Books, Articles, and Items of Academic Interest

Peter Wood

Global Swarming

Woe to the reader who lacks access to the Internet or who disdains it as a source of news and commentary. Increasingly he misses the main story. In Lost Horizon, James Hilton’s fable about a timeless kingdom lost in the fastness of Tibet, the lamaery is content to get the British newspapers delivered a year after their publication. Conway, the hero of the story, complains, “Quite a lot of things have happened in the world since last year, you know.”

Chang, the lama’s representative, replies, “Nothing of importance, my dear sir, that could not have been foreseen in 1920, or that will not be better understood in 1940.” Chang is interested in world events, but only “in due course.” From a sufficiently lofty perspective, human affairs are always the same dreary story of vanity and suffering, from Gilgamesh’s Uruk to Tiger “I-always-put-my-family-first” Woods in Windemere, Florida.

But that lofty perspective is ill-matched to the well-founded urgencies of some events. Hilton’s novel was published in 1933—not a propitious moment to indulge a dreamy counsel of indifference to the ways of the world. That’s the year Adolph Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany, and Franklin Roosevelt launched the New Deal.

A latter-day Conway, however, would have been little helped by speedy delivery of the New York Times, or any other major newspaper, as the story of Climategate broke and unfolded. Nearly every important development took place online, starting with the unauthorized release of the emails and computer code from the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia on November 19. John Hinderaker, writing the next day on the blog Powerline, propelled the story to prominence in the United States, though it had already caught the eyes of other Internet denizens, such as Terry Hurlbut writing on examiner.com Newark.1

Since then, hundreds of thousands of substantive analyses and comments have been posted on the subject. The word “Climategate” as of mid-December registers over twenty million hits on Google—this for a term that didn’t exist a few weeks ago. Are we faced with a mere jag of public curiosity that will fade as fast as it materialized? Or is this a moment when the free-flowing electronic media have captured the real pulse of things, while the old media sat on their hands? Or, awakening grumpily from their nap, the newspapers editorialized and op-eded that Climategate was a great deal of fuss over very little?2

Of those many millions of web postings that point to Climategate as an actual turning point, a few seem worth remembering. Charles Krauthammer in “The Environmental Shakedown,” posted on Realclearpolitics.com, managed to give Climategate a compelling context without ever mentioning the infamous emails.3 He reminded us of the last great effort to guilt the prosperous West into underwriting global socialism: the call for a New International Economic Order (NIEO) in the 1970s. The kleptocratic dream died under Reagan and Thatcher,

[b]ut such dreams never die. The raid on the Western treasuries is on again, but today with a new rationale to fit current ideological fashion. With socialism dead, the gigantic heist is now proposed as a sacred service of the newest religion: environmentalism.4

Krauthammer picks up the thread that the National Association of Scholars has been following for the last two years as we’ve investigated the campus sustainability movement:

Socialism having failed so spectacularly, the left was adrift until it struck upon a brilliant gambit: metamorphosis from red to green. The cultural elites went straight from the memorial service for socialism to the altar of the environment.5

The “cultural elites” Krauthammer refers to, of course, are centered in the universities, and the whole macro-phenomenon of turning weather reports into an end-of-times scenario requiring the Western nations to repent of their prosperity has taken wing from ideologically committed professors, CRU-style researchers who artfully conjured the results they wanted out of doubtful, ambiguous, and sometimes even countervailing evidence.

For our part, NAS has been documenting the rise of such climate-crisis organizations focused on the campus as Second Nature and the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE). But it is hard to find any recent books and articles (other than our own) that delve into these matters. So far, we seem to be the only ones turning over these ashes in search for the burnt truth of honest inquiry. But perhaps Climategate will inspire a modest growth in open-mindedness.

Forecast: Porous, Hazy

William M. Chace in “The Decline of the English Department,” in the Fall 2009 American Scholar offers a rueful reflection on the dramatic drop since 1970 in the percentage of English majors (from 7.6 to 3.9 percent)—and majors in such other liberal arts fields as philosophy, foreign languages, and art history. The decline typically brings forth fault-denying explanations that resemble the conjuring acts of stage magicians. But Chace is admirably straightforward. The blame, he says, belongs on

the failure of departments of English across the country to champion, with passion, the books they teach and to make a strong case to undergraduates that the knowledge of those books and the tradition in which they exist is a human good in and of itself.6

As Chace acknowledges, the academic study of English literature is historically recent. It began only in the late nineteenth century as a branch of philology; it took root, however, and grew spectacularly in the post-war era up to the 1970s. Yet in less than a hundred years, the field has effectively turned against itself.

About ten years ago I had a conversation with the chairman of a major university English department, who, defending his theory-besotted colleagues and graduate students, mocked the “belle-lettrists” who imagined that writing well was important. Not for him the idea that English departments had a special calling in summoning us to clarity of thought and excellence of expression.

Chace, a former professor of English at Berkley and Stanford, and former president of Wesleyan and Emory, is no culture warrior, but he nonetheless registers the cultural loss. English as a discipline has become “less and less coherent.” The English professors are “reluctant to take a clear view of their circumstances.” Faculty members have failed to bring order to their work and instead have “gone their separate ways.”7 Chace finds no liberation in this, only the sense that “everything now is porous, hazy, and open to never-ending improvisation, cancellation, and rupture.”8 He offers some mild suggestions for repair, mostly in the direction of trying to persuade a new generation that literature is truly worth possessing. But mostly his essay reads as a farewell to a dying friend.

Abraham Meets Devil Girl

The world may end in eco-cataclysm—or it may end in cultural anomie and forgetfulness. Perhaps it is wise to turn to the beginning. The underground comix writer of the 1960s, R. Crumb—the R is for Robert—celebrated for his bawdy characters Mr. Natural, Fritz the Cat, and Devil Girl, and numerous covers of record albums, has published of all things an illustrated King James version of The Book of Genesis.9 I imagine it is hard to be an adult American of a certain age and not be familiar to some degree with Crumb’s iconic drawings. His world is inhabited by fleshy, hairy, sweaty people endowed with sexual energy but little grace and less beauty. Ethnic stereotypes never seem far beneath the surface, and sometimes burst out in offensive ways. Partly this is because he has the true cartoonist’s gift for powerful simplification; but he also has an encyclopedic grasp of the physical expression of emotion and a touch of William Blake’s ability to make even the most active scene stand motionless. What it would it mean to turn such a pen loose on the story of Creation?

Crumb’s Genesis is certainly not the version to give to your children. When Lot’s daughters take advantage of their drunken father in order to carry on the lineage, Crumb leaves nothing to the imagination. It is not that he imports some erotic sensibility inappropriately into the text. The grossness of our animal nature is far more Crumb’s theme, and if his illustrations raise any particular theological question, it surely must be, “How could God love a creation that is this fallen?”

In its odd way, however, Crumb’s illustrated Genesis has to be counted in the tradition of art and scholarship that applies serious imagination to reading the founding document of Judaism and Christianity. His graphic novel version stays true to the text; he annotates to support his choice of interpretations; he footnotes unfamiliar words and names, e.g., “Esek: In Hebrew, roughly, ‘contention.’”

Antisesquipedalianism

There was a vogue in the 1880s and 1890s for a new kind of children’s book: books written entirely in one-syllable words—or almost entirely. Proper names could defeat the noble purpose, and the volumes always had explanatory prefaces for grown-ups. Mrs. Helen W. Pierson was the great star of the genre. Her works include: A History of the United States in Words of One Syllable—the titles don’t count—Lives of the Presidents of the United States in Words of One Syllable, The History of France…ditto, Germany…ditto, England…ditto. Other masters of the form were Helen Ainslie Smith (History of Russia, History of Japan) and Josephine Pollard (Battles of America, History of the Old Testament, History of the New Testament).

What can we say of this odd form? Was it just a trick, or was there a goal to be won? Did the child read more or learn to see his words with an eye more apt to the task? Schools are still prey to fads. It helps to bring to mind fads lost to time. They warn us not to place faith in false gods. Yet we can still praise the art:

An-drew Jack-son was the son of a poor man, who died when the boy was but a few day old. His life while a child was full of hard work.

When Abe had been scarce a year at school he could read and write as well as most boys can at twelve, and bade fair in a short time to know more than the man who taught him.

While at West Point Grant made his way slow and sure up the rounds of school life.10

We should choose our words with care and be sure not to stay too long. That’s all.

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