An ideofact is an artifact imbued with meanings other than its technical function.
Saturday, September 28, 2002
You might notice the post below from Friday. I was going to post more, but every time I hit the post button, it came up that way. I've decided to leave the post up -- it's symbolic of something, although I'm not sure what.
There was so little of interest about today's demonstrations in Washington that I didn't bother to make an entry. There were other reasons as well, which I'll get to in a minute.
I don't necessarily mind protests, but these are somewhat different affairs. Local media accounts -- particularly television broadcasts -- contained numerous statements from some of the "activists." I saw one young man, no older than 25, explaining that capitalism was the root of all evil -- racism, sexism, poverty, violence, environmental degradation, and disease. Amazing that an organizing mechanism of society, which has existed (and I'm being liberal in my estimate) for 250 years, could be the root of evils which have been part of the human condition since its inception. But what bothers me more is the aim of the demonstrators -- to shut down the capitalist system, to create as much havoc in the daily lives of people -- people who in live in Washington, D.C. (which is hardly the center of world capitalism -- the genius of capitalism is that there is no such center).
Another reason I didn't write anything today is that I was out of the office for much of it. Around 11:30 I left the office; I took a cab across to the Potomac to my house, and drove my son to his doctor's office. There's nothing seriously wrong with him, but the poor little guy is miserable (and very brave: after swallowing his medicine, which even smelled bad -- I can't imagine how it tasted except by his pained expression as it went down -- he said, "Boy, am I tough." Yes, he is).
If the demonstrations had been successful, there would have been no cabs running in the vicinity of my building. I would have needed more time to get home, or, had I left work at 11:30, we would have been late for his appointment -- inconveniencing his doctor, making both us and the other parents there wait long -- or perhaps we would have missed it altogether.
Fortunately, none of that happened. By and large, the city functioned as a city should. Hacks sought fairs, parents brought their children to doctors' offices, pharmacies filled prescriptions, and my son is sleeping a little more peacefully tonight than he did last night. I made it back to the office in time to do my small part in keeping this system going. This is what the protestors wanted to disrupt.
And this is why I have no sympathy for these "demonstrations:" Adding to the discomfort of a sick three-year-old boy would not have been an unfortunate byproduct of the protestors' goals, it was the goal.
Friday, September 27, 2002
Peter Wortsman, who produced the fine, very readable translation of Johannes Reuchlin's work, Recommendation Whether to Confiscate, Destroy and Burn All Jewish Books, has emailed some criticism of my earlier post on the work:
As the translator-editor-presenter of "Recommendation Whether To Confiscate, Destroy and Burn All Jewish Books," (Paulist Press, 2000) German Humanist Johannes Reuchlin's landmark defense of the Talmud and other Hebrew books against the false charges of the Inquisition, I take issue with your light-handed, ill-informed put-down of the book in your "ideofact" of Sept. 9, 2002--which I happened upon in a cursory search on google.com.Now, I must confess I was a bit taken aback by this email. I reread the post, and while I certainly don't have the benefit of either Dr. Wortsman's education or familiarity with the text (he translated it after all; I just read the translation), I was fairly confident that what I had written wasn't entirely off the mark. So I replied,
First of all, my sincerest apologies if I gave offense. I certainly didn't mean to. My discussion of Reuchlin was in the context of a current theological debate, carried on by various members of what we bloggers like to call the blogosphere, regarding Southern Baptist and Catholic attitudes toward converting Jews; I raised Reuchlin's writings because they seemed to touch on many of the same themes I was reading on others' blogs.The good Dr. Wortsman responded,
Thank you for your considered reply. Feel free to post my message. It was I who insisted on adding the subtitle to the text published by Paulist Press [Dr. Wortsman is referring to the subtitle, "A Classic Treatise against Anti-Semitism, which appears on the cover of the book]. I feared that some might glance at the title--as indeed happened--and think it an antisemitic work. Being Jewish myself and the child of refugees from Hitler's Germany, I certainly did not want that.Now, let me say two things: First of all, I certainly didn't mean to give the impression that I thought Reuchlin's legal brief was deserving of derision. If I were in need of legal help, I'd much rather have a lawyer who was going to try win my case, rather than play to posterity, and Reuchlin's treatise succeeded, at a terrible cost to him. I think my original post on the subject tried to convey all this.
Secondly, I do not dispute that Reuchlin's treatise is important, or that it was effective. But I remain a little skeptical, and I'll explain why in another post, some other time.
Thursday, September 26, 2002
Burying the lede
The term homeland, which gained currency in the language shortly after the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and with which a range of pundits have expressed discomfort, was used as early as 1997 to distinguish anti-terrorism efforts from more traditional defence planning and preparedness, Ideofact has learned.
Sorry if this seems redundant, but in the post below I truly buried the lede, and I got a few emails from people asking if I hadn't seen the dozens of posts and columns criticizing the term. It's not exactly journalism 101, but if there's one valuable thing I took from His Girl Friday, it was Cary Grant's thundering at Rosalind Russell, "Nobody reads the second paragraph!"
Witness the glee of Xavier Basora (of whose blog I'm very fond, by the way) over what I originally led with:
Bill Allison has posted an amusing article of how some Americans bristle at the word:homeland. It seems that the word is 'unAmerican' and gives chills due to the police state connatations. Once again, as a Canadian I get to gloat over the Americans for their unilingualism and as well as the bloggers of the Anglosphere persuasion. In French and the other Romance languages, the word homeland translates more or less extacly as patrie/patria. Consequently, in French, you'd have the new Ministère de la défense de la patrie or DEFENSEPAT for the fancy pants acronym.I'll probably spark a linguistic dispute (how about a tongue fight?) with Xavier, but what the heck: Part of the genius of William Tyndale, the 16th Century translator of the Bible, was that he avoided wherever possible using Latin roots, preferring the far more earthy, tangible, yet also poetic, Anglo-saxon words. But I can't complain too much about the Normans, since I share a first name with a rather famous one.
This may have been pointed out before, and if so, forgive me for being months behind the times. I came across this by chance in a Nexis search at work today, and offer it for what it is worth.
The great Mickey Kaus has taken issue with the term "homeland security." I don't think security is the word that's bothering him; rather it's the whole concept of homeland. As he wrote in the article I've linked:
"Homeland," as Noonan notes, isn't a word Americans have been used to using. It's word Germans have been used to using. "Heimat," a common German word, means home -- and not home as in "home and hearth" either (that's "heim"). "Heimat" means "home" as in a place or nation that's home. "Heimatland" is the literal analog of "homeland," as I understand it. It's not specifically a Nazi word -- it's a general patriotic and sentimental word. It was used during World War I, for example. My mother, who was born in Germany but fled at age 10, can sing from memory a pre-Hitler song with "Heimatland" in it. Still, Nazi or not, the word is uncomfortably Teutonic-sounding. (And you don't think the Nazis appropriated it?) My raw sentiments are these: I'm an American, not a German. My father fought in a bloody war so I wouldn't have to be a German. Why is the Bush administration telling me I need to be German now?I hate to relate things I can't verify, but within a few weeks of Sept. 11 -- before Peggy Noonan of the Wall Street Journal or Kaus started in on the term -- I had a late night chat with an old friend from my Philly days about the oddness of the word. We too pinned it on Bush and 9/11. So imagine my surprise when I came across this story (sorry, no link, I pulled it from Nexis. The paper that published it was the St. Louis Post Dispatch, the date was May 9, 2001, and the source was the Associated Press):
Vice President Dick Cheney will lead a new task force on terrorist threats to, in his words "figure out how we best respond to that kind of disaster of major proportions that in effect would be man-made or man-caused."Intrigued, I searched further. Here's a 1997 story, published in The New York Times, which again credits the AP:
The United States armed forces should give greater emphasis to such emerging threats as hit-and-run biological attacks on American cities, a panel chartered by Congress is prepared to tell the Pentagon.So it appears that the word "Homeland" originated with the Clinton administration, although it may go back further.
I also came across these interesting paragraphs from a Gail Collins column, which ran in The New York Times on May 8, 2001:
Right now, 46 federal agencies are working on homeland defense. If a nuclear bomb were to be unleashed somewhere inside the United States tomorrow, it's far from clear who would be in control of the response. (Except, of course, in the case of New York City, where Mayor Rudolph Giuliani would be in complete and total charge, even if he had already been incinerated.)Of course, the 46 federal agencies didn't exactly do a bang up job. Giuliani, on the other hand, was incredible.
