Friday, March 25, 2016

Shakespeare's Hit Parade

The Complaint of a Lover Forsaken of His Love, 1611-1656

A Poore Soule sate sighing, by a Sicamore Tree.
     O Willow, willow, willow:
His hand on his bosome, his head on his knee,
     O Willow, willow, willow,
     O Willow, willow, willow,
Sing O the greene Willow shall be my Garland.

(mp3 recording:

This old English ballad above is perhaps best known to contemporary audiences from its inclusion in Othello, Act 4, Scene 3, as sung by Desdemona:

DESDEMONA [Singing.]
The poor soul sat singing by a sycamore tree.
Sing all a green willow:
Her hand on her bosom, her head on her knee,
Sing willow, willow, willow:
The fresh streams ran by her, and murmur'd her moans;
Sing willow, willow, willow;
Her salt tears fell from her, and soften'd the stones;
Lay by these:
[Singing.] Sing willow, willow, willow;
Prithee, hie thee; he'll come anon: --
[Singing.] Sing all a green willow must be my garland.

In her Folger Shakespeare Library 400th Birthday Lecture on March 17th, 2016, "From Script to Stage to Script," Oxford Professor Tiffany Stern, author of Documents of Performance in Early Modern England,  sourced Desdemona's song to the ballad sheets from the wonderful EBBA website hosted by the University of California, Santa Barbara; a treasure trove of the type of songs most famously published by Bishop Thomas Percy in 1765 as Reliques of Ancient English Poetry.  

Professor Stern did a thorough and scholarly job of tracing origins and uses of these sorts of popular ballads in Shakespeare's plays, and argued that these sorts of songs, both in performance and in print, promoted Shakespeare while Shakespeare’s plays, on stage and in print,  in turn promoted ballads.

In her talk, Professor Stern made it clear that whether the song had been written by Shakespeare, or whether Shakespeare inserted a hit song from a ballad sheet, it was notable that Shakespearean drama had parallels to contemporary product placement and franchising in hits like Star Wars. Songs in Shakespeare's plays were in a sense the "Top 40" of the Elizabethan and Jacobean ages; theatrical performances concluded with wild dancing as the cast performed a jigg by the likes of Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, Samuel Scheidt, and others Europeans. Hence, "the jig is up" for The End. 

As Professor Stern pointed out, ballad-sellers likewise hawked their wares at the theatre door, in markets, and along the highways and byways of rural England, just like local bands performing cover versions of Rock & Roll Hits. 

My guess is that while sometimes Shakespeare paid the ballad-seller for a song, there may also have been time when payola and plugola at work (though Professor Stern did not go into that) as ballad-sellers 'paid to play,'  to plug their songs on the stage of the Globe or Blackfriar's theatre, or into Hamlet or Othello or The Tempest

However, although Professor Stern is active in the British theatre, as well as a consultant to Shakespearean companies, at her Folger talk appeared to miss the ordinary quality of Shakespeare's musical relationship between song and stage, thus underestimated the extent to which songs have been integral to the stage and screen from Shakespeare's time to the present day. 

What Professor Stern described as an apparently unusual phenomenon struck this listener as merely the way playwrights and scriptwriters have been tied to popular music, whether live or on screen, from Aristophanes to Spielberg.

In her concluding remarks, Professor Stern suggested a need to further investigate whether songs began in plays, or plays utilized pre-existing songs, or something else. That may be a suitable academic project for individual cases. But rather than there being an overarching rule governing this pattern in all the theatre, my educated guess would be that in Elizabethan England, as today, inspiration could go either way: Songs could be written for a play, plays could be based upon a song, or a song and play could be composed simultaneously. 

While there are many possible approaches, I doubt there could be a firm rule, because of the nature of show business itself, where as screenwriter William Goldman famously said, "no one knows anything." The only formula is that there is no formula.

For example, the American Society of Composers and Performers (ASCAP) has an interesting website entitle: Music, Money, Success & the Movies, which states:

Whether the score is dramatic, soothing, romantic, comedic or foreboding, it is an integral part of the fabric of any motion picture.

Music in the movies is an essential element of the filmmaking process and is one of the main factors that helps to determine box office success or failure. Think of a motion picture without music - whether it's an orchestral or synthesizer score, a brand new hit song or a long time standard - and you'll begin to realize the value and contribution of music and lyrics to film. And whether you're a producer, a director, an agent, a composer, a songwriter, a studio executive, a music supervisor, a business affairs executive, or anyone involved in film, or who wants to get involved.
What ASCAP says shows that not much has changed. A song could be a "brand new hit song" or "a long time standard" or something composed just for the film--ditto for a play. Understanding the way music is used today goes a long way to explaining what Shakespeare was up to, as a showman, businessman, writer, producer, actor, and impressario. He included songs of his day because of their value and contribution of lyrics and music to the production.
As ASCAP explains:


Most successful motion pictures use hit songs to create a period flavor, establish a mood...
Most successful motion pictures use hit songs to create a period flavor, establish a mood, give an actor a chance to sing, make people laugh, make people cry, elicit emotions, and create interest in the movie through successful soundtrack albums and hit singles. A film producer who wants to use an existing song in a motion picture must secure the permission of the music publisher to use the composition in the film. Once an agreement is reached as to a fee, the producer will sign what is known as a synchronization or broad rights license, which will give the studio the right to distribute the film theatrically, sell it to television, use the song in motion picture theater trailers or television and radio promos, and sell videos. The synchronization fee received by the music publisher is shared by contract with the songwriter.
As Part One of this website concludes, the ballad-sellers of Shakespeare's day had much in common with Tin Pan Alley, the Brill Building, and ASCAP of today:
Part Two reveals what you need to know about getting your songs into movies and making the right deal. There is nothing worse than to see a film open to rave reviews with a hit soundtrack and an Oscar nomination and know that your song could have been in it... but wasn't...
Likewise, Part Two notes that music composed for a motion picture soundtrack could also be quite lucrative:
The world of the feature film background music composer is not only one of the most creatively stimulating and financially rewarding areas of music, it is also one of the most demanding in terms of musical expertise and training, conducting experience, and discipline in the meeting of rigorous timetables and deadlines...Having a song in a motion picture or composing a score to a film can open up an unlimited number of opportunities and prove to be a lifetime annuity for writers and music publishers.
Bottom Line: Shakespeare's ballad-sellers would probably have been quite familiar with ASCAP's world-view. To understand the relationship between song and stage in Shakespearean  Theatre, it might be a good idea to start with a description of the relationship between composers and producers today, which may not be as different or as hard to understand as one might fear. Shakespeare used music then the way Hollywood uses music now:

For as Lorenzo concludes in The Merchant of Venice (Act IV, Scene 1):

Since naught so stockish, hard, and full of rage
But music for the time doth change his nature.
The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night
And his affections dark as Erebus.
Let no such man be trusted. Mark the music.

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

America's Museum of the Politically Incorrect...

Viktor Pivovarov
(Russian, born 1937)
Plan for the Everyday Objects of a Lonely Man, 1975
Enamel on fiberboard
67¼ x 51¼ in (171 x 130 cm) x 4
Collection Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers
Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union

Across the street from the world headquarters of Johnson and Johnson in New Brunswick, New Jersey sits the Zimmerli Museum of Rutgers University, home to the largest and perhaps best collection of "Forbidden Art" in the world, and certainly in the United States: The Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union, assembled by Norton Townshend Dodge, a millionaire (his father was one of Warren Buffet's original investors) Maryland economics professor who spent the 1950s and 1960s buying art in Russia during economic research trips. 

The collection, originally housed on an 800-acre farm in rural Maryland, is comparable only to that of the Savitsky Museum in Nukus, Karakalpakstan, known to the French as 'Le Louvre des steppes,' and to Americans as subject of Amanda Pope and Tchavdar Georgiev's documentary film: The Desert of Forbidden Art, (as well as a recent controversy involving its director, Maranika Babanazarova, and the government of Uzbekistan).

Thanks to the Dodge Collection, one does not need to caravan  thousands of leagues to the fabled Khorezm Khanate in the oasis between Kyzyl Kum and Kara Kum deserts, in order to see Art that Stalin denounced, and that the Communist Party banned. 

One need only drive to New Jersey.

There are some 20,000 works by a thousand artists from the former Soviet Union given by the Dodges to the Zimmerli museum in 1991, forming a collection originally curated by Professor Alla Rosenfeld, author of Moscow Conceptualism in Context and From Gulag to Glasnost: Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union.

Dodge's life and work are also subject of a 1994 nonfiction book by novelist John McPhee, The Ransom of Russian Art.   There is even a documentary film about the collection, on YouTube, The Russian Concept: Reflections on Russian Non-Conformist Art.

In 2012, the Zimmerli renovated what was now known as its Dodge Wing, highlighting 126 artworks by Grisha Bruskin, Eric Bulatov, Ilya Kabakov, Vitaly Komar, Alexander Melamid, Irina Nakhova, and Oleg Vassiliev, well-known in the New York and International Art World. Others, such as Victor Pivovarov, Boris Shesnikov, and a currently featured artist Vagrich Bakhchanyan may be better understood by Russian (and former Soviet) art mavens who visited the retrospective entitled "Accidental Absurdity" that closed on March 6th.

Sadly, Bakhchanyan committed suicide in 2009.  Although he had been an eminent illustrator in Russia, drawing for the "12 Chairs" section of Literaturnaya Gazeta, as well as making his own avant-garde works "off the books," his American art career never fully flowered, perhaps because anti-Soviet art was as politically incorrect in New York as in Soviet Moscow. There is a moving documentary about him on YouTube, entitled Vagrich and the Black Square, that speaks to his doubly marginalized fate. 

Bakhchanyan's audience in America therefore tended to be among Russian emigres who understood, in the words of Zimmerli associate curator Julia Tulovsky, "Bakhchanyan was an artist who recontextualized the absurdity of everyday life in the USSR to evoke a larger truth about humanity with profound clarity and wit... This is especially true of the slogans he created by subverting official propaganda." 

For example, he turned "We are here to turn life into a fairytale," into, "We are here to turn life into Kafka."  According to Tulovsky, the joke "remains an established colloquialism in former Soviet communities to reference the past (the words fairytale and Kafka sound very similar in Russian). 

The Kafka-esque nature of the Communist system is nowhere more dramatically portrayed than in Boris Sheshnikov's room-size installation, based upon paintings, drawings and prison notebooks depicting his imprisonment in a Siberian prison camp called Vetlosian from 1946-1954. Although he claimed his art to be apolitical, there can be no doubt that the mere documentation of camp life makes Kafka much more striking than just something to be read in a college literature class.

Which brings us to what Tulovsky told me is the masterwork of the collection, Victor Pivovarov's 1974 "Plan for the everyday objects of a lonely man," seen at the top of this blog post. In it, the artist, a children's book illustrator by profession, depicts the limits of the world in which he has autonomy--his apartment, desk, chair, apple, glass of tea, window, weather, and the time he has to enjoy them. Little things, but important things, which any individual deeply appreciates as escapes from the Kafka-esque environment which otherwise surrounds him.  

The sad beauty of that universe says all that needs to be said about the power and limits of Political Correctness. In providing a home to The Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union, the Zimmerli Museum of Rutgers University has done great service to the arts, to freedom, to the Russian soul, and to America.

It's worth a detour to New Brunswick, New Jersey, to see it.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Rise of Trump & Sanders Signals Rise of American Independents

In a blog post titled The Math and the Map, Mark Steyn analyzed Presidential election results from George Bush the First to the present, to conclude that Democrats have may an advantage over Republicans for the foreseeable future due to demographic trends. He blamed Karl Rove's "Red State/Blue State" strategy:

The red state/blue state division has been horribly unhealthy in a civic sense: It's given us the worst of all worlds - a hyperpartisan public discourse that provides a tedious and pointless vaudevillian cover for the cozy bipartisan Washington conspiracy that's screwing over your future 24/7 regardless of who's in office. Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia, Rethuglicans are always at war with Demo-rats, and hey, let's toss another trillion into the great sucking maw of the federal leviathan.

Steyn's analysis of the electoral map discusses America's low voter turnout, but in hewing to a demographic determinist worldview fails to analyze what seems a far more significant development--the rise of Independents at the largest voting bloc in the USA, significantly outnumbering either registered Democrats or Republicans. 

Interestingly, according to the Gallup Poll, 42 percent of Americans now identify as Independent, versus 29 percent Democrat and 26 percent Republican.  

Eight years ago, in 2007, 39 percent of Americans identified as Democrats, and 28 percent Republican. Which means the GOP has lost 10 percent of their electoral market share while Democrats saw 25 percent of their party voters disappear during the same period. 

Which is to say, both parties have been shrinking--but the Democrats have been shrinking more than twice as fast. The rate of change is as significant as the raw numbers involved. And these statistics make one question a purely demographic approach to elections. If Gallup trends are correct, something other than demography is at work.

My guess is that Americans are "voting with their feet" and exiting the two established political parties in disgust. This anti-establishment sentiment is reflected in the rise of Donald Trump in the GOP and Bernie Sanders in the Democratic Party.

It does not hurt either candidate that they were not Party loyalists. Because Americans are voting against both parties. An analysis of the Gallup numbers suggests there is room for new parties among the American electorate at this time. However, it may be the federal regulatory and financing regime established by statute and custom (especially after Ralph Nader cost Al Gore the Presidency in 2000) makes it too difficult for third and fourth parties to compete--until the Supreme Court declares such thumb-on-the-scale incumbency protection unconstitutional, as a violation of the First Amendment.

Which is why both parties are facing insurgencies. Unable to challenge the GOP and Democratic parties externally, the now vocal majority has been forced to do so internally, which explains the bitterness and intensity of the 2016 Election.

In conclusion: the rise of Trump and Sanders signals the rise of American Independents.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

I Have Seen The Hail, Caesar!

Hail, Caesar! is funny for old movie buffs. It pays homage to Hollywood Westerns, Musicals, Drawing Room Melodramas, Film Noir, and Bible Epics, among other genres. It has an All-Star cast, plus nice singing, dancing, and rope tricks. You could play Trivial Pursuit for hours with cinematic references both missed and noticed.

However, in addition to being superb entertainment, the film is  filled with astute political analysis, for the major plot device, upon which the entire story of Hail, Caesar! hinges, is the infiltration of 1950s Hollywood by Communists at every level--from movie extras to screenwriters to stars.

In this film, they work as a criminal gang which calls itself "The Future." Which makes Hail, Caesar! a meditation on the past--a form of Ancient History, with the studios as our American equivalent of Roman Ruins: The Glory that was MGM! The Grandeur that was Paramount!

The type of Biblical Epic in which George Clooney stars in Hail, Caesar! has become so politically incorrect these days that it is now the province of fringe production companies or Mel Gibson. Yet in the 1950s, "the Story of the Christ" was bread-and-butter to Hollywood studios.

In Hail, Caesar! the pivotal Communist cell--named as such by narrator Michael Gambon (Harry Potter's Dumbledore)-- is composed of screenwriters who kidnap and brainwash Hollywood star Baird Whitlock (Clooney) in a Malibu beach house. They subsequently attempt to turn over the ransom money along with a defecting Musical Comedy star to a waiting Soviet submarine, so that it might be used by Moscow to spread revolution--because, they say, merely putting Communist messages in Hollywood films is no longer enough.

In a telling scene, the Hollywood cell is joined by a Professor Marcuse (John Bluthal, Professor Pacoli in The Fifth Element), smoking a pipe and speaking with a German accent, just as the real-life communist professor, who served as intellectual father to the New Left during the 1960s, did. Marcuse's critique of "false consciousness" is alluded to in Bluthals dialectical explanation of history and economics to the kidnapped Clooney.  In his real-world essay "Repressive Tolerance," Marcuse also called for censorship of politically incorrect perspectives:

They would include the withdrawal of toleration of speech and assembly from groups and movements which promote aggressive policies, armament, chauvinism, discrimination on the grounds of race and religion, or which oppose the extension of public services, social security, medical care, etc.

A leading light of the Frankfurt School, as Wikipedia tells us, Marcuse had been an OSS agent during World War II, CIA analyst after that, and eventually chief of the US State Department's Central European section until 1951, when he went into academia and gave birth to the theories calling for revolutionary alliances between students, intellectuals and oppressed classes other than workers (such as Blacks, Hispanics, Women and Homosexuals), since the working class had become unreliable due to material prosperity. He was an influence on Angela Davis, Abbie Hoffman, and others, as well as a friend of scholars like Barrington Moore and Noam Chomsky (who criticized his work).

While presented as satire, the Hollywood cell in Hail, Caesar offers a convincing portrayal of the type of thinking prevalent among Hollywood Communists, including stultifying "study group" meetings, endless discussions of economics and class struggle, and the reading of Soviet Life magazine in luxurious beach houses. The Soviet submarine is undoubtedly a cinematic reference to the 1966 comedy, The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming. The naive faith of the screenwriter-kidnappers in Communism, as portrayed by the Coen Brothers, is one of the finest depictions of the mechanics of the Red Menace in the history of American Motion Pictures.

The Coen brothers are telling us with their nostalgic pastiche of 1950s movies, that the Golden Age of the studio moguls has ended forever--and that, unfortunately, Hollywood is no longer able to continue what Parker Tyler called the "Magic and Myth of the Movies" because that studio system is dead.

Which means that Hail, Caesar is a very funny movie with a very serious message--because "The Future" has arrived, and every one of the genre pictures shown in the film could no longer be made today due to withdrawal of toleration advocated by Profesor Marcuse, as enforced by his Hollywood disciples today.

So, go out and see Hail, Caesar! before the protests begin...

Friday, January 22, 2016

Election 2016: New York v New York v New York (?)

LARRY KING: This is one tough town, is it not.
BOB BENNETT: New York is a tough town, Larry. This is a mean town.
--Talking about Washington, DC in Anything Goes!: What I've Learned from Pundits, Politicians, and Presidents

The moment of truth in the January 15, 2016 Republican Presidential Debate on Fox Business Channel came in response to a question from Maria Bartiromo, who asked Texas Senator Ted Cruz to explain his charge that Donald Trump "embodies New York values." Cruz responded:

CRUZ: friend Donald has taken to...playing Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA”, and I was asked what I thought of that. And I said, “well, if he wanted to play a song, maybe he could play, ‘New York, New York’?” And — and — you know, the concept of New York values is not that complicated to figure out.

In returning fire, Trump's passionate defense of New York's response to 9/11 gained him sympathetic press coverage, and in my opinion, won him the Republican nomination:

TRUMP: So conservatives actually do come out of Manhattan, including William F. Buckley and others, just so you understand. 


And just so — if I could, because he insulted a lot of people. I’ve had more calls on that statement that Ted made — New York is a great place. It’s got great people, it’s got loving people, wonderful people.

When the World Trade Center came down, I saw something that no place on Earth could have handled more beautifully, more humanely than New York. You had two one hundred...


... you had two 110-story buildings come crashing down. I saw them come down. Thousands of people killed, and the cleanup started the next day, and it was the most horrific cleanup, probably in the history of doing this, and in construction. I was down there, and I’ve never seen anything like it.

And the people in New York fought and fought and fought, and we saw more death, and even the smell of death — nobody understood it. And it was with us for months, the smell, the air. And we rebuilt downtown Manhattan, and everybody in the world watched and everybody in the world loved New York and loved New Yorkers. And I have to tell you, that was a very insulting statement that Ted made.


But the issue of New York raised by Cruz in what looked like a cheap and divisive attempt to play on regional prejudices, is far more significant than a debate over the definition of conservatism.  It  illuminated, like lightning, the contested terrain of the 2016 Presidential campaign. 

For if Election 2008 was about the unfinished business of the Civil Rights Era which resulted in America's first African-American President to fulfill the dream of racial equality; then Election 2016 is about unfinished business of 9/11, and will result in the election of a New Yorker who can finally fully avenge the attack on the Twin Towers by Islamic Fundamentalism--an attack which occurred under a Texan President for whom Ted Cruz worked.

And that means at the very least that it looks like the next President of the United States will be from New York. 

As it so happens, both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump were born in New York City and so there can be no question of their New York bona fides. Sanders grew up in Brooklyn, Trump in Queens.

Interestingly, although born in Chicago and a Washington DC homeowner,  thus not a "natural born New Yorker," Hillary Clinton claims she lives in New York and served one term as Senator. At this point the former First Lady is a legal resident of the state, and her daughter and granddaughter live in New York City. Therefore, she is likely the exception that proves the rule.

Personal styles distinguish Sanders and Trump from Hillary, more than sex differences. 

Both Sanders and Trump are "Authentic New York Style."  What's more, both Sanders and Trump are "Old School." They talk like New York cab drivers and construction workers used to talk--outer borough "dese, dem and dose." If Donald Trump is Archie Bunker, then Sanders is Meathead--they could live together under one roof, dependent upon one another, although resentfully. They may argue, they may fight, but they are family.

In addition, Sanders and Trump remind Americans of how New Yorkers acted before 9/11. (Since 9/11, New Yorkers have seemed more subdued, in my opinion). Both led successful careers as, respectively, brash political and business leaders who were also  abrasive, opinionated, and outspoken New Yorkers. Both Sanders and Trump have had multiple marriages, and Sanders additionally has a love child.

It is obvious that Sanders and Trump lack what contemporary pundits call a "filter." They are both politically incorrect, coming at their deviationism from divergent origins: Sanders because he does not disguise his socialism; Trump because he does not disguise his patriotism. Yet, both socialism and nationalism are incompatible with Islamic Fundamentalism. 

On the other hand, Hillary Clinton mere's existence as a public figure reminds Americans of politically correct Establishment post-9/11 discourse and defeatism. As First Lady, she was part of a Clinton administration which failed to prevent the 1993 Al Qaeda World Trade Center attack or defeat Bin Laden. Later, as both Senator and Secretary of State she likewise failed to defeat Islamic Fundamentalism. Indeed, she had a close personal staffer with ties to the same Muslim Brotherhood that spawned Al Qaeda, ISIS, HAMAS and an alphabet soup of terror groups around the world.

Indeed, unlike Sanders and Trump, who have been successful their entire careers, Hillary Clinton has not--she failed as First Lady, by allowing scandal to mar the dignity of the Presidency; she failed as Senator to pass meaningful legislation; and she failed as Secretary of State to preserve global peace and stability or protect the nation. Whether or not she is indicted as a criminal is a secondary to her record in public service--in positions which apparently depended entirely upon "standing by her man," an ironic position for a purported feminist dedicated to women's liberation. Her only unique campaign weapon at this point is that she is a woman--which may become a sword to be used against her by two cranky old men from New York City.

Bottom line: New York has already won Election 2016. 

The remaining question is who will serve as New York's champion in the coming administration, in order to avenge the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001: Brooklyn's Bernie Sanders, Queens's Donald Trump...or Hillary Clinton?

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

A Discourse on "Critical Thinking"

On a Christmas vacation road trip, I had a chance to listen to the audiobook of Russell Shorto's informative Descartes' Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason.

Descartes' Bones is a historical detective story which traces the missing skull and bones of the father of philosophical rationalism, scientific method and the Enlightenment. In Shorto's account, Descartes is a secular saint whose relics became objects of devotion for the French, the Swedes (Queen Christina was an admirer), the Catholic Church as well as modern Science (his skull is in the anthropological collection of the Musée de l'Homme in Paris).

Descartes was famous for his declaration: "Cogito ergo sum" (I think therefore I am). This became the basis of both metaphysical skepticism, Cartesian dualism, and the unity of scientific knowledge that led to the Age of Reason, the American and French Revolutions, and the modern world.  Quote:

Thus, all Philosophy is like a tree, of which Metaphysics is the root, Physics the trunk, and all the other sciences the branches that grow out of this trunk, which are reduced to three principals, namely, Medicine, Mechanics, and Ethics. By the science of Morals, I understand the highest and most perfect which, presupposing an entire knowledge of the other sciences, is the last degree of wisdom.

In Shorto's view, today's way of life in America and Europe likewise grows like a tree from Descartes's Method, and the Enlightenment undergirds Western Civilization under challenge from Islamic Fundamentalism. The story of Descartes' bones is intended to remind us of the roots of our way of thinking.  The bones were swept up in the conflicts of the era. Likewise,  during his lifetime Descartes had fled France and Holland to die in Sweden, because of hostility to his ideas from Catholic clerics.

Shorto concludes his tale with an interview of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Dutch Somali Member of Parliament who fled Holland for the United States under threat of death after the murder of her artistic collaborator Theo van Gogh, following release of their 2004 anti-Fundamentalist film, Submission

For Descartes, thinking was enough to bring about a revolution. The noun sufficed, without adjectival assistance (although Descartes did have a Method).

Today, it appears, not so much. Currently, thinking appears to have been replaced by so-called "Critical Thinking." At least as taught in schools, colleges, universities, as well as in business around the world. In England, there are GCE exams (A-levels) H052 and H452 in Critical Thinking--but not in Thinking. According to the website:

Critical Thinking is a skills-based rather than content-based A Level. It develops the ability to interpret, analyse and evaluate ideas and arguments and can support thinking skills in all subject areas, from arts and humanities to sciences.

On its face, it seems that there would be little room for objection to the Cambridge exam description, (except for the typo):

The Cambridge Assessment definition of Critical Thinking
Critical Thinking is the analytical thinking which underlies all rational discourse and enquiry. It is characterised by a meticulous and rigorous approach.
As and (sic) academic discipline, it is unique in that it explicitly focuses on the processes involved in being rational.
These processes include:
  • analysing arguments
  • judging the relevance and significance of information
  • evaluating claims, inferences, arguments and explanations
  • constructing clear and coherent arguments
  • forming well-reasoned judgements and decisions.
Being rational also requires an open-minded yet critical approach to one’s own thinking as well as that of others.

The study of critical thinking will equip candidates with reasoning skills to use in life, work and further academic study. It provides opportunities for candidates to think deeply, and in a structured way, about issues that are key to participating in society, e.g. ethical questions, cultural issues and issues of personal responsibility. It enables them to make reasoned decisions that are based on evidence and argument rather than assumption and prejudice.

The Advanced Subsidiary GCE specification gives an introduction to the concepts, principles and techniques that underlie critical thinking and expands their application to a range of contexts. It provides a discrete package of material, providing those candidates who do not wish to progress to A2 with a knowledge and understanding of critical thinking that is applicable to the study of a range of academic and vocational subjects.

The A2 part of the Advanced GCE specification incorporates greater depth of understanding, analysis and evaluation across a range of wider and more challenging contexts. It provides a foundation for further study of academic and vocational subjects, as well as forming part of a general education, or an enrichment programme, at Advanced Level. Candidates will find critical thinking skills of great benefit in preparing for a wide range of careers, including the fields of law, academic research (e.g. in the disciplines of science, arts and humanities), social science, journalism, medicine, business, accounting and engineering

The official definition echoes the promotion of "Critical Thinking" as a once-upon-a-time classically liberal response to the rise of Fascism and Stalinism during World War II, drawing upon progressive educational ideas of John Dewey. 

In this sense,  Edward Maynard Glaser's 1941 publication, An Experiment in the Development of Critical Thinking, was seminal.  Obviously, the issue at the time was how to develop fair-minded and independent thinkers who would not fall under the sway of authoritarian or totalitarian ideologies sweeping the globe. 

Education in "Critical Thinking" was therefore intended as a continuation of the Enlightenment, of the liberal arts as artes liberales--arts worthy of free people; that is, knowledge needed to participate in civic other words: Civilization. 

However, while many lay persons may still understand "Critical Thinking" in these traditional terms, and some tests used by business, like the Glaser-Watson instrument, concentrate on fairly objective problem-solving techniques; by the 1960s, changes in the social sciences had begun to shift the tectonic plates of education. 

Robert H. Ennis's 1962 article, A Concept of Critical Thinking, published in the Harvard Educational Review, was a little more complicated and indeed mystifying:

The author has attempted to fill a gap which he perceives to exist in the literature on thinking. He has identified twelve aspects of critical thinking (construed as ‘the correct assessing of statements’) and elaborated a system of criteria to be applied in it. The relevance of his enquiry for the schools is implied in the title and is close to the author's attention throughout the article. 

These efforts corresponded with the introduction of so-called "New Math," SRA Readers, and other attempts to replace traditional subjects with more scientific and technologically advanced skill-sets. Thinking had been narrowed to "critical thinking," that is, "the correct assessing of statements." It was a way of avoiding ideological conflicts in what Daniel Bell had asserted was a post-ideological age (conveniently, a way to avoid dealing with the Red Menace of the the McCarthy Era). Where "Critical Thinking" had once been seen a bulwark of freedom, it now would become a value-free technique.

Bad enough on its face, rather like the replacement of belle lettres with "New Criticism," or philosophical concerns about the "Good Life" with dry British Analytic, Ordinary Language Philosophy...but that was not the end of the story.

The next stage was transformation of the meaning of the word "critical." Instead of referring to  criticism of ideas and arguments, the new "Critical Thinkers" would criticize social classes--they would apply Marxist critique, based upon a form of "Critical Theory" employed by Georg Lukacs, Antonio Gramsci, and Herbert Marcuse, among others. 

As Stephen Brookfield concludes in The Praeger Handbook of Education and Psychology, "how the term critical is used inevitably reflects the ideology and worldview of the user." He goes on to explain that analytic approaches merely attempt to explain the world--while critical approaches evaluate "how they maintain an unjust status quo." Criticism is re-defined in class terms as "critical distancing from, and then oppositional engagement with, the dominant culture."  That is to say: 

As an educational activity ideology critique focuses on an awareness of how capitalism shapes social relations and imposes--often without our knowledge--belief systems and assumptions that justify and maintain political and economic inequity. Conceptualizing critical thinking within this tradition unites cognition with political consciousness to define it as the ability to recognize and challenge oppressive practices. When informed by ideology critique one could argue that a prime indicator of critical thinking would be skepticism of the very standardized critical thinking tests generally used to assess it!

In other worlds, the liberal anti-authoritarian concept of critical thinking developed to fight Fascism has been transformed into an anti-liberal concept employed to fight classical Liberalism. "Critical Thinking" had turned Thinking on its head--the term transformed into tool employed to discredit rational thought and logical analysis...a precursor to what eventually became known as "Political Correctness."

One simple solution would to be to return to traditional conceptions of Thinking, to teach students how to think for themselves and express their own ideas in writing, and thereby return education to the study of classical liberal arts, artes liberales for a free people; focusing the curriculum on liberating subjects based upon Enlightenment principles that inspired Descartes, Leibniz and Spinoza.

In conclusion: "Critical Thinking" as a euphemism for Marxist indoctrination has no place in the school curricula of a free society.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Mr. Steyn Goes To Washington

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) talks to witness Mark Steyn at Tuesday's Hearing on Climate Change
held by the Senate Space, Science and Competitiveness Subcommittee

Writer Mark Steyn had a Mr Smith Goes to Washington afternoon last Tuesday, when he testified in the Space, Science and Competitiveness Subcommittee's magnificently ornate Senate Russell Office Building Hearing Room 253 in a hearing chaired by Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) titled "Data or Dogma? Promoting Open Inquiry in the Debate over Human Impact on Earth's Climate".  

In a post on SteynOnline entitled Markey Mark, Steyn was bitter about his confrontation with Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) as an expert witness, condemning the U.S. Senate as an institution--despite beating the odds by getting a Senator to answer a question from a witness, a very unusual if not unprecedented occurrence. But that very colloquy shone a spotlight on just how contentious and treacherous the issue of climate change has become--global warming revealed as a political "hot potato."

Intended to showcase climate data analysis from dissenting scientists, just as the COP-21 meetings also known as the Paris Climate Conference were taking place, the afternoon's hearing began  dramatically, when a Greenpeace activist approached noted Princeton physics professor Dr. William Happer for an ambush interview captured on video posted to YouTube:

Apparently there had been a protest rally prior to the hearing, objecting to allowing the dissidents to testify in the first place. So, perhaps this confrontation may have been designed to mau-mau a witness--Dr. Happer had, Wikipedia reported, been "stung" by Greenpeace before. In any case, nerves were obviously raw from the get-go, and there didn't appear to be much staff support for Dr. Happer during the ugly incident.

Seated a few rows behind the confrontation, I noticed a young man standing oddly, pressing his chest firmly against Steyn's. They looked like two wildebeest in a National Geographic nature documentary. The straining duo were soon separated by a policewoman. After watching the video, it turned out that Steyn had been trying to prevent fisticuffs, interposing his person between the outraged witness and his Javert. Steyn was acting as bodyguard. 

It seemed odd that that what ought to have been a cold-blooded discussion of scientific data points could produce so much heat. Who could have guessed that looking at temperature charts and graphs could set blood boiling?

In any case, following this brief clash, the hearing commenced with opening statements from Senators in attendance. 

Immediately, another phenomenon was obvious. 

Apparently, all the Democratic subcommittee members were present and accounted for: Senator Tom Udall, (D-NM), the Ranking Member; Senator Ed Markey (D-MA); Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ); Senator Gary Peters (D-MI); Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI). Also in attendance,  the Ranking Member of Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL). 

In Washington, as Woody Allen once joked, ninety percent of success is showing up. All the Democrats showed up.  

However, John Thune (R-SD), Chairman of the full committee, was a no-show. 

Thus, the most senior Senator present for the hearing, in an institution dedicated to Seniority (hence the name "Senate"), was a Democrat. 

Only one other Republican was present on the dais, Senators Steve Daines (R-MT). All the other G.O.P. members, including Marco Rubio (R-FL), Jerry Moran (R-KS), and Dan Sullivan (R-AK) were absent. Message: I don't care.

So the signal from the G.O.P. was clear: Chairman Cruz was almost home alone, while the Democrats were united. 

Given the rules of the Senate, where question-and-answer time at a hearing is allocated among Senators, as opposed to witnesses, it meant that the Democrats would enjoy a 6-2 advantage during the proceedings. Cruz had obviously failed to garner the support of his subcommittee. While he could chair the hearing as a personal prerogative, he would not be able to control the questioning, nor would he be able to count on the intercession of Republican Senators to  back up witnesses, should they be browbeaten or ignored.

The layout of the witness table revealed serious shortcomings in subcommittee staff work as well. Alongside Steyn were Dr. John Christy, Distinguished Professor of Atmospheric Science and Director of the Earth System Science Center, University of Alabama in Huntsville;  Dr. Judith Curry, Chair of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, Georgia Institute of Technology;  Dr. William Happer, Cyrus Fogg Bracket Professor of Physics, Princeton University; and Dr. David Titley (Rear Admiral, USN (ret.)), Professor of Practice, Department of Meteorology, Pennsylvania State University, Director, Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk.

While Steyn and Professors Christy, Curry and Happer were Majority witnesses, called by the G.O.P. to raise questions about purported climate change data, Dr. Titley was a Minority witness, called by the Democrats. Given the attendance at the hearing, that meant for every two questions asked by two Republicans of four witnesses, six could be asked by Democrats of one witness. 

The principle of most Senate hearings is that Democrats call on Minority witnesses. and Republicans call on Majority witnesses. So, some back-of-the-envelope arithmetic shows that before one word had been spoken, Dr. Tilley would have  had 30 minutes during each round of questioning (6 Democratic Senators x 5 minutes) versus each of the others, who could be recognized for only 2.5 minutes each, if all were called upon equally (2 G.O.P. Senators x 5 minutes = 10 minutes / 4 witnesses = 2.5 minutes).

While subcommittee staff might not be able to command Senators to attend when the Chairman is unable to persuade them, staff could have arranged separate panels of Majority and Minority witnesses, so that Democrats would not have been able to dominate the questioning of Republican experts. In order to give a hearing to the complainants, Majority witnesses could have been scheduled first, then Minority witnesses on a second panel. It would have been fairer to the experts themselves--two of whom left the hearing room early after being alternately ignored and insulted by the Democrats: Dr. Christy, perhaps the world's leading authority on satellite remote sensing of global temperatures related to climate change; and Dr. Curry, author of Thermodynamics of Atmospheres and Oceans.

In the end, unfortunately, the hearing resembled farcical scenes with Senator Dilworthy in Mark Twain's satirical novel of Washington, The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today.

As someone who has testified before Congress in a similarly controversial debate, I would say based upon my experience that it is likely that poor staff work by the Majority permitted subcommittee witnesses to be abused by the Minority and the hearings to become a circus. 

For example, subcommittee staffers did not even manage to arrange for C-Span coverage of a hearing with a celebrity witness chaired by a Presidential candidate on one of the hottest topics in politics: Global Climate Change. Likewise, there was no coverage in major media such as network news, The New York Times, or Washington Post.

Indeed, during the hearing it was Mark Steyn, rather than either Republican Senator, who came to the rescue of a damsel in distress, when Senator Markey insulted Professor Curry's integrity as a scientist, then wouldn't allow her to respond. Stein demanded that the Senator allow her a right of reply, which resulted in an unusual colloquy, also captured in a YouTube video:

Only later, when Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI) denied Steyn a right of reply, did Chairman Cruz recognize the witness himself:

Bottom line: While he deserves credit for raising important issues and inviting climate dissidents to present their concerns before the Senate, Chairman Cruz and his staff failed to properly manage the hearings to insure that expert witnesses were respected and their message communicated clearly to the public.

If Senator Cruz seriously wants to be elected President of the United States, he'll need to show he can do a better job of managing his own subcommittee.