Truth, indeed, is something that is believed in completely only by persons who have never tried personally to pursue it to its fastnesses and grab it by the tail. It is the adoration of second-rate men — men who always receive it at second-hand. Pedagogues believe in immutable truths and spend their lives trying to determine them and propagate them; the intellectual progress of man consists largely of a concerted effort to block and destroy their enterprise. Nine times out of ten, in the arts as in life, there is actually no truth to be discovered; there is only error to be exposed. In whole departments of human inquiry it seems to me quite unlikely that the truth ever will be discovered. Nevertheless, the rubber-stamp thinking of the world always makes the assumption that the exposure of an error is identical with the discovery of the truth — that error and truth are simple opposites. They are nothing of the sort. What the world turns to, when it has been cured of one error, is usually simply another error, and maybe one worse than the first one. This is the whole history of the intellect in brief. The average man of to-day does not believe in precisely the same imbecilities that the Greek of the fourth century before Christ believed in, but the things that he does believe in are often quite as idiotic. Perhaps this statement is a bit too sweeping. There is, year by year, a gradual accumulation of what may be called, provisionally, truths — there is a slow accretion of ideas that somehow manage to meet all practicable human tests, and so survive. But even so, it is risky to call them absolute truths. All that one may safely say of them is that no one, as yet, has demonstrated that they are errors. Soon or late, if experience teaches us anything, they are likely to succumb too. The profoundest truths of the Middle Ages are now laughed at by schoolboys. The profoundest truths of democracy will be laughed at, a few centuries hence, even by school-teachers.
H.L. Mencken, “Footnote on Criticism”, Prejudices, Third Series, 1922.
April 28, 2015
April 27, 2015
The strongest argument against trigger warnings that I have heard is that they allow us to politicize ever more things. Colleges run by people on the left can slap big yellow stickers on books that promote conservative ideas, saying “THIS BOOK IS RACIST AND CLASSIST”, and then act outraged if anyone requests a trigger warning that sounds conservative – like a veteran who wants one on books that vilify or mock soldiers, or a religious person who wants one on blasphemy. Then everyone has to have a big fight, the fight makes everyone worse off than either possible resolution, and it ends with somebody feeling persecuted and upset. In other words, it’s an intellectual gang sign saying “Look! We can demonstrate our mastery of this area by only allowing our symbols; your kind are second-class citizens!”
On the other hand, this is terribly easy to fix. Put trigger warnings on books, but put them on the bullshytte page. You know, the one near the front where they have the ISBN number and the city where the publishers’ head office is and something about the Library of Congress you’ve never read through even though it’s been in literally every book you’ve ever seen. Put it there, on a small non-colorful sticker. Call it a “content note” or something, so no one gets the satisfaction of hearing their pet word “trigger warning”. Put a generally agreed list of things – no sense letting every single college have its own acrimonious debate about it. The few people who actually get easily triggered will with some exertion avoid the universal human urge to flip past the bullshytte page and spend a few seconds checking if their trigger is in there. No one else will even notice.
Or if it’s about a syllabus, put it on the last page of the syllabus, in size 8 font, after the list of recommended reading for the class. As a former student and former teacher, I know no one reads the syllabus. You have to be really devoted to avoiding your trigger. Which is exactly the sort of person who should be able to have a trigger warning while everyone else goes ahead with their lives in a non-political way.
Scott Alexander, “The Wonderful Thing About Triggers”, Slate Star Codex, 2014-05-30.
April 26, 2015
Lest, in spite of all, the British schoolboy should obtain, even from the like of Ahn, some glimmering of French, the British educational method further handicaps him by bestowing upon him the assistance of, what is termed in the prospectus, “A native gentleman.” This native French gentleman, who, by-the-by, is generally a Belgian, is no doubt a most worthy person, and can, it is true, understand and speak his own language with tolerable fluency. There his qualifications cease. Invariably he is a man with a quite remarkable inability to teach anybody anything. Indeed, he would seem to be chosen not so much as an instructor as an amuser of youth. He is always a comic figure. No Frenchman of a dignified appearance would be engaged for any English school. If he possess by nature a few harmless peculiarities, calculated to cause merriment, so much the more is he esteemed by his employers. The class naturally regards him as an animated joke. The two to four hours a week that are deliberately wasted on this ancient farce, are looked forward to by the boys as a merry interlude in an otherwise monotonous existence. And then, when the proud parent takes his son and heir to Dieppe merely to discover that the lad does not know enough to call a cab, he abuses not the system, but its innocent victim.
I confine my remarks to French, because that is the only language we attempt to teach our youth. An English boy who could speak German would be looked down upon as unpatriotic. Why we waste time in teaching even French according to this method I have never been able to understand. A perfect unacquaintance with a language is respectable. But putting aside comic journalists and lady novelists, for whom it is a business necessity, this smattering of French which we are so proud to possess only serves to render us ridiculous.
Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men on the Bummel, 1914.
April 25, 2015
In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing. Where it is not true, it will generally be found that the writer is some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions and not a “party line.” Orthodoxy, of whatever color, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style. The political dialects to be found in pamphlets, leading articles, manifestoes, White papers and the speeches of undersecretaries do, of course, vary from party to party, but they are all alike in that one almost never finds in them a fresh, vivid, homemade turn of speech. When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases — bestial atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder — one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker’s spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them. And this is not altogether fanciful. A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church. And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favorable to political conformity.
In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.
George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language”, 1946.
April 24, 2015
April 23, 2015
Since Plato’s Republic, politicians, intellectuals, and priests have been fascinated with the idea of “capturing” children for social-engineering purposes. This is why Robespierre advocated that children be raised by the state. Hitler — who understood as well as any the importance of winning the hearts and minds of youth — once remarked, “When an opponent says ‘I will not come over to your side,’ I calmly say, ‘Your child belongs to us already … You will pass on. Your descendants, however, now stand in the new camp. In a short time they will know nothing but this new community.'” Woodrow Wilson candidly observed that the primary mission of the educator was to make children as unlike their parents as possible. Charlotte Perkins Gilman stated it more starkly. “There is no more brilliant hope on earth to-day,” the feminist icon proclaimed, “than this new thought about the child … the recognition of ‘the child,’ children as a class, children as citizens with rights to be guaranteed only by the state; instead of our previous attitude toward them of absolute personal [that is, parental] ownership — the unchecked tyranny … of the private home.”
Jonah Goldberg, Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Change, 2008.
April 22, 2015
I hate conscription. I regard it as human slavery of the vilest sort and do not think it can be justified under any circumstances whatever. To those who say “Yes, but without the draft we could not defend the United States” I answer violently, “Then let the bloody United States go down the drain! Any nation whose citizens will not voluntarily fight and die for her does not deserve to live.”
I despise jails and prisons almost as much, and for the same reasons, and I am contemptuous of punishment by fining because it is basically unjust, being necessarily uneven and discriminatory in application — e.g., there is a reckless driver in this neighbourhood who is quite wealthy. A $500 fine to him is nothing at all, less than nothing. To me it is an annoyance and one which might well cut into my luxuries and spoil my plans. But to my neighbour across the street, a cook with two children, a $500 fine would be a major disaster.
Yet $500 is what our local courts would charge any of the three of us for drunken driving.
I suggest that ten lashes would be equally rough on each of us — and would do far more to deter homicide-by-automobile.
Both of these ideas, opposition on moral grounds to conscription and to imprisonment, are essential parts of Starship Troopers. So far as I know, no reviewer noticed either idea.
Robert A. Heinlein, letter to Theodore Sturgeon 1962-03-05, quoted in William H. Patterson Jr., Robert A. Heinlein, In Dialogue with His Century Volume 2: The Man Who Learned Better, 2014).
April 21, 2015
Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent and our language — so the argument runs — must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.
Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble.
George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language”, 1946.
April 20, 2015
I think the nastiest drink I’ve ever drunk in my life was some stuff called mezcal in a Mexican market town. It’s made, I find, from the same aloe-like plant that gives us tequila, of which mezcal is a kind of downmarket version, if you can imagine such a thing. When I bought my bottle at the grocer’s it had a small packet tied to the neck. Inside was what looked like a shrimp in talcum powder. “What’s that?” I asked my American friend. “That’s the worm,” he said, “the best part. You can try it without.” I tried it without. My head filled with a taste of garage or repair shop — hot rubber and plastic, burnt oil and a whiff of hydrochloric-acid vapour from the charging engine. When I sold Mack the rest of the bottle he emptied in the pounded-up worm, recapped, shook, and poured himself a tumbler of greyish liquid with little pink shreds in it. Give me Tizer any day.
I haven’t yet sampled Ruou Tiet De, a North Vietnamese mixture of rice alcohol and goat’s blood, or Central Asian koumis, fermented from mare’s and camel’s milk. Sake, a sweetish rice beer from Japan, goes well with Japanese food, so if you happen to like eating raw fish and seaweed this is obviously your tipple. You drink it warm. I may say that when I heated some on the stove recently to check that it was as horrible as I remembered, it took all the deposit off the lining of the saucepan.
You needn’t go as far afield as that to find a drink offensive to any person of culture and discrimination, especially if mixes are on the agenda. In South Wales you’re likely to find them throwing down Guinness with Lucozade and Ribena, or Mackeson and orange squash — not in the more refined areas, true. In Scotland they put fizzy lemonade in their whisky. Yes, in respectable places in the Highlands there are quart bottles of the stuff on the bar alongside the Malvern water and the siphon. The objection is not that it’s vulgar, but that, of course, it kills the Scotch and tastes frightful.
Kingsley Amis, Everyday Drinking: The Distilled Kingsley Amis, 2008.
April 19, 2015
… they have a way of teaching languages in Germany that is not our way, and the consequence is that when the German youth or maiden leaves the gymnasium or high school at fifteen, “it” (as in Germany one conveniently may say) can understand and speak the tongue it has been learning. In England we have a method that for obtaining the least possible result at the greatest possible expenditure of time and money is perhaps unequalled. An English boy who has been through a good middle-class school in England can talk to a Frenchman, slowly and with difficulty, about female gardeners and aunts; conversation which, to a man possessed perhaps of neither, is liable to pall. Possibly, if he be a bright exception, he may be able to tell the time, or make a few guarded observations concerning the weather. No doubt he could repeat a goodly number of irregular verbs by heart; only, as a matter of fact, few foreigners care to listen to their own irregular verbs, recited by young Englishmen. Likewise he might be able to remember a choice selection of grotesquely involved French idioms, such as no modern Frenchman has ever heard or understands when he does hear.
The explanation is that, in nine cases out of ten, he has learnt French from an Ahn’s First-Course. The history of this famous work is remarkable and instructive. The book was originally written for a joke, by a witty Frenchman who had resided for some years in England. He intended it as a satire upon the conversational powers of British society. From this point of view it was distinctly good. He submitted it to a London publishing firm. The manager was a shrewd man. He read the book through. Then he sent for the author.
“This book of yours,” said he to the author, “is very clever. I have laughed over it myself till the tears came.”
“I am delighted to hear you say so,” replied the pleased Frenchman. “I tried to be truthful without being unnecessarily offensive.”
“It is most amusing,” concurred the manager; “and yet published as a harmless joke, I feel it would fail.”
The author’s face fell.
“Its humour,” proceeded the manager, “would be denounced as forced and extravagant. It would amuse the thoughtful and intelligent, but from a business point of view that portion of the public are never worth considering. But I have an idea,” continued the manager. He glanced round the room to be sure they were alone, and leaning forward sunk his voice to a whisper. “My notion is to publish it as a serious work for the use of schools!”
The author stared, speechless.
“I know the English schoolman,” said the manager; “this book will appeal to him. It will exactly fit in with his method. Nothing sillier, nothing more useless for the purpose will he ever discover. He will smack his lips over the book, as a puppy licks up blacking.”
The author, sacrificing art to greed, consented. They altered the title and added a vocabulary, but left the book otherwise as it was.
Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men on the Bummel, 1914.
April 18, 2015
There are entire genres of art that have self-destructed in the last hundred years — become drained of vitality, driven their audiences away to the point where they become nothing more than museum exhibits or hobby-horses for snobs and antiquarians.
The three most obvious examples are painting, the literary novel and classical music. After about 1910 all three of these art forms determinedly severed the connections with popular culture that had made them relevant over the previous 250 years. Their departure left vacuums to be filled; we got modern genre literature, rock music, and art photography.
Other art forms underwent near-death experiences and survived only in severely compromised forms. Jazz, running away from its roots in honky tonks and dance halls, all but strangled on its own sophistication between 1960 and 1980; it survives today primarily as smoothed-out elevator music. Sculpture, having spent a century losing itself in increasingly meaningless abstraction, is only now feeling its way back towards a figurative vocabulary; the most interesting action there is not yet in the revival of mimetic forms but in artists who speak the vocabulary of mathematics and machine technology.
What makes an art-form self-destruct like this? Many things can contribute — hankerings for bourgeois respectability, corruption by politics, clumsy response to a competing genre. But the one we see over and over again is deadly genius.
A deadly genius is a talent so impressive that he can break and remake all the rules of the form, and seduce others into trying to emulate his disruptive brilliance — even when those followers lack the raw ability or grounding to make art in the new idiom the the genius has defined.
Arnold Schoenberg (classical music). James Joyce (literary novels). John Coltrane (jazz). Pablo Picasso (painting). Konstantin Brancusi (sculpture). These men had the knack of inventing radical new forms that made the preexisting conventions of their arts seem stale and outworn. They produced works of brilliance, taught their followers to value disruptive brillance over tradition, and in doing so all but destroyed their arts.
Eric S. Raymond, “Deadly Genius and the Back-To-Zero Problem”, Armed and Dangerous, 2004-09-24.
