The Dartmouth Observer

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Thursday, September 30, 2004
Andrew Sullivan@Dartmouth

He'll be watching the debate and commenting on it. Why didn't I hang around at Dartmouth longer?

SELF-PROMOTION: Hey, it's yet another blog.

SNARKSMITH: a blog covering the latest in Pop Culture, Literature, Art, Politics, Etc.

Of the billions of websites on the Internet these days, only a few hundred million are devoted to our brand of urbane scribbling.

Let's see... If you're feeling charitable in the manner of a Miramax sales pitch, you might say we're an Arts & Letters Daily meets Andrew Sullivan meets Gawkeresque phenomenon. You know, sui generis in that established winning formula kind of way. Less charitable in the manner of Zagat's during Restaurant Week: "If 'taste' is not a 'consideration,' you could do a lot 'worse' than this murky Irish stew of indefinite 'ingredient'; strange and 'forbidding' at first, but made with just enough 'concern for human consumption,' not to 'kill' you."

Such hot bloggable topics include:

-- Does New York City need a convention center or a declaration of independence?

-- What's Billy Bragg's postpunk English music got to do with Colin MacInnes' postwar English fiction?

-- Is Dale Peck hacking away at the ramparts of good criticism or giving great hermeneutic?

-- Howard Zinn's limbic populism: Destroying the study of American history or what?

From Michael Moore's lowest common denominator to Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin's highest uncommon literary friendship... From Kurdish rights to James Woodish insights... From the window to the wall / 'Til the sweat... well, you know the rest.

Snarksmith: (ahem) a link-and-fisk boullaibaise everyone should sample at least twice at the cyber-planetary potluck.


Editors: Michael Weiss (, Nicolas Duquette (

Choices? You call these choices? or You've Got to be Kidding, Right?

Well, I should be doing work right now but I have band practice in a few minutes so I decided to procrastinate and read the news. Occasionally I read op.eds to remind myself why I skip to the international news section of the paper or read the BBC; our choice in the election is, and never has been, as clear as we have like to pretend. I do desperately miss the sweet blissful days of ignorance when I could have opinions without apology and casually dismissed which ever party I didn't like. The loss of naiveté breads nuance and now every time I turn around, I want to slap any one of candidates at any given time on any given issue. Sullivan perhaps summed up my position best: "The notion that the vote this year is obvious does indeed understate the complexity of the decision. Resolve versus indecision? Or incompetence versus a new path?"

However, in the course of two years (of watching the two year dominance of the GOP on the hill), I've swung from genuinely curious to genuinely afraid that the GOP was losing any hopes of liberalizing and forgetting its tenuous, and silly, alliance with social conservatives. The Democratic primaries frightened me with megalomaniacs like Dean running against confused protectionists like , but I did have options as I was able to cast my vote for Kucinich. (It boggles my mind the idea that anyone would have supported these persons at anytime.) Two weeks ago, due to lack of paying attention really, I fervently was a Kerry-supporter, and, having been asked about my domestic political leanings by some 08s and attempting to talk some Republican supporters out of voting for Bush-Cheney 04, I decided to due some research on Kerry-Edwards. This research has not only led to a much less fervent support of Mr.. Kerry, but the most intense bout of political/personal depression since the aftermath of election 2000 and the decision in 2003 to invade Iraq. How could both major political parties of the US be committed to its destruction through an awful combination of naiveté, ignorance, and wrong ideas? Unfortunately, ladies and gentlemen, we have to wait 16 years before the Dartmouth takeover of Washington will commence.

Friday, September 24, 2004
  • Lawrence James, The Rise and Fall of the British Empire. Stylish and straightforward narrative history of the British Empire from colonial America to the handover of Hong Kong. Remarkably, James manages to write about such a political and politicized phenomenon without ever coming across as ideologically biased. The characters and events carry the show -- as well they should. If you're looking for an introductory text on the Empire, get this instead of Niall's Ferguson's flashy tome.
  • Frances B. Yates, The Art of Memory. This one's for more advanced readers (any book in which the footnotes frequently take up more space than the text is), but I recommend it nonetheless for the sheer depth and diversity of its historical insights. Yates traces the development of the art of memory from its origins in classical Greece to the Enlightenment, and along the way supplies new and genuinely compelling interpretations of, inter alia, Dante's Divine Comedy, medieval Gothic architecture, and Scholasticism.
  • Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. The "essay" (in the author's own words) that has come to define our views of the Italian Renaissance. Though superceded in terms of scholarly insight by more recent works, Burckhardt's exuberant, sweeping prose remains unsurpassed, and his views continue to command the attention of all who might enter the field of Renaissance studies. (See Peter Burke's recent introductory text to see what I mean.)
I await John's review of Leo Strauss's Natural Right and History with bated breath...

Tech Tip of the Day

If you haven't already, go download Mozilla Firefox and make it your default browser. It's smaller, faster, and more secure than Internet Explorer (which you should still keep around for Windows Update). FiringSquad reports that over a million people have already made the switch only six days after its first preview release.

Thursday, September 23, 2004
The hobgoblin of little minds, or why it's okay to change your mind

If you've taken the time to read John's lengthy posts from two to three months ago, you may have noticed that his positions on certain issues -- perhaps even his fundamental outlook on the world -- have changed. On Iraq, for instance, he now seems to appreciate the human rights factor more -- to the extent that he's agitating for intervention in Sudan. (I'm sure Professor Means was more persuasive on this point than I was!) Meanwhile, he's also gone from being a committed Republican to a self-described "center-leftist" who's critical of both Bush and Kerry (as I think most sensible people are). As the man himself writes, much to the surprise of others, "Antiracism, antidiscrimination, elitism, vegetarianism, a concern for injustice, and feminism are just a few of the values I have appropriated from my classes." (I've always wondered which class put him off meat, but that's a separate issue.) He's read more, thought about the issues in light of this extra reading, and has changed his mind here and there. That's fine, even admirable. Far too many people graduate from college not only thinking that they know everything, but believing that they know everything the proper way.

Now contrast John's intellectual evolution (John, please correct me if I've misrepresented you) with the approaches of both Presidential candidates. (It's an unfair comparison, of course -- most non-scientific comparisons are to an extent.) Kerry changes his mind too much, and seemingly without reason. I've tried tracing the development of his thinking on Iraq, but admit to being quite confused. Now it's okay for him to change his mind, but he should at least be honest about it, instead of pretending that he's been consistent all this while. I actually think that this will help his election chances among hawkish liberals in particular, many of whom, while unhappy about Bush's domestic policies, are prepared to prioritize the war on terrorism over gay marriage.

Bush by contrast comes across simply as stubborn. Things are not going swimmingly in Iraq. This need not count against Bush if he's willing to inject a little honesty into his public statements, and more importantly, ensure that the necessary changes are being made behind the scenes. I can't see the former happening -- especially with the elections six weeks away -- and I've no inside information on the latter. (But hey, Mark Steyn is comparing Iraq to Surrey: "In two-thirds of the country, municipal government has been rebuilt, business is good, restaurants are open, life is as jolly as it has been in living memory.")

Wednesday, September 22, 2004
Stop whining!

Prof. Jere Daniell, who recently retired from the History Department, and who taught me an invaluable lesson in writing good historical prose, will tell you if you go and speak to him (and you should take up the Review's suggestion and do so) that there's a culture of complaint at Dartmouth. Everyone -- left or right -- likes complaining, he says, and there's no point in doing so. More often than not, you can't do anything about whatever you're complaining about; persisting in your course of action will only make you more quick-tempered and less likely to have a sense of humor. History has this effect on many of its elder practicioners, I suppose. Jacques Barzun says the same thing in a wonderful little essay entitled "Toward a Fateful Serenity" (it's the first essay in The Jacques Barzun Reader):

History is concrete and complex; everything in it is individual and entangled. Reading it, mulling it over does not weaken concern with the present, but it brings detachment from the immediate and thus cures "the jumps" -- seeing every untoward event as menacing, every success or defeat as permanent, every opponent as a monster of error.
Joe Rago -- who is a History major (and a very good one at that: I read several of his papers that he submitted for publication in the Dartmouth History and Classics Journal, and I know that he's writing a thesis this year) -- seems to have imbibed some of this spirit, as his refreshing op-ed in the freshman issue of the Review suggests. By all means have opinions and be skeptical: but be prepared to engage in "robust, intelligent criticism—the reasoned exercise of judgment, discrimination, and taste." I couldn't agree more with this non-partisan statement.

Now if only this praiseworthy attitude could rub off on some of his writers. And, to be fair, on the Free Press's as well.

Pleasing Pease?

I note with great concern that Donald Pease is all of a sudden among the Review's "Best Professors at Dartmouth." How on earth did that happen? Last year, he was in the other category, thanks to yours truly. This is what the Review says about him this year:

Pease is a leading Americanist and a highly respected scholar in the field of American Studies.His dense lecture style takes some getting used to, but if you’re able to get beneath his jargon there’s something deep and profound to be had.
And this is what was said last year:

Several years ago, Professor Pease was mentioned in Philosophy and Literature's annual Bad Writing Contest for the following sentence: "When interpreted from within the ideal space of the myth-symbol school, Americanist masterworks legitimized hegemonic understanding of American history expressively totalized in the metanarrative that had been reconstructed out of (or more accurately read into) these masterworks." He lectures like that, too.
So all of a sudden there's something "deep and profound" beneath sentences like the above? All it says, if I'm not wrong, is that "The greatest works of American literature have helped to institutionalize a particular view of American history." Which, given the historical contexts of such works as The Scarlet Letter and Moby-Dick (check out those details on whaling), should come as no surprise to anyone. (I'm less clear about what the "myth-symbol school" is.)

When I took his class on American Drama (it's too big, the plays are boring and largely unimportant, and Bill Cook redeems only half of it), I didn't find anything significant underpinning his meandering, incoherent, unstructured lectures. If anything, he took relatively simple concepts and drenched them in so much postmodernese as to frighten away all but the most ardent English or Drama majors. This is not a rant against literary theory per se -- take English 15 with Peter Travis if you are serious about your English major -- but a criticism of one man's utterly ineffective teaching style. It's also highly unusual for a conservative publication to excuse bad writing and speaking -- especially postmodernese -- in the belief that something meaningful lies beneath it. (Skim this essay to see what I mean -- the Review and TNC usually concur on matters cultural.) Of course, I'm not demanding that the Review toe any particular party line, but I am surprised, and would be very interested to talk to the person who penned that blurb.

NB: International students will find me endorsing Pease heartily in a particular brochure that you get before coming to Dartmouth. I've since changed my views, and am prepared to acknowledge that, and apologize profusely for encouraging any undergraduates to take Pease's classes.

Wright's Convocation Speech

Jim Wright's address to the 08s (08s!) can be read here. I'm actually fairly impressed by what he said -- apart from last excerpt:
  • Life is full of stresses and tensions, and kindred souls - those who share with you a set of experiences, a common background, similar ambitions for life, tastes in music, literature, movies, recreational activities, common political values or religious beliefs - these are comforting and supportive friends. But education finally needs to be more than simply comforting and merely reinforcing. Reach beyond your circle of comfort.
  • The free expression of ideas is a bedrock principle, even though not all that is thought or said is equally valid or true. The corollary of the freedom of speech is the freedom to criticize that which is said. And sometimes this freedom to disagree becomes an obligation. If politeness and civility and mutual respect form the basis of our community, so too do engagement and debate and, assuredly, disagreement.
  • You are also for the most part incredibly polite. This is a good thing, but politeness and tolerance need not lead to a sort of intellectual or moral relativism that discourages you from challenging ideas with which you disagree.
  • Discussions and calculations about red states and blue states, about tactics and polls, about funds raised and spent, about personal biography - as well as vicious smears that are cloaked in the wink of innuendo - these reduce the great issues of a great republic to a board game. The loser will not be one or another candidate. We shall all lose, because we will have allowed ourselves to be distracted from matters of substance.
So far, so good. (Cliches abound, but that's to be expected.) I appreciate that he mentioned "political values" as a component of diversity, and that he's standing up to "intellectual or moral relativism" (but see Matthew Yglesias's critique of the concept here). As for his foray into the current Presidential campaign, one need only look around (see this post by Andrew Sullivan, for instance). Now the question of course when push comes to shove -- when someone or some group tests the limits of acceptable discourse -- will Wright hold true to these words, or will he give excuses? The last quote raises some doubts as to whether free speech will come up tops:
  • We are sustained by vigorous discourse, as well as by respect and civility. Now, your right to challenge these values, or any others, is clear. But as president I assume the obligation to define and defend them and to protect here a learning community that welcomes us all - a community where, regardless of our race or gender or sexual orientation, we are all respected and valued and one in which different political and religious views are encouraged.
I'm all for civility, and happen to think that there's not enough of it going around. But I'm wary when Wright says that he's going to define respect and civility "to protect here a learning community that welcomes us all - a community where, regardless of our race or gender or sexual orientation." There's much potential for abuse here. I'm wondering if it'd be feasible for these standards to be defined by the community itself. After all, they're the ones who are affected by them, not Wright himself. But how would that be done?

That's a hypothetical question, of course, since defining the limits of discourse is one of those prerogatives that no leader of whatever political or ideological persuasion, and in whatever context, would willingly cede. In any case, despite what the Review might say, Wright is not a bad president, and Dartmouth is not UC Berkeley. Sure, Dartmouth may have speech codes, but you don't find it on the front pages of FIRE or (correct me if I'm wrong), and Wright doesn't find himself in the headlines for trying to close down student government. From the few times I've met and interacted with him, he doesn't come across as a wild-eyed partisan. Take the SLI, for instance. When was the last time we heard about that? It's long since lost any meaning and direction. Dartmouth's frats are scarcely worse off than they were five years ago, give or take a few traditions like Psi U's keg jump. And conservative views are fairly prominent -- relatively speaking -- within the community -- go to World Affairs Council or PoliTalk, for instance; or talk to Douglas Irwin, Andrew Samwick, Allan Stam, or Allen Koop in the faculty.Things really aren't that bad, and Wright's rhetoric -- which will hopefully translate into reality -- is evidence of that.