Monday, January 31, 2011

Daniel Bell — Cultural Conservative, Political Liberal, & Economic Socialist — RIP

On January 25, 2011, Daniel Bell died in Cambridge, MA at age 91. His contributions and influence were wide and varied. [This blogger's favorite book by Daniel Bell was The Radical Right 3e (1963, 1997, 2001) because the blogger loves Dumbos and Teabaggers. Not!] If this was a (fair & balanced) complex life, so be it.

[x Cronk Review]
Daniel Bell (1919-2011)
By Kevin Mattson

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In the spring of 1979, shocked by polling that showed Americans deeply distrustful of their government, Jimmy Carter summoned prominent intellectuals for a dinner. Over lamb chops and asparagus, Daniel Bell, with other guests, discussed with the president the renewal of religious faith, the difference between "needs" and "wants," the loss of civitas, and the language of public compact. The president, who speed-read Bell's The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (1976) , included the sociologist's ideas—about "wants" perpetuated by consumer culture and the covenant tradition—in his famous "malaise" speech of July 15, 1979.

Such was Daniel Bell. He had ideas as big as their influence. He belonged to an older generation of nonspecialized writers, the "New York intellectuals," or, when we're in a more nostalgic and self-lacerating mode, "public intellectuals." A professional sociologist, yes, but who never completed a Ph.D. program and who read literature and philosophy more than statistical studies ("I specialize in generalizations," he told an early instructor).

I just reread "Technology, Nature, and Society" in The Winding Passage (1980) and found references to Marx, Hegel, ancient Greek philosophers, Prometheus, Aeschylus, Galileo, Descartes, Arthur Koestler, and Thomas Aquinas, all in about seven pages. Bell was like Max Weber or Thorstein Veblen (both sociologists he admired), posing big questions about character, politics, and economic organization. He was on a par with Talcott Parsons (except that Bell could write clearly) and C. Wright Mills (whom Bell despised, in part because he deemed Mills's sociology of power vulgar and reductionist). Like David Riesman, whom he admired, Bell wrote sociology for general readers but never descended into the superficial pop sociology of William H. Whyte, Tom Wolfe, or David Brooks.

Bell began his career, which eventually included teaching at major Ivy League institutions (Chicago, Columbia, and Harvard), as a kid socialist on the streets of the Lower East Side of Manhattan. In 1932, when 13, he joined the Young People's Socialist League. He learned to argue on city soap boxes and then in the noisy lunch alcoves of City College of New York, where Trotskyists screamed at Stalinists during the 1930s and 1940s.

If his first vocation was socialist agitator, his second was journalist. He spent the war years at The New Leader (during which time he married Pearl Kazin, sister of the literary critic, Alfred) and wrote for the flitty Politics editor Dwight Macdonald. He dissected, as Macdonald's biographer put it, "a liberal, monopolistic, corporate state that absorbed labor into its orbit and ran an economy to serve the interests of... international firms." He started a book from these essays. Then, as he explained later, "having written about 150 pages... I thought, What do I know about this? Who am I kidding? This is silly. ...I abandoned it." The act reflected Bell's intellectual humility and his desire to transcend clich├ęd radicalism.

About 15 years later, Bell would write a book that showed how he could, during the next two decades, define and swim with major intellectual currents. He was not the first to use the phrase "end of ideology," but he codified it in a book in 1960. He heard the phrase in meetings of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, the international group of writers and artists whom he worked with who were combating Soviet Communism in Western Europe. The End of Ideology assembled punchy essays, "written for audiences not specialized but educated." That was Bell's forte, as it was many New York intellectuals'. The End of Ideology (1988, 2000) ranged from the "discontent" of working in bureaucratic organizations, crime in America, and "status" politics.

But the book will mostly be remembered for its rejection of chiliastic, utopian politics on the left. Bell joined autobiography with observation: "The ideologist... wants to live at some extreme, and criticizes the ordinary man for failing to live at the level of grandeur." Here was a foreshadowing of student radicals about to hit the scene (Tom Hayden, in fact, visited Bell for advice around this time). "What gives ideology its force," Bell went on, "is its passion," as well its danger. He hoped as Americans entered the placid 1950s that they might develop a politics of "pragmatic give-and-take." Like other writers who announced a "consensus" during the 1950s, Bell fudged whether his was a normative or empirical argument. He talked of "a rough consensus among intellectuals on political issues: the acceptance of the Welfare State; ...a system of mixed economy and of political pluralism." Rereading those words today, I remembered another of Bell's favorite judgments: "Nonsense." He was more accurate in a book of essays that he edited, The Radical Right (1963, 1997, 2001), where he talked about the populist passions swirling through Joseph McCarthy's followers and foresaw, knowingly or not, the passions of student New Leftists who would take over his own institution, Columbia University, in 1968.

From 1965 to 1973, Bell co-edited The Public Interest with Irving Kristol, an association that some believed symbolized a drift toward neoconservatism. But Bell really drifted toward his own thinking about a "postindustrial society," a concept that animated sociological thinking throughout the 1960s and 1970s. "In capitalist society, the axial institution has been private property and in the postindustrial society it is the centrality of theoretical knowledge," Bell wrote. He explored ways education and professional training worked as a new "axis" of power (a term he loved) and how technocrats and wonks gained power. Like Veblen before him, Bell rejected Marxism for ignoring the pluralities of power operating in modern (and postmodern) society.

The culmination of Bell's life work came in 1976 with The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. Here was a book that nailed the ethos of the 1970s while offering insights about the nature of postmodern capitalism. Bell analyzed the "disjuncture of the realms," especially between consumption and work. The Protestant work ethic Weber analyzed years ago still operated, except in leisure where hedonism dominated.

Consider the popular movie "Saturday Night Fever," released one year after Bell's book: John Travolta's character works at a hardware store by day but lives for disco at night. Capitalism had destroyed the postponement of gratification. Bell explained, "The rise of a hip-drug-rock culture on the popular level ...undermines the social structure itself by striking at the motivational and the psychic-reward system which has sustained it." Unlike other neoconservatives who had nothing but good to say about capitalism, Bell believed capitalism was kicking out the legs under its own table. He took his cultural conservatism seriously but joined it to his liberalism in politics and socialism in economics.

That too was Daniel Bell: a man who thought big and embraced complexity and nuance at his core. He followed ideas where they led him. He was as large as the contradictions and multitudes he held within his own mind. And for that and much more, he will be missed. Ω

[Kevin Mattson is the Connor Study Professor of Contemporary History at Ohio University and teaches American intellectual history there. His most recent book is What the Heck Are You Up to, Mr. President?": Jimmy Carter, America's "Malaise," and the Speech That Should Have Changed the Country (2009). Mattson received his B.A. from the New School and his Ph.D. from the University of Rochester.]

Copyright © 2011 The Chronicle of Higher Education

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Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Dumbos Have Given Us "The Most Pernicious Fiscal Doctrine In History"!!!

The Dumbo geniuses in the Texas Legislature implemented huge tax cuts in 2005 and now — in 2011 — the chickens have come home to roost. Here in the capital of Texas, a city that proclaims "Keep Austin Weird," the Austin school board is entertaining the closure of more than a dozen (mostly elementary) schools and the firing of nearly 500 teachers and librarians. Why? The Texas Legislative Budget Board has ordained a draconian budget cut for all public schools in the Lone Star State. Thanks to the tax cuts in 2005, there is a budget deficit ($25B) that resembles a fiscal tsunami. The Dumbo/Teabagger ideologues advocate "STB" — "Starving The Beast." In this wacko version of reality, "The Beast" is the provider of public services — i.e., any form of government. Most Dumbos and their Teabagger brethren hate public schools because of religious zealotry and racism. Beyond public education, the Dumbos and Teabaggers hate the idea that public services go to them, not us. If this is (fair & balanced) mass psychosis, so be it.

[x Forbes]
Tax Cuts And "Starving The Beast"
By Bruce Bartlett

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I believe that to a large extent our current budgetary problems stem from the widespread adoption of an idea by Republicans in the 1970s called "starve the beast." It says that the best, perhaps only, way of reducing government spending is by reducing taxes. While a plausible strategy at the time it was formulated, STB became a substitute for serious budget control efforts, reduced the political cost of deficits, encouraged fiscally irresponsible tax cutting and ultimately made both spending and deficits larger.

Once upon a time Republicans thought that budget deficits were bad, that it was immoral to live for the present and pass the debt onto our children. Until the 1970s they were consistent in opposing both expansions of spending and tax cuts that were not financed with tax increases or spending cuts. Republicans also thought that deficits had a cost over and above the spending that they financed and that it was possible for this cost to be so high that tax increases were justified if spending could not be cut.

Dwight Eisenhower kept in place the high Korean War tax rates throughout his presidency, which is partly why the national debt fell from 74.3% of gross domestic product to 56% on his watch. Most Republicans in the House of Representatives voted against the Kennedy tax cut in 1963. Richard Nixon supported extension of the Vietnam War surtax instituted by Lyndon Johnson, even though he campaigned against it. And Gerald Ford opposed a permanent tax cut in 1974 because he feared its long-term impact on the deficit.

By 1977, however, Jack Kemp, Dave Stockman and a few other House Republicans concluded that the economy was desperately in need of a permanent tax rate reduction. Kemp believed that such a tax cut would so expand the economy that the revenue loss would be minimal. He also thought that much spending was driven by slow economic growth—welfare, unemployment benefits and so on—that would fall automatically if growth increased.

But the Republican Party's economic gurus—Alan Greenspan and Herb Stein, in particular—were not comfortable supporting a tax cut without stronger assurances that the deficit would not increase too much. At a time when inflation was our biggest national problem their concerns were not unreasonable.

After enactment of California's Proposition 13—a big property tax cut with no offsetting spending cuts or tax increases—on June 6, 1978, there was an immediate change in attitude among Republican economists who were previously skeptical of a permanent cut in federal income tax rates. They could see that a tax revolt was in the making and that Republicans could very possibly ride it all the way back into the White House in 1980.

On July 14, 1978, a few weeks after the Prop. 13 vote, the Senate Finance Committee held a hearing on the Kemp-Roth tax bill, which would have cut all federal income tax rates by about one-third. A key witness was Greenspan, who had recently served as chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers and was undoubtedly the most respected business economist in the United States. He was the first Republican to articulate what came to be called "starve the beast" theory.

Said Greenspan to the committee, "Let us remember that the basic purpose of any tax cut program in today's environment is to reduce the momentum of expenditure growth by restraining the amount of revenue available and trust that there is a political limit to deficit spending."

Citing Greenspan's testimony, conservative columnist George Will endorsed Kemp-Roth and STB in a column on July 27, 1978. "The focus of the fight to restrain government has shifted from limiting government spending to limiting government receipts," he reported.

On August 7, 1978, economist Milton Friedman added his powerful voice to the discussion. Writing in Newsweek magazine, he said, "the only effective way to restrain government spending is by limiting government's explicit tax revenue—just as a limited income is the only effective restraint on any individual's or family's spending."

By 1981 STB was well-established Republican doctrine. In his first major address on the economy as president on Feb. 5, Ronald Reagan articulated the idea perfectly. As he told a nationwide audience that night, "Over the past decades we've talked of curtailing spending so that we can then lower the tax burden. ...But there were always those who told us that taxes couldn't be cut until spending was reduced. Well, you know, we can lecture our children about extravagance until we run out of voice and breath. Or we can cure their extravagance by simply reducing their allowance."

Unfortunately there is no evidence that the big 1981 tax cut enacted by Reagan did anything whatsoever to restrain spending. Federal outlays rose from 21.7% of GDP in 1980 to 23.5% in 1983, before falling back to 21.3% of GDP by the time he left office.

Rather than view this as refutation of starve the beast theory, however, Republicans concluded that Reagan's true mistake was acquiescing to tax increases almost every year from 1982 to 1988. By the end of his presidency, Reagan signed into law tax increases that took back half the 1981 tax cut. His hand-picked successor, George H.W. Bush, compounded the error, Republicans believe, by supporting a tax increase in 1990.

When Bill Clinton became president in 1993, one of his first acts in office was to push through Congress—with no Republican support—a big tax increase. Starve the beast theory predicted a big increase in spending as a consequence. But in fact, federal outlays fell from 22.1% of GDP in 1992 to 18.2% of GDP by the time Clinton left office.

Although all of evidence of the previous 20 years clearly refuted starve the beast theory, George W. Bush was an enthusiastic supporter, using it to justify liquidation of the budget surpluses he inherited from Clinton on massive tax cuts year after year. Bush called them "a fiscal straightjacket for Congress" that would prevent an increase in spending. Of course nothing of the kind occurred. Spending rose throughout his administration to 20.7% of GDP in 2008.

Nevertheless STB remains a critical part of Republican dogma. On April 8 Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., told right-wing talk show host Sean Hannity that the Republican response to health care reform would be to "starve the beast" by refusing to fund it. On April 14 Sarah Palin begged her followers in Boston to "please starve the beast" by resisting any tax increase, no matter how large the budget deficit.

Despite its continuing popularity among Republican politicians, at least a few conservative intellectuals are starting to have misgivings about STB. In 2005 free-market economist Arnold Kling admitted he had been wrong. "Cutting taxes did not help to reduce the size of government," he conceded.

For some years Bill Niskanen of the libertarian Cato Institute has argued that STB actually increased spending and made deficits worse. His argument is that the cost of spending is ultimately the taxes that will have to be raised to pay for it. Thus fear of future tax increases was the principal brake on spending until STB came along. By eliminating tax increases as a necessary consequence of deficits, it also reduced the implicit cost of spending. Thus, ironically, STB led to higher spending rather than lower spending as the theory posits.

In the latest study of STB, political scientist Michael New of the University of Alabama confirms Niskanen's analysis. "Revenue reductions by themselves are not an effective mechanism for limiting expenditure growth," New concluded. "The evidence suggests that lower levels of federal revenue may actually lead to greater increases in spending."

In effect STB became a substitute for spending restraint among Republicans. They talked themselves into believing that cutting taxes was the only thing necessary to control the size of government. Thus, rather than being a means to an end—the end being lower spending—tax cuts became an end in themselves, completely disconnected from any meaningful effort to reduce spending or deficits.

Starve the beast was a theory that seemed plausible when it was first formulated. But more than 30 years later it must be pronounced a total failure. There is not one iota of empirical evidence that it works the way it was supposed to, and there is growing evidence that its impact has been perverse—raising spending and making deficits worse. In short, STB is a completely bankrupt notion that belongs in the museum of discredited ideas, along with things like alchemy. Ω

[Bruce Bartlett is a former Treasury Department economist and the author of Reaganomics: Supply-Side Economics in Action and The New American Economy: The Failure of Reaganomics and a New Way Forward. Bartlett was educated at Rutgers University (B.A.) and Georgetown University (M.A.).]

Copyright © 2010 Forbes.com

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Saturday, January 29, 2011

This Blog Is Still (!) Stylin'

Roll over Strunk & White. Roll over, William Zinsser. Roll over, John Trimble. Make way for Stan (The Man Unusual) Fish! Yet another style manual has rolled out: How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One (2011), thanks to Professor Fish. Jonathan Swift said it best in 1721: "Proper words in proper places make the true definiton of style." If this is (fair & balanced) pithiness, so be it.

[x FT]
The Art Of Good Writing
By Adam Haslett

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In 1919, the young EB White, future New Yorker writer and author of Charlotte’s Web, took a class at Cornell University with a drill sergeant of an English professor named William Strunk Jr. Strunk assigned his self-published manual on composition entitled The Elements of Style, a 43-page list of rules of usage, principles of style and commonly misused words. It was a brief for brevity. “Vigorous writing is concise,” Strunk wrote. “When a sentence is made stronger, it usually becomes shorter.” Half a century later, when preparing his old professor’s manuscript for publication, White added an essay of his own underlining the argument for concision in moral terms. “Do not overwrite,” he instructed. “Rich, ornate prose is hard to digest, generally unwholesome, and sometimes nauseating.” Strunk & White, as the combined work came to be known, was issued in 1959 and went on to become a defining American statement of what constituted good writing, with 10m copies sold, and counting. Its final rule summoned the whole: “Prefer the standard to the offbeat.”

Though never explicitly political, The Elements of Style is unmistakably a product of its time. Its calls for “vigour” and “toughness” in language, its analogy of sentences to smoothly functioning machines, its distrust of vernacular and foreign language phrases all conform to that disciplined, buttoned-down and most self-assured stretch of the American century from the armistice through the height of the cold war. A time before race riots, feminism and the collapse of the gold standard. It is a book full of sound advice addressed to a class of all-male Ivy-Leaguers wearing neckties and with neatly parted hair. This, of course, is part of its continuing appeal. It is spoken in the voice of unquestioned authority in a world where that no longer exists. As Lorin Stein, the new editor of the celebrated literary magazine The Paris Review, recently put it to me: “It’s like a national superego.” And when it comes to an activity as variable, difficult and ultimately ungovernable as writing sentences, the allure of rules that dictate brevity and concreteness is enduring.

The trouble with the book isn’t the rules themselves, which the authors are sage enough to recognise “the best writers sometimes disregard”, but the knock-on effect that their bias for plain statement has tended to have not only on expositional but literary prose. In this, admittedly, Strunk & White had a few assists, in particular Hemingway. If the history of the American sentence were a John Ford movie, its second act would conclude with the young Ernest walking into a saloon, finding an etiolated Henry James slumped at the bar in a haze of indecision, and shooting him dead. The terse, declarative sentence in all its masculine hardness routed the passive involutions of a higher, denser style. (James, from "The Altar of the Dead": “He had a mortal dislike, poor Stransom, to lean anniversaries, and loved them still less when they made a pretence of a figure;” Hemingway, from "A Way You’ll Never Be": “These were the new dead and no one had bothered with anything but their pockets.”) As a result, pared-down prose of the sort editor Gordon Lish would later encourage in Raymond Carver became our default “realism”. This is a real loss, not because we necessarily need more Jamesian novels but because too often the instruction to “omit needless words” (Rule 17) leads young writers to be cautious and dull; minimalist style becomes minimalist thought, and that is a problem.

. . .

This question of how forms of writing produce forms of thought is one that the literary critic and legal scholar Stanley Fish has been wrestling with most of his career. He first came to prominence in the late 1970s with his theory of “interpretative communities”. This held that all readings of literary texts are inescapably bound up with the cultural assumptions of readers, an uncontroversial proposition now but one that quickly earned him the sloppy epithet of “relativist”. In the late 1980s and early 1990s he turned the Duke University English department into the headquarters of the then burgeoning “theory” industry before, in 1999, surprising the academic world by moving to the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he set himself the task of trying to renovate undergraduate education in basic skills like writing. Though he doesn’t mention that experience in his new book, How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One (2011), it’s not far off stage. The problem with Strunk & White, in Fish’s view, is that “they assume a level of knowledge and understanding only some of their readers will have attained,” that is, the Cornell kids whose secondary education did at least a halfway decent job of teaching them the basics.

Fish’s aim is to offer a guide to sentence craft and appreciation that is both deeper and more democratic. What, at base, is a sentence? he asks, and then goes on to argue that the standard answer based in parts of speech and rules of grammar teaches students “nothing about how to write”. Instead, we should be examining the “logical relationships” within different sentence forms to see how they organise the world. His argument is that you can learn to write and later become a good writer by understanding and imitating these forms from many different styles. Thus, if you’re drawn to Jonathan Swift’s biting satire in the sentence, “Last week I saw a woman flayed, and you will hardly believe how much it altered her person for the worse,” then, Fish advises, “Put together two mildly affirmative assertions, the second of which reacts to the first in a way that is absurdly inadequate.” He offers, “Yesterday I saw a man electrocuted and it really was surprising how quiet he became.” Lame, and hardly Swift, as Fish is the first to admit, but identifying the logical structure does specify how satire functions at the level of the sentence and, if you want to employ the form, that’s a good thing to know.

Fish is a sentence connoisseur who describes his enthusiasm as akin to a sports fan’s love of highlights, and relishes the craft of everyone from the endlessly refined Victorian critic Walter Pater (“To such a tremulous wisp constantly reforming itself on the stream, to a single sharp impression, with a sense of it, a relic more or less fleeting, of such moments gone by, what is real in our lives fines itself down”) to Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia (“Interior decorating is a rock-hard science compared to psychology practised by amateurs”). You won’t come away with dictum such as, “Avoid the use of qualifiers” (Sec V, Rule 8, Strunk & White) but Fish’s catholic taste in prose offers a far richer introduction to the capacities of English language sentences.

Why is this important? Because the form and rhythm of sentences communicates as much meaning as their factual content, whether we’re conscious of it or not. In 1863, when General Grant took the city of Vicksburg, Mississippi, the last hindrance to free passage of Union supplies along the river, President Lincoln wrote in a letter to be read at a public meeting: “The father of waters again goes unvexed to the sea.” It’s a poem of a sentence, “The father of waters” and “unvexed to the sea” perfectly balanced on the unexpected pivot of “again goes” rather than “goes again”, and all in the service of a metaphor that figures the Union as an inevitable force and the Confederacy as a blight on nature, without mentioning either. If cadence had no content, “Union supplies lines are now clear” would have the same power. And what is obvious in rhetoric is true in literature, as well.

Take the first sentence of David Foster Wallace’s story, “The Depressed Person”: “The depressed person was in terrible and unceasing emotional pain, and the impossibility of sharing or articulating this pain was itself a component of the pain and a contributing factor in its essential horror.” By mixing heightened feeling and unrelenting repetition (“pain”, “pain”, “pain”) with a Latinate, clinically declarative voice (“component”, “contributing factor”), Wallace delivers his readers right where he wants them: inside the hellish disconnect between psychic pain and the modern means of describing it. The rhythm of the sentence is perfectly matched to its positive content. Indeed, from a writer’s point of view the two aren’t separate. If we could separate meaning from sound, we’d read plot summaries rather than novels.

Wallace’s anxious, perseverating sentences are arguably the most innovative in recent American literature. But take a writer who couldn’t be further from his self-conscious showmanship – William Trevor – and listen to a sentence early in his story “A Day.” “It was in France, in the Hotel St-Georges during their September holiday seven years ago, that Mrs. Lethwes found out about her husband’s other woman.” Here, the barely perceptible aural effect is all about sequence. Mrs Lethwes may be the subject of the sentence but Trevor weighs her down under the qualifying weight of time before she ever appears to then discover her fate. He does this over and over in the story. The reader may never notice it but when we talk about Trevor’s elegiac tone, this is what we mean. Not simply that he writes sad stories but that the pathology of his characters has been worked down in to the rhythm of his sentences.

That ability — to graft theme into syntax — is what makes great writing a pleasure to listen to. The German expat novelist, WG Sebald, became a literary hero for his unclassifiable books The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn and Austerlitz not long before his early death 10 years ago. He offers a splendid example of what Fish calls “the subordinate style,” in which time and causality are organised into clear hierarchies at the sentence level. His ruminative, meandering sentences (“After I had made an appointment to meet Austerlitz the next day Pereria, having inquired after my wishes, led me upstairs to the first floor and showed me into a room containing a great deal of wine-red velvet, brocade, and dark mahogany furniture, where I sat until almost three in the morning at a secretaire faintly illuminated by the street lighting — the cast-iron radiator clicked quietly, and only occasionally did a black cab drive past outside in Liverpool Street — writing down, in the form of notes and disconnected sentences, as much as possible of what Austerlitz had told me that evening”) are almost too long to quote here. Sebald’s themes, like Proust’s, are memory and loss. What makes his books remarkable is that he reproduces the experience of having memories and losing them in the course of single sentences, like the one above, which often seem to forget their origins, slide off into an associative drift, and then attempt to recoup themselves, just as we attempt to hold together the memories and narratives that make up our sense of self. He’s a maximalist whose prose would drive Strunk & White to distraction (when they wrote, “Make the paragraph the unit of composition”, they didn’t have in mind 400-page paragraphs).

As Paul Harding, who won last year’s Pulitzer for his own peripatetic sentences in his novel Tinkers, puts it: “The criteria for caloric prose is that it be nutritious. Getting at essence isn’t always a matter of stripping away length. That’s part of the modernist myth of de-mythification.” When the high-modernist poet Ezra Pound wrote in his 1913 manifesto “A Few Don’ts” that “the natural object is always the adequate symbol”, Hemingway listened, and together they lent artistic force to the notion that the truth is necessarily concise. A generation later in Britain, George Orwell reinforced this notion but with a new political emphasis in his 1946 essay “Why I Write,” in which he stated: “Good prose is like a windowpane.” A lack of political purpose, Orwell wrote, had “betrayed [him] into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.” Elaborateness came to be associated with false rhetoric and the aesthetic indulgences of a bygone world before the two wars.

Geoff Kloske, the head of Riverhead Books, publisher of George Saunders and Aleksandar Hemon, thinks current stylistic variety makes it impossible to claim we are in either a minimalist or maximalist period. “More, I fear, there is a flaccidity and casualness of style that has come from writing habits born out of e-mail and social media.” A kind of death of the sentence by collective neglect. Kloske is right that the incessant dribble of mini-messaging has made most people’s daily use of written language brutally factual in character, more private ad copy than prose. I’m old enough to have written letters to friends when I was younger, which took time and a bit of thought. Like most people, I don’t do that any more, and e-mail hasn’t replaced the habit. The writing of complete sentences for aural pleasure as well as news is going the way of the playing of musical instruments – it’s becoming a speciality rather than a means most people have to a little amateur, unselfconscious enjoyment. This isn’t the end of the world for literature. In a sense, it only intensifies its role as the repository of our linguistic imagination. But it’s a pity none the less; there’s a difference between pure spectatorship and semi-participatory appreciation. The latter is much warmer. It creates more room for fellow feeling and a bit less for the glare of celebrity and the correlative abjection of envy and fandom.

Fish’s book doesn’t reach this far. We get no analysis of Japanese cell-phone novels or the best of the blogosphere. But for those, and I would count myself among them, who fell in love with literature not by becoming enthralled to books they couldn’t put down but by discovering individual sentences whose rhythm and rhetoric was so compelling they couldn’t help but repeat them to anyone who would listen, it is a blessed replacement to that old Strunkian superego forever whispering in your ear — cut, cut, cut. Ω

[Adam Haslett's first book, a collection of short stories entitled You Are Not a Stranger Here (2002), was a finalist for the 2002 National Book Award and the 2003 Pulitzer Prize and spent some time on The New York Times Best Seller list. It was also named one of the five best books of the year by Time. Haslett has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Fine Arts Work Center. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Esquire, The Nation, The Atlantic, and The Best American Short Stories, as well as National Public Radio's Selected Shorts. His first novel, Union Atlantic, was released in February 2010. A graduate of Swarthmore College (BA), the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (MFA), and Yale Law School (JD), Haslett has been a visiting professor at the Iowa Writers' Workshop and Columbia University.]

Copyright © 2011 The Financial Times Limited

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Friday, January 28, 2011

Tenure Be Damned?

John Trimble has been a professor of writing and rhetoric at The University of Texas-Austin since he arrived in Austin in 1971. Trimble received a BA from Princeton University and both an MA and PhD from the University of California-Berkeley. At Berkeley, Trimble studied with Maynard Mack (1909-2001) — a renowned expert on Alexander Pope who finished his career at Yale University — and Ttrimble arrived in Austin ABD (all but dissertation); he finished his own work on Alexander Pope after his first year in Austin. As this article begins, Trimble was believed to be polishing his dissertation on Pope for scholarly publication. The high poobahs in the English Department in Austin heard disturbing rumors about Trimble's writing priorities. Trimble received a thinly-veiled warning that he was jeopardizing his chances at tenure by writing a textbook instead of a monograph. The irony is that — three decades later — Ttrimble's book on Alexander Pope never appeared. Instead, he gave the world a stylebook: Writing With Style: Conversations on the Art of Writing, Third Edition (1975, 1999, 2010). Roll over, Strunk & White! You, too, William Zinsser! Make way for John Trimble, the man who told the tenure committee of the English Department at UT-Austin to go to hell, and lived to retire as Professor Emeritus on the 40 Acres. If this is a (fair & balanced) exhortation to write on, so be it.

[x The Cronk]
A Classic "Nontextbook" On Writing
By James M. Lang

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In the fall of 1974, a young scholar named John Trimble at the University of Texas at Austin was summoned into the office of a senior professor on the English department's executive committee. The senior faculty member had been hearing some disturbing rumors about Trimble, whose research focused on Alexander Pope. Word on the campus was that Trimble, despite his forthcoming tenure bid, was not putting in the hours on Pope. Instead, Trimble was working on a writing textbook.

Trimble confessed that the rumor was true. He had developed a writing style sheet that had become so popular among students and colleagues on the campus that it caught the attention of a publisher's local representative. The next thing Trimble knew, an editor from Prentice Hall was at his office door, asking whether he would be willing to expand his style sheet into a textbook. Trimble agreed, with the caveat that what he produced would look nothing like the majority of textbooks available at the time.

"I wanted it to be a 'nontextbook textbook,'" said Trimble, in an interview via e-mail, "something like Strunk and White's Elements of Style, agreeably short and compact, and nuts-and-bolts practical—a book that emphasized, and explained, how veteran writers actually think; a book with all the water squished out but with all the life left in; a book that students might reasonably find themselves actually reading cover to cover."

The editor loved the idea, and Trimble got a book contract.

Then he got to work—really got to work. During the 13 months he spent writing the textbook, he recalled in our interview, "I was back up at my campus office three to four hours each weekday evening right after dinner, and would then spend 12-hour days there every Saturday and Sunday, too. I virtually disappeared from my family that year."

But then a senior colleague offered Trimble a stern warning about the wisdom of devoting so much time to this endeavor: Publish your research on Pope, and then you can work on the textbook. You'll never get tenure with a composition textbook.

Trimble recalls thanking his senior colleague and going back to his office for some soul-searching. He looked at the matter from every angle he could think of, and then made his resolve: "I decided that if the book were the best thing I could make, and if my department didn't value it, then I needed to find a different university—one whose values were more aligned with my own," Trimble said. "Tenure be damned. It was time, I decided, to act like a grown-up. Instead of worrying about pleasing others, I needed to honor my own priorities and follow my heart."

The result of that decision, as many readers will already know, was Writing With Style: Conversations on the Art of Writing, a composition "nontextbook" that, in more than 30 years on the market, has been reprinted almost three dozen times, purchased by more than a half-million readers, and just released again in a newly updated third edition.

Despite the book's incredible popularity, I only discovered it over this past winter break, when the latest version showed up in my office, buried in a stack of review copies of new writing and literature texts. I had finished the work I had set out to do that day and still had an hour to kill before I needed to be at home. So I thought I would work my way through the stack and see whether anything new caught my interest.

I started with Trimble and never got to any of the other texts. I brought it home and finished reading it the next day—despite the fact that I am not scheduled to teach a writing course in the next three semesters, and despite the fact that I still had prep work to do for both of my courses.

The book is exactly as Trimble described when I wrote to him and asked him to tell me how it came about: "a book with all the water squished out but with all the life left in." His preface refers to the book, in an equally memorable phrase, as "shoptalk for armchair consumption."

