Monday, July 30, 2007

Let the South Go

Why not? Why not let the South go? After all, they wanted to leave and we Yankees made them stay. Big mistake. We should have seen their desire to leave as an opportunity to solve problems. But that was then and this is now. There were problems that needed fixing back in 1860, and I guess we had to keep the South for a while to fix them.

But why keep them now? They would love to leave. That solid block of densely religious, profoundly redneck good-ol-boys would gasp in relief as the weight of the hyper-rational Upper Right Coast, the libertarian West and those good-government Lutherans in the upper Midwest was lifted from their shoulders. We hardly need to mention the Left Coast. They could establish their own national religion and those who didn’t like it would have free passage North.

Of course, poor Utah would be rather stuck, but then so would the non-Southern parts of Florida. But just imagine: the United States of Northern America would no longer have to pay attention to those screeching Miamians who pretend to want to return to Cuba. Missouri would take a deep breath and stay North, though the bootheel might simply join Arkansas for the convenience of all.

The biggest question would be what to do with Texas, but then, the rest of the nation wonders that right now anyway. As I recall, Texas entered the Union reserving to itself the right to split into up to five states if necessary. Well, now’s the time. There’s cottony East Texas, The Valley, the Greater Panhandle, the Plateau and West Texas. East Texas clearly belongs to the Conf…that is, to the South; the Panhandle, Plateau and West are clearly western. And the Valley, well, why not give it to Mexico on a more formal basis? That would be great for international relations and all the spring break parties at South Padre Island would be Cancun del Norte: somebody else’s problem.

Party realignment in the United States of Northern America would be rapid. Democrats would become Labor, Republicans would become what they were back when places like New York and Connecticut elected them, and Libertarians would become a serious force in the interior West and Alaska. Those who couldn’t live in a genuinely secular country could simply move to one of the new Free South states.

Think of the policy issues that would be so much easier if we let the South go. Civil unions, abortion rights and teaching evolution would all be common sense in the North and felonies in the South—so much more simple and no reason for doubt in anyone’s mind. No serious fights over Supreme Court justices (in either country). Northerners could wash their hands of the question of who is responsible for rebuilding New Orleans where a city shouldn’t be. Southerners would not have to care why the money is being spent on a bridge in Alaska instead.

All those upsetting Dixie flags would be nationalized in the South and, as flags of a foreign government, legally restricted in the North. Slavery is out of fashion just now so its return need not concern the black population in the South, where life would go on as badly as it does now. In the North, life for urban black people would continue to be as bad as it is now. Affirmative Action would disappear completely in both countries, neither of which pay any attention to it now.

Think of the border crossing problems that would be solved. People in New Jersey would no longer have to think about what to do with Haitian boat people. They’d be sent to North Carolina to work for $1.49 an hour in the newly rejuvenated textile industry. If they didn’t like it, they could go back to Haiti.

A wetback would be someone who swam the Potomac River, not the Rio Grande. At least the Potomac is still wet. Anyone who crossed the border illegally in West Texas or New Mexico could simply be sent Down The River until they were back in Mexico del Norte east of Falcon Dam.

Words like NASCAR would slowly disappear from the Northern lexicon, as would the phrase “labor union” in the South. Wouldn’t southern employers really be more comfortable on the warm side of NAFTA anyway? Whole new cultural traditions would rise: the World Series would be truly international (Montreal and Toronto being relieved of traditional token roles by the addition of teams from the South).

Then there’s the food. I concede that I would miss good catfish, but then tourists would be welcome (at least married boy-girl Christian tourists) and they could have catfish. But northerners would no longer have to deal with okra, pickled pigs’ feet, grits and other delights of southern cuisine. Pecans are overrated, anyway. Southerners could restrict public consumption of lutefisk and California wines. A brisk trade in corn and rice would be a firm base for commerce, as would the sale of oil, wheat, shrimp, potatoes and many other staples and manufactured goods.

Without the South, the United States of Northern America could make a plausible case for merger with any Canadian provinces that were interested. Quebec could become independent and negotiate with France for control of St. Pierre and Miquelon. British Columbia would fit in just fine with the west coast and most of the provinces would be much more comfortable with the USNA after the South departed.

Conservative Alberta would be left slightly stranded like Utah, but they would have a lot in common with the Dakotas and Montana, and would actually boost the prairie vote in the expanded Congress, as Alberta has significant population centers.

That raises the question of capital cities. Washington has always been a lousy place for a capital, Ottawa not much better, so merger with Canada would allow some compromises. A more central location, less vile summer climate and air service in winter would certainly be issues. A new, smaller federal district between Lincoln and Omaha, Nebraska might work well. But where would the South put its capital? The shining star of Atlanta is an obvious choice (Richmond having slipped a little in relative glory in the past 150 years), but I can see the Dallas-Houston axis being a bit uncomfortable ceding place to a comparable rival. I suspect that a compromise with no pretense to secular glory such as Oxford, Mississippi would do very nicely.

So let us end this most unnatural civil union. Release the South from the surly bonds of the Constitution as we know it, and let all peoples breathe free.

The Well-tempered Beretta

NOTE: This essay originally appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education, June 15, 2007

The recent shootings at Virginia Tech have raised an old question: Should we allow responsible people to own guns to protect themselves and others?

Along with about 7,000 of the 325,000 people in my county, I have a permit from the sheriff to carry a concealed gun. Many more people keep guns in their homes, for which a permit is not required. In fact, no permit is required to carry a gun openly in my state of Oregon, or in many other states, although that practice is so uncommon outside very rural areas that most people don't realize it is legal.

Some of the people at the colleges and universities I visit as part of my job probably didn't know that I carry a gun on their campuses. Now they do. I carry it as protection from criminal attacks, and I couldn't have gotten a permit if I had a serious criminal record or had been hospitalized for psychiatric problems.

I know how to operate my gun safely; I know when I can use it legally; and I never leave it where anybody else could take it. I practice shooting at a range, to make sure that I remain competent. Yet even some of my friends think I am strange, possibly wicked, for owning a gun. I don't understand that view. Surely each person has the right to decide whether to kill or die — and that is the choice we are talking about.

Should I — a 51-year-old bookworm with no significant biceps — have to defend myself with a broom handle if a knife-wielding thug attacks me in my yard? It is true that, given reasonable warning, I might be able to run away. But why make me run off my property merely because some criminal has run onto it? Though I was raised a Quaker, I no longer accept that flight is morally superior to self-defense.

One reason for my decision to carry a gun is that I live in a small city in the mostly rural Western United States. In rural areas, guns are readily available to criminals and unwilling victims alike.

Also common in the West are some of the less congenial animals. Cougars have entered the city where I live twice in recent years; one hid under a house. Black bears are common, although they are usually not dangerous. Usually. Wolverines live at one place where I go birding every year, and where many people camp. I once went to a small store in southeastern Oregon and found a rattlesnake guarding the doorway. Granted, snakes can usually be escorted away with a long-handled push broom (after being swept away from the store, the serpent promptly slithered under the driver's side of my car, where it waited in the shade), but I don't always carry a broom.

Of course, the key issue in most people's minds is whether, in an emergency, it is right to use a gun not against an animal, but against a human. Some people would not shoot another person in self-defense. I would.

The argument that the police can't be everywhere may sound like a cliché from the National Rifle Association, of which I am not a member — not believing in a personal right to own machine guns or armor-piercing bullets. In fact, it is an important reality. There are few police officers in rural America; those we do have (my father was one) are usually located in isolated towns. In some parts of Oregon where I go, the nearest police officer may be 50 miles away, across uninhabited country.

That fact adds to the general libertarian attitude in the West of preferring to solve problems personally. Sometimes government help is not an option: The district attorney of my county announced several years ago that no misdemeanors and only major property crimes would be prosecuted, owing to a lack of resources. In effect, he transferred the economic burden of resolving "minor" crimes from the public coffers to citizens' insurance rates.

There is certainly something macabre about the idea, shown graphically in a cartoon shortly after the Virginia Tech shootings, that we should just let the good guys and bad guys shoot it out. Yet it is even worse to pretend that the good guys and bad guys should be treated as morally equivalent.

The question of who should be allowed to own a gun is a legitimate one, and it is proper to ban private guns from certain places, like courtrooms. But let's argue about gun ownership from a coherent moral and factual position, not from the gut reactions of any one moment, however tragic that moment may be.

On Becoming An Expert, or How I Lenskafied Myself

NOTE: This post originally appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education, July 13, 2007. It will appear in the Daily Australian in September, 2007.

I am an expert. Everyone tells me so. They tell me that I am an expert on diploma mills and degree fraud because I have been working professionally in that field for many years. I have become either glorious or notorious, depending on whether the person evaluating me got a degree from a genuine college. I am invited to write book chapters and introductions and give speeches and testimony, owing to my general splendor in that arena. However, I don't have any degrees in higher-education administration or policy.

They tell me that I am an expert on birds because I have published three books about them, including co-editing Birds of Oregon (Oregon State University Press, 2003), a five-pounder whose bibliography contains 4,000 citations. I proved that volume's worth and my expertise when asked, by a person who hadn't seen it, if she could carry it in her pocket in the field. I said, "Sure, if you're a large kangaroo or a small aircraft." I don't have any degrees in ornithology, either.

I may be a nascent expert in a few other subjects - time will tell. Or will it? Who makes those decisions, anyway?

To pick an example that may be unfairly obvious, who decided that Noam Chomsky was an expert in everything? Did he simply declare that one day, following which the assembled masses bowed down in unison? How does a renowned professor of linguistics transmute into an expert on world affairs and the human condition? Surely this is a mega-meme of great cultural import: Word has gone forth that Chomsky is an expert.

I can understand that a chemist would be treated as an expert in chemistry, and an architect an expert in design. That approach doesn't quite work, however, when novelists are classified as experts in literature for academic purposes - given that the creative force and the explicative force are profoundly different - and linguists become experts in political sociology.

The relevant difference may be between fields in which clear questions lead to definitive answers, and those in which opinions - that is, individual aesthetic or value judgments - render all truths flexible. The line may be between the sciences and everything else, or it may lie somewhere in the murk.

Chomsky seems to be an expert because he says he is, and enough people agree. It doesn't seem to matter which people, as long as there are enough of them. Writers such as Wendell Berry and Camille Paglia (both favorites of mine) are in a similar category.

Perhaps that is all that is necessary: We can all be the Rula Lenskas of our own domain. Do you recall the late 1970s TV ads featuring a woman who sailed forth - draped in couth, untrammeled by care, her nose in the air – and imperiously announced, "I'm Rula Lenska"? Nobody in the United States had ever heard of her, but her brazen self-declaration of splendor levitated her briefly to the status of cultural icon. In fact, she was and still is a successful if rather offbeat actress in her native Britain, and the cultural joke may be on us: She is technically a Polish countess, though not, as it were, practicing just now.

Can I, if you will, lenskafy myself? To a certain extent, I can; that is how some people develop reputations.

There are limits, of course. I could stroll into Fermilab and declare myself an expert on particle physics, and my friends George Gollin and Heidi Schellman, who really are such, would just look at me oddly, say "whatever," and go about their business. That is because I cannot really navigate the quark jungle. At some point, the waiter brings the check, and the lenskafier has to be able to pay up with appropriate coin.

However, if I declare myself an expert on, say, the poetry of Loren Eiseley, the music of Colin Brumby, or the essays of John Jay Chapman, I cannot be dismissed out of hand. I should at least have an opportunity to demonstrate my expertise. In the fine arts and many of the social sciences, there are no mazes of facts to negotiate, as there would be were I to attempt to feel my way through the glutinous slurry of quarks, leptons, and forces with which physicists work.

In theory, I can be just as much of an expert in more-subjective fields as anyone else. If I say that Brumby's Symphony No. 1 is better music than anything by Virgil Thomson and merits standing alongside the works of Edward Elgar and Samuel Barber, or that Edwin Muir is a better literary critic than Edmund Wilson, I can be challenged but not corrected. Those are judgments of value and quality.

Of course, I might end up like Wilson's fictional Galapagos iguana, which, when questioned by a fictional zoologist, declared that it knew all it needed to of its world, and that it was an über-being. Experts greater than I may pick me up by the tail and carry me off for further study, which is what happened to the iguana in Wilson's tale.

To what extent is being an expert the result of our education and the degrees we hold? My degrees from the University of Oregon are in political science and law. Neither has any special relationship to the arcana of evaluating degree programs, or anything whatsoever to do with the distribution and movements of the spotted towhee.

Alex Walker, one of the more important ornithologists in Oregon history, had a day job at a cheese factory. As far as I know, he had no college degrees at all. Was he not an expert? I met him in 1969, and he certainly seemed like one to me. His data were collected in an appropriate manner, and his articles appeared in the field's major journals.

On the other hand, we now have scores of M.F.A. factories in the United States, pumping out certified experts in poetry, fiction, drama, and that useful catch-all, literary nonfiction. Yet when we look at our best living poets - let me herewith declare that they are W.S. Merwin and Adrienne Rich- we see no such "professional" degrees. Nor do we see those degrees in most foreign countries. Even worse, some American universities now offer creative-writing Ph.D. programs, which will not give us better writers but merely add an invisible layer of academic dignity to the emperor's current unnecessary garments.

American universities also produce in great numbers that peculiar cultural artifact, the Ed.D., which seems to denote a certified education bureaucrat. Surely we need education bureaucrats in moderation - I am one, and I argue for both need and moderation from personal experience - but we don't need a unique credential for them.

Why do Americans insist on believing that degrees confer worth and qualification? The citizens of other nations are following our example here, as shown in Ronald Dore's excellent The Diploma Disease, but we are clearly the masters.

I have always appreciated Paul Valéry's view: "Let us confess: The real object of education is the diploma. I never hesitate to declare that the diploma is the deadly enemy of culture. As diplomas have become more important in our lives (and their importance has done nothing but grow as a result of economic conditions), the less has education had any real effect. ... The aim of education being no longer the development of the mind but the acquisition of the diploma, the required minimum becomes the goal of study."

Not long ago, I had a submission rejected (by a newspaper editor who has accepted other work of mine) on the ground that I was not enough of an expert on the subject. His concern, at least officially, was not that the piece was wrong or poorly written; it was that if he accepted my commentary as a nonexpert, he'd have to accept lots of other commentaries by
nonexperts, and then where would we be?

He had rejected my attempt to lenskafy myself. Of course, he doesn't have to accept anything he doesn't want to, and it may be that he was sparing us both by not saying that he thought my piece really stank.

I hear the carping already. You object that "lenskafy" is not a real word, and that I have therefore constructed my argument on at least one faulty tower. I disagree. If Richard Dawkins, a nonlinguist, can establish the word "meme" no great number of years back, and I get to use it in this essay, then I, with equivalent professional authority, can create the word "lenskafy" and establish its meaning. I declare myself competent to so expand the English language.

I will even ask an expert linguist to weigh in on my right to do so. Noam Chomsky, where are you when I need you?

A Glorious Wind: Selected Poems of Gabriela Mistral, translated by Ursula K. Le Guin. University of New Mexico Press, 2003

NOTE: this post originally appeared in the journal Fireweed

Whenever a writer as powerful as Gabriela Mistral is translated by a writer as distinctive as Ursula Le Guin, the result is likely to be unfortunate or glorious. Le Guin taught herself Spanish, though she doesn’t speak or write the language, but poetic translation requires as much esthetic sense as linguistic facility. She recently issued her own translation of Lao Tzu (she does not read Chinese), and has now brought forth not only the largest collection of Mistral’s work ever available in English, but a translation of great beauty, filled with the sensitivity to subtleties of human experience that we have come to expect in her own novels and poems.

Any translation is the creative work of at least two people. The key to a successful translation is to convey as much of the original writer’s meaning as possible without the translator’s own creative personality burning through. In this review I will attempt to convey a sense of how Le Guin approached her task compared to how others have translated Mistral.

There are four previous selections of Mistral’s work in English: a 1957 selection by Langston Hughes, a sizable block published in 1961 by Mistral’s literary executor Doris Dana, Maria Giachetti’s 1993 “Reader” that also includes some prose, and Christiane Kyle’s large-format illustrated edition of The Mothers’ Poems issued by Eastern Washington University Press in 1996. The latter has relatively few poems but is visually spectacular. These four have significant differences in selection and none is complete. Neither is Le Guin’s; with her characteristic directness she simply says that she was unable to translate some of the poems satisfactorily, so didn’t. Nonetheless, this is the largest collection now available in English.

How should a translator approach a poem? With respect, modesty and trepidation, one hopes. Yet excessive caution can drain the life out of a poem and convert it from inspirational art to a technician’s wordpile. We can be thankful that Le Guin knows how to balance respect with boldness, thereby filling the English words with the same earthy fire for which Mistral is known in Spanish. Consider how she handled The Foreigner, a poem that appears in all three of the previous major collections. Le Guin’s version in its entirety reads as follows:

“She chatters about her barbaric seas,
seaweeds and shores that nobody here knows.
She prays to a bodiless weightless god.
She looks so old she might die any moment.
She’s made our own garden alien to us,
planting cactus and saw-toothed grasses.
She breathes life from the desert wind,
and she has loved with a blanching passion
that she doesn’t talk about, and if she did
it would be like the map of another planet.
She’ll live among us eighty years
always as if she’d just arrived,
speaking her panting, whimpering tongue
that nobody can understand but animals.
And here among us, on some night
of fearful agony, with only her fate
for a pillow, she’ll die
a silent death, a foreign death.”

The word “seaweeds” is a good example of Le Guin’s esthetic sense leading her to the right poetic word, not just the right English word. The Spanish in this line is “algas,” which is a general word for algal plants. In theory the Spanish for seaweed should be “algas marinas,” yet in the context of the lines, “marinas” is clearly not necessary because the first two lines are all about seas and shores, thus “seaweeds and shores” is both accurate and poetically superior in English to what two of the other translators used: Giachetti’s “mystic algae and sands” (a strange combination in English: mystic algae?) and Dana’s “sands and algae unknown to me.” Hughes also had the good sense to use “seaweed,” though his line “God knows what seaweeds and God knows what sands” seems overcooked, since the “God knows” parts are not in the Spanish at all.

The very first line gives an idea of what poets do in translation. The poem begins “Habla con dejo... .” which translated literally, means “speaks in a slight accent” (Hughes version) or perhaps more precisely, speaks with an odd accent. Le Guin starts simply “She chatters,” which does not convey the meaning of “dejo” very accurately, yet in the context of the poem as a whole, fits very well, because this foreign woman is babbling away about all these strange things, and “chatters” also suggests that the sounds are less than understandable, much as an exotic parrot or monkey might sound.

Compare this to the technically purer but boring Hughes version or the Giachetti version “She speaks with abandonment” and Dana’s phantasmic excursion: “She speaks with the moisture of her barbarous seas still on her tongue,” far afield from the words of the original but poetically the most vivid. Le Guin has stopped at the edge of the revisionist abyss, Hughes never got close to it, Giachetti is off on an uninspiring side trail and Dana has leapt the abyss in one stride, in effect presenting her own images filtered through the original. Such is translation.

Le Guin does not always choose the word I would choose-for example, her “saw-toothed grasses” is milder than the “claw-like” grasses of Hughes or the dangerously active “clawing grasses” of Dana, which I like best because it fits with the idea of a strange, foreign, uncomfortable, possibly dangerous garden. Giachetti launches into “herbs that rustle in the wind like sails,” which does not convey the image of harsh difference that the original intends, as well as having a curious notion of herbs. I might have said “clutching grasses.” It is a question of what image the translator sees in the original and wants to retain.

Giachetti does hit exactly the right note with her “elvish animals” where Le Guin uses simply “animals,” Hughes “beasts” and Dana the technically accurate “little beasts.” The Spanish word “bestezuelas” clearly implies a diminutive, and the “elvish” provides both the size and the idea that maybe these little creatures are able to communicate in some way with humans a la Narnia, thus “elvish.”

This collection is not the complete poems of Mistral in English that we still await, but anyone who hungers for a broad selection of poetry from Latin America’s first Nobel laureate will find a consistently readable and poetically crisp array in Le Guin’s new translation.

Finally, one of Le Guin’s best poems, “For Gabriela Mistral,” appears in her own collection Sixty Odd, apparently inspired by her work on this translation. Sixty Odd is a fitting companion to her translation of Mistral.

The Risk of Reading

Our reading choices build our intellectual universe book by book, essay by essay, poem by poem. We who read are faced each day with choices about what, from the extraordinary delta of writing flowing past our islands, to pluck from the flow, set aside and (perhaps) read. How do we decide what is worth the risk of reading?

I use the word “risk” in its Vidalian sense: Gore Vidal has famously written that he only reads fiction by Nobel prize winners, thereby being assured that he will never read a bad book. This is the opportunity-cost approach to reading that brings the word “risk” to mind. We have only a limited number of hours in which to read. Some of that time is necessarily spent reading professional material which, although it may contain kernels or even nuggets necessary for our work, also contains enough mere dicta, the space-filling dreck and overstuffed furnishings of academe, that we don’t generally read it for pleasure or enlightenment.

We are increasingly expected to make no errors in our reading decisions, to avoid side channels and to read the “right” books, especially because we are all short of time. Sometimes these books, the ones “everybody” is reading, prove to be exceptionally good, for example Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner. Sometimes they leave us wondering “what was that all about?” I have a list of the latter that my lawyer would rather I not publish.

It is true that my own tastes are suspect. After all, I have said many times that Moby Dick is a brilliant story up to the point that whales enter the picture. I know some English professors who agree with me, but they have to pretend that they think the book is great because everyone knows that it is. How can you get tenure if you think Moby Dick is a turkey instead of a whale?

There is a peculiar lack of judgment, or perhaps a lack of willingness to judge, in what we hear of books. It is pretty rare to hear someone say that a book is awful, especially if received wisdom says otherwise. But what is a good book, really? A good book is a book that inspires you, that resonates with you, that conveys a message to you that is effective. What it does for a reviewer at the Times Review of Books, Toni Morrison or President Bush makes no difference.

There is one way to resolve the question of what to read when presented with the stacks of new books that tumble like so much clinker-lava into our mailboxes, doorways and work-spaces. Ignore them. Take a break from the new and return to the books that have made a difference for you in the past. These are the books that have always spoken with a clear voice, have such a rich weave that different threads are visible in each new reading, or seem to adjust their effect successfully when read under different conditions or in different settings.

Most of us have these books to which we return, year after year, when the latest stack looks a lot like slag, the nuggets are oppressed by excessive overburden (I dedicate that phrase to the memory of W. H. Auden, who loved mines and geologic terminology) and we need a refresher in every sense of the word. Thus I return to Austin Tappan Wright’s Islandia, Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series, the essays of John Jay Chapman, Andrew Sullivan, Christopher Hitchens and Vidal, Asimov’s Foundation series and the mysteries of Arthur Upfield (yes, one can profit from reading mysteries many times, if they glow with setting and humanity as Upfield’s do).

The poetry of Carl Phillips (well-known), Cameron La Follette and Leonard Cirino (‘unknown’) and W.S. Merwin (ultra-famous) meets my needs at a similar level: it doesn’t matter which ones are the “best” or best-known. The nation’s most gifted poets are not necessarily like each other: I might enjoy the rushing surges of Reginald Shepherd one day and the delicate brush-notes of Ce Rosenow the next.

I also think Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1915 children’s story The Lost Prince ought to be considered a classic owing in part to a character called The Rat, and I have read Arthur Ransome’s young adult adventures many times.

Likewise, there are some very well-known and successful writers, e.g. Charles Simic and Ray Bradbury, whose work simply doesn’t reach me. So make your own decisions about my tastes. It is true that we need to emerge from our lexical wombs and try new things now and then, but if reading a book, no matter how Great or touted, results only in a yawn or a who-cares, we are not obligated to salute it.

I recently had occasion to evaluate a formal Great Books program for a college in another state, and the school proposing the program seemed to realize that in this whirling cloud of iPods, MySpace, cellular devices, Blackberries and other electronic shrubbery, they need to do something to make books interesting to students at all. To their credit, they realized that the canon, although mostly traditional, needed to have its windows opened to let some new air in.

What do we recommend to young readers? Too often it is what they “should” read rather what we ourselves actually like and find most enjoyable and enlightening, not just once, but over time. For that reason I don’t usually give young people books from the heavier or more ancient end of the spectrum (except maybe the Satyricon). I give copies of the things that I have the most passion about and that have made the most difference to me. I can’t sound genuinely enthusiastic about anything else.

When I have given a young person one of my own choices, I often find that yes, nineteen-year-olds can and do decouple from their electronic universe to read a good book. There is, of course, an element of self-selection and cherry-picking involved: I encounter few dullards because I choose to avoid them. Yet I was once a fraternity advisor and participated in a round of pass-the-bottle with young people who were largely in the middle and lower register of the academic production line, and some of them read books, too.

We who claim that writing is important too often assume that students’ lack of interest in course-related reading or books means that they are not interested in words in general. That is less true than we sometimes think. If we take the time to offer young people unusual reading choices that reflect our own passion for reading, we’d see that although the text may not be on their iWhatever, it may still catch the sparks that all young people have, and kindle from those sparks fires different from our own, but light, real light, all the same.

The Musical World of Shaun Davey

The works of Ireland’s Shaun Davey remain oddly unknown in the United States. The U.S. is in general a friendly venue for Celtic-themed music, where musicians such as Alasdair McIntyre and Bonnie Rideout can fill moderate houses and such spectacles as “Riverdance” can draw as well as any major performer. Why, then, is the superb music of Davey never heard except in odd snippets on radio shows such as Thistle and Shamrock?

The main problem is that Davey does not fiddle away his talent, if the expression may be excused, on little pieces and folksy songs. His talents, well-known in Ireland and the United Kingdom, are usually devoted to massive, distinctive works that involve acres of musicians or large blocks of time. In other words, not the kind of music that crosses the Atlantic with a couple of flutes and a harp for a road show. To a great extent, Celtic music is perceived as coterminous with folk music, outliers such as H. H. Hardy excepted (and not often played, either). It is as though the whole notion of an Irish (or Scottish) composer (of anything but “folk songs”) is unnatural.

Consider Shaun Davey’s major works to date. The ones with which I am most familiar are the splendid song cycle “Granuaile,” (1985) about the unorthodox life of Irish seafarer Grace O'Malley, “The Relief of Derry Symphony,” (1990) the set of collated historical songs collectively know as “The Pilgrim” (1983, CD 1994) and the historical setting “The Brendan Voyage” (1980). He has also written extensively for television programs in Europe.

The Brendan Voyage can be thought of as a musical companion volume to Tim Severin’s remarkable 1978 book of the same name. The composer credits this book as inspiring him to write the piece, which is in essence a concerto for Uilleann pipes and orchestra. The book describes Severin’s efforts (ultimately successful) to build and sail a replica of Saint Brendan’s leather boat hypothesized to have sailed from Ireland to the New World around 500 A.D. Davey’s suite, my least favorite among his works, is nonetheless a lush, powerful musical translation of the storms and joys of a small-boat passage across the North Atlantic. Wilder than Debussy’s La Mer, it is full of the swirls and crashes of the northern ocean.

The Relief of Derry symphony represents another historic event, though one that can be authenticated with more precision: the siege of Derry in northern Ireland in 1689, in which the city, defended by the Protestant army of William of Orange against an attack by the Catholic army of James II, held out in the face of starvation until a fleet of ships finally broke throught and saved the city. Stated musically, it is a stunning achievement.

“Relief” begins with a clear trumpet solo and duet with light orchestral support, reminiscent of Tim Morrison’s pure ascendants in James Horner’s score for the movie “Apollo 13.” It then moves into what amounts to a musical recollection of the movement of two armies and the closure of the city, emphasized by the arrival literally from offstage of a pipe band. When the piece was premiered in Derry (it was commissioned by the city for the 300th anniversary of the siege), this band actually arrived from outside the building, and this “they are coming” effect is apparent and effective even on the recording. The closure of the city gates is followed by a period of orchestral blaring and rumbling to represent the ensuing bombardment and siege, which killed an estimated 15,000 people.

It is in the closing segments that “Relief” rises to the level of a masterpiece. First, there is a lovely song called “The White Horse,” sung on the recording by Rita Connolly, which represents the image said to be visible over the city at the height of the siege. This song is a blend of plea and lament for the city’s suffering people, as simple and perfectly imagined as possible. Rising even above this plane, the orchestra drifts into a period of quiet, then the wind changes, and with it, the city’s fortunes.

The arrival of the relief ships, which catch the rising wind and force their way through a boom to reach the city, is represented by steady, increasing surges in the rhythm of the piece, culminating in a glorious ascending theme topped by the ringing of the city’s bells. The piece closes with a quiet concluding air, said by the composer to represent the city’s thanks for deliverance and, at the same time, a wish for peace in modern times.

“Granuaile” is Davey’s song cycle built around the life of one person. The Pilgrim is built around the life of an idea: the early Christian missionaries, for lack of a better term, working within and emanating from the Celtic lands in the early centuries after Christ. It is a rather loose assemblage of twenty-two related pieces, some of which are a little too rambling but several of which are astonishing in their power and grace. Of the latter, I especially like the haunting “Iona,” the amiable roar of “Ymadawiad Arthur,” “Samson Peccator Episcopus” and the concluding sequence, which features the lush purity of Rita Connolly singing “The Deer’s Cry” (imagine a priest alone, sailing in a small ship to a faraway land) and finally the glorious sprawl of “A’Ghrian,” again featuring Connolly but including the entire musical force.

It is the sheer size of the forces required and the unique requirements of the music (The Pilgrim features songs in both modern and historical Celtic languages, and most singers are not trained in Old Cornish) that contribute to the lack of performances in the United States, yet I suspect that “Granuaile” and “Relief of Derry” would be relatively easy to stage, since they require no special forces other than pipes, which are not rare. “Pilgrim” is easily disassembled into a “selections from,” in fact the recordings involve only half of what was actually performed at the Lorient Festival in 1983. The same is true of “Brendan,” though it is less musically interesting.

I hope that the music of Shaun Davey finds and keeps a larger international audience, which it deserves.

Let Today's Children Explore

Most days at lunch, I hear cell phones go off, or see middle-aged moms dialing in near-desperation to reach their teenage children. These children are not in Darfur or in the path of a tornado, they are nine blocks away at the high school or grocery store. The children also call their parents, though they usually call their friends first.

When did this desperate desire for constant contact develop, and why? It is surely true that security is on people’s minds these days, but the amount of hourly contact between parents and children seems absurdly high. Perhaps it is unreasonable to single out parents, since teenagers have always been phone-happy with each other. Yet it is the claustrophobic embrace of parents that limits children from developing their own judgment.

I know a family in which the only child, seventeen at the time, once ran six miles home—uphill—to ask his father to come help him change a tire rather than figure it out himself or ask anyone in the small, friendly town where the car had its flat. Even today his parents, accomplished professionals, stick to him like remoras in the apparent absence of lives of their own, though at 21 he has now held a number of interesting summer jobs elsewhere in the country and indeed the world.

How did children get so dependent on their parents in today’s society? When I look back into history, I see a different model. I see Robert Ridgway.

Remembered today as one of North America’s preeminent ornithologists from the late 1800s until his death in 1929, Ridgway had corresponded as a boy with naturalists in the biological survey in Washington. He was eventually offered a spot with one of the major natural history research expeditions to the west.

These surveys were sometimes formally associated with commercial needs, indeed, one of the greatest sets of reports from such expeditions is incongruously titled “Pacific Railroad Reports.” Of course, today in Texas the oil and gas industry is regulated by a body called the Railroad Commission, so nomenclatural peculiarity may not have changed much.

Ridgway went west with the expedition in 1867 and spent almost two years collecting specimens and living detached from towns. He was sixteen years old when he left for the west.

If today’s parents allowed their teenage child to go off into a wilderness for two years with a group of people largely unknown, the child would be forcibly removed into state custody, stuffed into a lavender-scented suburban home, and the parents would be charged with a crime. The child would learn nothing except not to trust the government, which I concede is a good start in life.

The argument that today’s world is more dangerous is simply erased by the example of Ridgway. More dangerous than traveling across the Rockies and into the deserts of the interior west on foot and by horse in 1867? That is not a remotely credible assertion. What are the dangers between home and the grocery store? Sure, drugs are fairly easy to come by, but constant parental phone calls will hardly stop that. I have a good friend, a lawyer, who is the very avatar of the hovering mom, and her daughter is a heroin addict today despite all the contact imaginable.

If I may be permitted an example of childhood exploration from the world of fiction, consider We Didn’t Mean to Go To Sea (1937), arguably the best novel by Britain’s Arthur Ransome. Owing to a series of perfectly plausible misfortunes, four children, the oldest perhaps 14, are on board a small sailing vessel when it parts company with its anchor in the harbor and drifts out to sea in a fog. From that point on, the children, who have some experience sailing small boats, have to figure out how to stay alive while blowing across the North Sea under poor conditions. They can’t call for help, they just have to figure it out.

Gary Paulsen’s excellent Voyage of the Frog has a somewhat similar scenario involving one boy and one small boat. Paulsen thinks that young people today can rise to the occasion when necessary—indeed he specializes in this kind of literature—but Frog was published in 1989, when cell phones were less ubiquitous. I wonder how he would deal with today’s always-in-touch modes of living? I suspect through the simple expedient of dropping the cell phone overboard; the ocean is a good venue for stories that require something to disappear beyond recovery. Of course, figuring out how to break a hypothetical 2007 Frog’s built-in GPS and homing signal would take more ingenuity.

What we really have today is a change in expectations of young people’s growth and independence of thought and judgment. As a society, we don’t have any broadly-pursued expectations that make sense; what we have instead is a strange mixture and no norms. We have foie-gras parents whose idea of child-raising is to force-feed their child year after year on an oppressive diet of parent-supervised Good Activities, while never really knowing what their child’s interests are and never allowing the child much room or time for spontaneous exploring in new directions.

We have car-key parents who think a car for the kid solves everything. What it does is change the parents’ worries from time-pressure based on constantly lugging little Jane all over town to phone-pressure: “Jane, where are you right now? Are you ok?” We have indetectable parents, of the kind who didn’t know that their drunken sixteen-year-old was trying to kick in my door at 2:15 one Sunday morning. We of course have some parents who truly raise their children and pay attention to their need for growth in experience and judgment.

Judgment is the key. How is a teenager supposed to learn judgment without ever being allowed to exercise any? We have to allow children to make mistakes. How are teenagers who never have wine with dinner at home going to develop an understanding of what alcohol actually does (until they are off somewhere with their new car keys)?

I have a nineteen-year-old friend who has been rock climbing and going into serious wilderness with his peers for many years, and they have developed their judgment through experience. Last year they wisely aborted a plan to summit Mt. Rainier (having climbed most of the way up) because they could tell from experience that conditions were going to get worse.

This experience of how life really works and how the world really is needs to start before children suddenly go halfway across the country to college, or join the army, or sign up for the summer on an Alaskan trawler. Children need to be encouraged to explore the world in all its glory and strangeness early in life, bumping into objects and falling over experiences, so that their judgment is already a sturdy sapling when they suddenly face the winds of independent adulthood.

A tribute to University of Oregon singing group On The Rocks

The nine knights of midnight went by us tonight,
rode in on meteors, trailing a glow
as they crossed the high pass leaving indigo snow,
escorting Orion right down from the sky
their golden glissando stirred us from sleep

As from subsurface caverns a river burst forth,
saluting the riders with unbridled force,
with pillars of azure, pure magnetized light
reflected in prisms of diamond-cut ice,
the joy of their passage made waterfalls cry;

We gathered nearby on the shuddering ridge,
heard the cedars step back with a great sigh of stone
as nine ebony steeds newly wreathed in fresh stars
rode down the stunned mountain with blazing red manes
their cinnamon wake-blast a full mile wide

The riders came on, too bright for the eye,
rejoicing, they unstopped celestial pipes,
their rainbow aurora rang out to the peaks
as a peal of white horns between torchlight and steam
called out to the Earth for its blessing and then

From the well of creation the voice of the deep,
the long bronze subecho of harmonic time
boomed down the canyon of oncoming day
bringing the dreamfall, a glitter of bells
to welcome the riders and offer fair winds

The air tart with ozone, they thundered on past
leaving us sleepless with wonder and awe
for they sail at dawn for the nine hundred isles
escorting their prince to a new hunting ground
where the cold barren dust will ignite at the sound.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Ned Rorem and the Future of Song

I am not sure why I did not come across the writing and music of Ned Rorem until I was 47. I had seen his name occasionally over the years with no particular spark. A couple of years ago a reference to one of his diaries—I can’t even remember where I saw it—finally registered with enough effect and I dug up a used copy of the New York Diary at a local bookstore. By the time I was 30 pages into it I knew that I would have to read all of them, and listen to his music. I have now read many of his books and own several of his music CDs.

The recent release of both his latest set of essays (Facing the Night, Shoemaker & Hoard 2006), a collection of his letters to various famous and less famous people (Wings of Friendship, Shoemaker & Hoard 2005) and not long ago a collection of his earlier works (A Ned Rorem Reader, Yale 2001) provides an opportunity to look at his life works as a whole. I have to say “works” rather than “work” because Rorem, in his own words, is a generalist in the European mode, not an American-style narrow specialist. He does more than one thing well.

Rorem is frustrated at the prospect of being remembered more as a writer than as a composer. I lost track of the number of times in his writing that he declaims “I am a composer who also writes, not a writer who also composes.” But that is not how history works, and history won’t weigh in with any definitive trends for another twenty years or so. It might be more accurate to say that his writing is likely to survive in toto as a body of literature read and discussed for decades to come, while his music is likely to be remembered in bits and pieces, with much of it fading out over time. Yet that is what happens to most composers and to most music. If it does not happen to all of his music and all of his written work, he will be among the rare few.

For example, who outside Australia knows well the gorgeous work of Colin Brumby, whose Symphony No. 1, clarinet works and Piano Concerto ought to be played by all of the world’s major orchestras? Is Shaun Davey, whose Relief of Derry Symphony and Granuaile song cycle deserve great acclaim, a household word in the musical community outside the Celtic world? How many American concertgoers have heard the splendid Sonata da Chiesa of Adolphus Hailstork, from our own country?

Music is a world in which “modern” has become synonymous with “unpleasant,” which leads orchestras wanting an audience into the closed loop of miscellaneous dead Germanic tunemongers, with an admixture of other dead Europeans (what to call them – a froth of French, a roulade of Russians, a briskness of Brits?) and only the occasional living composer, generally the unpleasant ones. There are exceptions to the rule of modern unpleasantness: in addition to Brumby, Davey and Hailstork, John Tavener, Arvo Part and William Hawley come quickly to mind.

Rorem is fortunate in that during his lifetime his music has been played fairly often, and some of his work that capsized instantly upon completion (e.g. his First and Second symphonies) has recently been refloated with considerable approbation. The Bournemouth Symphony recently released the first commercial recording of those two symphonies (as well as the Third, which had a brief life thirty years ago) directed by Jose Serebrier, and these works are astonishingly fresh and full of zing, a perfect blend of identifiable melody and modern intonation. This recording was nominated for three Grammys.

Rorem asks that he be first judged as a composer and I can say that I am very glad he is one, because his best works are likely to last for a while and have certainly brought me a lot of pleasure. That is all most composers can expect. Nonetheless, I think the diaries will, over time, be viewed as a unique literary masterpiece, burning in the dim corridors of historic time with a brighter flame than the music.

What is it about these diaries that makes them so appealing? There is a certain flavor of celebrity, of course, since Rorem (still composing and reasonably spry at 83 as I write this) fell in with a lot of well-known people in Paris, New York and elsewhere in the 1950s. Hearing of his interactions with people such as Jean Cocteau, Edward Albee and Leonard Bernstein, often when the Famous Person was not yet famous or was just getting to be known, has a certain sparkle. Rorem’s willingness to state the, how can I put it, bare facts as he saw them, even when those facts are a bit more colorful or just more visible than what we usually see, adds spice to the overall tone.

Most of all, there is a sense of seeing sixty years of history open leaf by leaf, progress season by season. It is simultaneously a personal history, a history of 20th Century music and a broader history of changes in American society, all at once, like the twining of cultural DNA from one horizon to the other, with some recognizable patterns but a lot of change and unique perceptions.

In its personal aspect, the diaries are also a history of gay culture. Rorem grew up in an unusual environment for the mid-century in that his Quaker parents were apparently not too troubled by the fact that he was gay, or at least accepted it with grace. It is interesting to compare his relatively open experiences to the more constricted social beginnings of contemporaries Gore Vidal and James Merrill. Vidal grew up inside the American political establishment, choosing to write for a living (a living that was a little sparse from time to time) rather than accept the horror of teaching. Merrill did not really have to work for a living (Merrill as in Merrill Lynch) but became a respected and prolific poet. Both became open about their sexuality in a rather careful, restrained manner, though Vidal wrote about homosexual attractions early in his career.

Rorem, on the other hand, wrote matter-of-factly about the joys and disappointments of his own activity chasing men decades before such revelations were common. He did not belabor the issue, it was just part of his life so it came up naturally in his writings without taking over the story. It is that matter-of-factness that makes these works stand out in the period in which they were written.

What I find most resonant about Rorem’s diaries is his frequent descriptions of how the creative process works (or doesn’t work). He does not discuss the process of writing music in much detail, but the various issues that any creative person faces, and the peculiar misconceptions of friends and family about that process, make for a table-pounding “right on!” sort of reading experience. The fact that I am also a gay person raised in Quaker meeting, as he was, makes this sense of having found a philosophical uncle all the more rewarding.

A good example of his perfect evocation of the necessities of the creative process can be found where he refers to a friend who thought that the sights and sounds of Morocco must have been a great inspiration to his work, since he did so much early work there while vacationing, in a manner of speaking, from his nominal residence in southern France. In fact, the great advantage of working in Morocco, in addition to a Gide-like exploration of the joys of young male Moroccans, was that no one could find him or distract him there, so he could pull the shades against the glories of Morocco and actually get some composing done. This is precisely the experience and reaction that I have had and that many of my friends who write and paint have had, to which I can only say “preach it, brother Ned.”

For anyone who wants to experience the extraordinary breadth of human experience, including the greatest joys and the most horrifying losses, through the eyes and ears of a great writer and great composer, read the sixty-year saga of Ned Rorem in his own words, and listen to the generations of songs, symphonies and other music that this unique American voice has brought us.

Returning to the world of American song in which Rorem was the leading composer for many years, I listen and I hear a universe utterly changed, and yet there are niches in which song, in a form that Rorem would recognize, though different from his own, is flowering. A few years ago I heard the University of Oregon’s all-male singing group On the Rocks while driving home one night. Local station KLCC played their version of Dire Straits’ ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and I had no idea who was singing or where this amazing a cappella version of the song had come from. I called the station and they said that it was a local group called On the Rocks. The station had a CD but seemed to have no idea where it had come from or where to get it.

The next day I went into a music store near the University and mumbled something to the clerk about the song. Before I was finished with my incoherent tale of music found and perhaps lost, he said “On the Rocks” and got a copy of their debut CD off the rack for me. These CDs had been flying out the door all morning, and turned out to be the highest-selling CD for the store all spring. I personally bought a dozen as gifts and an additional fifteen for people at my office who had heard my copy. In an extraordinary violation of professional norms, I even called my staff into my office on some pretense, closed the door and played it for them on my computer’s reasonably good speakers.
What is so special about OTR, as they are often called? When I first heard and saw them, the group consisted of nine men ranging in age from 18 to 22, and they sing songs. Well, so do lots of groups. Someone who had not heard them asked me “is that, like, barbershop?” Ah, no. In fact when I invited one of the members whom I knew slightly to the regional barbershop contest—held about five blocks from his house—he answered with great courtesy that he did not think any of the members would be interested.

College musical groups are common. A cappella is much less common, and least common of all is for a group of young singers to make their own splendid arrangements of very recent popular songs—sometimes songs that had only been on the radio in the original version for a matter of months—retaining the original content of the song but adding their own unique silk and fire to produce something that the university’s other singing groups simply describe with the phrase “they’re hot.” Today there are other such groups nearby; I recently heard the UO women’s group Divisi, Southern Oregon University’s Dulcet and Oregon State University’s Outspoken. Many other colleges have them: for an astonishing listening experience, buy a copy from iTunes of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” performed by Northwestern University’s group ‘Freshman Fifteen’. This, their own arrangement, simply assassinates most other performances—and there are dozens. Buy the whole CD. Groups at Yale, Cornell and Michigan have been especially good in recent years.

OTR has made their own arrangements of the song “Hear You Me,” originally by Jimmy Eat World, “Demons” by Guster, “Street Spirit” by Radiohead, Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and “In the End” by Linkin Park, as well as “Romeo and Juliet” and others. They have also recorded Gounod’s “Ave Maria” and Billy Joel’s touching “Lullaby.” I had never heard many of these songs before I heard the OTR versions; indeed I did not know that many of these musical groups existed. Why not? Because I am, musically, an old person at 51.

Even if I had known of them, I would not have listened to their music, simply because people do not generally listen to popular music except for that of their own generation and, if unavoidable, of their children’s generation. Since I have no children and do not own a television, there is no venue in which I would hear this music. So at the very least the “transliteration effect” of my local singing groups OTR and Divisi has allowed me to experience music that I never would have heard. Barbershop, which my brother sings and I enjoy in moderation, is essentially a fixed style. Its generational crossover is more limited than that of the collegiate acappella groups, which are
the true transfer agents of modern American song.

Rorem has commented that it is inappropriate to compare the new music of his generation (generally, the first half of the 20th century, perhaps including the 1950s) to modern popular music because the former is, if you will, classical, while the latter is not. Thus he objects to, for example, comparing Aaron Copland and Bob Dylan because of the nature of their music in a technical sense. I follow this argument and agree with it up to a point, but the question and its answer needs to take into account the changing role of music and songs in society.

My late mother was exactly Ned Rorem’s age; she was born one day later. In her youth, adults knew lots of songs from earlier days as well as from their own generation, and in general young people heard the same songs as adults, whether they learned them or not. My great-grandmother’s Liberty Chorus Song Book, issued in 1919 by McKinley Music Co. of Chicago, was used by my grandmother’s family and recently came to me. Its editor, Anne Shaw Faulkner, also author of “Music in the Home,” closed her introduction to the Liberty Chorus songs with the following declaration about a man returning from World War I: “he will want to sing and to have his loved ones sing at home, at school and in all community gatherings.”

These were not only pre-headphone years but almost pre-radio years, with limited offerings available. The first commercial radio station was licensed in 1920, only three years before my mother was born. The phonograph, today almost an artifact, had just switched to “long-play” 33 rpm vinyl from hard 78 rpm “breakables” in my childhood. It was first patented in 1877, so two generations before my mother’s had heard music either only as live performances or as families listening to early discs. Listening to music on phonographs required electricity (not uniformly available in rural areas) and quite a bit of effort since the discs were hardly compact: the ones I saw at my grandmother’s home were about half an inch thick and contained very little music, requiring multiple discs for even shorter pieces.

Today, members of the same family typically have separate musical lives, and the song, as a “high” art form that Rorem knew and wrote for to great effect, has largely been supplanted by the song designed to appeal either to everyone (often in the form of advertising jingles) or to a specific target audience (country, rock, rap). Loved ones generally don’t sing together at home or anywhere else, let alone at community gatherings.

If a single vocal form that meets the esthetic needs of all generations can be found today, it is a cappella singing by truly creative groups like OTR and its collegiate compatriots. Once when I attended an OTR/Divisi show, the age range in my own contingent of about 15 people was nine to 83, and the entire audience reflected this astonishing mix. I do not see that cross-generational appeal (outside music schools) elsewhere in vocal music.

Before OTR became well known at the University of Oregon, I attended one of their shows and stood in line next to a couple of college-age women. They had heard of OTR and a friend had invited them, but they had not actually heard the group. They were discussing the group and asked another person in line what kind of instruments they used. “None” was the response, to which one of the young women looked at the other in amazement and said “but what do they do?” They sing, and singing is not called the “first art” for nothing.

One of my former co-workers, who is retired and lives her musical life mainly within the classical and operatic tradition, attends many OTR and Divisi shows. Her favorite song in their repertoire is “Romeo and Juliet,” with Jeremy Davidson’s supple, down-home baritone solo, available on OTR’s first CD. After she had been to a couple of their shows and was singing the song in the hallway, I asked her what she thought of the Dire Straits original, which is a favorite of mine. She looked at me and said:
“Who is Dire Straits?”

Yes, modern American song is different from that of Rorem’s generation, but it is in good hands.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Licensing Folly

I recently saw an advertisement in my local daily newspaper in which the person providing the service described herself as a ‘licensed aesthetician.’ This is the pinnacle, no, the ultimate sinkhole, of American commercial nonsense. That such a phrase would be used in advertising on purpose suggests several things, all of which are bad. First, the advertiser thinks or pretends that the phrase has meaning. Second, the potential customer may be hornswoggled into thinking that it means something. Finally, the casual reader may believe that the philosophical concept of esthetic judgment is subject not only to objective evaluation, but to control by either a guild or the government.

In this case the term “aesthetician” refers to an exalted subspecies of the beauticians who paint women for a living, but consider even the generic term. What is a “beautician,” anyway? As far as I can tell, it is someone who paints women in order that the women will differ from each other visually within a socially acceptable range of colors and patterns. In our society, women are still differentiated by their appearance, men by their money. Therefore every community has shops where women are painted to differ from each other and men are trimmed to resemble each other, so that we can evaluate each other properly.

One cannot blame the newspaper that carries the ad: the fact that such an ad appeared at all suggests that perhaps the newspaper is in fact attuned to its community, saying more about the nature of the community than of the media. Finally, as a libertarian I must allow fools their choices. I am tempted to run such an ad myself (having first issued myself a license) and see which licensing agency emerges to send me a cease-and-desist letter. My attorney has a feral grin at the prospect, and the entertainment value alone …but I will resist.

What will we see next, licensure for poets (“Mr. Whitman, may we see your license please? We’ve heard some queer things about your work”) or certificates to practice art (“Ms. O’Keeffe, the Committee on Artistic Standards finds your work to be, well, too negative. The beef industry has some concerns about all these skulls….”) ? With luck, the Committee might lumber in its ponderous propriety too close to Justice at the Supreme Court building and be found mysteriously headless on the sidewalk the next morning, but we should not rely on divine intervention when bad ideas seep into public policy and societal norms.

The idea that esthetics can be subject to oversight and professional judgment is a subdisease embedded in our society’s extraordinary overreliance on paper credentials instead of people’s actual skills and abilities. John Keats's 1965 book, The Sheepskin Psychosis, was one of the first to point out the phenomenon. A more recent treatment of the issue, Alison Wolf’s Does Education Matter (2002), makes quite clear that many assumptions about the value of education as such in order to ensure higher earnings are simply false. Ronald Dore’s The Diploma Disease (1976, revised 1997) discusses this issue by comparing the British education and economy to that in several other nations.

The bottom line is that educational credentials, be they silly certificates or non-research doctorates, are largely a proxy for intelligence, upbringing, perseverance and attitudes, not in most cases a skill base, and because of this, employers use education as a legally acceptable screening device. Schools and colleges in many cases simply add a gilt stamp to what amounts to a pre-selected set of people.

As W. H. Auden put it, “A teacher soon discovers that there are only a few pupils whom he can help, many for whom he can do nothing except teach a few examination tricks, and a few to whom he can do nothing but harm.”

Artificial reliance on paper credentials (a license to commit esthetic judgment is simply the most absurd current example) does not serve a public interest, and society should stop supporting it except in rare instances. There is a difference between a degree and a skill set, a diploma and experience, a paper credential and good judgment, a certificate and a knowledge base. A degree can serve as a proxy for some portion of those desirable characteristics, but it remains no more than a proxy. Let our society stop asking for paper credentials and start looking at what people can do. And let us drop down the nearest oubliette the idea that there can be such a thing as a licensed aesthetician.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

new blog

This blog will become active around August 1, 2007.