Monday, June 27, 2005

Classical-music conundrum

Because of my tendency to advertise my pet peeves, some of my friends are understandably mystified as to what my tastes are (in the positive sense) in classical music. The era I am totally devoted to is the baroque, especially the following composers: Bach, Buxtehude, Charpentier, Corelli, Couperin, Handel, Lully, Marais, Monteverdi, Purcell, and Vivaldi. Gosh! Just reciting this list sends me into ecstasy.

Apart from the ponderous Adagio attributed to Albinoni, I can hardly think of any baroque work that I dislike. It is all, as a New York music critic named De Koven used to say, "OTW" (out of this world). Indeed, that is the key. Baroque music affirms a c o s m i c order, independent of the quest for ego satisfaction of individual creators (even the incomparable J.S. Bach). This tradition continued with Mozart and Haydn, whom I also like but not as much as the baroque masters.

The villain, as far as I can see, was Beethoven, who introduced the principle of the egotistical sublime. Nonetheless, some of his works, the Ninth Symphony, the late quartets and sonatas, escape the ban, because he was a transitional figure. But the sickly, sugary confections of Chopin, Brahms, and Dvorak are to me intolerable. Ditto Mahler, heavily invested in a pseudo-cosmic dimension.

The great exception was Richard Wagner, whose music is both egotistical and cosmic. Out of it grows, I think, most of what is valuable in twentieth-century music.

Nowadays I use twentieth-century music (of which I have many CDs) as a supplement, a kind of sauce, to my baroque obsession. To be sure, when I was in college I fell into step with a powerful ideology diffused by the French critic and conductor René Leibowitz, who held that Arnold Schoenberg represented the most intense and indispensable incarnation of the zeitgeist of the musical twentieth century. In my early days in LAI used to go to concerts of Music on the Roof, an organization that promoted this music. They were in the habit of playing the pieces twice, as they were difficult. Over the years I have grown away from 12-tone music, but I expect to go back to it. Also, Bartók; I don't quite know why I stopped listening to him.

As I said, I now use twentieth-century composers as a kind of dietary supplement, rather than my main fare. However, here are some categories I like: the music of ecstasy (Scriabin, Franz Schmidt, John Adams, Philip Glass); the "raucous" school (Varèse, early Antheil, Leo Ornstein, Louis Andriessen (a find, but not for everyone)--in fact anything played by Bang on a Can. Sometimes I seek solace in what I term bagatelles: piano music by Debussy, Albéniz, Granados, and the American Charles Tomlinson Griffes. Britten and Shostakovich, both admirable if sometimes problematic, seem to belong to realms of their own.

I am not a religious person, but I find both solace and intensity in some twentieth-century composers who combine religion and modernism. In my view, the first major composer in this vein was Olivier Messiaen. His profound organ works are perhaps the best to start with. Basic himself on Eastern Orthodox models, John Tavener’s music is especially hypnotic. So too, in a different way, is the work of Arvo Pärt. An early twentieth-century forerunner of this trend is the mystic George Gudjieff (Thomas de Hartmann set his melodies for the piano). They are for the most part simple chord sequences, good in small doses but wearying after a while.

Now for the negative side, which candor requires that I address. Why don't I like such "tonal modernists" as Howard Hanson, Samuel Barber, William Schuman and their tribe? This music strikes me as bland and obvious, indeed soporific. Prolonging the impulses of Brahms, Dvorak and their ilk, it represents a timid semimodernism content to rehash the clichés of the tail end of the Romantic Movement. Similarly, Elgar, Sibelius, Hindemith, and Nielsen. For reasons I don't quite understand I would except Gustav Holst from this dismissal. At all events why bother with these musical sleeping pills, when one can rouse oneself through the works of a Philip Glass and a Louis Andriessen? Perhaps the answer is that some seek soothing, calm music that induces a sense of gentle reverie. Usually I do not.

My remarks above about nineteenth-century works must seem harsh. In some sense, I may just have “worn out” these symphonies, through too many broadcasts of standard fare on the classical music stations (such as they are now in NYC). I also do not care to attend another performance of "Carmen" or "Aida"—though both, to be fair have some stirring moments.

