Aaron Haspel

Dec 222003

To understand the absurd seriousness with which Americans treat higher education, look at their cars. Jacques Steinberg’s The Gatekeepers, which trails a Wesleyan admissions officer and six supplicants for places in the class of 2004, documents this magic moment:

A week before his decision was due, he mailed off a $250 deposit and his official response to Wesleyan: a form that had “YES” preprinted in large type at the top. Jordan then went out to his mother’s car and pressed a clear Wesleyan decal against the inside of the back window.

Jordan’s palpable awe was correctly analyzed Paul Fussell, twenty years ago, in Class:

Americans are the only people known to me whose status anxiety prompts them to advertise their college and university affiliations in the rear windows of their automobiles. You can drive all over Europe without once seeing a rear-window sticker reading CHRIST CHURCH or UNIVERSITÉ DE PARIS. A convention in the United States is that the higher learning is so serious a matter that joking or parody are wholly inappropriate… One would sooner defile the flag than mock the sticker or what it represents by, say, putting it on upside down or slantwise, or scratching ironic quotation marks around “College” or “University.” I have heard of one young person who cut apart and rearranged the letters of his STANFORD sticker so the rear window said SNODFART. But the very rarity of so scandalous a performance is significant.

Fussell, notably, does not assign this behavior to a particular class, but to Americans in general. The college decal afflicts uppers, middles, and proles alike. And I sympathize: if I were about to piss away 150 large I might want a souvenir too. Status anxiety being what it is, I see only one answer to the college decal problem: stop sending kids to college.

College, as a phenomenon, has nothing to do with learning. It is possible to educate oneself at Ball State or at Harvard, or alone in one’s room for that matter, like young Jimmy Gatz, studying electricity from 6:15 to 7:15 every morning and needed inventions from 7:00 to 9:00 every night. It is equally possible not to educate oneself at any of those places. I should know: when Harvard turned me down I beat my breast and rent my garments. I then proceeded not to educate myself at my safety school, Carleton College, which served the purpose admirably, just as Harvard would have.

For certain subjects college facilities are useful; it’s tough to learn biology or chemistry without lab work. But Tiffany will be majoring in sociology, and Eustace in political science. They could read Erving Goffman and Tocqueville on their own time, and $150,000, apparently the going rate for four years at a top university, buys a hell of a lot of private tutoring. Perhaps the parents consider the money well-spent if it simply gets the brats out of the house.

No, college is about bragging rights, and seeing to it that your child has the best possible start in life. Children who attend prestigious colleges are understood, correctly, to have more career success. Here, however, we run into a little cause-effect problem. College admissions officers look for good grades and high test scores and a documented record of achievement; employers look for the same things. If no one went to college, or if the bottom went while the top worked instead, would the income disparity, ten years hence, really be any different?

The children themselves dispense with these niceties. Of the six in The Gatekeepers, each, for all of his oft-asserted independence of mind and spirit, decides to attend the most prestigious school he gets into (as determined by the U.S. News rankings, which the schools follow as assiduously as the children). The single exception is a girl who courageously spurns Harvard in favor of Yale.

Steinberg, who graduated Dartmouth in 1988, is not, himself, the best advertisement for the admissions officers of the Ivy League. (I include Wesleyan, which billed itself for a while as “The Alternative Ivy” and is still trying to live it down.) As a writer he is a diligent reporter. His special weakness is for the inconsequential appositive, for “color,” and The Gatekeepers is full of sentences like this: “For Terri, the mother of a ten-year-old girl and an eight-year-old boy, the idea of traveling to Asia for five weeks a year on Wesleyan’s behalf seemed like a perfect segue to the nearly three years she had spent in Swaziland for the Peace Corps.” Neither the girl nor the boy nor Swaziland ever reappears, for which, I suppose, a more generous reader would be grateful.

Causation gives Steinberg some trouble. One of the students he follows, Jordan Goldman, connives his way, Steinberg never says quite how, into writing lessons with the distinguished novelist Richard Price. Goldman’s best friend has cerebral palsy and is bound to a wheelchair. Steinberg writes, “In Freedomland Price had created characters based on both boys and made them brothers, because he knew how badly they wished they were brothers in real life.” Cosmic stupidity lurks behind that “because.” Early in the book his admissions officer, Ralph Figueroa, interviews at Goucher College and dislikes it because there’s no decent Mexican food. At the end Steinberg says that Goucher has finally passed “the Tortilla Test,” not by improving the food, but by appointing a Mexican-American dean. You begin to feel a little embarrassed for the guy on the one hand, and to wonder, on the other, what Dartmouth is letting in these days.

Imbecility has its uses, letting Steinberg tell what he sees without noticing that it directly contradicts what he believes. Steinberg and his admissions officer firmly believe in affirmative action, a conviction unshaken by the fact that the two obvious affirmative action admittees, an American Indian to Wesleyan and an inner-city Hispanic to Muhlenberg, both drop out freshman year. Ralph rhapsodizes constantly about the importance of “diversity” at Wesleyan; yet he never seems to encounter anyone, on or off campus, with politics to the right of Howard Dean’s. One applicant “was intrigued that so many students were vocal in support of various political causes,” as Steinberg puts it — I would say coyly, except it does not seem to have occurred to Steinberg that there is more than one kind of political cause.

The Gatekeepers also makes clear what admissions officers really do for a living, during the nine months of the year when they aren’t reading applications. They solicit. Ralph spends months on the road, traveling from high school to high school singing the praises of Wesleyan and encouraging applications that he has every expectation of turning down. More applications means more rejections, which means more “selectivity,” which means a higher rank in U.S. News. Nothing scandalous about that, but nothing edifying either.

Suspiciously little in the way of actual academics seems to go on at any of these colleges — especially Wesleyan, which resembles on Steinberg’s account less an institution of learning than a year-round Burning Man festival — but there is an awful lot of travel. The Cornell girl spends six months in a pueblo in Costa Rica and a month in Rome “to write and draw.” The NYU girl goes to Prague, Jordan Goldman goes to Oxford. Only the Yale girl stays put, leading rallies on behalf of her fellow oppressed Yalies, demanding that all college loans be forgiven. The old aristocratic Grand Tour was more effective and no more expensive.

So parents, that round-the-world cruise that you’ve been promising yourself? The money’s just sitting there, in Junior’s college fund; help yourself. It’s his year abroad or yours.

(Update: Craig Henry points to a study that shows a surprisingly weak link between college selectivity and income. Maybe I was too kind. James Joyner comments. Julie Neidlinger comments.)

Dec 182003

With a title like that this should be in German and long. Instead it will be in English and short. George Hunka and AC Douglas have gone off the rails with this whole transcendence business. George, normally dyspeptic, soars into the empyrean:

As Kant will happily tell you, there’s no escaping the boundaries of human sensual experience, but as Schopenhauer will whisper in your ear, you can always seek to transcend it through renunciation of the world and through the highest expressions of sensuality itself. Art and religion provide the means for that renunciation. Artists, then, should encourage a path out of the materialist Hegelian world with the techniques at their disposal, whether those techniques are musical, linguistic or visual, just as the priests of all religions have their sacraments and their rituals as a means to transcendence.

This sort of art is utterly useless to the world, for it denies the world itself as a transient petrie dish of suffering and aimless, constantly unsatisfied desires for pleasure. The world itself can’t accept this denunciation of its own importance; therefore it invents Hegel.

Dude! Easy on the transient petrie dish of suffering there! If the alternative is, as it seems to be, being bored or tortured for eternity, then I’ll take my petrie dish of suffering, thanks. With fries. I concede that if the world had invented Hegel it would have some explaining to do, but I think we can let the world off on that score.

The aesthetic emotion is profoundly rooted in human experience. You watch the protagonist and think, that’s me (naturalism), or that’s what I wish I were (romanticism), or that’s what might become of me if things went really, really wrong (tragedy). You read the poem and think, I’ve felt that way, or I would, in those circumstances. You look at the painting and think, I’ve seen that, or I’d like to. (I’ve skipped music, which beats me.) There’s nothing terribly hifalutin about any of this.

Art seems different, somehow, and elaborately wrong-headed theories of aesthetics, like Benedetto Croce’s, have been constructed on this premise. But the word for sitting transfixed in the opera house, or the movie theater, or between the headphones, is not transcendence. It is absorption, or to put it still more mundanely, paying attention. I trust all my readers have become absorbed in a task. Becoming absorbed in a work of art is no different.

There are serious questions to answer in aesthetics. I suggest we try to answer them, and leave Never-Never Land to Tinkerbell, and Schopenhauer.

(Update: George Hunka replies. David Fiore weighs in (and here), as does JW Hastings. Stirling Newberry comments.)

Dec 142003

I tire of having to straighten everybody out on everything, but really, all these intelligent bloggers discussing great covers and not one mention of Devo’s (Can’t Get No) Satisfaction? Satisfaction never truly belonged to the Rolling Stones anyway. The Who might have made it their own but never the Stones, who were too smug and well-adjusted for a song so damp and anxious. The famous Keef guitar lick, great as it is, could just as well have shown up in Jumpin’ Jack Flash or Street Fighting Man, it doesn’t fit the lyrics at all. Truth now, Mick: did some girl you were trying to make ever tell you to come back baby later next week? Devo grasps the meaning of “He can’t be a man ’cause he does not smoke the same cigarettes as me.”

(Update: Props to Jeff Taylor, who lists Satisfaction in his top five. David Fiore comments, and posts a more interesting list than any I linked in the first place. The Warrior Monk plumps for the Otis Redding version.)

(More: Ian Hamet, George Wallace, Rick Coencas — yes, it’s godofthemachine.com, where the fun never stops!)

Dec 132003

Bad academic writing is called by its perpetrators “difficult” in the same way indulgent parents call their rotten children “difficult.” “Delinquent” would be apter in both cases. Jonathan Culler and Kevin Lamb have proferred the standard excuses in Just Being Difficult? Academic Writing in the Public Arena, which I haven’t read and doubt I could bring myself to read, and on which John Holbo has done a far better demolition job than I could in any case. Holbo quotes a paragraph from Culler’s introduction that gives the flavor:

The claim not to understand might seem an innocent posture that people would seldom adopt willingly, but in fact it is one of considerable power, in which authorities often entrench themselves. Eve Sedgwich has described the “epistemological privilege of unknowing,” whereby “obtuseness arms the powerful against their enemies.”

Pot, kettle. As Holbo says, “If these jerks are going to pretend not even to understand why some people are a bit cheesed off about how badly Homi Bhabha and Judith Butler write, just turn that trick on its head. Don’t even offer the courtesy of a fair debate, if that courtesy will only be abused by willful refusal to respond seriously to serious points. Thank you for being such a pain.”

Few ideas are so difficult that they can’t be expressed in a few sentences or a couple of equations. One doubts that these deep thinkers are up to anything so recondite as, say, Gödel’s theorems of formal undecidability, the proof for which David Berlinski managed to summarize clearly in three pages and about which Ernest Nagel wrote a very short and lucid book.

Legendary bad academic writers like Butler and Bhabha are quite capable, when the chips are down, of turning a respectable English sentence. In fact they tend to reserve their best prose to reply to complaints about their bad academic writing (Butler’s New York Times op-ed on the subject; costs $2.95, but trust me, it’s clear, if silly). They write that way on purpose. They’re hiding something.

Humanities departments are trade unions, and trade unions exist for two reasons: to restrict the supply of their labor, and to increase the demand for it. Of course there is no ultimate demand for Bad Academic Writing, in the sense of actual readers. Yet there is ongoing ancillary demand, from Bad University Presses and Bad Academic Quarterlies. They have quotas to meet and space to fill, while being generally exempt, thanks to generous endowments and still more generous taxpayer sponsorship, from the tiresome obligation to turn a profit. New and cogent thoughts on literature and philosophy will not float these subsidized outlets, not by a long shot. What is needed, and supplied, is a formula for generating an indefinite number of ways to say the same thing. Bad Academic Writing, like so many other bad things, is your tax dollars at work.

There remains the problem of supply: literary criticism and philosophy require no special training, unlike, say, pipe fitting. Modest erudition and a little elbow grease suffice. When T.S. Eliot, asked what a suitable method for criticism might be, answered “to be very intelligent,” he was making the same point in a more flattering way.

To the professionals in the field this state of affairs is deeply unsatisfactory. Doctors have medical boards, lawyers have bar exams, what’s a poor humanities academic to do? The First Amendment unluckily prevents the issuing of licenses to practice philosophy or criticism, so other means are resorted to to keep out the amateurs like, say, T.S. Eliot. These means are tenure and an arcane lingo. If you don’t use the lingo you don’t get tenure, if you don’t get tenure you’re not a professional, and if you’re not a professional you can be safely ignored. Better luck next time.

No matter how you scramble the language of “rearticulations,” “social relations,” “structural totalities,” and “enunciatory modalities,” it always comes out the same: as a critique of post-industrial capitalism. Try this yourself at home. The words are father to the thought, and it is seemlier to make writing a certain way, rather than thinking a certain way, a requirement for guild membership. If it’s hegemony you want, well, I got your hegemonic power structure right here.

Dec 082003

Terry Teachout writes of the perils of the goyim among the Jews, but what of the perils of the Jews among the goyim? One of the minor joys of Richard Rhodes’s book The Making of the Atomic Bomb is this stock answer of a Russian physicist when confronted, as he frequently was, with anti-Semitic remarks: “My ancestors were forging checks when yours were still living in trees.”

Not to be understated, either, are the perils of the Jews among the Jews. Harry Cohn, the legendary chairman of Columbia Pictures, was once solicited by a group of writers for a Jewish relief fund. “Relief for the Jews?” said Cohn. “How about relief from the Jews?”

(Update: Rick Coencas comments on the comments.)

Dec 072003

This place has gone to seed, in large part, because I’ve been doing some actual work, trying to get a software release out — late, inadequate, but out — and as a consequence have followed Floyd McWilliams’s and Evan Kirchhoff’s theorizing about the future of software with more than academic interest. Evan starts here, Floyd replies, more Evan, more Floyd, and finally Evan again. The question at hand is when all of our jobs shall be outsourced to Softwaristan (India), where they produce high-quality source code for pennies a day, and what we software developers shall be doing for a living when that happens. As Evan puts it, “Floyd says ‘decades,’ I say ‘Thursday.'”

And I say, with due respect to both of these highly intelligent gentlemen, that neither one has the faintest idea what he’s talking about. They are speculating on the state of a science seventeen years in the future, and if they were any good at it they wouldn’t be laboring, like me, in the software mines, but in the far more lucrative business of fortune-telling. I — and I suspect I speak for Floyd and Evan here too — would happily swap W-2s, sight unseen, with Faith Popcorn or John Naisbitt, and they’re always wrong.

Floyd compares the current state of software development to chemistry circa 1700, which is generous; I would choose medicine circa Paracelsus, the Great Age of the Leeches. The two major theoretical innovations in modern software are design patterns and object orientation. Design patterns and object orientation are, depending on how you count, ten and thirty years old respectively, which indicates the blazing pace of innovation in the industry. Design patterns mean that certain problems recur over and over again, and instead of solving them the old-fashioned way, from scratch every time, you write down a recipe, to which you refer next time the problem crops up. Object orientation means that software modules, instead of just encapsulating behavior (“procedural programming”), now encapsulate data and behavior, just like real life! Now doesn’t that just bowl you right over?

Hardware, by contrast, improves so rapidly that there’s a law about it. It is a source of constant reproach to software, which has no laws, only rueful aphorisms: “Adding people to a late software project makes it later,” “right, fast, cheap: choose two,” and the like.

Evan claims, notwithstanding, that “a working American programmer in 2020 will be producing something equivalent to the output of between 10 and 1000 current programmers.” Could be. He points to analogies from other formerly infant industries, like telephones and automobiles. He also cites Paul Graham’s famous manifesto on succinctness as power, without noting that Graham’s language of choice is LISP. LISP is forty years old. If we haven’t got round to powerful languages in the last four decades are we really going to get round to them in the next two?

Floyd counters with an example of an object-relational library that increased his team’s productivity 25-50%, arguing that “as long as development tools are created in the same order of magnitude of effort as is spent using them, they will never cause a 100 or 1000-fold productivity improvement.” Could be. Certainly if, as we baseball geeks say, past performance is the best indicator of future performance, I wouldn’t hold my breath for orders-of-magnitude productivity improvements. On the other hand, bad as software is, enormous sums are poured into it, large segments of the economy depend on it, and the regulators do not even pretend to understand it. This all bodes well for 2020.

Me, I don’t know either, which is the point. Evan works on games, which are as good as software gets; this makes him chipper. Floyd works on enterprise software, which is disgusting; this makes him dolorous. I work on commercial business software, which is in-between; this makes me ambivalent. We all gaze at the future and see only the mote in our own eye.

(Update: Rick Coencas comments. Craig Henry comments.)

Dec 062003

These are my first words about Michael Jackson, and I promise they will be my last. What interests me about Michael is not Michael himself, whose habits and daily life are so far outside the realm of ordinary human concerns that the word “eccentric,” implying that he might still be in orbit with the rest of the solar system, no longer applies. It’s the parents of Michael’s little friends who interest me: what could possess them to send their children off to consort with him in Neverland? It can’t be the money — most of them were quite well-off — so it has to be the fame. These wretched people want to be near Michael. They want to talk to him, to ride in his private plane, to be sprinkled with a bit of that magic celebrity pixie dust.

And what exactly is that pixie dust? Let’s channel Tyler Cowen here and consider this in economic terms.

Everyone craves distinction, identity, that special something that sets one apart from, that makes one better than, the neighbors. Distinction, by its nature, must be scarce, or it isn’t distinct any more, and scarce goods in America are increasingly difficult to find. Distinguishing yourself in your profession is one possibility, but that’s a lot of work, and even if you succeed you’re likely to be appreciated only by your colleagues. The Joneses won’t give a damn.

Mere money-making is out. In America, where the plumber makes more than you do and movers take Caribbean vacations, money is no longer a mark of distinction: it is common, in every sense. From this observation Paul Fussell derived a whole book, the horribly snobbish but amusing Class, and Tom Wolfe the better half of a career.

To replace money Wolfe and Fussell proposed taste. Not real taste of course, in the sense of cultivating a well-honed appreciation for some field of endeavor — like professional distinction, that’s hard work, and unlikely to be widely admired. No, Fussell and Wolfe meant taste as fashion, knowing what to listen to, to read, to wear, and to eat. This worked for a while but eventually everyone wised up. There is an episode of Cheers in which Woody’s father wants him to leave his Boston bartending job and come back to the farm in Indiana. The pseud waitress, Diane, makes a movie to persuade Mr. Boyd to let Woody stay and sends it to him. She asks Woody how his father liked it. Woody says, “He liked it all right, but he thought it was too derivative of late Godard.”

Fame at its most rarefied, when one is known by a single name, always has been and always will be scarce. Michael Jackson has been famous this way for thirty-five years and his pal Elizabeth Taylor has been famous for sixty. Even Warhol’s famous aphorism, wrong as it was, implies that there will never be enough fame to go around. Fame is the last universal currency. It collateralizes loans for Donald Trump; it buys a bully pulpit for Rosie O’Donnell and literary influence for Oprah Winfrey. It secures the best table in the restaurant, no reservation required. In an age of almost unimaginable abundance, celebrity is the last scarce good. Is it any wonder that people pursue it, and proximity to it, so assiduously?

Dec 042003

There is something patronizing about the praise for the guest post from the nude model at 2 Blowhards, from people like Terry Teachout who know better. Degas! Titian! Whimsical Thurber-like sketches! And all from a bimbo! Apparently you meet a lot of weirdos and perverts doing nude modeling, which I never would have guessed. Nude models writing are like women preaching who are in turn like dogs walking on their hind legs: it is not done well, but one is surprised to find it done at all.

Blog Posts I Never Finished Reading: “‘I’m reading Michael Woods The Road To Delphi: The Life and Afterlife of Oracle now; theres a lot of meat to it.” “Regarding Robert Bartley, Wall Street Journal editorial page editor and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, you might be interested in this long, detailed article from the Columbia Journalism Review about the trustworthiness of the Wall Street Journal editorial page under his leadership.” (Yeah, I’m all over it.) “I am about to hire a programmer to write some code for me that will help collect data for my research.” “Although its great that Ted and Henry get to point out whats wrong with the likes of Instapundit’s take on the Plame Vanity Fair story…” All this and much, much more sleep-inducing material on Crooked Timber, which is in grave danger of dropping off the blogroll, and I know the boys will be all busted up about that.

A.C. Douglas recommends Dale Peck’s half-apology for his literary criticism in The New Republic. Don’t do it. If Portrait of the Artist killed the novel, then sentences that begin “semiotically, syntactically” and end “language waters the seeds of its own failure” will surely kill criticism. Note to A.C.: Sentences like this may kill blogging too: “More prosaic, I, at the first damp and drizzly November day of each year, account it high time to plunge once more into the pages of Melville’s enduring masterpiece, there, for a time, to sweetly perish deep sunk in its overrich language, crowded detail and incident, and mystic and metaphysical loomings as would Tashtego have sweetly perished deep sunk when falling head first into the great Heidelburgh Tun of a beheaded sperm whale had not that leviathan’s capacious case been almost completely baled of its pure, unctuously rich, sweetly fragrant spermaceti.” Melville never actually wrote that way. For excellent reason.

Under no circumstances should you read this comment thread. Except the last one; read that and skip the rest. And please slap me if I write about Clinton ever again.

(Update: The temptation proved too great. Now you have to read the last three comments.)

Nov 272003

Michael DouglasA.C. Douglas’s unapologetic cultural elitism is nice as far as it goes, but apologetic cultural elitism is something I could really get behind. A dose of Michael Blowhard, who if the 2 Blowhards were a corporation would be Sales to Friedrich’s Manufacturing, seems just the ticket. A.C. continues to rail against common men and petit-bourgeoisie: Michael invites them to comment. There are logistical issues, to be sure. Certain topics, like modern architecture, would have to be left alone, lest the blog implode. A.C. has been banned from the Blowhards’ comments, and I hear they can’t stand each other. But as William Holden said in Stalag 17, you hear two people saying that and the next thing you know they’re getting married.

InstaClueless — Several bloggers, including me, have been defeated in their more or less ingenuous efforts to summarize Steven Den Beste. One man alone is up to the job: the world’s tersest blogger, Glenn Reynolds. I envision a two-column layout here, with lengthy explanations of the ideology of America’s enemies on one side, and “Transnational Progressivism. Heh.” on the other. You’ll never have to read the whole thing again.

A Turn for the Worse — Eddie Thomas, of One Good Turn, has plenty of brains but lacks mojo. I want a little invective with my education. Fuse him with some fire-breathing, red-meat-eating, gun-toting conservative, say Kim du Toit, and you end up with the Sam Kinison character in Back to School. “So Montaigne may still be relevant today. You don’t agree? Fuck off and die!”

CCCCCCC (and two guys named Kevin) — Colby Cosh’s Conglomeration of Cranky Canadian Cultural Conservatives (and two guys named Kevin). It’s a Report reunion, as Colby, Kevin Steel, and Kevin Michael Grace, bowing to overwhelming popular demand, join forces to provide the very latest on Hilaire Belloc, A.E. Housman, and their beloved Edmonton Eskies. Laugh — as they compare mug shots! Cry — as they pore over the balance sheets of the Citizens Centre, wondering what happened to their severance pay! Thrill — as they argue about whose turn it is to go out for smokes!

Happy Thanksgiving to all.

Nov 222003

More pixels for Terry Teachout: he links to a list of Bill Clinton’s 21 favorite books and comments, more discreetly than I will, on its obvious fraudulence. The usual suspects are rounded up — Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, also cited by German ex-Chancellor Helmut Schmidt as his favorite book, and as sure to appear on a politician’s list as Nietzsche is not to. If we must have philosopher-kings, Plato’s Republic would be more to the point. For gravitas, Max Weber, Thomas à Kempis, Reinhold Niebuhr, and the two safest poets of the 20th century, Eliot and Yeats. Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again, possibly the worst-written famous novel of the last two hundred years. The list looks like America too, with Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, which is quite a good book but, like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, can be dated to virtually the month it came out, and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which I doubt Maya Angelou’s mother has read cover to cover: certainly I couldn’t. Clinton throws in The Confessions of Nat Turner and Taylor Branch’s history of the civil rights movement for good measure. His wife’s Living History is there; It Takes a Village I presume just missed the cut.

What is irksome about this list, besides its content, is its length. A favorite book? No. A top ten? A top twenty? No, Clinton needs twenty-one favorite books. The number signifies terminal vacillation. Say what you like about Al Gore, but when he was asked for a favorite book he coughed one up. Stendhal’s The Red and the Black may be a curious choice for someone like Gore, but it is a choice at least.

Terry claims, as if it were an established fact, that Clinton is “known to be unusually smart,” for which I can discern no evidence whatever. He is justly famed for many acts, none of which, except getting himself elected, could remotely be classified as intelligent. During his eight years in the White House — and before, and since — he never shut up. If we exclude “I never had sex with that woman” and “It depends on what the meaning of is is,” did he ever utter a memorable sentence? Calvin Coolidge left a far richer legacy to Bartlett’s than Clinton will, and he barely spoke at all.

Terry doubts that Clinton has read all these books: I don’t. I merely doubt that he has understood them. Clinton is notorious for being able to repeat back reams of what he has read, verbatim. Speaking as someone who had the same faculty in my youth, I am not impressed. It’s a parlor trick, like having an internal hard drive, useful for politics and getting through law school. You can pull up the material on your internal monitor, that’s all. You still have to read it, which is where the thought comes in. A memory is not a mind.

To anyone who subscribes to the myth of Clinton’s coruscating intellect I commend Edith Efron’s mightily persuasive 1994 article for Reason in which she diagnoses him as “cognitively disabled.”

Clinton’s high school friend David Leopoulos visited Clinton when he was at Oxford and found that Clinton had suddenly become a fount of information about painting. Leopoulos told a reporter, “He is interested in everything and wants to consume everything. He is almost a fanatic about information. He gathers and retains it better than anyone I’ve ever known.”

Joel Achenbach of The Washington Post jokes, “That’s Clinton: well-versed in every subject, has memorized the leading economic indicators for every quarter since the ’20s, knows how to say ‘fungibility’ in Farsi.”

Finally, Charles Allen and Jonathan Portis in The Comeback Kid describe the Clinton of the presidential campaign: “Clinton became known as a ‘policy wonk,’ a politician who could spout data and statistics nonstop, a man with a quick answer for every question. Members of the national press were amazed at his ability to formulate answers to complicated questions, seemingly without thinking.”

It is not “seemingly” without thinking. Very often, it is actually without thinking. Clinton can memorize as he breathes. But he finds thinking — analysis, evaluation, reaching conclusions — intensely difficult.

What we have here is a Jeopardy champion. (Bush, in personality the anti-Clinton, is “stupid” with reference to the same implicit standard.) It is an intellect for our time, in which, as Jacques Barzun puts it, an editorialist can commit a gross non-sequitur without comment and will be deluged with letters if he misstates by ten feet the height of the Chrysler Building. Clinton’s bloated book list, I suspect, was composed the same way he decided to nominate Steven Breyer for the Supreme Court, the only difference being that he couldn’t nominate twenty-one judges:

On May 23 [1994], Newsweek portrayed the absurdity of Clinton’s “waffling” in greater detail than ever before. It gave the readers a three-day scenario: “On Wednesday the president had been about to nominate Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt when he suddenly changed his mind. On Thursday, his choice had been an old Arkansas friend, Judge Richard Arnold, but by Friday, Arnold was out and [Judge Stephen] Breyer was in. ‘Let’s go,’ Clinton announced after yet another last minute phone call, and his staff, stung by a rash of media stories about White House dithering, rushed to carry out the presidential command. But before they could get out the door, Clinton hesitated. Maybe, he mused, he should put Maryland Sen. Paul Sarbanes on the court. That way he could elevate Baltimore’s promising young black mayor, Kurt Schmoke, to the Senate.” This, Newsweek reported, caused the president’s legal counselor, Lloyd Cutler, to grow “exasperated” and to insist that Clinton decide there and then. And thus did Breyer emerge triumphant from Clinton’s “maddening” decision-making process.

In early June, Clinton again felt impelled to defend himself from the charge of indecisiveness. But this time he got someone else to do it for him. Who better than legal counselor Lloyd Cutler? So there was Cutler, who had been privately “exasperated” by Clinton’s indecisiveness, explaining publicly in a long op-ed piece in The Washington Post that the president had not been indecisive at all, that, on the contrary, he had been wonderfully decisive.

A journalist once backed Clinton into a corner and asked him to choose one record, just one, to take with him to a desert island. Clinton waffled, hedged, and finally picked Colors of the Day, The Best of Judy Collins. “She inspired a whole generation who had the same kinda dreams,” said Clinton. He should have checked with Lloyd Cutler.

(Update: I take it all back. Clinton’s favorite book is 100 Years of Solitude — when he’s having dinner with Gabriel Garcia Marquez.)