November 22, 2003

On the language of love and other shameless caricatures

Harry's Place rocks: there has been a slew of great posts with interesting comments threads over the last couple of days. Rather than link to each of them and say "indeed," I'll just recommend starting from the top and working down.

One of the less weighty topics is a link to Fistful of Euro's summary of national stereotypes from a 19th Century British school geography textbook. In this book, the Dutch are "slow and heavy but remarkable for their cleanliness, frugality and industry;" the Italians "discreet and polite people but extremely effeminate." And the French are a "gay, active and lively people, graceful in their deportment and very polite; posessing however not an inconsiderable share of vanity." Fascinating.

Matthew Turner says this bears a "remarkable similarity to how the British tabloid press views Europe and Europeans today." I'm not sure that these particular reductive national stereotypes are all that similar to those of the present day (contemporary blanket denunciations of The French emphasize cowardice and duplicitousness over vanity, for example.) That the habit of using national caricatures in attack polemics persists to this day strikes me, indeed, as distinctly unremarkable. That this sort of thing was once seen as appropriate pedagogical material is, of course, the remarkable part: nowadays, we favor different sorts of reductionism, which will, no doubt, make our textbooks every bit as risible and arguably revealing a hundred years from now. (In some respects, of course, there's no need to wait quite that long in re: risibility, since we bowdlerize on a different basis as well; and the fruits of this can be enjoyed right now.) Anyway, it makes you wonder what the 19th century French or Dutch textbooks said about the English national character.

Once, while poking around in somebody's attic or basement somewhere or other, I came across a joke book For Young People from the first quarter of this century. I opened the book at random and found myself in the middle of several pages of Polish jokes, which had not been what I had expected. Even more astonishing, it turned out that the publishers had helpfully divided all the jokes into chapters with the headings Polish, Irish, Oriental, Swedish (yes), Catholic, Negro, etc. (I can't remember all the categories, but I do recall that, strangely perhaps, there was no Jewish chapter.) The Negro section had a particularly shocking effect, for obvious reasons. But with regard to the ethnic stuff for the most part it wasn't the content per se that produced the sensation of viewing a document from an alien out-of-whack world; the jokes were typical, pedestrian, entirely conventional ethnic joke fare (and rather insipid, too, as the sex was bowdlerized out of them.) I don't remember reading even one I hadn't heard before. No, the strangest thing about it was the very fact that it was organized in such a way for easy reference, edited for content (to satisfy the demands of their puritanism, if not ours), and presented to children for lighthearted amusement, something that would never happen nowadays.

The material (Polack jokes, Pat and Mike dialogues, etc.) still exists, of course, and everybody pretty much knows it backwards and forwards. Some of it isn't all that funny, though quite a lot of it still can be, for some reason. But we have redrawn the line between appropriateness and bad taste (or worse) where ethnic jokes are concerned, and including such humor in books for children is no longer on the same side of that line. Clearly at one time such books fell on the "appropriate" side of the line, which seems unfathomable. Equally hard to fathom is the fact that, evidently, no distinction has been drawn between the mild ethnic slurs and the (to us) far more disturbing racist ones: the "Negro jokes" are just one chapter among many. At any rate, even when you're not particularly bothered by the jokes themselves, it really is mildly disorienting and rather hard to try to imagine what it might be like to live in a cultural environment where taste and decorum are so differently defined. (There has been some attempt to "clean up" even the milder sort of joke, if I'm not mistaken. I once had a conversation with someone's kid who told me a handful of well-known Polish jokes, except that instead of "Polack," she said "silly person." I'm guessing the chain of successively discredited euphemisms sanctioned by the joke-arbiters went something like Polack-moron-silly person.)

So the national caricatures in the geography textbook are rather mild, as such things go. But in the pedagogic context, they seem utterly bizarre. And that's why they are so fascinating.

I've quoted from my copy of the first edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (1768-1771) before. It's one of my favorite books, and one of the most interesting things about it is that it includes material that we would never think to include in an Encyclopedia. It has a lot more "attitude" than the current edition, that's for sure.

