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...

Friday, October 29, 2010

That Hope And Change Thingy

Election day is next Tuesday. Foreboding, disappointment, a feeling that things aren't as they should be and aren't likely to get better soon, are fairly common on the left; I share them myself. We got a taste, if only a tentative, perhaps illusory taste, in 2008 of what it feels like to cast a vote for someone you'd like to see in office, and not just a lesser of two evils. Many (myself included) felt positively, despite a recognition that Obama wasn't as perfect as I'd have liked, and that he'd more than likely require pushing from his left. I wrote a flaming bit of optimistic prose about how I felt voting for him. Reread that the other day; it felt good to write that, and a little sad to recall it.

So next week, i'm voting for two perfectly decent state house incumbents, and a perfectly decent congresscritter, all of whom are relatively sure things. Were I in just about any jurisdiction in the country, I'd vote straight Democratic, an action I'm uncomfortable with, not feeling myself straight anything (in a manly, heterosexual way, of course, not that there's anything wrong with any other way, of course). I'm unhappy with Obama about some things, while grudgingly conceding the political climate arising out of crazed, bigoted, destructive, implacable righty opposition. Not a subject for soaring prose, the country as it stands. Not hardly. Nor, though, a situation a fit response to which is cynicism, withdrawal and concession to those who'd attack everything decent about the country.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Rugged Individualist Parasites

Found this in the Times, wondering about the Tea Party not overwhelming in Colorado:

We want big federal projects to support our small-government state. What is inconsistent about that?

Only enormous federal assistance -- first in the form of the military clearing out native people, then in great national subsidies for railroads and finally giant water projects -- made it possible for people to live in Colorado. Small government and small deficits a la the Tea Party would have made it impossible to immigrate to Colorado, to stake out homesteads or urban lots, or to survive here at all.

This was true in the 1859 gold rush supported by big military interventions; during the agricultural booms of the 1910s, which were made possible by huge dams and irrigation projects; and in the 1970s gas and oil rush that took place on federal land with federal dollars. And it is true now as we build the highways, airports and reservoirs that allow us to live in an isolated and dry place. We know that a generous federal government and the skill of our politicians at earmarking bills are tickets to our lives here.

Coloradans might be labeled as selfish since what we really want is federal largess spent exclusively on us. Indeed, our long history of utter dependence on a giant federal pie overwhelms any Tea Party message.

Where the Republicans/Tea Partiers/Limbaughgers gain power, the actual civic/social results won't be pretty. And there's all too little of such bracingly realistic commentary out there.

Their Mess, Not Ours

Echidne of the Snakes, a feminist, economist, martial artist, beautiful woman and wonderful person, in her blog today is outraged about the common assignation of responsibility for dealing with the country's sexual distortions to girls and women, while simultaneously noting their origins elsewhere. An NPR show offended her: (Post: 'Selling Youth Sexuality')

She's right, of course. The logical conclusion would be that it's others' job to recognise the existence of the mess in the first place, and its origins, and demand that it be cleaned up.

I'm just an old fuddy-duddy, i guess, but I'm increasingly flabbergasted by the evolution in girls' clothing, sometimes quite young girls' clothing, towards ridiculous sexual extremes, the Halloween costumes, front/back cleavage and so on, the exaltation of movie/celebrity/popstar/models as role models, and the simultaneous demand that girls/women deal proactively with the consequences, as if it's All Their Fault. A useful comparison is the boys' embrace of athletes and pop stars who, er, don't always exhibit model conduct towards women, with little if any questioning of that.

My daughters deal with all that, as they do with all the baggage of coming of age anyway. Went to a couple of school-sponsored father/daughter dances with 'em. Some of the girls came in entirely remarkable ensembles, took pictures with their dads. The little strumpets...

All of which said, far too much of all this is, in fact, about the fact that all too often, all we seem to know how to do interpersonally and socially in this country these days is buy and sell, and there's indeed a price to be paid for that. Milton Friedman famously said that the only social responsibility of a corporation is to make a profit. That could be questioned even for corporations. Many say pretty much the same about individuals. That's not only questionable; it's outright obscene.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Clear and Present Danger

Thers ( posts today a video of a demonstrator wrestled to the ground by Rand Paul supporters in Kentucky, a foot on her head. Recall last week's handcuffing and detention of a reporter by Joe Miller's private security detail, some of whom are active servicemen. We're talking about crimes (assault and battery) and torts (false imprisonment) here. Not trivial, these, in any context. In campaigns and political demonstrations, appalling.

The right, ever more obviously, divides virtuous Self from worthless Other, and treats the Other as if entirely dehumanized, in ways it'd never employ on or accept for its own. Southern white racists, European imperialists, Kristallnacht come to mind as similar; none flatter them. And, too, they loudly proclaim their moral superiority over, and right to ignore, interpretations of laws, some of long standing, if they differ from their own, and reject any notion that they are accountable for it. They applaud the astounding judicial activism of the Roberts Court. They use every means available to restrict the franchise, delegitimizng its exercise by millions of people as an evil Democratic conspiracy. They defend O'Donnell's rejection of the constitutional basis for separation of church and state. They say that McVeigh shouldn't have bombed the Murrah Building, the government's too big. Doctors shouldn't be assassinated as they eat breakfast with their families, but abortion is murder. Planes shouldn't be crashed into an IRS building, but taxation is theft and tyranny. ATF agents shouldn't be killed, but you'll have to pry my gun from my cold dead fingers.

It's an increasingly appalling list, and it grows with time. This isn't merely selfishness. This is deeply subversive. They claim to be demanding a return to American values, while assaulting, across the board, one core value after another of the country: democracy, the rule of law, equal protection, religious freedom, all of it.

None of this is negotiable. They must be fought.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Separation of Church Mouse and State

Chris O'Donnell, of the human-mouse hybrid brains, provides endless amusement, is a satirist's dream. So, the other day, when she said that the Constitution doesn't call for separation of church and state, her audience, at a law school, started laughing. She held her ground, noting that the words 'separation of church and state' do not, in fact, occur in the First Amendment. Rush Limbaugh quickly defended her. And the outcry came from the right that this was yet another example of the elitist intellectual left media jumping on a righty even when she's correct.

The obvious response is to point out that the First and Fourteenth Amendments are universally accepted as requiring a separation of church and state, and that O'Donnell is an idiot. But there's more to it. Her remarks, which the right applauds, have to be seen in the context of the right's demand for a literal reading of the Constitution, for a jurisprudence and governance based on the founders' 'original intent'. When she says that a separation of church and state isn't in the Constitution, she's attacking the legitimacy of that separation. She, and the right, are advocating the repeal of 200 years of jurisprudence to destroy one of the very cornerstones of this country's founding principles, one easily documented as central in the thinking of pivotal figures amongst the founders. And she's being applauded for it.

Let's, by all means, laugh at the mouse brains, the witchcraft dabbling, all of it. You can always get a chuckle out of an audience by talking up masturbation. But this is deadly serious business. Make no mistake about it. It doesn't stop with O'Donnell.

Er, Uh, There's a War On

Bob Herbert, reminding us that we're, er, at war:

The idea that the United States is at war and hardly any of its citizens are paying attention to the terrible burden being shouldered by its men and women in uniform is beyond appalling.

We can get fired up about Lady Gaga and the Tea Party crackpots. We’re into fantasy football, the baseball playoffs and our obsessively narcissistic tweets. But American soldiers fighting and dying in a foreign land? That is such a yawn.

With respect to Phil Ochs:

Well, I'm a manly man, I hate those Taliban,
But I think you gotta see
That somebody's gotta go over there
And that someone isn't me!
So I wish you well--Sarge, give 'em hell,
Kill me a thousand or so:
And if you ever get a war without blood and gore
I'll be the first to go!

He's Back

Had surgery (total hip replacement) on Monday, and am home three days later, coming along far better and faster than I'd thought I would have. In my case, walking the day after with crutches, regular diet that evening; my discharge wasn't a forced early one. Visiting nurse and physical therapy in home the day after discharge. Couldn't have been more pleased with hospital care (New England Baptist) or surgeon (Dr. Jim Bono). Helps to have good insurance, and an orthopedist for a friend who knows who does the job right. My excellent experience should be the rule. It can be done right, and should be. Always.

One thing they don't talk about much is sleep cycle disruption. Between pain, opiate pain meds, sleep interrupted for vital signs, lab work, various professional (MD, PA, NP,RN, LPN, LICSW, PT, OT, dietitian) and other necessary care, you don't sleep well while you're in the brig, and when you get home, you don't sleep when you used to. If you're on opiate pain meds and come off them a week later, you get withdrawal symptoms even if you, as an opiate-naive person pre-op, don't interpret them that way. And one mug of decaf coffee, even when you're on a regular diet--just a wee bit of withdrawal there, too.

I used to send everyone home with a week's worth of a mild, entirely safe and non-addicting sleep med, chloral hydrate, non-renewable, and encourage them to take it at night whether they felt they needed it or not. Worked sometimes if not all the time, but never had the problems of addiction, withdrawal, tolerance and ad-fueled unrealistic patient expectations you get with the benzodiazepines. The problem should be looked at in more detail. Or I should fly to China, where I'd fit right in without lag...

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Thinking Outside the IQ Box

Intelligence confined to further analysis in a dead end isn't nearly as useful as that sort which makes connections and goes places others haven't. Consider, for instance, what perhaps was Richard Feynman's greatest contribution to physics. Julian Schwinger, too, described quantum electrodynamics (QED), using virtuosic, massively complicated mathematics. Feynman did it using instantly understandable diagrams. Freeman Dyson proved the approaches equivalent. Feynman's quickly became universally used, even amongst those who speak math the way Shakespeare wrote sonnets.

Stephen Jay Gould's 'The Mismeasure of Man'--still intellectually invaluable, and a great read--centered, in its most rigorous parts, on Spearman's 'G', a statistical umbrella reducing multiple measurable entities into a single number, and its misuse in describing intelligence as both a single quantity and one that could be inherited. Just about any person of genius demonstrates that there's more than one way to be intelligent. Some might even call that a defining characteristic of greatness transcending competence.

One of Gould's observations is the statistical validity of phrenology, as opposed to its accuracy or utility. Reminiscent, seems to me, of Feynman's observation about parapsychologists' self-assessment of the statistical validity of their assertions. I had the great good fortune to have encountered Prof. Lloyd Motz of Columbia's astronomy department, who was, amongst other things, investigating the intersection of gravity and particle physics when doing so wasn't cool. When the Venus probes found its surface far hotter than anybody had predicted, Prof. Motz credited priority to a long-term intellectual nemesis, Immanuel Velikovsky, who predicted it out of his potted cosmology. An act of intellectual honesty, and a rare one.

Halal Soup Will Poison Our Daughters

Muslims are defined in America as the Other. Recognising their common humanity, even to the extent of marketing to them, is simply Not On. This springs from exactly the same source as the appalled reaction from the nativist right whenever Spanish enters the public sphere, even as a result of private action on behalf of customers.

Why, one might even argue that opposition to halal soups--not, incidentally, reformulated in any way, the fact merely stated--and commercial use of Spanish is an interference in the workings of the free market.

But, then, it's never been about the free market, really. I'll be cleaning unicorn poop off my lawn before I see a free market, anyway. It's about a black president, a female speaker of the house, a gay House Banking Committee chair, three women--two unmarried; the horror, the horror--on the Supreme Court. It's about change, and the resistance to change. It's about self vs other, denying a common humanity, dehumanizing, delegitimizing; it's about aggrandizing power for self and clients, and denying it to others.

The opposition to repeal, or court rulings against, 'don't ask, don't tell', and a woman's right to choose, arise in part, of course, from homophobia, sexism and religious dogmatism, bigotry and acceptance of cruelty towards the Other. But I don't think they can be fully understood without considering their threat to the previously unquestioned power and prerogatives of what the right understands to be Self. The parade of closeted righty homophobes, of increasingly bizarre righty women proving their legitimacy by being even more batshit than most on the right, goes right along with this.

It's Light as a Rescue Way Down in the Mine

The miners' rescue is, for the moment, just wonderful, and whatever else can and will be said, that moment will remain wonderful. It's an oddly old-fashioned story. Persistent, dogged work, never giving up, a refusal to accept failure, a triumph of engineering expertise, a nation caring about some of its people. An action, to help others, yielding success. Free of ideology: not immediately expropriated as a triumph of the free market or a demonstration of liberal perfidy, the initial disaster Obama's fault while the rescuers all keep a copy of 'Atlas Shrugged' in their breast pockets lest they need a glimmer iof inspiration in dark moments.

We can be better than we are. We damned well should be. We might even find it rewarding. Those rewards might, just might, not entirely be limited to those defined in dollars and cents. Money separates us. An event like the miners' rescue draws us together. We could use some of that. Were we open to the possibility, we could find it. And that's how I think about seeing these guys come up into the open, alive because of hard work and sane because somebody outside their prison gave a shit and told them so. Are we going to be working the capsules, ropes and wheels? Or will we be content with our prison?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Coming Out Day

I'm told that it's Coming Out Day. I grew up in a homophobic world. My father had the wrong sort of scoutmaster growing up, and later trained as a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst under the Freudian paradigm of homosexuality as a disorder arising from family pathology. It took me a while to deal with that. Looking back, the change, in myself and the world, has been astonishing, for all the fact that it isn't nearly finished yet.

Coming out, like most acts of being genuinely true to oneself, is an act of social as well as individual courage. Rather than threaten my straight life and marriage, coming out confirms them. It's all about love in the end, and a challenge to love in return, and to make room for love in a world that so often doesn't. There are many ways to come out. Not all of them revolve around sexual identity.

When a gay person comes out, he/she comes out not just for him/herself, but for me. If I can, in any way at all, brothers and sisters, I've got your back. And thank you.

Monday, October 11, 2010

My Dear One is Mine as Mirrors are Lonely

Robert Pippin, in the Times, suggests that reading need not be in the context of literary critical theory to be meaningful:

Well worth reading, as are the responses to the article, which defend and excoriate him. I had this to add, and apologize for its length:

1. I encounter a work of art, usually, before critics' takes on them, and form a reaction that, as far as it goes, usually persists after I read critics' views on it.
2. I find critics most valuable when they add a historical, personal, contextual or other perspective, making connections I hadn't--a synthetic, rather than analytic, exercise, and when they challenge my views, requiring that I rethink them and defend, modify or abandon them. I find them useless when their primary goal is to teach me their critical theories. (I'm aware that these aren't always as separable as I imply.)
3. Criticism loses its way when it becomes more self-referential than illuminating of the work. Warning signs include critics writing for other critics, a dismissal or even disdain for a potential broader audience outside the critical establishment or academy, diction increasingly impenetrable to outsiders, assumptions whose unquestioning acceptance is a necessary token of legitimacy in the critical enterprise. At this point, critics ossify the very culture they sometimes oppose, removing the rhetoric of opposition from broader discourse to an isolated work of a 'supercilious, out of touch self-appointed elite' easily resented, caricatured and dismissed by everybody else. And, too, they more easily mistake nonsense for serious thought, as in the Sokal hoax.
4. When artists produce works mindful of their place in a community of critics more than in a larger society, they, too, become irrelevant and easily dismissed by all but a small group with little impact on the rest of us. The difference between Auden's 'poetry that makes nothing happen' and the role of, say, Akhmatova and Mandelstam in the Soviet Union, comes to mind, as does the sort of architecture that, for better or worse, Tom Wolfe's 'From Bauhaus to Our House' excoriated. A parallel in governance is regulatory capture, in which a regulator and the object of regulation form a common agenda, to the detriment of the public interest.
5. Every astronomer knows, and is deeply ambivalent or angry about, Whitman's 'When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer', in which the poet finds a lecturer's dissection of the sky's mysteries repellant, and goes out to gaze at the stars without a trivializing mediation. Most of us got into science in the first place out of a sense of wonder, and found acquiring knowledge, ways of thinking about the larger world productive of more knowledge, a way of deepening that wonder rather than diversionary from it. I'd suggest a close to exact parallel between the sort of criticism of art I outline above, subject to some of the same pitfalls. An increasing discomfort amongst a minority of physicists with string theory, which has yet to be even approached experimentally and is unapproachable by outsiders neither gifted nor well trained in its gorgeous, difficult mathematics, comes to mind.
6. However hard to define rigorously, some recognition that there exists an outside reality that must be reckoned with, that any human enterprise will only imperfectly mirror it, and, in consequence, contain mistakes as well as illuminations, is absolutely required. I would suggest that science, for all the difficulty of demarcating it rigorously from other human activity, does this better than it's done elsewhere. But it can be done in ways other than those of science, and must be done, mindful, as in science, of both the inevitability of incompleteness and error and the possibility of at least in part correcting them. No critical enterprise can retain meaning otherwise. The Sokal hoax is on this point, as is the Bush administration's famous 'we create our own reality' and the manifest failure of governance before it.
7. Financial markets, dealing in incomprehensible assets valued at ever more distance from tangible external reality, can do that. Political discourse, in which the like minded only talk and listen to each other, at ever more distance from reality, can do that. And so on--in every case, lost in self-reference, making the world a smaller place, a worse place. The world's realities, its problems, their possible solutions, all desperately need to be addressed in a wider social and political context than they are. Intellectual activity that includes more folk than it excludes, enters the debate outside academia as well as inside it, and addresses far-reaching issues crossing borders of boundary and discipline, is far more likely to help than that mostly occupied in its own struggles.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

If I Had A Hammer

The Chilean mine rescue, which all hope succeeds, will wind up being one of the great human stories, along the lines of Shackleton's survival and rescue of every one of his icebound crew. And not just that, but, too, a story of irresponsible engineering and, in response to its catastrophic failure, a major victory of engineers. A tool, engineering, which, like any tool, can be used to build or destroy, and, therefore, like any tool, offers us a choice. We should think about that choice before we make it, and do the right thing as much as we do the thing that gives us the most power, makes us the most money. Contrary to righty ideology, the two are not one and the same...


The triumph of emotion over fact, visuals over language, is pervasive throughout a culture increasingly driven by marketing, advertising and profit to the exclusion of all else. An odd exercise is looking up maybe 50 year old ads for cars, or pretty much anything: much more text.

And the flood of money into campaigns, the predominance of TV ads, the media's news reports increasingly entertaining more than informative, all part of it.

Which, of course, all place an influence on the decision to purchase. An ideal consumer purchases, an ideal citizen votes because of immediate emotional gratification,and not on a rational consideration of long term utility. True of high fructose corn syrup, mall clothing, books, movies, chain restaurant meals and presidential candidates...

Re: Upcoming Surgery

Total hip replacement scheduled for 18 Oct. Plain old arthritis, fortunately limited to a single joint, but progressive to the point where I can't walk much, get on a bike, negotiate stairs, arise from a chair, like that. Mitigated by healthy other joints, continued exercise--I can swim a couple hours dragging my legs behind me--and my generally sunny disposition. Too, I'm having it done at the NE Baptist, which has the best record and lowest infection rates in the known galaxy. So I've no reason for other than optimism.
Yesterday had pre-op visit: lasted 3 hours. Quite thorough: NP, anaesthetist, pahrmacist, physical therapist, social worker. All lovely, all been there done that. Gave some of my own blood if they need to transfuse me--the safest, and EVERYBODY GETTING ELECTIVE SURGERY SHOULD DO THIS. They think about what I'll need at home afterwards--get shag rugs off the floor; boosters on the pots; shower doors taken off; remote reaching tongs; like that. And a bottle of chlorhexidine (serious antibacterial) to shower with twice a day, culture of nose and urine. Turns out that if they do all that, infection rate close to zero. Makes you wonder why everybody doesn't...
I'll keep everybody up on it here; might prove interesting to hear from someone who's spent time on the other side of the OR drapes

Crossing the Impeachment Bar

The Times this morning informs us that some Republicans recall Bill Clinton with nostalgia:

I'd wonder a bit about whether the extent to which Clinton, compared to Obama, is, er, melanotically challenged, has anything to do with it. But said Republicans nostalgic for Clinton would, seems to me, be more credible were they to regret, in the slightest, in retrospect, the Clinton impeachment.

I hold that impeachment to be a deeply important event, one vastly underestimated today but which historians will view as far more significant than we do. Before, impeachment was universally regarded as an extreme remedy, its only exercise against a president--the incompetent, deeply unpopular Andrew Johnson, in the aftermath of Civil War and Reconstruction, no less--a near brush with disaster, escaped only by virtue of a single vote. Clinton's trivialized it, brought it down to the level of tabloid partisan politics, confirmed Republican embrace of the right's worst, drastically lowered the bar, and, by implication, made actions against Nixon's crimes a partisan exercise rather than a bipartisan, national revulsion and rejection of serious transgressions, inviting tit-for-tat retaliation. And Clinton's continued popularity afterwards only made these aspects of it worse. Democrats, meanwhile, frankly declined to even consider impeachment of Reagan over Iran-Contra, or GW Bush over a fictitious casus belli and frank violation of federal law as written and an assertion of unlimited authority to do so. The contrast between the parties is appalling. The media silence has been appalling. And the current tepid reaction in the media, and the Republican Party, to ever crazier excesses of rhetoric and obstructionism, spring in part, I think, from the Clinton impeachment, the impulses giving rise to it, the utter lack of inhibition with which it was pursued, its acceptance as business as usual then and now.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Clear, Simple and Wrong

Tom Toles talks about simplicity overwhelming reality in discourse these days, in prose and cartoon. He's entirely correct:

HL Mencken said that for every complex problem, there's a solution that's clear, simple and wrong.

The 'simplicity' Toles is talking about, the 'Era of Stupid', of 'we create our own reality', has a few sources. The media has moved from print to radio to TV, and, within TV, ever further towards entertainment values even in news and other factual programming, while 'reality TV' and the celebrity culture render fantasy and reality ever less distinguishable. And the predominance of TV media in election campaigns, the role of money, the methods of advertising/marketing overwhelming those of discourse with actual content, substitute sound bites and bumper stickers for any sort of thought. Meanwhile, science, engineering and contact with the natural world in general seem ever less important than whatever you see on the display/TV.

In the 1980s and 90s, a critique of science arose amongst postmodern types, mostly lefties, attacking science's claims to a unique, privileged, virtuous place in human endeavor. They held, mostly but not entirely correctly in my view, that science, especially reductionist science seeking a single explanation, a Theory of Everything, to describe all of reality, is no less socially constructed than any other body of human endeavor, subject to politics, racism, sexism, misuse and all the rest of it. Meanwhile, pop culture ever more frequently resorted to 'paranormal' plots. Medicine moved in a direction that compromised the human connection between doc and patient in favor of imaging technology and excessive remuneration for, and reliance on, procedure, and, at that, complex, uncomfortable, painful, even dangerous procedure, over cognition. This emotional distance led, I think, to ever more interest in 'alternative' and 'holistic' medicine, which, though mostly crap scientifically, addressed real needs unmet all too often in orthodox medical practice. And Bush's 'own reality', his religious and political zampolits, his rejection of evolution, all made things even worse, while those defending the life of the mind in general, and science in particular,were far less assertive.

I'm not sure what to do about all that. You put it all in one place, it's daunting. It'd be nice were schools able to address it, though, in the social context they operate in success is problematical. It'd be nice were there a sense of responsibility in the media. I think Obama gets some of this, but, as in other spheres, he hasn't been forthright enough. The Tea Partiers and the Republicans may, actually, eventually do part of the job. They're ever crazier, and that'll make them less effective, and more obviously at remove from reality; maybe the word will get around. There's a better way to approach the world, and the world needs to hear about it. Daily. Loudly. Right now. Time's a-wastin', and the polar bears won't last forever...

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Lower Depths

The Globe yesterday reported on the uncovering of a horrific medical experiment done in the late 1940s, in which people were deliberately infected with syphilis in order to test antibiotic efficacy. Obama, in response, quite properly apologized to the Guatemalan government. The notorious Tuskegee study of the natural history of syphilis, in which treatment was withheld, came up.

You'd think this the last sort of thing that would become a partisan football: objectively, unambiguously documented, at straightforward odds with ethics and morality, all too reminiscent of the obscene Nazi 'experiments' of such as Mengele. You'd be wrong.

Check out the comments. Obama, the America-hater, never missing an opportunity to denigrate his country, which he's not a citizen of anyway. The Democrats were in power in the 1940s, so the study's their fault, and only what you'd expect. The Guatemalan government said it was OK, too, so it's really not our fault. And it's no big deal anyway.

This, friends, is how far we've fallen.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Thieves, All of Them

Dennis Lim discusses heist movies in the Times today in relation to a film festival centering on them:

IN “The Asphalt Jungle,” a 1950 noir by John Huston that is credited with creating the template for the heist film, a duplicitous lawyer observes that “crime is only a left-handed form of human endeavor.” The idea of crime as a line of work — hardly an honest one, but a job all the same, requiring an investment of skill and labor — is central to this most process-oriented of cinematic genres...

Even more than “The Asphalt Jungle,” “Blue Collar” is a crime movie about human endeavor, recasting heist-film antiheroes as working-class heroes. Its unmistakable political point is that they’re every bit as doomed.

The point he doesn't make is that not only are thieves recast as workers, and, at that, workers capable of precision and craft, but doomed to fail, but that there's a comment here on the society and the economy in general: not all thieves fail, much economic activity is more akin to theft than is admitted, and that the rich are rich in large measure because they are more successful thieves than the blue collar guys in these films. Yet another outsourcing of blue-collar work, one could even say. And the heist movies in which the thieves succeed often center on suave, elegant protagonists whose hands don't bear the calluses of actual work. Some will rob you with a six-gun, and some by selling you credit default swaps with a nominal value of $100 million...

Ayn Rand's Men (sic) of the Mind, and libertarians' enabled entrepreneurs freed of restraint and parasitic theft, don't always exhibit that nobility of spirit and self-restraint which exclude a degeneration of their Utopias into a vicious and unprincipled contest between strength and weakness. You don't see many libertarians emigrating to African countries with ineffective central governments, where the shackles of law don't at all hinder entrepreneurial activity, and the right to bear arms is taken for granted. Nor do you see small-government righties praising those countries' economic and social performance as worthy of emulation, despite the absence there of the heavy hand of government constraining human progress. And they can't imagine themselves weak or careless enough to themselves become the victims of a heist.

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The News Corporation, whose holdings include The Wall Street Journal and the Fox News Channel, has donated $1 million to the United States Chamber of Commerce, the business advocacy group that is among the heaviest anti-Democratic advertisers in this year’s elections...

The Chamber has vowed to spend around $75 million on this year’s elections, and the effort has overwhelmingly focused on defeating Democrats, though the Chamber has made exceptions in some races.

How anyone could object to the social utility of the Citizens United decision escapes me. An international media conglomerate owned by a naturalized American of Australian descent obviously has the same interests as an individual citizen of the country. It would be wrong to limit that corporation's right to political speech. Why, anyone could see how it's been laboring under the restraints imposed by jackbooted socialist thugs on its ability to get its message across. Thank goodness for the Supreme Court majority, and its courage in overturning close to a century of previously uncontested legal precedent, even though it had nothing to do with either the initial arguments or the issue before the bar. Judicial restraint and results oriented jurisprudence are the refuge of the little people. The Men of the Mind know better...