Category Archives: political correctness (PC)

Since when was a translator’s race important? (Since now.)

 

 

Alex Marshall

 

Regarding a New York Times article from last week which I have posted here:

“Amanda Gorman’s Poetry United Critics. It’s Dividing Translators.”

By Alex Marshall

The New York Times

March 26, 2021

 

I posted the following comments on Facebook yesterday evening:

This is reverse racism pure and simple. We have gotten so far removed from the idealism of Martin Luther King, Jr. that it is very sad to contemplate. I hope to be able to find the time to write more about this. So, in order to be hired as a translator, one has to pass a skin color check? What about persons descended (as many of us are) from various racial or ethnic groups? What if I wrote a novel with some black characters in it? Why hasn’t “Porgy and Bess” been canceled yet? (Don’t worry — in due time.) White men and French missionaries did heroic work translating from and studying the languages of Native American tribes. Should they have been prohibited from doing so? How dare Mozart write an opera with Italian characters in it? Or Tolstoy a novel about Chechnyans? If I were hiring a translator, I would want the best person for the job. Think about it: That would be the way to honor and do justice to Amanda Gorman’s poetry.

A translator translates WORDS. The essential requirement in this instance is a knowledge of English and the target language. Plus the rare ability to translate poetry. Of course, words have connotations and in the case of literature a literal translation is almost never desirable; and then there are special challenges in translating poetry. And of course in a poem or any work of literature the writer’s personal experience and feelings, outlook, culture, and identity as they conceive it come into play. What deserves great care and respect from a translator is the writer’s words, what they said and meant, not other, external factors. The cancel culture types could care less about this.

In a college course devoted to world literature, I taught a novel regarded as a classic: “Snow Country” ( 雪国) by Yasunari Kawabata. We read it in translation. The English translation was by Edward Seidensticker, an American (white, not Asian!) who was born and raised in the West and was of German, English and Irish heritage. The novel is a brilliant and there is something very Japanese about it. You know this is not Western literature. You feel very much in a different culture and place. It was obviously a very difficult work to translate. Should someone have laid down the law that the job should have been reserved for a translator who was Japanese? The translation is regarded as brilliant. I am so glad that the work was available in English. This is the sort of thing that cancel culture philistines never even think about.

 

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Here are a few excerpts (in italics) from the article, with my comments (in all caps):

 

Should a white writer translate a Black poet’s work? A debate in Europe has exposed the lack of diversity in the world of literary translation. [subtitle of Times article]

THIS IS AN IDIOTIC QUESTION.

 

Ms. Haruna-Oelker, one of the German translators, said one disappointing outcome of the debate in Europe was that it had diverted attention from the message of Gorman’s poem. “The Hill We Climb” spoke about bringing people together, Ms. Haruna-Oelker said, just as the German publisher had done by assembling a team.

“We’ve tried a beautiful experiment here, and this is where the future lies,” Ms. Gumusay said. “The future lies in trying to find new forms of collaboration, trying to bring together more voices, more sets of eyes, more perspectives to create something new.”

GREAT TO BRING TOGETHER. THE REVEREND DOCTOR KING WOULD HAVE AGREED, BUT POEMS ARE NOT POSITION PAPERS. AND I THOUGHT WE ARE TALKING ABOUT THE MATTER OF TRANSLATION, A RARE SKILL AND SOMETHING THAT IS OFTEN DONE BY INDIVIDUALS (AS WELL AS BY TEAMS, USUALLY COMPRISED OF TWO PERSONS.

 

Several other European publishers named Black musicians as their translators. Timbuktu, a rapper, has completed a Swedish version, and Marie-Pierra Kakoma, a singer better known as Lous and the Yakuza, has translated the French edition, which will be published by Editions Fayard in May.

“I thought Lous’s writing skills, her sense of rhythm, her connection with spoken poetry would be tremendous assets,” Sophie de Closets, a publisher at Fayard, said in an email explaining why she chose a pop star.

RAPPER?

POP STAR?

HOW ABOUT LeBRON JAMES?

 

Aylin LaMorey-Salzmann, the editor of the German edition for publisher Hoffmann und Campe, said in a phone interview that the rights owner had to agree to the choice, which had to be someone of similar profile to Ms. Gorman.

A TRANSLATOR HAS TO HAVE A “SIMILAR PROFILE” TO THE WRITER WHOSE WORK THEY ARE TRANSLATING?

 

Irene Christopoulou, an editor at Psichogios, the poem’s Greek publisher, was still waiting for approval for its choice of translator. The translator was a white “emerging female poet,” Ms. Christopoulou said in an email. “Due to the racial profile of the Greek population, there are no translators/poets of color to choose from,” she added.

CAN YOU IMAGINE? WHAT A PROBLEM!

.
A translator’s main task is to capture the nuance and feeling of a language in a way that you could never achieve with Google Translate,

THEY FIGURED THAT OUT?

and most translators have long happily wrestled with questions of how to faithfully translate works when they are about people completely unlike them.

THIS IS IRRELEVANT … IF I WERE TRANSLATING TOLSTOY. WOULD I TEND TO THINK OR CARE WHETHER HE WAS OF THE SAME NATIONALITY OR WHATEVER AS ME? I MIGHT ASK MYSELF, IS THIS A GOOD BOOK? IS IT WORTH TRANSLATING? I WOULD HAVE DONE THIS BEFORE BEGINNING THE JOB.

 

{Marieke Lucas] Rijneveld, who uses the pronouns they and them, was the “ideal candidate,” Meulenhoff said in a statement. But many social media users disagreed, asking why a white writer had been chosen when Gorman’s reading at the inauguration had been a significant cultural moment for Black people.

SHE USES THE PRONOUNS THEY AND THEM. WOW! THAT SURE TELLS THE PUBLISHER A LOT ABOUT HER QUALIFICATIONS AS A TRANSLATOR.

 

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Martin Luther King, Jr. wanted to bring people together, not divide them. He envisioned a society where there was no discrimination or segregation.

These ignorant meddlers in decisions about translation and translators — something they know nothing about — want to do the opposite. It’s as if they were conducting a recruiting session or an audition and they said: “All blacks and people of color, step to the front. Whites and ethic Europeans, move to the rear. Any blacks present, raise your hands.”

Irrespective of the issues here, what counts for me is PERSONS, human beings. A person as an individual. What is he or she like and is to get to know? And their mind and intellect, to the extent that it’s relevant?

A poet is also a person. But what is being translated is the poetry of that person. This is not a matter of eugenics or social engineering.

The people intervening in this know nothing about what’s involved.

How could or would they? They don’t really care about poetry or words, including this poet’s.

They are crude, ignorant social reformers doing a hatchet job on poetry, literature, and culture in general.

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   March 29, 2021

apologias for censorship

 

 

Ross Douthat, ‘Do Liberals Care if Books Disappear’

 

Alyssa Rosenberg, ‘The Great Dr. Seuss Hysteria’

 

 

A couple of weeks ago I posted on Facebook the following op-ed by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat:

 

Do Liberals Care if Books Disappear?

The Dr. Seuss cancellation illustrates all the problems that they used to have with censorship.

The New York Times

March 6, 2021

 

Theodor Geisel, known as Dr. Seuss, was an author of illustrated children’s books.

 

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This led to the following exchange on Facebook:

 

Roger W. Smith

I always thought censorship was a bad thing, but now we are being told it’s often a good thing. And if you ban some books by an author but not all of them, that’s not censorship. And here I was choosing whom to read on the basis of what I thought of the book as a literary work, monograph, etc. But now I find that certain works are contaminated and may not be available any longer. Who decided that? The self-appointed cultural commissars. Have they actually read the banned authors? Want to guess? We are dealing with philistines posing as trustees of culture. How many of them, do you think, are familiar with what Milton had to say about this 400 years ago? Or have a clue as to who Milton is?

“This week I learned from a different kind of liberalism that only easily triggered rubes care when offensive books are made to disappear. … often the Seuss cancellation was dismissed as a boob bait for Fox News viewers and a move to which only someone sunk in white anxiety could possibly object. … Plus, we were told, it’s only six books. And is Seuss so great anyway?’ ” — Ross Douthat

This is the very definition of sophistry (what Douthat is identifying).

But since Fox News types are crying censorship, it (censorship) must be okay now. The establishment approves of it, so it has suddenly become not okay and impolitic to object. It’s a matter of choosing the “right side,” and that means the book banners. How suddenly things change. It’s hard to keep up with the expectations of correctness our superiors have of us benighted, querulous intellectuals. They don’t care about out reading habits.

 

a reply from an acquaintance of mine

We aren’t burning books. No one is banning Shakespeare. or Moby Dick. Or Robinson Crusoe or Joyce or Twain. This is all just unnecessary fear.

 

Roger W. Smith

So it’s okay to ban “lesser” authors? Who decides who will escape banning by the self-appointed censors? And which books by the “transgressors”? I like Henry Miller and got pleasure from reading him. He insults Jews and other races and religious groups; and it’s worse with his portrayal of women. I fear Tropic of Cancer may be headed for the dustbin. Miller is very unlikely to achieve canonical status and he seems to be a good target for the censors. When they get around to it. They have a lot of vetting to do. I wonder if Porgy and Bess and the King and I (those Asian stereotypes!) will survive the cut.

Seems like you know which works are bannable and which are privileged and safe from harm. You see, most kids never heard of James Joyce, but they do know and like Dr. Seuss.

 

a reply from an acquaintance of mine

No one is banning any authors.

 

Roger W. Smith

Oh, and I should have pointed out that while Joyce observed that Defoe was what we would probably call today a white supremacist with racist, imperialist views, he thought Defoe was a great author and Robinson Crusoe a great book, as do I.

 

Roger W. Smith

You are so off base here, it isn’t funny. Liberal, PC, cancel culture types can’t see or admit what they are doing: banning books? I do (see it). I have been researching the author Theodore Dreiser in the 1930s. He had a lot of cockeyed, wrong opinions. That didn’t stop the Nazis from burning his books in their public book burnings. You can’t see the danger and the harm being done here? Ross Douthat says it all. Why not ban some Shakespeare? Just “a few” plays — The Merchant of Venice and the Taming of the Shrew. Why not Moby-Dick? Isn’t Queequeg a stereotype of a pagan infidel? Let’s get rid of Robinson Crusoe for the sin of Defoe’s preconceived opinions, which, as James Joyce noted, are represented in the character of Crusoe, the quintessential smug proto-English imperialist, who while he values his servant (read, slave) Friday, treats him with condescension. Said Joyce: Defoe “is the true prototype of the British colonist just as Friday (the faithful savage who arrives one ill-starred day) is the symbol of the subject race.” You better get to work. There is lot of stuff for you to comb through. I thought you loved literature for its own sake. And, yes, children’s books are literature.

 

a reply from an acquaintance of mine

Liberals had nothing to do with the decision not to reprint certain Seuss books. This is a tempest in a teapot.

 

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Another long time acquaintance copied and posted the following on Facebook:

No one is cancelling Dr. Seuss. There are 6 books that HIS OWN ESTATE are ceasing to publish because of overtly racist content.

They are using them as a way to say “this is the heritage that we came from, and we have learned and are doing better now.” 6 books out of hundreds isn’t cancelling, it’s learning. It’s like when you rocked whatever horrible fashion was trendy when you were 13, and at 30 you’re like ”phew, glad I got over that tragic look!”

Dr. Seuss, and most of his work, is alive and well. NOT cancelled. 6 books are no longer being published.

It’s the right thing to do.

— “No One is Cancelling Dr. Seuss (or Mr. Potato Head),” MediaChomp March 5, 2021

 

No One is Cancelling Dr. Seuss (or Mr. Potato Head)

 

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I had previously read and posted a comment on the Washington Post site re the following op-ed by Post columnist Alyssa Rosenberg:

The Great Dr. Seuss Hysteria of 2021 shows how silly and unimaginative adults can be

The Washington Post

March 3, 2021

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/03/03/dr-seuss-hysteria-2021-shows-how-silly-unimaginative-adults-can-be/

in which I stated: “Too bad. Ms. Rosenberg just doesn’t get it. This is Jesuitical sophistry, a weak apologia for the banning of beloved children’s books. I loved them as a young reader. My sons and relatives’ children did. I am a liberal Democrat and a writer myself. Who is she to be opining about what kids should enjoy?”

