Thursday, March 29, 2012


[For some reason, this little piece keeps getting trashed in its 2006 posting. So I am reposting it here, deleting the original entry.]

Schlimmbesserung is a rare, but useful German term to designate an effort to make something better that actually makes things worse. According to Sebastiano Timpanaro, the brilliant Italian philologist, the term originally derived from the exacting discipline of textual criticism. During classical and medieval times all texts had to be copied by hand. This process led to several recurrent problems. One of them was the tendency of the copyist to replace a less familiar term with one that is more usual. For example, in copying a Latin text the scribe might substitute mysterium for ministerium. It is the job of the text editor to detect such "improvement" and to reverse them.

An ordinary example is the eighteenth-century correction of asparagus to sparrow-grass. (This change also illustrates the principle of folk etymology.)

The concept has a wide application to technology (inter alia). For example, my TV remote stopped working. The cable guy brought a replacement. But in this one the "mute" button doesn't work--for me a significant handicap.

The principle is also illustrated by a joke. A recent immigrant presents himself before a judge requesting that his name be legally changed. Looking at the papers, the magistrate noted that the applicant was one Boris Tufschitzky. "Yes, young man, I can imagine that in your native land the name of, er, Tufschitky might be a suitable, even distinguished surname. In this country, I fear that matters are otherwise. The court applauds your wish to acculturate. Just tell the clerk what new name you have chosen and we will effect the change."

Response: "Oh, your honor will love new name--very American. I wish to be called Joe--Joe Tufschitzky.

[One German speaker holds that properly the term should be "Verschlimmbesserung," with the prefix. That may be so, but the longer form seems too cumbersome.)


Thursday, March 22, 2012

Atheism: a couple of neglected points

In the wake of the books by Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens, it might be thought that there is little more to be said about atheism.

Here, though, is a distinction that has rarely been noted: the difference between "cradle atheists," those raised with these convictions; versus those, probably a majority, who have adopted atheism as adults, having been previously brought up in religious households. In my experience, individuals in the latter group have a tendency to go hard core--to be "angry" and "pissed off," as a recent book has it. They also sometimes carry over aspects of their religious training, showing a missionary zeal to convert others. Some even attend quasireligious retreats, where catechisms are recited and atheist baptisms are practiced.

The cradle atheists are a mixed lot. Some may join the angries, while others just take the unbelief in stride and devote their energies to other things. Then there is a group of people who become apostates, some, like one of the sons of Madelyn Murray O'Hare, becoming fervent Christians. I confess that I was a cradle atheist, and was briefly tempted in adolescence to join the ranks of the believers. Instead I am an agnostic, a view often confused with atheism, though it is different.

Another consideration is this. Atheism, we are told, means that one is no longer burdened with useless illusions. By definition, one can then become a more effective person. Since cradle atheists have had a longer experience, they should be, on average, even more effective than those who have adopted atheism in adulthood. I don't know if there is any research on this question (even assuming, as is dubious, the point that atheists as a whole are more effective than theists).

Some atheists are simply indifferent to the God question. They consider it irrelevant and have moved on. But not all feel this way. Why are some atheists militant?

Their objection seems to be broadly cultural. In their view, theism is too influential in public life, leading to illiberal consequences. Yet the examples of Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King show that religion does not always entail regressive consequences.

At all events, it seems to me that the militant atheists of this type have come to indulge in a category mistake. They confuse identifying the noxious effects of some believers in public life with the cognitive assertion of the nonexistence of God. One or both of these statements may be true, but they belong to different realms.

I have dealt at length with the negative effects of organized religion as most of us experience it at my allied site of

UPDATE (March 24)

I am told that today will see a rally of atheists and secular humanists in Washington DC, the largest in ten years, even though rain seems to be coming. Perhaps that event makes it appropriate for me to examine further a crucial discontinuity in the arguments of contemporary atheists. That discontinuity appears as we assess independently two different issues: 1) the evidence, or not, for the existence of God; and 2) the harmful effects of organized religion (especially the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) in the world as we know it. The mashing together of these two issues into a single purported whole is at the root of the category mistake I noted above.

The possibilities are more complex than is usually realized. Consider these four positions:

1) God exists, and he does more good than harm (the general view of Jews, Christians, and Muslims);

2) God exists, and he does more harm than good (Satanists and believers in the doctrine of the Demiurge);

3) God does not exist, yet believers in this nonexistent being do more good than harm (secular admirers of religious art and music; some ethicists);

4) God does not exist, and believers in this nonexistent being do more harm than good (most modern atheists).

Pondering this array, one can see that in addition to the usual contrast of positions one and four, there are two others.

One problem that I have with many atheists and secularists is that they seem to have very little aesthetic sensitivity. They do not have (or so it seems) any appreciation of the many beautiful settings of the Christian mass from Palestrina and Bach to Haydn and Mozart. In the visual arts, Chartres Cathedral and Michelangelo seem to hold no interest for them. They find no poetry or uplift in the Bible at all. Instead, these nonbelievers focus almost exclusively on a vast roster of injustice collecting, from the medieval inquisition and the execution of Michael Servetus to the Holocaust and the intolerance of modern evangelicals.

It takes a very steady gaze (one that I have not always achieved myself) to bring these positive and negative panoramas into a common synoptic view. But unless this synthesis is attempted, one's assessment must remain partial.


Greta Christina is a blogger popular in atheist circles. She has just published an ebook “Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless” (March 18, 2012). Going straight to the point, the first chapter is entitled “A Litany of Rage,” and it offers a long list of atrocities, mainly those committed by Christians, though some Jewish and Muslim ones appear there as well.

After pondering the matter somewhat, I asked myself “what do these atrocities have to do with God?” A strange question you may say, because the one seems to follow the other as night follows day. Just a minute, though. In contrast with the combination “false belief in God + atrocities,” one might posit, as some Satanists and believers in the Demiurge seem to do, that indeed God exists, but he delights in tormenting humanity. Conversely, one might say that of course God does not exist, but the illusion generates as much good as harm, as seen in major contributions to social change (think Martin Luther King) and the vast profusion of religiously inspired works of painting, architecture, and music. (Apart from Richard Dawkins, most of the current crop of atheists seem deficient in the realm of aesthetic response.)

My sense is that in works like that of Greta Christina, we are confronted with a category mistake, in which by a kind of sleight of hand attention shifts from the cognitive issue of whether God exists to the cultural and historical questions pertinent to the behavior of believers.

In terms of the history of ideas, these are indeed two separate discourses. The first began with Anselm’s Ontological Proof of the existence of God, first enounced about 1078. As far as I can tell, this preoccupation with such proofs is a specialty of Western Christendom during the last millennium. It has no real counterpart in Eastern Christianity, Judaism, or Islam--not to mention Buddhism and Hinduism.

The second discourse starts much later, with such 18th-century Enlightenment figures as Voltaire and Edward Gibbon, who hoped to prepare the way for a better society by exposing the mass of error and superstition that they believed Christianity had engendered. Voltaire and Gibbon were not atheists, but deists.

In my view, writers like Greta Christina do a disservice by simply fusing these two discourses. To be sure, Christina has some well taken complaints that are very contemporary: that atheists find it hard to get their organizations recognized in the military and in schools, that in some cases parents can find the custody of their children threatened because of their beliefs, that substantial majorities of voter say that they would never vote for an atheist.

This complaints, which are legitimate, indicate that atheists need to organize to achieve equality. Here they should take a lesson from the gay and lesbian movement, where the appeal is to all persons of good will to recognize the need for equality. Despite claims to the contrary gay men and lesbians never sought to “convert” straights to homosexuality. All too often, however, atheists come across as proselytizers, viewing the conversion of the majority of theists as essential to the achievement of their rights. This perception does not help their cause.

I would be perfectly OK if the level of religious observance in the US would plummet to the level that it has sunk to in Western Europe (even though this is unlikely). Couldn't militant atheists, though, profit from attending to the Rodney King principle: "Can't we all just get along?" Instead, they seem to insist on trying to dislodge theists from their faith. In this way, they are imitating the more hardcore religionists themselves, who insist that we all should be believers.

Some should, if they wish, be believers; others, if they wish, should be nonbelievers. But it is time for a moratorium on efforts on either side to pulverize the other.


Asymmetries of vision

Almost a hundred years ago, in his “The Souls of Black Folk,” W. E. B. Dubois explored the phenomenon of “double consciousness” in African Americans, whose situation required them to balance two sets of perceptions. The first was born of their own experiences. The second set of perceptions was that of the white majority, which remained blissfully self-confident in the rightness of its views.

Many years later, Harry Hay made a similar point about gay people, speaking of a "double window" we experience.

The larger principle is one of asymmetry: one vision is self-confident and unitary, denying any need to come to terms with the other point of view; the other acknowledges that need.

I was recently struck by an analysis that applies the asymmetry to today’s liberals and conservatives. Let me explain.

In several recent publications and interviews, the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has presented the results of some interesting research. This concerns the psychological underpinnings of our contentious culture, our overconfident opinions and the demonizing of our adversaries.

“When it gets so that your opponents are not just people you disagree with, but… the mental state in which I am fighting for good, and you are fighting for evil, it’s very difficult to compromise,” Haidt recently remarked in a television interview. “Compromise becomes a dirty word.”

Demonization occurs on both sides, the liberal and the conservative. So much is clear. But what is not often understood is Haidt’s second point, and that is this. By and large, conservatives show a greater ability to understand--up to a point--the views of liberals than the reverse. In fact, liberals rarely show this capacity of perception. They simply view conservatives as stupid and backward--as in the recent grotesque interviews conducted by Alexandra Pelosi in Mississippi--or as dishonest defenders of privilege.

Ultimately, the liberal view is based on the Whig Theory of history, the idea that gradually reactionary ideas must yield to progressive ones. That is the nature of progress. But what happens when these Neanderthal views don’t disappear on schedule? The upshot is perplexity and rage, qualities that are not absent from contemporary liberal discourse.

I am far from being a conservative. But it seems to me that in any debate one has an obligation to try to understand where the opponent is coming from. The general reluctance of liberals to make this effort is serving to retard, not advance their cause.


Sunday, March 18, 2012

Bilingualiism, continued

When I was young I aspired to learn foreign languages, and eventually I did acquire some. I still recommend this endeavor because it broadens mental horizons.

But the advantages of such learning must not be oversold. A piece in the Sunday NY Times says flatly: “Being bilingual, it turns out, makes you smarter.” If this generalization were true, the ancient Greeks could never have founded our intellectual tradition, as they were, most of them, monolingual.

Here is a counter example. I have no desire to demean any ethnic group but still, if the generalization were valid, people growing up bilingual in Spanish Harlem and Brownsville, Texas, would rule.

Of course we all know brilliant people who are fluent in two or more languages. However, their status is probably the product of their general intelligence and educational background. In other words, they might be just as smart if they only knew one language.

Today, the teaching of languages is embattled in our universities. I wish that this wasn’t so. But making unlikely claims will not help to rectify the situation.


Wednesday, March 14, 2012

THE Pevsner

Many people have achieved the honor of forming eponyms, that is words that stand for conditions or habits of thought. Among these are Alzheimer’s (disease), the Peter Principle, Spoonerism, Thatcherism and many others. In only a few case, however, has the name itself, without any suffix or controlling noun, served to categorize a whole book or set of books. Baedeker and Webster come to mind.

Pevsner (short for The Buildings of England by Sir Nikolaus Pevsner) is the only such term I know that serves to monumentalize an art historian. The original series of the guides in 46 volumes was published between 1951 and 1975. Pevsner wrote 32 of the books himself and produced ten with collaborators, with a further four of the original series farmed out to others. Today it is not unusual to hear people ask in Britain about a building: "Is it in Pevsner?" Setting out on a trip, it is always well to ask: "Did you bring the Pevsner?"

After he arrived in England in 1933, Nikolaus Pevsner found that despite the country's wealth of buildings, the serious study of architectural history had attained little status there. He conceived a project to create a series of comprehensive county guides to address this lack, gaining the backing of Allen Lane, founder of Penguin Books (for whom he had written his "Outline of European Architecture").

Work on the series began in 1945. Lane employed two part-time assistants, both German refugee art historians, who prepared notes for Pevsner from published sources. Pevsner spent his academic holidays touring the country by car to make personal observations and to carry out local research, before writing up the finished texts. Since his death, work has continued on the series, with several volumes now in their third revision. From their original compact paperback versions (“to go in a schoolboys' pocket"), many of them have swollen to 700 pages or more. Unfortunately, few of the continuers were able to replicate Pevsner's characteristic wit, so unexpected in what was basically a set of gazetteers.

Eventually the scope of the series expanded to include Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. Now known as the Pevsner Architectural Guides, they are published by the Yale University Press.

Begun two decades ago a transatlantic imitation, the Buildings of the United States, has proceeded slowly, even though the volumes are written by one (or two) separate authors and thus should proceed rapidly.

Nikolaus Pevsner was born in Leipzig in 1902 to Jewish parents. Trained in the strict canons of art history then prevailing in Germany, he took up an academic post, only to be summarily dismissed by the Nazis in 1933. Since he had some acquaintance with the art of England, he decided to resettle in that country. It was the middle of the Depression and at that time Britain had virtually no tradition of serious art scholarship. He had to find work where he could, first making a name for himself with his studies of design. These culminated in his first popular success, "Pioneers of the Modern Movement" (1936), the book that established the basic narrative of the origins of the International Style in architecture.

After being briefly interned as an alien in 1940 he was at last able to establish himself in his new country. Once World War II ended, he returned to Germany in the uniform of a colonel in the British army.

By dint of careful study of the language and the culture, Pevsner was able to assimilate perfectly (or almost) into English society. He even acquired the English gift for understatement, remarking at one point that "my scholarship has been described as impeccable, but it I really think that it is very peccable."

Nikolaus Pevsner joined two other distinguished emigres from Central Europe, Leslie Howard, the actor, and Lewis Namier, the historian, as people who helped the English define themselves. All the same, his book on the "Englishness of English Art" (1956), originally presented as the Reith Lectures on the BBC, was not a success. Critics complained that the methodology was too German. In fact Pevsner had been influenced by his charismatic but controversial teacher Wilhelm Pinder, a strong proponent of special German qualities in art. Earlier, though, the Bloomsbury writer Roger Fry had ventured to write about the distinctive qualities of French art. And contemporary US critics like Harold Rosenberg were pushing "American-type painting" (abstract expressionism). So the search for national character in art was a common theme of the period.

For us neophytes of fifty years ago, eager to explore the deepest profundities of German Kunstgeschichte, Pevsner appeared to be something of a lightweight. He did not seem to belong to the same league as Ernst Gombrich, Erwin Panofsky, and Rudolf Wittkower, for he was concerned with reaching a large public--as they for the most part were not. In fact Pevsner changed the way that several generations viewed buildings: he gave his followers a whole new way of seeing. And as a tenacious advocate of historic preservation, he helped save many fine structures from the wrecking ball. His heritage lives on vibrantly in Britain--and indeed in the whole Western world.

As far as recollection serves, I only heard Sir Nikolaus lecture once, in 1965. It was in a tiny basement room of Birkbeck College in London, where he spoke on German medieval literature. As a graduate student in England in those days I secured as many of the volumes of the Buildings of England as I could, so as to take them on trips. Eventually I acquired all 46.

You can read it all, as I did, in Susie Harries’ new blockbuster “Nikolaus Pevsner: The Life” (Random House), where the text exceeds 800 pages. Because Pevsner was interested in so many things--from medieval cathedrals and Georgian country houses to Victorian culture and town planning--the book is continuously enthralling. Of course quite a lot else happened in the course of a life that spanned most of the 20th century.


Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Communitarianism at bay

Conor Friedersdorf is a rising young journalist who blogs at The Atlantic online. As far as I can tell, he is a pretty calm dude, not given to ranting or emotional outbursts. In that light, I was taken aback by the following question addressed last month to Obama supporters:

“How would you have reacted in 2008 if any Republican ran promising to do the following?

"(1) Codify indefinite detention into law; (2) draw up a secret kill list of people, including American citizens, to assassinate without due process; (3) proceed with warrantless spying on American citizens; (4) prosecute Bush-era whistle-blowers for violating state secrets; (5) reinterpret the War Powers Resolution such that entering a war of choice without a Congressional declaration is permissible; (6) enter and prosecute such a war; (7) institutionalize naked scanners and intrusive full body pat-downs in major American airports; (8) oversee a planned expansion of TSA so that its agents are already beginning to patrol American highways, train stations, and bus depots; (9) wage an undeclared drone war on numerous Muslim countries that delegates to the CIA the final call about some strikes that put civilians in jeopardy; (10) invoke the state-secrets privilege to dismiss lawsuits brought by civil-liberties organizations on dubious technicalities rather than litigating them on the merits; (11) preside over federal raids on medical marijuana dispensaries; (12) attempt to negotiate an extension of American troops in Iraq beyond 2011 (an effort that thankfully failed); (13) reauthorize the Patriot Act; (14) and select an economic team mostly made up of former and future financial executives from Wall Street firms that played major roles in the financial crisis.”

It seems that whoever you vote for, you get the same policies. As far as I can remember, this problem goes back at least to 1964 when we were told that a vote for Barry Goldwater would lead to an escalation of the Vietnam War, while a vote for Lyndon Johnson would not. Johnson won the election, overwhelmingly--and proceeded to increase the American military commitment in Southeast Asia.

The sense that everything is rigged serves to undercut an article of faith among the Good Government crowd, and that is the precept that an “informed citizenry” is essential to the maintenance of democracy. Such maintenance calls for active participation at various levels--attending meetings, writing letters, buttonholing colleagues--not just voting.

Well, this year I am going to follow a practice that one is not suppose to talk about: I am not going to vote because I can’t see how it will make much of a difference in matters that are important to me.

Historians have shown that the tradition of political activism and responsibility has a distinguished pedigree, going back to the Civic Humanism advocated by Leonardo Bruni and other Florentine thinkers of the early Renaissance. The American Founders were the inheritors of this legacy. More recently it has taken the form of communitarianism, which appeals to a sense of group altruism.

Today, this tradition seems pretty frayed.

A case in point is discontent with serving on juries. Here is a somewhat self-serving defense of this aspect of communitarianism (an involuntary one) by an anonymous lawyer:

"I got to serve on two juries - one civil, one criminal - when I was 21 years old. Loved every second of it. I subsequently became a trial attorney and love talking in front of juries - the smarter and more interested the better. The system is far from perfect. There are problems in presentation, payment and the like, it’s long, and it’s boring. And there are legitimate reasons to avoid it - illness, disability, and child care chief among them. But the reality is that at the end of the day, most people want to avoid it because it’s inconvenient - it disrupts our schedules, it requires some extra time and some extra work. Sort of like voting; something a large number of people like to avoid as well because, well, you know, it doesn't mean anything and it's inconvenient.

"They should be ashamed. Americans live a life of advantage in what has been one of the wealthiest countries in the world. People fight and die and protest for rights such as a jury trial. Yet many look their noses down at the right as if it were a used Kleenex. Give something back to your country, your community. Go. Participate."

Well, we don't have much choice, do we?


Sunday, March 04, 2012

Murderous intolerance in Islamic states

In public affairs, the admonition of Rodney King--”Can’t we all just get along?"--has much to be said for it. I try to practice this precept as far as my (perhaps limited) ability permits. Still there are boundaries that test the rule, and among these are the views and actions of powerful religionists. No, I am not referring to Christian fundamentalists, but to the architects of official policy in a number of self-declared Islamic states.

In Iran, Yusuf Naderkhani, who is in his mid-thirties, converted to Christianity when he was 19 years old. Later he became a pastor in the Iranian city of Rasht. In 2010 he was convicted of apostasy. The U.S. government, the European Union, and human rights organizations have repeatedly urged the Iranian leadership to release him. Whether this will happen is uncertain.

An Afghan citizen Abdul Rahman (born 1965) was arrested in February 2006 and threatened with the death penalty for converting to Christianity. On March 26,2006, under heavy pressure from foreign governments, the court returned his case to prosecutors, citing "investigative gaps." He was in effect granted clemency on the grounds of insanity, and was allowed to leave for Italy.

Last year a Pakistani Christian woman was sentenced to death for the crime of blasphemy.

We are repeatedly told that these actions reflect Muslim extremism, departing from the humane principles of the true spirit of Islam. Yet these harsh penalties are in accord with Sharia law. Isn’t that by definition a manifestation of the true spirit of Islam?

What baffles me is how many observers on the left, who are rightly critical of Christian intolerance, have adopted Muslims as their poster children. Why this double standard?


Friday, March 02, 2012

Recalling P. G. Wodehouse

Recently, I have upset some of my friends by failing to share their admiration for the BBC TV series, Downton Abbey, a country-house saga. My sense is that this portrayal of life in the Edwardian era and beyond is insufficiently critical of the regime of inequality that governed English life in those days, now so remote. Curiously, some of these fans are supporters of the Occupy Wall Street movement (as, up to a point, am I), but they seem unaware of the inconsistency (dare I call it cognitive dissonance?) of the two adhesions, with the current US situation condemned, the early British one admired. Well, we are not responsible for the past, I suppose, especially that of another country. One of the things I liked about living in Britain (where I was a grad student in the 1960s), was the luxury of not having to comment on contemporary UK politics. After all, it is t h e i r country.

To get now to the point of this note, I want to confess an inconsistency of my own. When I was a teenager in the years after World War II I became an avid reader of the Jeeves novels of P.G. Wodehouse. Nowadays, most people know these confections from their translation into a TV series, but the originals were characterized by a spritely wit and deft narrative hand. The central theme, of course, is how the valet Jeeves, though nominally subordinate to his mentally challenged master Bertie Wooster, nonetheless managed consistently to outwit and control him.

Tackling these books in the distinctly different setting of postwar Los Angeles was indeed a challenge, but I managed to imagine the locales, many of them country houses, pretty well. Looking back I’m sure that devouring these books represented a kind of engram, activated only later when I moved in the 1960s to live in London. About the same time I read (in the Italian original) Carlo Goldoni’s 1751 comedy La Locandiera, about a servant girl, a female counterpart to Jeeves, who manages always to get the better of her masters. I don't recall connecting the two, Wodehouse and Goldoni.

P. G. Wodehouse was born in 1881 and lived until 1975, so that his writing career lasted over seventy years. He saw many political changes and upheavals, but the main canvas remained that of pre-1914 English upper-class society, reflecting his birth, education, and youthful efforts at writing. Less well known is the fact that Wodehouse was also a playwright and lyricist who was part author and writer of 15 plays and of 250 lyrics for some 30 musical comedies, many of them produced in collaboration with Jerome Kern and Guy Bolton. He worked with Cole Porter on the musical Anything Goes (1934), wrote the lyrics for the hit song "Bill" in Kern's Show Boat (1927), created lyrics to Sigmund Romberg's music for the Gershwin – Romberg musical Rosalie (1928), and collaborated with Rudolf Friml on a musical version of The Three Musketeers (1928). He is represented in the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

During World War II his reputation went under a cloud, because he was accused (without much substance to the charge) of being a collaborator with the Nazis after they had first imprisoned and then released him to live in France. Despite the fact that he never aspired to write “fine literature” he gained the admiration of a good many fellow writers, including the late Christopher Hitchens, who commented that "there is not, and never will be, anything to touch him.”