Virginia Woolf went for a walk.’ The greatest pleasure of town life in winter -rambling the streets of London,’ she had written, a decade before. She called it ‘street haunting’, and in the essay of that title she gives instructions on how this should be done.’ The hour should be the evening and the season winter, for in winter the champagne brightness of the air and the sociability of the streets are grateful,’ she wrote: ‘The evening hour, too, gives us the irresponsibility which darkness and lamplight bestow. We are no longer quite ourselves.’ Picture her, then, stepping out into the bombed city. It is perhaps a little earlier in the day than she might have liked, this afternoon in the middle of January 1941, and in less than three months she will be dead, but today she is here to take a quiet pleasure in the ruins.


‘I went to London Bridge,’ she notes in her diary: I looked at the river; very misty; some tufts of smoke, perhaps from burning houses. There was another fire on Saturday. Then I saw a cliiff of wall, eaten out, at one corner; a great corner all smashed; a Bank; the Monument erect; tried to get a Bus; but such a block I dismounted; & the second Bus advised me to walk. A complete jam of traffic; for streets were being blown up. So by tube to the Temple; & there wandered in the desolate ruins of my old squares; gashed; dismantled; the old red bricks all white powder, something like a builders yard. Grey dirt & broken windows; sightseers; all that completeness ravished & demolished.

She is watching carefully, making her way north and then west, through traffic jams and rubble, and she pauses for a while in ‘my old squares’, the wide and orderly spaces of Bloomsbury where she used to live. But then, quite simply, life interrupts: ‘So to Buzsards where, for almost the first time, I decided to eat gluttonously. Turkey & pancakes. How rich, how solid. 4/- they cost. And so to the L.L. where I collected specimens of Eng. litre [English literature].’ From Bloomsbury, she walked past the Air Ministry on Oxford Street on her way to Buzsards, a café known for its wedding cakes and before the war its tables out on the street. After lunch, she goes on to the London Library in St James’s Square. The fastest route is straight down Regent Street, and she had work to do on a new book.

Woolf’s diaries, as the war begins, tell of a growing fascination. On the Sunday that Britain declared war, she was sewing black-out curtains at Monk’s House, the cottage in Sussex she shared with her husband Leonard, and she wrote:’ I suppose the bombs are falling on rooms like this in Warsaw.’ Three days later: ‘Our first air raid at 8.30 this morning. A warbling that gradually insinuates itself as I lay in bed. So dressed & walked on the terrace with L. Sky clear. All cottages shut. All clear.’ The bombs did not come that morning, but she waits and she watches. ‘No raids yet,’ she recorded on Monday, 11 September, but saw ‘Over London a light spotted veil’ of the silver barrage balloons on steel ropes, to defend the city from low- flying planes. The winter comes, and then the spring; a German bomber flies over Monk’s House; Holland falls, and Belgium, and Chamberlain resigns. She is always looking at the skies. ‘The bomb terror,’ she writes in her diary: ‘Going to London to be bombed.’In May 1940 there are rumours of invasion, and at the end of the month: ‘A great thunderstorm. I was walking on the marsh & thought it was the guns on the channel ports. Then, as they swerved, I conceived a raid on London; turned on the wireless; heard some prattler; & then the guns began to lighten.’ Transformed by her poised imagination, the rain becomes a raid, and then the falling bombs return to rain. ‘I conceived a raid,’ writes Virginia Woolf, the great novelist, thinking bombers where there were none.

Of course, in these fixated times she was at work on a novel. She called it ‘Poyntz Hall’ but it was published after her death as Between the Acts, and it too imagines bombers. After the country-house pageant which is the centre of the novel, the Reverend Streatfield stands on a soap box to address the audience on the subject of funds for ‘the illumination of our dear old church’, and as he begins to speak:

Mr Streatfield paused. He listened. Did he hear some distant music? He continued: ‘But there is still a deficit’ (he consulted his paper) ‘of one hundred and seventy-five pounds odd. So that each of us who has enjoyed this pageant has still an opp . . .’ The word was cut in two. A zoom severed it. Twelve aeroplanes in perfect formation like a flight of wild duck came overhead. That was the music. The audience gaped; the audience gazed. The zoom became drone. The planes had passed. ‘. . . portunity,’ Mr Streatfield continued, ‘to make a contribution.’

The duck-like passing planes gently, ironically interrupt the platitudes of village life, but they are not wholly fictional. Throughout the spring and summer of 1940, Woolf had been watching the fighters scrambling over the downs, to the Battle of Britain, and hearing the distant music as the bombers came and went. Some days that summer, her diary is little more than a war report: ‘Nightly raids on the east & south coast. 6, 3 , 12 people killed nightly.’ And even on the nights when there are no bombers – ‘Listened for another; none came’ – she begins to imagine them, to transform them into something useful. On the last Thursday of May 1940 she went out for a walk and ‘Instantly wild duck flights of aeroplanes came over head; manoeuvred; took up positions & passed over.’

So much of Woolf ‘s diaries reads as the roughs for so much of her published writing, and the notes on bombing from 1940 find their way into an essay, ‘Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid’. She wrote it in August for an American symposium on women in the war and here she returns to the moment when the bombers are above. As she narrates: ‘The sound of sawing overhead has increased. All the searchlights are erect. They point at a spot exactly above this roof. At any moment a bomb may fall on this very room. One, two, three, four, five, six . . . the seconds pass.’ Here we are, waiting and watching, as so often she was, and this time, as always before, the bombs do not fall, and she goes on:

But during those seconds of suspense all thinking stopped. All feeling, save one dull dread, ceased. A nail fixed the whole being to one hard board. The emotion of fear and of hate is therefore sterile, unfertile. Directly that fear passes, the mind reaches out and instinctively revives itself by trying to create. Since the room is dark it can only create from memory. It reaches out to the memory of other Augusts – in Bayreuth, listening to Wagner; in Rome, walking over the Campagna; in London. Friends’ voices come back. Scraps of poetry return.

In the moments after the air raid, the frozen imagination – nailed to one hard board – awakes again, and it does so by remembering, and creating; by making something new from fragments of the past, a memory of music, a line of poetry.

Excerpted from ‘Bomber County: The Poetry of a Lost Pilot’s War’ by Daniel Swift. Published in August 2010 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.


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Jimmy Carter in Pyongyang

Back to the same old North Korean games.

The first time Jimmy Carter travelled to North Korea, in 1994 to negotiate a nuclear deal, we wrote that “every demarche from Pyongyang will be entertained by other governments in light of the fear that North Korea wields a nuclear threat.” Fast forward 16 years to the second Carter visit, and we may be at the beginning of another such cycle.

Mr. Carter and Obama Administration officials were quick to call last week’s trip to rescue 31-year-old Aijalon Gomes, a prisoner of the North Korean regime since January, a “private” humanitarian visit. The U.S. had legitimate concerns about his health, given the North’s infamous prisons.

But Mr. Carter wouldn’t have been able to travel to North Korea without official permission, and he stuck around for an extra day in the hopes of seeing Kim Jong Il, who was travelling in China with his third son, his presumed heir. Kim snubbed Mr. Carter, yet his number two told the former President the North wants to resume the six-party talks. China’s nuclear envoy carried the same message to Seoul, and U.S. doves like former State Department official Joel Wit echoed that call in the New York Times.

Aijalon Gomes and former President Jimmy Carter

This sudden outbreak of diplomatic fervor isn’t a coincidence; the North and its allies are good at preaching the virtues of negotiation when Pyongyang is at its most vulnerable. The Clinton Administration was preparing sanctions on the North when Mr. Carter negotiated what became the 1994 Agreed Framework. In that deal, the U.S. gave the North financing for two light-water nuclear reactors, security guarantees and energy. In return, Pyongyang continued its nuclear weapons program.

In 2006, when Bush Administration financial sanctions started to bite, North Korea tested a nuclear device, and the U.S. again caved, agreeing to return the dirty money in exchange for more talks. In return, Pyongyang continued its nuclear weapons program. See a pattern here?

Returning to the six-party talks now would again reward bad behavior. Unlike the U.S., the North has shown no willingness to keep its promises. Since talks stalled the North has conducted another nuclear test; launched missiles near Japan; sunk a South Korean naval vessel, killing 46 sailors; seized political prisoners; expropriated South Korean assets and threatened a nuclear attack.

This is a sign of vulnerability, not strength. On the economic front, a botched currency reform last year created hyperinflation and resulted in rare public protests. Floods this month have devastated agriculture. On the political front, Kim is reportedly getting ready to transfer power to his son at next month’s rare party conference, even though Kim Jong Eun is seen as young, inexperienced and possibly unable to control the military.

All of this raises questions about what diplomacy might achieve. The six-party talks benefit the North by giving Pyongyang global legitimacy and a sanctions reprieve, and they benefit China by giving Beijing free diplomatic leverage in a process in which it is the North’s main enabler. Do the U.S. and its allies really want another Agreed Framework?

Rather than entertain fantasies about the North’s intentions, the better strategy is to keep the sanctions pressure on with the goal of hastening the regime’s demise and, as South Korea is already doing, preparing for the collapse.

Editorial, Wall Street Journal


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Kirchner’s Assault on the Press

This week’s target: Argentina’s two most influential daily newspapers.

“This begins the very clear dictatorial phase because one of the pillars of the republic is freedom of expression and the right of the people to be informed.”  

Elisa Carrió,
Argentine opposition leader, Aug. 23

For almost a decade, loyalists to the Argentine republic have warned that the nation is headed for a return to authoritarian rule. Last week President Cristina Kirchner strengthened their case by moving to strip the two largest newspapers in the country of their ownership in the largest domestic supplier of newsprint.

Ms. Carrió, herself a center-left politician, echoed the fears of millions of Argentines when she warned that such steps are designed to silence government critics and, if left unchecked, will usher in a new era of repression.

Yet it is far too early to sound the death knell for Argentine liberty. Only a day after Mrs. Kirchner alleged that the newspapers Clarín and La Nación had secured their ownership in the newsprint company Papel Prensa by using torture and coercion—provided by the 1976 military government—a key witness surfaced to discredit the charges.

President Cristina Kirchner announces a government investigation Clarin and La Nación.

It would be a mistake to underestimate Mrs. Kirchner’s ambition or that of her husband, former president Néstor Kirchner. But civil society remains vibrant, and as Mrs. Kirchner found out when she tried to force a confiscatory tax increase on farmers in 2008, Argentines still understand that they have rights.

Press criticism for some time has been met with vengeful government responses. According to Clarín, Kirchner supporters have used physical intimidation in front of the company’s headquarters in Buenos Aires, and the government has harassed the company through its tax and regulatory agencies.

After Mrs. Kirchner lost control of Congress in the June 2009 elections, she used the lame duck session that followed to push through a media law that gives the government the power to deny licenses to long-established television stations. The law also expands the government’s share of the market. Clarín, which is in the television business, will be hurt by this. In recent weeks the government also revoked Clarín’s license to operate as an Internet service provider.

But print media, particularly Clarín and La Nación, remain a threat to Mrs. Kirchner. And this is why she is going after Papel Prensa. She aims to control the supply of newsprint and imprison principals of both companies.

Papel Prensa was owned by David Graiver in August 1976 when he died in a plane crash in Mexico. To pay the debts of two struggling banks that had to be liquidated upon his death, Papel Prensa was sold in November 1976. Mrs. Kirchner’s case against the two newspapers rests largely on her claim that Gravier’s widow was detained by the military government, pressured to sell the company to the newspapers, and then temporarily released in order to execute the transaction.

It may have seemed like an open-and-shut case to onlookers Tuesday at Casa Rosada, where Mrs. Kirchner had gathered politicians, ambassadors and members of the business community to watch her drop the human-rights bomb on the newspapers. The widow, Lidia Papaleo de Graiver, had already told a local newspaper that she has “expectations of a historic compensation after 34 years” and raved about how “a woman president will settle this debt with the whole of Argentine society.”

But the next day notarized testimony from Isidoro Graiver, David’s brother, appeared in La Nación contradicting her claims. Mr. Graiver, who handled the disposition of Papel Prensa for the family, detailed the events surrounding the sale in November 1976. He wrote that the family had been under pressure to sell the company for economic reasons and because David had been acting as the banker for the guerrilla group known as the “Montoneros.” The group was pressuring him with death threats against the family if their money—some $17 million from kidnapping—was not returned.

It was not until March of the following year—long after the sale supposedly forced by the military—that the family was arrested by the military government for links to the Montoneros, who had killed, maimed and kidnapped thousands of Argentines. This may explain why Graiver’s widow went before a federal judge on Thursday to say that she had never been released from prison to execute the sale as Mrs. Kirchner claims.

The president likes to cite transgressions by the long-gone military government to make herself a champion of human rights. Yet while she has locked up scores of members of the military, she hasn’t brought one Montonero to justice. On the contrary, a number of the former terrorists have held posts in her cabinet.

Now she is using the same game to try to crush press freedom. Or as Ms. Carrió says, to begin the “dictatorial phase.” La Nación’s publication of Isidoro Gravier’s memo shows that the press isn’t giving up without a fight.

Anastasia O’Grady, Wall Street Journal


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When the Killing Stopped

How the British tried to start again after the carnage of World War I.

‘They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old”—we are all familiar with Laurence Binyon’s lament for the fallen of World War I. “The Great Silence” is the less-known story of the aftermath of that war: of those who were left and who did grow old. It complements Juliet Nicolson’s earlier account, in “The Perfect Summer,” of the golden period prefacing the outbreak of hostilities, an interlude of prosperity that only served to throw the horror of the conflict and the social disintegration that followed into sharper relief.

Of the five million British servicemen who went out to fight in the European trenches, 1.5 million came back with permanent injuries and disfigurements; others were traumatized in less immediately obvious ways. Taking stock, the Illustrated London News wrote at the time that the war had “destroyed millions of men, broken millions of lives, ruined great cities and hamlets”; it had left “a belt of earth ravaged, crowded the world with maimed men, blind, mad, sick men, flinging empires into anarchy.” Those who did return, anticipating the “land fit for heroes” promised by the British Prime Minister Lloyd George, found that neither glory nor reward were forthcoming. The economy had collapsed, jobs were scarce and housing was in short supply. Once the euphoria following the Armistice had run its course, the silence that descended when the guns finally stopped was largely one of stunned bewilderment.

Ms. Nicolson focuses on how the British tried, in the two years after the war ended, to reorient themselves and to start again. Her approach is anecdotal and eclectic, drawing freely on contemporary diaries, letters and memoirs to create an impressionistic picture of the lull preceding the Roaring ’20s. The civil work force was ill-equipped to accommodate the more than 40,000 men who had lost one or more limbs during the war. There was little understanding of the phenomenon of shell shock, which was treated with a punitive regime of electrical “therapy,” codeine tablets, rectal injections and chastisement.

As disconcerting to the public were the otherwise able-bodied survivors who had sustained severe facial damage. A hospital department (nicknamed the Tin Noses Shop) was set up in Wandsworth to manufacture galvanized copper masks for those “who no longer had noses, eyes, jawbones, cheekbones, chins, ears or much of a face at all.” But the masks were both uncomfortable and eerily immobile.

The medical establishment was swiftly challenged, through this mass confrontation with illness and debility, to develop modern methods. The New Zealand-born surgeon Harold Gillies established the first specialized plastic-surgery unit at the Queen’s Hospital in Sidcup, where he carried out more than 11,000 maxillofacial reconstructions after 1917. Ground- breaking psychoanalytic work was done with mentally afflicted veterans under the auspices of Dr. William Rivers at Craiglockhart War Hospital near Edinburgh (the poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen were both patients).

Society was also forced to readjust its attitudes to other groups: Women were unwilling to surrender the freedoms they had gained while employed in the war effort, and the working classes were equally reluctant to resume their old position of voiceless subservience after fighting side by side with their “betters” for four years. In recognition of this, millions were enfranchised for the first time in 1918.

All of this is ably if sketchily rendered in “The Great Silence.” The problem with Ms. Nicolson’s magpie overview of the period is that it is too often sidetracked by specious glitter. The author is the granddaughter of Vita Sackville-West and the diplomat Harold Nicolson, and while this lineage gives her behind-the-scenes insights into the political machinations of the period—her grandfather had a ringside seat when the Treaty of Versailles was brokered in 1919—her interest is largely in her own set. In a book that doesn’t go into any real detail about the pacifist or suffragette movements, we are told far too much about Lady Diana Cooper’s parties, the laborious demolition of the Duke of Devonshire’s conservatory, Lady Ottoline Morrell’s love life and the fortunes of the Savoy hotel.

Yet these anecdotes have an authenticity that can be awkwardly lacking in Ms. Nicolson’s attempts at entering the lives of “downstairs” folk. The years 1918-20 were ones of enormous social unrest at home and abroad. The reverberations from the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia were continuing, and 1920 saw the founding of the Communist Party in Britain, where the electorate had trebled from a privileged 7.7 million to a restless 21.4 million desperate for tangible change.

But you would never guess it from Ms. Nicolson’s account. In 1919 the Savoy, we discover, was serving “bear from Finland, snails from France, caviar from Russia and Scottish plovers’ eggs.” Fortunately, Ms. Nicolson contends, “for those who lived lives remote from the extravagant surroundings of the Savoy hotel, the simple gathering of relations reunited round a table set for tea, with jam tarts and a huge currant cake in the centre, was enough.” Let them eat cake, indeed.

Ms. Nicolson is at her most effective when describing the nation’s search for a fitting public expression of its abiding sense of grief. Something was needed that would be accessible to everyone and that would transcend the British curse of class. In the end, the eloquence of the solution lay in its simplicity. The two-minute Great Silence, or act of remembrance, was first suggested by an Australian journalist and eventually secured the endorsement of the king. At 11 a.m. on Nov. 11, 1919, Britain stopped, as it has every year since on that date, to remember its war dead.

Ms. Nicolson notes that there were some in the crowd gathered around the Cenotaph in Whitehall that day for whom silence no longer held any particular meaning. These were the men whom the roar of the trenches had robbed of the ability to hear any sound at all. For them, as Ms. Nicolson observes with poignant understatement, silence would be a permanent state.

Ms. Lowry is the author of “The Bellini Madonna: A Novel.”


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Ten Fallacies About Web Privacy

We are not used to the Internet reality that something can be known and at the same time no person knows it.

Privacy on the Web is a constant issue for public discussion—and Congress is always considering more regulations on the use of information about people’s habits, interests or preferences on the Internet. Unfortunately, these discussions lead to many misconceptions. Here are 10 of the most important:

1) Privacy is free. Many privacy advocates believe it is a free lunch—that is, consumers can obtain more privacy without giving up anything. Not so. There is a strong trade-off between privacy and information: The more privacy consumers have, the less information is available for use in the economy. Since information helps markets work better, the cost of privacy is less efficient markets.

2) If there are costs of privacy, they are borne by companies. Many who do admit that privacy regulations restricting the use of information about consumers have costs believe they are born entirely by firms. Yet consumers get tremendous benefits from the use of information.

Think of all the free stuff on the Web: newspapers, search engines, stock prices, sports scores, maps and much more. Google alone lists more than 50 free services—all ultimately funded by targeted advertising based on the use of information. If revenues from advertising are reduced or if costs increase, then fewer such services will be provided.

3) If consumers have less control over information, then firms must gain and consumers must lose. When firms have better information, they can target advertising better to consumers—who thereby get better and more useful information more quickly. Likewise, when information is used for other purposes—for example, in credit rating—then the cost of credit for all consumers will decrease.

4) Information use is “all or nothing.” Many say that firms such as Google will continue to provide services even if their use of information is curtailed. This is sometimes true, but the services will be lower-quality and less valuable to consumers as information use is more restricted.

For example, search engines can better target searches if they know what searchers are looking for. (Google’s “Did you mean . . .” to correct typos is a familiar example.) Keeping a past history of searches provides exactly this information. Shorter retained search histories mean less effective targeting.

5) If consumers have less privacy, then someone will know things about them that they may want to keep secret. Most information is used anonymously. To the extent that things are “known” about consumers, they are known by computers. This notion is counterintuitive; we are not used to the concept that something can be known and at the same time no person knows it. But this is true of much online information.

6) Information can be used for price discrimination (differential pricing), which will harm consumers. For example, it might be possible to use a history of past purchases to tell which consumers might place a higher value on a particular good. The welfare implications of discriminatory pricing in general are ambiguous. But if price discrimination makes it possible for firms to provide goods and services that would otherwise not be available (which is common for virtual goods and services such as software, including cell phone apps) then consumers unambiguously benefit.

7) If consumers knew how information about them was being used, they would be irate. When something (such as tainted food) actually harms consumers, they learn about the sources of the harm. But in spite of warnings by privacy advocates, consumers don’t bother to learn about information use on the Web precisely because there is no harm from the way it is used.

8) Increasing privacy leads to greater safety and less risk. The opposite is true. Firms can use information to verify identity and reduce Internet crime and identity theft. Think of being called by a credit-card provider and asked a series of questions when using your card in an unfamiliar location, such as on a vacation. If this information is not available, then less verification can occur and risk may actually increase.

9) Restricting the use of information (such as by mandating consumer “opt-in”) will benefit consumers. In fact, since the use of information is generally benign and valuable, policies that lead to less information being used are generally harmful.

10) Targeted advertising leads people to buy stuff they don’t want or need. This belief is inconsistent with the basis of a market economy. A market economy exists because buyers and sellers both benefit from voluntary transactions. If this were not true, then a planned economy would be more efficient—and we have all seen how that works.

Mr. Rubin teaches economics at Emory University.


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Chopin’s Small Miracles

Despite their brevity, the Preludes loom large musically

Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849), whose 200th anniversary it is this year, is the overwhelming favorite composer for the piano. He possessed the most subtle intuitions and fathomed the mysteries of the world. Oscar Wilde once said of him, “After playing Chopin, I feel as if I had been weeping over sins that I had never committed and mourning over tragedies that were not my own.”

Most of the 24 Chopin Preludes were sketched out between 1837 and 1838. They are the ultimate miniatures. In an age when the symphony and sonata still held sway, writing these aphoristic Preludes was revolutionary. All except two contain a single musical idea, each boiled down to its essence. Never had brevity been so brief. Ten are under a minute in length; nine last just over a minute. Only the celebrated No. 15, the so-called “Raindrop Prelude,” attains the length characteristic of a small piece, clocking in at 4½ minutes.

Fourteen of the Preludes are full of light, gaiety, serenity and a kind of happiness. Seven contain anguish, rage and fury. Three are simply sorrowful. No matter how tiny, the Preludes loom large musically. Each one is a masterpiece of compressed emotion blended with an unequaled pianistic ingenuity and originality. Many of them are horribly difficult to play. When Robert Schumann read them, he proclaimed Chopin to be the “proudest poet soul of the age.”

What was the inspiration? As a child in Warsaw, Chopin was nourished on the then practically unknown preludes and fugues of Johann Sebastian Bach, composed in each of the major and minor keys and collectively known as “The Well-Tempered Clavier.” Chopin was one of the rare pianists of his time who played most of them, and Bach remained his ideal. During the creation of the Preludes he was particularly obsessed with Bach, and took “The Well-Tempered Clavier” with him on a vacation to Majorca in November 1838, where the Preludes were refined and polished.

Tune In

Listen to clips from a few of Chopin’s Preludes:

Bach’s preludes, some of considerable length, need their fugues, but Romantic composers did not often use this musical form. Each of Chopin’s Preludes is self-sufficient, but they were composed, like Bach’s, with one for each major and minor key. Since nothing follows them, one may ask what these works are a prelude to—certainly to another Prelude or, poetically speaking, perhaps a prelude to the infinite. We don’t know if Chopin intended them to be played as a cycle, although today’s pianists usually perform them that way in recital.

The completion of the Preludes formed one of the most harrowing episodes in the composer’s short life. When Chopin and his companion, the novelist George Sand, first got to Majorca he was ecstatic. But he soon became nervous, as the piano his friend Camille Pleyel, the music publisher and piano builder, had promised to send him had not yet arrived. By early December Chopin had become gravely ill and the Majorcans, terrified of what was known as consumption (tuberculosis today), made life very unpleasant for the group. To make matters worse, the piano was stuck at customs for weeks, forcing Chopin to rent a wretched replacement. Pleyel’s piano was finally delivered in early January, and the Preludes were finished late that month.

In these tiny microcosms Chopin established the hegemony of the Romantic miniature. His Preludes would find progeny later in the preludes of Scriabin, Debussy, Rachmaninoff and others.

Space does not permit a detailed analysis of all 24, but mention of a few may give a sense of their character:

No. 1 in C major : An exquisite example of Chopin’s devotion to Bach. Pulsating and agitated, it is over in half a minute, leaving the listener yearning for more.

No. 2 in A minor: A lugubrious melody seems to hang in the air. Ingmar Bergman made impressive use of the piece in his film “Autumn Sonata.”

No. 4 in E minor: A slender melody over rich, slow-moving chordal harmonies with the left hand. It, along with the B Minor (No. 6) and C Minor (No. 20) Preludes, was played on the organ at Chopin’s funeral at the Church of La Madeleine in Paris on Oct. 30, 1849.

No. 7 in A major: Sixteen bars of pure grace.

No. 8 in F-sharp minor : A highly textured polyrhythmic piece, the melody of this feverish, throbbing vision is played entirely with the right thumb. One of the greatest of the Preludes.

No. 19 in E-flat major: Pure azure contentment in triplets for both hands, marked “Vivace.” To play it through unscathed is an achievement.

No. 24 in D minor : Marked “Allegro appassionato,” a tremendous discharge of despairing passion, concluding with three foreboding D’s from the bowels of the piano.

Probably more people have come to great music through Chopin than from any other composer. In my case, growing up in Cleveland, I used to listen to a radio show whose theme music entranced me at first hearing but was never identified by the host. Although the show aired much past my usual bedtime, I would occasionally sneak down the stairs, turn the radio on at low volume and drink in the strains of this music, over so quickly that I listened with all my might. It was not until somewhat later, when I was taking piano lessons, that I found out that it was No. 7, the Prelude in A Major. Not too long after that I could play it myself, which was bliss! Only later did I find out that there were 23 more Preludes that I would love equally, and in later years would come to study and teach.

Mr. Dubal is a professor of piano performance at the Julliard School and the author of “The Art of the Piano” and “The Essential Canon of Classical Music.” His radio program, “The Piano Matters,” can be heard world-wide on www,


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If Irma S. Rombauer hadn’t used the phrase more than 70 years ago, the ideal title for this engaging little volume—half cookbook, half culinary sermon—might have been “The Joy of Cooking.” Ken Albala (a writer and history professor specializing in culinary matters) and Rosanna Nafziger (a Mennonite farm girl turned chef and editor) share a genuine love for the act of cooking itself, as well as the results. “It’s time to take back the kitchen,” they declare, “time to unlock the pantry, to venture once again into our cellars and storehouses, and break free from the golden shackles of convenient, ready-made, industrial food.

” Time is the key word. Almost all the recipes on offer here, from pickles to pastry, are doable in the humblest of kitchens, but they require extra time. To take two extreme examples: the three-to-four-week fermentation period for homemade sauerkraut and the seven-day start-up process for sourdough bread. But what you spend in time you may save on equipment. Two or three good knives, some cast-iron skillets and a few other items—leave the Cuisinart unplugged—are all it takes to turn out most of the “traditional food” recipes contained in this winningly contrarian volume. One of the most appealing: a medieval pork pie that is “much more interesting” than its latter-day incarnations. Dried fruit—”prunes, figs, or even apricots chopped into small pieces”—add “immeasurable depth and texture to the filling,” the authors write.

A question looms over this book, though. How many of us are really interested in baking our daily bread daily? “The Lost Art of Real Cooking” is best for that rainy weekend or vacation lull when lengthy meal-preparation and a brief but satisfying dinner-table pay-off actually sound like fun.

Aram Bakshian Jr., Wall Street Journal


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Uncommon knowledge

When left is right

Right is right, left is wrong. Because most people are righthanded, this bias has become customary. Thus, according to a recent paper, “the Latin words for right and left, dexter and sinister, form the roots of English words meaning skillful and evil, respectively,” and “according to Islamic doctrine, the left hand should only be used for dirty jobs, whereas the right hand is used for eating,” and “the left foot is used for stepping into the bathroom, and the right foot for entering the mosque.” But what do lefthanders think? The authors of the paper compared the gestures made by the presidential candidates in the final debates of the 2004 and 2008 elections to the phrases that were spoken at the same time. John McCain and Barack Obama, who are both lefthanded, preferred their left hands for positive comments and their right hands for negative comments, while the pattern was reversed for George W. Bush and John Kerry, who are both righthanded.

Casasanto, D. & Jasmin, K., “Good and Bad in the Hands of Politicians: Spontaneous Gestures during Positive and Negative Speech,” PLoS ONE (July 2010).

Couples therapy

Some marriages are healthier than others, both figuratively and literally. A team of researchers observed the social interactions of several dozen married couples. The researchers also collected blood samples from everyone and created small blisters on each person’s forearm, and then monitored the healing process. The level of two hormones (oxytocin and vasopressin) in a person’s blood was associated with both the quality of that person’s marital communication and how quickly that person’s wound healed. Those with higher levels of these hormones were more positive and less negative with their partner and exhibited faster wound healing.

Gouin, J. et al., “Marital Behavior, Oxytocin, Vasopressin, and Wound Healing,” Psychoneuroendocrinology (August 2010).

Teen sex and TV

As long as humans have communicated, they have probably debated the question of whether kids are influenced by lurid content. The issue is a big part of the culture wars and is especially acute in the age of cable TV and the Internet. However, a reanalysis of data from a widely cited study suggests that lurid media content may be getting too much blame. The original study in the journal Pediatrics surveyed hundreds of middle-school students about their media exposure and virginity and followed up with them two years later. Although the authors of the original study claimed to find an effect, the authors of this latest analysis — using a “more stringent approach” — found no effect of media exposure on the age when adolescents began to have sex. Instead, it appears that the kind of adolescent who has sex at an earlier age also just happens to be the kind of adolescent who consumes lurid media content.

Steinberg, L. & Monahan, K., “Adolescents’ Exposure to Sexy Media Does Not Hasten the Initiation of Sexual Intercourse,” Developmental Psychology (forthcoming).

