Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Safety Exit

I just read The Leopard, by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1896-1957).  Originally published in Italian in 1958, it was promptly made into a prestigious epic motion picture by Luchino Visconti, with Burt Lancaster as the lead.  I decided to read the book before I watched the film, but now I wonder if I should follow through on the latter.  For one thing, I generally dislike dubbing, and the original version had Lancaster dubbed into Italian; a shorter version made for US release apparently has Lancaster's own voice speasking English, but I presume everyone else is dubbed.  For another thing, I suspect Lancaster was miscast physically: his character, Prince Fabrizio Corbero di Salina, has a "vast expanse of" belly under "his waistcoat" (7),* which doesn't sound like Burt.
Not that he was fat; just very large and very strong; in houses inhabited by common mortals his head would touch the lowest rosette on the chandeliers; his fingers could twist a ducat coin as if it were mere paper; and there was constant coming and going between Villa Salina and a silversmith's tfor the mending of forks and spoons which, in some fit of controlled rage at table, he had coiled into a hoop. But those fingers could also stroke and handle with the most exquisite delicacy, as his wife Maria Stella knew only too well; and up in his private observatory at the top of the house the gleaming screws, caps, and studs of the telescopes, lenses, and "comet finders" would answer to his slightest touch [7-8].
I find myself picturing someone more like John Goodman, if the actor must be American.  I don't quite believe any Hollywood actor, especially of that era, could play such a character convincingly, especially amid a mostly Italian cast.

But the main reason I'm now reluctant to watch the movie is that Lampedusa's prose (as translated, quite beautifully, by Archibald Colquhoun) carries the book.  It hasn't much of a plot, though I can understand why the vivid descriptions of people (aside from the Prince, his future daughter-in-law is described so sensuously that even I wanted to caress her), food, buildings, and Sicilian landscapes would have tempted Visconti.  Everyone who writes about the film mentions the forty-minute-long ball scene, based on the one in the book, which I'm sure will be visually gorgeous, but I doubt it can convey Lampedusa's voice and tone.  That's always a problem with omniscient narrators, which is why every film or TV adaptation of Jane Austen I've seen falls flat.

Austen's on my mind right now because, inspired by a book group discussing Pride and Prejudice on the bicentennial of her death, I'm rereading all her work.  Film and video can give you the costumes, the landscapes, the architecture and the decor, which, along with Colin Firth in a wet shirt, are what most people take to be what these stories are about; it's much harder for them to convey the author's attitude to his or her story.

Like Austen, Lampedusa was an observer, often acidly satirical, of his social world.  (Lampedusa was himself a prince, and The Leopard is based on his grandfather.  It's said that he began writing the novel -- the only one he wrote -- after the family palace was destroyed by bombing during World War II. He died of cancer shortly before it was published.)  So, for example, we are told of a Sicilian peasant:
In fact with his low forehead, ornamental tufts of hair on the temples, lurching walk, and perpetual swelling of the right trouser pocket where he kept a knife, it was obvious at once that Vincenzino was a "man of honor," one of those violent cretins capable of any havoc [202].
I think it was the word "ornamental," so carefully and meaningfully placed, that first made me think of Jane Austen in connection with The Leopard: it's the kind of touch she often employed.  Though she would never have written as Lampedusa did, of the young ladies at the ball:
The more of them he saw the more he felt put out; his mind, conditioned by long periods of solitude and abstract thought, eventually, as he was passing through a long gallery where a populous colony of these creatures had gathered on the central pouf, produced a kind of hallucination; he felt like a keeper in a zoo set to looking after a hundred female monkeys; he expected at any minute to see them clamber up the chandeliers and hang there by their tails, swinging to and fro, showing off their behinds and loosing a stream of nuts, shrieks, and grins at pacific visitors below.

Curiously enough, it was religion that drew him from this zoologic vision, far from the group of crinolined monkeys there rose a monotonous, continuous sacred invocation.  "Maria! Maria!" the poor girls were perpetually exclaiming.  "Maria, what a lovely house!"  "Maria, what a handsome man Colonel Pallavicino is!"  "Maria, how my feet are hurting."  "Maria, I'm so hungry, when does the supper room open?"  The name of the Virgin, invoked by that virginal choir, filled the gallery and changed the monkeys back into women, since the wistiti of the Brazilian forests had not yet, so far as he knew, been converted to Catholicism.

Slightly nauseated, the Prince passed into the next room, where were encamped the rival and hostile tribe of men ... Among these men Don Fabrizio was considered an "eccentric"; his interest in mathematics was judged almost a sinful perversion, and had he not been actually Prince of Salina and known as an excellent horseman, indefatiguable shot, and tireless skirt chaser, his parallaxes and telescopes might have exposed him to the risk of being outlawed.  But he was not talked to much, for his cold blue eyes, glimpsed under their heavy lids, put questioners off, and he often found himself isolated, not, as he thought, from respect, but from fear [222-3].
Lampedusa wrote about his era in retrospect rather than from within it, as Austen wrote about hers.  The social worlds of balls, crinolines, hunting, palaces, are very similar, though fifty years after Austen, the Prince knows that the order he represents is in decline. If she had lived a century later, and felt free to write about sexuality and politics (most of The Leopard is set in the mid-1800s, during Italy's transition to a unified "modern" state, and several of its characters play significant roles in that transition), and if she had lived long enough to write about old age from experience, Austen might have produced something like The Leopard.  But Lampedusa did produce it, and I'm very glad to have gotten around to reading it at last.

*Quoted from the 2007 edition published by Pantheon Books.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

A Public Office Is a Public Lust

(If I recall correctly, the title of this post comes from an Edward Sorel cartoon published during Richard Nixon's first term as President: it was the caption accompanying a drawing of Nixon, dressed like Napoleon, admiring himself in a full-length mirror.)

Last week I was leery of part of a post by Janine Jackson, in which she criticized the corporate media for their failure "to fulfill their obligation to serve the public interest."  I asked how anyone knows what the public interest is, and who gets to decide whether a given news organ is serving it or not.  If anything, the whole rationale of freedom of the press is to protect expression from government imposing an official line on what is said or published.

So I was a bit startled this morning when Democracy Now! played a clip of James Buchanan, a right-wing economist popular among Republican ideologues.
JAMES BUCHANAN: There’s certainly no measurable concept that meaningful—that could be called the public interest, because how do you weigh different interests of different groups and what they can get out of it? The public interest, as a politician thinks, it does not mean it exists. It’s what he thinks is good for the country. And to—if he would come out and say that, that’s one thing. But behind this hypocrisy of calling something "the public interest" as if it exists is—that’s—that’s what I was trying to tear down.
Should I be upset that I agreed with some of this diatribe?  The guest Nermeen Shaykh was interviewing, historian Nancy Maclean, was quite upset by it.
NANCY MacLEAN: ... I just want to underscore for listeners those words: "That’s what I wanted to tear down," the idea of a public interest. You know, when we try to understand the mayhem that’s unfolding all around us, the ugliness that’s out there, the gross, you know, aspersions on people’s character who are trying to, you know, help people in our society—right?—and make a better country, that’s where this comes from. So that was Buchanan’s idea, yes, is that we’re all just self-interested actors, and nobody is telling the truth.
I'm not so sure about this.  For one thing, Trump also pretends that he cares about his subjects, that he wants to take care of them, to protect their jobs; he promised not to cut Medicare or Medicaid.  He pretends that he wants to protect the Homeland from internal and external enemies.  So do most of the Republican leadership.  They pretend that they want to replace the Affordable Care Act with something that do a better job of providing them with affordable health care.  They're lying, of course.  But then so are the Democrats, who've not only shown their willingness to undermine the well-being of most Americans in favor of corporate elites, but have been no less busy than Trump indulging in ugliness, casting aspersions on people's character, and so on.  So Professor MacLean is being less than fullly candid herself.

