Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Best Guess Yet About the "What Mitt Really Believes" Mystery

I had always been in the camp that holds that Romney truly believes nothing save that A) rich people should have more money, and the poor less; B) Mormonism is true, and, above all, C) Mitt Romney should be president -- those being the only three beliefs that Romney seems to have been consistent about supporting throughout his career.  (And, in fact, he's played down #1, at least rhetorically, since the first debate.)

But Jonathan Chait has an argument about Romney's true beliefs that strikes me as quite convincing:
The vast industry devoted to exploring the unknowable question of Romney’s true beliefs has largely ignored a simple and obvious possibility: That Romney has undergone the same political and/or psychological transformation that so many members of his class have since 2009. If there is one hard fact that American journalism has established since 2009, it is that many of America’s rich have gone flat-out bonkers under President Obama. Gabriel Sherman first documented this phenomenon in his fantastic 2009 profile in this magazine, “The Wail of the 1%,” which described how the financial elite had come to see themselves as persecuted, largely faultless targets of Obama and their greedy countrymen. Alec MacGillis and Chrystia Freeland have painted a similar picture.
The ranks of the panicked, angry rich include Democrats as well as Republicans and elites from various fields, but the most vociferous strains have occurred among the financial industry and among Republicans. All this is to say, had he retired from public life after 2008, super-wealthy Republican financier Mitt Romney is exactly the kind of person you’d expect to have lost his mind, the perfect socioeconomic profile of a man raging at Obama and his mob. Indeed, it would be strange if, at the very time his entire life had come to focus on the goal of unseating Obama, and he was ensconced among Obama’s most affluent and most implacable enemies, Romney was somehow immune to the psychological maladies sweeping through his class.

Seen in this light, Romney’s belief in himself as a just and deserving leader is not merely a form of personal ambition free of ideological content. His faith in himself blends seamlessly into a faith in his fellow Übermenschen — the Job Creators who make our country go, who surround him and whose views shaped his program. To think of Romney as torn between two poles, then, is a mistake. Both his fealty to his party and his belief in his own abilities point in the same direction: the entitlement of the superrich to govern the country.
Now, mind you, I don't actually think it matters what Romney truly believes: if elected (chas v'shalom), he'll respond as president to the same pressures that he responded to in the Republican primaries, and govern as the committed leader of an increasingly rabid far-right party.  So his true beliefs are of mere academic interest.  Unless you want the reality-challenged beliefs of the current far-right to be implemented, you need to vote for the center-right conservative candidate, Obama, over the far-right lunatic candidate, Romney.  Bad as Obama has been in many ways, Romney promises to be far worse in all of them.  So the 'who to vote for' question is, sadly, clear.  Still, as far as academic interest goes, I think Chait may have nailed it.

And anyway, we'll never know -- whatever happens Tuesday.

Update (Nov 4): Here's another view about Romney's core, quite different from Chait's, but also quite interesting if you're into that sort of thing.  Here's the core of the piece:
Success in the number of fields that superstar CEOs enter, Freeland says, tends to encourage “a sense of mastery, and that sense of mastery gives them a belief they can do anything.” And Romney has been more successful in more fields than almost any CEO in history.

This is why Romney thinks he should be president. A lifetime of data has proved to him that his management skills constitute a unique and powerful contribution. In Romney’s world, there’s nothing strange about that, which may also explain his willingness to be unusually strategic, even cynical, about the policies he supports....

The answer, then, to the question “What does Mitt Romney think?” is this: It matters even less what Romney thinks than it matters for most presidents. Romney’s policy preferences are unusually weak, his deal-making instincts are unusually strong and his party will be unusually aggressive in policing his agenda.
Which brings us back to the batshit insane nature of the the contemporary Republican party, whose whims Romney would serve.  Scary thought.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Joss Whedon on the Election

(Via, but what, like I wasn't going to run across this somewhere and post it at soon as I saw it? Puh-leeze.)

I Guess I Should Have a Tumblr To Post This

Just I like I should have a twitter account to rewtweet, but damnit, how many internet platforms can one man handle anyway?  (If anyone says 42, I'm going to knock their block off, as Lucy would say.)  When all I want to do is to say that this is one awesome photograph:

The old Yiddish saying is "from your lips to God's ears".  Perhaps we should update that to "from your signs to God's ears".

(Photo via)

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Out of Context Quote for the Day

The normative eats the empirical

-- Freddie deBoer

Monday, October 22, 2012

Debate Report From the Only News Source That Matters

The headline reads: Obama Takes Out Romney With Mid-Debate Drone Attack.

Final sentence: "At press time, President Obama was reportedly wiping his face clean of Romney’s blood and had removed his late opponent’s severed head from his lap to begin his closing remarks."

Putting Quotes in Dialogue with Each Other: Milan Kundera & Tim O'Brien

The dispute between those who believe that the world was created by God and those who think it came into being of its own accord deals with phenomena that go beyond our reason and experience. Much more real is the line separating those who doubt being as it is granted to man (no matter how or by whom) from those who accept it without reservation.

Behind all the European faiths, religious and political, we find the first chapter of Genesis, which tells us that the world was created properly, that human existence is good, and that we are therefore entitled to multiply. Let us call this basic faith a categorical agreement with being.

The fact that until recently the word "shit" appeared in print as s--- has nothing to do with moral considerations. You can't claim that shit is immoral, after all! The objection to shit is a metaphysical one. The daily defecation session is daily proof of the unacceptability of creation. Either/or: either shit is acceptable (in which case don't lock yourself in the bathroom!) or we are created in an unacceptable manner.

It follows, then, that the aesthetic ideal of the categorical agreement with being is a world in which shit is denied and everyone acts as though it did not exist.  This aesthetic ideal is called kitsch.

"Kitsch" is a German word born in the middle of the sentimental nineteenth century, and from German it entered all Western languages.  Repeated use, however, has obliterated its original metaphysical meaning: kitsch is the absolute denial of shit, in both the literal and the figurative senses of the word; kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence.

-- Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, part 6, "The Grand March", section 5

Then he would hsve told about the night they bivouacked in a field along the Song Tra Bong. A big swampy field beside the river. There was a ville nearby, fifty  meeters downstream, and right away a dozen old mama-sans ran out and started yelling. A crazy scene, he would've said. The mama-sans just stood there in the rain, soaking wet, yapping away about how this field was bad news.  Number ten, they said.  Evil ground.  Not a good spot for good GIs.  Finally Lieutenant Jimmy Cross had to get out his pistol and fire off a few rounds just to shoo them away....

"But the worst part," he would've said quietly, "was the small. Partly it was the river--a dead-fish smell--but it was something else, too.  Finally somebody figured it out.  What this was, it was a shit field.  The village toilet.  No indoor plumbing, right? So they used the field.  I mean, we were camped in a goddamn shit field."

He imagined Sally Kramer closing her eyes.

If she were here with him, in the car, she would've said, "Stop it.  I don't like that word."

"That's what it was."

"All right, but you don't have to use that word."

"Fine.  What should we call it?"

She would have glared at him.  "I don't know.  Just stop it."

-- Tim O'Brien, The Things They Carried, "Speaking of Courage"

You can tell a true war story if it embarasses you. If you don't care for obscenity, you don't care for the truth; if you don't care for the truth, watch how you vote.  Send guys to war, they come home talking dirty.
-- Tim O'Brien, The Things They Carried, "How to Tell a True War Story"

Kitsch is the aesthetic ideal of all politicians and all political parties and movements.

-- Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, part 6, "The Grand March", section 9

He drove slowly. No hurry, nowhere to go. Inside the Chevy the air was cool and oily-smelling, and he took pleasure in the steady sounds of the engine and air-conditioning. A tour bus feeling, in a way, except the town he was touring seemed dead. Through the windows, as if in a stop-motion photograph, the place looked as if it had been hit by nerve gas, everything still and lifeless, even the people. The town could not talk, and would not listen. "How'd you like to hear about the war?" he might have asked, but the place could only blink and shrug. It had no memory, therefore no guilt. The taxes got paid and the votes counted and the agencies of government did their work briskly and politely. It was a brisk, polite town. It did not know shit about shit, and did not care to know.

-- Tim O'Brien, The Things They Carried, "Speaking of Courage"

The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.

-- Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Sunday, October 21, 2012

George McGovern (1922 - 2012)


He thinks of those who have Spoken Evil of his Beloved

Half close your eyelids, loosen your hair,
And dream about the great and their pride;
They have spoken against you everywhere,
But weigh this song with the great and their pride;
I made it out of a mouthful of air,
Their children's children shall say they have lied.

-- W. B. Yeats

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Accelerating Towards Hell

I've posted a version of this video once before, but I'm going to post it again, because Ryan Cooper has taken Dave Robert's TED talk, "Climate Change is Simple", and jazzed it up with cool music & visuals to make his bleak news even more exciting to see.  So here it is:

Roberts has a post giving all the slides along with links to studies, etc, here, if you want more detail.

But the basic point is summed up in his sentence "our present course leads to certain catastrophe".  We are headed -- we are accelerating -- towards a situation where, in a few generations, half the Earth's surface will be so hot that you will die simply by going outside (170º Fahrenheit).  We are heading -- we are accelerating -- towards a situation where feedback loops means that climate change will become self-sustaining and will continue indefinitely even if humans stop emitting carbon tomorrow (which we won't).


And I respectfully suggest that if you think this is too horrible to contemplate, or if you think other political issues are more important or more urgent, or, really, if you are more concerned about ANYTHING ELSE, then you haven't really grasped the magnitude and urgency of this.

(Oh, the election?  Well, climate change is being ignored by both parties (h/t).  I think it's quite, quite clear that Obama will be better than Romney -- but "better" here means not anywhere near good enough to save us, but more susceptible to being influenced by the massive direct action campaign that we need.  Obama won't save us: but he might -- might -- give us enough room to save ourselves.  If we accomplish a level of political mobilization that seems, at this point, miraculous to contemplate.)

We need to do something drastic, and to do something now.  To borrow a phrase from another writer speaking of another crisis, "if this article doesn’t rouse you to anger, fury, rage, and action, [human beings] may have no future on this earth."

Thursday, October 18, 2012

50 Songs 50 States

Driving home from work this week, I was jawdropped by Dar Williams's extraordinary song "Iowa".  (Yes, I'm still on my Dar Williams kick.)  I idly wondered whether you could find good songs with each state as a title.

Once I was at home, and the thought reoccurred to me, I further thought that surely someone must have already done that.  A quick google confirmed that yes, lots of people have.  Here are four, all from the first page of google hits: the Guardian, Esquire (the most annoying web format by several orders of magnitude), some site called 'buzzsugar' and a blog with the charming title of 'ipickmynose'.  (Note: for the rest of this post, as a default, I'll give all lists in that same order.)  They're not all strict about the song title element, but they're clearly all variations on that idea.

It's interesting to see what gets chosen.  One (buzzsugar) chose the Dar Williams song for its Iowa selection; another (ipickmynose) made it a runner up.  (Esquire and ipickmynose listed runners-up; the other two didn't.)  The other three chose Joni Mitchell's "The Dry Cleaner From Des Moines"*, Canon Blue's "Indian Summer (Des Moines)" and Eleni Mandell's "Iowa City".  All four -- yes, all four -- chose Bruce Springsteen's "Nebraska", which was one of my first other thoughts.  (As Esquire says, "sometimes song selection comes down to Occam's razor — the obvious song is the right song".)  None of them chose yet another early thought I had, Nina Simone's "Mississippi Goddam" for Mississippi -- but I suppose I can see why they didn't.**

Three of the four chose Camper Van Beethoven's "History of Utah" for Utah; the exception was Esquire, which chose The Grateful Dead's "Friend of the Devil", explaining "sometime a passing reference is as good as it gets. At least we weren't forced to pick an instrumental."  Two (Guardian and buzzsugar) picked Lynrd Skynrd's "Sweet Home Alabama" for Alabama; Esquire gives it runner-up status, picking Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit's "Alabama Pines" for first place; ipickmynose overtly lists it as "not considered", giving pride of place to the Drive By Truckers's "The Boys from Alabama" and listing a lot of second choices too. Buzzsugar actually gave 51 choices, picking The Postal Service's "The District Sleeps Alone Tonight" for Washington D.C.; ipickmynose went them one better, and gave not only a D.C. choice (which was the same song by The Postal Service), but also gave choices for Puerto Rico (Pepe y Flora's "Puerto Rico Tiene Minas") and, rather cheekily, Canada (Low's "Canada")***, as well as listing (as a "theme song") Sufjan Stevens's "50 States Song".  (ipickmynose -- God, what a name! -- also gives links to mp3's, if you're interested.)

Anyway, click through and explore if you're as obsessive as I am procrastinating interested.  I'll leave off with two final comparisons, for my two home states.  Massachusetts picks are: Jonathan Richman & The Modern Lovers's "Roadrunner", Ra Ra Riot's "Massachusetts", The Pixies's "U-Mass" and Get Up Kids's "Mass Pike". The New York picks are:  Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side", Ryan Adams's "New York, New York", Simon & Garfunkel's "The Only Living Boy in New York" (for both the final two).

* After a brief error about the location of Kalamazoo (Michigan). Cut them some slack, they're British.

**  Robert Johnson, "Cross Road Blues"; Hank Williams III's "Mississippi Mud"; Sugarland's "Down in Mississippi (Up to No Good)"; Waylon Jennings's "Mississippi Woman".

*** Way back in '96, I saw in The Onion -- on actual dead-trees paper, which was how most of us read the Onion in those days (he said, shaking his cane at the kids on his lawn) -- a story headlined "Perky 'Canada' Has Own Government, Laws."****  I thought it was hilarious and showed it to a lot of people, both Americans and Canadians.  All the Americans thought it was hilarious.  The Canadians didn't, but rather than offended, they were puzzled: well, of course we do.  What's funny about that?

**** Oddly, until googling this just now I remembered it as "Perky Canada Has Own Laws, Borders."  I would have bet serious money on it.  As Nabokov says, "Mnemosyne, one must admit, has shown herself to be a very careless girl". (Except until looking it up to quote it I remembered it as "unreliable" instead of "careless".)

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Bosses Don't Want Full Employment

Worth bearing in mind when thinking about the all-too-bipartisan deficit freakout:
We have considered the political reasons for the opposition to the policy of creating employment by government spending. But even if this opposition were overcome -- as it may well be under the pressure of the masses -- the maintenance of full employment would cause social and political changes which would give a new impetus to the opposition of the business leaders. Indeed, under a regime of permanent full employment, the 'sack' would cease to play its role as a 'disciplinary measure. The social position of the boss would be undermined, and the self-assurance and class-consciousness of the working class would grow. Strikes for wage increases and improvements in conditions of work would create political tension. It is true that profits would be higher under a regime of full employment than they are on the average under laissez-faire, and even the rise in wage rates resulting from the stronger bargaining power of the workers is less likely to reduce profits than to increase prices, and thus adversely affects only the rentier interests. But 'discipline in the factories' and 'political stability' are more appreciated than profits by business leaders. Their class instinct tells them that lasting full employment is unsound from their point of view, and that unemployment is an integral part of the 'normal' capitalist system.

-- Michal Kalecki, "Political Aspects of Full Employment" (1943)
Digby's been saying for more than a year that, even if Obama wins, the pro-austerity centrists are going to use the lame duck session to shiv any economic hopes for the middle and working classes.  I fear she's right.  We could end this depression now: but the sad truth is the Powers That Be don't want that.

(Kalecki's essay has been making the rounds; I got it from these posts by Shawn Gude and Matt Yglesias.)

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Quotes of the Day: Scott on Anarchism

One day you will be called upon to break a big law in the name of justice and rationality. Everything will depend on it. You have to be ready. How are you going to prepare for that day when it really matters? You have to stay ‘in shape’ so that when the big day comes you will be ready. What you need is ‘anarchist calisthenics.’ Every day or so break some trivial law that makes no sense, even if it’s only jaywalking. Use your own head to judge whether a law is just or reasonable. That way, you’ll keep trim; and when the big day comes, you’ll be ready.

James C. Scott, Two Cheers for Anarchism
The link is to the site where I saw the quote.  A bit more context here.

Two Cheers is a forthcoming book, whose publication date is soon (Amazon listed it as today, but still lists it as forthcoming, so who knows).  I don't know much about it.  I've vaguely heard of Scott, but don't really know much about his work.  (Two dueling reviews of his most famous book, Seeing Like a State, can be found here (Brad DeLong for the prosecution) and here (Henry Farrell for the defense), with a follow-up post by Farrell here.))  But Two Cheers looks interesting, and in addition to that quote, several other things make me interested in reading it.  First and foremost, two cheers strikes me as just about the right number of cheers for anarchism.  Second, I read the preface, available as a preview at Princeton University Press's site (pdf link), and thought it was quite good.  Thirdly, Scott's notion of "the anarchist squint", as detailed here, strikes me as a good one.

Since the above quote gives a cheer, let me close by quoting a second passage (which I also liked), this time from Scott's preface, one which (so to speak) voices the lack of cheer number three:
The market measures influence in dollars, while a democracy, in principle, measures votes. In practice, at some level of inequality, the dollars infect and overwhelm the votes. Reasonable people can disagree about the levels of inequality that a democracy can tolerate without becoming an utter charade. My judgment is that we have been in the “charade zone” for quite some time. What is clear to anyone except a market fundamentalist (of the sort who would ethically condone a citizen’s selling himself— voluntarily, of course— as a chattel slave) is that democracy is a cruel hoax without relative equality. This, of course, is the great dilemma for an anarchist. If relative equality is a necessary condition of mutuality and freedom, how can it be guaranteed except through the state? Facing this conundrum, I believe that both theoretically and practically, the abolition of the state is not an option. We are stuck, alas, with Leviathan, though not at all for the reasons Hobbes had supposed, and the challenge is to tame it. That challenge may well be beyond our reach.

-- Preface, p. xvi
Link added, out of sheer self-promotion.

So yeah, it looks interesting. Perhaps, in the spirit of the first quote above (and with a tip of the empty wallet to Mr. Hoffman), I'll try to steal a copy once one becomes available.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Poem of the Day

I Keep six honest serving-men:
     (They taught me all I knew)
Their names are What and Where and When
     And How and Why and Who.
I send them over land and sea,
     I send them east and west;
But after they have worked for me,
     I give them all a rest.

I let them rest from nine till five.
     For I am busy then,
As well as breakfast, lunch, and tea,
     For they are hungry men:
But different folk have different views:
     I know a person small--
She keeps ten million serving-men,
     Who get no rest at all!
She sends 'em abroad on her own affairs,
     From the second she opens her eyes--
One million Hows, two million Wheres,
     And seven million Whys!

-- Rudyard Kipling
(This is the poem that ends Kipling's story "The Elephant's Child" from Kipling's children's book Just So Stories, about which please see the post below.)

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Surprises in Rereading Classic Children's Literature: Kipling's Just So Stories edition

Content warning: this post quotes a book using two extremely offensive racial slurs.

So I took Joseph (now at the ripe old age of 3 and 3/4, as he'll tell you if you ask) down to the Ithaca Booksale today (currently on its second weekend of three of its biannual sale).  We got a bunch of things, ranging from simple picture books to longer chapter-books, of a sort we're starting to read Joseph (and which he likes to listen to as audiobooks -- he's heard Alice in Wonderland (both abridged & full) and The Wind in the Willows (each chapter full but some omitted) that way, for instance).

One of the books I got was a nice hardback copy of Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories.

Now, what I remembered from Kipling's Just So Stories were a general impression that most were about how various animals got various features -- "how the elephant got its trunk", for example, with the elephant's nose being pulled by something-or-other until it got long.  And I remembered the story "The Butterfly That Stamped" very well, because it was always my favorite, and because I had a recording of it that I listened to repeatedly.  And I remembered that it was incredibly iconic -- not only a classic children's book, but one that has entered our language as a phrase in other contexts.  But I remembered little else.

Now, returning to a children's book for the first time in not-quite-four-decades is always a particular experience, a Zebra-stripes experience of familiarity and surprise.  A lot of this is just about memory.  "How the Elephant Got Its Trunk", for example -- I would have sworn that was the title; and it was, in fact, the story; -- but it's actually called "The Elephant's Child".  I remembered the story, and what it explained, but not the title, nor the details (all that spanking! I'm pleased to say that the second time through Joseph interrupted me to ask, "What does 'spank' mean?")

One particular fashion in which (I've found) the stories differ from my memory is in quality -- in both directions.  The Winnie the Pooh stories are utterly fabulous -- far better than I remembered; so are the Frog and Toad stories.  On the other hand, Babar is much worse -- not just in the colonialist implications, but the actual plain writing.  Curious George is kind of eh.  (But -- as has been true almost since the day of his birth -- Joseph's taste is not mine: he loves Pooh and Frog and Toad, but he loves Babar and Curious George equally well.)

Just So Stories was both far better, and far worse, than I remembered.

The first story we read was the first in the book, "How the Whale Got His Throat".  And it was fabulous.  Fabulous in many dimensions: an exciting and fun story for Joseph; filled with over-his-head but fun wordplay for me (always an important element in kids' books that are going to be read aloud (but see above re: Joseph's taste is not mine)).  It has a lot of great passages for reading outloud, which surprisingly many children's books are mediocre or even poor at.  But read this description of what a man does when swallowed by a whale (and to get the full effect, you should read it outloud):
But as soon as the Mariner, who was a man of infinite-resource-and-sagacity, found himself truly inside the Whale's warm, dark, inside cup-boards, he stumped and he jumped and he thumped and he bumped, and he pranced and he danced, and he banged and he clanged, and he hit and he bit, and he leaped and he creeped, and he prowled and he howled, and he hopped and he dropped, and he cried and he sighed, and he crawled and he bawled, and he stepped and he lepped, and he danced hornpipes where he shouldn't, and the Whale felt most unhappy indeed. (Have you forgotten the suspenders?)
How fabulous is that?

Then there's the picture captions.  Kipling drew his own pictures, and writes his own captions, which not only tell what part of the story they're from, but which also tell what's in the picture, and tell what's left out, and complain about how much better they'd be if he were allowed to color them, although he isn't.  They include facts and details about the story which is not in the text.  They're quite simply wonderful.  Here, for example, is the caption to the picture above, which occurs right about the same point in the story as the above quote:
THIS is the picture of the Whale swallowing the Mariner with his infinite-resource-and-sagacity, and the raft and the jack-knife and his suspenders, which you must not forget. The buttony-things are the Mariner's suspenders, and you can see the knife close by them. He is sitting on the raft, but it has tilted up sideways, so you don't see much of it. The whity thing by the Mariner's left hand is a piece of wood that he was trying to row the raft with when the Whale came along. The piece of wood is called the jaws-of-a-gaff. The Mariner left it outside when he went in. The Whale's name was Smiler, and the Mariner was called Mr. Henry Albert Bivvens, A.B. The little 'Stute Fish is hiding under the Whale's tummy, or else I would have drawn him. The reason that the sea looks so ooshy-skooshy is because the Whale is sucking it all into his mouth so as to suck in Mr. Henry Albert Bivvens and the raft and the jack-knife and the suspenders. You must never forget the suspenders.
Note that the name, Mr. Henry Albert Bivvens, A.B. (fabulous!) is not otherwise given in the story, nor is the name Smiler.

So after the first story, I was utterly delighted, and ready to keep reading more.

"How the Camel Got His Hump" was fine -- a bit dominationist in how it thought animals related to humans, but whatever.  A fine story, although not quite as good as "How the Whale Got His Throat" in my opinion (Joseph didn't differentiate, that I could see).  "How the Rhinoceros Got His Skin" had the rather unfortunate phrase describing a hat as something "from which the rays of the sun were always reflected in more-than-oriental splendour".  The phrase is repeated, too -- one of the wonderful things about the Just So Stories, and one of the things that make them particularly good for reading outloud, are the long repeated phrases, a technique of oral storytelling famous from Homer if not before, but one oddly underused in children's books.  Well, I wasn't thrilled about that, but this was Kipling after all, to say nothing of 110 years ago.  And frankly I doubted Joseph would pick up on it, or get that there was a questionable connotation (it's not even negative -- just orientalist).  So I plunged on to story four, "How the Leopard Got His Spots".

Oh, dear.

At first it seems ok -- animals with different looks, and a just-so story about how they're going to change looks.  Fine.  Then Kipling introduces a character referred to as "an Ethiopian" -- one who, incidentally, does not seem to be actually a person from the country of Ethiopian, but simply someone who is black.  And I got Worried.  Unfortunately by then I was already into the story -- not far in, but too far for Joseph to tolerate my stopping.  So with fear & trembling I explained to Joseph that an Ethiopian is a person from Ethiopia (true, of course, although somewhat disingenuous in this context: but then to children, my wife's rule has always been to tell the truth but not necessarily the whole truth, so I did). and I pressed on.

The story itself is questionable: the Ethiopian changes his skin, to fit in with a changed habitat, but then again so does the Giraffe, the Zebra and the Leopard.  You could debate how to take that -- making the Ethiopian into an animal?  Or implying that skin is ultimately changeable or unimportant?  It's hard to say.  Again, it's not something that I am thrilled about, but on the other hand I doubt it will do much harm, if part of a mixed and diverse literary diet.

And then -- in the midst of reading outloud -- I see this exchange:
'But if I'm all this,' said the Leopard, 'why didn't you go spotty too?'
'Oh, plain black's best for a nigger,' said the Ethiopian.
Oh, God.  I've already begun the sentence by the time I hit that phrase.  Improvising, I read "plain black's best for me", and continue.  Then one of Kipling's picture captions -- which I've been reading, because heretofore they've been marvelous -- includes the sentence "The Ethiopian was really a negro, and so his name was Sambo."  For that caption I simply stop before getting to that sentence.

Mixed with my general delight in the book, the overall effect is that of finding a dead cockroach in an otherwise excellent bowl of soup.  I felt rather nauseous.

Or perhaps I'm a hypocrite, because if I find a cockroach in a bowl of soup I wouldn't eat another bite (nor anything else from that restaurant, if I were eating at a restaurant); I certainly wouldn't pluck the thing out, throw it away, and keep eating.  But in this case I think I'm going to do that.  In fact, I did: I finished the story, after all.

Now the above-quoted phrase -- with the N word -- is sometimes simply edited out, even from otherwise unabridged editions.  (So if you have the book at home, you might not see it.)  Here, for example, is a copy of the text that seems otherwise unedited which ends the sentence with the word "best".  But the one we now have -- and a very nice edition it is too, especially for a used book bought for $1.75 -- has it.

My wife suggested we take a pen and simply black it out -- make it unreadable since (as she noted) Joseph will learn to read soon enough, and might stumble upon it.  I'll do the same for the sentence with "Sambo" in it, too.

Now, I'm against censorship in grown-up books, and queasy about the idea in kids books.  On the other hand, racial slurs need to be put in complex historical context -- the kind that a three-year-old, or even a vastly older child like a three-and-three-quarters-year-old, wouldn't understand.  I'm not sure a ten-year old would either, for that matter.  And of course the book doesn't have any such context.  And we don't want him, say, reading that and using it not knowing its actual history, meaning, and (especially) connotations.

Honestly, I should have known.  The story is based on a phrase "can the leopard change his spots?", which is the basis for the novel The Leopard's Spots by Thomas Dixon, one of the two Dixon novels which served as the basis for The Birth of a Nation, a film whose hero is the Klu Klux Klan -- as I should know, since I taught the film in one of my classes not three weeks ago.*  Actually, Kipling alludes directly to the phrase in the final paragraph of his story:
Oh, now and then you will hear grown-ups say, 'Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the Leopard his spots?' I don't think even grown-ups would keep on saying such a silly thing if the Leopard and the Ethiopian hadn't done it once--do you? But they will never do it again, Best Beloved. They are quite contented as they are.
...and of course Kipling uses the longer, explicitly racist version of the phrase, whose existence, I'm ashamed to admit, I had forgotten until getting to it in this story.  I can't decide if the story supports or undermines the sentiment, although I think it's the latter -- and I certainly can't decide whether the fact that Kipling undermines it (if he does) in any way mitigates its use in the story.  (I'm not at all sure it does.)

Honestly, if I'd pre-reread the stories, I would have been sorely tempted to skip this one.  But I read it, and it's part of the book now -- if I try to skip it, Joseph will notice and ask for it.  (We read Joseph the first Babar book similarly without any memories more recent than our own childhoods, and came unprepared on the infamous page four where Babar's mother is shot and killed.  The next time we read it, we tried to skip that part, and Joseph noted that we skipped it and ordered it put back in.  It doesn't actually seem to bother him.)

And it is a very lovely story about "How the Whale Got His Throat", and so is (we skipped ahead to reread my favorite) "The Butterfly that Stamped".  I'm not quite willing to "loose" the book.  But (once it is no longer in the room where he's sleeping, and when he's not looking) I shall edit it.

Now, I can imagine some people criticizing me for reading the book at all (there are questionable implications in that story even aside from the offensive language).  I can imagine others criticizing me for bowdlerization.  But in dealing with the reality of great, flawed texts, and the reality of morally terrible pasts and how to explain them, any action is a compromise.  I think this is the right one.  At least for us, at least for now.


Links discovered while poking around on this topic:
* It's not the only place where Kipling's racism crosses a topic I raised in the class: his other racial slur, "sambo", comes out of Minstrel Shows (Sambo was a minstrel show character who became a racial slur -- nor was it the only one to do so), which was the first topic in my class on the history of American culture.  What can I say?  American culture is, among other things, racist; nor is ours the only one, as Kipling demonstrates.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Quote of the Day

Well the Lone Ranger and Tonto,
They are riding down the line,
Fixing everybody’s troubles,
Everybody’s except mine --
Somebody must of told ’em
That I was doin’ fine.

-- Bob Dylan
Actually, my class has finished our unit on the Lone Ranger, but I forgot to put this up while we were still doing it.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

The Onion Really Is the One Essential News Source For Today

Mitt Romney wins the debate edition. (via)  The final line of the story is particularly nice.

One of these days, someone is going to write a really killer book about why, in the waning days of the American empire, the single best news sources were all satires -- The Onion, The Daily Show, The Colbert Report.  It'll be so funny you won't notice that you're crying as you read it.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Things Are Getting Really !@#$% Scary Out There

Journalist Christopher D. Cook talks to Clifford Russell, a volunteer in Mitt Romney's office in Bedford, Virginia (via):
"What's killing us is all these entitlements, we've got to get rid of all of them. All this welfare, food stamps, Medicare, and then big government health care on top of it, it's all just too much! When do we say enough is enough?”

What do you mean, exactly, I ask him. You say people are suffering under Obama, don't they need some help?

“No. No more help, enough is enough. People have to pick themselves up, take some responsibility. Why should we be paying for people’s mistakes and bad choices? All these illegitimate families just adding to the population, making all these bad decisions, then asking us to pay for it? It's time to cut them off."

I ask for some clarification: what do you mean, just starve them out? What if people can't find work? Let them starve?

"Look, there's always something you can do. You telling me people can't make a choice for a better life? We have to help all of them? No. I'll tell you what really need to do with these illegitimate families on welfare—give all the kids up for adoption and execute the parents."

I stare at him and blink in a glaze of shock.

