Good and faithful servant

A much-reproduced picture from the recent funerary ceremonies for George H.W. Bush shows the former President’s service dog, Sully, lying before his master’s casket.


It’s hard not to choke up a little seeing Sully, the very soul of to-the-last fidelity. When I first saw this image, by mind went instantly to the emblem employed in the medieval tombs of Crusaders and the opening lines from Philip Larkin’s “An Arundel Tomb” (1964):

Side by side, their faces blurred,
The earl and countess lie in stone,
Their proper habits vaguely shown
As jointed armour, stiffened pleat,
And that faint hint of the absurd–
The little dogs under their feet.

The funerary monument Larkin is describing can be seen in Chichester Cathedral in East Sussex, its effigies depicting Richard FitzAlan, 10th Earl of Arundel (d. 1376) and his second wife, Eleanor of Lancaster (d. 1372), according to Wikipedia.


In fact, Larkin is inaccurate about the emblemata by their feet: his rest on a recumbent lion, an icon of courage, while hers rest on a dog, an icon of loyalty. No matter– Larkin is more interested of course in their hands than their feet:

Such plainness of the pre-baroque
Hardly involves the eye, until
It meets his left hand gauntlet, still
Clasped empty in the other; and
One sees, with sharp tender shock,
His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.

“What will survive of us is love,” the poem concludes, which is more fittingly symbolized by dogs than lions perhaps. The old warrior takes his wife’s hand, as George so often took Barbara’s in his own day. Say what you will of him (and I could say a lot: Clarence Thomas, Willie Horton, his failure to act on the AIDS crisis), the elder Bush was in the end a good and faithful servant to the republic, one whose like we would can only hope to see again.

Posted in Animals, Bible, Cemeteries & Funerals, Dogs, Emblems, Military, Poetry, Statues & Monuments, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

No middle way out of the waste land?

I just love the March 6, 1950 cover of Time magazine, which depicts T.S. Eliot poised between a cross over his left shoulde, and a martini (or is it a grail?) on his right. The caption below reads, “No middle way out of the waste land?” Should we go to church or to a bar?


Posted in England, Language & Etymology, Poetry, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

“Gassed”: My Thoughts and Another’s, Unknown


John Singer Sargent’s Gassed (1919)– I’ve seen it twice, last fall at the Frist’s WWI & American Art exhibit and, more memorably, in 2012 at the Imperial War Museum in London. The Olympics were on, and service men and women were being allowed into many of the events for free, so you saw lots of them in the city that summer. One guy in uniform at the IWM I particularly recall, because he stood in front of this painting for quite a while. I thought of that moment today, on the anniversary of the end of the Great War.

Just after the war, Sargent had been commissioned to inaugurate the Hall of Remembrance at the IWM with a work on the theme of the Anglo-American alliance. He chose instead, however, to depict the survivors of a mustard gas attack which he had himself seen in France. Rodin’s The Burghers of Calais (1889) was certainly in Sargent’s mind as he made this , as well as Pieter Bruegel’s The Blind Leading the Blind (1658). Naturally, I thought of Wilfrid Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est from 1917,

Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.


Sargent’s painting captures the horror of Owens’ poem, as well as the allegory in Bruegel. There’s much to look at, and one of the most interesting details is the off-duty soldiers in the background playing football– a grim reference, perhaps, to the quote attributed to Wellington that “the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.” Gassed is an enormous work of art, 7.5 x 20 ft, and the soldier whom I saw that day at the IWM studied every inch of it. I was tempted to start up a conversation with him, but it seemed to me that he deserved to be alone with his thoughts and this masterpiece. Still, I would have liked to know what was going through his mind.

Posted in Cemeteries & Funerals, Classics, England, Military, Poetry, Sports & Games, Time | Leave a comment

Birth-right citizenship: Perhaps not so straightfuckingforward

One of the great virtues of being an academic is having friends who are much smarter than I am and from whom I can learn a great deal. A case in point concerns the President’s recent remarks about birthright-citizenship. 

“We’re the only country in the world where a person comes in and has a baby, and the baby is essentially a citizen of the United States for 85 years, with all of those benefits,” he said incorrectly, according to the NYT. Other countries do it as well–what really struck me, though, was that this flies right in the face of the Fourteenth Amendment, or so it seemed to me. And so I said on Facebook, in the smug know-it-all tone I reserve for social media: 

“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside.” Pretty straightfuckingforward.

Well, it turns out not to be so straightfuckingforward. My friends Nick and John debated the matter in the comments section, and rather than let their discussion disappear into the oblivion all Facebook posts eventually fall into, I thought I’d reproduce it here (with their permission, of course).