It struck me as such a remarkable writing handbook, in fact, that I believe it would work well as a supplementary text in just about any course in which students are graded on written assignments, and in which the instructor is willing to devote a bit of attention to helping students improve their writing. Writing With Style will find its most comfortable home in writing courses, but its many virtues should earn it a place on syllabi in a wide variety of disciplines.

What strikes you first about the book is the easy and familiar manner of Trimble's style. As you make your way into the first chapter, you feel as if you are sitting down by the fire with a wise and kindly editor, one who believes in you and wants to see you improve.

What should strike you next is Trimble's first-chapter analysis of the reasons for most bad writing. The novice writer, he argues, has a "natural tendency... to think primarily of himself—hence to write primarily for himself." His description of how that tendency plays out in the head of the novice writer deserves to be reproduced in full:

He thinks through an idea only until it is passably clear to him, since, for his purposes, it needn't be any clearer; he dispenses with transitions because it's enough that he knows how his ideas connect; he uses a private system—or no system—of punctuation; he doesn't trouble to define his terms because he understands perfectly well what he means by them; he writes page after page without bothering to vary his sentence structure; he leaves off page numbers and footnotes; he paragraphs only when the mood strikes him; he ends abruptly when he decides he's had enough; he neglects to proofread the final job because the writing is over.

Once Trimble completes his analysis of the source of poor writing, he gets to work on helping his readers get better. I will highlight just one of the many elements that stood out for me. Trimble suggests we avoid the easy contrast between "formal" and "informal" writing for a style he calls, quoting the linguist Porter Perrin, "General English." He warns readers away from overly complex styles and phrasing by helping them understand the relationship between their writing style and their self-presentation.

"Each time we write," he says in the book, "we're making a choice as to the kind of person we prefer to be. Since it's so important, let's make that choice a conscious one for a change. Here's what it involves: 'Do I want to be authentically me, speaking my own thoughts in my own idiom, or am I content to be a pseudo-self, using borrowed thoughts, borrowed language, and a borrowed personality to gain the approval of a few literary traditionalists?"

In the spirit of arguing for this more authentic prose style, he devotes an entire chapter, "Superstitions," to debunking a set of popular dogmas about what we should and should not do in academic writing. One of his seven targets in the chapter is the idea that we should never refer to our readers as "you" and should instead use the more formal address "the reader."

"What reader," he asks, "wants to be addressed as 'the reader'? It's akin to saying, in conversation, 'I'm glad to hear the listener has recovered from her cold.'"

On the "rule" against contractions, he contrasts two sentences: "Why should we not have clean air?" and "Why shouldn't we have clean air?"

"Honestly," he says, "which of those two writers would you rather hang out with?"

Trimble's analysis and advice throughout the book strike that same tone of sensible familiarity, and the quality of his advice never falters. But as much as I recommend the book for the help it could give our students, I also recommend it to any lover of great prose. It's hard to resist quoting him.

He argues at one point, for example, that writers should vary the length of their prose with an occasional one-word sentence or one-sentence paragraph. But, he warns, make sure a one-sentence paragraph can survive your reader's scrutiny: "Houseplants wilt in direct sun. Many sentences do as well."

This sentence, though, which comes after his warning to minimize the use of adverbs in your writing, may be my favorite: "I'll concede this: The right adverb, fresh and adroitly placed, is one of life's finest small pleasures."

Trimble focuses much of his attention on the argument that good writing exhibits variety and freshness, and that principle informs his book as well. The chapter on revising is a seven-line excerpt of an interview with Ernest Hemingway; the chapter on proofreading is a two-page story he recounts from a graduate-school course he took at Berkeley. You'll have to read them both yourself to appreciate them.

Trimble's current editor at Prentice Hall (now an imprint of Pearson), Brad Potthoff, who pushed him to update the book for a third edition (which includes two new chapters, plus scattered other enhancements), told me, unsurprisingly, that the John Trimble you meet in this textbook is the John Trimble you would meet in any other context.

His ethos, Potthoff said in an e-mail interview, "is infused with humility, a spirit of intense collaboration, and superhuman attention to detail. He brings out the best in his editors and asks as much of them as he does of himself. As such, working with John is a joyous challenge and one of the highlights of my career."

I can think of no better phrase for describing the experience of reading and writing about this nontextbook; it has been a joyous challenge, and one that I hope to share with many generations of students to come. Ω

[James M. Lang is an associate professor of English at Assumption College and author of On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching (2008). Lang received a B.A. from the University of Notre Dame, an M.A. from St. Louis University, and a Ph.D. from Northwestern University.]

Copyright © 2011 The Chronicle of Higher Education

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Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves by Neil Sapper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Based on a work at sapper.blogspot.com. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available here.



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Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Formula Of Success In Our Times: "Drink The Kool-Aid, Slap On The Flag Pin, And Join In The Sloganeering"

A hero — not a demagogue — addressed the nation on January 25, 2011. The nattering nabobs of negativism (The Party of No... Brains) have been clamoring and yammering ever since. May they choke on their venomous words. If this is a (fair & balanced) solution to the national psychosis, so be it.