This disenchantment—impatience, if you will—requires analysis as part of the general phenomenon of fading responses. We eat and eat, say, French-fries, and then we don’t want to eat them any more. Such a turn-off actually happened to me with lobster

This phenomenon of "wearing out" through overfamiliarity has sometimes been termed jading. In an analysis that seems more descriptive than explanatory, behaviorists term it “extinction.”

In the aesthetic realm the phenomenon was investigated almost a hundred years ago by the Russian formalist critics, who referred to it as banalization. This occurs, with a literary work such as the novels of Dickens from the general pattern of promulgation, including implicit recipes for understanding the work. The reader internalizes these recipes before he even attempts the task of reading the novels. The Formalists believed that a process of “making strange” or defamaliarization could reverse the negative effects of this pattern of banalization. In the musical realm we might refer to the electronic versions of Bach produced by Wendy Carlos or the jazzlike choral efforts of the Swingle Sisters. In reality, the works of Bach are among those that most resist the corrosion of the banalization process, a factor that may account for the decline of interest in the efforts of Carlos and the Swingle Sisters. They are not needed.

At all events we know what the culprits are in the banalization of the symphonies of Beethoven, Brahms, Dvorak, and Tchaikovsky are. Our declining interest in such works (at least my declining interest) is an effect of the endless programming of these war-horses by symphony orchestras and classical music stations. When some years ago, Pierre Boulez served as principal conductor of the New York Philharmonic orchestra, he programmed many modern works. Consistently the results were half empty houses. The increasingly elderly audience wants to hear the same war-horses year in year out.

This passé insistence on populating the domain of classical music with composers who died quite a while back is anomalous. Imagine a situation in which exhibitions of Picasso and Matisse were deserted, and masterpieces by James Joyce and Hemingway attracted few readers.

How then can we account for the neglect of modern achievement in the world of classical music? In a series of publications Joseph Horowitz has addressed the matter. The latest is an elephantine tome of 606 pages entitled Classical Music in America: Its Rise and Fall (W.W. Norton). Horowitz contrasts the present situation with that at the end of the nineteenth century, when contemporary classical composers such as Dvorak and Tchaikovsky were well received. He believes that since that time the esteem for contemporary composers has been replaced by the cult of the performer, comprising the star pianists, violinists, opera divas, and conductors. This, Horowitz believes, is a distinctively American phenomenon. However, much the same situation prevails in Europe. In fact most of he handful of composers who are now bucking the trend are American, notably the minimalists John Adams and Philip Glass are American.

Still there is no doubt that Horowitz' overall diagnosis is correct: classical music is in a bad way in America. CDs of seldom-performed modern works are fine, but how much longer will even those survive in the absence of a living culture of contemporary music? There is growing interest in World Music, from a variety of countries and cultural zones. I myself enjoy some traditional Islamic, Indian, and Indonesian music. Perhaps as these elements are absorbed the music scene will be reinvigorated.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Global warming fracas

Recently, The New Yorker magazine published an alarmist three-part series on global warming by human agency, especially as a function of rising carbon dioxide levels. Predictably, the US government is castigated for not adhering to the Kyoto protocols, even though these exempt large third-world countries where CO2 emission levels are rising rapidly. Bill Moyers has intoned that there is universal agreement that global warming is caused by human agency. Senator John McCain, who clearly knows very little about the matter, has joined the bandwagon. Such is the conventional wisdom—but it is by no means the opinion of a majority of the world's climatologists.

Distrust of media is widespread. This extends even to the august New York Times, where one study indicated that only 22% of its own readers have confidence in what is written there. I belong to the 78%. One reason for skepticism is the sense that the mainstream media present material selectively to as to advance a particular point of view. It seems that the thesis of an approaching catastrophe through global warming by human agency is a case in point.

Empirical observations are much more mixed than the reports in the media would suggest. We often hear of this or that ice cap melting. It is rare, however, to encounter evidence to the contrary, as for example the finding that the Arctic was warmer during the late 1930s than today (Polyakov et al., 2002), or the information that the snowpack in Antarctica is actually thickening (Davis et al. 2005).

If the ice near the poles is melting overall, why don't we notice more flooding in coastal areas. To be sure, we are often told that this flooding is coming, but why don't we see it now? As a world traveler I have viewed many oceans, and have not seen this phenomenon even in an incipient form. It is true that Venice is sinking, but that has been a problem for decades, and is unrelated to the posited global waming. Why isn’t Ireland, for example, sinking?