JOHN: This was actually discussed at some length at last year’s 14th Amendment symposium here in Sewanee. The lawyers and historians present seemed to agree that, though naturalizing the children of immigrants was not what the framers of the amendment INTENDED, they were aware that it contained that implication and were content to leave it there. At the time they could foresee only that it might naturalize the children of Chinese laborers, which would be an issue mainly in California (which, as a consequence, refused to ratify the 14th Amendment until 1959!). However, I read somewhere once that the eminent jurist Learned Hand believed the amendment should not be read as conferring citizenship on the children of people in the country illegally. Hand was a serious Constitutional scholar whose thoughts would be worth attending to–but I haven’t been able to track that down.

NICK: I’m told that this effort has been spearheaded especially by John Eastman of Chapman University, but this Mother Jones article also traces it to some others.

Note, btw, that the recent Hillsdale-College-souced op-eds in the Post have also included one that argued for ENDING LEGAL immigration entirely. I won’t even try to remember what reasons were advanced for that position.

Ultimately, what’s more interesting and concerning here (as in all constitutional interpretation, from a historical point of view) is the question of what principles and values are driving the right-wing intellectuals’ effort to reinterpret the 14th amendment. John, did you get a sense of what those principles and values were? One can agree with the critiques of ‘citizenship tourism’ for wealthy elites, but one can also sense that this is not the main issue for those seeking to end birthright citizenship.

JOHN: I think the argument (which I think is reasonable) is that birthright citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants is distinct from any other situation, even that of “birth tourists.” The difference is that the nation has never consented in any way to the presence of the person who now must be granted citizenship. (The distinction is clear, isn’t it? Of course the nation never consented to my presence either—but it did consent to the presence of whatever ancestor of mine first legally lived here, and thus implicitly to mine. Not so with the child of someone whose presence violates the law.) I believe this was Learned Hand’s objection: that no nation should be compelled to grant citizenship against its own will. Let me ask you one: leaving aside Constitutional arguments (which are fascinatingly murky, turning on specific, ambiguous language in the amendment and the debates about it, like “jurisdiction”) and granting the risky nature of overturning any long-standing Constitutional interpretation–what would you say are the ADVANTAGES of granting citizenship automatically to the children of people who are in the country illegally? What do we gain by this, as opposed to treating such people as residents who might apply for citizenship? It’s hard to see how merely being born on the right side of an imaginary line could create a moral right, so the argument would need to be pragmatic, right?

NICK: So…before I can take on the burden of defending the status quo, I need to step back and distinguish between principles and practical policy priorities. These are two very different things that belong in very different discussions, so please read through the entire post (everybody!) before even thinking about responding to any of this.

In principle, I understand and even agree with those who insist that “as a sovereign nation the US should enforce the laws that are on its books.” So in principle, I’d agree that our borders should be secure. I also happen, personally, to believe *in principle* that we should allow everyone to reside and work legally in the US who wants to and who is able to travel here.

In principle, I also believe that it would be fair to put people who committed deliberate, premediated murder to death.

In practice, none of these policies work out the way they’re meant to. The border isn’t secure, and can’t be totally secured, short of a China-style Orwellian police state based on facial recognition by cameras positioned throughout our border states and throughout the country. We can’t allow unlimited legal immigration, or at least I will give conservatives the benefit of the doubt that there are likely to be strong economic reasons not to do so. Similarly, the death penalty is not and cannot be used in the absolute certainty that no innocents are being murdered by it.

Therefore, I don’t believe we should be focusing on securing our borders against unlawful entry. I don’t believe we should allow absolutely unlimited legal immigration. And I don’t believe in the death penalty.

Now, about birthright citizenship: Like other issues, this can be discussed either in principle or as a matter of practical policy.

In principle, sure, I can agree that there’s no clear reason why people who aren’t legally in the US should be able to claim the good fortune of US citizenship for their children. Lots of people who aren’t legally in the US when their children are born — that is, those who are not in the US at all when their children are born — cannot claim this privilege. So, why should undocumented US residents be able to do so? Of course I see your point.

In practice, however, there will be (short of the Orwellian facial-recognition police state) undocumented parents of children born in the US. Should the children therefore be expelled, at any age? If not, at what age should they be expelled? One advantage of NOT changing our current policy is that NOT changing it averts unjust outcomes for these children – who, if birthright citizenship were rescinded, would essentially become “dreamers” with an even greater moral claim on our sympathies than those we have now.

In practice, the US also faces many urgent challenges: declining economic mobility, infrastructure dilapidation, climate change, all the increasingly visible (or re-visible) forms of injustice. Does the current policy of birthright citizenship contribute to these problems or to other urgent problems? If so, how? What damage is it doing to the interests of most Americans and to our shared prosperity?

Without any clear reason for believing that birthright citizenship is a significant cause of any urgent problem, I will continue to believe that other policy areas are far more important and have a stronger claim to our attention, and I will continue to suspect the movement to rescind the policy as being motivated by something other than a concern for our common future. I simply do not understand how anyone could believe that birthright citizenship is a central flaw in the prevailing legal and political arrangement of our national polity.

Or, rather: I have a suspicion about how to understand it. People who express a wish to deny the children of illegal immigrants US citizenship are, I suspect, in thrall to a zero-sum cosmic vision in which some people “have theirs” and other people will just have to “do without.” They regard the good fortune of US citizenship as a form of inheritable property, which the US should be free to give away charitably, or to offer transactionally on its own terms — but which, above all, belongs unconditionally to the children of existing US citizens, according to a supreme Law of Property Inheritance. I do not believe in a universe that is governed by any such law. For example, as a matter of both principle and practice (subject to the design of effective enforcement policies), I believe we should have much higher inheritance taxes, levied on a much larger share of affluent individuals…because the right to pass private property to one’s children simply is not, for me, a basic law of the universe.

In short: principles are one thing, but I just don’t see why anyone would make rescinding birthright citizenship a practical priority at this moment in history — unless they think that doing so will help solve all our other problems. And that notion is prima facie quite implausible, so I hereby shift the burden of argument back onto the opponents of birthright citizenship: How will rescinding it help solve any of the immediately urgent problems that the US faces?

As a footnote, I have no problem – again, in principle – with John’s suggestion that the “native dreamers” (those who’d be created, literally, after birthright citizenship was rescinded) might be treated “as residents who might apply for citizenship.” But again, I see a problem in practice: our “nation” has proven unable for DECADES to deal definitively with the non-native dreamers by establishing a way for them to “apply for citizenship.” What gives us any reason to believe that our “nation” would do any better by the hypothetical “native dreamers” in the post-birthright-citizenship scenario?

All of which points, ultimately, to the insufficiency for practical purposes of arguments that reify the “nation” as an agent or corporate person with a single voice. John, you employed this reification without comment or apology, as though “the nation” was a term with a clear and unambiguous referent. But then you called the border an “imaginary line.” So is “the nation” real or imagined?

JOHN: Both, like all nations. Political states are constructs, arbitrary at the margins like all constructs, but not therefore unreal. They speak the only way they can, for political purposes, through the voice of their governments. These voices are as authentic as the governments are legitimate. .

NICK: Right! So from my point of view, the nation that spoke a hundred and twenty years ago and established birthright citizenship through the courts is just about as legitimately “the nation” as the nation that would speak through some judge (or whoever) who might be delegated to decide, in individual cases, on whatever criteria, between a “native dreamer” who deserves citizenship and one who doesn’t. What makes either of these “nations” more “the nation” than the other? So, appealing to “the nation” as the arbiter of citizenship is a petitio principii. “The nation” has already spoken. And it decided that for purposes of determining citizenship, the line on our border is the real one.

JOHN: Sure. But of course the nature of Constitutional interpretation (let alone amendment), as of other aspects of our politics, is that the speaking never stops. Neither of us would have trouble finding political dicta from 1868, or 1898, that we are glad to have moved beyond. And–this slightly breaks my resolve to avoid the weeds of historical detail–it isn’t quite true to say that the “nation” has spoken on this specific issue, since in 1868 there was no such thing as an illegal immigrant, and the 1898 Wong Kim Ark case did not concern an illegal immigrant. There are aspects of birthright citizenship on which the nation has remained officially silent, in other words. Pointing this out brings us back to your original question: is this a big enough problem that we need to force a clarification?

NICK: Exactly. John, I appreciate your readiness to engage on this. I have learned something about where some conservative minds are on the subject of national identity, both from you and from another friend with whom I had another exchange on the topic yesterday. I find it interesting (though strictly in relation to my own moral sympathies a bit baffling) that this, of all subjects, elicits so much debate. Clearly the question of what being an American *means,* or should mean, is re-emerging as the political problem of our time for intellectuals on the right. For intellectuals on the left, it simply does not appear to be the most pressing issue in view of the many practical challenges that the country faces.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

NO AND SHUT UP: Intellectualism and Its Discontents in Nancy

Screen Shot 2018-10-27 at 7.40.39 AM.png

51BMa5GSf2L._SX364_BO1,204,203,200_My friends and family all know of my deep love for Nancy, the Ernie Bushmiller comic strip. Nor I am alone in this, as the Washington Post noted earlier this year. The best  present I got last Christmas was Paul Karasik and Mark Newgarden’s oversized book, How to Read Nancy (Fantagraphics, 2014 2018) which reads and re-reads a single strip from various points of view. It’s a remarkable piece of scholarship, and the obsessiveness with which the authors go about their work is off-putting and inspiring at the same time. Sometimes friends who come over the house will pick this book up off the table and get lost in the intricacies of their closely-argued analysis. Others (and this includes my long-suffering wife) look at How to Read Nancy and think, “Um, why would anybody read much less write such a book?” Neither set of friends is wrong, and sometimes I feel the exact same division of opinion about the whole Nancy phenomenon at the exact same time. It’s Genius! It’s Stupid!

Jeff Overturf Nemo 30027Bushmiller knew his comic strip was stupid, and that its stupidity was the reason for its success. His formula was a simple one: think of something funny, and then “dumb it down.” This reductiveness is especially noteworthy in the style of Nancy, which is stripped of all detail down to its barest essence. As the Post says in the article noted above, The authors liken Bushmiller’s studied three-panel minimalism to the “less is more” architect [Ludwig Mies van der Rohe], positing that every element in a “Nancy” panel adheres not to a comic strip but rather to “the blueprint of a comic strip.” 

It seems to me that Bushmiller’s Nancy displays a trademark minimalism in its humor and aesthetic that all of us who live our lives amidst clutter and confusion long for, but cannot bring ourselves to commit to. The same people who buy Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up probably also have books like How to Read Nancy lying about the house.

Another book I have lying around the house is Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, a classic work of popular political history from 1963 (archived in its entirety here). It’s a long and meandering book, the sort you don’t read in a sitting but thumb through profitably in idle moments, but Hofstadter’s thesis is a simple one: there is a tension in the democratic culture of America between egalitarianism on the one hand and elitism, of which education is a primary marker, on the other. Committed as he is to the democratic form of government, Hofstadter has little patience for the resentment of those too lazy to think through life’s problems (p. 42):

As a consequence, the heartland of America, filled with people who are often fundamentalist in religion, nativist in prejudice, isolationist in foreign policy, and conservative in economics, has constantly rumbled with an underground revolt against all these tormenting manifestations of our modern predicament.

Yet at the same time, he recognizes the maddening tendency of the intellectual to resist the common sense of the common man (p. 39):

Ideally, the pursuit of truth is said to be at the heart of the intellectual’s business, but this credits his business too much and not quite enough. As with the pursuit of happiness, the pursuit of truth is itself gratifying whereas consummation often turns out to be elusive. … The meaning of his intellectual life lies not in the possession of truth but in the quest for new uncertainties. Harold Rosenberg summed up this side of the life of the mind supremely well when he said that the intellectual is one who turns answers into questions.

The dynamic is familiar to us today, it seems to me. “We won with poorly educated,” said Donald Trump after his February 2016 primary victory in Nevada. “I love the poorly educated.”

It’s an old story that pits the highbrow against the lowbrow–in fact, it’s one of the oldest and most important in Western culture. In 399 BC, the Athenians put Socrates to death for corrupting the youth. As Plato writes in the Apology (multiple copies of which are also lying around the house), the ultimate reason for the case against Socrates grew out of the rancor arising from his overly-probing inquiries . When the Oracle at Delphi proclaimed him the wisest of men, Socrates set out unsuccessfully to prove it wrong and thus started out on the road to his own ruin:

I am going to explain to you why I have such an evil name. When I heard the answer, I said to myself, What can the god mean? and what is the interpretation of this riddle? for I know that I have no wisdom, small or great. What can he mean when he says that I am the wisest of men? And yet he is a god and cannot lie; that would be against his nature. After a long consideration, I at last thought of a method of trying the question. I reflected that if I could only find a man wiser than myself, then I might go to the god with a refutation in my hand. I should say to him, “Here is a man who is wiser than I am; but you said that I was the wisest.” Accordingly I went to one who had the reputation of wisdom, and observed to him – his name I need not mention; he was a politician whom I selected for examination – and the result was as follows: When I began to talk with him, I could not help thinking that he was not really wise, although he was thought wise by many, and wiser still by himself; and I went and tried to explain to him that he thought himself wise, but was not really wise; and the consequence was that he hated me, and his enmity was shared by several who were present and heard me.

I don’t know what I’m talking about, huh? That’s a good point, Smartypants. Here, have a cup of hemlock.

My very favorite Nancy strip, though not focused on the search for truth or wisdom, also deals with an offered drink. Here we see the very confrontation Plato and Hofstadter discuss between the questioning intellectual and the resentful anti-intellectual:

No and Shut Up.jpg

I’m not sure which of the statements in the third panel, which is reproduced above, I like better, but it seems to me to capture the entirety of the Nancy experience. Genius? Stupid? Intellectual? Anti-intellectual? This would appear to be the Apollonian-Dionysian divide that animates all of American democratic culture.

A further note on this strip: the dates in the corners of the last two panels indicate that it ran on April 19, 1966, so was drawn sometime in the spring of that year. Is it my imagination, or does “that brainy pest” look like Robert McNamara? If so, he seems to have borrowed Arthur Schlesinger’s “trademark dotted bowtie.” Perhaps he is a figure who represents all of “the best and the brightest” of the Kennedy-Johnson years who started the war in Vietnam.


In October of 1966, McNamara will send a memo to LBJ indicating the war cannot be won; up to that time, though, he was still maintaining the opposite in public. Was there  ever better a time than April 1966 for somebody to stand up to the likes of McNamara and say, NO AND SHUT UP?

As many will know, McNamara himself was the subject of a famous documentary by Errol Morris called “Fog of War.” Morris’ final assessment of McNamara in a 2009 New York Times essay touches on the tensions I’ve noted here:

If he failed, it is because he tried to bring his idea of rationality to problems that were bigger and more deeply irrational than he or anyone else could rationally understand. For me, the most telling moment in my film about Mr. McNamara,  is when he says, “Perhaps rationality isn’t enough.” His career was built on rational solutions, but in the end he realized it all might be for naught.


Posted in Cartoons, Classics, Education, Family, Military, Mythology | Leave a comment

Their Ancient, Glittering Eyes: Prefatory Remarks for the Alderson-Tillinghast Inaugural Lecture


Many thanks to all of you for being here today, a day I have long been awaiting, because it is the day when I finally get to express my deep gratitude to the University and its benefactors, and particularly to Mrs. Diane Alderson, for the chair that has been so generously bestowed upon me, the Alderson-Tillinghast Chair in the Humanities. The late Edwin Boyd Alderson, Jr., was a distinguished judge, and Richard Tillinghast, here with us today, is a celebrated man of letters, and my talk today—about the cinematic representation of Pontius Pilate—is to some degree about the areas Alderson and Tillinghast represent, the complexity of the Law and the intricacy of the Arts.

But I would be sorely remiss, in these grateful remarks of mine, if I did not make some mention of that other element in the title of the chair, the smallest part but the one that I hold most dear, and that is the hyphen, for that little half-dash suspended midair between the names seems to me to contain within it, with supreme understatement, all that existed between Edwin and Richard, by which I mean their tremendous friendship. The picture of them you see here is one I lifted from Richard’s Facebook account. I keep it on the cluttered desktop screen of my computer, and now and again I have opened it up to consider it since the surprising announcement of my receiving ths chair was made at the University Convocation in January.  I take heart from this picture, and not just because of the boldness with which Richard has mixed checks and stripes. But what I’m really struck by is the fun they are so obviously having there in Shenanigan’s.

It is just such fun, a capacity for joy, that the Humanities ought to cultivate in us, it seems to me, especially at times like the present when there is so much joylessness in our national scene. There is actually nothing new in the difficult and trying political circumstances we find ourselves in currently—in fact, it is the oldest and most predictable story there is, that the powerful will be filled with corruptions and outrages that we will be called upon to combat. To seek justice as a judge does, and to speak truth to power as does a poet—these can be wearisome tasks, but if we do so in the company of our friends, this picture seems to say, it will all come out all right. And so, in that spirit, let me bring these remarks to a close with a few lines of Yeats, from the final stanza of Lapis Lazuli:

                                                    … and I

Delight to imagine them seated there;

There, on the mountain and the sky,

On all the tragic scene they stare.

One asks for mournful melodies;

Accomplished fingers begin to play.

Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,

Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.

Posted in Poetry, Pontius Pilate, Sewanee, Time | Leave a comment

Pulvis et Umbra

A final shot from Mine 21, a beautiful image of miners’ headlamps which flicker like stars about to go out.

Screen Shot 2018-10-17 at 7.10.46 PM.pngNos ubi decidimus
quo pater Aeneas, quo dives Tullus et Ancus,
pulvis et umbra sumus.

–Horace, Odes 4.7.14-16

When we descend to that place where Father Aeneas and wealthy Tullus and Ancus have gone, we are but dust and shadow.

Posted in Cemeteries & Funerals, Classics, Mythology, Poetry, Tennessee, The South, Time | Leave a comment