Daily Office:
Monday, 23 August 2010


¶ We begin and end the day with pieces about the late Tony Judt. First, friend and colleague Timothy Garton Ash writes about the spectateur engagé at NYRBlog. (via 3 Quarks Daily)

Sharp and cutting his pen could be, but his work was always about seeking the truth as best we can, with all the search tools at our disposal—from the toothpick of Anglo-American empiricism to the searchlight of Gallic overstatement. Unlike the other kind of polemical intellectual, he was always in good faith. And he was always serious. Not drearily earnest—he enjoyed the acrobatics of intellectualism as others enjoy baseball—but morally serious. This was as true in private chat as in public discourse. In what he said and wrote, there was always that moral edge. He felt what he himself called, in a study of three French political intellectuals, the burden of responsibility.

Every stage of his biography contributed ingredients to a cosmopolitan mix. America was his last staging post, one of the longest and most enjoyable, but perhaps not the deepest influence. He delighted in the mega-Czernowitz that is New York. The New York Review and New York University, in particular, provided stages on which, and company in which, a talent already largely formed could flourish and expand. His personal discovery of Central and Eastern Europe, made while he was teaching at Oxford in the 1980s, was both passionate and formative. Before that, he was a West Europeanist, a specialist in the intellectual and political history of France, and especially of the French left. To this he devoted no fewer than five scholarly books, from the published version of his doctoral thesis on socialism in Provence to Past Imperfect, a carefully researched and acerbic reckoning with what he saw as the postwar failure of (most) French intellectuals.

Yet while he liked to contrast the political and moral responsibility of Central European intellectuals such as Václav Havel or Czesław Miłosz (the subject of one of his last short essays) with the irresponsibility of Jean-Paul Sartre or Maurice Merleau-Ponty (especially in relation to the horrors of Stalinism), the truth is that he found a great positive exemplar in France too—Raymond Aron—and the French influence on his way of thinking was profound. His conversational style, with its frequent use of paradoxes or near paradoxes of the form “this is at the same time X and Y,” sometimes felt like a translation from the French.


¶ At the Guardian, Stephen Emms makes a bold claim — but one with which we’re in complete agreement: the Pet Shop Boys’ “Being Boring,” twenty years old next month, is the best pop single of all time. (via  Joe.My.God)

None the less, certain factors are incontestable. Being Boring is a classic minor-key grower, its imprint on the soul deepens with repeated plays. Over to Tennant (in a 1996 BBC Radio 1 documentary) to shed some light: “We were always fascinated about the way Stock Aitken Waterman would change key for choruses. And so the verse of Being Boring was in A minor or D minor, maybe, after we went up a semi-tone into A flat for the chorus. Which we would never have done before. It wasn’t an attempt to be mature; it was actually an attempt to be like Stock Aitken Waterman.”

Intriguingly, what began as an attempt to do out-and-out pop (if we are to believe the sometimes disingenuous Tennant) morphs into something else. And it’s this juxtaposition, this delicate balance between disposability and maturity that forms part of the song’s elixir.


There are other factors that, like an elegant interior, don’t add anything structurally to my argument, but are still intriguing: the oddly successful (though often unscannable) rhyming couplets (“When I went I left from the station/With a haversack and some trepidation”); the sophisticated production; harp flourishes, wah-wah guitar, eerily extended opening note (from which the “overture” breaks out in an unexpected direction); the subtle irony of the title, with Pet Shop Boys playing on the perception of them as “boring”; and the black-and-white Bruce Weber-directed video, a thing of beauty, with its nudity, poodles, white horses, tap dancers, writhing couples and handwritten scrawl of intent: “The song is about growing up …”

The best single single of all time, however, is of course Artie Shaw’s “Begin the Beguine.”


¶ The Reformed Broker (Joshua Brown) foresees civil strife in America arising from contention about public-sector pension benefits and other entitlements.

Pension funds are somewhere north of being $3 trillion underfunded.  Public sector union officials have learned a thing or two from the Captains of the Financial Services Industry in terms of throwing tantrums and making threats about the end of the world.  They will pull the same shenanigans and more for their own bailouts; sit-ins, walk-offs, freeze-outs, lock-outs and protests were not a part of the banks’ repertoire, but expect the public unions across the nation to engage in all of these activities.

And the majority of the people in the United States will be completely unmoved by their threats and their cries.  Taxpayers will tell their elected officials to simply find people who will do the job for a reasonable cost; there is a 17% under-employed labor pool in this country, after all.  There will be a push for privatization and outsourcing where the unions have priced themselves out of their own jobs.  The disparity between salaries and benefits of public employees vs their private counterparts (now at 3x according to some estimates) has probably peaked.

It’s over.

Our response to this scenario (which seems realistic enough) is that the public/private sectors ought to be largely if not entirely merged, into a third sector that is neither private nor public: highly regulated not-for-profit business organizations. We don’t see a reason for tegarding housing as a private good, but teaching as a public one; all we see on this point is sentimental muddle.

And when we say “highly regulated,” we don’t mean “by the government.” Even the regulators ought to be not-for-profit organizations. (How nice it would be if the Securities and Exchange Commission could be one!)


¶ At Wired Science, Duncan Geere writes about the first manned space ship that will be launched without the support of a government. Think on’t!

A team of Danish volunteers has built a rocket capable of carrying a human into space, and will be launching it in a week’s time. The project, which has been funded entirely by donations and sponsorship, is led by Kristian von Bengtson and Peter Madsen.

The rocket is named HEAT1X-TYCHO BRAHE, and its first test flight will carry a crash-test dummy, rather than a human, so that the safety aspects of the design can be analyzed. It’ll launch from a floating platform that the team has also built, which will be towed into the middle of the Baltic Sea by a submarine called Nautilus that the pair built as their last project.

The creators are members of the SomethingAwful web community, and have been posting pictures and answering questions there. In response to one question asking what the chances of the person inside dying are, they replied: “Unlike Columbia we’re not moving at orbital speeds so ‘dying a gruesome death burning up on re-entry’ with our kit has a very low outcome probability.”

¶ Chris Lehmann’s Rich People Things is available for pre-ordering, if, like us, you’ve come to recognize in the Awl writer one of our more mordant social prophets. Today’s target is the vaguely-defined fear of a weak recovery and of “Obamanomics” that supposedly prevents firms from hiring.

And funnily enough, the leaders of the heavily unionized auto sector are managing to do what their anxious counterparts in Santelli-land still lack the stomach for: They’re adding jobs. While Michigan’s economy, which was in recession well ahead of the 2008 collapse, is still in desperate straits, the state led the United States in job growth last month, according to the most recent figures from the U.S. Department of Labor. More than 20,000 of the 27,800 new jobs in Michigan were in manufacturing, and the vast majority of those, of course, are in the auto industry.

Such suggestive, uneven regional trends in job growth and manufacturing again only strengthen the case for addressing the question of our sluggish overall recovery at a deeper structural level, beyond reporting that employers, like the rest of us, are easily spooked these days. Consider, for instance, the testimony of a recent New York Times op-ed contributor, who decried the influence of a “cadre of ideological tax-cutters,” “the vast, unproductive expansion of our financial sector,” and “the hollowing out of the larger American economy”; as we’ve “lived beyond our means for decades by borrowing heavily from abroad,” we’ve also “steadily sent jobs and production offshore.” The predictable results of all these trends, we learn, is that “we will not have a conventional recovery now, but rather a long hangover of debt liquidation and downsizing.”

That wasn’t Paul Krugman—we know that from a parting warning about “recycled Keynesianism” and a call for renewed fiscal discipline. But it was former OMB Director David Stockman. You might remember him from the Reagan Revolution.


¶ At The Wilson Quarterly, Daniel Akst writes about the friendship deficit in American life. We’re widely recognized as friendly people, but we’re not correspondingly committed.

Friendship can even prolong our lives. For loneliness, the experts tell us, has to do more with the quality of our relationships than the quantity. And we now know that loneliness is associated with all sorts of problems, including depression, high blood pressure and cholesterol, Alzheimer’s disease, poor diet, drug and alcohol abuse, bulimia, and suicide. Lonely people have a harder time concentrating, are more likely to divorce, and get into more conflicts with neighbors and coworkers.

But of course friends are not vitamins, to be taken in daily doses in hopes of cheating the Grim Reaper. The real reason to prize our friends is that they help us lead good and satisfying lives, enriched by mutual understanding. This special way of knowing one another was once exalted as “sympathy,” and Adam Smith described it as “changing places in fancy.” As Caleb Crain made plain in his excellent book American Sympathy: Men, Friendship, and Literature in the New Nation (2001), the 18th and 19th centuries were the heyday of sympathy, when the fervor of friends was evident in their letters as well as their comportment. Sympathy persisted in popular discourse and was studied as a scientific fact under various guises until, in the 19th century, Charles Darwin came along to replace cooperation with competition in the intellectual armament of the day.

Sympathy’s long-ago advocates were onto something when they reckoned friendship one of life’s highest pleasures, and they felt themselves freer than we do to revel in it. It’s time for us to ease up on friending, rethink our downgrade of ex-lovers to “just” friends, and resist moving far away from everyone we know merely because it rains less elsewhere. In Asimov’s vision, Solaria was a lonely planet that humans settled with the help of robots. People weren’t made to live there.


¶ In “Beauty, Youth, and Their Discontents,” Ujala Seghal ruminates on four beautiful protagonists who don’t end well, Julien Sorel, Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina, and Eustacia Vye. (The Millions)

Eustacia’s textual description is not exactly an exercise in restraint. On Hardy goes for two pages, describing the curve of her lips, her “pagan” eyes, the weight of her figure – and two paragraphs alone devoted to the sheer bounty of her dark hair, of which “a whole winter did not contain darkness enough to form its shadow.”

Like Julien Sorel, Eustacia Vye is naive, egotistical, self-serving, and obsessed with the idea of Paris, “the centre and vortex of the fashionable world.” She is far too human to achieve the Platonic ideal of beauty, “transcending sex, sensuality and ‘mere’ physical beauty” to “the region where gods dwell.” Nevertheless, Hardy gives a nod to “the fantastic nature of her passion, which lowered her as an intellect, raised her as a soul.”

And like Julien Sorel, Anna Karenina, and Emma Bovary, Eustacia – mired by the societal constraints on her free will – ponders:

“But do I desire unreasonably much in wanting what is called life – music, poetry, passion, war, and all the beating and pulsing that is going on in the great arteries of the world?”

Beauty calling out to beauty!


¶ At The Bygone Bureau, Darryl Campbell, who never met Tony Judt or even went to New York University, testifies to the impact that Judt’s engagement with the world had upon his intellectual (and professional) development.

Of all the arguments that Judt makes in Postwar, his criticism of intellectuals struck me the hardest. No serious engagement with the outside world, no real anger about contemporary issues, no general goal beyond self-replication on the one hand; too much “high-cultural pretension” and “hardening crust of knowing cynicism” on the other.

Well, that was me, wasn’t it? Part of the process of becoming an academic “lifer,” I thought, meant that you had to give up the active life in favor of the contemplative. I would condescend to set someone straight about medieval conspiracy theories (“You don’t actually believe what Dan Brown says, do you?”), but I couldn’t be bothered to care much about the modern Middle East. I rolled my eyes, as did many of my colleagues, whenever someone mentioned the name “Bush,” and could regurgitate received opinion about his policies if pressed, but I usually just kept my mouth shut about such things. As long as I wanted to be a professor, I felt that it was better to restrict myself to the library or the classroom.

Postwar began to draw me out of my complacent reverie. Over the next year or two, I took a particular interest in Judt, even though he was technically outside of my area of academic interest (of course, to a medievalist, much is proscribed). I read his book Reappraisals, a book of previously-published essays which again beat the drum of intellectual engagement. Alongside portraits of the select few leftist intellectuals who tried to make a difference in the postwar world — Arthur Koestler, Hannah Arendt, Primo Levi — Judt also blasted people like Eric Hobsbawm who were too in love with ideology to see the world as it was, rather than as it should have been, and contemporary liberal “intellectuals” who failed to speak up against the Iraq war as “Bush’s useful idiots”. And, for the first time, I heard Judt’s voice, even though he was in Manhattan and I was in northern Indiana, thanks to NYU’s broadcast of his lecture “Disturbing the Peace: Intellectuals and Universities in an Illiberal Age.” I wrote down one passage in particular from his lecture:

“Those of my academic colleagues who spend their days substituting meaning for fact — “meaning,” with heavy scare quotes, and “fact,” with even more — cannot expect to be taken seriously at night when they condemn George Bush or some pompous neo-con for sneering at reality-based views of the Middle East. If we want to be taken seriously, we’d better stop talking about positional verities. If we want to be taken seriously, we should stop placing “truth,” “reality,” in witty scare quotes. And not just stop it when we walk out the doors of the campus, but stop it in the classroom too.”

Have a Look

¶ Bertrand Russell’s “Liberal Decalogue” — ten commandments for good wrongologists. (Common Sense Atheism)

¶ Quicksand: some people crave it! (via kottke.org) 

¶ Reddi-Bacon. (No, not a WIN)

¶ International Druthers List. (Let a Thousand Nations Bloom)