Last year, the University of Michigan funded a one-semester Inclusive Language Campaign to “raise awareness” about the offensiveness of certain words and phrases. It kicked off with a sort of big tent revival where 400 students and staff “signed a pledge to avoid using harmful language and to strive for inclusive dialogue.”
Permanence may be the illusion of every age, but predictions are hard, and so history is littered with Paul Ehrlichs and Harold Campings whose premonitions of apocalypse fail to come true. Yet one does also see the occasional Cassandra, whose warnings go unheeded until too late. It thus seems understandable that James Piereson, president of the William E. Simon Foundation and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, hedges his bets in Shattered Consensus: The Rise and Decline of America’s Postwar Political Order, his new book about the imminent collapse of the political order that has dominated America since World War II.
Tuvia Tenenbom is one of a kind, as is this extraordinary book. Born in Israel and the son of an ultra-orthodox rabbi, Tenenbom rebelled. He left both Israel and religious orthodoxy, obtained advanced degrees in mathematics and literature, founded the Jewish Theater in New York—for which he has written sixteen plays—and became a columnist in German and English.
In his 1948 essay, Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, T.S. Eliot argued that the highest levels of culture are only attainable by relatively small groups of people, and that in order for a civilization to sustain high culture a class system of some kind is necessary. Because culture is transmitted primarily through the family and religion—not schools—and because it relies to a large extent on these particular loyalties for its perpetuation, when these institutions fail, “we must expect our culture to deteriorate.”
Edward Said once famously took the scholar Bernard Lewis to task over the history of the Arabic word for “revolution”—thawra. In an essay called “Islamic Concepts of Revolution,” Lewis had traced the term’s usage back to the classical period of the language, and presented evidence showing that it had acquired its current sense only in the 19th century. Before this, Lewis had argued, it would have been more accurately translated by the English terms “excitement,” “uprising,” or, at the most, “rebellion,” having originated in a verb form which literally meant “‘rise up’ (e.g. of a camel).”
In his short story “On Exactitude in Science,” Jorge Luis Borges imagines a guild of Renaissance cartographers so committed to precision that they created a 1:1 scale map where “the kingdom was the size of the kingdom.” Later cartographers found such obsessiveness absurd and destroyed the map, but its fragments littered the realm, “providing shelter for beggars and animals.”
An obvious statement: This book should not have been published. Well, perhaps this is not so obvious. Go Set a Watchman was a success from one point of view, which is the one of making money, and that is probably all that matters. We have been informed by Lee’s lawyer, Tonja Carter, that a third manuscript may have also appeared (more accurately, another draft of Mockingbird). For anyone who is concerned about Lee’s papers being carefully treated after her death, Go Set a Watchman and the subsequent announcement of a potential third book are both cause for alarm.
The Westminster library of the 17th-century antiquary Sir Robert Cotton was organized in a highly eccentric manner. Cotton used busts of Roman luminaries—Julius, Cleopatra, Augustus, Vitellius, and so on—to mark his shelves. Here, placed, perhaps inauspiciously, under Nero was a manuscript that contained four poems, all, it would seem, by the same author: an elegy in the form of a dream vision, a homiletic narrative illustrated with examples from Genesis and Daniel, a paraphrase of the Book of Jonah, and a chivalric romance. For centuries, no mention is made of Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, as we now call them, in the works of English bibliographers.