Book Review: Shaping Our Nation

51kdnoPkZwL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Victor Davis Hanson’s review in National Review of Shaping Our Nation: How Surges of Migration Transformed America and Its Politics, by Michael Barone

Forming a People

In this brief but fascinating study of both immigration to the United States and mass migrations within it, Michael Barone traces the peopling of America, from the original British Protestants of the 17th century to the present influxes of millions of Mexican nationals and Asians.

The late-18th-century arrival of the Scots-Irish from war-torn northern Ireland, and their subsequent migration to Appalachia and farther westward through the Cumberland Gap, bifurcated the politics of so-called white Protestant America. The majority culture would soon become schizophrenic, as the old Puritan new England status quo was challenged by brasher, cockier, and soon-to-be-Jacksonian populists. Barone adroitly charts the early stages of America’s path toward the Civil War in a story of parallel migrations: new Englanders spread laterally into the northern Midwest, even as rich, slave-owning grandees opened up new bottomlands across the newly acquired southern United States from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi Valley. Both prospered— and they grew to loathe each other.

Why was the later Progressive movement often identified with Wisconsin, Minnesota, and the upper Midwest? It was likely owing to the statism and pacifism brought to the northern U.S. by millions of impoverished Germans and Scandinavians. They were determined to make government work for the poor in a way it had not done so in Europe. In contrast, an almost simultaneous and equally large influx of even poorer Irish Catholics relied on a different sort of Democratic patronage politics in the major cities of the eastern seaboard.

After the Civil War, impoverished southerners largely ignored the much more dynamic economies of the northern states that were the nexus of the growing Industrial Revolution. But foreigners— especially Italians, Eastern Europeans, and Jews—fleeing both poverty and political persecution, found Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, new York, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh oases of economic opportunity.

The mid 20th century was characterized by another two great internal migrations, originally fostered by World Wars I and II: the flight of blacks from the South to the north, and the trek of Midwesterners and the poor of the old border states to California and the southwestern U.S. Out west, agriculture, new industries, tourism, and recreation were creating wealth at a rate that outpaced that in all other areas of the nation.

Barone ends with a final pair of population movements. The present massive flight from “blue” states—California in particular—to no- or low-tax red states such as Nevada, Florida, Tennessee, and Texas has turned the conventional wisdom of seeking paradise on its head, as economic robustness for most Americans trumps natural beauty and idyllic climate.

The other massive movement of peoples is, of course, the huge influx of Latin Americans, and the nearly as large, but mostly legal and less controversial, arrival of more prosperous and educated Asians from China, South Korea, the Philippines, and Southeast Asia.

In the retelling of these often disruptive demographic changes, Barone’s calming purposes are twofold. First, he wishes to distill common themes across time and space: The arrival of large numbers of quite different peoples into new and often previously homogeneous enclaves has always caused initial cultural chaos. We need to recall only the draft riots in new York during the Civil War or white flight to the suburbs at the advent of African American migration from the South following the 1940s. The usual scenarios of conflict were predictable: stereotyping, if not overt ethnic and racial prejudices, answered by insular, tribal, and often shrill identity politics—the mix resulting in occasional violence.

Despite their claimed desire to maintain their own culture and language, most arrivals from abroad eventually were absorbed by the unstoppable forces of assimilation, integration, and intermarriage—a popular culture fueled by the official “melting pot” ideology of the U.S. government, a policy of making “one from many.” Unlike Europe, where class and birth were firmly entrenched, and unlike Africa, Asia, and South America, where citizenship was often assumed to be a reflection of racial uniformity, the U.S. almost immediately after its founding was redefined as a heterogeneous culture, in which relocation was often synonymous with economic opportunity and advancement to the middle class.

The net result of immigration usually proved positive. Immigrants enriched the peripheries of American culture— food, fashion, music, art, religion, and language—while accepting the core values of consensual government, market capitalism, and middle-class populism. The American population grew rapidly. Society was energized by the constant influx of an ambitious, if not desperate, new underclass. Host Americans were reminded that they could not simply coast on their native advantages. Millions of mostly less-well-off citizens reflected the ethos of self-reliance, hard work, and a meritocratic system, in which status was acquired more through material acquisition than through birth, class, or ethnicity.

Barone’s second theme, however, is more controversial, and it serves as a subtext of the entire book. The current debate over some 11 million illegal aliens, the vast majority of them Latinos, and in particular Mexican nationals, is addressed in terms of the prior analyses of past mass migrations. For Barone, the present apprehensions of contemporary Americans are not all that different from what our forefathers once feared from the influx of starving Irish Catholics fleeing the potato famine, or late-19thcentury inflows of Italians, most of them from impoverished Sicily, or the arrival of hordes of Eastern European and Russian Jews.

In all these cases, the original majority culture of the U.S.—Northern European and mostly British, Protestant rather than Catholic, and English-speaking—fretted that the nation of the founding fathers would be lost to a new mob of polyglot, multiethnic, and often politically subversive Europeans.

Barone notes that in all the huge influxes of the past—the 18th-century arrival of the Scots-Irish, and especially the mid-19th-century German and Irish immigrations—there were dire predictions that the hordes would just keep coming. That never happened. In every case, the numbers eventually tapered off, as the economies and political landscapes of once-wretched home nations abroad usually improved and would-be immigrants eventually chose to stay put.

Barone also draws an analogy between present-day illegal immigration and internal migration, and takes the long view that things even out over the generations. The need for factory workers in World Wars I and II drew almost half the black population to northern and western industrial centers—even as there now grows a reverse pattern of black migration back to the South. California was once the promised land; yet when taxes soared and social problems exploded, people began leaving as eagerly as they had once trekked through the Sierra Nevada to reach the Golden State. In other words, at least some Mexican nationals may well begin migrating back to Mexico, as economic and political conditions south of the border improve.

Barone is correct to note that there was little net influx along the vast 1,900-mile Mexican border for most of our nation’s history. Past generations certainly did not talk of fencing the Rio Grande or the San Diego–Tijuana corridor. He assumes further that the near destruction of the Mexican economy in the 1980s and 1990s, like most downturns abroad, was episodic: Mexico now has a higher rate of GDP growth and lower unemployment than does the U.S. Similarly, declining birthrates in Mexico suggest that, like the Irish and Germans, fewer Mexicans will be coming into the U.S. in the future, regardless of the policies adopted by the U.S. government. Consequently, Barone can end his study on an upbeat note:

Cultural variety and cultural conflict have been a part of the American polity from its beginnings, and we should not forget that there are dark sides aplenty in our heritage. But in considering current problems, it is helpful to recollect that conflicts produced by the surges of migration that have come before resulted in much worse strains than those of the early 21st century, and that in the process of dealing with them, Americans have developed a capacity and a habit of accommodating and uniting into one nation citizens with very serious and deep differences.

I hope his optimism is well founded, but the use of history cuts two ways. While there may be great controversy over past immigration laws that adjudicated entry into the U.S., America has never had over 11 million foreign nationals simply ignore federal immigration law and a myriad of state statutes.

Illegal immigration also does not occur in a vacuum, but instead is a part of a perfect storm that has seen other simultaneous and force-multiplying events. Multiculturalism is a fairly new American concept, postulating that no one culture— America’s in particular—can be judged as any better than any other. The result is that the illegal immigrant rarely hears from his new host that he left racism and exploitation in Oaxaca for something far more humane and just in America.

The trendy salad bowl is more likely taught in our schools than is the caricatured melting pot. Huge increases in state and federal entitlements have eroded the work ethic of new immigrants, while the purveyors of racial politics see career expansion through millions of new, loyal constituents.

Statistics suggest that in terms of graduation rates, criminality, literacy, and unemployment, second-generation Mexican Americans are having as many problems of adjustment as their parents, or even more than they had. Amnesties of the last 30 years have not curtailed illegal immigration, which thrives on the odd alliance of corporate America and identity-politics pressure groups—the one wanting cheap labor, the other constituents in need of group representation.

Nineteenth-century Ireland and Germany, of course, did not share a 1,900- mile border with the U.S. In 1910, Los Angeles was not a sanctuary city, in which federal immigration law might be openly rendered all but null and void. In 1950, there was not a viable La Raza movement or popular but ahistorical sloganeering that the “borders crossed us.” Nor was a sixth of the nation on food stamps in 1900. Scandinavians were not schooled under the protocols of federally mandated bilingual education. Ballots and various government documents were not printed in Polish. Affirmative action did not grant privileges to the impoverished children of destitute Sicilian minorities. Lithuania did not print comic books to instruct its emigrants on how best to enter the U.S. illegally. The prime minister of Japan did not sue individual states with the support of Washington. The president of the United States did not publicly assure Jewish leaders that they should jointly “punish our enemies” at the polls.

Barone’s masterly account of our demographic history could be reassuring in our present chaos, but only if we have not broken with our own precedents. The problem with historical adjudication is that different inputs can often result in quite different outcomes.

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The West’s most powerful weapon: passive-aggressive symbolic disapproval.

James Lilek’s Athwart column from the 11/5/14 National Review:

Dancing Athwart History

Vladimir Putin’s effortless ingestion of Crimea has produced some novel responses, and while one usually wouldn’t expect English lefty newspapers to get all frowny and harsh, Guardian arts columnist Jonathan Jones has his dander up:

Perhaps you disagree that Vladimir Putin is the most dangerous man in the world right now, but if I am right to be shocked and scared by Russia’s current course, the question that follows is the one Lenin asked: what is to be done? Matthew Bourne has just offered one answer by refusing to tour his gay Swan Lake to Russia.

Well, that’ll learn ’em. The author calls for a total artist boycott of Russia, which would deploy the West’s most powerful weapon: passive-aggressive symbolic disapproval.

You can imagine Putin’s rage, can’t you? It’s one thing to find yourself described in unflattering terms by editorial writers who couldn’t fire a water pistol without dislocating their shoulder, but to learn that an all-male Swan Lake has turned up its collective nose — well, that must have been poorly received.

Scene: Kremlin hallway. Sounds: glass breaking, books thrown around behind the broad door of the president’s office.

Putin Aide #1: In the name of Saint Isaac, what’s going on in there?

Putin Aide #2: The boss just learned that the homoerotic reimagining of Tchaikovsky’s classic ballet will not be arriving. He was looking forward to a modern staging that recast our notions of gender and classical Russian art, and took into account the competing narratives of the composer’s own sexuality.

Putin Aide #1: Doesn’t he have that on Blu-Ray?

Putin Aide #2: Nekulturny idiot! Our rich culture must be communally experienced! Just kidding, he was looking forward to having the theater blown up and blaming it on Estonian nationalists.

Putin Aide #1: Really?

Putin Aide #2: Really. You want to see Westerners’ heads spin, watch them criticize Putin for invading a country to avenge a gay ballet troupe.

The merits of the revised Swan Lake aside, Russia could survive an arts boycott. It’s not like Sergei down at the motor pool is going to protest the postponement of a Warhol exhibit. Dammit, I have a life expectancy of 51! I’d like to see a crude lithograph of a soup can before I die, is that too much to ask? The author of the Guardian piece seems to undercut his own point with this observation: “Russia . . . is also a land that loves visual art. There is no greater museum on earth than St Petersburg’s Hermitage, with its masterpieces that reflect the deep love of art by Russian collectors.”

The Hermitage is unparalleled, and it takes weeks to explore its dusty labyrinths. Like most museums, it has paintings in storage — about 3 million, by some estimates. So a cultural boycott is like trying to starve out someone who has a six-story basement filled with canned goods.

We could forbid them Western movies, I suppose. Thieves and hackers being a robust element of eastern economies, though, they probably screened the latest Captain America movie in the Kremlin before it showed up at the White House theater.

A threat to withhold Western art might be more effective if we produced much art that anyone really wanted. The gay Swan Lake is a perfect example of politics over substance; the fact that everyone’s gay is utterly unremarkable. Whether they can dance, now that’s the rub. This sort of rejiggering is so commonplace you expect a theater director to announce they’re staging Othello in a new way to shock modern audiences: The hero will be black, and Desdemona will be a white chick.

Putin will not back down unless the personal costs are too great, and as far as I can tell, the biggest hit he’s taken so far is the diminished number of pro-Putin funny pictures on the Internet. For a while he was cast as a Chuck Norris type, his cartoony macho exploits given a playful — and somewhat admiring — tweak by the vacant males who sit around and put captions on pictures. (Also known as “the dominant form of entertainment on the planet at the moment.”) They had fun with a guy who flew helicopters bare-chested, but compared with all the neutered Euros who plod along passing laws codifying sausage diameters, he had panache.

That seems to have died down since they figured out that invading a sovereign country is “kind of a douche move,” in their parlance.

You could say it’s typical of a supine and deluded culture to suggest that an artists’ boycott “hits Putin where it hurts.” If you’re wearing hobnail boots and he has his bankbook in his underpants, you might be able to hit him where it hurts, but otherwise no: An artists’ boycott sounds like an unpaid blogger who decided to penalize a TV-critic website by not posting recaps of that Dark Shadows DVD.

The correct way to push back at this point is to give full-throated support to the nations that got out from under the Soviet heel, kick Russia out of every international organization, and stop selling it things its moneyed classes want. But the administration seems to think it can shame Putin out of future aggression with some Very Stern Rhetoric.

“You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th-century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped-up pretext,” Secretary of State John Kerry said to CBS News. Well, they did. This may explain President Obama’s tweet the other day about history: History does not always move forwards, but sometimes backwards and sideways.

Deep. And sometimes counter-clockwise and katty-whompus as well.

You want to boycott theatrical exports to Russia? Tell the administration to stop dancing.

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Book review: Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western LIberalism

41ncnodwApL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Matthew J Franck’s review, in the 11/17/14 National Review, of Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism, by Larry Siedentop (Belknap/Harvard, 448 pp., $35)

Liberalism’s Christian Roots

Whence come the principles of modern liberal societies — “liberal” in the classical sense of devotion to human liberty, with a private sphere protected by natural rights, the equal moral dignity of individuals, freedom of conscience, and a limited state? When and how did Western societies come by such foundational ideas of human freedom?

One usual account is that the Renaissance and the Enlightenment drove such discoveries, that in the several centuries from Machiavelli to Mill, the Western mind (in Jefferson’s words) “burst the chains” of “monkish ignorance and superstition,” with outmoded religious beliefs being at least modified and often jettisoned in favor of “the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion.” Prior to modernity, in this account, all is gloom and oppression.

A variant of this view is to exalt the ancient cities of Athens and Rome, the birthplaces of both republican government and political philosophy, as early exemplars of freedom and secular government. Then the thesis is that Renaissance humanists and early modern theorists came up with the new doctrine of natural rights, but only in an encounter with the thought of the ancient pagans, shunting the “dark ages” of Christendom to the sidelines.

Not so fast, says Larry Siedentop in Inventing the Individual. In this wide-ranging work of intellectual, cultural, and political history, Siedentop, an emeritus Oxford fellow, argues that liberalism, secularism, human equality and natural rights, the social contract, and the shielding of the private from the public and of society from the state should not be treated as innovations of modernity in either of these ways. Instead we should understand these essential features of the modern West as products of Christianity itself.

For Siedentop, “Christian moral beliefs emerge as the ultimate source of the social revolution that has made the West what it is.” The peculiar insights and commitments of Christianity took many centuries of development to unfold in all their dimensions. But it is notable that Siedentop draws his story to a close with the 15th century: The foundations of liberalism were in place before the Renaissance and Reformation, before Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Locke, before the Enlightenment and the revolutions of the 18th century. Rarely does a revisionist history topple so many pillars of conventional understanding.

And rarely has it been done so well. Siedentop writes with a clear elegance, in over two dozen pithy chapters that move the reader briskly through almost two millennia of history. He begins in the ancient pagan world of Greece and Rome, where religion was essentially a family cult, where the city was built on a polytheistic “confederation of cults,” and where notions of human equality had essentially no political or moral purchase. This closed world is burst open by Saint Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles who “wagers on human equality,” preaching a salvation available to all — and therefore also a conscience in each human being, a moral agency and responsibility resting in each human soul. The most important relationship in each human life, for Paul’s Christian evangelism, is not the son’s or daughter’s relation to the family, or the citizen’s relation to the city, but the individual’s relation to God. These individuals, like the God in whose image they are made, are free. Thus they have claims on their fellow men, in ethics, law, and politics, claims untrammeled by questions of rank, status, family, or membership in cult or tribe.

This was explosive stuff. The noble hero and the great prince were supplanted by the humble saint, lifted to glory by his obedience to the divine law of charity. The poor had the same access to grace as the rich — perhaps more access. Social identities took a back seat to basic human dignity and moral equality. Western men — and women — entered “a world in which individual conscience rather than assigned status provided the foundation for social relations.” Dignity now attached even to work, which the ancient pagans had disdained. And the ambiguities of Christian belief and doctrine gave new impetus to the cause of learning.

Siedentop’s tale radiates outward and ranges forward into the foundations of the medieval city, the death of slavery in Christendom, improved under standings of marriage, property, and corporate organization, the struggle for the “liberty of the Church,” the development of canon and civil law, the evolving notion of a sovereign state, and the conversion of the classical idea of natural law into the medieval (no, not the modern) idea of natural rights.

Major figures in the story include Augustine, Charlemagne, Pope Gregory VII, Gratian, Abelard, Duns Scotus, and William of Ockham. Each of them played a role in advancing the cause of equal freedom and dignity for “all souls,” helping to clear a space where the individual could stake his claim against the pretensions of “superior” birth, “natural” authority, or the refinements of reason. And with them all Siedentop seems comfortably at home, wearing his learning lightly, while candidly relying also on favorite historians old and new: Fustel de Coulanges and Guizot in the 19th century, Peter Brown and Brian Tierney in the 20th.

This is not a flawless book. My nonspecialist eyes spotted a careless error about the Resurrection in one place, an oddly inverted reading of Plato’s Re­public­ in another, and a superficial understanding of what the author calls American “fundamentalism” in the conclusion. But these are small defects in a book that is extraordinarily rich in explaining the central developments of Western civilization.

As challenging as Siedentop’s book will be to academics in various schools of thought, it also contains very important insights for people engaged in the public square, especially where religion and politics intersect. For those who champion the cause of “secularism,” it will be a salutary shock to learn that the very idea of the secular is a Christian one—that in the Christian ideas of the individual, of the conscience, and of the Church as the body of Christ lay all the predicates for a politics of freedom, of individual choice, and of limited state authority occupying a sphere separate from religious authority.

The modern heirs of medieval liberalism, taking a more atomistic and utilitarian line than their forebears, create, in Siedentop’s view, a “liberal heresy” that “deprives liberal secularism of its profoundly moral roots.” Hence the “embarrassment” of contemporary Europeans as they thrust away any recognition of the Christian foundations of their civilization. They have privileged the secular over the religious, and made enemies of two institutions— church and state—that grew up together as brothers. But “secularism is Christianity’s gift to the world,” Siedentop says, and it is not a doctrine of “nonbelief or indifference” but a way of supplying “the conditions in which authentic beliefs should be formed and defended.” Those who raise the banner of “secularism” while they attack religious belief as retrograde, irrational, or tyrannical are sawing off the limb on which they sit.

Those on the religious side of our culture wars, who rightly worry about contemporary liberalism’s corrosive effect on moral norms of conscience and its increasing attachment to statism, should imbibe Siedentop’s caution not to mount a counterrevolution against liberalism or secularism properly understood. Far from there being any fundamental incompatibility between the Christian faith and political doctrines of human equality, natural rights, and individual choice, the latter should be recognized as the offspring of the former.

One hears in certain Christian intellectual circles today a note of despair that the American experiment in liberalism has run its course, and the view that our political order has had, from its very birth, a predisposition of implacable hostility to Christian faith and the moral character of society, a hostility becoming more and more apparent in our time. The American Founders, in this account, did not “build better than they knew”: They built with termite infested timbers, and we know it now because the house is falling down around us.

But the American Founding did not spring full-grown from the brow of John Locke (about whom much more could be said both pro and con). Nor is the anti-monkish ignorance of Thomas Jefferson our only ancestral idea. The political doctrines of our Founders’ liberalism sprang also from the sturdy faith of John Witherspoon, from the theology of Jonathan Edwards, from the natural-rights teachings of medieval canonists and philosophers, from the insights into the free human will of Saint Augustine, and from the caritas for all souls that we see in the letters of Saint Paul. We would do well to remember whence we really came, to recover our own story, and to tell it all over again.

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Tongue-bite macht frei

Excerpt from James Lilek’s Athwart column in the 2/9/15 National Review:

Being Sad Together is the West’s secret weapon, apparently.  The Bad guys are supposed to look at the masses crowded into the elegant public spaces of a European capital and feel shame, because feeling were hurt.  It is more likely the terrorist look at these events and thing what a few stout fellows strapped with plastic explosives and ball bearing could do.

Being Sad Together is suppose to show a nation’s indomitable will:  We will not be cowed by this heinous act for at least 48 hours, after which we shall fracture along the usual lines.  Two points emerged as the glow of Being Charlie faded and the candles guttered.  To wit:

One:  We must not give in to Islamophobia.  The ever-thoughtful overclass had the usual reaction:  I may not agree with your co-religionists’ stoning homosexuals and oppressing women, but I will defend to the death your right not to be criticized by people with the wrong motivations.  Well, I’ll defend it right up until the break, and then we have to go to a story about how rich Mitt Romney is.  To say that Islam had any connection to the events was regarded as a mark of simplistic thinking, like blaming Germany if someone drove a VW into a crowd of people.  It was the act of extremists, a word used to cleave certain groups from the ideologies they wish to advance.  (“Extremists” on the right, of course, are expressing the fundamental malevolence of anyone who is insufficiently statist or secular.) …

Two: We must have a conversation about the limits of speech, and by “conversation” we mean “Shut up and take notes.”  Liberals were keen on free speech for a while, since the boring square WASP establishment had codes and laws that stifled expression and intellectual diversity.  Everything ought to be free to be ridiculed, including the ridiculer.  Why, if you put Lenny Bruce on a crucifix in a jar of urine, that would b e the apes of the West fright there. Especially if you pulled a string and  he swore!  Daring.  Eventually the liberals were supplanted by the progressives, who wanted to replace the social order instead of improve it.  This meant splitting people into groups that sub-divided like amoebas, each with its own narrative of oppression and supply of self-replenighing rage, all united against the symbol of the human species’ most powerful foe:  some married guy who likes hamburgers and drives a truck

Thus: If you decline to … install a “polygender safe space,” in the form of a third restroom, you are a hater, and speaking your opinion on the matter is hate speech, inasmuch as it does not validate the other person’ self conception.

If, on the other hand, you put up a website devoted to fat people who drive scooters around Walmart with a JESUS IS MY CO-PILOT bumper sticker on the back, you are hilarious.

Since the purpose of speech has become the reinforcement of whatever orthodoxy has been minted over the weekend, speech that abrades the tender gums of the vanguard must not be afforded protection, and criminal penalties are necessary to bind rude tongues.

A more apt sign would have been JE SUIS CHARLIE, MAIS… The “but” reminds us that life is a balancing act and there are no absolutes.  It is wrong to murder cartoonists, oui, BUT we must understand the historical cultural intersectional Orientalist nativist colonialist racist othering at work, which is why we need the State to codify expression so that all dialogue runs ton rails towards the desired destination.  If some of those rails take a spur to the reeducation camp and people learn that there are things that cannot be thought, let alone spoken, that’s the best kind of free speech.

TOUNGUE-BITE MACHT FREI.  Says so right over the camp gates!  Must be true.

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Art for Unemployment’s Sake

Art for Unemployment’s Sake

(Athwart by James Lileks in 3/9/15 National Review)

Talk of Scott Walker’s college career made me think of the highlights of my time in the halls of dear old U of Minnesota — the pipes clanking on a winter’s day, the creak of the wood floor as the professor strolled from side to side, the gentle snore of a student in the back row. My first year I had an English class. Chaucer. Ye parfit c’nick yclept Gwioin doth hither be swain and so on. Reading this at 8 a.m. was like trying to untie wet shoelaces while wearing oven mitts.

The teacher was a short hunchbacked old man with a face like a long potato, dressed in an old suit with the obligatory elbow patches, smelling of pipe smoke, and he would point out the ribald parts for our amusement. Once he recited a naughty ditty that used the Homeric line “rosy-finger’d dawn” as a punch line for the discussion of the works of Sappho, something that would get him a week in the stocks nowadays, pelted with organic produce. It was a wonderful class. Don’t remember a word of it.

That goes double for 19th-Century European Diplomatic History, which was taught by a brilliant man who walked back and forth as if pacing off for a duel; he grew red as the lecture advanced, until he resembled a moist tomato with a steel-grey buzz cut. Don’t remember a word. I remember that Metternich was important, and it is important to know who Metternich was. But the sum total of three quarters seems to be the ability to say, “If only the Concert of Europe had not ended with the Götterdämmerung, no?” with a wry smile among other Educated Sorts and have everyone nod.

The only things that really stuck, as far as names and dates and accomplishments, were Russian Literature (taught by a strenuously attractive woman with Rooshian accent and feelink for soul) and Renaissance Art. In the latter case the teacher had been explaining Giotto and Vasari for years, but he was like one of those actors who’d played the same role for a thousand performances: It was still fascinating to him and inspiring to us — so when he stood in a dark room describing the genius of a statue, unaware that the slide projector was displaying the groin of David right on his face, no one laughed.

I had dinner with the art professor 30 years later and asked him if he knew he’d been lecturing with the buttocks of a Mannerist putto on his forehead. Yes, well, it was unavoidable, wasn’t it? Almost enough to make someone want to teach 20th-century art. (Theatrical shudder.) Almost.

Alas, neither art history or Russian lit were my major. I was an English major, which qualified me to know that the previous sentence should read “Neither art history nor Russian lit was my major.” (I think.) My college education took place outside the classroom: at my restaurant job, where I learned about business and human nature, and at the college newspaper, where I learned the skill of writing for a large audience with a deadline gun to your head. The newspaper had a circulation of 60,000; it came out five days a week. It was in the basement of the journalism school, but few of the people who worked on the paper went to J school, and vice versa.

That’s correct: You could get a degree in journalism without working on the paper. This is like getting a degree in anatomy by studying the board game Operation when there’s a room full of cadavers next door.

So Scott Walker didn’t finish college? Eh. To say the obvious: A degree does not bestow wisdom any more than donning a clerical collar guarantees goodness. It’s not as if the magic paper somehow activates all the information you absorbed in the previous four years and ties it together in unexpected ways, leaving you so dazzled you can hardly find your way off the stage. My — my God! I knew critical literary theory, and I had a smattering of art history, but now that I have a degree I see glistening filaments that tie together the deconstruction of texts and the Renaissance’s revision of the pictorial tradition! It’s all connected! And thus the graduate is not unemployable for one reason but for a fascinating matrix of reasons.

Imagine a job interview.

Do you have a college degree?

Yes, I am.

And which college?

University of California at Malibu? I have like a degree in television with an emphasis on reality shows? Basically a bachelor’s degree in The Bachelor.

This position requires a certain familiarity with math.

Well, sure, we had to learn all that. Like, channel number 235 is going to be somewhere between 230 and 240, so if you’re advancing the remote with the button that goes ten channels all at once, it’s like, whoa, you should slow down when you get to the lower 200s.

What was channel 235, by the way?

Hey, now you’re talking graduate-level stuff.

The degree shows you can finish something, but if you went $150K into debt to get a B.A. in a discipline that contains the word “science” but did not study, you know, actual science, then the matter of your judgment may take precedence over your evident persistence. Or not: A degree signifies your elevation to the priestly class. The elect. The class of credentialed Smart People who have inhaled the rarefied atmosphere in which Theory takes the place of Wisdom.  Anyway, it’s not like Walker can’t finish the degree by unusual means someday.

Like an executive order. There, your president is a grad. Happy now?

– Mr. Lileks blogs at

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On soccer

from the 7/7/14 National Review:

(O)ur nation’s inability to commit to soccer, like our rejection of the metric system, has long been a sore spot.  American football offers a more martially sophisticated version of soccer’s field strategy; basketball offers an even more intense blend of physicality and tactical shrewdness; baseball offers the hazy glow of a leisurely, low-scoring summer game.  And unlike soccer, these sports virtually never end in a tie.  Sports fandom is prone to chaos in every land, and we suspect the relatively high rates of violence and hooliganism around soccer may just be a function of the sport’s popularity and worldwide distribution . But maybe American sports fays (usually) behave better because our homegrown but diverse sports buffet is just more satisfying.

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Top 10 Dirty-sounding nicknames or phrases in hockey

  1. A wrister
  2. Dit Clapper
  3. Banana blade
  4. Stacking the gumpers
  5. Clang off the pipe
  6. The Lady Byng
  7. The Chicoutimi Cucumber
  8. Pocket Rocket
  9. The GAG Line
  10. The Finnish Sandwich
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