Maus banned in a Tennessee school distrinct because of eight swear words and a naked rodent

January 27, 2022 • 9:30 am

Today we’ll have two posts on how the “Elect”—et’s use that instead of “woke”, so as to conform to John McWhorter’s supposedly non-pejorative word—are changing or banning art to both confirm virtue and prevent others from enjoying good painting, dance, and writing. One source will be the liberal media; the other the conservative media. This first post deals mainly with literature, but I’ve put some “racialization of art” stuff at the very bottom.

Let’s start with the liberal media, which of course reports Elect shenanigans less often than does the liberal “MSM”. In this case, however, the Guardian is the source. This concerns Art Spiegelman’s “graphic novel” Maus, which won the Pulitzer Prize for literature (the “Special Awards and Letters” category) in 1986.

Before I first read Maus, I was disdainful of “graphic novels,” thinking they were just comic books for adults, made for people who wanted to look at pictures rather than read.

Was I wrong! I first saw Maus at the 57th Street Bookstore soon after I arrived in Chicago, and, knowing the plaudits it got, I pulled it off the shelf.  I started reading, and then couldn’t stop. The artwork, I found, added immensely to the power of the book, especially the depiction of all characters as animals, though one wouldn’t expect that power in a book about the Holocaust. I bought it, which I rarely do with books due to my groaning shelves, and it’s now one of several graphic novels I own. (The other two are volumes of wonderful series The Rabbi’s Cat, given to me by a friend.) It’s not just that the books have moggies in them; the attraction is, as in Animal Farm, that messages can be driven home more deeply using animals as metaphors than by straight depiction of human actions.

At any rate, everyone should read Maus (and I also recommend The Rabbi’s Cat).  But, according to the Guardian the good (?) people on a Tennessee school board have taken it upon themselves to deprive students of this access—for no good reason.

Click on the screenshot below to read the piece. You know it’s gotta be egregious censorship if the woke Guardian reports it!

Why did the school board, which after deciding to redact the book, find it more practical to ban it outright? Because there was a single depiction of nudity OF A MOUSE and a few swear words that kids hear (and use) every day. An excerpt from the article (my emphasis):

Tennessee school board has banned a Pulitzer prize-winning novel from its classrooms over eight curse words and an illustration of a naked cartoon mouse.

The graphic novel, Maus: A Survivor’s Tale by New Yorker Art Spiegelman, uses hand-drawn illustrations of mice and cats to depict how the author’s parents survived Auschwitz during the Holocaust.

The graphic memoir elevated a pulp mass medium to high art when it nabbed a slew of literary awards in 1992 but appears not to have impressed educators in Mcminn county.

Ten board members unanimously agreed in favour of removing the novel from the eighth-grade curriculum, citing its use of the phrase “God Damn” and drawings of “naked pictures” of women, according to minutes taken from a board of education meeting earlier this month.

Here’s the only passage about nudity (OF A MOUSE) in the school board minutes (have a look at the link above):

Mike Cochran- I will start. I went to school here thirteen years. I learned math, English, Reading and History. I never had a book with a naked picture in it, never had one with foul language. In third grade I had one of my classmates come up to me and say hey what’s this word? I sounded it out and it was “damn,” and I was real proud of myself because I sounded it out. She ran straight to the teacher and told her I was cussing. Besides that one book which I think she brought from home, now I’ve seen a cuss word in a textbook at school. So, this idea that we have to have this kind of material in the class in order to teach history, I don’t buy it.

. . .We are talking about teaching ethics to our kids, and it starts out with the dad and the son talking about when the dad lost his virginity. It wasn’t explicit but it was in there. You see the naked pictures, you see the razor, the blade where the mom is cutting herself. You see her laying in a pool of her own blood. You have all this stuff in here, again, reading this to myself it was a decent book until the end. I thought the end was stupid to be honest with you. A lot of the cussing had to do with the son cussing out the father, so I don’t really know how that teaches our kids any kind of ethical stuff. It’s just the opposite, instead of treating his father with some kind of respect, he treated his father like he was the victim.

We don’t need this stuff to teach kids history. We can teach them history and we can teach them graphic history. We can tell them exactly what happened, but we don’t need all the nakedness and all the other stuff.

At least Mickey Mouse had the decency to cover his shame with pants!

At first they thought about just redacting the panels with nudity and cussing, but that would lead to copyright violations:

“There is some rough, objectionable language in this book,” director of school, Lee Parkison, is recorded as saying in the session’s opening remarks.

Parkison continued to say he had “consulted with our attorney” and as a result “we decided the best way to fix or handle the language in this book was to redact it … to get rid of the eight curse words and the picture of the woman that was objected to.”

Board member Tony Allman supported the move to remove the “vulgar and inappropriate” content, arguing: “We don’t need to enable or somewhat promote this stuff.”

. . . After much discussion over the redaction of words the members found objectionable, the board eventually decided that alongside copyright concerns, it would be better to ban the graphic novel altogether.

Eventually they voted to entirely remove the book from the eight-grade curriculum. Those kids are about fourteen years old, and you tell me that none of them has seen a drawing or photo of a naked woman before, or heard (much less used) the words “God damn”.

But apparently the use of animals was said to”brutalize the Holocaust”, as if it wasn’t sufficiently brutal. Indeed, to bring home the nature of the Holocaust, pictures (either photos or artwork) are essential; words alone are insufficient:

Board member Tony Allman supported the move to remove the “vulgar and inappropriate” content, arguing: “We don’t need to enable or somewhat promote this stuff.”

“I am not denying it was horrible, brutal, and cruel,” Allman said in reference to the genocide and murder of six million European Jews during the second world war.

“It shows people hanging, it shows them killing kids, why does the educational system promote this kind of stuff? It is not wise or healthy,” he added.

Allman also took aim at Spiegelman himself, alleging: “I may be wrong, but this guy that created the artwork used to do the graphics for Playboy.”

“You can look at his history, and we’re letting him do graphics in books for students in elementary school. If I had a child in the eighth grade, this ain’t happening. If I had to move him out and homeschool him or put him somewhere else, this is not happening.”

Mike Cochran, another school board member, described parts of the book as “completely unnecessary”.

“We are talking about teaching ethics to our kids, and it starts out with the dad and the son talking about when the dad lost his virginity. It wasn’t explicit but it was in there,” Cochran said.

“We don’t need this stuff to teach kids history. We can teach them history and we can teach them graphic history. We can tell them exactly what happened, but we don’t need all the nakedness and all the other stuff.”

Here we have a bunch of Pecksniffian parents making the decision that fourteen-year-olds shouldn’t have access to a famous, powerful, and moving graphic novel.

Spiegelman’s reaction:

Spiegelman said he was “baffled” by the outcome in an interview with CNBC on Wednesday. “It’s leaving me with my jaw open, like, ‘What?’” the 73-year-old author said, adding he thought the school board was “Orwellian” for approving the ban.

Spiegelman’s Jewish parents were both sent to Nazi concentration camps and his mother took her own life when he was just 20.

“I’ve met so many young people who … have learned things from my book,” Spiegelman said. “I also understand that Tennessee is obviously demented. There’s something going on very, very haywire there.”

Well of course not all of Tennessee is demented, but there are some school board members who are acting, well, I won’t give my reaction.  Let’s just say it’s similar to Neil Gaiman’s:

*************

I don’t know where else to put this item, but it appears that Wokeness Electness has invaded the Metropolitan Museum in New York. I don’t know how far the rot has spread, but readers might check for themselves.  We know, at least, that David and Canova, were racists.  They could at least have depicted Socrates as a person of color!

Rage, rage against the dying of the light!

h/t: Jean

Diversity officer loses job for criticizing anti-Semitic attacks on Jews

July 7, 2021 • 10:00 am

When the “Black Lives Matter” slogan was coopted for other purposes—like the “Blue Lives Matter” slogan lauding police or the “All Lives Matter” slogan meant to denigrate its model—the mimic phrases were rightly condemned as “whataboutery.”  By using the original words, the other slogans subtly mocked or even repudiated the slogan—and thus the goal—of Black Lives Matter.

This goes for other forms of ideological and moral statements. When one condemns, for example, attacks on Asians, as happened during and after the Florida Spa massacre (not definitely targeted at Asians) and during the pandemic, you should defend the rights of Asians to live in America without fear, and should condemn attacks on Asians motivated by bigotry. To lump in all other minorities at the same time dilutes the solidarity one expresses with a beleaguered group, and thus what solace the group can take. (If you want to condemn all bigotry, then just say that, but it confers more love to defend a specific group under attack rather than just saying, “Can’t we just love one another?”)

This holds for all beleaguered minorities except one. And you know which one that is: the Jews. Although they’re the most frequent victims of hate crimes in the U.S. on a per capita basis, Jews though a tiny minority, are not considered minorities and are not considered oppressed—despite the data I just gave and the increasing tendency of the American Left to tilt towards anti-Israel sentiments and, indeed, anti-Semitic movements like BDS. Lest you fault me for going off on anti-Semitism again, be aware that this is one of the biggest hypocrisies of the Western Left, right up there with the Left’s failure to defend the rights of gays and women that are regularly abrogated in Arab countries. After all, Arabs are considered people of color and Jews are honorary white people.

So, when you hear someone denigrate anti-Semitic attacks, you’ll often hear, right alongside it, denigration of “Islamophobia”. This whataboutery is, I think, almost unique to Jews. You cannot condemn attacks on Jews without condemning attacks on Muslims at the same time. It’s like saying “Black Lives Matter—and so do Asian ones.” It’s not simply an American attempt to be fair, but expresses the uniquely unhappy position of Jews in this world.

At any rate, the failure to include Muslims when condemning anti-Semitism just cost April Powers her job as the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Editors’ (SCBWI) first “Chief Equity and Inclusion Officer”. All she did was issue a statement condemning anti-Semitism. Her mistake was not only to issue that statement without mentioning “Islamophobia”, but also to defend what she did on Facebook. For that she was fired. The irony is that April Powers is not only Jewish, but black.

This ridiculous situation, so common in Young Adult Fiction—I nominate that field, along with the Knitting Community,  as the Wokest area of endeavor in America—is described on Bari Weiss’s site in a nice piece by Kat Rosenfield. You can read it for free by clicking on the screenshot below.

Here’s April Powers, the once Chief Equity and Inclusion officer, hired last year

Below: Rosenfield’s description of the SCBWI. I’ve followed their shenanigans over the years, and they seem to me nothing more than a group of sanctimonious Pecksniffs whose purpose is to ensure that no young adult literature is published that doesn’t conform to their ideological views. They are, pure and simple, a bunch of odious censors.

The Society for Children’s Book Writers and Editors is an organization for established and aspiring professionals in children’s and young adult literature. The publishing industry is famously left-wing, but the world of children’s publishing makes the rest of the industry look like milquetoast moderates. In the past few years, Young Adult authors have rewritten already published work deemed offensive. They have seen the ratings of a not-yet-released book torpedoed by organized takedown campaigns on Goodreads. They have cancelled their own titles after (often flimsy) allegations of racism, or been compelled to reveal private, even traumatic details of their lives in order to “prove” that they have the standing to tell certain kinds of stories. In one particularly notorious case, Kirkus Reviews retracted its starred review of the novel “American Heart” and issued a new one scolding its “problematic” elements after a Twitter outrage.

It was in that context that the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Editors put up a post on Facebook that began: “The SCBWI unequivocally recognizes that the world’s 14.7 million Jewish people (less than 0.018% of the population) have the right to life, safety, and freedom from scapegoating and fear.” The June 10 post went on to condemn antisemitism as “one of the oldest forms of hatred,” and asked readers to “join us in not looking away.”

Here’s that post.

Things rapidly got out of hand when SCBWI member Razan Abdin-Adnani (described as the daughter of Palestinian refugees) asked if the organization “also planned to denounce violence against Palestinians.” Powers responded that the statement reflects “recent surges in hate crimes & violence around the world. If we see a surge against Muslims globally as we have w/other groups, expect us to speak up.”

Engaging like that was a big mistake, and the Facebook fracas got hostile. Then it spread to Twitter, which of course is toxic, and Abdin-Adnani demanded a refund of her membership dues.

Rosenfeld describes the downfall of Powers, accompanied by the usual fulsome apologies, including, sadly, one by Powers herself:

You might imagine that this would have been a good time for the organization to take a principled stand, to condemn this member’s inappropriate behavior, and to make a strong statement in support of its employees, particularly its black, Jewish diversity chief.

Instead, SCBWI stayed silent as the controversy continued to blow up online. Both Powers and the SCBWI account blocked Abdin-Adnani as her tweets got more intemperate, contributing to a narrative that she had been “silenced.” Big accounts on YA Twitter signal boosted her complaints. Prominent authors demanded apologies and vowed boycotts.

Then, two weeks after the original Facebook post, Lin Oliver, the executive director of SCBWI, offered a groveling apology. Not to the Jews, for failing to stand by a simple denunciation of antisemitism, nor to a faithful employee, whom SCBWI had left to twist in the wind, but to “everyone the Palestinian community who felt unrepresented, silenced, or marginalized.” The statement went on to acknowledge “the pain our actions have caused to our Muslim and Palestinian members” — pain brought on, it seems, by daring to oppose violence against Jews. “I also want to offer my apologies to Razan Abdin-Adnani for making her feel unseen and unheard by blocking her. She has been unblocked from our feed,” Oliver wrote. (Oliver and Abdin-Adnani did not respond to requests for comment.)

Although Powers insists that SCBWI did not compel her resignation, SCBWI happily took credit for it. The apology noted: “As a remedy to these events, we have taken some initial steps: 1. Effective immediately, we have accepted the resignation of April, our Chief Equity and Inclusion Officer.”

Toward the end of the organization’s apology was an abject note from Powers herself: “By posting an antisemitism statement, our intention was to stay out of politics. . . . I neglected to address the rise in Islamophobia, and deeply regret that omission. . . While this doesn’t fix the pain and disappointment that you feel by my mishandling of the moment, I hope you will accept my sincerest apologies and resignation from the SCBWI.”

What began as a simple denunciation of antisemitism ended with a letter that reads like a hostage video.

Have a look at SCBWI director Lin Oliver’s apology for neglecting to include Palestinians. Here’s a bit of that:

The words fall into the familiar order, “undrepresented, silenced, or marginalized.” All that’s missing is “violence”, “offense”, and “erasure”.

I’m saddened that Powers felt she had to apologize, too, as she had not the slightest reason to. But she is described as being an accommodating and diplomatic person, and didn’t want to make waves. At least she refuses to apologize for writing the statement about anti-Semitism.

Rosenfield ends eloquently, even adding what I see as an allusion to the movie “Chinatown”:

For the moment, at least, Jews are Schrodinger’s victims; they may or may not be deserving of sympathy, depending on who’s doing the victimizing. When a group of tiki torch-wielding white nationalists chant “Jews will not replace us!,” the condemnation is swift. But replace the tiki torch with a Palestinian flag, and call the Jews “settler colonialists,” and the equivocations roll in: Maybe that guy who threw a firebomb at a group of innocent people on the street in New York was punching up, actually?

April Powers naively believed that American Jews should get the same full-throated defense as any other minority group in the wake of a vicious attack, without ambivalence, caveats and whataboutism. That belief cost her the security of a job.

In the words of that unseen videographer: This is America, guys.

Palestinians and Muslims have cowed the American Left to the extent that no denunciation of anti-Semitic violence is possible without including a mention of “Islamophobia”. Asians, Hispanics, and other minorities don’t have the same power.

Why is that? You know the answer. It’s the same reason why two dozen writers belonging to PEN America denounced the organization’s conferring its Freedom of Expression Award to Charlie Hebdo in 2015. It’s fear, Jake: fear of physical harm, fear of demonization, fear of hurting people’s feelings by standing up for what is right. and, above all, fear of looking like a racist for not explicitly mentioning one group considered “people of color.”

Visualizing scenes in novels

July 3, 2021 • 12:30 pm

It took me 60 years to realize this, although I could have seen it all along.  I presume other readers have the same experience, but I’m posting this to see if that’s true.

When I read any kind of book with a plot, be it a novel (my latest was All for Nothing by Walter Kempowski; highly recommended) or a non-scholarly book that has locations (the one I’m reading now is Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest by Wade Davis), I immediately begin forming images of the scenes. In the case of Davis’s book, he describes scenery in great detail, and I’ve also seen some of the places he mentions, like the Everest region and Darjeeling, so it’s not hard to fill in the details in my head.

But in the case of novels, I realize that from the moment I begin reading one, I form mental images of the landscape, houses, or other places described in the book. When I read Gatsby, for instance, I can see the curtained living room of Tom and Daisy’s home, even though it’s not described in detail. And when I say “see”, I envision where all the chairs, tables, and sofas are located. When Bloom feeds his cat (mrgnkao!) and makes breakfast for Molly at the beginning of Ulysses, I have an image in my head of what his kitchen looks like, even though it’s not described.

And this persists all the way through a novel. Undoubtedly my imaginings have no relationship to what the author imagined, but I find I cannot read a book without doing this.

The curious thing is that my imaginings of what people look like are far less vivid, even if they’re described by the author. As my father used to tell me as a brain teaser, “Jerry, imagine a face you haven’t seen before.” I couldn’t do it! And I can’t imagine a face very well when it’s described in a novel. I can imagine Tom and Daisy’s house and living room, but I can’t clearly imagine what Tom or Daisy look like. I know that Anna Karenina is beautiful and Vronsky is handsome, but all I can imagine is a dress and a uniform.

This also goes for voices. And yet, when I see a movie made from a book, if there’s a big incongruity between what I hear on the screen and what I imagine the voices should sound like, it can be so jarring that I don’t want to watch the movie. (For years I followed Peanuts in the papers and kept a scrapbook with every Sunday comic strip. When they turned it into a cartoon show, the characters’ voices sounded so different from the ones I had imagined, though not consciously, that I could never watch the cartoon.)

Of course this doesn’t cause a problem when I watch a movie before I read the book (The Last Picture Show is one example), because I automatically translate the movie voices into the voices of the characters in the novel.

This is all very strange to me. Yet sometimes I think it’s impossible to read a novel without at the same time running a kind of movie through your head.  Is this the case for other people?

 

p.s. This is NOT what Charlie Brown would sound like. (And what’s weirder is that I have no idea what he should sound like.)

 

Howard University about to dissolve its classics department; Cornel West and Jeremy Tate object

April 24, 2021 • 10:45 am

You might remember my post back in February reporting how a Princeton classics professor, Dan-el Padilla Peralta, was trying to dismantle “classics” studies not only because they concentrate on white thinkers, but also, he claims, undergird racism and white supremacy. I objected, as did Andrew Sullivan and many others.  But I expect to see further dismantling of “classic studies” on similar grounds as universities throughout the West become more woke.

Classics, of course, involves the study of ancient Greek and Roman literature, and, as I’ve mentioned, ancient Greeks and Romans didn’t have a notion of “whiteness”. Yes, they had slaves, but most of those slaves were also white. The implication that the ancients were racists in today’s sense is simply wrong, and a horrible reason to get rid of classics departments.

But go they will. The latest is at the historically black Howard University in Washington, D.C. As the Washington Post reported a few days ago, the University is on the verge of dissolving its Classics Department:

The decision to dissolve the department comes after a three-year review of Howard’s academic programs, said Alonda Thomas, a spokeswoman for the university. Officials determined the classics department, which does not offer a major, could be disbanded and its courses dispersed to other academic units, “which will allow the university to function more effectively and efficiently,” Thomas said.

Is that the real reason? I doubt it. There’s more:

A handful of classes taught within the division will be absorbed into other liberal arts departments, university officials said.

The decision has left students and professors scrambling to save the department, saying Howard is the only historically Black university with a classics department. A spokeswoman for the university did not immediately confirm that.

The department apparently has eight professors, four of them untenured. Those four will be let go, while the tenured profs disperse to other departments.

You can see the department webpage here, and their offerings are not insubstantial. Although there is no major in classics, there are minors in Classical Civilization, Latin, and Ancient Greek, and a fair number of courses. Surely at least half those courses will vanish as half the department is fired. And it’s sad that the only historically black university with a classics department will be depriving black students of the chance to study the ancients. Does it really matter if they were “white”? Isn’t the content of their character more germane?

Among those objecting to the department’s disbanding are Cornel West and Jeremy Tate, who wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post calling the department’s loss a “spiritual catastrophe” (click on screenshot below to read their op-ed).  And nobody is going to criticize West and Tate for being white supremacists! Here are their mini-bios from the article:

Cornel West is a professor of the practice of public philosophy at Harvard University and serves on the board of academic advisers of the Classic Learning Test. Jeremy Tate is the founder and chief executive officer of the Classic Learning Test.

And you probably know that West, who’s black, has long been an anti-racist, Leftist, socialist, and “radical democrat”, and has written extensively decrying segregation and inequality. Tate is white, and the Classic Learning Test is a new test designed to replace the SAT as a standardized test, though all standardized tests of that sort are probably doomed. The staff of the Classic Learning Test looks fairly multiracial, for what that’s worth.

But on to the short editorial.

West and Tate note at the outset that both Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, Jr. found solace and inspiration in thinkers like Socrates, Cicero and Cato. And then they give their reasons for opposing Howard’s decision. They soft-pedal the white supremacy trope because they’re not trying to be divisive; rather, they want to emphasize why classics is important for everyone, including African Americans:

. . . . today, one of America’s greatest Black institutions, Howard University, is diminishing the light of wisdom and truth that inspired Douglass, King and countless other freedom fighters. Amid a move for educational “prioritization,” Howard University is dissolving its classics department. Tenured faculty will be dispersed to other departments, where their courses can still be taught. But the university has sent a disturbing message by abolishing the department.

Academia’s continual campaign to disregard or neglect the classics is a sign of spiritual decay, moral decline and a deep intellectual narrowness running amok in American culture. Those who commit this terrible act treat Western civilization as either irrelevant and not worthy of prioritization or as harmful and worthy only of condemnation.

Sadly, in our culture’s conception, the crimes of the West have become so central that it’s hard to keep track of the best of the West. We must be vigilant and draw the distinction between Western civilization and philosophy on the one hand, and Western crimes on the other. The crimes spring from certain philosophies and certain aspects of the civilization, not all of them.

Note that “Western crimes” is a euphemism, surely, for both racism and colonialism. But they consciously have decided to avoid connecting classics with racism—a wise decision.  Although there’s a bit too much emphasis on “spirituality” in the editorial—West is a Christian—the authors rightly decry the utilitarian nature of modern education while at the same time urging blacks to engage with the intellectual rigor of the Classics:

The Western canon is, more than anything, a conversation among great thinkers over generations that grows richer the more we add our own voices and the excellence of voices from Africa, Asia, Latin America and everywhere else in the world. We should never cancel voices in this conversation, whether that voice is Homer or students at Howard University. For this is no ordinary discussion.

The Western canon is an extended dialogue among the crème de la crème of our civilization about the most fundamental questions. It is about asking “What kind of creatures are we?” no matter what context we find ourselves in. It is about living more intensely, more critically, more compassionately. It is about learning to attend to the things that matter and turning our attention away from what is superficial.

Howard University is not removing its classics department in isolation. This is the result of a massive failure across the nation in “schooling,” which is now nothing more than the acquisition of skills, the acquisition of labels and the acquisition of jargon. Schooling is not education. Education draws out the uniqueness of people to be all that they can be in the light of their irreducible singularity. It is the maturation and cultivation of spiritually intact and morally equipped human beings.

Students must be challenged: Can they face texts from the greatest thinkers that force them to radically call into question their presuppositions? Can they come to terms with the antecedent conditions and circumstances they live in but didn’t create? Can they confront the fact that human existence is not easily divided into good and evil, but filled with complexity, nuance and ambiguity?

This classical approach is united to the Black experience. It recognizes that the end and aim of education is really the anthem of Black people, which is to lift every voice. That means to find your voice, not an echo or an imitation of others. But you can’t find your voice without being grounded in tradition, grounded in legacies, grounded in heritages.

h/t: Greg

New letter from Adam Gopnik in our “ways of knowing” exchange

April 1, 2021 • 10:00 am

Adam Gopnik has written his third letter (the sixth between us) in our continuing exchange on the topic shown below (click on screenshot to see all the letters, but then scroll down on the site to “Letter 6” to see Adam’s latest.

You may want to read my last letter (Letter 5) in conjunction with his latest one.

Adam defends his views on Darwin and argues that he’s not, as I suggested, projecting his own views onto writers like Dickens and Trollope. (I didn’t argue that; I said he picked from the smorgasbord of literature just those views that he found congenial to his own, and labeled those as “knowledge”). He then begins what will be an interesting discussion: do music and abstract painting give us “knowledge”? His view is “yes, they do.” I doubt I’ll agree!

I’ll respond after I get back to Chicago, and that will be my last contribution. Adam, in his fourth letter, will get the final say.

Some may feel that this is a futile exchange and the issue can never be settled, and of course I didn’t expect a lot of agreement. But my own view is that there has to be a place where the arguments about “ways of knowing” are collected, and I hope this is one such place.

Amanda Gorman’s Catalan translator removed for having the “wrong profile”

March 11, 2021 • 11:00 am

Today I’m just going to report on things happening in a climate of Wokeness. I hardly need comment on them because they’re similar to things that have happened before. Take today’s posts as a documentation of the balkanization of society—and not just in America.

As I reported on March 1, a Dutch translator lined up to put the poetry of Amanda Gorman—who spoke at the Inauguration—into Dutch had to drop out after critics suggested it was inappropriate for a white person to translate the poems of a young black woman.  Even Gorman approved of the translator, who, though they were white (the translator uses plural pronouns), was also “non binary”. Shouldn’t that rung on the oppression ladder count for something in this crazy world? Nope; it’s all based on skin color.

Now it’s happened again. As the Guardian reports, a poet who was to translate Gorman’s work into Catalan was deemed unsuitable because his “profile” (read: skin color and perhaps sex or age) was wrong. In this case the translator was fired rather than quitting in the face of social (justice) pressure.

Click on the screenshot to read:

An excerpt:

The Catalan translator for the poem that American writer Amanda Gorman read at US president Joe Biden’s inauguration has said he has been removed from the job because he had the wrong “profile”.

It was the second such case in Europe after Dutch writer Marieke Lucas Rijneveld resigned from the job of translating Gorman’s work following criticism that a black writer was not chosen.

“They told me that I am not suitable to translate it,” Catalan translator Victor Obiols told AFP on Wednesday. “They did not question my abilities, but they were looking for a different profile, which had to be a woman, young, activist and preferably black.”

Look at all the criteria he had to meet: age, sex, race, and degree of activism! If you read Gorman’s Inaugural Poem, “The Hill We Climb“, which is neither linguistically, intellectually complex, nor subtle, you’ll know that what’s required here is simply a sensitivity to poetry and the ability to translate from one language to another.

Not only that, but Obiols had already translated works from English into Catalan, including Oscar Wilde and Shakespeare—writers that are surely more difficult to tackle than is Gorman.

Obois was supposed to translate “The Hill We Climb” into an apparently standalone version, with a foreword by Oprah Winfrey, when he got word that “he was not the right person”. It’s not clear who made this decision. Obois didn’t go gentle, as opposed to the Dutch translator:

“It is a very complicated subject that cannot be treated with frivolity,” said Obiols, a resident of Barcelona.

“But if I cannot translate a poet because she is a woman, young, black, an American of the 21st century, neither can I translate Homer because I am not a Greek of the eighth century BC. Or could not have translated Shakespeare because I am not a 16th-century Englishman.”

Yes, an obvious point, but a good one. Likewise, Ezra Pound would have been deemed unsuitable to translate old English and Chinese poetry into modern English, but he did a fantastic job: those translations are some of his finest work. Read “The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter.”

You could find innumerable cases of translators who differed in ethnicity, age, race, sex, and so on from their subjects, but who did great jobs. Constance Garnett (1861-1946), an English woman, was and is still famous for her translations of Russian literature, and it was through her translations that I became acquainted with the works of Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Gogol (she translated 71 books of Russian literature, and some of them were big ‘uns!). Her work is sensitive and poetic. But she was neither male nor Russian, so fie with her!

There are only two possible reasons for rejecting a translator in a case like this. The first is purely ideological: you have to find a translator that aligns with the writer for reasons of social justice, perhaps as a form of reparations or literary affirmative action. The second has to do with quality: one could claim that political/racial/sexual alignment is necessary to do a good job of translation. I think that reason has been amply disproven, leaving the first reason—the Woke one—as the only plausible alternative.

If you want more evidence, I propose this experiment: find a black female activist Catalan translator (good luck with that!) to translate Gorman’s poem into English, as well as a number of other translators: young Catalan white women, non-Catalan white women, old Catalan black women, Catalan women who are not activists, Asian women who speak Catalan but aren’t activists, and so on. Then put all the translations side by side in a blind study and see if neutral Catalan-and-English speaking observers, judging by the translation alone, can pick out the one poem translated by the wholly “appropriate” translator. I’m pretty sure that they wouldn’t be able to do it.  And if that failed, it shows that you can’t argue that only the properly aligned translator can do justice to the original poem.  Clearly, the first explanation: compatibility with Wokeness, is more plausible. It’s also ridiculous.

I have yet to see a full explanation from the Translation Cancelers of exactly why differences in ethnicity, age, race, and sex are necessary for an Amanda Gorman translation. They just use the word “inappropriate”.

h/t: Jez

A new letter to Adam Gopnik

February 28, 2021 • 10:30 am

As I wrote about two weeks ago, Adam Gopnik, a well-known writer who’s on staff at The New Yorker, is engaging me in an Internet discussion about “ways of knowing” on the “Conversation” site of Letter. I was going to post only when the exchange—which will involve either three or four letters each—was complete, but I decided that I’d let readers know as each letter goes up.  I’ve just posted my response to Adam, which is my second letter and #3 in the series at the website below (click on screenshot to read). Each week should see a new letter.

The discussion is mostly about literature, where Adam’s expertise lies, and whether knowledge can be discerned from literature alone. But I won’t go into the specifics, as our thoughts will be laid out for all to see. Feel free to comment below, though, and remember, this is a civil discussion between Adam and me, that we’re friends, and that comments should also be civil—even when critical of either of us.

Shakespeare gets canceled

February 18, 2021 • 1:00 pm

Yes, I’ve exaggerated with the word “canceled”, but if English departments were like police departments, you could say that Shakespeare is getting “defunded.” Unfortunately, I am not an expert on the Bard, having read only the most famous of his plays (and all of the sonnets), so all I can say is that he is not just an expert in constructing intricate and absorbing plots, but a genius, probably unparalleled, in the use of the English language. His preeminence is justified, but of course he’s a dead white male, and of course there is Othello (who doesn’t come off so badly, as Shakespeare was no white supremacist), and most of all there’s Shylock.

But crikey, that was the late 16th and early 17th century, and Shakespeare gets off pretty well compared to what were probably the attitudes of his English countrymen.  Nevertheless, he’s being downgraded, and this is expected given the way things are going. The criticism doesn’t seem to mention Shylock because, after all, who cares about stereotyped Jews?

The article below is of course from a conservative venue: the Washington Times. But that doesn’t mean that the quotes (indented) are fake, so if you find a fake one, let me know. Otherwise, I’ll give a few excerpts, as I must take my wintery constitutional before I watch the Mars landing. Click on the screenshot:

So let’s put Shakespeare in the dock. “Mr. Shakespeare, you stand accused of these sins:”

White supremacy and colonization (?):

For the new breed of teachers, Shakespeare is seen less as an icon of literature and more as a tool of imperial oppression, an author who should be dissected in class or banished from the curriculum entirely.

“This is about white supremacy and colonization,” declared the teachers who founded #DisruptTexts, a group that wants staples of Western literature removed or subjected to withering criticism.

The anti-Shakespeare teachers say fans of the plays ignore the author’s problematic worldview. They say readers of Shakespeare should be required to address the “whiteness” of their thinking.

If Shakespeare must be taught, these educators say, then it should be presented with watered-down versions of the original or supplemental texts focused on equality issues.

Elizabeth Nelson, who teaches English at Twin Cities Academy in St. Paul, Minnesota, told School Library Journal that she gives her students Marxist theory when reading Shakespeare’s tragedy “Coriolanus” about the Roman leader.

Toxic masculinity:

Sarah Mulhern Gross told the journal that she delivered “toxic masculinity analysis” to her students reading “Romeo and Juliet” at High Technology High School in Lincroft, New Jersey.

I suppose this is because those Montagues and Capulets who were always quarreling were MEN, ergo the family feud exemplified toxic masculinity.

Being an irrelevant hack:

This is among the most ridiculous of the comments, but remember that Woke ideology rejects the idea of a meritocracy. And Shakespeare, often considered the greatest of English-language writers, is triply bad because he was a white male as well as a great writer, so he needs to be taken down a few pegs. For example:

The School Library Journal, which describes itself as “the premier publication for librarians and information specialists who work with children and teens,” joined the fight this year and offered young adult novels as alternatives to Shakespeare.

The librarians also showcased an essay questioning the contemporary value of the playwright responsible for classics such as “Hamlet,” “Macbeth” and “King Lear.”

“A growing number of educators are … coming to the conclusion that it’s time for Shakespeare to be set aside or deemphasized to make room for modern, diverse, and inclusive voices,” said the essay, titled “To Teach or Not to Teach: Is Shakespeare Still Relevant to Today’s Students?”

“Educators grappling with these questions are teaching, critiquing, questioning, and abandoning Shakespeare’s work, and offering alternatives for updating and enhancing curricula,” it said.

Set aside! Defunded! This reminds me of Professor Philip Ewell, a black professor of music theory at Hunter College in New York, who said this about Beethoven (quoted in the New York Times):

Last April [Ewell] fired a broadside at Beethoven, writing that it would be academically irresponsible to call him more than an “above average” composer. Beethoven, he wrote, “has been propped up by whiteness and maleness for 200 years.”

Check out the link.

And talk about damning with faint praise:

“We believe that Shakespeare, like any other playwright, no more and no less, has literary merit,” wrote Lorena German, a teacher who penned #DisruptingShakespeare and is often engaged in Twitter discussions on the subject. “He is not ‘universal’ in a way that other authors are not. He is not more ‘timeless’ than anyone else.”

You mean that every author is equally timeless? Shakespeare doesn’t speak to us any more than, say, the author of Jonathan Livingston Seagull? All must have prizes!

Well, I’ll leave out the kvetching about wokeness that also permeates the article; the critics above speak sufficiently to the malaise afflicting the humanities. Anyone who can argue that Shakespeare is no more timeless than anyone else must not only argue that he’s revered simply because he was a heterosexual white male, but must also argue that every other author and playwright who ever lived is just as good as the Bard. And that’s just nuts.

The Nobel Prize in Literature goes to Louise Glück, for poetry, and nobody wins the guess-the-Laureate contest

October 8, 2020 • 6:30 am

Rarely does a poet receive the Nobel Prize for Literature (Bob Dylan was the most recent one), but we have one this year, the American poet Louise Glück. The Nobel Foundation’s Press release (very skimpy) is here, and her official Nobel biography is here. The award is ““for her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal”. One excerpt from the biography:

The American poet Louise Glück was born 1943 in New York and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Apart from her writing she is a professor of English at Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut. She made her debut in 1968 with Firstborn, and was soon acclaimed as one of the most prominent poets in American contemporary literature. She has received several prestigious awards, among them the Pulitzer Prize (1993) and the National Book Award (2014).

Louise Glück has published twelve collections of poetry and some volumes of essays on poetry. All are characterized by a striving for clarity. Childhood and family life, the close relationship with parents and siblings, is a thematic that has remained central with her. In her poems, the self listens for what is left of its dreams and delusions, and nobody can be harder than she in confronting the illusions of the self. But even if Glück would never deny the significance of the autobiographical background, she is not to be regarded as a confessional poet. Glück seeks the universal, and in this she takes inspiration from myths and classical motifs, present in most of her works. The voices of Dido, Persephone and Eurydice – the abandoned, the punished, the betrayed – are masks for a self in transformation, as personal as it is universally valid.

Glück is much honored; she also won the National Humanities Medal, a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award, a National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Bollingen Prize.

I have to say that I’m not at all familiar with her work, and, given these encomiums, I should have been (my knowledge of American poetry stops with Sylvia Plath and of non-American poetry with Seamus Heaney). The Nobel Committee gave an excerpt from her work:

Louise Glück is not only engaged by the errancies and shifting conditions of life, she is also a poet of radical change and rebirth, where the leap forward is made from a deep sense of loss. In one of her most lauded collections, The Wild Iris (1992), for which she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, she describes the miraculous return of life after winter in the poem ”Snowdrops”:

I did not expect to survive,
earth suppressing me. I didn’t expect
to waken again, to feel
in damp earth my body
able to respond again, remembering
after so long how to open again
in the cold light
of earliest spring –

afraid, yes, but among you again
crying yes risk joy

in the raw wind of the new world.

As of this writing there’s no video of the announcement, but I’ll post one when it appears.  Here’s Glück reading from her collection Faithful and Virtuous Night, which won a National Book Award.

As for yesterday’s “Guess the Literature Prize” contest, it was again a miserable failure—nobody guessed Glück.  (The favorite seemed to be Margaret Atwood.) What a pity!

A consolation contest: guess the Nobel Prize for Literature

October 7, 2020 • 8:00 am

As I noted this morning, my Nobel Prize Contest was a miserable failure: nobody even came close to guessing any winners of the three science prizes. Ergo, nobody won.

Well, you get another chance. The Nobel Prize in Literature will be awarded tomorrow morning. Guess the winner and put your guess below.

Rules: One guess only, and best to give a single name. In the unlikely event that the prize is shared by more than one person, your guess is counted correct only if you name both people. Since you can win with just one name, best to suggest only one name.

The first person to guess the winner wins the prize, so if you have a likely candidate, best to post the name now.

The contest closes at 7 p.m. Chicago time today.

The Prize will be be a paperback copy of Faith Versus Fact, autographed, made out to you, and bearing an original PCC(E)-drawn animal cartoon with a pro-science and anti-faith message.

Let’s have some entries this time—this ain’t rocket science.