two parties

My friend Ross Douthat disagrees, mostly, with Avik Roy’s contention that the Republican Party is dead, but by contrast I suspect that Roy is too optimistic. He thinks that some kind of renewed GOP will eventually rise from the ashes, but I doubt that. I don’t think that the rise of Trump marked the end of the Republican Party as we know it, but rather that the party’s incoherent and brainlessly reflexive responses to Trump, whether positive or negative, were the equivalent of the last few electrochemical twitches of a corpse. The current donor base will pay for one or two more decades of artificial respiration, but no more, and I suspect that as early as 2024 the GOP will be completely irrelevant to American politics, at least at the national level.

At that point we’ll still have a two-party system, but the two parties will be the Neoliberal and the Socialist — basically, the two main wings of the current Democratic Party. And I’m not sure that, when that happens, we’ll be any worse off than we are now.

Wolfe on Chomsky

I won’t vouch for the scholarly accuracy of Tom Wolfe’s skewering of Noam Chomsky, but oh my goodness is it fun to read. (Subscribe to get around the paywall, and you’ll get an essay from me next month!) And he’s channelling in his own inimitable style critiques made by a good many other linguists. At 85 — eighty-five — he is still a first-rate researcher and he writes like a deranged but virtuosic songbird.

Only wearily could Chomsky endure traditional linguists who thought fieldwork was essential and wound up in primitive places, emerging from the tall grass zipping their pants up. They were like the ordinary flycatchers in Darwin’s day coming back from the middle of nowhere with their sacks full of little facts and buzzing about with their beloved multi-language fluency. But what difference did it make, knowing all those native tongues? Chomsky made it clear he was elevating linguistics to the altitude of Plato’s transcendent eternal universals. They, not sacks of scattered facts, were the ultimate reality, the only true objects of knowledge. Besides, he didn’t enjoy the outdoors, where “the field” was. He was relocating the field to Olympus. Not only that, he was giving linguists permission to stay air-conditioned. They wouldn’t have to leave the building at all, ever again . . . no more trekking off to interview boneheads in stench-humid huts. And here on Olympus, you had plumbing.

Fair? I don’t know. But oh so delightfully wicked.

júlia sardà: This is the cover of “The Liszts”…


a memory

Reading this essay sent me down the twisted paths of memory….

When I was twenty and in college, I came home for a weekend and almost as soon as crossed the threshold my fifteen-year-old sister came up to me and said, “Did you know that Mama and Daddy have been married before?”

I stood still for a moment. I asked her what she was talking about, and she told me that she and my mother had been sitting in the living room one evening when she, my sister, asked, out of the blue and for no reason she was aware of, “Were you married before you married Daddy?”

Mama said, “Yes.”

Which led to further questions and a few, sometimes reluctant, answers. These my sister shared with me. Had our father been married before? Yes. Had either of them had been married more than once before their current marriage? No. Had those previous marriages had produced any children? My mother said that we were her only children, but my father had a daughter by his first marriage. Which meant that we had a half-sister we’d never met, and whose existence was a complete blank to us.

When I learned all this, my mother saw how stunned I was; my father wasn’t home. I fairly staggered upstairs to my room and sat there thinking. What else didn’t I know? Much of my early childhood was shrouded in a kind of mist: I knew my father had been in prison for much of it, and I had been raised by my mother and grandmother, but I didn’t know what he had done and had only a vague sense of how long he was in prison — I knew he had been in twice, and we had visited him at a federal prison in Indiana and then, later, at the minimum-security prison at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama. (We lived 90 miles away in Birmingham.) What other dark stories were there to tell and to hear?

A few hours later my father came home, and after my mother told him what had happened, he came up to my room. I believe this was the first time he ever did that; I cannot remember any prior occasion, and insofar as I had thought about that at all, I suppose I was pleased at the respect for my privacy. In any case, that evening he opened the door and stood in the doorway.

“I hear you’re upset,” he said.

Well … Yeah, I said. I mean, I’m twenty years old and just found out that both of my parents have been married before, and I have a half-sister.

To this he said nothing.

I guess I’m just wondering why you never told us.

“Because it’s none of your goddamned business,” he said, and then turned, closed the door, and went back downstairs. He never came to my room again.

Whose Fault is Trump?

1) Trump.

2) A Republican Party that for decades has, in its sycophantic panting after a hyperrich donor class, ignored the people who have now turned to Trump as their only savior.

3) A television-generated cult of pure celebrity, one which makes no distinction between being famous for having achieved something significant (in political life, for instance) and being famous for being famous.

4) Social media, which generally impede rational thought and inflame hatreds and resentment of all kinds — but especially the racist/nativist wing of social media, which is highly effective in making ludicrous falsehoods disguised as “facts” go viral.

5) A mainstream media world that, by devoting decades to scorning and misrepresenting working-class people — and indeed anyone in flyover land — has ensured that its attempts to correct the falsehoods mentioned above will be seen as merely more leftist propaganda.

6) George W. Bush and Barack Obama, for dramatically expanding the power of an un-checked, un-balanced executive branch, thus making the prospect of a Trump presidency far, far more frightening than it would have been in an age in which Presidents respected the separation of powers.