I think the first truth that ought to be recognized is that while we can honestly talk about the good and the interests of varying pluralities and majorities, it is probably impossible to satisfy everyone.  There will always be a tradeoff between the good of some and the good of others.  To speak of the public good or the public interest is disingenuous unless the speaker acknowledges that one person's good may not be so good for another.  In that sense Buchanan is quite right.

But to be fully honest about the interests James Buchanan and Republican and Democratic elites want to advance and serve would lead to problems.  I think that one reason politicians and corporate elites talk glowingly about the public good is that even they don't want to see themselves as the rapacious greedheads that they are.  Still, they often let their utter selfishness slip.  Which is fine, but they are always surprised when other people's selfishness is poised to clash with theirs.  Capitalists want state -- which is to say, public -- support and subsidy, not to mention immunity for the crimes they commit.  They want, in other words, other people to take care of them.  And by Buchanan's criteria, why should we do so?  Why should I care whether Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates or Steve Jobs or Jamie Dimon makes another billion dollars?  When pressed, they often splutter that they aren't just thinking of themselves: they resort to the dogma that while entrepreneurs may be selfish the free market (another fiction as mythical as "the public good") is good for everybody -- that the public good is served by their greed, that a rising tide lifts all boats, and so on.

I'll gladly abandon the concept of the public good, if the capitalists will.  But they won't: it's a smokescreen they find very useful.  Nor will they abandon the myth of the market.  I think we can -- or we had better -- find ways to talk about the needs and wishes of most people, to discuss public policy in meaningful ways, while remaining honest.  If not, there's no reason why the majority of people should let Buchanan, Trump, the Clintons, or all the other corrupt elites enjoy their ill-gotten gains.  That would probably lead to chaos and horrible destruction, but so, it seems, will the path Buchanan would prefer that we follow.  That will lead us to a plutocracy, a kleptocracy, even worse than the one that currently rules the country.  The rich can buy (and have bought) their own private police forces and armies; they can and do run their own propaganda agencies.  It's hard for those with other interests to match their clout.

And those who want, despite everything, to talk about the Public Good had better be as specific as possible about exactly which public they mean, and why other segments of the public aren't included.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Some Good Questions

And then this question of intelligence, -- are we too much, too readily impressed by mere articulateness?  I mean, is Raymond really a more intelligent person than the subaltern here who has commanded Indians all his life? How would Raymond come out of it, if he were suddenly put into a position of responsibility and authority?  How would his appreciation of the finer shades serve him then?  And which is the more important?  Or is it merely a question of difference, not of degree?

Besides, so far as feeling goes, I suspect there is as much feeling in the terse remarks of the subaltern, -- "Jolly day, -- jolly the mountains look, -- topping view," --as in any amount of verbiage.
-- Vita Sackville-West, writing to Virginia Woolf from Tehran, 23rd February 1927

[The Letters of Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Woolf, edited by Louise DeSalvo and Mitchell A. Leaska (Morrow, 1985), p. 178]

Monday, June 19, 2017

A Question of Priorities

I mostly agreed with this piece by FAIR's Janine Jackson up until the last couple of sentences.
... And that’s the thing to remember: Every person you see on air is there because someone chose to put them there, and is taking the place of someone else who might be there.  So when they, say, trot out the “n-word” and say it’s less “a race thing than a comedian thing”; when they ask an Indian-American spelling contest winner if she’s “used to” writing “in Sanskrit” because they’re “joking”; when they lament a commemoration of the now, they care about pop music and going to the beach”—the thing to keep in mind is that Orlando Pulse shooting being used to agitate for gun control because “most gay people aren’t political. Most gay people, you know, they care about pop music and going to the  beach" -- the thing to keep in mind is that freedom of speech is not the same thing as a guaranteed right to a megaphone. It is always appropriate to ask media outlets why they have chosen these people over others to fulfill their obligation to serve the public interest.
I think it's at least arguable that freedom of speech is the same thing as a guaranteed right to a megaphone.  Having the "freedom" to say whatever you like while you're alone in a soundproof room, or to write whatever you like as long as no one but you ever sees it, is not what I'd call freedom of speech or the press.  This has always been a problem with the implementation of freedom of speech, and the proprietors of today's commercial media would, I think, basically agree with Jackson here: Sure, you have the right to say whatever you like, but we're not obligated to give every tinfoil-hat wacko a soapbox and a megaphone for his crazy ideas.  So buy your own megaphone!