April 17, 2015
And if I may insert a personal plea: could the bittermongers please knock it off with the sneers? Somehow, in the collective cocktail consciousness of America’s hipsters, “bitter” has become synonymous with “sophisticated”. Bitter beer is good beer, bitter cocktails are good cocktails, and the louts who like things thin or sweet deserve what they get, which is everyone else at the bar struggling to conceal their bemused smile. Yet there are many of us who hate, hate, hate bitter flavors not because we haven’t been exposed to them, nor because we’re unadventurous slobs who would really rather be hooked up to a glucose IV. Personally, I find bitter flavors like Campari so strong that even a sip is on the verge of being physically aversive, as if you were punching me in the tongue. That’s not a matter of sophistication, but a matter of personal chemistry. There are people who can taste bitter compounds in broccoli and soapy-tasting substances in cilantro that make it completely unpalatable, while the rest of us dig into our veggies and say they don’t know what they’re missing. In fact, we’ve got it exactly backwards: we don’t know what we’re missing — and we’re moralizing our deficits.
Megan McArdle, “Dinner, With a Side of Self-Righteousness”, Bloomberg View, 2015-03-27.
April 16, 2015
At the heart of the grandeur was a man who liked plain food, predictable routines, and, for relaxation, hunting and shooting. He was a good Catholic without thinking much about it. Like his fellow sovereigns Nicholas II and Wilhelm II, Franz Joseph loved the military life and almost always appeared in uniform. Like them too he was sent into a rage when the details of army uniforms were wrong. Apart from that, he was invariably courteous to everyone although always conscious of rank. He only shook Margutti’s hand once, to recognize that he had been promoted. (Margutti regretted ever after that no one else at court had seen this momentous gesture.) Franz Joseph found modern art puzzling but his sense of duty took him to public art exhibitions and the opening of important new buildings, especially if they were under royal patronage.” His taste in music ran to military marches or Strauss waltzes and, while he liked the theater and from time to time the prettier actresses, he preferred the old favorites. He did not like unpunctuality, loud laughter or people who talked too much. He had a sense of humor, of a rather basic sort. He had climbed the Great Pyramid in Egypt, he wrote to his wife, Empress Elisabeth, with the help of Bedouin guides. “As they mostly only wear a shirt, when they are climbing, and that must be the reason why English women so happily and frequently like to scale the pyramids.”
Margaret MacMillan, The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914, 2013.
April 15, 2015
… boredom is the deadly secret weapon of the bien-pensant technocrats of the EU and the UN. “They wear outsiders down with the tedium of their arguments and the smallness of their fine print, so that by the time anyone else notices what they’re up to the damage has been done and it’s too late to do anything about it.”
James Delingpole, “Green Global Governance: How Environmentalists Have Taken Over the World”, Breitbart.com, 2014-06-25.
April 14, 2015
To begin with, any attempt to shift blame for World War I from Germany onto the French-Russian alliance has to deal with Germany’s responsibility for creating that alliance in the first place. If France wanted Alsace and Lorraine back, it was only because it had lost the territories in a war engineered by Germany. Karl Marx, in a moment of rare foresight, predicted that Germany’s decision to annex Alsace and Lorraine would end “by forcing France into the arms of Russia.” Similarly, it was Germany’s decision not to renew its alliance with Russia that led to increasing enmity between Russia and Austria, and to the creation of an anti-German alliance between Russia and France. And the German decision to rebuff British overtures in favor of a naval arms race (not to mention provoking the Agadir Crisis) pushed yet another potential ally into the enemy camp. Germany’s ability to lose friends and alienate people would continue during World War I itself, with such brilliant diplomatic maneuvers as the Zimmerman telegraph, unrestricted submarine warfare, and the decision to let Lenin back into Russia.
But leave all that aside. It’s certainly true that France wanted to get Alsace and Lorraine back from Germany, and that France knew the only hope it had of beating Germany in a war was with Russia as an ally. But this had been true for decades prior to 1914. Had France and Russian really wanted to start a war with the central powers, they had plenty of opportunities. But they didn’t. Clark himself concedes this, noting that “at no point did the French or the Russian strategists involved plan to launch a war of aggression against the central powers.”
What’s more, far from being an instigator, France was disengaged during much of the July Crisis. Attention in France during July 1914 was focused on a particularly lurid murder trial involving the wife of a prominent politician. During the key period of the Austrian ultimatum, both the French president and prime minister were stuck on a boat returning from St. Petersburg. And when leaders did finally arrive in Paris, their moves were not aggressive. The French prime minister cabled Russia on July 30 that it “should not immediately proceed to any measure which might offer Germany a pretext for a total or partial mobilization of her forces” and the French army itself was pulled back six miles from the German frontier.
Josiah Neeley, “Historical Revisionism Update: Yes, Germany (Mostly) Started World War I”, The Federalist, 2014-01-06