7) American schools, especially public schools, for their long-term abandonment of instruction in history — since even the slightest acquaintance with history would reveal Trump’s real character as a reflexively narcissistic demagogue, a would-be strongman, who has nothing but contempt for the hard-won, beautifully designed American political system that has served us well for more than 200 years.

8) American churches, especially evangelical churches, for a nearly-complete indifference to Christian formation, and an unwillingness to confront the possibility that faithful Christian presence in the world might be counter-cultural — that God might demand something from us, some hard and costly love, rather than seeking merely give us more of the treasure we already crave.

the limits of our mourning

Robert Macfarlane and Adrian Cooper write,

It is still shocking to read that 46 per cent of ancient semi-natural woodland in the UK was either destroyed or replaced with conifers between 1933 and 1983. Individual trees were killed by being pierced with large ‘Jim Green’ injectors containing ‘2-4-5 T’ (a derivative of ‘Agent orange’), or by the hacking of billhook-wounds into which Ammonium Sulphamate crystals were rubbed. Yet the visual and historic loss during those notorious “locust years” is abstract to many of us, to those who didn’t grow up in those woods, through those times. The same can be said of elm, as Rackham (again) pointed out: “Since the last Elm Disease a new generation has grown up to accept the absence of big elms as normal.”

Can we only mourn what is known to us, lost in our lifetime? Is that really how far our empathy and anxiety stretches?

I think these are powerful questions, indeed the right questions to ask, and I completely endorse Macfarlane and Cooper’s advocacy for the natural world of Britain. But I just wish there were more people who could think this way about our moral and spiritual inheritance (which, rightly understood, includes political culture as well, I am moved to say after two nights of the Republican convention).

Are there ways to make vivid to us the rich inheritance that our parents and grandparents lost, or gave away? Not everything that our ancestors believed, but the best of it? Or “can we only mourn what is known to us, lost in our lifetime?” My kingdom for historical imagination. O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend / The brightest heaven of invention.

Mac status update

Last year, when I upgraded from Yosemite to El Capitan, my MacBook’s wi-fi stopped working. I could occasionally connect to the internet, but only for a few minutes at a time. However, if my connection stalled out and I needed it desperately, I could turn the wi-fi off and turn it back on and get maybe 90 seconds of connectivity.

So I went back to Yosemite, only to discover that on Yosemite, on this computer anyway, Bluetooth doesn’t work at all. That’s a problem for me because (a) I often use the computer with an external monitor and a wireless keyboard, and (b) I listen to a lot of music through a Bluetooth speaker.

So I had to choose between wi-fi and Bluetooth.

As a result of all this, when the Sierra beta came out I decided to give it a try. Good news: wi-fi works! Bluetooth works!

However, now my machine won’t reliably connect to my external monitor. Ah well. Can’t win ’em all. But things have been bad enough for the past year or so that I call this an improvement.

Angkor Wat

This transformation of legend into fact has been a theme of the LiDAR surveys. Angkor’s huge population is described in temple inscriptions and reports written by Chinese travelers who visited the city during the 12th century reign of King Suryavarman II, who built Angkor Wat. But historical sources are often exaggerated or incomplete. Plus, it was difficult for Western researchers to believe that the Khmer Empire’s great city was home to almost a million people, dwarfing European cities of the same era. Now, such facts are impossible to deny.

playing Todd

I think Todd Rundgren is one of the great pop songwriters, and it occurred to me recently that I’d like to learn to play a few of his songs on the guitar. “It Wouldn’t Have Made Any Difference” is one of his loveliest tunes, so I thought I would try that. I did my usual googling for tablature, and (it doesn’t always work out this way) quickly found a very accurate one.

Turns out that to make my way through this one little pop song I have to be able to play seventeen chords. And some of them are kind of peculiar — the sort that sound wrong until you play the next chord and go “Oh right.”

This tells me some things. The first thing it tells me is that the song was almost certainly written on the piano, and indeed it would be much easier to play on a piano, should one actually know how to do that. (Ahem.)

But it also tells me that as a craftsman of songwriting Todd is kind of a freak. My shoulders sagged at the thought of negotiating seventeen different chords in around three minutes, so I went through the song to see if some of them could be simplified or eliminated: sometimes a careful and thorough tablature-writer includes transitional chords that can be left out with little harm to the song’s integrity. But not in this case: every one of those chords was necessary, and changing or eliminating any of them yielded a significant loss of musical nuance and texture.

I think the writing of catchy pop songs — even really complex and musically sophisticated ones — came too easily to Todd. A couple of years after Something/Anything? he wrote a song called “Izzat Love.” Give it a listen. It’s a super-super-catchy little number. But as the song goes along it keeps getting faster, not dramatically but noticeably — and then after less than two minutes you hear a sudden squeal as Todd hits the fast-forward on the tape deck. It’s unsettling, Todd’s contempt for his own facility; as though he’s telling us Do you see how easy this shit is? God, I’m sick of it. It’s time to do something else.

Nicolas Mourot