Just to be sure I heard him right, I ask him to repeat it, twice.

"Yes, I mean it. Get rid of all of them, give the kids up for adoption, execute the parents, and you get rid of the problem.” (When I call him back to revisit the issue, he elaborates: “put the children up for adoption and execute the parents, and word would get out soon” that poor people shouldn’t have kids.)
Surely Clifford Russell was misquoted, right?  No one actually thinks this -- let alone some random Romney volunteer in a Virginia field office, right?  Well, fortunately, Mr. Russell wrote in to the journal, which printed his response below the original article:
I did not say that I wanted to execute parents on welfare and give their kids up for adoption.

I said that it would be better to execute the parents of an illegitimate child and put their child up for adoption.
Oh, well, that's better then. He then asks:
Does it bother you that Progressives have to intentionally lie to make their positions look good? Could that intentional lie be a bases for a deformation of character law suit? [...]
Mr. Russel is right to be worried that he's being defamed.  He is; but not, it seems, by the journalist.
Now that it has been confirmed illegitimate children are a problem, the next question is what is the solution. I believe executing the parents is a better solution than the Democratic solution of abortion and handing out condoms (birth control). [...]

I believe in personal responsibility thus I believe the policy of America should be to execute the parents of illegitimate children and put the children up for adoption. I advocate America make it a capital federal crime under Civil Law for people to fail to provide for their children. I believe all Socialistic Programs should be phased out to stop people from using these program to justify their abandoning their responsibility to their children.
....and note that we're back and "should... execute", which is what Cook said in the first place.
He then quotes the bible to support his position.

I'm not going to insult the intelligence of my Noble Readers by talking about why this is so utterly, unspeakably horrific.  I will note, however, that once we talk about executing large numbers of people for crimes like being poor, we need to reintroduce Nazi analogies into the discourse.

Saturday, October 06, 2012

Quote of the Day

Because somehow "quote" sounds so much better than "tweet" even if what I'm quoting is a tweet. Anyway, here it is:

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Quote of the Day

The Lone Ranger himself contains not a single internal contradiction. He can change reality, but it can't change him. He travels, smashes, shoots, leaps, gallops, shouts The excess of movement hides the fact that he never learns how the process works. All the hero's agitation ultimately aspires to the world's repose, to it's stabilization. The return of the reader's security coincides with the final frame, in which the chorus identifies the character, echoing their famous last words. Another identical episode is waiting: the fracture of order, the hero's timely arrival, fluctuating fortunes, solutions, return to repose, a new quest.  Goodness, success, and fame are accumulated in every adventure, but they never add up to anything, because a person who's never been sick can never get better. The Lone Ranger rides so fast that it's hard to accept the fact that he's always in the same place, marking time. For this reason, you can read any set of episodes in any order you like. What the hero in fact desires is for the place where he's intervened to become like him: immutable and consummate.

(Yes, we're in the middle of our unit on the Lone Ranger in my class on the history of American culture.)

Monday, October 01, 2012

Eric Hobsbawm (1917 - 2012)

And then yet another great historian vanishes: Eric Hobsbawm died today at the age of 95.  And the truth is that even among great historians, Hobsbawm stands out.

His four-volume history of modern times -- a trilogy on the "long nineteenth century", The Age of Revolution: 1789-1848 (1962), The Age of Capital: 1848-1875 (1975), The Age of Empire: 1874-1914 (1987) and a sequel, The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991 (1994) on the "short twentieth century" -- is really completely fabulous.  My understanding is that it's out of date in a great many ways, but it's not only fabulously written, but is simply chock-full of historically interesting ideas.  Sure, it has flaws and gaps, which means it needs to be supplemented.  But then, no book is a good place to stop.  These, however, are a good place to start (at least given basic high-school or college history: Hobsbawm tends to be writing about the meaning of events more than narrating them, although he does some of both).  Among the more unmistakably brilliant of historians I've read.

Perhaps someone will come with proof-texts to disprove this (it's been a while), but one of my memories of those books is that -- unusually -- when Hobsbawm said something like "everyone" or "the world", he didn't meant Europe, or westerners, or anything like that -- he only said it when he meant, well, everyone, and that if he meant something less he said so.

Rest in peace.

Update: From the comments on this Crooked Timber thread on Hobsbawm (links added):
I notice that the obit in the Guardian is partly written by Dorothy Wedderburn (a sociologist of technology who sounds well worth knowing about), who herself died two weeks ago. Her obituary in the Guardian was by… Eric Hobsbawm. Of course these things are written far in advance, but it comes across quite oddly!
I find that quite eerie, frankly.  Also funny.  But eerie.