Archive for 2014

Teacher in America:
55 Thoughts
27 May 2014

Tuesday, May 27th, 2014

¶ At The Millions, Nick Ripatrazone offers a list of 55 considerations for any teacher of high-school English. I read it as Lydia Davis without the irony. Sample:

You will often have young women in class who love to write, and who outnumber the men, and yet these young women will stop writing. Teach them to keep writing. Show them their words matter. Introduce them to Mary Shelley, Marilynne Robinson, Jayne Anne Phillips, Toni Morrison, Tayari Jones, Charlotte and Emily Brontë, Alice Elliott Dark, Virginia Woolf, Stacey D’Erasmo, Roxane Gay, Jamie Quatro, Megan Mayhew Bergman, Mary Karr, Susan Sontag, Natalie Diaz, Emily Dickinson, Kate Chopin, Denise Levertov, Adrienne Rich, Anne Sexton, Willa Cather, Joan Didion, Donna Tartt, and, please, Flannery O’Connor.

Do not try to sanitize Flannery. Let her live on the page.

All well and good. But we want to send Ripatrazone a book by Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future mostly likely, to encourage him to teach his students that they are invaders, unknown newcomers to a complex world that they cannot begin to improve until they know something about it. This is the whole point of education; it’s why we require something so tedious of young people. But we’ve never been good at telling them why the ordeal is necessary. It is our conviction that a teacher who could convey the necessity of education to his or her students would dissolve the ordeal altogether.

Putrid Lies:
The Skills Gap
31 March 2014

Monday, March 31st, 2014

¶ Whether we were roused from our habitual complacent but tacit assent to almost everything that Paul Krugman has to say in his column at the Times by a wave of springlike weather or by an exceptional acuity of insight, we decided to begin a collection of Putrid Lies for use as a self-test. If you fail to smell the rank decay, then you must retire to the Nuisance Corner and compose an eloquent defense of the proposition in question. In today’s case, it concerns the alleged “skills gap.”

Unfortunately, the skills myth — like the myth of a looming debt crisis — is having dire effects on real-world policy. Instead of focusing on the way disastrously wrongheaded fiscal policy and inadequate action by the Federal Reserve have crippled the economy and demanding action, important people piously wring their hands about the failings of American workers.

Moreover, by blaming workers for their own plight, the skills myth shifts attention away from the spectacle of soaring profits and bonuses even as employment and wages stagnate. Of course, that may be another reason corporate executives like the myth so much.

Don’t listen to anyone from the One Percent who claims that the skills gap is a problem.

Brokenland Note:
Ghosts and Zombies
17 February 2014

Monday, February 17th, 2014

¶ For years (decades), we have bewildered our friends by calling for the termination of the Democratic Party — and the retirement of its senior operatives to pleasant pastures without Internet connections (all right, the connectivity thing is a recent stipulation). Our friends are naturally regard the Democratic Party as the last hope of progressive Americans, but, in our view, this is as good as forsaking hope altogether. There used to be a vibrant Democratic Party, but it sacrificed itself for a greater good — the promotion of Civil Rights. Thereafter, its deserted shrines were haunted by ghosts and zombies. One of the ghosts, Adolph Reed, has an essay in the current issue of Harper’sHe wants to revive the labor-versus-management blue collar party that flourished in the Postwar boom, and his criticism of “New Democrat” thinking has a Jacobin glint to it. One of the zombies, Al From, an architect of that thinking, has written a book in which he appears to claim that he was its only architect, a boast that Rick Pearlstein, reviewing the book in The Nation, is eager to discredit. Along the way, Pearlstein also discredits the New Democrats, but without the undertow of tumbrils.

Pearlstein on From:

From, however, is not chagrined. The “core principles of the New Democrat movement…are as viable and useful for meeting today’s challenges as they were for meeting the challenges of the 1990s.” For instance: “we need to adopt and enforce a blueprint that will cut the deficit and build confidence in the private marketplace.” Does he care that, as President Obama constantly boasts, the rate of budget growth is now lower than at any time since the 1950s? Or that the stock market is higher than it has been since the 1990s? No, he does not. Nor, surely, have the jet-setters and feather-bedders who feted his new book at a party hosted by the powerful DC law and lobbying firm Akin Gump—for which From serves as a “consultant”—at the shimmering new Bank of America Tower at One Bryant Park. “As Bill Clinton would often remind me,” From writes, “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome is the definition of insanity.” Yet the formula has worked well enough for From: he’s been wrong in the same way over and over again, and for him, things have turned out just fine.

We doubt that we’d support Reed’s party of the left; it strikes us as anachronistic. Surely there must be new ways to counter what Andrew Packer calls “organized money.” But we applaud Reed’s assessment of the fundamentally useless Democratic Party.

The crucial tasks for a committed left in the United States now are to admit that no politically effective force exists and to begin trying to create one. This is a long-term effort, and one that requires grounding in a vibrant labor movement. Labor may be weak or in decline, but that means aiding in its rebuilding is the most serious task for the American left. Pretending some other option exists is worse than useless. There are no magical interventions, shortcuts, or technical fixes. We need to reject the fantasy that some spark will ignite the People to move as a mass. We must create a constituency for a left program — and that cannot occur via MSNBC or blog posts or the New York Times. It requires painstaking organization and building relationships with people outside the Beltway and comfortable leftist groves. Finally, admitting our absolute impotence can be politically liberating; acknowledging that as a left we have no influence on who gets nominated or elected, or what they do in office, should reduce the frenzied self-delusion that rivets attention to the quadrennial, biennial, and now seemingly permanent horse races. It is long past time for us to begin again to approach leftist critique and strategy by determining what our social and governmental priorities should be and focusing our attention on building the kind of popular movement capable of realizing that vision. Obama and his top aides punctuated that fact by making brutally apparent during the 2008 campaign that no criticism from the left would have a place in this regime of Hope and Change. The message could not be clearer.

Brokenland Note:
27 January 2014

Monday, January 27th, 2014

¶ We were astonished to read a piece in the Times, even if it was printed on blue paper at the rear of the Magazine, posing the question “Is It Immoral to Watch the Super Bowl?” What makes this essay impressive is its having been written by an avowed football fan, Steve Almond. We don’t think that American professional football is immoral; we think that it’s criminal, or ought to be. But a long history of failed prohibitions stays our keyboarding hand.

We don’t believe that it’s necessary to get to the question of whether watching the game is moral or not; we think that it’s enough to contemplate the damages inflicted on the athletes, and then to question our interest in what ought to be nauseating. But we’re thrilled that the question has been raised in such a prominent venue. As with gay marriage, we didn’t expect things to happen quite this fast. But then, we’re old. And it never would have occurred to us to point to the linkage between the baroque spectacle of today’s Super Bowl with our dreary military record. Dummies, we.

Over the past 12 years, as Americans have sought a distraction from the moral incoherence of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the game has served as a loyal and satisfying proxy. It has become an acceptable way of experiencing our savage impulses, the cultural lodestar when it comes to consuming violence. What differentiates it from the glut of bloody films and video games we devour is our awareness that the violence in football, and the toll of that violence, is real.

The struggle playing out in living rooms across the country is that of a civilian leisure class that has created, for its own entertainment, a caste of warriors too big and strong and fast to play a child’s game without grievously injuring one another. The very rules that govern our perceptions of them might well be applied to soldiers: Those who exhibit impulsive savagery on the field are heroes. Those who do so off the field are reviled monsters.

The Meliorist Front:
The I Miller Building
9 January 2014

Friday, January 10th, 2014

¶ Our civic Christmas present was the gift of the people who bought and renovated the I Miller Building in Times Square. Scouting NY reported on the before, and now it’s celebrating the after. Hear, hear!

Modern Horrors:
Fire Speech
8 January 2014

Wednesday, January 8th, 2014

¶ We finally got round to reading this month’s Pacific Standard cover story, “Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet,” by Amanda Hess. We don’t understand what it makes it any less impermissible to post sexual threats online than it is to cry “Fire!” in a crowded theatre. Knucklehead Michael Brusch of Texas displays an almost autistic unconcern for the impact of his “speech.”

In 2012, Gawker unmasked “Violentacrez,” an anonymous member of the online community Reddit who was infamous for posting creepy photographs of underage women and creating or moderating subcommunities on the site with names like “chokeabitch” and “rapebait.” Violentacrez turned out to be a Texas computer programmer named Michael Brusch, who displayed an exceedingly casual attitude toward his online hobbies. “I do my job, go home, watch TV, and go on the Internet. I just like riling people up in my spare time,” he told Adrian Chen, the Gawker reporter who outed him. “People take things way too seriously around here.”

We only wish that we could say that Brusch sounds peculiar.


Book Note:
Forgery and Theft, C & C
7 January 2014

Tuesday, January 7th, 2014

¶ If you were gripped by Nicholas Schmidle’s New Yorker piece on Massimo De Caro, the Italian book forger who literally cooked the books, you’ll enjoy Travis McDade’s refresher about the Oath of a Freeman hoax back in 1985, to which McDade adds an interesting coda. (The Millions)

Much of the information in this piece came from the efforts of James Gilreath. As an Americana specialist at the Library of Congress, he was not only one of the first folks to examine the broadside in 1985, but he wrote about his experience, and encouraged others to do so, in a 1991 collection he edited called The Judgment of Experts. I sometimes assign parts of this work for a class I teach on rare book crime. But what is never made clear in this otherwise excellent book is whether Gilreath, who had worked at the Library of Congress since 1974, was already stealing rare books from that library’s collection when he went to New York to help authenticate Hofmann’s “Oath.”

Where Should Richard III Lie?
6 January 2014

Monday, January 6th, 2014

¶ What with the holiday rush, this piece, by Sam Knight, took a while to register with the good people at The Morning News, and even longer for us to discover after fiddling with Feedly (about which there is still much to be learned).

Where to put the bones of Richard III? That’s not the question; the question is, how to decide where to put them? The City and University of Leicester, which oversaw the exhumation in 2012 (and announced it officially early last year), were perhaps rash in deciding to treat their findings as “human remains,” to be dealt with like any other. But it’s just as hard to sympathise with the Plantaganet Alliance, a virtual club of the short-reigned king’s collateral descendants.

The Ricardian scene is also known for its openness towards ideas of reincarnation. One member of the Richard III Society told me that he would not be surprised if the entire movement turned out to be reincarnated henchmen of the King, and that he would sue me if his name was ever connected with this belief. Charles Brunner, the American prominent in the Plantagenet Alliance, prefers to use the phrase “ancestral memory” to describe his sense of identification with England’s bloody 15th century. “If the reincarnation thing does play into it, there were a lot of people who lost their lives during those events,” he said, “and a lot of what you could call unfinished business in the entire thing.”

Explicable or not, this depth of feeling has made Roe and the Plantagenet Alliance formidable, if unconventional, campaigners. They are not natural negotiators. When I asked Roe whether she would be satisfied if the group were granted the consultation it was seeking, and Richard’s remains were still interred in Leicester, she said: “No. No. Because that is not the right answer. That is not what he wanted. So, no. No.”

After a bit of sputtering, we decided that the idea that you can be the reincarnation of your own ancestors is probably not all that uncommon. Here’s what Alan Bennett has to say about Richard III in this year’s excerpts from last year’s diary:

4 February. I don’t imagine that my old Oxford supervisor, the medieval historian Bruce McFarlane, would be much exercised by the discovery of the body of Richard III, though there would be some mild satisfaction in finding the king exactly where the sources said he was. McFarlane wouldn’t have thought the body particularly informative as compared with the real stuff of history, some of the ex-duke of York’s receiver’s accounts, say, or records of Yorkist estate management.

The TV programme on Channel 4 was a lengthy and slightly spurious cliffhanger, culminating in the always conjectural reconstruction of what the famous corpse looked like. No different from the fanciful portrait, it turns out, but with enough humanity to satisfy the convictions of the Richard III Society, who were stumping up for the whole exercise. Bracketed in my mind with the ‘Bacon is Shakespeare’ lot, the Richard III fans seem not without a bob or two and with some of their barmier members on parade in the programme.

Just east of Leeds and not far from Towton and its bloody battlefield is Lead Church, a medieval cell of a chapel which possibly served as a refuge or a dressing station after the battle in 1461. I have known the chapel since I was a boy when I used to go out there on my bike. It stands in the middle of a field, the grass grazed by sheep right up to the south door and has latterly been in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust. It was untouched as late as 2000 when it figured in an article I wrote for The World of Interiors. However, calling there a few years ago we found that the grass outside the south door had been replaced or supplemented by a patio not even in York stone but in some fake composition. Inside, draped in front of the altar was a gaudy banner advertising the Richard III Society. This I rolled up and had I had the means would have destroyed. I wrote to the CCT, who generally do a decent job, but was told the patio had been there for many years. It hadn’t and I suspect the culprits were the Richard III Society, who see the church as a Yorkist site on which they can lavish their presumably ample funds.

So had the last of the Yorkist kings been left under the car park I would not have grieved.

Neither, really, should we.