Wednesday, September 25, 2002
The aesthetic approach
I've been thinking about this quite a bit lately. Borges, at the end of the fine collection of essays called Other Inquisitions notes two tendencies in the work, the first of which interests me:
The first tendency is to evaluate religious or philosophical ideas on the basis of their aesthetic worth and even for what is singular and marvelous about them. Perhaps this is an indication of a basic skepticism.It would be redundant to point out that I am a very different from Borges (and a very inferior writer, I should add), but I think I share to some limited extent his skepticism (I should probably say I learned it from him, but to do so without qualification would be doing a disservice to the many other writers who have taught me a great deal as well). I don't think I share his tendency in evaluating ideas, I'm far more prosaic.
The skeptical approach has served me well, but I admit to being shaken tonight. I received an email from a knowledgeable person which charcterizes this post, on Johannes Reuchlin and his work Recommendation Whether to Confiscate, Destroy and Burn All Jewish Books, as a "light-handed, ill-informed put-down" of the work and, presumably, of Reuchlin as well. I have asked the author of the email to allow me to publish his full missive here, or a more specific critique of my post, with full attribution; I'll let you know if he responds.
Let me say in the meantime that I'm not at all convinced that my post was ill informed or even a put down of Reuchlin's work or person. I've found that my readers often know far more about the subjects I write about than I do; if you'd like to share your thoughts on the Reuchlin post, feel free. The email is email@example.com.
Well, the particular block in Washington, D.C., where I work is bracing for the forthcoming village idiots convention (sorry -- village idiots were generally harmless). The honor boxes, which allow me to scan the headlines of the Washington Post, the Washington Times, Baltimore Sun, New York Times, Wall St. Journal, Philadelphia Inquirer, Financial Times, New York Daily News, New York Post, and a half dozen other papers, have been or will be carted off for the next few days. The building has sent around word about additional security being hired for the day. We've heard that access to the street might be through checkpoints, and we should bring business cards and our driver licenses or we might not be able to get to our building.
At the little place where I buy lunch and too many cups of coffee, one of the cashiers told me that a demonstrator stopped in to ask him for food. At the last demonstrations at the World Bank, the champions of all the world's ills have asked the place during previous demonstrations to support the cause (whatever it might be) by donating the leftover sandwiches to the heroic freedom fighters that cost the place a good part of its business.
I said to him, yes, we always have leftovers, but we give them to the homeless. He said oh. Then he asked if he could have them anyway.Off course, it's okay for the demonstrator to ask for the food, because he's fighting the capitalist system that keeps the homeless destitute. Besides, there's nothing like an empty stomach to raise class consciousness.
Regrettably, I must be at work Friday. I'll try to provide reports, time or newsworthiness permitting. (Of course, if it rains, we shouldn't have too much trouble -- or at least we didn't the last time the anti-Globos wanted to protest a World Bank meeting.)
It's been a while. The next in the series should be up in a couple of nights. I'd say tomorrow night, but I don't want to promise on anything I'm not sure I can deliver.
They didn't get much play on its Web site, but the Washington Post ran this story on page one today, and related story with the jump. Both, I think, are worth reading, in part because they remind us that the victory in the Cold War was not nearly as satisfying as it should have been:
In Russia, no one complicit in Stalin's crimes ever stood trial. The Communist Party's responsibility was briefly aired in Russia's constitutional court in 1992 after Yeltsin tried to ban the party, but the court did not try to assess guilt.Without that process, without the official findings, many in Russia believe Stalin wasn't so bad:
Kursina cannot talk to her 81-year-old mother about her work. Despite her family's history, her mother still supports the Communist Party and considers Stalin a great leader.Kursina's mother, regrettably, isn't alone:
In an opinion poll one year ago, more than half of all Russians surveyed viewed Stalin with ambivalence or as a positive force; only one-fourth said he did more harm than good. Communist politicians, the biggest bloc in the Russian Duma, openly praise Stalin, claiming the mass arrests and executions under his rule have been vastly exaggerated.The truth, as the other article makes clear, is altogether different:
MOSCOW, Sept. 23 -- After years of fruitless searching, investigators for a prominent human rights organization have uncovered what they believe to be one of the major killing fields of Joseph Stalin's Great Terror of the 1930s at a military firing range outside St. Petersburg.Think about that number: 30,000 people. A good night's attendance at some major league baseball stadiums. Enough to fill a town. And all of them gunned down. And this, not even the worst of the Stalinist crimes. Further, remember why they were killed. Because of, as Zbigniew Herbert put it, the dialectic of history.
Tuesday, September 24, 2002
Dressed for the H-bomb
I won't criticize Aziz Poonawalla for this post, since many others have. I couldn't help thinking of the Gang of Four song, though. Ah, Marxist post punk pop. I can still hear Andy Gill's guitar and Jon King's manic vocal.
Xavier Basora of the Buscaraon blog was kind enough to send along this information:
Just wanted to clarify that pirates most certainly existed since the Middle Ages in the Mediterranean at least, they were called corsairs. Corsairs were state santioned raiders who'd capture merchant ships and then give the bulk of the wealth to the king; keeping a small portion to themsleves; other deals were that the king would get all the treasure while the corsairs would be allowed to ransom the crew and boat.I don't know too much about corsairs, but that sounds about right. However, the pirates at the Renaissance fair were modelling themselves on late 17th or early 18th Century pirates -- the Blackbeards, the Bartholemew Robertses, and the William Kidds. I probably should have been a little clearer on that point.
Monday, September 23, 2002
Hot or Cold III
First of all, thanks to the great Glenn Frazier for the kind words and the link. Aziz Poonawalla has updated his post and responded to my ramblings, also in his comments section. He emailed me as well to assure me that his proposal for Saddam to be a proxy dictator was supposed to be satirical -- sorry I didn't pick up on that. Finally, though it's off topic, Vegard Valberg, the great Norwegian blogger, is a little put off by spammers.
Saturday, as I mentioned in the post immediately below, I took the family to the Maryland Renaissance Festival. I didn't bother to get upset about the historical inaccuracy of the pirate theme that prevailed the day we visited -- the great age of piracy belongs more properly to the Age of Enlightenment as opposed to the Renaissance (although some argue, with reasonable accuracy, that Francis Drake kicked the whole thing off). On the other hand, the three year old got to wear an eye patch, his tricorn, and all the rest of his piraty paraphenalia, and he had a great time. I was somewhat amazed that an often shy child ran up to adults dressed after the fashion of Blackbeard or the Dread Pirate Roberts and yelled, "Ahoy, me hearties!"
The grown up pirates were more than willing to humor the lad. He had more than one offer to ship out with the scurviest pirates this side of Madagascar, and while I don't worry too much that this indicates a future career choice for him, he did tell his mother and me that he'd much rather have taken them up on the offer than return to preschool, where there aren't any pirates at all.
We were there to have fun, and we had quite a bit of fun, and I have the photos to prove it. I suppose I could have turned a more critical eye to the occasion. It seemed that of those who wore Renaissance-themed costumes (most people, incidentally, didn't wear any costume at all), a small, though not insignificant, number seemed to regard the Renaissance as synonymous with Wiccan, New Age, or Heavy Metal-inspired occult beliefs. And they were the ones truly in sync with the spirit of that age. And perhaps with this one as well.
I mentioned that I picked up Frances Yates' fine work on Giordano Bruno. One of the points she makes early on is that the Corpus Hermiticum, the collection of works attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, dated not from darkest antiquity, but from the second century A.D. That didn't stop some early Church fathers from regarding the work -- which borrowed heavily from Christian gnostics -- as a proof that Christianity was the one true religion, and was first referenced in the works of the earliest Egyptian priest. And Augustine, who rejected the Latin translation of the Corpus, known as the Asclepius, as worthwhile for Christians to study, nevertheless accepted its antiquity. Various Renaissance figures devoted considerable time to it, as they did to the Zohar, one of the Kabbalist works (Reuchlin was one who dabbled in it, as did Ficino and Pico). Yet Scholem shows, rather convincingly, that the work dates to roughly the 13th century.
If the names I'm throwing out don't strike a bell, perhaps that's because the modern age prefers to look at the likes of da Vinci as representative examples of the Renaissance. Yet his contemporaries -- the real Renaissance men of the age -- dismissed him, and Leonardo wrote bitterly in one of his notebooks,
Because I am not a literary man some presumptuous persons will think that they may reasonably blame me by alleging that I am an unlettered man. Foolish men!Further on, he wrote
They go about puffed up and pompous, dressed and decorated with the fruits not of their own labors but those of others, and they will not allow me my own. And if they despise me, an inventor, how much more could they -- who are not inventors but trumpeters and declaimers of the works of others -- be blamed.And so it is, after a fashion, in the modern world. I remember being struck, when I visited Prague -- and of course, the bookstores there -- by the racks and shelves full of works by the likes of Agrippa, Paracelsus, Jacob Boehme, Blavatsky, and so on. Some time later, I read an essay by Ivan Klima (I am not entirely sure this is the correct collection of essays -- I can't find the volume anywhere to verify it) that contained the same observation. Almost echoing Eco (quoted immediately below), Klima asked whether Czechs had emerged from the darkness of Communism only to dabble in crackpot nonsense from the past.
But of course. Such was the spirit of the first Renaissance, after all.
What else can I say when Meryl Yourish calls me a Renaissance man? Of course, I have a rather bizarre take on the Renaissance generally -- I tend to think that overall, it was in some ways a step backwards for mankind. Okay, okay, the art rules (you can tell I don't remember much technical terminology from the one art history class I took). But beyond that -- well, let me quote from Eco's Foucault's Pendulum, when the narrator describes his days teaching the thought from the period:
I devoted myself to Renaissance philosophers and I discovered that the men of secular modernity, once they had emerged from the darkness of the Middle Ages, had found nothing better to do than devote themselves to cabala and magic.Today I bought a book I used to own and loaned and lost (something that's happened to me far too often to get upset about), Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition. In it, the author, Frances Yates, argues that Bruno's support for the Copernican system had less to do with sound science than with the Italian Renaissance figure's mystical philosophy. Compare Bruno, or Kepler, or John Dee, or even Newton -- who more than dabbled in hermetic ideas -- with, say, William of Occam, or Roger Bacon -- two stout, practical medieval men with their feet on the ground -- and one can begin to see what I'm getting at.
Oddly enough, I took my three year old to the Maryland Renaissance Festival this weekend, which is one of the reasons for the lack of posts Friday and Saturday. Perhaps I'll tell the tale tomorrow...
In any case, thanks for the plug, Meryl.
Sunday, September 22, 2002
Hot or cold II
Two other things that occur to me on this theme: First, if the post-Cold War experiences is any guide, winning a hot war gives one far more latitude to influence the loser. It will never cease to amaze me that outside of a dictator and secret service head or two, few of those responsible for the crimes of Communism were ever brought to justice.
The second is that I do not think one can ignore or underestimate what the lack of a free press does to a population. In Ukraine in the 1930s, Stalin was able to inculcate a mass hatred against the "kulaks" through propaganda. The great Robert Conquest wrote in The Harvest of Sorrow:
Among the activists, however, Stalin succeeded to a certain degree in his aim of inciting 'class struggle' in the villages, or at least struggle betewen friends of and victims of the regime. The necessary hatreds were inflamed; the activists who helped the GPU in the arrests and deportationsThe passage concerns Ukraine in the 1930s. Some of the activists referred to were neighbors and friends of those kulaks, who were slightly-better-off peasants (indeed, the distinction was absolutely arbitrary, and oftent the "activists" -- supposedly proletarians -- were better off than the kulaks they attacked.were all people who knew one another well, and knew their victims, but in carrying out this task they became dazed, stupefied...This last paragraph is from Vassily Grossman. Himself Jewish, and the Soviet Union's leading writer on Hitler's holocaust, he draws the analogy with the Nazis and the Jews. A woman activist explains, 'What I said to myself at the time was "they are not human beings, they are kulaks"...Who thought up this word "kulak" anyway? Was it really a term? What torture was meted out to them! In order to massacre them it was necessary to proclaim that kulaks are not human beings. Just as the Germans proclaimed that the Jews are not human beings. Thus did Lenin and Stalin proclaim, kulaks are not human beings.'
An unpopular dictatorship, through mass communications, was able to make average Ukrainians hate their neighbors to the point at which they would not spare a crust of bread for their starving children. Some 7 million people died in Stalin's engineered famine.
To emphasize this, let me repeat: a propaganda campaign launched by an unpopular, illegitimate government persuaded people who by and large not all that different from you or me to regard their next door neighbors -- people they saw every day -- as sub-humans deserving of death.
Part of the problem with Muslim societies generally is the lack of a free press. A free press in and of itself isn't enough to prevent tyranny (see, for example, the rise of Naziism), but without one, tyranny is a one hundred percent certainty.
Hot or cold
There's a fascinating discussion going on between Steven Den Beste of USS Clueless, a writer I've admired for a while, and Ideofact favorite Aziz Poonawalla, which I suppose I'd like to characterize as a debate over what kind of war we are fighting. Broadly, I would characterize the difference as an argument between a World War II model and a Cold War model, although even that is not entirely accurate. Den Beste's first entry is here, Aziz replies here, then Den Beste again and back to Aziz. Others have commented as well on other blogs and on Aziz's comment page, but I think if I tried to link everyone who's weighed in, I'd never get around to the points that interest me. I'm not going to summarize all their views; I suggest the interested reader visit the posts I've linked before continuing here.
What I find interesting is that Den Beste, who argues that for a wide war followed by U.S. occupation after the model of Japan after World War II almost certainly has a higher opinion of the potential of the Arab people (as opposed to the present governments), as does Aziz, who argues implausibly in the case of Saddam, and slightly less implausibly in the case of Mubarrak in Egypt, for a policy of proxy dictatorships aimed at restraining the populations. Unless I've terribly misread Aziz, which is entirely possible, I think he's arguing that the Iraqi people cannot be trusted not to install a worse alternative to Saddam, and that Saddam, except for the fetish he has for weapons of mass destruction and indiscriminately killing the poor souls who through accident of birth happen to reside within Iraq's borders, should be someone with whom we can do business in the same way we did business with Somoza or the Shah or Pinochet (one of the West's favorite Eastern Bloc dictators was Ceaucescu).
Den Beste, who uses the term "cultural genocide" to suggest the magnitude of the change that must be imposed on the region, nevertheless believes that there are cultural elements in the region with which we can deal. Aziz, on the contrary, seems to think that the best that can be hoped for is stable prisons for Muslims, ruled by pro-Western or at least Western-fearing rulers, who will control the crazier elements of their populations. I said I wasn't going to mention other commentators, but another Ideofact favorite -- who once provided an obscure detail on windmills in Iran -- Vegarg Valberg, says this particularly well:
... if not for his expansionistic tendencies and his desire to acquire WMD's Saddam Hussein would be consider an ideal ruler in the Middle East. Someone like Saddam, without the expansionism, terrorism, and WMD's is the best-case scenario if or when we reform the area. Actually come to think of it I suddenly realised that the New and Improved Colonel Muammar Gadaffi pretty much fits the bill. There will be exactly one election no matter what, if we are lucky Gadaffi II wins, if we are not lucky the Taliban.But there was not just one election in Germany after World War II -- a country which had had limited experience with democracy. The same holds for Japan, which mimicked the forms of democracy without its substance in the pre-war period. Whether there will be further elections depends in large part upon the American commitment to Iraq, or any other country, after hostilities cease.
Jerzy Stempowski, a Polish literary critic and essayist, wrote a piece called Essary for Cassandra that is reprinted in the excellent collection Four Decades of Polish Essays; in it, he recounts a 1936 conversation with an Englishman, who said:
There will be no peace in Europe until fire falls from the sky and burns down the place called Germany.The prediction was eerily accurate. I tend to think, like Den Beste, that a wider conflagration is necessary in the Middle East before the region can know peace, and -- just as important for the average citizen there -- prosperity. It is not starry-eyed idealism to insist on deposing the tyrants, it is rather an altogether rational foreign policy.