Politics and Literature

T.S. Eliot Photo: Burns Library, Boston College

I’ve been busy teaching summer school at HBU and trying to get into shape for a bike ride across Iowa that I’m doing with my daughter next week, so I am a bit late in responding to Adam Bellow’s essay in The National Review in which he laments the lack of conservative fiction and calls on well-heeled donors to support the coming conservative “countercultural” revolution. You’ve probably already read it, but if not, here’s the key passage:

For years conservatives have favored the rational left brain at the expense of the right. With apologies to Russell Kirk, the conservative mind is unbalanced — hyper-developed in one respect, completely undeveloped in another. It’s time to correct this imbalance and take the culture war into the field of culture proper.

We need to invest in the conservative right brain. A well-developed feeder system exists to identify and promote mainstream fiction writers, including MFA programs, residencies and fellowships, writers’ colonies, grants and prizes, little magazines, small presses, and a network of established writers and critics. Nothing like that exists on the right.

This is a major oversight that must be urgently addressed. We need our own writing programs, fellowships, prizes, and so forth. We need to build a feeder system so that the cream can rise to the top, and also to make an end run around the gatekeepers of the liberal establishment.

Bellow makes some good observations. Generally speaking, conservatives have ignored the arts and popular culture over the past fifty years or so. Those in positions of power in America’s publishing houses, museums, arts centers, university MFA programs, and so forth, are overwhelming liberal. Politics is “downstream” from culture. And I’m mostly for conservatives with cash funding prizes, small presses, and so forth, so that “the cream can rise to the top,” as Bellow puts it.

It’s the overemphasis on the political value of supporting popular culture and the arts that sticks in my craw.

The general gist of Bellow’s piece, despite his remark that he is against “cause fiction,” is that conservatives should fund these things because liberals have a monopoly on culture and because popular culture and the arts are more effective at changing people’s values than straight argument.

Calling on conservatives to write fiction in order to regain power by shaping the moral imagination, as Bellow seems to claim, would, in my view, repeat the errors of the later avant-garde and progressives who came to view art as a weapon in class struggle. This attitude toward art always leads to art becoming a mere tool, a mere means to an end, rather than an end in itself. Bellow tries to distinguish between the “the original counterculture” and a counterculture that “was hijacked and turned into a vehicle for progressive politics,” but I don’t buy this.

The problem with Bellow’s approach, as Rod remarked two weeks ago, is that it would most likely lead to ideologically “pure” but bad work:

[…] art and culture should not be approached from an instrumental point of view. This is why, for example, so much contemporary Christian filmmaking is so bad: it’s designed to culminate in an altar call. It’s about sending a message, not telling a story. I’m personally aware of a conservative donor and investor who poured millions into an independent film because he thought it was wholesome, and would improve the character of its viewers. I watched the movie in a private screening, and it was terrible. A total waste of money.

Adam Kirsch makes a similar point over at Tablet and argues that Bellow’s narrow definition of conservatism causes him to miss a number of conservative novels that don’t fit his “brew of populism, racial grievance, wounded male pride, and generalized nostalgia”:

 Genuine conservatism is something much broader and deeper than a political orientation; it is a temperament, one that looks to the past with reverence and the future with trepidation, and which believes that human nature is not easily changed or improved. Defined in this way, conservatism is in fact a major strain in contemporary American literature. David Foster Wallace, the leading novelist of his generation, was a champion of earnestness, reverence, self-discipline, and work—never more so than in his last, unfinished novel, The Pale King, whose heroes are hard-working accountants. Dave Eggers made his name with a memoir about raising his younger brother after his parents died, a hip but deeply earnest hymn to family values. Zadie Smith excels at the conservatism of comedy, which resolves differences in laughter and exposes human follies with an indulgent understanding.

In Jewish American literature, too, the conservative temperament has always been central, as Jewish writers struggle to remain attached to the past even as they negotiate their place in the future. Bernard Malamud’s The Assistant more or less explicitly identifies Jewishness with the values of honesty, hard work, and family loyalty, and dramatizes a willful young man’s submission to those values. Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, one of the most celebrated and decorated books of the last 20 years, is also one of the most explicitly conservative; it is a long shudder of horror at the radicalism of the 1960s, and it is filled with hymns to the small businessman that any Republican could love. And of course Adam Bellow’s father, Saul, wrote one of the first and most powerful anti-Sixties novels in Mr. Sammler’s Planet, inveighing against the sexual and racial liberations of that decade, which he contrasted with the old-world moral earnestness of the Jewish Artur Sammler.

For Kirsch, Bellow fails to see that literature is “broader, deeper, and truer than political convictions…that politics must be corrected by literature, and not vice versa. If most writers are liberal, perhaps it’s because they instinctively understand this principle.”

How Kirsch divined that Bellow’s conservatism is motivated by “wounded male pride,” apparently based on Bellow’s opening anecdote alone, is beyond me, but Kirsch is right that conservatism is much more than patriotism or a defense of individual freedom, even if he also overestimates how many “conservative” works of fiction are published today (only two of the novelists he cites are actively writing; Wallace, Malamud, and Bellow are dead, of course), and even if has a rather rose-colored view of the commitment of liberal writers to art above politics. (No doubt a number of liberal writers are committed to literature first and politics second, but not all. In fact, a number who view/have viewed literature as a form of political activism are regularly published, given prizes, and generally taken seriously (though, let me add, not by Kirsch to my knowledge.) Susan Sontag’s tangled fiction won her a National Book Award, and June Jordan’s hate-filled prose-poetry did not prevent her from keeping a distinguished lectureship at Berkeley and earning a PEN award. There are also the occasional politically informed stories of Joyce Carol Oates and formal experiments of Charles Bernstein, among many others.)

I’d like to see more conservatives write good fiction and poetry, not in order to win the culture war, but in order to have better fiction and poetry. There are number of conservative positions that are true and that are often ignored in fiction and poetry today. In Rod’s article last year on conservatives and storytelling, I noted one of these: The belief that evil is rooted in individuals and not in the structures of society (the church, schools, property ownership). But let me suggest a few others, culled from various thinkers (Burke, Eliot, Kirk):

-A high view of craft—that is, a combination of clarity and complexity of style that shows a knowledge and appreciation of past masters without merely repeating their successes.

-A belief in the inescapability of hierarchy (in the work of art and in society) and the importance of religion and family in informing our roles in society (as opposed to mere “power relations”).

-A belief that we are more than matter and that there is some higher, immaterial force at work in the universe.

Conservatives, of course, don’t have a monopoly on these beliefs, and not all conservatives would ascribe to them, but these are things that most conservatives over the years have supported in one way or another.

What conservatives with cash need to do is support writers, critics, literary magazines and organizations that share these values, whatever their individual political affiliation (though if they also happen to be conservative, great), as a way of reinvigorating literature, not conservatism, and whatever follows from that, follows.

After all, conservatives are supposed to be committed to certain things because they are true or good, and not simply because they are useful.

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Vernon Scannell: Boxer, Bigamist, Poet

Over at The Weekly Standard, I review a biography of the British poet Vernon Scannell–a boxer, bigamist, deserter, a man with a soft spot for children and the down-and-out, and an accomplished poet

The seeming incongruity of Vernon Scannell’s life and personality makes him one of the most intriguing figures of contemporary literature. He was a man of immense sensitivity who identified with the weak, the broken, and the cowardly of the world but, when drunk, was a terrible wife beater. He loved children and despised violence but fought in the Second World War and had a lifelong passion for boxing. He was one of the most talented poets of his generation, but he often felt out of place in literary circles and regularly doubted his talent.

He was a blue-collar poet, though this does not do justice to the range of his work, which deals with love, war, sports, childhood, and, most of all, failure—often with self-effacing humor. When he was in jail in 1974 for drunk driving, his daughter Nancy wrote to ask him what a jailbird was. Scannell wrote:

His plumage is dun,

His appetite indiscriminate.

He has no mate.

His nest is built of brick and steel;

He sings at night

A long song, sad and silent.

He cannot fly.

Read the rest if you’re so inclined.

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Religiosity and Art

Over at The Guardian, novelist Sarah Perry (After Me Comes the Flood) reflects on growing up in a Strict Baptist home in which there was no modern culture but a wide selection of classic literature:

Though we by no means resembled an Amish cult, there was an almost complete absence of contemporary culture in the house. God’s people were to be “In the world, but not of the world”, and the difference between those two little prepositions banished television and pop music, school discos and Smash Hits, cinema and nail polish, and so many other cultural signifiers I feel no nostalgia for the 80s and 90s: they had nothing to do with me.

Aside from the odd humiliation at school (asked which film star I fancied most, I remembered seeing Where Eagles Dare at an uncle’s house and said, “Clint Eastwood”) I don’t remember feeling deprived. Because beside the Pre-Raphaelite prints that were my celebrity posters, and the Debussy that was my Oasis, there were books – such books, and in such quantities! Largely content to read what would please my parents, I turned my back on modernity and lost myself to Hardy and Dickens, Brontë and Austen, Shakespeare, Eliot and Bunyan.

I memorised Tennyson, and read Homer in prose and Dante in verse; I shed half my childhood tears at The Mill on the Floss. I slept with Sherlock Holmes beside my pillow, and lay behind the sofa reading Roget. It was as though publication a century before made a book suitable – never was I told I ought not to read this or that until I was older. To my teacher’s horror my father gave me Tess of the D’Urbervilles when I was still at primary school, and I was simply left to wander from Thornfield to Agincourt to the tent of sulking Achilles, making my own way.

* * *

There were ancient books too, all gilded spines and Gothic script: a ghoulish child, I loved the woodcuts in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, and could tell you now precisely how Cranmer was tortured, and how his bones cracked in the flames.

Above all – committed to memory, read aloud at mealtimes and prettily framed on the dining-room wall – was the King James Bible. It was as constant as the air, and felt just as necessary, and I think I know its cadences as well as my own voice.

Read the rest.

It’s a wonderful short reflection that goes against the accepted argument that “narrow” religious beliefs and practices always starve rather than nourish the intellect and artistic sensibilities. It’s also an encouraging reminder of the benefits of memorization and recitation.

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Is Rap Poetry?

The short answer is “no,” of course. To state the obvious, things can share certain attributes and not be the same sort of thing, and asking whether rap is poetry has always struck me as a useless question. Both rap and poetry use literary devices like assonance and alliteration. Both use words. Both are spoken. But rap is a musical-verbal art and poetry is a verbal-musical-typographical one. So why make the comparison?

Well, as David Caplan points out in his intriguing Rhyme’s Challenge: Hip Hop, Poetry, and Contemporary Rhyming Culture (Oxford, 2014), it can be a way of both elevating (or highlighting, depending on your view) rap’s artistry and defending poetry against its apparent decline.

John McWhorter provides an example of this over at The Daily Beast. In “Americans Have Never Loved Poetry More—But They Call It Rap,” McWhorter argues that rap is poetry because:

It rhymes, often even internally. Its authors work hard on the lyrics. The subject matter is certainly artistically heightened, occasioning long-standing debates over whether the depictions of violence and misogyny in some of it are sincere. And then, that “gangsta” style is just one, and less dominant than it once was. Rap, considered as a literature rather than its top-selling hits, addresses a wide-range of topics, even including science fiction. Rap is now decades old, having evolved over time and being increasingly curated by experts. In what sense is this not a “real” anything?

The only reason it is not considered “real” poetry, McWhorter argues, channeling his inner Derrida, is that Western culture has long valued written language over speech:

The only reason rap may seem to nevertheless not be “real” poetry is a skewed take on language typical of modern, literate societies: that spoken language is merely a sloppy version of written language. “English,” under this analysis, is what’s on a page, with punctuation and fonts and whoms and such. Speech is “just talking.”

Also, rap is often profane and can seem less serious.

David Caplan’s study focuses on detailing the literary elements of hip hop and rap, which is different from claiming that rap is poetry. I don’t want to review the book here, but Caplan does make a similar point to McWhorter in his introduction. Too often, Caplan writes, “critics treat the term ‘poetry’ as if it retains a stable definition across cultures, times periods, and genres. The history of poetics, however, records much more contestation than consensus.” Caplan goes on to cite Wordsworth’s remark that poetry is the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” and discusses poets who have taken issue with this statement as proof that poetry’s definition is unstable.

But while what counts as poetry changes over time and differs across cultures, Caplan is too quick to suggest that poetry has no stable generic characteristics. One important one—and one that distinguishes it from both hip-hop and rap—is that the musicality and typography of poetry reside in the words themselves alone. In both formal and free verse, the musicality of a poem, whether it is created by end-rhymes, assonance, alliteration, repetition or other forms of internal rhyming, does not exist external to the poem.

In hop-hop and rap, while some musicians are more talented than others, and while rap lyrics do possess musicality (repetition, assonance, alliteration), that musicality is incomplete without the beat and notes of the sampled music. Caplan provides a number of examples of rap lyrics, and some are rather good, but even the best don’t stand on their own as pieces of great artistry for the simple reason that they were not written to do so. They were crafted to go with external rhythm and notes. So, it seems to me, the only sense in which rap is poetry is as incomplete poetry, which doesn’t do either rap or poetry any favors.

That said, it is interesting that poetry’s decline has taken place in a culture that is “rhyme-drenched,” as Caplan rightly notes. I am not a connoisseur of rap (I listen to little beyond standard white guy favorites—Rage against the Machine, Beastie Boys, Run DMC), but I have a number of friends who have a high view of rap’s artistry. Caplan, for one, makes a strong case that there is more to hip-hop in terms of artistry than is often granted, even if I think he oversells it. There is no such thing as high or low culture. There is interesting culture and boring culture. There are works of art that show great skill and those that don’t.

So by all means, defend hip-hop or rap or poetry, but let’s avoid defending them by association. Let the songs or poems speak for themselves.

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Michon’s Miniatures

Saint Columba of Iona, photo by Vegansoldier (Flickr), via Wikimedia Commons

I have been reading new English translations of Pierre Michon’s prose fiction works Winter Mythologies and Abbots, and I am struck, again, by his great talent.

Michon, as one interviewer put it, is “an odd bird.” Born in 1945 and raised by his mother when his father abandoned the family two years after his birth, he studied literature at the university in Clermont-Ferrand, wrote but abandoned a thesis on Antonin Artaud, travelled around France with a theatre group for three years, and then spent ten years working small jobs around the country—a short stint in a hotel in Paris, a period teaching French—before deciding to take up writing. He moved back to his home region near Orléans, rented out a small, bleak studio on the side of the road, and wrote what would become his first book, Small Lives, a series of portraits of eight obscure or unknown figures from Michon’s life in Limousin. It was published in 1984 and won the Prix France Culture that same year.

Michon’s prose is alternatingly expansive and constrained. In Small Lives, his sentences can be long and playful. Winter Mythologies, however, is imagistic. Portraits of the lives of ancient and medieval saints and pagans are distilled down to a few poetic paragraphs. There is Saint Columba of Iona who kills for a rare Psalter, a daughter of the king of Paris who contracts leprosy, or a French bailiff who wants to write with “God’s power.”

Michon almost never invents his characters or his plots. “To invent is to clone,” he claims. “Libraries are full of ectoplasms, and I prefer ghosts. I raise the real dead—those of the archives.” He is a poet who writes in prose; a fictioneer of non-fiction.

He is also, as it turns out, an atheist who is fascinated with faith.

One of Michon’s accomplishments is his ability to put his finger on the paradox of faith without disparaging belief in God or sharing it himself. His characters, faithful to varying degrees, are often convinced of the reality of God, but regularly allow their devotion to be saddled with a desire for wealth, pleasure, or glory.

In Abbots, for example, he retells the story of Èble in ancient Gaul, who serves his bother and king, Guillaume Towhead, for many years before retiring to a remote monastery. His two besetting sins are “glory and female flesh,” and while away from court Èble finds a way to satisfying both of these. He transforms a bog next to the monastery into a field for the first—bringing order to “the Chaos and the Void”—and stealing brief moments with the wife of one of the local fishermen for the second. When Èble discovers that one of the other priests is also sleeping with the fisherman’s wife, he arranges for him to die in accident.

A less gifted writer might make Èble into a symbol of the Church’s hypocrisy. After all, he is a man who professes faith, and does indeed believe it, but who does not live according to its precepts.

But not Michon. Instead, Èble is an everyman. He shares our inescapable desire to devote ourselves to greater than ourselves and our intractable selfishness that always leaves us wanting more. After Èble has finished work on the bog, he goes to confession, not to repent of his sin, but to share his disappointment:

Èble remains silent for a long time, then he suddenly asks Hugues what glory is. He asks if it’s power. If it’s a name that echoes for centuries in the memory of men. If it’s for God alone, brilliant and brief, like the blue lighting bolt in the hut, or interminable and lost in the air, like reading, or like signing. If it’s fixed like the stars, or wayward like the sparks. If it’s pure. He asks if it can be mixed—with matter, with ambition, with the body of a living man. He asks derisively if draining twenty acres of land taken from the Chaos and the Void is glory.

For Michon, we cannot rid ourselves of our religious sentiment—no one can, including him. In an interview, he talks about going to Easter Mass with his daughter one Sunday:

I went to Easter Mass one day, and I took my daughter. She asked me: “What are you laughing at, Daddy?” I was crying! I understood what I saw there, these were robes inherited from ancient Assyria, incense thuribles that came straight from Egypt, and it was wonderful to tell myself, in this little thing here, Corpus Christi. And yet, when I returned from the Easter Mass, I re-read Ecce Homo with the same assent, the same enthusiasm.

While not believing in God per se, Michon identifies God with the beauty of language or “the Other.” “If I happen to encounter something that resembles a God, it is in those moments when I write.”

It’s an odd decision to accept the inescapability of belief in something like God, to even identify God with language (the Gospel of John refers to God as “Logos”), but refuse to believe in God because of Nietzsche.

It is also one that occasionally allows Michon, for all his nuances, to minimize evil itself. If Sylvain Maréchal is right that the person who “believes in God is obliged to believe in the devil,” then the atheist cannot, in good faith, believe in evil. The most he can believe in is pain, and Michon at times struggles with this limitation, which can move his stories towards the merely therapeutic. For example, Èble, the adulterous murderer, is welcomed into the afterlife by the welcoming image of his illegitimate daughter shortly after he dies in “the glory of the chant for the dying.” Everything, Michon seems to suggest, will be O.K.

Still, there are few contemporary writers of prose fiction that I’d rather read than Michon, and these new Yale translations are a pleasure.

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“Lost” Ayn Rand Novel To Be Published

According to Yahoo, Ayn Rand’s “lost” novel Ideal, which she wrote in 1934 (two years before We the Living), will be published in 2015 by Penguin Random House:

The Ayn Rand Institute is excited to announce the new publication of a lost Ayn Rand novel. Ayn Rand’s work Ideal, written in 1934, is scheduled for release by Penguin Random House in July of 2015 and will be paired with Rand’s play of the same name into a single volume. The introduction will be written by Rand’s designated heir, Leonard Peikoff.

“We are delighted to share this wonderful news,” said ARI executive director Yaron Brook. “How often does one get to announce the new publication of a novel by such an influential author eighty years after the book was written? It’s incredible to see that several decades after Rand’s death, her work and ideas are still fresh and alive in the culture.”

I’m not a fan of Ayn Rand, but her earlier work is generally better than her later, massive novels.  Her best piece of fiction is the novella, Anthem, which she published in 1938. So maybe Ideal won’t be so bad. Maybe it will be terrible. Let’s hope, at least, that it’s short.

HT: Jordan Bloom

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Two French Poets on God

Instead of single epigram for this weekend, here are a selection of maxims from the French atheist, philosopher, and poet Sylvain Maréchal (1750-1803) and a short poem from Victor Hugo (1802-1885).

Maxims in French Lines (In the style of Publilius Syrus’s Sententiae)
Sylvan Maréchal

A father, for his son, is the first of the Gods.
Un père, pour son fils, est le premier des Dieux.

The man who believes in God is no longer free.
L’homme, qui croit en Dieu, n’est plus indépendant

Love Virtue: the rest is arbitrary
Adore la Virtu: le reste est arbitraire

Whoever has a friend can get by without a God
Qui possède un ami, peut se passer d’un Dieu.

If at least we could have Gods without priests!
Si nous pouvions au moins avoir des Dieux sans prêtres!

It is far less risky to doubt than to believe.
On risque beaucoup moins de douter que de croire


Written at the Base of a Crucifix
Victor Hugo

You who cry, come to this God, because he cries.
You who suffer, come to him, because he heals.
You who tremble, come to him, because he smiles.
You who pass, come to him, because he remains.

Vous qui pleurez, venez à ce Dieu, car il pleure.
Vous qui souffrez, venez à lui, car il guérit.
Vous qui tremblez, venez à lui, car il sourit.
Vous qui passez, venez à lui, car il demeure.

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The Turing Test Gimmick

The Verge reports that a chatbot called Eugene Goostman has passed the Turing Test. Hosted by Reading University at the Royal Society in London, the “Turing Test 2014” asked 30 people to participate in five parallel conversations by text (one with a human, one with a computer program or chatbot) for five minutes each and judge whether they were communicating with a human or not. A third of the judges identified Goostman as a human, and so it is said to have passed the test.

For those unfamiliar with the Turing Test, in 1950, Alan Turing suggested that one way to answer the question of whether machines might be able to think is to test their ability to imitate human language. He called this the “imitation game”:

The new form of the problem can be described in terms of a game which we call the “imitation game.” It is played with three people, a man (A), a woman (B), and an interrogator (C) who may be of either sex. The interrogator stays in a room apart front the other two. The object of the game for the interrogator is to determine which of the other two is the man and which is the woman. He knows them by labels X and Y, and at the end of the game he says either “X is A and Y is B” or “X is B and Y is A”… We now ask the question, “What will happen when a machine takes the part of A in this game?” Will the interrogator decide wrongly as often when the game is played like this as he does when the game is played between a man and a woman? These questions replace our original, “Can machines think?”

Turing predicted that in 50 years a person would have a 70% chance of accurately guessing whether he was speaking with a person or a machine:

I believe that in about fifty years’ time it will be possible, to programme computers…to make them play the imitation game so well that an average interrogator will not have more than 70 per cent chance of making the right identification after five minutes of questioning. The original question, “Can machines think?” I believe to be too meaningless to deserve discussion. Nevertheless I believe that at the end of the century the use of words and general educated opinion will have altered so much that one will be able to speak of machines thinking without expecting to be contradicted.

So what’s the problem with Eugene Goostman’s pass?

Some have suggested that telling judges that Goostman was a 13-year-old boy from Ukraine made it easier for the program to pass. Odd responses would more likely be chalked up to the program’s supposed age, foreignness or limited English. Others have argued that Goostman was not a computer but a chatbot, that the 30% pass mark is dubious, and that the Turing Test held in London is not the same as Turing’s “imitation game.” After all, in Turing’s rules for the imitation game, he gave no time limit and suggested that passing it meant the interrogator would choose “wrongly as often when the game is played” with a computer as when it is played “between a man and a woman.”

But the real problem is that the Turing Test is meaningless. It cannot test for intelligence or consciousness. It never has, and it never will.

In Turing’s original paper, he responds to a number of possible objections to his test—one by Geoffrey Jefferson. In a 1949 speech, Jefferson argued that a machine cannot be said to think until it “can write a sonnet or compose a concerto because of thoughts and emotions felt, and not by the chance fall of symbols.” Turing argues that for Jefferson the only way to know if a computer can think “is to be the machine and to feel oneself thinking.” It follows, then, that the only way to know if another person thinks is to be that very person. “I am sure,” Turing writes, “that Professor Jefferson does not wish to adopt the extreme and solipsist point of view.” In short, we judge intelligence or consciousness in humans or other beings using external signs. Jefferson’s objection is invalid, Turing claims, and his “imitation game” stands.

But this is a rather weak reading of Jefferson’s (possible) objection. Jefferson is not suggesting that the only way to know if a machine thinks is to be that machine. Rather he is suggesting that the only way to know if a machine thinks is to observe evidence of human understanding or feeling in a machine. Until a machine is able to produce some seemingly spontaneous text or piece of music that expresses some unprogrammed idea or feeling that, on further investigation, shows both an understanding of the words used and an awareness of the feelings felt, it cannot be said to think.

Here’s the deal: Turing’s “imitation game” does not test for either of these. It does not test for evidence of understanding. It does not test for evidence of feeling. How could it when there is no theory for how consciousness could develop from metal, plastic and electricity?

The “imitation game,” rather, simply tests whether computer programmers can fool other people into thinking a program is a human. It’s a game that has become a gimmick to get funding or wildly overhyped press releases.

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Bookman Summer Reading

Over at The University Bookman, a couple of folks associated with TAC offer some summer reading suggestions. Our editor, Daniel McCarthy, will be reading R.G. Collingwood’s “elegant, brilliant little book,” The Idea of Nature, among other things. Eve Tushnet will dive into Japanese fiction, and I’ll be reading Denis Donoghue’s Metaphor (and about which I’ll have more to say later).

There are lots of other interesting suggestions.  Gregory Wolfe will be reading William Giraldi’s novel Busy Monsters and Thomas Bertonneau has his sights on a couple of medieval sagas.

Read the rest.

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Thin Skin at The New York Times

Last week, The New York Times Book Review posted Michael Kinsley’s negative but smart and entertaining review of Glenn Greenwald’s Snowden book, No Place to Hide. The review has apparently thrown readers into a tizzy—enough for The Times public editor, Margaret Sullivan, to apologize for the review on Tuesday:

Book reviews are opinion pieces and — thanks to the principles of the First Amendment — Mr. Kinsley is certainly entitled to freely air his views. But there’s a lot about this piece that is unworthy of the Book Review’s high standards, the sneering tone about Mr. Greenwald, for example; he is called a “go-between” instead of a journalist and is described as a “self-righteous sourpuss.” (I’ve never met Mr. Greenwald, though I’ve written about his work, as Mr. Kinsley notes.)

But worse, Mr. Kinsley’s central argument ignores important tenets of American governance. There clearly is a special role for the press in America’s democracy; the Founders explicitly intended the press to be a crucial check on the power of the federal government, and the United States courts have consistently backed up that role. It’s wrong to deny that role, and editors should not have allowed such a denial to stand. Mr. Kinsley’s argument is particularly strange to see advanced in the paper that heroically published the Pentagon Papers, and many of the Snowden revelations as well. What if his views were taken to their logical conclusion? Picture Daniel Ellsberg and perhaps the Times reporter Neil Sheehan in jail; and think of all that Americans would still be in the dark about — from the C.I.A.’s black sites to the abuses of the Vietnam War to the conditions at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center to the widespread spying on ordinary Americans.

Yes, as Ms. Paul rightly noted to me, it’s true that a book review is not an editorial, and the two shouldn’t be confused. And she told me that she doesn’t believe that editing should ever change a reviewer’s point of view. But surely editing ought to point out gaping holes in an argument, remove ad hominem language and question unfair characterizations; that didn’t happen here.

A Times review ought to be a fair, accurate and well-argued consideration of the merits of a book. Mr. Kinsley’s piece didn’t meet that bar.

I’ve read the review, and agree with it or not, it is not “sneering,” it is not “inaccurate,” and it does not have “gaping holes” in its argument. The paragraph that readers complained about the most was one about the sticky problem of who decides what national secrets can be released to the public:

The question is who decides. It seems clear, at least to me, that the private companies that own newspapers, and their employees, should not have the final say over the release of government secrets, and a free pass to make them public with no legal consequences. In a democracy (which, pace Greenwald, we still are), that decision must ultimately be made by the government. No doubt the government will usually be overprotective of its secrets, and so the process of decision-making — whatever it turns out to be — should openly tilt in favor of publication with minimal delay. But ultimately you can’t square this circle. Someone gets to decide, and that someone cannot be Glenn Greenwald.

Here’s the context of that paragraph:

Throughout “No Place to Hide,” Greenwald quotes any person or publication taking his side in any argument. If an article or editorial in The Washington Post or The New York Times (which he says “takes direction from the U.S. government about what it should and shouldn’t publish”) endorses his view on some issue, he is sure to cite it as evidence that he is right. If Margaret Sullivan, the public editor (ombudsman, or reader representative) of The Times, agrees with him on some controversy, he is in heaven. He cites at length the results of a poll showing that more people are coming around to his notion that the government’s response to terrorism after 9/11 is more dangerous than the threat it is designed to meet.

Greenwald doesn’t seem to realize that every piece of evidence he musters demonstrating that people agree with him undermines his own argument that “the authorities” brook no dissent. No one is stopping people from criticizing the government or supporting Greenwald in any way. Nobody is preventing the nation’s leading newspaper from publishing a regular column in its own pages dissenting from company or government orthodoxy. If a majority of citizens now agree with Greenwald that dissent is being crushed in this country, and will say so openly to a stranger who rings their doorbell or their phone and says she’s a pollster, how can anyone say that dissent is being crushed? What kind of poor excuse for an authoritarian society are we building in which a Glenn Greenwald, proud enemy of conformity and government oppression, can freely promote this book in all media and sell thousands of copies at airport bookstores surrounded by Homeland Security officers?

Through all the bombast, Greenwald makes no serious effort to defend as a matter of law the leaking of official secrets to reporters. He merely asserts that “there are both formal and unwritten legal protections offered to journalists that are unavailable to anyone else. While it is considered generally legitimate for a journalist to publish government secrets, for example, that’s not the case for someone acting in any other capacity.”

* * *

The Snowden leaks were important — a legitimate scoop — and we might never have known about the N.S.A.’s lawbreaking if it hadn’t been for them. Most leaks from large bureaucracies are “good” leaks: no danger to national security, no harm to innocent people, information the public ought to have.

The trouble is this: Greenwald says that Snowden told him to “use your journalistic judgment to only publish those documents that the public should see and that can be revealed without harm to any innocent people.” Once again, this testimony proves the opposite of what Greenwald and Snowden seem to think. Snowden may be willing to trust Greenwald to make this judgment correctly — but are you? And even if you do trust Greenwald’s judgment, which on the evidence might be unwise, how can we be sure the next leaker will be so scrupulous?

If this enough for the public editor to publicly scold review editor, Pamela Paul, and apologize to The Times’s readers, The Times has thinner skin than the class of 2014.

Adam Kirsch, commenting on the review and subsequent fiasco at The New Republic, writes that Kinsley did not make any errors of fact, so Sullivan’s “correction” makes no sense: “[H]e expresses an opinion that the freedom of the press is not unlimited, that it must eventually yield to a democratic government, which after all has the legitimacy conferred by a hundred million voters. This is not an error, it is an argument, and the response to it cannot be a correction, but only another better argument, if there is one to be made.”

And instead of trying to quash Kinsley’s review in the guise of the newspaper’s supposedly “high standards,” The Times should thank Pamela Paul for featuring this debate in its pages:

What we have here, in other words, is an example of the very thing everyone complains is usually missing in public life: a substantive debate about important issues. It’s impossible to read Kinsley on Greenwald, and then Greenwald on Kinsley on Greenwald, without acknowledging that both of them have made serious and thought-provoking points. Kinsley is surely correct that the press cannot have unlimited freedom to publish any government secret. What would we say about a journalist who published American battle plans, or the location of nuclear weapons silos, or the identity of undercover agents? Just as Kinsley said, someone has to decide where to draw the curtain of secrecy, without worrying that any individual with an Internet connection can poke holes in it. Yet Greenwald is also convincing when he writes that, were we to leave such decisions entirely up to the government, we would be left in the dark about all kinds of wrongdoing that could not survive public exposure. Here is a genuine conflict of values, and the side one takes depends on one’s view of the dangers of anarchy versus the dangers of tyranny.

If there is one undeniable winner in this affair, it is The New York Times Book Review (to which, full disclosure, I am a regular contributor). Its editor, Pamela Paul, made a match of reviewer and subject that resulted not just in a witty and engaging review, but in a serious intellectual discussion, one that has taken fire beyond the pages of the Book Review itself and brought public attention to a significant issue. That’s just what book reviewing is supposed to do.

It is bizarre, then, that the Times’s own public editor, Margaret Sullivan, weighed in on Kinsley’s review as if it were some kind of journalistic malfeasance.

Not just bizarre, dumb.

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