Archive for the ‘A few great lines …’ Category

Tony Judt on language and writing: If words fall into disrepair ..

- August 10th, 2010

Tony Judt

British historian Tony Judt (left) died earlier this week and The Guardian has one of his final essays, presented with the headline, “If words fall into disrepair, what will substitute? They are all we have “.

An excerpt:

… it is one thing to encourage students to express opinions freely, and to take care not to crush these under the weight of prematurely imposed authority. It is quite another for teachers to retreat from formal criticism in the hope that the freedom thereby accorded favours independent thought: “Don't worry how you say it, it's the ideas that count”.

Forty years on from the 60s, there are not many instructors left with the self-confidence (or training) to pounce on infelicitous expression and explain clearly why it inhibits intelligent reflection. The revolution of my generation played an important role in this unravelling: the priority accorded the autonomous individual in every sphere of life should not be underestimated – “doing your own thing” took protean form.

Today “natural” expression is preferred to artifice. We unreflectively suppose that truth no less than beauty is conveyed more effectively thereby. Alexander Pope knew better. For many centuries in the western tradition, how well you expressed a position corresponded closely to the credibility of your argument. Rhetorical styles might vary from the spartan to the baroque, but it was never a matter of indifference: poor expression belied poor thought. Confused words suggested confused ideas at best, dissimulation at worst.

The professionalisation of academic writing – and the grasping of humanists for the security of theory and methodology – favours obscurantism. This has encouraged a counterfeit currency of glib “popular” articulacy, exemplified in history by the ascent of the “television don”, whose appeal lies precisely in his claim to attract a mass audience in an age when fellow scholars have lost interest in communication. But while an earlier generation of popular scholarship distilled authorial authority into plain text, today's “accessible” writers protrude uncomfortably into the audience's consciousness. It is the performer, not the subject, who draws the audience.

[An aside here: I wish I knew the answer to this question -- and pardon my ignorance if I'm wildly off-base -- but is the "television don" to whom Judt is referring here, his contemporary Simon Schama, by any chance? How did Judt and Schama get on?]
The New York Review of Books, incidentally, has assembled a selection of Judt's essays in that publication. If you don't know Judt's work, pick one and see if you like it.

Josph Stiglitz on Keynes, rational markets, and information

- April 26th, 2010

Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz reviews Robert Skidelsky's new book about Keynes

We should be clear about this: economic theory never provided much support for these free-market views. Theories of imperfect and asymmetric information in markets had undermined every one of the ‘efficient market’ doctrines, even before they became fashionable in the Reagan-Thatcher era. Bruce Greenwald and I had explained that Adam Smith’s hand was not in fact invisible: it wasn’t there. Sanford Grossman and I had explained that if markets were as efficient in transmitting information as the free marketeers claimed, no one would have any incentive to gather and process it. Free marketeers, and the special interests that benefited from their doctrines, paid little attention to these inconvenient truths.

…   As financial market regulations were stripped away, crises became more common: we have had more than 100 in the last 30 years. The present crisis should lay to rest any belief in ‘rational’ markets. The irrationalities evident in mortgage markets, in securitisation, in derivatives and in banking are mind-boggling; our supposed financial wizards have exhibited behaviour which, to use the vernacular, seemed ‘stupid’ even at the time.

If unemployment is caused by real wages being too high, the obvious remedy is to lower wages. Hence the standard call of conservative economists for more ‘labour market flexibility’, ensuring that the wages of workers – which have stagnated in the US for a quarter of a century – will drop even further. But traditional Keynesian economics argues that what matters is aggregate demand, and that lower wages reduce aggregate demand. The current crisis demonstrates what can happen: countries with stronger systems of social protection and less labour market flexibility have, in many ways, fared better.

…The financial markets that caused the crisis – which in turn caused the deficits – went silent as money was being spent on the bail-out; but now they are telling governments they have to cut public spending. Wages are to be cut, even if bank bonuses are to be kept. The Hooverites – the advocates of the pre-Keynesian policies according to which downturns were met with austerity – are having their revenge. In many quarters, the Keynesians, having enjoyed their moment of glory just a year ago, seem to be in retreat.

