Wednesday, June 26, 2002

Well this is kinda sad, but not unexpected: Toni Morrison makes idiotarian comments.

Now some of this may be by the reporter, rather than by Morrison. You be the judge:

Inaugurating a new lecture series started by fellow Nobel laureate, Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Morrison on Monday retold the story of "Beowulf," the epic of how good triumphs: by continuous, bloody and escalating violence, until evil is destroyed.

"You may be reminded of events, rhetoric and actions of many current . . . violent upheavals," she told a standing-room-only crowd of more than 400 U.N. officials and diplomats.

For centuries, the language of war was inspiring and glamorous, and it was the language the world accepted, Morrison said. "The heroic language of war was rivaled only by religious language."

First of all, if you're going to talk about Beowulf, you should actually know something about it, which she obviously doesn't.

Let me quote that again: "good triumphs: by continuous, bloody and escalating violence, until evil is destroyed."

This may perhaps be the single most stupid thing ever said about Beowulf. Good triumphs? At the end of the poem Beowulf is dead and his people are anticipating being exterminated or enslaved by their enemies.
"Escalating violence"? What the hell does that mean? The dragon is a more deadly enemy than Grendel or Grendel's mother, but that doesn't show "escalation." It's a different sort of violence, brought about for different reasons, not an "escalation."

But the really idiotarian thing is the idea that if we replace the rhetoric of violence with the rhetoric of non-violence, anything will change. Try non-violence and understanding with Grendel and see what happens. (hint: he'll eat you). The problem that is at the heart of Beowulf is the problem that we're still dealing with: to give up war and hope for peace is only possible when you are so strong that your enemies fear to attack you. But you can only become that strong by gaining a fearsome reputation in war. Beowulf is seen as a great king because he did not use his power unjustly (see his dying speech) and because his reputation allowed his people to have peace and prosperity.

Morrison's thick-headed analysis provides just another data point to support Drout's Nobel Prize Theory of Stupidity. To wit: once you win a Nobel, you begin to act like a moron because you no longer get criticized or edited, and you can say stupid things and people will not contradict you. Losing your feedback loop, you lose your connection to reality and you become an idiot. The same phenomenon can be see in the work of popular writers, culture makers like Stephen King, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, etc.: once you stop getting edited, your work goes to hell.

But the main point: if you don't read Old English, don't comment on Beowulf.

Sunday, June 16, 2002

Since September 11 I have had numerous nightmares about my daughter dying. She is only 21 months old, brilliant, beautiful, loving... and on Flight 11, which came from here in Boston, was a 2-year-old whose parents almost certainly felt the same way about him. Four people that my wife worked with died in that flight, and it could have been much worse, as many more of her co-workers were supposed to have been on it, but had gone out on Monday.
But since Sept. 11 I have had horrible dreams in which my little one is dead. Not killed in a highjacking incident, but dead in some other way. I wonder if there are other people who've had this happen.
I just want to remind people who say things like "you have to understand..." about Sept 11.
There is no possible way that 2-year-old could have done anything evil, or wrong, or deserving of his death. And that fact alone invalidates any possible cause the terrorists could have had. The fact that he was on the plane, and they knew it, and they didn't abort their evil plan for that reason alone makes them subhumans.
Not that we were lacking in evidence for their subhumanity before, of course.

Friday, June 14, 2002

I've just spent a little time making the Wormtalk page look a little better (though it's no Lileks site) and I realized that people might take my title the wrong way. Oh well. "My life among the invertebrates" does refer to my being often ashamed of my profession (as well as being homage to a Far Side cartoon). But it's not a reflection of where I teach, since I happen to be a part of what is probably the only English department in the country that is not a nest of vipers (to mix in a vertebrate metaphor). And the college I teach at is itself far less idiotarian than the rest of academia. We actually care about teaching our students rather than indoctrinating them.
But, sadly, the profession as a whole is one of invertebrates, though that may be changing with the passage of generations. One hopes.
Mickey Kaus points to this Peggy Noonan essay and agrees with her that "Homeland Security" is an awful name. Kaus and Noonan both seem to think there are Nazi overtones to "homeland." I'm not sure I agree about that, but I do agree that "Homeland Security" is awful, and stupid. Kaus is also right that the agency should be called the "Department of Defense" and the current Defense Department should go back to its original name of "War Department." I would go further and push these eminent commentators (and everyone else who would listen) to STOP USING EUPHAMISMS.
They don't fool anyone, you know. You can call it "Public Safety" all you want, but it's still the campus police. I won't even go on with the rest of the stupid list of common and idiotic (and everybody knows they're idiotic) euphamisms. And I don't care who started it, liberals or conservatives ("family values" or "differently able" or "collateral damage"). Just stop. Ok, big time journalists? Call things what they are. People will appreciate you for it.

Wednesday, June 12, 2002

Glenn Reynolds here points to this article to show that Chomsky's opinions on matters linguistic are not faring so well.
It's a little misleading, though. Now don't get me wrong. I loathe Noam for his political nonsense as much as the next person, but his intitial insights into language really are all they are cracked up to be. Syntactic Structures was a ground-breaking book. The problem with Noam is that after Syntactic Structures, people stopped challenging him. With no honest feedback, he became loopier and loopier. And the American tenure system means that if you do something great when you're 35, the world is stuck with you for the next 30 years, whether you do anything else good or not (viz. Harold Bloom, who had one good idea in 1973). Chomsky is arrogant and close-minded. I've heard stories from reputable sources that he has corrected native speakers of a language when they say something that doesn't agree with the current version of his theory. But the underlying elements of the theory--d-structure and s-structure and transformations--are accepted by just about everyone in linguistics.
Well, I've been lurking around the Blogosphere since late 2001 and I figured "Hey, this would be a great way to undermine my tenure case." So here goes.