Archive for September, 2005

I am so a police officer!

Today, Joshua Holmes points (indirectly) to a story about underage drinking prevention gone awry. The basic story: an undercover campus cop tasked with cracking down on underage drinking before a University of Central Florida football game gets in an argument with some students who don’t believe he’s a cop. Heated words are exchanged, and the cop pulls out a gun and fires several shots into the air (or possibly into someone’s leg, depending on how much you trust eyewitnesses). An Orlando cop hears gunshots, sees a pissed-off guy waving around a pistol and, not surprisingly, shoots the campus cop dead (and, in the process, hits a student who may or may not have been involved in the argument).

Oh, and just for kicks, the UCF president is blaming the whole thing on “alcohol abuse”. Admittedly, if the campus police (in coordination with the ATF, note) hadn’t been hassling 20-year-olds about drinking, this wouldn’t have happened, but certain proximate causes seem rather more imperative.

My question is simply this: leaving aside the merits of the patently stupid law that says 20-year-olds can’t drink alcohol, why in the fuck is UCF sending armed, undercover police officers to crack down on underage drinking? The key here is the word “undercover”; armed cops in uniform may present their own problems, but being recognized as such usually isn’t one of them. There are certain contexts where undercover officers make some sense: drug- and prostitution-law enforcement (two other stupid laws, but we’ll let that pass), conspiracy/racketeering prevention, etc. → Personally I have serious qualms about the moral viewpoint that makes using undercover cops seem like a viable option, but, again, we’ll let that pass. However, enforcing the drinking age is not such a context; if you’re trying to make someone drunk stop drinking, you’d better either be a friend or a recognizable authority figure. The best way to prevent underage people from drinking is having lots of uniformed cops around. But that tends to be preventative rather than retaliatory, which entails better adherence but less revenue and publicity…and I see I’ve just answered my own question.

To be honest, the entire situation baffles me. My alma mater and its campus police enforced the drinking age only when the underage drunk had done something so incredibly stupid as to make the potential liabilities rather higher than could safely be ignored. The dean of students when I was there freely and openly admitted his belief that the drinking age should be 18, which was reflective of the institutional opinion generally. Everybody (okay, not the teetotalers) drank without a second thought in front of the campus police, who were at all large campus parties. Given that at least 2/3 of people at any given party were under 21, I think it’s safe to say the campus police didn’t cramp anybody’s style too much. → In a not unrelated note, I should also point out that although Sewanee was (and is) a hard-drinking school, consumption tended to proceed along safer lines than at many other colleges.

Keeping in mind that my experience may be somewhat unusual, I think it’s very interesting that underage drinking is inevitably classified as “alcohol abuse” (as, for example, quoted above). I don’t deny that alcohol can be abused and that what qualifies as abuse (in a clinical sense) may be age-dependent, but it’s pretty stupid to claim (or, rather, imply) that a 20-year-old drinking a beer is “abusing” alcohol. 12 beers in an hour, sure, but you generally don’t see undercover cops trying to bust middle-aged guys who throw down a half-case in an hour, so that argument’s out. Of course, the same inevitably goes for any use of any illegal drugs, as if smoking a bowl once a month qualified you for rehab. Ah, well. Yet another example of distorting the meaning of words to make objectively insane policy seem reasonable.

Okay, rant aside, I leave you with the following rhetorical question (poached from Balko): It appears that the Orlando cop who killed the UCF cop acted according to procedure and probably won’t be punished. If he had been a private individual with all the required licenses, would he be able to avoid jail?

The key to narrative?

Watching the Korean movie Oldboy the other day was an interesting experience for me, because of the sheer energy (melodramatic, to be sure) with which it pushes the main character to the ends of trauma. By comparison, thinking back to the good but slightly disappointing Philip Roth novel American Pastoral, I realized that the main deficiency in that book by comparison was an absence of real change in the characters. Sure, they all suffer their traumas, but they are ranting about exactly the same things at the end of the novel as they were at the beginning. This may be more true to the way life actually goes than the typical narrative arc, but it is less than enlightening, as one has the same impression after 400 pages as after five.

The conclusion of my ruminations was that what separates the great examples of narrative art from the decent is an ability to actually illustrate convincing dynamism of character. Anybody can describe reasonably well how a personality exists in relation to its environment, but it takes a greater talent to show how it will react when that environment changes. Just as what really distinguishes science from other belief-systems is its ability not just to explain but to make predictions, so too does demonstrating verisimilitudinous character change show a deeper grasp of the true essence of character, because that too is a form of prediction as to how that character will behave under certain conditions. Of course the standards of success are more amorphous and subjective, partly because the scenarios are usually made-up, but I think that ultimately we look for, even if only subconsciously, evidence that the creator has understood the personalities that he describes sufficiently to induce deep changes in them in a believable fashion, and judge his accomplishment accordingly. Or at least I do.

Why sloth isn’t a vice

Curt’s J.B.S. Haldane quote got me thinking a bit about science and technology and such the other day, which quickly morphed into some musings about technology vs. politics and why one works and the other doesn’t. Of course, it doesn’t take much thought on that subject to recognize the answer: people are lazy.

Think about it: virtually every technological innovation throughout history is due to laziness. In every case, someone got sick of doing something hard or boring and figured out some new way to do it faster or make it unnecessary to do at all. Computers are obvious: doing long division sucks, so people invented machines to do it for them. Same with the printing press: handcopying manuscripts is really tedious (not to mention hard on the carpals), so Gutenberg figured out how to make a machine do all the work. But this doesn’t just hold true for gadgets. For example, animals you’re trying to eat have a nasty tendency to run away, bite back and migrate every six months; eventually, someone got sick of all that nonsense, looked at some plants that couldn’t move or fight back and presto! agriculture was born. → Yes, I’m aware it wasn’t quite so simple To steal a line from Heinlein, “progress doesn’t come from early risers – progress is made by lazy men looking for easier ways to do things.” → Time Enough for Love, pg. 53

Continuing this line of thought, it hardly even needs to be said that new technology proliferates and makes lives better because everybody else is just as lazy as the inventors (though, admittedly, less creative in their laziness). After all, the scientific calculator wouldn’t have sold if people liked doing long division and looking up logarithms in giant tables. Since laziness and technology are so complementary, the vast technological advances throughout human history seem only natural. → To borrow a single example from Paul Graham, “[i]n 1800 an empty plastic drink bottle with a screw top would have seemed a miracle of workmanship.”

On the other hand, politics has advanced hardly at all in the last 2500 years. In broad outline (oversimplification alert!), the only major political differences between a modern Western democracy and classical Athens are: (i) owning slaves is no longer considered couth and (ii) a higher percentage of people get to vote. (i) and (ii) are obviously important, but two major advances in 2500 years isn’t what I would call speedy progress (especially since both really only became fashionable in the last 150 years).

Now, maybe politics is an inherently more tractable problem than how to avoid boring, sweaty work. In that case, maybe the ancient Greeks already had it mostly worked out and there were only a couple of things to improve upon. Alternatively, maybe the Athenians just got lucky and guessed the answer that otherwise would have taken centuries to figure out. But neither of these answers seems likely or particularly satisfying, especially since there still seem to be lots of political problems that nobody knows how to solve.

Actually, that last phrase is a complete lie. Everybody knows how to solve all the political problems in the world and they’ll be more than happy to explain their solutions at the slightest provocation. The problem is, nobody seems to be able to implement his solution.

Why is that? Because laziness is like Kryptonite for politics. Why did Communism fail? At least half the answer is that people are much too lazy to work hard when they can do the bare minimum for the same compensation. → The other half of the answer is the “Knowledge Problem,” which has the same counter-intuitive aesthetic appeal as the notion that progress comes from laziness Why do politicians that anybody who’s paying attention knows are corrupt, dishonest and/or incompetent get elected? Because people are much too lazy to devote hundreds of hours to researching the candidates, reading position papers and thinking through the logical conclusions of a candidate’s platform. Why do monarchy, feudalism and totalitarianism fail? Because the people in charge are too lazy to formulate good policies and then stick to them; oppression and plunder are much easier. → In these contexts, it’s fashionable to call laziness “rational self-interest”, but I disagree with this convention. Not because I’m against rationalism or self-interest, but because this particular phrase obscures the issue.

The list goes on and on. Think about virtually any political problem you can come up with (Why do countries fight unnecessary wars? Why can’t we “win” the Drug War? What’s up with Social Security?) and odds are the reason the “solutions” don’t work is because they require too much hard work. Of course, the basic system in which solutions have to be implemented is already broken because it requires too much hard work, but it could be argued that the fundamental problem is cultural: being lazy seems like cheating. Since nobody wants to view himself as a cheater, I’m convinced that everybody is secretly ashamed of his laziness and, therefor, trumpets diligence and industriousness as the ideal.

I, for one, say screw that. Until we recognize that we’re all lazy bastards at heart, realize that that’s not necessarily such a bad thing and accept the implications of this fact, we’re going to continue to find political problems insoluble.

p.s. Please don’t interpret this as a “call to action” or anything silly like that. Like the man said, “I’m just sayin’, is all.”

Something for the Francophiles

sunset from the Eiffel TowerWay back in May, I went to France to visit Curt and see the sights. We ended up taking a bunch of pictures, but I didn’t get around to sorting/resizing them until last weekend. Anyway, they’re now available for your viewing enjoyment in the photo gallery. There are pictures from Giverny, Normandy, Mont Saint Michel, Chambord, Chartres and Paris. Check ’em out (as always, there’s a permanent link from the photographs page).

Quote of the day

As you’ve probably already noticed if you’re accessing the main page, I’ve added a new feature which displays a quotation Curt or I found interesting across the top of the main page. These quotations should follow a standard format: a text block consisting of the quoted material, with the name of whoever said/wrote the quote right-justified on the next line. If the quote comes from somewhere on the web, the author’s name should be linked to that location. The intention is for these quotes to be updated daily (thus “Quote of the day”), but whether that will be sustainable is yet to be determined.

There’s also an archive of the quotes of the day in which each quote will be listed below the date it was posted in the same format I just described; if two quotes are posted on the same day, they will appear separately. The pound sign next to the date is linked to a quasi-permanent link to that quote in case anybody wants to link to it.

Finally, there’s an RSS feed specifically for the quotes of the day and I’ve also added the quote of the day to the regular RSS feed. Getting these to work required changing my RSS feed templates by hand as well as recklessly editing my .htaccess file (and killing the entire website a couple times in the process), so let me know if they cause errors or if you’re subscribed to an RSS feed and the quote of the day doesn’t show up.

I’m using a slightly modified version of the Miniblog plugin to do all this, along with hand-editing of stylesheets, templates and the always-intimidating .htaccess file. Probably not the most elegant solution, but it seems to work so far.

Man weißt nicht noch, was ist Toleranz

Many Germans seem very proud of how civilized their country has supposedly become, but I have a hard time imagining a debate like this one being conducted earnestly in America without both sides getting laughed out of the room. One side advances the notion that all religions ought to be tolerated without being persecuted as if this were a controversial point, then the other argues the contrary position as if this were taking a stand for womens’ rights. And yet both sides muck up the most elementary of distinctions, namely that between religion and religious practice. Being a Muslim, whatever that means, doesn’t have anything to do with womens’ rights, because religions are beliefs, and beliefs are ideas. Ideas are different from practices. Practices may naturally entail from certain beliefs, but having a belief and practicing a custom are by no means the same thing. Why is it so hard to tolerate belief-systems of any stripe while still enforcing a unitary ethical code upon actions? Probably belief-systems that entail kiling everyone the believer doesn’t like are more prone to lead to ethical transgressions than ones that don’t (and I’m not saying that Islam does, I’m only speaking hypothetically), but let’s face it, at certain times, for instance when stuck in traffic or trying to get to my high-school locker, I’ve had the urge to wipe large numbers of my fellow men, but that doesn’t mean I should be prosecuted for the thought.

Actually, it doesn’t really matter if you accept that distinction or not, because my tolerance only extends as far as those things that I don’t actually believe to be wrong. If Islam is just a belief-system, I’m tolerant of it. If it absolutely requires its believers to beat women and blow up infidels, well then I’m no longer tolerant of it. So it comes out the same in the end. But I’d still rather that actions be viewed as actions rather than just as expressions of religious belief–helps to put the emphasis back on human agency. At any rate, Europe has always had a hard time taking a nuanced attitude towards religion one way or the other. For the last hundred years France for example has been a rigidly secular state, banning religious symbols and expression in all public domain, and now some of the political conservatives are talking about swinging back the other way by subsidizing churches, synagogues and mosques. I suppose it has not occured to anyone to just tolerate religion where it arises rather than officially supporting it or trying to eradicate it.

Katrina redux

Unused New Orleans school busesI have no interest in joining the ranks of the Katrinapundits other than to express my disappointment with those who seem to have more interest in playing the political blame game than in doing good. That having been said, over the last few days I’ve amassed an extensive collection of more or less interesting links that I’ve been sharing here and there and which I may want to access sometime in the future, so it seems reasonable to consolidate them here:

“…but at what price”

These days, one Curt’s research interests is resurrection as a Russian cultural theme. Dostoyevsky, Gogol, Tolstoy, Berdayev, et al. are the obvious starting points of such an investigation, but the interesting question is whether and to what extent resurrection, despite its Christian heritage, survived (and maybe even informed?) the Communist revolution/regime as a viable and relevant idea and if it influences Russian culture even to this day (this is, obviously, a simplistic summary on my part).

Given that I’ve been reading The Gulag Archipelago, Vol. II recently, it was inevitable that I would come across some citations that I (perhaps presumptuously) thought might be relevant; that led to an email exchange that I think is interesting more generally (and might, perhaps, inspire some interesting discussion in the comments), so I’ve unilaterally decided to reproduce it here.

Read the rest of this entry »

The threat of Jewish terrorism

Almost at the end of Roth’s American Pastoral, a couple more quick thoughts about it. It has turned out to be a trifle disappointing, though overall very good, as more than 400 pages of nearly uninterrupted ruminations about a single event, first by the author then by the protagonist, have sufficed to illustrate but not really to penetrate the psychology behind it. In a way, that seems to be the point. Roth, with his historical determinism and fatalism, would seem to concur with the terrorist daughter, who sets off a bomb in a postal depot, when she says to her father: “You can’t explain away what I’ve done by motives, Daddy. I certainly wouldn’t explain away what you’ve done by motives.” But this belief, whether it be true or false, runs pretty much counter to the entire impetus behind novel-writing, and as such doesn’t make for very good reading insofar as its spirit informs the narrative, much as books actuated by a belief in the meaninglessness of language tend to be really bad if not unreadable. And I am in addition rather skeptical of this relentless drive to make all the characters and situations representative of some broad societal reality, as if to invest them with a signicance they would not otherwise possess, but which ends by flattening or hollowing them to some extent.

In one respect, though, Roth seems to have hit upon an important point, namely that the radicalism of the ’60’s, far from being somehow an invasion of American ideals, was in fact very much an expression of them. That radicalism was really more social than political–simply the belief in revolution didn’t quite adequately capture it. It was the explosion of an unusually large youth population just at the point they all came of age, an inter-generational conflict in effect between children and parents, the rupture of the family all over, and this is at the core of the novel as well. Maybe the search for independence and autonomy, which is at the root of much of what is distinctive about American history and society, after having lost the frontier and thus the ability to realize it geographically, next sought to do so socially through a break with the surroundings into which one was born. Certainly the ritual of ostentatiously, even violently breaking with the family, often by clearly defining differences in taste, habits and even morals, has become virtually de rigueur in America. This must have been rather shocking to immigrant families who thought that they could cherry-pick the financial opportunity and independence of American life while avoiding its atomizing effect.

N.O. K.O.’d

I have no interest in going into the politics or sob stories surrounding the disaster in New Orleans, but maybe I might give a brief impression of the city, though I have never visited it, as it disappears either temporarily or permanently. It is one of the three major American cities I would most like to see someday, along with San Francisco and New York, and yet I have the strange impression that this whole catastrophe is unfolding in a foreign land, in a remote Caribbean outpost rather than on American soil. And yes, I fully acknowledge that at least viscerally this is partially if not largely because almost everyone in the photographs and videos is black. But that’s the way it is with New Orleans. I remember thinking just a few days before all this happened that New Orleans has to be the least American metropolis in the country. Charitably one might say that this is because it is a creole or French Catholic bastion in the heavily WASP American South. But in reality what sparked the thought was reading an article about the city’s murder rate, which is something like four times as high as that of any other major American city. And so: culturally exotic, economically and politically almost Third World, a strange place indeed. With such a level of poverty, corruption and administrative incompetence, not to mention all the exhaustively chronicled engineering and geographical follies of the city, is it really such a surprise that it has resembled the fallout of a hurricane in Haiti more than one in Florida? It seems to have been a doomed city from the start.

But of course this is partly why people seem to like the place so much. You can’t find that kind of decayed elegance amidst the bland efficiency of most American cities. Its stagnation, which has helped to seal its doom, is surely also what has helped it to preserve its antiquated charm. New Orleans is no more ludicrous as an urban project than Venice, which similarly owes its beautifully preserved state to the absurdity of its situation. And, quite frankly, New Orleans today may not be much more economically necessary. Sure in the 19th century it made sense to have a big city in the delta for trade, but with the power and reach of global communication today one doesn’t necessarily need a teeming metropolis at every port–things can be controlled more from afar. Since New Orleans hasn’t made itself particularly economically necessary in any other way (the gas and petroleum industries certainly don’t require big population centers), I have a hard time imgaining that the motivation will exist to completely rebuild even if the money could be procured for it. It’s not even of much value as a symbolic statement à la the WTC even aside from the massively greater cost–it probably won’t do much good to make a show of defiance to a hurricane. Sure, there is probably considerable enthusiasm for preserving what can be–no one wants to lose Bourbon Street or Le Vieux Carré–but everything that is worth preserving that hasn’t been so far probably can’t really be recreated in any case. But of course historical tourist New Orleans is the only part of the city that has escaped relatively unscathed, as amazing as it is that the engineering and planning knowledge of two hundred years ago has apparently trumped that of our own times. So it may be that the most desirable part of the city to save is also the only feasible one to maintain–I can’t imagine that even the most thick-headed bureaucrat could manage to leave hurricanes out of their calculations for the future now. I don’t recommend or desire that the city should become Williamsburg or even Charleston, but on the other hand all of this has probably only accelerated a process which was well underway–the signficant reduction of New Orleans as a major metropolis–and so maybe the decline or revival of the city is beyond anyone’s conscious control.