Friday, December 31, 2010

Pseudo-Religious Pseudoscience

Another thought on Brooks's column re my last post: consider the reliably potty way such things as cosmology, relativity and, especially, quantum mechanics are viewed by many, if not most, who actually read and think about them. Even scientists well acquainted with them aid and abet this sometimes, making wild claims distant from their fields. So, the strangenesses and philosophical difficulties of quantum mechanics are contrasted with earlier certainties, as if there have never been such things. Meanwhile, the astonishing precision and power of general relativity and quantum mechanics, their confirmation by experiment, their theoretical predictions of the universe's beginning and future in far more detail and testability than any prior religious tales, the extraordinary advances in biology and physiology, all far less a part of how most view them. Even evolution, ever more confirmed as science, is ever more wildly applied to such things as psychology and gender socialization. Part of all this, of course, is the sheer difficulty of the math and concepts. But part, too, is the search in science for a substitute for religion, and, at that, an inadequate one, rather than an illumination of the universe in different terms, and, at that, oft denying that any such thing is happening.

Even Brooks notes the primary role of communal, social institutions, and the threat to them. Everybody does, even on the right: their take on religion, immigration, the nuclear family and its vicissitudes, demand for social change all bespeak their perception of a threat to their group identity and institutions. The reconstruction of those institutions--desperately needed--can arise from a realistic grasp of their origins, which would allow a new appreciation of a common humanity, or a retreat into an artificial tribalism, extending only to Self and denying the common humanity of the Other.

One of these is likely to have a better result than the other, but is less likely, in that it will be opposed by those most enabled in the deeply unsatisfactory current reality, whose interests lie elsewhere.

Alienation: We Need More God And More Sports

Back to David Brooks, who I read this morning so you don't have to. He's been reading philosophy again. It seems that modern man's anomie is best explained by a substitution of the uncertainties of science for the pieties of religion, and that we poor souls take delight in sport and other things in search of what we've lost:

For the past hundred years or so, we have lived in a secular age. That does not mean that people aren’t religious. It means there is no shared set of values we all absorb as preconscious assumptions. In our world, individuals have to find or create their own meaning.

This, Dreyfus and Kelly argue, has led to a pervasive sadness. Individuals are usually not capable of creating their own lives from the ground up. So modern life is marked by frequent feelings of indecision and anxiety. People often lack the foundations upon which to make the most important choices...

We have official stories we tell about our culture: each individual is the captain of his own ship; we are all children of God. But in practice, willy-nilly, the way we actually live is at odds with the official story. Our most vibrant institutions are collective, not individual or religious. They are there to create that group whoosh: the sports stadium, the concert hall, the political rally, the theater, the museum and the gourmet restaurant. Even church is often more about the ecstatic whoosh than the theology.

The activities often dismissed as mere diversions are actually central. Real life is more about serial whooshes than coherent meaning.

We can either rebel against this superficial drift, or like Dreyfus and Kelly, go with the flow, acknowledging that the autonomous life is impossible...

---So, the notion that vastly more horrible wars, ecological destruction, medical care ever less personal and more invasive, alienation from work, economic insecurity and inequality, the systematic destruction of the social contract, the exaltation of selfishness, consumption and the 'free market', the centrality of profit in marketing, advertising and entertainment all pursued with billions of dollars, the distractions and lack of commitment undermining education--you know, those things--aren't all that important compared to the social deterioration consequent to an abandonment of the primacy of God in favor of, y'know, actual knowledge of the universe. And the remedy is MORE SPORT, MORE EMBRACE OF SPORT--things not now in evidence--to reconstitute the social contract.

You can't make this shit up...

Monday, December 27, 2010

Utopias and Villains

Thinking more about Harry Potter: Voldemort, now he's an obvious villain type, potted Nietzschean, power for its own sake, and knowledge in service of power. We know him well, his type all over pop culture, one of its guilty pleasures: old Westerns' Black Barts, Krauts and Japs, James Bond's sneering opponents, Islamic terrorists, ruthless drug lords, serial killers, all of the same ilk. He's instantly identifiable as a villain: the face, the manner, the way he treats even his allies. And far more Nazi than Communist, and by design--Nazis dream of exerting unrestrained power as a member of the Master Race over others, rather than of working together in a universal brotherhood of the proletariat--so the wizards over the Muggles, the oppression and exploitation of such as goblins and elves, fits far better. But Umbridge is a masterpiece: a roundish, pink-wearing cat lady, never raises her voice or even has an unpleasant edge to it, an everyday Englishwoman to her core, and utterly sinister, a living, breathing reminder that we, all of us, have to choose Gryffindor over Slytherin, not despite our humanity but because of it, and that the right choice isn't always the default position.

Norman Davies, a historian of Europe with a special interest in and sympathy for Poland, in his history of Europe, stopped to consider the question, more common in earlier generations, of whether Naziism or Communism is the greater evil. The actual numbers of dead were greater in Stalin's Soviet Union and Mao's China. And Davies writes with merciless clarity about Soviet evil. But he, too, notes that the Communist Utopia, though dependent for its achievement on a human nature we don't see much of, would be a good place, and the Nazi Utopia, all too realizable in a world of human beings subject to the temptations of privilege, power and tribalism, would, even if achieved, be a nightmare.

The libertarian/Ayn Rand Utopias, like the Communists' and in contrast to the Nazis', wouldn't be bad places, either: all those people picking themselves up by their bootstraps, actualizing themselves, free at last of constraint and perverse incentives, innovating, building, their labors rewarded, the cornucopia of free markets overflowing, individuals' right conduct, in charity and restraint, arising from themselves rather than imposed from without. And just as impossible to achieve as the Communist Utopia, and for the same reasons: humans aren't wired that way, and human rights and desires are incommensurable, cannot all simultaneously be achieved, and require inevitably imperfect reconciliation and judgment when they conflict. The Communists and the libertarians both, oddly, dream of a withering away of the state, when humanity is free of, well, humanity, and are both too damned willing to break eggs by the millions in service of their Utopian omelets. The Nazis dream of an unrestrained, all powerful, racist state in service of their own ego/ids, acknowledging human conflicts and resolving them with gun and gas. Umbridge would have been a good German; the Nazis would have applauded the Mudblood Registry. More compatible, alas, with human nature, and all too possible on earth. Not, strictly, a Utopia (literally nowhere): it has happened, and will again, in small as well as large. We must not be seduced by Utopias offered by ideologues. But, more important, we must reject, and actively resist, that which gives rise to Naziism, and that arises, above all, within ourselves.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

One, Two, Many Mario Savios

I was criticised by a poster on eschaton for reconsidering the 'New Left' of the 1960s as at best a mixed blessing, after he cited Mario Savio (Berkeley Free Speech Movement), who found the system so odious that only withdrawal sufficed, and further participation in it acquiescence. I responded thusly:

I watched Mario Savio, Mark Rudd, Ted Kaptchuk and too many others fade into solipsistic irrelevance, as they wildly misunderstood the United States as ripe for progressive revolution rather than reactionary repression. By the time they were finished, having withdrawn from participation in an admittedly deeply flawed, odious system, they were, on the one hand, Weatherpeople and Symbionese, embracing and committing violence, even fatal violence, in potted emulation of third-world anticolonialist movements and the Cultural Revolution credulously viewed, or Progressive Labor people who, seeking sufficient purity, eschewing all music save Beethoven's and, in seeking actual role models amongst the world's nation states, embraced Mao's China, even, in one group I sat in on, Hoxha's Albania. And let's not forget the left's rampant sexism of the times: the classic remark was Stokely Carmichael's 'The position of women in the movement is prone.'

The SDS started out with a principal belief in participatory democracy. Their stance in the Johnson-Goldwater campaign was 'Part Of The way With LBJ'. They could have evolved, as Johnson sank into Vietnam, into more participation, more outreach. They didn't. They did quite the opposite, and played into the hands of the right. I'm entirely aware that this didn't occur in a vacuum: they were opposed with every weapon of propaganda and force the right, the corporatists, the racists, the national security priesthood, all of them could muster. I know that. But in the end, they were complicit in their demise as a viable political force in this country. And, while their opposition to racism, and later (too much later) sexism, racism and homophobia, was enormously positive, many of their other positions and tactics wound up more diversionary than effective, splitting and isolating the left. It needn't have been so. The withdrawal Savio, and others, not only advocated, but demanded as the only admissible moral response, was, and is, wrong.

Only those viewing the past through the rosiest of glasses deny the egotism, ineffectiveness and descent into political irrelevance of much of the 'New Left'. Been there done that. One need concede nothing in hatred and opposition to the right to fault their analyses, their tactics, their blindness to how the vast majority of the country saw them. The right used every fair and foul means in opposition. Some, like the Berrigans and Zinn, avoided the trap. Many did not. I was there, i put myself on the line, I thought long and hard about such things then and now. I'm skeptical of Obama, for all the reasons commonly cited on the left, more than accepting of him in toto. But the suggestion that he isn't completely, irredeemably evil either is far from acquiescence in his every move. I reject entirely the notion that sullen, cynical withdrawal, out of a hopeless view that real change is impossible, is the only correct moral, ethical, political, strategic and tactical response to the ample perfidy we see out there. It isn't true, it doesn't work, it never worked, it plays into our opponents' hands. The New Left never, not once, added members and political strength by shouting 'Up Against The Wall, Motherfucker', watching 'The Battle of Algiers' for the 103rd time, or applauding the Cultural Revolution. Not once.

If It Walks Like A Lame Duck, Talks Like A Lame Duck...

Now that the lame-duck session is over, and a few decent things got done amidst the plethora of unsolved, ignored or exacerbated problems of the country and the world, i can go back to my cup being 90% empty, resenting the lesser-of-two-evils business, and resuming the mistrust, cynicism, anger and despair that always has been my lot as a lefty. I'm only partially snarking here: the world, the nation, power and politics really are largely in a sad state, and what's been accomplished, while real, and suggesting an actual, though minuscule, possibility of further positive change, hasn't been nearly enough.

There was a Bugs Bunny cartoon in which Elmer Fudd and Bugs switched roles; both found it uncomfortable, and resumed business as usual at the end...

Gail Collins, on the lame-duck session, finds her cup half full this morning:

Good work, White House! Thank heavens we got rid of our former president, Barack Obama, who couldn’t even get the trade agreement he went all the way to South Korea to sign. Our current president, Barack Obama, would never let that happen, and, in fact, came up with a really excellent trade agreement with the South Koreans just the other day.

“Administration officials have bent over backwards to try to solve every problem that’s come up,” said Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, one of the Republicans who reached across the aisle ...

...let’s admit it. Nothing would have gotten done if Obama hadn’t swallowed that loathsome compromise on tax cuts for the wealthy.

If he’d taken the high road, Congress would be in a holiday war. The long-term unemployed would be staggering into the new year without benefits. The rest of the world would look upon the United States as a country so dysfunctional that it can’t even ratify a treaty to help keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of terrorists. The people who worked at ground zero would still be uncertain about their future, and our gay and lesbian soldiers would still be living in fear.

It’s depressing to think that there was no way to win that would not have involved giving away billions of dollars to people who don’t need it. But it’s kind of cheery to think we have a president who actually does know what he’s doing.

---I'm not sure I'd concede that accepting the tax cut is the 'high road'. I'd feel marginally better about it had he been more forthright and persistent in opposing it, had it come in isolation rather than as part of a pattern of one-sided 'compromise' characteristic of the Obama administration, and had he not gone out of his way to disparage the doubts of those 'supercilious, overly pure' members of the base who elected him. But I've struggled, throughout the campaign and since inauguration, with being unhappy with Obama's acceptance of the limitations of the politically possible, while recognising that he's accomplished some things--again, not enough--that move the goal posts just a bit, and had eluded his predecessors. And I'll doubtless continue to do so...

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Right on Cruise Control

The Tea Party right's conspiracy theories, methinks, can be explained (absent frank psychosis) as can their trivialization of fact. They divert and dominate the discussion. The moral panic, the existential threat, is thereby excluded from the discussion, just as those advancing facts contradicting their narrative thereby identify themselves as pointy-headed, out of touch, elitist liberals, lacking entirely in virtue or legitimacy, who--wait for it--want to impose their sense of reality on everybody else.

They deny evolution in large measure because accepting it results in loss of control of the narrative. 'God said it, I believe it, that settles it.' If they're wrong about any one thing, they can be wrong about anything and everything. Looking outside themselves or their group, according others' take on reality respect at the cost of bringing their own into question, introducing ambiguity, that's a non-starter. Not everyone is strong enough to be uncertain.

Treaty Confirmation: What will Be The Next Obama Failure?

The Times is careful today to place the apparent imminent passage of the arms treaty in proper perspective, as but a minor victory in what will be seen, eventually, as yet another arena of failure of the Democrats and Obama before the principles and puissance of their opponents:

WASHINGTON — The new arms control treaty with Russia, whose ratification now seems assured, was initially envisioned as a speed bump on President Obama’s nuclear agenda, a modest reduction in nuclear forces that would enable him to tackle much harder issues on the way to his dream of eventually eliminating nuclear weapons altogether.

It turned out to be a mountain. And while Mr. Obama is savoring another major victory, just days after he won repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” rules that dominated the lives of gay and lesbian members of the military, his own aides acknowledge that the lesson of the battle over the treaty is that the political divide on national security is widening. The next steps on Mr. Obama’s nuclear agenda now appear harder than ever.

---I agree that far more needs to be done, about nuclear weapons and their proliferation, and that it'll be difficult. I agree that the pattern has been to settle for a definition of what's politically possible rather than try to change it, and to dismiss, even ridicule us supercilious, overly pure types who want more. But it's utterly predictable that any success of Obama, any at all, no matter how small, and, for that matter, even any action which asserts the legitimacy of his presidency, is to be dismissed entirely, or even characterized as further evidence of failure. That's especially egregiously on display here. A way of countering it would be to marshal a political base with a different perspective in support. But, then, you knew that...

RIP: sarah deere

A former regular on the eschaton board, sarah deere, died yesterday. A lovely and loving soul, she never quite recovered from the loss of her dearly loved grandchild in her middle school years to embryonal cell rhabdomyosarcoma, a cancer we know neither origin nor how to treat. Sometimes I wish I believed in heaven; if I did, I'd be comforted that she's up there with mended heart, reunited with her Warrior Princess, cruelly struck down in this vale of wrath and tears during a blameless childhood by one of those far too numerous things that for me exclude the presence of an omnipotent, omniscient, just and loving God. I join the rest of the eschaton community in wishing we could have helped her cope with that with which it is nearly impossible to cope. I join most of us in being both glad and sorry I'm human. Her death makes my humanity, for all its limitations, all its opportunities to encounter beauty and horror, the picayune and the infinite, more poignant and harder to feel grateful for, even as I read of a life well lived.

Some deaths seem the natural end of a long life, even timely. Most of us, perhaps--certainly just about every health professional--hopes for a graceful exit with little pain, quick progression, maintenance of faculties and a chance to say goodbye, rather than a prolonged flogging of what little life is left in an obscene festival of tubes, lines, machines, dependence and pain. We don't always get what we want, but at least there's the possibility. I fear my own death not at all. But childhood cancer, especially, violates every last one of our coping mechanisms for dealing with death, and our sense of justice, striking the innocent unexpectedly and all too often mercilessly. Me, I think looking for justice down here is nothing more than denial of the appalling contingency of our lives, something so troubling that, for many, it becomes unacceptable, to the extent that it requires mitigation with simplistic religion, or the Kubler-Ross sort of dream of making death a natural part of life to be embraced, rather than the cause of fear and anger. Her steps for coping with death/loss are valid; I observed them and used them every day in practice. But a good part of her work suggests that one can always cope with death; the dark side of it is that if you can't, it's out of personal failing. And, with respect to another's death, rather than one's own, as often as it's an accepted part of life, it's something to be fought, out of anger, love and lost opportunity:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Dylan Thomas

(I always found the strict form of the poem, a villanelle, not only high artistry, but, too, a poignant assertion of control of the uncontrollable...)

Property Rights For the Foreclosed Upon

The Times reports that in some cases, not only do banks/lenders foreclose erroneously, making procedural errors based on sloppy or non-existent documentation, but their contractors break, enter and steal personal property.

The mortgage allows foreclosure under certain circumstances for delinquent payments. Court action is required. Even assuming proper foreclosure, personal property isn't at all included in the secured property. Taking it out of the home might be permissible. Taking possession of it without possession or compensation, making it unavailable to the owner on demand, is conversion (theft) and entirely actionable.

--Even assuming the article is correct in asserting that this crap is rare, it's more common than, say, terrorist attacks, which have engendered massive, costly responses throughout the country. Were I a legislator, I'd propose a law which makes break-in and theft of personal property under the direction of a mortgagee (the holder of the loan) punishable by immediate voiding of the foreclosure and unraveling of the mortgage, reducing its outstanding principal to zero, in addition to holding any contractor acting thus for the mortgagee (the bank/lender) liable for triple damages. That'd solve the problem instantly. I'd expect right wingers, who hold property rights perhaps the most sanctified of all rights other than to carry firearms, to be in the forefront of those outraged by such behavior. How come they aren't? Anyone?

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Word-Processing: They Don't Want You To Know

Autocorrect and Spellcheck are the Devil's work. The former, a jackbooted, thuggish program's compromise of your individual freedom of expression, the Black Helicopter of Code. The latter, a nanny-program's misguided, altruistic theft of incentives to individual excellence...

The Gurus Just Keep On Coming

David Brooks reports this morning that he has found love, in one Ericka Brown, who teaches her notion of Judaism in Washington. She's tough, but empathetic. Makes latecomers to her class sit in a chair in the corner. Gaawrsch:

I concluded that Brown’s impact stems from her ability to undermine the egos of the successful at the same time that she lovingly helps them build better lives. She offers a path out of the tyranny of the perpetually open mind by presenting authoritative traditions and teachings. Most educational institutions emphasize individual advancement. Brown nurtures the community and the group.

--Let me repeat that: 'the tyranny of the perpetually open mind'. Amongst the world's pressing problems, surely that isn't the worst. And Brooks' implication that toughness and an open mind are incompatible is utter nonsense. Meanwhile, the community and group, while necessary and, today, placed far lower than individuals in political rhetoric, can themselves be 'tyranny'. Yet another facile manipulator of weak people, this Brown, no different from those arising in countless other traditions.

Community and group can tyrannize as well. A perfect example is Brown's assertion that one's obligated to expose adultery, even at the cost of friendship. Some marriages complicated by adultery (and a myriad other secrets and transgressions) are worth saving; some aren't; the decision should obviously be up to the married couple rather than an external observer. Brown advocates the destruction of all adulterous marriages in the name of group values, while, rather incredibly, dismissing friendship as a group value. This, too, is tyranny, as well as incoherent.

Yet another manipulator, seems to me, turning gold or dross into hogwash for those yearning for authority.

Not to mention that, hearing Brooks describe Brown, Freud smiles from his grave. I quote Tom Lehrer on the subject:

From the Bible to the popular song, there's one thing we've heard right along:
Of all the things we hail as good, the most sublime is motherhood.
There was a man, though, who, it seems, once carried this ideal to extremes.
He loved his mother, and she loved him, and yet his story is rather grim...

Thursday, December 16, 2010

RIP: A Friend, of Complications of Diabetes

Frank Patterson, aka plantsman, a good friend from the Eschaton boards, died of a heart attack following a period of poorly controlled diabetes. He was a good, gentle, generous soul, a landscaper who wanted nothing more than to coexist with the beauties of the earth. We'll miss him.

The vascular complications of diabetes (including heart attacks), and not the sugar lability, are what kill most patients with the disease. The complications can be prevented, to some extent, by meticulous, ongoing, management by committed, accessible primary care docs working with equally committed patients with the money and intelligence to comply. This, of course, is precisely what every incentive in the US health care system militates against:

The vogue for such specialties (ENT, plastic/cosmetic surgery, dermatology, radiology, anaesthesia and others--ProfW) is part of a migration of a top tier of American medical students from branches of health care that manage major diseases toward specialties that improve the life of patients — and the lives of physicians, with better pay, more autonomy and more-controllable hours.

“It is an unfortunate circumstance that you can spend an hour with a patient treating them for diabetes and hypertension and make $100, or you can do Botox and make $2,000 in the same time,” said Dr. Eric C. Parlette, 35, a dermatologist in Chestnut Hill, Mass. (an affluent Boston suburb--ProfW), who chose his field because he wanted to perform procedures, like skin-cancer surgery and cosmetic treatments, while keeping regular hours and earning a rewarding salary.

--Go ahead. Click on the link and read the damned thing, while you're thinking about Frank's death. Just don't expect it to add to your equanimity.

Tears of the Great Pumpkin

Gail Collins is great this morning on our next Speaker of the House's propensity to cry:

“He is known to cry,” the outgoing speaker, Nancy Pelosi, told Deborah Solomon in The Times Magazine. “He cries sometimes when we’re having a debate on bills.”

Pelosi, of course, does not cry in public. We will stop here briefly to contemplate what would happen if she, or any female lawmaker, broke into loud, nose-running sobs while discussing Iraq troop funding or giving a TV interview.


O.K., moving forward...

We will stop again briefly to imagine what would have happened if Nancy Pelosi, upon being elected speaker, had confessed on national TV that she was unable to visit schools in her district because the sight of little children made her break into sobs (as has Boehner--ProfW).


O.K. About Boehner...

---Any feminist would recognise the double bind applied here to Pelosi that won't be demanded of Mr. Pumpkin at all. The essence of the right's game is that its rules exclude even the possibility of someone else winning. Once that's understood, it's a short logical step for anyone else to refuse to play it.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010


It occurred to me this morning that Kryptonite is worth thinking about: Superman, empowered and protected from injury under the yellow sun of his new home, an exile from a destroyed home, is vulnerable in the presence of tangible chunks of his homeland. And he feels the need to construct a Fortress of Solitude, accessible only to him. Not the most trivial of metaphors arising from the twentieth century.

And he came as a baby. Good thing he didn't land in Arizona...

Wikileaks and the Flat World

I read Tom Friedman so you don't have to: he's waxing wroth on the alternatives to a strong America, notably a China less than embracing human rights. He includes, amongst those who might enter the power vacuum a weakened America would create, empowered individuals such as the Wikileaks folk:

As for the superempowered individuals — some are constructive, some are destructive. I read many WikiLeaks and learned some useful things. But their release also raises some troubling questions. I don’t want to live in a country where they throw whistle-blowers in jail. That’s China. But I also don’t want to live in a country where any individual feels entitled to just dump out all the internal communications of a government or a bank in a way that undermines the ability to have private, confidential communications that are vital to the functioning of any society. That’s anarchy.

--A casual equation of Wikileaks to an economic superpower whose population is roughly a fourth of humanity. Now, that's breathtaking, mind-bogglingly stupid. And, too, not 'zackly consistent with what most of us would call journalism, though entirely consistent with, say, Tim Russert's assurance to sources that they're off the record in default.

Aside from which, it's hardly clear that private conversations which reflect a divergence between public assertions of decency at some odds with actual beliefs and practices should at all be privileged and private. There's little, if any, popular interest in private documents which only reinforce a public appearance of decency. If the only alternative to maintaining the privacy of conduct which, if viewed in the light of day, would appall the general citizenry is anarchy, that's an extraordinary indictment of the governments and business entities for which it's true. Friedman goes on to extol America's 'core values' as essential to America's role in the world. The revelation of a wide divergence between public and private values, on the other hand, is, we're told, as much a threat to governance as an essential check on wrongdoers.


Tuesday, December 14, 2010

World Wide Middle Class Values

My public service this morning is reading David Brooks, so you don't have to. He suggests that the growing world middle class should adopt the values of America's:

American culture was built on the notion of bourgeois dignity. We’ve always been lacking in aristocratic grace and we’ve never had much proletarian consciousness, but America did produce Ben Franklin, one of the original spokesmen of middle-class values. It did produce Horatio Alger, who told stories about poor boys and girls who rose to middle-class respectability. It does produce a nonstop flow of self-help leaders, from Dale Carnegie to Oprah Winfrey. It did produce the suburbs and a new sort of middle-class dream.

Americans could well become the champions of the gospel of middle-class dignity. The U.S. could become the crossroads nation for those who aspire to join the middle and upper-middle class, attracting students, immigrants and entrepreneurs.

To do this, we’d have to do a better job of celebrating and defining middle-class values. We’d have to do a better job of nurturing our own middle class. We’d have to have the American business class doing what it does best: catering to every nook and cranny of the middle-class lifestyle. And we’d have to emphasize that capitalism didn’t create the American bourgeoisie. It was the social context undergirding capitalism — the community clubs, the professional societies, the religious charities and Little Leagues.

--The social context underlying capitalism was the illusion that it helps everybody, that a stable, confident middle class is the natural and inevitable result of unrestrained capitalism. The narrative of self-help usually, if not universally, excludes the possibility that self-help alone might be insufficient; its dark side is that failure is the fault of the individual and not of the rest of us. Brooks studiously avoids mention of the factors atomizing the middle class, setting factions at each others' throats: racism, sexism, the criminal 'justice' system, denial of a common humanity with others. He, too, fails to mention the absolute primacy of money, materialism, economic thinking undergirding it all, and that primacy's role in shredding the social contract, which barely exists anymore even here, much less worldwide--that, too, a term he fails to mention.

Other than all that, I agree with him entirely...

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Mortal Wombat

via Gimlet on the eschaton board:

No more Mr Nice Marsupial. Tasmanian rules, suckers...

Other People's Children Left Behind

Charles Blow, in this morning's Times, reminds us that children are being hurt, right now, by what we aren't doing to help them:

Parents play a large role in this inequality, but so do policies. As the report wisely asks, “Is there a point beyond which falling behind is not inevitable but policy susceptible, not unavoidable but unacceptable, not inequality but inequity?”

I say absolutely.

I would hope that we could move to improve this situation. But at the very least, we mustn’t make it worse.

I wrote Mr Blow to thank him. When I was in college in the late 1960s, Arthur Jensen's scientific racism was in flower. I interviewed the magisterial, brilliant Doxey Wilkerson, a professor of sociology, on the subject. He began by pointing out that, even were Jensen's work assumed valid, any given black child might be further to the intelligent side of the Bell Curve than any given white child, and, therefore, Jensen's work could not be used to make policy that would deny black populations any of the educational opportunities available to white children. Prof. Wilkerson--a black man, as it happens--then went on to demolish Jensen's methodology. Today, it seems that such as Jensen, and the later Murray and Herrnstein work, are unacknowledged cornerstones in the world views of too many, in fact but not in name, and the need to solve problems rejected in cynical dismissal of even the possibility. And, to add insult to injury, they oft label those who disagree as 'political correct', or even racist, their most visible spokesmen employing appalling, ugly rhetoric to do so. At a time when they cite a potted macroeconomics to justify, again, an evasion of personal responsibility for any but themselves, Blow's work is especially valuable.

Friday, December 10, 2010

How It's Done

The Republicans managed to block 'don't ask, don't tell' repeal yesterday.

Were Lyndon Johnson, say, pushing repeal, he'd have had every senator over for lunch. He'd have said, 'We have the majority. You represent the good citizens of the State of (), who'd like their bridges to remain safe to drive on, their farmers to be subsidised, their water to keep flowing, their airports and airlines still in service, their state's businesses the beneficiary of military contracts, and like that. They'd also like to be sure that, next time they vote for a Senator, they aren't voting for someone who fucks pigs and eats small, cute puppies. Senator, I'm the president of all the people, and I care about your constituents too, and appreciate your desire to do well by them. I really do, and i'd like to help. Now, let us come and reason together, you asshole, and don't fucking forget who I am.' I'd guess they'd have eked it out...

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Down to the Sea Again

I've always been interested in the merchant marine, as a romantic kid and, later, as an adult admiring practice and skill. Reading World War II history, I found myself in unusual sympathy with the guys who sailed the Lend Lease ships to Murmansk as much as the usual suspects. One of my favorite books, John McPhee's 'Looking for a Ship', is about the merchant marine, and, in his subtle manner, a lot more besides. Did surgery for 25 years or so: routine, endless hard work and detail, occasionally terrifying, and seen by those without utterly differently from the way I saw it. A freighter captain or engineer might know something about that...

Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir,
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
With a cargo of ivory,
And apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.

Stately Spanish galleon coming from the Isthmus,
Dipping through the Tropics by the palm-green shores,
With a cargo of diamonds,
Emeralds, amythysts,
Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.

Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack,
Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,
With a cargo of Tyne coal,
Road-rails, pig-lead,
Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.

John Masefield, 'Cargoes'

I know where that's at, intimately, as a surgeon, and I'd guess anyone who's ever seen reality intrude itself on a daydream too. I wonder how a merchant seaman would see it. Meanwhile, I myself saw that dirty British coaster romantically, and, a little, still do, turning Masefield on his head a bit...

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Left/Right, Self/Other: more

Thinking more on the subject, I recall times when I saw such a Self/Other paradigm on the left. When i was in college (late 1960s) the left became more strident and doctrinaire as it fractured. The reigning paradigm of purely heroic and virtuous third-world liberation movements became ever more the realm of the purity troll, ever less skeptically applied to domestic issues such as civil rights, as if everyone other than a black man (sic) was an entitled white person living a privileged life in Algiers' European colony, as if all who didn't agree with black students brandishing machine weapons taking over colleges, Mao's Cultural Revolution and the like were imperialist fascists and would get their just deserts come the Revolution, as if the left were the sole repository of decency. As time went on, more information became available and the political and moral bankruptcy of such positions made clearer, I see the left as having mostly moved from such positions. Meanwhile, the works of such as Solzhenitsyn and Robert Conquest finally and completely ended the left's ability to even apologise for, much less embrace, Stalin and the Soviet Union, and such events as the murderous tyranny of Pol Pot and the divergence from Jeffersonian democracy of the newly unified Vietnam forced the left to find an intellectually honest way to further an agenda of social justice while unequivocally rejecting those perpetrating horror in its name. A chastened, circumspect, but still committed left emerged. The work of the late Tony Judt, notably 'Ill Fares The Land', seems to me the best reasoned, most knowledgable and deeply intellectually honest current presentation. But the right has never acknowledged similarly flawed, strained actions of its own--embrace of domestic and foreign racists, apologies for the horrors of imperialism, applause for the resolve and determination of such as Hitler and Mussolini, potted histories of slavery and Indian genocide, the manifest injustices of unbridled capitalism, the equation of sober assessments of such things as hatred of America and/or freedom, and so on. So, today, now, while acknowledging out of a belief in our common humanity our universal capacity for error, I think the Self/Other paradigm best fits the right far more than the left.

Consider, in this context, the right's, most of all the Christian right's, embrace of Likud Israeli policies. They identify entirely with the fantasy Israel as a virtuous, embattled Self, surrounded by bellicose, brutal, dehumanized Others, but, unlike that politically correct, pusillanimous America subverted and weakened by 'liberals', unapologetic in its military strength and its casual use in the face of world opinion. They wish 'their America' did that, too. And, as always, domestically as well as abroad. And those who disagree with the Likud are not just anti-Semitic, though that, too, is oft said. They, in that disagreement, in their assertion that there are alternatives open to Israel, assault frontally the right's view of domestic and foreign politics, morality and policy across the board. Out of this, too, arises their casual equation of Israeli Judaism, American Judaism, contemporary Zionism, nineteenth century Zionism, the Likud, AIPAC and so on as identical, and their denial of the existence of dissent within Israel and the American Jewish community. Another example of why negotiation with these people is difficult to impossible, and why they so stubbornly embrace even those positions easily demonstrated to be counterfactual.

So, the right, while decrying 'feminazis' and like that, actually embrace one of the bedrock principles of feminism--that the personal is the political--though they'd never acknowledge it. They can't empathise; they positively reject empathy; it threatens them to the core.

Where Have You Gone, Marcus Welby? A Nation Turns its Lonely Eyes To You

Several posts on Eschaton this morning revolve around nasty, aloof, judgmental doctors providing unsatisfactory care. One of the symptoms of the deterioration and inadequacy of our current health care system, or what passes for it, is a deterioration in the doc-patient relationship. Nobody goes into med school thinking they'll wind up viewing patients judgmentally, as adversaries. Then, docs get beaten up, physically and mentally, in training, graduate with $150,000 or so in average debt, and see themselves as economically, legally and politically under assault in a world granting them nothing like the moral capital and economic privilege they deserve. Meanwhile, third parties pay little for services (like neurology) involving thinking rather than doing. Patient visits of greater than 7-10 minutes oft barely pay for themselves. It's little surprise that, in the absence of time spent together, patient compliance with medication regimens is low, recommendations for lifestyle changes are ignored and resented, and 'alternative' practitioners who are more 'touchy-feely' without much science on their side seen as more attractive. The docs' blog I show the lefty flag on is full of docs venting, judgmentally rather than empathetically, about non-compliant, lawsuit-happy patients refusing to take responsibility for their own health, while feeling--wait for it--entitled to medical care without paying for it. Not all docs are like that, obviously, but we've all met some like that. I'm a doc, and, when I had thyroid cancer (cured, easy one, 1989 or so), my endocrinologist refused to talk to my wife about my cancer, my prognosis or treatment. He said, in these precise words, 'I haven't the time; you're a big boy; you do it.' I found myself another (wonderful) endocrinoligist, and thought that if this happened to me, it happens that much more often to lay folk. It's important, when you have such an entirely unsatisfactory interaction with a doc, to note that, while the doc doesn't have to be an asshole, that the system militates in favor of producing them, in large numbers, and should be changed. Even some of the righty docs understand this, hate it and want to do something about it.

The Internet Unabomber

Those arrayed against Assange are numerous and powerful enough to bring him down via any number of methods from the complex to the straightforward. He may be a decent person; he may not. But he's also involved in perhaps the world's greatest threat to that lack of accountability so central to the way the powerful operate. And, too, he's demonstrated the relative ease with which anyone could do what he's doing. So, if he's brought down, if Wikileaks is discredited, if the Internet is understood as enabling of cyberterrorists and intrinsically dangerous to Our Way Of Life in its free, unregulated state, well, that wouldn't surprise any of us a whole heck of a lot.

It wouldn't do to simply blow him away. It'd make a martyr of him. Cries of, 'I am Assange!', of 'One, two, three, many Wikileaks!' would arise, in a world where the Internet is central to commerce. So, to my paranoid way of thinking, the better way to do it would be to recast him as a sort of Unabomber of the Net, and such enterprises as Wikileaks as paranoid excesses which any number of methods used to suppress them would be legitimate. I'd suggest that Assange's guilt/innocence isn't a trivial question, but impossible to separate from all of that.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The DSM: Good For What Ails You

The Times discusses here the vicissitudes of psychiatry's DSM definitions of disease with respect to narcissism:

“There’s a lot of self-centeredness in the world, and narcissist has become an instantly recognizable type,” even if people don’t appreciate the complexity of the diagnosis, said Dr. Andrew E. Skodol II, chairman of the DSM personality disorders work group and research professor of psychiatry at the University of Arizona College of Medicine.

Stripped of most — but not quite all — of its pathology, “narcissist” becomes an easy way to flag the self-smitten (if not used as an all-purpose insult), and sounds so much more thoughtful than “egomaniac,” the older term, invoking Greek myth and modern psychiatry. “It’s a shorthand you can apply to all these powerful and famous people that allows you to feel superior and have this gloss of science,” said Dr. Michael First, a psychiatrist at Columbia and a former editor of the DSM.

A word like that is not going anywhere, regardless of what the experts working on the DSM decide. On the contrary: in recent months some of the researchers pushing to drop the diagnosis have softened their stance; the betting now is that the diagnosis is going to remain in the final revision.

You watch old movies--I saw 'The Lady Vanishes' the other day--and, one after another, Freudian references to the sub/unconscious come out, and seem ridiculously anachronistic. Then, too, 'hysteria' for women, 'homosexual neurosis' arising out of distant fathers and oppressive mothers--isn't everything mom's fault?

Narcissism, like depression, is oft considered diseases to be treated, as diseases are--by empowered professionals speaking opaquely, using medicines and other methods. Selfishness and sadness/grief, on the other hand, are part and parcel of daily life, and close to universally apparent, at least on occasion, in every honestly observed human life. I'm not sure about this one. I've benefited myself from antidepressant medications and ECT, had good and bad therapy. I'm uneasy about a self-policing, self-defining elite arrogating to itself the right to assert a unique power or competence in dealing with entities which are impossible to differentiate from, well, life as we all live it. Don't like it when priests do that, either, despite the comfort some get from them. And then, there's Scientology, which loathes psychopharmacology across the board, and some dogmatic AA meetings which see individual therapy of any kind as subverting an alcoholic's only hope of recovery. With enemies like these...

Friday, December 3, 2010

States' Wrongs and Potted Federalism

Found this on the eschaton board this morning:

The Sons of Confederate Veterans plan to hold a $100-per-person "Secession Ball" on Dec. 20 in Charleston's Gaillard Municipal Auditorium. It will feature a play highlighting key moments from the signing of South Carolina's Ordinance of Secession 150 years ago, an act that severed the state's ties to the Union and put the nation on the path to the Civil War.

Jeff Antley, who is organizing the event, said the Secession Ball honors the men who stood up for their rights. "To say that we are commemorating and celebrating the signers of the ordinance and the act of South Carolina going that route is an accurate statement," Antley said. "The secession movement in South Carolina was a demonstration of freedom."

---First, any definition of freedom centering on the freedom to own slaves is despicable and should be instantly dismissed. Now, consider 'states' rights'.

Roger Taney's opinion in Dred Scott v Sandford, in the name of states' rights, denied even the possibility of citizenship to freed slaves, denied the ability of states to ban slavery and refuse to cooperate in it, and allowed roving bands to enter free states and, contrary to those states' laws, forcibly kidnap escaped slaves and return them to bondage. Hardly, seems to me, a straightforward application of federalism. And so, throughout history, 'states' rights' arguments have consistently been in the service of racism. When Reagan endorsed 'states' rights' in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney were murdered, everyone understood exactly what he was saying. Today, libertarians such as Rand Paul view acquiescence in denial of civil rights as potentially in the service of freedom. Some even call for repeal of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Meanwhile, folk on the right oft call for Congress to pass 'tort reform', preempting long-standing state authority. They call for federal preemption of states' rights to limit and regulate insurance companies. They violate, and applaud violations of, the clear constitutional authority of states to regulate elections. Medical marijuana, assisted suicide, gay marriage, other social issues. it's almost as if, were one seeking consistency in their positions, one would have to look elsewhere than in high-minded application of what they think the Federalist Papers have to say on the subject.

They Must Be Fought

Paul Krugman, in today's NY Times, has pretty much given up on Obama:

Whatever is going on inside the White House, from the outside it looks like moral collapse — a complete failure of purpose and loss of direction.

So what are Democrats to do? The answer, increasingly, seems to be that they’ll have to strike out on their own. In particular, Democrats in Congress still have the ability to put their opponents on the spot — as they did on Thursday when they forced a vote on extending middle-class tax cuts, putting Republicans in the awkward position of voting against the middle class to safeguard tax cuts for the rich.

It would be much easier, of course, for Democrats to draw a line if Mr. Obama would do his part. But all indications are that the party will have to look elsewhere for the leadership it needs.

I have occasionally given Obama the benefit of the doubt with respect to the limitations of the politically possible. I can't anymore. Those bastards need to be fought. They need to be called out, called by name, and fought. Their history is potted. Their understanding of economics is wholly potted and, if implemented or even taken seriously, would be a disaster for the country and the world, even, be it noted, rich people running a business. Their leading media spokesmen tell black folk to take the bones out of their noses and slander Jews as Nazi collaborators and puppet masters. Perhaps their most visible political figure can't speak coherent English, knows nothing about anything, and maligns the grizzly bear, a noble beast, by claiming it as her own. They have said, outright, that they won't pass or even allow to the floor a single Democratic initiative unless their every desire is conceded. If ever there were a time to stand one's ground, to yield not at all, to make your opponent pay a political price, this is it. If ever there were a time when there was less to lose by doing so, this is it. The Democrats don't do that, Obama doesn't do that, they'll get rolled, and, worse, their failure will be attributed to their policies rather than their character.

Recovery from this disaster, not just of the economy but of the polity, will be too slow, too late, far from assured, and will cost lives as well as treasure. It'd be precious were this political, moral disaster fought with the same resources that the possible bankruptcy of the Bank of America and AIG were fought. Wouldn't it?

Thursday, December 2, 2010

'Constitutional Conservatism'

Found this in the Times, from a short piece by Lincoln Caplan that should have been longer, about Republicans' view of 'constitutional conservatism:

A polemic called the Mount Vernon Statement used the phrase last winter to rally an expanded Republican Party. The statement noted five principles: limited government; individual liberty; free enterprise; advancing freedom, opposing tyranny; and defending family, neighborhood, community and faith.

'Liberals', whatever they are, of course, support tyranny and oppose individual liberty; that's why they support Amnesty International and the American Civil Liberties Union, and humorlessly demand political correctness from fun-loving righties. And they despise neighborhoods, which is why they organize communities and encourage their participation in government. As for faith, well, Godless atheists and secular humanists, all of them; one can hardly attend church services in this country without having a tomato thrown at one by humanists inspired by the likes of Harris and Dawkins. And, of course, all this is easily found in the Constitution, whose 'original intent' excluded blacks, women and others from the franchise, while empowering rural states over more developed mercantile ones.

Seems to me that a counternarrative, pushed as vociferously and relentlessly in the public sphere as theirs, is long overdue: the constitution as a flawed, time-bound product of flawed men of European ancestry (no women, no black folk), written 225 years ago and since revised, reinterpreted and amended to meet the evolving perceptions and requirements of what government is, should be, and is required to do, for, uh, er, the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity...

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Right/Left, Self/Other

the difference between right and left arises out of a separation of virtuous, deserving, human Self from parasitic, evil, dehumanized Other. You do that, you easily accept actions, both passive and active, against the Other that you wouldn't perform or tolerate against Self. Righties who occasionally don't do this can be worked with a bit. But we're in a time when the right demands purity.

You look at rightie positions, and, on the surface, they're flagrantly inconsistent. But look on Self/Other level, they make perfect sense. The pursuit of power for Self--deserving of it, virtuous in its exercise of it--and its denial to Other. Even such elementary exercises in social and political problem-solving as trying to explain (NOT justify) antisocial actions are seen as undermining the Self/Other narrative, and are thus rejected as weakness, appeasement, moral turpitude and un-American. Consider, in this context, the extraordinary notion that talking diplomacy should be reserved only for our friends, and our enemies engaged with aircraft carrier battle groups as the default tactic.

There are philosophical, even rigorously logical reasons to reject the centrality of Self. It's inevitably self-referential, both as I've defined it and as is any rigid ideology, and doomed to incompleteness and error in depicting reality. The record of dehumanizing one's opponents, denying their very legitimacy in debate, is and has been consistently destructive, enabling of the worst of humanity, and, in point of fact, projected onto the left most vociferously by those holding thus on the right, while far more characteristic of right than left. A prescription for political, even economic failure, all that.

So there's Ayn Rand, who's about nothing if not this. Libertarians, who can't imagine themselves bereft of the tools to actualize themselves, who acknowledge not at all the centrality of contingency to human life. A denial of a social contract extending to any other than Self.

Meanwhile, the left, while acknowledging right and wrong, acknowledges a common humanity, in service of recognizing problems' causes and solving them. And, more crucially, perhaps, acknowledging the certainty that every human being, including ourselves, will sometimes be mistaken, and that all of us are capable of evil, and must act towards each other mindful of the fact. There's no more important conclusion to draw from the history of the Nazis, arising in the country of Goethe and Bach, and the all too common other examples, historically and contemporaneously, of atrocity committed by ordinary, average people. To the extent that the left accepts that, it's capable of better governance across the board than the right, even pragmatically. When the left hasn't--it has happened--not so much. The cynicism with which righties dismiss 'liberals', whatever they are, and 'liberal' attempts to solve problems rather than find fault and oppose the Other implacably and mindlessly, is both a self-fulfilling prophecy and guarantees that they, to some extent, wind up emulating the very monster they claim to be fighting.

I could play this game all day, but you get the idea...

Monday, November 29, 2010

A Food Poisoned Society is a Polite Society

The jackbooted thugs enforcing nanny state totalitarianism are trying to pass food safety laws, opposed by Republicans. They evidently think freedom means nothing unless food producers can feed listeria and salmonella to the citizenry:

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some 5,000 Americans annually die from a food-borne illness. Last year, at the height of a nationwide salmonella outbreak that sickened thousands, spread via tainted peanut butter, the Westco Fruit and Nuts company refused for weeks to recall potentially contaminated products, despite requests from the F.D.A.

And as for spending that extra $300 million every year, a recent study by Georgetown University found that the annual cost of food-borne illness in the United States is about $152 billion...

By one estimate, the kinds of farms that the bill would exempt represent less than 1 percent of the food marketplace. Does the food industry really want to sabotage an effort to ensure the safety of 99 percent of that marketplace because it is so deeply concerned about under-regulation of 1 percent? The largest outbreaks are routinely caused by the largest processors, not by small producers selling their goods at farmers’ markets.

The bill's been amended to answer small producers' worries, out of which arise some of the opposition. The authors of the article, Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser, have as much credibility on the subject as anyone in the country.

Barfing, shitting your brains out, and occasionally dying. An American's right, arising out of the Founders' original intent...

The Only Certainties are Debt and Taxes

The average credit card debt in the USA is over $15,000. Worth thinking about: what amounts to a 15-25% tax on consumer spending to banks, voluntarily agreed to, in service of buying mostly crap, which, while entirely unnecessary to a good life, keeps our economy and the world's going, while consuming resources desperately needed elsewhere and enriching, even sustaining, huge financial institutions. Meanwhile, taxes in far lower amounts are bitterly opposed.

The magic of the marketplace: an endless cornucopia, a social good without parallel. We have a kid in college. Turns out that, since the age of majority is 18, they can acquire credit cards, being able to enter into contracts. They're marketed relentlessly. It's common for the kids to have multiple cards, carrying thousands in balance, oft, in effect, guaranteed by their parents. The legislation drafting group I worked with considered the college credit problem. We dealt with actual state legislators who became our clients. The law students researched the matter and came up with policy recommendations, oft constrained by client prejudices in the realm of the politically possible. In this case, the remedy wound up being not limits on credit marketing and acquisition, but better education at middle school and high school levels directed at personal finance. Nothing wrong with that, but the student's paper overwhelmingly documented the case for restriction--less marketing in colleges, perhaps restricting those under 21 to debit cards, or, unless employed, a single card with a $500 limit. A non-starter.

In our school district, you don't give 'em lunch money anymore. They have something called 'Meal Magic'. They have numbered accounts, filled as needed by parental funding over the Internet, refilled as needed. Never too early to teach kids the right habits...

Monday, November 22, 2010

Not Worth The Paper It Isn't Printed On

ql on eschaton this morning wonders why all those laywers didn't earlier note the irregularities and illegalities surrounding the mortgage/financial/foreclosure breakdown. Some did, but most lawyers represent their clients' interests within the various legal and social systems far more than they think about the systems themselves. Lots of that going around: consider, for instance, unions, which in general--there are exceptions--look to their members' interests with little, if any, interest in more general social, political and economic change; those unions even hinting at a larger agenda have been vilified, Red-baited, their leaders jailed and shot, like that. Scientists oft discouraged from speaking about anything even the slightest bit politicized unless in confirmation of a righty agenda. Like that. All part, and symptom, I think, of a general deterioration of any notion of a social contract binding us together, in favor of a competition of opposing interests tearing us apart.

If the whole world's a zero-sum game, everybody loses...

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Law vs. The Self

Linda Greenhouse, in today's Times, on judges and the rule of law:

“America has reached a fork in the road, and the time has come to make a decisive choice,” Daniel J. Popeo, chairman of the Washington Legal Foundation, wrote this week in his monthly column in The Washington Examiner. The choice he posited was between continuing to endure judicial intervention in the conduct of the war on terrorism and “returning control over national and homeland security decisions to the executive and legislative branches.”

I don’t mean to single out the Washington Legal Foundation, a respected conservative research and litigation organization. It is hardly alone in its ritualized framing of a dichotomy between law and national security.

And that’s the point. That the courts — and the lawyers who bring cases to them — are a threat to the country is a trope that has penetrated deep into public consciousness. The typical accompanying warning against “Miranda rights for terrorists” resonates with the doom-saying of an earlier generation of conservatives to the effect that courts make it impossible to keep the streets safe from common criminals.

She's right, of course. Never in my lifetime, not even at the height of the Vietnam War and protest against it, has the notion of what this country is all about been so bitterly contested. I hold that we're about nothing if not the rule of law, and, at that, in not just the easy cases but the most difficult ones.

Superficially, one's hard put to explain the right wing's vociferous rejection of due process under the law for Guantanamo inmates, or, for that matter, accused criminals. The right protests, loudly, against government intrusion on individual rights as it asserts unconstitutional power. Their stance against legal rights for all, amongst the most important limitations on government power we have, contradicts that. And the Fourteenth Amendment, part of, er, the Constitution, explicitly demands due process of law for all 'persons'--not just for citizens, mind you.

The apparent inconsistency is easily explained by noting that the real bedrock of the right is the separation of virtuous, entitled Self from evil, parasitic Other, demanding rights for the former and denying them to the undeserving latter. Over and over again. Those seeing themselves as Self, and those wishing to be included amongst the Good and not the Evil, constitute the right, have no sympathy or empathy for others, and reject any responsibility themselves for solving our problems. They proceed to exclude the idea that even their interests can't be served in such a society, pragmatically and realistically, much less that it's the right thing to do to help others if you can.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

A Muggle's Take on Harry Potter

We approach the last two Harry Potter movies, closing what, for now, is the story of Harry, Voldemort and maybe a kajillion other characters. The Harry Potter books, seems to me, are far better and more deeply written than is oft noted amidst the commercial hype. Having had three daughters through their emergence, I, too, add that they're almost indecently fun to read out loud; the evangelicals would probably make them illegal on that basis alone. My eldest happened to read, concurrently, the final Harry Potter book and 'The Brothers Karamazov', finding them, to her great surprise, relevant to each other. And how great is it that so many (including yr obdt. svt.) lined up at midnight to buy a book? A BOOK, fakrissake?

Rowling is anti-authoritarian, mindful of the temptations of power and the necessity of making choices, thoughtful about evil and good and their coexistence as well as the need to distinguish them, even of sacrifice to the point of death being required in leading a just life. She loves even her minor characters, and names them better than anybody since Dickens. Her understanding of adolescence entirely reflects mine, and my memories. She opposes institutional racism, elitism and discrimination. And all with a narrative of coherence and wit extending through the series.

The kids are all right. I'll see the movie, joyously delighting in the company of my eldest, now a college sophomore. And Harry will live on; I've no doubt of it...

American Caudillos

Nick Kristof, who railed against increasing income inequality in the USA, calling America a banana republic, continues today:

My point was that the wealthiest plutocrats now actually control a greater share of the pie in the United States than in historically unstable countries like Nicaragua, Venezuela and Guyana. But readers protested that this was glib and unfair, and after reviewing the evidence I regretfully confess that they have a point.

That’s right: I may have wronged the banana republics.

You see, some Latin Americans were indignant at what they saw as an invidious and hurtful comparison. The truth is that Latin America has matured and become more equal in recent decades, even as the distribution in the United States has become steadily more unequal.

People have a sense that our economy is going the wrong way, that jobs and growth are expanding elsewhere and diminishing here, that we're a declining power. I'd suggest that that vast income inequality, at the cost of a stable, confident middle class sustained with good jobs at good wages, might just be more a factor than government stimulus of an economy in recession. The job's hardly finished in Latin America, but we've seen a movement away from caudillos dropping dissidents off helicopters into the sea, however much still needs to be done. And we've seen the opposite movement here. The American cult of the CEO, seems to me, is the full equivalent of the Man on Horseback: outsized rewards seen as a just due; cult of personality; celebrated for the exercise of arbitrary, unaccountable power; their companies' stock prices rising when they hurt people by closing plants, laying off workers, downsizing, rightsizing, outsourcing, thinking outside the box, and, in general, giving pig fuckers a bad name..

I know, I know; outdated, disproven Keynesianism, even if Henry Ford knew enough to make the Model T affordable to those who built it. Silly me...

RIP: Allan Sandage; Joys and Sorrows of Failure

The great observational astronomer, Allan Sandage, died last Saturday. He was most famous for studying the age of the Universe, the speed with which it expands (the Hubble constant), and its ultimate fate. His obit in the NY Times concludes with this statement of his, which I find wonderful and thought-provoking:

“It’s got to be fun,” Dr. Sandage told an interviewer. “I don’t think anybody should tell you that he’s slogged his way through 25 years on a problem and there’s only one reward at the end, and that’s the value of the Hubble constant. That’s a bunch of hooey. The reward is learning all the wonderful properties of the things that don’t work.”

I've put a toe in astrophysics, as well as drenched myself body and soul in surgery. The things that don't work in surgery vary from the inconvenient to the catastrophic. Whatever the rewards of studying them with a view towards improving practice, they got under my skin, broke my heart and everything in between. Sandage's statement reminds me of Sinclair Lewis' Martin Arrowsmith, who rededicates himself to science at the end of the novel, whose last line, spoken almost triumphantly, is, 'And probably we'll fail!' But he'd compromised what he saw as his scientific ethics in throwing, uncontrolled, everything he had at his beloved Leora when she got sick, and, I'd guess, would do so again, as, in a similar situation, would I.

Which leads me to the observation all medical clinicians make: statistical significance arising from even the best-conducted study, and the right thing to do for the anecdote sitting across from us in the office, or etherized on a table, can be quite two things...

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

How to Rate Lawyers

Ben, a generous facebook correspondent, suggests I post the Wombat Lawyer Evaluation System in the spirit of public service:

Their lawyer--an ambulance-chasing, bloodsucking, amoral, system-gaming bit of pond scum, whose greed and evil menaces all honest people, assaults common sense and restricts human freedom. To blame for the plagues of political correctness, outsourcing to China and mediocre supermarket sushi. Unscrupulous,dishonest and,in general, a poopyhead.

Your lawyer--a stalwart defender of the little guy attacked by an immoral system and those foul enough to, in its service, strive to deny him his rights, compensation and justice. Valiantly and selflessly protecting him from vicious, unprincipled attack on behalf of the public good. The last bulwark of liberty before unjust, tyrannous assault.

Glad I could clear that up for you...

Monday, November 15, 2010

Microfinance: Capitalism as Charity

Nicholas Kristof, in Sunday's NY Times, talks about microfinance in Pakistan:

'Roshaneh Zafar is an American- educated banker who fights extremism with microfinance. She has dedicated her life to empowering some of Pakistan’s most impoverished women and giving them the tools to run businesses of their own. The United States should learn from warriors like her.

'Bullets and drones may kill terrorists, but Roshaneh creates jobs and educational opportunities for hundreds of thousands of people — draining the swamps that breed terrorists.

'“Charity is limited, but capitalism isn’t,” Roshaneh said. “If you want to change the world, you need market-based solutions.” That’s the point of microfinance — typically, lending very poor people small amounts of money so that they can buy a rickshaw or raw materials and start a tiny business.'

She's, perhaps, teaching people to fish, in an old metaphor, rather than simply feeding them fish. So, teach a man to fish. Needs education and training for that. Then, he needs to be able to fish where there are, in fact, fish--perhaps in a river where tons worth of PCBs, or a Gulf of Mexico with millions of barrels of spilt oil, have been cleaned up, or, better yet, not dumped because of oversight and regulation from without. Perhaps, a market for his fish, a middle class with money to spend, confident and stable because of good jobs at good wages, with good benefits and security in retirement, the latter vital both for retirees and their families. An organization capable of patrolling the waters for purposes of police and rescue, treaties defining their right to fish in particular waters. You get the idea.

The microfinancier of the article--capitalist and, too, female and active outside traditional roles, in a part of the world where neither is always welcome, exemplifies decency, foresightedness and courage. She's done a lot of good, with little if any help from anybody, or government, or NGO. More power to her. Will such as her always suffice? Can individuals, organizations and governments with resources applied towards bettering the lot of developing countries learn from her example, and deploy their money and actions more wisely, or should they withdraw from the field entirely as inherently counterproductive?

Recast thus, I'd suggest that these remain open rather than solved questions, even in the light of transparent failure of many aid programs conducted from without. But I entirely agree that there's much to learn from, as well as applaud, here. Even that bete noir of the right, the Nobel Committee, recognized with a Peace Prize one of the pioneers of microfinance, Mohammed Yunus (a Muslim). There's a sliver of common ground here. All should recognise it, cherish it, learn from it, not only from an ideologically driven perspective but as a celebration of the potential for Homo (sic) sapiens to better our lot, dry a couple of lachrymal secretions in this vale of wrath and tears and move on. Dare I say, move on together?

Sure, i'll say that..

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Ten Minute Hates

The Times does some fact-checking on Glenn Beck and his vile take on George Soros, a target-rich environment were there ever one, and finds this interesting tidbit:

Oddly, Mr. Beck’s conspiratorial reading of the recent history of Eastern Europe puts him in complete agreement with Iran’s intelligence ministry, which for years has been working to discredit the country’s reformist leaders and their calls for fair elections as the puppets of foreign plotters...

In an animated television program produced by the ministry for Iranian television in 2008, Mr. Soros was imagined conspiring in the White House with Senator McCain, the C.I.A. and Gene Sharp, a proponent of civil disobedience, plotting to overthrow Iran’s government with the help of Iranian reformists.

The obvious parallel, which the article doesn't make, is that Beck and the Iranian government use Soros as a convenient Other to demonize, to rally the faithful against a largely manufactured extrinsic enemy, diverting them from real enemies closer to home and their failures. Soros is becoming, ever more frankly, the full equivalent in the real world of Emmanuel Goldstein, who, in '1984', was the subject of 'ten minute hates' orchestrated by the Party as part of keeping their subjects in line. The addition of ever franker anti-Semitism only adds to the ugliness.

This isn't just wrong-headed right wing ideology or policy commentary. Perhaps it never was. It needs to be called by its name and utterly rejected. Not least, I might add, by right wingers who lose every bit of their legitimacy, but, alas, far too little of their faithful's support and the media's acquiescence, with silence on the matter.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Non-Mandate for Non-Change

Charles Blow reorients us to the election results, in the Times today:

A poll released Thursday by the Pew Research Center found that people are considerably less happy about the Republicans’ victory than they were about the Democrats’ victory in 2006 or about the Republicans’ victory in 1994. They also approve much less of the “Republicans’ policies and plans for the future” than they did of the Democrats’ plans in 2006 or the Republicans’ plans in 1994. (I must say that that question threw me a bit because I didn’t know that Republicans had “policies and plans” for the future. Silly me.)

About 60 percent of the respondents thought that the Republicans in 1994 and the Democrats in 2006 would be successful in getting their programs passed into law. This year, just more than 40 percent believed this about the Republicans. In fact, unlike in 2008 and 2006, more people than not believed that relations between Republicans and Democrats in Washington would now get worse.

That doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement to me.

Doesn't sound, either, like a political environment ossified in inevitable disaster for Democrats. Most of us lefties expect, out of long experience, our side's discourse to be lacking in conviction while the right remains full of passionate intensity, dominating the debate in terms of volume and media coverage. It's well worth noting that despite a general perception that we've been outshouted, the right hasn't swamped us. Another poll (Pew) noted yesterday that there's some support for tax easing, but that more people than not oppose repeal of the health care bill; 52% want the bill left intact or expanded. It isn't as if folk don't know the current system is awful, unsustainable and in desperate need of change.

Seems to me that were Democrats forthrightly, relentlessly and consistently fighting for their views as much as the right does, but with the addition of fact and logic, progress might well be made...

Friday, November 12, 2010

Space Children

Found a web site deeply evocative of my 1950's Space Kid childhood:

Naive children's non-fiction about the coming glories of space travel. The blog doesn't miss much, but doesn't look deeper. The joys and perils of extrapolating a future like the present, only more so, are much in evidence: the years since have given us fantastic computer power as an essential, dirt cheap consumer good, and stunning advances in biology, but not jet packs, Mars colonies, rotating circular space stations and flying cars. It mentions the International Geophysical Year naively, as an exercise in pure science, omitting its role in obtaining data crucial to the nascent ballistic missile program. There's no environmental consciousness at all; the rhetoric is of 'conquest' of space, which today even amongst the remaining true believers is a nonsensical idea. And, always, the leitmotif of a potential nuclear holocaust.

The vision back then presented to kids was unremittingly positive. Not so much, anymore. The JFK assassination, I think, was a watershed after which hope was mixed or replaced by fear. Another factor, I think still underrated, was the emergence of HIV/AIDS as Reagan legitimized greed and racism. It would have been far more frightening had it not been cast as an affliction solely of an immoral Other, arising from immoral conduct--addicts, gay folk, unlikely accidents. Today, the future is more imagined along 'Blade Runner' lines, or subject to more shadowy, vague apocalypses--increasing criminality resulting in a Mad Max world, fantasies of survivalism, plague, a Frankensteinian environmental dread. I'd hope that, as before, the future won't be what it used to be...

Ask Not For Whom the Crooks Troll: They Troll for Thee

Ride, purity trolls, ride:

By putting deep spending cuts and substantial tax increases on the table, President Obama’s bipartisan debt-reduction commission has exposed fissures in both parties, underscoring the volatile nature and long odds of any attempt to address the nation’s long-term budget problems.

Among Democrats, liberals are in near revolt against the White House over the issue, even as substantive and political forces push Mr. Obama to attack chronic deficits in a serious way. At the same time, Republicans face intense pressure from their conservative base and the Tea Party movement to reject any deal that includes tax increases, leaving their leaders with little room to maneuver in any negotiation and at risk of being blamed by voters for not doing their part.

Before the dubious actual threat of a deficit in an economic slump, and the Commission's disgusting recommendations, paralysis in a divided Congress before the demands of either side might not be the worst outcome.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Re: Pelosi

The Republicans say they've won, they claim a mandate, they say they speak for the angry majority. Fine. Don't let them do most of their work behind closed doors, behind anonymous holds and 'gentlemen's' filibusters. Hang every last 'victory' they achieve for their positions around their necks. They think most Americans want Boehner, DeMint and McConnell to prevail? Fine. I welcome the ever more frequent appearance of their easy manner and light populist touch. Oh, yes--and every Democrat, considering how to respond, should read Dionne on Pelosi, which you also posted:

'Yes, there are valid political reasons for House Democrats to change leaders, especially in light of Pelosi's poll numbers. But there's an argument rooted in justice that the person who built their majority should have a shot at winning it back. And aren't Democrats tired of reflexively capitulating to the other side's narrative? That is what Pelosi is counting on.'

I expected that the right would caricature her, between her effectiveness, progressive beliefs and her unseemly y-chromosome deficiency. But it'd be really special were the Democrats to notice that striving, seeking, finding and not yielding is sometimes to be preferred over conceding your opponent's points, sometimes even anticipating them before they're even made, and then bemoaning their success before the electorate...

The Great Simplicity

Found this in an article on India in the Times:

Interestingly, one of India’s top scientists, C.N.R. Rao, recently revealed how he managed to do exciting research in India, despite lacking state-of-the-art lab equipment. His technique was to work on new and interesting ideas and problems, where even crude measurements would work reasonably well. This way, assuming his findings made sense, others with more sophisticated equipment could measure and test out its validity.

It's worth looking up pictures of the astoundingly simple, economic apparatus used by such as Rutherford and Hahn to obtain key results. In an era of Large Hadron Colliders and satellite observatories, they seem wildly anachronistic. That, to some extent, emerges from the nature of the unanswered questions in current physical thought, the proposed solutions and the data one might need to distinguish them. But even recently, for instance, Penzias and Wilson turned cosmology upside down studying noise in microwave apparatus, and a reconsideration of long-standing observational data revealed dark matter/energy, or massive effects otherwise unexplained. As a semi-informed layman, I have to wonder if we should be asking different questions.

Jacob Bronowski, in considering Einstein in his 'Ascent of Man', said that his gift was asking simple questions, for which there were simple answers, in which you could hear the voice of God. As I learned this stuff, nothing has had more impact than the extraordinary simplicity of special relativity--it's all ninth grade math; you don't even need calculus--and Euler's equation e**(pi)(i) + 1 = 0, accessible via fairly elementary calculus. The universe, obviously, is under no obligation to be simple to understand. You can give yourself a hell of a shaving cut with Occam's razor, but it hasn't been used a lot lately. I wonder...

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Ruth Calvo, on eschaton and Firedoglake, has been rafting on the Rio Grande, with Mexico on one side and the USA on the other. A glance at the (beautiful) pictures suggests the absurdity of sealing the border.

Ruth offers yet another demonstration of humanity's borders as silly pretensions, in a world larger than we are. Then there are the borders in, say, Europe, changing by the decade against shifting marriages, alliances, wars; even signature nation states like Germany and Italy of comparatively recent origin. And in Africa, current national borders were generally imposed by ignorant, powerful imperialists willy-nilly, for their own purposes, on ancient lands whose ethnicity, religious identity, linguistic groupings and mutual history had nothing to do with them.

All those idiots who want to 'take back their country'--the very wording suggests that it isn't everybody's country, that they're exceptionally entitled to it to the exclusion of others--want tighter borders around their gated communities, their churches, their towns, their states, their country, sealing them all hermetically, canning them in Mason jars, proof against change, so they can be stored in their fallout shelters in preparation for a sociological apocalypse. Won't work, that.

Net Neutrality: Not Just For Breakfast Anymore

Looking around these days, it's easy to list the obstacles to change and progress: the Citizens United decision, the corporate concentration of the media and its increasingly frank, no-holds-barred right wing stance, Fox/Beck/Olbermann, all of it. There aren't many places one can look to for change from the baleful present, short of waiting for shifting demographics. One is the possibility of a vacant Supreme Court seat amongst the Gang of Five, which makes it crucial to elect a Democrat in 2012. The other is net neutrality.

There aren't many more important issues out there than net neutrality. It doesn't get nearly the attention it deserves. For all the crazed crap on the net, it's a brake on media domination in a world otherwise governed by it. A friend of mine sends a dumb righty e-mail about the latest Obama horror, and I spend ten minutes Googling and refute it, send it back to him, post on a blog about it. A rich, wild, incoherent stew, the net, not even somewhat settled out in its social role, but offering something found nowhere else. It'd be little wonder were they to try their damndest, overtly and covertly, to rein it in. Can't let them do that.

Too, the politics of the net bears on the conservative idealization of free enterprise. The libertarian fantasy would be for multiple independent, profit-seeking entrepreneurial types, in fair competition, to offer ever better services to rational economic actors, lowering costs and increasing personal freedom. Lefties, meanwhile, would fear consolidation and increasing restriction, as ever larger entities seek ever more economic and political power. I'd think the facts favor one of these over the other.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Romney Agonistes

It seems that Mitt Romney's ties to the 'establishment' aren't to the liking of the Tea Party:

Romney’s decision to interject himself in a Utah primary also has hurt him among Tea Party movement activists. Although Romney has lived in Utah and is viewed as widely popular there, Republicans at a state convention booed his endorsement of Senator Robert Bennett over a Tea Party movement candidate, Mike Lee, who went on to win the nomination and the seat.

“I think he’s done,’’ David Kirkham, a Tea Party movement leader in Utah who was at the state convention, said of Romney. He predicted Tea Party movement followers across the country would reject Romney as too strongly linked to the party establishment.

But some analysts say the extent of the Tea Party movement’s influence on the GOP presidential primaries is unclear after the mixed results of the midterm elections Tuesday. The movement’s high-profile losses, especially Sharron Angle’s failure to knock off Senate majority leader Harry Reid in Nevada and as well as defeats in Colorado and Delaware Senate races, have strengthened contentions among party regulars that electing a candidate strongly affiliated with the Tea Party could hurt GOP chances of capturing the White House.

He's been touted (by himself, of course, above all) as a Republican Great White Hope, an undisputed business and government expert technocrat and conservative contrasting with the Kenyan constitution-shredding America-hating despoiler of small business who's never met a payroll. Fair numbers of Republicans responded to that. That the Tea Party finds him insufficiently pure says a lot about the Republicans at this point. Romney, given his past display of consistency and courage of conviction before the perceived demands of electoral politics, will doubtless provide entertainment along the lines of, say, his joining the NRA in 2008 out of a lifelong love affair with the manly art of varmint plunking. It won't be enough.

I'm to the left of the bulk of the Democratic Party's officeholders, and am ideologically closer to those demanding purity than those willing to compromise. But I've seen countless examples of divisive insistence on the perfect at the expense of the good vitiate the left. The line, obviously, can be disputed; I'd move it a fair amount leftward. But the Tea Party--not only right wing, but intolerant, strident, reality-challenged, its positions impossible to govern well from--and 'establishment' figures such as Romney are on a collision course of a sort I've seen before. If I'm right, then it's vital that the Tea Partiers be challenged every time they make a crazy, ignorant statement, advocate a policy not remotely capable of implementation, demand obedience and capitulation from those the least bit closer to the center.

Compromising With The Great Pumpkin

The act of compromise, in the context of political reality, starts with a position off center on both sides, and, after negotiation, struggle and movement on both sides, emerges with a result somewhere in between the parties' initial positions, and both parties not entirely happy. Obama's been identified not with forthright, energetically presented initial positions, but with the end result, which is mostly seen as imposed on him to the satisfaction of his opponenets. His base is left feeling abandoned, his opponents emboldened.

After the elections, seems to me the precise need is not for further compromise, but recruitment of the disheartened base, recognizing the opposition as irreversibly obstructionist. And he must make his opponents pay a political price for their tactics and their failure, hanging them around their necks like albatrosses. It isn't as if John Boehner, the future Great Pumpkin of the House, and the others are reticent about their intentions with respect to making him fail, rather than working with him. He should respond in kind.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Saving Capitalism and Losing Your Base

Tim Egan, in the Times today, notes that Obama may have saved capitalism, and gets no respect. The auto industry, the stock market, all of it, with unemployment the laggard that cost him:

It's worth noting in this context that Obama's health reform bill owes much of its complexity to the fact that it extends, rather than challenges or limits, the role of private insurance companies, and did nothing to rein in investor-owned for-profit health facilities like imaging centers, specialty hospitals and the like.

Egan's list of Obama's unacknowledged achievements is OK, as far as it goes. He brings up FD Roosevelt, who, too, perhaps, saved capitalism, but whose huge New Deal public works and other programs rallied the people to the government. But Egan doesn't take it far enough.

Obama suffered politically because his base on the left would have preferred a more forthright challenge to the private actors who caused the troubles in the first place: letting the banks fail, no matter how big; offering a public option or single-payer health plan; prosecution of filthy rich businessmen who nearly brought the world to its knees. He suffered because too many on the left, too many in the base he recruited to get elected, felt themselves ignored or thrown under the bus in a vain search for compromise. And he suffered because he let his voice be drowned out by those who not only disagreed with his policies, but think him a Kenyan, socialist, Muslim, America-hating, Constitution-shredding, Cloward-Piven conspiring, white-hating clear and present danger to the country. And, too, because too many in the media accepted too much nonsense at face value, granting it a legitimacy it in no way deserves.

It's vital that a Democrat, probably Obama, win in 2012, if only because a vacant Supreme Court seat might present itself. If he wants to win, he has to revive his base, and he can't do that without being a better political voice, with clearer views, appearing less willing to compromise with opponents ever more strident and crazy in their refusal to compromise.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Can't Win

The Times tells us today that Obama is walking a tightrope in handling the politics of the terrorist incidents of the other day:

...But some outside experts said it was risky for a president to come out as quickly as he did before all the facts were known. “You’re trying to look presidential and in command of all the facts and not look impotent,” said James Jay Carafano, a homeland security expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “But on the other hand, you don’t want to step in it and do something stupid. Quite honestly, I don’t know why they had a press conference.”

Moreover, Mr. Carafano said that Mr. Obama failed to use his remarks on Friday to justify the troop escalation in Afghanistan in an effort to keep the country from becoming a haven again for Al Qaeda. “The president missed the opportunity to say, ‘And this is why we’re in Afghanistan,’ ” Mr. Carafano said.

It should be entirely obvious to everybody now that the right supports nothing, but nothing Obama does. Whatever he does, they're against it, finding fault. If he does nothing, just as bad. It's a narrative that needs to be called by its name and countered. They do all the shouting, that's all anybody will hear.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Physicist as Romantic

ql at eschaton decided that, based on the post below, I am a Romantic. Guilty as charged, I guess. I've been accused, sometimes justly, of far worse.

Part of my questioning of an uncritical embrace of the Enlightenment arises out of personal experience: for me, romanticism has been mostly positive; egotistical self-actualization has (mostly) yielded to an extension of self into nature, music, thought, others, and allowed, even in dark personal and political times, a bit of optimism pushing me through the next day. I self-consciously tried 'rationality', growing up in math/physics, and found, in the end, the separation between rationality and emotion is superficial and even dubious even in hard science, that 'rationality' wasn't enough, didn't account for a lot of what I came to value. My feelings about the Dawkins/Harris/Dennett sort of militant atheist critique of religion come from here, too: their vision of both religion and science, if generally accepted, wouldn't purify so much as limit.

Paul Simon, Stephen Sondheim

David Derbes, on the eschaton comment page, cited this wonderful review of Stephen Sondheim's autobiography by Paul Simon:

Simon's review is great, not least because he remains introspective, but places his introspection in service of understanding another rather than, as a self-involved adolescent, in crafting an identity for oneself in an uncomfortable world. Not a few of us can imagine or recall a journey like that. And he's dead-on about Sondheim.

A song's different from a poem: you experience it in real time rather than chew on it; the music complements the words, well or not, and makes the words more memorable. And rhyme's interesting, in an era where its use is entirely optional on the page, but essential in a song. Simon and Sondheim, amongst others, write songs whose lyrics stand alone. Charles Kuralt once read aloud Hammerstein lyrics as poetry bereft of music, transforming them and forcing a reconsideration of them apart from their music, which is so much a part of the cultural landscape, always there. As I started reading poetry, I loved Auden and Yeats, who wrote musically, with rhyme as well as free verse, and loved their poems well before I understood them at all, so entrancing was their music. To write poetically, accessibly enough for a Broadway audience and deeply enough to study, is wonderful, a gift as well as a craft. And Simon, Sondheim and other poetic lyricists write for a far broader audience than do most poets in this country, whose audience is far smaller, often limited to academics and 'intellectuals'; the former requires a triumph over self-reference, the latter risks being trapped in it. They inhabit a public poet's role otherwise absent these days here; one thinks of Russians' love of poetry filling stadia in contrast.

A deep thank you to both of them. And even Simon's earliest work, sometimes embarrassingly impossible to import from the preoccupations of youth ('I am a Rock', 'Sounds of Silence'), remains dead-on wonderful, all these years later:

And, so, you see, I've come to doubt
All that I once held as true:
I stand alone, without beliefs,
The only truth I know is you

And as I watch the drops of rain
Beat their weary paths and die,
I know that I am like the rain:
There but for the grace of you go I

As true for me at 60, after 40 years with my wife, as when I tentatively held a girl's hand for the first time, and she held mine as if neither of us wanted to let go...