Goethe and Wimping Out About Faust

GoetheOn this day in 1814, Irish mystery writer Sheridan Le Fanu was born. Russian architect and engineer Vladimir Shukhov was born in 1853. Nature photographer Vittorio Sella was born in 1859. Late Romantic opera composer Umberto Giordano was born in 1867. Here is a bit of his opera Fedora:

Actor Charles Boyer was born in 1899. Writer Robertson Davies was born in 1913. Sociologist C. Wright Mills was born in 1916. He popularized one of my favorite terms in his book, The Power Elite.

Kamandi - Jack KirbyComic book artist Jack Kirby was born in 1917. Last year, I wrote this about him:

When I was a kid, I thought comics sucked. The only mainstream comic I ever read was Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth. It was written and drawn by Jack Kirby. But it definitely wasn’t the art I liked. Kirby is a really important comic book artist. He more or less created Marvel Comics as we now know it. And his style was totally new: extreme perspective implying lots of motion. But it was Kirby the storyteller that I liked.

I am not at all a fan of Stan Lee who I think did very little in terms of comic books except to make a lot of money publicizing them. Kirby expanded what comic books did, and Lee kept them as dumbed down as possible to keep those 13 year olds reading them.

Actor Donald O’Connor was born in 1925. Actor Ben Gazzara was born in 1930. And Sterling Morrison of the Velvet Underground was born in 1942.

Documentary filmmaker and activist Robert Greenwald is 68 today. Actor Luis Guzman is 57. Actor Daniel Stern is 56. Ice skater Scott Hamilton is 55. And comedian Jack Black is 44.

The day, however, belongs to the great writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who was born on this day in 1749. It is generally hard to appreciate writers who do not write in your own language. I don’t have such a problem with Cervantes, because I enjoy his outlook on life and his humor always comes through loud and clear. With someone like Proust, it is hard to get through the translation because the writing is so dense. Goethe is somewhere in the middle. I do appreciate his world view: it seems like he was a gentle soul. Most of what I’ve read is Faust. In fact, I really like the Walter Kaufmann translation, because it has the German on the left hand page. And you can see that it is a lot easier to translate German into English than French or Spanish.

Speaking of his gentle soul: I still don’t know how I feel about his take on the Faustian legend. Goethe gets Faust off on a loophole. In a Romantic sense (the one that he was writing within), this is a cop out. But in a modern sense, it is perfect. It entirely sums up modern America. Faust is loved by God, so of course he isn’t going to let anything bad happen to his boy. Hell is for the poor, the not chosen. It most certainly isn’t for God’s favorites, regardless of how they behave. Welcome to American meritocracy!

Here is a bit of Faust read in German with the English translation on the screen:

Happy birthday Goethe!

Ben Carson’s Ill Informed Conservative Claptrap

Ben CarsonBen Carson, that great truth teller whose truth seems always to say what the power elite want to hear, had a special article for the 50th anniversary of the “I Have a Dream” speech. And what truth does he have to tell? Nothing but the same old conservative line that Martin Luther King Jr would be very very unhappy with the African Americans of today. All that crime and illegitimacy! Tut tut. Check out Ed Kilgore’s take on it.

But I was struck by one particular passage in Carson’s article:

King was a huge advocate of education and would be horrified by the high dropout rates in many inner-city high schools. He, like many others, was vilified, beaten and jailed for trying to open the doors of education to everyone, regardless of their race.

This is something we hear all the time from conservatives. If blacks would just get a decent education, then everything would be fine! The problem with this is that blacks have been getting educated. I discussed this very issue earlier this month, Blacks Getting Educated, Then Forgotten. It is based on a bunch of recent work by Janelle Jones at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. All of the information in her work shows that exactly the opposite has happened. The number of black men with less than a high school degree is way down. Similarly, the number with college degrees has almost tripled from 8% to over 23%. Yet the black community has virtually nothing to show for this—not even an attaboy from conservatives like Carson.

Of course, I’m sure that Carson can wriggle his way out of these facts. After all, he pinpointed “inner-city” high schools and provided the ultimate weasel word: “many.” I’m not qualified to talk about that. But it does seem that this is blaming the victim. After all, Carson isn’t calling for equality of funding for all school kids. Quite the opposite, in fact. So I suspect he brings up this cherry picked “many inner-city high schools” so it appears to be related to the entire African American community (what the white establishment wants to believe) while still allowing him to defend himself against anyone who attacks him with the facts.

The second half of his article is all kinds of claims about what King would think and do if he were alive today. No one really knows, so its a fun game that conservatives especially like to play. I try not to take part myself. I can, however, say one thing that King did believe in while he was still alive: unionization. And one of the main findings of Jones’ work was that the decline in unionization has been a major cause of African Americans seeing little or no gain from their educations. Now it is entirely possible that had King lived he would have turned into a union hating, inequality embracing conservative. But the man who actually did walk this earth certainly would have seen Ben Carson’s claptrap for what it is had it been around in 1963.

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Our Failed Copyright System In Not MLK’s Fault

Martin Luther King JrToday is the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech. And apparently, tonight, Chris Hayes will use All In to rebroadcast it and then discuss it. That will be at 5:00 Pacific Time. It ought to be good. But it is something of a big deal because the speech itself is under copyright and will be until 2038 at least. (Congress keeps extending copyright protections because of the threat of total cultural collapse when Micky Mouse faces of threat of being turned into a porn star. Really.)

There are people who are really bothered by this. And while I think our copyright system is completely messed up, I’m not too concerned about the issue here. It ought to go without saying that the speech ought to be in the public domain; it is part of our heritage. Just the same, “Yesterday” ought to be in the public domain too, but I don’t see people getting upset about that. (Other than me.) The truth of the matter is that it is not, as is often claimed, that you just can’t see the full speech. Here is a text copy of the original speech: I Have a Dream Speech. And here is the whole speech on YouTube:

It is something of an faith matter among liberals that King and the speech have been neutered. It is said that people focus on the most lyrical aspects of the speech because that is all that they have heard. I think this is hogwash. People always focus on the poetry of speeches and not the substance. And if the speech were in the public domain that would be all the more reason that television stations would avoid airing it, if its length (17 minutes) weren’t enough.

Of course, there is a bigger issue here. It isn’t just that the “I have a dream” speech is under copyright. The documentary of the civil rights struggle Eyes on the Prize has largely been unavailable since its release due to the increasing costs of archival footage—including the “I Have a Dream” speech. And that’s the thing about copyright: it doesn’t do what it is supposed to do. It no longer, in net, causes more content to be created. And in this case, the King estate has explicitly hindered the civil rights movement. For younger people, most of what they know about the civil rights movement comes from Eyes on the Prize. Keeping it out of print for 13 years over copyright rents is an affront to the civil rights movement and its legacy.

But are we really to blame the descendants of King for being greedy bastards when they are hardly the focus of the problem? I don’t see many children who inherit properties turning them over to charity. And regardless, it was Disney and other corporations who keep pushing for longer and longer copyright. True, the King estate could have done something other than hand the dirty business over to EMI. And so the King estate is part of the problem. But the main problem is systematic and it needs to be addressed.

Meanwhile, watch the speech. It is really good. It absolutely deserves its reputation!


Note how I didn’t end this article with something lame like, “We must fix the copyright system so that our cultural treasures are free at last.” Oops!

Chait’s Careful War Mongering

Jonathan ChaitJonathan Chait wrote an amazing article about Syria yesterday. I do not mean that in a good way.

He tells us that, Syria Isn’t Iraq. Everything Isn’t Iraq. Fair enough. But listening to him over the last oh so many years, it is hard to conclude that Chait doesn’t think that just about any military conflict is a good idea. Sure, he’s not for conflicts like Iran. But anything that he thinks we are likely to succeed at is great.

He attacks Matt Yglesias for having his thinking stuck in the Iraq War mentality. I’m not even sure that that’s true. But one thing is certain: Chait is stuck in the Persian Gulf War mentality. Now there was a “bloody good war”! And he seems to want to keep having them. And I’m still not clear what the point was of that war. About 30,000 Iraqis died—mostly conscripts. But apparently, it was great for Chait because we “won.”

No mention is made of the study that Yglesias quoted that showed that such “humanitarian” interventions usually lead to more civilian casualties. As I wrote last night, protecting the civilian population is not the point of this intervention. How could it be after we’ve stood by and watched over a hundred thousand civilians be killed? Chait is wrong to push this as a humanitarian mission at all.

Chait also makes a very strange argument that anti-war liberals are like conservatives on domestic issues, “The arguments Yglesias poses today against a military strike against Syria eerily echo the arguments conservatives and libertarians make against any kind of domestic government intervention.” I don’t understand this. The conservatives are making ideological arguments, “I don’t care if welfare works; it’s wrong!” The arguments that we are making are practical—just like our domestic policy arguments, “This intervention is likely to make things worse.” Is Chait so blind as to not see this distinction?

By far the worst part of Chait’s article is the last paragraph:

I don’t like killing Syrians. And a lot of Syrians are getting killed. I don’t see any plausible way to stop that from happening. I do think that killing some of the Syrians who are soldiers wantonly killing civilians will probably lead to a net decrease in killing. As I said, it is not an easy call.

This is right out of the politician’s handbook. Of course we don’t want war, but what else can we do? We’re only going to go in to stop the killing. He really ought to watch War Made Easy.