The prejudice of the times

In this country, most discussions about race are concerned with blacks and Latinos. Blacks still confront the legacy of slavery, while Latinos are at the center of the immigration debate. Another group, Asian-Americans, has seemingly managed to stay above the fray. But is this wishful thinking? Perhaps, according to a new study. After reading an editorial about the economic downturn, participants became more prejudiced against Asian-Americans, but not against blacks. An editorial about global warming didn’t have the same effect. The authors attribute this to the perception that Asian-Americans are more of a competitive threat with regard to jobs and other economic resources.

Butz, D. & Yogeeswaran, K., “A New Threat in the Air: Macroeconomic Threat Increases Prejudice against Asian Americans,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (forthcoming).

Slogan backlash

A slogan is a set of words designed to influence your thoughts. You know this, and, according to a new study, your subconscious does, too. In fact, your subconscious tries to employ its own reverse psychology. When people were asked to remember slogans related to saving money, they were inclined to spend more later on; likewise, when remembering slogans related to spending money, people were inclined to spend less. However, brand names seem to get the job done: People spent less after being asked to remember a brand related to saving money, and people spent more after being asked to remember a brand related to spending money. So perhaps every company should have a brand like Tiffany and a slogan like “Every Day Low Prices.”

Laran, J. et al., “The Curious Case of Behavioral Backlash: Why Brands Produce Priming Effects and Slogans Produce Reverse Priming Effects,” Journal of Consumer Research (forthcoming).

Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist.


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Start the school year right: Forget these 10 language laws

Another school year, another set of writing assignments: Students of all ages will soon be composing papers on summer vacations, the Chinese economy, or the heroines of Henry James. And beginners or veterans, these student writers all risk exposure to usage myths — bogus rules of English they may hear, or read, or suddenly discover (via a teacher’s red pen) that they’ve violated.

Fake language rules can come from respected sources, but that’s no reason to believe them. As Kathryn Schulz explains in her new book, “Being Wrong,” people don’t know that they’re misinformed: Being wrong, after all, feels just like being right. But learning to write is hard enough without the burden of following non-rules. So let’s lighten the load a bit, starting with 10 usage topics that deserve a good leaving alone.

None are? None is? They’re both correct; none has meant both “not one” and “not any” for more than 1,000 years. During the past century though, a few usage writers have fretted about it, arguing that making none always singular would be etymologically and aesthetically preferable. Their reasoning was faulty, and they haven’t made a dent in usage, but the singular superstition hangs on somehow. Let’s not encourage it.

The girl that I marry. No, it doesn’t have to be whom I marry. “People that has always been good English,” notes Bryan Garner in Garner’s Modern American Usage, “and it’s a silly fetish to insist that who is the only relative pronoun that can refer to humans.” Choose who if you like, but to claim that using that “makes a person seem less human,” as Mignon Fogarty suggested in a Grammar Girl podcast — that’s just looking for trouble.

Since you asked. It’s totally legit to use since for because, unless it would cause ambiguity. Since has had its causal sense, as well as its temporal sense, from the beginning.

Healthy choices. Many of us have been taught that it’s healthy people but healthful foods. But according to the Oxford English Dictionary, healthy meant both “hale” and “wholesome” from the time it arrived in English in the mid-16th century. More than 300 years later, an American usage critic proposed limiting healthy to living things; his idea has ardent supporters, but in practice, healthy has always been preferred to healthful.

“Till” was there first. In recent decades, somebody launched the mischievous rumor that till is a substandard form of until. In fact, till is ancient English, and until was formed by combining on and till. If you want to disparage a member of this family, go with ’til, the entirely superfluous 20th-century addition.

Verbing nouns. Your teacher hates to see nouns used as verbs? So that teacher never hammers, brakes, weeds, elbows, or trashes anything? Verbing nouns is standard procedure in English. We may dislike new verbs, especially if they seem like in-group jargon (incent, effort, unfriend, tweet). But you can’t predict which ones will have legs: The verbs progress, contact, and experience were scorned in their youth, and look at them now.

“And” can start a sentence. So can But and However. One theory is that teachers ban the and opening for kids of Tooth Fairy age so they can’t just string together a series of “and then” sentences, thus planting the idea that it’s forbidden. But anyone old enough for Harry Potter should be able to handle the truth.

Misspelled is not misused. Errors like “faster then a speeding bullet” and “taking a lot of flack” are mistakes in spelling, not comprehension. But you’ll often see them flagged as “confusions,” as if the writer truly didn’t know the meanings of then and than. The confused person here is the critic, who fails to distinguish a spelling goof from a true word mix-up like flaunt for flout. Learn to spell, by all means, but don’t fall for this sort of violation inflation.

The adverb can be “wrong.” The usage czar of the Telegraph in London recently chastised a reporter for using the construction “spelled it wrong.” But the reporter had it right: He spelled it wrong, it’s tied too tight, she drives too slow — all these adverbial forms are fine. Once there were more “flat adverbs” — identical to the adjectives, lacking the “ly” ending — but “two centuries of chipping away by schoolmasters and grammarians” has taken its toll, says Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. Flat adverbs: Get ’em while you can!

You only live once. Spotting “misplacements” of only is a hobby for some picky readers — they’d rewrite that sentence as “you live only once,” so there’s no way to misinterpret it. Yes, there are times when moving the only can change the meaning of a sentence. But can you show me a published example of a misplaced only causing genuine confusion? I offered readers that challenge in 2001, and it still stands. Other usage critics, including H.W. Fowler (1926) and Bergen Evans (1957), have also pooh-poohed the only alarmists — though Garner’s 2009 usage tome still argues for strict enforcement. Until there’s evidence of harm, though, I say a normally worded sentence should get the benefit of the doubt.

Jan Freeman, Boston Globe


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Ladies, gaga

What drag is doing for women

Some cast members from the show “RuPaul’s Drag U.”

Maybe you’re shy, or a shut-in. Maybe you’re single and don’t want to be. Maybe all that truck driving, dog walking, kid raising, and company running has sapped your femininity.

You’re a woman, and whatever the reason, you long to feel sexy and glamorous for a change. A spa day usually does the trick. But this is a deeper, almost spiritual problem that no spa — or therapist or “Sex and the City” binge — can cure. You could turn to your girlfriends or your sisters or your stack of Sophie Kinsella books. Instead, you do something more drastic, something more unexpected.

You dress in drag.

That’s the premise of the drag queen RuPaul’s new show — “RuPaul’s Drag U.” It takes biological women who feel disconnected from themselves, and, under the tutelage of a bunch of professional male drag queens, gives them heels, a giant wig, and a drag name, like Saline Dion. They sashay down a runway. They lip synch. They dance. “I had no idea how much work went into being a woman,” says one contestant whose drag name was Kornisha Kardashian. At the end of the runway competition, a winner is selected. Everybody seems moved.

Even if you’ve been following the steady mainstreaming of gay culture, this premise may come as a perverse shock. Drag is the art of men borrowing — and often parodying — the archest and most extreme womanly characteristics. They razor-line their lips and give themselves giant hair as a kind of subversive theater. A woman, presumably, can do this whenever she feels like it. So it seems strange, not to say retrograde, for a woman to turn to a drag queen not simply to look like a woman but to feel like one.

But the women on “Drag U” may just be picking up on something in the culture. Female celebrities — think of Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj — have all cheekily incorporated elements of drag into their personas. In their dramatic hair, dramatic costumes, dramatic makeup, dramatic drama, they’re biological women borrowing the drag-queen version of women. Two years ago, Beyoncé unveiled a draggy alter ego named Sasha Fierce — an amusing career move that becomes hilarious if you happen to think “Beyoncé” already sounded fabulously draggy. Mariah Carey’s nom de drag is Mimi, her dark, almost more appealing inner vamp. As for Lady Gaga, who was born Stephanie Germanotta — what really separates her from the drag veteran and “Drag U” judge Lady Bunny, besides a couple decades, a few crucial inches, and a chromosome?

For decades, drag has exalted, luxuriated in, and caricatured certain ideas of how it seems to be a woman. It’s part tribute, part exploitation. Drag has used women. Now women, clearly, are using it back.

The reasons they’re doing it say something about what “femininity” has come to mean — and also what gay culture has come to mean. Whatever it is that some women feel they’ve lost touch with in the 40 or so years since the women’s movement, drag gives them a chance to rediscover it. They get something from drag that they don’t get from a normal makeover — it lets them perform womanliness, to try it on like a new outfit, but with the label still attached.

The benefits for women are clear. For gay culture, they might be less so. A woman in drag has the potential to change the whole point of drag. If Lady Gaga is so good at this sort of ironic gender theater — if “drag” is just something for anyone to try on — what’s left for the Lady Bunnys of the world?

Lady Bunny may have cause to worry. The history of drag would seem to give the impersonator the advantage over the impersonated. For centuries, cross-dressing was a way for men to capitalize on the social disadvantages of women — they couldn’t fight in combat, they couldn’t perform on stage. Trojan War myth has it that Achilles dressed like a woman to avoid his doomed military fate. Women, meanwhile, dressed as men to escape persecution, or overcome injustice — though it could catch up with them. One of the stated reasons for Joan of Arc’s being burned at the stake was that she wore men’s clothes.

Drag, as it arose in more recent gay culture, recognized a shared sense of persecution between women and gay men. Ostracized men found both refuge and kindred spirits in the glamour of classical Hollywood, theater, and opera. Drag always had a warm side, honoring the sort of strength of character that a boy might perceive in his mother. But it could also slide easily into harshness, especially when a queen overdoses on Bette Davis, Rosalind Russell, and Joan Crawford — no longer seeing women, but gargoyles. Drag queens use the term “bitch” as much as NWA ever did, and at some point, most performers seem to start channeling the high-class bullies on “Dynasty.” (There’s a similar, but separate, tradition of black comedians — Jamie Foxx, Martin Lawrence, Eddie Murphy, Tyler Perry, all descendants of Flip Wilson — in either mammy or ghetto-fabulous drag.)

As much as it was about women, drag in this classic sense wasn’t for women. That seemed fair. It was the biological women who were the superstars. And not just the vintage ones — more modern stars like Bette Midler, Cher, and Madonna have conceded that their careers would be different without the support and makeup tips of queens. The impersonators, meanwhile, remained cult acts.

The turning point was the advent of RuPaul, who, by the way, was born with that name (his surname is Charles). In 1993, RuPaul released the hit single, “Supermodel (You Better Work),” whose video starred the singer, a very tall black man, walking down runways in bikinis, heels, and a lustrous blond wig. It was both a surreal and perfectly normal parody of fashion world flamboyance. RuPaul became the world’s most famous and perhaps most important drag queen. If he didn’t entirely normalize drag, he at least made it seem palatable by its relative ubiquity. By the 1990s, there were mainstream drag-queen movies — and perhaps the most domestic drag queen of all, Edna Turnblad, the housefrau in the movie-turned-musical-turned-movie “Hairspray,” always played by a man.

But even in its domestication, drag has retained a kind of power. You can see what a young female aspiring pop star might see in a very good drag queen — the same thing little boys, in the 1970s, saw in Diana Ross and Barbra Streisand: incandescence and strength. It takes guts for Stephanie Germanotta to fully inhabit Lady Gaga, with the surreal outfits and wigs. But as she’s admitted more than once, she’s doing this so all the other insecure girls out there don’t feel so much like freaks.

This is the motivating force of “RuPaul’s Drag U.” On each episode, three women arrive more or less as Edna Turnblad and hope to transform into Sasha Fierce. Each student is paired with a drag queen and shown the mechanics of good drag — how to tease hair, walk a runway, dance. The show is comical kitsch. Drag names and potential looks for each enrollee are chosen by a fake computer called The Dragulator. The instructors — the Henry Higginses of drag — make catty comments about one another and express exaggerated doubt about the likelihood of their pupils to “draguate.”

The result is something much more sophisticated than a makeover show. The creation of a persona is a collaborative process that starts with the person beneath. Several of the women say they’re afraid of their bodies and hide them under baggy pants and shirts. Others say they feel more equal to a man when they dress like one. They offer personal histories of fatigue, sexual abuse, and crippling self-consciousness. The instructors address their problems with the seriousness of a counselor, if not with the wisdom of one. And as the drag queens build them into something new, it’s interesting watching the women stand up for themselves. When a student doesn’t like a look, she says so. If she’s feeling compromised or uncomfortable, she’ll mention that, too. The high point isn’t the runway show at the end but the one-on-one meeting RuPaul has with each contestant, in which he discusses not only their drag goals, but often their life goals. It’s obvious that he recognizes some of himself in these women. He’s feels their pain, because, in some way, he’s been there.

The women, in turn, say they’re truly transformed by the experience. To a viewer, it feels different from the average public makeover you see on a show like Oprah Winfrey’s. It’s not just a new haircut or a smaller waistline these women are getting, but — perhaps oddly — a new appreciation of their innate womanliness. They’re extracting someone who already lived within them — what the drag queens call their inner diva. It’s like going all the way to Oz to realize you were in Kansas all along.

“Inner diva” sounds jokey, but it gets to the heart of what makes drag matter. A meek woman is allowed to taste strength by turning her femaleness into theater. Drag is not about sex, in other words: It’s about power.

Sex, in this stylized world, is a subject but rarely pursued as a goal. It’s not something you have, but something you flaunt, mock, and subvert. This distinguishes the draggy modern pop star from, say, Madonna, who toyed with gender and the possible limits of femininity but who, in her prime, also embodied real carnality and seduction. Her progeny are just playing with identity. They want to look like drag queens.

For real women, of course, drag also has its limits. If you want to seem approachably sexy, the wig and costumes must eventually go. As a case in point, the second video from Katy Perry’s new record, “Teenage Dream,” which came out Tuesday, puts her in a car with a cute guy. She looks very much like her dragless self — like a young woman — and her prize isn’t some stagey, Gaga-esque encounter among surreal plastic orbs. It’s the real thing: a trip to a motel, where her jeans are unzipped.

When that real connection happens — when the woman realizes her femininity as something more real than theatrical — the drag queens are nowhere in sight. And this might be the insidious downside of the entire enterprise, at least for the gay men who are sharing their beauty tips. As with “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” — an even more wildly successful TV application of gay savvy to straight relationships — gays are coming awfully close to lifestyle maids and butlers. They’re the cultural help, the people you see only when you need their services. After so many years of empowering so many straight people, you have to wonder: Who’s going to empower them?

Wesley Morris is a film critic for the Globe.


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Ten of the best railway journeys

“Midnight on the Great Western”, by Thomas Hardy Hardy’s poem is a vignette of Victorian public transport, preserved forever. By “the roof-lamp’s oily flame” a boy is seen half asleep in his third-class seat, his ticket stuck in his hat band, “Bewrapt past knowing to what he was going, / Or whence he came”.

Possession, by AS Byatt There comes a crucial moment in Byatt’s tale of two modern-day academics who have discovered the love letters of two famous Victorian poets, when the story suddenly shifts to the 19th century. “The man and the woman sat opposite each other in the railway carriage.” The train is the transport of illicit love.

Strangers on a Train, by Patricia Highsmith Who would an unhappy husband with an unfaithful wife meet on a train? In a Patricia Highsmith novel, a helpful psychopath, naturally. Cuckold Guy gets talking to loopy Bruno and is offered a deal: I’ll kill your wife, if you murder my dad; with no connection between us, the police will never track us down.

