Friday, June 10, 2005

Professorial Carelessness


Over at the Volokh Conspiracy a couple of days ago, Eugene Volokh wrote:
I Am Glad To Live in a Country in which the President does not say things like:
Let us stop drinking from the enchanted waters of Lethe, which strike with amnesia those who want to quench their thirst, and let us dare to taste those 'fresh waters that run from the Lake of Memory' -- as the words say on the golden bars of the disciples of Orpheus, that bard of metamorphosis and of ascending reincarnation.
This passage was attributed to an article in the London Telegraph, which identifies the new Prime Minister of France as a self-published poet, whose "excrable verse" has led President Chirac's wife to deem him "Nero", adding,
Recently, in an essay on France's need for national confidence (which, note, is not quite the same thing as Euro federalism), de Villepin wrote: "Let us stop drinking from the enchanted waters of Lethe, which strike with amnesia those who want to quench their thirst, and let us dare to taste those 'fresh waters that run from the Lake of Memory' - as the words say on the golden bars of the disciples of Orpheus, that bard of metamorphosis and of ascending reincarnation."
I would have thought that context would have been important to Professor Volokh - we're not talking about a statement made in public, but part of a self-published poetic essay by a hobbyist poet - made worse, no doubt, by translation from French into English. Is it the language and metaphor to which Volokh objects? Here's how a song the President has proudly and publicly performed (en masse, in mass) reads when roughly translated into French:
J'ai lu un mandat ardent d'evangile dans des rangées polies d'acier;
"comme affaire de ye avec mes contemners, ainsi avec vous ma grace s'occupera";
Laissez le héros, soutenu de la femme, écrasement le serpent avec son talon,
puisque Dieu marche dessus.
Battle hymn or no, out of context it looks pretty silly. So perhaps Prof. Volokh's comment,
In fact, maybe that should be our reaction any time President Bush is mocked for misspeaking: "Hey, at least it's not 'Let us stop drinking from the enchanted waters of Lethe . . . .'"
should be taken with a grain of salt. Or at least with an eye first to context, and second to audience - two factors I would expect a law professor to consider as a matter of instinct.

I recognize that it is fashionable in some circles to gratuitously bash the French - as was the apparent intent of the opinion article he quotes (which is even titled, in reference to a line from the Simpsons, "Surrender Flunkey") - but I am willing to assume that Prof. Volokh had something else in mind. Perhaps he did mean to simply express that, while we have a President who sometimes trips over his native tongue, we are lucky not to have one who is a mediocre hobby poet. There, of course, he makes the assumption that President Bush doesn't have a desk drawer stuffed full of poems he authors during his free moments. Perhaps he should reflect upon why he believes that assumption is a safe one to make.

Additionally,the position of Prime Minister in France does not parallel that of the President in the United States, and is more one of carrying out the directives of the President and managing France's civil service. Perhaps Prof. Volokh overlooked the portion of the article which describes how de Villepin took office after his predecessor was "sacked by President Chirac" - something that should have put him on notice of a difference. Do I care if somebody in the Bush Administration, such as Andrew Card, writes horrendous poetry in his spare time? Not in the least.

But perhaps the most peculiar aspect of Prof. Volokh's jibe is that it doesn't seem to have anything to do with qualification for office. I would prefer an articulate President. I would prefer to read good poetry. But if a Presidential candidate is reasonably articulate, at least to me, other issues become dominant - and whether he writes poetry (good or bad) in his spare time isn't among them.

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