Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Just like the Cold War, or the Rocky and Bullwinkle version thereof

Russian spies in my backyard (really--Trowbridge and Kirkland)! My interest in false identities can now extend to them, especially this part:
There were also hints that Russian spy bosses feared that their agents, ordered to go native in prosperous America, might be losing track of their official purpose. Agents in Boston submitted an expense report with such vague items as “trip to meeting” for $1,125 and “education,” $3,600.

In Montclair, when the Murphys wanted to buy a house under their names, “Moscow Center,” or “C.,” the S.V.R. headquarters, objected. “We are under an impression that C. views our ownership of the house as a deviation from the original purpose of our mission here,” the New Jersey couple wrote in a coded message. “From our perspective purchase of the house was solely a natural progression of our prolonged stay here. It was a convenient way to solving the housing issue, plus ‘to do as the Romans do’ in a society that values home ownership.”
American consumer culture undermines our values AND Russian espionage.

It turns out that one of them has a still-available Facebook page, which I think is mostly about her internet start-ups, but I can't really tell. This might be the one and only time I wish I knew more Russian, so I could read the good links in under three weeks.

Friday, June 25, 2010

My summer vacation

Will be spending the next two weeks at a fellowship in some forlorn part of the California desert where it will be 110 degrees every day. I think the element of isolation in a desert compound is intended to enhance the mystique surrounding Straussianism, but Julia thinks they just got a discount for the hotel during the off-season. In either case, while "recovering constitutional government and the moral conditions of free society" will presumably eat up some of my time, the compound does have wifi, so blogging may continue. Possibly even addressing the Timothy Dwight issue.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Overheard in Harvard Square

Guy at table next to me at coffee shop: "I don't really read books. I like to think my own thoughts."

Grad school could be a lot easier if everyone thought this way.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

A problem with Cicero

Cicero: serious thinker or self-promoting politico? It is not my custom to read extremely old texts cynically (though the reverse is true of recent texts), so I would prefer to take him at his word, but a case could be made--and has been, by the professor who taught the course last semester--that he is mostly a disingenuous hack. Isn't it just so convenient that, after so much condemnation of faction and political violence, he manages to endorse the assassinations of the Gracchii and then of Caesar? And property, though not natural, is a thing to be defended at all costs once obtained and utterly unamenable to redistribution. Oratory is more honorable than generalship when Cicero happened to excel at the former but not the latter. And so on.

It would be easier to assume these difficulties pointed to serious arguments about, say, the nature of property rather than self-serving sophistry if Cicero were an otherwise trustworthy historian of his times. But the way he recounts his own consulship suggests that either he really believes, or he merely would like you to believe, that he was Rome's personal savior. For example, from On Duties:
When I held the helm of the republic, did not arms then yield to the toga? Never was there more serious danger to the republic than then, and never was there greater quiet. Through my vigilance and my counsel the very arms swiftly slipped and fell from the hands of the most audacious citizens. Was any achievement of war ever so great? What military triumph can stand comparison?
Whatever doubts Cicero's rather immoderate self-regard may cast on his seriousness, my sense is that it appears primarily in those of his works addressed to his brother, son, or Atticus and Brutus, who appear to be his closest  friends. Granted, this is most of his work. But at least he is self-aware--the line following the excerpt above excuses his shamelessness: "I am allowed to boast to you, Marcus my son." Fair enough.

It is easy enough for me to put aside the pomposity and the fortuitous coincidence of Cicero's principles and his political commitments. Looking cynically at ancient political thought is much harder than taking it seriously because cynicism requires a kind of intimate knowledge of the political world and the alternatives to an author's claims that I don't really have about first century Rome. But I don't want to be suckered into undeserved sympathy for Cicero either. So, I'm going back and forth on this.

Friday, June 04, 2010

What I'm eating for lunch

You know how people make fun of blogs because they're just a bunch of people posting about what they eat for lunch? I've been moving into a new apartment in the treetops (a fine euphemism for a fourth floor walk-up) for the past week and trying to finish a paper on Calvinist reactionaries, so I have not had any blogworthy thoughts. But I have had lunch: