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What To Read on a Dreary Winter Night

These are the times that try men’s souls, what with the cold winter nights and the over-heated days of politics and economics and culture and the rest of the bad news blowing by, so our first instinct is to curl up in bed with a good book. Lately our preference has been for P.G. Wodehouse and S.J. Perelman and Evelyn Waugh and similarly fatalistic humorists of the even drearier past, but we always advise the young folks that there’s also something to be said for more sober fare.
In our meanderings around the internet we happened upon the reading lists that students at the supposedly top colleges in the United States are now dutifully poring through, and all in all we were happily surprised. Based on the reports we’re reading from academia and the impression we’ve gleaned from conversations with its more recent graduates, we’d assumed that all that was required for a degree these days was a smidgen of politicized science and some multi-cultural mathematics along with a passing familiarity with such commie agitprop as “A People’s History of America” and “Wretched of the Earth,” along with a representative sampling of fiction from the ever-expanding universe of racial and sexual identities. The reading list does confirm these suspicions in some cases, but the young-uns are also getting some sterner stuff.
Apparently the most-taught work of fiction at America’s colleges is Mary Wollstonecraft-Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” with Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” coming in a close second, which is somewhat worrisome. Not that they’re bad books — we thought “Frankenstein” a fun-to-read and better-than-the-movie horror story with a few interesting philosophical implications when we picked it up the summer vacation after sixth grade, and we found all the flatulence and fornication in “Canterbury Tales” most amusing when it was assigned to us in junior high, so we won’t deny them their rightful place in the Canon — but we suspect they’re on the list for the wrong reasons. It’s not just that a college student should have already surpassed our sorry-assed inner-city junior high’s requirements well before entering a “top university,” but also a nagging suspicion that Wollstonecraft-Shelley is mostly there because she’s a woman, albeit a white woman from a certain high class and ornate literary tradition,  and because she’s offering a cautionary tale about science and all the rest of that worrisome western civilization stuff, and that Chaucer is still there despite being not only dead and white but also male only as a reminder that white men were always telling smutty jokes.
We also note, with a Wollstonecraft-Shelley sense of horror, the complete absence of William Shakespeare from the most-taught lists of any of the “top colleges” in the United States. Although we grant that The Bard is about as dead and white and male as an author can get, well, c’mon, he’s still The Bard. If even he can’t crash the glass quota ceiling, what chance we do we still-living yet mere mortal white males stand of getting a future reading? And that’s not to mention academia’s apparent complete lack of familiarity with The Holy Bible and its even more formidable author.
We have not read the most-assigned history text, “America: A Narrative History,” by George Brown Tindall and David Emory Shi, but we’re going to tentatively assume it’s commie agitprop, and nor have we read the second-most assigned, Anne Moody’s “Coming of Age in Mississippi,” which is described as “a memoir of life by an African-American woman in Jim Crow America,” but while we don’t doubt that it’s a worthy book neither do we doubt why it supersedes other worthy books about the broader American history. “The Communist Manifesto” is the third most-taught history book, and top title in sociology departments, which made sense when we read it way back in the Cold War days to familiarize ourselves with the enemy’s wicked ideology and wily ways, but in these days of Bernie-mania it’s probably offered as a how-to manual.
Still, we found some solace in the broader reading list. Plato’s “Republic” is somehow the overall most-assigned text at the supposed “top ten” colleges, despite his deadness and whiteness and maleness, and although his ancient Greekness might earn him some some sympathy from the homosexual lobby we’d like to think he’s there as a starting point for the best of Hellenic thought. Number two is Thomas Hobbes’ “The Leviathan,” which is most surprising and especially pleasing to us. Most surprising because Hobbes is just as dead and white and male as Shakespeare as ever was, and especially delightful because we recall arguing with some adjunct teaching assistant and annoying Rousseau-ian fellow who hangs out at Kirby’s Beer Store haranguing about peak oil and how humanity’s gone downhill ever since agriculture and how we all need to get to back to the caves, and when we quoted “The Leviathan’s” old line about life in a state of nature being “nasty, brutish, and short,” which we usually use only when telling mother-in-law jokes, he sneered at us and scoffed that “Nobody reads Hobbes any more.”
Coming in at number three is Niccolo Machiavelli’s “The Prince,” which seems so timely we’re not altogether surprised. Although he’s also dead and white and male, Machiavelli was the first to explain the “Chicago Way” that has defined the past seven years of the Obama administration, as well as the methodology of the front-running Republican candidate who hopes to succeed it, and we expect it will be useful to students in all majors from business administration to community organizing. Downright stunning is the fourth-place finisher, Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations,” an extraordinary work of scholarship that frankly describes western civilization’s unavoidable conflicts with other cultures, including the ones that are usually politely left unmentioned in most of academia, and doesn’t recommend capitulation. If even one righteous man could have redeemed Sodom and Gomorrah, perhaps such a righteous book as “Clash of Civilization” will spare even modern academia from God’s wrath.
Our well-worn copy of Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style,” still occupying a place of honor on our reference book shelf, right there next to the “Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual” and “The Complete Hoyle,” also takes its place as the fifth-most assigned book in academia. We have mixed feelings about that, as we think that the venerable pair’s rules of plain English represent a vast improvement over the current academic jargon and jibber-jab, but we also think they’re sometimes plain to the point of Amishness. Aristotle’s “Ethics” comes in sixth, continuing the lessons of that dead white male Hellenic thing, and we’re glad to see that. Thomas Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” comes in seventh, and we freely concede that we have not read that yet, although the title sounds intriguing and we eagerly await the movie showing up on Netflix.
Another happy sight on the top ten is Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America,” which describes a ruggedly individualistic and rapidly expanding nation of free association and town hall government and a European-galling whisky-swigging and church-going capitalism, a happy time before the Chicago Way took over. The ninth and tenth spots went to “The Communist Manifesto” and Aristotle’s “The Politics,” respectively, and we’d like to think that at least evens out.
They’re still teaching Max Weber’s thesis on “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” at Princeton, along with Thucydides and Henry Kissinger, and Harvard top pick is Martin Luther King’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” with all its dangerous talk of God and natural law and resisting unjust laws of government but not undermining the very notion of law, and we’re guessing it’s good news that Harvard also has “Principles of Corporate Finance” on its own top ten books. Over at Yale the Federal Reserve Bank’s “Quarterly Review” comes in just ahead of Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” proving that black lives matter to proper Elis but do so those portfolios, and all the other swank colleges have some good reads on their students’ lists. There’s the usual commie agitprop, of course, but we expect the good stuff will make a stronger impression.
We do hope those hard-working students will find some time, in between their studies and protests and “culture of rape” social lives to enjoy some Wodehouse or Perelman or Waugh or other humorous fatalist. We recommend “The Things that are Caesar’s” and “This Town Is Nowhere” or anything by that Mark Twain guy, and we expect that you’re going to get an education one way or another.

— Bud Norman

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The Greeks and the Rest of Us

The situation in Greece seems hopeless, no matter how its citizens vote on an emergency referendum Sunday, and the rest of the world seems in pretty sorry shape as well.
Apparently nobody in Greece can understand the 72-word question being put to the voters, assuming that the government is able to print up enough ballots and get them distributed to all the polling places on time, and it’s certainly Greek to us. So far as we can gather, however, a “yes” vote is for accepting the European Union’s seemingly generous offer to continue the loans that have been keeping the Greek economy barely afloat, although in exchange for draconian budget cuts and other austerity measures that will almost certainly be painful to the already pained average Greek, and a “no” vote likely means a Greek exit — or “Grexit,” as it’s become known — from the EU and its onerous demands as well as extravagant promises of continued government largesse, although in reality it will more likely cause the complete collapse of the Greek economy and start causing all those ample government checks to bounce right out of the last of the country’s failing banks.
The very young and stupid Greek Prime Minister and his socialist party are backing the “no” vote, on the argument that it will allow him to negotiate an even more generous deal with his EU creditors, but only the most rash would predict how that might turn out. Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and that the rest of the EU elite would obviously prefer not to lose a charter member of their club, which might bolster the growing number of Eurosceptics in Britain and other important countries as well, and make it embarrassingly clear that their essential organizing policy of a one-size-fits-all currency for a fissiparous coalition of 28 countries that still stubbornly cling to some sense of national interest and have very differently-sized economies was unworkable all along. On the other hand, Greece has become so unproductive and such a pain in the EU’s economic posterior that the club might well decide it is best rid of it, and that if Greece instead becomes a client of Moscow that it would be a small victory for what remains of the West in the renewed Cold War.
In any event, the Greeks will still wind up broke and rioting in the streets against the reality that they can’t forever keep on sending out retirement checks to 50-year-olds and unemployment checks to the more than 50 percent of the 20-somethings who are without jobs and taxing the in-betweens to such an extent that they’ve all stopped paying taxes and produce children and future taxpayers at a dwindling rate and have it all total up to about half the country’s gross domestic product, even if has seemed to work just fine up to now. These schemes always work out for while, and it’s so great when they do that the mean-spirited fuddy-duddies who warned that it would all come to a bad end are thoroughly discredited, but eventually reality intrudes and it does come to bad end and there’s nothing for the idealistic and generous to do but riot in the streets. One is tempted to shake his head in pity and disgust at the Greeks, who once upon a long-ago time gave the world Plato and Aristotle and Euripides and Aristophanes and Sappho and all sorts of intriguing ideas about human nature, but those same long-ago Greeks have taught us to notice that such weakness to temptation is by no means a uniquely Greek thing.
While the Eurocentric American media has mostly paid attention to Greek’s travails, a few stories have leaked out that Puerto Rico is also on the verge of default and bankruptcy. The same sort of extravagant promises made by politicians, and eagerly believed a majority of the country’s voters, have led a large portion of the island’s residents to take advantage of its immigration relationship with the United States and move mainland, which of course has contracted the economy and increased the need for government relief and raised the debt and further hindered the economy and forced more people to flee. Greeks and Puerto Ricans are relatively minor players in the world economy, but Chicago, the third-largest city of the first or second largest economy depending on your accounting methods, whose municipal bonds are now rated as junk, is finding that the promises made to and believed by its vast number of its public servants were a few billion dollars more extravagant than its dwindling number of taxpayers could keep. Similar situations prevail in numerous other American cities and counties and states, as well, and of course the the debt of the federal government is keeping a relative pace with that of Greece. Unlike Greece in its post-Drachma days the United States can keep printing greenbacks to service that debt, and unlike the Euro or the Drachma the greenback is the world’s reserve currency, which seems to be working up to now, but only the rash would predict how that’s likely to turn out.
Lest we sound unduly pessimistic about America so soon before the Fourth of July, we would also note that China, which is the first or second largest economy in the world depending on which accounting method you believe, also has its debt woes. Even in the still more-or-less Communist country felt obliged to make extravagant promises to the people, the people were eager to believe, and now they’re stuck with the gargantuan tab for giant ghost cities and other ambitious make-work projects. Similar examples of human beings succumbing to human nature be found all over the globe, and probably in at least one of the countless tax jurisdictions where you live, and at various points throughout human history.
In between those various points of human history when the clash extravagant promises and economic reality turned out very badly, there were periods of prosperity and the self-sufficiency of citizens and the resultant improvement in human achievement that resulted from the lessons that had been so painfully learned. They all ended when enough time had past that the lessons were forgotten and the extravagant promises became all the more enticing, but the process tends to repeat itself.
There’s some faint hope, we suppose, that here in America these lessons will be re-learned from the examples of Greece and Puerto Rico and China and Chicago and the rest of the bankrupt parts of the world, and that perhaps the inevitable crisis can be forestalled until the next presidential election when the people will choose correct course. Only the most rash would predict how that might turn out, though. Our guess is that the next presidential election will more likely be about homosexual marriage and the latest celebrity’s sex-change operation and subsidized condoms the Confederate battle flag and whatever shiny objects the media might find, and of course the extravagant promises that politicians always make the people are always eager to believe. For now, at least, it all seems to be working out, or at least well enough to make those further extravagant promises sound plausible.

— Bud Norman