Wednesday, May 28, 2008

To Ialdabaoth with thee, O National Geographic!

Here's a fascinating article about the Gospel of Judas mess a couple years back (and if you didn't know it was a mess, you really ought to read the article). It's stuff like this that shows the kind of real damage that can come from the pairing of careless scholarship and profit-eyed sponsors, especially when they meet over an area, like the early history of Christianity, where the public is both emotionally interested and severely misinformed.

The hat tip, as they say, goes to Jim West.

Update: You can read a response to this article from National Geographic here. (thanks again to Jim West)

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Lord Macaulay and Political Rhetoric

I recently came across this excellent passage, written by Macaulay in 1839 in a review of William Gladstone's book The State in its Relations with the Church, in a collection of his essays. It seems to me a fine characterization of political rhetoric, although the circumstances of politics have changed greatly since Macaulay's day, even if the bare structures of legislature have not. In an era when statesmen speak to broadcast cameras before their colleagues and the debates of any body aim rather to flatter the commonest voter than convince their abler representative, even the showman's eloquence that Macaulay here describes is lost to us. For this reason the faults he cites have been greatly and unfortunately magnified, so that the orators who seemed to wed vacuity to eloquence in his day have found a style as ugly and as stumbling as their arguments in ours. But these are my thoughts; here are Macaulay's:

"There is little danger that people engaged in the conflicts of active life will be too much addicted to general speculation. The opposite vice is that which most easily besets them. The times and tides of business and debate tarry for no man. A politician must often talk and act before he has thought and read. He may be very ill informed respecting a question; all his notions about it may be vague and inaccurate; but speak he must; and if he is a man of ability, of tact, and of intrepidity, he soon finds that, even under such circumstances, it is possible to speak successfully. He finds that there is a great difference between the effect of written words, which are perused and reperused in the stillness of the closet, and the effect of spoken words which, set off by the graces of utterance and gestures vibrate for a single moment on the ear. He finds that he may blunder without much chance of being detected, that he may reason sophistically, and escape unrefuted. He finds that, even on knotty questions of trade and legislation, he can, without reading ten pages, or thinking ten minutes, draw forth loud plaudits, and sit down with the credit of having made an excellent speech.
Lysias, says Plutarch, wrote a defence for a man who was to be tried before one of the Athenian tribunals. Long before the defendant had learned the speech by heart, he became so much dissatisfied with it that he went in great distress to the author. "I was delighted with your speech the first time I read it; but I liked it less the second time, and still less the third time; and now it seems to me to be no defence at all." "My good friend," says Lysias, "you quite forget that the judges are to hear it only once." The case is the same in the English Parliament. It would be as idle in an orator to waste deep meditation and long research on his speeches, as it would be in the manager of a theatre to adorn all the crowd of courtiers and ladies who cross over the stage in a procession with real pearls and diamonds. It is not by accuracy or profundity that men become the masters of great assemblies. And why b e at the charge of providing logic of the best quality, when a very inferior article will be equally acceptable? Why go as deep into a question as Burke, only in order to be, like Burke, coughed down, or left speaking to green benches and red boxes? This has long appeared to us to be the most serious of the evils which are to be set off against the many blessings of popular government.
It is a fine and true saying of Bacon, that reading makes a full man, talking a ready man, and writing an exact man. The tendency of institutions like those of England is to encourage readiness in public men, at the expense both of fulness and of exactness. The keenest and most vigorous minds of every generation, minds often admirably fitted for the investigation of truth, are habitually employed in producing arguments such as no man of sense would ever put into a treatise intended for publication, arguments which are just good enough to be used once, when aided by fluent delivery and pointed language. The habit of discussing questions in this way necessarily reacts on the intellects of our ablest men, particularly of those who are introduced into parliament at a very early age, before their minds have expanded to full maturity. The talent for debate is developed in such men to a degree which, to the multitude, seems as marvellous as the performance of an Italian Improvisatore. But they are fortunate indeed if they retain unimpaired the faculties which are required for close reasoning or for enlarged speculation. Indeed we should sooner expect a great original work on political science, such a work, for example, as the Wealth of Nations, from an apothecary in a country town, or from a minister in the Hebrides, than from a statesmen who, ever since he was one-and-twenty, had been a distinguished debater in the House of Commons."

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Quotes to be Attributed to Me in My Fame

"It was Jonson's view that Donne's meter merited hanging, and I am generally much in favor of following his advice with modern poets. Unfortunately, the state of affairs is such that we would soon run out of rope in applying that principle today."

"I find it hard to respect a poet who has no command of the classical languages. He had better be Shakespeare or he had better stop trying."

Interlocutor: "But surely you would agree that Poe's jingling is as bad as Whitman's formlessness?"
Rivera: "I certainly would not! Poe's verse is merely bad; Whitman does violence with his poems."

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Eagerly Awaiting the Barkley Administration

Any fan of the NBA knows, either from more or less established sources, that Charles Barkley intends to enter the political arena, possibly this year, when the mayorship of his hometown of Leeds, Alabama, is up for election. I heartily approve of such an endeavor ending ultimately at the White House, and not only because of the Hellenic precedent, but also because Mr. Barkley's charm and competitive nature would undoubtedly prove excellent diplomatic instruments.

A high profile campaign from The Round Mound would also probably mean this gem hits the airwaves more often, which, for my taxpaying money, is hardly a bad thing.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Narrative in the Mainstream

Some academic preoccupations never make it to the mainstream of society; in fact, they never used to until fairly recently. I'd like to blame the nineteenth century for it, but the truth is that the Reformers were probably the first to attempt something like a popularization of intellectual culture. In any case, an academic term that seems slowly to be seeping into popular journalism is "narrative." I first noticed this several months back in an opinion piece (I forget the author now), which detailed the struggle between Clinton and Obama to stamp their lives with positive "narratives," the most popular of which is of course the story of the kid that dreamed big and beat the odds to have a chance, even though there were so many obstacles, to be president. The article (if I remember correctly) contended that the 2004 campaign was decided when the Bush campaign was able to redefine the "narrative" of Kerry's life from war hero to political opportunist.

The term seems now to have made its way even into the sports page, if this article by Yahoo Sports' Adrian [why didn't this get changed at Ellis Island?] is any indication. We encounter the term near the end of the article:

"LeBron James has done a masterful job of setting the stage for the Celtics series, conspiring with his coach, Mike Brown, to make the world believe he had been pummeled in the Washington Wizards series. The Wizards rate as one of the softest defensive teams in the Eastern Conference, but between James’ bellyaching and Brown pounding podiums, the Cavs had referees and league officials treating the Wiz like the Bad Boy Pistons.

For them, it’ll be fascinating to see if they can carry that narrative into the Eastern Conference semifinals. This was effective against the Wiz and privately the Celtics wonder if the precious treatment of the Cavaliers’ superstar gets transferred to them now."

Post-modernity seems now to have convinced sportswriters that rhetoric is actually winning basketball games. Of course, time will only tell if Lebron James' discourse of the hard foul is a sufficient technology of power to control the Celtics, or if he'll need to make some shots as well.