[x TAP]
Discomfort In An Age Of Demagoguery
By Courtney E. Martin

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You know you're in Santa Fe when Sunday morning services take place in a travel store. Which is where I found myself over the holidays, surrounded by white-haired seniors of the far-left variety and travel guides on floor-to-ceiling shelves. The lecturer for the morning was Craig Barnes, author of Democracy at the Crossroads and a local public-radio host. A frequent lecturer on political issues in the Santa Fe area, he sat astride a stool and asked the fleece-clothed mystics gathered: "What would be a wise course in an age of demagoguery?"

My mind flashed on the evidence of the demagoguery all around us these days. House Republicans just took a big, blunt instrument to so-called Obamacare last Wednesday — which would insure 32 million Americans — by voting to repeal. Many of them celebrated with the same kind of empty rhetoric that was so common in their campaign speeches during the midterm elections — that troubling new brand of Palinese so typical among GOP leaders these days.

During the GOP's weekly radio address, Republican Senator John Barrasso [R-WY], for example, urged the American people: "Ask yourself — are you better off or worse off now that the health-care law has been on the books for almost a year?" Never mind that the majority of the reforms associated with Obama's health-care plan have not yet gone into effect. Republican Congressman David Dreier [R-CA], House Rules Committee chair, characterized the health-care bill as "job creation's biggest enemy" — using the pain of the unemployed to turn them against their own interests. This new brand of GOP Palinese is pretty pat: Overpromise and under-research; always simplify and never apologize; make the opposition look like tin men — all brains, no heart.

Barnes evoked everyone from Havel to Buddha, in constructing a poetic and humble argument that embracing uncertainty may be the best weapon against demagoguery: "Perhaps it is the willingness to move forward in a good spirit, uncertain and at the same time unafraid, that is the singular characteristic that we as humans have had all along."

But here's the rub: Uncertainty makes us hard-driving, decisive Americans wildly uncomfortable. Demagoguery, on the other hand, is soothing. Let's take Speaker of the House John Boehner [R-OH], for example. Speaking about the Iraq War, Boehner has said, "Will we fight or will we retreat? That is the question that is posed to us."

Wouldn't it be nice if the Iraq conflict could be reduced to that? We'd have a real opportunity for an abstract Platonic dialogue or maybe a made-for-television movie about courage and triumph. In reality, what we've got is a thorny tangle of economic, moral, political, and spiritual questions that demand volumes, not sound bites, of investigation: How many lives and dollars are worth a dysfunctional democracy? Is there an effective way to disempower despots that doesn't involve violence? What are the repercussions for our failures in Iraq for future generations? These questions — the kind explored in documentary films like "My Country, My Country" or books like The Good Soldier — don't play well to voters, because they're discomfiting. They make us feel ill-equipped and overwhelmed.

Naomi Klein, the ultimate pied piper of uncomfortable realities, has reported that Tony Hayward, the former CEO of BP, has a plaque on his desk that reads, "If you knew you could not fail, what would you try?"

This is quintessential corporate hubris, but it is also the comforting stuff of demagoguery. We are literally swimming in failure — toxified by oil and the blood of Lower 9th Ward residents who were left to die — and yet our leaders reassure us that there is no problem that our robust American spirit can't solve. That there is no problem at all, except perhaps, the unnecessary complexity being imposed on us by those wonky liberal leaders — the Debbie Downers at every red, white, and blue party. Why can't liberals just drink the Kool-Aid, slap on the flag pin, and join in the sloganeering like everyone else?

I've even heard Democratic strategists make this argument — that progressives will continue to fail until we learn how to employ the same emotionally manipulative empty rhetoric as the "other guys." It is as if they've been fooled into believing there would be no cost for our disingenuous capitulation, as if the ends would justify the means.

I don't think American citizens deserve certainty. I know it makes us comfortable — both in our political sphere and in our personal lives — but it's dangerous and delusional. It leads us to elect people who don't acknowledge the full complexity of the times we are facing and fail to take responsibility for their own errors in judgment (case in point: Sarah Palin's "blood libel" pity party rather than a genuine acknowledgment of her misguided and violent rhetoric and symbology). It tempts us into believing we aren't complicit in our contemporary challenges — that the BP oil spill or the War in Iraq has nothing to do with our gas-guzzling SUVs, that the genocide in the Congo is not connected to our conflict-mineral enhanced cell phones and laptops, that the economic meltdown is uncoupled from our complacency or consumption.

We don't deserve the comfort of certainty, but we do deserve the comfort of clarity and community. This is why my fellow listeners that Sunday — weathered by years of living and working and protesting — gather in a travel store in Santa Fe each week. After all these years, they're still hungry for those shining moments when a politician, or a religious leader, or a community organizer says something that resonates with what they know to be true about the nuanced, terrible, and still beautiful world, as Obama so eloquently did at the Tucson memorial service just a couple of weeks ago. They're still hungry to be a part of an activist community where the dire challenges we face and the resilience and eternal perfectibility of the American union are both acknowledged, where we find faith in the basic goodness of people and the polity.

Barnes explains, "This quality of faith... lies silent in America, buried under the propagandized story of the free market and the grandeur of individualism and self-interest." These chances to gather and say it out loud, no matter how quirky or seemingly small, unearth and accumulate that faith. Ω

[Courtney E. Martin is a Prospect senior correspondent. She is the author of Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists (2010). Martin has an M.A. from the Gallatin School at New York University in writing and social change and a B.A. from Barnard College in political science and sociology.]

Copyright © 2011 The American Prospect, Inc.

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Copyright © 2011 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves