Snippets

I am not used to the new baseball season. I was startled seeing a line on a box score that said: “Attendance: 0.”

After Anthony Fauci’s first pitch fiasco at the opening baseball game, I watched a video of Trump playing catch on the White House Lawn with Mariano Rivera. It was not my most gracious moment.  I was hoping that the president would throw like an unathletic, eight-year-old girl. While his motion was not the best I had ever seen, it was not bad. And I found another way to be disappointed in life.

Our priorities are interesting. Baseball players and other athletes appear to get almost instantaneous results from Covid-19 tests. People I know have had to wait ten or twelve days to find out if they are infected.

“‘It’s not about being happy,’ he said, which was, and still is, the saddest remark I’ve ever heard.” Anna Burns, Milkman.

I read sad words recently. While foreign countries have long admired, feared, envied, imitated, and despised the United States, for the first time, foreign lands pity us.

Are there fights between Ivanka and Jared when they discuss which of them should be a presidential candidate? If not, what do they fight about?

“In my family, if we didn’t count our chickens before they hatched, I don’t think we’d have been able to do very much counting at all.” Johann Hari, Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs.

How public figures are regarded often depends on the partisan leanings of the viewer. One group of people think Adam Schiff is an asshole. A different group think Devin Nunes and Jim Jordan are assholes. But don’t we all agree that Mitch McConnell is an asshole?

Have the proliferation of Zoom meetings lessened the rate of sexual harassment?

I have read that at the heart of the QAnon conspiracy is the belief that Trump will save the world from a vast pedophile ring. How is that reconciled with Trump’s words of good wishes to Ghislaine Maxwell?

The vehicle in front of me on the interstate had a sticker reading, “Keep America Great” as well as another Trump sign. This is not an unusual sight except that it was a commercial vehicle for a computer business. I wondered if it is a wise marketing move to put political slogans along side of the company’s phone number. Wouldn’t this drive away some customers? Or are more potential clients attracted than repelled by a partisan display? And if the political displays are some sort of marketing effort, are they tax deductible as a business expense?

“Fanaticism consists in redoubling your effort when you have forgotten your aim.” Santayana.

Seeking Inspiration

          I interrupted my self-imposed blogging schedule because I lost home internet service for a week. I posted a brief message of the forthcoming hiatus by taking my iPad to a public wi-fi place.

          Losing home internet for a while can hardly count among life’s tragedies, but its loss highlighted how much I use it. I am not an online game player or a browser, stalker, or contributor to chat rooms. Nevertheless, I use the internet many, many times throughout the day. Its loss disrupted my rhythms, and that included my rhythms of writing.

          As a student, as a lawyer, as a legal academic, and now as a blogger, I have written frequently, but the rhythms of my writing have varied. I grew up before computers and my childhood home did not have a typewriter. I did not learn to type until I taught myself out of necessity in college. Papers needed to be typed, and I could not afford to pay a typist. My parents gave me a typewriter—an extravagant gift for them. I bought a how-to-type manual and practiced on the Remington every day until I had achieved the barest modicum of proficiency. But the typing itself took such concentration that I found I could not compose on a keyboard. For years, I wrote a first draft in longhand using—I admit somewhat pretentiously–a purple-ink-filled fountain pen. I almost always got stains on my hand, but I was almost proud of the marks because they signified to me that I was a writer of some sort. I typed the second draft, and then via pen made additions and corrections to that draft and then typed it again, and so on. I wrote my first “book” this way—it was really a monograph about the military chaplaincy—and this rhythm continued for quite a while.

          Of course, the typewriter gave way to word processing, but even after Wordperfect was initially installed on my computer, I continued to write the first draft with a pen. I told myself that it made me careful because in inputting the second draft from a longhand version I had to consider every word that I had written, but I knew that this was inefficient. Eventually, however, from editing and rewriting on a computer, I found that I could compose directly on a keyboard, and the purple-inked-filled fountain pens have been consigned to stray drawers.

          Thus, a major rhythm of my writing changed, but another one did not. I have always been a drib-and-drab writer. I have read many times about what I think of as real writers who closet themselves somewhere and stay at their desk for four, six, or eight hours writing. I have never done that. I write until I complete a thought, or I get stuck as to what comes next—seldom more than a half hour and often less. I then distract myself with some other project hoping that the next writing thought will come. Often the distraction has been some household chore—cleaning dishes, snapping beans, raking leaves, brushing a stripper or varnish on wainscoting or an old desk. When I have been really stuck, I have taken walks, gone for a run, or played tennis. When I was writing my many unread law review articles, I would start writing at daybreak and be at the keyboard well after dark, but the composing would only come in those small spurts.

          I write about different things now than I did as a lawyer or an academic, but I still seldom write for an hour or even a half hour in an uninterrupted stretch. I almost never produce even a page in a sitting. A paragraph, maybe two, and then a break. The nature of the breaks, however, has changed from years ago. Increasingly, I turn to the internet for the interlude. I don’t play games online; I don’t search for YouTube videos. But I do go frequently to news websites because I continue to be a news junky.

I grew up in a household where I read two newspapers seven days a week as well as a weekly paper and various magazines. I have maintained that news-reading habit, but how I read the news has changed. Of course, in those dark ages before the internet, I would read a physical newspaper, the kind where the ink comes off and hands have to be washed after the reading. For a long time, I thought the only valid way to read the news was through a physical newspaper, but in the backwater where I started spending summers decades ago, it was difficult getting the New York Times or other big city newspaper, and I began to read the paper online. Since both the Times and my writing were on the same computer, I began to go frequently back and forth between them.

Since then internet news sources have proliferated. I now distract myself not just with the online paper but also with a New York Times briefing, a New York Times digest, news summaries from Axios and Skimm, and the websites of Politico, RealClearPolitics, FiveThirtyEight, and TalkingPointsMemo.

Of course, when I was deprived of the internet recently, these rhythms were interrupted, and I found it difficult to write, but the deprivation did more than disrupt writing patterns. It made me feel isolated, and that too made it harder to write. This blog does not have a theme other than stuff that interests me, which I hope on occasion interests some readers. I have no grand scheme other than to be original and not simply to repeat others. When I finish a piece, I await inspiration for something new, but those triggers come much more readily when I am having a myriad of experiences. Travel almost always opens my mind. A museum visit, a play, a movie may make me think new thoughts, but often the inspirations have been quite mundane—a sign in a shop window, an overheard conversation at an intersection or in a restaurant, a food display, a doctor’s visit. I only sometimes directly write about these things, but often one thing stimulates thoughts about other experiences or ideas that I want to write about—a snowfall today may make me think about snowballing as a kid; a comment about the electoral college may make me want to delve into the formation of the Constitution; passing a coffee shop may set me ruminating about my caffeine addiction.

Covid-19, however, has confined my life and blighted others. I have fewer experiences, big or small, than before the coronavirus, and it has been harder to write as a result. The loss of the internet may have bothered me at any time, but now it was added onto the socially distant life that had already made me feel isolated. The internet did come back, and it will be with me, but it made me think hard about when, if ever, we will be able to freely partake in the life that we had before the pandemic. It may be a long time before I will again have the life of regular large and small stimulations that I have enjoyed. It’s a depressing thought.

Emotional states—anger, nostalgia, feeling cute or pedagogical—have helped me to write. Feeling down has not. I need some inspirations. What should I write about?

The Last Book I Ever Need to Read

Paperbacks printed years ago often contained promotions for other publications on the inside covers or at the back of the book. I read this material to see how many of those books published back then or their authors I even recognize. They are sometimes the most entertaining part of the book. Take, for example, the ads in my oldest softcover book printed by the American News Company in 1895.

Bought for a buck or two at an art and antiques show, I was attracted to it not because I was familiar with the title or author but because of the remarkable picture on the cover of the author, or as I am guessing she, Miss Laura Jean Libbey, might have called herself, the authoress. She is staring straight ahead. Her eyes are hypnotic, but it is almost impossible to concentrate on them because the gaze is drawn to the noteworthy hat that spreads wide over her head and has three visible plumes plus something else I cannot identify. The back cover shows a fuller, three-quarters view of the same picture, which shows that Libbey had an enviable bust and a waist, surely cinched in, that does not look humanly possible.

I was also drawn to the book because of its title—When His Love Grew Cold. Her other books that were advertised inside the covers showed that Libbey had a way with titles that at least attracted me: Miss Middleton’s Lover: or Parted on their Bridal Tour; A Forbidden Marriage: or in Love with a Handsome Spendthrift; He Loved, but was Lured Away; and Lovers Once, but Strangers Now. A couple of her titles at first glance were letdowns, but only until I read their descriptions. I learned about Olive’s Courtship that “the quiet title does not prepare you for the powerful story that follows. No living author has ever equaled it.” And the reader “will never lay down That Pretty Young Girl until you discover who killed the handsome, profligate Earl of Dunraven on his wedding night, and unravel the mystery which surrounds the beautiful, hapless Helen, whom to love—was fatal.”

Nearly as surprising as this body of work was to me was the conclusion of the preface. Libbey, after teasing her readers, as she had apparently done before, with the suggestion that this would be her last book, not only gives her name, but her address: No. 916 President Street, Brooklyn, where the four-story brownstone house still stands.

Other ads in my older paperbacks pique my interest. While I finished Libbey’s novel a whiIe ago, I am now reading in small doses The Sardonic Humor of Ambrose Bierce, which was printed in 1963 and published by Dover Books. It has an eight-page catalog of other Dover Books at the back of the volume. Three of those pages are for art books, including the intriguing Foot-High Letters: A Guide to Lettering (A Practical Syllabus for Teachers).

I only recognize a few of the authors in the “Entertainments, Humor” section. A book I am not familiar with, however, fascinates me: The Bear that Wasn’t by Frank Tashlin. Its description: “What does it mean? Is it simply delightful wry humor, or a charming story of a bear who wakes up in the midst of a factory, or a satire on Big Business, or an existential cartoon-story of the human condition, or a symbolization of the struggle between conformity and the individual?” Sounds like quite a book.

I recognize more of the authors in “Fiction,” but not always the listed books. I have read Tarzan and take certain pride that Tarzan has a Wisconsin connection. But should I now read Three Martian Novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs? Or the other Mars novels by Burroughs that are listed? Further down in “Fiction” I found the listing for Five Great Dog Novels and tried to think of five dog novels, period. Maybe you will recognize more than the only one I did: Call of the Wild by Jack London; Rab and his Friends by John Brown; Bob, Son of Battle, by Alfred Ollivant; Beautiful Joe by Marshall Saunders; and A Dog of Flanders by Ouida. Who knew?

My favorite, however, was the last listing: Gesta Romanorum, translated by Charles Swan and edited by Wynnard Hooper. “181 tales of Greeks, Romans, Britons, Biblical characters, comprise one of (sic) greatest medieval story collections, source of plots for writers including Shakespeare, Chaucer, Gower, etc. Imaginative tales of wars, incest, thwarted love, magic, fantasy, allegory, humor, tell about kings, prostitutes, philosophers, fair damsels, knights, Noah, pirates, all walks, stations of life.” I feel as if my education is sorely lacking for never having heard of this book. Surely, it has everything, and if I had read it, I would not have to read anything else ever again. Five hundred pages, and the list price: $1.85. Where can I find this remarkable compendium?

Snippets

I attended a Quaker-style meeting about racial justice. I went believing that I need to know my prejudices to have a chance of overcoming them. The meeting was a personal success. As soon as someone started to read a poem, I realized that I am instinctively intolerant of poetry. Having confronted this inner demon, I have resolved to work on lessening my poetic prejudice. Suggestions?

“It seemed preposterous that there were still poets out there among us.” Ottessa Moshfegh, Death in Her Hands.

Whoever said that slow and steady wins the race never attended a track meet.

Often after a natural calamity—hurricane, tornado, earthquake, fire—a person who pretends to believe in God’s love says that the devastation has been the Lord’s judgment on the United States, usually because we have not punished some people for the “sin” of loving someone of their sex. Now there have been outbreaks of Covid-19 after people have congregated in churches. How now should we interpret God’s judgment?

“We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another.” Jonathan Swift.

          The Christian radio station gave a few brief Bible readings, although where the sacred words left off and commentary began was not always clear. It also presented short inspirational stories and exhortations. Mostly, however, it played music, and mostly that music fell into the rock category. I remembered back to when rock ‘n roll started. (Alas, I am old enough to remember when “Rocket 88,” Bill Haley, and Elvis Aron were all new.) I recalled how ministers smashed 45s saying that rock was music of the devil. This made me think about how powerful He is. In only the relatively short span of my lifetime, He had transformed a genre that would send me to eternal damnation into music that was now for the devout. Hallelujah!

“It is the test of a good religion whether you make a joke about it.” G.K. Chesterton.

I parked downtown the other day at a parking meter. I fumbled for coins but found that there was unexpired time—long enough for me to complete my errand–on the meter. It was not a huge joy, but it did make me feel a bit better. Metered parking, however, increasingly requires us to go to one of those machines and buy a slip with a time printed on it to put on the car’s dashboard. This wipes out that possibility of finding unexpired time on a meter. Those slip machines deprive us of a good feeling, minor though it is. Or does anyone, when leaving a parking place, give the slip with time remaining on it to someone pulling into a spot? If someone handed me such a slip, it would produce joy and effusions of thankfulness. Even so, I have never handed my unexpired slip to another driver.

Will a new generation know what “Rita the Meter Maid” is about?

The Barista Is Not an Essential Worker (concluded)

As models of coffeemakers, kinds of beans, and grinders proliferated (I now own a burr grinder. It, some coffee advisor assured me, would produce a revelatory improvement in coffee taste. Its price certainly did something to my senses, but I am not sure I can tell the difference in the resulting coffee from that produced by my old-style blade grinders. I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that I once fantasized about buying coffee bean roasting equipment, but good sense and a lack of money won out.), it became easier and easier to make good coffee.

Then along came Starbucks. I did not understand its popularity. One of the joys of coffee is its variety of tastes and aromas, but Starbucks and its clones overwhelmingly served espresso-based drinks. Espresso is a desirable form of coffee, and it can be hard to make at home even with some of the incredibly expensive machines on the market. There is some justification for going to a coffee shop to get it, but many I knew went to Starbucks every day, and this was their only form of coffee. They were missing out on all the possibilities coffee has to offer. They, however, felt sophisticated drinking espresso just like the French or Italians.

When it comes to food and beverages, there is much to admire in France and Italy. Their coffee, however, is not one of those things. As far as I can tell, the only coffee in those countries is espresso in one form or another. I realize that there can be better or worse espresso, but all good espresso tastes relatively the same. The French and Italians are missing out on a whole world of coffee roasts, tastes, and aromas. It would be as if the French only limited themselves to brie and the Italians gorgonzola. Great cheeses, but there are a myriad of other possibilities. The French and Italians may be knowing about many foodstuffs, but coffee is not one of them. If you want to gain sophistication about coffee, go to Denmark, Peru, Costa Rica, Vienna, Stockholm, or Tanzania.

But I do have to give France and Italy some respect on the coffee front. At their espresso places they serve the beverage in some sort of porcelain cup. It may not be the finest bone China—coffee should not be served that way anyway—but it is at least some sort of real cup. New York has always had many places to get a respectable cup of coffee—diners, delis, sidewalk carts. If you go into a place where you could sit, coffee comes in a porcelain cup not in a paper or Styrofoam container, and that is at it should be. But at Starbucks, always in a paper container, and while that may be necessary for coffee to go, paper is not the desirable way to drink coffee. The fabled, humble Greek diner offering a real cup to those sitting in a booth is more sophisticated than Starbucks on this point.

If I don’t make my own coffee in New York, there is another reason to avoid Starbucks to get the caffeine. Any New York deli or cart strives to serve a cup in less than a New York minute. If I want coffee, I want and expect it now. Starbucks, however, operates on what I take to be a Seattle minute, which is longer than sixty seconds. I have to wait and wait for the coffee. This should not be acceptable to any self-respecting New Yorker.

But the major issue with Starbucks is cost. I can make good, often excellent, coffee for loose change, and I can get respectable coffee from many places for a buck and some coins. Not at Starbucks. Their coffee requires breaking out a five or ten dollar bill or plastic. I knew people before the pandemic who first thing in the morning went to Starbucks and brought a venti skimmed latte back to their apartment. I doubted their wisdom as I mentally calculated their annual coffee expenditure, but I assumed that these people had money to waste.

My law students walking into class with a too large Starbucks cup were a different matter. They were financing their education with hefty loans and most would graduate with debt well into six figures. (The harm of law student debt is a reason why I left the profession earlier than I had once thought that I would, but that is a story for another day.) Perhaps because their debt was so large, buying over-expensive coffee did not seem like a big deal, but when they strolled to their seats with a five-dollar beverage in their hand, I wondered about their priorities and values.

But now I read that the pandemic has changed coffee habits. Some who brought back Starbucks to their homes every morning have realized that they could invest $500 or more in an espresso maker and recoup their money in months by making their own lattes instead of trudging to the barista and back. And perhaps they also realized that coffee should be drunk out of a real cup. (I stayed in a Paris apartment a few years back that was outfitted with a Nespresso machine, which I learned made quite good espresso. I bought one–which while not cheap did not cost hundreds of dollars–when I returned, and I use it occasionally—I still want a variety of coffee tastes and aromas–for a quite good lungo.) Apparently, many others have learned that they have the skills to make acceptable coffee at a reasonable cost and that there is a world of possible tastes that can be explored inexpensively. Perhaps, as a result, Covid-19 will be a boost to coffee growers around the world. That’s not a reason to praise the pandemic, but it would be one tiny bright spot in an otherwise dark time.

The Barista is Not an Essential Worker

          Covid may affect coffee customs. Apparently many people realize that they can live without Starbucks. They have learned that not-difficult task of making coffee.

I have been into Starbucks or one of its clones a few times, but not often. This is not because I don’t drink coffee. I am addicted to it, and I don’t feel right until I have copious amounts each morning. (Before some medical procedures, I have been told not to eat or drink anything after midnight. Most often abstaining from food has not been a big deal, but the lack of coffee takes a toll. As I await the knife, needle, or probe, I have been asked by attending medical personnel, “How are you feeling?” I don’t know if this is just politeness or a serious inquiry, but it is senseless. I want to snap back but try hard not to, “I am jumpy, jittery, and a bit headachy and queasy. How do you expect I feel without my two or three mugs of coffee?”) I like coffee; I desire coffee; I want coffee; I need coffee. It just doesn’t come from Starbucks.

          I presume I tasted coffee before I went to college, but I don’t remember it. However, a month or two into my freshman year (oops: Old style and politically incorrect—first year), I was drinking coffee. Then it was not so much a morning drink but was instead ingested while studying in the late afternoons or early evening to stave off the drowsies. Perhaps I got coffee at the student union or some other place on campus, but as I often studied in my room, I soon bought a percolator, the way to make coffee in those distant days.  I don’t remember what coffee I bought or where I bought it, but I do know that when the liquid in the pot got cold, I plugged the machine back in. Now the sensible thing would have been to clean out the basket that held the grounds before the reheating, but I did not do that until the pot was empty. The coffee got repercolated often more than once. The coffee became more sludge-like each time this happened which could be several times in a day. I assume that I started out drinking this concoction with sugar and milk, but if so, I quickly gave them up as unnecessarily difficult to keep in the room. Unsweetened black it was then and still is.

          If I could drink the resultant tar, my taste buds for coffee could not have been very refined, but at some point, I realized that some cups of coffee tasted better than others. As with other of my preoccupations, I became obsessed with coffee after I moved to New York City. This was fueled with an overheard conversation at the unlikely place of the offices of the American Civil Liberties Union. I was doing work there, and while it was the summer of the Pentagon Papers, not all of the talk was about civil liberties. Strong opinions were common on many topics so it was not completely surprising that two very bright attorneys were stridently discussing the merits of making coffee by percolating or by dripping. A shocking conversation to these ears. There were other ways to make coffee besides percolation? Although I had nothing to add to the conversation, I listened intently, and like the good lawyer and civil libertarian I wanted to be, I weighed the arguments and evidence. I concluded that the drip man had the better of it.

          Ezra Pound clinched the move to drip coffee. I then had a fascination with the poet, editor, and traitor and read much about him. For one of the many books I have not written, I had thought about exploring whether his broadcasts from Italy during World War II, for which he was prosecuted, should have been protected by the First Amendment. I registered information about his career and opinions, but a personal detail struck me: Pound started each day be dripping boiling water over coffee grounds held by a cloth suspended above a coffee cup. I thought it made perfect sense to have a morning ritual making coffee. It would suit me better than prayers. (My fascination with Pound had an important limitation. I did not study and try to make sense of his Cantos. I am not crazy and have stayed out of St. Elizabeth’s.)

          I adapted Pound. First thing each morning while water was heating, I put a scoop of coffee in a one cup filter inside a holder and placed it over a coffee mug. When the water boiled, the gas was turned off and a tablespoon of water was sprinkled over the coffee. It was important, I have been reliably told, to let the coffee “bloom” to bring out all subtleties and aromas. Then a mug’s worth of hot water went into the filter and in a few moments, I had my beverage. A second or third cup would be prepared in the same way. Every sip, from first to last, was hot, fresh coffee.

          Although this was the right way to make coffee, I quickly learned that the kind of coffee mattered. In those distant days, the national commercial brands were the only coffee choices in grocery stores, but I found that a few specialty stores sold something different—whole beans from all over the world. The first place I started buying non-grocery coffee was a few blocks away from my office across from City Hall in the neighborhood then nameless but now called Tribeca. The area was not then a luxury residential neighborhood but a place for small industries. One of those concerns roasted coffee beans; I am not sure of its name, but Simpson’s comes to mind. The business must have been selling in bulk to restaurants and other commercial establishments, but it would sell a pound or two of freshly roasted coffee to anyone who was willing to trek up to the fourth floor of the loft building. I did and found a few desks hidden among piles of burlap bags of coffee beans with the incredible smell of roasting coffee permeating everything. It was then I started purchasing freshly roasted beans.

The coffee was good, but as I remember there were only a few kinds. Then I learned that there were specialty stores and roasters in lower Manhattan and Brooklyn– McNulty’s, Schapira’s, Porto Rico, and Damico’s—with multitudes of coffees. There were roasts of different darknesses that made the resulting brews taste different. I learned that coffee came in an array of beans and that arabica produced a different taste from peaberry. Coffee came from Africa, South America, Central America, Indonesia, the West Indies, Hawaii, and they all tasted different. Coffee grown at high altitude would taste different from something planted at sea level. And I learned that such beans could be mixed into an almost infinite number of differently tasting blends. I learned that some coffees were rarer than others and their prices could vary sharply.

I found that making good coffee was within my capabilities. I found that coffee tastes had many possibilities. And when I made it, compared to many other sensations, it cost me comparatively little. New coffee equipment became available. Eventually, even though I still think it is the best way to make coffee, I gave up the one-cup-at-a-time method and bought a drip coffeemaker for home, for travel, and for the office. I never amortized the cost, but two or three daily mugs (a cup and saucer never suited me) cost me less than a dollar a day, and maybe only quarter of that.

(concluded July 17)

Snippets

The news article was about Disneyland opening again. The actors’ union that represents the performers in the various productions around the theme park is concerned about the adequacy of the safety procedures. Not unusual news these days, but what caught my eye was the information that those who walk about the grounds in the regalia of Disney characters are not represented by the actors’ union. Instead, they are represented by the Teamsters. That made me pause. I wondered: Do Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, or perhaps Goofy know where Jimmy Hoffa is buried?

The headline on a right-wing website said: “At least 20 shot, 7 killed in 24 hours in Mayor Lightfoot’s Chicago.” I wonder if that site every says, “45 people have been murdered every day in Trump’s America.”

The billboard urged me to worship at the nearby Most Holy Trinity Church. I wondered if there were a Lesser Holy Trinity Church or a Non-Holy Trinity Church.

“Given the world that he created, it would be an impiety against God to believe in him.” John Banville, The Sea.

While waiting to play tennis, Boris and I could hear his wife and her companions a few courts over. “Covid” was said more than once, which was not surprising since Roseanne is an M.D./Ph.D. who works for a drug company that makes vaccines. Boris said, “Poor Roseanne. She can’t get away from the pandemic talk. The women call her ‘the cute Dr. Fauci.’” After a beat, I asked, “Only the women?” Boris shot me a look but did not say a word. I felt, as an Australian friend would put it: “As welcome as a turd in a swimming pool.”

When you get to be of a certain age, you realize that there are only two times. If it is dark, it is time for bed. If the sun is up, it is time for a nap.

Trump retweets right-wing attacks on Tammy Duckworth. It is understandable that the president cannot identify with her. She does not have bone spurs on her feet.

Various crazies have maintained that the pandemic is a hoax. It is a conspiracy by the left to discredit Trump although how this conspiracy has foisted Covid-19 on the world is not clear. I am seeking to create another conspiracy. Places around the country that have quickly re-opened have seen a surge in infections. Communities of color have been hit harder with the coronavirus than white communities. People of color are expected to vote overwhelmingly against Trump in November. Suppressing the votes of minorities aids Trump. Trump is trying to get the country wide open as quickly as possible. Connect the dots. I think that this conspiracy is baseless, but it has more of a basis than that the pandemic is a hoax. 

“I prefer rogues to imbeciles, because they sometimes take a rest.” Alexandre Dumas fils.

Dear Scrotty Students. Really? (concluded)

          The “Dear Scrotty Students” letter that supposedly addressed a controversy concerning a statue said that “a key part of the Oxford intellectual tradition [is that] you can argue any damn thing you like but you need to be able to justify it with facts and logic—otherwise your idea is worthless.” The letter did not tell us why the students said that the Rhodes statue should be removed, so we can gauge the worth of their contentions, but, on the other hand, it presented little by the way of logic and facts for keeping the statue of Rhodes other than to say that he was an Oxford benefactor. I understand that money often trumps everything else, but I hoped that the university would present at least some reasoned argument for keeping the Rhodes monument. Instead, the response attacked the change-seekers’ heritage, country, and continent: your ancestors lived in mud huts; the Bantus have not contributed to modern civilization; South Africa has high rates of murder and sicknesses. Even if true, so bloody what?  That “reasoning” does nothing to explain why Rhodes statue should stay where it is. Surely, I thought, a spokesperson for Oxford ought to know the meaning of non sequitur and avoid it.

          The supposed letter did say that Oxford “always prefers facts and free, open debate.” But it closed with: “you have everything to learn from us; we have nothing to learn from you.” You can’t believe both statements. That closing is not a tenet of open debate, but of the closing of the British, or at least, the Oxford mind. No one who is truly an educator should ever say that I won’t listen to you. No one who believes in open debate would ever say that they have nothing to learn from someone else.

          This “reasoning” is akin to the following scenario: A brit tells me that kale is healthy and will not invariably make me puke. I reply: “I do not need to respond to your reasoning. I won’t even listen to your contentions. I have nothing to learn from you. You are English, and your ancestors were brutal, murderous, disease-spreading colonists, and your country can’t even play good rugby anymore.”

          An intelligent, reasoning person should have quickly questioned the authenticity of a letter employing such schoolyard logic (“So’s your mother”). Americans especially should have had doubts when the letter asked, “Thomas Jefferson kept slaves: does that invalidate the US Constitution?” Jefferson, of course, was not a drafter of the Constitution, and the question is unlikely to have come from an informed person.

After reading the letter, I did five minutes of internet research, and I was not surprised to find that the letter was indeed a fake. It was a product of a writer on Breitbart.com in 2015. He had concerns that the relatively moderate and reasoned approach by Oxford to the Rhodes statue controversy had not been firm enough. He wrote the “letter” but prefaced it with: “Here is the letter Oriel College should have written to the campaigners from Rhodes Must Fall.”

Subsequent appearances of the letter on the internet and in emails have dropped this introduction, and without this preface it elicits many comments of praise from people who have reflexively accepted it as authentic. Why the commendations? It must be the intemperate tone towards the African students. Like the actual letter writer, the praise-givers must be fantasizing that this is what they would have said to those seeking change if they were the head of Oxford. In their fantasy world, this is a convincing letter.

Some versions of the letter place an asterisk after “Autres temps, autres moeurs” in the text, and that phrase is translated after the letter’s conclusion. Apparently whoever placed the footnote and those who forward the letter don’t expect their readers to understand the foreign language even though the letter castigates those who lack this comprehension: “If you don’t understand what this means – and it would not remotely surprise us if that were the case – then we really think you should ask yourself the question: “Why am I at Oxford?” The irony seems lost on many who read this passage.

Once again, I am reminded of the power of the internet. It places a world of knowledge at our fingertips, but many can’t spend the few moments to seek it out. They are not equipped to detect sloppy thinking and prefer to remain in the ignorance that the internet could dispel. But they can use the internet to pass along stupidities to other like-minded people.

I wonder if “scrotty” should be applied to them.

Dear Scrotty Students: Really?

A friend asked me what I thought about an email recently forwarded to him. Its preface said, “The letter below is a response from Oxford University to black students attending as Rhodes Scholars who demand the university removes the statue of Oxford Benefactor, Cecil Rhodes.” The letter said:

Dear Scrotty Students,

Cecil Rhodes’s generous bequest has contributed greatly to the comfort and well being of many generations of Oxford students – a good many of them, dare we say it, better, brighter and more deserving than you.

This does not necessarily mean we approve of everything Rhodes did in his lifetime – but then we don’t have to. Cecil Rhodes died over a century ago. Autres temps, autres moeurs. If you don’t understand what this means – and it would not remotely surprise us if that were the case – then we really think you should ask yourself the question: “Why am I at Oxford?”

Oxford, let us remind you, is the world’s second oldest extant university. Scholars have been studying here since at least the 11th century. We’ve played a major part in the invention of Western civilisation, from the 12th century intellectual renaissance through the Enlightenment and beyond. Our alumni include William of Ockham, Roger Bacon, William Tyndale, John Donne, Sir Walter Raleigh, Erasmus, Sir Christopher Wren, William Penn, Samuel Johnson, Robert Hooke, William Morris, Oscar Wilde, Emily Davison, Cardinal Newman. We’re a big deal. And most of the people privileged to come and study here are conscious of what a big deal we are. Oxford is their alma mater – their dear mother – and they respect and revere her accordingly.

And what were your ancestors doing in that period? Living in mud huts, mainly. Sure we’ll concede you the short lived Southern African civilisation of Great Zimbabwe. But let’s be brutally honest here. The contribution of the Bantu tribes to modern civilisation has been as near as damn it to zilch.

You’ll probably say that’s “racist”. But it’s what we here at Oxford prefer to call “true.” Perhaps the rules are different at other universities. In fact, we know things are different at other universities. We’ve watched with horror at what has been happening across the pond from the University of Missouri to the University of Virginia and even to revered institutions like Harvard and Yale: the “safe spaces”; the #blacklivesmatter; the creeping cultural relativism; the stifling political correctness; what Allan Bloom rightly called “the closing of the American mind”. At Oxford however, we will always prefer facts and free, open debate to petty grievance-mongering, identity politics and empty sloganeering. The day we cease to do so is the day we lose the right to call ourselves the world’s greatest university.

Of course, you are perfectly within your rights to squander your time at Oxford on silly, vexatious, single-issue political campaigns. (Though it does make us wonder how stringent the vetting procedure is these days for Rhodes scholarships and even more so, for Mandela Rhodes scholarships) We are well used to seeing undergraduates – or, in your case – postgraduates, making idiots of themselves. Just don’t expect us to indulge your idiocy, let alone genuflect before it. You may be black – “BME” as the grisly modern terminology has it – but we are colour blind. We have been educating gifted undergraduates from our former colonies, our Empire, our Commonwealth and beyond for many generations. We do not discriminate over sex, race, colour or creed. We do, however, discriminate according to intellect.

That means, inter alia, that when our undergrads or postgrads come up with fatuous ideas, we don’t pat them on the back, give them a red rosette and say: “Ooh, you’re black and you come from South Africa. What a clever chap you are!”  No. We prefer to see the quality of those ideas tested in the crucible of public debate. That’s another key part of the Oxford intellectual tradition you see: you can argue any damn thing you like but you need to be able to justify it with facts and logic – otherwise your idea is worthless.

This ludicrous notion you have that a bronze statue of Cecil Rhodes should be removed from Oriel College, because it’s symbolic of “institutional racism” and “white slavery”. Well even if it is – which we dispute – so bloody what? Any undergraduate so feeble-minded that they can’t pass a bronze statue without having their “safe space” violated really does not deserve to be here. And besides, if we were to remove Rhodes’s statue on the premise that his life wasn’t blemish-free, where would we stop? As one of our alumni Dan Hannan has pointed out, Oriel’s other benefactors include two kings so awful – Edward II and Charles I – that their subjects had them killed. The college opposite – Christ Church – was built by a murderous, thieving bully who bumped off two of his wives. Thomas Jefferson kept slaves: does that invalidate the US Constitution? Winston Churchill had unenlightened views about Muslims and India: was he then the wrong man to lead Britain in the war?”

Actually, we’ll go further than that. Your Rhodes Must Fall campaign is not merely fatuous but ugly, vandalistic and dangerous. We agree with Oxford historian RW Johnson that what you are trying to do here is no different from what ISIS and the Al-Qaeda have been doing to artefacts in places like Mali and Syria. You are murdering history.

And who are you, anyway, to be lecturing Oxford University on how it should order its affairs? Your
#rhodesmustfall campaign, we understand, originates in South Africa and was initiated by a black activist who told one of his lecturers whites have to be killed. One of you Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh is the privileged son of a rich politician and a member of a party whose slogan is “Kill the Boer; Kill the Farmer”; another of you, Ntokozo Qwabe, who is only in Oxford as a beneficiary of a Rhodes scholarship, has boasted about the need for “socially conscious black students” to “dominate white universities, and do so ruthlessly and decisively!

Great. That’s just what Oxford University needs. Some cultural enrichment from the land of Winnie Mandela, burning tyre necklaces, an AIDS epidemic almost entirely the result of government indifference and ignorance, one of the world’s highest per capita murder rates, institutionalised corruption, tribal politics, anti-white racism and a collapsing economy. Please name which of the above items you think will enhance the lives of the 22,000 students studying here at Oxford.

And then please explain what it is that makes your attention grabbing campaign to remove a listed statue from an Oxford college more urgent, more deserving than the desire of probably at least 20,000 of those 22,000 students to enjoy their time here unencumbered by the irritation of spoilt, ungrateful little tossers on scholarships they clearly don’t merit using racial politics and cheap guilt-tripping to ruin the life and fabric of our beloved university.

Understand us and understand this clearly: you have everything to learn from us; we have nothing to learn from you.

Yours, Oriel College, Oxford

(Punctuation as in the copy forwarded to me.)

          Before I responded to my friend, I asked the spouse to read it. Her immediate reaction mirrored my own: “Is this real?” I certainly hoped not. If it had been an official Oxford response, I would have lost respect for what I had thought was a great university. Of course, part of my concern was the intemperate tone, but more disturbing was the poor logic. If this is how Oxford teaches its students to think, it would be a poor place to get an education. And I thought that any marginally informed person should have been skeptical about the letter.

(concluded July 10)