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Eidolon is an unabashedly leftist (well, more to the point, identity-politics–driven) Classics online publication. When Eidolon isn’t talking about the collisions of Classics and modernity, it talks a lot about how to stop making Classics complicit in US white supremacist discourse.
The latest contribution to Eidolon by its editor weighs in on a comparable shit-fight in mediaeval studies, between Asian mediaevalist Kim and White mediaevalist Brown (and throwing some elbows of its own): Learn Some Fucking History. It is inter alia a call to arms that says it is not enough to correct white supremacists on matters of history; classicists also have to (somehow) atone for how the discipline has previously contributed to white supremacist discourse… in a way that goes beyond correcting white supremacists on matters of history.
Yes, it is that frustratingly open-ended; and since we’ve departed the realm of scholarship and are now in the realm of culture war, I don’t think it’s particularly effective polemic either (and I’ve commented as much):
… If the alt right are impervious to correction via historical fact, they’ll be a lot more impervious to correction via reception theory. And if the audience you’re seeking to convince are those “who aren’t hardened keyboard warriors”, and who are still open to being persuaded, then I’d have thought they’re going to be more readily persuaded via historical fact than via reception theory, too.
If doing historical scholarship is not actually “fighting” the alt right, neither is doing critical theory scholarship. And if the aim is persuasion of the middle (as opposed to street-fighting, or preaching to the converted), then penitence and sackcloth has limited rhetorical appeal. (As do ad hominem attacks.)
Another reader’s response to Zuckerberg’s essay, though, was so righteous, and so clear-eyed, that I thought it deserved republication here (with permission). The more so as the only response it’s had to date was to reiterate some ad hominems.
Profs Kim and Brown have longstanding internet beef. Why not mention that? You write like Brown’s current salvo came from nowhere. Her and Kim have been clawing at each other’s flesh like near-sighted Maenads for awhile. Admittedly, almost no one is as cool as this Maenad. No one could be.
I ❤ confused leopards.
Brown comes close. Her point is solid. Do your job. Social media is the dark side.
And this call to ally with Kim, and pile on Brown, is begging a number of questions in any case. The main being “Why?” and “To what end?” They are both adult academics with jobs and a personal grudge.
And speaking of begging the question, the question is severely begged by Kim’s statement quoted by Brown. “How are you signalling in your classroom that you are not upholding white supremacy, when you are teaching the subject loved by white supremacists?”
Why? To What End?
Has the field reverted to 19th century norms? Are current history departments pumping out white supremacy and apologist articles?
No. No they are not. Show us an open white supremacist in the field, with a job, doing white supremacist work. In the classics or in medieval studies? Where is a University which is willing to hire a White Supremacist leaning classicist or medievalist? Where are they? Nowhere. So what has happened? What is Prof. Kim saying? She’s saying Brown is a Nazi and a white supremacist.
Thank God. Thank God that Prof Kim lives in a country with liberal libel laws. In the U.K. or Germany or Ireland she’d be drowning in lawsuits already. She has no case. She would deserve them.
Brown says she isn’t a white supremacist. Her work doesn’t reflect white supremacy or Nazism. I believe her.
Some tiny minority of college aged racists with reactionary racist politics twist various disciplines’ historical arguments for their politics. So now all medievalists (and by association academics whose work is twisted in the same way) are suspected white supremacists, and in the classroom we must immediately disclaim? Or else we’re picking a side?
Wait. What? The whole thing is actually off the rails.
I still occasionally work in 20th century history in a public capacity as a Referent for a Concentration Camp Memorial. Hitler wore pants. Often. I dare say he liked them. I do not have to signal to the world that I am not a Nazi by wearing only my kurze Lederhosen. (He wore those too, unfortunately, see below) At this rate,in order to properly signal, I will have to lecture naked to signal that I am not a Nazi.
Nazis ruining everything. As usual.
Lots of holocaust revisionists and other Nazi apologist filth have a steeped interest in German and 20th century history. That doesn’t make the group of people licenced to teach seminars and do tours at Dachau suspected Nazis.
Why do I have to signal anything at all? The more I signal that I am not an alcoholic the less people believe me.
Yes, I have read Prof. Kim’s article, and I do take issue with the idea that academics have to be activists, especially active signalling activists. It is not a given that
“Today, medievalists have to understand that the public and our students will see us as potential white supremacists or white supremacist sympathizers because we are medievalists.”
That’s rubbish. No one cares about medievalists, or classicists really. The only time either get noticed is when administrators see how much money they are worth if their departments are dissolved.
And we are not supposed to be “ideological arms dealers.” We are supposed to do history or whatever our disciplines are and well.
The work should work for you. The public history done at Dachau does exactly that. No politics are required, just the truth as far as we can prove it. For people doing public history at the Gedenkstätte, their personal politics and activism are not actually welcome.
Plus too much politics, unless the work is about politics, ruins the work.
And now apparently everyone who even wants to approach the subject has to pass some kind of ideological purity test? And if you refuse you are taking the side of the Charlottesville marchers?
I can understand Brown’s anger in the face of something like that. And her rhetoric.
No academic needs to signal their good intentions as a result of 19th and early 20th century sins of other academics. And especially not as a reaction to the minority (if there are any) actual modern classics or medieval students and scholars that are open white supremacists. Where are they? Do we actually have any holocaust-denial style modern publishing classicists or medievalists?
Nö, we do not.
Is there a Wiedergutmachung?
Yes, our work can be misused by people who want to do evil with it. That’s true. There’s no way to stop that except to stop doing the work.
In any case. Good solid work can easily do 10 times the good of a sermon. It’s harder to do. Preaching is easy. And it takes longer to do, and longer for the effect to sink in, like the difference between a bush and a Tree.
But a well planted tree eventually overshadows all the bushes. And think of how everyone can benefit. The Maenad has some where to hang her snake, lean her Thyrsus, a place for the Leopard to nap, and somewhere to shady to sit. Everyone wins.
De Koine en de Oude Dialekten van Griekland
The most interesting thing about Tsakonian is not that it is descended from Doric. That impresses nationalists, but the survivals of Doric are less overwhelming than the nationalists would like to think. The most interesting thing about Tsakonian, compared to other dialects of Greek, is the extreme phonological and morphological meltdown that it underwent. There’s nothing like it in the history of Greek. It’s like how Latin phonology melted down into French.
Or how Germanic morphology melted down into English.
Not enough Greeks know of the Dutch hellenist Dirk C. Hesseling, a pioneer of Early Modern Greek studies. Those few Greeks who do know of Hesseling are unlikely to know that he was also a pioneer of creole linguistics, working on Negerhollands, the now extinct Dutch creole of the US Virgin Islands.
That means that Hesseling was an early inventor of hammers; and that motivated him to look for nails, not only in creole linguistics, but also in Greek linguistics. Accordingly, Hesseling suggested (one year after publishing his book on Negerhollands) that the morphological meltdown of Tsakonian might be explained—just as the meltdown in English has been explained—by Tsakonian having been a creole at some stage in its history. It would have to have been an early stage, and Hesseling looked at the history of the Peloponnese, and suggested the Avars as being involved.
- Hesseling, D. C. 1906. De Koine en de Oude Dialekten van Griekland. (Comptes rendus de l’Academie d’Amsterdam, Afdeeling Letterkunde, 4th series, part 8.) Amsterdam.
Now, there are several reasonable responses to Hesseling’s surmise.
- It’s unknowable what happened in the Peloponnese in the 7th century, but the hypothesis is intriguing. Tsakonian does look oddly like English.
- It’s unknowable what happened in the Peloponnese in the 7th century, but the hypothesis is unnecessary. People aren’t as enthusiastic about the Viking Creole origin hypothesis of Middle English as they used to be; and it’s not like you need a creole to explain changes as radical as Tsakonian’s. (I owe that argument to my old colleague Gabby Bodard, who is not a linguist or a neohellenist, but is pretty clueful.)
- It’s unknowable what happened in the Peloponnese in the 7th century, which makes the hypothesis methodologically useless, as an instance of ignotum per ignotum—explaining an unknown with another unknown. We have no idea, after all, what language the Avars spoke, let alone whether they came to the Peloponnese in the requisite sort of numbers.
The following, I submit, is a non-reasonable response:
- Taking offence on behalf of Tsakoniandom, as the resident not-very-good linguist (Michael Deffner).
- Alerting the town fathers of Leonidio about the offensive speculations against the patrimony of the Tsakonians.
- Getting the town fathers of Leonidio to pass a vote of condemnation against Hesseling’s paper.
I know of the incident from Hubert Pernot, Hesseling’s collaborator, arguably the best historical linguist of Modern Greek there has ever been, and without argument the best scholar of Tsakonian there has ever been. (Not enough Greeks know about him, either.) Pernot’s sad note about the town fathers incident, in his grammar of Tsakonian, was a laconic “that’s not how scholarship is done.”
There are reasons to fear that that is how scholarship is done now; at least by some. In the next post, I’m going to write about l’affaire Tuvel, which I consider a glaring example of this. In this post, I’m going to write about a less clearcut example: the article in the centre of the controversy was incendiary, and there are good arguments to be made that it was not scholarly. And yet petitions calling for it to be expunged are still, in my view, counterproductive.
The Case For Colonialism
Two petitions have recently circulated on change.org about The Case For Colonialism (Petition 1, Petition 2), published as a viewpoint essay in Third World Quarterly, calling for that essay to be withdrawn from the journal.
It is hard to defend that article. It seems to have been straightforwardly incendiary, as its abstract shows:
For the last 100 years, Western colonialism has had a bad name. It is high time to question this orthodoxy. Western colonialism was, as a general rule, both objectively beneficial and subjectively legitimate in most of the places where it was found, using realistic measures of those concepts. The countries that embraced their colonial inheritance, by and large, did better than those that spurned it. Anti-colonial ideology imposed grave harms on subject peoples and continues to thwart sustained development and a fruitful encounter with modernity in many places. Colonialism can be recovered by weak and fragile states today in three ways: by reclaiming colonial modes of governance; by recolonising some areas; and by creating new Western colonies from scratch.
In addition, concerns have been raised about the editorial process having been bypassed; and the editorial board did in fact protest the publication, and mass resigned. The article has in fact been retracted, and it took me a fair while to find a copy elsewhere.
How does one address speech of this ilk?
The both liberal and libertarian answer is, with more speech: debate. Because the moral agent is meant to be in the business of persuasion, and dissuading their audience from harmful arguments by refuting them.
The both radical and reactionary answer is, with less speech: censorship. Because the moral agent is meant to be in the business of combat, and safeguarding their audience from harmful arguments by quashing them.
Censorship is on the ascendancy, after a few decades when it wasn’t; whether it’s in the academic domain, or the political, or the societal. Censorship still has a poor reputation in the West—which is why academic venues are quick to argue that what they do, in suppressing speech they disapprove of, is not censorship, and why petitions to withdraw articles focus on accusations of academic malpractice, rather than offence.
They do well to. Because suppressing an opinion on the grounds that you hold a contrary opinion is not how knowledge is furthered—nor how a society is furthered. There’s a reason censorship has a poor reputation.
Here, I suggest, are some valid responses to the paper:
- Pointing out that the discourse of international relations is suffused with a covert version of the paper’s overt colonialism;
- querying the editorial process of the journal;
- refuting the arguments of the paper in detail (and here, and also here);
- pointing out the poor choices of examples in the paper;
- reporting the controversy in the context of other retractions of papers
Here, I suggest, are some less valid responses:
- That the article is offensive.
- Scholarship is not about making anyone feel good. Whether you’re oppressed or the oppressor. Both now get to use the tools of scholarship to their own ends; and both are meant to be subjected to the blind review of their peers still.
- The outcome of scholarship is not meant to be the remediation of social ills. It is meant to be knowledge and understanding—which you can then, if you choose to, apply towards the remediation of social ills. And the unwelcome gadfly has a critical role in impelling understanding. (If they’ve making a cogent case, which hardly appears to have happened here. It’s more clearly the case in l’affaire Tuvel.)
- That the article is damaging.
- That’s giving academic editorials a power they simply do not have; and racists are not waiting for academic editorials to justify their beliefs: they already have plenty of commentators in the media or in their local pub, with far broader reach, to appeal to.
- That the article should be subject to the judgement of a change.org petition, circulated to people unlikely to have read the paper to begin with.
- That is no more how scholarship is supposed to be done, than town hall meetings in Leonidio is. That’s what editorial boards of journals and journal editors and publishers are for; and that’s the mechanism that got anything done.
- Poorly, as it turned out:
- Threatening the journal editor, and thereby allowing the retraction of the article to be couched in these terms:
Following a number of complaints, Taylor & Francis conducted a thorough investigation into the peer review process on this article. Whilst this clearly demonstrated the essay had undergone double-blind peer review, in line with the journal’s editorial policy, the journal editor has subsequently received serious and credible threats of personal violence. These threats are linked to the publication of this essay. As the publisher, we must take this seriously. Taylor & Francis has a strong and supportive duty of care to all our academic editorial teams, and this is why we are withdrawing this essay.
- The change.org petitions got the retraction they sought. I’m sure those aren’t the words they wanted it retracted under. Making a martyr of both the author and the editor is an own goal.
Here are counterarguments I would expect, and am not compelled by:
- That I am speaking from a position of privilege, and I do not appreciate the pain the editorial has caused.
- I’ll admit that the essay’s contention that underdeveloped countries should pay the West to colonise them got an arched eyebrow out of me instead of tears. But education has a better long-term prospect of reducing the amount of hateful speech in the world than quashing it. And it has done so already. Repeatedly.
- That the underprivileged should not have to eternally explain the obvious, and prove (as the Greek saying goes) that they are not an elephant: that this amounts to yet another microaggression. In fact, one of the comments about Third World Quarterly said that the contention of whether colonialism was a good thing should be considered an “asked and answered” question for that journal—that the journal’s founding premise, after all, was that it wasn’t.
- Not every brown person in the West should eternally have to play the role of Explainer In Chief to clueless white people. I can even concede that Third World Quarterly might not have been the right venue for the article.
- It is good and meet that people do step up to that role, though. Because that repairs the world. And because the alternative to such education is a separatism that simply can’t be enforced any more. (And that education should be part of people’s Bildung and upbringing; it shouldn’t be primarily the responsibility of visible minorities to begin with.)
- That the article is violence, and violence must be met with violence. Hate speech is now suppressed by society, and it should be.
- Suppressing hate speech is now the Zeitgeist. The thing is that hate speech doesn’t end that way, and an over-eagerness to label speech hate speech is infantilising rather than salutary. If the article was indeed, as has been speculated, the work of a Milo Yannopoulos-style provocateur, then elevating it to hate speech is the last thing that should be done with it: it’d be the reaction the provocateur was hoping for.
- As for violence (even if I do concede that hyperbolic usage of the term): if it isn’t coming from the State, with its monopoly of violence, the exercise of violence is a risky game. Usually the guys on the reactionary side of the street have more crowbars than you do, and the crowbar count shouldn’t be how pressing moral issues of the day are decided. (Crowbar count differential is why social justice has not prevailed historically, after all.) And involving the State is something the petitioners have been very, very careful to avoid: they know the State has no great affection for progressive activists either.
- The State doesn’t get to get involved in the US anyway, because of the First Amendment. Journals and fora are quite happy to point out that the First Amendment does not obligate them to provide a forum for those they disapprove of. That of course also makes them powerless to prevent their adversaries from setting up their own journals and fora elsewhere. And blocking out the speech of those you don’t want to engage with may give you repose; but it doesn’t give you outreach. It doesn’t redress the problem; it merely pushes it out of sight.
That aside, I found this response from Bleeding Heart Libertarians speaks for me. As a group that identifies both as libertarian and as committed to social justice, I suspect they might speak for me in a few more facets, too.
That an article upsets people is no grounds for its withdrawal. […] It might be argued that Gilley’s paper should be retracted because his arguments do not support his conclusion, and so these are undermined “as a result of… [argumentative] error”. But to argue in this way would require that one first demonstrate where Gilley is mistaken–one would have to engage with his work, not simply call for its retraction. And even if one could show that his arguments were flawed this should not be used to support a call for retraction, for this would justify the retraction of any paper whose conclusions have been arrived at through erroneous argumentation. And this is not how academic debates are conducted—and nor should it be. Instead, persons present their conclusions supported by the best arguments and evidence that they can muster. These are then subject to critical scrutiny with the aim of identifying and correcting errors in the arguments. If the arguments are found not to support the conclusion then the original paper should be rebutted—not retracted.
But there’s more to be said in this case. The petitions demanding the retraction of this article secured over 15,000 signatures. I very much doubt that everyone who signed these petitions actually read the paper. Demanding that a paper be retracted because you don’t like its arguments is bad enough. Demanding that it be retracted because you don’t like what you think its conclusion is without having even read it is despicable. Moreover, if you’re an academic, a demand for retraction on either of these grounds would be a clear abdication of your professional responsibility.
And if that’s too libertarian for you, well, this from Current Affairs is more mainstream liberal, and more pragmatic than principled in rejecting retraction. And I’m ok with its take too:
And so I’m worried about how the response to this article may play out. I am not signing the petition to have it retracted, because I believe that the journal shouldn’t retract it simply because there was public pressure. I am also very concerned that this could be a PR coup for the right, as so many of these things are. It’s tough, of course, because for the reasons I’ve outlined above, the article shouldn’t have been published. Gilley did not meet the standards that should be expected of an academic. He falsified history. When evaluated by a fair standard, he has not upheld the honesty and rigor that should be expected of someone in his position, and the article is a factual disgrace as well as a moral one. But it would be very easy to fall into a certain predictable trap, where the left calls Bruce Gilley a racist, and Gilley declares that they simply can’t handle the truth. And while I’m sympathetic to the argument that we should avoid that by Not Even Addressing Such Rubbish, bad arguments fester when they go unaddressed. (This is why I put myself through the ordeal of reading The Bell Curve.)
I think, then, that all responses to this article should be rigorous and careful. I think everyone should try to read the full thing, to know what Gilley argues and what he doesn’t argue. And we must repeatedly emphasize that the reason Gilley’s piece is so wretched is not just because it advocates something that contradicts our sense of justice, but because he has deliberately produced a false version of history. I am sick and tired of people on the right saying those of us on the left simply Can’t Respond To Their Arguments. I’ve read their arguments, and they’re bad.
This was difficult to write. I think the next post will be easier, in that the calls for retraction were more clearly unjustified. It will also be harder, because the article in the centre of the controversy is thornier, and warrants very close study.
I write this with trepidation. I don’t wade into political matters, and I’m a conflict-averse kind of person. I am also discovering I’m more politically moderate than I used to fancy myself, and that is never a comfortable thing.
But, having the courage of my convictions is a novel experience; one that drove me off Quora. Now that I’m off Quora, the discourse I’m exposed to, on Facebook and on Medium—from my putative ideological stablemates—is much less considered, and less thought through: a sad consequence of the democratisation of social media, which unearths the poor arguments that used to whirl around the pub and the café, and elevates them into common, tub-thumping currency. On both sides.
(Yes, it was ever thus; and yes, the mobs used to run out of control and burn and lynch. But “my side” was supposed to be moving past that kind of thing.)
And I could let that pass, or I could try out saying, on occasion, no, that stance is not cool. That argument makes no sense, and discredits my side. And I will not assent to it.
Here’s an example.
Like many Australians, I voted on the Australian marriage equality plebiscite a couple of weeks ago. Like many Australians on the left, I had misgivings about putting human rights up for vote to the mob. Not that the party of Tony Abbott has earned my trust about administering human rights any more than the mob. (Nor for that matter the party of Joe de Bruyn, who blocked Labor from voting for marriage equality when it had the chance.) But once the vote was approved, after some rather specious attempts to block it on the basis of how it was funded, I felt obligated to vote my opinion as a citizen, and vote YES I did.
And if the mob turns out to have voted YES to marriage equality after all, as polls indicated, we now have the bizarre spectacle of Andrew Bolt’s latest editorial, after months of decrying the evils of the gay marriage, saluting the outcome as a blow for trusting the Wisdom of the People.
But the libertarian-cum-social conservative stylings of Andrew Bolt are not what I’m writing about here.
A week after I voted, I got an SMS from the YES campaign, urging me to vote.
A lot of people who’d voted YES got the SMS. Not a few people who’d voted NO got it too—notoriously including arch social conservative Cory Bernardi, who was busy organising his own robocalls for the NO campaign.
People broadly expressed confusion and annoyance at getting spammed with political SMSs, in offices (like mine did) and online. Some people went so far as to say they would reconsider their vote in light of their annoyance.
- SMS spamming is a legitimate component of modern-day political campaigning, just as robocalls were.
- The SMS was sent to randomised numbers, so noone’s privacy was invaded.
- Any objections to the SMS are mischief-making by conservatives.
- You have no right to protest being spammed by the YES campaign, because YOU KNOW WHO HAS THE RIGHT TO BE ANNOYED? GAY PEOPLE WHOSE RELATIONSHIPS ARE BEING INVALIDATED!! THAT’S WHO!!
- If you’re prepared to change your vote based on annoyance about being spammed, then you are a very superficial person.
- Either spam is bad or it is good. If spam is bad, and this is spam, then this is bad.
- Spam does not become non-spam just because it is sent out from people we agree with.
- Spam does not become non-spam just because the content of the spam looks innocuous: “The Marriage Equality Survey forms have arrived! Help make history and vote YES for a fairer Australia. VoteYes.org.au.” The comparable spam sent out shortly afterwards at a grassroots level from the Christianists of Rise Up Australia looked innocuous too: “Vote NO for SSM. Please watch this brief video and pass it on to your contacts.”—until you clicked through to their fire and brimstone sermon on YouTube.
- Spam does not become non-spam because the government SMSs bushfire warnings to residents who might be affected. (Yes, I actually saw that argument; mercifully it was advanced in a comments page, rather than by anyone with a clue.) I’m not aware of the Australian Marriage Equality campaign becoming an arm of local government.
- Spam does not become non-spam just because it advertises a political party instead of detergent.
- For that matter, spam does not become non-spam because currently legislation says it is not spam: “It is important to note that if these calls, emails or SMSs are not commercial — that is they do not have a commercial purpose — they are generally allowed and not required to comply with the obligations under the Do Not Call Register Act 2006 and the Spam Act 2003”. Legislation can change, and the more SMSs of this kind you see, there more pressure there will be to change the legislation. And to me (and not just to me), this is spam.
- We have the lobby group’s assurance that the numbers were randomised, and that noone’s privacy was compromised.
- And I should trust an unelected partisan lobby group, who tells me that the paperwork is in the mail, why?
- Journalists (doing what Michelle Grattan used to do) have queried whether this is the case—although the own-goal of sending an SMS to Cory Bernardi does suggest the campaign was not targeted with laser-like precision.
- “If a few highly confidential numbers were by chance reached, it’s hard to see what harm was done”, says Grattan. I used to respect Grattan. But this is exactly the line of thinking that has brought us the Victorian State Premier today calling civil liberties a “luxury” that a leader like him does not have, because terrorism. “Some people have the luxury of being able to have that notional debate. Those of us in positions of leadership do not have that luxury.” Well, no. Slippery slopes are real, whether they involve handing over all your drivers licence photos over to the feds for facial recognition, or giving lobbyists carte blanche to call unregistered phone numbers.
- I don’t always enjoy reading The Australian, Murdoch’s broadsheet. It has enough left-baiting and retrograde social conservatism to make me scowl of a Saturday morning.
- Yet it also hosts ideological diversity (as long as it’s not left-wing); and I was gratified to see one commentator on its pages (Van Onselen? Kenny?) recently say that, just because you might not like the advocates of marriage equality, does not mean that the cause isn’t right.
- Same goes in converse for the protests about the SMSs. Just because right wing bigots are among those protesting the SMSs, doesn’t mean the SMSs were a good thing. And to read every protest in this currency under a lens of who benefits politically is the kind of myopia that… well, that I would sadly expect from someone who has covered politics in Canberra for decades.
- The “you are not allowed to complain about SMSs” line is one that has done the rounds in Facebook, and one that I reserve especial contempt for. It’s the argument of the motorist pulled over for speeding, and telling the cop, “why aren’t you out there catching murderers.”
- Felonies are more serious than misdemeanours; that does not excuse misdemeanours, or exempt them from being sanctioned.
- I agree that it is ethically and socially wrong that the gay and lesbian friends I know in long-term relationships do not have them recognised by the State to the extent that my straight friends’ relationships are. I agree that this causes them more distress than being spammed by a lobby group causes me. That is not an argument in favour of spamming: it is a blatant attempt to shut down discussion through exercise of piety. And it astonishes me that anyone would think this a constructive contribution to the discussion.
- Then again, it came from Facebook. Which is not the home base of constructive contributions to debates.
- As for the superficiality of the voter swayed by their annoyance over SMS—
- If you’re in the battleground of civil rights not being a matter for the vote of the mob, then the stupidity and mercuriality of the mob is an argument for you to use.
- Once you’re no longer in that battleground, and you’ve agreed to campaign for a vote, you’re in the business of winning votes. You win votes by persuading those voters who can be persuaded: not those already bolted on at your side of the argument, nor those who follow Cory Bernardi or Rise Up Australia and think you the devil, but those in between.
- Maybe they’re undecided because they’re superficial; maybe their votes are up for grabs because they lack civil engagement.
- But telling them so to their face is not how you win their vote. And winning their vote is your business now, not asserting your moral superiority over them. As Talleyrand said—and the more I read of culture war battles, the more relevant his dictum seems to me: it’s worse than a crime: it’s a mistake.
I’ve been doing a fair bit of development work of late on Upwork, joining the gig economy in my spare time. Yes, that gig economy time eats into my blogging time, and yes, the pay is… well, it’s gig economy pay.
But I’ve missed programming, and I do enjoy it. Even if programming now, compared to programming in the 90s, seems to involve a lot more Googling and a lot less remembering how each language does things differently. Like Thoth groused once: this new tech will destroy people’s memory.
I’ve been doing a fair bit of work for Ribose, and their involvement in RFC standards. IT Standards have been something I’ve been involved with professionally for over a decade, though I’ve been working in areas more heavy-handedly run than RFC. It’s been good to put some coding support behind such efforts; and you can peek at my handiwork over at github.
What’s not been as good has been to look up close at how some of those RFC standards have actually been specified. Heavy-handed process has its advantages, and in at least some instances, those advantages have been foregone. As a result, there are some RFC standards… with holes in them.
I know this shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. I also know that vCard 3.0, one of those RFC standards I’ve been grappling with writing a grammar for to validate, is a standard that people look at sneeringly with good reason. It’s old, it’s texty, it’s clunky. And it’s way too lax compared to vCard 4.0: people did learn over time that a thousand flowers blooming in IT standards is not a good thing, and v4.0 is miles more tractable. (But of course, it’s the bad old lax version that still has market share.)
But I haven’t had occasion to look that closely at an RFC spec before. And vCard 3.0 was quite a baptism of fire.
I won’t go into the full detail of all the inconsistencies and vaguenesses of the vCard 3.0 spec in RFC 2426. At least, not yet. I will however point to the rather large list of errata associated with RFC 2426, and the even larger list associated with vCard 4.0, RFC 6350. (Of course RFC 6350 has more errata: it has a more rigorous grammar.) Errata don’t come up when you google RFCs and take the text file as your first hit; and I feel greatly disappointed that errata are not promoted more aggressively in the publication of RFCs: that’s just negligence. It’s also a mechanism that can’t keep up if the initial specification did a really poor job: there are several errata which have been acknowledged as valid, but are not being actioned (Held for Document Update), because to address them would require a brand new version of the spec. RFC 6350 dates from 2011: still waiting for those Held for Document Update fixes…
I reserve special ire, though, for RFC 2739.
vCard 2.1 was a much dumber version of the spec than v3.0. It also was conjured up outside the RFC process, and good luck finding a spec for it online now. One of the vCard 2.1 misfeatures that v3.0 addressed was its mystery meat parameters. In v3.0, all parameters of properties are key/value pairs:
ADR;TYPE=WORK,PREF:;;100 Waters Edge;Baytown;LA;30314;United States of America
The key is TYPE, and its values are WORK and PREF.
In vCard 2.1, the TYPE key was implicit in parameters: you could leave it out:
ADR;WORK;PREF:;;100 Waters Edge;Baytown;LA;30314;United States of America
If you’re parsing this, of course, that’s a gratuitous headache: why should I have to store a bunch of exceptions, and have values stand in for keys?
So. That went away in v3.0. Good.
RFC 2739 is an update to vCard. Since it is an RFC spec, it can only be an update to an RFC spec, and the only RFC version of vCard at the time was v3.0. In fact, that’s the version of vCard they cite: “ Dawson, F. and T. Howes, “vCard MIME Directory Profile”, RFC 2426, September 1998.”
Let’s go to §2.3 of RFC 2739, shall we?
Since the vCard  specification doesn’t specify how to encode
calendaring URIs in a vCard, this section is provided as an extension
to vCard which specifies how to encode calendaring URIs within a
Inside a vCard object, four new properties are defined: “CALURI”,
“CAPURI”, “CALADRURI”, and “FBURL”, as defined above.
Any vCard can have one or more of these properties, each representing
a calendar or free/busy time that is associated with the user.
One of these properties can be designated as the “default” by adding
the “PREF” parameter.
Here is a simple example of a vCard containing a “FBURL” and a
“CALURI”.BEGIN:VCARD VERSION:3.0 N:Dun;Alec FN:Alec Dun ORG:Microsoft Corporation ADR;WORK;POSTAL;PARCEL:;;One Microsoft Way; Redmond;WA;98052-6399;USA TEL;WORK;MSG:+1-206-936-4544 TEL;WORK;FAX:+1-206-936-7329 EMAIL;INTERNET:email@example.com CALADRURI;PREF:mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org CALURI;PREF:http://cal.host1.com/user/cal.ics FBURL;PREF:http://cal.host1.com/user/fb.ifb CALURI:http://cal.company.com/projectA/pjtA.ics FBURL:http://cal.company.com/projectA/pjtAfb.ifb END:VCARD
Do you see what they’ve done?
One of these properties can be designated as the “default” by adding the “PREF” parameter.
The… which parameter?
the “PREF” parameter.
v3.0 doesn’t have a PREF parameter. We got rid of it as v2.1 mystery meat, remember? What it has instead is TYPE:PREF.
Don’t tell me…
You’re seeing that, right? My eyes are not playing tricks on me, right?
And what does their vCard 3.0 example look like, in an RFC publishing an official update to the vCard 3.0 spec, and illustrating how their new properties look?
Which is of course vCard 2.1 mystery meat parameter for CALADRURI;TYPE:PREF:mailto:email@example.com. In the official illustration of a new vCard 3.0 property.
Oh, that’s not the worst of it. The worst of it is:
ADR;WORK;POSTAL;PARCEL:;;One Microsoft Way; Redmond;WA;98052-6399;USA
;WORK? ;POSTAL? ;PARCEL? This is not vCard 3.0. That’s vCard 2.1. And an RFC spec has put this stuff, in an example illustrating its proposal, under a VERSION:3.0 header.
Which means that I’ve had to introduce PREF as a vCard 2.1 style mystery meat parameter into my vCard 3.0 grammar, because after all, that’s in what’s in the spec.
Who do I excoriate for this, then?
T. Small XpertSite.Com D. Hennessy ISOCOR F. Dawson Lotus
Yeah, they’re the authors of RFC 2739, and they deserve a whole lot of opprobrium. You only had one job, guys. To write an update of an RFC spec. An update of an RFC spec that is not supposed to undermine the spec itself, and send it through a wormhole back in time, back to a land of mystery meat and Word Documents publishing technical standards.
But you know, that’s not my main annoyance here.
Yup. No errata reported. Since January 2000. On a version of vCard that remained the latest version for the next 11 years, and still has most of the market share.
I did just stumble on this issue, and I have no idea how prevalent this kind of thing is with RFCs. But technical standards trade in reputation: that’s what gives them their authority. If you can’t trust an authority to keep their technical standards error free (over 17 years), it’s going to be hard to trust any spec that authority comes out with.
My detoxification from Quora is progressing well. I am managing to stay away from checking on comments there are maybe a week at a time. I no longer daydream about slapping Jonathan Brill in the face. I am actually reading websites other than Quora, although I am dismayed to discover how stupid they have become while I was away. (Slate.com in particular has succumbed to crowd pleasing superficiality about Trump, at a time when superficiality is the last thing you need from an American masthead.)
My ego is gratified to find that I have not yet been forgotten back at Quora; people are on occasion saying that they miss me, and people on occasion invite me to private Facebook groups about Quora. Those groups fill a valuable function, since the dead hand of BNBR policy quashes much meaningful meta-discussion about Quora; and Quora is hardly optimised for group discussion to begin with.
I have just unjoined my second such group, and I think I owe people an explanation. Or at least a forewarning.
I am happy that people are continuing their Quora communities off-Quora. I am offended and repulsed that Quora Inc uses a closed off-Quora community to cultivate its Elect (its Top Writers), and give them preferential access to staff and information. But then again, I’m offended by the institution of Top Writers to begin with; and I’ve been repeatedly assured that they’re not getting that much more information or influence than the sans-culottes outside.
(The real inner sanctum of users with direct access to staff and influence on Quora is far, far smaller; and if you stick around long enough you can work it out. Anecdotally—as I’ve been told from a former insider—it’s who Brill huddles with in Top Writer meetups. From my own observation, Chris Van Lang is definitely in there, and I suspect David Rose is as well.)
I have been mostly courteous on Quora, mostly willing to listen to others’ perspectives, and mostly willing to change my mind about things. But there are two classes of people on Quora that I will not break bread with. Not many people are in those classes, but a few are.
The first class are reflexive defenders of Quora Inc. That’s reflexive defenders, not defenders in general: I’ve had good exchanges with people who defend Quora Inc, because they have been courteous to me, and because they have conceded that I was not merely hallucinating in my critiques.
But if you are a long-term beneficiary of the Top Writer Quill, and the selective enforcement of moderation that comes with it, I expect some acknowledgement that other writers are still part of the same community as you, and have legitimate grievances. I expect some humility towards those who have not been as lucky as you. (And do not tell me it isn’t luck. Do not tell me that you are ten times the writer I am, and it is my lack of merit that has stopped me from getting the Quill, or any number of brilliant writers who haven’t.)
And if you say to critics of moderation, say, “Pretty Please with sugar on top, shut the fuck up. You don’t get a say”, then I want no fellowship with you. Especially when you are not held to the same standard as those critics of moderation, because you’ve made Top Writer five times in a row. (In other words, because you happened to get in early.)
The second class are instablockers. Again, blocking is a useful resource, and I don’t begrudge people using it where appropriately. But putting your hands over your ears and shouting “Quora is not a debate site” may make your stay on Quora more pleasant—but it also makes you a poor citizen. If you block me for merely disagreeing with you about something, then I block you right back, and I want nothing to do with you.
And if my tone was not consistently at the level I aspire it to be, then maybe you blocking me was a fair call. But I still want nothing to do with you.
Like Andrew Baird, who told me to fuck off and stop trolling him and blocked me, when I poked fun at his obsession with saying there was no such thing as a Byzantine Empire, and answering all questions about the Roman Empire so as to include the Byzantine Empire. That’s Humpty-Dumptyism, and it was doing querents a disservice, when they clearly meant the political entity extinguished in 476. I may have poked a little fun, but his reaction was so over the top, I concluded Quora was not the right forum for him. (And indeed, he ended up banned a year later.) If he chose to block my content, that was his loss: it’s not like there were a lot of people writing on Byzantine matters to begin with.
Like Ward Chanley, who gave an answer about common law marriages that was US-centric, and I commented as much. (“That’s a US-centric answer to a US-centric question.”) If that’s grounds for blocking me, well, I don’t think I have that much to learn from you anyway.
I got added to a Facebook group by a user concerned that the Top Writers Lounge group was excluding other writers, and generating disgruntlement among non-Top Writers. A laudable initiative, given how much resentment the group had aroused, and I passed on the invitation.
The group welcomed Top Writers as well as non-Top Writers. Again, laudable, and I do not want to be part of artificially dividing the community, the way Quora Inc already has by setting up Top Writers in the first place.
But of course, the premise of the group was that it was open to non-Top Writers, and that non-Top Writers have concerns that they haven’t been able to discuss off-Quora.
There was one discussion thread about what the criteria for awarding the Quill were. Which showed some of the disgruntlement at play within the community. Then there was one discussion thread (launched by me) about what the criteria were for posting death notices on users’ profiles (see How does Quora decide which deceased members to add the “Remembering” tagline to their profile?) Which showed some more of the disgruntlement at play, because it was divulged that not all users are seen as equally deserving. A Top Writer retorted “But user X was the boyfriend of Top Writer Y and the business partner of Top Writer Z”. Sure. That doesn’t make their death inherently more worth commemorating than non-Top Writer W; and to intimate that it does is pretty damn low.
And after those two discussions, the same Top Writer said that this was not the forum for such negativity, and it should be a place where we celebrate the community we have made with each other. Before an extensive to-and-fro of that Top Writer with another couple of Top Writers, about what good friends they were.
I’m sorry. I thought I was joining a forum where non-Top Writers were going to be made to feel welcome. And said Top Writer was not even the owner of the group. If I wanted to be talked down to by reflexively defensive Top Writers, I’d already be following them on Quora.
I wished the group founder well in his endeavours, and I unjoined. So did La Gigi.
I got added to a Facebook group by a user where people could discuss trolls.
Not my cup of tea, and in fact I’ve been quite fortunate to have had a troll-free existence on Quora; but I accepted. If they put that trust in me as a user, well, I didn’t want to repudiate the gesture.
… Until I saw a post by Ward Chanley.
So what, now I’m going to be on a Facebook group dedicated to deriding trolls—with at least one member who has decided, on the basis of a single anodyne comment, that I’m a troll; and whose name I did not wish to see again?
I wished the group founder well in her endeavours, and I unjoined.
I’ve made friends on Quora, and I wish to stay in touch with them, on Medium or here, or on Facebook. I’ll even join Facebook groups on invitation, though I won’t be seeking those out.
And if I sign out of those groups, because there are people on them I was well contented never to see again, well, please don’t take it amiss.
This is going to all sorts of audiences, so I now need to spell out where I’m back to, and where I’m back from.
I maintained two blogs up until 2011. hellenisteukontos.blogspot.com was a blog about Greek linguistics, and opuculuk.blogspot.com was a blog about everything else. Hellenisteukontos in particular developed quite a following, and was even cited in print a few times.
One thing I did relearn during my stay on Quora was that I can write both about stuff I do know about, and stuff I actually don’t know about—but with enough insight that I can make a reasoned argument. That’s something I enjoyed doing greatly, and I hope to keep doing it. Just as I hope to keep sharing the expertise I have on things I am an expert in.
When I decamped from Quora, I followed an exodus of users to Medium (see my profile there), and I may have provoked a few others to join me. For all Quora’s grotesqueries (and they are legion), Quora was a more congenial place to me than Medium: compared to my Quora feed (admittedly after two years of curation), Medium was a lot more clickbait, a lot more superficial, and a lot more full of sterile political posturing. I will continue to check in there with the Quora Diaspora, but I won’t be making it my home.
So I’m coming home to the blogs I had left six years ago, but I am relocating them to WordPress instances: http://hellenisteukontos.opoudjis.net and http://opuculuk.opoudjis.net. I encourage you to update any links you have to the prior blogs; I will not be updating them. I have migrated both my blogspot and my relevant Quora content to those two new instances on my website. Quora makes it very difficult to get your content out of its honeytrap, and none of the topics or comments export. I’ve spent a couple of days categorising the Quora posts; you’ll pardon me if I don’t manually retag them as well.
I have also broadened the scope of Hellenisteukontos: moving forward it will cover not the Set Intersection of Greek and Linguistics, but the Set Union. Greek culture, music, literature and history are in scope of it now; so is general linguistics and linguistics of other languages.
I won’t be posting with the same level of frequency I did on Quora, a frequency that was clearly unsustainable. I aim to be doing larger essays, although I did plenty of essay writing on Quora anyway. But I will welcome people suggesting Quora questions for me to answer here. I will not be posting anything to Quora; my friends from Quora are free to do with my content what they will on Quora (so long as they link back here.)
I look forward to reconnecting with old friends and new, and I look forward to thinking out loud and posting what strikes my fancy, in a forum that I find more congenial.
“Let us now praise famous Nicks.”
I hope I’m good at popularising obscure topics in the set union of Greek and linguistics. It’s what I’m ostensibly supposed to be doing here, instead of complaining about the site’s misdeeds.
When I’m firing on all cylinders, my intellectual labour is quick. Fearsomely quick. I’m quick to pick up knowledge about a new domain, quick to do wide-ranging discovery, quick to synthesise it, and quick to formulate an informed opinion about it. Quick sometimes means Hasty; Quick almost always means Impatient. But if I have missed something in my final product, it certainly won’t be staring you in the face.
Opening up my Master’s thesis randomly, this para makes all the sense in the world to me, and I’m sure it makes somewhat less sense to most.
Unlike volitionality or temporality, these principles underlying these relations cannot be captured by a referential, truth-conditional semantics. The relationships described by these relations are not real-world relations; they involve the organisation and presentation of text. In Hallidayan terms, they involve not ideational, but textual semantics. For that reason, they can only be expressed in terms of discourse analysis. This makes these relational distinctions decidedly relevant to a rhetorical theory, which purports to analyse discourse structure functionally.
Or maybe some phonetics from a recent-ish paper I coauthored?
The alternative explanation involves the impact of analogical change on verb paradigms in Italiot, but not in Cargese. As seen previously, in Cargese Greek the third person plural of a verb (ekoɣwane ‘they were cutting’ < ekovɣane) is subject to metathesis, but the third person singular, involving a front vowel after vɣ, is not (ekovʒe ‘he was cutting’ < ekovɣe). In Italiot, analogical change has taken place, shifting [j] to [ɣ] before front vowels, and thereby regularizing verb paradigms (Rohlfs 1977: 27: troɣise rather than the expected trojise ‘you eat’, modeled on troɣo ‘I eat’). It is likely then that analogical leveling in Italiot led to the replacement of palatalized [vj] with unpalatalized [vɣ] even in palatalizing contexts. Once this occurred, it fed into secondary metathesis to [ɣv] and subsequent shift in the direction of [ɡw]. If this hypothesis is correct, the main locus of analogy would also have been verb endings, given how widespread ɣ-epenthesis was in Italiot verb inflections, and how infrequent it is in stems: thus, xorevɣo, xorevji > xorevɣo, xorevɣi > xoreɡwo, xoreɡwi ‘I dance, he dances’ (Vuni Italiot, Calabria: Karanastasis 1984–92).
The scary thing is, I don’t think these are far off from how I express myself about linguistics on Quora…
Poe once wrote: “Oh! That my young life were a lasting dream! /My spirit not awakening, till the beam/Of an Eternity should bring the morrow.” What do you make of that sentiment, as someone who writes so poignantly of illness?
Oh! that my young life were a lasting dream!
My spirit not awakening, till the beam
Of an Eternity should bring the morrow.
Yes! tho’ that long dream were of hopeless sorrow,
’Twere better than the cold reality
Of waking life, to him whose heart must be,
And hath been still, upon the lovely earth,
A chaos of deep passion, from his birth.
I make of it something different than you make of it, Magister. I make of it the bitter refrain of the middle-aged, in song and in lyric: that the vigour and felicity of youth are not cherished when we’re in the midst of them, and are lamented by us when they’re gone. The wish that the grudging disappointments of middle age, and the aches of senectitude, could be effaced; that we could transition directly from youth to the hereafter, without the gift of youth being tarnished within our very frames.
“Hope I die before I get old”—How old’s the guy who sang that now? 72?
And clicking through to the question details that the shmucks here in Quora Product Design still permit us—Dreams: yes. The imagined, the fleed-to, the dreamed, the recollection with rose-coloured glasses, is always better than what we live in cold reality. In fact—and you and I both know this, mi senex—the youth that was once cold reality was no match for the youth of middle-aged dreams. I didn’t enjoy being young. I didn’t get to have much fun, and I thought my long dream was of hopeless sorrow at the time—because I knew no true sorrow. I didn’t enjoy my vigour, because I knew no decrepitude. I didn’t think things lovely, because I knew no ugliness.
We Greeks, we have a saying for that too. Κάθε πέρσι και καλύτερα. Each “last year” is better than the next.
I recognise the sentiment, mi senex. I recognise that sentiment which colours all of what I do. My last year was better than this too, for having had your voice in it.
(And for having had question details.)
And yet, that’s easy. It’s easy to regret what’s gone; it’s hard to rejoice in what follows. It’s easy to regret vigour; it’s hard to rejoice in wisdom. It’s easy to lament in friends gone; it’s hard to rejoice in friends gained.
It’s easy to have missed your voice. It’s hard to know that mine, too, is a voice that will one day be missed.
I am old and I cannot sleep
forever, like the young, nor hope
that death will be a novelty
but endless wakefulness when I
put down my work and go to bed.
How much of what we did was good?
Everything seems to move beyond
our remedy. Come, heal this wound.
At this hour nothing can be done.
Just before dawn the birds begin,
the warblers who prefer the dark,
the cage-birds answering. To work!
Outside this room the chill of grace
lies heavy on the morning grass.
I gather the question is about how I receive them rather than how I give them, given that this question is related to How important are gender presentation and different pronouns to you as a transgender person?
I’m a bloke. I don’t want to be told I’m not a bloke, and I’ll be rather surprised if someone thinks I’m not a bloke.
I present as a bloke. I’m quite happy to present as a bloke, and despite the occasional “no, I’m secure in my sexuality” joke, I haven’t particularly delved into gender ambiguity.
I have identities that are more pressing and conscious to me than masculinity; then again, masculinity is the kind of identity that fades into the all-encompassing background readily.
Like Kimberly Alexander’s answer says, cis people don’t particularly reflect on gender the way trans people are forced to. Ditto any privileged identity group: the privilege is in not being Othered.
(That’s why I call you Westerners beef-eaters on Quora all the time.)