Saturday, October 7, 2017

Constitutional right to the presumption of innocence

Revoked Obama directive had zero to do with 
women’s rights

 

BY SETH GALINSKY

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos issued interim guidelines Sept. 22 to replace an executive order issued by the Barack Obama administration that gutted the constitutional right to the presumption of innocence in the name of fighting sexual harassment on college campuses....

Full story:

http://themilitant.com/2017/8138/813851.html

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Democrats, Republicans splinter

Political crisis of US rulers continues to unfold

BY SETH GALINSKY

President Donald Trump’s turn to collaboration with Democratic Party congressional leaders to pass a three-month extension of the U.S. government debt ceiling and $15 billion for hurricane and flooding victims took many liberal political pundits — and leaders of the Republican Party — by surprise.

Liberals and the middle-class left have called Trump a fascist, a racist, an arch-reactionary Republican. They want to drum him out of office by any means necessary. Some even applauded the attempted assassination of Republican congressmen at a June softball practice by Bernie Sanders supporter James Hodgkinson.

Donald Trump is none of these things. He is neither a Republican nor a Democrat, though he has been registered in both parties. He won the election by winning the backing of millions of working people, including millions who voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. He condemned the “carnage” being visited on working people and castigated the Democratic and Republican “establishments” in Washington.

Trump’s election is a reflection of the coming apart of the two capitalist parties that have alternated in power for decades.

Millions of workers are fed up with the depression-like conditions ravaging cities and countryside alike because of the decline of capitalism, and with the leaders of the two capitalist parties who live in a different world than they do. Faced with the choice of Hillary Clinton or Trump, many stayed home.

Millions of workers voted for Trump because he said he would “drain the swamp.”

Trump’s election sent paroxysms of fear through the heart of the meritocracy — millions, even tens of millions, of well-paid staffers for so-called nonprofit foundations, charities, community organizations and nongovernmental organizations, as well as professors, opinion writers and apparatchiks for government regulatory agencies, who believe their “smarts,” sophistication and liberal ethos are essential for the smooth running of capitalism.

They’re useful to the ruling class. They bolster the illusion that if you are talented, there are no limits to how far you can go. But their livelihoods are unconnected to the production of goods, crops or anything of value to humanity. Their position is precarious and to the rulers they are ultimately expendable, especially in times of deepening economic crisis. They fear the working class today and what they sense are class battles to come.

A Sept. 11 opinion piece in the New York Times by columnist Charles Blow captures their hysteria and fear. Blow says the “vast majority of America” — that is, the people he knows — believe “this administration and this man are abominations and they will not sit silently by.”

“We are in hell,” he concludes.

Blow is not referring to the hell faced by working people — unaffordable health care, millions of workers without jobs, ongoing police brutality, the opioid epidemic, the workers in uniform sent to die in never-ending imperialist wars in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq.

People like Blow are consumed by fear and disdain of those they view as the “deplorables” — the workers who voted for Trump or skipped the election entirely.

Blow says the biggest problem are those who refused to vote for Clinton. “The lesser-of-two-evils argument is poppycock,” he says, claiming that there is no comparison between Clinton and Trump.

His argument is aimed at anyone — like the Socialist Workers Party — who urges working people to break from capitalist “lesser evil” politics and to organize independent working-class political action.

“Progressive” Democrats like Charles Schumer in New York and Nancy Pelosi in California have outflanked Sanders’ efforts to build “resistance” to Trump.

In Berkeley, California, Pelosi encouraged and abetted antifa goons to attack those they called “fascists” who wanted to protest there Aug. 27. In fact, the Patriot Prayer group they targeted is composed mainly of supporters of Donald Trump who wanted to defend free speech and who denounce white supremacists and racists. The goons beat anyone they thought had the wrong demeanor.

So far, the only places these antifa forces have been able to carry out their attacks is where liberal Democrats have enabled them by instructing the cops to pull back.

Democrats, Republicans splinter
The fractures in the Democratic and Republican parties became clear during the 2016 campaign.

“Progressive” Democrats rail against those in the party — like Bernie Sanders and his “Revolution” movement — who they believe threaten the party establishment and its chances in 2018. In her new book What Happened, Hillary Clinton turns her guns on Sanders, saying he “didn’t get into the race to make sure a Democrat won the White House, he got in to disrupt the Democratic Party.”

A similar fracturing is taking place in the Republican Party. Trump won the nomination by defeating 16 of the party’s “best and brightest.” He has backed “insurgent” candidates for 2018, including the challenger to incumbent Sen. Jeffry Flake in Arizona. Trump charges that Republican Party congressional leaders are unable to deliver legislation he supports. They’re just another part of the swamp.

He says he’s open to more deals with Democrats to try and get some of his proposals adopted into law.

While Trump was not the favored candidate of the U.S. ruling families, they can live with him as president. Underneath all the demagogy and bluster, he’s a rich capitalist businessman like they are. The policies and actions he has taken in defense of U.S. imperialism at home and abroad — from prosecuting Washington’s wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East to stepping up deportations of immigrants convicted of crimes — are in continuity with previous administrations.  
 

From:
http://themilitant.com/2017/8135/813503.html

Kurdish liberation struggle

‘The Kurdish people are one nation’

Baghdad’s 1988 Anfal extermination campaign and the 1991 
Kurdistan uprising

 

BY STEVE CLARK 
AND CATHARINA TIRSÉN

SULAYMANIYAH, Kurdistan Region, Iraq — “What happens in any part of Kurdistan has an impact on other parts. Because emotionally, historically, and linguistically, we’re one nation.”

Hazhar Majeed, owner of the Endese bookshop and publishing house in this southeastern Kurdistan city, was talking with us July 24 about the Kurdish people’s resistance to former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s assaults between 1986 and 1991. The more than 40 million Kurds in the Middle East are the world’s largest people without a nation-state — something that was denied them at the end of World War I and ever since by the victors in that colossal slaughter. They remain carved up to this day by arbitrary borders, largely between Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria.

“The division that exists is a political division imposed on us,” Hazhar said. “Otherwise the Kurds would never have been separated. Even with the division, Kurds still have very close cultural, social and political ties.”

During our three-day stay in Sulaymaniyah, Hazhar arranged for us to visit the former regional headquarters, prison and torture chamber of Saddam’s secret police — the Amna Suraka (Red Security). Now a museum, it focuses on two chapters from that regime’s quarter-century-long reign of terror.

The first is Saddam’s 1988 Anfal Campaign of extermination and forced removal of Kurds, during the closing stages of Baghdad’s eight-year-long war against Iran. Visitors to the Amna Suraka enter through a corridor lined with a mosaic of 182,000 shards of shattered mirror, recalling the number of Kurds slaughtered in the most horrible ways during the Anfal. The passageway is dimly lit by 4,500 small bulbs marking Kurdish villages destroyed in the operation.

The second theme is the March 1991 uprising in Kurdistan against that hated regime, captured in part by the still bullet- and shell-pocked walls of the garrison, liberated by Kurds March 7 that year. The museum also recounts the subsequent mass exodus from cities, towns, and villages, as the regime’s helicopter gunships sought to drown the rebellion in blood.

The Anfal
Hazhar Majeed was born and raised in the Kurdistan region of Iran, before moving to Sulaymaniyah in Iraq as a young man in 1998. “Even though the border was tight during the Saddam years, and it was hard physically to move from one side to the other, there was still a lot of contact among Kurds,” Hazhar said. “In many families, the father might be Iraqi, the son Iranian. The same with uncles, aunts, cousins and so on. The political subdivisions weren’t able to separate Kurds from each other.”

That was already true “before mass media came into being,” he said. “Now, with so many means of communication, solidarity among Kurds in all four countries — Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria — has become even more cemented. Right now, Kurds from Iran and Iraq are fighting ISIS in Syria alongside Kurds from there. Solidarity is growing.”

As for Saddam’s Anfal atrocities, Hazhar said, “I was still in my early teens at that time, so I don’t remember a lot. But I’ll tell you what I do remember, as well as what I’ve read and heard from family members, friends and others.”

During Anfal, some 100,000 Kurds from Iraq took refuge in Iran, in addition to the same number or more driven from their homes by various Baghdad regimes over the previous decade or so. “Kurds in Iran considered them brothers and sisters, not refugees,” Hazhar said.

“When they came to Iran,” he said, “many just divided up among families in Kurdistan, or local mosques and schools.” Then came Baghdad’s shelling of the town of Halabja with chemical weapons on March 16, 1988, during which some 5,000 Kurdish men, women and children suffered horrifying deaths. This was the deadliest but far from the only use of weapons of mass destruction against Kurds, ordered by Saddam through his cousin Gen. Ali Hasan al-Majid, branded with the infamous nickname “Chemical Ali.”

“I remember very well that when refugees from Halabja came through our city in Iran, the government in Tehran said they were contaminated by chemicals and wouldn’t let them disembark, as it had done earlier,” Hazhar said. “But people from across the city lined the road — and I was there — with blankets, food, tents, whatever we had in our houses. We’d throw them on the government trucks that were transporting them. I still get emotional when I think about it.”

There were so many refugees that many couldn’t be housed simply by relying on people in Iran’s towns and cities. So the government authorized a couple of international agencies to establish camps.

Washington, which backed Baghdad’s war against Iran while professing “neutrality,” largely kept its mouth shut about the Anfal until the story of this human catastrophe became useful in 1990-91 to rationalize the U.S. war against Iraq. The major media followed the U.S. government’s lead.

1991 Kurdish uprising
In August 1990, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, on Iraq’s southern border. Ever since 1979, when the shah of Iran had been toppled by a revolution, the U.S. government had been looking for a pretext to unleash its military might in the Middle East to defend its interests in the oil-rich and strategically important region. The Iraqi regime handed it the chance.

After Washington defeated Saddam’s forces in Kuwait and southern Iraq in early 1991, the U.S. rulers chose to sidestep the risks of pushing north to overturn the government in Baghdad. Instead, on the eve of the U.S. ground assault in late February, President George H.W. Bush publicly called on “the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands to force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside.”

The Kurds revolted across Iraqi Kurdistan in early March, driving out Baghdad’s forces. The Shiite population across southern Iraq also took the streets. But Washington had lifted its air cover over Iraq, enabling Saddam’s regime to unleash its helicopter gunships and troops against the rebel population. Thousands were killed. By the end of March, there was another massive exodus of Kurds fleeing their homes in search of refuge in Iran or Turkey.

The U.S. government wanted to do nothing that would break up Iraq and begin undoing the borders and social relations imposed on the peoples of the region in the aftermath of two world wars. And the U.S. rulers had pledged to Turkey’s brutal regime — which itself oppresses millions of Kurds — that it would oppose an independent Kurdistan in Iraq.

Neither of the two main Kurdish liberation organizations — the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) or Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) — “initiated the Kurdish uprising in March 1991,” Hazhar said. Under the blows of the Anfal in 1988, these organizations “had unraveled, and most of their leaders were living in Tehran or elsewhere.”

So the Kurds who rose up weren’t under the command of any organization, he said. “The rebellion began on the fifth of March, in Ranya, a town about two hours north of Sulaymaniyah. Of course, fighters from the peshmerga” — the military units of the KDP and PUK — “are always in the cities, towns and villages, living undercover. So when the people rebelled, the peshmerga joined in with their rifles, handguns, whatever they had.

“And many other Kurds were armed, too, not only those in the peshmerga. Many Kurds had weapons at home and were using them to attack Saddam’s forces and defend themselves and their families,” Hazhar said. “More recently, you recall Kobani, don’t you? Old men and women, teenagers and others were armed and resisted the brutal occupation by Daesh, by the so-called Islamic State, of that Kurdish town in northern Syria. They helped fight off Daesh in Kirkuk too, right here in Iraq.

“That’s what began happening in Ranya on March 5, 1991. And in 16 days, all of Kurdistan had been liberated,” he said.

“Those we refer to here as the jash also took part in the rebellion,” he added. “That literally means ‘donkey’ in the Kurdish language. It’s the term we use for Kurds who joined armed units subservient to Saddam and earlier repressive regimes. They were mercenaries. They did much of the government’s dirty work, including during the Anfal and the gassing of Halabja and other towns.

“So as Saddam’s forces retreated in face of the uprising, the jash had to do something to try to exonerate themselves in the eyes of the people and the eyes of the Kurdish leaderships. So these armed units joined in the rebellion, too,” Hazhar said. “I should add that many of them have continued functioning as jash for the current Kurdistan Regional Government, for both the KDP and PUK leaderships, to this day.”

Kurdistan Regional Government
“Kurds on both sides of the border, in Iraq as well as in Iran, welcomed the blows to Saddam’s regime in 1991. We had nothing to lose,” Hazhar said. “It was the inevitable course of history unfolding, and we enjoyed it and took advantage of it. Baghdad’s defeat opened a wedge for our uprising, and then in 1992 for the establishment and survival of the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq.”

Washington, London, Paris and other powers sought to cover their own tracks regarding the Kurds’ unrelenting struggles for their national rights. These governments seesawed between tactically arming Kurdish organizations to a tiny degree, followed by cynical betrayals, depending on their shifting interests and relations with successive regimes in Iraq, Iran, Turkey and across the Middle East. Newspaper, radio, and television outlets largely taped shut their eyes and mouths in deference to the governments they serve and promote. The silence during and after Baghdad’s Anfal campaign was deafening.

“But there have been two events in the Middle East over the past quarter century that finally caused the world press to pay attention to the Kurdish question,” Hazhar said.

“One was the 1990 invasion of Kuwait, the Kurdish uprising, and Baghdad’s initial repression of it, which caused the world to despise Saddam Hussein.

Full story here:

http://themilitant.com/2017/8135/813550.html

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Behind Attacks on workers rights 

Liberal attacks, ‘antifa’ thugs threaten rights 
workers need
 

BY SETH GALINSKY

The propertied rulers in the U.S. face an unprecedented political crisis today, precipitated by the changes in class reality that were reflected in the election of Donald Trump as president and the deepening crisis of their capitalist system that stand behind that vote. Both of their political parties — the Democrats and Republicans — are wracked by deep divisions.

A facet of this crisis is the relentless resistance of liberal Democrats and media, some Republicans and the middle-class left against Trump’s presidency. All tactics are fair game in their effort to get him indicted or impeached. And against those they label as racists and fascists they say have been unleashed by Trump.

As part of this effort, liberal Democratic politicians and self-proclaimed antifa thugs are mounting attacks on freedom of speech and assembly. Their attempts to shut down conservatives and alleged white supremacist speakers and rallies give a handle to the government to go after the working class and its political rights.

Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin — who calls himself a “real progressive” — is pushing the University of California there to cancel “Free Speech Week” Sept. 24-27, organized by the conservative student group Berkeley Patriot.

Arreguin said the presence of rightist Milo Yiannopoulos and conservative Ann Coulter, who the group has invited to participate, could provoke antifa thugs to “create mayhem” and cost “the city hundreds of thousands of dollars fixing the windows of businesses,” adding that “there is a line between freedom of speech and then posing a risk to public safety.”

The university administration is charging the College Republicans $15,000 for security costs for a Sept. 14 speech by Ben Shapiro, a former Breitbart News editor. Speech is “free” — if you can pay for it.

House Democratic Party Leader Nancy Pelosi called on the National Park Service to deny a permit to a conservative “Liberty Weekend” in San Francisco Aug. 26, saying it was a “white-supremacist rally.”

Acting as enforcers for the liberal politicians, the next day antifa thugs beat up Trump supporters and others they claimed were white supremacists, as well as reporters, during an anti-racist protest in Berkeley.

An anonymous anarchist replied to criticism of antifa thuggery with a post on itsgoingdown.org titled “Eternal Liberal Handwringing: Response to Antifa Smears.” The essay is marked by the group’s glorification of violence, its anarchistic elevation of small-group actions over politics, and its alienation from the working class — all features that point toward the transformation of its members from “anti-fascist” to fascist.

In the history of the workers’ movement, others have travelled this road, including left Socialist Benito Mussolini, who ended up leading the fascist forces to power in Italy in 1922.

Attacks on workers rights 
The New York Times published an opinion piece Aug. 29 calling on the Internal Revenue Service to take away the tax exemption of white supremacists and others with viewpoints that are “fundamentally untethered from American values.” The liberals believe those they disagree with should be “nudged” off the playing field — or knocked off, if antifa is at hand.

Calls for the IRS to decide who is eligible for tax exemption based on political criteria opens the door the rulers will gladly use to go after working-class organizations

The American Civil Liberties Union has come under attack for filing a suit supporting the right of organizers of “Unite the Right” to hold its Aug. 11 rally in a downtown park in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Within the week, the ACLU caved. ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero told the Wall Street Journal that “if a protest group insists, ‘No, we want to be able to carry loaded firearms,’ well we don’t have to represent them.”

I guess they don’t think the Black Panther Party should have gotten legal help from civil libertarians, or the Deacons for Defense and Justice in the fight for Black rights in the 1960s.

The biggest danger to the political rights of the working class today comes from the liberal Democratic politicians, radical groups and antifa-style forces that cut off political discussion and debate. Allegedly aimed at stopping racist and rightist groups, their thug attacks and efforts to restrict the rights of those they target will increasingly be turned against the working class as the class struggle heats up.  
 


http://themilitant.com/2017/8134/813406.html

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

George Novack on Jewish survival

What united Spinoza, Heine, Marx, Rosa Luxemberg, Trotsky, and Freud?

Belief in:

A. Lawfulness of the universe and history.
B. The unceasing changefulness of all things.
C. The relativity of good and evil.
D.  True and effective knowledge is inseparable from practice.
E. Ultimate solidarity of humanity.


***
How Can the Jews Survive?

A Socialist Answer to Zionism

By George Novack

Price: $5.00

List price: $5.00

http://www.pathfinderpress.com/s.nl/it.A/id.60/.f?sc=8&category=141

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Updike and Faulkner: How to Read Fiction by Terry Eagleton

How to Read Fiction by Terry Eagleton.

….We may begin with a sentence from John Updike's novel Rabbit at Rest: ‘A shimmery model, skinny as a rail, dimpled and square-jawed like a taller Audrey Hepburn from the Breakfast at Tiffany days, steps out of the car, smiling slyly and wearing a racing driver's egg-helmet with her gown made up it seems of ropes of shimmering light.’ Apart from one rather careless near-repetition (‘shimmery’, ‘shimmering’), this is a highly accomplished piece of writing. Too accomplished, one might feel. It is too clever and calculated by half. Every word seems to have been meticulously chosen, polished, slotted neatly together with the other words and then smoothed over to give a glossy finish. There is not a hair out of place. The sentence is too voulu, too carefully arranged and displayed. It is trying too hard. There is nothing spontaneous about it. It has the air of being over-crafted, as every word is put fastidiously to work, with no loose ends or irregularities. As a result, the piece is artful but lifeless. The adjective ‘slick’ springs to mind. The passage is meant to be a bit of detailed description, but there is so much going on at the level of language, so many busy adjectives and piled-up clauses, that it is hard for us to concentrate on what is being portrayed. The language draws the reader's admiring attention to its own deftness. Perhaps we are particularly invited to admire the way it propels itself through so many sub-clauses, all draped around the main verb ‘steps’, without for a moment losing its balance.

There is a lot of such stuff in Updike's fiction. Take this portrait of a female character from the same novel:

Pru has broadened without growing heavy in that suety Pennsylvania way. As if invisible pry bars have slightly spread her bones and new calcium been wedged in and the flesh gently stretched to fit, she now presents more front. Her face, once narrow like Judy's, at moments looks like a flattened mask. Always tall, she has in the years of becoming a hardened wife and matron allowed her long straight hair to be cut and teased out into bushy wings a little like the hairdo of the Sphinx.

‘Like the hairdo of the Sphinx’ is a pleasing imaginative touch. Once again, however, the passage draws discreet attention to its own cleverness in the act of sketching Pru. This is ‘fine writing’ with a vengeance. The phrase ‘in that suety Pennsylvania way’ is rather too knowing, and the image of the pry bars is striking but too contrived. ‘Contrived’, in fact, is a suitable word for this style of writing as a whole, as Pru herself threatens to disappear beneath the density of detail with which she is overlaid. The passage has the effect of describing an object rather than a person. Its style freezes a living woman into a still life.

Contrast Updike's prose with this extract from Evelyn Waugh's short story ‘Tactical Exercise’:

They arrived on a gusty April afternoon after a train journey of normal discomfort. A taxi drove them eight miles from the station, through deep Cornish lanes, past granite cottages and disused, archaic tin-workings. They reached the village which gave the house its postal address, passed through it and out along a track which suddenly emerged from its high banks into open grazing land on the cliff's edge, high, swift clouds and sea-birds wheeling overhead, the turf at their feet alive with fluttering wild flowers, salt in the air, below them the roar of the Atlantic breaking on the rocks, a middle-distance of indigo and white tumbled waters and beyond it the serene arc of the horizon. Here was the house.

It is not a passage that leaps from the page. It has none of the self-conscious sculpturedness of the Updike piece, and is surely all the better for it. Waugh's prose is crisp, pure and economical. It is reticent and unshowy, as though unaware of the skill with which, for example, it manages to steer a single sentence from ‘They reached the village’ to ‘the serene arc of the horizon’ through so many sub-clauses with no sense of strain or artifice. This sense of expansiveness, of both syntax and landscape, is counterpointed by the terse ‘Here was the house’, which signals a halt both in the story and in the way it is being delivered. ‘A train journey of normal discomfort’ is a pleasantly sardonic touch. ‘Archaic’ might be an adjective too far, but the rhythmic balance of the lines is deeply admirable. There is an air of quiet efficiency about the whole extract. The landscape is portrayed in a set of quick, deft strokes which brings it alive without cluttering the text with too much detail.

Waugh's prose has an honesty and hard-edged realism about it which show up well in contrast to Updike. They also compare well in this respect with the following extract from William Faulkner's novel Absalom, Absalom!:

In the overcoat buttoned awry over the bathrobe he looked huge and shapeless like a dishevelled bear as he stared at Quentin (the Southerner, whose blood ran quick to cool, more supple to compensate for violent changes in temperature perhaps, perhaps merely nearer the surface) who sat hunched in his chair, his hands thrust into his pockets as if he were trying to hug himself warm between his arms, looking somehow fragile and even wan in the lamplight, the rosy glow which now had nothing of warmth, coziness, in it, while both their breathing vaporized faintly in the cold room where there was now not two of them but four, the two who breathed not individuals now yet something both more and less than twins, the heart and blood of youth. Shreve was nineteen, a few months younger than Quentin. He looked exactly nineteen; he was one of those people whose correct age you never know because they look exactly that and so you tell yourself that he or she cannot possibly be that because he or she looks too exactly that not to take advantage of the appearance: so you never believe implicitly that he or she is either that age which they claim or that which in sheer desperation they agree to or which someone else reports them to be.

This kind of prose, much favoured by some American creative writing courses, has an air of spontaneity about it which is almost entirely fabricated. Despite its casual way with order and convention, it is as artificial as a Petrarchan sonnet. There is something fussy and affected about the way it strives to sound natural. Its air of artlessness is too self-regarding. What is really a kind of clumsiness (‘where there was now not two of them’) is passed off as having the rough edge of real experience. An attempt at impressive intricacy in the final lines comes through as pedantic cleverness. The lines know nothing of tact and reticence. They sacrifice elegance, rhythm and economy to a kind of writing which (as someone once remarked of history) is just one damn thing after another. The passage is too garrulous by half. This is the kind of author whom it would be ferociously hard to shut up. And how on earth can one look exactly nineteen?

Excellence in fiction: How to Read Fiction by Terry Eagleton

How to Read Fiction by Terry Eagleton

....A literary classic, some critics consider, is not so much a work whose value is changeless as one that is able to generate new meanings over time. It is, so to speak, a slow-burning affair. It gathers different interpretations as it evolves. Like an ageing rock star, it can adapt itself to new audiences. Even so, we should not assume that such classics are up and running all the time. Like business enterprises, they can close down and start up again. Works may pass in and out of favour according to changing historical circumstances.

....works which have fallen into near-oblivion may be jolted into fresh life by historical developments. In the crisis of Western civilisation that culminated in the First World War, metaphysical poets and Jacobean dramatists who had also lived through a time of social turmoil were suddenly back in favour. With the rise of modern feminism, Gothic novels with persecuted heroines ceased to be regarded as minor curios and acquired a new centrality.

....there are criteria for determining what counts as excellence in golf or fiction, as there are not for determining whether peaches taste better than pineapples. And these criteria are public, not just a question of what one happens privately to prefer. You have to learn how to handle them by sharing in certain social practices. In the case of literature, these social practices are known as literary criticism. This still leaves a lot of room for dissent and disagreement. Criteria are guides for how to go about making value judgements. They do not make them for you, any more than following the rules of chess will win the game for you. Chess is played not just according to rules, but by the creative application of such rules; and the rules themselves will not tell you how to apply them creatively. That is a matter of know-how, intelligence and experience. Knowing what counts as excellence in fiction is likely to decide the issue between Chekhov and Jackie Collins, but not between Chekhov and Turgenev.

Different cultures may have different criteria for deciding what counts as good or bad art. As a foreign onlooker, you might be present at some ceremony in a Himalayan village and say whether you found it boring or exhilarating, high-spirited or stiffly ritualised. What you could not say was whether it was well executed. To judge that would involve having access to the standards of excellence appropriate to that particular activity. The same goes for works of literature. Standards of excellence may also differ from one kind of literary art to another. What makes for a fine piece of pastoral is not what makes for a powerful piece of science fiction.

Works which are deep and complex would seem obvious candidates for literary merit. Yet complexity is not a value in itself. The fact that something is complex does not automatically earn it a place among the immortals. The muscles of the human leg are complex, but those with calf injuries might prefer them not to be. The plot of Lord of the Rings is complex, but this is not enough to endear Tolkien's work to those who dislike donnish escapism or medievalist whimsy. The point of some lyrics and ballads is not their complexity but their poignant simplicity. Lear's cry of ‘Never, never, never, never, never’ is not exactly complex, and is all the finer for it.

Nor is it true that all good literature is profound. There can be a superb art of the surface, such as Ben Jonson's comedies, Oscar Wilde's high-society dramas or Evelyn Waugh's satires. (We should beware, however, of the prejudice that comedy is always less deep an affair than tragedy. There are some searching comedies and some trite tragedies. Joyce's Ulysses is a profound piece of comedy, which is not the same as saying that it is profoundly funny, even though it is.) Surfaces are not always superficial. There are literary forms in which complexity would be out of place. Paradise Lost reveals little psychological depth or intricacy, and neither do Robert Burns's lyrics. Blake's ‘Tyger’ poem is deep and complex, but not psychologically so.

Plenty of critics, as we have seen, insist that good art is coherent art. The most accomplished works of literature are the most harmoniously unified. In an impressive economy of technique, every detail pulls its weight in the overall design. One problem with this claim is that ‘Little Bo Peep’ is coherent but banal. Besides, many an effective postmodern or avant-garde work is centreless and eclectic, made up of parts that do not slot neatly together. They are not necessarily any the worse for that. There is no virtue in harmony or cohesion as such, as I have suggested already. Some of the great artworks of the Futurists, Dadaists and Surrealists are deliberately dissonant. Fragmentation can be more fascinating than unity.

Perhaps what makes a work of literature exceptional is its action and narrative. Certainly Aristotle thought that a solid, well-wrought action was central to at least one species of literary writing (tragedy).Yet nothing much happens in one of the greatest plays of the twentieth century (Waiting for Godot), one of the finest novels (Ulysses) and one of the most masterly poems (The Waste Land). If a sturdy plot and a strong narrative are vital to literary status, Virginia Woolf sinks to a dismally low place in the league tables. We no longer rate a substantial plot as highly as Aristotle did. In fact, we no longer insist on a plot or narrative at all. Unless we are small children, we are less enamoured of stories than our ancestors. We also recognise that compelling art can be spun out of meagre materials.

What, then, of linguistic quality? Do all great literary works use language in resourceful and inventive ways? It is surely a virtue of literature that it restores human speech to its true abundance, and in doing so recovers something of our suppressed humanity. A good deal of literary language is copious and exuberant. As such, it can act as a critique of our everyday utterances. Its eloquence can issue a rebuke to a civilisation for which language has become for the most part crudely instrumental. Soundbites, text-speak, managerial jargon, tabloid prose, political cant and bureaucratese can be shown up for the bloodless forms of discourse they are. Hamlet's last words are


‘Absent thee from felicity awhile, / And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain, / To tell my story … the rest is silence.’


Steve Jobs's last words were ‘Oh wow, oh wow, oh wow.’ Some might feel that there has been a certain falling-off here. Literature is about the felt experience of language, not just the practical use of it. It can draw our attention to the opulence of a medium that we usually take for granted. Poetry is concerned not just with the meaning of experience, but with the experience of meaning.

Even so, not everything we call literary has a sumptuous way with words. There are literary works that do not use language in particularly eye-catching ways. A good deal of realist and naturalistic fiction employs a plain, sober speech. One would not describe the poetry of Philip Larkin or William Carlos Williams as lushly metaphorical. George Orwell's prose is not exactly luxuriant. There is not much burnished rhetoric in Ernest Hemingway. The eighteenth century valued a lucid, exact, serviceable prose. Works of literature should certainly be well written, but then so should all writing, including memos and menus. You do not have to sound like The Rainbow or Romeo and Juliet to qualify as a reputable piece of literature....

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