Language

The Love of Wisdom

Philosophers

I have nothing to add about the facts in this case of University of Miami “star” philosophy professor Colin McGinn and his alleged sexual harassment of one of his women graduate students. But as someone who—despite quite enjoying reading philosophy occasionally—has always believed that the ironies of actual situations reveal truth better than abstract reasoning does, I found the following fitting, satisfyingly just, and even a little bit funny:

The case, which was first reported by The Chronicle of Higher Education, has set off voluminous chatter among philosophers on blogs and social media. The discussion has been fueled partly by Mr. McGinn’s own blog, where his use of the cryptic language of analytic philosophy in attempts to defend himself seems to have backfired.

Two open letters, posted online in mid-July and signed by more than 100 philosophers, including a majority of Mr. McGinn’s colleagues at Miami, criticized some of the posts on his blog as “retaliation” against the student.

Meanwhile, some of Mr. McGinn’s posts —  including one meditating on the difference between “suggesting” an action and “entertaining” it, and another (since removed) riffing on alternate meanings of a crude term for masturbation — have struck even some of Mr. McGinn’s onetime supporters as less philosophical than self-incriminating.

Writing always reveals more about us than we think we’re revealing, but professional thinkers and writers are often the least aware of its slipperiness because they think they’ve mastered it. The cleverest among us are quite good at fooling ourselves, probably better at it than those of us who aren’t so clever.

Culture
Current Events
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Philosophy

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Year in Review

Well, 2009 was a fantastically unproductive blogging year for me, though quite eventful and exhausting personally. Frightening, really, that I’ve neglected this blog for a year, and it doesn’t even seem that long. Tempus fugit and all that. This year will be different, perhaps, though again, I’ll make no promises.

I will begin the new year, though, by wishing all readers my best wishes for the year to come, and offer my endorsement for this proposal from the National Association of Good Grammar (NAGG) to say “twenty ten” instead of “two thousand and ten.”

Happy new year, everyone!

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The Long Arm of the Sea-Puss

When I first read the introduction to James Thurber’s My Life and Hard Times some fifteen years ago, I laughed out loud at the mixture of menace, melancholy, and absurdity in its concluding sentence: “As F. Hopkinson Smith long ago pointed out, the claw of the sea-puss gets us all in the end.” “The claw of the sea-puss” is pretty unbeatable as a simultaneously ridiculous and terrifying metaphor for the ravages of time and death. I imagined the sea-puss as a cute but murderous deep-sea monster, some fell hybrid of crab and Hello Kitty, perhaps betentacled and squid-beaked as well. I meant to look up “sea-puss,” and F. Hopkinson Smith, of course, at the time, but I was living a careless, profligate existence when I was in my early twenties, and I became distracted by other things (not least by laughing at other things in Thurber’s book, like the “Get Ready Man”) and I simply forgot about them.

I recently reread My Life and Hard Times, however, and I’m happy to say that the World Wide Web has the sea-puss answers I seek. According to Webster’s online dictionary, “sea puss” is an alteration of an Algonquian word for river, and means “a swirling or along shore undertow.” According to a number of sites I could find, F. Hopkinson Smith was for most of his life a marine engineer, and designed the foundations for the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. In short, Smith was a man intimately familiar with the powers of the sea-puss. Smith didn’t begin to write until later in his life, apparently egged on by friends because he was such an engaging “after-dinner raconteur.” I found one of Smith’s novels, The Tides of Barnegat, on Google Books. Chapter XXII is entitled, “The Claw of the Sea-Puss.” The flavor of Smith’s prose, and the terrible destructive power of the sea-puss, can be found in an earlier passage, describing the weather at a beach in the fall:

The cruel north wind now wakes, and with a loud roar joins hands with the savage easter; the startled surf falls upon the beach like a scourge. Under their double lash the outer bar cowers and sinks; the frightened sand flees hither and thither. Soon the frenzied breakers throw themselves headlong, tearing with teeth and claws, burrowing deep into the hidden graves. Now the forgotten wrecks, like long-buried sins, rise and stand naked, showing every scar and stain. This is the work of the sea-puss—the revolving maniac born of close-wed wind and tide; a beast so terrible that in a single night, with its auger-like snout, it bites huge inlets out of farm lands—mouthfuls deep enough for ships to sail where but yesterday the corn grew. 

If that has whetted your appetite, you can read Smith’s entire novel online at its page on Google Books. And may you avoid the sea-puss’s awful claw for as long as you can.

Books
Comedy
Culture
Language

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“Not so lazy as a monthly, not quite so incessant as a weekly”

When I lived in Brooklyn, New York, I discovered an odd little publication called Three Weeks in a local bookstore (Spoonbill & Sugartown, if you’re interested) some time in the late summer of 2002. Three Weeks was laid out in an anachronistic, late-eighteenth- or early-nineteenth-century style and typeface, and printed on newsprint. It was an unusual format, too, printed on a paper about half the size of a tabloid sheet, and then folded in half so that it was taller than it was wide. The price was “two cents, voluntary.”

