Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Legality of the Mandate Question

Is it not the case that you are required to have insurance to drive a car? How is that different from requiring people to buy health insurance? I presume the answer is that auto insurance is a state matter, and the Obamacare mandate would be a federal one; and that you can, in theory, choose not to drive. I get how these might be legal responses. But I'm seeing a fair amount of talk from people who seem mostly philosophically concerned with the idea of the mandate -- not worrying about it on a strictly legal basis, but fretting about the whole notion of a government that can make you buy things. To these people, neither of the answers seem relevant (from this point of view, surely, state/federal is a moot point (if it's oppressive it's oppressive at either level, if not not), and the freedom not to be able to drive, while exercised by many people, is still a very significant life restriction in our society). So what would they say about the fact that we already do this?

For that matter, it seems like the Government requires us to buy all sorts of things. Don't public decency laws require people to buy clothes? What would you say to a nudist who objects that they own no clothes and by requiring them you're going out and forcing them to engage in commerce?

Monday, March 26, 2012

Stanislaw Lem's Solaris Finally (Somewhat) Available In Faithful, Direct-to-English Translation

The late Polish author Stanislaw Lem (1921 - 2006) is widely regarded as one of the great SF writers of the past century, author of a great many fine works, including A Perfect Vacuum and The Cyberiad. For the most part he was quite fortunate in his translator, since a great many of his more prominent works were translated by Michael Kandel, who, as I've had occasion to note before, is a very fine translator indeed.*

The great exception, however, was the novel that was often proclaimed as Lem's masterpiece: Solaris. Solaris, for some reason,** was not translated by Kandel, or any other competent Polish-English translator: rather, it was translated from an earlier translation into French. Obviously any indirect translation is going to be vastly less faithful than a direct translation, and in this case the bridging translation, in Lem's judgment, itself was poor. So those who wanted to read (possibly) Lem's greatest novel, and didn't know Polish, were more or less out of luck. (Thus I, for one, have never read it.)

This is the moment when I'll mention -- as (for some mysterious reason) seems to be treated as obligatory in discussions of this novel (such as this one or this one or this one), although it's not really relevant -- that the novel was filmed twice, the first time by Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky in 1972, and the second time by Steven Soderbergh in 2002. I've seen and liked both films, although I think the Tarkovsky was better. (Apparently there was a TV movie version too.) So you could watch a movie of it... but not read a well-translated version of it in English.

Until -- as I just found out (thanks, Tristero!) -- last year.

It seems that the print rights are locked away in the second-translation-of-a-poor-translation... but not the audiobook or ebook rights. So the Lem estate commissioned a new, direct-from-the-Polish, translation, one which is faithful to the text and well-done rather than not and not. It was translated by a man named Bill Johnston, who actually, y'know, knows Polish. The audiobook came out last June (read by Alessandro Juliani (who played Gaeta on the (remade) Battlestar Galactica)); the ebook -- available for Kindle and iBook and probably other formats too -- last December.

And there was much rejoicing.

I'll admit that it's a bit disappointing not to be able to read this on paper -- I've begun, hesitantly, to buy some nonfiction as ebooks, but am still a bit uncertain about reading novels on screen.*** But at least English speakers can now read it (or, for those who prefer, listen to it). So I'll take what i can get.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have an ebook to download.

(Post scriptum: Yes, as you'll note, I'm back to being James Inhofe again.)

* I met him once, very briefly (at Readercon), and rather astounded him, I think, when I quoted that brief poem to him from memory.

** My guess (and it's only a guess) is that it's because it was, due to its reputation, translated very early -- before Lem's reputation was made in the west and the expense of a new, direct-from-English translator could be justified (or simply before one could be arranged). Then, once his reputation was established by good translations of his other works, the rights were locked up and not available (as, indeed, is still somewhat the case, as I'll explain in a moment.)

