Revanchist Review

Friday, September 24, 2004

Oh, Canada - Chapter Three

“You can’t be angry with your own time without damage to yourself”
- Ulrich in Man Without Qualities, Robert Musil

“Culture may be described as that which makes life worth living. It is what justifies other people and other generations in saying, when they contemplate the remains and influence of an extinct civilization, that it was worthwhile for that civilization to have existed” – T.S. Eliot, Notes Toward the Definition of Culture

I have a confession to make. Increasingly I find it difficult not to be angry with our own time. Musil’s advice along with a frequent repetition of Phillipians 4:6[1] have become keys to my ability to maintain an emotional equilibrium in the face of what I see happening to our civilization.

Even a cursory glance through our national and local newspapers or 10 minutes of CBC Newsworld is enough to make me ask the same question posed by Smollett’s Matthew Bramble in the Expedition of Humphrey Clinker (1771) – “whether the world was always as contemptible, as it appears to me at present?”

I am troubled not so much by the constant reminder of the evil that exists in the world, as by the smug and complacent attitude our Western civilization displays in the face of the daily reminders. The use of language is revealing of what lies in the heart of the speaker. Has anyone noticed how our Canadian press (Globe & Mail, CBC) have slipped into language of appeasement if not outright approval of the barbaric actions of the terrorists in Iraq.

Kidnapping and murder have been replaced by detention and execution. Our press reports on these events in language suggesting these victims have been first inconvenienced (detained) and then dispatched through some legitimate process (executed – definition: 2 : a putting to death especially as a legal penalty.)

It is inconceivable to me that any right thinking person can think it is possible to negotiate with despicably evil men who abduct innocent civilians, terrorize them and force them to appear before cameras pleading for their lives, and ultimately butcher them alive by cutting off their heads with a hand knife.

How many Canadians, particularly our youth who spend so much time surfing the internet, have logged on to the websites to view these atrocities? Are they sickened by the sight? Are they so desensitized to death and violence and brutality from all the movies and video games that they are able to avoid the natural human reaction of revulsion? What does it say about our civilization that cable providers have not prevented these images from being distributed throughout the internet – in Canada no doubt because of the fear of the Civil Liberties Union attacking them for breach of someone’s fundamental human rights!

Most nations have stood firm against this evil while some have bent their knee such as Spain and the Philippines. In the face of a close election in Australia, Prime Minister Howard has shown leadership and courage by denouncing the barbarism and vowing that Australia will never submit to this terrorist blackmail. His opponent vows to withdraw Australian troops from Iraq by Christmas. In the United States, the Democrats and their push-me-pull-me candidate Mr. Kerry, seek to gain votes with the promise of an early disengagement.

Meanwhile, our Prime Minister makes a speech before a mostly empty United Nations General Assembly parading his usual list of platitudes and days later Canada and the UN demonstrate their ongoing incompetence by failing to provide Haitians with any meaningful relief from the devastation of flooding. Well, we did apparently approve a $50,000 expenditure by the Red Cross to “study how best to respond”.

Perhaps Professor Katherine Binhammer of the University of Alberta might agree to divert to Haiti the proceeds of her $62,566 research grant to study “Carnal knowledge: women, desire and seduction narratives in Britain, 1740-1800” or University of Ottawa professors Colette Parent and Christine Bruckert, their $90,806 grant to study “Sex work and intimacy; escorts and their clients”’ or Professor Ryan Rhodes and his U Vic group his $94,616 grant for a study called “Developing a theory-based leisure time walking program”. (National Post September 24, 2004 p. A4) Whatever happened to round numbers? Is it GST that gives us all the 6’s?

Matthew Bramble, it seems little has changed in 233 years!
[1] Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayers and petitions present your requests to God. And the peace of God which transcends all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

The Sad Tale of M.M. and J.H.

Another of my series of unpublished letters to the editor of the Globe and Mail.

What struck me while reading Kirk Makin’s article (Globe & Mail – September 21,2004) on the precedent setting divorce of the lesbians J.H. and M.M., was the role the legal system has played in transforming these two “ordinary” women into unwilling celebrities (accepting as true their claim to that effect).

First, we must remember the Halpern decision introduced the judicial invention of same-sex marriage, under the pretext that to do otherwise would deprive same sex couples of another judicially invented “right” under Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This is a favourite bootstrapping technique of revisionist judges, a fiction built on a fiction.

To Ms. Hannaford, lawyer for J.H. and provider of the convenient eponym for her client, are attributed two statements which are revealing of the direction in which some in our legal system have drifted since entering the fog bank of antinomian hyper-liberalism.

Marriage is nothing more than the result of “our cultural fixation on ‘pairing up’” according to Ms. Hannaford. Armed with this bleak view of the institution that forms the bedrock of our civilization, it is not surprising that Ms. Hannaford’s cynicism has blossomed to the stage where she predicts that in 50% of marriages one spouse would admit that it knew the marriage was over within two days of the ceremony.

Ms. Hannaford is free to hold those views and to express them. We who think her views are patently B.S. need to speak up and be heard, and to hope Ms. Hannaford doesn’t have aspirations for the Bench.

B.J. Buan
Vancouver, BC

Thursday, September 16, 2004

Debunking Chomsky

I attach a review by Keith Windschuttle in New Criterion of the Anti-Chomsky Reader. We could use more of these books to show what feet of clay so many of the liberal intellectual elitists prop themselves up on.

A disgraceful career by Keith Windschuttle

Click to buy the book.

One of the main reasons Noam Chomsky’s political views are taken seriously in universities and the media is because he has an awesome reputation for scientific accomplishment in the field of linguistics. He is among the ten most cited authors in the humanities—trailing only Marx, Lenin, Shakespeare, the Bible, Aristotle, Plato, and Freud—and the only living member of the top ten. Last year The New Yorker called him “one of the greatest minds of the twentieth century.”
Were it not for this status, many of his obsessive and outlandish political ideas would by now have disqualified him from reasoned debate. He thinks every president of the United States since Franklin Roosevelt should have been impeached because “they’ve all been either outright war criminals or involved in serious war crimes.” He claims the United States actively collaborated with the Nazis against the Soviet Union in the latter stages of World War II. He once supported the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia, claiming the genocidal evacuation of Phnom Penh in 1976 was due to a failed rice crop and “may actually have saved many lives.” He describes Israel as a terror state with “points of similarity” to the Third Reich. And he has defended an anti-Semitic French academic who claims the Holocaust was a “historical lie.” Chomsky describes him as nothing more than an “apolitical liberal” whose work is based on “extensive historical research.”

The most devastating articles in the Anti-Chomsky Reader are not those that expose the ideological prejudices, factual misrepresentations, and distorted logic of his political writings but the two at the end of the book that tear up his reputation as one of the towering intellects of our time. Two essays about linguistics reveal Chomsky’s output in that field to be not the work of a rare, great mind but the product of a very familiar kind of academic hack. His reputation turns out not to have been earned by any significant contribution to human understanding but to be the product of a combination of self-promotion, abuse of detractors, and the fudging of his findings.

John Williamson points out that fifty years after the announcement of the “Chomskyan revolution” in linguistics, immense progress has been made in almost every field of science. “We have been to the moon several times,” he writes. “Our way of life depends upon the computer chip.” The work of Einstein, to whom some of Chomsky’s fans compare him, has been confirmed many times and can explain many physical phenomena. But in linguistics, Williamson shows, the results are comparatively trivial. All that Chomskyan grammar can explain is language which is transparent and easily labelled: “first-order” sentences such as The keeper fed the bananas to the monkey. Grammatical formulations of the “second order of difficulty,” such as For there to be a snowstorm would be nice, still remain a mystery.
Moreover, Chomsky has not established a grand new paradigm for his field, and then spent the rest of his life building upon its foundations and encouraging other researchers to do the same, as would have happened had his project been genuinely important. Instead, his work has resembled a pattern all too familiar in the humanities and social sciences of one overblown speculation following another. Williamson writes:

The history of Chomskyan theory is a study in cycles. He announces a new and exciting idea, which adherents to the faith then use and begin to make all kinds of headway. But this progress is invariably followed by complications, then by contradictions, then by a flurry of patchwork fixes, then by a slow unravelling, and finally by stagnation. Eventually the master announces a new approach and the cycle starts anew.

Over Chomsky’s career, these cycles have gone from “transformational grammar and deep structure,” to “universal grammar,” then to “principles and parameters.” The most recent approach, launched in 1995, is called “minimalism.” And what has all this accomplished? Chomskyan theory has not even developed a rational means of explaining why the sentence John was decided to leave early is ungrammatical. If this had been real science, the project would have lost its funding years ago for lack of results.

Robert E. Levine and Paul M. Postal, in an essay appropriately entitled “A Corrupted Linguistics,” are equally critical of Chomsky’s puffed-up promises. They write:
Much of the lavish praise heaped on his work is, we believe, driven by uncritical acceptance (often by nonlinguists) of claims and promises made during the early years of his academic activity; the claims have by now largely proved to be wrong or without real content, and the promises have gone unfulfilled.

Commentators who are not linguists often discern a fundamental contrast between Chomsky’s academic work on linguistics and his non-academic writings about politics. They take the former to be brilliant, revolutionary, and widely accepted, but recognize the latter as radical and controversial.

Levine and Postal, however, both academic linguists, don’t see it this way. Rather than a great divide between his scholarly and popular writings, they find both share the same key properties: “a deep disregard and contempt for the truth, a monumental disdain for standards of enquiry, a relentless strain of self-promotion, remarkable descents into incoherence, and a penchant for verbally abusing those who disagree with him.” They provide four revealing examples: In his earliest and most celebrated book, Syntactic Structures (1957) Chomsky covered up an inconsistency in his theory by publishing a statement about the grammatical rule for passive voice, even though he knew from other work of his own that the statement was untrue. After a dissertation by one of his own doctoral students, John Ross, had shown that one of Chomsky’s purported “universal principles” of grammar was not actually universal, Chomsky refused to give up the principle and simply avoided mentioning Ross’s critique. “The worst aspect of this subterfuge,” Levine and Postal write, “is his touting of a failed principle as a genuine discovery to nonlinguist audiences unprepared to recognize the dishonesty involved.” He cited it in an interview with one credulous reporter and repeated the claim in a much more prominent interview in The New Yorker last year. Levine and Postal record that Chomsky has sometimes rejected proposals made by other linguists, often in the strongest terms, but then later adopted those very proposals himself, without attribution or credit. This occurred with the concept of “deep structure,” which is one of the ideas by which Chomsky is best known to lay audiences. In the 1970s, other linguists showed that “deep structure” was untenable. Chomsky at first defended his idea and ferociously opposed his detractors. He eventually gave away the concept himself in the early 1990s. But in abandoning it, he made no open announcement that he had done so, nor acknowledged the critique whose alternative thesis he adopted. In an effort to disguise his own failures, Chomsky has denigrated the results of scientific research in general. In his 2002 book Nature and Language, he was questioned by two interviewers who, despite being long-time enthusiasts, asked the big and by then embarrassing question about what he considered the “established results” of his work. Instead of producing some actual results, Chomsky chose to scorn the very idea of scientific results. “My own view is that everything is subject to question,” he answered. “Even in the advanced sciences, everything is questionable.” Levine and Postal point out that anyone with the slightest acquaintance with modern physical sciences would recognize this as a grotesque misrepresentation of science’s true nature and its findings. Chomsky was deliberately distorting the status of the numerous genuine discoveries science has made in order to cover up his own inability to produce any. Chomsky’s stance here is particularly hypocritical, given a further point Williamson makes about his recent work. He has lately been attributing physical properties to the elements of language, applying terms used by hard sciences such as physics and chemistry. Chomsky and his followers now employ descriptions such as “light” and “heavy” phrases or “weak” and “strong” attraction between words in an attempt to explain the behavior of verbs and adjectives in the same terms as subatomic particles. Williamson also notes that Chomsky has presented transformational grammar as similar to the chemical sequencing of biochemistry, and appropriated the phrase “principles and parameters” from computer science.

Williamson’s essay is a very amusing read. He recounts exchanges of emails he has had with Chomsky over a range of issues from the American role in World War II to technical aspects of linguistic theory. One exchange was about the role of transitive and intransitive verbs. Chomsky’s thesis is that the rarity of one type of usage of intransitive verbs is such that it provides evidence the human brain has a preference for certain grammatical structures. This, in turn, is evidence for Chomsky’s well-known claim (popularized by his loyal follower Steven Pinker) that grammar is innate and that humans are biologically “hard-wired” for grammar. In one of his emails, Williamson challenged this thesis with a list of ten examples of transitive and intransitive verbs that clearly failed to obey these hard-wired rules. In a footnote, Williamson reveals how intellectually taxing he found this task: “I would like to thank the girls of Hooters at the Jefferson Davis Turnpike location south of Richmond for helping me to compile this list.”
Collier, Horowitz, and their six other authors have produced a book that has long been needed. It provides a penetrating coverage of the disgraceful career of a disgraceful but very influential man, who has so far avoided a criticism as thoroughgoing as this. Steven Morris, Thomas Nichols, and Eli Lehrer provide powerful critical analyses of Chomsky’s writings about Vietnam, Cambodia, the Cold War, and the news media. Two essays by Paul Bogdanor and Werner Cohn examine Chomsky’s compulsive hatred for the state of Israel and his support for neo-Nazi Holocaust deniers.

These days, Chomsky’s denunciations of Israel dispense with the once-familiar distinction between Zionists and Jews. He has become a proponent of outright anti-Semitism. The prospect of Chomsky’s legion of adolescent and academic followers adopting the same stance makes Bogdanor’s and Cohn’s articles particularly depressing. David Horowitz and Ronald Radosh analyze his long career of denouncing the United States, the country that has sustained him for his seventy-four years and given him all that he has.

Anyone who likes seeing such a celebrated leftist being skewered by his own words and arguments will enjoy much of this book hugely, but its overall effect is actually very sobering. What is it about Western intellectual culture, and American academic culture in particular, that has led so many potentially talented people to turn into such blind and hate-filled critics? There is no answer in this book, but it sure makes you wonder.

Keith Windschuttle’s latest book is The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, Volume One, Van Diemen's Land 1803–1847 (Macleay Press).

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Vapours in an Ottawa Train Station

I forced myself to watch some of the tragi-comedy posing as governance going on in the old Ottawa train station.

The vacuity of Mr. Martin's statements is best summed up with the quote below, reported on today. There is no platitude Mr. Martin has heard and not fallen in love with.

"There are going to be times when an added injection of funding is required," he said at the televised meeting. "...I have been told by a number of the leading medical professionals that if what you're going to do is attack wait times, you've really got to attack wait times. You've got to break the back of the problem, and once you've broken the back of the problem, then in fact it becomes much more [manageable]."

Dare we guess how much of our money the government paid to those "leading medical professionals"? I would gladly have given Mr. Martin the same advice for free - at least he would have gotten his money's worth. I would have gladly added some extra advice .

How about: "if you want to make the first step to reach a negotiation Mr. Martin, you need to make the first step to reach a negotiation." Or perhaps something more profound like: "If you want to make a fool of yourself Mr. Martin, just be yourself."

Is there some profundity in Mr. Martin's words that I am missing? Sadly it seems our PM is way over his head. Yesterday he was frequently required to confer sotto voce with his advisors, perhaps trying to understand the numbers in his own proposal to the provinces.

His Health Minister the reclaimed socialist Mr. Dosanjh needed no such counselling, he simply refused to talk about the numbers in his proposal - "I never talk numbers" he said. How NDP of him. Those of us in BC know all too well the NDP's aversion to numbers, unless they measure the funds paid out to their union friends.

A humourous visual aside was the sight of a grossly overweight aide to one of the premier's filling the TV screen scene behind him as she attempted to squeeze back into her chair with a coffee cup in hand, probably returning from her smoke break, while her boss droned on about the need for government to provide better health care.

Surely the muzak is playing Bring On the Clowns on a continuous loop in the background.

Aren't we glad we didn't elect that scary Stephen Harper?

Ben Buan

Monday, September 13, 2004

Injury Time - D.J. Enright - A Recommended Read

I have just finished an intriguing book, Injury Time by D.J. Enright. It is a difficult book to categorize. Enright called it a memoir. Robert Conquest says it is, “Enright at his best in the most arresting and commonplace book for years. His gentle manner makes his occasional sharp judgements all the more devastating.”

He covers many topics - morals, manners, people and especially the English language. It is a witty, acerbic, moving and poignant piece, written while being treated for terminal cancer from which he died at the age of 82, shortly after he completed the book.

Through Enright I was introduced to the literary adjective, ben trovato, meaning "characteristic or appropriate even if untrue". Among his favourite examples was the computer spell check program that refused to accept the opening line of Moby Dick (Call me Ishmael) and offered up in its place – Call me Fishmeal! Another was the advertisement in the West Briton for: “Competent chef required by quality restaurant…No time wasters or pre-Madonnas.”

A poet himself, Enright weaves numerous verses of his work and that of other poets into his meandering look at life and death, including my favourite, a verse by Fergus Allen from his
poem, To Be Read Before Being Born:

No time is allowed for practice or rehearsal
There are no retakes and there isn’t a prompter.
There’s only moving water, dimpled by turbulence
And no clambering out on to the bank
To think things over, as there is no bank.

The book is filled with witty quotes. Enright quotes Thomas Nagel in Mortal Questions, “I should not really object to dying if it were not followed by death”. To this Enright adds his own mordant observation by saying, “others might not really object to death if it were not preceded by dying.”

Here is a typical vignette Enright shares with his readers. They combine his love of the English language, and his concern for how it is being lost through ignorant usage.

A reader of the Times, describing himself as being of a generation for whom grass was for cutting, coke was kept in the coal-shed, and a gay person was the life and soul of the party, tells how relieved he was to find in a certificate of insurance issued by Lloyds that some things hadn’t changed. Under the heading “Words with special meanings, came the gloss: ‘Death means loss of life’

The book is not preoccupied with death, but it is a major theme and Enright’s ability to find humour in almost every facet of his journey is remarkable. He follows the advice of Ulrich in Robert Musil’s, The Man Without Qualities who warned that “you cannot be angry with your own time without harming yourself”. He takes on most of the major issues concerning the demise of our culture, but he does not rail nor rage.

There is a sweetness and gentleness in him as well, illustrated by his description of the cab ride home from hospital following one of his treatments, accompanied by his wife who herself had just undergone an endoscopy. Imagine the mood of these two octogenarians as they enter the cab, yet Enright describes the scene thus:

“Then something happened that almost made it, some of it, worthwhile. The young black cabbie allocated to us was sweet-natured and kind-hearted, above and beyond the call of duty or of any conceivable tip. (He didn’t want one). Every cloud has its silver lining? But this was an avatar, as if some aspect of deity had chosen that moment and place to descend among us. And this would be a good note to end on. On the brink of sudden and happy tears.”

Injury Time, a book to make you laugh and cry.