Reading that Fistful of Euros post, I was reminded of the entry for "Language." Excerpt:

It will perhaps, by some, be thought an unpardonable insult, if we do not allow the French the preference of all modern languages in many respects. But so far must we pay a deference to truth, as to be obliged to rank it among the poorest languages in Europe. -- Every other language has some sounds which can be uttered clearly by the voice: even the Italian, although it wants energy, still possesses distinctness of articulation. But the French is almost incapable of either of these beauties; for in that language the vowels are so much curtailed in the pronunciation, and the words run into one another in such a manner, as of necessity to produce an indistinctness which renders it incapable of measure or harmony...

But notwithstanding the French language labours under all these inconveniences; -- although it can neither equal the dignity or genuine politeness of the Spanish, the nervous boldness of the English, nor the melting softness of the Italian; -- although it is destitute of poetic harmony, and so much cramped in sound as to be absolutely unfit for almost every species of musical composition; -- yet the sprightly genius of that volatile people has been able to surmount all these difficulties, and render it the language most generally esteemed, and most universally spoken, of any in Europe: for this people, naturally gay and loquacious, and fond to excess of those superficial accomplishments which engage the attention of the fair sex, have invented such an infinity of words capable of expressing vague and unmeaning compliment, now dignified by the name of politeness, that, in this strain, one who uses the French can never be at a loss; and as it is easy to converse more, and really say less, in this than in any other language, a man of very moderate talents may distinguish himself much more by using this than any other that has ever yet been invented...

On these accounts the French now is, and probably will continue to be reckoned the most polite language in Europe, and therefore the most generally studied and known: nor should we envy them this distinction, if our own countrymen would not weaken and enervate their own manly language, by adopting too many of their meaningless phrases.

Practical advice, clearly, at least for the time; I'm not sure how it compares to how the British tabloid press views the French language today, though.

Posted by Dr. Frank at 03:18 AM | Comments (8) | TrackBack

November 20, 2003

Harold Pinter's Nice Romantic Niece

Someone recently left this comment on Stephen Pollard's blog:

I went out with Harold Pinter's niece in 1960. Hackney Young Socialists. Nice, romantic girl. If only these were orange groves she said, staring at the street lights in Clapton High Road. Wore green stockings. Went off with a Trotsky lookalike. Wonder what happened to her. Pinter was intriguing and baffling then. What a difference 43 years makes.

Posted by Dr. Frank at 06:10 PM | TrackBack

Greetings, Comrades

Harry speaks the language:

It just so happens, for a series of reasons, not least of which was the September 11 atrocity, that the Americans have decided to adopt another strategy to the one that served them during the cold war - a strategy of containment and alliances with local elites dominated by the priority of stability.

Or if you want me to put it in language that neither Frum nor Bush would ever use: the American ruling class has realised that a bourgeois-democratic revolution in the Middle East needs to be encouraged. Such a revolution, bringing with it the rights enjoyed by the European and North American working class and other strata, is objectively in the interests of the masses in that region...

This revolution is then a step forward and a historically necessary one. And, as we know from history, it isn't the first time that the interests of the bourgeois coincide, temporarily, with those of the oppressed masses.

Posted by Dr. Frank at 05:19 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

November 15, 2003

"Burger-scoffing surrender baboons in the war against yellowism..."

British Spin has an amusing riff on British anti-Bushism as a matter of manner and style:

A clarification here, the vaunted sense of British fair play means fair play just for the British. When ruling the world, we were entirely justified in sending gun ships up Chinese rivers to support the opium trade and would have very miffed if some Yankee upstart had been going around shouting “no blood for dope” at Disraeli. Burger-scoffing surrender baboons in the war against yellowism, John Bull would have said. Jingoism? We invented it.

Mr Bush on the other hand seems to believe in fair play just for the Americans, which is very disturbing and amoral. He has the guns, he has the men, he has the money too. His desire to use them strikes us as forward. Typically American we sigh, always showing off about his F-18’s, his Apache strike helicopters and battlefield nuke capability. So lacking in reticence.