Stamboul Train, by Graham Greene On a train from Ostend to Istanbul, assorted characters from Greeneland – an exiled politician, a beautiful woman, a journalist, a fleeing criminal – are thrown together with amorous and violent consequences. There are plot complications in Vienna and desperate dangers at a stop in Serbia, where Greene’s protagonist, the businessman Myatt, finds himself plunged into murderous political rivalries.

Murder on the Orient Express, by Agatha Christie Rather more luxurious than Greene’s Stamboul train, Christie’s express takes its characters down the same tracks to a dénouement that must be reached before the Bosphorus. A murder is committed, and Poirot is on board.

Breakheart Pass, by Alistair Maclean Maclean liked to seal off a group of characters in perilous circumstances and reveal their hidden allegiances. Breakheart Pass takes place on a train travelling through a Nevada winter in the 1870s, with a murderer being escorted to a remote garrison, where disaster has apparently struck. There’s a politician, a doctor, a pretty girl . . . who is the baddie?

Emil and the Detectives, by Erich Kästner Young Emil has been sent by his poor widowed mother on a train from his provincial home to Berlin, with money for his grandmother pinned inside his jacket. In the train he is befriended by Herr Grundeis, who eventually drugs him and steals the money. But in Berlin, the indefatigable Emil and some local boys get on Grundeis’s trail . . .

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, by JK Rowling You meet your best friends on trains. From Platform 9¾ at King’s Cross, the school train flies off to Hogsmeade. Our young wizard makes many such journeys, but none so memorable as the first, on which he meets his boon companions, Ron and Hermione.

“Night Mail”, by WH Auden Auden’s invocation of the mail train travelling from London to Glasgow was written to fit the famous GPO documentary film. Sometimes close to doggerel on the page, it comes to life in performance, gathering speed as the train descends from the moorlands towards the Clyde. “Towards the steam tugs yelping down the glade of cranes, / Towards the fields of apparatus, the furnaces / Set on the dark plain like gigantic chessmen”.

“The Whitsun Weddings”, by Philip Larkin Larkin’s poem follows his own common journey from Hull to London, the train dawdling across flatlands, “All windows down, all cushions hot, all sense / Of being in a hurry gone”. The journey presents fleeting snapshots of other lives, and a vision of all those weddings culminating on provincial platforms.


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‘Jersey’ as a Nickname for New Jersey

Commenting on my column about beach lingo from the Jersey Shore and elsewhere, Gary Muldoon writes: “If someone from the Garden State comes from ‘Jersey,’ do those residents refer to someone from the Empire State as being from ‘York’?”

“Jersey” as a nickname for New Jersey is an oddity: there’s no corresponding clipping of “New York” to “York,” “New Hampshire” to “Hampshire,” and certainly not “New Mexico” to “Mexico.” Some have complained that the use of “Jersey” is “demeaning” to the state. David Lavery, author of “This Thing of Ours: Investigating the Sopranos,” agrees: plain old “Jersey,” with its “familiar and slangy” feel, “does not elicit respect.”

Those who dislike the “Jersey” label may be surprised to discover that it has a distinguished historical pedigree. I asked Maxine N. Lurie, professor of history at Seton Hall University and co-editor of the Encyclopedia of New Jersey, about the usage, and she traced its origins to the end of the 17th century, when there were actually two “Jerseys”: the provinces of East and West Jersey, dividing the territory of New Jersey along a diagonal. (New Jersey was named in honor of the proprietor of East Jersey, George Carteret, who hailed from the Island of Jersey.)

Because of this split, it was common to talk of “the Jerseys,” even after the provinces were united in 1702. Lurie suspects it was “easier to refer to the ‘Jerseys’ and people from ‘Jersey’ than to say ‘East New Jersey’ and ‘West New Jersey.'” The historical record bears this out: 18th-century documents are peppered with mentions of “the Jerseys,” and colonial accounts from 1735 and 1746 refer simply to “the province of Jersey.”

Another factor that helped “Jersey” shed the “New” was the proliferation of compounds with “Jersey” as the first element. The Oxford English Dictionary lists “Jerseyman” from 1679, “Jersey maid” from 1713, and “Jersey blues” (the name of the local militia regiment) from 1758. Inhabitants of New Jersey could also be called “Jerseys,” as in a 1756 letter from George Washington that read, “The Jerseys and New Yorkers, I do not remember what it is they give.”

Many of these colonial vestiges carried over into statehood, though instead of East and West Jersey, the state has more typically been divided into North and South. Standalone “Jersey” worked its way into place names, too. Notably, in 1804, The Jersey Company incorporated the City of Jersey, counterbalancing the City of New York on the other side of the Hudson River. A few decades later it was reincorporated as Jersey City.

Making compound forms with “Jersey” has certainly never let up: consider the Jersey Shore and the Jersey Devil, Jersey justice (the rough kind) and Jersey lightning (strong liquor, usually applejack), Jersey boys and Jersey girls. Jersey Joe Walcott won the world heavyweight boxing title in 1951, and concrete highway dividers have been called “Jersey barriers” since the late ’60s.

New York has, for the most part, missed out on all of this “New”-less naming. New Yorkers were sometimes called “Yorkers” back in the revolutionary era (Abigail Adams wrote that “a regiment of Yorkers refused to quit the city” in a 1776 letter), but the epithet never stuck. There wasn’t much compounding of “York” either, except for the “York shilling,” a bygone local currency that lingered until 1865, according to H.L. Mencken.

That only makes the “Jersey” legacy even more peculiar to the state. As a born-and-bred Jersey boy, I embrace this idiosyncratic heritage. Sure, “Jersey” (or, God forbid, “Joisey”) can be used derisively at times, but Jersey-bashing won’t suddenly disappear just because people use the state’s full name. Better to revel in the timeless lyric of Bruce Springsteen, “My machine she’s a dud, out stuck in the mud somewhere in the swamps of Jersey.”

Ben Zimmer, New York Times


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Does Your Language Shape How You Think?

Seventy years ago, in 1940, a popular science magazine published a short article that set in motion one of the trendiest intellectual fads of the 20th century. At first glance, there seemed little about the article to augur its subsequent celebrity. Neither the title, “Science and Linguistics,” nor the magazine, M.I.T.’s Technology Review, was most people’s idea of glamour. And the author, a chemical engineer who worked for an insurance company and moonlighted as an anthropology lecturer at Yale University, was an unlikely candidate for international superstardom. And yet Benjamin Lee Whorf let loose an alluring idea about language’s power over the mind, and his stirring prose seduced a whole generation into believing that our mother tongue restricts what we are able to think.

In particular, Whorf announced, Native American languages impose on their speakers a picture of reality that is totally different from ours, so their speakers would simply not be able to understand some of our most basic concepts, like the flow of time or the distinction between objects (like “stone”) and actions (like “fall”). For decades, Whorf’s theory dazzled both academics and the general public alike. In his shadow, others made a whole range of imaginative claims about the supposed power of language, from the assertion that Native American languages instill in their speakers an intuitive understanding of Einstein’s concept of time as a fourth dimension to the theory that the nature of the Jewish religion was determined by the tense system of ancient Hebrew.

Eventually, Whorf’s theory crash-landed on hard facts and solid common sense, when it transpired that there had never actually been any evidence to support his fantastic claims. The reaction was so severe that for decades, any attempts to explore the influence of the mother tongue on our thoughts were relegated to the loony fringes of disrepute. But 70 years on, it is surely time to put the trauma of Whorf behind us. And in the last few years, new research has revealed that when we learn our mother tongue, we do after all acquire certain habits of thought that shape our experience in significant and often surprising ways.

Whorf, we now know, made many mistakes. The most serious one was to assume that our mother tongue constrains our minds and prevents us from being able to think certain thoughts. The general structure of his arguments was to claim that if a language has no word for a certain concept, then its speakers would not be able to understand this concept. If a language has no future tense, for instance, its speakers would simply not be able to grasp our notion of future time. It seems barely comprehensible that this line of argument could ever have achieved such success, given that so much contrary evidence confronts you wherever you look. When you ask, in perfectly normal English, and in the present tense, “Are you coming tomorrow?” do you feel your grip on the notion of futurity slipping away? Do English speakers who have never heard the German word Schadenfreude find it difficult to understand the concept of relishing someone else’s misfortune? Or think about it this way: If the inventory of ready-made words in your language determined which concepts you were able to understand, how would you ever learn anything new?

SINCE THERE IS NO EVIDENCE that any language forbids its speakers to think anything, we must look in an entirely different direction to discover how our mother tongue really does shape our experience of the world. Some 50 years ago, the renowned linguist Roman Jakobson pointed out a crucial fact about differences between languages in a pithy maxim: “Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.” This maxim offers us the key to unlocking the real force of the mother tongue: if different languages influence our minds in different ways, this is not because of what our language allows us to think but rather because of what it habitually obliges us to think about.

Consider this example. Suppose I say to you in English that “I spent yesterday evening with a neighbor.” You may well wonder whether my companion was male or female, but I have the right to tell you politely that it’s none of your business. But if we were speaking French or German, I wouldn’t have the privilege to equivocate in this way, because I would be obliged by the grammar of language to choose between voisin or voisine; Nachbar or Nachbarin. These languages compel me to inform you about the sex of my companion whether or not I feel it is remotely your concern. This does not mean, of course, that English speakers are unable to understand the differences between evenings spent with male or female neighbors, but it does mean that they do not have to consider the sexes of neighbors, friends, teachers and a host of other persons each time they come up in a conversation, whereas speakers of some languages are obliged to do so.

On the other hand, English does oblige you to specify certain types of information that can be left to the context in other languages. If I want to tell you in English about a dinner with my neighbor, I may not have to mention the neighbor’s sex, but I do have to tell you something about the timing of the event: I have to decide whether we dined, have been dining, are dining, will be dining and so on. Chinese, on the other hand, does not oblige its speakers to specify the exact time of the action in this way, because the same verb form can be used for past, present or future actions. Again, this does not mean that the Chinese are unable to understand the concept of time. But it does mean they are not obliged to think about timing whenever they describe an action.

When your language routinely obliges you to specify certain types of information, it forces you to be attentive to certain details in the world and to certain aspects of experience that speakers of other languages may not be required to think about all the time. And since such habits of speech are cultivated from the earliest age, it is only natural that they can settle into habits of mind that go beyond language itself, affecting your experiences, perceptions, associations, feelings, memories and orientation in the world.

BUT IS THERE any evidence for this happening in practice?

Let’s take genders again. Languages like Spanish, French, German and Russian not only oblige you to think about the sex of friends and neighbors, but they also assign a male or female gender to a whole range of inanimate objects quite at whim. What, for instance, is particularly feminine about a Frenchman’s beard (la barbe)? Why is Russian water a she, and why does she become a he once you have dipped a tea bag into her? Mark Twain famously lamented such erratic genders as female turnips and neuter maidens in his rant “The Awful German Language.” But whereas he claimed that there was something particularly perverse about the German gender system, it is in fact English that is unusual, at least among European languages, in not treating turnips and tea cups as masculine or feminine. Languages that treat an inanimate object as a he or a she force their speakers to talk about such an object as if it were a man or a woman. And as anyone whose mother tongue has a gender system will tell you, once the habit has taken hold, it is all but impossible to shake off. When I speak English, I may say about a bed that “it” is too soft, but as a native Hebrew speaker, I actually feel “she” is too soft. “She” stays feminine all the way from the lungs up to the glottis and is neutered only when she reaches the tip of the tongue.

In recent years, various experiments have shown that grammatical genders can shape the feelings and associations of speakers toward objects around them. In the 1990s, for example, psychologists compared associations between speakers of German and Spanish. There are many inanimate nouns whose genders in the two languages are reversed. A German bridge is feminine (die Brücke), for instance, but el puente is masculine in Spanish; and the same goes for clocks, apartments, forks, newspapers, pockets, shoulders, stamps, tickets, violins, the sun, the world and love. On the other hand, an apple is masculine for Germans but feminine in Spanish, and so are chairs, brooms, butterflies, keys, mountains, stars, tables, wars, rain and garbage. When speakers were asked to grade various objects on a range of characteristics, Spanish speakers deemed bridges, clocks and violins to have more “manly properties” like strength, but Germans tended to think of them as more slender or elegant. With objects like mountains or chairs, which are “he” in German but “she” in Spanish, the effect was reversed.

In a different experiment, French and Spanish speakers were asked to assign human voices to various objects in a cartoon. When French speakers saw a picture of a fork (la fourchette), most of them wanted it to speak in a woman’s voice, but Spanish speakers, for whom el tenedor is masculine, preferred a gravelly male voice for it. More recently, psychologists have even shown that “gendered languages” imprint gender traits for objects so strongly in the mind that these associations obstruct speakers’ ability to commit information to memory.

Of course, all this does not mean that speakers of Spanish or French or German fail to understand that inanimate objects do not really have biological sex — a German woman rarely mistakes her husband for a hat, and Spanish men are not known to confuse a bed with what might be lying in it. Nonetheless, once gender connotations have been imposed on impressionable young minds, they lead those with a gendered mother tongue to see the inanimate world through lenses tinted with associations and emotional responses that English speakers — stuck in their monochrome desert of “its” — are entirely oblivious to. Did the opposite genders of “bridge” in German and Spanish, for example, have an effect on the design of bridges in Spain and Germany? Do the emotional maps imposed by a gender system have higher-level behavioral consequences for our everyday life? Do they shape tastes, fashions, habits and preferences in the societies concerned? At the current state of our knowledge about the brain, this is not something that can be easily measured in a psychology lab. But it would be surprising if they didn’t.

The area where the most striking evidence for the influence of language on thought has come to light is the language of space — how we describe the orientation of the world around us. Suppose you want to give someone directions for getting to your house. You might say: “After the traffic lights, take the first left, then the second right, and then you’ll see a white house in front of you. Our door is on the right.” But in theory, you could also say: “After the traffic lights, drive north, and then on the second crossing drive east, and you’ll see a white house directly to the east. Ours is the southern door.” These two sets of directions may describe the same route, but they rely on different systems of coordinates. The first uses egocentric coordinates, which depend on our own bodies: a left-right axis and a front-back axis orthogonal to it. The second system uses fixed geographic directions, which do not rotate with us wherever we turn.

We find it useful to use geographic directions when hiking in the open countryside, for example, but the egocentric coordinates completely dominate our speech when we describe small-scale spaces. We don’t say: “When you get out of the elevator, walk south, and then take the second door to the east.” The reason the egocentric system is so dominant in our language is that it feels so much easier and more natural. After all, we always know where “behind” or “in front of” us is. We don’t need a map or a compass to work it out, we just feel it, because the egocentric coordinates are based directly on our own bodies and our immediate visual fields.

But then a remote Australian aboriginal tongue, Guugu Yimithirr, from north Queensland, turned up, and with it came the astounding realization that not all languages conform to what we have always taken as simply “natural.” In fact, Guugu Yimithirr doesn’t make any use of egocentric coordinates at all. The anthropologist John Haviland and later the linguist Stephen Levinson have shown that Guugu Yimithirr does not use words like “left” or “right,” “in front of” or “behind,” to describe the position of objects. Whenever we would use the egocentric system, the Guugu Yimithirr rely on cardinal directions. If they want you to move over on the car seat to make room, they’ll say “move a bit to the east.” To tell you where exactly they left something in your house, they’ll say, “I left it on the southern edge of the western table.” Or they would warn you to “look out for that big ant just north of your foot.” Even when shown a film on television, they gave descriptions of it based on the orientation of the screen. If the television was facing north, and a man on the screen was approaching, they said that he was “coming northward.”

When these peculiarities of Guugu Yimithirr were uncovered, they inspired a large-scale research project into the language of space. And as it happens, Guugu Yimithirr is not a freak occurrence; languages that rely primarily on geographical coordinates are scattered around the world, from Polynesia to Mexico, from Namibia to Bali. For us, it might seem the height of absurdity for a dance teacher to say, “Now raise your north hand and move your south leg eastward.” But the joke would be lost on some: the Canadian-American musicologist Colin McPhee, who spent several years on Bali in the 1930s, recalls a young boy who showed great talent for dancing. As there was no instructor in the child’s village, McPhee arranged for him to stay with a teacher in a different village. But when he came to check on the boy’s progress after a few days, he found the boy dejected and the teacher exasperated. It was impossible to teach the boy anything, because he simply did not understand any of the instructions. When told to take “three steps east” or “bend southwest,” he didn’t know what to do. The boy would not have had the least trouble with these directions in his own village, but because the landscape in the new village was entirely unfamiliar, he became disoriented and confused. Why didn’t the teacher use different instructions? He would probably have replied that saying “take three steps forward” or “bend backward” would be the height of absurdity.

So different languages certainly make us speak about space in very different ways. But does this necessarily mean that we have to think about space differently? By now red lights should be flashing, because even if a language doesn’t have a word for “behind,” this doesn’t necessarily mean that its speakers wouldn’t be able to understand this concept. Instead, we should look for the possible consequences of what geographic languages oblige their speakers to convey. In particular, we should be on the lookout for what habits of mind might develop because of the necessity of specifying geographic directions all the time.

In order to speak a language like Guugu Yimithirr, you need to know where the cardinal directions are at each and every moment of your waking life. You need to have a compass in your mind that operates all the time, day and night, without lunch breaks or weekends off, since otherwise you would not be able to impart the most basic information or understand what people around you are saying. Indeed, speakers of geographic languages seem to have an almost-superhuman sense of orientation. Regardless of visibility conditions, regardless of whether they are in thick forest or on an open plain, whether outside or indoors or even in caves, whether stationary or moving, they have a spot-on sense of direction. They don’t look at the sun and pause for a moment of calculation before they say, “There’s an ant just north of your foot.” They simply feel where north, south, west and east are, just as people with perfect pitch feel what each note is without having to calculate intervals. There is a wealth of stories about what to us may seem like incredible feats of orientation but for speakers of geographic languages are just a matter of course. One report relates how a speaker of Tzeltal from southern Mexico was blindfolded and spun around more than 20 times in a darkened house. Still blindfolded and dizzy, he pointed without hesitation at the geographic directions.

How does this work? The convention of communicating with geographic coordinates compels speakers from the youngest age to pay attention to the clues from the physical environment (the position of the sun, wind and so on) every second of their lives, and to develop an accurate memory of their own changing orientations at any given moment. So everyday communication in a geographic language provides the most intense imaginable drilling in geographic orientation (it has been estimated that as much as 1 word in 10 in a normal Guugu Yimithirr conversation is “north,” “south,” “west” or “east,” often accompanied by precise hand gestures). This habit of constant awareness to the geographic direction is inculcated almost from infancy: studies have shown that children in such societies start using geographic directions as early as age 2 and fully master the system by 7 or 8. With such an early and intense drilling, the habit soon becomes second nature, effortless and unconscious. When Guugu Yimithirr speakers were asked how they knew where north is, they couldn’t explain it any more than you can explain how you know where “behind” is.

But there is more to the effects of a geographic language, for the sense of orientation has to extend further in time than the immediate present. If you speak a Guugu Yimithirr-style language, your memories of anything that you might ever want to report will have to be stored with cardinal directions as part of the picture. One Guugu Yimithirr speaker was filmed telling his friends the story of how in his youth, he capsized in shark-infested waters. He and an older person were caught in a storm, and their boat tipped over. They both jumped into the water and managed to swim nearly three miles to the shore, only to discover that the missionary for whom they worked was far more concerned at the loss of the boat than relieved at their miraculous escape. Apart from the dramatic content, the remarkable thing about the story was that it was remembered throughout in cardinal directions: the speaker jumped into the water on the western side of the boat, his companion to the east of the boat, they saw a giant shark swimming north and so on. Perhaps the cardinal directions were just made up for the occasion? Well, quite by chance, the same person was filmed some years later telling the same story. The cardinal directions matched exactly in the two tellings. Even more remarkable were the spontaneous hand gestures that accompanied the story. For instance, the direction in which the boat rolled over was gestured in the correct geographic orientation, regardless of the direction the speaker was facing in the two films.

Psychological experiments have also shown that under certain circumstances, speakers of Guugu Yimithirr-style languages even remember “the same reality” differently from us. There has been heated debate about the interpretation of some of these experiments, but one conclusion that seems compelling is that while we are trained to ignore directional rotations when we commit information to memory, speakers of geographic languages are trained not to do so. One way of understanding this is to imagine that you are traveling with a speaker of such a language and staying in a large chain-style hotel, with corridor upon corridor of identical-looking doors. Your friend is staying in the room opposite yours, and when you go into his room, you’ll see an exact replica of yours: the same bathroom door on the left, the same mirrored wardrobe on the right, the same main room with the same bed on the left, the same curtains drawn behind it, the same desk next to the wall on the right, the same television set on the left corner of the desk and the same telephone on the right. In short, you have seen the same room twice. But when your friend comes into your room, he will see something quite different from this, because everything is reversed north-side-south. In his room the bed was in the north, while in yours it is in the south; the telephone that in his room was in the west is now in the east, and so on. So while you will see and remember the same room twice, a speaker of a geographic language will see and remember two different rooms.

It is not easy for us to conceive how Guugu Yimithirr speakers experience the world, with a crisscrossing of cardinal directions imposed on any mental picture and any piece of graphic memory. Nor is it easy to speculate about how geographic languages affect areas of experience other than spatial orientation — whether they influence the speaker’s sense of identity, for instance, or bring about a less-egocentric outlook on life. But one piece of evidence is telling: if you saw a Guugu Yimithirr speaker pointing at himself, you would naturally assume he meant to draw attention to himself. In fact, he is pointing at a cardinal direction that happens to be behind his back. While we are always at the center of the world, and it would never occur to us that pointing in the direction of our chest could mean anything other than to draw attention to ourselves, a Guugu Yimithirr speaker points through himself, as if he were thin air and his own existence were irrelevant.

IN WHAT OTHER WAYS might the language we speak influence our experience of the world? Recently, it has been demonstrated in a series of ingenious experiments that we even perceive colors through the lens of our mother tongue. There are radical variations in the way languages carve up the spectrum of visible light; for example, green and blue are distinct colors in English but are considered shades of the same color in many languages. And it turns out that the colors that our language routinely obliges us to treat as distinct can refine our purely visual sensitivity to certain color differences in reality, so that our brains are trained to exaggerate the distance between shades of color if these have different names in our language. As strange as it may sound, our experience of a Chagall painting actually depends to some extent on whether our language has a word for blue.

In coming years, researchers may also be able to shed light on the impact of language on more subtle areas of perception. For instance, some languages, like Matses in Peru, oblige their speakers, like the finickiest of lawyers, to specify exactly how they came to know about the facts they are reporting. You cannot simply say, as in English, “An animal passed here.” You have to specify, using a different verbal form, whether this was directly experienced (you saw the animal passing), inferred (you saw footprints), conjectured (animals generally pass there that time of day), hearsay or such. If a statement is reported with the incorrect “evidentiality,” it is considered a lie. So if, for instance, you ask a Matses man how many wives he has, unless he can actually see his wives at that very moment, he would have to answer in the past tense and would say something like “There were two last time I checked.” After all, given that the wives are not present, he cannot be absolutely certain that one of them hasn’t died or run off with another man since he last saw them, even if this was only five minutes ago. So he cannot report it as a certain fact in the present tense. Does the need to think constantly about epistemology in such a careful and sophisticated manner inform the speakers’ outlook on life or their sense of truth and causation? When our experimental tools are less blunt, such questions will be amenable to empirical study.

For many years, our mother tongue was claimed to be a “prison house” that constrained our capacity to reason. Once it turned out that there was no evidence for such claims, this was taken as proof that people of all cultures think in fundamentally the same way. But surely it is a mistake to overestimate the importance of abstract reasoning in our lives. After all, how many daily decisions do we make on the basis of deductive logic compared with those guided by gut feeling, intuition, emotions, impulse or practical skills? The habits of mind that our culture has instilled in us from infancy shape our orientation to the world and our emotional responses to the objects we encounter, and their consequences probably go far beyond what has been experimentally demonstrated so far; they may also have a marked impact on our beliefs, values and ideologies. We may not know as yet how to measure these consequences directly or how to assess their contribution to cultural or political misunderstandings. But as a first step toward understanding one another, we can do better than pretending we all think the same.

Guy Deutscher is an honorary research fellow at the School of Languages, Linguistics and Cultures at the University of Manchester. His new book, from which this article is adapted, is “Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages,” to be published this month by Metropolitan Books.


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Leo Strauss, Back and Better Than Ever

When President George W. Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq in 2003, conspiracy theorists suspected that a puppet master was behind him. No, not Dick Cheney. The alleged puppeteer was the late Leo Strauss.

The famous professor of political philosophy, who died in 1973, had many disciples in the Bush administration, and journalists had frequently misquoted Strauss as arguing that “one must make the whole globe democratic.” Opponents of the war who were looking for a more sinister scapegoat than faulty intelligence about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction put two and two together: Strauss had given his pupils an imperialist itch, and now that they were in power, they were scratching it.

Thanks to the Leo Strauss Center at the University of Chicago, where Strauss taught from 1949 to 1967, this myth will soon face stricter scrutiny. The center is uploading to its website written and audio recordings of Strauss’s lectures, many made by graduate students in the 1950s and 60s. Eventually, students world-wide will be able to take courses by Strauss, free of charge.

“[Our project] vastly increases the amount of material available,” says the center’s director, Nathan Tarcov, who adds that records of Strauss’s lectures are two-to-three times as long as his published works. As it remasters and updates the original material, the center is discovering forgotten jewels. “There’s one course on [Thomas] Hobbes where… the tape is twice as long as the transcript because so much had been omitted,” Mr. Tarcov says.

Greater familiarity with Strauss’s lectures may demolish this myth of him as a neoconservative Svengali. Instead, people may come to recognize him as, among other things, an engaging teacher.

Students loved Strauss because he rebelled against his profession’s norms, especially historicism—the belief that all thought is the product of its time and place. Aristotle, historicism contends, believed the Greek city-state was the best regime because he lived in one. His insights are inapplicable to a modern liberal democracy.

This tenet still infects political science today, causing students excruciating boredom in their (typically, required) classes on political theory. Why should students care about Plato if they’re taught that his philosophy is obsolete?

Listening to the tapes, you hear Strauss’s different approach. He believes that thought—at least by great minds—can transcend its time and place. In other words, he believes there is such a thing as truth.

Instead of cataloging philosophers for rows of classroom note takers, he throws students into an ongoing argument: How should we live? He forces students not merely to study political philosophy but to engage in it.

For example, in one class he asks whether a leader should have guiding principles or he should judge each situation independently.

On the tape, we hear Mr. Levy, a student, ask cheekily, “Did Montgomery have to know anything about Aristotle to win the battle of El Alamein?”

“That is an entirely different question,” Strauss replies—referring to Aristotle’s written works—”whether rules means rules to be found in this or that book.”

“I was just using that as an example,” Mr. Levy fires back.

“There was one thing I believe which was quite clear in the case of Montgomery,” Strauss responds, “that he had to win it…. [I]n the case of politics as distinguished from generalship, the end is somewhat more complicated…the political good consists of a number of ingredients which cannot be reduced to the simple formula, victory.”

Not that Strauss’s relationship with his students was antagonistic. In fact, he spent so much time answering students’ questions that his class often ran past its allotted time. “At times a course went on for so long that Mrs. Strauss had to come in and stop it,” says Werner Dannhauser, a former student of Mr. Strauss.

The reason for Strauss’s energetic exchanges was that he took students seriously. “He said, ‘When you’re teaching always assume there is a silent student in the class who knows more than you do,'” remembers Roger Masters, another former student.

Once the Leo Strauss Center at Chicago finishes its work, today’s students will profit from these exchanges—that is, if it finishes its work. Although the center has paid for the remastered tapes with grants and donations, it still needs about $500,000 to complete editing the transcripts and digitizing Strauss’s papers. Mr. Tarcov plans to begin a fundraising campaign in September.

Here’s hoping he’s successful. Political scientists who refuse to bend to their field’s reigning ideology need a standard-bearer. And what a quizzical standard-bearer Strauss was: a chubby, balding little man with a thick German accent, a squeaky voice and a constant cigarette in his hand.

“You would not think that this man either in his appearance or in his speech would be a Pied Piper to students,” says Jenny Strauss Clay, his daughter. “It wasn’t for reasons of style or eloquence; it was for something else.”

It was for his love of political philosophy, which—despite critics’ objections—he believed to be more than an academic exercise. For him, it was a way of life. Soon, it will be so for hundreds more.

Mr. Bolduc, a former Robert L. Bartley fellow at the Journal, is a William F. Buckley fellow at the National Review Institute.”


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Morality Check: When Fad Science Is Bad Science

Harvard University announced last Friday that its Standing Committee on Professional Conduct had found Marc Hauser, one of the school’s most prominent scholars, guilty of multiple counts of “scientific misconduct.” The revelation came after a three-year inquiry into allegations that the professor had fudged data in his research on monkey cognition. Since the studies were funded, in part, by government grants, the university has sent the evidence to the Feds.

The professor has not admitted wrongdoing, but he did issue a statement apologizing for making “significant mistakes.” And beyond his own immediate career difficulties, Mr. Hauser’s difficulties spell trouble for one of the trendiest fields in academia—evolutionary psychology.

Mr. Hauser has been at the forefront of a movement to show that our morals are survival instincts evolved over the millennia. When Mr. Hauser’s 2006 book “Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong” was published, evolutionary psychologist and linguist Steven Pinker proclaimed that his Harvard colleague was engaged in “one of the hottest new topics in intellectual life: The psychology and biology of morals.”

The cotton-top tamarin.

Not so long ago, the initial bloom already was off evolutionary psychology. The field earned a bad name by appearing to justify all sorts of nasty, rapacious behaviors, including rape, as successful strategies for Darwinian competition. But the second wave of the discipline solved that PR problem by discovering that evolution favored those with a more progressive outlook. Mr. Hauser has been among those positing that our ancestors survived not by being ruthlessly selfish, but by cooperating, a legacy ingrained in our moral intuitions.

This progressive sort of evolutionary psychology is often in the news. NPR offered an example this week with a story titled “Teary-Eyed Evolution: Crying Serves a Purpose.” According to NPR, “Scientists who study evolution say crying probably conferred some benefit and did something to advance our species.”

What that “something” “probably” is no one seems to know, but that doesn’t dent the enthusiasm for trendy speculation. Crying signals empathy, one academic suggested, And as NPR explained, “our early ancestors who were most empathic probably thrived because it helped them build strong communities, which in turn gave them protection and support.” Note the word “probably,” which means the claim is nothing but a guess.

Christopher Ryan is co-author of the recent book “Sex at Dawn,” itself an exercise in plumbing our prehistoric survival strategies for explanations of the modern human condition. But he is well aware of the limits of evolutionary psychology. “Many of the most prominent voices in the field are less scientists than political philosophers,” he cautioned last summer at the website of the magazine Psychology Today.

Evolutionary psychologists tell elaborate stories explaining modern life based on the conditions and circumstances of our prehistoric ancestors—even though we know very little about those factors. “Often, the fact that their story seems to make sense is the only evidence they offer,” Mr. Ryan wrote. “For them, it may be enough, but it isn’t enough if you’re aspiring to be taken seriously as a science.”

That’s where Mr. Hauser’s work comes in. We may not be able to access the minds or proto-societies of Homo habilis, but we can look at how the minds of modern apes and monkeys work, and extrapolate. Unlike the speculative tales that had become the hallmark of evolutionary psychology, primate research has promised to deliver hard science, the testing of hypotheses through experiments.

Mr. Hauser’s particular specialty has been in studying the cognitive abilities of New World monkeys such as the cotton-top tamarins of South America. He has cranked out a prodigious body of work, and bragged that his field enjoyed “exciting new discoveries uncovered every month, and rich prospects on the horizon,” He and his colleagues, Mr. Hauser proclaimed, were developing a new “science of morality.” Now his science is suspect.

As rumors swirled that Harvard was about to ding Mr. Hauser for scientific misconduct, prominent researchers in the field worried they would be tarnished by association. The science magazine Nature asked Frans de Waal—a primatologist at Emory University and author, most recently, of the widely read book “The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society”—about what Mr. Hauser’s predicament meant for his discipline. He was blunt: “It is disastrous.”

Mr. Hauser had boldly declared that through his application of science, not only could morality be stripped of any religious hocus-pocus, but philosophy would have to step aside as well: “Inquiry into our moral nature will no longer be the proprietary province of the humanities and social sciences,” he wrote. Would it be such a bad thing if Hausergate resulted in some intellectual humility among the new scientists of morality?

It’s important to note that the Hauser affair also represents the best in science. When lowly graduate students suspected their famous boss was cooking his data, they risked their careers and reputations to blow the whistle on him. They are the scientists to celebrate.

Though there is no doubt plenty to learn from the evolutionary psychologists, when an intellectual fashion becomes a full-blown fad, it’s time to give it the gimlet eye.

Eric Felten, Wall Street Journal


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The Sincerest Form of Ridicule

Henry James, Raymond Chandler, J.K. Rowling—no writer is safe from the literary satirist

Literary parody is often described as verbal caricature. It’s true that both parody and caricature rely on the exaggeration of quirks and idiosyncrasies for satiric purposes. But their differences go deeper. Caricature plays on the monstrous for comic pay-off; it turns earlobes into wind-flaps, lips into gaudy sausages. Parody can be just as crude, but usually it is slinkier, more insinuating; there’s something snugly parasitic in its intimacy. The parodist must inhabit his victim’s voice down to its least inflections—with close and lingering attention to those very flourishes an author is proudest of—only to turn the voice to ridiculous effect. The trick is to yoke the unmistakable manner to a grotesquely disproportionate subject.

Here, for example, is Mark Crick’s take on Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe—not solving a case but preparing a leg of lamb: “I sipped on my whiskey sour, ground out my cigarette on the chopping board and watched a bug trying to crawl out of the basin. I needed a table at Maxim’s, a hundred bucks and a gorgeous blonde; what I had was a leg of lamb and no clues. I took hold of the joint. It felt cold and damp, like a coroner’s handshake.”

This is funny not just because of the incongruity between the tough-guy manner and the task at hand (“I put the squeeze on a lemon and it soon juiced”); it’s also funny, a bit more disturbingly, because it shows us that there’s something inadvertently comical below the surface of Chandler’s hard-boiled prose. “The Long Goodbye” will never read the same again.

Marlowe with his lamb is but one of dozens of such send-ups in John Gross’s latest delightful anthology, “The Oxford Book of Parodies.” In his introduction Mr. Gross notes that “it would be a mistake for anyone writing about parodies to become entangled in a search for exact definitions.” His selections bear him out. As he demonstrates, parody can be as loopy—and as obvious—as the Christmas-carol spoof that begins “While shepherds washed their socks by night” or as subtle as Max Beerbohm’s uncanny imitations of Henry James at his most convoluted. Mr. Gross includes Beerbohm’s famous parody “The Mote in the Middle Distance,” which begins: “It was with a sense of a, for him, very memorable something that he peered now into the immediate future, and tried, not without compunction, to take that period up where he had, prospectively, left it. But just where the deuce had he left it?”

Mr. Gross may be wary of definitions, but he is exuberant in his choices. As he says: “There are mocking parodies and affectionate parodies, parodies which are exquisitely accurate, and parodies which are rough-edged but effective. There are light skits, boisterous send-ups, and savage lampoons.” His anthology abounds with all of these and more.

The anthology is divided into two parts. The first is chronological by parodied author, beginning with Anglo-Saxon doggerel and concluding with J.K. Rowling. It should be said that the Anglo-Saxons seem to offer more to parodists than Harry Potter; strong parodies depend on strong originals. W.C. Sellar and R.J. Yeatman together try their own version of Beowolfian gnarled and snarling alliteration. (“Wonderlich were they enwraged / And wordwar waged.”) Mr. Gross gives five parodies of that medieval chestnut “Summer is icumen in” (“Summer is a-coming in”), of which my own favorite is A.Y. Campbell’s: “Plumber is icumen in; / Bludie big tu-du. / Bloweth lampe and showeth dampe. / And dripth the wud thru. / Bludie hel, boo-hoo!”

The second part of the anthology is thematic; it includes European writers—e.g., Goethe, Hugo, Kafka, Proust—as well as British. (“Le Côté de Chelsea” begins with a 122-word sentence of Proustian complexity describing a visit to a London hotel.) This part of the book includes parodies of nursery rhymes recomposed to match the style of various writers. Old King Cole gets a not-so-merry workout in the manners of Tennyson, Yeats and Browning. As for “Jack and Jill,” the version Walt Whitman might have written begins: “I celebrate the personality of Jack! / I love his dirty hands, his tangled hair, his locomotion blundering.” There are also samples of “the young Jane Austen,” Lewis Carroll and Sherlock Holmes, as well as satirical sallies on everything from politics to the performing arts.

Mr. Gross’s legendary gifts as an editor and critic are much in evidence in this part (though the entire anthology benefits from his discreet running commentary). For example, his section on “James Joyce as Parodist” draws not on “Ulysses,” as one might expect given the novel’s many imitations of literary styles, but on Joyce’s letters and “casual writings,” where, as Mr. Gross says, he “was happy to play the parodist pure and unalloyed.” Joyce sent up T.S. Eliot in a 1925 letter to a friend, turning the famous opening of “The Waste Land” into an account of a family vacation in France (“Rouen is the rainiest place getting / Inside all impermeables, wetting / Damp marrow in drenched bones”). Eliot was in fact much parodied. Mr. Gross even draws attention to a Yiddish parody of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” that Saul Bellow and Isaac Rosenfeld composed in 1937. Prufrock, now become Mendl Pumshtok, doesn’t “dare to eat a peach” but a prune.

American authors, from Poe to Pynchon, are well represented among the parodied, but only one writer each from Canada (Leonard Cohen) and Australia (Clive James) caught Mr. Gross’s eye. Most of the writers burlesqued or lampooned are British, and since the effect of parody depends on familiarity with the original, the Anglo-emphasis might seem a hindrance for American readers. But Mr. Gross deals with the obstacle rather cunningly. The parodies he includes of such writers as the poet Craig Raine, whose works American readers are unlikely to know, depend less on particular literary mannerisms than on the writers’ self-aggrandizing propensities. Literary pretensions can be parodied as effectively as styles.

In the ancient schools of rhetoric, parody fell under the aegis of irony, but it developed out of what the Romans called imitatio: budding orators imitating the compositions of master stylists not only to learn their tricks but to surpass them. Thus parody pays tribute even as it ridicules.

This quality is discernible in many of Mr. Gross’s selections, where the parodist seems to feel a strange sense of unexpected freedom. When John Updike parodies Jack Kerouac in “On the Sidewalk,” for instance, we sense that Updike is having fun indulging in a manner so drastically unlike his own: “I was just thinking around in my sad backyard, looking at those little drab careless starshaped clumps of crabgrass and beautiful chunks of some old bicycle crying out without words of the American Noon.”

Parody is a form of impersonation, obviously, but also collaboration. What makes it so pleasurable, as Mr. Gross’s anthology shows on every page, is not just the accuracy of the performance, though that’s certainly essential. In the funniest parodies, there is the faint but unmistakable sense of giddy collusion; and in such improbable duets the parodist can’t always be distinguished from the parodied.

Mr. Ornsby is a writer in London.


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The 1.6% Recovery

The results of the Obama economic experiment are coming in.

To no one’s surprise except perhaps Vice President Joe Biden’s, second quarter economic growth was revised down yesterday to 1.6% from the prior estimate of 2.4%, which was down from first quarter growth of 3.7%, which was down from the 2009 fourth quarter’s 5%. Economic recoveries are supposed to go in the other direction.


The downward revision was anticipated given the poor early economic reports for the third quarter, including a plunge in new home sales, mediocre manufacturing data, volatile jobless claims and even (after a healthy period) weaker corporate profits. Many economists fear that third quarter growth could be negative. Even if the economy avoids a double-dip recession, the current pace of growth is too sluggish to create many new jobs or improve middle-class living standards.

As recently as August 3, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner took to our competitor’s pages to declare that this couldn’t happen. “Welcome to the Recovery,” he wrote, describing how the $862 billion government stimulus was still rolling out, business investment was booming, and the economy was poised for sustainable growth.

We all make mistakes, but the problem for the American people is that Mr. Geithner’s blunder is conceptual. He and President Obama and their economic coterie really believe that government spending can stimulate growth by triggering private “demand,” that tax rates are irrelevant to investment decisions, that waves of new regulation can be absorbed by business with little impact on costs or hiring, and that politicians can assail capitalists without having any effect on the movement of capital.

This has been the great Washington policy experiment of the last three years, and it isn’t turning out too well. If prosperity were a function of government stimulus, our economy should be booming. The Fed has kept interest rates at near-zero for nearly two years, while Congress has flooded the economy with trillions of dollars in spending, loan guarantees, $8,000 tax credits for housing, “cash for clunkers,” and so much more. Never before has government tried to do so much and achieved so little.

Now that the failure is becoming obvious, the liberal explanation is that things would have been worse without all of this government care and feeding. The same economists who recommended the stimulus are now producing studies, based on their Keynesian demand models, claiming that it “saved or created” millions of jobs, even as the overall economy has lost millions of jobs. The counterfactual is impossible to disprove, but the American people can see the reality with their own eyes.

The nearby table compares growth in the current recovery with the recovery following the recession of 1981-82, the last time the jobless rate exceeded 10%. The contrast is stark.

Then after three quarters the recovery was in high gear. Now it is decelerating. Then tax rates were falling, interest rates were coming down and the regulatory state was in retreat. Now taxes are poised to rise sharply, interest rates can’t get any lower, and federal agencies are hassling business at every turn. Then business investment was exploding. Now companies are sitting on something like $2 trillion, reluctant to take risks when they don’t know what new costs government might next impose on them.

To borrow a phrase, maybe it’s time for a change.

Editorial, Wall Street Journal


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The stuff of life

Jonathan Franzen’s brilliant new novel studies the planet, happiness and marriage

Freedom. By Jonathan Franzen. Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 576 pages; $28. Fourth Estate; £20.

IT WAS John DeForest, a writer of the civil-war period, who defined the Great American Novel in an 1868 essay for the Nation as “painting the American soul within the framework of a novel”. DeForest was arguing over the relative merits of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Harriet Beecher Stowe, two writers who definitely fit the bill. Others have laid claim to the title (or had claim laid to it by their hopeful publishers), including J.D. Salinger, Don DeLillo, Tom Wolfe and John Updike.

Indeed, there has never been a shortage of candidates for this peculiarly American compulsion, and disagreements over who should wear the laurels are as long as the continent is wide. This year, though, the award may enjoy almost universal acclaim. The novel that America will be talking about in the coming weeks will be “Freedom” by Jonathan Franzen.

A mop-haired Midwesterner who looks far younger than 51, Mr Franzen rose to fame a decade ago. This was when his third novel, “The Corrections”, a multigenerational family saga about American yuppies and their square parents, was first selected as a candidate for Oprah Winfrey’s book club and then very publicly dismissed by the television star. (Ms Winfrey did not care for Mr Franzen’s complaint that her book club appealed only to women readers.) The brouhaha did his book no harm. Though largely plotless, uneven in structure and weighed down with sarcastic observation, “The Corrections” went on to spend 29 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and win the 2001 National Book Award.

Mr Franzen’s work will not appeal to those seeking sharp-edged experimentalism in their fiction. But for readers who believe the novel to be an old-fashioned thing that, at its best, should bring alive fully imagined characters in a powerful narrative with a social context, his new book will be a huge draw. The author has spent the past ten years doing what he does well and making it better. “Freedom” has all its predecessor’s power and none of its faults.

Young marrieds, Walter and Patty Berglund are middle-class university graduates living in Minnesota (a step away from the Missouri of “The Corrections”), he working for 3M (a mining and manufacturing company), she staying home to bake cakes and bring up a frighteningly obedient daughter, Jessica, and a son, Joey, whose role is to test all the boundaries an American teenager can find. Proud of the ten-year effort they have put into restoring the Victorian town house they bought for a song in rundown old St Paul, the Berglunds see themselves as American pioneers. Or at least, descendants of the hard-working early creators of America rather than the greedy despoilers of its wilderness.

Many novels start well, but peter out before the end. “Freedom” is one of those rare books that starts well and then takes off. Walter resigns from 3M and moves into nature conservation working for a minerals magnate who wants to turn some of his ill-earned millions into saving a small woodland bird, the Cerulean warbler. This very funny, though ultimately catastrophic plot device gives Mr Franzen the opportunity to focus on the price that is exacted for American (for that, read Western) material affluence in terms of our planet, our emotional well-being and our children’s future. For Mr Franzen the central question is whether people really have a right to the pursuit of happiness when much of the rest of the world lives in misery.

But what makes “Freedom” such a joy to read is not the digression into conservation, but the many-layered analysis of the Berglunds’ marriage. Walter and Patty are united in hurt, lies and misunderstandings. Like others, they love intermittently and unevenly. How to be married when one of you loves truly, madly, deeply and the other feels “like I’m being followed around by a really nice, well-trained dog”?

Many such marriages potter along, coping as best they can. Mr Franzen tests the Berglunds’ union with miserable in-laws, half-hearted sex, temptation, alcoholism, noisy neighbours and teenage children who are all-knowing as well as wilfully half-blind. The Berglunds’ battle to win through gives “Freedom” an emotional colouring that points to a new maturity in Mr Franzen’s writing.

Visiting her daughter’s university, Patty observes a stone engraved with the words, “USE WELL THY FREEDOM”. The warning is there throughout. With its all-encompassing world, its flawed heroes and its redemptive ending, “Freedom” has the sweep of a modern “Paradise Lost”.


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‘Women Aren’t Chimpanzees’

Badinter (left) is seen with feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir in a 1983 photo. Beauvoir believed a liberated woman could not be a mother. “The current generation of young women is made up of the daughters of the feminists of the 1970s,” Badinter says. “They don’t want to be like their mothers — torn between their job and their family, constantly stressed, constantly tired. They think it must be much more satisfying to devote themselves entirely to their children.”

French philosopher Elisabeth Badinter cut her teeth in the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s. In a SPIEGEL interview, she discusses her worries about how a new back-to-nature movement is persuading many Western women to forsake the gains of emancipation and embrace their grandmothers’ values instead.

SPIEGEL: Ms. Badinter, you have three grown-up children. Were you a good mother?

Elisabeth Badinter: Truth be told, like most other moms, I was a very mediocre one. I always tried to do as much as I could for my children. But, from a present-day perspective, I also did a lot of things wrong. So, I’d describe myself as a completely average mother.

SPIEGEL: You are a follower of the French feminist writer and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, who categorically rejected motherhood. Did you ever think there was any contradiction in being both a feminist and a mother?

Badinter: No. I wanted these children, and I wanted them in quick succession. I was still a student then, and each time I had one it was right in the middle of finals exams. That is, I was pregnant each time during my written exams, and I had had my baby before the oral exams. That’s why I failed them a couple of times. I belong to a generation of women who had children without weighing the pros and the cons; it was simply the natural thing to do. And I remember these three pregnancies as some of the best times of my life. But one thing I never did: I never asked myself if I’d be a good mother or whether I could meet the demands, as many young women do these days.

SPIEGEL: In your latest book, “Le conflit, la femme et la mère” (“Conflict: The Woman and the Mother”), you write that today’s women are under increasing pressure to have children and that it’s no longer enough just to be a mother, you have to be a perfect mother who breastfeeds exclusively, who stays at home with her children for a long time and who raises them as best she can.

Badinter: We are currently living through a troubling phase in our development, a relapse to times long past. In French, we call this phenomenon “l’enfant roi,” or “the child is king.” According to this view, the interests of the mother are clearly less important than those of the child; they are secondary. And that, in turn, brings with it the desire to have the perfect child. Many of today’s young mothers believe that if they’re going to make the effort to stay at home and completely dedicate themselves to their children, they want them to be perfect, too: perfectly raised, intelligent, balanced, in harmony with nature. I honestly wonder how this affects children in the long term.

SPIEGEL: You’re particularly opposed to breastfeeding, which women are gently pressured to do.

Badinter: Gently pressured? Sure, with the help of a massive guilt trip! “You don’t want to breastfeed? But, Madame, don’t you want the very best for your baby?” the nurses tell you if you say you’d prefer to bottle-feed your kids. Do you know when I first had the idea for this book? It was in 1998, when Bernard Kouchner, who was France’s health minister at the time, not only implemented the European Union guideline prohibiting advertisements for powdered baby milk, but also banned free handouts of powdered milk in maternity wards.

SPIEGEL: What’s so bad about breastfeeding?

Badinter: Absolutely nothing. I just think it’s one of the most intimate and personal decisions you can make. If a woman wants to, that’s great; if not, that’s fine, too. That’s none of the politicians’ business. Unfortunately, France has adopted the World Health Organization directive stating that children should be exclusively breastfed for the first six months and, if possible, for 12 more months with supplementary foods. These guidelines make sense in developing countries where people have had bad experiences with powdered milk and contaminated water. But why in God’s name should this be applied to women in Paris and Berlin? That catapults us back to our grandmothers’ era.

SPIEGEL: So, do you consider the mere act of recommending that you breastfeed your child to be a step backward for women’s liberation?

Badinter: Let me repeat: I think it’s great if a woman decides to breastfeed. But it should be voluntary. For a number of years, I’ve been observing with great alarm the back-to-nature movement, which views itself as today’s avant-garde. It encourages women to give birth without an epidural and to stay at home with their baby for as long as possible because they say it’s good for the mother-child bond. They want women to breastfeed their children, saying this will protect the babies against allergies and asthma and protect the mother herself against breast cancer. They want us to use washable diapers because it’s better for the environment. Two years ago, our environment minister seriously even suggested introducing a tax on disposable diapers.

SPIEGEL: Do you see that as a measure involving more than just protecting the environment?

Badinter: Yes, because it would’ve been enough to promote the manufacture of biodegradable diapers. This movement is ideologically driven and is leading us back into the 18th century, to Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his model of the ideal mother. It’s a bit like trying to reawaken the slumbering mammal inside women. But we women aren’t chimpanzees.

‘The First Signs of an Alarming Trend’

SPIEGEL: Aren’t you exaggerating a bit? 

Badinter: What I’m describing are the first signs of an alarming trend. If we take all these recommendations seriously, where will they lead us? Women will increasingly be forced to stay at home. How can they work if they’re supposed to breastfeed for six months or longer? Are they supposed to call a taxi, milk pump in hand, every two hours? Even during this economic crisis, more and more women are opting to stay at home. And this includes many highly trained women who now only want to be the perfect mother.

SPIEGEL: Not every woman wants to continue furthering the cause of emancipation once she’s become a mother.

Badinter: Sure, but there’s two other things that concern every woman in the West — and very personally so. First, half of all couples split up within three to seven years. So, that means a woman who has spent years without a firm spot in the job market and whose economic future is in great danger is suddenly left alone and has to care for her child and herself. Second, the active part of raising a child consumes about 10 to 15 years of your entire life, but the average life expectancy for a woman is now over 80. Should women be expected to devote their entire lives just to raising kids? What happens afterwards, when the kids have left home, and maybe your husband, too? What then?

SPIEGEL: You’re painting a very grim picture of your country. Birth rates in France are still the highest in Europe: On average, French women have two children, while the figure for Germany is only 1.38. And they continue to work full time after having children.

Badinter: French women have children because it’s easier for them to be mothers and still work and do other things. They can leave their children with others, and neither their mother-in-law nor their husband nor their mother will reproach them for doing so in any way. In France, having someone take care of your children is not something that’s fundamentally bad. Still, I find it disturbing that women are now being encouraged to adopt another model, ostensibly in the name of science and for the good of the child. It’s also an argument against the materialistic, egocentric consumer society. “Let’s go back to our roots!” the proponents of this green movement say. “Let’s listen to nature! Let’s breastfeed! Let’s stay home with our children!” And, amazingly enough, many young women find that appealing.

SPIEGEL: Could it be that that’s because they’ve seen their mothers working themselves to death juggling jobs, children and husbands?

Badinter: Of course. What we’re currently experiencing is daughters taking revenge on their mothers. I didn’t want to be like my mother, either — that is, sitting at home waiting for daddy to get there, hoping that he’d give me some money. I wanted to be independent. The current generation of young women is made up of the daughters of the feminists of the 1970s. They don’t want to be like their mothers — torn between their job and their family, constantly stressed, constantly tired. They think it must be much more satisfying to devote themselves entirely to their children. This perspective is enticing to many women. And, interestingly enough, it’s particularly popular among well-educated women and those with very little job training.

SPIEGEL: Has the model of their mothers really made women happy?

Badinter: Though it certainly wasn’t perfect, it was a huge leap forward. We could have kids and work — and no one made us feel bad about it. I think that’s one of the big differences between French and German women. French women have always been women first and foremost, and only then mothers. Shortly after giving birth they don’t just stay at home with their child; they go out, and they go back to work quickly. They want to return to their lives and be a part of society, and they also have to be a woman again, to be seductive — that’s what French men expect. It’s not just an upper-crust phenomenon, either. It’s in our genes. Even in the 17th and 18th century, women had a life apart from the children — a communal life, a social life, a love life.

SPIEGEL: As grim as you may perceive the situation in France to be, you probably think Germany is a living hell for mothers.

Badinter: I’m very interested in what’s currently happening in Germany, as it’s the first sign of what lies ahead for all of us. Women — especially those who’ve studied and have interesting careers — aren’t having children anymore, and they’re questioning the German model of the mother. For example, 28 percent of all female university graduates in western Germany choose not to have children, which is unprecedented in human history. This means that, for the first time in many centuries, we can no longer say that being a woman means being a mother. Given the difficulties of finding child care in Germany and the social expectations placed on mothers, these women opt for a life without children. In the process, they’re redefining what it means to be a woman — and showing that this can make women happy, too. That’s a revolution.

SPIEGEL: But is it a positive one?

Badinter: Well, I’d prefer it if women could have children without having to sacrifice their careers. But every woman has the right to decide not to have children. Women no longer present a united front; there are different camps. Likewise, we aren’t the hormone-controlled mammals that this new back-to-nature movement would have us believe we are.

SPIEGEL: For years, you’ve said there’s no such thing as the oft-cited “maternal instinct.”

Badinter: I knew that before I became pregnant for the first time. And thank God! I never wondered whether it was normal to not feel like spending 24 hours a day with just a small baby. I’m sure there are women who like that, but I’m not one of them. And I can tell you something else I’ve learned over the years by looking out my window and watching mothers walking through the Jardin du Luxembourg park: I’ve spent hours watching their empty faces and their God-how-I-hate-all-of-this expressions. These women sit bored by the side of the sandpit looking to the left and the right, while their children play alone in the sand. Why can’t women admit that it can be unbearable to have to spend the whole day with a small child? That doesn’t automatically make you a bad mother.

SPIEGEL: So, what is a “good” mother, then?

Badinter: The French ethnologist Claude Lévi-Strauss said that you should always maintain the right distance between two cultures. I believe that a good mother is someone who manages to keep a certain distance between herself and her child — not too close, not too far away — to give it what it needs, to not smother it, to not be constantly absent or constantly present. She has to be something in between. But, unfortunately, that’s extremely rare.

SPIEGEL: Ms. Badinter, thank you for speaking with us.


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Special Forces Ratchet Up Fight Against Taliban

Aggressive Tactics in Afghanistan

US Army Special Operations Forces: Progress reported in fight against Taliban

Through nighttime attacks and drone strikes, special forces led by the United States have massively ratcheted up their hunt for Taliban. In the past three months alone, the highly secretive forces have eliminated 365 insurgent commanders.

The international troops in Afghanistan this year, under the command of the United States, have massively stepped up the hunt for top Taliban by special forces. The units, which operate secretly and are kept apart from the normal troops, have conducted hundreds of operations in recent months in an intensity not seen before in an effort to breakdown the Taliban’s resistance, weaken its leadership ranks and to eliminate networks of bomb planters.

Insiders have long known about the increased deployment of the special forces, but for the first time in the history of the nine-year war in Afghanistan, concrete figures about the deployments — which neither NATO nor the US military speaks about publicly — have been named. During the second week of August, leaders of the NATO troops under ISAF Commander David Petraeus were given a classified briefing on the massive anti-Taliban offensive, which began at the end of 2009, and progress that has been made.

SPIEGEL ONLINE has learned from reliable sources that the four-star general and his staff informed diplomats and top military officials that in the past three months alone, at least 365 high-ranking and mid-level insurgent commanders have been killed — mostly through targeted operations by the special forces, comprised of heavily armed elite soldiers from all branches of the US military. In addition, 1,395 people, including many Taliban foot soldiers, have been arrested.

The briefing on the latest progress in the war, which covered the period between May 8 and August 8, provides a rare glimpse into an aspect of the Afghanistan war that up until know has only been known by the US government and a few top politicians from other NATO member states. The military officials reported that the commanders and those arrested had been “taken out of the game.”

Special Forces Mostly Strike at Night

Since the briefing, the details have driven internal discussions about the future of the mission within the international community present in Kabul. Although the military leadership is speaking in a conspicuously cautious manner about its first small successes in the fight against the Taliban, the special forces’ actions could complicate cooperation with the Afghan government. Diplomats are concerned that the elimination of the Taliban hierarchy could conflict with the declared goal of reintegrating some members of these groups.

Above all, the spectacular statistics show one thing: The will of the military leadership to reach a turning point in Afghanstan in the coming months. The sheer number of the operations strikingly underscores that General Petraeus, like his predecessor Stanley McChrystal, wants to use the special forces to gain the upper hand in Afghanistan.

It’s the first time in the US military-led invasion of the country in which Taliban leaders have been sought in such a targeted manner. It’s also the first time so many insurgents have been arrested or assassinated in targeted killings. Western diplomats who have been briefed in recent days say that the current force of 145,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan is acting “with maximum force” right now.

For their part, military officials are taking a more sober view of the progress. Since US President Barack Obama approved an increase of 30,000 troops and announced a new strategy for the Afghanistan war in December 2009, the number of clandestine troops in the special forces has increased massively. By the summer of 2010, the number of special forces soldiers had tripled, according to the military progress report. Other details in the briefing included:

  • the fact that, in almost all instances, 82 percent, the elite soldiers struck at night
  • the special forces’ main target were Taliban structures in the southern part of the country, Jalaluddin Haqqani’s terror network in the east and foreign fighters with connections to al-Qaida
  • regional Taliban commanders, heads of so-called IED-cells (who attack alliance troops with explosives) and al-Qaida contact persons, have been the subject of targeted air strikes or they have been killed during arrest attempts.
  • the special forces, including the successor to the US military’s notorious Task Force 373, always act together with Afghan soldiers they had trained.

There are differences of opinion over the success of the special forces’ offensive. High-ranking US officers and NATO commanders are cautiously stating that they have had their first successes in limiting the freedom of movement of the Taliban leadership ranks. But it is still too early to draw any qualitative conclusions, an intelligence officer on Petreaus’ staff said.

In the district of Baghlan in northern Afghanistan, intelligence workers say, no one has been willing to step up into the role of at least one Taliban shadow governor who was targeted and eliminated by the special forces. “The leaders of the Taliban shura had appointed a successor, but the man is remaining in Pakistan,” one officer reported.

Karzai Criticizes Hunting of Taliban

But diplomats have expressed doubts over whether the robust military strategy can be reconciled with the one agreed to at a number of international conferences to find a solution through negotiating politically with the Taliban. “In the military leadership, people like to say that the best way to negotiate with the Taliban is when they are at rock bottom,” one European diplomat said after a meeting with the ISAF leadership. “But perhaps the operations have the effect of providing additional motivation for the insurgency movement.”

Most operations take place in southern and eastern Afghanistan, Taliban strongholds. But another important battleground is the Kunduz area in the north where Germany’s armed forces, the Bundeswehr, are in command. In Kunduz, where Germany has a base with 1,400 soldiers, and in Baghlan, the special forces were and continue to be deployed on missions almost every night. Dozens of insurgents have been captured or killed in targeted killings. Military officials recently reported that a senior member of al-Qaida had also been eliminated.

