February 25, 2009

The paranoid style of American politics

In today’s New York Times, Yale law professor Stephen Carter analyzes recent shallow analysis of public statements.  He begins with these remarks:

Just weeks before taking the oath of office in 1861, Abraham Lincoln spoke to a crowd in Pittsburgh. The times were fraught. Since Lincoln’s election, several slave-holding states had left the Union. More were threatening to go. But Lincoln told the worried assemblage, “There is really no crisis except an artificial one!”  Actually, Lincoln said much more than that — hundreds upon hundreds of words, calculated to soothe the public’s fear of war. But had his speech been covered the way the news media cover political remarks today, it is likely that most people would have heard only that one line, and Lincoln, the nation’s greatest president, would have been pilloried as an out-of-touch bumpkin.

In fact, I don’t think Stephen Carter correctly characterizes Lincoln’s speech, which you can read for yourself.  Most of the address concerns tariff policies, and the key paragraph reads as follows:

Notwithstanding the troubles across the river, [the speaker pointing southwardly, and smiling] there is really no crisis, springing from anything in the government itself. In plain words, there is really no crisis except an artificial one! What is there now to warrant the condition of affairs presented by our friends “over the river?” Take even their own view of the questions involved, and there is nothing to justify the course which they are pursuing. I repeat it, then – there is no crisis, excepting such a one as may be gotten up at any time by designing politicians. My advice, then, under such circumstances, is to keep cool. If the great American people will only keep their temper, on both sides of the line, the troubles will come to an end, and the question which now distracts the country will be settled just as surely as all other difficulties of like character which have originated in this government have been adjusted. Let the people on both sides keep their self-possession, and just as other clouds have cleared away in due time, so will this, and this great nation shall continue to prosper as heretofore. But, fellow citizens, I have spoken longer on this subject than I had intended in the outset – and I shall say no more at present.

However, even if Carter’s opening example is flawed, one of his larger points is certainly correct – reading complex ideas requires reading full material in context, without hysterical reactions.  In particular Carter is to be praised for reminding of us a classic of American political philosophy:  Richard Hofstadter’s “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.”  I am in not in a position to characterize whether over-reaction and sound biting has increased or decreased over time (I can imagine a strong argument, and Hofstadter provides evidence that this style of rhetoric is nothing new.)  But there is something particular about posting short notes on the web that can at times it lends itself to shallow analysis.  And it certainly is the case that readers, teachers, and thinkers we should encourage contextual, full, subtle reading.

February 4, 2009

February 12, 1809: Twin Birthdays (a few books)

February 12 is the 200th anniversary of both Lincoln’s and Darwin’s birthday.  There are even at least two comparative biographies on the market now:  Adam Gopnik’s Angels and Ages and David Contosta’s Rebel Giants.  And there are flood of good and bad Lincoln and Darwin books flooding the market (the oddest of which I have seen mentioned to date is Mrs. Charles Darwin’s Recipe Book.)

Lincoln and Darwin share more than a few parallels, but for me, both are giants of 19th century writing.  And for both of them, I think their strongest work came early on:  in Darwin’s case, The Voyage of a the Beagle – an amazing travelogue and coming of age story.  It is available in numerous editions, here is a new hardcover (that promises to include the original illustrations) and here is a link to many online editions.  See also the illustrations hereDarwin’s final popular work (on earthworms) is also excellent and well worth reading.  A well-received book about Darwin’s writing style and influence is the Norton Critical Edition.

For me, the highlight of Lincoln’s work are his debates with Douglas Stevens – again there are numerous versions available, but here is a new critically edited volume.  Close behind is Lincoln’s speech at Cooper Union – here is a recreation of it by Sam Waterston (and here is the text).  A well-received book about Lincoln’s speaking style is Gary Will’s Lincoln at Gettysburg.

If you want a fuller selection of Darwin, I can recommend an omnibus edition published by Norton.  If you want a fuller selection of Lincoln, there is an excellent set published by Library of America.

February 2, 2009

Dream tonight in honor of Joyce

Today, James Joyce’s 127th birthday, is the 70th anniversary of Joyce’s greatest novel – his great book about dreaming:  Finnegans Wake

Here are some quotations noted by David Kelly.

Anthony Burgess:

The world has forgiven Joyce for the excesses of Ulysses, but it is not yet ready to forgive him for the dementia of Finnegans Wake. Yet it is difficult to see what other book he could well have written after a fictional ransacking of the human mind in its waking state. Ulysses sometimes touches the borders of sleep, but it never actually enters its kingdom. Finnegans Wake is frankly a representation of the sleeping brain. It took Joyce 17 years to write between eye operations and worry about the mental collapse of his daughter, Lucia. He got little encouragement, even from Ezra Pound, that prince of avant-gardistes; his wife, Nora, merely said that he ought to write a nice book that ordinary people could read. But clearly Finnegans Wake had to be written, and Joyce was the only man dedicated or mad enough to write it.

Edna O’Brien:

Madness he knew to be the secret of genius . . . . He preferred the word exaltation, which can merge into madness. All great men had that vein in them. The reasonable man, he insisted, achieves nothing.

My favorite book on Finnegans Wake (other than the novel itself) is John Bishop’s Joyce’s Book of the Dark.  (I know the author, but I formed my high opinion of the work before I met him.)  Bishop’s book treats the Wake as a dream novel, and has incredible explanatory power to this famous difficult book.

See also this first draft version.


Best Jane Austen Yet?

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

From the publisher’s description

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.” So begins Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, an expanded edition of the beloved Jane Austen novel featuring all-new scenes of bone-crunching zombie mayhem. As our story opens, a mysterious plague has fallen upon the quiet English village of Meryton—and the dead are returning to life! Feisty heroine Elizabeth Bennet is determined to wipe out the zombie menace, but she’s soon distracted by the arrival of the haughty and arrogant Mr. Darcy. What ensues is a delightful comedy of manners with plenty of civilized sparring between the two young lovers—and even more violent sparring on the blood-soaked battlefield as Elizabeth wages war against hordes of flesh-eating undead. Can she vanquish the spawn of Satan? And overcome the social prejudices of the class-conscious landed gentry? Complete with romance, heartbreak, swordfights, cannibalism, and thousands of rotting corpses, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies transforms a masterpiece of world literature into something you’d actually want to read.

JANE AUSTEN is the author of Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion, Mansfield Park, and other masterpieces of English literature.

SETH GRAHAME-SMITH once took a class in English literature. He lives in Los Angeles.


February 1, 2009

On wishing one listened to the CD instead

Carnegie Hall.  Expensive tickets.  Difficult new music.  Out of control cell phones.  Drunk patrons.  Rashomon-like retellings of the stories.

Matthew Barson’s account

Bruce Hodge’s account

(HT:  Alex Ross)

Funeral for Analogue TV

If you need something to mourn, why not hold a funeral for analogue television the way they do out in wacky Berkeley?  (But be sure to hold onto your old sets so you can receive those pirate broadcasts – it seems this group is sponsoring a workshop on how to create your own pirate television station.)


From http://bcnm.berkeley.edu/tvfuneral/

The service will take place at the Berkeley Art Museum
Tuesday, February 17, at 7:00 PM.
The friends of the family are respectfully invited to attend.

Join author Bruce Sterling, technology pundit Paul Saffo, and other special guests on the UC Berkeley campus to mourn the loss of our long time acquaintance, the Analog Television Signal. Born in the 1920's in San Francisco, the signal has been an integral part of all our lives, bringing us news of the rich, the famous, the politicians, the wars, the Apollo landings, the thrills of victory, and the agonies of defeat. While Analog Television has not been a good friend to us all, it has been important to each and every one of us. Analog Television is survived by its wife Digital Television, and its second cousin Internet Television. In a soap-operatic melodrama fit for TV itself, Congress has debated changing the official date for the switch to digital television; however this event will proceed on Feb. 17 because we prefer to bury a fresh corpse rather than wait for the walking dead to fall over.

Please bring your Analog TV for display and recycling, as we will stack the first 40 in memoriam to our life long friend. At the ceremony Paul Saffo will spell out the sordid history of the Analog TV Signal's life, the group Author & Punisher will perform the funeral dirge, and author Bruce Sterling will deliver the eulogy just before the analog signal winks out for the last time and the frequency wasteland is invaded by pirate TV artists. It's rare that the entire nation gets a specific date on which one major medium dies and is replaced by another. This event will be a scholarly and artistic reflection on the passing of one of the dominant mediums and cultural influences of the late 20th century.