The Air Between Bill Safire’s Ears


Here’s a snippet from William Safire’s latest op-oratorio, “Hence, Loathed Melancholy”, in The Upper Right Coast Times:

“[T]he capitalist system is not in crisis. In recent months, it has been doing what it is supposed to do in the wake of every speculative binge: correcting itself. After a bubble bursts, people who have been deliriously blowing bubbles demand to know: How could ‘they’ have done this to us? But we, the investing people, have done it to ourselves — as we do in almost every generation.” (07/15/02, New York Times)

Safire unpacks his polemic by quoting from Milton’s Il Penseroso … “Hence, vain deluding joyes …” And he goes on to blame the victim for participating in the economic meltdown precipitated by what otherwise dispassionate analysts see as unprecedented malfeasance across the board (across the boardrooms) in corporate America.

I love structuralism when it is deployed as a critical tool. I despise it when it is used as an excuse. When I hear statistical abstractions summoned to explain distortions in the market or political horrors of one kind or another, I remember Mark Twain’s comment, “If I stand with one foot in a bucket of boiling water, and one foot in a bucket of cold water, according to statistics, I am warm.” I am also reminded, when mechanistic theories are deployed to deflect guilt, of Paris in 1968, when “structure took to the streets”.

Here’s my response to Safire’s op-ed item (which in The Times usually means op-portunistic ed-itorial):

Date: Mon, 15 Jul 2002 07:44:09 -0700 (PDT)
From: ” Gavin Keeney”
Subject: Hence, Loathed Melancholy
To: safire@nytimes.com

Il penseroso … You missed one hell of an opportunity to also appropriate Milton’s “Necessary fall …” Who, in this current imbroglio, is the interloper, leaping the walls of the garden, transforming himself into a snake … GK

Here’s WS’s response:

From: safire@nytimes.com
Date: Mon, 15 Jul 2002 10:45:14 -0400 (EDT)
To: ateliermp@netscape.net

You were good to write. (That’s better than “It was good of you to write,” because sentences beginning with “it” are boring.)

Your comments go into the thought processor inside my head and may one day pop up in a column.

Thanks again (which is repetitious but not redundant).


— William Safire

Swoosh! In other words, in one head and out the other!

This is terribly cute, mostly because Safire is the author of an infamous column in The Upper Right Coast Times Magazine, “On Language”, wherein he lectures us on the language games of present-day cultural production.

So, let’s turn the tables. What’s with the “–” thing before his name? Isn’t that usually reserved for identifying a quotation by an author? To locate the axiomatic epigram? Isn’t he unconsciously (or consciously) denoting his own self-importance?

I wonder if WS mistakes himself for the true genius of language, WS from Stratford-on-Avon. For him to throw Milton at us in an op-ed homily is very becoming his high opinion of himself. I like Milton, as a post-arcadian. If only we could rescue him from Stanley Fish (and now William Safire)! I say give Stanley Fish any color Jaguar he desires, as long as he gives back Milton.

But back to The Times. I’ve encountered both pathetic fallacies and ferocious pathologies in the op-ed pages and the forums that go with them. When Paul Krugman was lecturing us about the virtues of globalization and, in particular, the Quebec Declaration early last year, I wandered into a forum where an Irish brawl was taking place. It was all but impossible to discuss anything because the site had been hijacked by economic hooligans with a “let them eat cake” approach to the Third World. They were no doubt acolytes of First World triumphalism. I’ve saved some of the exchanges for a good laugh …


To his credit, Paul Krugman has been merciless lately on the subject of crony capitalism, especially regarding the Bush League. He has even backtracked somewhat regarding neo-liberalism and globalization. Safire, on the other hand never apologizes for anything. He is so much the contrarian that his agenda is, in fact, ‘libertarian’ and he will in one breath attack Bush as a wannabe dictator (for breaches of civil liberties and etc.), and in the next praise the idiotic triumphalism of post-cold war capitalist imperialism. His role as apologist (and sometimes strategist) for the brutal policies of Ariel Sharon in suppressing the Palestinians in the occupied West Bank is another matter. Combined with Pulitzer prize winner Tom Friedman’s pro-Israel rhetoric, the op-ed pages of The Times have become all but unbearable. I suppose they let Maureen Dowd dump on Bush for comic relief from time to time just to spare us from total despair and/or cynicism.

But back to Milton … Il Penseroso is an exquisite study in melancholy. It exudes a world-weariness that only a poet can capture in words. Melancholy is the affliction of humanists. I knew a humanist once upon a time, before the advent of neo-liberalism …

Sic transit specious appropriations.

Gavin Keeney is a landscape architect in New York, New York. and the author of On the Nature of Things, a book documenting the travails of contemporary American landscape architecture in the 1990s.

He can be reached at: ateliermp@netscape.net