*** Although a few years ago I did read one novel on my laptop -- Blindsight by Peter Watts -- and it was one of my favorite SF novels of the last decade. So I suppose it's past time to try again.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

We Are All Senator Inhofe Now

There was a certain amount of justifiable mockery when Senator James Inhofe, one of the leading deniers of climate change in American politics, said in a recent dialogue with Rachel Maddow:
I was actually on your side of this issue when I was chairing that committee and I first heard about this. I thought it must be true until I found out what it cost.
The reason for the mockery is obvious: the costs of dealing with a problem have absolutely no bearing on whether the problem is true or not. It's an open admission of truly idiotic denial.

Worse, it is a gaffe in the "accidental truth" sense: that really is the logic behind the conservative denial of climate change. Oh, not at the grassroots perhaps: they're just lied to by Fox News. But among those who devise the lies -- the oil shills, the oil men who pay them, the reporters who treat them seriously -- that's the basic logic. They don't like the effect that the truth of climate change would have. So they simply deny it.

It's risible -- and, given the stakes, despicable.

And more or less all of us do it.

What, after all, is the difference between liberals who recognize that climate change exists and yet are not acting in a way commensurate to the magnitude of the problem -- which is almost everyone (including, I hasten, to add, me) -- and conservatives who deny it completely? It is simply the location of the denial. Rather than deny the fact of climate change we deny the implications of climate change. Rather than deny it outright -- baldly asserting its falsity -- we say we can't think about it, that it overwhelms us, that we don't know what to do. We pay attention to other things.

And the world continues to burn.

(There's a very good discussion of the mechanisms of this mainstream denial, with a particular focus on the mass media, in this post by Dave Roberts, which more or less directly inspired this one (via.))

I'm sure that Paul Glastris, Ryan Cooper, and Siyu Hu, who wrote this list of Obama's 50 greatest accomplishments, would say they believe in climate change. But they don't really recognize its scope and urgency or implications, or they wouldn't write a list like this, which in the context of climate change sounds like the top fifty accomplishments of the captain of the Titanic, who I'm sure did a very good job of making all passengers feel welcome.

I'm sure that Glenn Greenwald, who spends his time doing extraordinarily righteous and important work pointing out many moral and legal flaws in America's current bipartisan regime, would say he believes in climate change. But he does not write as if the world were burning. He talks about the long-term consequences of our foreign policy. our wretched media, our corrupt and law-breaking elites, as if all these things were not taking place in a context of supreme, world-wide emergency.

And so on. I think it's fair to say that anyone who is focusing on anything else is not, really, understanding the scope or urgency or threat of climate change.

I've found this in my personal interactions too: I mention, to friends or colleagues, the true severity of the problem, and they nod, and say yes, it's terrible; or, I can't bring myself to think about it.

And they turn to something else.

And, again, yes, this very much includes me. (How much time do I spend working on writing my writing, reading other people's, worrying about causes that are not this one? Glance at this blog and you'll see well enough.) This is not my saying I'm better than thou. I'm saying we're all doing this, and we need to figure out how to stop. (And I don't know the answer to that one.)

Why are we doing this? Why aren't we recognizing the sheer enormity and urgency of the problem?

Because it costs too much.

Oh, not in money -- those of us who aren't conservatives probably aren't focused on that aspect. But it costs in other ways. To our peace of mind. To our ability to function in our daily lives. To the other causes that we (legitimately, morally, urgently) care about. To our sense of ourselves as balanced people, as not alarmists or doomsayers or crazy.

Rather than appear crazy by saying the truck is driving towards a cliff, or worry ourselves too much about what's coming, we decide to chat with those on the truck. We may die, but at least we won't seem alarmist.

If the only sane response is to be crazy with panic, we'll choose seeming sane over being sane.

All of which is just what Senator Inhofe is doing. We may pride ourselves that we accept science, and he is a crazy fool: but we, too, won't confront climate change because of what it costs. It's a different way not to confront it -- ignore, downplay, not focus, rather than outright deny its existence; and it's a different type of costs -- to our sanity, our reputations, our other priorities, not to the profits of oil companies and the maintenance of a "free-market" ideology. But in truth, we are no better than he.

