Sunday, October 26, 2014


Some prognostications from the Dynesometer, the device that tells you things that you don't want to hear (but maybe you should).
There is good news and bad news. First, the anticipated losses of the Democrats in the election next year will in the long run be good for the Democrats. The Republicans, who desperately need to change, will feel justified in the bizarre policies they have increasingly embraced in recent years. By contrast, the Democrats will in fact experience the need for change, to escape from their devotion to the echo chamber in which they seem to feel no obligation to do anything but recite their partisan talking points, and of course to bash, bash, bash Republicans. Indulgence in bashing may be psychologically satisfying for the faithful, but it turns off centrist voters who prefer a more cooperative approach - or at least its semblance.
The bad news is that it won't much matter. The panic that has become almost habitual in the face of threats perceived to be coming from abroad will reinforce the dominance of the National Security state and its well-financed organs, as people become increasingly willing to sacrifice liberty for the illusion of protection. Politicians come and go, but the grip of the permanent insiders is unrelenting.

Friday, October 24, 2014


Today we take alphabetization for granted. Where did our system of ordering the characters (A to Z) come from? The short answer is that it derives from the Greek alphabet, which imitated the order of the Phoenician alphabet, its own source. The most recent scholarship suggests that the Phoenician alphabet in turn stems from a simplified form of Egyptian characters used by merchants active in the eastern desert in Egypt, who brought their invention/adaptation with them to the Sinai.  The order in which they arranged the characters is unknown.
The standard work in the field still seems to be Lloyd W. Daly’s pithy, but somewhat inconclusive "Contributions to a History of Alphabetization in Antiquity and the Middle Ages" (Brussels, 1967). While the order we are accustomed to, or something close to it seems to have been imposed on Greek schoolboys as a learning aid pretty much at the outset, the use of the method for lists, ordering of books, and the like took centuries to appear. The earliest alphabetized list Daly found stems from the third century BCE on the Greek isle of Kos where 150 names were inscribed in stone. The names are broken into three lists, and each is alphabetized.  
The scholars at the library of Alexandria seem to have been the ones to have achieved a more general practice. For example, in the collected plays of Euripides, the works appear in an order determined by the first letter of the title.

Thursday, October 23, 2014


Still preoccupied with the classics, I am reviewing my knowledge of Aristotle, generally a tough old bird. One of his most interesting claims, however, is the Doctrine of the Mean as expounded in book 2 of the Nicomachean Ethics. In the giving and taking of money, for example, generosity is the mean between profligacy and stinginess. With regard to one's emotional life, proper passion is the mean between anger and indifference. And so forth. As the philosopher allows, there are some circumstances where this principle does not prevail, but it is useful to be reminded that it frequently does. Moderation may be boring, but more often than not it is the best course.

This insight of Aristotle may be generalized into a broader concept of intermediacy. In this context I thought of the ideas of Magnus Hirschfeld a hundred years ago, who assigned male homosexuality, lesbianism, cross dressing, and other "variant" behaviors to a series of Zwischenstufen, or intermediate states. This fusion of Aristotle and Hirschfeld, if you will, seems to underly some current encomia of trans people, who (in this view) are seeking a happy intermediacy that we should all admire, even though we may not pursue it as our personal goal.

That being said, many trans people decline to endorse the intermediacy concept, seeking to reaffirm polarity by leaving the gender that society has assigned them to achieve the opposite one. Thus there seems to be a disconnect between the trans status as imagined by outsiders, and that status as envisaged by those who embrace it.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Liberalism and its genealogy

A somewhat daunting compilation (800 pp.), Liberalismus, by Jörg Leonard (2001) explores the historical semantics of the term in Western Europe. In ancient Rome, the word liberalitas denoted a virtue that was exclusively possessed by the emperor, that of bestowing largesse. In the course of the Middle Ages, however, the expression Liberal Arts gained currency. Ostensibly open to everyone, they could actually only be accessed by the privileged. And so in eighteenth-century France and England liberality was the prerogative of the aristocracy. They cultivated the liberal arts in order to consolidate their status as gentlemen, and also showed their status in practice by noblesse oblige, conferring benefits on the lower orders. 

During the French Revolution this set of connotations began to change, as liberalité was now associated with the Third Estate, and ultimately with the middle class. Thus when the Liberal Party took shape in the UK in the 1850s it inherited much of this baggage.

Evidently exhausted by his monumental task, Leonard stops shortly after the middle of the nineteenth century. More chapters in the story appear in Liberalism: A Counter-History by Domenico Losurdo, admittedly a summation of the case for the prosecution. Losurdo points out that the rise of modern liberalism in the late eighteenth century coincides with the apogee of the modern institution of slavery. The ambivalence (to put it mildly) of the American Founders, many of them themselves slave owners, is well known. One who did not put it mildly is Samuel Johnson: "How is that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?"

Not even John Stuart Mill, that saintly icon of liberalism, escapes criticism. Mill believed in a hierarchy of races with, of course, English people ranking at the top. Even Germans, it seems, had a little too much of the tar brush for Mill.
The other disconcerting aspect of the heritage is liberal imperialism. Tocqueville, so eloquent about Democracy in America, was a fervent supporter of French incursions into North Africa, the subjection of the "natives," and the seizure of their lands for French colons. Karl Marx supported the British in India, because they were bringing the backward people who had the misfortune to live there into the modern world.
In the twentieth century such progressives as Margaret Sanger were openly racist.  Many progressives supported eugenics. 

It  now should be evident that the association between liberalism and democracy, now often taken for granted, is problematic.  

A curious further complication is represented by the compound Neo-liberalism, coined by a German economist in 1938. In more recent years the expression gained traction in Latin America, where it served to castigate the free-market policies advocated by the Chicago school. In this pejorative sense, it migrated to Western Europe and the UK. 

Employed in the US, the expression Neo-liberalism is confusing, since it connotes almost the polar opposite of the interventionism that has come to be associated with the liberalism of our Democratic Party.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Twilight of the Gay-Rights Movement (?)

Here is my controversial thought of the day. 
The American gay-rights movement began with the bold initiative of Harry Hay and his friends in Los Angeles in 1950. Today, as we look forward with some confidence to the securing of same-sex marriage in all 50 states, the work of this movement is pretty much done. When I joined the effort in 1968 it speedily became clear that two things were required. 1) Information in print form was needed that could supplant the homophobic rubbish that inquiring young people were certain to find in libraries and bookstores in those days. And so with my colleagues I created the Research Guide and the Encyclopedia of Homosexuality. These books, together with much other valuable material, are still available. 2) The sodomy laws, which then prevailed in almost every state, were the linchpin of everything that was holding us back. So, even though I am not a lawyer, I joined the National Committee for Sexual Civil Liberties, eventually supplemented and surpassed by other organizations with the goal of dismantling the sodomy laws and other adverse statutes and legislation. This task too has been largely accomplished.
I have not stopped thinking and writing, but now I am concentrating on other topics. It is time for the gay-rights movement to declare success - and for the rest of us to move on - at least on the political front as we know it.
There is still a need to preserve gay culture in archives and libraries Gay museums have appeared in several cities.  Above all community centers help many people.
There is also need for international effort, as seen in countries like Uganda, Russia and much of the Arab world.  
Yet the work of the US-centered movement seems to be complete.  Only some careerists in Washington and a few other places think otherwise.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

An annoying development

Currently I am being bombarded by robotic comments from escort services in India.  There are too many of these to delete right now.  Readers should simply ignore them.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014


In my youth, aeons ago, the word liberal meant "generous; understanding; open-minded; tolerant." When Lionel Trilling opined that liberalism incarnated what was best about American culture, I agreed.
That is no longer so clear to me, especially when I am bombarded by memes from "Being Liberal" and other such cheer-leading sites. In their unending lambasting of conservatives, generosity and tolerance no longer seem so evident. The content of many of these postings demonstrates confirmation bias - that is, an assemblage of facts and factoids that tend to suggest that the liberal view of the world is simply the way the world is.
Of course similar things can be said about conservative postings - and worse. But I do not see many of these. To be sure, I could immerse myself in Fox News, but that, to judge by what little I have seen, is not a useful deployment of my time.
I take no joy in seconding this observation, but it appears that the Republicans have a good chance of taking over the Senate in the forthcoming election. It is a little late to change tactics now, but couldn't some of these conservative voters eventually be pried away by an appeal to reason, instead of the insults that are commonly dished up - and eagerly devoured by the the base - on "Being Liberal" and other such sites?