Thursday, June 29, 2006

Fluctuating reputations

Van Wyck Brooks was an American literary critic and historian who flourished in the 1920s and 30s. As David Brooks (no relation) tells us in his NY Times column, Van Wyck advanced a dichotomy of "two publics, the cultivated public and the business the public of theory and the public of activity, the public that reads Maeterlinck and the public that accumulates money."

Who is this Maeterlinck guy that everybody reads? Maurice Maeterlinck (1862-1949) was a Belgian dramatist, poet, and prose writer, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1911. Most of his works were translated into English, some appearing in illustrated editions that were probably, in their day, collector's items. Today it is hard to come by many of his works even in French. Maeterlinck survives with but a single work, Pelleas and Melisande--and that is usually credited to Claude Debussy, who set it to music. Maeterlinck was a Symbolist who emphasized the uncertainty and indeterminacy of the perceived world. One might think that he would appeal to the Postmoderns and Deconstructors. As far as I know, they have sedulously avoided him.

Ethnically, Maeterlinck belonged to a vanished world of "fransquillons," Flemings who wrote in French. This group includes such one-time luminaries as Emile Verhaeren, Georges Rodenbach (who also survives through an opera, Korngold's "Die tote Stadt"), and the artist Fernand Khnopf. With the rise of Flemish nationalism, these figures became personae non gratae in their native land. The French do not care for them, because they were not French. And indeed their writings convey a subtle foreign quality, not unlike that of Joseph Conrad in English. Moreover, Symbolist theater seems a contradiction in terms, as it is deliberately vague and undramatic.

I like what I have read of Maeterlinck, but cherish no hope that he will ever make a comeback. Still, who is right--Van Wyck Brooks and a host of Maeterlinkians of yore, or today's Indifferents? Surely it cannot be (as some Postmodern relativists claim) that there are no objective literary or artistic values.

There are a number of intermediate cases. I mentioned the sculptor Henry Moore in the previous posting. He does retain some reputation. But a colossus striding the whole history of art, that he seems not to be. Maybe he can make a comeback.

Another intermediate case is Jean-Paul Sartre. When I first came to NYC fifty years ago it was obligatory to display Being and Nothingness on one's coffeetable. While it was a fat volume, the reprint sold for a mere $2.98. Today Sartre still survives in France, where he is thought to personify a whole era, as did Gide before him. In English-speaking countries, I suppose, people who care for this sort of thing go for Heidegger and Husserl, Sartre's Germanic preceptors. Then too, the French writer's long flirtation with Stalinism (combining with recent revelations of his ambiguous position in World War II) count against him. Today, I suspect, the only thing one reads of J-P. S. is his scintillating little autobiographical memoir, Les Mots.

Some reputations fade, sometimes irreparably, sometimes only partially or temporarily. A sure predictor of such fading occurs when an intellectual mirrors t o o c l o s e l y his or her age. This fate seems to be catching up to Susan Sontag. As this example shows, the figure's death often provides an opportunity for reassessment. Dare we hope in the case of the mountebank Jacky (as Jacques Derrida was known to his intimates)? Two other prime candidates, IMHO, are Michel Foucault and Walter Benjamin.

Off with their heads! It isn't so easy--and perhaps fortunately so, as there should be some limits to fluctuation, and some enduring landmarks in cultural reputations.

Monday, June 26, 2006


Some thirty years ago a feminist art historian alerted me the coming elevation of the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. How right she was! If only I had known I might have made a killing by acquiring one of her works. Probably not, since her oeuvre is tiny, rendering the available works scarce and pricey (even then).

Even my friend had no idea how high Fridamania could soar. Some even speak of Fridaism as a religion. All sorts of arcame symbolism is imported into her works, which in my view constitute a modest achievement. In the 1940s monographs on modern Mexican painting began to appear (one by my mentor Bernard S. Myers). If Frida Kahlo was mentioned in them it was usually as Mrs. Rivera. No one would have thought of her has belong to a status alongside, even eclipsing that of the tres grandes, Orozco, Siqueiros, and Rivera. Times have definitely changed.

Because of her multiple identities Frida assuredly goes to the head of the class in Victimology 101. She was a woman, Mexican, Jewish, a cripple, and a Leftist. True, according to Jewish law Frida was not Jewish, because it was her father who was of that faith, not her mother. But that fact hasn't deterred some from seeking kabbalist and other Jewish symbolism in her work.

(Kahlo's "ideal" victimhood reminds me of a true story. Thirty years ago the attorney Thomas F. Coleman was asked by the state of California to form a temporary commission to study the sexual problems of minorities. One day Gray Davis, then an aide to Governor Brown, called to ask: "Do you have a handicapped black lesbian." Without a pause, Tom replied: "Well we have the black lesbian; handicapping can be arranged.")

Fifteen years ago I visited Frida's ritzy house in a fancy suburb of Mexico City. Not only did she have servants galore, her library seemed to be stocked exclusively with hack Commie writings (in English), stuff even my Leftist parents would have distained.

At all events last night I chanced upon a cable rerun of the recent Hollywood movie "Frida." It was so hysterical and vulgar that I turned the thing off after thirty minutes. I'm glad I didn't shell out eleven dollars for that piece of tripe. Of course this transformation doesn't in itself tell you much about the artist. With "The Agony and the Ecstasy" Hollywood turned even Michelangelo into a soap opera.

Of course Kahlo is no Michelangelo. Still, there are larger issues here concerning artistic reputations. Sixty years ago Henry Moore was t h e modern sculptor. Nowadays you hardly ever hear about him. Can he be revived? Probably not, at least until it can be proved that he had an early case of HIV and was a descendent of Genghis Khan.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

My secret life

One can learn interesting things about oneself by perusing the Internet. According to one site, I am the benificiary of a "genius grant" from the MacArthur Foundation. This is the award that pays the lucky ones the equivalent of five year's salary to pursue whatever it is that they are doing. My checks must have been diverted, as I have received nary a one. Seriously, I am now retired, and am pursuing my research on a Dynes grant.

Another source indicates that I am a founder of New York State's Conservative Party. I must be suffering from amnesia, because I am only vaguely aware that such a party exists. To be sure, I have long been critical of the Left, as its world view is fatally flawed. Perhaps I should use the plural, its world views. The comment still stands. But a conservative? As the lawyer Flo Kennedy used to say, "just because I'm wearing pearls that doesn't make me an oyster."

At this point I doubt that any political label could stick to my forehead for longer that a microsecond. One that has fit in the past, after a fashion, has been libertarian. Much of the libertarian critique of rampant statism makes sense, in my opinion. Still, one must be a libertarian with sanity (to adapt a saying of ex-mayor Ed Koch). I cannot go along with Harry Browne's assertion that the federal government can be reduced to eleven people, nor with his grotesque suggestion that a five-year old child ought to be able to buy heroin at will at the drugstore. The first idea is facetious; the second mocks the need for serious reform of our policies regarding controlled substances.

The key problem with libertarianism is that it assumes (following, it seems, the philosopher Kant) that everyone can become a completely autonomous self-actualizing individual. Perhaps so in some distant future, but it is heartless to assume that such is the case now. I noticed this illusion when some of my friends said that all would be well with the impoverished Katrina victims if they simply practiced "personal responsibility." I have encountered this problem one-on-one in trying to help a thirty-five year old homeless man I have long known. No matter what the encouragement on my part may be, he just doesn't seem to be able to raise himself up by his bootstraps.

The most sinister and baseless accusation is that I am a pedophile. I have been swept up into a net devised by a fanatical sexual puritan. Her main contention is the equally absurd claim that Alfred Kinsey was an abuser of children. As a scholar of homosexuality I have sought to understand the historical role of intergenerational sex. In similar fashion, I have been looking for better understanding of S/M. My tentative experiments in the latter have shown that it is not for me. For myself I cannot even imagine sex with teenagers--let alone children! To me meaningful sexual relations can only be between two adults who share the same range of maturity and experiences. Otherwise one is just engaging in masterbation a deux.

Googling oneself on the 'net is, I grant, somewhat narcissistic. Yet I can't wait fo find what revelations may be in store about myself. No more phony pedophilia, I hope.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Spanish-language illusions

These days we hear a great deal of special pleading as regards the merits of Spanish. As I indicated I have no problem with people learning Spanish--I am reasonably fluent in that language myself. My problem lies with the direction in which we are moving as a country, and that is to require Spanish everywhere on a par with English.

My friend from Gay Species has stated on several occasions that Spanish is the dominant language of the Western hemisphere. Not so: Spanish is spoken by a minority of persons in the New World. At a conservative estimate English is spoken by about 285 million people in the Western hemisphere. That figure results from subtracting 50 million in the US who ostensibly do not speak English--even though many of these, including nominal Hispanophones, actually do. Then one must add Anglophones in Canada and the West Indies. There are 282 million Spanish speakers in the New World. Spanish does not excede English in terms of numbers; the two are on a par. Then one must remember the influx of 190 million Portuguese speakers in Brazil. Reckoning French and French creole into the mix, one must conclude that only about 35% of the people in the Western hemisphere speak Spanish. Spanish is far from hegemonic.

Moreover (and here one must speak plainly) English is incomparably more important than Spanish in terms of the wealth, creativity, and resourcefulness of its speakers. By contrast, in the lands south of the border Spanish, because of the way in which the conquistadors imposed it, has become linked with obstacles to progress--namely racially-based caste distinctions, poverty, hopelessness, caciquismo, and corruption. That is the legacy of the conquistadores, and it will take much more than a change of regime in Mexico, Venezuela, Bolivia or any other Latin American country to erase this dismal heritage. Inevitably the Spanish language is implicated as the vehicle for the inferiorization that has victimized the indigenous peoples. It took centuries for these patterns of domination to be consolidated; it will take much work to eradicate them. The spread of the English language in Latin America is part of this process of modernization and ipso fact of deinferiorization.

One may object that these findings regarding the plight of Latin America are stereotypes. Opinions will differ. The reality though is that millions of Spanish speakers are acquiring fluent English--and for good reason. In this country their children will, most of them, speak English only. Chile has a crash program to make all of its citizens bilingual in English and Spanish. Members of the Mexican elite, such as Jorge Castaneda and Carlos Fuentes, speak flawless American English. By contrast George Bush and Al Gore have only rudiments of Spanish--because that is all they need. One isn't supposed to say this (it's so rude and un-PC), but the movement is away from Spanish to English. Everywhere, except in the US, where our politicians wish to preserve ethnic enclaves as voting blocs.

In Scandinavia, Germany, the Netherlands--even in France and Italy--educated people are massively acquiring English as a second language. In the Netherlands I find it impossible to practice my Dutch; my interlocutors immediately switch to English. People in those countries, who are not stupid, are not learning Spanish. English opens many doors; Spanish very few.

Gay Species lives in San Francisco. Where he sits wouldn't it be more relevant to ask what language is or soon will be dominant in the Pacific Rim? That language is Chinese.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Fun with anagrams

Some years ago Dick Cavett found himself idle while waiting in an airport. He sketched the letters GORE VIDAL, and then rearranged them to form EVIL GLOVE. Nice, but no cigar, since in Cavett's creation L appears twice, and A is omitted.

A real anagram of the egregious Vidal is A LOVE GIRL. I like this one because it brings out his immaturity (even in the autumn of his years), together with his sexual confusion. The guy still cannot bring himself to admit that he is gay. On second thought, perhaps the old codger merits GRAVID OLE. The matter is really summed up by LARGE VOID.

With two Y’s, WAYNE DYNES admits of few anagrams. The one I like best is YAWN END, YES!

One should not get too carried away with this. A former associate, the noted art historian LEO STEINBERG, accumulated a number of flattering anagrams of his own name. One he did not cite is BILGE. TERSE? NO.

Speaking of ART HISTORY, my home field, a nice instance is ARTISTRY HO! Unfortunately, the discipline is rarely plebeian enough to merit TRASHY RIOT. For those truly jaded of the endeavor it is A SH*T OR TRY.


For some unfortunates ASTRONOMY turns out to be A MORON STY and AM NOT ROSY.

POSTMODERN has taken its lumps, but here are a few more—DESPOT NORM, DOT SPERM, NO and TEN SOD ROMP (my favorite dance, actually).

It’s that time of year, so one should check out GAY PRIDE. There is a lot of speechifying, hence YAP RIDGE. Those who have wearied of the whole thing would term it A DIRE GYP. One can always infuse a little controversy with incest (NICEST)-- PA, GIRD YE! A démarche of that caliber would certainly show that one is not ageist.

Politicians are also served. GEORGE W. BUSH is BEG SWORE UGH and SOB ERG WE HUG. John Kerry is not productive (only four items), but one is HORNY JERK.

Together with many others I view the claims of organized religion with skepticism. By the same token, though, militant atheists, whose dogmatism mirrors that of the religionists, turn me off. It is sobering then to learn that ATHEIST can be EAT SH*T.

You can find more of these items, till world’s end, at the site Brendan’s On-Line Anagram Generator (check Google).

Monday, June 12, 2006

Social dichotomies

In a previous posting I have advanced a thesis. Institutionalized bilingualism is divisive and unfortunate, as seen in Belgium, Canada, Cyprus, and Sri Lanka. Provided that there is a single dominant language, multilingualism is much less corrosive. In the Roman Empire Latin fulfilled this role; in Switzerland German has this status de facto. This contrast is why I view the coming bilingual regime in this country with foreboding.

There are more general patterns of social dichotomy. Anthropologists have observed moieties in tribal societies. In a given village about half the people belong, say, to the eagle clan, the other half to the wolf clan.

Such social dichotomies are common the microworld of academia, where departments tend to split into two factions. A friend who taught in the music department of several major universities noted that in each instance the faculty tended to divide up into composers and musicologists, on the one hand, and executants (conductors, singers, instrumentalists), on the other. This might be termed a structural dichotomy. Elsewhere there is a split between the professors who favor emphasizing undergraduate education as opposed to those who stress development of graduate teaching and research. Sometimes the division reflects the politics of the outside world. A friend who did graduate work in Spanish at a major university said that the faculty tended to divide between the supporters of Gabriel García Márquez and Pablo Neruda, on the one hand, and advocates of J. L. Borges and Mario Vargas Llosa, on the other. The student could tell the instructor’s politics from the reading list. The first group favored the Left, the second the Right. For want of a better term, all the divisions noted in this paragraph may be termed natural ones, as they have some objective basis.

In other cases, the division reflects the presence of one or more powerful personalities, who polarize the department. A new recruit may be adjured to join Smith, “our great leader.” Others whisper that Smith is the devil.

A more benign dichotomy exists in the political structure of English-speaking countries. For 150 years the United States has been divided into the Democrats and the Republicans. No third party has had a real chance. In Britain a third party appeared a hundred years ago called Labour. At first it seemed that the country would support three major parties. Instead, the Liberal Party was squeezed into virtual insignificance in the center. British elections are essentially about which will rule, the Conservatives or Labour. Tertium non datur.

Austria and Germany exhibit similar political-party patterns. Other continental countries have different dichotomies. In the Netherlands, the pillar system has flourished for many years, allocating resources fairly to persons of Protestant and Catholic heritage. With the decline of Christianity in Western Europe this difference has become vestigial. However, a new and dangerous dichotomy is emerging, as the Muslim group is rapidly growing, setting itself over and against native Dutch people.

These examples show a range of dangerousness, for some dichotomies are more threatening than others.

Why then is bilingualism generally n o t benign? The first reason stems from economic struggles. In Belgium a hundred years ago the Flemish section, a majority in terms of population, concluded that it was being short-changed economically. In Canada it has been just the opposite. There it is the French speakers who have the grievance. In Cyprus the Turkish people are much poorer than the Greek speakers. A functioning reunification of the island will, the the Turkish speakers feel, reduce them to permanent inferiority.

In addition to economic disputes, bilingual polities pose another problem. The categorization is relatively inflexible, especially where politicians, eager to maintain captive constituencies, set up strict rules for assignment of individuals to a language group.

By contrast, in America one can wake up one day and switch parties. The formerly “solid South” (solidly Democratic) is solid no longer. Conversely, some Republicans today are disconcerted by the policies of Bush as well as by the increasing dominance of evangelicals. They are abandoning their former party allegiance. By contrast, in states with institutionalized bilingualism it is not easy to switch.

[Historical note on multiculturalism. Although the term dates back to 1941, it owes its contemporary popularity to the turbulence of Canada in the 1970s. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, though himself of French-Canadian heritage, was committed to preserving the unity of Canada, opposing Quebecois separatism. He advanced the idea of multiculturalism as a counterweight to the binarism of the two Founding Peoples, the French and the English. The multicultural idea recognizes that there are other primal ethnic identities in play, namely those of the First Nations (as Amerindians are called up North). Historically this recognition is correct as far as it goes, but it is important to recognize that its deployment was a political device.

Since then matters have evolved in Canada. Secession of Quebec is, it seems, no longer on the agenda. However, multiculturalism has had unfortunate effects-—just as it has in other countries to which the notion has been exported. Canada’s embrace of immigrants of all sorts has included Islamists and jihadists, as seen in the recent discovery of the plot to use violence against Canada’s institutions. The unspoken assumption has been that all are welcome (provided that they accept the nation’s traditions of tolerance). What if they don’t? In Canada, and in Western Europe, we are seeing the malign effects of naïve multiculturalism.]

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Mandatory gay history?

A bill has been introduced in the California State Senate requiring the teaching of gay and lesbian history in the public schools. This subject would join women’s, black, and Latino history, which are already mandatory.

Gay observers seem delighted. I am not so sure. In New York State we have several such mandates. One requires the teaching of the Potato Famine in Ireland. This is a worthy subject, though the connection with New York State is indirect. Another law requires that the putative origin of the US Constitutional system in the Iroquois Confederation be taught. I have looked into the matter, and there is no convincing evidence for the claim. The American Founders were concerned in the first instance with Greece and Rome, and secondarily with such European Republics as Venice and the Swiss cantons. In the Iroquois claim, teachers are required to teach something that never happened. That is not history, but fiction.

The teaching of gay and lesbian history poses a number of problems. To be sure, that advance of scholarship has yielded a great deal of information. Some of it I helped bring into being with my editorship of the Encyclopedia of Homosexuality.

From the culture wars of the 1970s, though, I remember many problems. Gay activists who favored alliances with other oppressed groups, women, blacks, third-world peoples, wanted gay issues contextualized in that fashion. Gay history should be taught in the light of the “resistance” that righteous victims must always be shown to exemplify. More doctrinaire leftists thought that revolution was the answer, and history should be framed to show anticipations of that development. Feminists thought that gay issues were part of sexism and patriarchy. That was the only perspective that mattered. Hedonists, I suppose, believed that gay history should be taught as a perpetual party.

Numerous historical personalities have been identified by one scholar or another as gay or lesbian, with little or no proof. Recently, following C.A. Tripp’s book, it has become an article of faith in some quarters that Abraham Lincoln was gay. As far as I know, no mainstream Lincoln scholar accepts this claim. Will the teaching of the "Gabe" legend be imposed?

In my view the answer is to teach human history, as comprehensively as possible. In recent decades the discipline of history has tended to be swallowed up with the mush known as “social studies.” A return to real history is what is needed, not a proliferation of particularist mandates serving to advance the process of Balkanizing the country.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

The AIDS crisis, ergo gay marriage?

The twenty-fifth anniversary (if that is what it is to be called) of the start of the AIDS crisis has engendered a welcome series of reexaminations. In recent years HIV/AIDS had tended to fall off the radar screen. While new drugs have curbed the disease in the United States and other advanced Western countries, it is continuing to devastate a number of African countries.

I was astonished to learn that the HIV denialists are still in business. If HIV was not the cause of AIDS, how is it that the triple coctail of anti-HIV drugs has been so successful in prolonging the lives of people living with the condition? It is most unfortunate that the the South African government has bought into the denialist fantasies, bringing unnecessary death and suffering to the citizens of that country.

Let me turn to another aspect. In an op-ed in the NY Times of June 4, Jonathan Rauch has made a novel claim. He holds that the gay-marriage movement was a response to the AIDS crisis. It is true that the gay-marriage idea existed earlier--Rauch mentions the failed effort of two Minnesota men to obtain a licence to wed in 1970--but the big push for gay marriage did not begin until the early nineties, a decade after the first reports of AIDS.

This is an interesting claim, but is it more than post-hoc, propter hoc? After all, the Republican takeover of Congress began about the same time (in 1994), but no one would conclude that this development had anything to with AIDS.

Among same-sex people AIDS affects primarily gay men. If a desire to flee AIDS and the underlying "culture of promiscuity and alienation" was a major factor, why is it that lesbians have rallied in disproportionate numbers to gay marriage? I take strong exception to Rauch's echoing of homophobic propaganda when he speaks of gay life sans marriage as a "culture of death." Shame on you Jonathan Rauch.

Supposing McConnell and Baker, the Minnesota gay men, had been successful in marrying in 1970, and then gay marriage spread throughout the land. Does anyone think that we would not subsequently have had an AIDS crisis?

The "culture of promiscuity" is the culture of men, who are biologically programmed to seek as many partners as possible. In Africa HIV/AIDS is primarily a heterosexual phenomenon. Would gay marriage have stalled the progress of the disease on that continent.

Today, the gay marriage movement is on the ropes. It is going nowhere. The reason is the notion that so many gay activists seem to hold, that same-sex marriage is simply an entitlement. "We want our rights, and we want them now." This strategy has not worked, because the American people do not respond favorably to coercion. Rauch's claim must be viewed as a last-ditch effort to find reasons for a cause that has stalled and is now, to all intents and purposes, out of commission.

I have indicated previously why Massachusetts does not have gay marriage on a par with heterosexual marriage. In the unlikely event that our high court in New York
decides in favor of SSM, we will not have it here either.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Selective federalism

Currently the federalism mantra enjoys popularity in some consertive and libertarian circles. As one supporter puts it, this principle holds that "many policy decisions are best left to state and local government." The devilish detail is that little word "many." How many and which ones?

Those who support limited government sometimes seem to think that shifting responsibility from Washington to the states will serve this end. In reality, of course, many states are now out of control, appropriating and spending vast sums, and imposing all sorts of unnecessary regulations. Since state legislators are less experienced than federal ones, lobbyists have a field day with them. So federalization cannot itself serve the goal of limited government.

At the age of 71 I can remember how "states rights" served to preserve the odious institutions of Jim Crow in the South. It took the intervention of the US Supreme Court and subsequently the Congress to put a stop to these evils. Apparently racial segregation is not one of the "many policy decisions that are best left to state and local government."

Today gay-marriage advocates are discouraged. And they should be, because their efforts, in part owing to their own hubris, have stalled. While the marriage amendment to the Constitution will probably not pass, the mere discussion of it in Congress is unnerving. So what is the answer? Jonathan Rauch and Dale Carpenter say that it is federalization. Under this principle other states would be free to follow the example of Massachusetts. That doesn't seem to be happening, though. Moreover, in key respects Massachusetts does not have same-sex marriage, at least not one that is truly equivalent to heterosexual marriage in that state. It has been calculated that over 1000 federal benefits are lacking. Some of these are probably trivial, but not being able to file a joint tax return and to carry one's married status to another state are significant limitations. So if the states are laboratories of new solutions, Massachusetts is not much of a laboratory in this instance.

At the beginning of the millennium homosexual behavior was illegal in thirteen American states. It seems that these states were simply making use of their prerogatives under federalism. It took the Lawrence decision of the US Supreme Court to right this wrong. Where were the gay conservatives and libertarins then? Shouln't they have opposed Lawrence as an unfortunate infringement of the federalism principle?

Welcome to the brave new world of selective federalism.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Minor-language follies

As we struggle with bilingual issues in the United States, a different approach is occurring in Europe. A recent report from European Union officials scrutinizes German compliance with the 1992 European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages. The report finds German performance wanting, specifically in neglecting the interest of fostering Low German, Sater Frisian, and Lower Sorbian.

These are very different. “Low German” (actually Plattdeutsch) is a northern variant of standard German, with an extensive literature. By contrast Frisian is an independent Germanic language, spoken in the Netherlands as well as in Germany. Upper Sorbian is a Slavic language with about 55,00 speakers in Saxony. Closely related to it, but less populous, is Lower Sorbian with only 14,000 speakers in Brandenburg.

I owe the information about the European report to Edward Rothstein, the always-stimulating cultural commentator of the New York Times (issue of May 29). The preservation of these minor languages is urged on the grounds of cultural diversity, as well as some vaguely articulated principle of recompense. Instead of allowing languages gradually to dwindle and die, as countless numbers have done in the past, they are to be placed on life-support. Aptly, Rothstein asks whether languages are like people, whose rights must be protected.

These ideas reflect a vein of linguistic romanticism that goes back to the ideas of Johann Friedrich von Herder in the eighteenth century. Herder, who lived in the linguistically rich East Baltic area, held that a language is the soul of a people. His ideas joined forces with a kind of normative diversitarianism that enjoyed popularity at the time. In this view variety is always better than uniformity. Clearly, contemporary ideas of cultural diversity derive from the thinking of Herder and his contemporaries.

I do not accept this view. At one time most of my ancestors spoke only Gaelic. Today, despite enormous efforts to stem the decline, Erse is dying in the Irish Republic. There are now more speakers of Polish in that country than of Erse. I say "goody." The sooner Erse expires the better. After all, we have many books and recordings in the language, which is more than we can say for Cornish. There is no need to prop up this Celtic-twilight fossil any further.

Linguistic diversitarians lament that about a thousand languages, with really tiny numbers of speakers, are scheduled to disappear in the near future. I say good riddance.

There is much confusion about what a language is. Over the years linguists have evolved reliable criteria for distinguishing languages. Thus Romance-language scholars will tell you that Sardinian is a language distinct from Italian. By contrast, Sicilian and Venetian are varieties of Italian, dialects if you will.

In the Iberian Peninsula Catalan is a language distinct from Castilian. Yet Asturian is not a language, but a variety of Castilian. All the same there is a special Wikipedia in Asturian. Such pseudodistinctions are often influenced by politics. During Franco’s time the government tried to force everyone in Spain to use Castilian. Now that Spain has overcome its Falangist heritage, there has been a diversitarian reaction.

The Danish philologist Otto Jespersen remarked sardonically that a language is a dialect that has acquired an army and a navy. I suspect that he was thinking of Norwegian, which Danes wrongly regard as a rustic variant of their language. Jespersen’s maxim certainly seems to be true in the former Yugoslavia. Now that both Croatia and Serbia are independent each has its own military. (I don’t know about navies, since Serbia is landlocked). In fact Serbo-Croatian is a single language with only minor regional variations. Now the Montenegro has opted for separation from Serbia, it will be interesting to see if a Montenegrin language appears. Look for it in Wikipedia.

Towards the end of his piece Rothstein makes an interesting mistake. He links multilingualism with the problems of Cyprus and Sri Lanka. In fact those countries are not multilingual, but bilingual (Turkish and Greek in Cyprus; Tamil and Sinhala in Sri Lanka). In an earlier posting I indicated the crucial difference between bilingualism and multilingualism in the political fortunes of nations. But most observers persist in conflating the two.

Historically, the immigrants made the United States multilingual. A hundred years ago there was no single competitor for English. The immigrants spoke Italian, Russian, Yiddish, Hungarian, Greek and so forth. Today we have a similar situation. But there is one difference. As in Canada, Belgium, Cyprus, and Sri Lanka, we propose to elevate one language to coequal status with English. This is a recipe for disaster.