We are all James Inhofe now.

Note: all the links on phrases like "magnitude of the problem" and "severity of the problem" and so forth go to a single blog post -- Dave Roberts's "The Brutal Logic of Climate Change". Partly because it captures the matter briefly and well, and seems like a good 'read one' post; partly because, following my own Senator Inhofe, I don't know much about the problem because I can't stand to look. If you read that -- and you should -- you'll want to read his follow-up posts, "The Brutal Logic of Climate Change Mitigation" and "'Brutal Logic' and Climate Communications".

Thursday, March 22, 2012

"I am human: nothing human is alien to me"

Homo sum : humani nihil a me alienum puto.
Vel me monere hoc vel percontari puta:
Rectum'st, ego ut faciam ; non est, te ut deterream.

-- Publius Terentius Afer, Heauton Timorumenos

I am a man: and think myself interested in everything that concerns mankind. Imagine that I wish either to advise you, or to be informed myself: If what you do, is right, I would follow your example; if wrong, I would dissuade you from persisting in it.

-- Terence, "The Self Tormentor", Anonymous (?) translation, 1777

I am a man, and feel for all mankind.
Think, I advise, or ask for information:
If right, that I may do the same; if wrong,
To turn you from it.

-- Trans. George Coleman

I'm human, so any human interest is my concern. Call it solicitude or curiosity on my part, whichever you like. If you're right I'll copy you, and if you're wrong I'll try to make you mend your ways.

-- Trans. Betty Radice, 1965
Anyone know of any particular good translations of this passage? There are several nineteenth century ones online, but I like all of them less than either of these versions. Most of the more recent ones don't have a preview function. I suppose I'll have to go into an actual library, with books on dead trees -- how quaint.

Incidentally, if Wikiquotes is to be believed, this same play is also the source of the familiar phrases "time heals all wounds" (line 421, "Diem adimere aegritudinem hominibus") and "where there's life there's hope" (line 981, "Modo liceat vivere, est spes").

I came across these lines in Kwame Anthony Appiah's article in the NY Times six years ago, "The Case for Contamination"; something recently recalled them to me, so I dug them up. Here's the passage from that article where Appiah discusses this passage:

Our guide to what is going on here might as well be a former African slave named Publius Terentius Afer, whom we know as Terence. Terence, born in Carthage, was taken to Rome in the early second century B.C., and his plays - witty, elegant works that are, with Plautus's earlier, less-cultivated works, essentially all we have of Roman comedy - were widely admired among the city's literary elite. Terence's own mode of writing - which involved freely incorporating any number of earlier Greek plays into a single Latin one - was known to Roman littérateurs as "contamination."

It's an evocative term. When people speak for an ideal of cultural purity, sustaining the authentic culture of the Asante or the American family farm, I find myself drawn to contamination as the name for a counterideal. Terence had a notably firm grasp on the range of human variety: "So many men, so many opinions" was a line of his. And it's in his comedy "The Self-Tormentor" that you'll find what may be the golden rule of cosmopolitanism - Homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto; "I am human: nothing human is alien to me." The context is illuminating. A busybody farmer named Chremes is told by his neighbor to mind his own affairs; the homo sum credo is Chremes's breezy rejoinder. It isn't meant to be an ordinance from on high; it's just the case for gossip. Then again, gossip - the fascination people have for the small doings of other people - has been a powerful force for conversation among cultures.

...A tenable global ethics has to temper a respect for difference with a respect for the freedom of actual human beings to make their own choices. That's why cosmopolitans don't insist that everyone become cosmopolitan. They know they don't have all the answers. They're humble enough to think that they might learn from strangers; not too humble to think that strangers can't learn from them. Few remember what Chremes says after his "I am human" line, but it is equally suggestive: "If you're right, I'll do what you do. If you're wrong, I'll set you straight."

I like the little fragments of translation that Appiah gives -- I don't know their source (all google results for that precise wording seem to be quotes of Appiah -- perhaps he's the translator?) -- better than any of the others above:
I am human: nothing human is alien to me.
If you're right, I'll do what you do. If you're wrong, I'll set you straight.

-- Translation by K. Anthony Appiah (?)
...except, of course, for that irritating missing middle line.

Anyone feel like translating "Vel me monere hoc vel percontari puta:" in the style of Appiah? Or, again, does, anyone know of a good translation of this passage? If you have any at hand, please leave the translations of these lines (77-79) in comments.

Later Update: I just recently had occasion to read Appiah's book Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers -- a terrific book, incidentally, highly recommended -- from which the above-quoted article was adapted. And in the book Appiah actually gives the entire quote, including the missing line. So here is the passage, in the full Appiah version:
I am human: nothing human is alien to me. Either I want to find out for myself or I want to advise you: think what you like. If you're right, I'll do what you do. If you're wrong, I'll set you straight.

-- Translation by K. Anthony Appiah
...and yes, judging by the notes Appiah himself is indeed the translator here (he doesn't have a note on this specific passage, but he says generally that uncited translations are his own).

So there: a translation of the entire three-line passage, in the style of Appiah -- as done by Appiah himself. Glad I found it.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Poem of the Day

Lives there a man with soul so dead
He's never to his toaster said:
“You are my friend; I see in you
An object sturdy, staunch, and true;
A fellow mettlesome and trim;
A brightness that the years can't dim.”?
Then let us praise the brave appliance
In which we place this just reliance.
And offer it with each fresh slice
Such words of friendship and advice
As “How are things with you tonight?”
Or “Not too dark but not too light.”

-- Thomas M. Disch (1940 - 2008)

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

What Pushes This From Perfect To 'Too-Perfect-God-Is-Writing-Lazy-Again' is the Surname

Stealing this (brief) post in its entirety from Charles P. Pierce at Esquire:
From a New York Times interview with Barry Commoner, who ran for president in 1980 on the Citizens Party ticket.

"The peak of the campaign happened in Albuquerque, where a local reporter said to me, 'Dr. Commoner, are you a serious candidate or are you just running on the issues?'"
That about sums it up, don't it?

Peter Novick, 1934 - 2012

I missed the fact that the great historian Peter Novick died a week ago. His NYT obituary focuses on his (excellent, IMO) book on the changing place of the memory of the Holocaust in the U.S., but to my mind his magnum opus is his extraordinary book That Noble Dream: the "Objectivity Question" and the American Historical Profession. I have some serious disagreements with Novick's work, but it's extraordinary, and anyone interested in objectivity, in intellectual history, or, really, in history as a subject and discipline ought to read it.

Novick's obituary at the University of Chicago (where he taught) is here. Eric Rauchway, himself a marvelous historian, notes that he rereads Novick's masterpiece once a year (!).

It's an extraordinary loss to the profession. And personally there's something half-finished on my hard drive that I'd hope to send him. But mostly I'm sad that such a sharp (in both senses) voice is gone.

Rest in peace.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Poem of the Day: Third Annual St. Patrick's Day Edition

Brief historical background: Easter, 1916 was the occasion of an Irish rebellion against British rule; it was suppressed by the British, and more than a dozen people involved were executed (including the four named in the poem -- Thomas MacDonagh, John MacBride, James Connolly and William Pearse). Ireland became an independent country in 1922.
Easter 1916

I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
Eighteenth-century houses.
I have passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words,
Or have lingered awhile and said
Polite meaningless words,
And thought before I had done
Of a mocking tale or a gibe
To please a companion
Around the fire at the club,
Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

That woman's days were spent
In ignorant good-will,
Her nights in argument
Until her voice grew shrill.
What voice more sweet than hers
When, young and beautiful,
She rode to harriers?
This man had kept a school
And rode our wingèd horse;
This other his helper and friend
Was coming into his force;
He might have won fame in the end,
So sensitive his nature seemed,
So daring and sweet his thought.
This other man I had dreamed
A drunken, vainglorious lout.
He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near my heart,
Yet I number him in the song;
He, too, has resigned his part
In the casual comedy;
He, too, has been changed in his turn,
Transformed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.
The horse that comes from the road,
The rider, the birds that range
From cloud to tumbling cloud,
Minute by minute they change;
A shadow of cloud on the stream
Changes minute by minute;
A horse-hoof slides on the brim,
And a horse plashes within it;
The long-legged moor-hens dive,
And hens to moor-cocks call;
Minute to minute they live;
The stone's in the midst of all.

Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven's part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse --
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

-- W. B. Yeats

If anyone wants to read the poems from the previous two years' St. Patrick's Day postings, last year's St. Patrick's Day poem, Seamus Heaney's "Requiem for the Croppies", is here, and the previous year's St. Patrick's Day poem, Paul Durcan's "Making Love outside Áras an Uachtaráin", is here.

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

Monday, March 12, 2012

Quote of the Day

Power always thinks it has a great soul and vast views beyond the comprehension of the weak; and that it is doing God's service when it is violating all His laws. our passions, ambitions, avarice, love and resentment, etc., posses so much metaphysical subtlety and so much overpowering eloquence that they insinuate themselves into the understanding and the conscience and convert both to their party.

-- John Adams, writing to Thomas Jefferson
Quoted in Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History, Chapter 2

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Who'd Have Thought We'd Have So Much In Common?

Scarily, I seem to have something in common with the base of the Republican Party: like them, I can't decide which of the clowns that are running for the Republican nomination I dislike the least.

Actually, it's even closer than that: like them, my order preference is roughly Romney-Santorm-Gingrich, but not clearly so, and without the slightest genuine like for any of the three. (And like them, there's a small, persistent part of me that finds Ron Paul attractive, but not nearly enough to settle on him, and thus in the end find that he is basically irrelevant to this calculation.)

I guess the only thing we disagree on is whether Obama is unspeakably better or unspeakably worse than the clowns.

Yeah, that's all we disagree on. Apart, that is, from absolutely everything else.

Monday, March 05, 2012

Quote of the Day: Tom Piazza's Self-Exemplifying Sentences

Any writer will admire a good sentence. Sentences can lilt, and drift, and settle lightly down. Sentences punch. Sentences thrust, and parry. Sentences can extend out past the point at which they might reasonably have been expected to end, bending under the weight of first one dependent clause, then another, tiring the reader out, making her wonder when the line will end, but not, perhaps, without hope that the exercise will deliver some point, however small -- some perception or image that will arrive, at the very end, like, say, a caramel apple. Who would argue that the form of the sentence should not help deliver the sentence's meaning?

-- Tom Piazza, "The Devil and Gustav Flaubert"
(included in Devil Sent the Rain: Music and Writing in Desperate America, quotation at pp. 248-249)

In a way, quoting this, out of context, is desperately unfair to Mr. Piazza (who is, like myself, a sojourner at Hobart and William Smith Colleges this year, although our paths haven't crossed). I can easily image that for every reader who is utterly charmed by those sentences (the penultimate of which made me laugh out loud, literally, and mar the solemnity of the midterm exam I was proctoring) there will be another who finds the whole passage too clever by half, if not by five-sixths. But the essay itself, a brief but extremely interesting piece about Flaubert as the progenitor of the novel of style which looks down superciliously on its (excessively) flawed characters, is, precisely, a criticism of polished prose which is separated from (or disdainful of) human concerns. The point of this passage is to exemplify what it is, in fact, critiquing -- acknowledging the pleasures of it before going at it with incisors. Quoting it in isolation will lead readers to dismiss it for the very flaws it is designed to expose. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed it myself -- and, of course, the passage itself is about the real pleasures in this trope, so Piazza can hardly be too resentful of my highlighting them. So I thought I'd share it with all of you.

Meanwhile, it occurs to me that the self-exemplifying sentence (in contrast to its close cousin, the self-referential sentence, which this parenthesis itself is), is under-studied. Can anyone else think of any other good ones?

Friday, March 02, 2012

Repost: Options on the Table

Since there seems to be a lot of saber-rattling about Iran these days -- from Israel, but also, sadly, from the U.S. media and even from Obama -- I thought I'd dig up this post from almost four years ago and repost it. Back then I was worried about the Bush administration attacking Iran; now I (and the world) are worried about Israel doing it, with or without U.S. backing. (And since they're far more likely to do it with U.S. backing, the latter should be unmistakably and forthrightly withheld in order to help deter such a crime.) Since an unprovoked attack would be the war crime of aggressive war (and far from being an excuse for it, fearing that your enemy is developing a new weapon or going to gain a strategic advantage is actually a common rationale for aggressive war) aiding Israel in such an attack, either beforehand or afterwards, would be a grave crime. We should remember this, and not do it.


(Originally posted July, 2008)

This is a simple attempt to get a new phrase, meme, talking point -- call it what you will -- out into the world. I've never seen anyone advocate it or suggest it before, although if someone has, that's great, since the point is to get people saying it and thinking it.

There's a ritual invocation now said by American politicians across the spectrum that "all options are on the table". What they mean by this, of course, is that military action is on the table -- usually that unilateral military action is on the table. After all, Bush and McCain have been pretty explicit about taking diplomatic talks between the US President and high-level Iranian leaders off the table -- which would be covered in the normal usage of "all options" (that is, when non-politicians use the phrase). (There's a good recent analysis of this phrase, this idea and this possibility here.)

"All options" is a phrase that thinly veils a threat of force -- aggressive force, force against a weaker adversary who has not attack us -- within what purports to be simple open-mindedness. Who's against keeping all options open? It sounds, in principle, so reasonable. (Of course, as I just noted, Bush and McCain are against keeping all options open: they're closing off some types of diplomacy. But that's not brought up in this context.) Which is one reason that it's said equally by people on the left as the right -- Obama (and Clinton, and everyone else) constantly say they want to "keep all options on the table" too.

It's a way to threaten that sounds like simple reasonableness, simple open-mindedness. Anyone who objects to the threat can be made to seem like they are (narrow-mindedly, dogmatically, prematurely) closing off options.

The reason that politicians of all stripes repeat it so often is because, in this framework, it works. It's effective. It's a good meme (even if it's a very bad idea).

So here's a counter-meme. One designed to work on its own, but also -- more importantly -- to try to render the currently common meme ineffective. The idea here is rhetorical counter-punching. If this doesn't work, maybe someone will suggest something better. But here's my idea.

I think we should always keep all legal options on the table. The key here is the clear but not-sufficiently-mentioned fact that an aggressive war (including its subcategory, preventative war) is illegal -- at least under international law.*

But rather than emphasizing the prudence, morality, efficacy or other virtues of not committing aggressive acts of war -- virtues that, in our current political culture, are far too often dismissed as wimpy or impractical or quaintly outmoded or whatever -- it emphasises the issue of legality, which everyone still pays at least lip service too.

It thereby removes disastrous options from the "table" in a way that's harder for war proponents to criticize. If one were to say, "we should keep all non-military options on the table", the reply would be, "you're too wimpy to use force." But if one were to say "we should keep all legal options on the table", what would the reply be? "No, I think illegal options should be on the table too?"

Actually, I suspect, if it became common enough the response would be a direct attack on the notion that aggressive wars are illegal -- at least for the United States. But I think this would be a good thing, or at least a better situation than we have now. It force out into the open the idea now assumed in our political discourse, namely, that the U.S. has the right to attack whomever it wants to, but that attacks by other countries (or at least non-authorized attacks) are illegal and immoral - are aggression.

"All legal options" underlies the criminality of aggressive war, while also removing it from the possibility set in a way that is perhaps rhetorically (and not just morally or prudentially) defensible in today's political climate.

There's more to say on this, perhaps, but let's leave it there for now. Pass it around: let's see if it can catch on.

Iran: all legal options are on the table.

And no others.

* Do any lawyers out there know if American law rules out aggressive use of force? (In theory, I mean, regardless of how things are de facto.) My guess would be that we've signed UN conventions, treaties, etc, that outlaw it, which would make it American law too, but haven't passed any individual laws to that effect. But I don't actually know.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

On Speaking Ill of the Ill-Spoken Dead

In response to the extraordinarily young and horrifically sudden death of Andrew Breitbart, some liberals have been saying nasty things (e.g.), and then justifying them (e.g.) by pointing out that Breitbart himself said quite nasty things about the recently departed.* In response to this, writer Paul Glastris suggests the rule "Don’t Speak Ill Of The Recently Departed, Unless The Recently Departed Spoke Ill Of The Recently Departed".

At first glance, this struck me as wise and correct.

At second thought, however, it raises a great many problems.

Most obviously, can one speak of the dead of those who have only spoken of the dead in accordance with the above rule?

If the answer to that is yes, then the rule creates two sub-populations: those who mutually agree (as it were) that it's fine to speak ill of the dead including themselves (it seems that Matt Yglesias, linked above, is imaging that sort of scenario.) This seems like it might work, although it does have the problem that speaking ill of the dead is not a problem primarily for the dead (i.e. the importance of it isn't limited to respect of the recently departed): it's also about their friends and families (who might not share their view, or even be old enough to have come to a view (I understand that Breitbart -- heartbreakingly -- had small children). In which case, speaking ill of the dead might not be justified even if the recently deceased themselves did so and/or thought it was generally appropriate. (Not the same thing -- I imagine that many people speak ill of the dead thinking only that certain people deserve it, and that they're not among them; others might have no problem with the practice without actually engaging in it.) Even more importantly, it's about our society and ourselves: what sort of people do we wish to be? We might have reasons to discourage speaking ill of the dead even if all involved agree it's right.

But I get the impression that Glastris is not thinking that those who follow his rule themselves are subject to it. (So that, for instance, he himself by writing his post is now fair game when the inevitable fate of mortals should befall him.) For instance, he writes:
Moral rules cannot long hold if there are no consequences for transgressing them. So I think that in the interest of protecting the rule about not badmouthing the recently departed, there should be a proviso that those who willfully and publicly break the rule do not deserve the protection of it when they die. By this standard, Yglesias gets a pass.
...which sounds like saying that this is a special sanction for those who do it, without the sense that it then makes those people themselves subject to it (which creates a free-for-all section rather than something that seems like punishment).

But who is to judge what counts? Does ostentatiously saying nothing after quoting "speak no ill of the dead" and mentioning the death count? Are there degrees here, so that you can only speak as ill of the dead as they spoke of someone else? Wouldn't this just quickly degenerate to an utter removal of the "speak no ill of the dead" rule, since people would interpret what those they disliked said about others has having been ill, beginning a quick race to the bottom?

To be clear, I'm not necessarily endorsing the "speak no ill of the dead" rule. I think there are both real, deep and important reasons -- reasons of dignity and civility and respect and decency -- to hold it. And I think there are some real, deep and important counter-arguments too -- about the way that reputations are formed, about the problems of dealing with the deaths of those who did real ill in the world and not wanting them sanitized, about sanctimoniousness, and many other things. I just don't think that the fact that someone else did it is the right standard -- whatever one thinks.

Incidentally, for a very thoughtful meditation on the problems of not speaking ill of the dead who have done ill, in our contemporary culture, go read the article linked to in the first link in this post, namely, this obituary for Breitbart by (conservative journalist) David Frum, which, it seems to me, quite thoughtfully grapples with the problem of writing about someone like Breitbart immediately after their death. Recommended even if (like myself) you have essentially no interest in Breitbart himself. (via))

(Update: On the specificity of Breitbart, in addition to Frum, I recommend Ta-Nehisi Coates's take too.)

* Yglesias has a particularly funny retort to a piece counter-nastiness lobbed in response to the above examples here.

This Word Amen

When did "This." become the new "Amen"?

Or, since "Word." probably was the new "Amen", when did "This." become the new "Word."?