We can’t pass laws that ensure that people won’t suffer from irrational optimism or pessimism. We can’t even be sure that banks will make good lending decisions. What we can do, however, is ensure that those who make mistakes bear more of the consequences of their decisions – and that others bear less. We can ensure that those entrusted with the care of other people’s money do not use that money for gambling. This is true whether those decisions are based on flawed models of risk or irrational perceptions of uncertainty. Taxpayers, workers, retirees and homeowners all over the world suffered because of the mistakes of America’s financial markets. That is unacceptable, and it is avoidable.

Vladimir Nabokov: "I may sail back to my recovered kingdom …"

- March 18th, 2010

“History permitting, I may sail back to my recovered kingdom, and with a great sob greet the gray coastline and the gleam of a roof in the rain.”

Nabokov, Pale Fire, p. 173 (1962)

Also: Did not know this about Nabokov: Vladimir's son Dimitri, aiming to become an opera star, had his debut in a 1961 production of La Bohème in Milan, a production which also featured another young rising opera star named Luciano Pavarotti!

Bothwell: Penguin History of Canada – The Depression

- December 23rd, 2008

“MacKenzie King hadn't expected to lose the [1930] election; he resentfully vacated his office and retired to his country home, Kingsmere, north of Ottawa, to await events. Bennett was the one, therefore, who had to confront a problem so far beyond his imagining that it would undermine his health, his government, and his career. Canadians' choice of political leadership in 1930 meant that it was the Conservative who would offer the first solutions for the Depression…. (p. 328) That was just as well, for King had absolutely no idea how to fix the Depression, and it may have made matters worse that he was a trained economist, for orthodox economics had no solution to offer. (p. 334)

- Robert Bothwell, The Penguin History of Canada, Toronto: Penguin, 2006

Graydon Carter on Nelson Aldrich on George Plimpton

- November 15th, 2008

George Plimpton 1963 Cocktail Party Vanity Fair Editor Graydon Carter writes in this weekend's New York TImes Book Review about a new biography of George Plimpton, George, Being George: George Plimpton’s Life as Told, Admired, Deplored, and Envied by 200 Friends, Relatives, Lovers, Acquaintances, Rivals — and a Few Unappreciative Observers edited by Nelson W. Aldrich, Jr. Carter's review is accompanied by the photo on the left, a cocktail party at Plimpton's place in 1963. (Plimpton is in the lower left). I am, like Carter, “someone who grew up in the Canadian provinces” and, perhaps again like Carter, I was pulled into the profession I'm in part because I thought it would be cool one day to hang out at such a swishy cocktail party like the one in the picture. But I'm sure I also wished to live the kind of life and meet the kind of people Plimpton did:

As literary lives go, Plimpton’s was a doozy. Well born, well bred, the father of four, a witness to the great, the good and the gifted, he epitomized the ideal of the life well lived. He sparred with prize­fighters and competed against the best tennis, football, hockey and baseball players in the world, and along the way he helped create a new form of “participatory journalism.” He palled around with Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal and William Styron, and drank with Ernest Hemingway and Kenneth Tynan in Havana just after Castro’s revolution. He also edited and nursed that durable and amazing literary quarterly, The Paris Review, which published superb fiction and poetry and featured author interviews that remain essential reading for anyone interested in the unteachable art of writing. For someone like me, who grew up in the Canadian provinces, Plimpton was, like Bennett Cerf before him, the public face of the New York intellectual: tweedy, eclectic and with a plummy accent he himself described as “Eastern seaboard cosmopolitan.”

There are no doubt young Plimptophiles who don’t know about his friendship with Muhammad Ali (who used to call him “Kennedy” because he looked like one), or that he was at the side of his Harvard classmate and real Kennedy, Robert F., when he was shot and killed in the kitchen passageway of the old Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles 40 years ago. George was not only on a private plane with Bobby when he decided to run for president, he helped wrestle Sirhan Sirhan to the floor moments after the shooting.

He loved having well-born beauties around — I mean, who doesn’t? — but he was no snob. He could talk to anybody . . .