Poem of the Day: ‘A Ritual to Read to Each Other’ by William Stafford

A Ritual to Read to Each Other

If you don't know the kind of person I am

and I don't know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dyke.

And as elephants parade holding each elephant's tail,
but if one wanders the circus won't find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider--
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give--yes or no, or maybe--
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.


Germany as Elegant Senior Residence for Forgotten Anglo Pop Stars, Part XVI

Remember Kim Wilde? I didn't think so.

But I do! Granted, it's not much of a memory, really nothing more than a hazy recollection of hearing one of her last pop hits on the FM radio of my Toyota Corolla in 1985. Since then, nobody in the English-speaking world has paid the slightest attention to Wilde. Allmusic devotes precisely one sentence to her later career: "Wilde continued to record in the '90s, scoring the occasional hit, either in the dance or adult contemporary field." You can almost hear the author filing his fingernails and yawning.

Needless to say, if the Anglo world has forgotten about a pop star, this is the cue for Germans — with their charming loyalty to faded relics of pop-music history — to step in and save the day. And lo, Wilde just played a concert in a large venue in Frankfurt, Germany, and the concert was actually reviewed in one of Germany's leading newspapers (g)! And Wilde was joined on stage by members of — wait for it — Kajagoogoo and Alphaville!

Luc Tuymans in Brussels

Luc Tuymans is a Belgian artist, born in 1958. He still paints, and paints figuratively. That is, there's usually some sort of a recognizable object or surface in his paintings, and — as a bonus — the titles often indicate what it is ("Droplets", "Flag"). Tuyman's colors are washed-out and the edges blurred; the paintings look as if they've been left in the sun, or run several times through an antiquated copier. The curated text suggests their resemblance to Polaroid pictures caught in various stages of development. Tuymans does, in fact, often work from photographs. Artificial light plays a role as well: an interior illuminated by blacklight, a tree trunk caught in the harsh glare of a security spotlight, or a diorama throwing shadows against a wall. Tuyman's bleached, suggestive paintings work best as commentaries on the act of representation, without giving in to the self-referential emptiness of 'postmodern' works.


The problem starts when Tuymans gets political. There are paintings here of buildings in Brazzaville in the Congo, of Patrice Lumumba, of King Baudouin I, of the exterior of a concentration camp, of National Socialist functionaries, an American white supremacist, and of Condoleeza Rice. They are apparently intended as oblique political statements on European history, on Belgium's colonial past, or on post-9/11 America. But they're nothing more than Tuymans-esque paintings. Here, for instance, is Tuyamns' painting of a photograph of Patrice Lumumba:




The image is supposed to be freighted with political meaning, but…how, exactly? There's no value added here, nor is there any mystery. Tuymans' genius is not fundamentally narrative, his best paintings don't try to structure reality or channel meaning. Applying a technique this grounded in ambiguity and visual paradox to subjects as fraught as the Holocaust or Belgian colonialism overfreights the technique badly, and invites charges of superficiality.


The real revelation of the show is in Tuymans' video works from the early 1980s, a period in which Tuymans lost the inspiration to paint and turned to video. He shot hundreds of hours of footage of everything from the exterior of cathedrals to security drills to television programs to the glasses and ashtrays on top of café tables to dolls propped up against various backgrounds and harshly lit from the front. Most of the takes are grainy, willfully cropped and framed, and sometimes out of focus. The overall effect is nothing short of mesmerizing: the blurring and cropping of the images invests the most mundane of subjects with some sort of droll, mysterious import. The irony is that the brief interludes of crisply-shot "narrative" are the most surrealistic. At one point, for example, a cutout of a man holding what appears to be a drumstick moves purposefully across the screen and hesitates before a panel of objects that appear to be crudely-drawn, oversized eyes, hesitating before several of them, perhaps trying to decide whether to hit them.


Overall, an intriguing show that's worth a visit. Oddly enough, given that Tuymans is Belgian, the show was exhibited four times in the U.S. and the stop in Brussels is its last. If you go, I would advise against reading the (well-written and well-translated) information placards that explain the "context" of the political paintings.

If You Ain’t a Doctor, You Ain’t S**t

Over at Obscene Desserts, my friend John Wood says what needs to be said about Guttenberg:

I just listened on the radio to Guttenberg's response, which was pretty pathetic, not least since he didn't really address any of the specific issues while also trying to play on public sympathies by highlighting that he had written the dissertation while also carrying out another job and being a family man.

Poor baby: it's not like many, many other people don't manage to do the same without resorting (allegedly) to plagiarism. (He has said, however, that he will 'temporarily' refrain from using his academic title.)

Plagiarism on this scale doesn't happen by accident, and is a very big deal among us academic types. It can and should ruin academic careers, and, in a properly-run universe, will severely damage Guttenberg's political career.

Guttenberg is just the latest in a depressingly long line of Germans who have done whatever it took to get (or claim) a doctoral title. German society, as everyone knows, places an absurd emphasis on formal titles. This is not so uncommon in Europe, a place in which people have been jockeying for position at court, in bureaucracies, or in the military for millennia. However, Germany takes it even farther. If you manage to acquire a doctoral title in any discipline, you are legally entitled to change your name to incorporate the "Dr." prefix, and you may also force people to address you that way. You'll get a job more easily, and you'll earn more money.

The desire to get a doctoral title has little or nothing to do with academia: the vast majority of doctoral titles are used to gain leverage in the ordinary working world, not to pursue academic careers. Needless to say, the lickspittle lust for doctoral titles is nowhere stronger than in the legal profession (g), that eternal redoubt of mindless status-worship. If you've got relatively good grades and strong career ambitions, therefore, you'll feel pressure to go on and get a doctoral title. The system in Germany is much more flexible than it is in the U.S. In the States, you'll generally have a committee of at least three professors evaluating your proposal, and they will provide intensive guidance while you write your Ph.D. Generally, you will be expected to remain on-site at the university and to work on your dissertation close to full-time for several years. Your interaction with your main supervisor will be intense and ongoing.

In Germany, by contrast, you have only one "Doktorvater", and that Doktorvater will have almost untrammeled discretion about how much supervision to give his or her charges. Some of them are very hands-on, some pay no attention at all, and some have been willing to sell titles for the right price or the right sex act (g). Only at the end of the process is another professor involved, he or she will be the "second reader" of the finished draft dissertation. The second reader can disagree with the Doktorvater about what grade the work should receive, but rarely does so.

There are cases of abuse, but the most common product of this highly lax system is mediocrity. A student spends a few years noodling around with a thesis idea at university, but then the grad-student sinecure runs out and the student has to take up regular work. Tempted by the delusion of "I'll finish it on evenings and weekends", the student continues worrying away, adding a page here or a paragraph there. Here, it's important to note that (1) very few German students have ever had experience with a full-time job before they graduate from college; and (2) tuition fees are minimal or non-existent in Germany.

The all-but-dissertation person (ABD) soon realizes that actually working all day doing something completely different from their doctoral dissertation makes sustained, meaningful work on it all-nigh impossible. However, ABD has already invested thousands of hours of time in it — how can they just let all that drift away into nothingness? Plus, since it doesn't cost anything to remain enrolled in the University in some fashion, there are no giant tuition bills lighting a fire under the ABD to get the damn thing done. Eventually, if they really keep at it, they will turn in something to their professor, and the professor will generally let the process come to an end, even if the dissertation is crap. The professor probably likes the ABD student, and also feels it would be a waste of so much human effort to let the matter drop without giving ABD the title she so desperately craves.

This is surely what happened to Guttenberg. In fact, he cited his competing time-commitments in his response to the plagiarism allegations. So, to a certain extent, his situation is the product of a system in which doctoral titles have, all too often, degenerated into mere career-enhancing status tokens. What I'd like to see is the Guttenberg case trigger some long-overdue reforms in German higher education. The "career-doctor" phenomenon is a waste of resources and an invitation to mediocrity.

When Will Guttenberg Go?

Apropos the plagiarizing defense minister zu Guttenberg, this seems like a good time to relay a rule of thumb from American politics which, I believe, was coined by Michael Kinsley (if I'm wrong, let me know): When a politician denies that he has any intention of resigning for the fourth consecutive time during the same scandal, his resignation is imminent.

I think Guttenberg's at two now…

State Pension Schemes are “Morally Irredeemable”

I often have a hard time explaining to Europeans that many mainstream American conservatives really, truly believe that government social welfare programs are harmful and should be either radically curtailed or completely dismantled. Europeans who haven't been to the U.S. simply refuse to believe that any sane person could seriously advocate this. Many continue to disbelieve this even after visiting the U.S. and meeting people who claim to favor completely abolishing welfare or Social Security (the U.S. state-administered government retirement scheme). 'Surely, they can't be serious', the Europeans mutter.

This holds even for Europeans who consider themselves conservatives. Mainstream European conservatism is driven by Tory, noblesse-oblige thinking that envisions a leading role for the state. Sure, conservative politicians may occasionally favor tinkering around the edges of social programs to adjust incentives, but none of them ever questions the assumption that the state has a primary role in providing for the economically vulnerable. Even the small-l liberal parties — the closest thing to American conservatism on the European political landscape — don't favor anything more than tinkering with existing arrangements.

The next time a European asks me for an example of an American anti-welfare thinking, I can now point them to a recent argument by libertarian Nick Gillespie, which sums up the thinking nicely:

How much, when, and in what form one should provide for retirement is highly individual–and is properly left to the individual's free judgment and action. Social Security deprives the young of this freedom, and thus makes them less able to plan for the future, less able to provide for their retirements, less able to buy homes, less able to enjoy their most vital years, less able to invest in themselves. And yet Social Security's advocates continue to push it as moral. Why?

The answer lies in the program's ideal of "universal coverage"–the idea that, as a recent New York Times editorial preached, "all old people must have the dignity of financial security"–regardless of how irresponsibly they have acted. On this premise, since some would not save adequately on their own, everyone must be forced into some sort of "guaranteed" collective plan–no matter how irrational. Observe that Social Security's wholesale harm to those who would use their income responsibly is justified in the name of those who would not. The rational and responsible are shackled and throttled for the sake of the irrational and irresponsible.

Those who wish to devote their wealth to saving the irresponsible from the consequences of their own actions should be free to do so through private charity, but to loot the savings of untold millions of innocent, responsible, hard-working young people in the name of such a goal is a monstrous injustice.

Social Security in any form is morally irredeemable. We should be debating, not how to save Social Security, but how to end it–how to phase it out so as to best protect both the rights of those who have paid into it, and those who are forced to pay for it today. This will be a painful task. But it will make possible a world in which Americans enjoy far greater freedom to secure their own futures.

Now, if you click through you'll see that Gillespie's views are being criticized and mocked in the blog post that reprints this argument. Dismantling Social Security is still an unpopular position in the U.S., and will never come to pass. Yet it's still part of the mainstream conservative discourse in the U.S., as is the notion that a proper conservative should believe in "starving the beast" of government to the point where it's possible to "drown it in the bathtub."