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...