Monday, November 30, 2009

Is The POTUS (44) Eligible For The Clean Plate Club?

After the Turkey Day hiatus, this blogger is back offering contrarian opinion to one and all. On the eve of the Afghanistan speech, the POTUS (44) needs to deliver the equivalent of his speech on race furing the '08 campaign. The speech at West Point will be his "Fireside Chat" moment. If this is a (fair & balanced) hope for the best, so be it.

[x Slate]
Obama's Brilliant First Year
By Jacob Weisberg

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About one thing, left and right seem to agree these days: Obama hasn't done anything yet. Maureen Dowd and Dick Cheney have found common ground in scoffing at the president's "dithering." Newsweek recently ran a sympathetic cover story titled, "Yes He Can (But He Sure Hasn't Yet)." The sarcasm brigade thinks it's finally found an Achilles' heel in his lack of accomplishments. "When you look at my record, it's very clear what I've done so far and that is nothing. Nada. Almost one year and nothing to show for it," Obama stand-in Fred Armisen recently riffed on "Saturday Night Live." "It's chow time," Jon Stewart asserts, for a president who hasn't followed through on his promises.

This conventional wisdom about Obama's first year isn't just premature—it's sure to be flipped on its head by the anniversary of his inauguration on Jan. 20. If, as seems increasingly likely, Obama wins passage of a health care reform a bill by that date, he will deliver his first State of the Union address having accomplished more than any other postwar American president at a comparable point in his presidency. This isn't an ideological point or one that depends on agreement with his policies. It's a neutral assessment of his emerging record—how many big, transformational things Obama is likely to have made happen in his first 12 months in office.

The case for Obama's successful freshman year rests above all on the health care legislation now awaiting action in the Senate. Democrats have been trying to pass national health insurance for 60 years. Past presidents who tried to make it happen and failed include Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton. Through the summer, Obama caught flak for letting Congress lead the process, as opposed to setting out his own proposal. Now his political strategy is being vindicated. The bill he signs may be flawed in any number of ways—weak on cost control, too tied to the employer-based system, and inadequate in terms of consumer choice. But given the vastness of the enterprise and the political obstacles, passing an imperfect behemoth and improving it later is probably the only way to succeed where his predecessors failed.

We are so submerged in the details of this debate—whether the bill will include a "public option," limit coverage for abortion, or tax Botox—that it's easy to lose sight of the magnitude of the impending change. For the federal government to take responsibility for health coverage will be a transformation of the American social contract and the single biggest change in government's role since the New Deal. If Obama governs for four or eight years and accomplishes nothing else, he may be judged the most consequential domestic president since LBJ. He will also undermine the view that Ronald Reagan permanently reversed a 50-year tide of American liberalism.

Obama's claim to a fertile first year doesn't rest on health care alone. There's mounting evidence that the $787 billion economic stimulus he signed in February—combined with the bank bailout package—prevented an economic depression. Should the stimulus have been larger? Should it have been more weighted to short-term spending, as opposed to long-term tax cuts? Would a second round be a good idea? Pundits and policymakers will argue these questions for years to come. But few mainstream economists seriously dispute that Obama's decisive action prevented a much deeper downturn and restored economic growth in the third quarter. The New York Times recently quoted Mark Zandi, who was one of candidate John McCain's economic advisers, on this point: "The stimulus is doing what it was supposed to do—it is contributing to ending the recession," he said. "In my view, without the stimulus, G.D.P would still be negative and unemployment would be firmly over 11 percent."

When it comes to foreign policy, Obama's accomplishment has been less tangible but hardly less significant: He has put America on a new footing with the rest of the world. In a series of foreign trips and speeches, which critics deride as trips and speeches, he replaced George W. Bush's unilateral, moralistic militarism with an approach that is multilateral, pragmatic, and conciliatory. Obama has already significantly reoriented policy toward Iran, China, Russia, Iraq, Israel, and the Islamic world. Next week, after a much-disparaged period of review, he will announce a new strategy in Afghanistan. No, the results do not yet merit his Nobel Peace Prize. But not since Reagan has a new president so swiftly and determinedly remodeled America's global role.

Obama has wisely deferred some smaller, politically hazardous battles over issues such as closing Guantanamo, ending "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," and fighting the expansion of Israel's West Bank settlements. Instead, he has saved his fire for his most urgent priorities—preventing a depression, remaking America's global image, and winning universal health insurance. Chow time indeed, if you ask me. Ω

[Jacob Weisberg is editor-in-chief of Slate Group, a division of The Washington Post Company, and a columnist for the Financial Times. Weisberg served as the editor of Slate magazine for six years, until stepping down in June 2008. The creator and author of the Bushisms series, Weisberg published The Bush Tragedy in 2008. He is also the author, with Robert Rubin, of In An Uncertain World (2003). Weisberg's first book, In Defense of Government, was published in 1996. Weisberg graduated from Yale University in 1986, where he worked for the Yale Daily News. After Yale he attended New College, Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar.]

Copyright © 2009 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive Co.

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Sunday, November 29, 2009

Roll Over Bobby Fischer — Levon Aronian Is First A Chess Player And Then An Armenian

This blogger has just returned from a holiday sojourn with his five grandchildren and their parents; the two eldest grandsons spent two years with their parents in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. This blogger's (temporary) Armenians have been been back in the States for a little more than three years now and Armenian memories are fading. Then, the world's largest library (aka the Web) provides an article about an Armenian chess superstar. If this is a (fair & balanced) checkmate, so be it.

[x Prospect]
The Lion And The Tiger
By David Edmonds

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Grandmaster Levon Aronian

Levon Aronian likes to sleep late. But at 11am on a weekday in August this year, his dreams were disturbed by what sounded like people chanting his name. In a semi-conscious state he got up, looked out of the window and saw a large group of people outside where he was staying. “You must win for Armenia!” shouted the crowd. They were there because in his native country, Levon Aronian is a megastar. He is 27 years old, charming, handsome, wealthy and the best in his nation at chess. And his countrymen take chess very seriously. The patriotic zeal focused on him during the August tournament was more intense than usual. If Aronian did well, he might one day become world champion.

Armenia is a tiny, poor country in the Caucasus, with a population of just over 3m. It has a long history of bloodshed and oppression; when it appears in the news it is usually because of its entanglement in some labyrinthine regional feud. And it excels at the ancient, cerebral game of chess. In the international Chess Olympiad, held every two years, Armenia took bronze in 2002 and 2004, then gold in 2006 and 2008, eclipsing traditional powerhouses such as Russia, the US, Germany and England. National celebrations followed the most recent victory, along with a set of commemorative stamps. Armenia has 27 grandmasters (GMs), the elite rank awarded to around 1,200 of the world’s best players. With more grandmasters than China and many more per capita than Russia, this little nation is a chess superpower. But why?

This summer I visited Jermuk to try to find out. Jermuk is a resort town 100 miles from the capital, Yerevan, and for two weeks in August its largest sanatorium was home to 14 of the world’s most brilliant men. They were there for a tournament organised by FIDE, the world chess federation.

The 14 players consisted of a Frenchman, a Bulgarian, an Uzbek, three Ukrainians, an American, a Hungarian, three Russians, an Israeli and two Armenians, including Aronian. The arbiter was Belgian, and the guest of honour—a chess legend called Svetozar Gligoric, a deaf, frail and octogenarian GM who padded around in a tracksuit—was Serbian. The sanatorium, a vast grey stone edifice, was once frequented by senior communist apparatchiks, who came for the hot springs. Like much of Armenia, it is stuck between the Soviet era and modernisation. The rooms have been upgraded, but the menu hasn’t. Every day there was pork, creamy mashed potato and buckets of buckwheat. To cater to the guests’ medical requirements, a phalanx of doctors in navy-blue tunics was on hand. One room was dedicated to gastroscopy, another housed the proctologist. The ominously titled “treating doctor” had a separate area which I dared not enter.

The players were mostly in their twenties, with a few in their thirties and one or two “old men” who had turned 40. They were civil to each other but close friendships are tricky. As top grandmasters, their lives are intertwined; they compete in the same tournaments across the globe. Between games the players ran into each other in the dining hall, by the pool or in the sauna. But most ate alone, or huddled with their second—a kind of coach-cum-sparring partner who helps them prepare. At 3pm each day, the clocks were started: ahead lay up to six-and-a-half hours of exhausting intellectual combat.

