Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Lawyered Up, Solecismed Over, and Bummed Out


What does this guy…

…have in common with this guy?

The answer is obvious: “courtly love”.

Courtly love is an alleged set of extravagant amatory conventions characterizing various heroes of medieval romance, such as Lancelot (pictured above) or Troilus. The courtly lover turns pale in the presence of the beloved, stammers, sighs, falls ill, spends sleepless nights thinking about her; when at last able to speak he declares that he will die on the spot if he doesn’t, right away, get some of what he calls her mercy or grace. (This was called something else in my high-school locker room.) “Courtly love” of course required a lot of bizarre behavior; and it usefully allowed any scholar who had no idea what was going on in a medieval poem to ascribe it all to “courtly love."

Half a century ago my great teacher D. W.Robertson dealt courtly love a severe blow by denying its existence. He prosecuted the attack in numerous scholarly venues, including his classic essay entitled “The Concept of Courtly Love as an Impediment to the Understanding of Medieval Literary Texts.” According to Robertson courtly love was good, old-fashioned lechery nicely dolled up in Gothic weeds, but hardly if at all different from the extravagances satirized by Ovid in his elegies and Art of Love. Horace somewhat indelicately had called the Trojan War “the war of the cunnus,” suggesting perhaps that it was not Helen’s face alone that had launched a thousand ships. There were also biblical examples, such as Amnon’s passion for and rape of his half-sister Tamar (2 Samuel 13). Chaucer thought that story was so good that he modeled a crucial courtly love episode of his Troilus & Criseyde upon it.

Well, if “courtly love” was an unhelpful term, what were we supposed to call all this aristocratic moping about on the part of medieval romance heroes? Fortunately the silver screen came to the rescue. In 1956 there appeared a French film called Helen of Troy. Rossana Podestà (swiche wenche if ever there were one) played Helen. Jacques Sernas was Paris. Catch it if you ever get a chance. Time magazine, which in the 1950s published excellent movie reviews, devoted a dilly to Helen of Troy. Helen of Troy”, it began, “is about hot pants in high places!”

Hot pants in high places! A great phrase—so much more accurate, and more memorable, than courtly love. It describes the conduct of the princely Troilus perfectly. Unfortunately it also describes the conduct of a guy who ignites his undies at 30,000 feet. That, of course, would be Mr. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, forever to be known as the “Underwear Bomber”. It’s been some time since I wrote a “political” entry. This is not because politicians have ceased their fascinating operations, but because I have in recent months been badly placed for balanced and easily accessible American political news. But Mr. Abdulmutallab has made the front page even in Paris and has made me spend a two-hour reading seminar on, which does a passable job of anthologizing a wide spectrum of political opinion.

Practically all I read there is discouraging. The most sensible thing I read came from the pen of David Books. The nutshell version: “Grow up!” Bad stuff happens. Man is born unto trouble as the sparks fly upward. That’s the Bible, though if you prefer you can arrive at the same conclusion by keeping your eyes open for ten minutes. It is especially unseemly for people who denounce the capacities of the Nanny State to feed, house, or enable medical care for its charges to decry its failure to pry efficiently into every madman’s jockstrap.

Not that the response of the Obama administration is anything less than pathetic. I’ll come clean, though in the manner of ex-President Clinton. When it comes to the confessional mode, he has a lot to teach us all. Sure he smoked dope—but he didn’t inhale. Well, honesty requires me to admit that I did vote for Barack Obama. But I didn’t get the bumper sticker—honest. Since there is not a lot of moral high ground on the market at the moment, I want to snap up that little patch.

Sellers and Yeatman, in their brilliant serio-comic history of England called 1066 and All That, describe the seventeenth-century Civil War between the Cavaliers and the Roundheads as a contest between men who were “wrong but wromantic” and others who were “right but repulsive”. Such is the contest between President Obama and former Vice-President Cheney. The English language is always the first casualty. Mr. Obama is loath to find in Islamic terrorism the slightest thing Islamic or terroristic; so he gives it the old linguistic punt. He does admit, in the fine print, that we are “at war”. We are at war with a “network.” This network is composed of “extremists”. We cannot know what would be the norm or Golden Mean of the thing of which pyrotechnical underpants are an extreme.

Mr. Abdulmutallab had spent months studying network extremism in Yemen. His distressed father had told the American authorities about this—several times. Abdulmutallab travelled light (zero luggage), and he paid for his (one-way) ticket in cash. He breezed through the security inspections of two international airports. Reviewing this sequence of events Janet Napolitano, Secretary of Homeland Security proclaimed that “the system worked”. When taxed by incredulous critics who made a different interpretation of the narrative outlined, she said that her remarks had been taken “out of context.” So I went back to the context. There would seem to be two related tasks faced by a Secretary of Homeland Security. You have to keep the horse from being stolen, and you have to lock the barn door. It’s one of those things like sex and the internal combustion engine for which proper sequence is a consideration. What Ms. Napolitano meant in context was that once the horse had been stolen the locking of the barn door worked “like clockwork”. Ms. Napolitano, too, is very careful about the words she uses to describe blowing airplanes to smithereens out of religious piety. Such acts are not terrorism. They are man-made disasters—along the lines of the Senate and the House of Representatives, one imagines.

Cheney is very certain that we are at war in a less metaphoric sense. Hence his outrage (shared by many others) that Mr Abdulmutallab is to be tried in civilian criminal court rather than a military tribunal. Mr. Abdulmutallab’s conviction would probably be more certain and more swift in a military tribunal. But the idea that we would be sure to get important “intelligence” by interrogating the bejesus out of him needs reconsideration. The three bits of information Abdulmutallab could be lawfully required to divulge as a prisoner of war are his name, his rank, and his serial number. Two of those he doesn’t have, and we already know his name.

However, Mr. Cheney’s idea has the brilliance of the general law of relativity when compared with that of Mr. Obama’s alleged “expert” on terrorism, Mr. John Brennan. (For Obama Abdulmutallab is merely an “alleged” terrorist, er network-extremist; the least one can do is afford Mr. Brennan the same benefit of doubt.) For him the advantage of a civil as opposed to a military trial is based not in the nation’s legal ideals but in pure Machiavellian practically. Brennan will get Abdulutallab to talk with a—plea bargain! He’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse! They need a few more historians around the White House. In 507 BC a Roman terrorist named Mucius (i.e., “Lefty”) Scævola snuck into the Etruscan camp to murder King Porsenna.

Even a serious strip-search didn't stop this terrorist. Mucius Scævola as rendered by Louis-Pierre Deseine

Paris: the Louvre

He killed the wrong man (honest mistake—bad things happen). At this point “the system worked perfectly.” Captured by the real King Porsenna and threatened with a strenuous military interrogation, Scævola showed his contempt for this pitiful threat by thrusting his right hand into a flaming brazier and keeping it there until al dente. That’s how he became “Lefty” Scævola. Porsenna was so impressed he simply let him go. Now Mr. Abdulmutallab has already demonstrated his readiness to immolate himself, private parts first, for the greater glory of God. Great Balls of Fire, Mr. Brennan, do you really think you are going to bludgeon this man with a plea bargain? I don’t know whether you have to talk like a plain country fool to be a presidential security expert, but it obviously helps.

Among the very worst things that has happened is that Mr. Abdulmutallab has now been “lawyered up”. I speak of course of linguistic crime. I never heard of anybody being “lawyered up” until three days ago, and I have encountered it among the RealClearPolitics articles no less than seven times. The meaning of this grotesque barbarism is apparently “benefitting from legal counsel.” We can look forward perhaps to college students being professored up, religious penitents being priested up, and MacDonald diners fastfooded up. One gets fed up, fast. We face in Islamic terrorism a set of difficult and complex challenges. Our president might even call them “unprecedented”. It is fatuous to suggest that they will be easily met, or that we are not likely to suffer more “episodes” and more loss of life. There are a large number of people out there who want to kill as many of us as possible, quite without respect to race, religion, or political party affiliation. We do not live in the kind of police state that would make it easy to stop them. Many of us are adults and would appreciate being talked to by our elected leaders in an adult fashion about our shared problems. There is unfortunately little precedent in the current administration or the one it replaced to make me expect to be straighttalked up any time soon.