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Cherchez la tribu

by James Bowman

Posted: Jul 11, 2014 04:34 PM


Reporting on a new poll about the fact that most Americans, even in these days of unpopular political parties, still identify themselves with one party or the other, Jaime Fuller of the Washington Post explains the matter thus: “So why do voters stick with political parties even when they aggravate them? The same reason we stick with our families — because it’s not like there’s a real alternative. . . So basically: Can’t live with ‘em, can't live without ‘em.” It’s a persuasive argument, but I think it needs a slight amendment. Political parties are not so much like families as they are like tribes — something that hardly exists anywhere else in Western society. In fact, it is only in politics as currently practiced that we can acquire any insight, these days, into what it’s like to live in a tribal society, as most of the world still does. 

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Stomach Trouble

by James Bowman

Posted: Jun 13, 2014 03:56 PM


Was it Locke or Hobbes — I can never remember — who said that princes always exist in a state of nature with respect to each other? At any rate, it is clear that the state of nature in which princes — or, as we should say, nations — do exist is a Hobbesian one. Another way of putting it would be to say that international relations take place in a moral environment so different from  that of civil society that it might be called pre-moral or even immoral, which I think was the point of Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932). Still another way of putting it would be to point to the fact that, in international relations, the ancient and once all important honor culture which has all but died out in the civil society of America and Western Europe is still very much alive. 

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Leaving the military culture behind

by James Bowman

Posted: Jun 05, 2014 05:15 PM


The appalling decision of the Obama administration to pay a ransom to the Taliban of five of their own fighters, imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, for Sgt Bowe Bergdahl gives rise to the thought: will this finally be the moment when the military breaks out of its 60-year trance during which it has  allowed itself to be persuaded that deference to civilian authority must be cultural as well as political? It would be nice to think so, but there are reasons to doubt it, since the brass themselves have lately got into the habit of forgetting that any armed force, in order to function properly, requires a certain cultural autonomy. They ought to be the first to point out, publicly as well as privately, that rules and especially rights that are entirely accepted and appropriate in civilian life cannot exist in the military culture without destroying it. 

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That’ll teach me to get up early

by James Bowman

Posted: May 31, 2014 02:14 PM


Although I’m on my feet at six o’clock of a week-day morning, I usually allow myself a bit of a lie-in on the weekend, and so, as an added benefit, I normally miss the President’s weekly radio address, which comes on at 6:35. I often hear the Republican “reply” at 7:35, but do not much miss it when I don’t. There must be something catching about the blandness and emptiness that most politicians of both parties indulge themselves in on these occasions. Today, however, I was up in time to hear Mr Obama tell those who, unlike him, are early risers that “in America, we don’t have to choose between the health of our economy and the health of our children.  The old rules may say we can’t protect our environment and promote economic growth at the same time, but in America, we’ve always used new technology to break the old rules.” And, just in case we didn’t get the message, he then added that, “as President, and as a parent, I refuse to condemn our children to a planet that’s beyond fixing.”

Here he combines two of his favorite rhetorical devices: first, the identification of a supposed false choice being offered by unidentified political opponents — as when, in his first inaugural address he said, “we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals” — and then, immediately following, he produces a straw man who, not content with offering us a false choice, wants “to condemn our children to a planet that’s beyond fixing.” In other words, he counters the alleged false choice of the unnamed opponents with a genuinely false choice of his own. We know it’s false because it’s so easy, unlike the “Hard Choices” his former Secretary of State has named her new memoir after. Hasn’t she heard? There are no hard choices in the Obama rhetorical world. 

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Too true to be good

by James Bowman

Posted: May 16, 2014 12:17 PM


Apparently, in biblical archaeology, there is something called the “too good to be true” rule, recently invoked in connection with the “Jesus’s wife” fragment of papyrus that some have tried to use to justify a re-think of 2000 years of Christian teaching, not only about the life of Christ but also about sexual morality and Church discipline. The rule states “that if a relic emerges that seems to address exactly the concerns of a modern audience — such as sex and women in Christianity — then skepticism is warranted.” Yet almost as interesting as the rule itself is the fact that we only heard about it after other reasons for doubting the authenticity of the papyrus emerged. I suppose that, up until then, it would  have seemed too much like party-pooping or raining on the parade of those who were so excited by the discovery just because it was too good to be true.

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Laughing on the outside. . .

by James Bowman

Posted: May 06, 2014 12:50 PM


The best joke from Joel McHale’s appearance at the White House Correspondents dinner — as transcribed for the Washington Post — ran as follows:

America is doing just fine, guys. How do I know that? Because we are making a fourth movie about trucks that turn into giant robots. And why are they making a Transformers 4? Because there is still so much story left to tell. So chin up everyone, this country is still number one in the all-important categories of cream- filled pastries, face computers and robot trucks. Education, the economy and the environment? Hey, we’ll get them next time.

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Of changing fashions in abusive language

by James Bowman

Posted: Apr 24, 2014 09:38 PM


The subject of my last post — history that is lost to the next generation, either on account of miseducation or the political motivation of the educators or, most likely, both — also has a literary and linguistic dimension, as I realized while reading Henry Hitchings’s review in The Wall Street Journal of Paul Dickson’s Authorisms. Let us consider, as a footnote to that review, its treatment of the word "retromingent." Here’s what Mr Hitchings writes about it:

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Learning can be fun, or history class as a game of hunt-the-Nazi

by James Bowman

Posted: Apr 18, 2014 10:26 AM


In the current issue of The New Criterion I write en passant about the “Common Core” curriculum in history which the educational establishment has been so terrifyingly successful in imposing on America’s school-children. Remarkably, there is no body of knowledge attached to the history standards. History, along with “social studies,” is itself tellingly subsumed under “English language arts” and is to the authors entirely a matter of analyzing and interpreting “texts.” The reason is of course that history is no longer to be regarded as transparent — stories, facts and dates to be learned like the multiplication table or spelling rules. The facts are now thought to be subsidiary to the true story, knowledge of which requires a certain interpretive subtlety on the part of the student. “History” now consists, according to the Common Core, of the skills necessary for the extraction of this hidden truth from the welter of mere facts.

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Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

by James Bowman

Posted: Apr 11, 2014 12:46 PM


“If you insist upon fighting to protect me, or ‘our’ country,” wrote Virginia Woolf in Three Guineas, a book which Theodore Dalrymple thought ought rather to have been called How to Be Privileged and Yet Feel Extremely Aggrieved, “let it be understood, soberly and rationally between us, that you are fighting to gratify a sex instinct which I cannot share; to procure benefits which I have not shared and probably will not share. . . For as a woman, I have no country. As a woman, I want no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world.”

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Linguistic libertines on the march

by James Bowman

Posted: Mar 27, 2014 12:14 PM


Here we go again. Ezra Pound said that poetry is news that stays news. If so, the news that we don’t have to worry about our grammar anymore has got the Cantos beaten all hollow, as it has been making headlines since long before ol’ Ez kicked the bucket more than 40 years ago. The latest herald of these linguistic liberators is Tom Chivers of the Daily Telegraph, which headlined last week: “Are ‘grammar Nazis’ ruining the English language?” The answer is: not if he can help it. As the sub-head has it: “Split infinitives make them shudder and they’d never end a sentence with a preposition. But linguist Geoffrey Pullum has a message for all grammar pedants: you’re wrong.” For someone purporting to pooh-pooh ideas of grammatical correctness, linguist Geoffrey Pullum (co-author of the massive Cambridge Grammar of the English Language) is awfully quick to be telling people that they’re “wrong.” 

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( AHR-mah wih-ROOM-kweh)

 

In the Aeneid, the Roman poet Virgil sang of "arms and a man" (Arma virumque cano). Month in and month out, The New Criterion expounds with great clarity and wit on the art, culture, and political controversies of our times. With postings of reviews, essays, links, recs, and news, Armavirumque seeks to continue this mission in accordance with the timetable of the digital age.

 

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