Tuesday, May 19, 2009
Credit where credit is due
OK, by popular demand, it’s Tales of Dangeral Copyediting time! I have two problems, one of which requires your help. The first is this: there’s a new style in town, apparently, whereby book and article titles are cited in full in the Works Cited but, if they begin with an “A” or a “The,” the definite or indefinite article is dropped in the notes. At first, I found this merely puzzling, but I didn’t mind. First they came for the definite and indefinite articles, and I did not object, because I was not a definite or indefinite article. . . . Changing Ron Suskind’s The One Percent Doctrine to Suskind, One Percent Doctrine, doesn’t look all that weird. But changing Judith Williamson’s “The Problems of Being Popular” to Williamson, “Problems of Being Popular,” sounds a little telegraphic. Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, maybe; Hastings and Jenkins, Battle for the Falklands, perhaps; but Thompson, Poverty of Theory, absolutely not. And I notice that the copyeditor didn’t touch The Empire Strikes Back: Race and Racism in 70s Britain, because, come on, Empire Strikes Back sounds like it’s been through the Babelfish once too often.
So I’m inclined to restore all the definite and indefinite articles to their rightful places, which means writing “stet” in the notes a couple dozen times. In fact, the minute this post goes up, I’m going to go a-hunting for all those deleted definite and indefinite articles. This, I believe, is what they call sweating the small stuff. And it’s gotta be done. Today. My question is this: should I take the opportunity to change all these “The”s to “Teh”? It’s not like the opportunity presents itself very often.
The other problem is simpler but more vexing. Readers, comrades, beloved interlocutors, lend me your ears and I’ll sing you a song. You know I have an allusive writing style. I can’t help it: sometimes when I’m thinking up words, I think of words that other people have written, especially if they’re words I like. Today, however, I’m thinking of words I can’t stand, because last night, there came a killing frost. Really! On May 18, it was 30 degrees here overnight! Janet and I had to haul a bunch of plants inside, and cover a bunch of flowering bushes, and even still, the pony she named Wildfire busted down its stall. In a blizzard he was lost. But the words that bother me right now are “There’s been a hoot-owl howling by my window now for six nights in a row”—words I didn’t even remember until Janet mockingly sang them this morning, and which now sound to me like even more of an abomination than the idea of a pony busting down his stall because of a killing frost, because, as Janet pointed out, (a) there is no such thing as a hoot-owl, (b) owls don’t howl, and (c) what’s all this supposed to mean, anyway, that there’s an owl outside your window for six nights in a row? Is it trying to deliver a letter from Hogwarts? What?
Now, where was I? Oh, right. Allusive writing style. OK, so at one point in The Left At War, I’m talking about how the left tries to balance the imperatives of equality and freedom, because I have been inspired in this regard by the late Ellen Willis. And I’m saying that I consider myself to be on the social-democratic left:
“democratic” because I do not see how one can fully nationalize an economy without creating an enormous and repressive state apparatus, “social-democratic” because I believe that without a measure of practical equality with regard to fundamental human needs, freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.
The first half of that formulation is a nod to Nussbaum’s and Sen’s “capabilities” approach to human rights; the second half is from a popular song. So the copyeditor changed this to “freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose (apologies to Janis Joplin).” When I saw that, I screamed, because
(b) it’s Kris Kristofferson’s song, anyway
Much later on, I’m talking about Stuart Hall’s response to the Falklands war, and I’m suggesting that there might have been a way to oppose that war without mocking the idea that, as Hall put it, “tin-pot dictators should be stood up to.” In a most uncharacteristic lapse, Hall had written, “Mrs T is simply our most-beloved Good Housekeeper. Children should be brought up as our parents brought us up. Mothers should stay at home. Tin-pot dictators should be stood up to. These are the grand truths which history and experience teach.” And I reply that it’s a mistake to lump the third of these with the other two, if indeed one is trying, as Hall puts it elsewhere, to reach the man in the pub and his family and persuade them not to support the Falklands escapade. So I offer this counterexample: the Torrijos-Carter Treaties. If you’re my age or older, surely you remember the mid-to-late-70s outrage, on the wingnut right, at the idea that the U.S. would cede control of the Panama Canal. It was quite a thing at the time; an allusion to it even made it into that famous “Saturday Night Live” skit in which a liberal couple finds that all their friends have been taken over by Reaganite pods. One former liberal (played by Harry Shearer, iirc) hypnotically intones Reagan’s famous line, “We bought it. We paid for it. It’s ours. And we’re gonna keep it,” to which the couple replies, “what, the Panama Canal?” and the friend says, “no, the patio.”
Anyway, when control of the Canal finally passed to Panama in 1999, the funny thing was that nobody gave a hoot-owl except for the six remaining John Birchers in the country. Whereas, I argue, if some guy named Noriega had simply seized the Canal in 1983, the way Galtieri did the Malvinas, Reagan would very likely have responded by invading Panama, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Cuba for good measure—and would have done so with overwhelming public support. So I wind up the discussion by noting that Hall, in his family-in-the-pub appeal, considered only two options: solidarity with the Argentines (not bloody likely, he admits) or “this war is none of our concern.” I suggest (and of course I’m thinking also of Iraq, folks),
instead of being astonished at the surge of seemingly farcical patriotism during times of war, and instead of consigning “tin-pot dictators should be stood up to” to the vocabulary of the reactionary, mothers-should-stay-at-home right, the left should find ways of negotiating the difficult terrain between tin-pot dictators and farcical neo-imperialists: all we are saying, we might try saying, is give international law and institutions a chance.
You might reply that the left did do that during the runup to the Iraq war. But then you wouldn’t be thinking of the left I’m talking about, the one that opposed no-fly zones and UN weapons inspections as illegitimate, Imperialism-Lite violations of Iraqi sovereignty. Anyway, the copyeditor, sure enough, added “(apologies to John Lennon)” to this stirring allusive phrase of mine, and I took that right back out, on the grounds that there isn’t anyone in the English-speaking world who wouldn’t catch the allusion to Mr. Lennon’s work.
I just don’t think I owe any apologies to John Lennon or Janis Joplin, OK?
However: I most certainly do owe an apology to one Dan McEnroe. Some time ago, he wrote what remains by far the single funniest thing on the global financial crisis—something about how an apocalypse built on credit default swaps is Teh suXX0r as apocalypses go. I heart that line dearly and wanted to work that into my commencement speech, but I was so sure that Thers wrote it, and I couldn’t find it. So I paraphrased it as best I could, opening by attributing it to a generic Somebody Else Not Me: “I recently came across someone remarking that we’ve produced a lot of apocalyptic fantasies in the course of the past century,” and closing with “‘So,’ my friend said, ‘if civilization winds up collapsing because of credit default swaps, I’m going to be really disappointed. It’s terribly anticlimactic. We’re not even going to get zombies.’” Because although I’ve never met him, I do consider Thers a kind of Internet friend. And I hate it when people swipe stuff from the Internets and don’t credit people. Don’t you?
So of course I found it yesterday. It was from early March, and it was indeed Thers, in a way, but he was posting at the Light Blue Satan, not at Whiskey Fire; the “zombies” line is indeed his, but the whole conceit is actually Mr. McEnroe’s, as the “hyper-link” makes clear. And, in fact, when I first read it I even left a comment on Mr. McEnroe’s blog, which is called “A Blog Named Sue,” which appears to be an allusion to a popular song. My comment, of course, consists of an allusion.
My apologies for forgetting that, Mr. McEnroe, and attributing your very funny line to “someone” (which, although accurate, doesn’t really follow proper citation format). I promise that when I repeat this bit in the future—and I will!—I will say, “the writer Dan McEnroe.” And then I will say, “as the blogger known as ‘Thersites’ replied.” In the meantime, thank you for writing what is by far the single funniest thing on the global financial crisis. I can assure you that the graduates of Marlboro College and their families enjoyed it too.