The following paragraphs offer an edited version of an important report published in a British newspaper, The Telegraph.

Let us start with the sort of fare we usually encounter. The conventional wisdom seems to be demonstrated by the research of Dr. Naomi Oreskes, of the University of California, who analyzed almost 1,000 papers on the subject published since the early 1990s. She concluded that 75 per cent of them either explicitly or implicitly backed the consensus view, while none directly dissented from it. Not surprisingly, Oreskes' study now routinely figures in the writings of those demanding action on climate change.

Yet her unequivocal conclusions aroused suspicions among other academics, who knew of many papers that dissented from the pro-global warming line. The critics include Dr. Benny Peiser, of the science faculty at Liverpool John Moores University, who conducted his own analysis of the same set of 1,000 documents. He concluded that only one third backed the consensus view, while only one per cent did so explicitly.

Submitting his findings to the leading review Science in January, Dr. Peiser was at first asked to edit his paper for publication. But to no avail. He has now been told that his results have been rejected on the grounds that the points he made had been "widely dispersed on the internet." Yet Dr. Peiser insists that he has kept his findings strictly confidential. "It is simply not true that they have appeared elsewhere already," he stated.

A spokesman for Science said Peiser's research had been rejected "for a variety of reasons," adding: "the information in the letter was not perceived to be novel." Peiser rejected this assertion: "As the results from my analysis refuted the original claims, I believe Science has a duty to publish them." In addition, Peiser noted that the stifling of dissent and preoccupation with doomsday scenarios is bringing climate research into disrepute. "There is a fear that any doubt will be used by politicians to avoid action," he said. "But if political considerations dictate what gets published, it's all over for science."

Peiser is not the only academic to have had work turned down which challenges the findings of Oreskes' study. Professor Dennis Bray, of the GKSS National Research Centre in Geesthacht, Germany, submitted results from an international study showing that fewer than one in 10 climate scientists believed that climate change is principally caused by human activity. This is a very striking finding.

As with Dr Peiser's study, Science declined to publish his rebuttal. Professor Bray told The Telegraph: "They said it didn't fit with what they were intending to publish."
Professor Roy Spencer, at the University of Alabama, a leading authority on satellite measurements of global temperatures, told The Telegraph: "It's pretty clear that the editorial board of Science is more interested in promoting papers that are pro-global warming. It's the news value that is most important."

He said that after his own team produced research casting doubt on man-made global warming, they were no longer sent papers by Nature and Science for review, despite being acknowledged as world leaders in the field.

As a result, says Professor Spencer, flawed research is finding its way into the leading journals, while attempts to get rebuttals published fail. "Other scientists have had the same experience," he said. "The journals have a small set of reviewers who are pro-global warming."

It seems clear that a cover-up has been ongoing. Why is this? The larger context is that once an idea has become conventional wisdom it is hard to dislodge it. Moreover, human beings seem to have a natural appetite for disaster scenarios, for the Apocalyptic, in short. Evangelical Christians believe in the Rapture. Secularists hold that global warming is about to get us.

As a token of the absurd level we have attained, tourism to Alaska is now being promoted "before it melts."

More seriously, the whole range of these apocalyptic warnings has been reviewed in a masterful survey volume by Bjørn Lomborg, The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World (Czmbridge University Press, 2001). It goes without saying that Dr. Lomborg, a Danish scientist, has been viciously attacked, but without effecting the overall soundness of his findings.

Hubba hubba

Several citations provided by J. E. Lighter (Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang) suggest that the expression hubba hubba was originally at home in the world of baseball. It was a chant of encouragement, equivalent to "hurry up! let’s get busy" and the like. It was originally spelled habba habba or haba haba.

Lighter (evidently following P. Tamony, Americanisms, no. 7, 1965) derives it from the phrase "have a life," apparently a chant heard in baseball fields in the 1930s. Lighter's first citation (habba habba) stems from 1941, which would exclude an origin from servicemen in North Africa, where we did not intervene until 1942. Otherwise knowledge of Arabic was quite sparse in the US in those days.

The term (including its extended meaning of sexual admiration) was popular among servicemen in the Pacific theater during WWII. Hence the claim that it might be Micronesian, which seems quite unlikely.

The duplication is relatively uncommon in English. Cf. however "dumb dumb" (originally spelled dum dum, reflecting the homonymous bullets, derived from a fortress in India). Note also: bang bang. One of Pauline Kael's collections was entitled "Kiss kiss, bang bang." The kiss-kiss duplication seems to be a personal contribution. Likewise the Churchillian "Better jaw-jaw than war-war." Yak-yak-yak is triple, while a related form may be either double or triple: yadda yadda or yadda yadda yadda (popularized by the Seinfeld TV show, but originally British). Duplication is ubiquitous in Malay and Bahasa Indonesia, where it serves to create plurals (eg. orang, man; orang orang, men). There seem to be no comparable expressions in those languages. At all events an exotic source is required.

After going underground for several decades the expression hubba hubba seems to have resurfaced in popular-entertainment media in the 1980s (e.g. Pee-Wee's Playhouse, CBS-TV, 1988). There is now a leather goods shop of that name in Cambridge, MA; a band; and a tent—all using that name.

In New Zealand the government sponsors a campaign for sexual responsibility called "No rubba, no hubba hubba." Here the expression clearly refers to the sexual act itself.

Somehow, though the exclamation "hubba hubba!" s o u n d s exotic, a quality which may serve as an acceptable mask for the lust encapsulated in its common usage. "F*cky f*cky!" would be downright rude.

On a somewhat different note, I recently skimmed a little bagatelle book published by Princeton University Press, entitled "On Bullshit," by the philosopher Harry Frankfurt. In a nutshell "bullshit" may defined as pretension talk featuring untruths or exaggerations that the speaker knows to be such. It may also refer to evasions, as in the expression "Don't bullshit me.

Commenting on the lack of scholarly literature (!) on the subject, Frankfurt does mention a book by another philosopher, Max Black, which deals with a closely related phenomenon, humbug. Perhaps humbug serves as a kind of euphemism substituting in situations where bullshit would be unacceptable.

Frankfurt believes that the incidence of bullshit has increased nowadays. The relativism promoted by postmodernism has blurred the boundary between statements that are true and objective and contetable, subjective one's. In a sense, bullshit is now (in this view) impossible: when everything is b.s., nothing is.

Instead of making comments about the world, the postmodernist increasingly turns to making statements about his or herself. But we cannot know ourselves with any accuracy. But we can endlessly emit b.s. about it.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Degaying (and undergaying) of public figures

A few days ago I read the NY Times obituary of a Hollywood starlet from days gone by, Lon McAlister, who died at Lake Tahoe at the age of 82. He retired from acting at the age of 30 to pursue a career in real estate. The notice mentioned a brother and a sister, but no wife or offspring. It is possible, of course, that McAlister may have been a womanizer who just never got married.

Yet I was alerted by the mention that the boyish actor was a close friend of George Cukor, the gay director. From such little clues, historians (s t i l l) have to work. Old habits of "protecting" reputations die hard.

Another obituary, a more complete one from the Washington Post, offers some confirmation. << After retiring from acting, he plowed his film earnings into property in Malibu, Calif., and ran a lodge in Northern California. He also made travel films with a companion [N.B.], actor and producer William Eythe, who died in 1957. He maintained close relations with Carol Channing, who had an early part in an Eythe Broadway show, as well as with 1940s stars Jane Withers and Deanna Durbin.>>

Here is another instance, belonging to the "undergaying" category. Robert Smithson was the Buddy Holly of art, as he died in a plane crash at the age of 35. He is best known for one work, the Spiral Jetty in Salt Lake. During his later years Smithson was married, and we rarely hear about his gay side. However, the art review in the NYTimes Arts Section does note that as a teenager he clipped photos from beefcake magazines, producing homoerotic works. Evidently conflicted, Smithson's early work oscillates between Catholic religious imagery and gay-related themes.

As I have long maintained, detection of such clues is only the first step in determining the sexual orientation of a public figure. A superficial examination of the personal traits of British heartthrob footballer David Beckwith might suggest that he is gay. Alas, he is not.

By the way, the term "degaying" has been ascribed to the British scholar Simon Watney, who used in relation to Andy Warhol. If Warhol could be degayed, who next? Carson Kressly? Stranger things have happened, I suppose.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Gay victims of Communism

A friend asked for information about gay men and lesbians who were victims of persecution in Communist countries. Unlike the Nazi case, where the fate of the "men with the pink triangles" is well-known, most of the comparable work on the gay victims of communism has yet to be done.

There is another imbalance. We know a fair amount about the theoretical bases of homophobia in Marxism and Marxist regimes, but relatively little about the actual persecution of gay and lesbian people.

Hubert Kennedy wrote an invaluable article on the personal homophobia of Marx and Engels, showing how they deployed innuendo of this kind in an effort to destroy a political opponent, Johann-Baptist von Schweitzer, who had been entrapped in a German public park. ("Johann-Baptist von Schweitzer: The Queer Marx Loved to Hate," Journal of Homosexuality, 29:2.3, 1995, pp. 69-96,) Other things being equal, this penchant might not have mattered, any more than, say, Marx's preference for Greek classical art over medieval art. During the 1920s, however, the world Communist movement began to adopt the rhetoric of decadence, including the idea that dying capitalism fosters perversion. Conversely, it is a feature of utopianism to exclude all sorts of things, from cabarets to street life, that the utopian thinkers regard as undesirable. Despite claims to the contrary, Marxism is a utopian, quasi-religious ideology. Some aspects of contemporary life were destined to find no place in Paradise.

In my view it would take an international committee to document the crimes of Communism against gay people. Yet there seems little appetite for this.

This is part of a larger asymmetry. As far as I know, none of the Stalinist criminals still alive in Russia has been brought to justice. Most of the gulag sites are disappearing, unlike Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and other places which have been rightly retained, at least in part, as a perpetual reminder of Nazi barbarism. There is still time to interview actual gay and lesbian victims of Communism. But not much more time.

Let me focus first on a country that is near at hand—Cuba. Sometimes I bring up the issues of the UMAP "reeducation" centers for gays in the sixties and seventies, and the enforced isolation of people with AIDS in the eighties. My interlocutors tend to respond: "Oh, that was a long time ago. Things are just fine now." They are not just fine. While the more overt measures of repression have ceased, discrimination persists. Being gay is not consistent with being a good Communist.

An atmosphere of "let bygones be bygones" prevails, no doubt reflecting the notion that Communism must be judged by its ostensibly noble ideals and not by its sordid practice. We are told that homophobia in Cuba reflects a confluence of Hispanic machismo and (ostensibly misunderstood) leftist puritanism. The principle blame, it seems, must be laid primarily at the door of the Spanish conquistadores. Such a view has been espoused by "El" himself (Fidel).

Another reason why people do not want to discuss past persecution and present discrimination applied to gays in Cuba is that this issue does not fit with the left-liberal narrative that the Cuban problem results entirely from the US embargo. We are supposed to engage constructivelye. Yet the Canadians and Europeans have found that does not work.

Together with North Korea, Cuba remains one of the two sole remaining orthodox Communist countries. Yet some shrink from even calling it Communist.

Internet sites on gays in Cuba are clogged by official Castroite propaganda alleging that all is well, and by small groups of pro-Castro gays, who serve the well-known function of useful idiots.

Fortunately there remains a book, by an honest leftist, Allen Young, Gays Under the Cuban Revolution (1981), if you can find it.

More generally, I think that the problem of documenting the oppression of gays under Communism needs to be divided into five sectors: 1) the former Soviet Union; 2) the Warsaw Pact countries of East-Central Europe; 3) the People's Republic of China; 4) Vietnam; and 5) Cuba.

In the rest of this posting I will only deal with the first. The Bolshevik Criminal Code of 1922 eliminated same-sex acts between adults. However, matters darkened in the late twenties, leading to full recriminalization in 1934. This pattern has been interpreted by gay Trotskyites as indicating that all was well under Lenin; it was Stalin's "aberration" that caused the difficulty. However, Simon Karlinsky has pointed to interviews with Lenin in which he indicated that all forms of sexual freedom were inimical to Marxism. In several articles Karlinsky did valiant work in opposing leftist myths, but I am not sure that he has kept up with the most recent developments.

On the site GAY.RU one can find a good piece by Igor Kon, a Russian sex researcher who moved to this country. Kon's earlier work was superficial, but this seems better. What I don't know is the extent that Russian gays were able to take advantage of the brief window of opportunity that opened in the archives post 1991.

A well documented episode is the visit of the great French writer André Gide to the Soviet Union in 1936. He went as a fellow traveler and returned deeply shaken. He wrote two books about the experience, the first circumspect, the second more outspoken about the social misery and absence of freedom of expression in the USSR. The Communists and their allies turned viciously on him. Some relied on innuendo, speaking of his problems with "morals" and his devotion to young men. The Communist pundit André Wurmser went further, producing a scurrilous article entitled "A Poor Bugger: André Gide." Another role, then, that homophobia played among Communists was to punish those who stepped out of line by advertising their proclivities. Something similar happened when Alger Hiss, after his exposure as a spy for the Soviets, sought to discredit his accuser Whitaker Chambers by talk about his homosexuality—-as if this had anything to do with the matter of Hiss' guilt.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Applied linguistics

A rough-and-ready distinction posits two branches of linguistics: descriptive and prescriptive. Following the descriptive approach one tries to observe and record the details of actual usage, including such pronunciation devices as the glottal stop (for which there is no letter in English), and such grammatical constructions as the double negative. Only after this inventory is complete (if then), can one attempt a prescriptive approach, separating features regarded as standard from those labeled as substandard.

Some academic linguists, proclaiming "leave your language alone," hold that one should never go beyond the first realm, the descriptive. One can observe language usage, but not prescribe it. This empiricist purism ignores the fact that ordinary users do in fact seek guidance on standard usage, seeking to internalize the rules that have been presented to them. These careful users recognize that social and economic success is often linked to one’s ability to master accepted standards of English usage. Academic linguists, in their egalitarian insistence that all forms of language are on the same footing, are not being helpful in this regard.

At the other extreme is the Miss Fittich approach (named after a legendary high school teacher). Fittich has no need to listen to what her pupils actually say; it suffices to lay down the law. It is revealing that prescriptivists of this type commonly m i s h e a r street language. Once in the course of discussing the common New Yorkese expression "I could care less," my prescriptivist interlocutor insisted that the phrase must be "I couldn’t care less." He held that no one could actually say what people did say, employing a filtering mechanism that replaced the heard word "could" with the "correct" term "couldn’t." The rationale for this picturesque New Yorkism (which I sometimes use myself) seems to be as follows. "If I made an effort I could reduce my level of caring even below the almost undetectable level that I now observe-—but why go to the trouble?"

With their insistence on enforcing a single norm, prescriptivists are too dismissive of nonstandard English. They ignore its expressive power and capacity for generating social solidarity. Prescriptivists stereotype the usages they disapprove of by ascribing them to laziness and inattention, missing the point that these expressions often reveal a logic of their own. Take, for example, the deletion of the final s in "fifty cent" found among some African American speakers. This practice has a parallel in such well-established expressions as "twenty head of cattle." In German the word Mark (referring to the currency that has just been retired) is invariable, so that one says "eine Mark" and also "zehn Mark." Evidently, in the alternative system the final s is considered redundant, as plurality is already indicated by the number word. Students, chafing under correction, may not have available to them such a sophisticated defense, but they are aware that the are being patronized.

Inasmuch as linguistics is, or should be a science, it ought to be possible to discuss these issues dispassionately. They tend, though, to arouse strong emotions, reflecting the fact that, rightly or wrongly, we are often judged by our use of language. We can persuade or not, obtain a job or not—depending less (in many instances) on the content of our discourse but how we say it. I remember once attending a brilliant lecture by the historian John Pocock. My friend Warren, who attended with me, could not accept it because of the speaker’s strong New Zealand accent.

There have been a number of flash points. One occurred forty years ago when the long-awaited Third Edition of Webster’s International Dictionary (the "big dictionary") appeared. Provocatively, Philip Gove, the editor-in-chief, had included an entry on the word "ain’t," without labeling it substandard. Prescriptivists unleashed a torrent of criticism. They failed to observe a key point. While some dictionaries, such as the famous endeavor of the Académie Française, are prescriptive, others are descriptive. We can purchase a dictionary with admonitions on "correct" usage—the Random House Dictionary and others provide such guidance-—but not every dictionary is obliged to offer this feature.

At all events how is one to deal with this matter in the classroom? One approach is diglossia, a linguistic term referring to the ability to distinguish two distinct forms of a language. Students who use nonstandard forms such as "fi" for five and "I can’t get no satisfaction" (features that loosely belong under the category of Ebonics) must be told that these are appropriate in some contexts but not in others. Following the diglossic perspective, one should gradually build up a sense that there are two registers of English. Call them formal and informal, if you wish.

At the end of the 1920s, Giovanni Gentile, Mussolini’s minister of education, addressed the issue when he restructured the curriculum of Italian schools. At that time standard Italian (based on Tuscan) had not progressed as it has since, and many young people could only understand their regional dialect. Gentile stipulated that the first few grades of instruction would be only in the dialect; then the pupils would be switched to standard Italian, again used solely. In practical terms the two would remain distinct, and of equal dignity. But matters did not work out that way.

I had some experience of this matter when I worked in an office in Rome at the end of the fifties. The educated people I knew there regarded southern dialects (which could be heard in the influx of poor people who had come after the end of World War II) as picturesque and amusing. But those who spoke in this way were only suitable for such menial jobs as plumber, washerwoman, doorman, and chauffeur. They could not be considered for professional employment. There were other cultural markers, allied to language. I remember once asking one of our secretaries, a highly educated woman, if I could give a check to the coffee boy. She explained to me that "they" (loro) were not accustomed to such things. We both knew who "they" were. Faced with this social reality, Gentile’s experiment failed and was abandoned. It had not removed the stigma of the southern dialects, which remained "terrun," of the soil.

Today some Italian-Americans in the US cherish such expressions, which are diffused by the TV series “The Sopranos” and other sources. At the same time, these Italian-Americans reject Ebonics lingo. But there is no practical distinction between the two.

Of course there is nothing special about the double standard of Italian-Americans in this regard, for it seems that most people have trouble consistently maintaining a value-neutral stance. By and large, the "dialects" (or whatever they may be called) cannot compete for status with the standard language. So it is that well-meaning teachers from time immemorial have sought to replace "bad" language with correctness. They lay down standards, which they hope their pupils will adhere to 24/7. There is some evidence from England that this technique is more successful with girls than with boys, and that over time the girls, who are more likely to use standard English, will remold the speech of their boyfriends and husbands, or at least some of them.

And yet popular culture, latterly particularly with hip-hop, keeps propagating nonstandard forms. Many young people soak up the idea that it is "square" (nowadays often termed, oddly enough, "gay") to insist on standard language. So this would seem to be a losing battle. Or is it? Slang terms age quickly, and a deviation from standard English that seems hip now, will become square later. It seems a reasonable hypothesis that as people get older they begin to drop the dated slang, and use standard English more and more. This process parallels the experience of the immigrants, where the older generation clings to the language of origin, while younger people go over to English.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

The Bolton effect

Some hold that John Bolton lacks the diplomatic skills to be our representative at the United Nations. This is indeed the case, but the shortsighted have failed to note the emergence of wonderful new principle. Here are some straws in the wind.

Jacques Chirac has announced his campaign for president of the United States. Vigorously rebutting assertions that the document attesting his American birth is a fake, Chirac vowed to take the fight to all fifty American départements. He believes that his insistence that French be the sole language of government business in the United States will weed out incompetents--indeed almost everyone. John Kerry is said to be pondering joining the ticket as vice-presidential candidate. TV correspondent David Gregory, who looks the part, will be secretary of state. Several Haitian Americans have come forward for other cabinet posts, but Chirac is having the purity of their French examined by a committee from the French Academy. James Carville has failed this test.

Despite some murmurs of discontent, David Duke is poised to become the new president of United Jewish Appeal. "If you can’t beat 'em, join 'em," Duke opined. "I’ve spent many years tracking Jewish efforts at world domination. All too often, these have been half-hearted and poorly devised. I’m not called David for nothing. Under my informed leadership, it’s on to victory. Lechaim!"

The ACLU will welcome a new head: feminist law professor Katharine McKinnon. "I realize that in the past the ACLU and I have not always been on the same page," noted McKinnon. “But it’s time for dialogue, vigorously expressed. Of course after the initial discussion period, limited to one week, those in the group who continue to resist my wisdom will be charged with rape. What a pity that Andrea, whose name means courage, did not live to witness this achievement."

