Deja vu all over again?

In recent weeks, the presidential campaign of former Utah governor Jon Huntsman has received a tremendous amount of publicity in the USA, out of all proportion to the tiny levels of support that the governor has shown in opinion polls.  This has puzzled many people; a Google search for “Why does Jon Huntsman get so much press?” brings up, as of the moment I write this, 441,ooo results.  I have an idea as to the solution of this puzzle.

Perhaps the current Republican presidential contest reminds reporters of the last contest to choose a challenger for an incumbent president, which is to say the Democratic Party’s race eight years ago.  At this point in that race, three Democratic candidates seemed to be leading the pack: Governor Howard Dean, Senator Joseph Lieberman, and General Wesley Clark.  Governor Dean topped most polls, but was unacceptable to key Democratic constituencies and did not play well on television.  Most of Senator Lieberman’s support came from a small group that is disproportionately influential in the political process, namely pro-war Democrats.  Unable to broaden his appeal beyond that group, he was fading fast by September 2003.  General Clark had stirred considerable excitement when he entered the race late, but he lacked staying power and by the time the voting started he had fallen far behind several other candidates.  The eventual nominee was Senator John Kerry, who in September of 2003 was polling in the neighborhood of 1% of likely Democratic voters, but who had one of the most impressive resumés of any candidate and who, due to the fact that he had married an extremely rich widow, could finance his own campaign.

Compare that with the Republicans this time out.  The three candidates who appear to be the strongest at the moment are Governor Willard “Mitt” Romney, Representative Michele Bachmann, and Governor Rick Perry.  Of these, Governor Romney has long topped most polls, but is unacceptable to key Republican constituencies and does not play well on television.  Most of Representative Bachmann’s support comes from a small group that is disproportionately influential in the political process, namely ultra-right Evangelicals.  So far unable to broaden her appeal beyond that group, she is fading fast at this point.   Governor Perry stirred considerable excitement  when he entered the race late, but it is unclear whether he will have staying power enough to remain in the top tier by the time the voting starts.  Governor Huntsman is, as of September 2011, polling in the neighborhood of 1% of likely Republican voters, but he has one of the most impressive resumés  of any candidate and, due to the fact that he is the son of the man who invented the packaging for McDonald’s Big Mac, he can finance his own campaign.

One might be forgiven for thinking that the history of this month’s Republican presidential race is a repeat of the history of the September 2003 Democratic presidential race.  Of course, that does not imply that the events of October 2011 through November 2012 will in any particular way resemble the events of October 2003 through November 2004.  But the similarity of the two contests up to this point, and the resemblance between Governor Huntsman’s position now and Senator Kerry’s then, might explain why he receives so much more media attention than do other candidates with equal or lesser levels of popular support.

Overheard on my lunch break

This afternoon, I stopped at a theater box office to buy tickets for a show Mrs Acilius and I want to attend later this month.  I overheard a snippet of conversation between the box office clerk and the customer ahead of me.  I didn’t hear the part leading up to it, so I don’t know what information the clerk was trying to find:

CLERK: Have you bought tickets here before?


(CLERK types on computer, looks puzzled): Could it be under your spouse’s name?

(CUSTOMER thinks long and hard, then answers in a doubtful tone): I’m not sure… probably not.

CLERK: Do you have a spouse?


From the box office, I went to Subway to eat lunch.  While I was eating, I overheard another brief cross-counter conversation:

(CUSTOMERS enter.)

SANDWICH ARTIST,* smiling brightly: Welcome to Subway!

CUSTOMER: Hi.  You seem happy.

SANDWICH ARTIST, smiling just as brightly as before: It’s fake!

*Hey, that’s their official title.

I love the things that…

Al Wood says: “It seems there are two types of site on the internet: sites about things people do (like Facebook, Twitter and Perez Hilton) and sites about things that people make (like YouTube, Tumblr and Boing, Boing). And I think you can guess which side of this I’m on.”  So he suggests that The Burning Hell’s “I Love the Things That People Make” should become “the official anthem of the internet.”

For some time, I’ve been trying to come up with a good tagline for this site.  When I read this bit of Al’s, it became obvious to me that it ought to be “I love the things that people think.”

The Nice Creed

In the June issue of Chronicles magazine, Philip Jenkins wrote a very interesting piece about the Revised Common Lectionary.  A lectionary is a table of holy writings that are prescribed to be read in church or temple on particular days; the Revised Common Lectionary is the product of a collaboration among many of the largest Christian denominations in the United States and Canada. Throughout the English-speaking world, Roman Catholics and mainline Protestants hear the readings appointed by the Revised Common Lectionary in their services.

Jenkins asks us to imagine a new Christian denomination, one founded with a close eye to market research.  This denomination might find a stumbling block in the Bible.  How might they clear such a hurdle?  “Our focus groups tell us that many modern people do not like or do not understand large portions of the Bible, about half the book in fact, and we want to serve their needs.  The God we preach is, above all, Nice, and the scripture must focus on that paramount reality.  So our church has produced a new version of the Bible, carefully selected for Niceness, and edited to remove the half of the material that modern readers find difficult, unpleasant, or thorny.  That is our belief- or as we call it, our Nice Creed.”

While this imaginary Nice Creed might be very different from the series of statements known in various times and places as the Nicene Creed, it would have a distinguished historical lineage.  Marcion of Pontus, a major figure in the early development of Christian thought, was so troubled by the many passages of the Jewish scriptures that depict a vengeful God Who takes a particular interest in one chosen people that he decided those scriptures were describing a different God from the world-redeeming, grace-giving God of Jesus and Paul.  Marcion did not deny the truth of Judaism, but claimed that while the Jewish God created the universe and the Messiah would come and establish a millennial kingdom for the Jews, the God of Jesus was quite another fellow, and Jesus Himself, though He were Savior of all humanity, was no Messiah.  No church today claims Marcion as an inspiration; all that express an opinion about him call him a heretic.  But the Revised Common Lectionary elides, in Jenkins’ words, “exactly those Old Testament elements that most repelled that ancient heretic.  What remains in the text is an acceptable Bible Lite.”

For example, 94% of the Book of Esther is missing from the Revised Common Lectionary.  While the lectionary leaves in the story of the hanging of the wicked Haman, it leaves out the revenge the Jews took on his people, a revenge that left 75,000 dead.  This is the foundation story of the feast of Purim, and is important enough to Jews today that worshipers ritually make noise in temple when Haman’s name is mentioned.  But it certainly isn’t Nice.  So out it goes.

Jenkins puts it thus: “In terms of the ordinary experience of Christian Church life, the Book of Esther has ceased to exist.  So has the Book of Ezra (not quoted at all in the lectionary); so have Judges, Leviticus, Nehemiah (each represented by one meager passage.)”  Even worse is the selective editing within passages.  “A passage will be cited as (for instance) ‘Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18’ without any explanation of what has vanished from that chapter.  Just what was in verses three through eight?”  Jenkins gives some examples of passages which are seriously misrepresented by selective editing of this sort.  For example, this lesson gives us the first verse and a half of chapter 24 of Joshua, then jumps to verses 14-18.  What’s wrong with verses 3-13?  Jenkins explains that “these omitted verses recount the conquest and destruction of the Amorite and Moabite peoples, the annihilation of Jericho, and the ethnic cleansing of the seven peoples of Canaan.  Leaving out that section, we imagine the rival peoples listed in this chapter as armed enemies in battle, not as civilian targets for genocide.”  Definitely not Nice!

Jenkins two closing paragraphs make his point very forcefully, I think, so I’ll quote them in full:

Why should we worry about this radical purging of the biblical text? After all, Christians are not forbidden to read the troubling texts on their own, either in a private context or in a common study group.  Yet having said this, many such groups like to use the lectionary as a guide for such activity, either using the texts for the coming Sunday, r else linking the study to a sermon.  Ordinary readers are free to pursue Joshua, Ezra, and Deuteronomy, but how many do?  If you are a faithful church attendee- a Catholic or Presbyterian, Methodist or Episcopalian, Lutheran or Mennonite- the odds are that you will simply never encounter some of the Bible’s most challenging passages, texts that must be understood if we are to see that work holistically.  Jesus, after all, was really Yeshua, and He shared His name with the ancient warlord we call Joshua, the book of whose deeds has virtually disappeared from church usage.

The worst feature of this far-reaching excision of troubling texts is what it suggests about the churches’ attitude toward their ordinary believers, who must be protected from anything that might call them to question the orthodoxies of the day.  God forbid they might hear these texts: They might be induced to think.

I am one of those who would be glad if there were nothing in the Bible encouraging war, or genocide, or slavery; if it spoke out consistently and clearly in favor of equality between men and women, of a mindful relationship with the natural world, of the rights and dignity of sexual minorities; if it fit easily into a scientific worldview and a liberal democratic political system.  These are some of the values Jenkins would classify among the “orthodoxies of the day,” and of course they are that.  I don’t mind being called orthodox.  But it is simply false to pretend that the Bible really is that way, and Jenkins deserves commendation for speaking out against the infantilization of “ordinary believers” implied in the Nice version of the scriptures presented in the Revised Common Lectionary.

In the same issue, Aaron D. Wolf marks the 400th anniversary of the “King James Bible.”  Wolf has fond memories of his fundamentalist boyhood and of the 1611 Bible as a presence in that boyhood, but now that he has left fundamentalism behind and become a more traditional sort of Christian he is constrained to point out some of the limitations in that translation.  I hadn’t known just how dependent the 1611 translation was on William Tyndale’s earlier translation.  Evidently 83% of the New Testament and 76% of the Old Testament in the 1611 translation comes verbatim from Tyndale, and the rest was shaped by the influence of Tyndale’s approach.  As a Lutheran in an England whose established church was still subordinate to Rome, Tyndale was put to death for heresy in 1536, but it would seem he managed to get the last word.

Thomas Fleming isn’t a particularly humorous author, at least not intentionally, but his column did make me chuckle this time around with this story.  He meets a man.  “‘Been to church’?  he asked.  Dressed in a suit at 10:30 on Sunday morning, I was forced to admt the fact.”

Chilton Williamson writes about industrialization.  He grants that the industrial revolution was in a sense inevitable, so that “the question of whether men should have created industrialism is a meaningless one, the kind of modern question-putting Chesterton deplored.”  Still, t’s clear that he wishes he could answer the question in the negative.  “Industrialism has two ultimate tendencies.  One is to subdue nature and to exhaust it, while ruining it as a home for man, as well as for the thousands upon thousands of other species that industrial activity has driven to extinction, not least through the explosive growth of the human species that industrialization has made possible.  The other is to subdue and exploit man, while progressively marginalizing him in the workplace and in society as a whole by mechanization, and finally replacing him altogether with robotic labor.” Williamson doesn’t mention Eric Gill, but Gill’s critique of industrialization seems to be behind this remark and his suspicion that “industrialism, in both human and natural terms, is patently unsustainable, and that its eventual collapse is therefore guaranteed.”

The Loeb Classical Library

A logo Harvard commissioned to celebrate the publication of the 500th volume in the Loeb series

In honor of this year’s 100th anniversary of the Loeb Classical Library, the Barnes & Noble Review posts a piece by Adam Kirsch on the books in that series that describe Socrates.  These include not only the dialogues of Plato, but also Xenophon’s Memorabilia and Aristophanes’ Clouds.

If I were given Kirsch’s assignment, I would not have chosen these as examples of the strengths of the Loeb Library.  Most of the 518 volumes in the Loeb series have the same format: a brief introduction, combining remarks about an ancient Greek or Roman author with remarks about the manuscripts in which that author’s works have come down to us; then one of those works, presented in the original on the left hand page and an English translation on the facing page.  A few years after the Loebs began to appear in the USA, the Collection Budé began to appear in France.  The Budés are rather like the Loebs, only with French translation on the left and the original on the right.

When the Loeb series began in 1911, the texts and translations were of wildly uneven quality.  The great problem the series faced was that each volume was entrusted to one person, who might be an accomplished textual critic or an accomplished translator, but who was not especially likely to excel in both of those fields.  Very poor translations were produced when, as some critics put it, men who had never before tried their hand at English verse were required to translate Greek verse into it; A. S. Way’s translation of Euripides was long famous as an example of this.  The translations by David Kovacs that replaced Way’s version are certainly readable, though, perhaps in reaction to Way’s ludicrously purple versifying, they are so resolutely unpoetic as to obscure the fact that Euripides was writing verse drama.

Even some of the prose translations were unreadable; at times I’ve picked up A. D. Godley’s Loeb of Herodotus to sort out some thorny passage in the Greek, only to find that I was using the Greek as a crib to decipher Godley’s English.  The Loeb translations of the Socratic writings aren’t as badly rendered as that, but none is among the best translations of its original available in English. Other volumes were feature readable translations, but unreliable texts.  Again, the Socratic volumes aren’t the worst offenders, but neither would their Greek texts be useful to a scholar.

If I had to choose a single volume to praise the Loeb series, I would pick A. W. Mair’s edition of Oppian, Colluthus, and Tryphiodorus.   Not only are the texts exemplary, but the translations are sufficiently sensitive that even a Greekless reader might be able to understand why the two poems attributed to Oppian are unlikely to have been produced by the same person.  (Granted, it helps that the author of each poem starts by telling us where he was born, and it isn’t the same place, but still, the style is important.)  And the footnotes represent a fine commentary on these three neglected authors.

Scientists need media advisors

The other day I read an article in Popular Science magazine profiling Felisa Wolfe-Simon, the NASA-sponsored scientist who made headlines in December with a paper claiming that a particular strain of bacteria throve in environments high in arsenic and low on phosphorous.  Wolfe-Simon hopes to find a life form that uses arsenic in its DNA in the way that all other known organisms use phosphorous, and NASA foregrounded that hope in its publicity for the paper.  While Wolfe-Simon did not claim that she had proven that the bacteria were using arsenic in this way, so much press discussion centered on that idea that when subsequent findings suggested that they probably weren’t, she was subjected to a kind of disgrace.  In the Popular Science piece, Wolfe-Simon says that her career may very well be over now.

After I’d read this sad tale, I turned on the TV.  The History Channel was showing a program they’d produced in 2008 about Professor Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, a political scientist who has used game theory to devise an algorithm for use in analyzing high-level decision-making.  To be precise, about a third of the show concerned Professor Bueno de Mesquita.  This third included many excerpts of the professor and his associates talking to the camera about his research.  The other two thirds were about Nostradamus.  Neither Professor Bueno de Mesquita nor any of his associates ever mentions Nostradamus, and only one of the many Nostradamus fans who appear mentions Professor Bueno de Mesquita.  I strongly suspect that the professor did not know that he was going to be presented as “The Next Nostradamus.”

Two opinion surveys I have not conducted

1. I teach in a state university deep in the interior of the USA.  It is likely that most of my students plan to settle in urban areas after they graduate, but a significant minority would strongly prefer to live in rural areas.  And it is definitely the case that most of them are looking for a person with whom to live, in whichever setting they prefer.

The students seem to spend more time than one might expect arguing about what restrictions, if any, the law should place on private gun ownership.  I wonder if they raise this topic as a way of signaling to potential mates whether they plan to settle in the city or in the countryside.  I’m not an opinion researcher, but perhaps someone who is might like to see if support for lax gun laws is a strong indicator of a preference for a rural life and support for restrictive gun laws is a strong indicator of a preference for city life.  If it should turn out that these opinions are strong indicators of these preferences, it would be interesting to see under just what sort of circumstances people volunteer opinions about gun control and strive to be identified with those opinions.

2. My wife has cerebral palsy.  Many of her friends, like her, grew up with major disabilities.  The university where I teach prides itself on accessibility to the disabled, so both through my marriage and through my work I have come to know a substantial number of articulate, highly educated people who have been visibly disabled throughout their lives.

It seems to me that the people I know who meet this description show the same range of opinions as do Americans generally about public policy regarding abortion.  Some think that abortion should always be legal, some think it should always be illegal, some support each of a variety of restrictions.  What none of them accepts is the label “pro-choice.”  I’ve heard people who would not vote for a policy that would bar or discourage any abortion anywhere hotly deny that they are “pro-choice.”  I don’t know if my acquaintances are in any way representative of Americans with disabilities.  If a survey showed that American adults who grew up as disabled children are in fact much more likely to want to keep abortion legal than they are to call themselves “pro-choice,” and that they are in this way different from American adults who grew up without visible disabilities, I wonder what we might find about the label “pro-choice” and the rhetoric associated with it that they find repellent.

Martin Espada reads “Alabanza”

The Nation, 26 September 2011

James Longenbach contributes a surprisingly sympathetic review of a collection of letters by the young T. S. Eliot.  Longenbach argues that Eliot’s Unitarian family made a fetish of doubt and complexity, and that the aspects of Eliot’s life and thought that puzzled them came from a rebellion against this fetish, against “the Eliot Way.”  Eliot rebelled against what he called “the Way of Doubt” by time and again taking actions that entailed an irrevocable commitment.  As Longenbach puts it:

In retrospect, all of the momentous events in Eliot’s life were determined by a moment of awful daring. In 1933 he left Vivien as abruptly as he had married her, and his decisions to enter the Church of England and, many years later, to marry his secretary, Valerie Fletcher, were similarly nurtured in complete secrecy and subsequently revealed to a world in which even close friends were baffled by Eliot’s behavior, left feeling as if they had never known him. To Eliot’s Unitarian family, a conversion to Anglo-Catholicism seemed as explicable as an initiation into a cult.

Considering this disposition of Eliot’s, and in view of his time and place, it is nothing short of amazing that he did not join the Blackshirts.  When Longenbach provides this excerpt from an unpublished essay of Eliot’s, it becomes amazing that he didn’t murder anyone:

In Gopsum Street a man murders his mistress. The important fact is that for the man the act is eternal, and that for the brief space he has to live, he is already dead. He is already in a different world from ours. He has crossed the frontier. The important fact that something is done which cannot be undone—a possibility which none of us realize until we face it ourselves. For the man’s neighbors the important fact is what the man killed her with? And at precisely what time? And who found the body?… But the medieval world, insisting on the eternity of punishment, expressed something nearer the truth.

The man’s neighbors, in their fascination with the details of the crime, might easily fall into a psychological or other scientific explanation of the killer’s motivation, which would in turn reduce the crime itself to the ordinary level of everyday life.  The medieval view insists that murder, like other sin, is not ordinary, that it is a thing set apart from the created world around us.  Eliot may not have craved murder, but he did crave that sort of setting apart.  For him, it was a lie to say that the whole world is one thing and that it can be reduced to one set of laws.  Eliot’s onetime teacher Irving Babbitt was fond of quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson’s lines, “There are two laws discrete,/ not reconciled–/ Law for man and law for thing;/ The last builds town and fleet,/ But it runs wild,/ And doth the man unking… Let man serve law for man,/ Live for friendship, live for love,/ For truth’s and harmony’s behoof;/ The state may follow how it can,/ As Olympus follows Jove.”  These lines come from a poem Emerson dedicated to W. H. Channing.  W. H. Channing was the nephew of Unitarian theologian William Ellery Channing, and like Emerson was himself a Unitarian preacher.  The Channings, Eliots, and Emersons were all related to each other, so Eliot likely perked up when he heard Babbitt quote these lines.

While Emerson may have concluded that the “Law for Man” is best observed by general friendliness, Babbitt drew a more sobering conclusion.  In his first book, Literature and the American College (which takes the lines from Emerson as its epigraph,) Babbitt explained that he called himself a “humanist” rather than a “humanitarian” because the former word suggests a more selective sympathy than does the latter.  One can see the humanitarian impulse, in Babbitt’s sense of the word, in the neighbors’ insistent focus on the practical details of the murder, in the implication that the act of murder can be reduced to those details, that it can therefore be put on a level with other acts a person might perform.  The humanitarian impulse thus reduces even murder to one form of behavior among many.  In an age dominated by humanitarianism, murder loses its terror.  The word “mystery” comes to mean, not that of which one may not speak because it lies outside the ordinary realm of our experience, but that of which one must inquire until it can be reduced to the ordinary realm of our experience.  The “murder mystery,” a story in which investigation reveals that a murder was of a piece with the ordinary life around it, thus emerges as the signature genre of the humanitarian age.

Longenbach doesn’t mention Babbitt, through the study of whom I first became seriously interested in Eliot.  Nor does he mention Eliot’s Royalist politics, one of the aspects of Eliot’s thought that kept Babbitt from taking his former student seriously.  However, I was thinking of Eliot the Royalist earlier today, when I offered a comment on the website Secular Right.  A post there complained about a speech Prince Charles had made about global warming.  As rightists, the authors of the site aren’t much interested in speeches about global warming; as secularists, when they hear such a speech from the heir apparent to a throne which sits at the center of the established Church of England, they are quick to attribute it to a yearning for the apocalyptic.  For good measure, the post threw in an identification of the prince as an “aristocratic idler.”  I suggested in reply that this yearning might be a sign that the House of Windsor is an unsatisfactory sort of monarchy:

It might be better if Prince Charles truly were an “aristocratic idler.” As it is, his handlers set myriad tasks for him each day, among them the delivery of public statements that reassure various groups that their concerns are being taken seriously at the highest levels of the state. This frees the people who actually exercise power at the highest levels of the state to ignore those concerns. If the prince and his immediate family were relieved of this chore and their other public functions, they would have an opportunity to withdraw into seclusion, appearing only on those occasions when they might strike awe into the natives. Then the UK might have a proper monarchy, distant, godlike, surrounded by an aura of high majesty and cold terror. Then there would be no need for the heir apparent to repeat warnings about the end of the world; the sound of his name would suffice to fill the people who find such warnings emotionally satisfying with the dread they crave. Failing that, you might as well have a republic.

Walter Bagehot said that there can be arguments for having a splendid court and arguments for having no court, but that there can be no arguments for having a shabby court. I’d say that there can be arguments for having a terrifying king and arguments for having no king, but that there can be no arguments for having an unrelentingly ordinary sort of person as king.

I call Charles “an unrelentingly ordinary sort of person,” not only because his statement is a pack of cliches, but also because of his busy-ness and because he is so familiar a figure.  Irving Babbitt criticized the cult of busy-ness in his own time as something that robbed life of depth; today, the same cult has gone to such extremes that it has reduced people to interchangeability.  By the end of the day, virtually anyone who had completed Prince Charles’ schedule would be indistinguishable from Prince Charles.  And his constant presence in the public eye makes it impossible to accept the prince as a figure embodying any kind of mystique.   As humanitarianism has made murder an ordinary act, albeit a costly one, and murderers ordinary folk, so too it has made kingship an ordinary job and kings ordinary fellows.  I don’t disagree with the Secular Right crowd that there is an unwholesome yearning for the apocalyptic afoot in our time; though perhaps that yearning is in fact simply a yearning for an event that will cast ordinariness aside once and for all.


The information superhighway showed the average person what some nerd thinks about Star Trek

I cannot allow you to approach my Sugar Smacks.

It was 45 years ago last night that Star Trek was first broadcast, which means that it was 45 years ago this morning that kids first went to school and asked each other if they’d seen Star Trek.  By the time I was born, Star Trek was no longer in production, but reruns of it were on TV all the time.  So wherever nerds gathered, it was steady a topic of conversation.  The show is now so old, and the spinoff shows and other attempts to cash in on its success were so tedious, that I’m always surprised when anyone younger than me expresses interest in it.  It really was a good show, though.