Tuesday, November 30, 2010

From the Vaults: American Speech, December 1961

This is a guest post by Michael Ezra

Surely not everything has to be about politics? Below I copy a letter published in the journal American Speech in 1961 that provides some academic credibility to the all important “Shm.”


American Speech, Vol. 36, No. 4 (December, 1961), pp. 302-303.

A decade ago, Leo Spitzer recorded some popular manifestations of the Yiddish shm- formula of derogation (fancy-shmancy, Plato-Shmato, and so on), in speech, comic strip, magazine, book, and movie.[1] Several years later the present writer added specimens from television and from magazine-quoted speech of official Washington.[2]

The usage has clearly become more widespread. In one issue of the New Yorker (Dec. 1, 1956, pp. 232 and 189), two different advertisements made use of the formula. One was by the conservative book publisher Macmillan, crying: ‘Sibling Schmibling! You need Baby Makes Four.’ The other was by a Philadelphia camera company (Konica) that declaimed a tongue-twisting: ‘Gadgets, Schmadgets ... as Long as It Takes Pictures!’ Another example is in a recent advertisement of the Berlitz Schools, inHarper’s, May, 1961, p. I5, headed ‘French-Schmench/It's All Greek to Me.’ The second of these three examples is, of course, a derivative of the old ‘Cancer, shmancer, abi gezunt’- ‘Cancer, shmancer, as long as you're healthy’ -which, as I have noted earlier,[3] was utilized in a Herblock cartoon on the Atomic Energy Commission: ‘Mutations, Shmutations-Long as You’re Healthy.’

Indeed, even greeting cards have ‘gotten into the act’: ‘Freud, Schmoid, as Long as It’s Enjoyed-Happy Anniversary.’

The recent animated film, ‘1001 Arabian Nights,’ featuring the nearsighted Mr. Magoo, contained the line: 'Magoo, Mashmoo, I'll kill the miserable wretch!’[4]

Even the toy market has been invaded. A construction set named ‘Krazy Ikes’ (Whitman Publishing Co., Racine, Wis.) provides a brochure illustrating many human and animal figures to be made with its plastic pieces, the models being given humorous names like ‘Crocodike,’ ‘Ikestrich,’ ‘Hunter- Ike,’ and so on, including ‘Shmike,’ a pathetic little creature without arms.

As I have noted before,[5] the formula has been applied with different punctuation, sometimes with a hyphen (fancy-shmancy), sometimes with a comma (pretty, shmetty) and sometimes, as in the example from the Macmillan advertisement quoted above, with no punctuation at all. In the New Yorker’s comment ‘Oh confusion schmooshun,’ quoted by Spitzer in his first cited work, we have not only the unpunctuated form, but one which is both shortened and changed in spelling. (The ‘classical’version would have been:confusion, conshmusion.)

A basically similar (unpunctuated and truncated) form recently appeared in my local Pennsylvania newspaper, the Easton Express, Feb. 18, 1960, p. 5, col. 2, in a letter disputing David Susskind’s evaluation of television’s Jack Paar: ‘“Deliciously Irreverent?” Irreverent Schmeverent!’ Still another version occurred in a communication to the New York Times (March 1, 1959, Section X, p. 3), in which the sh was retained and the m changed to fit the letter in the first half (Gwen, Schwen in place of Gwen, Shmen): ‘My husband spotted Gwen Verdon as a potential star ... so we have followed her career with interest, but Gwen, Schwen, the play’s the thing, and “Redhead” is an obvious, silly little story.’

This last may have been a printer’s error. Whether it is or not, we probably should expect additional variations on the ‘twin-form’ theme, which has been dealt with in scholarly detail by Spitzer. It is safe to surmise that these further usages, like the examples already quoted, will be offered with little awareness of the suggestive element in the shm- cluster. This element has been accorded definitive discussion in the cited article by Roback.[6]

Easton, Pennsylvania

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Hitchens, with poppy and rumpled hat

Christopher Hitchens 
I was moved by the portrait by Jamie James Medina of Christopher Hitchens, at home in DC, with red poppy, no hair and rumpled hat, accompanying Andrew Anthony’s Observer interview with the great man. The sad likely possibility of the Hitch’s coming death pushes interviewers towards his so-called “New Athiesm” (a term he rejects in the interview). As a paid-up Old Agnostic, I find this topic the most boring imaginable: while Hitchens is interesting on absolutely everything else (apart, perhaps, from his sex life and his schoolboy japes with his literary pals), he is tedious when talking about God.

Far more interesting when talking about the 1991 Gulf War:
"I said that Bush [senior] may have used the rhetoric of anti-fascism but he didn't mean it. And then I said, yeah, but what if he had meant it? Would I therefore be obliged by my own argument to be in favour? The answer was 'yes'. And then I said, well what do you care how they argue? You should be arguing it yourself. And I found I couldn't get out of that."
And about not criticising Robert Mugabe early on:
"That makes me wince. More than wince. I'd met him a couple of times and I knew that he had in him a terrible capacity for fanaticism, absolutism, and I didn't say as much about that as I could have done. If I asked myself about why I didn't, I'm sure the answer is because I didn't want to give ammunition to the other side."
And about how Chinese capitalism and human rights:
"Darfur, Zimbabwe, Burma, North Korea, anywhere that the concept of human rights doesn't exist, it's always the Chinese at backstop. And always for reasons that you could write down in three words: blood for oil."
And about Hezbollah:
"I was at a Hezbollah rally in Beirut about two and a half years ago," he says. "Very striking. Everyone should go. But of the many things that impressed me about it, having the mushroom cloud as the party flag in an election campaign was the main one. You wouldn't want to look back and think, I wish I'd noticed that being run up. Now I can give you all the reasons that it's bombast on their part. Still, I know which regret I'd rather have."

I read a copy of the Independent that I found on the train the other day, a day or two after the big HE demo in London. I was interested in the juxtaposition on the same page of two articles. The first, given prominent position, was by Hitchens’ good friend, the journalist Patrick Cockburn, "The United States is facing a decisive political defeat in Iraq over the formation of a new government, as its influence in the country sinks lower than at any time since the invasion of 2003". The second, also by Cockburn, tucked below it, was entitled: "Iraqi Christians living in fear as 11 bombs explode in Baghdad, killing five". Although Cockburn, who in some ways is a fine reporter, does not exactly gloat in the first article, it’s hard not to read it between the lines, as Cockburn has been predicting disaster, hoping for disaster, exaggerating the negatives, since the war began. He seems (as are, I imagine, both the editors and readers of the Indy) unable to see the relationship between the two articles: American failure, in this case, means the genocidal cleansing of Christians from a theocraticised Iraq.

Hitchens again, in the National Post, writes with savage clarity on this issue:
The continuing bloodbath is chiefly the result of an obscene alliance between the goons of the previous dictatorship and the goons of a would-be-future theocratic one. From the very first day after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, without ever issuing so much as a manifesto or a bill of grievances, this criminal gang awarded itself permission to use high explosives, assassination, torture, and rape against a population that was given no moment of breathing space after three decades of war and fascism.
Now, unless you can make yourself believe that the doomed, imploding Saddam regime would somehow have managed a peaceful transition from itself to something else in a society that it had already maimed and ruined and traumatized, you have to consider expressing a bit of gratitude to the coalition soldiers who were able to provide some elements of that breathing space and to prevent the next regime from being worse even than the preceding one. At a time when it seemed to many people that Baghdad had already become worse than Beirut and Rwanda combined, I tentatively wrote of the coalition forces as “the militia for those who have no militia,” a description that I claim the U.S. troop surge partially vindicated.
I am not 100% convinced by that, and welcome Hitchens’ qualifications: partially vindicated, some elements. But I was thinking something similar when reflecting on the higher education march on November 10. I was struck on the march by the number of students with banners condemning the Liberal Democrats for betraying them. “I want my vote back Clegg” was one example. I wished I had a banner saying, “You stupid students, why did you vote Liberal Democrat? What on earth made you think they were ‘progressive’? Thanks for giving us this mess.”  When I mentioned this at home to Babs from Brockley, she agreed, noting that all the people who didn't vote Labour because of The War had to take the blame for the new government’s cuts. She saw this as the reaction of people too comfortable in life, looking for distant victims to get agitated about. I hope those people, many of them of course Independent readers, feel some sense of guilt at cheerleading for American’s withdrawal when they read about the slaughter of Christians in Iraq, but I doubt they will. Martin had a similar response to William Dalrymple, in this superb post.


Finally, this National Post article by the Hitch is a superb read, on Barack Obama’s glacial elitism, ethnic pandering and political clumsiness, but mainly on slopping poll and lazy reporting. Here is a sample sentence: “Elitism and populism, as we have painfully learned this fall, are too often found in the same person. The simultaneous aggregating and dividing of people by race and ethnicity turns out to be the cheapest and easiest outcome of supposedly democratic measurement.”

Saturday, November 06, 2010


Two posts on British Israel and Palestine solidarity well worth reading. The first is by a Green leftist, Aled-Dilwyn Fisher (who blogs here) on "who does the solving". The second is by Lawrence Shaw at AVPS, where I left a comment or two (actually, four so far) on trade union solidarity with Israel, and the difference between a yashmak and a yashmagh.

There are a few news items I've been following in South Asia, which I'm not sure if I've blogged about or not. One is the extraordinary strike wave in Tamil Nadu, including the casualised workers of the Neyveli Lignite Corporation and the workers at Foxconn, who probably make your mobile phone. Then there is the shameful repression by Hindutva fascists of superb novel, Such A Long Journey, by the great Indian novelist Rohinton Mistry. Two other items are covered in exclusives for the new website The Gabber. Veteran Indian leftist Jarius Banaji has a long and informative piece on Maoism in India. The first part gives a historical account of the Naxalite movement, while the second part carefully sets out some of the critiques of it. From slightly further back, Rohini Hensman has an article on one of the latest twists in the degeneration of the genocidal Sri Lankan state, the passing of the eighteenth amendment to the constitution, effectively making it a dictatorship.

On the other hand, I've been completely failing to keep up with East End politics lately. Jessica Asato reports from the Tower Hamlets frontline, rather depressingly. Francis is even more depressing. Kellie has more links, and Ted Jeory has plenty more.

More on the EDL: Phil Dickens: The EDL threaten Christmas mayhem over recycled tabloid myths, and on the EDL and Loyalism. "Malatesta" on the EDL in Holland.

RCPWatch: Phil on Brendan O'Neil and austerity.

Balkans: I've finally got around to reading Marko on the Chetniks and the Jews - highly recommended.

Anti-fascist history: Mickey Fenn on anti-fascist history - originally via Kevin Blowe.

Finally, as ever, lots more great links from Roland..

Thursday, November 04, 2010

"Kosovo style social cleansing"

Bob says bollocks to the cuts
"The last thing we want to have in our city is a situation such as Paris where the less well-off are pushed out to the suburbs. I'll emphatically resist any attempt to recreate a London where the rich and poor cannot live together.

We will not accept any kind of Kosovo-style social cleansing of London. On my watch, you are not going to see thousands of families evicted from the place where they have been living and have put down roots."

I once responded to a meme about what one would never do by saying I would never vote Tory. However, if I was forced to vote between Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson as mayor of London, I’d be severely tested.

Ken Livingstone seems to me to be a despicable human being, arrogant, self-aggrandising, unable to apologise for his errors. The whiff of corruption, cronyism and nepotism around him his overwhelming. His palling about with fascist, theocratic, antisemitic Islamists is hard to stomach. Everything I’ve heard about his personal practice, including from people that worked with him back in the GLC glory days, reflects very badly, and I have evidence of him being incredibly abusive and offensive to close friends of mine. Most recently, his stirring of the murky waters of Tower Hamlets politics places him clearly in the Bad Guys camp.

On the other hand, he was an extremely effective mayor of London, with generally very good policies on more or less all the issues that actually matter to me, as a London resident, on a day to day basis: creating a transport infrastructure that is actually able to move masses of people around the capital every day, making our streets safer, making some contribution to alleviating the crisis of affordable housing, promoting economic development.

Boris Johnson, in contrast, seems like a very pleasant person: charming, witty, intelligent, fun, self-deprecating, erudite. But he has been a very ineffective mayor, and his policies have been far weaker than Ken’s. He has some policy strengths (on immigration, for instance, he is extremely positive), but most of his successes have been where he has continued Ken’s work rather than where he has changed it.

How are we to view Boris’ recent “Kosovo style social cleansing” comments about the Coalition government's housing benefit reform plans? Obviously, his choice of words is deeply offensive. The Serb nationalist forces didn’t move ethnic Albanians to B&Bs in Hastings (although Boris’ pals at Spiked probably think they did); they murdered them on a massive scale. The gaffe generated a fair bit of political capital for the government (witness their aging and increasingly desperate errand boy Vince Cable seizing on it, possibly the taste of cold vengeance to get over the taste of humble pie Nick and David made Vince, but not Boris, eat over the ridiculous immigration cap policy). But was what Boris saying fundamentally right?

I think that, yes, it more or less was. A policy that will drive a large amount of the poor people out of the richest boroughs of London at risk of homelessness will undoubtedly seriously intensify the drift towards social segregation that the capital’s insane housing market has been driving for a couple of decades.

On the other hand, and I admit this is a heretical statement in the company I keep, the government’s housing benefit reforms put their finger on a gross inequity in the current welfare system. It simply cannot be right that the public purse is paying for a handful of families to live in properties that most of us cannot dream of affording. There are only 139 families to whom we are paying over £50,000 in rent a year – but that’s a tiny number of families taking an awful lot of tax bills. And there are plenty more in the £25,000 a year bracket. I am also not convinced of the arguments for richer families getting universal child benefit, although the arbitrary way the government has drawn the line is clearly unfair. And I have a great deal of sympathy for the cap on the maximum benefits non-disabled families can claim – again, it quite simply cannot be right that some claimants (again, a small number) should get significantly more than the average working family. Further, and this is even more heretical in the company I keep, the main victims of these particular changes will be those with excessively large families, and I don’t see why people should breed on such an extravagant scale if they are not able to support their progeny.

However, these arguments for reform miss a number of things. First, by focusing on the claimants, we deflect attention away from those who profit from their claims. Thus my earlier statement that there are 139 families to whom we are paying over £50,000 in rent a year was an inaccurate one: they hand that rent over to private landlords, and it is the private landlords we are actually subsidising. The housing benefit system drives the most unscrupulous landlords (and unscrupulous people, in my experience, seem to me disproportionately represented in the population of landlords) to charge the highest rents they can get away with, and more to the point the current scale is based on a market rate that is grossly inflated by property speculators, corporate landlords and all the other afflictions that have made London's housing situation so unjust in the last couple of decades. If housing benefit reform will exacerbate social cleansing from inner London, it will only intensify what the market is already doing.

Second, focusing on the claimants points to the insanity of a fiscal and political climate in which the building of affordable, and in particular social, housing has been so constrained, starting with the Thatcher government’s ideological assault on social housing, including the prevention of councils from borrowing on their capital assets and the promotion of a Right To Buy policy that decimated the affordable housing stock, but continuing through Labour’s failure to address those issues. For each of the 139 landlords’ £50,000, you could build a house in London.

Third, by concentrating taxpayers’ anger on the relatively small number of abusers of the welfare system, the government is deflecting attention from the many, many more households, including working families, who are being thrown into destitution by their austerity measures, the thousands of people being cast into unemployment by their assault on the public and voluntary sectors, while they burn away what safety net that the less fortunate rely on.

I am also worried at the back-of-a-fag-packet way the government seems to be proceeding with its welfare reforms. If they were genuinely concerned about fixing the injustices in the welfare system and in creating a system that incentives work and de-incentivises dependency (the type of reforms the Tory thinktank the Centre for Social Justice has been proposing), that’d be one thing. But instead we seem to have policies launched by fiat from Cameron’s office without any consultation or thought, one after another, totally contradicting each other. One week (with universal benefits) we are told that the justification is that those with the broadest shoulders must take on a greater share of the pain; the next week (with housing benefit) we are told that it’s because the feckless over-breeding poor people need to be social engineered into better citizens. One week we are told it’s all about “fairness”; the next we are told these are difficult decisions that need to be made to avoid public debt.

So, on reflection, I will probably not be voting Tory any time soon. 

Further reading: Phil Dickens: Quote of the day [I read that after I wrote this, and although Phil would radically disagree with a lot of what I've said, some of the things we say are strikingly similar.] History is Made at Night on the back to the 1980s vibe.

Local campaigns against the cuts: Transpontine on Lewisham's libraries and on the impact of the cuts in South London, including on higher education.

[Image via Sabcat, of a different Bob.]

Monday, November 01, 2010

From Bob's archive: Neo-liberalism’s assault on civic culture

I have not had time for blogging recently, and am a bit embarrassed that my top of the page post is advertising an event in Brockley that happened over a week ago, so I am re-publishing here something from my archive. It is from July 2006, the time of the Tony Blair presidency, when David Cameron and Nick Clegg were barely a twinkle in their respective party’s eyes. However, it seems to me more relevant than ever, in light of Con-Dem Coalition’s radical shrinking of the social functions of the British state, with their deepening of Blair’s disastrous academy schools project, and with Michael Gove’s attempts at creating Free” Schools across Britain. Meanwhile, in America, conservatives like Pat Buchanan are pointing to Cameron’s policies as an inspiration for the Tea Party movement, while Tea Party Republicans are doubting the constitutional imperative to separate church and state.

I have some sympathy for some of the philosophies in the “B
ig Society” mix; I believe in a small state, self-help, mutual aid, decentralisation and active citizenship. BigSoc ideologues like David Willetts and Phillip Blonde talk eloquently of exactly the kind of thick civic culture that I refer to in this post. But I remain unconvinced that the Big Society in reality is anything more than an alibi for fiscal ultra-conservatism, or that Cameron’s attempts to imagine it into existence will do anything to mitigate the social devastation that is already being caused by his government’s slash and burn social policies. 

Ken Livingstone a couple of years ago made one of his typically pugnacious and offensive comments to the effect that global capitalism had killed far more people than terrorism. Of course, capitalists do not set out to kill people, so cannot be judged against the same moral calculus as terrorists, who do set out to kill people. But the substantive point is undoubtedly correct. Neo-liberalism – that is, the abdication (whether forced by unaccountable institutions like the IMF and World Bank, or chosen by tax-cutting politicians) by the state of its duty to provide basic care for its citizens – kills.

In this post, though, I want to focus on one very small aspect of the evil of neo-liberalism: the assault on civic culture through decimating the universal services provided by the state. I believe that the foundation of a civic culture is universal entitlement to certain key services, equitably delivered according to universalist values. Inequality of provision implies inequality of civic status, while equality of provision provides for a shared experience of the state that can be the basis of a shared citizenship, an equal stake in a community of citizens.

Neo-liberalism is the rolling back of the state in its care for the citizenry. We are now not citizens but consumers, faced with a ‘choice’ of providers in the marketplace. Sometimes, of course, the new provider can be a community enterprise, deeply rooted in a neighbourhood, empowering local citizens through its provision of services. The state is not necessarily the best provider of services.

More often than not, of course, providers enter the marketplace to make a profit, and the best service consumers can choose is likely to be the one few can afford – either because few have enough money, or because few have enough resources (‘social capital’ in the jargon of today) to navigate the obstacles to accessing it. For example, the Roman Catholic London Oratory School, where Blair’s offspring were sent, interviews prospective students and their parents to test their piety – and their middle class dispositions.

It is into this vacuum that faith-based initiatives, as Bush called them, have stepped. In India, the neo-liberal abdication of the state’s responsibility to provide decent education has meant some 30,000 madrassas teach Muslim children who live below the poverty line. But what do they teach them? A curriculum – Dars-e-Nizami – that has remained unchanged for three centuries. Even more poor children go to schools run by voluntary sector organisations which are part of the Hindutva machine – the ‘saffron fascist’ Hindu right. Here, according to various investigations, “the texts taught… are exclusivist, even violent, distort history, and are driven by prejudice and rancour against particular sections of the population.” (Setalvad).

Europe and America don’t face exactly that challenge – though the Blair government’s neo-liberal Academy programme gives control of curriculum to the philanthropists who buy the Academies, such as Peter Vardy, the Creationist second hand car salesman who runs several schools in the North East of England. Faith schools thrive in Britain’s cities because the so-called choice of a secular state school is an under-resourced disaster that parents will do anything to avoid their kids going to. If everyone had access to a decent neighbourhood school, hardly anyone in Britain would choose a faith school – just as the Indian poor would not send their children to madrassas or their Hindu nationalist equivalents.

Like Bush and Blair, and unlike most of my fellow ‘muscular liberals’, I have great respect for religious faith and the sacrifices people of faith will make to contribute to the communities. I am not against faith-based initiatives as such.

But my worry is that the universal values of public culture – values such as free inquiry and tolerance for different faiths – are under threat from the marketisation of public services. While the rich can choose quality, the children of the less than rich are segregated along lines of faith or community, and many placed in the hands of the some of the most reactionary, authoritarian, bigoted people imaginable, to the detriment of a culture of common citizenship.

Gnome Chomsky 12: Chomsky's adventures in the capitalist heartland

I can't believe I didn't know there is a blog with a Gnome Photo of the Week feature. Some time ago, they featured Chomsky in Cheese Land. It comes from a whole series, Chomsky Domovoi Djedoesjka, by the intriguingly named Capital I. So, here we are: Ham, Chomsky, and eggs; Saturday with Chomsky and Smirnoff; and Chomsky in giant condiment land.

Ham, Chomsky, and eggs. by Capital I
Saturday with Chomsky and Smirnoff by Capital I
Chomsky in giant condiment land by Capital I