Monday, May 30, 2016

The Liberal Blind Spot

In this week’s New York Times Sunday Review, op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof takes on the closed-mindedness of the ideological left in an essay entitled “The Liberal Blind Spot.”

Always a good thing to do, criticizing blind ideology.  I can only applaud.

Problem is, Kristof has a few blind spots of his own.

He starts by revisiting the problem he had with a bunch of “fellow progressives” when he insisted that while academics were good at promoting most kinds of diversity on their campuses, they fall down when promoting ideological diversity.  The blind spot in Kristof’s eye is the fallacy that there are always two sides to every story and the truth always lies in the middle.  It doesn’t.  When anti-Semites argue that Jews should be wiped out and Jews argue that they shouldn’t, the solution is not to wipe half of them out.  When slave owners argue the law should return runaway slaves to them and slaves argue that they shouldn’t, the solution is not to let half of them get away.

“As I see it,” Kristof says, “we are hypocritical: We welcome people who don’t look like us, as long as they think like us. It’s rare for a column to inspire widespread agreement, but that one led to a consensus: Almost every liberal agreed that I was dead wrong.”

One liberal tried to shame him, he says, by pointing out that is is “mindlessly accepting patriarchy, misogyny, complementarianism, and hateful, hateful bigotry against the LGBTQ community into the academy.”  He insists that he is not.  That all he is doing is claiming that “liberals have turned departments into enclaves of ideological homogeneity.”

It’s unfortunate that Kristof chose to use the word ideology in the first place, since ideology is commonly defined as a closed mind-set, and what is at issue here is whether people with one mind set (or “orientation,” if you will) can cross over and work with people of other mind-sets.  They can, of course, provided the people on both sides have an open mind and a willingness to change their opinions when confronted by new information and sound reasoning.  But Kristof used ideology, so we have to deal with the choice of words.

“There are dumb or dogmatic conservatives, just as there are dumb and dogmatic liberals,” he says, “So let’s avoid those who are dumb and dogmatic, without using politics or faith as a shorthand for mental acuity.”

So far, so good.  What reasonable person would want to disagree with that?

Kristof cites a study by racism scholar George Yancey (i.e., presumably not a closed-minded conservative) which shows that in some fields of academia most academics would discriminate against an evangelical job seeker.  I agree with Kristof.  “That feels…like bigotry.”

But “feels like” is not the same as “is”.  To know whether there is bigotry going on or whether hesitation to hire an evangelical for a given job is legitimate, one would have to know more about the hiring circumstances.  Discriminating against a first-rate mathematician who teaches his kids to pray is indefensible.  But rejecting an active proponent of creationism in the schools for a job in the Graduate School of Education is another story.

In filling a new faculty position, if a candidate announces during an interview that “men should rule the world and the little lady should stay at home,” does Kristof really think the committee should hire this person to “promote the free exchange of ideas?”  It’s possible the bigotry is not in the hiring committee but in the candidate.  

There are benefits of diversity, Kristof says.  Well, yes.  That too is not even an argument.  But while putting people who believe Jesus is the Messiah in a classroom with Jews and others who believe he is not may be good for churning the thinking process, and while it may do football players and ballet dancers good to get to know each other as fully-developed human beings and not merely a function of their passion for art or for sports, this is not an argument for diversity for diversity’s sake. 

Kristof is uncomfortable with the fact that “at most only about one professor in ten in the humanities or social sciences is a Republican.”  He calls that a “sickly sameness.”  But turn the question around.  Instead of asking why more professors aren’t Republican, ask why conservatives should want to spend their time in disciplines where one is constantly searching for new and better ways to do things rather than passing on the traditions of the past.  There is no need to assume there’s a conspiracy here to keep conservatives out.  Being more inclined to embrace change is not a form of “sickly sameness.”  It is, on the contrary, a very healthy mindset and at the very heart of the purpose of higher education.

“I suspect many liberals disdain evangelicals in part because they don’t have any evangelical friends,” Kristof says.  Well, if you accept that the chief characteristic that distinguishes liberals from evangelicals is that liberals define truth as shifting and changing as new information comes in while evangelicals claim that all that really matters has been established once and for all, it should come as no surprise these two groups are not all that likely to bowl together.  Why would those advocating an open door approach to life want to hang out with those advocating a closed one?  We can agree with Kristof that it might be a good thing if people hung out more with people of different mindsets.  But that should not translate into a mandate for giving university positions to folks simply because they bring ideological diversity.  If you already have a Joseph Stiglitz on your faculty, does that mean you should pass over a Robert Reich to hire an Ayn Rand?

Kristof claims that conservatives avoid jobs in academia because of the risk of being belittled and having to suffer microaggressions.  Really?  It’s about bullying?  I spent my professional lifetime in academia.  It can be a brutal place.  Academics can be small-minded bullies, for sure.  But it’s a toss-up whether one is any worse off than with the obsequiousness to be found in the world of sales, or cut throat business practices, or hypocricy of the world of politics.  All fields have challenges.

I think Kristof is barking up the wrong tree.  It’s not ideology that’s the problem.  If it were, I’d be in his camp when he insists that “we liberals should have the self-confidence to believe that our values can triumph in a fair contest in the marketplace of ideas.”  If students protest the policies of Benyamin Nethanyahu, or Recep Erdo─čan, they're going to protest the presence on campus of former Vice-President Dick Cheney and you're going to see large numbers of signs urging he be tried as a war criminal.  If he finds it difficult to actually speak, it may have something to do with the evidence that we were lied into the Iraq war and there is broad consensus that Muslim rage around the world at American foreign policy is what's behind the growth of Al Qaeda and ISIS.  Asking those people to sit quietly and applaud politely when Cheney speaks - for the sake of allowing all ideologies an equal place in academia - is really pushing it.

France insists that in the interest of social harmony, which the state has a duty to foster, children may not wear headscarves or other religious symbols in public schools.  America insists those are individual choices and the state should keep its hands off.  In Germany, the law doesn’t permit you to advocate anti-Semitism.  In America, we have that right, obnoxious as it is, provided it is not directed at a specific individual.  It’s useful for Americans and the French and the Germans to debate these questions and recognize how history dictates many of our choices.  And how freedom may be restricted under specific extenuating circumstances.  There I fully support the “marketplace of ideas.”

The problem is that in recent years the American political right has come to reject the scientific approach, where claims must be supported by evidence.  It has not only resisted change; it has tried to pull society back to the time when women had no control over their own bodies and black citizens had a much harder time getting into polling booths.  Debating whether big government is better than small government is one thing.  Obstructing the working of government in order to advance the cause of the Republican Party is another.  Today, if one has reservations about what the word conservative has come to represent, it’s those moves into alarmingly restrictive and self-serving territory that drives those reservations.

“There are no quick solutions to the ideological homogeneity on campuses,” Kristof argues.   “But shouldn’t we at least acknowledge that this is a shortcoming, rather than celebrate our sameness?”

No.  Not if the sameness is a shared conviction that the work of the university is the pursuit of knowledge, and not the furtherance of the belief system of a particular segment of the traditional culture. 

Yes, of course the label “liberal” or “progressive” doesn’t mean you’re right all the time about everything.  There are liberal blind spots.  I just worry that when Nicholas Kristof lays out his ideologies and wants to give them equal time and equal weight, he has not thought through the possibility they may not be of equal value.

photo credit

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

In Defense of Doggerel

A wonderful bird is the pelican
His bill can hold more than his belly can
He can take in his beak
Enough food for a week
But I’m damned if I know how the hell he can.
I remember the sense of connection I had with my friend Ed from Missouri the first time I came up with "A wonderful bird is the pelican..."  and he finished the limerick.   I had grown up in New England, he in Southeast Missouri, but this 100-year-old bit of delightful doggerel was part of our shared American culture.

The other night at a friend’s house for dinner we began talking about Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson and ended up waxing nostalgic about recitations by the old folks of our youth.  (The fact that we were celebrating my 76th birthday may have had something to do with the inclination to reminisce.)

My friend Cathy brought up Abdul Al Bulbul Amir and remembered how her father used to entertain the kids with a recitation of it whenever he got the chance.  Not to be left out, I remembered a great-uncle, who, back in the days before radio and television (and even electricity and running water), used to entertain the kids with recitations.  In his case, what I remember above all others was The Cremation of Sam McGee.

I felt the guilty urge to make the point that there’s a world of difference between "Stopping by the woods on a snowy evening..." and the clashing swords of Abdul Abulbul Amir, but nobody was interested.  We all got a lot of mileage from the popular poetry that helped make family and community – at least in our imaginings of the good old days.  It didn't seem to need defending. Nonetheless, in poking around for more information on these two pieces, Abdul Albulbul Amir and Sam McGee, I found several people who needed to label them as doggerel.  I'll get to that issue in a minute.

Thanks to the internet, I now know that the pelican limerick was not written by Ogden Nash, as I had always thought, but by a Tennessee newspaper editor named Dixon Lanier Merritt.  
William Percy French

And Abdul Abulbul Amir was written during the Russo-Turkish war in 1877 by an Anglo-Irish songwriter named William Percy French (1854-1920) for a “smoking concert,” those Victorian era gatherings for men only where new music was introduced and political views were aired.  It was stolen and sold off for £5.   The thieves passed it on as their own creation, so French never made any money off of it.  History has given him the last word, fortunately, and his creative genius is still celebrated every year at a festival at Castlecoote House, County Roscommon.

Robert W. Service
The Cremation of Sam McGee is a Canadian piece, written a generation later by a sourdough (a resident of the Yukon Territory) and published in 1907.  His name was Robert W. Service.  Service was born in England but after finding his way to British Columbia, he eventually got caught up in the rush to Klondike Country, and became known as the “bard of the Yukon.”

OK, so now for the doggerel bit.  The class distinction between classical music, generally written and performed by people of exceptional musical talent and the popular music of the masses of ordinary folk is mirrored somewhat in this alleged distinction between poetry and doggerel.  I say “alleged” as a way of admitting I don’t like being thought of as the kind of person who judges people by who lives in the “nicer part of town” and who lives in the “low-rent district.”  I do, of course.  I just don’t like to be caught at it.

Doggerel is a lofty sounding word for a concept that is anything but lofty.  In fact, it's generally associated with the burlesque.  Nobody knows the origin of the word, although it was probably coined by somebody who wasn't much of a dog-lover.  It is defined as “comic verse composed in irregular rhythm,” or “verse that is badly (i.e. crudely) written. When the word is used, it is commonly preceded by such words and phrases as "mere," "pure" and “deteriorates into.”   It is nonetheless "effective because of its simple mnemonic rhyme and loping metre, if the Britannica is your guide.  Goethe and Schiller both wrote what in German is called Kn├╝ttelvers, or "cudgel verse," and in English even Samuel Butler and Jonathan Swift dabbled in it.  Which raises the question of whether this is "bad" poetry or merely another genre of creative language by people with imagination. Are what Ogden Nash and Calvin Trillin wrote doggerel?

"Fleas" (Nash)

Adam had'em.

and if you're one of those who insist it wasn't Ogden Nash who wrote that but Shel Silverstein, here's another one that was written by Nash:

Is gharsley.

"On the Assumption that Al Gore Will Slim Down if He's intending to Run for President" (Trillin)

Last week, I told my desk that Gore might run,
Though he appeared to be at least full-size:
A waiter at a Georgetown place revealed
Gore's order had included 'hold the fries.'

Whether a particular poem lifts and inspires one above and beyond the ordinary or “deteriorates into doggerel” is a subjective evaluation, like all critical evaluations of art and poetry and music.  One man’s doggerel is another man’s witty verse, of course, and truth be known, given the choice between pheasant under glass and spaghetti and meat balls, I’m hardly alone in preferring the spaghetti.  Much as I appreciate “stopping by woods on a snowy evening” and “How do I love thee?  Let me count the ways…”  (and I do love Frost and Dickinson.   And Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Keats, and Pablo Neruda…), there’s always room for the pelican…belly can…hell he can on the bench next to me.

I’ve been thinking a lot in recent times about the old folks I knew as a kid.  Like the ones my father looked up to.  It was fascinating going to Nova Scotia every summer where his roots were and watching this man I thought knew everything there was to know actually looking up to people he himself as a kid thought knew everything there was to know.  The uncles.  Clarence and Cliff and Harold and Austin and Rollie, not to mention some who had "gone on to their reward."  The women too, with names like Cordelia and Annie and Mabel and Lillian and Lola, were no less important, but it was one uncle especially who had a way with words.  And for whom space was always made for yet another story or recitation of poetry.

In 1938, when my mother and father married, they were the children of immigrants and had few resources to count on to get their lives started.  My father’s mother’s father had built the house in the woods he and his wife and their nine kids all lived in just after the time of the U.S. Civil War, in Canada and in territory never before inhabited.  Electricity and running water were unknowns.  And when my father bought the house I grew up in, it too lacked running water for the first year, even in Connecticut, until he got around to digging a well and putting in a septic tank so we didn’t need to use the outhouse any more. 

He had not acquired the city ways my mother and my sister and I would soon take for granted, and he seemed to be less put out by the fact we lived with a water pump outside and an outhouse for a time. No "cultural estrangement" apparently. There was always a gap between my father and me, but when we began spending the summers with my grandmother's siblings in Nova Scotia, when I was about seven, I began to learn something essential about him, things about his roots that made little sense outside that environment.  The hunter, the fisherman, the man who wouldn’t let me get my driver’s license until I could take apart a carburetor. The culture that had nurtured him consisted of self-motivated farmers and woodsmen who, in the days before social welfare, either worked or starved. He was of the next generation, born in Boston, but his heart was always among the woods and lakes of Nova Scotia and when he died we scattered his ashes there.   

It took me some time to learn the full extent of that culture he always yearned for.  Curiously, at least to me at the time, these people sat around in large family circles and listened to those who had ways with words.  There was the radio, I suppose, although I have no memory of anybody listening to it.  In time, I was able to make a connection between that world of self-sufficiency and the world of story-telling, where one respected the old folks for their knowledge of how to build things and sustain them.  And how to tell the same stories and recite the same poems over and over again until the rest of us began to pick them up and join in.

When I looked up Robert W. Service I had a flash of instant recognition.  Service made his living writing poetry eventually.  My Great Uncle Harold never reached the heights Service did - Service made it professionally and left quite a proud legacy – but he was part of what went into my love of the rhythm-and-stress patterns of the English language, the cadences and the dry wit behind the turns of phrase.  Service’s world in the Yukon was not that far from my uncles’ world in the Canadian Maritimes and Newfoundland.  Rough as timber in their youth, apparently, and soft as a rhyming couplet, as the years went by.

I’ve always envied those who could recite poetry at the drop of a hat, always marveled at the notion of oral traditions and at the thought that once there were people who could recite Homer’s Odyssey.  And that, even in this day and age, there are people, I understand (I’ve never met any face to face), who can recite the entire Qur’an.

To go from Homer's Odyssey to Abdul Abulbul Amir in the same sentence is to go from the sublime to the ridiculous, quite literally, although I'm not on firm ground here with the allegedly sublime.  From the heroic to the silly, maybe I should say.  But to a seven-year old first learning an appreciation of language and story-telling, the distinction is trivial.

Both of these pieces, Abdul Abulbul Amir and The Cremation of Sam McGee, have been musicalized.  Abdul Abulbul Amir was set to music by a vaudeville singer and composer named Frank Crumit.  And The Cremation of Sam McGee was popularized not long ago by Johnny Cash.

I'm posting the words and the links below, if you’d like to hear them spoken/sung.  And you tell me.  Is this doggerel?  Or simply the rap music of an age gone by?  Have they become outdated, the way I think Seventy-Six Trombones has lost its appeal?  Are they “too silly for words” as I think Chitty-Chitty Bang Bang has become and probably always was?  Probably “whose woods these are I think I know” deserves a longer life than “the first time I’ve been warm.”  But that’s OK.  For now, there’s room at the table for both.

Have a listen to these two pieces.  And you have to hear them, sung or spoken.  Reading the verse doesn’t capture the spirit.  Many people have other associations with these two poems than mine, of course.  They learned Sam McGee in school, perhaps, along with the Gettysburg Address.  Or associate it with their father and long car trips.  But see if you can’t find a way, if only in the imagination, to go back to a time when one sat around and listened to the old folks telling their tales and reaching for a way to entertain each other.  Back before the internet.  Before television.  Before radio. Before electricity.

Here are some of the versions of these two poems, the former set to music, on YouTube.

Frank Crumit
There’s the wonderfully politically incorrect version done by MGM.  We forget that the original confuses Turks and Persians as many do today, and in the heat of war and the breakdown of the three-cousin monarchies, King George V of England, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany and Tsar Nicholas of Russia, which led ultimately to World War I, it was not a time of sensitivity toward cultural differences.  But that aside, here’s the cartoon version

And here’s a version by Brendan O’Dowda.  He’s actually the guy who popularized the songs of Percy French, but if you listen to him doing it after watching the cartoon version, it’s almost comical in how straight-laced it comes across.  Helps you understand how context is everything.

Here’s a nice 1927 recording by Frank Crumit, who set it to music originally. 

And another sung version by Frank Ifield, with a lovely Irish tenor voice: 

And here’s a spoken version by Tom O’Bedlam. 

The sons of the Prophet are brave men and bold
And quite unaccustomed to fear,
But the bravest by far in the ranks of the Shah,
Was Abdul Abulbul Amir.

If you wanted a man to encourage the van,
Or harass the foe from the rear,
Storm fort or redoubt, you had only to shout
For Abdul Abulbul Amir.

Now the heroes were plenty and well known to fame
In the troops that were led by the Czar,
And the bravest of these was a man by the name
Of Ivan Skavinsky Skavar.

One day this bold Russian, he shouldered his gun
And donned his most truculent sneer,
Downtown he did go where he trod on the toe
Of Abdul Abulbul Amir.

Young man, quoth Abdul, has life grown so dull
That you wish to end your career?
Vile infidel, know, you have trod on the toe
Of Abdul Abulbul Amir.

So take your last look at the sunshine and brook
And send your regrets to the Czar
For by this I imply, you are going to die,
Count Ivan Skavinsky Skavar.

Then this bold Mameluke drew his trusty skibouk,
Singing, "Allah! Il Allah! Al-lah!"
And with murderous intent he ferociously went
For Ivan Skavinsky Skavar.

They parried and thrust, they side-stepped and cussed,
Of blood they spilled a great part;
The philologist blokes, who seldom crack jokes,
Say that hash was first made on the spot.

They fought all that night neath the pale yellow moon;
The din, it was heard from afar,
And huge multitudes came, so great was the fame,
Of Abdul and Ivan Skavar.

As Abdul's long knife was extracting the life,
In fact he was shouting, "Huzzah!"
He felt himself struck by that wily Calmuck,
Count Ivan Skavinsky Skavar.

The Sultan drove by in his red-breasted fly,
Expecting the victor to cheer,
But he only drew nigh to hear the last sigh,
Of Abdul Abulbul Amir.

There's a tomb rises up where the Blue Danube rolls,
And graved there in characters clear,
Is, "Stranger, when passing, oh pray for the soul
Of Abdul Abulbul Amir."

A splash in the Black Sea one dark moonless night
Caused ripples to spread wide and far,
It was made by a sack fitting close to the back,
Of Ivan Skavinsky Skavar.

A Muscovite maiden her lone vigil keeps,
'Neath the light of the cold northern star,
And the name that she murmurs in vain as she weeps,
Is Ivan Skavinsky Skavar.

Johnny Cash
As for The Cremation of Sam McGee, YouTube has several versions.  I don’t like any of them, probably because they are not the version I remember as a child.  Too stagy.  Too puffed up.  There’s this one by Hal Jeayes.  And there’s even a film version directed by somebody named Johnny A. which fails miserably for me because the visuals are too distracting.  It’s the voice that should carry you.  And your own imagination that should do the work.  The Johnny Cash version works, at least: 

The Cremation Of Sam McGee

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

Now Sam McGee was from Tennessee, where the cotton blooms and blows.
Why he left his home in the South to roam 'round the Pole, God only knows.
He was always cold, but the land of gold seemed to hold him like a spell;
Though he'd often say in his homely way that he'd "sooner live in hell".

On a Christmas Day we were mushing our way over the Dawson trail.
Talk of your cold! through the parka's fold it stabbed like a driven nail.
If our eyes we'd close, then the lashes froze till sometimes we couldn't see;
It wasn't much fun, but the only one to whimper was Sam McGee.

And that very night, as we lay packed tight in our robes beneath the snow,
And the dogs were fed, and the stars o'erhead were dancing heel and toe,
He turned to me, and "Cap," says he, "I'll cash in this trip, I guess;
And if I do, I'm asking that you won't refuse my last request."

Well, he seemed so low that I couldn't say no; then he says with a sort of moan:
"It's the cursed cold, and it's got right hold till I'm chilled clean through to the bone.
Yet 'tain't being dead -- it's my awful dread of the icy grave that pains;
So I want you to swear that, foul or fair, you'll cremate my last remains."

A pal's last need is a thing to heed, so I swore I would not fail;
And we started on at the streak of dawn; but God! he looked ghastly pale.
He crouched on the sleigh, and he raved all day of his home in Tennessee;
And before nightfall a corpse was all that was left of Sam McGee.

There wasn't a breath in that land of death, and I hurried, horror-driven,
With a corpse half hid that I couldn't get rid, because of a promise given;
It was lashed to the sleigh, and it seemed to say:
"You may tax your brawn and brains,
But you promised true, and it's up to you to cremate those last remains."

Now a promise made is a debt unpaid, and the trail has its own stern code.
In the days to come, though my lips were dumb, in my heart how I cursed that load.
In the long, long night, by the lone firelight, while the huskies, round in a ring,
Howled out their woes to the homeless snows -- O God! how I loathed the thing.

And every day that quiet clay seemed to heavy and heavier grow;
And on I went, though the dogs were spent and the grub was getting low;
The trail was bad, and I felt half mad, but I swore I would not give in;
And I'd often sing to the hateful thing, and it hearkened with a grin.

Till I came to the marge of Lake Lebarge, and a derelict there lay;
It was jammed in the ice, but I saw in a trice it was called the "Alice May".
And I looked at it, and I thought a bit, and I looked at my frozen chum;
Then "Here," said I, with a sudden cry, "is my cre-ma-tor-eum."

Some planks I tore from the cabin floor, and I lit the boiler fire;
Some coal I found that was lying around, and I heaped the fuel higher;
The flames just soared, and the furnace roared -- such a blaze you seldom see;
And I burrowed a hole in the glowing coal, and I stuffed in Sam McGee.

Then I made a hike, for I didn't like to hear him sizzle so;
And the heavens scowled, and the huskies howled, and the wind began to blow.
It was icy cold, but the hot sweat rolled down my cheeks, and I don't know why;
And the greasy smoke in an inky cloak went streaking down the sky.

I do not know how long in the snow I wrestled with grisly fear;
But the stars came out and they danced about ere again I ventured near;
I was sick with dread, but I bravely said: "I'll just take a peep inside.
I guess he's cooked, and it's time I looked"; . . . then the door I opened wide.

And there sat Sam, looking cool and calm, in the heart of the furnace roar;
And he wore a smile you could see a mile, and he said: "Please close that door.
It's fine in here, but I greatly fear you'll let in the cold and storm --
Since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee, it's the first time I've been warm."

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

photo credits: