Archive for September, 2004

Praying to scorpions

Wednesday, September 29th, 2004

Martin Kozloff is a Professor of Education at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington; amongst other things, he teaches a course in Classroom management for the mildly handicapped. How would he teach, I wonder, a student who got up in class and announced

One day soon, our planes and missiles will begin turning your mosques, your madrasses, your hotels, your government offices, your hideouts, and your neighborhoods into rubble.

And then our soldiers will enter your cities and begin the work of killing you, roaches, as you crawl from the debris.

As cowards, you will have your hands in the air and you will get on your knees begging for mercy. And we will instead give you justice. Your actions and your words long ago placed you far from any considerations of mercy. You are not men.

And if you come to this country and harm a child, shoot a mother, hijack a bus, or bomb a mall, we will do what we did in 1775. Millions of us will form militias.

We will burn your mosques.

We will invade the offices of pro-arab-muslim organizations, destroy them, and drag their officers outside.

We will tell the chancellors of universities either to muzzle or remove anti American professors, whose hatred for their own country we have tolerated only
because we place a higher value on freedom of speech. But we will no longer tolerate treason. We will muzzle and remove them.

We will transport arab-muslims to our deserts, where they can pray to scorpions under the blazing sun.

Professor Kolzoff could only blush prettily and wipe the spittle moisture from his cheeks, because he is the author. The whole rant is listed on his website under “Recent Papers” with a note saying “Warning. Provocative language. I do NOT advocate violence against any persons or groups.” So that’s all right then.

Crime and error

Wednesday, September 29th, 2004

Somone — Tony Howard, I think — wrote the other day that he had never understood Talleyrand’s saying that something was “worse than a crime: it was a mistake.” I think the difference is this. A crime is something for which you can later make reparation. A mistake, in Talleyrand’s sense, robs you even of the power to make amends.

Deux doigts

Tuesday, September 28th, 2004

élevés à la presse de l’université d’Oxford, se trouvent ici.

A fine companion site to the German-English dictionary that lives in my sidebar.

A whole other question

Tuesday, September 28th, 2004

Steve Bell’s cartoon on Tuesday showed Tony Blair singing a version of “my Way” which rose to the final line “I gave Bush Myyyyyy ass.” This raised
an important question of principle. Why not “arse?”. Tony Blair is a British Prime Minister. When he was a boy, he had a bottom. When he grew up, he
acquired an Arse; not, as an American would, an “ass”. An Arse is one of the distinguishing marks of an Englishman. Has Blair’s mysteriously
changed nationality as a mark of presidential favour, or is there some more subtle semantic point at issue?

Sometimes the American and English spellings make useful distinctions of meaning. It’s obvious that Radio 3 makes programmes, whereas computers run
programs.

With “arse” and “ass” the distinction also seems clear. An arse is an essentially comic organ, wholly devoid of dignity. It is something to be
kicked, or to land with a bump on. At a pinch, soldiers can do something at “split-arse speed”, as Bill Deedes regiment planned to do in the war.
But even here, there connotations are of undignified haste.

An “ass” is an organ with a much wider range of uses. It can flatter, for one thing. A person may have “a great ass” and be complemented by this. “A
great ass”, in English, is an old-fashioned idiot. “A great arse” is an Anglo-Saxon term, meaning a large bum.

In American, a great “ass” is not just a beautiful body part. It expresses the inner beauty of its owner. An “arse” is always at most a part of the
body. If we want to express an opinion of the whole man, we have to say he’s an “arsehole”. But your “ass” is a much more comprehensive organ, and
almost always a synecdoche for the whole American.

When Americans get their “asses” in gear, or have them put in a sling, this is no mere posterior accident. It is a life-changing event. If an
Englishman is trying to escape form a sticky situation, and gets to the point where his arse is out of there, it means he’s stuck half-way through
the window. An American, with his ass out of there, is away and running free.

The only time that “ass” is used in an English, anatomical sense, the connotations are not comical but humiliating. To own someone’s ass has
unmistakable overtones of prison rape — a crime which occupies an extraordinarily prominent place in the American imagination, as if all
relationships of power could be reduced to this one act. This proves, I think, that Steve Bell knew exactly which of “ass” and “arse” was, in the
circumstances, the mot juste.

The benefits of faith

Monday, September 27th, 2004

It is a favourite trope of Dawkins-type atheists to claim that faith is unjustified belief, and thus by definition a bad thing, which could not possibly have arisen by natural selection, except as a sort of metastasis of trust in our parents.

But the important quality of faith is not initial credibility, but persistence. When Barlow says “I was raised a mormon, and now I believe pretty much everything” the joke works because it implies he forgets everything he knew before the last doob. And actually, persistence of belief in the face of disconfirming evidence is essential if social institutions are to be built and maintained. This morning’s example.

If democracy produces leadrs like George W Bush, there’s no pressing reason for the rest of the world to adopt the system. The unique advantage of democracy is that it can remove such people from power. None the less, if he does win, we should not abandon faith in democracy.

A work of genius

Sunday, September 26th, 2004

Last night I finally watched Aki Kaurismäki’s Leningrad Cowboys go America, for which I had paid $40, with shipping on Ebay. You can’t get it on DVD at all, and the video is out of print. Never was $40 better spent on a very short film. It is the funniest rock and roll movie ever made, and, though this isn’t strictly relevant, it has some of the best playing. It is part of the joke that the Leningrad Cowboys, a band from the Finnish tundra, master effortlessly every musical style from Tango through rockabilly to mariachi music.

Unlike later Kaurismäki, this is pure comedy. Even the deaf-mute village idiot, trailing through the desert with a giant catfish in his arms, comes to a happy ending. But it is also, it seems to me, a very profound expreession of the love that the Bushies have thrown away. The America of the Leningrad Cowboys is the one we all fell in love with from a distance: a place of sleazy bars, great music, crooks everywhere, unexpected kindness, and adventures for everyone. Watching the film today, the one thing that seemed even odder than the resurrection of the bass player was the fact that there was no scene at immigration. They simply got on the plane and got off in New York, where they went straight to the sreets.

A work of imagination

Sunday, September 26th, 2004

This link is a complete, short, Project Gutenberg reprint of a booklet of half a dozen Victorian hand shadow postures. You see the hand in the foregrounds, and the animal in the background. That’s it. You don’t see the shadow even in the instructions to cast it. You see the animal, just as clearly as they saw in Lascaux.

It’s a sight worth keeping in mind, when thinking about metaphor, or God.

Ancient prophet

Saturday, September 25th, 2004

“I‘m sure there are plenty of great young songwriters working out there now and yes, I really hate them”. From a rather wonderful talk by Loudon Wainwright.

Jim White went to interview him once for the Independent, in Leeds, or somewhere like that. “Don’t you think that your songs are a little bit depressing about the war between the sexes?” he asked.
“Are you married, Jim?”
“Yes.”
“And how long have you neen married?”
“Six months” [blushes shyly]
Weeeeelll done! “

You have to love the man.

A note on policy

Saturday, September 25th, 2004

Boring abusive comments will be disemvowelled. Persistent offenders may be banned.

If you have time

Thursday, September 23rd, 2004

Prepare to waste it here.

It looks as if the new DNB database has been left open for a little while. I recently wrote a wormseye about the absurd pricing of the OED. It turns out that the new DNB will not be available on the CD at all and requires an annual personal subscription of