It’s nervy stuff, not least because this was a crucial contest, the fifth of six tournaments that constitute the grand prix. Aronian won two of the previous tournaments, and if he came first or second here he would win the grand prix. There was a cash prize, but more importantly the winner would claim a spot in a knockout round of just eight players, leading to the chance to take on the world champion, currently India’s Viswanathan Anand. So Aronian stood within 13 games of a shot at the ultimate prize in chess.

With the games in progress, I headed outside the sanatorium and, in the thin mountain air, listened to groups of boys and old men passionately debate the moves. They offered me 64 different explanations for why Armenians are world-beaters at chess. Armenia’s heritage as a cog in the Soviet chess machine plays a part, although that alone can’t explain why it outstrips other former eastern bloc nations. Some of them emphasised education—Armenian literacy rates are higher than in the US or Britain. A few others pointed to Armenia’s tradition of creativity in many fields, including music and painting. Armenia is poor and chess is cheap, one man told me. Then—and this is a favourite rationalisation—there’s the individualistic nature of the game. Armenians take perverse gratification in their incompetence at team games. (Weight-lifting is the only other sport at which Armenia excels.) The British ambassador, whom I later met in Yerevan, pressed a more physical, less abstract explanation upon me. Armenia is so mountainous that there’s no room for football pitches and athletics fields—but chess needs only space for a small board.

Yet to truly understand Armenia’s success requires a deeper look into the country’s past, and in particular one moment, a generation ago, in which this most highbrow game first began to embody the spirit of a subjugated people.


There have been two Tigran the Greats in Armenia’s history. The first Tigran the Great, an Armenian king born in 140BC, was an aggressive risk-taker and a tactical wizard. He launched ambitious military offensives and under his rule Armenia briefly became the most powerful state east of Rome. According to Niccolo Machiavelli, an overreliance on cavalry was his undoing: his knights were so burdened with armour that when they fell off their horses they could barely rise again to fight.

Two millennia later came the second Tigran the Great, Tigran Petrosian (1929-84). Also known as “Iron Tigran,” he has a prominent position in the chess pantheon and was world champion for six years from 1963. In 1972, when the mercurial American Bobby Fischer was trouncing his opponents en route to his legendary world championship match against Boris Spassky, Petrosian was the only man to win a game against him, although he too succumbed after. Fischer said he could sense the exact moment that Petrosian’s ego crumbled.

The Jermuk tournament in which Aronian was competing was named after Iron Tigran. Petrosian is an unlikely national hero: he was born not in Armenia, but in Tbilisi, capital of neighbouring Georgia. He was, however, ethnically Armenian, and as he rose in prominence Armenians adopted him as their own. To most western observers he was just another Soviet from a Kremlin-run conveyor belt that, since Stalin, had promoted the game to demonstrate communist superiority over the west. But to Armenians he was one of them. For many, national identity meant more than communist ideology; for others it was a weapon to be wielded against this ideology. In any event, chess and national pride became fused in 1963, as Petrosian took on the Russian Mikhail Botvinnik.

The match took place in Moscow, but crowds gathered in Yerevan’s central square where a giant board had been set up. The moves were relayed by telex and discussed by the throng as if they were war communiqués. The aficionados knew what sort of chess to expect. Grandmasters, just like artists and musicians, have an instantly recognisable style. “Levon” means “lion” in Armenian and Aronian’s chess is appropriately bold and adventurous. But Tigran means “tiger” in Russian and it would be hard to imagine a more unsuitable fit with Petrosian’s defensive play. He avoided risk and aimed to pre-empt any attack, plug any weakness. He would often lull opponents into overreaching and then exploit the smallest advantage. Bobby Fischer said Petrosian could “smell” danger 20 moves in advance. Yet for all its caution, his play was lethally effective. Aram Hajian, an Armenian-American who works with the Armenian chess academy, says that just as every American of a certain age can recall where they were when Kennedy was shot, so every Armenian can remember where they were when Petrosian vanquished Botvinnik in that same year, 1963. The Armenian won by a convincing 12.5-9.5: Botvinnik’s stamina flagged as his opponent masterfully shuffled and reshuffled his pieces.

Chess became the nation’s favourite pastime soon afterwards. Even the colours became fashionable: photographs of the time show women dressed in black-and-white shoes and dresses. A statue of Petrosian, with his victor’s wreath, would later be erected outside Yerevan’s magnificent four-storey chess club. One amateur player, also called Petrosian, had a dream after his namesake’s victory that if he had a son he should also call him Tigran. And this younger, unrelated Tigran Petrosian became a member of Armenia’s recent gold-medal winning chess team. Indeed, as Iron Tigran became famous, and especially after 1963, “Tigrans” proliferated. The current prime minister is a Tigran, as is his finance minister. A decade ago filmmaker Tigran Xmalian made "Black & White," a film that uses chess as an allegory for Armenian 20th century politics. It contains footage of Petrosian—an unassuming looking chap with thick, slicked black hair—hunched over the board in positions of concentration: hands flat over his ears, cupping his cheeks with his palms, stroking his jaw. Before one game a man rushes forward and throws some soil beneath Petrosian’s feet—Armenian soil. For once, says Tigran Xmalian, we Armenians were celebrating, not crying.

Petrosian’s triumph led to an outpouring of nationalism and affected the way that Armenians related both to their Russian neighbours and to the darkest episode in their history. That episode began on 24th April 1915, when Armenian leaders were rounded up and murdered in Constantinople (now Istanbul). It was the start of what the Armenians call their genocide. Many Turks dismiss the term, maintaining that the killings are inflated in number and were never official policy. But most reputable historians disagree. Caucasus specialist Tom de Waal dislikes the semantic quibbling: “For me it’s enough to say that in 1915 there were lots of Armenians in eastern Anatolia. Several years later there were none.” Up to 1.5m people were butchered in their homes or died as they were deported. But it was only in 1965 that the Kremlin, facing large public demonstrations in Yerevan, finally authorised the construction of a national memorial. Today this bleak complex, consisting of a dozen tapered concrete slabs symbolising each devastated province, stands in the peaceful hills overshadowing Yerevan.

During the final years of Ottoman rule there was much talk about a solution to “the Armenian question.” The Ottoman Turks thought the Armenians were money-grubbers. They were accused of being enemies within. Under communism, Armenians were known for their business acumen and the nation provided many of the Soviet Union’s best engineers, mathematicians and scientists. “Armenians were the brainy boys with glasses in the front of the class,” says de Waal.

These, of course, are stereotypes usually attributed to another minority. The parallels between Jews and Armenians are striking. Both have well-knit diasporas—there are more than three times as many ethnic Armenians living outside the country as inside and remittances are key to sustaining the economy. Both have strong lobby groups in Washington. Both take inordinate pride in the achievements of their ethnic group—singer Cher and tennis player Andre Agassi are two Americans that Armenians claim as their own. Both have histories marked by identity-shaping tragedies. And both Israel and Armenia are small nations and chess giants.

Further, Armenia’s regional politics often look as intractable as Israel’s. Armenia has a closed border with Turkey and with Turkey’s close ally Azerbaijan. The borders were closed because of the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh, an enclave in Azerbaijan overwhelmingly populated by Armenians and over which the two nations fought a war in the early 1990s.

Modern Armenia had only a brief period of independence at the end of the first world war before being absorbed into the Soviet Union. Since its rebirth in 1991, says Aram Hajian, it has been in search of an identity. “Armenia is an ancient nation but it is newly reborn. Many people know it’s the first nation to adopt Christianity, 1,700 years ago, but in more modern times it’s not clear how Armenia wishes to present itself to the world. And presenting itself as the king of the intellectual game is not such a bad image to portray.” There will be an added piquancy to the 2012 chess Olympiad, to be held in Istanbul. If Armenia takes part it should thrash its oldest adversary, as Turkey has only two grandmasters.


