Good editing separates a sage from a provocateur

I’ve seen some good stuff on the internet lately.  There are people who read this blog who won’t like some of it.

1. Kenan Malik writes:

One thing should be clear. The violence across the Muslim world in response to an American anti-Islamic film has nothing to do with that film. Yes, The Innocence of Muslims is a risibly crude diatribe against Islam. But this obscure film that barely anyone had seen till last week is no more the source of the current violence than God is the source of the Qur’an.

I don’t presume to know whether God is the source of the Qur’an, but Mr Malik is surely right to argue that these acts of violence spring from efforts by their perpetrators to present themselves as the champions of Islam.  As such, they are symptoms of the internal politics of the countries where they take place, politics which may well be shaped by military and other interventions from outside powers, but which must always be analyzed in terms of the interests and understandings of their actual participants.

2. An article about cartoonist R. Crumb in Vingt Paris Magazine lists many of Mr Crumb’s more unwholesome obsessions, then goes on:

I suppose the uncomfortable truth about Crumb’s reputation as a comic satirist is that he’s no good when he really needs to be. Unlike, say, Dick Gregory or even Randy Newman (whose song Rednecks is also written from a racist’s point of view), Crumb is too happy to wield irony like a sledgehammer when it comes to discussing race.

As a result of Mr Crumb’s lack of subtlety, his irony often collapses and his depictions of racist imagery are left without satiric point, as racism plain and simple.  Likewise, his sadomasochism-inspired sexual imagery rarely has much point beyond the confessional, and is merely disgusting.

Mr Crumb does not attempt to defend his work; last year, faced with the prospect of demonstrations against him, he canceled plans to appear at the Sydney Opera House, saying “‘I can’t explain why I drew all those crazy pictures’, he told the press. ‘I had to do it. Maybe I should have my pencils and pens taken away from me. I don’t know.'”  The author of the article mentions that Mr Crumb had given him the identical response when he’d asked him to justify his work some years previously, then remarks “It’s a stock response that’s so polished it shines. It makes you wonder if, one day, he might get bored of saying it and try for an answer instead.”

I would not defend the racial imagery in Mr Crumb’s work.  I still chuckle when I think of the moment in the 1994 documentary Crumb when one of his critics looks at a comic strip depicting the crudest possible African American stereotype and says “This is actually an attack on black people.”  What made me laugh then and now is the word “actually.”  As if it were apparently something else, but a close analysis by the most sophisticated methods available would show that it was actually an attack on black people.  It was so obviously an attack on black people that the existence of a debate about the question of whether it is such an attack is hilarious.

The article summarizes Mr Crumb’s attitude towards his subject matter thus:

Using racial stereotypes in his work is something that Crumb freely admits to, saying that ‘there’s a perverse part of me (that) likes to take the heat for all that stuff’. One of his most famous examples is here in the exhibition – a picture called Jive with Angel Food McSpade. It’s a drawing of a freakish, thick-lipped, bug-eyed woman, who seductively raises her leg and claims she was ‘Attacked in the mud because I was a SEXY TEASE’.

The arguments about drawings like Jive with Angel Food go like so: ‘He’s subverting those images and throwing our own racism back at us’. Or ‘he’s just trying to shock you, Liberal’. Or ‘he’s genuinely a racist. He’s not even being ironic’. And they play out like a game of rock, paper, scissors that nobody knows how to stop.

For his part, Crumb says the controversial stuff pours out of him because it’s wired into his brain, from all the pop-imagery he saw on television and in comics and magazines. He’s certainly not a racist, he says, but he’s even less of a censor – and if this kind of stuff is in there, then who is he to keep it in?

This strikes me as a fair statement, and a sad one.  At his best, as in his illustrated version of Genesis, Mr Crumb shows that the feverish, undigested contents of his psyche are unsettlingly similar to the feverish, undigested ideas at the heart of the most powerful ideologies in the modern world.  It is a shame that Mr Crumb has not been consistently subject to a stringent and demanding editor who fully understands his project and capabilities.  It is unreasonable to expect the same person to serve as author and editor of the same work; in that sense, Mr Crumb is quite right to ask “who is he to keep it in?”

3. Blogger Steve Sailer lists the following as the categories of Americans whose opinions about foreign policy are taken seriously in official Washington:

Today, the acceptable limits of foreign policy discourse in America are set by:
– The good old military-industrial complex
– Saudi bribery
– Liberal Democratic Zionists
– Right 2 Protect liberal crypto-imperialist/busybodies
– Angry Likudniks
– Quasi-CIA “democracy” endowments that organize color-coded revolutions
– Foreign policy thinktanks (who are more important the more activist the foreign policy)
– White guys who need to serve in the military so they can get affirmative action points to become firemen
– Yahoos who should be apprised that when football isn’t on TV, professional wrestling can always be found year-round, so there’s no need to watch the news
– Oil companies (who are left to quietly play the “Can’t we all just get along?” Rodney King role)
They are all overseen by a national media that sometimes seems most concerned about the looming threat that an isolationist Father Coughlin could arise again.
So, the only feasible foreign policy alternative to stake out is: “The President’s foreign policy isn’t quite crazed enough!”

When Mr Sailer expresses his right-wing opinions about race or sex or economics, I can usually find good reasons to disagree with him.  I wish I could disagree with him here as well.

4. Via Arts & Letters Daily, here’s a sensational little essay about Ezra Pound by Luciano Mangiafico at Open Letters Monthly.  Mr Mangiafico presents the following as an “excerpt from Canto 81”:

What thou lovest well remains,
the rest is dross
What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee
What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage…
Pull down thy vanity, it is not man
Made courage, or made order, or made grace,
Pull down thy vanity, I say pull down.
Learn of the green world what can be thy place…
Pull down thy vanity
How mean thy hates
Fostered in falsity,
Pull down thy vanity,
Rathe to destroy, niggard in charity,
Pull down thy vanity, I say pull down…

These lines do appear in Pound’s Canto 81, but Mr Mangiafico has edited them heavily.  Here is how of the ending of the poem looks in the edition of the Cantos I read (New Directions, 1996):

What thou lovest well remains,

the rest is dross

What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee

What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage

Whose world, or mine or theirs

or is it of none?

First came the seen, then thus the palpable

Elysium, though it were in the halls of hell,

What thou lovest well is thy true heritage

What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee

The ant’s a centaur in his dragon world.

Pull down thy vanity, it is not man

Made courage, or made order, or made grace,

Pull down thy vanity, I say pull down.

Learn of the green world what can be thy place

In scaled invention or true artistry,

Pull down thy vanity,

Paquin pull down!

The green casque has outdone your elegance.

“Master thyself, then others shall thee beare”-

Pull down thy vanity

Thou art a beaten dog beneath the hail,

A swollen magpie in a fitful sun,

Half black half white

Nor knowst’ou wing from tail

Pull down thy vanity

How mean thy hates

Fostered in falsity,

Pull down thy vanity,

Rathe to destroy, niggard in charity,

Pull down thy vanity,

I say pull down.

But to have done instead of not doing

This is not vanity

To have, with decency, knocked

That a Blunt should open

To have gathered from the air a live tradition

or from a fine old eye the unconquered flame

This is not vanity.

Here error is all in the not done,

all in the diffidence that faltered…

Last night I read Pound’s original aloud to Mrs Acilius; it is undeniably thrilling, but just as undeniably Mr Mangiafico’s redaction, spare and direct, takes on a splendor that fades in Pound’s profusion of images and references.  And the first half of the poem is Pound’s usual, barely tolerable, complete with quotations from Theocritus and John Adams.  I only wonder why he neglected to tattoo it with Chinese characters.

Pound, like Mr Crumb, reminds me of the old story about the town with only two barbers.  One barber is faultlessly shaven, with a perfectly presented head of hair; the other wears stubble on half his face, and a shapeless mop of hair.  The discerning customer goes to the slovenly barber, since he is the one who cut the well-coiffed one’s hair.  Likewise, as an editor of poetry Pound made inestimable contributions to the works of T. S. Eliot and other eminences of the High Modern; it is our great loss that Pound found no one to do for his work what he did for theirs.

“Language Related Efforts to Help Out in Haiti”

A post at Language Log.

The Nation, 23 February 2009

23febnationStuart Klawans reviews three new films, Gomorrah, The Class, and CoralineGomorrah, he assures us, is not merely a hyper-violent Italian gangster movie, but a critique of globalization, a portrait of “what the world looks like when it has been remade by gangsters.”  As a teacher myself, I was intrigued by Klawans’ description of The Class.  Evidently the film depicts two hours in the life of a grammar and composition class in a French public school, taught by a man with a daring,  aggressive technique.  “François has no fear of sharp distinctions. His pedagogical method is to push his students and then to shove, so that he’s always on the verge of going too far with them–or finally steps over the line.”  Coraline is evidently a reimagining of Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony.”  While the story centers on a son’s obscure sense that his father has rejected him, the main action of the film begins with a girl openly rejecting her parents and leads her toward the same kind of destruction as Kafka’s character had witnessed.   

Richard R. John explains how recent changes in rates and policies at the US Postal Service have rewarded mass-circulation magazines and penalized low-circulation magazines.  A look at the subcategories under “Periodical Notes” will show that this is a matter of vital concern to your humble correspondent.  (more…)

The Nation, 16 February 2009

16febnationGary Younge points out  that Barack Obama is in fact the President of the United States.  From this fact, he draws the conclusion that the time has come to put away the posters and other artwork endorsing him and get to work pressing him from the left, as others will surely do from the right.

Akiva Gottlieb reviews two novels by Bulgaria’s Angel Wagenstein, novels replete with heretical rabbis, lazy Nazis, and other exemplars of moral ambiguity.  The review opens with a reference to Joshua Cohen’s “Untitled: A Review,” from Cohen’s short-story collection The Quorum.  A reviewer finds on his doorstep a volume of six million crisp, white, blank pages.  He decides that this book is a history of the Holocaust, in fact “the only way to write about the event, the idea.” 

Eric Alterman takes on Rabbi Abraham Foxman and the Anti Defamation League of B’nai B’rith.  Alterman contends that “Anti-Defamation League” is a double misnomer for this organization.  He contends that it launches harsh attacks indiscriminately at all critics of Israel, attacks which less often counter defamation than they themselves amount to defamation; and that under Rabbi Foxman it is so much a one-man operation as hardly to qualify as a “league.”   

The editors endorse Tom Geoghegan for Congress.  (Others have done so since.)  Geoghegan has written for many publications regularly noted here.  A piece of his appeared in the final issue of The Baffler, for example, the only one that appeared after I started these notes


The Nation, 9 February 2009

9febnationAlexander Cockburn quotes an interesting-sounding new book, Bad for Democracy: How the Presidency Undermines the Power of the People, by Dana Nelson.  Unfortunately, Nelson does not recommend abolishing the presidency.  She does have as set of proposals to reduce its power, and she exhorts her readers to find ways of participating in political life that do not involve voting or require fixing national attention on one man. 

This issue includes part one of “Adventures in Editing,” Ted Solotaroff’s recollections of his time as an associate editor of Commentary in the early 60s.  Anyone interested in writing will enjoy Solotaroff’s description of how he learned to do that job.  Anyone interested in narcissists will enjoy his description of how Norman Podhoretz behaved as the editor-in-chief of the magazine in those days.  One bit that sticks in my mind is near the end of the piece:

Shortly after I’d come to Commentary, I’d had a conversation with Norman about recruiting writers for the magazine. It didn’t seem to me such a big deal; I said I knew of four or five people at the University of Chicago alone who could write for Commentary.

“You think you do, but you don’t,” said Norman. “You don’t realize how unusual you were for an academic.”

I said I wasn’t that unusual: I’d lucked into an opportunity my friends hadn’t had. “I’ll bet you a dinner that I can bring five writers you’ve never heard of into the magazine in the next year.”

“I don’t want to take your money,” he said. “I’ll bet you won’t bring three.”

We turned out to both be right. With one exception, the novelist Thomas Rogers, none of the former colleagues I had in mind sent in a review or piece that was lively enough to be accepted. A former fellow graduate student, Elizabeth Tornquist, who was turning to political journalism, also managed to crack the barrier. The others had fallen into one or another mode of scholarly dullness or pedagogical authority and, despite my suggestions, had trouble climbing out to address the common reader. My efforts to point their prose and sense of subject in a broader direction brought little joy to either party. “How dare you revise my formulation of an intellectual problem” was a fairly typical reaction.

Which may explain why so few “little magazines” really make it. It certainly explains why someone Podhoretz was needed to make Commentary into the magazine it was.  Only someone who didn’t mind losing friends could edit their work as mercilessly as was necessary to make a periodical worth reading and talking about; only someone who didn’t mind sucking up to the rich and famous could raise the money and generate the publicity necessary to keep it afloat.

How not to write a blog post

Here Mencius Moldbug provides an example of what I try to avoid doing when I write a post. 

1.  It’s very long, 32 screens of text. 

2. It starts with a series of acronyms that are neither generally familiar to the public nor explained anywhere in the text. 

3.  It deals with a wide range of topics.  The terms “Right” and “Left” as applied to politics, the advantages of royalism over democracy, Carlyle’s theory of the state, the ongoing financial crisis, the relationship of money to value, the evils of John Maynard Keynes, the supreme importance of a strong state, the virtues of corporate CEOs, the mental illnesses of Hitler and Stalin, the evils of separation of powers, and the impossibility of changing anything for the better. 

4. It contains strong claims about many matters which the author does not appear to understand.  Making an analogy between political systems and stellar evolution, he say that “Betelgeuse, of course, will end in supernova”; a commenter points out that Betelgeuse is not massive enough to end this way.  He lumps all proposals to respond to economic difficulties by loosening the fiscal policy of the government under the label “Keynesian,” then attacks John Maynard Keynes for them, regardless of what Keynes actually said or what theories the proposals in question may actually reflect.  He claims that all systems which divide of powers within the state violate the Roman strictures against  imperium in imperio,  ignoring the rest of Roman political thought and the whole practice of the Roman Republic. 

These four flaws all point to the same thing: the author of this post needs an editor.  An editor would have assigned him a maximum length; would have blue-penciled the acronyms; would have insisted on a coherent arc of development; and would asked the author for the basis of his factual claims.  It’s a shame this person blogs instead of submitting his work to an editor, because the piece contains several interesting points as well.