It was the part about the media's "obligation to serve the public interest" that bothered me first, though.  I agree that it's appropriate to challenge the media over the criteria by which they choose the people they provide with a megaphone, not because they aren't entitled to put anyone they like in front of the microphones and cameras, but because the corporate media posture as much about their responsibility to the public as Jackson could wish.  Even the most degraded and reactionary of our media claim to be telling the public what it wants and needs to know.  They wave the flag and prattle about their sense of duty to Truth, and their eternal quest for Objectivity.  It would be better to acknowledge that all media are partisan, that the corporate media report the news "through the eyes of the investor class" as another writer at FAIR put it very aptly a few years ago.  Non-commercial media are often no better: I happened to hear BBC commentary the morning after the recent UK election, and it was pretty appallingly partisan: even the pundit from a nominally Labour paper was upset by Labour's victory, saying younger voters voted for Labour because Corbyn had simply promised to give them money, and the woman from a Conservative women's website kept giggling about how Corbyn was like ninety years old, even after she was corrected.

The question is, what is the public interest?  Who knows it, and how do they know it?  Again, the corporate media would protest that they do so serve the public interest to the best of their  ability.  The principle underlying liberal, Enlightenment mandates like freedom of the press is that no one does know where the true public interest lies, so it is important that as many viewpoints as possible be available.  This may be invalid -- a surprising number of liberals and progressives jeer at it -- but if so, we should just repeal the First Amendment.

I think that consumers / users of media also need to take responsibility for their choices.  Everything you see on media is something you've chosen to watch or listen to, and it means that you're not listening to or watching something else.  There are many options available, probably more than ever before.  Even better, there are media criticism resources like FAIR, and unlike the media generally, they show their work: why is this statement dubious, what could this story contain that it doesn't, and so on?  No one can really do your thinking for you, so you have to evaluate the information you take in.  No media source is infallible, and every media source must be used critically.  If you prefer not to do that, it isn't the fault of the media (as a whole) if you end up misinformed.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

"Feverishly Patriotic and Irrational Effusions": Fake News in the Eighteenth-and-a-Half Century

I recently read Benjamin Franklin, Politician: The Mask and the Man (Norton, 1996) by the late Francis Jennings, a historian whose work has been very instructive for me.  The book is a relatively brief, revisionist (though not hostile) take on Franklin's rise to prominence before the American Revolution; Jennings dug around in the archives and found some information that hadn't been taken into account before.  It describes the history of the colony of Pennsylvania, which was a relative enclave of religious liberty in that period, complicated by mismanagement both of its founder, Wiliam Penn, and his son Thomas.

I especially liked this passage, about an attack on the colonial government written by a young Anglican priest, Thomas Barton, a protege of William Smith, who was in turn a protege of Franklin's.  Franklin didn't know that Smith later spied on him for Thomas Penn.  In 1754 Smith wrote anonymously "an incendiary pamphlet, entitled A Brief State of the Province of Pennsylvania, intended among other things to "induce the Parliament to take measures for the future security of this Province by excluding the Quakers from the Legislature."  The pamphlet "aroused a great future in Britain" (99).
Barton brought copies of [William] Smith's Brief State pamphlet, already in circulation in England, attacking the Assembly, the Quakers, and the Germans. It made such a "prodigious Noise," and was so far-reaching in its intended and unintended effects, that it deserves in some detail.  Its title page describes its author as "a Gentleman who has resided many Years in Pennsylvania."  This set the keynote for the pamphlet's deceptions; Smith, at the time of writing it, had visited Philadelphia for several weeks in 1753, and had resided there less than eight months in 1754.

The pamphlet opens with a brief review of population statistics on the generous side, and lays down maxims of government.  Popular government is all right for infant settlements, it says, but as communities grow their government should become less popular and more "mixt."  Pennsylvania has become more of "a pure Republic" than at its founding.  A "speedy Remedy" is needed.  The province has too much toleration: "extraordinary Indulgence and Privileges" are granted to papists.  (They were allowed to celebrate mass openly.)  The Quakers conduct "political Intrigues, under the Mask of Religion."  (As all the organized religions did, in England as well as America.)  For their own ends, the Quakers have taken "into their pay" a German printer named Saur, "who was once one of the French Prophets in German, and is shrewdly suspected to be a Popish emissary."  (Saur was an Anabaptist, fiercely independent.)  The "worst Consequence" of the Quakers' "insidious practices" with the Germans is that the latter "are grown insolent, sullen, and turbulent."  They give out "that they are a Majority, and strong enough to make the Country their own," and indeed they would be able, "by joining with the French, to eject all the English inhabitants ... the French have turned their Hopes upon the great body of Germans ... by sending their Jesuitical Emissaries among them ... they will draw them from the English ... or perhaps lead them in a Body against us."  The Quakers oppose every effort to remedy this evil state of affairs, attacking all "regular Clergymen as Spies and Tools of State."  Thus the Quakers hinder ministers from "having Influence enough to set them right at the annual Elections."  The greatest German sect is the Mennonites -- people like the Quakers.  A quarter of the Germans are "supposed" to be Roman Catholics.  (Even Thomas Penn understood that there were only about two thousand Catholics in the province.  But he did not make that knowledge public.)  [106-7]
Smith's diatribe should sound familiar to observers and consumers of American political discourse today: furriners who refuse to learn our language are taking over, to impose Canon law on decent Christians. and pacifist surrender-monkeys not only want them to succeed, they are actively in the pay of Putin!

The other day someone shared this meme on Facebook:

It turns out, surprisingly enough (it's a meme spreading like a radioactive virus on Facebook, after all) to be a genuine quotation.  One commenter called it "prescient," which was, um, stupid since Bonhoeffer was not talking about the future but about Nazi Germany in his present and recent past.  I pointed this out, and the commenter replied that he didn't mean it "foretold" anything, which was probably a lie, or to put it more nicely, apologetic invention; he proceeded to tie himself in knots trying to justify it.  It was as if he'd found a passage where Bonhoeffer referred to sunrise, and kvelled that the sun came up this morning, so Bonhoeffer was prescient about that.

Of course it's a common and "natural" human tendency to take literary or other material from the past as not just relevant to the present as well, but as a specific reference to the present: Christianity, for one major cultural force, was built on such appropriation of the Hebrew Bible.  And like the ancient Christians, today's American liberals think of all history as a prelude leading up to themselves, the crown of creation and the fulfilment of all human hope, as foretold in the scriptures.  Liberals love to jeer at fundamentalists for thinking like this, but they are treading the same path every time they claim that today's Right is completely unprecedented.

The reason why the Bonhoeffer quotation should give Americans pause is not that he was foretelling American's future, but that he was describing a problem that was current then, had a long history worldwide, and has not gone away since then.  Thinking otherwise helps foster the dangerous illusion that things used to be different, the media used to tell the Truth, people used to be good to each other, America was the land that didn't torture, Barack ended the wars, etc., and all the Democrats need to do is take America back.
But it's also dangerous to think of "stupid people" as the Other.  I am stupid, you are stupid, we're all stupid here, or we wouldn't be here.  I told another liberal commenter on the Bonhoeffer meme that I too have given up on talking to stupid people, but that was just rhetoric.  It's always important to answer, rebut, and try to refute positions and statements we think are stupid.  True, we probably won't convince the people we're criticizing, but we might persuade someone else who reads what we've written.  That's the point of debate -- to persuade not our opponent, but our audience.

So that's why I liked Jennings's book and the passage I quoted here, though I suppose it could just as easily make people feel hopeless: if people have always been dishonest and irrational, then why even try to oppose them?  It's a question I don't have a good answer for, especially since dishonesty and irrationality so often win.  But it's possible to make them lose too.  If we remember how persistent they are, though, we won't be surprised when they bounce back.  We might even be able to think of ways to resist and stop them before they get the upper hand again, instead of wailing, "Oh no, this is unprecedented, where did these people come from, why are they being so mean?"

Thursday, June 15, 2017

The Cart Before the Horse

This tweet made me feel a twinge of despair.  What I think we need is not hope but reason for hope.  And there is some of that, in the wake of Labour's resurgence in last week's election.  But this confusion of the word with the thing itself is magical thinking, the kind of linguistic determinism I associate with the Culture of Therapy, and the reponses to the tweet indicate that I recognize it correctly.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Human-Caused Climate Change

It's going to take time to sort out everything about today's shooting of several people at a Republican Congressional baseball practice by an apparent Bernie Sanders supporter and volunteer, and I could use that as an excuse not to write about it now.  But one thing seems clear to me.  For the past year and more I've been watching liberals, progressives, and leftists fantasize aloud about and even endorse violence against Republicans and other right-wingers, from the video clip of a football player tackling a Trump lookalike (shared on Facebook by my friend A, who unfriended me soon after I called her out on it) to the widespread kvelling over the punching of Richard Spencer.  Whatever the facts about James T. Hodgkinson turn out to be, I think it's indisputable that liberal Democrats have been energetically fostering what they call a "climate of hate" when it's fomented by the Right.

They'll do their best to evade responsibility for their words, of course, just as the Right did after the shooting of Gabrielle Gifford.  They'll try to claim that Hodgkinson was mentally ill, a lone nut, and that the vitriol liberals and some leftists have been spewing in public for the past year -- and especially since the election of Donald Trump -- had nothing to do with his crime.  Maybe so, maybe not: Hodgkinson died in the hospital after he was shot by police, so he can't speak for himself; but apparently he had a rather vivid social-media presence.

I believe that we are responsible for our actions and our words, and that words mostly are not actions.  We can't be held responsible for everything that happens after we've acted or spoken, because it's not always certain whether something like this crime was a consequence of public rhetoric.  But it's notable that liberals and progressives have insisted often that the Right's rhetoric made such crimes more likely -- that "climate of hate" -- while giving themselves a pass for their own intemperate and often hateful rhetoric.  The denial that is so by many liberals, like the person in the photo that heads this post, is not only illiberal but a declaration of war on the principle of free speech.  I've often told liberals who claimed that "hate speech" isn't constitutionally protected that they should be glad it is, because otherwise they themselves would be in deep shit.

But then the rest of us are in deep shit too, as both mainstream US political factions gleefully drag the country (and the rest of the world) down.  "The creatures outside looked from pig to man," at the ending of Orwell's Animal Farm, "and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which."

P.S. Yes You're Racist has been active in fostering a climate of hate on Twitter, joining hands with the white supremacists he purports to despise, so this morning's retweet was almost funny:

It is okay to spread toxicity if it gets retweets and favorites on Twitter apparently.  Some of us don't need to "rethink things," though.  A rich white lady got hurt a few years ago, after all -- has YYR already forgotten Gabrielle Giffords and the eighteen other people shot during a constituent meeting in Arizona six years ago?  Six of them died, including a rich white guy and a little girl.  YYR and his ilk are paradigm examples of what so many left writers call "tribalism," the belief that only our side's lives matter.  If it's not okay to spread toxicity, it doesn't matter who gets hurt.

And, of course, some in the liberal media are blaming Putin for Hodgkinson.  Why not?