Thursday, April 19, 2007

Going Long, History-Wise

A blog I've been enjoying recently is Scott Horton's "No Comment," hosted by Harper's. It's the usual news + politics + culture stuff, but Horton has a couple of serious virtues that set .

First, he posts a lot. Today, there's two posts on Alberto Gonzales around 5PM, and another on Virginia Tech, at 5:40. For a little while, I didn't think Harper's any other bloggers. My Net Newswire just kept filling up with posts by Scott Horton.

Second, and more decisively, he doesn't just post a lot of links or one-line comments, like some other bloggers who post a lot tend to do. Horton is good at thoughtful, long-form blogging -- multiple paragraphs that stake a position, defend it, and use that position to make a point.

Third, Horton has a decidedly Schrift-y propensity for using the day's events to go long and deep into intellectual and cultural history. My man is well and broadly read. I first got the inkling when I read the beginning of this fine post on "Torture, Secrecy, and the Bush Administration" (which may come from a speech given at NYU):

I want to give a bit of pre-constitutional history, and share with you the story of John Lilburne, an Englishman born in the early 1600s because his story—the story of an agitator who directly challenged the English legal system—has a great deal to tell us about the issues we're facing today. Lilburne's story explains why these matters—torture and secrecy—were not issues to the Founding Fathers, and it helps us understand the true nature of a government which, like the current administration, thrives in that matrix of torture and secrecy.


Unless you are an English Civil War buff, or took a graduate seminar on the importance of the Levellers for later early modern political theory, chances are that John Lilburne's name isn't first on your tongue. But Horton doesn't just show off with his Lilburne reference -- he makes it work:
He [Lilburne] wrote a compelling account of his treatment—he had been imprisoned for refusing to answer questions and then flogged, pilloried and gagged--but he also described the use of coercive interrogation techniques to extract a confession, the denial of rights of confrontation, the fact that his judges were all political figures placed there to do their king's bidding—the Star Chamber, you see, was to Lilburne's age what the Military Commission is to ours.

His account was an instant bestseller and provided much of the impetus for the abolition of the Star Chamber by the Long Parliament in 1641. As Uncle Tom's Cabin was to abolition, Liburne's book was to habeas corpus and the Star Chamber. Lilburne served with distinction as an officer during the Civil War, and afterwards his advocacy of Republican virtues caused Oliver Cromwell a bit of discomfort, and at length Cromwell decided to silence Lilburne by charging him with treason. The trial convened in October 1649, which is to say just months after the second Civil War had been successfully concluded for the Parliamentary forces.


OK. So maybe Horton is a hotshot constitutional/human rights lawyer, and he knows some of the history behind the constitutional protections of civil/human rights. But then he goes all continental on you, with this quote, which he leaves untouched as a full post:

After the uprising on June 17th,
The Secretary of the Writers Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Upon which was to be read that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could only reclaim it
Through redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
Still for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?

—Bertolt Brecht, “The Solution,” Buckow Elegies No. 9 (S.H. transl).


Bert Brecht, yo! German Marxist poet/playwrights! And it's from the Buckow Elegies -- it isn't a quote from Mother Courage or "Mac the Knife." That's some classy stuff.

And it puts your other allegedly-deep-wisdom media heads to shame. Has anyone ever worked so hard to link a small set of shallow preoccupations to a news event as David Brooks does in this op-ed on the shootings at Virginia Tech?

[A]s we learn the facts of [Cho Seung-Hui's] life, we’ll be able to fit them into ever more sophisticated models of human behavior. For over the past few decades, neuroscientists, evolutionary psychologists and social scientists have made huge strides in understanding why people — even murderers — do the things they do.

It’s important knowledge, but it’s had the effect of reducing the scope of the human self. “Man is the measure of all things,” the Greek philosopher Protagoras declared millenniums ago. But in the realm of the new science, the individual is like a cork bobbing on the currents of giant forces: evolution, brain chemistry, stress and upbringing. Human consciousness is merely an epiphenomena of the deep and controlling mental processes that lie within.


What's more astonishing is that Brooks still manages to say so little. Protagoras? I know Brooks loved his freshman year at Chicago, but sometimes it seems like he never read a single book after he turned 19. (The last line is an near-verbatim quote of Nietzsche.)

Compare today's post (on the same topic, no less) by Horton:

In the fourth century before the common era, a young man named Herostratus set fire to the Temple of Artemis in the Aegean coastal city of Ephesus (now Efes, Turkey). The massive marble temple had been viewed as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. What motivated Herostratus to this horrible deed?


It is on. Scott Horton is a stone gangster. For knowledge.

1 comment:

Robin said...

I've been subscribed to Horton too, but frankly glossing over his posts b/c they're so, uh, long. But you have motivated me to give him some time & attention.

"...stone gangster. For knowledge." -- Awesome. :-)