The writing was both topical and trivial (the back of each issue had an essay on “The Weather”) but arch and old-fashioned, like the publication’s appearance. I enjoyed it, sometimes in spite of its willful eccentricity, and dutifully picked it up every three weeks, until it stopped publication. I only have four or five copies, but they published eighteen in all, and thanks to an enterprising Three Weeks enthusiast and the power of the Internet, you can read them all online at the Henry William Brownejohns Appreciation Page. (Brownejohns was the name of one of the writers, all of whom, I’m guessing, used pseudonyms.)

It’s not for everybody, I’m afraid. I failed to convince any of my friends to read it even when it was being published. Here’s a typical title of a Three Weeks article:

Radiation

PALLOR VERSUS TAWN

WHITE FOLKS’ COCKAMAMIE PERCEPTION OF HEALTH, & COMMON SENSE

Also, On Shirts, and How We Feel People Ought to Wear Them

There’s also quite a bit of political writing, which despite, or perhaps because of, the archaic style, manages to be interesting and relevant. Three Weeks published from Oct. 15, 2001, till Oct. 19, 2002, and for me, at least, captured the mood of the great city (or at least my mood in the great city) after the calamity of Sept. 11, 2001, better than anything else: trying to make sense of what had happened while also trying to preserve your sense of humor and previous interests. Anyway, I’m very glad somebody’s chosen to preserve this bit of literary ephemera.

Culture
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Happy Independence Day

The American colonies declared their independence from the Kingdom of Great Britain two-hundred-and-thirty-one years ago today. Thomas Jefferson’s stirring document is still well worth reading.

The Fourth of July is not a solemn holiday. Most Americans celebrate by drinking beer at cook-outs and exploding fireworks. So for all those, American or otherwise, who celebrate their independence today, here’s an excerpt from H. L. Mencken’s “The Declaration of Independence in American”:

“When things get so balled up that the people of a country got to cut loose from some other country, and go it on their own hook, without asking no permission from nobody, excepting maybe God Almighty, then they ought to let everybody know why they done it, so that everybody can see they are not trying to put nothing over on nobody.

“All we got to say on this proposition is this: first, me and you is as good as anybody else, and maybe a damn sight better; second, nobody ain’t got no right to take away none of our rights; third, every man has got a right to live, to come and go as he pleases, and to have a good time whichever way he likes, so long as he don’t interfere with nobody else. That any government that don’t give a man them rights ain’t worth a damn; also, people ought to choose the kind of government they want themselves, and nobody else ought to have no say in the matter. That whenever any government don’t do this, then the people have got a right to give it the bum’s rush and put in one that will take care of their interests.”

Language
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Love Me, I’m A Liberal

Norm writes about a hilarious piece by Matt Taibbi in Adbusters examining the creeping horror many leftists feel when someone describes them as “liberal.”

Taibbi is not, apparently, out to make new friends. He refers to the American left as “the saddest collection of cowering, ineffectual ninnies ever assembled under one banner on God’s green earth.” I find much to agree with in the characterization, but I don’t agree that the term should be abandoned. The problem is that “liberal” has become, especially in the U.S., a synonym for “left.” As Norm points out, leftists have, to their shame, often embraced and defended regimes and institutions that are not liberal at all in the classical, and I would say proper, sense of the term. (The list of leftist betrayals of liberalism is long and by no means a thing of the past, as the continued enthusiasm among some leftists for thuggish autocrats like Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez attests.)

If anything, the fact that so many are avoiding the term liberal is a good reason for those who believe in liberal principles (human rights, democracy, the rule of law, to name a few) to reclaim the term and bring it back to its historical use. The longer I live, the more I think the most important political distinction is not between left and right but between liberalism and the various forces of authoritarianism—religious, statist, and otherwise—that seek to impose their will on us. I’m quite happy to join other liberals, from the libertarian “right” to the democratic socialist “left,” to defend and extend liberal values in whatever small way I can despite my disagreement with these groups on some matters.

If anything, perhaps the label “left” should be abandoned, as there are far more sordid and embarassing statements being voiced by self-described members of the left than by the few people still willing to call themselves liberals.

Language
Politics

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Wild Style

I’ve noticed the use of the word “wildly” has become common in journalism lately: “wildly popular,” “wildly entertaining,” and “wildly successful” most often. But it’s also used redundantly: “wildly inconsistent” or “wildly extravagant.” In these uses it simply means “very.” I prefer “very,” and hereby issue a call to writers to tame their savage instincts and give “wildly” a rest.

Language

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