Wednesday, June 30, 2010

E.D. Hirsch and Core Learning As Against Child Centered Learning

Interesting is the tension between child centered learning and core learning theory.

Against child centered learning and the theories of Dewey, E. D. Hirsch argues for core knowledge in the school curriculum. In Cultural Literacy, Hirsch identified some 5,000 names, dates, essential facts and concepts that an educated person should know, in science, culture, religion, and art history. For Hirsch, education’s function is acculturation--the transmission of specific knowledge to the next generation. He argues that that knowledge is a necessary condition for full citizenship. And he argues emphatically that cultural literacy constitutes the only real way to opportunity for the disadvantaged.

If learning proceeds on any principle, and not just willy nilly, schools, core theorists argue, need to follow a carefully sequenced body of knowledge. For Hirsch, the most powerful tool for later learning is that sequencing as a broad base of knowledge in many fields. Against arguments based on change against core learning theory, core learning argues back that the basics of science and constitutional government, world history, mathematics and of oral and written expression do not change rapidly, but, rather, inform the basis for true lifelong learning.

The acquisition of core knowledge is not only done through memorization, but also through active learning strategies. A good command of factual knowledge is a necessary condition for a critical capacity. Otherwise, instead of critical analysis, students develop only uninformed opinions in the name of critical thinking.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Richard Cohen on Paul Berman on Hamas

By Richard Cohen

Tuesday, June 29, 2010 // Wa. Post

It's a pity that Israel, while substantially loosening its grip on Gaza, will continue to enforce a blockade when, with just a little imagination, it could insist on a deal with the activists once again steaming its way: You can proceed to Gaza if, once you get there, you demand that Hamas cease the persecution of women, institute freedom of religion, halt the continuing rocketing of Israel, release an Israeli hostage, ban torture and rescind an official charter that could have made soothing bedtime reading for Adolf Hitler. This may take some time.

In fact, these demands would never be met. Gaza is a mean and brutal place with a totalitarian government steeped in a cult of violence and death. This hardly means that the government does not have a measure of popular support and did not, as some of the activists naively point out, come to power by democratic means. So did the Nazis.

The term "Islamic fascism" gets thrown around a lot. I initially recoiled from it because I prefer to reserve fascism for fascists. The term is too loosely employed -- New York City cops were called fascists by Vietnam-era peace demonstrators -- but Paul Berman, in his new book "The Flight of the Intellectuals," makes a solid case that it can, with justice, be applied to Hamas.

Berman traces Hamas's intellectual pedigree to Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, whose founder, Hassan al-Banna, greatly admired Hitler, and to Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem who spent much of World War II in Germany cozying up to Hitler, organizing a Muslim SS unit and, on occasion, remonstrating with the Nazis for not killing enough Jews. (See also Robert S. Wistrich's recent book, "A Lethal Obsession.") It's appalling not only that Husseini was granted sanctuary in Arab countries after the war but also that he continues to be revered as a Palestinian patriot.

The successor to both Banna and Husseini was Sayyid Qutb (1906-66), an Egyptian intellectual of uncontested importance whose influence can be found in the writing of the Hamas charter. Qutb was an indefatigable author (more than 20 books, some written while in an Egyptian prison where he was tortured), but the article that should interest the pro-Hamas activists the most is called "Our Struggle with the Jews." It is a shocking and repellent work of anti-Semitism that, among other things, says the "Jews will be satisfied only with the destruction" of Islam. Qutb cites that hoary anti-Semitic forgery "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion" for substantiation -- suggesting that his status as an intellectual is somewhat due to heroic grade inflation.

The extremely useful term "useful idiots" was originally coined to describe Soviet sympathizers in Western countries. But there is no reason it cannot be applied to so-called activists who wish to break the blockade, which is an increasingly untenable exercise that Israel, bit by bit, is loosening. That's a good thing. But if Israel is expected to release its grip on Gaza, it's entitled to a bit of reciprocity -- at the very least the release of the hostage Gilad Shalit, who was captured not in Gaza but on the Israel side of the border. He has been held for four years now and has never once been visited by an outsider. How about maybe one ship in the approaching flotilla just for him?

Now is the time, I suppose, to say that Israel is not exactly perfect either. It continues to overreact, uses too much force and has often trampled on the rights of Palestinians. Still, Israel is Thomas Jefferson's idea of heaven compared with Gaza, which could serve as a seaside Club Med for Jew-haters. One country is consonant with the Enlightenment; the other is a dark place of religious intolerance where the firmest principles of anti-Semitism -- not anti-Zionism or pro-Palestinianism -- are embedded in the Hamas charter.

The irony is that Israel is often called a colonialist power. In some sense, the charge is true. But the ones with the true colonialist mentality are those who think that Arabs cannot be held to Western standards of decency. So, for this reason, Hamas is apparently forgiven for its treatment of women, its anti-Semitism, its hostility toward all other religions, its fervid embrace of a dark (non-Muslim) medievalism and its absolute insistence that Israel has no right to exist. Maybe the blockade ought to end -- but so, too, should anyone's dreamy idea of Hamas. It's not just a threat to Israel. It's a threat to the eventual Palestine

Flaubert's A Simple Heart

Anthony Daniels:

June 2010
Flaubert's simple heart
by Anthony Daniels// The New Criterion

On a master's lesson in true tolerance.

Goodness knows why, but my wife (who is Parisian) likes me to read to her in French. I have heard Englishmen speak French, and on the whole, except for those who grew up bilingual, I have not been impressed, not at any rate favorably impressed, with the result.

I cannot believe that the English accent in French is anything other than charmless and painful on the ears of native speakers; and though I do not think I am by a long shot the worst of my countrymen (who make no concessions whatsoever to the pronunciation of foreign languages, of whose very existence they do not really, in their heart of hearts, approve), and though the local bookseller in my nearest town in France once flatteringly asked me not to lose my accent, as if she believed there were any possibility of my actually doing so, mine is no exception. True, my pronunciation is absolutely perfect, even Parisian, so long as it remains within the confines of my skull; but the moment it reaches my larynx it undergoes a reverse metamorphosis, and the butterfly turns into a caterpillar.

Still, there is no accounting for taste, and my wife does like it.

We have read a wide variety of books together, from standard works on the Dreyfus affair to an account of the great French serial killer of the early twentieth century, Henri Landru. It was reading the latter that stimulated me to formulate a law (more or less) of serial killing: in Anglo-Saxonia they do it for sex, but in the Frankish lands they do it for gain. And this is precisely as it should be, because the Anglo-Saxons are hypocrites about sex and the French are hypocrites about money. Which is the more attractive hypocrisy? I leave it to my readers to decide.

We once moved seamlessly from a biography of Robert Brasillach, the talented novelist who was a collaborator during the Occupation and was afterwards shot despite (or should I say because of?) the leniency shown to far worse collaborationists than he, to the autobiography of Louis Althusser, the Marxist philosopher who murdered his wife. This latter gave us a stock phrase that we still use in everyday life when one of us has committed a minor mistake such as dropping a cup or a bowl: J’ai étranglé Hélène, I have strangled Hélène!

In the admittedly rather special context of wife-murder, Althusser’s act was banal; he had his hands around her throat and (to quote a phrase I have heard many times) “the next thing I knew, doctor, she was lying there.” When Althusser, on his own account, recovered his senses, he uttered the exclamation that we have made our own—a little shamefacedly, for Hélène’s death, at the age of seventy, was of course truly a tragic one. Up till then, Althusser had been guilty only of strangling the French language, squeezing the meaning from it until only a vague but unpleasant Marxist connotation remained, and it lay lifeless on the page.

We sometimes read fiction together as well; for example, currently we are reading the latest novel by Patrick Modiano, a writer whose depictions of the recent past are like blurred monochrome photographs that are full of atmosphere and perhaps of documentary significance, though the latter always remains just out of reach, like the meaning of life.

A few weeks ago, however, on a day for which, rather unusually, we had absolutely nothing planned, we had, after coffee but before breakfast, a short lesson in real literary, and not only literary, greatness. We woke up and I read Flaubert’s story, Un coeur simple, to my wife.

Shortly before, I had bought a cheap edition ($2) of this conte, complete with a scholarly apparatus that doubled the length of the story but still left the book slender enough. This apparatus was in itself not without interest. It was directed, I think, at secondary school pupils, who needed, apparently, to be told in a footnote that “the Napoleonic wars required numerous soldiers” (an assertion for the truth of which a book published by the same publisher was cited as evidence).

Even more necessary, apparently, was an explanation of Catholicism, for example that lighting a candle in a church is “a rite of popular piety to ask for a favour from God,” that until Vatican II Catholic services were conducted in Latin, that Catholic dogmas are “points of doctrine that must be accepted on pain of exclusion from the Church,” that “in confession, the Catholic confesses his sins to a priest who has the power to grant him God’s absolution,” and that the Holy Spirit is “one of the three persons who, according to the Christian religion, with God the Father and His Son, make up ‘one God in three persons.’” The Christian religion and its associated rituals were here referred to as if they were as alien to the current generation of children of the Eldest Daughter of the Church, France, as the witchcraft ceremonies of the Azande, and required the interpretation of an anthropologist to render at all intelligible. The footnote explaining First Communion to the young readers is heavy with irony: “In the religious France of the nineteenth century, they debated very seriously the opportune age at which a child should take communion for the first time.” One can just hear the squeals of incredulity that such a question should have once seemed important: for the strange thing is that the more officially multicultural we become, the less seriously we can take anyone’s point of view but our own.

As it happens, Un coeur simple is a magisterial example of how to do this; of how it is possible to enter into, and convey to others, a mental world that is not one’s own, indeed that is very alien to it, without the least disdain, condescension, or disapproval, and how the ability to do this suggests (though it does not prove in any formal sense) that there are more important or valuable things in life than mere cleverness or intellectual acuity.

Since Julian Barnes summarized the plot of Un coeur simple so elegantly in his novel Flaubert’s Parrot, I shall quote him to save myself the trouble of doing it not so well as he:

It is about a poor, uneducated servant-woman called Félicité, who serves the same mistress for half a century, unresentfully sacrificing her own life to those of others. She becomes attached, in turn, to a rough fiancé, to her mistress’s children, to her nephew, and to an old man with a cancerous arm. All of them are casually taken from her: they die, or depart, or simply forget her. It is an existence in which, not surprisingly, the consolations of religion come to make up for the desolations of life.
The final object in Félicité’s ever-diminishing chain of attachments is Loulou, the parrot. When, in due course, he too dies, Félicité has him stuffed. She keeps the adored relic bedside, and even takes to saying her prayers while kneeling before him. A doctrinal confusion develops in her simple mind: she wonders whether the Holy Ghost, conventionally represented as a dove, would not be better portrayed as a parrot… . At the end of the story, Félicité herself dies. “There was a smile on her lips. The movements of her heart slowed down beat by beat, each time more distant, like a fountain running dry or an echo disappearing; and as she breathed her final breath she thought she saw, as the heavens opened for her, a gigantic parrot hovering above her head.”

The narrator of Barnes’s novel (like me, a retired doctor) goes on to say, with justice:

Imagine the technical difficulty of writing a story in which a badly-stuffed bird with a ridiculous name ends up standing for one third of the Trinity, and in which the intention is neither satirical, sentimental nor blasphemous. Imagine further telling the story from the point of view of an ignorant old woman without making it sound derogatory or coy.
But actually the difficulty is not just technical. It is not merely that the writer has to engineer his sentences in an elegant way (Barnes himself is certainly capable, being one of the best stylists now writing in our language). It is also a question of emotional insight, obliteration of self, and emotional self-control. In one sentence of the narrator’s summary, which I have not yet quoted, the narrator (and I suspect Barnes himself) gives himself away. He cannot resist a snide remark that adds nothing to the summary qua summary, but is deeply revealing about his underlying attitude:

Logic is certainly on [Félicité’s] side: parrots and holy ghosts can speak, whereas doves cannot.
To put the Holy Ghost into the plural is to satirize from a superior intellectual standpoint, precisely what Flaubert does not do, though he himself is no believer in the Holy Ghost. The tiny act of removing the definite article and adding the s to Ghost lets us know that we are back in the world of the metropolitan intellectual. But it is the very respect that Flaubert accords the beliefs of the simple heart, when he shares neither the beliefs nor the simplicity, that makes the story so deeply moving. Again Barnes, or at any rate his narrator (one should not confuse the two), shows not a simple heart, but a shrivelled one, when he says, “The parrot is a perfect and controlled example of the Flaubertian grotesque.” It would hard to think of a word less appropriate for the parrot and Félicité’s relationship to it than “grotesque.”

Of course, no summary can do justice to the subtlety, acuity, or beauty of Flaubert’s story. The only real way of doing it justice would be to repeat it word for word. Let me, however, point to just a few instances, not by any means exhaustive.

We learn of Félicité’s disastrous love affair that was to have a permanent effect on her life. First comes a description of how she appeared after having spent fifty years as a servant:

Always quiet, her figure straight and her gestures restrained, she seemed like a woman of wood, functioning in an automatic way.
The account of her affair many years before then begins with a lapidary change pace and tone: “She had had, like any other woman, her love affair.”

At the age of eighteen, already an orphan, she meets a young man called Théodore at a village fête. On walking with her afterwards, he half-assaults her; later, he apologizes to her and attributes his conduct to having drunk so much. Félicité is not innocent, having been brought up among farm animals, but she is virtuous; she accepts Théodore’s apologies, and allows him to woo her. His ardor seems increased when she refuses to submit to him before marriage, but, at the last minute, he jilts her, marrying instead a rich widow to ensure that he is not conscripted into the army.

In her grief, she runs away to the small Normandy town of Pont l’Évêque, where she immediately meets Madame Aubain, the widow who takes her on (at the lowest possible rate) as a maid of all work. We already know that that is where she will stay because the story begins as follows:

For half a century, the bourgeois women of Pont l’Évêque envied her servant, Félicité.
For a hundred francs a year, she cooked and did the housework, sewed, washed, ironed, knew how to bridle a horse, fattened the poultry, beat the butter, and remained loyal and faithful …

With the greatest possible economy and humanity, that makes most psychiatrists seem like intolerable windbags, Flaubert shows us how one disastrous experience can affect the rest of a life, especially where the person is as vulnerable as Félicité: orphaned, illiterate, poor, and without protectors or confidants. And all this without sentimentality, because we cannot imagine that her life with Théodore, had the marriage gone ahead, would have been any better—quite the reverse.

Though her life appears dried up, Félicité (the very name is ironical) demonstrates both a need and a great capacity for unselfish love. She loves Madame Aubain’s children, taking happiness in their happiness, and when the daughter dies of tuberculosis she spends two days and nights praying over the body.

She grows deeply attached to her nephew Victor, having been reunited by chance with her sister and becoming immediately fond of her son because of her great need for fondness. Victor goes to be a sailor, but dies in Havana of yellow fever, and of course this is another hammer blow to Félicité’s heart. For someone with an interest in medical history, incidentally, what Flaubert tells us is illuminating:

Much later, Félicité learned of the circumstances of Victor’s death from the captain himself. They had bled him too much for the yellow fever. Four doctors did it at once. He died immediately, and the chief said:
“Good! Another one!”

This is ironical (and well-informed, as great authors such as Flaubert, Turgenev, and Ibsen often were about matters medical) for it was French scientific researchers at the very time that Victor died who were establishing—after two thousand years!—that bleeding was of no therapeutic value. Benjamin Rush, the physician who signed the Declaration of Independence, was a great believer in bleeding and was accused by William Cobbett (then residing in America) of killing more patients than he saved, including during the Philadelphia yellow fever epidemic of 1793. Cobbett fled after a judgment of $500 was given against him.

The last living object but one of Félicité’s love is Loulou the parrot. The bird comes to her not by a series of coincidences, but by a series of chances. A French consul who returns from South America settles in the area with a parrot that he has brought home; but after the revolution of 1848, he is promoted to a prefecture. He cannot take the parrot with him, so he presents it to Madame Aubain as a souvenir. Finding it noisy and inconvenient, she consigns it to Félicité to look after. Félicité falls in love with the parrot.

Loulou dies, and Félicité, desolate, has him stuffed. Then Madame Aubain, learning that she has been swindled of much of her property, also dies; and Flaubert conveys Félicité’s essential, and one might say existential, modesty and humility:

That Madame died before her troubled her, seemed to her contrary to the natural order of things, monstrous and unthinkable.
After Madame’s death, the house was put up for sale:

What worried [Félicité] mostly was having to leave her room—so comfortable for poor Loulou.
To this sentence, in my cheap edition, there is a footnote to help the adolescents understand what Flaubert meant. It says: “An example of the irony of the author towards his protagonist who treats the parrot as a living being.” This footnote, in my opinion, is an example of the corruption of youth in the direction of crudity by a cheap rationalist, for surely Flaubert intended no irony here, but rather a compassionate description of the universal human tendency—and need—to keep loved ones alive in the mind after they have died. (Twenty-five years after the death of his friend Alfred Le Poittevin, Flaubert said that he thought about him every day.) Perhaps the editor sets his pupils the task of going down to the local cemetery and persuading people who come to place flowers on the graves that their activity is redundant, since the person under the slab is dead and not in a position to appreciate the flowers.

Félicité’s final love, the one to which the love of Loulou leads her, is the love of God. The beauty of this bird, even when badly stuffed with its wires protruding though its feathers, persuades Félicité that the catalogue of loss and suffering that she has endured in her life is not without higher purpose, that all the love that she has poured into vessels that have broken has not been lost. Incidentally, a visit to any cemetery with nineteenth-century graves will soon persuade anyone that Flaubert has not manipulated his story for cheap emotional ends: such cemeteries are full of tombs of children who died forty years before their parents, “contrary to the natural order of things”; even today it is not impossible to find a grave of a child who died aged four fifty years ago, with flowers placed upon it by parents.

I once heard a Catholic theologian of the school of Liberation Theology denounce the more traditional forms of religious belief as “merely consolatory”; the proper task of religion, in his opinion, was to build heaven on earth, here and now. (I thought at the time of the Tower of Babel; now I would think of the Muslim fundamentalists.) Presumably he thought a time would come when life would be so perfect that Man would need no consolation: the existential equivalent of the time when society was so perfect that no one would have to be good. Suffice it to say that I do not see that time coming soon.

Neither, I think, did Flaubert. What his wonderful story shows us (not, I hasten to add, in any preacherly fashion) is the redeeming power of love. This love is not so much in return for any service rendered to us by the world, for the world has played Félicité, for example, many dirty tricks, but an approach to the world that in the end is rewarded by an assurance that the world is itself good and that suffering is not arbitrary but has some meaning. Whether or not this is true, it is certainly consolatory in a way in which we all need consolation sooner or later.

Not long ago, I shared a platform with a famous Australian intellectual. The subject of our deliberations was what it took to be good. She stated that it took, as a precondition, high intelligence and intellect. I found this profoundly horrible (as well as obviously untrue) because of what was unsaid: that only one percent of the human population possessed the intelligence and intellect.

Flaubert, who was no Pollyanna when it came to his assessment of humanity, would not have agreed with this, as is shown by Un coeur simple. In it, he managed the difficult technical feat of making someone interesting who was good but ordinary and not particularly intelligent, and he also managed the far more difficult emotional and ethical feat of entering the world of someone with whose outlook he did not agree, and portraying it with sympathy, understanding, and admiration, recognizing in it the beauty that it possessed. Here is true tolerance, in a non-ideological sense; it is rare in an age of diversity in which ignorant armies nevertheless insist on clashing by night.


I disagree with Mr. Daniels's view of Flaubert's story in this very finely written, enjoyable and accessible essay. There is, I think, a subtly wrought irony running through the entire story that combines innocence and despair, an unrewarding selflessness with a hapless simplicity, and suggests that this simple heart is a pitifully foolish heart, What virtually unspokenly cries underneath the story's litany of loss and taxidermy as solace is anti heroic, thus prosaic, tragedy

Innocence and Despair and a Bunch of Eight and Nine Year Olds

<strong> (Must be checked out!)

Me (in an email):

To Whomever May Get This:

I'm a cynical old fart. I'm 63 and not getting any younger. Last Saturday, June 26, 2010, I was browsing around at Déjà Vu Discs in the Kennedy Commons Mall in the former Scarborough, now part of Metropolitan Toronto. The store was playing a CD of a bunch of kids singing in an immediately pleasing way.

The more I listened the more I liked what I heard till I reached the point of loving it. I had the store hold the CD for me and call me when it was available for purchase and made a separate trip back to the store to get it last Monday, June 28, 2010, after a long day's work, dragging my wife, a former elementary school principal, along with me. (I'm a lawyer and grew up in Vancouver from ages 13-24.)

It's now Wednesday June 29th, about to become June 30th, and I'm for the first time listening to Innocence and Despair straight through on an old, but fairly decent system and it's wonderful and quite cynicism-dissolving, It would be hard to improve on what John Zorn is quoted as saying, "This is beauty. This is truth. This is music that touches the heart in a way no other music ever has, or ever could."

One thing for sure: the songs the kids sing have direct meaning for them and they understand them, I feel, as those songs translate into their own experience, especially In My Room and To Know Him Is to Love Him. I sense that any kid who had Hans Fenger for a music teacher was a lucky kid indeed and was never once patronized or condescended to.

Yours Sincerely,

Itzik Basman

Back to me:


I'm glad that the LSMP had such an impact on you. I too am a cynical old fart (59), but these recordings moved me tremendously when I first discovered them, and they never fail to do so ten years later.

After we released it in 2001, we heard from a steady stream of former students of Hans Fenger, all of whom referred to him as "Mr. Fenger" and recalled him with fondness. Too bad he didn't write down his arrangements (not that the kids could've read them). It would be great to try to re-create them. Then again, maybe they cannot be replicated. Hard to recapture that kind of magic.

Thanks for writing, and thanks for having the soul to appreciate these recordings.

Best to you,
Irwin Chusid
Producer, The Langley Schools Music Project

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Three Steps to Stop Iran

By Mortimer B. Zuckerman

Posted: June 25, 2010//U.S. News

The peril increases daily that Iran will become a nuclear power. Arab leaders are as alarmed as Israel. The West huffs and puffs, and huffs and puffs again, but is nowhere near blowing the house down. It is behaving as if it has all the time in the world. It does not. The year-end 2009 deadline set by the West for resolving the Iranian nuclear issue came and went and nothing happened. While the Iranians are enriching, the United States is hesitating. When Barack Obama became president, Iran had perhaps several thousand centrifuges enriching uranium. Now it may have thousands more.

It has long been said about diplomacy that the most dangerous course, even more dangerous than risking a tough response, is to raise a warning fist and then lose nerve. Iran sees the red lines the United States sets and crosses them with impunity. In the years since sanctions were imposed, Iran has blatantly circumvented them. It has purchased sophisticated technology for its nuclear programs through front companies in Dubai, and apparently also in Bahrain and Kuwait. Its leaders and enterprises use banks in these countries for illicit transactions and to launder money.

What is at stake here is too menacing for the world to delude itself that Iran will somehow change course. It won't. Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, does not want a seat at the negotiating table with the great powers, he wants to overturn the table. He is a messianic revolutionary, not a leader. As Abdul Rahman al-Rashed, general manager of the Dubai-based Al Arabiya news channel, put it, "The Ahmadinejad regime aspires to expansion, hegemony, and a clear takeover on the ground, and to do this he needs a nuclear umbrella."

A nuclear Iran, already a neighborhood bully, would export its revolutionary ideology and destabilize the Middle East. It would be more effective in its subversion of neighbors and its fomenting of worldwide terrorism. We'd see even bolder interference in Iraq and Afghanistan, more meddling in Lebanon, more incitement and aggressive support for Hamas and Hezbollah
—both of which it already funds, trains, and arms to conduct terrorist attacks against Israel. It would sabotage any dialogue between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. It would incite the Shiite populations in the Persian Gulf states and altogether threaten the survival of modern Arab governments there. Iran already plays an extensive role in Shiite southern Iraq. When American forces withdraw fully, likely over the longer term, an uprising may be fomented in Iraq that might well lead to a full takeover by an Iranian-dominated Iraqi government, which would then pressure its neighbor, Jordan. It would put at risk the whole international nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, foreshadowing a nuclear arms race all over the Middle East and nuclear weapons getting into the hands of non-state actors. A nuclear Iran, emboldened by its success in fooling and defying the world, might well be tempted to challenge its neighbors in the Gulf to reduce oil production and limit the presence of U.S. troops there.

The United States has declared that a nuclear-armed Iran is unacceptable. So if Iran succeeds, it would be seen as a major defeat and open our government to doubts about its power and resolve to shape events in the Middle East. Friends would respond by distancing themselves from Washington; foes would aggressively challenge U.S. policies.

As far as the war we're fighting in Afghanistan and its spillover into Pakistan, Iran has tremendous potential to make a very difficult situation even worse, given its influence on the western side of Afghanistan, some of which is linked to Iran's electrical grid. It could strengthen the Taliban with weapons such as surface-to-air missiles.

Why should Iran halt a nuclear program that would give it such new power in the region? The essence of the regime's policy is to keep the talks going and keep the centrifuges spinning until Iran completes its sprint to the finish line. It is taking the politics of procrastination to a whole new level.

From an American point of view, the issue is not just the nuclear program. It is the hostile intentions of a regime that since 1979 has waged war persistently against the United States and its allies. Iran is directly responsible for killing many Americans in Iraq by supplying guerrillas with high-tech roadside bombs and rockets. The savage irony that no good deed goes unpunished has played out in Iraq to the benefit of Iran. Our overthrow of Saddam Hussein's Sunni dictatorship liberated Iran on one border from the threat he posed to its Shiite regime. On Iran's eastern border, our ouster of the Taliban in Afghanistan removed another potential threat. The result has been to free up Iran's ability to meddle in the broader Middle East.

What to do? A threat to bomb Iran lacks credibility while America is engaged in two massive and unpopular military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. Moreover, this is an administration that believes essentially in "engagement." It even seems prepared to accept an Iranian bomb. If military intervention is ruled out, we are left only with sanctions. But there is no international consensus on what these should be or how to apply them. The U.N. sanctions were too weak. They did not touch Iran's need for gasoline or its fragile domestic energy sectors. Such sanctions may take very many years to bite. Too late, too late!

In the meantime, not only are the centrifuges still running, but Iran is expanding its influence and threatening the smaller Gulf countries like Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates, which do not have options that may be available to larger countries. Those states need cast-iron assurances that America will be at their side. What confidence can they have in America's will to resist an expansionist Iran? The Iranians understand the equation of fear. The official Iranian news agency recently warned the Gulf states: "There is no lion in the region save for the one that crouches on the shore opposite the Emirate states. . . . Those who believe that another lion exists in the vicinity [meaning the United States]. Well, his claws and fangs have already been broken in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon
and Palestine."

Saudi Arabia is another country targeted by Iran. The Saudis are particularly worried because in the kingdom's east, where the largest oil reserves are located, a sizable Shiite minority is now subject to incitement by Iran. The clash between Saudi security forces and Iranian-back Houthi rebels who infiltrated from Yemen has intensified the conflict between the Saudis and Iran. Yemen has become the main dispatch point for supplies from Iran to radical opposition groups in the Gulf region, including various arms of al-Qaeda. An Iranian clandestine network has been exposed in Kuwait, and an Iranian-backed Hezbollah cell in Egypt was poised to blow up ships in the Suez Canal and major tourist sites in Egypt to weaken the central government and improve the prospects of the Muslim Brotherhood. The UAE is now in a direct confrontation with Iran over three Gulf islands belonging to the UAE.

Then there is Iran's role in hiring Bedouin tribes in Sinai to smuggle arms into the Gaza Strip (where Israel has now eased the passage of ordinary goods). These arms may arrive by a chartered ship from Iran that sails up the Red Sea and through the Suez Canal, anchoring in Egyptian waters near Rafah, the Gaza border town. Under cover of darkness, the arms are placed in watertight containers and transferred underwater to a small Palestinian boat, which takes them to shore. The Bedouins, with access to hundreds of tunnels, then smuggle them into Gaza. This has armed Hamas with thousands of rockets and mortars. It is all part of Iran's highly organized strategic campaign of delivering arms to radical forces throughout the Middle East.

There was a ship called the Francop which the Israelis captured last November and exposed. The world has now forgotten, but not the Israelis. The Francop was but one of a number of cargo ships interdicted by Israeli naval commandos. It turned out to have as much as 10 times the weaponry as the infamous Karine A, intercepted by Israel in 2002, that so aroused the Bush administration. It is no mystery why the Israelis want to preclude Hamas from being rearmed by a sea lane into Gaza.

The Gulf states are justifiably worried that Iran's drive to influence the agenda in the region is now being transformed into an effort to dictate the agenda. The Arab states see clearly what is happening. A new study of public opinion shows that most Arabs in the Gulf see their region as a more likely target than Israel from an Iranian bomb. If we wait for that threat to fully materialize, we will have waited too long. As the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has said, we might be left with a choice of "an Iranian bomb or bombing Iran." The only thing worse than bombing Iran, according to Sen. John McCain, is letting Iran get the bomb. All the choices for the United States are bad. The only option is to find the one that is the least bad.

The minimum we must do is station missile defense systems in or provide them to local states, including missiles with the range to hit Tehran. Second, we must provide a security blanket and guarantee to selected Gulf states including Qatar, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait. Third, we must impose an embargo even more extensive than the one we imposed on Cuba at the time of the Cuban missile crisis. This would include a ban on the sale or purchase of products or services to or from Iran, a ban on all financial transactions of any kind with Iranians for their businesses, a ban on all travel to and from Iran, and more. This policy must make it absolutely clear that any companies or individuals who violate the embargo will be banned from doing business with the United States.

It is painfully obvious that the international community has no idea how to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. No one has a magic solution. Thirty years of negotiations and sanctions have failed to end the Iranian nuclear program and its war against the West. Why should anyone think such attempts will work now, given that the Iranians are probably less than a year away from the finish line in their race to achieve nuclear weapons capability? In an article entitled "Has Iran Won?" the Economist magazine put it this way: "Who would have thought that a friendless theocracy with a Holocaust-denying president, which hangs teenagers in public and stones women to death, could run diplomatic circles around America and its European allies?"

More on the Metaphysics of Lists


The critic Miller suffers from a common critical disease: the belief that the critique is superior to the object of criticism. He also seems to have forgotten that a review is not the same as a critique.

First, Miller misidentifies Eco as a phenomenologist or at least says that uses the phenomenological method. Perhaps he did, I haven’t read this particular Eco book, but I do know that he is not a phenomenologist.

“But a phenomenology of the list? Only Eco would try this. And yet both agree, in their different ways, that the list is a point of contact between the human and the infinite.”

Eco is a semiotician. Semiotics is a part of linguistics and deals with language a product of semiosis or of signification. I doubt that Eco would have written any book without adverting to the process of semiosis.

In any case, the opposition of Eco’s notion of lists as “catalogue” and Gawande’s more empirical one seems to me arbitrary. Miller set it up in order to offer his own conception of the list as “inventory” which is meant to function as a kind of syntheses between the two other modalities of list making.

In addition, Miller’s view of the Baroque period as one of list making strikes me as forced:

“The Baroque was not only the great age of learned play, but also of the New Science and the self-conscious championing of observation. Lists follow from this. Francis Bacon was the prophet of close examination, and was a great list-maker. Not only did he propose new ways of studying nature, he drew up inventories of natural historical projects to be undertaken by others. The vogue for encyclopedias and research tools—librarians still call them “finding aids”—that also sprouted in the seventeenth century, such as Daniel Morhof’s Polyhistor (1688), transformed European learned culture into a series of lists: books to read, instruments to master, speeches to control, and so on. With this we come closer still to Gawande’s idea of the list as a means of managing uncertainty.”

An historical period can have more than one conception of reality. Think of 19c with its Romantics as well as its empiricists and utilitarian’s. (Miller summarizes the whole 19c in half a paragraph). The Baroque is more akin to romanticism than to empiricism. The word baroque is of Portuguese origin (The word in Portuguese was used to designate an imperfect pearl.) and meant is meant to convert notions of open-endedness and asymmetry (infinity, as it were). It was invoked in the architecture as well as in literature (Cervantes, for example).

I also had a problem with Miller’s view of Kant’s “sublime” which is in opposition to the concept of “beauty.” I won’t say any more here till I read Eco’s book since I am unclear how much of Miller’s view is taken from Eco how much from Kant.

Finally, I was mystified by his introduction of inventories as another kind of list making. He introduces it in order to humanize and personalize the abstract notion of lists. However, it doesn’t work. Miller may have had in mind some pathetic (in the original meaning of the word) list which alludes to personal loss, but in opposition to his late 17th century list one could show the inventories of loss set out in a novel by the great German writer W. G. Sebald: “Austerlitz.” This is an inventory of museums and monuments and above all inventory lists of property stolen from European Jews by their German captors. The lists are endless and don’t offer the kind of pathetic “comfort” one takes from natural loss.


Just to counter Jack’s critique of this essay, I’d like to take a crack at its defence (and support my enthusiasm for it) in light of his comments. (As a lawyer, working with checklists, and thinking about them, Miller’s essay is of particular interest to me.)

First, I don’t see Miller overwhelming the object of his criticism with his own comments. He pretty faithfully, it seems to me, without having read the books he discusses, lets his observations and arguments emerge from what he reviews, save for his latter themes, which Jack objects to, and, on which, I’ll latterly comment. That seeming faithfulness, I suggest, shines through when close attention is paid to Miller’s actual content. More, respectfully, it is inaptly prescriptive to hold Miller strictly to what he reviews as though he breaches some etched-in-stone critical canon. And that prescription betokens a misreading of Miller’s essay. For while Miller deals with the books he mentions, and is faithful to them in doing so, he also uses them as a conceptual dock from which to depart on a short, entirely related voyage of his own. And there is no reason why he ought not to.

Miller begins by rehearsing briefly Gawande’s (a surgeon) interest in checklists: how, for Gawande, they, in complex situations, during surgery, mitigate against things going wrong and help guide, and release, necessary instant decision making. (Implicit, I am presuming, in Gawande’s use of checklists is their partial functionality as flow charts, or logic trees, where certain known relations between cause and effect are systematized and reduced to their cores.)

Miller makes the point that for Gawande the check list is not the answer to complexity, nor does it really deal with complexity as such. Rather, by making clear the basic and the obvious—sterilizing instruments, accounting for them and so on—it helps to minimize dumb mistakes, and establishes procedural routines so that the decision making surgeon is freer to deal with the unexpected pressing upon him.

I’d quarrel here that Gawande, with Miller’s assent, paints too bright a line between complexity and the list, and asserts too singular a notion of complexity. One mode of complexity is a body of a great amount of interacting detail constantly generating unencountered problems. But another is simply the integrated presence of those many, many details in the sense of saying, for example, the body or, perhaps, a statute, is a complex system.

Checklists, or perhaps, here, just lists, contra, Gawande and Miller, can reduce that latter sense of complexity by isolating and making plain the body’s parts. And, even in the former sense of complexity, I’d think that checklists—for, what, finally, are the known relations between, say, symptoms, and particular ills, or testing to eliminate possibilities, but checklists?—reduce complexity too. I think, in fact, the relation between complexity and checklists I’ve just argued for is nicely captured by Miller’s incisive and telling encapsulation of Gawande’s intent: “Gawande, the man of action, is all about how the list can reduce the infinitude of possibility to the possibility of finitude.”

Miller excellently contrasts that encapsulation with his description of Eco’s project: the list as an arrow to the infinite: the former wants to contract; the latter wants to expand; the former aims at functionality; the latter aims at a “phenomenology of the list”.

(On this point I think, respectfully again, Jack goes quite astray. What Miller means, I think, is Eco’s intent to account for the idea of the list by studying the structure of lists though “his experience of them ranging from perception, thought, memory, imagination, emotion, desire, and volition to bodily awareness, embodied action, and social activity, including linguistic activity.” The issue is not whether Eco is a phenomenologist.)

But what knits Gawande and Eco a bit together, for Miller, is the idea “…that the list is a point of contact between the human and the infinite.” I don’t know, arguing further against Jack, how this can be thought to be the critic overwhelming his material. It’s the opposite: the critic adhering to his material both (Gawande) to distill it and represent it and (Eco) to distill it and put it into illuminating contexts.

At that point of contact, a “limit” in the sense of that which surpasses our understanding, Miller observes, Gawande, wanting functional contraction, would call a meeting, Eco “…would send us to a museum”. For, as Eco says, artists reckon with the infinitude of the world either by trying to get its essence or by cataloguing it to illuminate the vastness beyond the catalogue, the latter bearing some relation to Gawande’s checklist. That relation is only partial because Gawande’s checklist drives toward what can be grasped while Eco’s catalogue drives toward what can’t be.

Eco’s two ways of the artist reckoning with infinitude derives, says Miller, from Kant’s two ways of apprehending it: experiencing it as microcosm:

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

or beholding in many things—stars in the sky, or more grandly, “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces fills me with dread”—its irreducible plentitude and vastness, which, for Eco, finds aesthetic form in the catalogue, however, and necessarily, partial.

Again, as against Jack, I say Miller, fulfilling his role as reviewer and critic, notes his own qualms with Eco: Eco’s curated art exhibition is arbitrary and not serviceable for his argument, an argument essentially born of texts. In Miller’s incisive words, “…the “visual list” still has not met its proper theorist”. As well, Eco, for Miller, has not sharply enough distinguished between the list as prelude to infinitude and merely practical lists, even while, for Eco, the latter may, in some instances, be a species of the former, especially when they have a dimension of the aesthetic. The point that this second concern goes to is, for Miller, a certain failure in Eco's phenomenological project, his analytical failure to rescue the variety of lists from his own irreducible subjectivity: “Infinity, Eco seems to suggest, is all between the ears.”

Then, Miller, having dealt, in his fashion, with Eco, goes abroad as I say, travels intellectually, from the conceptual dock of his critical treatment. Miller deals with the list in relation to the seventeenth century’s New Science and as the age of the city. Thus, he relates the list to New Science’s privileging of disinterested observation, pace Francis Bacon, and he remarks the list as the starting point for taxonomies, texts and encyclopedias, and also for research tools and the itemization, inventorying of, the artifacts of culture and the techniques of personal development (precursor to the infomercial?).

Heading back to the contrast informing his essay, Miller notes that with these developments in the seventeenth century, we are firmly on Gawande’s side--lassoing uncertainty-- of the contrasting divide.

Miller is wonderfully synoptic is his treatment of the city itself, now pace Eco, as a living catalogue pointing to the infinite, and as a source for the artistic treatment of it as that. As Miller concludes his own synoptic catalogue here:

“Walt Whitman looked at New York, the future capital of the twentieth century, and saw his infinitude mirrored in its. The late modern city—Eco gives us Los Angeles-sprawls in all directions, with only connections, and neither center nor periphery. The image of the neuron is apposite, and suggests again the horizon of what we do not fully understand.”

In the final section of his essay, Miller, still traveling abroad but without veering from the course of his theme, pursues a sea lane he has sailed before, as co-editor of Dutch New York Between East and WestThe World of Margrieta van Varic. He treats, somewhat contra Gawande, probate inventories as a mode of list both contracting and expanding reality, particularly as related to the infinitude of death.

Contracting it, a dead Flatbush woman’s seventeenth century inventory of worldly goods, her probate inventory, seems the quintessence of a Gawandian purpose-driven list, the means of implementing all the prosaic, worldly consequences of her death, a listing of all that her life as things has come to. But, as against that account of her life’s inventory, the list also points to the infinitude that makes up a life, all that has gone before, and points to a living, irreducibly complex social history and, the point is made, to a living, irreducibly complex psychological history.

Finally, as a variation on the theme that “…the list is a point of contact between the human and the infinite…”, the personal inventory, as a mode of list, is something different from an arrow to infinitude as the list is for Eco, and is something different from a means of roping reality as it is for Gawande. Different from these two, the personal inventory as probate list is a pathos--an occasion for feelings of pity, sympathy, tenderness—and some confoundedness too: an axis, or, in Miller’s apt word, a “threshold” between life and death, a meeting point between them. As that, it is sadly and bewilderingly different from Gawanade’s meeting as a functional response to the infinite that life wants to manage. And as that, it is bewilderingly smaller and different from Eco’s meaning of the list as expansively taking living man to the periphery of the infinite.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Language Chicken or Social Historical Egg: and "Language is Thought"

John McWhorter:

Is English Special Because It's "Globish"?//TNR

Most of the mainline reviews of Robert McCrum’s Globish – of which there have been so many so fast that I am in awe of his publicity people -- are missing what is fundamentally wrong with the book. Herewith one linguist’s take on this peculiar book, within which all evaluators seem to perceive a certain fuzziness, but few are catching that it is based on an outright error of reasoning and analysis – as well as an infelicitous volume of downright flubs.

McCrum starts with the well-known fact that English is now the world’s de facto universal language. Some months ago I spent a week in Papua New Guinea (long story), and found myself for the first time in a situation where English was genuinely of no use beyond hotel counters and university folk. The fact that I could have my first experience of this kind as a relatively well-travelled person of 44, and only in as distant and isolated a location as New Guinea, is graphic indication that the old days are gone. Berlitz books used to stage dialogues where Mr. Smith has to order food in German if he goes to Berlin – that’s now antique; the hotel clerk often speaks English better than Mr. Smith nowawdays. English is everywhere – or, closer to it every year.

But McCrum is taken with a notion that there is something about English itself that has gotten it to this point. He knows on a certain level that this is a delicate proposition, and early on, poses the question “Is this revolution a creature of globalization, or does global capitalism owe some of its energy and resilience to global English in all its manifestations?”

He only means this as a rhetorical sort of “question,” though, because deep down he likes the idea that English is somehow inherently handy, fundamentally “universal” as he puts it here and there. That is, McCrum is not just describing the English takeover – he wants to celebrate his native tongue. He gives it away with this money quote, oddly contradictory but serving as a gateway to the body of the discussion: “Language, it cannot be stressed too strongly, is intrinsically neutral, but it is no contradiction to claim that English – by virtue of its origins and history – is unique.”

But is it? In a way that made it particularly likely to spread? How is English “unique” such that when it was a cluster of divergent dialects we now term Middle English, spoken by a mere few million on a wet little island 800 years ago, we could have picked it out as ripe for becoming the new Latin? This is the argument that McCrum wants to make, but the fuzziness aside, he lacks the scope of data to seriously evaluate the point he’s making.

Never mind overall that a considerable proportion of the text is breezy recapitulation of English and American history with brief asides about implications for the development of English (or not – we get a good three pages on the Magna Carta when it was written in Latin). Reviewers are not making clear enough to readers that over half of Globish is not really about language at all. Globish reminds us that Henry V died of dysentery, but does not get to things such as whether or not the Founding Fathers talked like Masterpiece Theatre characters (hint: they didn’t, really).

And never mind the endless misinterpretations and downright solecisms. The Anglo-Saxons had “an oral culture, favoring understatement and wit” – I was unaware that understatement and wit were more likely among illiterates, such that literate cultures are more given to boisterous humor and slapstick. Or, apparently in Old English it was hard to convey “subtle ideas without the use of cumbersome and elaborate German-style portmanteaus like frumwoerc (= creation), from fruma, beginning, and weorc, work.” Oh – clumsy barbarisms in German like Weltanschauung, Dasein and Schadenfreude?

I’m afraid, also, that the Great Vowel Shift was not caused by increasing literacy (“Ah, finally some time to sit down with a good book ... hm, it’s time to start shaking up these damn vowels”), and most people acquainted with the mountainous literature on the Shift would be loathe to dismiss the oeuvre as “hocus pocus” as McCrum does. I have no idea what McCrum means in saying that Old English’s “irregular prepositional structures became standardized,” and last time I checked, Cornish was not Gaelic. The book is shot through with this kind of thing -- God knows how many false factoids it is spreading through the reading public.

But the central problem is that McCrum’s sense that English is somehow uniquely “direct” and “universal” and therefore well-suited to bestride the world is false. In two ways.

First of all, to the extent that McCrum is taking this from English being light on conjugation suffixes (in the present, just little third-person singular -s) and not having gender (no el sombrero for hat but la luna for moon as in Spanish), you can’t claim that this makes it easier for a language to be universal without looking at the fate of other languages. Russian started as a homely, unwritten Slavic dialect, but is currently spoken by 280 million people, speaking a vast array of indigenous languages natively. Yet Russian is murderously complex – three genders, verbs of pitiless complexity, assorted sounds that are tough to produce, squishy word order, unpredictable accent on words, and on and on. (Of those who have reviewed the book in big venues, I am aware of only TNR’s own Isaac Chotiner as touching on a comparison like the Russian one in his New Yorker review.)

Russians, too, are given to chauvinistic claims about their “great and mighty Russian language,” in which case one could posit that the complexity of the language makes it “mighty” as well as maximally clear. This would make, in the end, about as much sense as claiming that English has gotten around because it’s relatively easy to learn. Both English and Russian have spread the way they have because they were the languages that happened to be spoken by powers that happened to acquire vast amounts of territory.

There is a discussion to be had as to why England (plus America) and Russia have had such lasting influence – but the reasons are about sociohistory and geography, not conjugation. We know this because if there were any meaningful linguistic argument, England and Russia would neatly cancel one another out. Arabs, too, might be perplexed to hear that a language has to be easy – “direct,” as McCrum often has it – to be a vehicle of empire. As anyone who has tried to master it will attest, Arabic is a tough one for foreigners. Yet the region is unrecorded that scoffed “We shall not use this Arabic tongue, as it be too difficult on the tongue to serve as a language of conquest!”

Then McCrum errs in a second way. He misses that to the extent that geopolitical dominance and linguistic structure can be correlated, it’s in that the dominance causes the grammatical simplification, not the other way around. This was even part of English’s history – when Scandinavian Vikings occupied England starting in the eighth century, they produced Old English in a stripped-down fashion just as many of us have produced French and Spanish in classrooms. There were so many of the Vikings that kids heard as much English of this kind as “real” Old English, and in a culture with little schooling or media, this “funny” English became the only English.

McCrum knows this – but misses that it upends his paradigm. The Vikings didn’t pick up English because it was enticingly “universal” – they made it easier by picking it up. To the extent that McCrum may suppose that it was this that kicked off English’s “accessible” phase, we return to Arabic and Russian – universal in their ways despite being un-Vikinged. Sanskrit, Cree, Tagalog and other complex languages also seem to have gotten around – the whole construct McCrum builds just doesn’t work.

Meanwhile, the world over, languages are on the easy side because they happen to have been imposed on a lot of adult foreigners. The lingua franca in Papua New Guinea, for example, is Indonesian, which delights the learner in having no gender, no conjugation, and no Chinese-type tones. I was getting around after about 48 hours as a result, surely sounding pretty goofy but getting stuff done regardless – something you just can’t pull off in two days in Finnish or Greek. But that ease is no accident – Indonesian has been imposed on speakers of hundreds of languages of the Malay Archipelago for over two millennia. That kind of thing sands a language down. Anyone who today said that Indonesian is spoken by 165 million because of its “universal” and “direct” structure would have the cart before the horse in a major and obvious way. As does McCrum. You can even imagine a book on Indonesian taking this tack about Indonesian being destined to spread – which would sound, to Western ears, quaintly boastful and parochial. We would immediately suspect that it was the spread that made Indonesian so handy. There’s no difference with English.

Why does all of this matter? Because Globish reinforces some questionable ways of thinking about language. I’m not going to say “dangerous” for drama’s sake – just questionable. Inaccurate, frankly – in a way that ends up clotting up discussions about other things.

One is that a language represents a way of thinking, that to speak a certain language is to have your thoughts channeled in certain directions. People adore this idea – you know, such as that the Hopi language has no tense marking and reflects their cyclical sense of time, as promulgated by Benjamin Lee Whorf in the 1930s. I have watched audiences audibly purr when a linguist suggests that something about the way speakers of an indigenous language put their words together suggests something about Their Way Of Thinking, such as one case where we were to suppose that a Native American group were especially fond of slurping and sucking on things!).

The problem is that this view of language just doesn’t go through. Whorf, for the record, was a fire inspector by day and apparently knew Hopi about as well as I know Indonesian, as Hopi has plenty of time expressions. There are plenty of people who insist that the Language is Thought idea is valid, but few have engaged the counterarguments, usefully summarized by Steven Pinker (I, too, have pitched in in this vein).

To be sure, there is solid work being done today by well-informed people showing subtle thought patterns determined by language. People whose language marks table as feminine are more likely to imagine a cartoon table as talking with a high voice than English speakers are (that one is from Lera Boroditzky at Stanford). But this is neither “culture” nor a “world view.” Any Spaniard we met who was going around thinking of tables as chicks, plain and simple, would be someone we’d cross the street to avoid running into.

There is some of this kind of thing in McCrum rhapsodizing about how English’s “transactions urge us ceaselessly to engage our imaginations, and express them, on a global scale.” I can’t say that I have ever felt my language that way. And I am quite sure I’d be reluctant to tell a speaker of, say, Turkish that his language encourages him to use his imagination less than mine does.

And what can potentially follow from this exaltification of English on the basis of accidents of its history is a sense that its consumption of the world’s smaller languages is somehow appropriate. Sure, McCrum understands the dangers and sorrows of how many of the world’s languages are dying at the hands of a few big ones, especially English. But from his text, a reader can come away with a sense that the language I am writing in is, in all of its “accessibility,” “universality,” and “directness,” not to mention its stimulation of the imagination, somehow foreordained to replace all of the less vivid, frustratingly indirect “idioms” hanging around out there.

To wit, there is, despite McCrum surely not intending this, a discomfittingly Darwinian cast to Globish. It reminds me often of old-timey books purporting to be about the Languages of the World in which “language” really means Europe, Arabic, Hebrew, Chinese, Japanese and maybe Persian, Turkish and Hindi, with everything else – i.e. the other 6000 languages of the world – depicted as distant diorama figurines. If you really take in the awesome variety among the world’s languages – ones with only three verbs, ones with almost two hundred sounds, ones with only eight, ones where one word covers what we need a sentence for, ones where the basic word order is object-verb-subject, ones where there really are more exceptions than rules, ones with a hundred genders, and so on – then the idea that there is anything especially anything about little English becomes as hopeless as rhapsodizing over the aptness and universality of a squirrel. It may get around, but it’s just one thing out of many.

Between the fostering of the myth that a language can make a people imaginative, the encouragement of a sense that English is a “realer” language than others, and the endless booboos, Globish is inaccurately covered where the implication is that it is a legitimate argument shakily rendered. It is as authoritative an argument as a book I could write on how squid are the world’s coolest animals. It is, despite innocent intentions, a jolly misfire – and for reasons far beyond mere ones of form.

Me (briefly):

Mr. McWhorter, there's a really stale joke about World War 11: that if it wasn't for Churchill, we'd all be speaking German now. I guess that very bad joke expresses part of the point you're making against McCrum's thesis about the inner nature of English making it the world's de facto lingua franca. On this issue, we can say which came first: the language chicken or the social historical egg. I think you devastatingly have the best of this argument.

I also liked your taking on as "inaccurate" the idea that "... a language represents a way of thinking, that to speak a certain language is to have your thoughts channeled in certain directions." It seems clear why McCrum would want to talk up that idea as a building block for his main argument. They fit together. And you land a wicked blow to such notions as:

"... the Hopi language has no tense marking and reflects their cyclical sense of time, as promulgated by Benjamin Lee Whorf in the 1930s. I have watched audiences audibly purr when a linguist suggests that something about the way speakers of an indigenous language put their words together suggests something about Their Way Of Thinking...

But one digression from the main argument of your post, if I might. You encapsulate the rejected just above as "Language is Thought". I don't take that encapsulation to include something I have always thought, that if you can't say "it" (or otherwise represent "it" symbolically") you can't think "it" or understand "it". If what I have always understood holds water, then it seems to me that language is thought, but in a conceptually different sense than the idea that the inner nature of a particular language informs thought, or world views, in a particular way.

Wieseltier and I From April 2009: On "Liberal Realism"

Washington Diarist: In Which We Engage

Is it really possible that in a Democratic administration the championship of human rights and the promotion of democracy will no longer figure conspicuously in the foreign policy of the United States? It is really possible. Oh, the stirring words will be spoken; the stirring words are always spoken. But in the absence of policies one may be forgiven for not being stirred by words. And so far even the language has been wanting in ardor.

Idealism in foreign policy is so 2003. After all, the opposite of everything that George W. Bush believed must be true. He overreached abroad and underreached at home, so we will underreach abroad and overreach at home. Myself, I am for overreaching and overreaching. And so I remain chilled by Hillary Clinton's froideur in Beijing, by her artful impersonation of Brent Scowcroft. "We pretty much know what they are going to say," she offered in defense of her ritualistic syllables about China's persecution of its dissidents. She is right, of course. The regime in Beijing is singularly immune to moral appeals. They do not do ethical critique.

It is also true that they are our creditors, though I do not see their hoard of T-bills invoked to thwart the discussion of our other demands of them. And I hear stranger excuses for the new hard-heartedness: a friend of mine, a smart and fervent liberal, chastised me for my disappointment in Clinton by reminding me sardonically that the Chinese "have only raised a hundred million people out of poverty." Not a word about health and literacy in Cuba, though. I thought that the question of the relation between political progress and economic progress--the priority, philosophical and political, of freedom to development--was long ago settled, and not in favor of early profits.

It appears that we need to recall, in this springtime of liberal realism, a few rudimentary notions about democratization and the cause of human rights. For a start, it does not require us to go to war. Rightly or wrongly, we invaded Afghanistan and Iraq for strategic reasons, for reasons of national security; and the splendid attempt to establish democracies, which may or may not succeed, was a corollary of a strategic analysis of the causes of our insecurity. Democratization, since it proposes to replace one political culture with another, is a policy of destabilization, and so it is an evolutionary enterprise, and takes time, and can be achieved only indigenously, by the people themselves. But often they need help, which, in the real world so beloved of Democrats, means American help. This help can take many forms.

The scandal of Clinton's mildness in Beijing was not that she squandered an opportunity to convert the autocracy to our way of thinking about justice. It was that she scanted the men and women in China (and in Burma too, about which she found time only to speculate on the efficacy of sanctions) who already share our way of thinking about justice. It is one of the central features of our account of justice that it is universal: the sovereignties of nations and the specificities of cultures are (mostly) wonderful, but human rights make us all into cosmopolitans. When the Chinese foreign minister told Clinton that we should "continue to hold human rights dialogues on the basis of equality and mutual respect," he was speaking sinister nonsense.

In this matter China is not our equal, it is our inferior, and we cannot respect them without disrespecting ourselves. What Clinton brought the many victims of Chinese repression was a cup of despair. On what grounds can she justify the demoralization of these valiant people, or their abandonment? (Here Niebuhr will not serve.) Who really believes that the full panoply of Chinese-American relations, our sensible preference for cooperation over conflict, cannot withstand the espousal of our ideals? In China, our values are hardly about to displace our interests; and China has interests, too. Anyway, it is an axiom of Barack Obama's worldview that the moral reputation of the United States is itself a fact of strategic consequence. The wretched of the earth have been waiting for America to rediscover--what? the balance of power?

The renaissance of diplomacy has begun. We will talk with Iran. We will talk with Syria. We will talk with the Taliban, or with some of it. We will talk, sooner or later, with Hamas. If what I think has happened has happened, the Awakening in Iraq has been promoted from a military approach into a geo- political approach. The whole world is now Anbar. It is not hard to see why. The sullen rectitude of Bush and Cheney was going nowhere.

There are urgencies, such as the inexorable uranium of Iran, that will not allow us to leave any means untried. And if we flip Assad, or isolate Haqqani, it will be for the good. We must be in all things empirical: a dogmatic aggregation of all our enemies may blind us to useful complexities. So probe, probe, probe; let the word go forth to the madrassas in Waziristan and Swat and Qum and Gaza that we are all God's children; and never mind that we pretty much know what they are going to say. But sooner or later we will hit the limit of what conscience can bear. There are only so many tyrants and terrorists we can engage before we stain our principles, before the politesse becomes repulsive. Also, the anti-Americanism in the world cannot all be imputed to the recent behavior of the United States. Neither the president's face nor his name will inspire movements and governments to discard their dreams.

I worry that liberal realists are mentally unprepared for certain eventualities. Liberal realism is either a betrayal of liberalism or a betrayal of realism. I wish the administration luck, but I wish it also a fallback plan.

A hawk has settled somewhere in my neighborhood, and the other morning it made its kill in my garden, beneath the nandina bushes festooned with red berries like ornaments for the slaughter. It sat with a lordly calm over its ripped prey, and when I approached for a closer look it flew off, its carrion in its claws, leaving a bloodied mess of pigeon feathers in the otherwise gentrified dirt. What was so fascinating about the savagery was that it made no sense to protest it. Here was realism, and the normativity of power. There was nothing sublime about it. I paused over the unnatural character of goodness. I re-read Mill: "the duty of man is the same in respect to his own nature as in respect to the nature of all other things, namely not to follow but to amend it. " The idea of human rights is a distinction not only of our policy, but also of our species.

Leon Wieseltier


Unusual for me, I mind less this piece as it is more simply written, clearer in its attempt at argument, less frantically convoluted, abstract and interior than Wieseltier’s usual Diarist entries. But, even for minding it less, in the end, I find Wieseltier impaled on a conundrum out of which he cannot reason his way.

He begins by decrying the apparently emerging underemphasis on human rights in Obama’s administration. Wieseltier calls the emerging policy by (what I think is) a neologism: “liberal realism”. He means by that, I think, Scowcroftian (say) realism married to a generally liberal administration. Not trusting “stirring words”, which “are always spoken”, and requiring proof by policies, Wieseltier nevertheless was “chilled” by Hillary Clinton’s “froideur” in Beijing, where her disappointing best, for Wieseltier not nearly good enough, were her “ritualistic syllables about China's persecution of its dissidents.”

So here begin the conundrum and some cracks in the argument. Wieseltier torpedoes stirring words; they are empty without policies. He concedes the correctness of Hillary’s defence of her understatement: “Beijing is singularly immune to moral appeal”. He nevertheless fails her by the rejected criterion of stirring words even while understanding the inefficacy of a more outspken human rights criticism, which is to say, his critique of her is incoherent by his own ground for judgment.

What would Wieseltier have had her do: sound ringing phrases, detached from policy, which help no one and, therefore, gratuitously piss off the Chinese? Why: so he can feel righteous? Wieseltier might call this a cold liberal realism; I’d call it sensible restraint in the actuality of the circumstances.

Wieseltier says, mind you, he likes to overreach at home and abroad. But overreaching in one of its meanings is “To defeat (oneself) by going too far or by doing or trying to gain too much”. That definition feeds the conundrum. Obama’s administration cannot, save to imperil, possibly, American interests, afford to overreach, and cannot, therefore, accommodate what Wieseltier is for. Wieseltier needs to face the impasse between what his (self)righteousness demands and what the real world cannot provide to him. That impasse, the way things are even by his own concession, renders his plea for greater engagement hollow and, finally, self satisfyingly shrill, however nicely worded and clever it seems—that seems, perhaps, and rather, “… windy suspiration of forced breath”. (The previous administration, by the way, gave good lessons on overreaching’s consequences.)

Then Wieseltier presumes to remind us of “a few rudimentary notions about democratization and the cause of human rights” and winds up quite frothy on the issue.

Firstly, though, a glaring contradiction in Wieseltier’s reasoning: one the one hand democratization by Wieseltier's lights “…is an evolutionary enterprise, and takes time, and can be achieved only indigenously, by the people themselves”; on the other hand, though, America's in Iraq and Afghanistan was, incidental to its main aims, “a splendid attempt to establish democracies; and, more on the other hand, democratization is destabilizing “since it proposes to replace one political culture with another.” Here are hands never firmly to grasp each other.

After the contradiction comes the froth bubbling up from the unrealizable overreaching Wieseltier demands in his opening paragraph. If it is so, as I have argued, that a wise counsel of prudence informed what Hillary said and did not say in Beijing, then it is absurd for Wieseltier to get into a lather about the “scandal of her mildness”, and to declaim that that mildness brought to the people of China, and Burma too, only “a cup of despair”. What cupful were they expecting from yet another American dignitary coming to China: the weak tea of stirring words not to be backed up by policy; the o’erbrimming waves of stridency which simply would have spilled over and back onto America? What basis does Wieseltier have for presuming Hillary on her trip demoralized anyone?

America will do nothing in, or about, Darfur. What does anyone expect it to do about China, it having been stipulated that empty gestures are useless at a minimum, and, likely, worse than useless. But Wieseltier is getting off on getting his high dudgeon on. The fact of the matter is that the “wretched of the earth”, Franz Fanon’s phrase, are going to stay wretched for some time to come, with nothing but some slow and prudent and incremental help from America from time to time. As I say, all of this makes Wieseltier’s high sounding plea and high sounding demand as empty as they are high sounding.

And then this: “But sooner or later we will hit the limit of what conscience can bear. There are only so many tyrants and terrorists we can engage before we stain our principles, before the politesse becomes repulsive.” To this I repeat one word: Darfur.

More of the conundrum: Wieseltier lauds the need to speak to Iran: “There are urgencies, such as the inexorable uranium of Iran, that will not allow us to leave any means untried.” But the human rights abuses in Iran are comparable to the human rights abuses in China. America needs to speak to China about many things including perhaps help with Iran, let alone speak with Iran. On what principle ought America be more outspoken against China than Iran, not to mention any number of other unlovely regimes? The outspokenness will surely hamper the speaking; and the conundrum continues through the piece.

Next to finally, noting nature’s savagery, failing to note that goodness is not unnatural, and quoting a snippet from Mill help not at all in the rescue of what is a high soundng demand for international engagement of a certain kind that everywhere implodes for amongst the reasons above set out.

Finally, I know nothing about Wieseltier's personal committments and engagements. But if he is not, given this piece, involved in some human rights work, in some human rights organization, that kind of thing, to some degree, then this piece, so full of foaming rectitude, and that personal uninvolvement in my book would mark him an odious hypocrite, who does not walk as he talks

Oh Really?

South African President Jacob Zuma, who has married five times and currently has three wives, arrived in Toronto (on 6, 24, 2010) with his daughter Phumzile.

The Metaphysics of the List

The Logistical Sublime

Peter N. Miller June 25, 2010 | 12:00 am TNR

“Please direct your attention to the front of the cabin where the flight attendants are demonstrating safety procedures ... in the event of a water landing ... doors to manual, and cross-check.” And inside the cockpit, away from our benumbed ears, the pilot and copilot go through a series of additional checklists before pushing back from the gate, before starting the engines, before beginning the takeoff roll.

The story of where these aviation checklists came from is something that interested Atul Gawande. As a surgeon interested in his—and his profession’s—ability to heal and to do no harm, Gawande became fascinated with the steps taken by other complex professions to reduce myriad possible dangers via list-making. One of the problems faced by the surgeon is the need to deal with so many possible outcomes, all of which unfold very quickly and with serious long-lasting consequences. Some of the stories he tells of the “saves,” as well as the losses, bear directly on this plotting of complexity against time.

Gawande is too smart to believe that a checklist can reduce that complexity. Instead, in telling example after telling example, he shows how lists can eliminate the stupid errors that are made not because things are complex, but because while focusing on the complex things we fallible humans often screw up the obvious ones: not sterilizing a medical instrument, not knowing a patient’s history, leaving instruments where they do not belong—all the terribly familiar nightmares. What the list does so effectively is to routinize certain processes so as to free up what power of concentration finite humans can muster to deal with the multiplicity of possible unfolding medical realities.

Gawande, the man of action, is all about how the list can reduce the infinitude of possibility to the possibility of finitude. Umberto Eco’s new book is about the way in which the finitude of a list can remind us of the possibility of infinitude. Of the two approaches, the former may save lives, and may be addressed in a concise, accessible format—it’s about finitude, after all—whereas the latter can only make life richer, without ever being possibly encompassed, and certainly not between covers. Gawande’s philosophy of the list already seems to have won over the World Health Organization to global surgical checklists. But a phenomenology of the list? Only Eco would try this. And yet both agree, in their different ways, that the list is a point of contact between the human and the infinite.

Gawande and Eco understand that “there are more things in heaven and earth ... than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” But where Gawande’s response to that limit is to call a meeting—he presents this in terms of mandated communications between co-workers—Eco would send us to the museum. (This book was written to accompany an exhibition that he curated at the Louvre last winter.) There are, Eco tells us, two basic ways that artists have tried to make sense of the infinitude of the world. The first is to try and capture its essence; the second is to list as many parts of that whole as possible. Gawande’s checklist almost fits the second category, but not quite.

Eco’s argument is inspired by two passages from Homer’s Iliad. In his description of the shield of Achilles, Homer creates, according to Eco, the perfect form. On this shield, Hephaestus managed to depict the earth and the heavenly bodies, and on the earth two cities full of people going about their all-too-human existence. It is complete in itself. Homer could create such a form because he knew this world. But there are many instances, Eco observes, where “we cannot provide a definition by essence and so, to be able to talk about it, to make it comprehensible or in some way perceivable, we list its properties.”

This, he explains, is what Homer did when wishing to convey the scale of the Greek expeditionary force. Lacking words, he decided instead to list; and finding the list of individuals impossibly large, he instead listed the captains of the army and their ships. This, too, proved an enormous undertaking—Homer devotes 350 verses to this catalogue—and so conveys to readers the size of the Greek force at Troy. And it is the very limitation of the list, compared to the form, which points us toward the infinite. The catalogue is meant to remind us of what cannot be grasped; the checklist, of what can be grasped.

If Homer presented Eco with the aesthetic alternatives, Kant seems to have provided him with his analytical framework. Kant argues that there are two ways of experiencing infinity. The encounter that can so overwhelm our senses and imagination as to leave us with a feeling of the infinite may nevertheless be rendered aesthetically by the description of a single star, person, or flower. But that same feeling of infinity may also be represented by something approximating the felt infinity: the starry sky by many, many, many stars. Even “a partial list of all the stars in the universe in some way wishes to make us think of this objective infinity,” Eco writes. This is the analytical core of his project.

And yet, as stunning as this claim may be, one has a slightly unsettled feeling about all this. First, though ostensibly linked to an art exhibition, Eco’s argument is born from texts and articulated by way of textual examples. His images illustrate but they do not conceptualize, and they certainly do not argue. At a push, Eco’s entire argument could be presented without a single illustration. It did not have to be this way. One suspects, even after plowing through this book, that the “visual list” still has not met its proper theorist.

And since Eco is so invested in the infinity of some lists, he needs to separate them sharply from those others that he calls “practical,” which denote specific objects, such as the shopping list, the top ten restaurants, even the museum catalogue. His chief example of this type of list—it gave the name to his show at the Louvre—is Leporello’s famous catalogue of Don Giovanni’s conquests, with its refrain of “mille e tre,” or 1,003. (In fact, the number of the diabolical Don’s conquests is 2,065: 1,003 refers to the smitten women of Spain only.) Eco presents Leporello as a matter-of-fact empiricist—which is to say, he seems unaware that Mozart’s music tells another story, hinting at mockery and a hyperbole meant to evoke a reality beyond our imaginings, just as the very precision of the enumeration of battlefield casualties induces a sickening feeling of the bottomlessness of human suffering that more general terms such as “slaughter” or “massacre” do not convey.

Eco himself explains just how it is that a practical list can also be an infinite list, noting that “a restaurant menu is a practical list. But in a book on culinary matters, a list of the diverse menus of the most renowned restaurants would already acquire a poetic value.” Book lists, he offers, are equally ambivalent. They both record what is present and, in the hands of the right sort of bibliophile, are an invitation to wander in the wider Elysian fields of acquisitiveness and possession. Gawande’s checklists, whether “read-do” or “do-confirm,” would likely signal to Eco all the many things that could have been, or that had been. Infinity, Eco seems to suggest, is all between the ears.

As now, so too in the seventeenth century there was a serious side to list-making. For making a list requires paying extremely close attention to the world. Going in a direction different from Eco’s, we can see the listing function as a cipher for the direct encounter with the object-world. The Baroque was not only the great age of learned play, but also of the New Science and the self-conscious championing of observation. Lists follow from this. Francis Bacon was the prophet of close examination, and was a great list-maker. Not only did he propose new ways of studying nature, he drew up inventories of natural historical projects to be undertaken by others. The vogue for encyclopedias and research tools—librarians still call them “finding aids”—that also sprouted in the seventeenth century, such as Daniel Morhof’s Polyhistor (1688), transformed European learned culture into a series of lists: books to read, instruments to master, speeches to control, and so on. With this we come closer still to Gawande’s idea of the list as a means of managing uncertainty.

The age of the New Science was also, in Europe, the age of the city. Among the transformations wrought by commerce were the flow of population into cities and the development of cities into physically and psychically huge locales, bursting to the brim with possibilities of all sorts. When Mr. Spectator spent twenty-four hours on the go in London on May 23, 1711, he was announcing to his thousands of readers—his authors, Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, reckoned on sixty thousand per issue—that London was the first city that did not sleep.

When Dickens begins Bleak House, a century later, with his primeval catalogue of a London shrouded in fog and drowned in mud, we are already in the idiom to be forged by Edgar Allan Poe in “The Man of the Crowd,” which in turn was so powerfully received and made French by Baudelaire. Paris—“the capital of the nineteenth century,” as Walter Benjamin called it—was the city of infinite possibility, and infinite despair. Walt Whitman looked at New York, the future capital of the twentieth century, and saw his infinitude mirrored in its. The late modern city—Eco gives us Los Angeles-sprawls in all directions, with only connections, and neither center nor periphery. The image of the neuron is apposite, and suggests again the horizon of what we do not fully understand.

The infinite came to a forty-six-year-old woman in Flatbush in the last week of December 1695. She left four little children, and so her possessions were inventoried and evaluated to provide funds for their support. Almost all we know of this woman, who was named Margrieta van Varick, is in this list. A probate inventory is a kind of death mask, and bears the same relation to the living person. It is, in short, the opposite of Gawande’s sort of list. It is a list that is the residue of all possible activities, capturing all the finitude of a person, and almost none of the infinitude. On the other hand, like a death mask, the inventory relates a physiognomy which, even if it is cast at a single moment in time, is the sum total of the many individual moments that preceded it.

Eco does not talk about inventories, but they are the form of list that scholars have relied upon for the longest time. They are fantastically helpful in providing documentation about the way people lived. Art historians have used them to learn about artists—what objects they possessed, what books they owned. Social historians have used them to assess the buying power of consumers and the pricing power of producers. Where room-by-room inventories were the norm, their survival enables us to reconstruct interior spaces, and to deduce relationships between people and their things that generally go unspoken in texts.

Seeking to understand the “social life of goods” or to learn the “biographies of objects” has led scholars to push their questions into new places and to address them to new people. With Margrieta’s inventory one can map out her and her family’s movements across the Dutch diaspora from Amsterdam to Malacca and back, and then on to Flatbush. With it, one can help to establish the genealogy of her family. Since this particular inventory comes with an appendix that lists the debts owed her by seventy-five named residents of the six towns of late seventeenth-century western Long Island (a.k.a. Brooklyn), it also helps to identify particular people and the existence of a social network. And an inventory can serve, of course, as the basic building block for a curator trying to re-assemble the kind of objects that Margrieta possessed, if not the actual ones.

But inventories can also tell us something about how people feel. For unlike a shopping list, or a top-ten list, or even a museum catalogue, a person’s inventory brings us up very close to a person’s identity. Even at an enormous distance, and without any letters, diaries, or pictures, Margrieta’s inventory, with its heavy concentration of children’s clothes and toys, and its gifts specially chosen for each child and then carefully wrapped in a napkin for posterity’s voyage, tells us something about Margrieta as a mother that bridges the vast abyss of time. An inventory, appearances to the contrary, is an affective list. Almost all inventories are twinned with death, but this particular one, with its children’s artifacts, and the circumstances surrounding its existence, wrings one’s heart, all the legalese notwithstanding.

There is still one more fascinating thing about an inventory. The word is derived from the Latin verb invenire, “to come upon.” Inventories are lists of things that one comes upon. Probate inventories are what remain of us when our intentionality is no longer—unlike the lists that Eco treats, which are attempts to find infinity in the measure of man, such as Homer cataloging ships as a way of emphasizing an enormity beyond words; and unlike Gawande’s lists, which try to reduce that enormity to something measurable and manageable. They represent, therefore, a different kind of culture: not the triumphant spectacle of the human intervention in the natural world, but the pathos of the human on the uncertain threshold between the finite and the infinite. In this meeting of the living and the dead, the list is at its most powerful.

As the poet Peter Cole wrote, in a poem called “Things on Which I’ve Stumbled”:

thought’s disjecta membra—
a letter forgotten
(a recipe scribbled on its back)
a shopping list,
or bill once due,
living’s marginalia—
the rubble of what we’ve known was true.

And So Too Does Rich Lowry

June 25, 2010 12:00 A.M.// King Features

Obama Needs to Find His Inner W.
Now that Obama has picked Bush’s general, he should replicate Bush’s stalwart style.

To succeed in Afghanistan, we’ll need the support of the likes of Abdul Sattar Abu Risha. He was the daring tribal sheik in Anbar province whose pivot against al-Qaeda in the summer of 2006 began to turn the Iraq War.

He marshaled other tribal leaders in what grew into a nationwide anti-al-Qaeda movement. Sattar acted knowing that the Americans had his back. “Instead of telling [the Iraqis] that we would leave soon and they must assume responsibility for their own security,” Col. Sean MacFarland, who worked with Sattar, has explained, “we told them that we would stay as long as necessary to defeat the terrorists.”

Sattar trusted Pres. George W. Bush and admired him “for sticking to his principles despite public opinion.” All of this is recounted in the new book on the Anbar revolt, A Chance in Hell, by Jim Michaels. As Mark Moyar writes in a review in the Wall Street Journal, it was only by winning the confidence of elites like Sattar — who was killed in September 2007 — that we had a chance to win over the Iraqi population.

What would Sattar have made of Pres. Barack Obama, who has set a deadline of July 2011 for the beginning of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and of Vice President Joe Biden, who guaranteed in a Newsweek interview — “Bet. On. It.” — that there will be large numbers of troops leaving by then? We know what Afghan president Hamid Karzai thinks — that he’d better explore an accommodation with his enemies well before any helicopters leave the U.S. embassy rooftop.

Obama implicitly promised a departure from the bumptious ways of George W. Bush as commander-in-chief. Where Bush was stubborn, he’d be flexible; where Bush was unconditional, he’d be nuanced; where Bush went all in, he’d avoid overcommitting. But ambivalence doesn’t play well in a war zone, especially in a war of insurgency that’s partly a contest over staying power.

If Obama’s July 2011 deadline showcased his deliberative care as the honorary faculty chairman of national-security meetings, it played disastrously in Afghanistan. In sacking Rolling Stone subject Gen. Stanley McChrystal and replacing him with Gen. David Petraeus, Obama has a chance to hit “reset.” But only if he finds his inner cowboy.

There’s no way the Afghan equivalent of Sattar sitting somewhere on the outskirts of Kandahar can know Obama’s intentions when members of Obama’s council of war don’t know them. Biden says July 2011 marks the start of major withdrawals; secretary of defense Robert Gates disagrees. Who’s to say?

To put the severity of a hard July 2011 deadline in perspective, the last unit of the surge Obama ordered last December won’t arrive in Afghanistan until toward the end of the year. The deadline gives the fully surged forces all of six months to operate, in an environment Petraeus says is more difficult than Iraq.

Obama should redefine the deadline as the time frame for a review of the current strategy rather than its endpoint. If it’s not working, then he can reconsider. Until then, he should shut down the rancorous internal debate within his administration and maintain the same firm tone he struck in his excellent Rose Garden remarks upon McChrystal’s departure.

His left might not like it, but they won’t berate him as a “chicken hawk,” as they did with Bush, or flail his chosen commanding general as “General Betray Us,” as did during the Iraq surge.

Besides, his base isn’t his target audience. As President Bush always said, there were four key audiences during the Iraq War — the American public, the troops, our Iraq allies, and the enemy. “The enemy thinks that we are weak,” he said in a candid White House interview during a low point of the surge. “They’re sophisticated people, and they listen to the debate.”

That’s just as true of the enemy in Afghanistan. Now that Obama has picked Bush’s general, he should replicate his stalwart style.