Wednesday, November 23, 2011


One observer has termed the pepper spraying of peaceful students at UC Davis "inappropriate."

I have not been able to find much evidence that permits the tracing of this usage. My recollection, though, is that it came into vogue in a bureaucratic context in universities--in my case at Hunter College. According to President Jacqueline Wexler, the student occupation of the campus some thirty years ago was "inappropriate."

The appeal of the adjective as a replacement for "bad" is that it appears to be objective. The usage also seems to accord with a popular version of situation ethics, where something that would be acceptable in one context is deemed not to be so in others.

Thus wearing dirty jeans or using four-letter words at a job interview would not be the appropriate thing to do. On a beer bust, though, they might be.

By this standard when is it ever appropriate to pepper spray peaceful protesters? Perhaps it is with nonpeaceful ones, though that is by no means clear.

One can also imagine insidious variations. Thus the Rev. Paul Shanley's serial acts of pedophilia were "inappropriate." Bush's invasion of Iraq was "inappropriate." Qaddafi's conduct during his regime was "inappropriate." And so forth.


Tuesday, November 15, 2011


As is well known, the Internet is rife with wrangling of all sorts. Some of it has occurred in these pages. That's life, I would suppose.

But some people say that there is a simple rule that will obviate most of this stuff: criticize ideas and opinions, not persons.

This is a noble ideal, but it is not always practical. If someone says, e.g., "Adolf Hitler has been misjudged. He was a great man who did much for Germany and the world"--surely it is not enough to refute this obviously wrong view. It is appropriate to ask pointed questions about the mental make-up and character of someone who could make such a bizarre claim. In such cases, it is better to be forthright than to adhere to a purist position: "just criticize the idea."

Moreover, many sometimes feel, not always without reason, that when their views are criticized there is some personal animus involved. This is particularly a problem when person A keeps criticizing the views of person B. In principle, I suppose the sense could be alleviated if person A indicated from time to time that (s)he holds person B in high regard. But such assurances could seem insincere.

In such matters there does not seem to be any universal rule, to be followed in every instance.


Another faulty adage

Now widely current, the admonition, "Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made" (Aus so krummem Holze, als woraus der Mensch gemacht ist, kann nichts ganz Gerades gezimmert werden) stems from Immanuel Kant's "Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose" (1784). It was popularized by the British liberal philosopher Isaiah Berlin.

Today, "Crooked Timber" is a popular blog.

Like many current cliches, the term “crooked timber” reflects an obsolete technology. In Kant’s time, lumber was normally hewn ad hoc with an adze or other instrument.

Beginning in the 1840s, however, lumber mills became the standard source for wood. They produced regular planks, allowing for what is termed balloon-framing construction. This technique produces the wooden skeleton of uniform frames that we normally see as a house is going up.

Perhaps the metaphor is valid about crooked timber. Yet there is no need actually to make use of crooked timber, unless you think it looks picturesque. Instead, go to a lumber yard. Out of this timber, carefully hewn according to exacting standards, lots of straight things have been made.


Friday, November 11, 2011

Mangled translation

[I couldn't resist reproducing some paragraphs from a translation of an earlier posting of mine on Claude Levi-Strauss, apparently into Russian and back again. It is from a site called russianbrides, where you can read the whole thing. -- Ah, the days when we were enchanted together!]

In college in the fifties I [WD] hew down in with a grouping of graduate students who were sociologists and anthropologists who half convinced me that, enchanted together, these disciplines sufficed to apprehend the over the moon marvellous. Sociology (then at the replenish of its prestige) explained advanced industrial societies, while anthropology took complaint in deep trouble of the tea. I was continually uneasy that both seemed to pass up the highest achievements of magnanimous sensation of values to assail together on the homespun. Of plainly the methodological problems posed in the locality anthropology and sociology had not surfaced, in spite of a not divers were hyperopic, even-tempered in those Pollyannaish days. For divers, I postulate, this lay plaice was an advantage; to me it was not. Epigrammatically, W.

Auden attach it first-rate, with his eleventh commandment, "Thou shalt not allocate a sexually transmitted approach." Nonetheless in 1955 I dutifully acquired chestnut of the required bibles, a behemoth tome entitled Anthropology Today: An Encyclopedic Inventory, edited in the locality the distinguished Americanist Alfred L. H. Kroeber. I was struck, in spite of, in the locality an identical in the soft-cover in the locality Claude Lйvi-Strauss, a maverick who attracted me in the locality his autonomy. As I cancel (the soft-cover has recently disappeared during a needed triage of my library), this tome had essays in the locality hither fifty specialists, mostly representing the consensus of American Anthropology at the outdated, dominated in the locality the unwritten law established in the locality Franz Boas. in cross This was in details my primordial introduction to structuralism, a taxpayer to which I settle upon replacing in a tick.


Lйvi-Strauss, in studying the mythologies of untaught tribes, transformed the scheme the 20th century came to apprehend mores itself. "A important pundit, Mr. Tribal mythologies, he argued, Вlan remarkably smarmy systems of dialectics, showing normal bananas qualities as chichi as those of Western societies. Lйvi-Strauss rejected the end that differences between societies were of no consequence, but he focused on the down aspects of humanity's attempts to apprehend the over the moon marvellous. . . . He became the primordial agent of 'structuralism,' a ready of compassion in which cosmic 'structures' were believed to underlie all magnanimous be disadvantaged by, giving decree to possibly disparate cultures and creations.""His manage was a complete power even-tempered on his critics, of whom there were divers. And his article - a ragout of the chop-logic and the rapturous, fullest extent of unafraid juxtapositions, knotty Donnybrook and cultivate metaphors - resembles trivial that had awaken formerly in anthropology."Lйvi-Strauss is such a justly known sketch that the cornerstone facts of his lumpen may be lickety-split summarized.

There has been no comparable successor to him in France. Born into a acclaimed French-Jewish artistic corm, he started in tenets. In the 1930s he had the distribute possessions of being invited to appropriate with a look on a professor at the University of Sгo Paulo in Brazil. Finding this taxpayer too arid, he switched to anthropology. From this about he launched his review trips to the reach of the Amazonian Indians, his merely the sack manage. After the decline of France he made his scheme to Marseille where he was proficient to put into place a speedboat to the French Caribbean. disparaging. Having returned to France, he was fleetingly mobilized at the start of World War II.


As he remarked, in spite of, the manage can clear-headed as plainly be characterized as the dealing of men. I made my primordial apprehensive agreement with the French scholar's manage in 1955, in spite of I had trivial kink of the scheme he on into what capability be termed the "map of information." In the plainly of the following decade a dissimilar of translations of exposed books made his ideas more rambler in the English-speaking over the moon marvellous. As I acclaimed. Two handle absent from, and appease ballast as distribute introductions. in cross More unqualifiedly connected to structuralism was The Savage Mind, translated into English in 1966. The primordial is his amply illuminating pilgrimages recollections Tristes Tropiques (1955).

When I was teaching at Columbia University in the untaught seventies I got the end of bothersome to reshape structuralism into ancient history. I formed a trivial grouping of graduate students to hit this conversion. Lйvi-Strauss had unmistakable the scheme with his studies of the masks of the Northwest Coast Indians. As with other such attempts in this the sack, our efforts did not greatest ballast to much. I conclude with a not divers words hither structuralism itself.

[And so forth.]


A London memory

At the beginning of my London years (1963-67) I was fortunate to attend some lectures of Karl Popper, the noted philosopher of science. This experience changed my life. During his lectures Popper, who was a small man, sat as if enthroned under the proscenium of the lecture hall at the London School of Economics. He was flanked by two disciples, who sat on chairs at either side as if serving as sergeants of arms.

The occasion I remember most vividly was when he held up a newspaper, saying: I read today in The Times that those of us in the academic world must all strive to be as good as Oxford and Cambridge. Nonsense, he declared. We must do a great deal better than Oxford and Cambridge. He was referring to the emergent orthodoxy of analytic philosophy at the two leading British universities. Quite correctly, he did not think much of the analytic trend, which was in his view obsessed with minor linguistic quibbles, while neglecting the major problems of philosophy.

Sir Karl Popper (1902-1994) was born in Vienna, a city that could then claim to be the foremost center of innovation in the Western world. As a young man, Popper worked for a time with the psychiatrist Alfred Adler, who was then concerned with helping troubled children. On one occasion Popper discovered a boy whose symptoms did not conform to Adler’s dogmatic theories; he then dared to confront his chief with this exceptional case. Somewhat impatiently, the great man explained how the boy did indeed fit in with his theories. Cheekily, the young assistant asked: “How do you know that, Dr. Adler.” To which his interlocutor replied “That I know from thousand-fold experience.” To which Popper retorted: “Now you know if from thousand-and-one-fold experience.” In other words, Adler's interpretation was an example of confirmation bias--showing how we are prone to interpret each new occurrence of a phenomenon in terms of our existing preconceptions.

This early encounter anticipated one of Popper’s main discoveries, that is, that we establish the validity of truth not by a series of verification experiences ("proofs"), but rather through exposing theories to the risk of falsification.

As a young man he was impressed by a lecture that Albert Einstein gave on relativity theory. The dominance of the critical spirit in Einstein, and its absence in Marx, Freud, and Adler, struck Popper as a contrast of fundamental importance. The latter three, he came to think, couched their theories in terms which made them amenable only to confirmation, while Einstein's theory, crucially, had implications which, if false, would have demolished the theory itself. In other words, the triumph of Einstein’s theories stemmed, paradoxically enough, from their initial vulnerability. By contrast Marxist and Freudian concepts are formulated in a way that insulates them from critique.

The dominant philosophical group in Vienna at the time was the Wiener Kreis, the circle of “scientifically-minded” intellectuals focused around Moritz Schlick, who had been appointed Professor of the philosophy of the inductive sciences at Vienna University in 1922. The group included Rudolf Carnap, Otto Neurath, Viktor Kraft, Hans Hahn and Herbert Feigl. The principal objective of the members of the Circle was to unify the sciences, in their view the only real source of knowledge. To this end, they sought to exclude from philosophy everything that they considered to be useless. The primary target of their eliminationist campaign was metaphysics, which they hoped to destroy by showing that metaphysical propositions are meaningless. The overall tendency was called logical positivism.

After showing some initial interest in the Circle--he shared their affinity with science--Popper became increasingly critical of the main tenets of logical positivism, especially of what he considered to be its misplaced focus on the theory of meaning in philosophy and upon verification in scientific methodology. He articulated his own view of science, and his criticisms of the positivists, in his first work, published under the title Logik der Forschung in 1934. An English version, The Logic of Scientific Discovery, appeared in 1959.

Yet storm clouds were gathering. The growth of Nazism in Germany and Austria compelled him, like many other intellectuals who shared his Jewish origins, to leave his native country. In 1937 Popper took up a position teaching philosophy at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, where he was to remain for the duration of World War II.

The growing threat of fascism prompted him to reorient his research interests towards social and political philosophy. This became the theme of his magnum opus, "The Open Society and Its Enemies." In this two-volume work Popper developed a critique of historicism and a defense of the open society, liberal democracy. Volume one is subtitled "The Spell of Plato",and volume two, "The High Tide of Prophecy: Hegel, Marx, and the Aftermath.”

Popper’s iconoclastic critique of Plato as an authoritarian excited the ire of many classicists. For his part, Popper held that most Plato interpreters through the ages have been seduced by his greatness. In so doing, Popper argues, they have taken his political philosophy as a benign idyll, rather than regarding it correctly as a horrific totalitarian nightmare of deceit, violence, master-race rhetoric and eugenics. Popper held that Plato reacted against the growing humanism of Athenian society in his own day. In his view, Plato's historicist ideas are driven by a fear of the change that comes with such a liberal world view. Popper also suggests that Plato was the victim of his own vanity——that he had designs to become the supreme Philosopher King of his vision.

Much later I was to find that Popper’s approach helped to understand Plato’s shift from an early fervent appreciation of male same-sex love to a denunciation of it, as seen in his late work, The Laws.

In volume two, Popper moves on to examine Hegel and Marx, tracing back their ideas to Aristotle, and arguing that, as arch-historicists, the two were at the root of 20th century totalitarianism. By historicism he means: "an approach to the social sciences which assumes that historical prediction is their primary aim, and which assumes that this aim is attainable by discovering the 'rhythms' or the 'patterns', the 'laws' or the 'trends' that underlie the evolution of history.” ("The Poverty of Historicism," p. 3). This approach claims that history exhibits an inevitable, deterministic pattern,. The overriding force of this supposed pattern serves to elide the democratic responsibility of each of us to make our own free contributions to the evolution of society. This way of thinking leads to totalitarianism.

nother of Popper’s targets is what he calls "moral historicism," the attempt to derive moral values from the course of history. This tendency has taken several forms, including conservatism, positivism, and futurism. The latter position holds that what is right and just will inevitably prevail. In this way of thinking Popper anticipated Sir Isaiah Berlin’s critique of the “Inevitability of Historicism,” as seen in his influential paper of 1954.

After its publication in England, the success of "The Open Society and Its Enemies" brought Popper an invitation to teach at the London School of Economics," where he moved in 1946.

For Popper the growth of human knowledge proceeds from problems and from our attempts to solve them. These attempts involve the formulation of theories which, if they are to address anomalies infesting earlier theories, must go beyond existing knowledge; they therefore require a leap of the imagination. For this reason, Popper places special emphasis on the role of creative imagination in the formulation of concepts. Devising our theories with as much verve as possible, we must nonetheless recognize that they may turn out to be false. In this way, Popper dramatically declared, our theories die in our place.

While at the London School of Economics Karl Popper allied himself with the great economist Friedrich Hayek, whose libertarian thought was later to exercise a great influence on me. Yet since Hayek moved to Chicago in 1950 I never met him.

Popper’s ideas attracted opposition from various quarters. I have already noted the displeasure of Plato scholars because he had disparaged their hero--and also perhaps because of their horror that a non-classicist should dare to venture into their territory. Yet I have always been encouraged by this incursion, this poaching if you will, and others like it. After all, at one time the experts were almost unanimously certain that homosexuality was perversion. They were wrong, and this needed saying.

Popper also transgressed against some cherished views of the Left. He freely criticized Karl Marx. Not unlike his friend Friedrich Hayek, Popper opposed the ideal and practice of universal social planning. Yet he allowed for carefully targeted “piecemeal planning.”

Popper continued to be intellectually active until the end of his life, producing a number of new books, which I eagerly devoured as soon as they appeared. From his teaching I derived one great lesson: be bold in formulating conjectures--and be ready to abandon them whenever their lack of viability might become evident.


Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Talking about the dead--and the living

"De mortuis nihil nisi bonum" is a Latin phrase indicating that one should only say good things about the dead--literally,"of the dead, nothing unless good," The maxim does not derive from Latin literature but from the Greek writer Diogenes Laërtius in his Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, where he attributes it to Chilon of Sparta. Since both men were Greek, the original aphorism was rendered as τὸν τεθνηκóτα μὴ κακολογεῖν ("Don't badmouth a dead man"). In 1432 Italian theologian Ambrogio Traversari translated Diogenes' work into Latin, establishing the now familiar wording.

In practice the admonition only seems to apply to the recently deceased, for few would aver that one should say only good things about, say, Attila the Hun, Torquemada, or Adolf Hitler, As with many such pieces of advice it is to be used with discretion.

On learning of the decease of her arch-rival Joan Crawford, Bette Davis is reputed to have remarked: “'My mother told me never to speak badly of the dead. She's dead.... Good.”

Witty, but it doesn’t address the issue head on. Why s h o u l d n ‘ t one speak ill of the dead? One clue is that the current formulation, by Traversari, comes from a time when belief in Purgatory was still common, in fact obligatory in the Christian world. Prayers and masses were offered for the departed who resided in that harrowing place of purgation in hopes of speeding their liberation. By the same token, emphasizing the faults of a dead person could delay his or her departure from Purgatory

Why then should modern secular persons follow this principle of denial? It beats the hell (sic) out of me.

I would like to propose the following principle. As far as possible, we should refrain from saying negative things about the living. Such comments are hurtful. After folks are gone, though, they have no sentience and cannot feel any anguish about things that are said about them. Of course this does not mean that one should simply reverse the motto: De mortuis nihil bonum--say nothing good about the dead. That would be extreme. But one should be free to mingle observation of the good with the bad. If it is feasible, though, the living should be spared.

PS I admit that for me this principle is more a thought experiment than anything else. My sharp tongue and pen have long been notorious. But perhaps I could try harder.


Friday, November 04, 2011

The "Gaybe" question revisited

Six years after its appearance, C.A. Tripp’s book “The Intimate Abraham Lincoln” (2005) still ranks as the most serious and inclusive roundup of arguments for the homosexuality of the 16th president of the United States. Initially the volume elicited a frosty reception from the community of Lincoln scholars, though today, in 2011, a couple of cracks may be detected in the edifice of nonreception.

Before turning to these, let us examine one of the assertions of “new evidence,” something that Tripp did not know about. In 1994, Larry Kramer claimed to have a trump card, a smoking gun in the form of a hitherto unknown Joshua Speed diary, as well as a stash of letters in which Speed writes explicitly about his love affair with Lincoln. The secret pages, which were discovered hidden beneath the floorboards of the old store where the two men lived, now are said to reside in a private collection in Davenport, Iowa.

Kramer refused to share any portions of these documents, and five years later he abandoned the claim. What became of the purported diary and papers is unknown. This debacle has not prevented him from engaging in further speculations to the effect that Lincoln's murder may have been a kind of gay-bashing, resulting from a kinky sexual set-up. "There's some evidence that shows that Speed presented Booth to Lincoln as a 'present' and the young Booth, who was a gorgeous man, was virulently homophobic, like the men who killed Matthew Shepard," he stated. "If the murder turns out to have had a homosexual underpinning, that's going to freak everybody out."

I turn now to two more serious contributions, both by respected scholars. One comes from John Stauffer, chair of Harvard University’s Department of American Civilization. In his book “Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglas and Abraham Lincoln,” he supports the thesis that Joshua Speed was, as he states, “Lincoln’s soul mate and the love of his life.” In a subsequent article in the scholarly journal "Reviews of American History," Stauffer wrote,“In light of what we know about romantic friendship at the time, coupled with the facts surrounding Speed’s and Lincoln’s friendship, there is no reason to suppose they weren’t physically intimate at some point during their four years of sleeping together in the same small bed, long after Lincoln could afford a bed of his own. To ignore this, as most scholars do, is to pretend that same-sex carnal relationships were abnormal. It thus presumes a dislike or fear about such relationships, reflecting a presentist and homophobic perspective.”

This assertion seems to amount to a definite “maybe.” At all events, Stauffer doesn’t seem to have any new evidence, as the Speed connection was one of the chief features of Tripp’s book.

There is also a second respected scholar, the octogenarian William Hanchett, professor of history emeritus at UC San Diego. In an article in the “Lincoln Herald,” Hanchett challenged historians to take Tripp’s book seriously, either confirming it or refuting it. Hanchett claimed to break new ground when he alluded to the Memo books kept by Lincoln’s law partner William Herndon. Whether these really add new information is uncertain.

The most recent scholarly contribution is “Was Abraham Lincoln Gay?” in the "Journal of Homosexuality," 57:9 (2010), pp. 1124-57. This article, by Michael Ferguson, collects evidence that male same-sex behavior was more common in mid-19th century American than has usually been assumed. Yet the evidence is circumstantial, and application to Lincoln is tenuous.

Thus we are left with the sense that we have not moved much beyond Tripp’s book of six years ago. It may be that the coming years will see some real advance, but that is impossible to know now.


Wednesday, November 02, 2011

A new turn

Reader alert. Dyneslines may be about to move in a new direction. My best friend, who is writing his memoirs, suggests that I do the same.

I am now 77 and have had a fairly interesting life. I grew up in genteel poverty in a fairly good neighborhood in Los Angeles. My parents were poor not for any cultural reason--both had gone to college--but because of the huge medical bills that had to be paid for my mother.

When I moved to New York to go to graduate school in 1956 I observed big differences between LA and NYC, as well as the closeted gay scene here. The biggest effect, though, was the enormous benefit of being taught by great scholars of the Transatlantic Migration, German-Jewish professors who had escaped from Hitler. We shall not see their like again.

Then I lived in Italy and England for substantial periods. But I came back to the US because that is where the action was--and is. Specifically for me, it was the gay and lesbian liberation movement. That led to my actual scholarly mission, centering on the Encyclopedia of Homosexuality.

If I can muster the appropriate moxie, some chapters will follow.