If Bush must use his overwhelming military might, could he not at least look a bit embarrassed about it? “Oh, what’s this?” he might say to the putative dictator, “the Sixth fleet?, gosh. Who would have thought. Sixth? Isn’t five enough? I’m terribly sorry about this, but I’ve got nowhere else to put it, so it’s going to have to be outside your capital. I hope you’re not too put out by the ten capital ships, air capability greater than your entire Air force, 200 nuclear warheads and 25 support ships, and I promise we’ll try not to make too much noise over your presidential palace when testing our computer controlled cruise missiles. Amazing thingummies, these missiles. Apparently, accurate to within 10 meters, so rest easy, it should be fairly simple to avoid having it slam into your bedroom, old boy”

Of course, people very much disagree with Mr Bush on issues of substance. I myself would happily demonstrate against him on the basis that he has piled idiocy upon idiocy since his correct decision to depose Saddam Hussein and seems committed to adding a few more idiocies to the ever-growing pile. These are topics for another time. On matters of style at least, If he was a little less, well, how to say this? A little less American. Perhaps, a little more… British.

It would be so much easier.

(via Jackie.)

Posted by Dr. Frank at 05:56 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

but it, as a set, is not to be, I vow

I'm not sure why, but there has been a sudden spike in "eight little songs" orders. This blog has been getting an unusual number of referrals from live journal urls lately as well, which seems to have something to do with the "She's not a Flower" mp3. Maybe there's some connection there, too. At any rate, thanks very much for all the orders.

Speaking of "She's not a Flower," Dave Bug and his cyberfriends have invented a weird game where you try to "translate" text using only words of three letters or fewer; he has managed to come up with such a translation of that song ("she is no mum bud") that actually preserves the rhyme scheme and (pretty much) the meter. The title of this post is a line from it, intended to capture the spirit of "but there really isn't such a thing" in words of <= 3. If my lyrics were this strange and cryptic to begin with, I'm sure I'd be hailed as a genius, get rewarded with huge stacks of cash, and have people helpfully translating my songs into complex, poly-syllabic, grammatically correct sentences.

I love time-consuming projects that are devoid of any practical application. You could say my song was pretty close already. But Dave took it one step further and completed the process, bless him. Check it out.

Posted by Dr. Frank at 12:39 AM | Comments (10) | TrackBack

November 13, 2003

Fisk or be fisked

David Pryce-Jones is a gifted writer and historian, and smart as a whip, yet somehow he managed rather spectacularly to get the wrong idea on the definition of the verb "to fisk," as it is used in the "www arena." P.-J.'s definition is logical ("the selection of evidence solely in order to bolster preconceptions and prejudices") but unattested anywhere else but in his own article, as far as I know; and unfortunately he used it as the recurring theme, rhetorical touchstone and organizing principle of this otherwise unobjectionable piece on the man himself. Kind of embarrassing.

(via Sullivan.)

Posted by Dr. Frank at 07:48 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

By the way...

Speaking of Gore Vidal, pieces of this article on the history of anti-Americanism and on our own contemporary celibri-crackpots keep coming to mind. It's by Ian Buruma, and it was linked all over the place a couple of months ago, mostly because it included the - for some reason - immensely satisfying turn-the-tables conclusion that Vidal et. al (including the more serious "public intellectuals" who are in his camp and are not so easily dismissed as nutcases) "should at least have the honesty to call themselves conservatives, of the Henry Kissinger school, and stop pretending they speak for the liberal-left."

Why is this oft-stated notion, which is true enough, though hardly earth-shatteringly insightful, so irresistible? Presumably because one imagines that those who fetishize the trappings of left-liberalism as a matter of personal identity would find the label "conservative" extremely irritating. And for some reason, that's fun. That doesn't quite explain why those who fetishize the trappings of "conservatism" as a matter of personal identity (an equally annoying group) are so unreservedly charmed by the observation, however. It's a little like the Simpsons episode where Bart chatters to the pitcher: "you throw like my sister"; and Lisa chimes in "yeah, you throw like me!" But such facile cultural-political sniping has little to do with the thrust of Buruma's article, which is a serious rumination on the nature and meaning of anti-Americanism past and present.

Anyway, I was struck by this incidental bit on Harold Pinter:

Pinter, a great artist, if not a subtle political thinker, is perhaps a special case. His subject is power, or rather the abuse of power. When applied to human relationships, Pinter's artistic intelligence produces brilliant insights. But when it comes to international politics, he loses all proportion. US power - always abusive in his view - fills him with such fury that he cannot be rational on the subject. It also, incidentally, affects his artistry. Just read his crude poems on the Iraq war.

I may have more to say about this later if I can get my thoughts on it together. But for now I'll just say that I find this idea (that there are times when genuine insight into human relationships and the human condition can lead you astray when it comes to matters of history and international politics) quite fascinating.

Posted by Dr. Frank at 06:46 PM | TrackBack

Where the Past Comes Alive

Another relatively crazy interview with Gore Vidal in the LA Weekly. I say relatively, because it doesn't quite meet this standard. Anyhow, with a little help from the passive, softball questions of Marc Cooper, Vidal addresses the important question on everybody's mind these days: if George Bush, John Ashcroft, and Dick Cheney had been born two hundred years earlier; and if they had attended the first Constitutional convention; and if they had tried to write the USA Patriot Act into the Constitution; well, what would have happened then?


Vidal: The Founding Fathers would have found this to be despotism in spades. And they would have hanged anybody who tried to get this through the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia.


Cooper: So if George W. Bush or John Ashcroft had been around in the early days of the republic, they would have been indicted and then hanged by the Founders?

Vidal: No. It would have been better and worse. [Laughs.] Bush and Ashcroft would have been considered so disreputable as to not belong in this country at all. They might be invited to go down to Bolivia or Paraguay and take part in the military administration of some Spanish colony, where they would feel so much more at home. They would not be called Americans - most Americans would not think of them as citizens.

Cooper: Do you not think of Bush and Ashcroft as Americans?

Vidal: I think of them as an alien army.

Presumably there's more sophisticated analysis like this in Gore's new book, Inventing a Nation: Washington, Adams, Jefferson. If you're into that sort of thing.

Posted by Dr. Frank at 04:26 PM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

November 08, 2003

I Fought Myself and My Self Won

Over at Harry's Place, Johann Hari gets in touch with his inner Appeaser and his inner Imperialist and lets them battle it out.

I try to have these internal arguments with myself, but I usually find it impossible not to root for one side, allow a bit of cheating and so forth. I could probably benefit from having the League of Women Voters lay some ground rules; surprise questions from an audience could help too, perhaps. As when playing chess against yourself, it can help to put on different hats (literally) and to have a different sort of drink on either side of the table. (Baseball cap with scotch and water vs. beret with sherry can work-- but still, I always find I want the baseball cap to clobber the beret, and for some reason that's what usually happens. Queen's Gambit Declined.) Johann's ground rules favor his inner "Imperialist" slightly (and having come away from losing his cool in a BBC "debate" with George Galloway it's not hard to see why-- I didn't hear the interview, but as a general rule I'd imagine it would be indecent and unforgivable not to lose one's cool when debating GG.) In truth, his inner "Imperialist" propounds a more or less classic internationalist Liberalism, which is quite hard to argue against, hat or no hat.

Anyway, it's long but worth reading.

"Our rallying cry now needs to be: Democrats of the world, unite." Quite.

Posted by Dr. Frank at 06:08 PM | Comments (12) | TrackBack

November 06, 2003

Delogocentrize This

Norman Geras points out this post on Butterflies and Wheels, which serves up a few fingers of some high grade, top shelf academic gibberish from a recent essay by frequent Dutton Prize honoree Robyn Wiegman.

This bit is about Forrest Gump:

If social construction has been used to de-essentialize the racially minoritized subject - to wrestle subjectivity from its oversaturation, indeed reduction to embodiment - then whiteness studies evinces the anxiety of embodiment on the other side of racial power hierarchies, an anxiety that is in itself the consequence of counterhegemonic race discourses that have put pressure not just on what but on how the white body means.

To paraphrase (loosely) B&W's Ophelia, there may be something wrong with you if you're not giggling right now. Of course, there are those who maintain that the problem disappears once you realize that bad writing is actually good. Theory is hard, and all those status quos aren't going to question themselves, you know. God bless 'em, and grant me the strength to become one with them, I say. Now if I could only figure out what, not to mention how, the good bad writing means, I'll be all set.

Posted by Dr. Frank at 07:14 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

November 05, 2003

Knight Knight

Mark Steyn riffs on Rod Stewart ("his material is ageing in inverse proportion to his birds") and knighthoods for rock stars. Apparently Rod is a bit miffed that he isn't a knight yet.

It is hard to see why Rod shouldn't have a knighthood. Thanks to recent prime ministers, everyone else in showbiz has. Shirley Bassey's a dame, and Cliff Richard's a knight, and so is Mick Jagger... It is time for Sir Bob to do Knight Aid to raise public awareness of the plight of Britain's unknighted rockers like Rod and, er, Beaky from Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich.

Mildy amusing.

And speaking of which, I've always felt it to be a tragedy and a shame and a crime and a sin that there's no Nobel Prize for Rock and Roll. I came to the realization that there wasn't one rather late in life, in fact. It turns out all my fantasies of being awakened by a knock on the door from a sort of Swedish Ed McMahon with a camera crew bearing a check for a gazillion crowns and plaque or trophy were just that: fantasies. Oh, well.

Anyway, cheers to Steyn for noting what has to be the most unwarrantedly, undeservedly catchy, poorly-written lyric in pop music history: "my love you didn't need to coax." Sometimes sheer retardedness triumphs. And of course, just what he means I know, because there have I been.

Posted by Dr. Frank at 05:19 PM | Comments (11) | TrackBack

Democracy Rules OK

Redundant as it may be to duplicate an Andrew Sullivan post, I find I simply can't resist requoting this classic bit of contemporary Wodehouse-ish-ness from the House of Parliament Home Page:

Hereditary Peers By-Election Result
Nominations for the by-election to replace Lord Milner of Leeds closed on 24 October.

11 candidates registered to stand for election, as follows:

Lord Biddulph
The Earl of Carlisle
Lord Clifford of Chudleigh
Lord Grantchester
Lord Hacking
Viscount Hanworth
Lord HolmPatrick
The Earl of Kimberley
Lord Monkswell
Viscount Samuel
Lord Vaux of Harrowden

The result was announced by the Clerk of the Parliaments in the House at 3 pm on Thursday 30 October 2003.

Three votes were cast. Lord Grantchester received two first-preference votes and Viscount Hanworth one. Lord Grantchester was therefore the successful candidate.

Posted by Dr. Frank at 08:10 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

November 03, 2003

The Referral Log Knows All

Lookout Records has posted an mp3 from the upcoming MTX album. It's called "She's not a Flower," it's track #1, and it's downloadable here.

It's sort of funny how I learned of the fact that the mp3 was up. I mean, I knew they were planning to do it at some point, and I knew the first one would be one of two that we'd agreed on, but I didn't know when. There wasn't anything about it on the Lookout Records front page, and I don't routinely check the "sounds" section. (Is that how people find out about LK's mp3s, by checking the "sounds" section to see if there's anything new? A DIY kinda thing? No idea...) Anyway, I found out about it because I saw this live journal link (not sure how you link to individual lj posts-- scroll to "She's Not a Flower") on the referral log of this blog, and read all about it that way. The guy (from Manchester, I gather) has what I imagine to be a typical story of Alcatraz confusion and eventual acceptance, running parallel with a tale of love gone funny, then re-arranging itself into a different pattern. Like it always does, eh?

Well, there's no turning back now. Rock out or something.

UPDATE: as I've had a few requests, here be the lyrics:

She's not a Flower

She's not a flower
she isn't growing in your garden today
you couldn't cultivate her anyway

you're not a king bee
you like honey and you're packing a sting
but there really isn't such a thing

you're in flight, and she smells all right
but she's not a flower

She's not an ocean
that you're an island in the middle of
and there isn't any prison of love

you're not a freebird
hey you, up on that mountain peak
can't you hear what's coming out of your beak?

you can say you'll fly away
but you're not a freebird

Love's not a poison
you better find a better reason why
you feel like you want to die

a broke heart won't kill you
you might suffer till the end of your days
but that was gonna happen anyways

and even if the love you mourn
is equal to the love you scorn
and fortune mocks the love you gave
and someone lays her on your grave she's not a flower

© 2003 Dr. Frank, Itching Powder Music (BMI)

Posted by Dr. Frank at 04:05 AM | Comments (43) | TrackBack

November 02, 2003

Penny for the Guy

Much to disagree with in this column by Mary Ridell, perhaps, though not its thesis ("retreat is not an option".) I'll just quote a few of the good lines:

Peace is slippery to define. To Samuel Johnson, it was the product of mutual cowardice. To Cicero, it was liberty in tranquillity. Now it means 'Fuck Bush' banners and presidential pyres for bonfire night. This is the Turner Prize of protest, featuring Stop the War activists as the Chapman Brothers of mass action. The forthcoming civil disobedience will be non-violent, organisers stress, but the whiff of brutalism conjures up a world where no such caveat is feasible...

[T]he anti-war movement, whatever its stake on prescience, has proved a depressingly negative force, too. The populist spirit that politicised a generation and illuminated mass marches has curdled into pessimism and posturing. It may be excessive to hope that a peace movement can save a single Iraqi life. But it might show better that it mourned, or even noticed.

I particularly like "the Turner Prize of protest."

See also Harry's comments on the seeming incongruence embodied in enlisting Guy Fawkes Day effigy-burning in a purported "progressive" cause. I'm not sure burning symbols in the street is quite as out of step with the traditions the Peace Movement as he says it is. And it can come as no great surprise that GWB puppets will be burned many times over on November 5. However, there's surely a degree of irony in this, and still more, perhaps, in this one. All in good fun, of course; and, as far as I can see, utterly pointless. Yet, in terms of historical analogy, who exactly is playing the role of "the Guy" in this scenario?

Posted by Dr. Frank at 06:00 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack


A complex, powerful and challenging exploration of the roots and meaning of the erstwhile and continuing varieties of antisemitism by Natan Sharansky. Excerpt:

As for Western Europe, there the reputation of Israel and of the Jews has undergone a number of ups and downs over the decades. Before 1967, the shadow of the Holocaust and the perception of Israel as a small state struggling for its existence in the face of Arab aggression combined to ensure, if not the favor of the European political classes, at least a certain dispensation from harsh criticism. But all this changed in June 1967, when the truncated Jewish state achieved a seemingly miraculous victory against its massed Arab enemies in the Six-Day war, and the erstwhile victim was overnight transformed into an aggressor. A possibly apocryphal story about Jean-Paul Sartre encapsulates the shift in the European mood. Before the war, as Israel lay diplomatically isolated and Arab leaders were already trumpeting its certain demise, the famous French philosopher signed a statement in support of the Jewish state. After the war, he reproached the man who had solicited his signature: "But you assured me they would lose."

Decades before "occupation" became a household word, the mood in European chancelleries and on the Left turned decidedly hostile. There were, to be sure, venal interests at stake, from the perceived need to curry favor with the oil-producing nations of the Arab world to, in later years, the perceived need to pander to the growing Muslim populations in Western Europe itself. But other currents were also at work, as anti-Western, anti-"imperialist," pacifist, and pro-liberationist sentiments, fanned and often subsidized by the USSR, took over the advanced political culture both of Europe and of international diplomacy. Behind the new hostility to Israel lay the new ideological orthodoxy, according to whose categories the Jewish state had emerged on the world scene as a certified "colonial" and "imperialist" power, a "hegemon," and an "oppressor."

The parallel between the demands for contemporary ideological "assimilation" and previous flavors of cultural and national assimilation is particularly striking. Well worth reading in entirety.

Posted by Dr. Frank at 04:49 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Two Erics and a David

Interesting attempt by David Aaronovitch to spin Eric Hobsbawm as another flavor of Orwell. Nice try, though I get the impression his heart's not really in it. Here's the interesting part, which is only distantly related to the topic of the two Erics:

This is a bad time for prophets and heroes, as it is for visible ideologies. One great advantage of political parties of the Left used to be that they would furnish the supporter with a bespoke opinion on subjects that were barely understood, with respected leaders whose words could be quoted, with answers to awkward questions. They would know how to get There from Here.

Presumably Aaronovitch is sincere in presenting this quite accurate description of the most pernicious weakness of ideological thinking as a "great advantage." His subsequent lament about the degeneracy of contemporary political culture likewise rings true. Is it possible to understand these things so well, and to be able to describe them so clearly, while being unaware that the second is, in some respects, a direct consequence of having made a habit of the first?

Posted by Dr. Frank at 04:19 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack