Letters

Who Can Intervene

Dear Editors,

In response to “A Solution From Hell” (Issue Twelve), there are at least two further questions about humanitarian intervention that should be asked, but almost never are. The first is: even if there seems to be a strong case for intervention of some kind, does it follow that any and all state actors are equally well placed to conduct it? G. A. Cohen has recently explored in Rescuing Justice and Equality the different arguments that can, and cannot, justifiably be made in particular interpersonal settings: the judgment that “You’d better negotiate” with a kidnapper might be morally and politically appropriate coming from a police officer, but not from the kidnapper him or herself. Both morally and politically, and also prudentially, the idea that the US and the UK—with their particular histories in the region—were the right states to carry out even an impeccable humanitarian justification for war in Iraq (had one existed) was hard to credit.

The second question, which the piece rather evades, is whether hypocrisy in intervening in some cases but not others is morally indefensible. Do mixed motives, in which the intervener might also have a political or commercial interest, impugn the validity of intervening there? Although ethical standards derive their force from their universal appeal, their application is always haphazard and often distorted. There will always be more wrongs than there are people or states willing to put them right. That might justify selective intervention, if intervention can ever be justified at all. But it doesn’t justify selective criticism or ignoring comparable cases if the singling out of one newly baptized pariah state becomes so influential as to defy any possible comparison. Douglas Hurd’s unconscionable policy in Bosnia was justified by the claim that “The light shone by the media is not the regular sweep of the lighthouse, but a random searchlight directed at the whim of its controllers” (quoted in Brendan Simms’s Unfinest Hour, Britain and the Destruction of Bosnia). To some extent we can’t help but operate moral searchlights, but there is a moral duty to sweep the light as well as to focus it.

—Melissa Lane

Reading Cavell

Dear Editors,

Mark Greif’s “Cavell as Educator” (Issue Twelve) offers a refreshingly accessible introduction to the ideas of one of America’s best living philosophers. But it made me wonder: if Cavell’s main ideas are as relevant and available as Greif claims they are, then why, unless one has sat in his class at Harvard (as Greif did), or gone to graduate school in philosophy (as I belatedly did), is an American today still so likely to need such an introduction?

I don’t mean it as a rhetorical question. One of Cavell’s major subjects was philosophy’s “audience”: whom do philosophers speak to today, and how do they speak? This was for him mainly an issue of how philosophers should write. In the introduction to Must We Mean What We Say, Cavell acknowledged the “malaise” hovering over a once-expansive field, now bounded in the nutshell of academic journals. On the other hand, he defended academic philosophy against those so fast to accuse it of “withdrawing from its cultural responsibilities.” Socrates confronting citizens in the street remained a charming philosophical tableau, Cavell acknowledged, yet contemporary philosophy, like the contemporary arts, was condemned sometimes to speak in tongues its culture might find mystifying or abstruse. (For one, the philosopher needed to preserve his independence. For another, there was no longer any consensus about which formal conventions he ought to adopt.)

Cavell himself never wrote for a popular audience, even if he did not quite write for a narrowly academic one either. He possessed an artist’s gift with words, and his prose could be incredibly moving; still, his philosophical writing is thorny, dense, and packed with allusions more likely to repel than to repay the interest of the common reader. Greif manages to identify “four central doctrines” in Cavell’s work—and even to convey much of the confessional spirit of Cavell’s style—without reproducing his notorious technical difficulties. But if Cavell just wanted to say that, then why didn’t he write as accessibly as Greif—and why not for n+1 (or at least, say, the New York Review of Books)? Which raises a further question: does Cavell’s literary difficulty simply complicate his status as an “educator,” or does it compromise it? (After all, the first trick is getting the student into the classroom!) Cavell would insist that this is, itself, a philosophical question—the kind of move that marks him as a consummately modern philosopher, and likely consigns him to remaining a somewhat distant one.

—Jonathan Baskin

Changing the Lines

Dear Editors,

I welcome the publication in Issue Twelve of six poems by Yitzhak Laor, and in most respects I commend the translation by Joshua Cohen. However, I feel compelled to comment on a significant emendation in “Take Care, Soldier.” While literary translation often must diverge from the literal meaning of a poem in order to preserve as much as possible its qualities as verse, I believe a translator should try to avoid blunting any language that carries significant political implications.

Any reader can note that the second stanza is one line shorter in the English than in the Hebrew. This in itself is noteworthy: in moving from the multisyllabic conjugations of Hebrew to the simpler syntax and smaller words of English, a good translator will often find some metrical economies. But anyone who reads Hebrew will note that the meaning of the last few lines of this stanza has been changed significantly.

Beginning after the second comma in line 13 of the original, we have: rak al titbayesh/ (ha-tsarfatim be-Algeria lo hayu yoter tovim), shmor al atsmekha, shekhah/ et ma’asekha, shekhah et ha-shikhha, shekhah et shikhhat ha-shikhha. A clunky literal translation would be: “Just don’t be embarrassed (the French were no better in Algeria), take care of yourself, forget your deeds, forget the forgetting, forget the forgetting’s forgetting.”

Instead, in Cohen’s translation we have, “Be strong, take care, forget/ your deeds, forget the forgetting.” The most obvious difference is the omission of the parenthetical comment about Algeria. As many Israelis and Palestinians are aware, comparisons have often been made by Palestinians between their struggle and that of the Algerians as a metonym for certain political propositions: that Zionism and the State of Israel are colonial-settler projects, and that even long-standing, populous colonial settlements with the military support of a great power can be defeated, if the native people remain steadfast. Within the context of Israel and the Palestinians, the word “Algeria” is a signifier of the potential for a world without the State of Israel. For Laor to imply the same comparison, in Hebrew, is consciously provocative.

I found the iterative structure of the final line, reduced significantly in the translation, to be in some ways even more politically striking. While the internal rhyme of the original would be impossible to replicate, it deploys an archaic grammatical form for possession common in the Bible but rare in modern Hebrew, an archaism that could have been evoked in English by mirroring certain regular formulas from the King James Bible. Further, by repeating and emphasizing the imperative form of “forget,” it inverts the command to remember, recurrent in both Jewish religion and Judaic folk cultures and appropriated by the state ideology of Israel. For example, of the 613 commandments extracted from Torah by the Jewish philosopher Maimonides, five begin with the word zakhor, the imperative form of “remember.” This includes the one most relevant to this piece, the command in Deuteronomy 25:17–19. “Remember what Amalek perpetrated against you. . . . [Y]ou shall obliterate the memory of Amalek from beneath the sky; do not forget.” This commandment has been interpreted by religious figures in Israel to justify the killing of Palestinian civilians. Note the concluding “do not forget” (lo tishkah), the exact opposite of Laor’s sardonic commandments. The sixfold repetition of “forget” in three different syntactical forms is a fitting end to a stanza that satirically references three essential mytho-historical moments in the founding ideology of the state: the putatively weak triumphing over the strong and creating a golden age of temporal power (David and Goliath), the justification of vengeance as self-defense (Haman, a mythical descendant of Amalek), and the eternal gentile drive to exterminate the Jews (the Nazi Holocaust). In the published translation, this resonant repetition is diluted.

Any translation by nature opens itself to an eternity of learned kibitzing. Were I to dwell on every small difference or doubt, this letter would be an even more tedious recitation. However, in these specific cases, the translation makes it more difficult for an English-speaking audience lacking Hebrew to appreciate Laor’s vivid radicalism.

—Joseph Tomaras

Joshua Cohen responds:

The French in Algeria isn’t the only reference taken out of “Take Care, Soldier.” I also significantly altered an early line: l’mi yesh koach lshechol radiophony, “who has the strength for radiophonic bereavement.” But while I changed that for reasons of comprehension—American readers wouldn’t immediately get the reference to receiving news of a comrade’s death via radiophone —the French Algeria stuff was cut out of taste. Goliath’s presence was justified by the titular soldier being named David. Haman and Eva Braun were linked, which was appropriate: both were concerned with the extermination of the Jews. But the French in Algeria intruded rather gracelessly on the poem’s historical stage: that line is shrill old politics in verse costume. Once I pointed out to Laor that every other metonymic indictment in the poem was entirely “personal” or “personified” (“you” denied treatment to Haman, “you” eradicated the blood of Eva Braun), he himself approved my elision.

Love and Marriage

Dear Editors,

In response to Alexander Borinsky’s piece (Issue Twelve), which partly seeks to defend a culture of promiscuity in gay romantic life, I think the experience of lesbians is a bit different from that of gay men. This is an impression born both of personal and anecdotal evidence, although there is a “politically correct” part of me that wants to deny it. It’s hard for me to admit, but as a mother, an educator—hell, as a person—I feel that generally (again, generally) women are hardwired differently than men, and they certainly continue to be nurtured differently. The joke about what a dyke brings to a second date (a U-Haul) is instructive. Nothing similar is said about gay men—or straight men for that matter.

Borinsky suggests that an imbalance in the distribution of tops and bottoms encourages gay male promiscuity. Women also have their own preferences, whether based on their sexuality or experience or a particular relationship. As we move away from the construct of dyke and femme, it increasingly seems to me that among gay women these relations are interchangeable. And with regard to women in heterosexual relationships, there are all kinds of ways they can play the role of top as well as bottom, and beyond their physical position. Let’s just say that the sex toy industry seems to be pretty recession-proof!

Borinsky proposes that “the banal calculus of libidinal mechanics” drives gay men to polyamory. I think that human reality—gay, straight, and bisexual—drives people to polyamory, trying to find not only that perfect bottom or top but also the right level of libido, adventuresomeness, et cetera. Besides that, it’s just a charge to get to make love to a lot of different attractive people! Of course, there’s also a pull in the opposite direction—sometimes stronger, sometimes weaker, depending on the individual and even on the moment in an individual’s lifetime—toward stability: a monogamous urge, so to speak. And although women do tend to be more monogamous, finding a balance between these urges is a struggle for many of us as well.

There’s also the place of children in romantic life. I think that once children enter the picture (which for most of human history was an almost inevitable result of heterosexuality), almost all people, but above all women, feel that they need stability. I think this is maybe why you see more monogamy among gay men and especially among gay women today—a much greater number can and do have children. I can’t emphasize enough how as teenagers and even as young adults women of my generation felt they needed to choose between homosexuality and reproduction. Now I see young lesbians, and they are so free, at least relative to the past. Their homosexuality is hardly an obstacle to having children and raising families.

Consider too how recent our idea of marriage is. This new model of marriage (fall in love and stay together forever, supposedly monogamously) is perhaps too difficult a construct to live with, especially as our life spans and expectations of happiness increase. Gay men and gay women are jumping on a bandwagon whose future is dubious indeed. If many of them don’t fit in the vehicle, it may have less to do with the difference between homosexuals and heterosexuals than with the fact that the entire enterprise only really works in the long term for a small part of the population, gay and straight.

—Leslie Smith Rosen

Put a Fork in It

Dear Editors,

While Richard Beck’s review of Pitchfork (Issue Twelve) is a thoughtful exploration of the history and impact of the past decade’s most influential tastemaker, I disagree with his conclusion that Pitchfork’s flaws are a direct result of problems with indie rock. Even if Beck’s indie rock as cultural monolith did exist (it is more accurately an umbrella term for innumerable subgenres), it would be a stretch to assert that Pitchfork’s limitations are due to pernicious and degraded values intrinsic to the genre.

An idea that Beck only suggests in passing is far more convincing: that the problem with Pitchfork is rooted in pop music criticism and dates back to the early work of Robert Christgau and Greil Marcus. Beck at least partly sums up that problem when he argues that Pitchfork reviews “ignore the history, aesthetics, and technical aspects of tonal music.” Nowhere is this disregard more prominent than in the work of Christgau, whom Beck describes as “America’s most intelligent rock critic.” Christgau’s Consumer Guide reviews are snide and pedantic sound bites—usually just a few sentences long—that are certainly fun to read but rarely carry any cultural insight. His opinions are conveyed with erudition and flair while often treating the music in question as an afterthought.

It is difficult for me to see why Christgau’s approach should be taken more seriously than Pitchfork’s fan-boy exuberance. The problem with pop criticism isn’t a lack of new musical forms, as Beck argues, but rather a flawed and deeply ingrained approach that stretches back decades, which Beck acknowledges but essentially ignores.

—Martin Sulkow

Dear Editors,

About young Minneapolis scenesters, Richard Beck writes, “And anyway what were you going to do, hang out at Ralph’s Corner every night of the week? It wasn’t going to be cheap.” Indeed not. One would have been obliged to drive to Fargo–Moorhead.

—Dylan Hicks

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