Sunday, August 26, 2007

I Finally See "300"

Our son, Nat, is about to go away to college, so yesterday I thought it would be a good time to view his favorite movie with him. It's out on DVD. (Later that evening, his buddy Matt came over to help him upgrade the memory on his laptop -- and watch the same movie ... again!)

One thing that makes this movie, about King Leonidas and 3oo Spartans holding off many thousands of Persians at Thermopylae, interesting to watch is the amount of hatred - "hatred" is surely not too strong a word - that was directed toward it when it first came out. It was hated by The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, the President of Iran. Even Norman-Lear-type liberals begin to shake all over and holler when they think about this movie.

As the science fiction writer Neal Stephenson pointed out, the main objections seemed to be these:

• “300” is not sufficiently ironic. It takes its themes (duty, loyalty, sacrifice, the preservation of Western civilization against enormous odds) too seriously to, well, be taken seriously.

• “300” is campy — meaning that many things about it can be read as sexual double entendres — yet the filmmakers don’t show sufficient awareness of this.

• All of the good guys are white people and many of the bad guys are brown. (How this could have been avoided in a film about Spartans versus Persians is never explained....)

Then too there was the complaint that it was historically inaccurate in ways that are favorable to the Spartans.

Some American leftists seemed fixated on the possibility that it might be pro-Bush.

Up to a point, this movie was what I thought it would be: just the sort of thing that would be hated by people who have the values that these particular people have. What none of the vituperative reviews prepared me for, what came as a complete surprise, was that it was about ideas (and, no, I don't regard being pro- or anti-Bush as ideas). And what were these ideas? That was even more surprising.

Repeadedly, Leonidas says in conferences with the enemy that he is appealing to their "reason." One of them tells him with a sneer that you Greeks are so "logical." The film lays great emphasis on the fact that the Ephors oppose marching out against the Persian invaders because it would profane a religious festival, the Carneia. It depicts the Ephors as if they were mystical priests, and not elected politicians (which is what they were). At the climax, Leonidas tells Xerxes that the Spartans are taking a stand against "mysticism and tyranny." More than once, the Persians tell the Spartans that their criticisms of Xerxes are "blasphemies." Leonidas is told many times that his campaign is a violation of both Spartan religion and Spartan law. Thus, events place the movie's hero in opposition to both (so to speak) church and state.

I take all this to mean that freedom and reason are good, while religion (or at least mystical religion) and tyranny are bad. Further, freedom is connected to reason in some important way, and religion, or at least irrational religion, is likewise connected to the lack of freedom.

(So much for the movie's being pro-Bush! As everyone knows, W is opposed to modern biology because it's agin the Bible. It should be obvious what side of the reason/mysticism divide he is on.)

All this is quite obvious to any comic-book-reading teenage boy (the target audience of this film). But the many critics who loathed the movie never seemed to notice this. Why, I wonder? Come to think of it, every single religious reference in the film is negative. Any time it rears its head in this movie, religion is nasty and oppressive. I haven't seen anyone mentioning this at all.

It does seem to be worthy of mention. I can't think of too many movies that are both pro-freedom and pro-"reason," and that even show some awareness of what reason is. (Leonidas seeks to convince others by giving evidence. He does not subject his own judgment to to political authority or to religious revelation, nor does he ask others to do so.) And it's hard to think of other Hollywood movies with the guts to even hint at a critical attitude toward religion.

If you want to make an action movie in which the good guys represent reason, I suppose the Greco-Persian wars are a pretty good choice of subject. This is where the Greeks pushed back the expansionist Persian empire. Some historians think that this, as much as any other single event, prevented Europe from becoming a mere peninsula of Asia. It permitted the West to become the West. As it happened, the Greeks invented logic and the rudiments of scientific method within the century and a half after Thermopylae (480 BCE). If the Persians had succeeded in imposing autocratic rule on them, I'm not at all sure this would have happened.

On the other hand, I have to admit that using the Spartans as symbols of freedom is a less fortunate choice, for the obvious reasons. If this were just a matter of a historical inaccuracy that has no effect on the meaning of the film as a narrative, I would be able to ignore it. But as a matter of fact it enables the filmmakers to dodge a crucial political issue: is it possible to be the sort of brilliant fighting machine the Spartans were and also represent reason and freedom (which the real Spartans did not)? Still, the film's philosophical virtues are so striking and so unique that I suppose this problem doesn't bother me that much.

So I guess I don't mind that this is Nat's favorite movie. The basic values from which his love of it comes seem sound to me. But of course I admit I'm biased. (Above you see him, earlier yesterday, hooking a big trout. This was the first time he had ever used fly-fishing gear. Such a clever lad!)

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Indian Creek: It's About Who Is Organized and (Therefore) Powerful

What harm is this car doing? That is the first question that is raised by the absurd proposal, originating from the Sierra Club and backed by the Forest Service, to ban motorized travel from the Indian Creek valley of the Buffalo Gap National Grassland.

Actually, I have to correct that. Contrary to what I suggested earlier, a closer look at the relevant documents shows they aren't really proposing to prohibit motorized travel, in general, at all. This is the one thing about this insane idea that is the most obviously unjust. Its this. In this "wilderness" -- the cows are staying!

Ever since the National Grassland was founded, ranchers have been allowed to pasture their cattle on this government land -- in fact, giving these people this government benefit has been one of the main functions of the National Grassland system. And these ranchers, unlike you and me and your Aunt Tillie, will have the right to use motorized vehicles here, even after it is declared a "wilderness." And believe me, they will come in, not only in pickup trucks and ATVs, but backhoes and bulldozers, to clean out their stockponds when they fill up with mud, as they do periodically. Forest Service rangers, in private conversations, admit that they too will be coming in with jeeps and trucks. Do you think they are going to be walking twelve miles across rugged terrain, carrying all their own water? They are representatives of the state -- they make the rules! The answer, of course, is no. Unlike the rest of us, they will ride.

Come to think of it, now I have to correct the way I put the question at the beginning. Since the proposal is to discriminate drastically between two groups of people, the question is not what harm does any vehicle, taken at random, ever do. The question is which of the two groups does more damage. Is it the hunters, the rockhounds, the guy who likes to watch prairie dogs through binoculars? Is it the people who will no longer be able to use this area except via means of transportation that are painful, constraining, and possibly dangerous? Or is it the ranchers and their servants in the Forest Service? Is it the people who will be allowed to bring all sorts of motor vehicles into the area as part of their work, and the ones who can roam freely over it at their leisure because they have horses?

In case the answer is not obvious, let me tell you about these cows. They poop everywhere. They do it in the water you wade into in order to cool off when the temperature goes over 100. They do it on the trails that you walk on. They attract huge, biting flies that draw blood and raise big itching welts on your legs and arms. Most of all, they poop copiously under all the shade trees, just where I want to sit down or unroll my sleeping bag. Spending the night here is like camping in a really, really badly kept barnyard. If you ever do it, you will want to (and I am not kidding about this) make sure your tetanus shot is up to date.

Worst of all, their grazing diminishes the presence of native grasses and encourages invasive species. The only way you can see solid stretches of buffalo grass is to climb to areas that the cows cannot reach. You can tell just by looking at the grass species when you have succeeded in getting away from them.

If the South Dakota Sierra Club had any guts, they would go after the ranchers, who do far more damage than the rockhounds could ever do. But no, in their lamely argued report on these issues, they simply take for granted that the ranchers will continue to dominate this otherwise-wild area, with never utter a peep about the damage they and their animals do.

Anyway, what sort of "wilderness" is it that has bulldozers, backhoes, stock ponds, plus hundreds and hundreds of lumbering, stinking, drooling cows? Isn't this just an abuse of one of the most sacred words in the language?

We see here a perfect example of how the system we live in really works. It is a class system. And no, the classes are not the capitalists and the proletariat (though there are times when that division does parallel the real one). It is the state and those who are sufficiently organized to influence it, and everyone else. Farmers and the Sierra Club are like the NRA, the teachers' unions, or General Motors: they are organized and therefore they have Leviathan's ear. On the other hand, those who will have to walk into Indian Creek or stay the Hell out do not constitute this sort of powerful interest group. That is the only explanation for the success, so far, of this ridiculous proposal.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

The Proposed Indian Creek Wilderness Area: Just About the Worst Idea Yet

Since 1982, I've visited a vast, lonely area in the Buffalo Gap National Grassland many, many times. I've never told anyone where it is or how to get there, because, frankly, I didn't want to do anything that could contribute to attracting more people there. I go there because its a chance to be in a place where I can see wild terrain for at least ten miles in every direction -- and not a single human being, anywhere in sight! Now, I think I have to talk about it, because the Bureau of Land Management is apparently considering a move that in effect would cut me off from this wonderful source of inspiration. Apparently at the urging of the South Dakota chapter of the Sierra Club, they are considering declaring India Creek a "wilderness" area, banning all motorized travel there. If the always-objectionable Sierra Club gets its way (again!) it will be yet another example of government-by-pressure group, the rule of coalitions who have ends of their own, purposes that are quite different from the ones the rest of us have, or have any reason to adopt.

Why would this be such a bad idea? Because it would put most of the area beyond the reach of me or anybody remotely like me. Only local ranchers or wealthy people would be able to explore most of it. It is not practicable to visit most of it on foot. Only people who have horses, or can afford to rent or buy them, would be able to visit the greater part of this rugged area.

There are two reasons for this, both very simple.

One is the nature of the terrain. Here is an image I got from Google Earth. I have drawn a white line (click to enlarge) from the northern end of the area, at what the BLM workers call "Cardiac Hill," to the southern end, at the gate to the South Unit of the Badlands National Park. As far as I know, Cardiac Hill is the only practicable entrance to the place. That white snakey thing you see roughly following my line is Indian Creek. It's doing the typical prairie river meander. Each of the wrinkles you see around the creek is a draw or side-canyon. (More exactly, the dark fingers are low areas, the cretateous Pierre Shale Formation, while the white areas are higher elevation, the more recent oligocene Chadron Formation.) Exploring these twisting mazes is one of the main attractions of this place. It is also flanked by high, flat table-land, much of it topped with pristine short-grass prairie. To step onto one is to walk back into the days of Crazy Horse. To visit any of this to a significant extent, you have to stay overnight. Day trips will not do it.

Here is where the road snakes down into Indian Creek Valley, from the top of "Cardiac Hill." Maybe you can see why they call it that. As your Jeep tips over the top of the mesa onto the descending twists of dirt two-track, you feel at first that it will just keep tipping.

The other major factor, in addition to the nature of the terrain, is the water. As I think you can see in this picture, the water here looks like skim milk that has been spilled and swept into a bucket. It's gray. The pioneers used to say it's "too thick to drink and too thin to climb." )Why it's just a dern, cussed obstruction, dagnabbit!) And because the elements that make it undrinkable are actually dissolved minerals, not particles of any sort, it cannot be filtered. Solar distillation is not really practical either. (I looked into that.) This means, if you are going to be here for more than a few minutes, you need to carry your own water in. All of it.

I've done this many times, mainly in the years 1982-1992. I found that in country like this I need a gallon of water a day. The last time I weighed a backpack stocked for a two-day stay, it weighed over 70 lbs. And that I believe was without a tent. And here you do need a tent. It rains, even in August. (Unfortunately, this is not a desert. There's water, just not the kind you can use!)

It's beautiful country, but travel here is very arduous. On foot, it's almost impossible to get far at all. Local legend has it that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid came through here fleeing the law and almost didn't make it.

In all the years I came there on foot, I never got much further than this large prairie dog town, about 2 1/2 miles (in a straight line) in from the entrance on Cardiac Hill. The white mounds you see on the ground are the burrow entrances. (You often see the US Air Force, from nearby Ellsworth base I suppose, doing exercises here in their choppers.) I tried everything -- returning to the car just to get water, caching water along the way (carrying two gallon jugs in my hands and two in my pack as far as the cache point). It was too darn difficult to get much further south than this.

I should add that traveling on foot here is not just arduous. It is also dangerous, especially if you are alone (as I almost always am). I've had two very close encounters with rattlesnakes here, one of which was so huge I didn't know what it was at first. There are also many opportunities to break a leg. (I once broke a leg in a remote location, and I highly recommend that you delay doing so as long as you can.)

Come to think of it, I have never, in the twenty five years I have been coming here, ever seen anyone who came in on foot, other than me and people I brought with me. The reason for this is obvious: It's not good idea! I hereby recommend that you not do it!

This summer, for the first time ever, I finally made it all the way from Cardiac Hill to the southern boundary of the area, where the national park begins, 6 3/4 miles to the south (that's as the crow flies: if you walk or drive instead of flying, it is further). I did it by driving the jeep three or four miles and walking the rest of the way. (I just couldn't trust the jeep to make it through those last creek-crossings -- too sandy and slushy!) Here you see the fence bordering the park, at the end of the road. That's Sheep Table Mountain on the horizon, the most spectacular feature in the South Unit.

To be fair, any sort of travel here is very tough (except, I assume, for horseback and helicopter -- speaking of which, you can see another 'copter here if you click and look above the hill). Even going by car can be full of trouble. On three separate occasions I have gotten stuck: once trying to cross Indian Creek, once in the sand on Cardiac Hill, and once in a quagmire produced by a sudden rainstorm. Each time I had to be pulled out by ranchers. Two of them were lovely, generous folks who wouldn't let me pay them. The third one was a bitter, angry guy on Spring Draw Road who charged me $250. He also kept berating me for being fool enough to go in there by any means other than horseback.

For travel by car, the biggest worry is weather. The two-track road in the valley is only passable when dry. If it rains for very long at all, this black Pierre formation clay turns into a nasty glue locally known as "gumbo." Think of trying to drive through a deep vat of old-fashioned library paste. A four-wheel drive vehicle is no protection against that. Believe me, I know!

The system I finally devised is this. I drive in and sleep by my jeep, ready to jump into the car and drive out if it starts to rain, even in the middle of the night. This is a burden, because I like to bring my telescope, to take advantage of these wonderfully dark skies at night, so far from city lights. Packing a telescope in the rain in the middle of the night is not fun. But I'm determined to never get stuck there again. And for five years, I haven't. (That schmuck who charged me $250 taught me a lesson, and I don't have to be taught twice!)

Now, I suppose someone at this point might say, Wait, you are arguing for allowing motorized travel, and yet you are telling me how hard it is to travel there by car? Well, the point is, as hard as travel by car is here, travel on foot is much worse. If that were all I was allowed, I would go back to being trapped in the area of the prairie dog town, and only exploring features in the northern-most one third of the valley. And I can just leave my telescope at home. It weighs as much as four or five gallons of water!

One obvious question remains: If prohibiting cars in this area is such a bad idea, why is it happening? The Forest Service has backed the Sierra Club's proposal. Now all that remains is to see if Congress will enact it. What is going on here? This post has already gone on too long, and I'll try to post on this question soon.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

I [insert heart icon here] Prairie Dogs!

I've loved black-tailed prairie dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus) since I first moved to the Steppes of central North America in 1982. I visit them as often as I can, and this week I spent another couple of days in their midst. I sat in a folding chair on the edge of a prairie dog town several acres in extent, watching them through binoculars. (I'm still in South Dakota as I write this.) I can't resist writing one (just one, I promise) post about prairie dogs. This is it. (On second thought there probably will be more of them. Sorry!)

Why be interested in prairie dogs? Well, if I can assume that you like nature and wild things, especially wild mammals, I can give you several reasons.

First, like you and me, prairie dogs are diurnal. Most wild mammals seem to be nocturnal. Prey-animals like the dark because its harder for predators to see them, and predators like it because that's when the prey is up and about. Prairie dogs are up when you are up, and they sleep when you sleep. That means more hours in which you can see them.

Second, prairie dogs are very conspicuous. Most herbivores live by lurking and sneaking. To be seen is to be eaten. Therefore, they avoid being seen. Prairie dogs developed an opposite sort of strategy of predator avoidance. The have an alarm system. When one of them sees a predator, he lets out a predator-alarm call, a rhymthic Cheerk! Cheerk! Cheerk! If you get close enough to hear the inhalations between the vocalizations, it sounds like Cheerk uh Cheerk uh Cheerk uh! They must be the most in-your-face herbivores in North America, except for the bison I suppose. The result, once again, is you get to see a lot of them.

Third, they have many interesting traits, some of which make them seem human. Like you and me, they are colonial -- they mostly live in groups. Heck, we even call them towns! You often see them visiting each other for no reason at all other than to exchange caresses, or a mysterious oral-contact gesture that animal behaviorists call "kissing." (See Wikipedia photo to left.) It seems to have something like the same meaning that a human kiss has. They practice polygynous mating (one male with a harem) and evidently stay married for life (a practice humans had here in the West until very recently).

One behavior that everyone finds interesting is the rather mysterious one that Prof. John Hoogland named "the jump-yip call." (See picture below, from City of Boulder CO website.)

Every once in a while one of these animals will, with no environmental provocation that anyone can see, suddenly stand up full-length, throw his little forelegs high in the air, as if in exaltation, and let out a yell that sounds like Wah-hoo! or sometimes Whee-ya! And it's contagious. One will go Wah-hoo! and another member of the same coterie (male plus harem plus offspring, mainly) will go Whee-ya! Nobody can be sure just what it means, but hearing it you can't escape the impression that it has something to do with well-being. Some researchers call it "the all clear call" (ie., the opposite of the predator warning). To me, it sounds like an Ain't life grand? call.

They are fairly good at recognizing their enemies too. This week I saw them giving the predator warning call when a coyote walked through their town (he was actually just trying to avoid getting too close to me), and a double-time, extra-loud version of it when a prairie falcon swooped down at them -- but they ignored cows, cottontails, a thirteen-lined ground squirrel, and a family of burrowing owls. (Burrowing owls do not eat prairie dogs or their young -- they just like to live in their abandoned burrows.) It hurt my feelings that they classified me with the coyote and falcon -- barking if I ever got too close, and in one case even giving the heavy-duty swooping falcon version of the call. To prairie dogs I am at least as harmless as a cow, it seems to me. Come to think of it, though, they are right. They don't know me as an individual. They have to think of me, as racists do of their fellow humans, not as an individual, but as a member of a group. (Oh, you're one of them.) As a species, I have to admit, we are predators, not to be trusted by the likes of these little guys. (More about man-versus-prairie-dog in a future post.)

Anyway, they are charming, interesting, and not at all shy. What's not to like? Let's hear it for prairie dogs! Whee-ya!

Sunday, August 12, 2007

I'm in South Dakota!

Actually, I'm leaving in a few minutes. My plans to go to California fell through for lack of funds, so I am returning to South Dakota, even though I was just there in July. Also, I wanted to visit once again my favorite camping spot east of Donner Lake, the Indian Creek valley, while I still can. There is a chance it will soon be taken away from me by an evil corporation with vast powers and international reach called -- the Sierra Club. Unfortunately, I'm not making this up. I'll blog about this insidious cabal of kleptocrats on my return, if not before.

By the way, the first time I saw the bar on the left, in Scenic, SD, it was 1982 and the sign (click to enlarge) said "NO INDIANS ALLOWED." They later painted out the "NO." I hear it is now actually owned by Indians. Even in western South Dakota, we have progress!

Friday, August 10, 2007

Law Schools are Brain-Toilets

Law schools are like giant toilets into which we flush perfectly good human brains. I see it every year, and it breaks my heart. Humanities majors who don't want to pursue their major, their true love, in graduate school and then have a degree that won't get them a job ... smart people who are afraid of math ... people who are very good at math but are too unambitious or too timid to enter the more exacting world of the sciences. Law schools attract great hordes of people for reasons that are extraneous to their personal destinies and to the needs of society.

There are three kinds of reasons why this is a bad thing: personal, legal, and social.

The personal reason is obvious. If you choose a career path that violates your basic character you will live a warped, stunted life. As Thoreau said, "Follow your genius!" If you don't, your genius will exact its revenge on you.

(Business schools are also a haven for students who are just trying to be "practical," but, oddly enough, business students seldom seem to me to be people who really belong somewhere else. Maybe the difference is that everyone knows what business is, so enrolling students know pretty much what they are in for. But it is far from obvious what law is, and new students can be in for a whole series of unpleasant surprises.)

Then there is the legal reason. You might think that the law school brain-magnet is good for the legal system, since all it does is draw resources into it and away from other parts of society. But no, it's actually bad for the legal system as well.

The problem is that it attracts a lot of brains that are really not suited to it. The humanities students who are sucked into the law school pipeline tend to have the same left-of-center world view that most humanities students have. Law has many features that this sort of mind-set finds repellent. It contains many rules. These split humanity into separate groups, those who follow the rules and those who break them. Humanity should not be split at all, but united! It has many constraints. These are things you can't do, even if they would advance your noble intentions. It is hierarchical. Someone gets to tell others what the right answer is. We are not equal at all, not here. It is cold, unfeeling, judgmental.

Above all, it rests on force. Oddly, leftists are generally averse to force. I say "oddly" because all their favorite policies must of course be enacted at the point of a gun. (Try crossing the will of the regulator or the tax-collector. You will soon meet the gun-wielding legions who always stand behind them.) And yet, the one thing they really hate is -- guns! With them, "force" is the real F-word, the one you don't want to deal with. The trouble is, in the law you can't ignore it. In every criminal trial there is one person who does not want to be there. And there is an armed person present, gun plainly visible, to make sure that they do not run away. Every torts case is about whether someone will have things taken away from them or not. The young humanist must feel that there is something brutal in this.

I have seen leftist law students, and they are often unhappy. I don't blame them! They don't belong there. What becomes of them? To some extent, I am sure, the law changes them. The power of the law to acculturate people, to suck them into the true spirit of legality, is awe-inspiring. It is one of its god-like characteristics (and there are others!). But I am also sure that to some extent they change the law. They go out into the legal profession with a mind-set that is bound to thwart and undermine it. The rule of law is only possible if people in the legal system accept the basic principles of legality. If they scorn these principles and prefer their own tender feelings, their idealism, or their noble purposes, then the system will not survive. That is the ultimate legal catastrophe.

I think law is one of the very greatest of human achievements, greater even than the invention of the symphony, the novel, the algebraic formula. In fundamental importance, it is almost equal, as an achievement, to the creation of intelligent speech. For that reason alone, it is a catastrophe that law schools attract students independently of whether they have any real appreciation for the law or sympathy for its aims and methods.

Then there is the social reason for regretting the brain-sucking power that law schools have. It is not that lawyers are bad and have a bad effect on the world, per se. Law is essential to social life, and it cannot function in its most complex forms without lawyers. But it is possible to have enough of them. When we do, we have to look at the other things that people could have been: scientist, engineer, artist, scholar. Many law students are people who wanted to be one of these other things, and gave up on it. In some cases, they shouldn't have. Imagine a world with plenty of patent attorneys to help us protect our rights to our inventions -- but nothing worthwhile has been invented. In which there are plenty of people who have studied property law and know all the different ways in which title to land can be held or transmitted -- but because there are no farmers and no builders, land has no value and is not worth owning. In which there are tort lawyers who will get just compensation if you are injured -- except that no one has produced any wealth and there is nothing to seize. There is a point at which we have enough law students, and the considerable talents of the excess ones would be more usefully employed somewhere else.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

The Gourmet is Dead, Long Live the "Foodie"

Have you noticed that no one uses the word “gourmet” any more? The word you do hear is “foodie.” What is the difference between a gourmet and a foodie? They are the very same thing. Or they are so different they are incomparable. That is, they are the same thing, viewed through the diversely tinted lenses of two different conceptual structures.

Allow me to explain.

The word “gourmet” only makes sense within the context of a specific world view. An essential part of this view is the notion of haute cuisine. What is this “high” cuisine? That’s a deep question, and I don’t have an answer yet, but the one factor that is relevant here is easy to see if we just glance at the history of the thing. High cuisine as we know it today was formalized by August Esoffier (1846 - 1936) [Wikipedia picture to the left], but it was really founded by Escoffier’s great predecessor, Antoine Carême (1784 - 1833). Carême worked as a chef for George IV, Tsar Alexander I, briefly for Napoleon (who found food a bore), but especially for Talleyrand. He cooked for the participants at the Congress of Vienna (1815). Escoffier on the other hand had a long business association with a business man, César Ritz, owner of the Ritz hotel chain. Escoffier spent his whole, long career cooking in hotels. The Ritz hotels were of course very pricey (when I was a kid, “ritzy” meant “fancy and expensive”) but anybody who earned and saved up the money (for a year? two years?) could have a meal cooked under the direction of the great Escoffier, the greatest living chef, perhaps the greatest who had ever lived.

Things were very, very different in Carême’s day, just three generations earlier. No matter how much money you earned and saved, you could not buy your way into the banquet at the end of the Congress of Vienna. You could not crash the gate at the Tsar’s winter palace, either. Your money was literally not good enough. Carême’s world was a hierarchy. He was attached to people like the Tsar by a very personal relationship. His labor was their property, by right of their being monarchs and nobles, and you, you lowly worm, could not have it. Any of it.

By Escoffier’s time, things had changed profoundly. His labor belonged to whoever had the cash to pay for it. He was connected to his customers by the very impersonal relationship of the competitive market. Of course services like his were still frightfully expensive, but that too would change eventually. Now fine food is, at least in principle, and on occasion, within the reach of nearly everyone.

What brought this about? That of course is the entire story of the modern world, and a very long one, but it includes two closely related forces: democracy and the free market. But my point, or the first part of it, is that the curious notion of the gourmet, and the world of high cuisine, did not first arise in the world built by these two titanic forces, it began in the hierachical, oppressive world of Carême.

In that world, most people had to struggle to find enough food to live. The average Frenchman's life expectancy at birth was about 30 years. But there was a tiny group of people who had the time and leisure to, not only eat but, savor the qualities of food as if it were a work of art. The balance and interplay of flavors and textures, the pleasing appearance (presentation, plating), and so forth. This is just what gourmets do. And food-as-art is what high cuisine is.

At last I get to my main point: the gourmet-idea, and high cuisine itself, carry a lot of elitist baggage from the era of caste divisions. The gourmet is a sniffish fellow, who thinks he is better than others. He doesn't just savor that perfect Sauce Béarnaise, he savors his ability to savor -- and your lack thereof! A "foodie," insofar as there is any difference, is just someone who likes to savor the experience of eating. The word, with its diminutive ending, even sounds egalitarian. It sounds like an over-familiar nickname. I think of President Carter telling people, jes' call me Jimmy. Isn't that what the foodie is doing? I'm not trying to be anything special. No nose in the air, no lifted pinky here! I'm just a foodie! Please don't resent me!

You can see the whole foodie culture as an attempt to make high cuisine safe for the brave new world of pan-democracy. Will it work? Well, this is just the question that Tocqueville and Nietzsche raised with such force: can quality and democracy coexist? (Tocqueville: that depends. Niezsche: Nein!). The jury is still out on that one.
By the way, last night I watched the Japanese Iron Chef show for the first time, and I was surprised to hear the people on the show refer to each other as gourmets several times. And without a trace of irony. On the American (Food Network) version of the show, no one would dare to use that word in that way. What a difference a culture makes! ... Meanwhile, on this side of the Pacific, I just noticed a headline for a New York Times travel section article on fine restaurants in Minneapolis: Minneapolis Makes Foodies Take Notice. We're using the word in headlines now!
* Here I am using "gourmet" as a term applied to a person. People do speak of gourmet meals and gourmet foods, but at least in this country they no longer call themselves gourmets.