 

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Hans Christian Andersen’s story “The Emperor’s New Clothes” has always held a place in my consciousness.

Its penetrating insight.

Everyone admires the emperor’s new suit of clothes as he parades down the street before assembled onlookers. A child finally speaks up and says, “”But he hasn’t got anything on.”

Why did it take an innocent child who “didn’t know better” to state this truth?

(1) Because he (the emperor, that is; not the child) was the emperor. (2) Because everyone had been assembled to admire his magnificent new costume; and they were compelled to buy into this.

 

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The defenders of censorship, in this case (they vehemently maintain that it is not censorship), have similarly put on blindfolds. They have decided overnight that censorship in some instances (a “lesser” or minor author; some but not all of that author’s works) is copacetic. Why? Because the people with “correct” views and lifestyles have ordained it.

But here’s the key thing: Fox News commentators and the extreme right have raised a hullabaloo about this very case. Well, if it offended them, it can’t, a priori, be offensive. It’s “a tempest in a teapot.” What’s all the fuss about? (They say, pompously).

Censorship used to matter (until it seems like just the other day) to so called liberals. But their opinions are subject to modification when they see who is lined up on which side; and then scurry to the other one while suddenly deciding it’s not so important if a few beloved children’s books are banned after all. (Oops, I misspoke. They are not being banned! They are … what is the euphemism?)

 

posted by Roger W. Smith

   March 2021

lunacy triumphant (or, who’s in charge?)

My wife, a consultant to mathematics teachers in training (and a former mathematics teacher herself), told me about something that one of her mentees told her today.

As my wife explained it to me, there is a core problem for high school mathematics students involving probability which is used as a teaching tool and will often be on standard exams. The problem is as follows: What are the probabilities of parents who have three children having 1 boy and 2 girls? 1 girl and 2 boys? 2 boys and 1 girl? 2 girls and 1 boy? 3 boys? 3 girls?

Or, as follows:

What is the probability that all three children in a family will be the same gender?
P(all female)= 1/2 x 1/2 x 1/2 = 1/8
P(all male ) = 1/2 x 1/2 x 1/2 = 1/8
P(all one gender) = P(all female) + P(all male) = 1/8 + 1/8 = 1/4

What is the probability that a three-child family is two girls and one boy?
Each possible birth order has P=1/8. That is, P(G,G,B)=P(G,B,G)=P(B,G,G)=1/8.
So, P(2G,1B)= 3/8 and P(1G,2B)= 3/8.

This allows us to write the overall gender probability distribution for families of three children as follows:
1/8 will be three girls
3/8 will be two girls and one boy
3/8 will be one girl and two boys
1/8 will be three boys
Adding it all up, we have 1/8 + 3/8 + 3/8 + 1/8 = 1 (100%)

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I vaguely remember doing such problems in high school math class. Didn’t Mendel do this with peas?

Well, guess what? My wife’s mentee informed her that this problem can NOT be taught any longer. A problem which refers to gender might be offensive to some students.

What’s next? How will biology be taught?

As a footnote of sorts, my wife told me that her mentee also told her that in a Spanish class in the school she is at — according to a student teacher the mentee knows — querulous students are voicing objections when nouns are assigned a gender: e.g., el mano. la mesa.

Who, I ask you, is in charge? Whom can we entrust with the wisdom and sense to instruct students?

Who is listening? Not to the students, but to the few people, educators in this case — it sometimes seems that they have all taken to the hills — who still have what used to be called common sense.

— Roger W. Smith

    March 2021

Harvard does not discriminate against Asian-Americans (except that it does).

 

 

Re

“Harvard Victory Pushes Admissions Case Toward a More Conservative Supreme Court: The court’s rightward tilt under President Trump, whose administration supported efforts to end race-based admissions policies, gives activists a more favorable opening to challenge affirmative action.”

By Anemona Hartocollis

The New York Times

November. 12, 2020

A federal appeals court on November 12, 2020 ruled that Harvard University’s admissions process does not violate civil rights law.

“The consideration of race, alongside many other factors, helps us achieve our goal of creating a student body that enriches the education of every student,” Lawrence S. Bacow, Harvard’s president, said in a statement. “Diversity also represents a pathway for excellence for both Harvard and the nation. We will continue to defend these principles and our admissions process all the way to the Supreme Court, if necessary.”

 

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All along, Harvard admissions officials and administrators have been sanctimonious in defending their admissions policies and what they see as their enlightened standing as defenders of affirmative action in education.

I would say that discrimination against Asian-Americans has been going on for some time now. I have followed the court cases about this, but I can’t claim to know anything for certain — Harvard keeps its admissions practices as secret as it can.

But let’s just consider what Harvard’s President has said. It is in line with what many others in higher education claim.

To put it bluntly, I think it’s nonsense.

Beware of people, who live, administer, or govern by slogans. Remember those of the faceless leaders in Nineteen Eighty-Four?

 

 

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“[Lliberties … cannot be settled upon any abstract rule; and nothing is so foolish as to discuss them upon that principle,” Edmund Burke wrote in Reflections on the Revolution in France, going on the explain that people overcome by abstractions which they want to apply willy-nilly to everything can do much harm.

Elsewhere in the same work, Burke, said, about the doctrine of “’the rights of men” (what its fanatical supports thought about it): “Against these there can be no prescription; against these no agreement is binding; these admit no temperament, and no compromise: anything withheld from their full demand is so much of fraud and injustice.” By which he meant that, in defending a principle, advocates of the French Revolution were themselves intolerant and unwilling to brook any disagreement with them.

Burke saw this tendency as dangerous.

 

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Let’s look more closely at what Harvard President Bacow said.

The consideration of race, alongside many other factors, helps us achieve our goal of creating a student body that enriches the education of every student.

How about looking, in the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr., at the things that make a student of outstanding caliber. I would assume that this would mainly be a matter of academic achievement and records, and faculty recommendations or interviews (or an application essay) that might indicate something admirable or distinctive about the student’s intellectual curiosity, academic goals, devotion to learning, etc. And, perhaps some other characteristics or indicators of merit that extracurricular activities might provide evidence of. And some consideration of character, which would probably be assessed through interviews and faculty recommendations, as well as the application essay.

