Tag Archives: Society

Sober Sons of Abraham

Hassan Quazwini, American Crescent:

A Muslim Cleric on the Power of His Faith, the Struggle Against Prejudice,

and

the Future of Islam and America

[Introductory note:  This is a comment I wrote originally in 2010; it has been revised extensively for this forum.]

I was attracted to “American Crescent” in part because its author, Hassan Quazwini, has made his career in Dearborn, Michigan, another suburb of Detroit just across town from the one where I grew up.  Dearborn today has one of the highest proportions of Arab-Americans in the United States (and is sometimes termed “Dearbornstan”).  Quazwini presently serves as Imam at Dearborn’s Islamic Center of America, the largest Muslim congregation in the United States.  His odyssey to Dearborn started in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, from which his Shiite father and family fled in the 1970s, first to Kuwait, then to Iran.  In 1992, Quazwini left for the United States, living in initially in the Los Angeles area before migrating to Dearborn. Quazwini responded positively to presidential candidate Governor George W. Bush’s appeal in the 2000 presidential elections for his support with a pivotal group in a pivotal state.  In 2003, Quazwini broke openly with President Bush over the latter’s decision to go to war with Iraq.

In “American Crescent,” Quazwini delivers an impassioned argument that Islam fits comfortably into America’s religious pluralism.  The question whether Islam and democracy are compatible is “no longer open,” he says (p.202).  Quazwini’s faith in the American dream appears from his book as strong as his Islamic faith:

Muslims embrace Americans’ generosity and add to it.  They value America’s commitment to education and come from all over the world to take part.  They accept that their neighbors won’t necessarily worship the same way they do, or at all, and they appreciate the American idea of pluralism.  If one were to draw a circle on a piece of paper representing Islam’s values and the boundaries of what it permits, that circle would fit easily within the larger circle of what the American legal system, and its cultural standards, permit.  However you wish to view Islam, nothing about it disserves the American way of life (p.202).

Quazwini spoke out strongly after the September 11th attacks, indicating that Muslims were “as appalled by the 9/11 attacks as any other Americans.”  Those who carried out these horrendous acts were quite simply “not Muslims” (p.132).

After terrorism, my greatest concerns about Islam are its treatment of women and homosexuals, and the anti-Semitism associated with wide swaths of Islamic thought.  Quazwimi addresses each of these fundamental human rights issues, but with a euphemistic, “we’re-all-sons-of-Abraham” gloss.  “Islam holds that men and women are absolutely equal, but that they have different talents and should focus their efforts accordingly” (p.59).  Islam’s position on homosexuality is “essentially the same as that of Judaism and Christianity,” acknowledging that in Middle East culture there is “strong disapproval of homosexuality” (p.246).  As to Judaism, Quazwini laments that “too few” Muslims will join him in his “utmost respect” for the Jewish faith, confessing to admire Jews for their ability to assimilate into mainstream America (p.153).

I’m viscerally drawn to a “we’re-all-sons-of-Abraham” approach.  I thus found Quazwani’s embrace of America and American religious pluralism highly endearing and a good rejoinder to the anti-Islamic currents circulating in parts of our country.  He presents a sound case that America’s religious pluralism is broad enough to embrace most forms of Islam.  Moreover, I found implicit support in “American Crescent” for my view that integration of Muslims into the American mainstream is significantly less complicated than parallel integration in Europe.

Yet, Quazwani’s tip toeing around Islamic views of women, homosexuals and Jews is a reminder that rooted deeply into Islamic thought are tenets which I hope would be rejected by all but the most marginal of America’s other religions.  America’s non-Muslim sons and daughters of Abraham should accord Islam the respect which one of the world’s great religious traditions merits.  But they need to do so soberly, without illusions.

Thomas H. Peebles

Rockville, Maryland

July 1, 2012

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Is Europe Burning?

[Introductory Note:  I have again spliced together two short commentaries which I wrote earlier: on Phillips in 2009 and on Caldwell in 2010.  I owe reading of both to my college friend Tom Fagan.  Tom pointed me to Phillips’ book, which I fortuitously found in a used bookshop for $2.  A little later, Tom sent me Caldwell’s book as a holiday present.  Two thought-provoking books for a total of $2.  That’s an excellent return on a modest investment.  Thanks, Tom]

 

Christopher Caldwell, Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: 

Immigration, Islam, and the West

and

Melanie Phillips, Londonistan

Europe’s fiscal and financial crisis undoubtedly constitutes its foremost contemporary challenge.  But the challenge of integrating ever-growing Muslim populations into its cultural mainstream is not far behind – and in many ways is linked to European economic woes.  These two books address Western Europe’s efforts to find a place for Islam.  Christopher Caldwell surveys approaches across Europe, while   Melanie Phillips focuses exclusively on Great Britain.

Caldwell’s title is an allusion to Edmund Burke’s 1790 “Reflections on the Revolution in France.”  Caldwell starts with a 1968 speech by British Tory parliamentarian Enoch Powell on April 20, 1968, two short weeks after Martin Luther King was killed in the United States.  In this speech, Powell decried rising immigration into Britain.  He forecast American-style urban ghettoes and said that watching immigration into his country was like “watching a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre” (p.5).  I was living in London at the time, and remember well Powell’s speech, which was the subject of much discussion with my British friends.  Although the term “politically correct” was not yet in use, it was very clear to me and my friends — all of us wise and worldly 20 somethings — that Powell’s ideas were most incorrect politically.  My recollection is that we almost unanimously compared Powell, an erudite classics scholar, to the retrograde Southern racists whom we assumed were responsible for King’s death.  Since that time, however, as Caldwell states, all British discussion of immigration may be reduced to whether Powell was right.

Caldwell traces how both Britain and continental European countries increased immigration in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s of the last century, without sufficient forethought of the consequences.  He outlines the differences between European countries, with varying rationale for opening borders and diverse approaches toward absorbing and welcoming immigrant populations.  Caldwell considers judiciously both sides of the arguments that Muslims can be integrated into these countries, but leaves no doubt that in his view such integration is a steep, uphill battle across Europe, not least because a certain part of the European Muslim population is “dedicated to Europe’s destruction by armed violence” (p.172).

Caldwell describes two models for immigrant assimilation, British and French.  Britain’s model is “multicultural,” holding that one may “keep one’s culture as long as one [obeys] the law of the land” (p.151).  Caldwell prefers the French model, which holds that immigrants “should become French in their cultural loyalties” (p. 151).  Despite – some would say because of — its multi-cultural model, Britain remains “by far, the European country with the most serious dangers of violence and political extremism” (p.301).  France’s republican traditions, by contrast, “give it the best chance of fully assimilating the children and grandchildren of immigrants.  It is the only country where a European equivalent of the American dream is likely,” Caldwell concludes (p.301).

Although Caldwell’s purpose is not to compare European and American approaches to immigration, he regards Hispanic immigration to the United States as an altogether different phenomenon from Muslim immigration to Europe — far more benign, far less threatening to our culture.  Latin American immigrants come with a European language, he says, which is “inevitably discarded for English by the second generation.”   Latinos’ “cultural peculiarities” are “generally antiquated versions of American ones” (p.12).  They have “less money, higher labor-force participation, more authoritarian family structures, lower divorce rates” than native white Americans.  Their culture, in its broad outlines “is like the American working class culture of forty years ago”  (p.12).

I would have liked more discussion in Caldwell’s book about non-Muslim immigration to Europe.  Are the prospects for integration of West Indians, sub-Saharan non-Muslim Africans, and Asians from India, Vietnam, Cambodia and China as bleak as those for Muslim immigrants?  It was immigrants from all these places, not simply Muslim countries, which prompted Powell’s 1968 remarks. But Caldwell’s critique of the effect of Muslim immigration on today’s Europe, while provocative, is well-reasoned and cogent.

In “Londonistan,” British journalist Melanie Phillips comes across as Enoch Powell on steroids.  She would surely agree with Caldwell that Great Britain today is “by far,” the country most vulnerable to Islamic violence and political extremism, and would not hesitate to attribute Britain’s vulnerability precisely to the multi-cultural model of assimilation which Caldwell describes.  Phillips starts with the July 2005 London bombings, which revealed a society initially in denial that these attacks had been carried out by home-grown Muslims, “suburban boys who had been educated at British schools and had degrees, jobs and comfortable families” (p.viii).  As denial faded, Phillips found Britain pitifully unable to confront the threat posed by the violent ideology she terms “Islamism”:  a “particular interpretation of authentic Islamic principles” (p.168) that is the “dominant contemporary political force within Islam. . .. an ideology that seeks to destroy Christianity and its values” (p.141).

In Phillips’ view, Britain’s ability to counter Islamism is undermined by a flabby and permissive social culture dominated by “secular nihilists” who disdain the country’s Judeo-Christian values.  Secular nihilists are infatuated with the “doctrine of multiculturalism,” and obsessed with the rights of victims and minorities.  Phillips contends that an unquestioning tolerance for non-Western cultures, militant feminism, exaltation of gay rights, and a judiciary which has supplemented the common law with more general human rights norms have, taken together, rendered Britain ineffectual in countering the grave threat to its existence growing in its midst.  Today’s Britain is “locked into such a spiral of decadence, self-loathing and sentimentality that it is incapable of seeing that it is setting itself up for cultural immolation,” (p.189), Phillips warns direly, echoing Powell’s 1968 clarion call.  Ironically, “self-styled progressives of the British left” have aligned themselves with Islamism – “which denies female equality and preaches death to gays” — to advance their common goal, “the destruction of Western society and its foundation values” (p.xxiii).

I agree with Phillips’ core message that tolerance is no virtue in dealing with violent Islamism and that the West needs to defend its democratic values unapologetically.  But she loses me when she radiates out from this core to suggest that secular Enlightenment values – secularism, equality, respect for minority rights – are incompatible with taking a strong stand against what she terms Islamism.  Phillips’ analysis seems at times to gravitate toward the comments of the late Reverend Jerry Falwell, who inanely attributed responsibility for the 9/11 attacks in the United States to “the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way–all of them who have tried to secularize America–I point the finger in their face and say ‘you helped this happen.”

Further, there is irony in Phillips railing against many of the manifestations of modernity in today’s Britain, when the most common prescription for bringing Islam out of the dark ages and into the 21st century is some form of Muslim Enlightenment – development of a secular sense and a more general spirit of free inquiry, with recognition of equality for women and homosexuals.  Phillips’ strong condemnation of the anti-Semitism which pervades much of the Muslim world is to be lauded.  But she is far less critical of the subordinate role of women in Islamic societies and I had to wonder whether this was because excessive feminism figures so prominently among the reasons she contends that Britain is incapable of countering Islamism.

Phillips recommends requiring a civil marriage certificate before an Imam could perform a marriage ceremony, thereby, she hopes, halting the drift toward parallel Sharia jurisdiction where polygamy is recognized; instituting tough controls on immigration “while Britain assimilates the people it has already got” (p.188); and teaching Muslims “what being a minority means” (p.189).  These measures may be reasonable but the likelihood that they will make any serious dent in Islamism seems at least as dubious as the outreach efforts to moderate Muslims which she belittles throughout her book.  Like everyone else struggling with the issue of assimilation of the Muslim population into Western European societies, Phillips falls short in specific solutions.  Finding such solutions ranks among the most pressing challenges facing contemporary Europe.

Thomas H. Peebles

Rockville, Maryland

June 5, 2012

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Filed under History, Politics, Religion

Elin McCoy, The Emperor of Wine: The Rise of Robert M. Parker, Jr., and the Reign of American Taste

[Note: This is another comment dating from 2006, written for the same group of high school friends who were the original audience for my review of John McWhorter’s book, posted below. I remember going through the book during my summer vacation back in 2006 in little more than a day, hiding from the rest of my family.]

Those who follow the American wine trade even minimally know that Robert Parker is today’s undisputed arbiter of quality in wines. Imagine that in the art or film world, a single critic will decide whether a painting has value or a film is worth seeing. That’s the role of Parker today. How he got there is the nub of Elin McCoy’s story, of which I knew nothing previously. I learned that Parker is a guy roughly my age, born in 1947, who grew up in rural Maryland. His family sounded much like mine, with rarely anything other than milk on the table. His college girl friend, who was to become his wife, spent her junior year in a university in France. Parker visited her and became entranced by the centrality of good food and good wine in French society, like many Americans in the ‘70s, (I am another). He also found that he had a sensitive palate and was able to see differences in wine that sail by most of us.

 McCoy tells the story of how Parker went from a lawyer writing a Baltimore-Washington area wine review in his spare time to the most powerful wine critic today, maybe ever. While in law school, he was very much drawn to Ralph Nader (the Nader of the ’70s, not the guy who helped Bush into the White House), and saw his wine newsletter as part of a Nader-like mission – perhaps the better analogy is to the magazine Consumer Reports. Parker was convinced that the public paid too much for wine. Many wineries were living on their reputation and overcharging shamelessly. Parker’s newsletter was designed to rectify this situation. It was a strictly no-nonsense wine review – no pictures, no advertising by wineries that might compromise the objectivity of his work, no fluffy life-style pieces. It carried a rating for each wine he reviewed, on a scale of 100 – an 89 was much better than an 86, but not as good as a 91 (like a lot of term papers we wrote in college). McCoy shows how Parker wore down the competition, to the point that he became the “only game in town.” His ratings carried the day with wine consumers, and so with the wine makers. As a vintner, getting a 95 from Parker meant the good times were about to roll; getting an 78, by contrast, meant you were in for a long winter.

Today, Parker’s books on wine, with their 100 point ratings, have been translated into a zillion languages, and have driven the price of quality wines through the roof – people will now pay $200-300 per bottle for a wine that Parker has rated 95 or up. “The Irony of Success” might have been a good subtitle for this book. The consumer watchdog who wanted to make sure the little guy didn’t get burned when he shelled out for a good bottle of wine has driven the price of wine way beyond what we little guys can reasonably afford.

The sub-themes in this book are as fascinating as those involving wine: the herd mentality that often pervades the market for luxury goods; the American tendency to want to reduce everything, from cheese cakes to colleges to college term papers, to an “objective” point scale; the awakening of Americans in the ‘70s and ‘80s to the virtues and pleasures of quality cuisine (very much a baby boomer phenomenon, according to McCoy, as the boomers grew out of their more spartan ‘60s pleasures); the rise of the California wine industry, also in the ‘70s and ‘80s; and, because Parker’s favorite wine area is Bordeaux, insights into differences between French and American business ways and how a hard-charging American can win friends and influence people in the very different French culture and society.

McCoy is a former food critic for Food and Wine. She has written a scrupulously objective study of a very polarizing figure, who has both fanatical followers and those who consider him to be a diabolic force. You don’t have to love wine to enjoy this book.

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The Matter of Dreyfus

Ruth Harris, “Dreyfus: Politics, Emotion, and the Scandal of the Century”

Frederic Brown, “For the Soul of France: Culture Wars in the Age of Dreyfus”

Louis Begley, “Why The Dreyfus Affair Matters”

I was surprised when two books on the Dreyfus affair, by Ruth Harris and Frederic Brown, came out within a short time of one another in 2010. This is a subject that I have wanted to understand better, so I decided to jump in and read both in 2011. When I ordered the Harris and Brown books on Amazon.com, through a “pop up” mechanism, Amazon kindly suggested that people who had purchased the two books might also be interested in reading Louis Begley’s “Why The Dreyfus Affair Matters.” I try to resist these pop ups but, after being severely tempted on many previous occasions, this time I succumbed. I really did want to learn why Dreyfus matters in the 21st century.

Although I read Harris’ book first, it would have made more sense to reverse the order. Brown emphasizes the background of the Affair. In the first 174 pages of his 265 page book, he treats the social, political and intellectual climate in which the Dreyfus Affair arose. At about the two-thirds mark, he begins to recount the story of a French cleaning lady emptying her wastebasket at the German Embassy in Paris in September 1894 and finding pieces of a torn-up, unsigned document containing low-level military secrets. This discovery set in motion the matter that would ensnare Alfred Dreyfus, a promising young Jewish Army officer from Alsace. In contrast, Harris starts with the cleaning lady in the German Embassy. The two books work well together, presenting a comprehensive and balanced view of the Affair.

Begley’s book, published a year earlier in 2009, covers succinctly the background and details of the Affair. Although eager to learn why someone versed in the Affair thinks that it might matter for us today, over a century later, I was disappointed by Begley’s book. I am skeptical of this genre (and learned that Begley’s book on Dreyfus is part of a Yale University Press series on why various people, places or things matter). Explaining why an historical figure or event matters appears to involve a search for the most pertinent contemporary analogy. Begley analogizes Dreyfus’ case to those of terrorist suspects held by the United States at Guantanamo Naval Base. He failed to convince me that this is the best analogy, and I found his argument jarring and out of place in his narrative.

The hard and cold facts of the Dreyfus Affair hide the polemical debate which it generated and the fissures in French society which it revealed. Shortly after finding that shredded document in the wastebasket in the German Embassy in September 1894, the cleaning lady, herself a spy for French intelligence, turned the shreds over to her superiors. They pieced it together, concluded that it was evidence of a spy for Germany within the French army, and quickly determined that Dreyfus was the culprit. Dreyfus was arrested for treason shortly thereafter, summarily convicted in a secret court martial, and stripped of his rank in front of a crowd screaming, “Death to Judas, death to the Jew.” Dreyfus was sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island in French Guiana in early 1895.

In 1896, a new chief of French intelligence, Lieutenant Colonel Picquart, found evidence that the real traitor was Major Ferdinand Esterhzy and that Dreyfus was innocent. Picquart was silenced by a military cover up. In 1899, after a passionate campaign by the “Dreyfusards,” led by Emile Zola and his famous J’Accuse, Dreyfus was pardoned and released from prison, then given a second trial in which he was again found guilty despite evidence strongly supporting his innocence. It was not until 1906 that a military commission officially exonerated Dreyfus.

Brown’s book is excellent in laying out the background to the affair. As his sub-title indicates, that background involves French cultural wars dating back to the French Revolution of the previous century, in which conservative institutions, particularly the Catholic Church and the military, considered themselves and the traditional France they represented to be under siege by a republican France, cosmopolitan, secular and fused with the values of the 18th century Enlightenment. In this climate, a virulent anti-Semitism flourished as the pervasive common denominator which drove the frenzy against Dreyfus.

In wide swaths of late 19th century French society, Jews were considered to be outsiders even when born on French soil, “created by God to serve as a spy wherever treason is afoot,” as one Catholic publication stated (Brown, p.216 n.*). Brown discusses a “fortress-France nationalism,” defending the country against the forces of modernity, especially the democratic and liberal Third French Republic — often termed a “Jewish, Masonic Republic” (Brown, p.208). But, Brown observes, “beneath the political agenda one observed a spiritual reaction against decadence by people who understood that defense of French interests to be that of a completed civilization at war with the new mobility of things and beings” (Brown, p.208, quoting historian Michel Winock).

Brown’s story begins in 1870 with Napoleon III’s abdication and the Franco-Prussian War, which ended with the humiliating loss of Alsace and parts of Lorraine, a loss many on the political right attributed to the Enlightenment and the forces of modernity. Among the immediate predicates to the Dreyfus Affair, the most critical in Brown’s view was that involving Georges Boulanger, a general in the French Army who, in 1889, led an unsuccessful movement of French conservatives threatening to take over the state and restore the monarchy. According to Prime Minister Léon Blum, who would become France’s first Jewish Prime Minister in 1936, one “cannot understand the Dreyfus Affair unless one remembers that it broke out less than eight years after a failed [Boulanger-led] revolution. The Boulangists sought revenge . . . and the discrediting of institutions and parties” (Brown, p.123).

Construction of the Eiffel Tower in 1889 was another factor fueling the French cultural wars. Conservatives regarded the tower as a sacrilege to traditional France, a sign that “mercantile fantasies” were in the ascendance and France was becoming “more American than America” (Brown, p.147). Lording over the French past and future, the tower was a “cosmopolite aspiring to universality, a potential instrument of treason. As such, it could only be the invention of ‘Israel’” (Brown, p.151). The Sacré Coeur basilica, which faces the Eiffel Tower from Paris’ highest perch in Montmarte, was constructed a few years later to serve as the counterpoint to the Tower: a “sanctuary for refugees from Babylon, a Parisian home for a devotion of specifically French origin, a monument embodying allegiance to the pope . . .” (Brown, p.35).

Harris dwells only in passing on the background to the Affair, concentrating on the moment Dreyfus was fingered as a traitor. She agrees with Brown and most other historians of the period that at one level, the Dreyfus debate was a “struggle over the legacy of the Enlightenment” (Harris, p.8). The Anti-Dreyfusards:

Rejected the universalism of the Rights of Man in favour of a conception of French identity that was based on language and race. They believed that a “true” French morality had to exclude Jews, Protestants and Freemasons in order to preserve a unique national community (Harris, p.8).

On the other side, the Dreyfusards “retained a belief in a universal moral code and trusted in rationality as a guide to ethical conduct. Correct judgments, they held, could be made only on the basis of evidence, and they maintained that Catholicism and anti-Semitism were roads back to a pre-Enlightenment obscurantism” (Harris, p. 8-9).

Harris excels in exposing the complexities underlying both sides, showing that the Affair was far more than a Manichean struggle between monolithic blocks. There was “neither a single, unified Catholic vision, nor a single, unified ‘secular’ response” (Harris, p. 373). Dreyfusards were Protestant, Catholic and Jewish, all trying to overcome backward elements within their own religions, but plagued by their own fears, animosities and inflexibilities. The more radical Dreyfusards, she contends, “abandoned much of their liberal humanitarianism and cemented their victory through an all-out assault on the Church, closing down congregations, expelling orders of priests and establishing an iron grip over the educational system” (Harris, p.9). They were “as emotionally vested in their ideology as the anti-Dreyfusards. . . They insisted that their opponents alone were guilty of muddled thinking and obscurantist tendencies. This belief was central to creating, and intensifying, the gulf between the two sides” (Harris, p. 168).

Harris closes with her own observations on why the Dreyfus affair might matter today. She cites the “widespread anxiety about how to integrate a large immigrant – and predominantly Islamic – minority” (Harris, p.385). Despite the very altered circumstances in twenty-first century France:

The debate resonates with the ferocity (and many of the same ideological oppositions) of the earlier [Dreyfus] period. Today right-wing nationalists keep company with some members of the left outraged by the incursion of religious symbolism into secular education. Where else in the Western world would the wearing of headscarves produce such ire and even national legislation . . .As much as in the early stages of the Dryefus Affair, the debate surrounding headscarves does not fit neatly into a tidy left/right divide. Even if, in time, the headscarf issue fades from view, Muslim resistance to the values of laïcité [secularism] means that many French citizens will continue to face the problem of living comfortably with multiple identities. This tension is one of the many aspects of French political culture that were strengthened, and, in some measure created, by the Dreyfus Affair (Harris, p.385).

Harris’ view of why Dreyfus might manner in the 21st century is more convincing than that of Louis Begley. About halfway through his first chapter, Begley jumps from a factual summation of the Affair to a 17 page digression on United States treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Naval Base, including discussions of some of the key Supreme Court decisions addressing the legality of maintenance of the base as a prison for detainees captured in the war on terror. Citing a poll taken around the time of Barack Obama’s election to the presidency in 2008 that showed that 44% of the respondents did not favor closing the prison, Begley concludes: “Just as the outset of the Dreyfus Affair the French found it easy to believe that Dreyfus must be a traitor because he was a Jew, many Americans had had no trouble believing that the detainees at Guatánomo – and those in CIA jails – were terrorists simply because they were Muslims” (p.43). Begley does not return to the Guatánomo theme in any meaningful sense until the final paragraph of his book.

Begley’s elevation of Guatánomo as the most pertinent contemporary analogy to Dreyfus strikes me as a stretch. In a recent Washington Post article, Karen Greenberg writes that Guatánomo is a “ready symbol of the country’s willingness to allow national security to trump the rule of law,” (Karen Greenberg, A World Without Gitmo,” Washington Post, January 15, 2012, B2), a view I accept. Dreyfus’ flagrant mistreatment within the French legal system was justified by some as necessary to defend the security of a civilization thought to be under siege, and in this sense there may be superficial similarities to the detainees at Guatánomo. But few of the detainees are United States citizens, whereas one of the core themes of the Dreyfus Affairis is the insider as outsider. Born French and a loyal and patriotic citizen serving in his country’s army, Dreyfus threatened traditional institutions because he was a Jew and in the eyes of many of his countrymen could never be French in the true sense of the term.

But the question why Dreyfus matters does not have to be a search for the most pertinent contemporary analogy. One could argue that the Affair matters because it is crucial to any understanding of late 19th and early 20th century French history. These three books contribute significantly to this understanding. My guess is that scholars would contend that Harris breaks the most new ground, providing an iconoclastic view of the Dreyfusards, with their own warts. Brown sets forth a richly detailed picture of the environment in which the Affair arose. Although his discussion of Guatánomo seems misplaced, Begley offers a solid summation of the Affair. That three English language books on the subject were published within a two-year period demonstrates that the matter of Dreyfus continues to matter.

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Filed under France, French History, History, Politics

John McWhorter, Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care

[Note: This is the earliest book review I could locate, written in 2006 for the benefit of a small group of dear high school friends. Most of us had a charismatic English teacher in 9th grade who was passionate about grammar and, amazingly, was able to impart that passion to some of his 14 and 15 year old students. McWhorter’s book was published in 2003.]

John McWhorter is a former professor at Berkeley, now at the Manhattan Institute in New York. I was attracted to his book because, as the quotation on the cover states, the book addresses “America’s ineloquent babble” and “[c]}elebrates the English language and bemoans our present incapacity to use it in an elegant formal or elevated way.” While I am as likely as the next guy to bemoan America’s ineloquent babble and inelegant usages of the language of Chaucer and Shakespeare, I was more than a little surprised to find 19 sentences of the following nature in the book:

“…[T]his person is indistinguishable in mental sophistication from the semi-literate Third World villager who derives all of their information about the world beyond via conversation and gossip. (p.xxiv)”

“. . .[T]he upshot is that the speaker’s immediate access to vocabulary did not, at least in that segment of their utterance, even succeed in conveying just what they meant at all. (p.11).

“. . .[I]magine eavesdropping on a drunken businessman complaining under gaslight about what happened to them on the commodities market in the Panic of 1893 (.27-28).”

“. . .[T]he semi-literate dropout rarely had the ability to write about their lives later on (p.152).”

“In fact, no classical musician would venture such a gaffe, because now they are on the cultural defensive (p.204).”

And my favorite: “An English professor before the 1960s would never cast their ideas in prose of this kind, now matter how complex or nuanced their ideas might be, because the public norms of American society placed a high value on graceful prose composition (p.244).”

I asked myself throughout whether I was wrong in concluding that each of these sentences is grammatically incorrect, with – and I probably have this terminology wrong; far too many years have passed since the 9th grade — a singular subject that doesn’t correspond to the plural predicate. Have the rules of grammar so changed that these constructions no longer violate accepted rules?

I often hear constructions like these in spoken language and see them regularly in government memos, hardly a recommended venue for grammar purists. But I had never seen quite so many in a published book, let alone one by a language specialist pleading for more elegance in and reverence for the English language. My view is that these constructions are driven by political correctness: “his” is offensive to those who find it unfairly excludes the female half of the human race; “his or her” is awkward; and “her” sounds artificial or forced (and excludes the other half of the race). There is an easy solution that works most of the time, making the subject plural, e.g. “semi-literate dropouts,” “English professors before the 1960s” etc. But I still wonder whether the rules of grammar have changed, and whether I need to chill out and accept the new rules.

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