So far, German troops have not taken part in the deadly hunt against top Taliban. Germany’s own special elite force, the KSK, has also stayed out of the operations by the American units. But that doesn’t mean the Germans aren’t aware of what is going on. In Mazar-i-Sharif, an American serves as the deputy head of the regional command for the north. He informs his boss, Brigadier General Hans-Werner Fritz of the Bundeswehr, of his plans and the execution of the missions. German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg has also been briefed in detail. So far, the German troops have merely looked on as the US forces have gone into battle.

The aggressive approach has already stirred up resentment at the Presidential Palace in Kabul. In talks with European politicians in recent days, President Hamid Karzai has regularly criticized the robust hunt for Taliban. Karzai has warned that the battle against the Taliban must not be waged in the villages and he claims that he regularly receives reports of dishonorable behavior amongst the units.

But military officials say they are doing everything they can to prevent civilian casualties. According the progress briefing, civilians in the period observed only died in 1 percent of the special forces actions. But that is the kind of collateral damage the Karzai likes to use as an opportunity to criticize the foreign troops and win public support.

The bloody progress made by the special forces could trigger similar reflexes in Karzai.


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The last refuge of a liberal

Liberalism under siege is an ugly sight indeed. Just yesterday it was all hope and change and returning power to the people. But the people have proved so disappointing. Their recalcitrance has, in only 19 months, turned the predicted 40-year liberal ascendancy (James Carville) into a full retreat. Ah, the people, the little people, the small-town people, the “bitter” people, as Barack Obama in an unguarded moment once memorably called them, clinging “to guns or religion or” — this part is less remembered — “antipathy toward people who aren’t like them.”

That’s a polite way of saying: clinging to bigotry. And promiscuous charges of bigotry are precisely how our current rulers and their vast media auxiliary react to an obstreperous citizenry that insists on incorrect thinking.

— Resistance to the vast expansion of government power, intrusiveness and debt, as represented by the Tea Party movement? Why, racist resentment toward a black president.

— Disgust and alarm with the federal government’s unwillingness to curb illegal immigration, as crystallized in the Arizona law? Nativism.

— Opposition to the most radical redefinition of marriage in human history, as expressed in Proposition 8 in California? Homophobia.

— Opposition to a 15-story Islamic center and mosque near Ground Zero? Islamophobia.

Now we know why the country has become “ungovernable,” last year’s excuse for the Democrats’ failure of governance: Who can possibly govern a nation of racist, nativist, homophobic Islamophobes?

Note what connects these issues. In every one, liberals have lost the argument in the court of public opinion. Majorities — often lopsided majorities — oppose President Obama’s social-democratic agenda (e.g., the stimulus, Obamacare), support the Arizona law, oppose gay marriage and reject a mosque near Ground Zero.

What’s a liberal to do? Pull out the bigotry charge, the trump that preempts debate and gives no credit to the seriousness and substance of the contrary argument. The most venerable of these trumps is, of course, the race card. When the Tea Party arose, a spontaneous, leaderless and perfectly natural (and traditionally American) reaction to the vast expansion of government intrinsic to the president’s proudly proclaimed transformational agenda, the liberal commentariat cast it as a mob of angry white yahoos disguising their antipathy to a black president by cleverly speaking in economic terms.

Then came Arizona and S.B. 1070. It seems impossible for the left to believe that people of good will could hold that: (a) illegal immigration should be illegal, (b) the federal government should not hold border enforcement hostage to comprehensive reform, i.e., amnesty, (c) every country has the right to determine the composition of its immigrant population.

As for Proposition 8, is it so hard to see why people might believe that a single judge overturning the will of 7 million voters is an affront to democracy? And that seeing merit in retaining the structure of the most ancient and fundamental of all social institutions is something other than an alleged hatred of gays — particularly since the opposite-gender requirement has characterized virtually every society in all the millennia until just a few years ago?

And now the mosque near Ground Zero. The intelligentsia is near unanimous that the only possible grounds for opposition is bigotry toward Muslims. This smug attribution of bigotry to two-thirds of the population hinges on the insistence on a complete lack of connection between Islam and radical Islam, a proposition that dovetails perfectly with the Obama administration’s pretense that we are at war with nothing more than “violent extremists” of inscrutable motive and indiscernible belief. Those who reject this as both ridiculous and politically correct (an admitted redundancy) are declared Islamophobes, the ad hominem du jour.

It is a measure of the corruption of liberal thought and the collapse of its self-confidence that, finding itself so widely repudiated, it resorts reflexively to the cheapest race-baiting (in a colorful variety of forms). Indeed, how can one reason with a nation of pitchfork-wielding mobs brimming with “antipathy toward people who aren’t like them” — blacks, Hispanics, gays and Muslims — a nation that is, as Michelle Obama once put it succinctly, “just downright mean”?

The Democrats are going to get beaten badly in November. Not just because the economy is ailing. And not just because Obama over-read his mandate in governing too far left. But because a comeuppance is due the arrogant elites whose undisguised contempt for the great unwashed prevents them from conceding a modicum of serious thought to those who dare oppose them.

Charles Krauthammer, Washington Post


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We Just Don’t Understand

Americans look at the president and see a stranger.

All presidents take vacations, and all are criticized for it. It’s never the right place, the right time. Ronald Reagan went to the ranch, George W. Bush to Crawford, both got knocked. Bill Clinton even poll-tested a vacation site and still was criticized. But Martha’s Vineyard—elite, upscale—can’t have done President Obama any good, especially following the first lady’s foray in Spain. The general feeling this week was summed up by David Letterman: “He’ll have plenty of time for vacations when his one term is up. Plenty of time.”

The president’s position is not good. The past few months have been one long loss of ground. His numbers have dipped well below 50%. Top Democrats tell Politico the House is probably lost and the Senate is in jeopardy. “Recovery summer” is coming to look like “mission accomplished.” The president is losing the center.

And on top of that, he is still a mystery to a lot of people.

Actually, what is confounding is that he seems more a mystery to people now than he did when they elected him president.

The president is overexposed, yet on some level the picture is blurry. He’s in your face on TV, but you still don’t fully get him. People categorize him in political terms: “He’s a socialist,” “He’s a pragmatic progressive.” But beyond that disagreement, things get murky. When you think about his domestic political decisions, it’s hard to tell if he’s playing a higher game or a clueless game. Is he playing three-dimensional chess, or is he simply out of his depth?

Underscoring the unknowns is the continuing question about him and those around him: How did they read the public mood so well before the presidency and so poorly after? In his first 19 months on the job, the president has often focused on issues that were not the top priority of the American people. He was thinking about one thing—health care—when they were thinking about others—the general economy, deficits. He’s on one subject, they’re on another. He has been contradictory: I’m for the mosque, I didn’t say I’m for the mosque. He’s detached from the Gulf oil spill, he’s all about the oil spill.

All of this strikes people, understandably, as perplexing. “I don’t get what he’s doing.” Which becomes, in time, “I don’t get who he is.” In an atmosphere of such questioning they’ll consider any and all possibilities, including, apparently, that he is a Muslim. Which, according to a recent Pew poll, 18% think he is. That is up from 11% in February 2009.

Liberals and the left are indignant about this, and angry. For a week all you heard from cable anchors was “PEOPLE think OBAMA is a MUSLIM. It’s in the POLLS. How do you EXPLAIN it?” Every time I heard it, I’d think: Maybe it’s because you keep screaming it.

Some of the reason for the relatively high number of people who believe he holds to one faith when in fact he has always said he holds to another, is the steady drumbeat of the voices arrayed against Mr. Obama, that are arrayed against any modern president, and will be against the next one too. But surely some of it is that a lot of people are just trying to figure him out. In that atmosphere they’ll consider everything.

When the American people have looked at the presidents of the past few decades they could always sort of say, “I know that guy.” Bill Clinton: Southern governor. Good ol’ boy, drawlin’, flirtin’, got himself a Fulbright. “I know that guy.” George W. Bush: Texan, little rough around the edges, good family, youthful high jinks, stopped drinking, got serious. “I know that guy.” Ronald Reagan was harder to peg, but you still knew him: small-town Midwesterner, moved on and up, serious about politics, humorous, patriotic. “I know that guy.” Barack Obama? Sleek, cerebral, detached, an academic from Chicago by way of Hawaii and Indonesia. “You know what? I don’t know that guy!”

He doesn’t fit any categories. He won in 2008 by 9.5 million votes anyway because he was a break with Mr. Bush, and people assumed they’d get to know him. But his more unusual political decisions, and the sometimes contradictory and confusing nature of his leadership, haven’t ameliorated or done away with his unusualness. They’ve heightened it.

The fact that the public doesn’t fully understand or have a clear fix on the president leads to many criticisms of his leadership. One is that a leader must show and express the emotions of the people, and he’s not very good at it. But I doubt people want a president who goes around emoting, and in any case it’s not his job. What people really want, in part, is someone who understands their basic assumptions because, actually, he shares them. It’s not “Show us you care!” it’s “Be a guy I know. Be someone I get!”

The president is a person who knows how to focus and seems to have a talent for it. But again, his focus is on other things. When a president and a nation are focused together on the same things, the possibility of progress is increased. When they are focused on different things, there is more discord and tension. Mr. Obama’s supporters like to compare him with Reagan: 18 months in he had difficulties in the polls too, and a recession. But Reagan was focused on what the American people were focused on: the economy, the size and role of government, the challenge of the Soviet Union. And on the eternal No. 1 issue, the economy, Reagan had a plan that seemed to make sense, in rough terms to try to cut spending and taxes, and force out inflation. People were willing to give it a try. Mr. Obama’s plan, to a lot of people, does not make sense, or does not seem fully pertinent, or well executed.

Mr. Obama seems to be a very independent person, like someone who more or less brought himself up, a child with wandering parents, and grandparents who seem to have been highly individualistic. He is focused on what individually interests him. He relies most on his own thinking. He focused on health care, seeing the higher logic. The people focused on something else. But he’s always had faith in his ability to think it through.

Now he’s hit a roadblock, and in November’s elections he will hit another, bigger one. One wonders if he will come to reconsider his heavy reliance on his own thoughts. His predecessor did not brag about his résumé and teased himself about his lack of giant intellect, but he had utmost faith in his gut. By 2006, when he had realized he had reason to doubt even that, he flailed. The presidency has a way of winnowing you down.

The great question is what happens after November. The hope of the White House, which knows it is about to take a drubbing, is probably this: that the Republicans in Congress will devolve into a freak show, overplay their hand, lose their focus, be a little too colorful. If that meme emerges—and the media will be looking for it—the Republicans may wind up giving the president the positive definition he lacks. They could save him. The White House must be hoping that a year from now, people will start looking at the president and saying “Hey, I do know that guy. He’s the moderate.”

Peggy Noonan, Wall Street Journal


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Poem of the week

A Trace of Wings by Edwin Morgan

A very unusual elegy this time, to Basil Bunting, which will also serve as a tribute to the vivacious inventiveness of its author

Edwin Morgan

Edwin Morgan at his home in Glasgow in 2003.

The mood of elegy does not have to be Gray. This week’s poem laments the death of Basil Bunting (1900 -1985) while reflecting the versatile and playful spirit of its maker, Edwin Morgan, who died last week. “A Trace of Wings” is wholly characteristic of a poet who delighted in whirling the goodie bag of tradition and innovation, and so often magicked forth blends and mixtures never seen before.

With its strict, economical patterning, “A Trace of Wings” has something in common with Morgan’s concrete poetry. Its structure might recall an old-fashioned sort of bird-book, with coloured pictures and friendly captions besides the more detailed and grammatically formal entry – the sort a child would enjoy. It’s almost a crossword puzzle without the puzzle, the answers preceding a three-part cryptic clue.

These “clues” in turn suggest the Anglo-Saxon/ Old Norse kenning reminding us that Morgan was a fine translator of Beowulf. The kenning, a metaphorical compound-word or phrase, is a descriptive stand-in for a noun. “The joy of the bird”, for example, means the bird’s feather, and “the dispenser of rings” is the prince. Anglo-Saxon listeners would be familiar with the metaphors, so “feather” and “prince” go unsaid. Morgan’s poem borrows the technique, but also names the names.

The core-idea of the poet-as-songbird is hardly new. But it is expressed through such shining technical originality, and gathers round it so many other shared attributes, that the common metaphorical coin seems diamond-faceted.

Morgan’s seven varieties of bunting bustle with birdy life. Conjured by swift phrases, they seem to flitter past as we watch, but leave indelible impressions of movement and colour. They are elusive: words like “shy”, “perky”, “scuttler”, “darter” evoke their quick, barely visible movement. “Find him!”, “What a whisk!” the speaker exclaims, surely glad that the birds are so fleet and wary. We catch, too, a moment of anger and fear when we reach the unfortunate Ortolan Bunting who “favours” (and flavours) gourmet tables, and has been hunted to near-extinction. The metaphorical associations continue to thicken. The poet might himself be an endangered species, like the ortolan, as well as a generous “grain-scatterer” like the corn-bunting. As a northerner, Basil Bunting could qualify, perhaps, as “blizzard-hardened.” It seems fitting that the Snow Bunting is the last bird named before the poet himself appears.

“A Trace of Wings” is full of lovely sounds, and the stop-start rhythms leave room for savouring their effects. The longer closing line, in which the poem uncovers its true subject and occasion, introduces a mournful cadence. A rise and fall of lamentation, it climaxes with the sharp assonance of “prince of finches” and dies away with the monosyllables of the colloquial understatement, “gone from these parts.”

Morgan was a writer who cared about a poem’s visual impact as well as its sounds. The extra spacing between the bird-name and the “kennings”, for instance, reflects the gulf between ornithological category and the elusive, living thing. Even the semi-colons seem to have a bird-like look, each a tiny pictogram of wing and eye.

In an essay in The Poet’s Voice and Craft (edited by CB McCully, Carcanet, 1994) Morgan talks about the need for a poem to be both “deliberate” and “open”. Particularly in some concrete poems, he says, “the danger would be that not enough space, not enough interstices, might be left for the spirit of inspiration to slip in”. This poem is a beautiful example of how Morgan negotiates a disciplined structural arrangement without fencing off the places where “inspired accidents” occur. In fact the poem’s very seed is an inspired accident – the fact that the superbly musical poet of Brigflatts should share his surname with a species of bird. It needed only a poet of Morgan’s genius to notice – and whip up a miraculous, sparrow-quick elegy that is tender, funny, sorrowful, Anglo-Saxon-ish and modernist, mimetic and metaphorical, all at once – and all in eight lines. “What a whisk!” indeed.

“A Trace of Wings” appears in Edwin Morgan’s Themes on a Variation (1988) and Collected Poems, and is reproduced here by kind permission of Carcanet. It’s a poem to sweeten and sharpen our sorrow for two great makers, now “gone from these parts” but placeless, and timeless, in their bright plumage and full-voiced song.

A Trace of Wings

Corn Bunting             shy but perky; haunts fields; grain-scatterer

Reed Bunting            sedge-scuttler; swayer; a cool perch

Cirl Bunting               small whistler; shrill early; find him!

Indigo Bunting           blue darter; like metal; the sheen

Ortolan Bunting         haunts gardens; is caught; favours tables

Painted Bunting         gaudy flasher; red, blue, green; what a whisk!

Snow Bunting            Arctic flyer; ghost-white; blizzard-hardened

Basil Bunting             the sweetest singer; prince of finches; gone from

                                   these parts


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