The long-time world champion and now political activist Garry Kasparov was born Garry Weinstein, but his mother was Armenian. Levon Aronian has an Armenian mother and a Jewish father too. With those genes, he said mischievously during a break in the competition, “my genius was guaranteed.” He was eating supper in the dingy dungeon dining hall along with Arianne Caoili, a rare female player who accompanied Aronian to the tournament. “But you have two advantages over Kasparov,” said Caoili. “You speak better English, and your back is less hairy.” Three years ago, when Armenia won the gold medal at the chess Olympiad for the first time, Caoili briefly and inadvertently helped propel the game into the mainstream news. The brainy, beautiful Filipino-Australian, a master-strength player, was dancing with Aronian when an English GM, Danny Gormally, became jealous and punched him. Another Armenian took umbrage at this assault on his nation’s idol and later thumped Gormally back. Typically, Aronian proved the more astute tactician; he and Caoili are now together.

It was an incongruous episode—fisticuffs are rare in professional chess, where revenge is exacted slowly, often agonisingly, over the board. But it is perhaps not so incomprehensible when set in the stressful context of competition chess.

The players have their tics and idiosyncrasies. When playing white, GM Ernesto Inarkiev sits hunched over the board for several minutes before making his first move, even though he must know what he’s going to play. This may be gamesmanship, or a much-needed period to ease himself into combat. His fellow Russian Evgeny Alekseev is marked by his poor dress: while most wear suits and open-neck shirts, Alekseev looks like a teenager dragged from bed. The Ukrainian Vassily Ivanchuk most conforms to the caricature of the mad chess genius, with messed-up hair and a habit of staring longer at the ceiling than the board. Everyone has an Ivanchuk story. One is about a brilliant novelty he once rolled out in a match. “How did you conjure that up?” he was asked. “It occurred to me on my wedding day,” he said. He is regarded with a certain awe by his fellows as someone who has achieved a kind of transcendental unity with the game; doing nothing else, thinking about nothing else. He says that a chess player struggles for a perfect game as the artist strives for a faultless painting. After ten days at the Jermuk competition, he still couldn’t remember where the bathroom was and kept opening the wrong door.

Back at the contest, it was round ten. Aronian had lost two games and was hovering above the middle of the pack of 14. He desperately needed a win. His opponent was the second seed and another world top-ten player, the Russian Dmitry Jakovenko. Aronian claimed to feel pressure but didn’t show it; he was preternaturally calm. He began with pawn to c4 (an opening known as “the English”). A quiet start evolved into a crowded middle game. Move 18 was the turning point when, after an apparently simple move, pawn to e5, several of his until-then dormant pieces sprang into action. Then he tightened his grip, forcing Jakovenko’s king on a wild flight from one side of the board to the other, only to be finally, humiliatingly, cornered. Outside the sanatorium, where big boards were erected for the spectators and the pieces were moved by girls with long poles, the crowd erupted into applause.

At the post-match press conferences some grandmasters were fidgety, still racked with the tension of the game just completed. Not Aronian. He stroked his chin and delivered his post-mortems in soft cadences, with an air of detachment, as if he’d just had a refreshing stroll in the park.

Among the spectators, Aronian was compared to international celebrities. “He’s our David Beckham,” said one elderly, leather-faced man as the sun glinted off his bald head. Aronian is always in demand for autographs and always obliges. And chess has made him rich—if not in Beckham’s league.

Armenia is one of the poorest countries in the former Soviet Union. After a few years of double-digit growth, when it was briefly dubbed “the Caucasian tiger,” its economy, dependent on global metal prices, imploded. In the west, a chess player ranked, say, 200th in the world, would struggle financially. But in Armenia a GM can earn $40-$70,000 a year in prizes and appearance fees. What’s more, grandmasters who remain in Armenia (Aronian now lives in Germany) are guaranteed a salary by the state of roughly the average wage.

A sophisticated structure is in place to develop the next generation of Aronians. Down the road from the match venue is a classroom where the country’s best juniors are brought to train. There’s a boy who won the European under-10s, another who was under-12 world champion. In fact, all the children have won medals in national or international competitions. In the afternoon they watch the grandmaster games. In the morning, after physical exercise, there are four or five hours of chess coaching: three-minute blitz games, opening theory, endgame technique and sessions on tactics. To inspire them, the floor is made up of 64 black-and-white squares.

Overseeing all of this is Serzh Sargsyan, a man with two presidencies to his name. He is head of Armenia’s Chess Federation and, when not embroiled in chess responsibilities, he is the president of Armenia itself. Silver-haired and with twinkly eyes, he has a machine-gun cackle and a sinister CV. (His background is in the security services.) Next year he plans to make chess part of the national curriculum, dismissing criticism that the money could be better spent on infrastructure or hospitals. “With this money we could build 1km of road,” he said. “What’s better, to build this road, or to have tens of thousands of children playing chess? Chess trains the mind. Kids who play chess are more organised, more disciplined, more honest.” He believes that chess has helped put Armenia on the map and that it can become the centre of the country’s international brand. “We don’t want the world to recognise Armenia just by the genocide and the earthquake.”


On the final day, after his slow start, Aronian needed other games to go his way even if he won. He took his place at the board as the photographers clicked away. Then the players were left alone. There is a loneliness to chess played at the highest levels. It goes deeper than the mechanics of competition, the sitting in silence for hours. These men are part computer, part artist. Show them a particular distribution of pieces for a split-second and they can memorise the configuration and reproduce it at will. Most have exceptional memories. Many are musical; in this tournament Aronian listened to Bach before each game. They all have language skills—conversation glides from Russian to English to German. But, said Aronian, what they create can be grasped by very few. In that sense, it differs from music or football. We may not be able to compose like Mozart but we can enjoy his compositions. We may not be able to bend it like Beckham, but we can marvel at his striking of the ball. “To understand the beauty of the games played at our level,” Aronian said, “you have to be rated 2,200 or higher.” In Britain, only a couple of hundred people are at that level. Aronian made this point with regret rather than arrogance.

Whether or not they can fully comprehend it, hundreds of thousands of fans around the world followed the final game. The boards were hooked up to sensors and moves were online as they were made. Armenians could track the tournament via their television news. Those watching were not disappointed. Aronian ground out a victory, turning a nano-advantage into a strong lead, and then into an unstoppable force. His opponent, playing black, had been fixed with a weak pawn structure by move 12, but it was another 24 moves before an embattled pawn fell and a further 20 before it was clear that Aronian’s pawns were sweeping down the board and black capitulated. The win gave him second place in the tournament and victory in the grand prix. The world title is now in his sights.

Armenian nabobs were in attendance at the night-time award ceremony. The entire town turned out for the speeches, music and fireworks. The president handed Aronian the keys to an apartment in Yerevan—a none-too-subtle plea for the star to return to his homeland. But Aronian and Caoili were heading back to Germany, the weight of the nation’s expectations still upon him. The young genius appeared typically unfazed. “I’m a chess player first, an Armenian second,” he said. That is unlikely to affect his countrymen’s passion for Aronian, or for chess. As Tigran Xmalian told me, Armenians love the game because they’ve been attacked, invaded and oppressed by so many empires over two millennia. Chess offers salvation, “because every pawn can become a queen.” Ω

[David Edmonds is an award-winning radio feature maker at the BBC World Service. He studied at Oxford University, has a PhD in Philosophy from the Open University and has held fellowships at the universities of Chicago and Michigan. Edmonds is a chess patzer and, with John Eidinow, the author of Bobby Fischer Goes To War (2004).]

Copyright © 2009 Prospect

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Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Capital Idea O'The Day

This blogger may be facing a fiscal crisis. Reading the funny papers in today's Autin Fishwrap provided an inspiration: "Will Take Money Not To Blog." Can PayPal be induced to create an account for a blogger-cum-extortioner? Will this keep the blogger with a hand-lettered cardboard sign off the median at his nearest highway interchange? If this is a (fair & balanced) exhortation to stay tuned, so be it.

[x Non Sequitur]
Today's Toon (11/25/09)
By Wiley Miller

Click on image to enlarge. Ω

[(David) Wiley Miller studied art at Virginia Commonwealth University and worked for several educational film studios in Los Angeles before joining the Greensboro, N.C., News & Record as staff artist/editorial cartoonist in 1976. After a stint at the Santa Rosa Press Democrat in California, he created his first syndicated strip, "Fenton," in 1982. He returned to editorial cartooning three years later, joining the staff of the San Francisco Examiner. In 1988, Miller was named Best Editorial Cartoonist by the California Newspaper Publishers Association. He won the prestigious Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award for editorial cartooning in 1991. Also in 1991, Miller launched his popular "Non Sequitur" strip, eventually syndicated to 700 newspapers.]

Copyright © 2009 Wiley Miller

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We Gather Together & Wobegon Boy Asks Why?

Think a good thought for this blogger. Tomorrow, by dawn's early light, he sets off on a Thanksgiving journey in the belly of the beast: air travel from AUS (Austin) to IND (Naptown) with a change of planes in BWI (Bal'more). Think a good thought for this blogger as he negotiates the ordeal of being scanned, wanded, and herded from place to place by droves of TSA officials. If this is a (fair & balanced) travel nightmare for those poor souls awaiting this blogger's arrival, so be it.

[x Salon]
The Dinner Of All Dinners
By Garrison Keillor

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We now interrupt Mrs. Palin's book tour to bring you Thanksgiving, a grand old holiday, and we in the book business are thankful for her, that a busy woman who wanted to tell her story chose the medium of ink and paper between hard covers. Her tour is not about politics. It's about books.

Those big crowds waiting in the cold outside bookstores were looking forward to cozying up to her book and savoring the intense intimate pleasure of a memoir, the feeling that you and the author are close personal friends. You don't get that feeling from watching someone on TV; you get it from a book. Mrs. Palin's job was not to impress book reviewers or stake a claim to the Republican Party but to give pleasure to people who already love her, which evidently she did. Good for her.

And that's the challenge of Thanksgiving — to gather among our kin who know us a little too well and have an amiable occasion enjoyed equally by all, at which nobody is stabbed through the heart with a carving knife.

We're a mobile and over-caffeinated people, and at every family gathering, amid the ancient aroma of turkey and sage and squash and sweet potatoes and a few pounds of butter, you'll find some edgy individualists, someone who knows the true story of what happened on 9/11, the story that the mainstream media have suppressed. A tea party devotee or two. Someone who believes that yeast is the secret of happiness. People capable of harangues and diatribes, but nobody wants this.

The family liberals smile at the family wingnuts. The vegetarian daughter-in-law produces her tofu loaf, which looks as if a large animal such as a buffalo came by and dropped it hot and steaming on the plate. We don't comment on this. She believes that the treatment of turkeys is a moral blight on America, but she does not say so. The Unitarian cousin listens to the fervent Lutheran prayer and murmurs Amen. The Viking fans and the Packer fans sit side by side.

It is the dinner of all dinners, generous and comforting and completely predictable, and a true test of civility, and we do it in gratitude for the simple goodness of life. Our consumer society is all about need and craving, and politics is so much about complaint and resentment, and here is a day devoted to something else.

My family gathers in the house that Dad built in 1947, by the fireplace that Great-Uncle Alfred, a stonemason, built when he was 80. He lived to be 90, and whenever you saw him and Aunt Millie, they were holding hands. Joining us will be cousin Dorothy Bacon, who recently told me that my grandfather James, who died before my time, loved to read and even out in the field raking hay with a team of horses he had a book in his hand; that he was often seen kissing Grandma; and that every night, until he was very old, he carried her in his arms up the stairs to bed. Good to know these things.

In my day, we went outdoors after dessert and ran off our dinner and when it was dark, were allowed back in the house, and we flopped down on the floor and listened to Uncle Lew tell about the night their house burned down in Charles City, Iowa, and afterward watched "The Bell Telephone Hour" on television with Robert Merrill and Patrice Munsel singing "Dear Hearts and Gentle People," and then a horn honked in the driveway and my sister came down from upstairs where she'd been primping in the bathroom and Mother said, "Tell him he has to come inside and pick you up, he can't sit in the car and honk." And so the boy came in. Sheepish, tongue-tied, hair oiled and swirled around on top, he stood as close to the door as possible and we inspected him as a potential relative and thought, "Naw. She could do better."

I remember the urgency of that horn honking. It meant that Thanksgiving was over. The family that had gathered in a tight circle around the feast of tubers and turkey was now breaking up, in search of something finer. The call of the grown-up life. We all hear the honk and run away in hopes of finding a major romance and adventure and grandeur, and good luck with that, and meanwhile, life is good. Be grateful for it. Ω

[Garrison Keillor is an author, storyteller, humorist, and creator of the weekly radio show "A Prairie Home Companion." The show began in 1974 as a live variety show on Minnesota Public Radio. In the 1980s "A Prairie Home Companion" became a pop culture phenomenon, with millions of Americans listening to Keillor's folksy tales of life in the fictional Midwestern town of Lake Wobegon, where (in Keillor's words) "the women are strong, the men are good looking, and all of the children are above average." Keillor ended the show in 1987, and 1989 began a similar new radio show titled "American Radio Company of the Air." In 1993 he returned the show to its original name. Keillor also created the syndicated daily radio feature "A Writer's Almanac" in 1993. He has written for The New Yorker and is the author of several books, including Happy to Be Here (1990), Leaving Home (1992), Lake Wobegon Days (1995), and Good Poems for Hard Times (2005). Keillor's most recent books include a new Lake Wobegon novel, Liberty (2009) and 77 Love Sonnets (2009). His radio show inspired a 2006 movie, "A Prairie Home Companion," written by and starring Keillor and directed by Robert Altman. Keillor graduated (B.A., English) from the University of Minneosta in 1966. His signature sign-off on "The Writer's Almanac" is "Be well, do good work, and keep in touch."]

Copyright © 2009 Salon Media Group, Inc.

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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Enuretic Dumbos: Pi-(Double-Crooked-Letter) On 'Em!

Big, tough Dumbos! Afraid to bring KSM (Khalid Sheikh Mohammed) to federal court in the town so nice, they named it twice: New York, NY. Hell, if federal judge Julius Hoffman could gag Abby Hoffman and Jerry Rubin in the Chicago 8 trial in 1968, the federal judge in NYC can have KSM strapped to a waterboard. Liberty and justice (and waterboarding) for all is the name of the game. If this is (fair & balanced) hypocrisy, so be it.

[x Salon]
This Modern World — The Association Of Right-Wing Bedwetters Presents: "5 Extremely Compelling Reasons Not To Hold Terror Trials In NYC"
By Tom Tomorrow (Dan Perkins)

Click on image to enlarge. Ω

Tom Tomorrow/Dan Perkins

[Dan Perkins is an editorial cartoonist better known by the pen name "Tom Tomorrow". His weekly comic strip, "This Modern World," which comments on current events from a strong liberal perspective, appears regularly in approximately 150 papers across the U.S., as well as on Salon and Working for Change. The strip debuted in 1990 in SF Weekly.

Perkins, a long time resident of Brooklyn, New York, currently lives in Connecticut. He received the Robert F. Kennedy Award for Excellence in Journalism in both 1998 and 2002.

When he is not working on projects related to his comic strip, Perkins writes a daily political weblog, also entitled "This Modern World," which he began in December 2001.]

Copyright © 2009 Salon Media Group

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Copyright © 2009 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves

Roll Over, Music Man! Santa Claus The Scammer Has Come To Town

Marcy Shaffer is a national treasure. Her parodies are priceless and spot-on. She writes VERSUS parodies thanks to her professional writing experience that includes television, film, lyrics, verse and… musical parody. VERSUS is co-produced by Russ Meyer, a private equity veteran whose industry expertise includes financial services as well as entertainment. Shaffer is an attorney-cum-parodist (Roll over Stephan Pastis!) and her partner, Russ Meyer, received his MBA from Stanford University. If this is (fair & balanced) musical savagery, so be it.

"It's Beginning To Look A Lot More Riskless"
TO "It's Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas"
(Words And Music By Meredith Willson)
Parody Lyrics By Marcy Shaffer









[Gary Stockdale - Lead Vocal, Background Vocal
Angie Jarée - Background Vocal
Janis Liebhart - Background Vocal
Greg Hilfman - Music Director]

℗ © 2009 RMSWorks Lyrics © 2009 RMSWorks

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Monday, November 23, 2009

Roll Over, Henry Luce! Pax Americana = Pax Romana Byzantia!

Doom and gloom are all about us. Edward Gibbon started it all with his 3-volume The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1788). The British Empire of Gibbons' time is no more. Is the clock ticking on our own version of empire? If this is (fair & balanced) skepticism, so be it.

[x FP]
Take Me Back To Constantinople: How Byzantium, Not Rome, Can Help Preserve Pax Americana
By Edward Luttwak

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Economic crisis, mounting national debt, excessive foreign commitments — this is no way to run an empire. America needs serious strategic counseling. And fast. It has never been Rome, and to adopt its strategies no — its ruthless expansion of empire, domination of foreign peoples, and bone-crushing brand of total war — would only hasten America's decline. Better instead to look to the empire's eastern incarnation: Byzantium, which outlasted its Roman predecessor by eight centuries. It is the lessons of Byzantine grand strategy that America must rediscover today.

Fortunately, the Byzantines are far easier to learn from than the Romans, who left virtually no written legacy of their strategy and tactics, just textual fragments and one bookish compilation by Vegetius, who knew little about statecraft or war. The Byzantines, however, wrote it all down — their techniques of persuasion, intelligence gathering, strategic thinking, tactical doctrines, and operational methods. All of this is laid out clearly in a series of surviving Byzantine military manuals and a major guidebook on statecraft.

I've spent the past two decades poring over these texts to compile a study of Byzantine grand strategy. The United States would do well to heed the following seven lessons if it wishes to remain a great power:

  1. Avoid war by every possible means, in all possible circumstances, but always act as if war might start at any time. Train intensively and be ready for battle at all times — but do not be eager to fight. The highest purpose of combat readiness is to reduce the probability of having to fight.

  2. Gather intelligence on the enemy and his mentality, and monitor his actions continuously. Efforts to do so by all possible means might not be very productive, but they are seldom wasted.

  3. Campaign vigorously, both offensively and defensively, but avoid battles, especially large-scale battles, except in very favorable circumstances. Don't think like the Romans, who viewed persuasion as just an adjunct to force. Instead, employ force in the smallest possible doses to help persuade the persuadable and harm those not yet amenable to persuasion.

  4. Replace the battle of attrition and occupation of countries with maneuver warfare — lightning strikes and offensive raids to disrupt enemies, followed by rapid withdrawals. The object is not to destroy your enemies, because they can become tomorrow's allies. A multiplicity of enemies can be less of a threat than just one, so long as they can be persuaded to attack one another.

  5. Strive to end wars successfully by recruiting allies to change the balance of power. Diplomacy is even more important during war than peace. Reject, as the Byzantines did, the foolish aphorism that when the guns speak, diplomats fall silent. The most useful allies are those nearest to the enemy, for they know how best to fight his forces.

  6. Subversion is the cheapest path to victory. So cheap, in fact, as compared with the costs and risks of battle, that it must always be attempted, even with the most seemingly irreconcilable enemies. Remember: Even religious fanatics can be bribed, as the Byzantines were some of the first to discover, because zealots can be quite creative in inventing religious justifications for betraying their own cause ("since the ultimate victory of Islam is inevitable anyway…").

  7. When diplomacy and subversion are not enough and fighting is unavoidable, use methods and tactics that exploit enemy weaknesses, avoid consuming combat forces, and patiently whittle down the enemy's strength. This might require much time. But there is no urgency because as soon as one enemy is no more, another will surely take his place. All is constantly changing as rulers and nations rise and fall. Only the empire is eternal — if, that is, it does not exhaust itself. Ω
[Edward Luttwak is a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and author of The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire (2009). Luttwak received a B.A. from the London School of Economics and a Ph.D. from the Johns Hopkins University.]

Copyright © 2009 Foreign Policy (published by the Slate Group, A Division of WashingtonPost.Newsweek Interactive)

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Sunday, November 22, 2009

Balance Denial Syndrome: The Tranquilizing Effect Of Not Knowing

This blogger is a paragon of financial avoidance. In a corner of the room is a big filebox that contains all manner of financial papers and they just lie there a-mouldering in the box. If this is (fair & balanced) fiscal irresponsibility, so be it.

[x NY Fishwrap]
Avoidance By The Numbers
By Jacob Soll

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Among the reforms approved by the House Financial Services Committee on Thursday was an amendment allowing a systematic risk council to suggest new regulations on financial and corporate accounting. New regulations are all well and good, but why haven’t we been able to master the excellent rules of bookkeeping we’ve had for centuries? The answer may be as much a matter of psychology as economics: the fear of bad news often leads to bad accounting.

I myself was reduced to a nervous wreck last April trying to figure out my taxes, even though I had just finished writing a study of the history of accounting. As I waited in my accountant’s office, I realized why I had lost sleep the night before: for the first time in a year, I had to make a reckoning not just of my place in the financial meltdown, but also in my own economic universe; my successes, failures and ultimate weaknesses. I had spent too long off the books, and I couldn’t face it.

A 2005 study by Lloyds Trustee Savings Bank of Britain showed that accounting anxiety has led to “balance denial syndrome,” in which bank customers so fear being in the red that they systematically ignore their bank statements. It is both a consolation, but also a terrifying fact that those who are terrible at keeping accounts are not alone. Over the centuries, monarchs, merchants and housewives have all faced the same problems that companies like Lehman Brothers and A.I.G. confronted this past year — and too often, they have kept bad books and gone bankrupt.

Early pioneers of financial management recognized the inherent anxiety brought on by keeping account books. In the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, accountants received training in family firms that required monk-like self-discipline. In a 1494 treatise, Luca Pacioli of Venice first explained the basic principle of double-entry bookkeeping: the separate calculations of the sums of credits and debits had to equal the final account of capital. Pacioli described how merchants lived with the constant tension of having to record all the day’s transactions in a journal, and then rigorously put them into a ledger. Only a trained mathematician could do this, he warned, for it took mental stamina.

Pacioli’s work circulated widely in Europe in the 16th century. Nonetheless, merchants and governments were slow to adopt good accounting practices. In 1593, the Dutch mathematician Simon Stevin tried to teach Prince Maurice of Nassau the art of bookkeeping. Maurice revealed a rare glimpse of princely fallibility in asking why accounting was so difficult to understand.

Anxiety and fear often undermined the adoption of sound bookkeeping at the highest levels of government. Louis XIV’s famous finance minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, was the first professional accountant to take over the administration of a large state. In 1673, he designed a commerce law that required all merchants to keep double-entry books and to sign off on them in the presence of a state auditor.

Colbert also taught basic double-entry bookkeeping to his son, the Marquis de Seignelay, and to Louis XIV himself. In all cases he failed. The merchants resisted the government auditing their accounts. More revealing is that despite decades of rigorous training, Colbert’s son was unable to keep his account books in order. Given to fits of nervousness, Seignelay did not have the discipline — or the courage — of his father.

The Sun King eventually had the same reaction to keeping accounts. For 20 years, Colbert made miniature ledgers that Louis kept in his pockets. But as the building of Versailles and the maintenance of his army and navy during his wars against Holland and Spain strained the royal finances to the point of collapse, Louis stopped keeping the ledgers. He chose not to face his own poor financial management. By the time Louis died in 1715, public debt was nine times the annual royal revenue.

In the 17th century, Samuel Pepys, the secretary to the British Admiralty, wrote his famous diary every day while at the same sitting balancing his personal and state account books. They were related activities of the reckoning of each day, and Pepys, who regarded those who did not keep their own books as madmen, found catharsis in this virtuous and disciplined activity. Likewise, in The Gentleman Accomptant (1714), Roger North wrote that to keep well-balanced books, with the demands and satisfactions of absolute honesty, was to love life.

By the 18th century, families, even children, increasingly kept household diaries full of carefully detailed expenditures. Women often played the leading role, although many husbands insisted on signing off on their wives’ books. But just as financial strife often led to domestic strife, marital turmoil and personal drama could lead to bad and even fraudulent accounting. After all, household account entries, faithfully kept, could be a reminder of the deteriorating state of a family’s fortune, or of a family.

In 1868, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women illustrated how bookkeeping not only brought stress upon a poor couple, Meg and John, but also reflected larger problems in their marriage: “Till now she had done well, been prudent and exact, kept her little account books neatly, and showed them to him monthly, without fear. But that autumn the serpent got into Meg’s paradise, and tempted her, not with apples, but with dress.” Meg lived in real fear of the moment when John would find those books and discover her secret spending. It’s a precursor to the dread we now feel when an unwelcome credit card bill arrives, knowing that it will reveal too many impulse buys, too many irresponsible expenditures.

Over this past year, many have had to account for failing investments, real estate and 401(k)’s, as well as risky home loans and reckless credit card debt. But this meltdown has been more than an economic failure; it was brought on by our collective addiction to the thrill of unnecessary risk, to the frisson of financial anxiety, the tranquilizing effect of not knowing. It might be that the first step to balancing the books is finding the courage to face keeping them. Ω

[Jacob Soll, an associate professor of history at Rutgers University, is the author of The Information Master: Jean-Baptiste Colbert’s Secret State Intelligence System (2009). He received a BA from the University of Iowa, a Diplôme d'Études Approfondies from the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris, and a Ph.D. from Magdalene College, Cambridge. Soll is a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellow in 2009.]

Copyright © 2009 The New York Times Company

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Saturday, November 21, 2009

Dumbos, Teabaggers (& Their Ilk) Don't Need No Stinkin' Literature Courses!

This blogger's favorite undergraduate course was a team-taught course that actually was an American studies course — "Individualism in America." The mixture of readings in both history and literature made sense to this blogger. As an undergraduate, the blogger majored in history and minored in literature (English) and continued along that path in graduate studies leading to an MA and a PhD. In fact, this blogger's first publication was an essay, written in a literature course during his PhD-period, that had its origins in "Individualism in America." It would be wonderful if this blogger could claim that his career-long interest in both history and literature had made him healthy, wealthy, and wise. However, that interest has only given this blogger grist for his blog. Eartha Kitt once said: "I am learning all the time. The tombstone will be my diploma." That would be a fitting motto here. If this is (fair & balanced) philomathy, so be it.

[x American Scholar]
The Decline Of The English Department
By William M. Chace

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During the last four decades, a well-publicized shift in what undergraduate students prefer to study has taken place in American higher education. The number of young men and women majoring in English has dropped dramatically; the same is true of philosophy, foreign languages, art history, and kindred fields, including history. As someone who has taught in four university English departments over the last 40 years, I am dismayed by this shift, as are my colleagues here and there across the land. And because it is probably irreversible, it is important to attempt to sort out the reasons—the many reasons—for what has happened.

First the facts: while the study of English has become less popular among undergraduates, the study of business has risen to become the most popular major in the nation’s colleges and universities. With more than twice the majors of any other course of study, business has become the concentration of more than one in five American undergraduates. Here is how the numbers have changed from 1970/71 to 2003/04 (the last academic year with available figures):

English: from 7.6% of the majors to 3.9%
Foreign languages and literatures: from 2.5% to 1.3%
Philosophy and religious studies: from 0.9% to 0.7%
History: from 18.5% to 10.7%
Business: from 13.7% to 21.9%

In one generation, then, the numbers of those majoring in the humanities dropped from a total of 30 percent to a total of less than 16 percent; during that same generation, business majors climbed from 14 percent to 22 percent. Despite last year’s debacle on Wall Street, the humanities have not benefited; students are still wagering that business jobs will be there when the economy recovers.

What are the causes for this decline? There are several, but at the root is the failure of departments of English across the country to champion, with passion, the books they teach and to make a strong case to undergraduates that the knowledge of those books and the tradition in which they exist is a human good in and of itself. What departments have done instead is dismember the curriculum, drift away from the notion that historical chronology is important, and substitute for the books themselves a scattered array of secondary considerations (identity studies, abstruse theory, sexuality, film and popular culture). In so doing, they have distanced themselves from the young people interested in good books.

That, as I say, is the most serious cause of the decline in the number of humanities students. But it is not alone. In an educational collapse of this magnitude, other forces must also be at play. The first of these is the surging growth of public higher education and the relatively slower growth of private colleges and universities.

During the most recent period for which good figures are available (from 1972 to 2005), more young people entered the world of higher education than at any time in American history. Where did they go? Increasingly into public, not private, schools. In the space of that one generation, public colleges and universities wound up with more than 13 million students in their classrooms while private institutions enrolled about 4.5 million. Students in public schools tended toward majors in managerial, technical, and pre-professional fields while students in private schools pursued more traditional and less practical academic subjects.

Although many public institutions have had an interest in teaching the humanities, their prime role has always rested elsewhere: in engineering, research science, and the applied disciplines (agriculture, mining, viniculture, veterinary medicine, oceanography). By contrast, private schools have until now been the most secure home of the humanities. But today even some liberal arts colleges are offering fewer courses in the liberal arts and more courses that are “practical.” With their ascendancy, the presiding ethos of public institutions—fortified by the numbers of majors and faculty, and by the amounts of money involved—has come to exert a more and more powerful thrust in American higher education. The result? The humanities, losing the national numbers game, find themselves moving to the periphery of American higher education.

But were they ever at the center? The notion that the literary humanities in particular have been at the heart of American higher education is, I think, a mirage. I once thought so because of the great popularity of the study of literature during my undergraduate and graduate years. Yet the “glory years” of English and American literature turn out to have been brief. Before we regret the decline of the literary humanities, then, we must acknowledge how fleeting their place in the sun was.

In this country and in England, the study of English literature began in the latter part of the 19th century as an exercise in the scientific pursuit of philological research, and those who taught it subscribed to the notion that literature was best understood as a product of language. The discipline treated the poems and narratives of a particular place, the British Isles, as evidence of how the linguistic roots of that place—Germanic, Romance, and other—conditioned what had been set before us as “masterpieces.” The twin focus, then, was on the philological nature of the enterprise and the canon of great works to be studied in their historical evolution.

Professing Literature: An Institutional History, Gerald Graff’s impressive study of what happened next, shows that even criticism of that canon is not yet a century old: “Scholar and critic emerge as antithetical terms,” he writes, and “the gulf further widens between fact and value, investigation and appreciation, scientific specialization and general culture.” Yet neither side denied the existence of a canon or that its historical development could be studied.

The stability of these ideas in the postwar years, from the late 1940s until the early 1970s, permitted the spectacular growth in English departments. The number of English majors spurted up from 17,000 to 64,000 and the number of graduate students from 230 to 1,591. (As part of that spurt, I entered graduate school in 1961 and got my Ph.D. seven years later.) But by 1985/86, the number of undergraduate English majors had fallen back to 34,000, despite a hefty increase in total nationwide undergraduate enrollment. In the foreign languages, philosophy, and history, the story was the same: impressive growth followed by swift decline. The history of enrollments reveals, then, that the study of English and American literature enjoyed only a momentary glamour.

What was the appeal of English during those now long-ago days? For me, English as a way of understanding the world began at Haverford College, where I was an undergraduate in the late 1950s. The place was small, the classrooms plain, the students all intimidated boys, and the curriculum both straightforward and challenging. What we read forced us to think about the words on the page, their meaning, their ethical and psychological implications, and what we could contrive (in 500-word essays each week) to write about them. With the books in front of us, we were taught the skills of interpretation. Our tasks were difficult, the books (Emerson’s essays, David Copperfield, Shaw’s Major Barbara, the poetry of Emily Dickinson, and a dozen other works) were masterly, and our teacher possessed an authority it would have been “bootless” (his word) to question.

Studying English taught us how to write and think better, and to make articulate many of the inchoate impulses and confusions of our post-adolescent minds. We began to see, as we had not before, how such books could shape and refine our thinking. We began to understand why generations of people coming before us had kept them in libraries and bookstores and in classes such as ours. There was, we got to know, a tradition, a historical culture, that had been assembled around these books. Shakespeare had indeed made a difference—to people before us, now to us, and forever to the language of English-speaking people.

Finding pleasure in such reading, and indeed in majoring in English, was a declaration at the time that education was not at all about getting a job or securing one’s future. In comparison with the pre-professional ambitions that dominate the lives of American undergraduates today, the psychological condition of students of the time was defined by self-reflection, innocence, and a casual irresponsibility about what was coming next.

Also visible in the late 1940s and early 1950s were thousands of GIs returning from World War II with a desire to establish for themselves lives as similar as possible to those they imagined had been led by the college generation before their own. For these veterans, college implied security and tradition, a world unlike the one they had left behind in Europe and the Pacific. So they did what they thought one always did in college: study, reflect, and learn. They would reconnect, they thought, with the cultural traditions the war had been fought to defend. Thus a curriculum complete with “great books” and a pantheon of established authors went without question for those students, and it was reinforced for everybody else.

For those like me who immediately followed them in the 1950s and early 1960s, the centrality of the humanities to a liberal education was a settled matter. But by the end of the 1960s, everything was up for grabs and nothing was safe from negative and reductive analysis. Every form of anti-authoritarian energy—concerning sexual mores, race relations, the war in Vietnam, mind-altering drugs—was felt across the nation (I was at Berkeley, the epicenter of all such energies). Against such ferocious intensities, few elements of the cultural patterns of the preceding decades could stand. The long-term consequences of such a spilling-out of the old contents of what college meant reverberate today.

In addition to the long-term consequences, today there are stunning changes in the student population: there are more and more gifted and enterprising students coming from immigrant backgrounds, students with only slender connections to Western culture and to the assumption that the “great books” of England and the United States should enjoy a fixed centrality in the world. What was once the heart of the matter now seems provincial. Why throw yourself into a study of something not emblematic of the world but representative of a special national interest? As the campus reflects the cultural, racial, and religious complexities of the world around it, reading British and American literature looks more and more marginal. From a global perspective, the books look smaller.

But there are additional reasons for the drop in numbers of students concentrating in English and other subjects in the literary humanities. History, geography, and demography do not explain it all. Other forces, both external and internal, have been at work. The literary humanities and, in particular, English are in trouble for reasons beyond their control and for reasons of their own making. First, an obvious external cause: money. With the cost of a college degree surging upward during the last quarter century—tuition itself increasing far beyond any measure of inflation—and with consequent growth in loan debt after graduation, parents have become anxious about the relative earning power of a humanities degree. Their college-age children doubtless share such anxiety. When college costs were lower, anxiety could be kept at bay. (Berkeley in the early ’60s cost me about $100 a year, about $700 in today’s dollars.) Alexander W. Astin’s research tells us that in the mid-1960s, more than 80 percent of entering college freshmen reported that nothing was more important than “developing a meaningful philosophy of life.” Astin, director of the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, reports that “being very well off financially” was only an afterthought, one that fewer than 45 percent of those freshmen thought to be an essential goal. As the years went on, however, and as tuition shot up, the two traded places; by 1977, financial goals had surged past philosophical ones, and by the year 2001 more than 70 percent of undergraduate students had their eyes trained on financial realities, while only 40 percent were still wrestling with meaningful philosophies.

Off-campus, the consumer’s point of view about future earnings and economic security was a mirror image of on-campus thinking in the offices of deans, provosts, and presidents. I was in those offices, day in and day out, for 20 years, and can report that such officials are forever considering how to exploit available resources against ever-growing operating costs. As those costs grow, they create a paradox: the only way to bring in more money, over and above tuition income, is to employ more and more people to attract philanthropic donors and to assure the continuing flow of research dollars from governmental and other sources. Every administrator is complicit in the expanding number of necessary non-faculty employees—development officers, technical support staff, research assistants, lawyers attuned to federal regulations—and human resource personnel to handle the ever-growing numbers of just such new employees. I agree with historian Lynn Hunt’s description of the situation: “The university staff as a whole is getting bigger, but the relative presence of faculty, secretaries, and janitors is actually declining.” The faculty decline is, in particular, in the humanities, which bring in almost no outside income. Economists, chemists, biologists, psychologists, computer scientists, and almost everyone in the medical sciences win sponsored research, grants, and federal dollars. By and large, humanists don’t, and so they find themselves as direct employees of the institution, consuming money in salaries, pensions, and operating needs—not external money but institutional money.

The English department has one sturdy lifeline, however: it is responsible for teaching composition. While this duty is always advertised as an activity central to higher education, it is one devoid of dignity. Its instructors are among the lowest paid of any who hold forth in a classroom; most, though possessing doctoral degrees, are ineligible for tenure or promotion; their offices are often small and crowded; their scholarship is rarely considered worthy of comparison with “literary” scholarship. Their work, while crucial, is demeaned.

Despite sheltering this central educational service, English departments are regarded by those who manage the university treasury as more liability than asset. The presence of endowed “centers for the humanities,” the availability of grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), the MacArthur Foundation or the National Endowment for the Humanities, and others, ease in only small ways the financial crunch universities now endure. As John H. D’Arms, formerly the head of the ACLS, reported more than a decade ago, even the meager outside support conveyed to humanists is slowly drying up and the responsibility for their well-being is “being increasingly shifted to the colleges and universities and... they cannot, or will not, make up the losses from other sources.”

These, then, are some of the external causes of the decline of English: the rise of public education; the relative youth and instability (despite its apparent mature solidity) of English as a discipline; the impact of money; and the pressures upon departments within the modern university to attract financial resources rather than simply use them up. On all these scores, English has suffered. But the deeper explanation resides not in something that has happened to it, but in what it has done to itself.

English has become less and less coherent as a discipline and, worse, has come near exhaustion as a scholarly pursuit. English departments have not responded energetically and resourcefully to the situation surrounding them. While aware of their increasing marginality, English professors do not, on the whole, accept it. Reluctant to take a clear view of their circumstances—some of which are not under their control—they react by asserting grandiose claims while pursuing self-centered ends. Amid a chaos of curricular change, requirements dropped and added, new areas of study in competition with older ones, and a variety of critical approaches jostling against each other, many faculty members, instead of reconciling their differences and finding solid ground on which to stand together, have gone their separate ways. As they have departed, they have left behind disorder in their academic discipline. Unable to change history or rewrite economic reality, they might at least have kept their own house in order. But this they have not done.

The result—myriad pursuits, each heading away from any notion of a center—has prompted many thoughtful people to question what, indeed, the profession of literature amounts to. As long ago as 1982, the iconoclastic literary critic Frederick Crews, keenly attracted to exposing the moribund in intellectual life, announced that the study of English literature couldn’t decide if it was “a legitimate discipline or only a pastime.” He concluded that it was not so much a profession as a “comatose field.” Two decades later, in 2004, looking back over his shoulder, the intellectual historian and literary journalist Louis Menand told his fellow professors at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association something they already knew: while student enrollment in the humanities peaked around 1970, “it has been downhill” ever since. His verdict: “It may be that what has happened to the profession is not the consequence of social or philosophical changes, but simply the consequence of a tank now empty.” His homely metaphor pointed to the absence of genuinely new frontiers of knowledge and understanding for English professors to explore. This is exactly the opposite, he implied, of the prospects that natural scientists face: many frontiers to cross, much knowledge to be gained, real work to do.

Indeed, inquests abound. The annual meetings of the Modern Language Association have become somber opportunities for scholars to engage in painful rituals of self-diagnosis and confessions of despair. In 2006, Marjorie Perloff, then president of the organization and herself a productive and learned critic, admonished her colleagues that, unlike other members of the university community, they might well have been plying their trade without proper credentials: “Whereas economists or physicists, geologists or climatologists, physicians or lawyers must master a body of knowledge before they can even think of being licensed to practice,” she said, “we literary scholars, it is tacitly assumed, have no definable expertise.”

Perhaps the most telling sign of the near bankruptcy of the discipline is the silence from within its ranks. In the face of one skeptical and disenchanted critique after another, no one has come forward in years to assert that the study of English (or comparative literature or similar undertakings in other languages) is coherent, does have self-limiting boundaries, and can be described as this but not that.

Such silence strongly suggests a complicity of understanding, with the practitioners in agreement that to teach English today is to do, intellectually, what one pleases. No sense of duty remains toward works of English or American literature; amateur sociology or anthropology or philosophy or comic books or studies of trauma among soldiers or survivors of the Holocaust will do. You need not even believe that works of literature have intelligible meaning; you can announce that they bear no relationship at all to the world beyond the text. Nor do you need to believe that literary history is helpful in understanding the books you teach; history itself can be shucked aside as misleading, irrelevant, or even unknowable. In short, there are few, if any, fixed rules or operating principles to which those teaching English and American literature are obliged to conform. With everything on the table, and with foundational principles abandoned, everyone is free, in the classroom or in prose, to exercise intellectual laissez-faire in the largest possible way—I won’t interfere with what you do and am happy to see that you will return the favor. Yet all around them a rich literature exists, extraordinary books to be taught to younger minds.

Consider the English department at Harvard University. It has now agreed to remove its survey of English literature for undergraduates, replacing it and much else with four new “affinity groups”—“Arrivals,” “Poets,” “Diffusions,” and “Shakespeares.” The first would examine outside influences on English literature; the second would look at whatever poets the given instructor would select; the third would study various writings (again, picked by the given instructor) resulting from the spread of English around the globe; and the final grouping would direct attention to Shakespeare and his contemporaries.

Daniel Donoghue, the department’s director of undergraduate studies, told The Harvard Crimson last December that “our approach was to start with a completely clean slate.” And Harvard’s well-known Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt also told the Crimson that the substance of the old survey will “trickle down to students through the professors themselves who, after all, specialize in each of these areas of English literature.” But under the proposal, there would be no one book, or family of books, that every English major at Harvard would have read by the time he or she graduates. The direction to which Harvard would lead its students in this “clean slate” or “trickle down” experiment is to suspend literary history, thrusting into the hands of undergraduates the job of cobbling together intellectual coherence for themselves. Greenblatt puts it this way: students should craft their own literary “journeys.” The professors might have little idea of where those journeys might lead, or how their paths might become errant. There will be no common destination.

As Harvard goes, so often go the nation’s other colleges and universities. Those who once strove to give order to the curriculum will have learned, from Harvard, that terms like core knowledge and foundational experience only trigger acrimony, turf protection, and faculty mutinies. No one has the stomach anymore to refight the Western culture wars. Let the students find their own way to knowledge.

For me, this turn of events has proven anything but happy or liberating. I have long wanted to believe that I am a member of a profession, a discipline to which I could, if fortunate, add my knowledge and skill. I have wanted to believe that this discipline had certain borders and limitations and that there were essential things to know, to preserve, and to pass on. But it turns out that everything now is porous, hazy, and open to never-ending improvisation, cancellation, and rupture; the “clean slates” are endlessly forthcoming. Fads come and go; theories appear with immense fanfare only soon to be jettisoned as bankrupt and déclassé. The caravan, always moving on, travels light because of what it leaves behind.

Meanwhile, undergraduates have become aware of this turmoil surrounding them in classrooms, hallways, and coffee lounges. They see what is happening to students only a few years older than themselves—the graduate students they encounter as teaching assistants, freshman instructors, or “acting assistant professors.” These older students reveal to them a desolate scene of high career hopes soon withered, much study, little money, and heavy indebtedness. In English, the average number of years spent earning a doctoral degree is almost 11. After passing that milestone, only half of new Ph.D.’s find teaching jobs, the number of new positions having declined over the last year by more than 20 percent; many of those jobs are part-time or come with no possibility of tenure. News like that, moving through student networks, can be matched against, at least until recently, the reputed earning power of recent graduates of business schools, law schools, and medical schools. The comparison is akin to what young people growing up in Rust Belt cities are forced to see: the work isn’t here anymore; our technology is obsolete.

I still teach, and do so with a veteran’s pride in what I know and what I hope I can give. My classrooms are, I hope, bright and sunny places where we can spend good time with Joyce’s Ulysses or Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. But I know what some of my students sense, that what we do now faces an array of problems, any one of which might prove surmountable, but which together amount to an enervating spectacle. Fewer and fewer undergraduates are showing up in classrooms, mine and everyone else’s; the pleasure of undergraduate reading is everywhere blighted by worries about money and career; university administrators are more likely to classify “literary types” as budgetary liabilities than as assets; the disciplines we teach are in a free fall, as ideology, ethnicity, theory, gender, sexuality, and old-fashioned “close reading” spin away from any center of professional consensus about joint purposes; and the youngest would-be professionals, shrinking in number, stare at diminished job prospects.

It would be a pleasure to map a way out of this academic dead end. First, several of my colleagues around the country have called for a return to the aesthetic wellsprings of literature, the rock-solid fact, often neglected, that it can indeed amuse, delight, and educate. They urge the teaching of English, or French, or Russian literature, and the like, in terms of the intrinsic value of the works themselves, in all their range and multiplicity, as well-crafted and appealing artifacts of human wisdom. Second, we should redefine our own standards for granting tenure, placing more emphasis on the classroom and less on published research, and we should prepare to contest our decisions with administrators whose science-based model is not an appropriate means of evaluation. Released from the obligation to deliver research results in the form of little-read monographs and articles, humanists could then resolve to spend their time teaching what they love to students glad to learn. If they wanted to publish, they could do so—at almost no cost—on the Internet, and like-minded colleagues could rapidly share the results of such research and speculation. Most important, the luxury of reading could be welcomed back. I want to believe in what they say.

I have also wanted to believe that English and American literature constitutes a subject of study that is historically coherent and shaped by the intrinsic design of its own making. The causes giving it that shape can be analyzed, as can the merit and integrity of each of the achievements within it. And students, without whose energetic presence the study will wither, can be attracted to an activity—partly aesthetic and partly detective-like—in which they can participate along with teachers who bring enthusiasm to the work at hand. Like young scientists teaming together with older scientists at the same workbench, they can be made to feel that what they are doing makes sense, is shared by others, and will result in knowledge worth having. Perhaps they, the youngest generation, can labor with their teachers in putting together the house that has forfeited its sense of order. If they do, they can graduate with the knowledge that they possess something: a fundamental awareness of how a certain powerful literature was created over time, how its parts fit together, and how the process of creation has been renewed and changed through the centuries.

Some of their detective work could involve topics of great current interest—the role of race or gender or sexuality in the making of a work. But the focus would or should be on the books, not on the theories they can be made to support. English departments need not refight the Western culture wars. But they need to fight their own book wars. They must agree on which texts to teach and argue out the choices and the principles of making them if they are to claim the respect due a department of study.

They can also convert what many of them now consider a liability and a second-rate activity into a sizable asset. They can teach their students to write well, to use rhetoric. They should place their courses in composition and rhetoric at the forefront of their activities. They should announce that the teaching of composition is a skill their instructors have mastered and that students majoring in English will be certified, upon graduation, as possessing rigorously tested competence in prose expression. Those students will thus carry with them, into employment interviews or into further educational training, a proficiency everywhere respected but too often lacking among college graduates.

If nothing is done to put an end to the process of disintegration, the numbers will continue in a steady downward spiral. More and more of the teaching jobs in the humanities will be occupied by untenured part-timers (in English, it is now one in six). But the good news is that certain forms of intellectual history will still be written and will still be accessible to ordinary readers. Shakespeare’s plays will still be performed, even if largely unsponsored by departments of English. Literary biography will still command an appreciative readership. The better private institutions, aware of noblesse oblige, will prove kinder than large public institutions to the literary humanities, but even this solicitude will have its limits.

The study of literature will then take on the profile now held, with moderate dignity, by the study of the classics, Greek and Latin. For those of us who care about literature and teaching, this is a depressing prospect, but not everyone will share the sense of loss. As the Auden poem about another failure has it, “the expensive delicate ship that must have seen / Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky, / had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.”

But we can, we must, do better. At stake are the books themselves and what they can mean to the young. Yes, it is just a literary tradition. That’s all. But without such traditions, civil societies have no compass to guide them. That boy falling out of the sky is not to be neglected. Ω

[William M. Chace has taught at Berkeley, Stanford, Wesleyan, and Emory, and served as president of the last two. Chace holds a B.A. from Haverford College (1961) and master’s (1963) and doctoral (1968) degrees in literature from the University of California at Berkeley. He is the author of 100 Semesters: My Adventures as Student, Professor, and University President, and What I Learned Along the Way (2006).]

Copyright © 2009 The American Scholar

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Copyright © 2009 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves