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Kevin Drum says he’s adopting Sir Rex Richard Mottram’s extended conjugation as his personal mantra:

We’re all f*cked. I’m f*cked. You’re f*cked. The whole department is f*cked. It’s the biggest cock-up ever. We’re all completely f*cked.

Which reminds me of what I believe Walter LaFeber said was Brooks Adams’s shaving song: the phrase “God-damn” repeated to the melody of the Westminster chimes. I mean, it probably is too much to ask that one’s fatalism be cheerful, but musical seems a reasonable request.

What attracted me to this image was the glamorous name of this Miss Seattle — Peggins Madieux. But the more I look at it, the more questions it raises. Does the cow over Miss Seattle’s head imply that the cans are of milk (e.g. sweetened condensed, to mellow the harsh of the coffee from that urn)? Would the number over her customer’s head have raised an eyebrow in 1927 (the year of my father’s birth)? But most of all, what value did UW think was added by links, on the descriptive text, to search queries for the likes of “U” and “S” (on the honorific of U.S. Senator Warren Magnuson, to whom she was briefly married)?

Discussion of cabinet-staffing yields:

You don’t want the camel pissing in the tent.

True, but not unproblematic. There are of course two tent metaphors: better inside pissing out than outside pissing in, and the problem with letting the camel get his nose in the tent is, pretty soon you get the rest of the camel, too.

And these metaphors have, it seems to me, opposite implications for cabinet-staffing.

Scott McLemee wants to know the zeitgeist of the 00s as a decade.

The 00s were the decade when it stopped being okay to call me on the phone and ask me stuff you could find on the Internets in about fifteen seconds. And no, this is not some fit of pique, a row with an imaginary maître d’ culminating in the shriek, “Do you know who I am?” The premise there is that you should; my premise here is that you don’t and you shouldn’t—but the Internet does, and it would tell you, and that would save us both a deal of time and money.

People have actually called me to ask my email address. I honestly don’t know how it is possible for this to occur.

And of course this doesn’t apply to you if you are living in the Third World, or perhaps if you are quite old, or poor, or poorly educated, or somehow cannot use the Internet very well for medical reasons I can’t now imagine. But for Heaven’s sake, that is not the class of people who do the calling.

Mainly, in fact, they are journalists. You can always tell the really quality journalists, because they will call and say, “I saw in this article I found that you think x. Is that right?” Instead of, “My editor said I should call you to ask about x. Can you tell me why?”

I never, ever, give out this link to people, because I am too polite. But seriously.

Speaking of “a class of the lost,” on this day in 1894, Jacob S. Coxey started out with his army of the unemployed, also known as “the Commonweal of Christ,” from Massillon, Ohio, to march to Washington. You know the basic story: it’s a deep, desperate depression, the worst at least until the Great Depression; Coxey is a soft-money man, a People’s Party kind of guy—not poor himself, but believes in the cause, and wants the federal government to provide aid.

Here’s the thing: it’s awfully hard not to play Coxey for laughs. He named his child “Legal Tender.” He converted to a peculiar version of Christianity at the hands of an amateur theologian named Carl Browne, who held that each of us is reincarnated from a pool of mixed souls, so that a new soul contains an amalgam of old souls, which means that each of us contains a bit of Christ’s soul, too—and that Browne and Coxey had extra bits of Christ’s soul (he could just tell). The army marched under a banner with a portrait of Christ and a motto reading, “He is Risen, but Death to Interest on Bonds.” Coxey promised an army of a hundred thousand, but mustered only maybe a hundred; Massillon, in retrospect, probably wasn’t the best place to accumulate a pool of the unemployed. The army accrued a few hundred more people as it went along, but arrived still pretty small in Washington, DC, where its leaders were arrested and convicted for walking on the grass.

There were, immediately following, much more serious armies. But they were all tainted by this first outing’s faint air of ridiculousness.

So what do you do, teaching this story? Do you let the funny parts be funny? (Honestly, I’m not sure you can stop them.) How do you get your students, or readers, to refocus on the serious material at hand (double-digit unemployment, Pullman Strike, federal government going bust until/unless Morgan bails it out, that kind of thing). How can you play something that happens first as farce, then as tragedy?

An awe-inspiring cascade:

cloacal … nepotism … absurdly broad and comically wrongheaded … a caricature … bizarro … thoroughgoing incoherence … oxymoron … classic Newspeak … Newspeak incarnate … grotesquely misrepresents … incorrectly claims … false characterization … almost comical upending of reality … Michelle Malkin … Ann Coulter … selects a narrow band of often unrepresentative facts, distorts their meaning, and simultaneously elides and ignores whole mountains of contravening evidence and broader context … an absurd and nakedly self-serving thing … complete with copious but meaningless footnotes … pseudo-academic veneer


Thanks to a comment from IDP, we can think more about Reconstruction, tone, worst presidents, and enjoy a little Keith Olbermann. Bill Moyers asks Olbermann, on behalf of a young member of his staff, are you any better than they are, with your vituperation? Olbermann (with video under the fold):

it’s the one criticism that I think is absolutely fair. We’re doing the same thing. It is– it becomes a nation of screechers. It’s never a good thing. But emergency rules do apply. I would like nothing better than to go back and do maybe a sportscast every night. But I think the stuff that I’m talking about is so obvious and will be viewed in such terms of certainty by history that this era will be looked at the way we look now at the– at the presidents and the– the leaders of this country who rolled back reconstruction // I think it’s that obvious. And I think only under those circumstances would I go this far out on a limb and be this vociferous about it.

Olbermann says here some things that absolutely resonate with me and one that falls piously flat.

(1) I too hate how this administration’s astonishingly consistent incompetence forces so many of us to pay attention to this administration. I would rather not. I liked how, in the Clinton era, I could confidently assume that, barring a few messes at the margins — which the press would catch and make a big deal out of — I didn’t have to worry that the the White House was going to fumble every little thing. But now we all have to operate under the assumption that they will spoil even the things they’d ostensibly like to carry off properly — like the mortgage bailout.

(2) If you think we’re living through a period of epic mismanagement whose consequences will revisit us for centuries to come, the only period in American history you can gesture to as an equivalent is Reconstruction. (Olbermann evidently went to some lectures.) Under Johnson, especially, almost every wrong decision that could have been made was made, from hasty pardons and troop withdrawals to the Supreme Court’s casual gutting of the Reconstruction Amendments and the Civil Rights Act of 1866 — that was a disastrous era that bought us a century of Jim Crow and the wrenching 1960s, whose consequences still hang over us today. God helping us, the current crisis won’t be so awful. But if you want a touchstone for awful, Reconstruction is it.

And then there is the point on which I disagree with Olbermann: the assumption of the question he’s asked, that the screechers prevent us finding common ground, is I fear baseless. Didn’t the impeachment teach us that? You can elect a hawkish right-wing redneck Democrat with a notsogreat record on all kinds of liberal issues and the ability to speak mollifying platitudes till the cows come home, and the Republicans will still come at him with everything they have. There isn’t common ground to find. That doesn’t mean you have to yell a lot. But it does mean you don’t have to feel guilty about using such earned severity as you can muster.
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Clutching Pearls

On the front page of our local paper, and indeed in many papers today, we find the complaint that mean-spirited scientists have been calling poor old Bjørn Lomborg names. “`I really think it reflects entirely on them,’ said Lomborg, a mild-mannered Danish statistician who says global warming isn’t a big threat and that international treaties requiring sharp and immediate cuts in carbon emissions would cost a lot but do little good. Angry words and table-pounding, he said, only show `that your argument is not that strong.'”

In the story we read that E. O. Wilson referred to Lomborg as “the parasite load on scholars who earn success through the slow process of peer review and approval.” We read that Ellen Goodman compared him to Holocaust deniers, that Rajendra Pachauri compared Lomborg’s view of humanity (as, in reasonable numbers, sacrificeable) to Hitler’s; that Richard Lindzen describes this as “harassment” and Michael Mann says “There is never a reason for name calling.”

So, (1) really, that is what this article is about — people being mean to Lomborg. Not about Lomborg being someone who wants to do nothing about global warming; not someone who, for some reason, has alienated many of the respectable scholars he initially brought on board with his promise of an intellectually serious inquiry; not someone who’s so self-contradictory it would raise one’s suspicions as to his sincerity. (Those links thanks to John Quiggin.)

In itself, it’s pretty silly to write a fraught article about name-calling, especially on a debate of some import.

But (2) what gets quoted here isn’t name-calling, maybe excepting Goodman. Her analogy of global-warming denialism to Holocaust denialism is not a very persuasive bit of op-ed rhetorical flummery (I’m not really sure what it means, ultimately). But the other stuff is actually serious.

What’s Pachauri (maybe misquoted as) saying? Not “Lomborg is a Nazi” — that would be name-calling — but more like, “Lomborg seems to think entire peoples and cultures are dispensable, which is kinda reminiscent of Nazism.” What’s Wilson saying? Not, “Lomborg is a parasite” — that would be name-calling. Wilson is saying, if you have someone who gets a lot of money to say stuff that less well paid academics have, in conscience, to spend time refuting, it represents an unwarranted tax on those academics’ time — i.e., a “parasite load.”

And finally, (3) it is hereby RESOLVED: that this house blog disagrees with Dr. Mann. Name-calling is a potentially valuable and legitimate contribution to public discourse. Sometimes, if you’re dealing with scaifers or just grown-up people who, honestly, really should know better, you’re entitled to deploy the full range of irony from sly wit to full-fledged mock-making. Calling attention to the ludicrous quality of ludicrous claims alerts the reader that we’re dealing with arguments that we ought not to take seriously. It is not “harassment.” It is how ideas make their way in the agora. And of course, even sober scholars speak more brusquely in rebuttal, more loudly in the public square, than they do when they teach, or when they write their own scholarly conclusions: for even sober scholars are entitled to act as citizens in the public square.

As a corollary, let’s say you’re especially licensed, if not indeed required to pull out rhetorical stops when the guardians of discourse start saying you mustn’t. Because that’s a foul: they’re trying to shift attention from what the argument is about, to how we’re arguing about it. It’s a foul that Ritter, the AP writer, has committed in plain view here, where we see a “mild-mannered” Lomborg pitted against angry, “table-pounding,” “name-calling” scientists. Of course you’d rather stand with the mild-mannered guy against those meanies, wouldn’t you?

Better hope he has a spot for you in a well insulated retreat somewhere on high ground.

God bless Robert Darnton for beginning his discussion of letters of recommendation like this:

The main problem in writing letters of recommendation derives from a basic contradiction: the recommender wants to promote the candidate, yet at the same time he or she needs to convey the impression of giving an objective evaluation. I see no way around this problem. Unnuanced encomium will inspire disbelief, and unadorned frankness will be self-defeating. The most common strategy is to begin the recommendation with a barrage of praise and then to add nuances that can sound somewhat critical. On the whole, this works: the recipient is assumed to be savvy enough to discount for the rhetoric while understanding that the recommended is a less-than-perfect human being, like the rest of us. The trick is to get the balance right.

Too right. For the love of mike, people, everything we write is an artifice, a trick, and if well-performed, a tour de force — which is to say, a stunt. There is no shame in this — there is no point in professing shame at this — it is unavoidable. On the other hand, how can it be possible it’s necessary for Darnton to point this out — that roughly thirty years since “the linguistic turn” we have a profession infested with people who think that narrative can be the romantic effusion of a soul, presented unmediated to the reader? Jeez-o-pete.

Related anecdote: In a certain federal British university, the tutors sending students for instruction to experts in another field write what amount to internal letters of recommendation. They are brutally frank. Indeed, I believe there is an implicit competition to undersell your pupils. “Jones is a bit thick, but diligent.” “Johnson cannot focus on one thing for two minutes running and, as I taught his father, I can say he has the family tendency to value rowing higher than writing. Still, one does what one can.”

Lots of dumb stuff about best blog post ever (which, honestly, I generally concur in the choices, especially the Davies Bush Initiative Test and the Editors’ Poker with Dick Cheney) made me want to bookmark this, especially for the concluding exchange.

Tyrone: (shrugs) Probably right, then. Speaking of Obama, I need to get t-shirts printed up to sell.

John: I can do that on the web. What do they say?

Tyrone: Don’t You Dare Kill Obama

John: How about Don’t You Dare Kill Obama (… and we know you’re thinking about it)

Tyrone: Niiiiice.

John: Or You Kill Obama and WE WILL BURN SHIT DOWN

Tyrone: Even better. Nobody wants their shit burned down.

John: Glad to help.

Tyrone: I’m having you taken off the list for when the revolution comes.

John: … there’s really a list —

Tyrone: Oh yeah. Hell yeah.

I do not know much about gods, but I think that Paxman is a kind of god — crusty, untamed and truculent. When we moved to England he was all over the airwaves, hosting Newsnight and University Challenge on BBC television and Start the Week on Radio 4. His great virtue was not caring a tinker’s cuss about anyone, cabinet ministers or toffee-nosed Oxbridge swots or war criminals. His run-in with Henry Kissinger was a thing of beauty and a joy to hear: “Did you feel a fraud accepting the Nobel prize?” He famously asked an evasive Michael Howard the same question a dozen times.

Perhaps best of all, he’s credited as saying something like “the appropriate relation of journalist to politician is that of dog to fireplug.” Though I can’t find a citation. And though he did not first say it, you can tell he’s often asking himself, “‘Why is this lying bastard lying to me?'”

If we’re lucky, he’ll soon cover some of the American beat.

But Paxman’s real accomplishment is not aggression or tenacity per se, but the ability to cast a pox on everyone’s house without seeming a ranting loony or a milquetoast moderate. This is most evident in his book On Royalty, where he’s able to mock small-r republicans as well as the monarchy themselves without losing his own distinctive voice. How does he do that? and why can’t more historians do that?

I have an idea that this is what makes Charles and Mary Beard’s Rise of American Civilization so appealing; they love the idea of America and most actual Americans but they have no time for hero worship and exhibit a strong conviction that all politicians and businessmen are rascals through and through. Maybe more history should sound like that.

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