Why should race come into play in evaluating admissions? I tried so hard to qualify for an elite university as a high school student, doing everything I was told to do: taking my studies very seriously, going out for sports in order to appear “well rounded,” participating in a plethora of student activities and clubs. It never would have occurred to me (and would not have been true back then) that my race had anything to do with this. And, should I have thought this was true, I would have felt it was wrong. (When asked to indicate my race on various forms, I almost always decline — if I can do so without penalty — checking any box.)

“Diversity … represents a pathway for excellence for both Harvard and the nation. We will continue to defend these principles. …”

This is the sort of statement pompous administrators are in love with — they seem to love hearing themselves make them. Diversity is a “pathway to excellence”? Really? Excellence (of education) is one pathway to excellence (in knowledge and perhaps other personal attributes).

Diversity does not per se enrich the education of every student. Yes. socialization and meeting new people with different backgrounds who come from different places and countries is an invaluable and potentially enriching part of the student experience, as well as of life. It is unlikely that most college student bodies under most circumstances — at least large universities, public universities, private universities that are not controlled by a religious group and so forth — would be uniformly homogeneous with regard to race, regions, students’ religious or political views, etc. I went to a school founded by Jewish Americans in the post-World War II years. There was a preponderance of Jewish students, but there seemed to be no bias with regard to religion in the admission process; there was a substantial minority of Christian students, and there was an international student program. I got to know some minority students well and to respect their intelligence and what they had to offer. There was always a lively exchange of views and perspectives. The experience was broadening. And, no one said a word about diversity.

I learned most, as always, from intelligent and thoughtful people and professors, irrespective of race or religion. In almost all cases, I gave little thought to what race or religion they were.

 

 

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Guess what. Hortatory slogans and admonitions, mantras, pompous platitudes (there is a smug, self satisfied aspect to them) are not going to make people more educated, aware, sensitive, tolerant. Experience will. Real, lived experience. Not socially mandated and engineered experience.

And. while it is hoped that people will be tolerant — and that they learn from the experiences and views of other races and cultures — this cannot be achieved by fiat. (I do not mean that we should be blind to discriminatory laws or practices, or to outrages against blacks and other minorities, and other public practices such as racial profiling and much harsher penalties against minority groups, which has resulted in our prison population being comprised mostly of minorities; to murders, which never seem to end, by police of blacks arrested or detained merely on suspicion of crime, or for the most petty crimes, or for acting “strangely.” I don’t just sort of wish they would eventually go away. I am outraged and want to see them abolished — by which I meant the practices and policies.)

 

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I love living in New York City because of — precisely because of — diversity. But diversity isn’t a code word for me. It’s a matter of experiencing, of encountering, all the time people of different races and nationalities, of different ethnicities and religions. I absolutely love it. It is pleasurable, enriches and enlivens my personal life, stimulates me. And, it’s incredible how very often these interactions are amiable and pleasant, how nice people are, how eager they seem to talk or exchange pleasantries, even if it’s only a brief encounter.

I live for this. That’s what “diversity” means to me. I didn’t have to be taught the value of this. And, I did not need classroom lessons or lectures to sensitize me.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   November 2020

windows “into our best selves and our shared humanity”?

 

 

 

The Morgan, Connected
A Message From Our Di/rector
The Morgan Library & Museum
October 28, 2020

 

A Message From Our Director

I last wrote in late August, when we reopened our doors with a members’ preview and a free, sold out opening weekend. We have since unveiled our incredible fall season including Betye Saar: Call and Response, David Hockney: Drawing from Life, and Poetry and Patronage: The Laubespine-Villeroy Library Rediscovered.

During our temporary closure, we looked deep into our collections and programs, and reaffirmed the value of art and literature as windows into our best selves and our shared humanity. This gives us a new appreciation through which to consider and present our exhibitions. Recent events have also brought new awareness and urgency to longstanding issues, both within the Morgan Library & Museum and in the wider cultural community. Over the summer and early fall, in partnership with a cross-departmental group of staff, we developed the Morgan’s first Diversity, Equity, Access, and Inclusion Action Plan. [italics added]

We are united in our belief that significant transformation is needed to change the ways that museums and archives benefit from and reinforce harmful societal norms, including racism and white supremacy. Our plan focuses on the critical work of the next six months, which will inform long-term initiatives and strategies in order to make the Morgan a more welcoming, equitable, and inclusive institution for visitors, employees, and volunteers alike. [italics added] I encourage you to learn more about these efforts by exploring the plan.

Thank you all for your continued encouragement, enthusiasm, and engagement with our exhibitions and programs, both onsite and online.

With best wishes,

 

Colin B. Bailey
Director

 

 

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This message to museum subscribers and museum goers is, I am sorry to say, laughable. I am sure I will be accused of insensitivity as a manifestation of attitudes associated with benighted white privilege for saying this.

I have been a patron of The Morgan Library (don’t be confused by the name, it’s really a museum) over the years, for exhibits (most recently on Charles Dickens, Henry James, and Walt Whitman) and some outstanding concerts. I like the museum cafeteria and museum shop. I have always found the staff welcoming. Many of the staff members at the front desk seemed to be young New Yorkers, enthusiastic and friendly. It made the visits more pleasurable.

The museum itself (the physical interior) is very nice and not cavernous like the Met, which (the latter) I often find overwhelming.

 

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The museum’s exhibits seem mostly to be from their permanent collection — or the permanent collection plus borrowed items. Anyway, the museum’s strengths seem to be medieval art (mostly illuminated manuscripts) and J. P. Morgan’s collections of rare books and letters and manuscripts of famous writers. Need I say that, unlike a lot of private collections, the Morgan’s is so rich and deep and broad in scope that there is no sense of the visitor feeling or sensing limitations. (I had a different feeling the few times that I visited The Frick Collection on Fifth Avenue. When you have seen it once or twice, you have seen it all. Some great paintings, but it’s not the Met. Whereas, at the Morgan, they are always coming upon with some new, often interesting exhibition. I forgot to mention that J. P. Morgan also collected music manuscripts — scores by the likes of Schubert and Mozart.)

 

 

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To return to the Director, Colin Bailey’s, message. This is a faux mea culpa and unnecessary pledge of reform — of mending one’s ways — which is unneeded and was written as a public relations gambit. The letter says nothing and addresses no real issues. By real issues, I mean — not that there are not festering issues and glaring injustices (hazily alluded to by Bailey) occurring at this very moment here — in our cities, notably — they are in the headlines staring us in the face. But what does this have to do with the Morgan Library? Nothing. And what does what the Director of the Library thinks mean? Nothing. His opinion does not matter. It might if he were dealing directly with issues of racial injustice. It might to him as a private citizen. Introspection is a good thing.

During our temporary closure, we looked deep into our collections and programs, and reaffirmed the value of art and literature as windows into our best selves and our shared humanity.

This is the kind of writing my writing instructors said to avoid. Art and literature can be enlightening — this is a truism. Do we need to be told that? And can deepen our understating of life and humanity, which should make us “better” people, or whatever the cliché is? I know that already. One would hope so.

Recent events have also brought new awareness and urgency to longstanding issues, both within the Morgan Library & Museum and in the wider cultural community.

Really? What “longstanding issues”? The Director is being coy and the opposite of forthcoming here, no doubt deliberately. Without a modicum of knowledge about what issues the Director is talking about, this is useless. I was never aware of anything that could be called discriminatory or racist about the museum or its exhibitions. Undoubtedly, there was probably not much “racial balance” in the content of the exhibitions. I would guess that this is due to the nature of the Morgan’s collection and focus in terms of the works and items in the exhibits.

We are united in our belief that significant transformation is needed to change the ways that museums and archives benefit from and reinforce harmful societal norms, including racism and white supremacy. Our plan focuses on the critical work of the next six months, which will inform long-term initiatives and strategies in order to make the Morgan a more welcoming, equitable, and inclusive institution for visitors, employees, and volunteers alike.

“[T]o change the ways that museums and archives benefit from and reinforce harmful societal norms, including racism and white supremacy.” Whew! This is boiler plate diversityspeak, meant as propaganda, and it is sheer nonsense. None of this has been in the least bit observable by me as a visitor to the Morgan. I vaguely recall that there were employees of different races, and they seemed on the surface to like their jobs. But I am talking about the museum as a whole, its policies, “mindset” — whatever can be inferred by a person not familiar with its inner workings, but familiar enough with the museum that evidences of racism and white supremacy would be noticeable, should they exist, which of course they don’t. The Director is writing this apologia, not because it is called for, but because he thinks it is required of him to do so, or will make the museum look good.

White supremacy? This code word is being used so loosely nowadays that is has no meaning in most cases. The museum is staffed and managed by white supremacists? Of course not. If it really were, there would indeed be a need for such breast-beating, and for reform. I like the museum as it is. Not because I am a white supremacist. Because I like to visit and enjoy the treasures on view there.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   October 2020

everything pales in comparison to how he voted?

 

 

“Vivian Llodrá, 49, of Inwood, was one of the first to post Mr. Bosco’s interview in a neighborhood Facebook group. She said that what he had done locally paled in comparison to how he had voted. ‘He broke the trust with the community,’ she said.”

Really?

 

 

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This post concerns a story in today’s New York Times:

 

 

The Cafe Has Black Lives Matter Signs. The Owner Voted for Trump.

“I’m a liberal guy,” said Thomas Bosco, who is facing backlash after he said in an MSNBC interview that he voted for the president in 2016 and was likely to do so again.

By Azi Paybarah

The New York Times

July 8, 2020

 

 

 

This is ridiculous (and also pernicious).

When I meet someone and get to know them.

It has been a practice all my life.

My only thought or care has been.

Is he (does he seem to be) a good guy, interesting or potentially interesting to talk with, and friendly? The only (hypothetical) exception might be someone with extremely repugnant or hateful views (a neo-Nazi or putative Klan supporter).

The politically correct Jacobins have zero humanity, empathy, compassion — you name it. The blood runs cold in their sclerotic veins.

I have never subjected, or considered doing so, friends or acquaintances — including casual acquaintances — to an ideological litmus test. One discovers over time, as one gets to know another person, that you and they don’t agree about everything; and sometimes your views can sharply diverge. (My wife and I recently had a vehement disagreement over a local political race. I strongly disapproved of “her candidate’s” views. Do I love her any less?) I don’t pick friends that way, certainly not on externals such as occupation, social class, race, or religion; and not based on which candidate or party they support.

Some people are so narrow minded and clueless about what constitutes humanity that it’s very sad to contemplate. They lack so-called “fellow feeling” for their brethren. I am glad everyone in my experience (or yours) is not the same. When the Jacobins are finished — if they have the way — we will all be faceless, ideologically scrubbed, rubber stamped, assembly line produced mental automatons with no individuality or personality.

And what about the cruelty (yes, that’s what it is)  to this individual? Because some people don’t like the way he voted? And, by the way, whatever happened to the belief we kids cherished growing up, that we would chant in the schoolyard whenever challenged: “It’s a free country.” No one, including me, is saying that there should not be strenuous disagreements over politics. But he can vote any way he decides to.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

    July 8, 2020

“I like it the way it is.”

 

 

Call Me ‘They’ – NY Times 7-10-2019

 

 

This post concerns the following op-ed in yesterday’s Times:

Call Me ‘They’

‘The singular “they” is inclusive and flexible, and it breaks the stifling prison of gender expectations. Let’s all use it.

By Farhad Manjoo

The New York Times

July 10, 2019

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The Spanish have el mano and the French la fenêtre.

Should we ban these “gendered” articles and insist they be replaced with new ones invented in the “language laboratory” / “incubator” staffed by technocrats in lab coats?

Our glorious English tongue has been around for some 1,200 years.

I like it the way it is.

 

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SOME SPECIFIC COMMENTS ON THIS ATROCIOUS OPINION PIECE (Quotations from the op-ed are in italics. My comments are in boldface.)

 

The singular “they” is inclusive and flexible, and it breaks the stifling prison of gender expectations. Let’s all use it.

‘[T]he stifling prison of gender expectations.” Is this an op-ed about children in cages? I thought we were talking about grammar.

I am your stereotypical, cisgender, middle-aged suburban dad.

What the f____ is “cisgender”? It’s a buzzword I can do without.

 

… most people guess that I go by “he” and “him.” And that’s fine; I will not be offended if you refer to me by those traditional, uselessly gendered pronouns.

But “he” is not what you should call me. If we lived in a just, rational, inclusive universe — one in which we were not all so irredeemably obsessed by the particulars of the parts dangling between our fellow humans’ legs, nor the ridiculous expectations signified by those parts about how we should act and speak and dress and feel — there would be no requirement for you to have to assume my gender just to refer to me in the common tongue.

How about moving to Laputa? You would fit right in there. Maybe you could secure a language policy making post there. … Oops, have you heard of Laputa? Did you ever read Jonathan Swift? Why do I doubt it?

 

So why does standard English impose a gender requirement on the third-person singular? And why do elite cultural institutions — universities, publishers and media outlets like The Times — still encourage all this gendering? To get to my particular beef: When I refer to an individual whose gender I don’t know here in The Times, why do I usually have to choose either “he” or “she” or, in the clunkiest phrase ever cooked up by small-minded grammarians, “he or she”?

No requirement is imposed. This writer is out of his (“gendered” possessive pronoun) depth. The language evolved that way. The writer probably prefers genetically engineered foods and hothouse plans. Has he ever stopped to admire a dandelion or oak tree?

 

… why do elite cultural institutions — universities, publishers and media outlets like The Times — still encourage all this gendering?

Before opining any further on this topic, about which you are ignorant, I suggest you take a couple of English courses, grammar and lit; and a course in a foreign language would be very helpful too. This might enable you to begin to grasp and maybe even appreciate the beauty of languages, both grammar and structure, their uniqueness, distinctive features, how precious this is, as a flower to botanist or layperson. Read a Great Book or two. (Please don’t advocate “scrubbing” them.) It won’t hurt. You will see that the King’s English — now spoken all over the world — has a glorious history and the magnificence of a mighty oak.

 

I suspect my call will be dismissed as useless virtue-signaling, but there are several clear advantages, both linguistic and cultural, to the singular “they.” One of the main ones is that it’s ubiquitous. According to linguists who study gender and pronouns, “they” and “them” are increasingly and widely seen as legitimate ways to refer to an individual, both generically and specifically, whether you know their gender or not — as I just did right in this sentence.

Your “call”? As in a ministerial calling? Why do I get the impression that you — a would be word maven and “word watcher” (read language policeman) — have no facility in (as in infelicitous phrase) or reverence for correct usage? “[V]irtue signaling”?

 

That’s probably why the singular, gender-neutral “they” is common not just in transgender and nonbinary communities, for whom it is necessary, but also in mainstream usage, where it is rapidly becoming a standard way we refer to all people. If you watch closely, you’ll see the usage in marketing copy, on social media, in app interfaces and just about everywhere else you look. For instance, when Uber or Lyft wants to tell you that your driver has arrived, they send you a notification that says something like: “Juan is almost here. Meet them outside.”

Whom should we entrust with setting language standards? Uber execs, advertisers? Heaven help us.

 

Other than plainly intolerant people, there’s only one group that harbors doubts about the singular “they”: grammarians. If you’re one of those people David Foster Wallace called a “snoot,” Lyft’s use of “them” to refer to one specific Juan rings grammatically icky to you. The singular, gender nonspecific “they” has been common in English as long as people have spoken English, but since the 18th century, grammar stylists have discouraged it on the grounds that “they” has to be plural. That’s why institutions that cater to snoots generally discourage it.

They” is plural! you idiot.

 

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Basta. (That’s Spanish for enough.)

 

— Roger W. Smith

   July 11, 2019

pompous pontificating, clumsy locutions, a tissue of generalities; doublespeak … how NOT to write

 

 

‘The Dominance of the White Male Critic’
This post focuses on an opinion piece in Friday’s New York Times:

 

The Dominance of the White Male Critic

Conversations about our monuments, museums, screens and stages have the same blind spots as our political discourse.

By Elizabeth Méndez Berry and Chi-hui Yang

The New York Times

July 5, 2019

An opinion piece written to challenge conventional ideas and positions. To stimulate readers to rethink issues. To challenge unenlightened Establishment views.

It will get attention, but as a piece of writing it is a soporific.

It is built on a very insubstantial tissue of generalities and awkward locutions often intended to serve as code words. And which shows that the authors are preaching to the choir. They don’t feel compelled to explain and elucidate things for the general reader or for skeptical readers. They are confident that those who agree will get it (the points they are making) without them having to take pains to be clear. In fact, a certain arch obscurity, a predilection for almost unintelligible generalizations couched in faux-high-flown language, which, in their view — from their perspective as writers — fits the piece well. While it challenges conventional thinking, the op-ed is itself an example of weak, unoriginal thinking and a specimen of very poor, insipid writing.

 

 

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A header states: Ms. Méndez Berry and Mr. Yang started a program to amplify the work of critics of color.”

Quoting from the piece, below, I have provided my own annotations and comments in boldface. Excerpts from the op-ed are in italics.

I am not going to try and respond to the op-ed’s major premises. But here are some examples of what I feel is shoddy writing. Writing that obscures rather than clarifies issues and shows a tendency towards tendentiousness.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

 

 

 

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Yet those who have for decades been given the biggest platforms to interpret culture are white men. This means that the spaces in media where national mythologies are articulated, debated and affirmed are still largely segregated. The conversation about our collective imagination has the same blind spots as our political discourse.

Typical wording for this piece. This is generic-speak. It is very portentous and actually says very little.

“those who have for decades been given the biggest platforms to interpret culture”

Awkward and wordy.

“the spaces in media where national mythologies are articulated”

Poor, imprecise, fuzzy wording. Also, pretentious.

 

Yet the most dynamic art in America today is being made by artists of color and indigenous artists.

There is nothing wrong with this sentence syntactically, but such a broad claim is not sustainable.

 


The example of “Green Book” [an Oscar-winning film, the critical reception of which the authors discuss] shows how uncritical affection for superficially benevolent stories can actually reinforce the racial hierarchies this country is built on. We need culture writers who see and think from places of difference and who are willing to take unpopular positions so that ideas can evolve or die.

Very pretentious.

“how uncritical affection for superficially benevolent stories can actually reinforce the racial hierarchies this country is built on”

More boiler plate generic-speak, a kind of language which says nothing and clarifies nothing.

“culture writers who see and think from places of difference”

This is horribly vague (and affected) wording. So much so that it says nothing. Critics write, they don’t “see and think.” They write at their desks. “[P]laces of difference”? This is doublespeak.

 

In a clickbait attention economy where more than half of visual arts critics make on average less than $20,000 per year from arts writing, the voices that are most needed are the least likely to emerge.

Something is said supposedly cleverly where the words are actually muddying the waters. “[C]lickbait attention economy” is a maladroit coinage which adds nothing informational- or content-wise.

 

In 2017, we began an initiative called Critical Minded to help amplify the work of critics of color and knock down the barriers they face. (The project is focused on racial justice in criticism, but we’re also concerned about class, gender identity, sexual orientation and ability.)

This is an example of opinions supposedly being stated forcefully, weakened by careless phrasing: “knock down the barriers” they face,” for example.

“[W]e’re also concerned about class, gender identity, sexual orientation and ability.”

In other words, the authors are concerned about everything. Way too broad and general.

 

Think of cultural criticism as a public utility, civic infrastructure that needs to be valued not based just on its monetary impact but also on its capacity to expand the collective conversation at a time when it is dangerously contracting. Arts writing fosters an engaged citizenry that participates in the making of its own story.

This is too general. The point is not sharply made or clearly elucidated. And, it is an example of how generic writing can obfuscate rather than clarify things. In my mind, criticism is just that. I know what the word criticism means: a book or film review; a review of a concert or museum exhibit. Criticism as a “public utility, civic infrastructure”? By trying to be profound and all wise, the authors stray beyond the parameters of common sense and lose the reader.

 

Culture writers are often unpopular, and critics of color doubly so: Marginalized by mainstream outlets, they’re sometimes viewed with suspicion within their own communities when they challenge a beloved artist. At their best they are unbought and unbossed, which makes them difficult to employ, and doubly necessary.

The authors of the op-ed may think this. But the point is so broad, and is communicated in such a fuzzy and heavy-handed manner, that most readers won’t be convinced. “[T]hey are unbought and unbossed” is atrocious wording.

 

We need a rigorous, rollicking culture coverage that’s uncoupled from class and credentials.

Same thing here. Supposedly en pointe, clever wording which actually says very little and shows writers trying to convince and impress who fall flat. ‘[R]igorous, rollicking” is an oxymoron.

 

We should move away from anointing a talented two or three critics of color and toward kaleidoscopic ecosystems of ideas and taste.

“[K]aleidoscopic ecosystems of ideas and taste” Another pretentious, fuzzy, and awful coinage. An example of writers violating the principle of simplicity and clarity.

 

Coverage shifts when people mobilize for change. It’s time for culture writing to follow culture to where it flows and to value the people it engages.

This is overly generic. Such overly generic writing is flabby and invariably unconvincing.

 
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Some of my own thoughts about the term “people of color” and associated or implied ideas. The authors assume that we all know and agree as to what the term means (and, implicitly, approve of its usage).

What is a person of color? It is supposed to mean, in contemporary parlance, a person other than a white person or a person (presumably white) of European parentage.

What is a white person? A person who is not a person of color.

Is a Spanish (i.e., a person born or residing in Spain) person white? Yes, according to the above definition.

Is a Hispanic person (who is presumably or with a fair degree of probability, descended from Spaniards, although perhaps — it often seems to be the case — of mixed ethnicity comprised of descent from Spanish settlers in the American continent and other perhaps indigenous races) a person of color? Yes, as “people of color” is meant to be understood. In other words, perhaps of European ancestry (wholly or partially), going back a way, but not now one of that group.

This divides humanity into wide swaths, with well over a half in the category of persons of color.

These “definitions” seem to be an example of what might be called reductio ad absurdum — in that, by the time we have made the distinctions between categories of persons based upon a nonsensical formulation or formula, we have elucidated nothing and created considerable confusion; and left one wondering why, for example, people of descent from this or that ethnic group end up being in distinct categories. Separated, arbitrarily, into two groups, which obliterates any and all other distinctions.

Does the term “people of color” have meaning and is it based upon skin color, as the words seem to say unmistakably? It must be based upon skin color, since whites are in a separate category from non-whites. But how does one distinguish between the races this way, and make sense of it? When I was growing up, we were told that there were four races: white, black or brown, yellow, and red. Do Asians have yellow skin? I have met hardly any American Indians, but they don’t, in photographs I have seen, look that different to me from white people. Perhaps their skin is slightly more ruddy, and they do seem to have distinctive features that I would not be able to categorize. I don’t know and I don’t care.

I think this whole thing about “people of color” and the rest of humanity (us whites and Europeans) is nonsense. It is a very crude “measuring device,” rule of thumb, guidepost, or whatever one wants to call it. It divides people arbitrarily with no rationale and negates our common humanity.

I will probably be accused of having reactionary, benighted opinions for saying the following. I believe that race and ethnicity do matter. A lot. What was my ancestry? My ethnicity? My nationality or my parents’, grandparents’, or ancestors’ nationality, which is to say cultural heritage?

Is it surprising that often athletes seem to have children who are also good at sports? Often the great athletes were sons of athletes of more than average ability. That great scholars and intellectuals often were raised in an intellectual milieu by parents who themselves were intellectuals? That prodigies in the arts often had parents who were similarly gifted or inclined? Offspring of singers and actors? Siblings who excel in the same area such as scholarship, sports, or the arts. And so forth. (A critic will say, the only reason the children of composers or musicians, say, are often musically gifted themselves is because their successful parents gave them lessons, or could afford to pay instructors, or had a prior interest or expertise that they passed on to their children. Perhaps so — undoubtedly environmental factors or what is called nurture were important — but I don’t think the fact can be ignored that there might be genetic factors in play by which traits get passed on to offspring: a “musical gene,” say, a baseball, basketball, or track and field “gene.”)

What does this show us? That ethnicity and heritage can mean a lot. In individual cases. Which will not lead one to jump to the conclusion, I hope, that I am a racist. I am not trying to say that belonging to a particular racial or ethnic group makes some people “better” than others in any conceivable way. But the group I was born into, which I am descended from — my genealogy — made and makes a difference to me. Meaning that, when I consider my strengths and weaknesses, my talents and proclivities, and so on, I can see that circumstances of birth and upbringing (the latter of which was influenced by cultural factors) had a lot to with the kind of person I turned out to be. Was I good at sports? music? book learning? learning languages? mathematics? dexterity? mechanical things and “practical wisdom”? Et cetera.

I have always felt that we should not leap from this — from analyzing and trying to understand how heredity and environment may have shaped and molded an individual, and may well influence his or her current outlook — to making generalizations or unfair comparisons, or setting up yardsticks. To favoring one group over another, barring anyone from competing in “the game” of life or getting an education or training in this or that field. It is my firm conviction that there should be a level playing field for all; and that race, ethnicity, color, or what have you — choose your own criterion — should not be a factor in making decisions about who is admitted, hired, gets a scholarship, and so forth. But that goes for EVERYONE, as I see it, all races and ethnicities, all nationalities: for “people of color” and the rest of humanity — there shouldn’t be any distinctions made in this regard between groups. And, generalities and commonly held beliefs are just that: generalities. For every example of behavior or achievement befitting a common assumption about differences among races — a presupposition someone has or that was once held (I see no point in enumerating stereotypes) — there are a zillion exceptions.

So (the authors note), the six most influential art critics in the country, “as selected by their peers” (this is important) are all white and almost all male. To me, this is not a problem. There would be a problem if women or minorities were excluded by policy as cultural critics and newspapers or magazines would not hire them. And, the fact of a critic being a woman or from a minority group might enable them to see things from a different perspective. But, basically, when I read criticism, I want it to be well written and worth reading, and to “educate” me in a way that is possible when the writer has a deep knowledge of the discipline. That’s all I care about. If a critic is good, he or she is good; and vice versa. I’m color blind and sex indifferent when I read criticism or anything else. Except that, I might realize that the critic is bringing to bear some of his or her own experience or background. One doesn’t have to ignore ethnic or cultural background, if it seems relevant or pertinent to what the critic is saying, somehow. That may add to our understanding, but if the critic is not, as is most often the case, a “person of color,” I feel that it is wrong of persons such as the authors of this op-ed to find that to be problematic, and to object.

 

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   July 7, 2019

“hallowed be her name”

 

 

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof is a good writer and a deep, earnest thinker whose moral earnestness and sincerity come through in his op-ed pieces and reflections upon injustices and atrocities he has witnessed in travels to places few columnists would bother to travel to.

He can also be preachy and boring in the manner of a long-winded minister, and prone to writing tendentious opinion pieces that read like an inferior Sunday sermon.

This is true of Kristof’s op-ed “God and Her (Female) Clergy” in yesterday’s Times.

“God and Her (Female) Clergy”

By Nicholas Kristof

The New York Times

March 31, 2018

 

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“What we’re seeing before our very eyes is a dramatic shift; in my mind it’s as big as the Protestant Reformation [what an overstatement!],” says Rev. Dr. Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary, who is quoted in the article. “We’re seeing a new day of understanding of who God is. When the people who are representing God, making God present, have female bodies, that inevitably changes the way you think about how God is [a perfect example of bloodless genericspeak].”

“[W]ith a majority of students in many seminaries and rabbinical schools now women, and increasingly leading congregations, it may become less natural to think of God as ‘He.’ ,” Kristof states. “Already, Reconstructionist Judaism … refers to God with gender-neutral language [heaven spare us] or in the feminine.”

 

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Today is Easter Sunday. I do not currently belong to a church. But I am a Christian. By upbringing, core beliefs, and basic makeup. The scriptures, religious figures, and religious holidays are part of me.

Take the Lord’s Prayer. If it were begun with “Our Mother which art in heaven,” this would be disconcerting to me.

Why? Because I am an ultraconservative? A misogynist?

I don’t think so.

What the zealots who are out to retool the liturgy in the name of political correctness do not understand — and have no respect for — is the importance of tradition in religion. And, sadly, they don’t care.

The liturgy is part of that tradition. The language of the King James Bible (for me, at least). Words that, over time, endlessly repeated, have an incantatory effect. I remember a priest making this point to a group of non-Catholics once. He was asked about saying the rosary every day. Didn’t it become meaningless? No, he said, it didn’t. The words, he explained, have an incantatory effect achieved through repetition.

Perhaps they (the self-appointed church language mavens) will be saying “hallowed be her name” next. To make a point. I wouldn’t put it past them.

You may say that I myself am a nitpicker. A curmudgeon who is angry about nettlesome women bent on achieving gender equality.

But, in my view, there is a deeper issue here, and it is the real one. When someone says, “in her name,” referring to God, or “her flock,” they are calling attention to themselves and what they regard as their advanced, fashionable views, and minimizing the importance of tradition, while at the same time deflecting attention from, or severely curtailing the impact of, the sacred words themselves. They claim to be religious. Their religion is only skin deep. They care much more about propagating their own views. It’s actually an in your face type of thing. It’s disconcerting to someone who is used to hearing certain words associated with scripture and religious ceremonies. It’s as if one used an irreverent or flippant phrase with an authority figure such as a teacher, elder, or esteemed person to prove a point — say, that I wanted to be regarded as being their equal — taking them aback and causing befuddlement rather than proving a point.

On Good Friday, just passed, and on today, Easter Sunday, I want to think, to the extent I can tear myself away from petty concerns of the moment, about what these days mean. Not about what Nicholas Kristof has to say, or the woman religious leaders he admires, by way of making hay with their views and using a sacred day as a pretext. With no regard for the views and feelings of most religious people.

 

— Roger W. Smith

  Easter Sunday, April 1, 2018

 

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Postscript:

It is the case — there is nothing feminists and the language police can do about it — that Jesus spoke of our heavenly father and my father in heaven.

I have noticed over the years, without thinking about it much, that in many Protestant denominations there has been a tendency over recent years for one to see women ministers relatively often, whereas there were none that I can recall 40 or 50 so years ago. There seems to be a similar trend with respect to Jewish congregations.

I never thought much about it one way or the other, but it is in no way objectionable, in principle, to me.

But, I feel inclined now, if women (and like thinking men) want to have us worshiping God the mother, to make a suggestion. That women who feel this way start their own church — it could be an offshoot of Protestantism, a new denomination (there have been many in the past) — in which church members would worship a female God: God the mother. A new deity is needed for such a fundamental change.