Some observers have noted that recently the appearances of the Vice President have been less frequent. Some televised speeches and interviews were taped some time ago. Now, apparently, the mystery is solved with a tape from Afghanistan, where Mr. Cheney has been spending some time. It is said that the authenticity of the tape has been verified by experts in voice recognition. At all events the film shows Mr. Cheney in conversation with none other than Osama Bin Laden. The al-Qaeda leader stated: "Allah is truly great and truly merciful! He has seen fit to bestow His blessings on one of our greatest enemies, turning him into a supporter. After a few short questions I was able to determine that his conversion was authentic and will be long-lasting. Now that I am ailing it is good to know that there will be someone to take over my tasks. The fact that he is a former servant of Satan is in fact a plus, since he will be intimately acquainted with the wiles of the Enemies of the Faith and know how best to combat them. Henceforth, he is to be known as Cheni al-Dik al-Akbar." Despite the authentication, Mr. Cheney's comments, if they were indeed his, could not be deciphered.

Speaking of television, Tom Brokaw, who has a speech defect, will assume the post of anchor for a major TV network. Wait a minute: Tom Brokaw already is an anchor for a major TV network.

There is news on the cultural front as well. Reverend Donald Wildmon has appointed 50 Cent to be music director at his church. "I realized that to communicate with young people, contemporary language is a must," remarked the conservative pastor. "I know that Mr. Cent shares my enlightened views on women and homos. His ideas on the right to bear arms are impeccable. Besides, he will conduct our outreach to the African-American community."

The Metropolitan Opera announced that Milly Vanilly will star in the opening season this fall. Because they will dispense with lip-synching and amplification, their arias will only be audible in the front two rows, where seats will go for one million dollars each—somewhat higher than the usual charge. A Metropolitan spokesperson noted that "this is a wonderful chance to show our commitment to healing the breach between high culture and popular culture. It’s also a great fund-raising opportunity."

Wayne Dynes
Resident Scholar
Helen Keller School of Visual Analysis

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Hollywood Reds

The most absorbing book I have read recently is "Red Star Over Hollywood: The Film Colony's Long Romance with the Left" by Ronald and Allis Radosh (Encounter Books). Incorporating new research, this riveting book replaces (or should replace) the hagiographical efforts of Lillian Hellman and Victor Navasky, not to mention a slew of Hollywood films such as "The Way We Were [Not]." By presenting only the story of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) and the ensuing blacklist, left-leaning apologists have created a mythical picture of the Hollywood Ten and their associates as heroic, innocent victims.

Rightly, the Radoshes take the story back to the thirties when the Communists (and they were almost all Communists) attacked John Dewey’s commission, which was seeking the truth about the murder of Leon Trotsky in Mexico City. They whitewashed Stalin's show trials of the old Bolsheviks. And they invented contorted rationalizations for Stalin's appalling pact with Hitler of August 23, 1939. Their acceptance of the Soviet-Nazi pact showed that they were not "anti-fascists," as they claimed, but Stalinists. Enforcers like John Howard Lawson made sure that the Party line, dictated by the Kremlin, was strictly followed. The Radoshes show how the Hollywood Reds operated in a conspiratorial manner, penetrating and controlling the liberal "front" organizations they used for their purposes.

Most of the hard core of Hollywood Reds consisted of writers. Relatively few actors, directors, and producers were found in their ranks. Although the leftist writers claimed to have the interests of the working class at heart, there was little outreach to the Hollywood proletariat of camera people, lighting personnel, make-up artists and the like. With the possible exceptions of Albert Maltz and Budd Schulberg, these writers were all high-grade hacks. They specialized in turning out filmable scripts in short periods of time. For these services they were well rewarded. In fact it was said that the Hollywood Reds were the highest paid Communists outside the upper elite of the Soviet Union. Still, they felt resentment that the stars and studio bosses earned even more. This resentment probably accounts for much of the Reds’ phony proletarian sentiment.

The Radoshes say (without further elaboration) that some of the sixty persons who cooperated with HUAC did so because of fear that their homosexuality would be exposed. What individuals were they thinking of? Not Whitaker Chambers, who showed that Alger Hiss was a spy for the Soviets, but had nothing to do with Hollywood. The only obvious name that occurs to me is Will Geer (later known for impersonating Papa Walton on TV), who had been the lover of Harry Hay, the founder of the American gay movement.