February 29, 2004

Not Writing

Posted by shonk at 05:17 AM in Blogging | permalink | 9 comments

I’m ashamed to admit that in the last five days, Curt has three times as many substantive posts as I do. For whatever reason, I haven’t been able to get into the writing mood. Instead, I’ve spent a fair amount of time over the last week or so making some modifications to the site. These include the feedroll, the link titles and new RSS feeds and the author info location change; tonight, as I’m sure you’ve already noticed, I’ve made a somewhat more visible alteration. The switch to a three-column layout was motivated in part by the fact that the right sidebar seemed to be growing uncontrollably in the old layout. Hopefully the links (now on the left) will be more prominent now. Also, I think I’m getting heartily sick of the white background and the stylesheet changes I’ve made are (hopefully) the first steps in the process of introducing some color to the site.

Please, if you have any recommendations or suggestions, leave a comment or send me an email. I especially want to hear from you if you think the new layout looks like shit or if it is being rendered by your browser in a way that is not at all similar to this screenshot. Thanks.

UPDATE Obviously, I decided to just go ahead and change the background color. Again, please let me know what you think.

UPDATE PART DEUX The orange was giving me a headache. I think it looks better now.

Simmering blood-feuds in the comment-box!

Posted by Curt at 03:43 AM in Bitching and Moaning | permalink | 1 comment

To those of you who have followed the comments on my original post on Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ it should by now be apparent that many people have invested themselves personally in this debate more than is the case in most of the issues that we treat of in this weblog. I should say up front that in my opinion the relative artistic merits of the film are fairly irrelevant; the controversy sparked by this film has touched upon issues which have swirled about almost since the time of Jesus, and will doubtless long outlast the notoreity of this film. In this respect, so far as these issues are concerned it matters not at all whether this film is a masterpiece or a turd. My concern is with the fundamental issues involved, not with their representation in this particular film, so any further comments regarding the film itself will henceforth receive no further attention on my part. Now, as for these more substantive issues, I wrote the original post intending to critique the activists who have quite irrationally, in my opinion, protested this film on account of its depiction of Jews as primarily responsible for the death of Christ. Now, surprising as it may seem in light of the numerous comments which have criticized me for allegedly questioning the historical validity of the Gospels, virtually the entire basis of my point in the post was to opine that, absent any substantive historical evidence to contradict the Gospel account of Christ’s death as being primarily the fault of certain Jews, the protests against this version of the story amounts to little more than a futile desire to exonerate the Jews without historical evidence, combined with a bullying victim-oriented ideology bent on exonerating them with or without evidence. Actually, my larger point was that whether or not any Jews are legitimately implicated in the death of Christ should have no bearing on how we treat living Jews, who had no part in these events of the distant past, and that in a larger sense punishment for historical crimes should never be inflicted on the perpetrators’ descendents.

Now, I could well have understood have understood a criticism of this opinion to the effect that crimes of the father actually do accrue to the son, and that issues of historical guilt and innocence need to be worked out in the present to bring the cycle of vengeance to an end. Instead, criticism (aside from the trivial issue of whether I have dealt fairly with the movie, which I freely admit that I have not seen and which only interests me insofar as the controversy surrounding it sheds light on the larger issues which I speak of now) seems to have come from quite a different quarter, namely the argument that I should not even consider questioning the validity of the Gospels, nor should I criticize a rigid adherence to the doctrine and narrative laid out in them. Now, I should perhaps state that I am not a Christian nor do I follow any religious denomination, so, to put it bluntly, I could not give a flying fuck whether anyone is offended by me taking an irreverent attitude towards scripture. Now, anyone who has read my words carefully will realize that I actually grant the Gospels historical validity in accordance with the non-contradiction principle, that is to say that I consider them reasonably historically valid absent documented contradiction of them. But I certainly will not move from that limited and conditional endorsement to a wholseale and unquestioning acceptance of them historically, morally or devoutly. Such an unquestioning acceptance of them is, in my opinion, highly characteristic of, in not the definition of, fundamentalism. Too many words have already been expended on overly subtle readings of my every word, so let me state this clearly and succinctly: I consider those who blame living Jews for the alleged crimes of their ancestors to be irrational, perverse and despicable. It is definitely a fundamentalist attitude to conclude that because the Gospels blame Christ’s death on certain Jews, this is indubitably the case. It is not necessarily a fundamentalist belief that because certain Jews living at the time of Christ were responsible for his death, Jews living to day should suffer reprisal, but it is a common characteristic of fundamentalists to, as Yeats observed, try to separate religious identity from the rest of human existence, so that members of a particular religious denomination, Judaism, for example, are viewed religiously as no more than a sum of the doctrines that their group espouses and of the actions of their group throughout the course of history. Again, this does not inherently accompany a religiously fundamentalist mindset; fundamentalism has enough unappealing qualities as is without attaching this inextricably to it. However, a retributive historical mindset does often accompany a fundamentalist mindset, accords well with it, and explains, I believe, most of the vengeance-seeking holy wars throughout the ages. The reason that I consider this despicable as well as superficial is because, as I said in my original post, moral responsiblity is solely characteristic of individual existence. An individual can be held responsible only for his own actions, and cannot be held responsible for what he had no part in. Hence, seeking vengeance for ancient historical crimes is wholly illegitimate. Finally, I should be the first to admit that fundamentalism is not limited solely to religion; one can apply this mindset to Mao’s little red book or to Adam Smith, but this does not mean that the religious fury that I have described above does not qualify as fundamentalism. Perhaps I should have said “the basic hollowness of the attitude of the Christian fundamentalists who wish to extract vengeance on living Jews” rather than “the basic hollowness of fundamentalism,” but my opinion remains unchanged regardless.

p.s. I didn’t really mean to write an attack of fundamentalism, although little love for it is lost on my part. However I will say that even if I were a fundamentalist I don’t think I would choose to defend my mode of belief on grounds of rationality. If I were inclined to stake my entire belief-system on unconditional acceptance of doctrine, the syllogistic system of moving from given premises to a valid conclusion which is the central dialectical mode of logic would seem to be pretty thin soup by comparison. Those who attempt to apply principles of logic to events and ideas in the world generally remain in a constant fog of doubt, never able to assent to anything more than conditionally and consistently hemmed in by the scope of their premises. Now, in a shadowy sense one could mimic the motions of logic within a fundamentalist framework by equating doctrine with logical premises, and then proceeding to conclusions purely within the bounds of doctrine. But shadows should not be mistaken for reality, and the key difference is that those who really follow a logical mode of thought never assent to either their premises or their conclusions unreservedly (of course in mathematics validity and truth are tantamount to the same thing, because the logical identity of numbers and their actual nature is identical as far as we know, but in any case this surety does not extend to the world outside of mathematics). Were I a fundamentalist, were I desirous of maintaining absolute surety on the matters addressed by the doctrine I had accepted, logic or rationality, with their terminal and irresolvable uncertainty, are the last things with which I would want anything to do. It should be pretty obvious that believing anything wholly unquestioningly is just as abstract and impossible as doubting everything, but starting from a state of doubt and questioning all that one can at the beginning seems less arbitrary to me than simply fixing on certain beliefs with certainty from the beginning.

February 27, 2004

Who wrote it?

Posted by shonk at 03:51 PM in Blogging | permalink | 1 comment

As a result of some confusion as to the authorship of Curt’s post on “The Passion of the Christ,” I’ve decided to re-arrange slightly. The “posted by…” information, along with the links to comments, should now appear directly under the title of the post, instead of at the bottom. Also, there’s a form at right where you can enter your email address if you want to be notified by email whenever a new entry is posted. Probably nobody is interested, but what the hell, it only took thirty seconds to do.

The War and Peace of blog posts

Posted by shonk at 02:39 AM in Economics | permalink | 16 comments

I’ve been thinking a lot about Austrian economics lately. I decided to write up some of those thoughts, and the result is almost certainly the longest post I’ve ever written. What follows is probably less than completely coherent, but hopefully interesting and somewhat thought-provoking.

Despite the fact that I’m still in the middle of Underworld, yesterday I decided to start reading Murray Rothbard’s Man, Economy and State. I’ve been arguing with some devotees of Austrian economics for the last few weeks, but I figured I could more profitably spend my time just reading Rothbard than trying to get clear answers online. The following is a somewhat extensive introduction to both my general thoughts on Austrian economics and some critiques of the first chapter of Man, Economy and State. I’m hoping to continue to post my reactions as I read the book, but I think it will be more productive (at least for my thinking), if I periodically post critiques or responses rather than try to encapsulate my thoughts in a single review after finishing the book.

Just to give a little context, I’m agnostic on the whole Austrian vs. Neoclassical debate; I think both have valid criticisms of their opponents and I think both have valid contributions to make to economics. I want to state from the outset that I do not claim to know anything about economics, so any mistakes here are based on an honest misunderstanding, not a deliberate attempt to slander whatever theory you identify with. Nor am I under the delusion that forum-junkies (who I will quote occasionally here) necessarily represent the correct interpretation of a school of thought (which is part of the reason I’m reading Rothbard). Anyway, to me, the defining difference between the Austrian and Neoclassical schools is that the Austrians conceive of economics as a deductive field of study, whereas the Neoclassicals take a more empirical approach.

My specific beef with the Austrians, though, is that I’m dubious as to how well-founded their deduction really is. Even with no knowledge of the specifics of their deduction, one can easily see that there might be problems with applying a deductive approach to trying to understand human action since humans tend to be intuitive rather than deductive in their cognition and action. Here is Ludwig von Mises’ justification

Human thought serves human life and action. It is not absolute thought, but the forethought directed toward projected acts and the afterthought that reflects upon acts done. Hence, in the last analysis, logic and the universally valid science of human action are one and the same.

My initial reaction was that the third sentence does not follow from the first two. Human thought need not be rational and the interactions between humans that is the result of that thought is often distinctly irrational, so why would logic be the proper way of studying human action?

The Austrian response seems to be that their deductions are based on such necessarily true propositions that the derived conclusions must also be necessarily true. As something of a skeptic of the notion that logic closely coheres with the universe as it exists, I have some qualms about accepting this outright, but let’s stipulate, for the sake of argument (and to avoid metaphysics), that logical deductions from true propositions do accurately reflect reality and truth. So what are these obviously true statements, or “Axioms”? In the linked discussion, one poster posits these four:

1.) I think, therefore I am.
2.) Truth, and knowledge of truth, exists.
3.) Conscious humans act.
4.) Humans are capable of argumentation and hence know the meaning of truth and validity.

Before I really get into the dissection, I want to add one final caveat: in a way, I want the Austrian methodology to be the right one; as a mathematician (aspiring, at any rate), deduction is my stock in trade, so a deductive methodology appeals both to my self-interest and my aesthetic sense.

Anyway, back to the axioms. My first complaint is that, although they are relatively basic propositions, none is really an “axiom” in the sense usually used by mathematicians and logicians. These aren’t mere starting points, they are the conclusions of deductions. For example, the first, which is just Descartes’ famous statement, is the conclusion of a chain of deduction, which itself must be based on earlier axioms. I make this point merely to point out that the use of the word “axiom” in this context is one that follows in the tradition of epistemology, but not in the tradition of formal logic. However, since it ultimately doesn’t matter very much, this isn’t a deep critique. To make for easier reading, I will refer to these as “axioms” throughout the rest of this post.

Slightly more instructive is a careful analysis of the fourth axiom in the above list. The first three are pretty evidently true, or apodictic, but the fourth has some problems. The problem isn’t in the content of the axiom, as both clauses are pretty clearly true, but rather in its structure. Although the “and hence” construction is a little vague, this reads as an implication. In other words, as presented this statement seems to claim that “[humans] know the meaning of truth and validity” follows from “[h]umans are capable of argumentation.” However, a justification of the second clause follows from the second axiom, not from the first clause. In fact, the first clause (the antecedent) apparently has nothing to do with the second clause (the consequent). If this is the case, then this fourth axiom is actually an invalid implication, even though both clauses are true. It would make much more sense, to me at least, simply to make “Humans are capable of argumentation” the fourth axiom and leave the bit about knowing the meaning of truth as a separate axiom (or as a theorem derived from axiom 2 if the two could be shown to be logically equivalent).

To me, this is an important point, as the implication in axiom 4 seems to underlie much of the Austrian program. That is, the assumption that we can arrive at truth through argumentation is fundamental; of course, since this is a fundamental assumption of most systems of study, it’s not an indictment of Austrian economics per se, merely something to think about within the broader context of how we perceive truth.

One of my fundamental concerns about the axioms stated above is that they may be difficult to translate into the formal language of modern logic. I’ve tried and failed to translate any of the four axioms into a non-trivial formal proposition, but admit that my training in formal logic is pretty much limited to first-order logic, so I don’t want to claim that it cannot be done. However, given Mises’ statement that the study of human action is logic, it would seem to me that anyone who seriously advocates the Austrian methodology really ought to make that translation a top priority. Which isn’t to say that it hasn’t been done, but I found no evidence on Google.

The reason it’s important to translate these axioms into formal language is that if such a translation is made, then, at least in theory, any valid theorem derived from them will be derivable in that formal language using the rules of implication natural to that language. Hence, the formal language serves as a sort of safeguard against sloppy deduction — if one has serious doubts about a theorem, one can go back to the formal language and mirror the deductive steps in that language, thereby either convincing oneself that the theorem is valid (if the derivation is valid in the formal language) or seeing where exactly the reasoning went awry. This is, admittedly, a step of last resort, equivalent to reading a computer program in assembly language, but it is, ultimately, the formal underpinnings that make logic and mathematics “work”.

In fact, as will hopefully be made clear, I have concerns that Rothbard makes precisely the sorts of sloppy deductions that I mention; without this foundation of a formal language, though, it is considerably more difficult to point out precisely where the sloppiness occurs.

Getting back to the axioms, the one that is most important to the Austrian program is the third axiom, the Axiom of Action. Rothbard states it in the very first paragraph of Man, Economy and State and deduces all that I have read so far from it. I don’t intend to highlight every stage in the deduction, but rather to comment on some objections I have to some of the conclusions reached therein.

The first one that seems a bit dubious occurs on page 2 of my edition (the 1970 Nash publication): “The first truth to be discovered about human action is that _it can only be undertaken by individuals_.” This isn’t a statement I disagree with; I just think the deduction is a bit cyclic. Rothbard defines action (“purposive behavior”) in such a way that this is necessarily true, but that merely leaves open the question of whether this is a good definition or merely one that is convenient to what are, presumably, Rothbard’s pre-existing biases. If one wants to get metaphysical (which I don’t, particularly), one could question what exactly is meant by an “individual”. At least in the materialist worldview, the aggregate of the reflexive responses of individual brain cells can constitute an action, since those chemical and biological reactions serve as the substrate for our consciousness. Hence, the inclusion of the collective non-action (since nobody seriously claims that individual cells are purposive) of brain cells in the realm of “action” juxtaposed with the exclusion of the collective action of humans seems to me to be an intuitive, rather than a deductive, conclusion.

Similarly, the statement that “there is never any possibility of measuring increases or decreases in happiness or satisfaction” (pg. 15) seems similarly intuitive. So far as I can tell, this does not follow from the Axiom of Action (or any of the other listed axioms); rather it seems to be a pragmatic, almost empirical observation. Rothbard’s treatment of scales of values is nice (though we’ll get to this), but the incomparability of values and happiness does not flow from this. Instead, this appears to be an ad hoc observation; from our experience with people, we know that it isn’t realistic to think that the utility that I derive from, say, a good meal is comparable in any meaningful way to the utility that a friend derives from drinking a good stout.

Now, as for the preference scales of value scales. I have no dispute with the idea that, given their imperfect knowledge of the future, the scarcity of resources, etc. humans rank or scale their “alternative ends” according to the perceived benefit of each. The example that Rothbard gives is simply, but illustrative. In it, Jones is watching a baseball game and contemplating what he will do with the next hour of his finite time, so he ranks the alternative ends as follows:

(First) 1. Continuing to watch the baseball game
(Second) 2. Going for a drive
(Third) 3. Playing bridge

This example first appears on page 5, but is also included in the discussion leading up to the statement of the Law of Marginal Utility. Now, my first objection is not to the scale of values as such, but rather the the reductionism inherent in Rothbard’s treatment. Examples of such scales are presented as short, discrete lists. However, the notion of a finite, discrete scale of preferences does not follow from the Axiom of Action. An infinite, even a continuous (non-discrete) scale of values would accord just as well with the deduction. The presentation of discrete lists is convenient for presentation purposes, but it may actually impede good deduction. This is often a problem in mathematics, when an example of a structure begins to serve as the basis for cognition on that structure. For example, all the easiest examples of rings (the integers, the reals, the complex numbers) are commutative, whereas general rings tend not to be; if one allows ones thinking about rings to be influenced too heavily by one’s experience with the commutative examples, this can lead to faulty thinking in the more general setting.

In fact, I would argue that, logically, it would be more consistent to think of scales of preference as being infinite. After all, if you were to offer me a finite list of “all” the choices currently available to me, I could always come up with another possibility not on the list. This, in and of itself, isn’t necessarily a problem, as discrete infinite sets are well-understood, but the next possibility is a bit more unsettling: one could coherently argue that preference scales should actually be continuous, that between any two “alternative ends” one could come up with an infinite number of continuously varying possibilities that flow from one to the other. The set of alternative ends would then be, not just infinite, but actually uncountably infinite. After all, one could include “watch the game for half an hour, then go for a short drive” in the above list, or “watch the game for 22.3 minutes, then go for a slightly longer short drive” or any number of possibilities in between. Not that either of these possibilities would necessarily be ranked between “watch the game for an hour” and “go for an hour-long drive”, as both of the “mixed” possibilities might be less preferable than the non-mixed ones, but there’s no logical reason from excluding these mixed possibilities from the list.

In fact, I would argue that the limitation to finite lists (or discrete infinite lists) is the result of intuition, rather than deduction. Humans seem to intuit a certain small number of possible actions in any situation, basically ignoring the myriad of possibilities not in this list. This is a wonderful time-saving device, but not a strictly logical one. My point is that the treatment of preference scales is heavily influenced by experience and ad hoc intuition, rather than strict deduction. I’m okay with that, but to claim that the conclusions achieved thereby are strictly logical is misleading.

I would like to point out that, if “alternative ends” are non-discrete and uncountably infinite as I suggest, then it would actually be impossible even to create a “list” at all. Without a list (and sometimes even with one), one cannot necessarily even speak of immediate successors. In other words, when we think of the integers, we can always tell what the immediate successor of an integer is. The immediate successor of 2 is 3, the immediate successor of 512 is 513, and so on. However, when we get to the real numbers (the easiest example of an uncountably infinite set), we have no sense of immediate successors anymore. What’s the immediate successor of the square root of 2? Now, there’s a theorem in mathematics that any set can be given a well-ordering, that is, a structure such that every element (except the largest element, if there is one) has an immediate successor. However, this theorem is logically equivalent to the Axiom of Choice, which is, to put it mildly, somewhat controversial. Since the notion of an immediate successor seems integral to the Law of Marginal Utility (see below), this should be setting off alarm bells for any Austrians that have actually made it this far in the post. After all, the Axiom of Choice implies the Banach-Tarski Paradox, which says (more or less) that you can cut up a marble into finitely many pieces and reassemble those pieces into a ball the size of the sun. This isn’t particularly troublesome to mathematicians, but I have trouble envisioning serious economists wanting to accept such a result merely in order to be able to derive the Law of Marginal Utility (which isn’t particularly controversial, so far as I know).

Moving on to the Law of Marginal Utility, there are, as I see it, at least two problems with Rothbard’s deduction. The law says that

The greater the supply of a good, the lower the marginal utility; the smaller the supply, the higher the marginal utility.

This is presented in the context of a man with six horses, each of which performs some task for him. The man has the six tasks rated in terms of their importance to him. At some point, he has to give up one of the horses; when he does so, his horses can now only do five of the jobs. Obviously, the man will have the remaining horses do the five highest-rated jobs, leaving the sixth undone. The “marginal utility” mentioned in the law is simply the end that would be given up as a result of the loss of a unit (a horse in this case). Within this context, the law is obviously true. However, it applies only in the case where there is a “supply of a good”, defined to be a homogeneous group of units “equally capable of rendering the same service to the actor”. Hence, in the example, the six horses would be a “supply” if they were all interchangeable. If one follows the deduction all the way through, though, one must conclude that there really is no such thing as a “supply of a good”. No two goods are completely interchangeable or homogeneous; to act or think as if they were is often useful, but does not follow logically. Especially since the valuations of any particular good are subjective, it would actually seem to fly in the face of the logical framework to suppose that any two goods should even have the same label, let alone be considered homogeneous or interchangeable. The fact that we think of, say, horses as being relatively homogeneous is the result of a sort of intuitive shorthand, one that is usually useful and rarely leads to difficulties, but not one necessitated, or even condoned, by pure logic.

In other words, the Law of Marginal Utility, at least as developed in the Austrian framework, is (more or less, depending on how serious my other critiques of the Austrian methodology are) valid and true, but totally inapplicable to the real world. After all, we can conceive of homogeneous groups, to which the law would be applicable, but in the real world such things do not, strictly speaking, exist, so the law is only vacuously applicable to “supplies of goods” consisting of a single unit.

Another problem I have with the Law of Marginal Utility is that, as presented, it seems useful, but that’s really only because the examples are so easy. Obviously, in the case of six interchangeable horses doing six different jobs, applying the law is easy. But what if those six horses are doing twenty different jobs? Then each is doing multiple jobs, perhaps in pieces. When the man has to give up one horse, it isn’t necessarily just a matter of cutting the three lowest-rated jobs; instead, the man must rate the combinations of jobs and choose to cut the lowest-rated combination that can be done by five horses.

To consider a simple example, perhaps there are three ends that I value as follows: I value A over B and B over C. There are cases where this may not be transitive (i.e. I may actually prefer C over A), but we need not get into that case. Instead, simply consider the case where I must cut some of my factors of production, meaning I can no longer accomplish all three ends. Suppose also that, although, individually, I rate A over both B and C, I prefer the combination of B and C to A alone. Hence, if I can still accomplish both B and C with my remaining goods, it will turn out that A is actually the relevant marginal utility of the supply, even though it occurs at the top of my scale of preferences.

In other words, for any given scale of preferences, I must have a meta-scale of preferences, rating each of the combinations of preferences. This, then, is the relevant scale for consideration in the Law of Marginal Utility. Of course, logically, there is no reason to stop at this level. I would also have a meta-meta-scale, and a meta-meta-meta-scale and so on. Since at each level I am strictly increasing the cardinality of the list, this presents a serious problem. In the basic example just explained, I have three things, A, B and C, on the original scale of preferences, but 6 combinations on the meta-scale, and then 720 meta-combinations on the meta-meta-scale.

Given the discussion above that even the original scale of preferences may well be uncountably infinite, we see that, although not at a logical impasse, we are at a pretty severe practical impasse. The only way to get around this problem, which I would emphasize derives logically from the original axiom, is to take an intuitive approach.

This, ultimately, is the point I hope the reader draws from this little exposition: Austrian deduction depends fundamentally on intuitive, inductive and even empirical reasoning in order to arrive at its conclusions. It only provides meaningful results because it is not strictly deductive. As I’ve tried to show, even simple results have this dependence. This is easy to overlook, as our own thoughts are shaped so strongly by intuition, but it is, to my mind, an almost devastating critique of the formal deduction of the Austrian methodology. I readily admit the possibility that I am wrong or that Rothbard addresses these issues later in the book; if so, then I apologize for expostulating before having read the entire book.

February 26, 2004

Jesu Cristo!

Posted by Curt at 01:03 PM in Movies , Uncategorized Current Events | permalink | 11 comments

I haven’t seen The Passion of the Christ yet, nor do I plan to, but I think I can fairly safely conclude that any film depiction of the Gospels which insists on playing to American audiences exclusively in Aramaic and Latin for purposes of “authenticity” (evidently even the English subtitles were only grudgingly included) was conceived in a clumsy, enormously literalistic spirit. And yet it is not this species of Renanian pedantry which evidently has provoked the contempt and argument of so many, but this fathomlessly stupid (and endlessly revived) debate about Jewish guilt in the death of Jesus. Of course, I could simply refer everyone once again to Bill Hicks, commenting on the phony controversies surrounding films of dubious merit (“don’t get caught up in the phony hysteria surrounding this piece of shit film”) but this particular debate casts once again into focus the blank denial of realty at the heart of our particular American ideology of victimhood.

What I mean by that is this: whether or not Mel Gibson has it in for the Jews, the contention that the Jews called for the crucifixtion of Christ and essentially forced his execution by threat of rebellion can, by itself, hardly be considered anything other than a literal regurgitation of the Gospels. If Gibson is being condemned for following the Gospels in this respect, then the Gospel writers cannot possibly be exculpated of anti-Semitism and Gibson condemned, because this tacit accusation of the Jews is undeniably present in all of their accounts. Not having seen the film, I cannot say whether he deviates from the Gospels in any important respects, but I get the impression that most of these complaining activists, not having the courage to actually call the Gospels anti-Semitic and illegitimately prejudiced, are simply fixating on this film as a proxy and a scapegoat.

Of course, this activist demand to change the historical record has not been motivated by any actual evidence that Jews were not principally responsible for the death of Jesus, but simply by the unyielding victimist ideology which states that Jews, as a traditionally oppressed and discriminated-against minority, cannot be held guilty of any actions if such judgment could invite further oppression of and discrimination against them. Of course, no moral culpability should connect group actions in the distant past with living members: even if certain Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus, Jews living today should no more be held resonsible for that deed than I, despite my ancestral origins in the Rhine valley, should be held responsible for the massacres of the Jews there during the Crusades. Moral responsibility is personal, and is by definition enclosed within a single lifetime.

Were Jewish leaders to acknowledge the possibility of Jewish complicity in the death of Jesus and then demand to know what difference that should make today, I think such a response would expose the basic hollowness and superficiality of any fundamentalist Christian desire to condemn living Jews because of it. And I think more generally that should all of humanity face up to the real truth of the many actions in the past which have led to the current state of the world, neither denying nor hiding the truth, then the injustices of the past could be accepted and learned from without providing incitement to future vengeance. Of course, in the present case, sadly, such openness probably would invite on all Jews a certain degree of malice from at least a few fanatical Christians. But then again, reasonableness is always vulnerable to fundamentalism—that should never be a reason to indulge in an equally irrational dogmatism.

February 24, 2004

And Plato wept once again

Posted by Curt at 12:10 PM in Politics | permalink | comment

Point proven that, as the article points out, “when voters say they don’t like politicians, they don’t know what they’re talking about.” That’s why sex scandals, for example, are so devastating to many politicians: in the end, the majority of voters prefer the politicians who lie through their teeth, because it preserves the illusion of idealism.

I also remember the single line of political philosophy in Kierkegaard’s entire oeuvre: “I prefer monarchy to democracy, because democracy requires that you concern yourself with affairs of state and behave as a politician, while monarchy only requires that you behave as a human being.”

February 23, 2004

RIP, Bill

Posted by shonk at 11:28 PM in Art | permalink | 6 comments

Even after ten years, Bill Hicks is still missed. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to listen to Flying Saucer Tour, Vol 1.

Open Letter to Kerry

Posted by shonk at 11:20 PM in Politics | permalink | comment

The “Open Letter to Senator John Kerry” penned by the Student Movement Coordination Committee for Democracy in Iran (SMCCDI) is entirely on point:

For the past few months we have listened and observed with apprehension and dismay to your statements and views regarding the terrorist theocracy in Iran. Yet, we had remained silent!

We have read how you refer to the theocratic regime in Iran as a “democracy;” we have heard how, if elected, as the president of the United States you intend to “engage” this barbaric regime; this very terrorist regime that your own State Department lists as the most active “State Sponsor of Terrorism.”

Why is it, Senator, in all your statements, you don’t, even once, mention the oppressed and suffering masses of Iran? Obviously, as long as there is such preoccupation with appeasing the regime the people of Iran don’t even enter your equation!

Note that what they’re asking for is not military intervention in Iran, but merely that Kerry refuse to support or condone in any way the current fundamentalist regime in Iran:

While the future of Iran will be decided, solely, by its people and the ultimate responsibility to free the nation is with the Iranians, all we ask is the moral support of the United States. All we expect is that the United States will remain true to its principles of liberty, justice, and its ideals of democracy.

In other words, “If you would just stop legitimizing the totalitarians, we’ll take responsibility for our own freedom, thank you very much.” The history of Otpor is on their side.

(Props to Samizdata for the initial link)

None of the Above

Posted by shonk at 10:53 PM in Politics | permalink | 7 comments

In his post “Third Parties: Why They Spoil and How to Stop It”, Aaron Swartz examines various alternatives to the first-past-the-post election paradigm, ultimately casting his support with Approval Voting. Seeing as no voting method addresses the fundamental problem of democracy, the fact that majority approval does not grant rights that no individual has, I usually tune alternative voting supporters out, but a comment on the post made by Tom Ruen caught my eye:

I like the idea of a “nonbinding None-of-the-Above” vote. It can apply for plurality, runoffs, cCondorcet and Approval. In a IRV method, NOTA acts like a normal candidate that can be eliminated. If NOTA rises to second place, that’s a sign that the candidates are weak and next election more people should run. If NOTA rises to first place in the final IRV round, I’d still give victory to a real candidate. That’s what makes it nonbinding. A binding NOTA would force a new election. I don’t think that is necessary. A strong NOTA is just a measure of voter discontent, and it will encourage the winner to try to connect more to voters, and encourage more candidates to run next time.

In my opinion, Ruen doesn’t go far enough. If “None of the Above” garners the most support, there’s absolutely no reason whatsoever to make the second-place finisher the winner; in fact, doing so completely ignores the preferences of the voters. If a candidate can’t beat “None of the Above”, then there’s no way in hell he should be in office. If we’re going to have democracy, let’s not be weak-kneed about it. Give voters a “None of the Above” option, and if it garners the most support, then leave the office being voted for empty until the next election…and in the mean time, consider cutting it altogether.

You know what? I like this idea. Put “None of the Above” on the ballot, if for no other reason than to put an end to this “lesser of two evils” bullshit.

More New Features

Posted by shonk at 02:14 AM in Blogging | permalink | comment

I’ve been tweaking the ol’ weblog a bit this weekend. Spent a good chunk of yesterday trying to find a solution to the challenge JTK posed in the comments to my new feature post, but didn’t come up with anything. If anybody has any ideas, please comment or e-mail. After finally abandoning that project, I decided to add titles to all the links on this page and to add a few RSS feeds. Now, instead of just the RSS 1.0 full-text feed, you also have the option of an RSS 1.0 excerpt feed, an RSS 2.0 full-text feed and an RSS 2.0 excerpt feed, all available on the lower-right of the main page via the super-cool CSS buttons, which will hopefully be a little more prominent than the old text link. For you bleeding-edge minimalist types I’ve even built an RSS 3.0 excerpt feed, based on this standard (which may or may not be an actual standard, for all I know). I don’t know if anybody actually scrapes my feed, but I figured I’d offer some more choices if you do.

And yes, it’s actually quite pathetic how much time I’ve spent doing this stuff.

Democracy Doesn't Work: More Proof

Posted by shonk at 12:38 AM in Politics | permalink | 2 comments

On Nader’s entrance into the presidential race:

What’s so fixed about our political system that a minority independent candidate, who likely won’t be able to register in many states, is going to spoil it for.. who exactly is he going to spoil it for?

Right now John Kerry, wearing the mantle of media-designated victor, is attacking Bush and attempting to appear Presidential. And the press coverage is mostly about how, if Edwards doesn’t win in the next few states, Kerry will be inevitable. Got that, Democratic party members in the last half of the states? Your opinions, hopes, and choices are irrelevant.

And now that Nader’s announced he’s in, we’re already hearing about how he’s just going to hurt the Democratic candidate. I find it both amazing and unsurprising that the number one response to Nader’s entry is not about his ideas and whether they’re any good. It’s about how his entry impacts the (mostly imaginary) horse race.

And I think there’s something astonishingly undemocratic about websites like Ralph Don’t Run. The logic behind the ad is simple, and goes something like this:

1. If Ralph Nader runs, a significant number of people will vote for him.
2. The Nader voters would otherwise vote for the Democratic candidate.
3. The only way to prevent the Nader voters from voting for Ralph is to take away that choice completely.
4. Therefore, Ralph shouldn’t run.

Or, to rephrase it: Those damn voters! Why won’t they shut up and vote the way we want them to.

It’s that “two party” mentality that keeps us locked into this “two party” nonsense.

So what’s so great about democracy, exactly?

February 21, 2004

Breaking News

Posted by shonk at 07:52 PM in War | permalink | 2 comments

Bin Laden ‘surrounded’:

A BRITISH Sunday newspaper is claiming Osama bin Laden has been found and is surrounded by US special forces in an area of land bordering north-west Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The Sunday Express, known for its sometimes colourful scoops, claims the al-Qaeda leader has been “sighted” for the first time since 2001 and is being monitored by satellite.

The paper claims he is in a mountainous area to the north of the Pakistani city of Quetta. The region is said to be peopled with bin Laden supporters and the terrorist leader is estimated to also have 50 of his fanatical bodyguards with him.

The claim is attributed to “a well-placed intelligence source” in Washington, who is quoted as saying: “He (bin Laden) is boxed in.”

The paper says the hostile terrain makes an all-out conventional military assault impossible. The plan to capture him would depend on a “grab-him-and-go” style operation.

As a friend just said, I’ll believe it when I see it.

(Link via Seny)

New Feature!

Posted by shonk at 02:56 AM in Blogging | permalink | 6 comments

As of right now, there’s a new feature here at selling waves. The latest headlines from six of my favorite weblogs, Catallarchy, improved clinch, mock savvy, No Treason!, Off Wing Opinion and Scribbling are all available in one place: this feedroll. This link is also available at right, under the “Stay Informed” head. I hope you find this useful.

PS. There are a few other weblogs I would have liked to add to the list, especially bighead, but also dooce and Old fishinghat. Unfortunately, none of them generates an RSS feed, so I have no good way of doing so (and custom-built feeds are notoriously finicky).

Gay Marriages

Posted by shonk at 12:02 AM in Politics | permalink | 6 comments

It appears the civil disobediance going on in San Francisco this week has spawned at least one copycat: the Republican county clerk of Sandoval County, New Mexico, today started issuing marriage licenses to gay couples in the county seat of Bernalillo, saying “[i]t’s going to be across the country and so we wanted to be ahead of the curve.” Even though the state attorney general declared those licenses null and void, there is no doubt in my mind that other county and city clerks around the country will follow the example of San Francisco and Sandoval County.

The news in San Francisco has prompted numerous politicians to speak out in favor of legalized gay marriage, including the mayors in Chicago, Minneapolis, Salt Lake City, Denver and Plattsburgh, NY. Even the King of Cambodia got in on the act. Students around the country are comparing gay marriage to the hotly-contested interracial marriage debate of the 1940’s, while a report prepared for the Software Industry Center at Carnegie Mellon suggests that the lack of legal status for gay couples is hurting economic growth in the U.S.

The two best quotes of the day:

I’ve already made clear my stance on the issue, which is that marriage is simply none of the state’s business. Nonetheless, I find the whole debate morbidly interesting.

(Hat tip to John Venlet for the Bernalillo and Northwestern links)

February 20, 2004

Grey Tuesday

Posted by shonk at 01:27 AM in Music | permalink | comment

I linked to DJ Danger Mouse’s album The Grey Album in “Finding Humor in Unlikely Places”, but I wanted to spotlight it in its own post. Also, I want to draw some attention to Downhill Battle’s Grey Tuesday protest. It appears that Danger Mouse himself won’t be getting in any further trouble, as the album was a limited-edition pressing, but, given how much play this is getting around the blogosphere, one can’t help but wonder if this particular episode won’t serve as a catalyst for some sort of change in the music industry.

On a related note, the RIAA was countersued today by a New Jersey woman; the plaintiff’s lawyers claim that the RIAA is violating federal antiracketeering regulations:

[B]y suing file-swappers for copyright infringement, and then offering to settle instead of pursuing a case where liability could reach into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, the RIAA is violating the same laws that are more typically applied to gangsters and organized crime.

I have to say, I don’t know much about antiracketeering laws, but it’s pretty clear that the RIAA’s tactics amount to extortion, plain and simple. Whether it’s legal or not is, of course, an entirely different question.

February 19, 2004

Anti-clericalism for the new millenium!

Posted by Curt at 09:14 PM in Geek Talk | permalink | 1 comment

The framework of ethics must be rid of this virulent latent sense of Marxist/Calvinist guilt which holds happiness and well-being to be somehow finite, of discrete quantities, and hence that the happiness of others and the happiness of oneself must be mutually exclusive. The upshot of this is that the concepts of duty and obligation become forms of self-negation, of self-immolation. In other words, one can only behave morally at the expense of oneself. Need I point out that this is all a hollow illusion? By this standard, the highest form of generosity is giving without deriving any sense of joy or satisfaction from it, i.e. how I feel when I pay my taxes, which can hardly be considered an act of altruism. No, the ones who are actually admired, perhaps because intution is wiser than ethics, are those who find their own happiness concurrent with the happiness of another or others, and who thus do themselves good even as they do good to others. This is neither a condemnation nor an exaltation of misanthropes, but they at least do not commit the folly of trying to win approbation through a generosity which brings them no joy, and which consequently could not win them any but the most superficial praise. Perhaps it suffices merely to echo a certain Chinese philosopher much wiser than any of us who once said that duty and personal happiness can be joined only through love.

Government is Cognitive Dissonance

Posted by shonk at 08:22 PM in Politics | permalink | 6 comments

Yesterday, John Venlet posted a link to “Before Teaching Ethics, Stop Kidding Yourself”, by Gordon Marino, professor of philosophy and director of the Hong Kierkegaard Library at Saint Olaf College, an interesting critique of ethics workshops and the “ethics industry”. For example, this is, in my view, dead-on:

Ethics missionaries are driven by the assumption that improving our moral lives is a matter of developing our conceptual understanding and analytical acumen. The fantasy seems to be that if up-and-coming accountants just knew a little more about ethics, then they would know better than to falsify their reports so as to drive up the value of company stock. But sheer ignorance is seldom the moral problem. More knowledge is not what is needed. Take it from Kierkegaard: The moral challenge is simply to abide by the knowledge that we already have.

What really interested me, though, was near the end of the article, where Marino suggests that a lack of discussion of the impediments to ethical living, most notably self-deception, is a fundamental flaw in the ethics workshop approach. On the topic of self-deception, Marino specifically mentions Leon Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance:

Festinger taught that when we hold conflicting beliefs, we are motivated to change them in predictable directions. For example, suppose you would like to believe that you are a compassionate individual who is willing to help the poor. At the same time, you think that it would be nice to have lower taxes, and you are convinced that the welfare system increases the government’s draw on your wallet. If Festinger is right, you might be inclined to try to convince yourself that the welfare system has to be cut, not because you want lower taxes, but because having fewer welfare benefits will motivate people to find jobs. Cutting benefits would be for their own good.

I tend to agree that humans are capable of remarkable rationalizations of non-rational beliefs, but, as I usually do, I want to discuss the specific example I’ve quoted rather than the general theory, because I think it leads to an interesting line of thought.

Specifically, I want to argue that many people countenance wealth redistribution and other government programs precisely because of a sort of self-deception or cognitive dissonance. Most people, rightly or wrongly, think they have some obligation to help others, especially those who are poor or disadvantaged. Not everybody, of course, but certainly most people. On the other hand, most people don’t expend a lot of effort actually helping the poor: maybe they want to spend their money on themselves, maybe they don’t want to get dirty serving food at soup kitchens, maybe they simply don’t have enough time; there are any number of more or less valid reasons. This creates the classical Festinger cognitive dissonance situation: ethically we want one thing, but practically, we want something else. So what happens?

Well, from where I sit, the most popular solution seems to be “let the government take care of it”. Rather than take some accountability for the action demanded by their ethics, people would rather quash their ethical misgivings via a government program. The inaction is then justified and rationalized: “Well, I’m paying my taxes, aren’t I? Ain’t that helping people?” Whether it is helping people or not is, of course, a highly contentious issue, but I don’t think anybody, no matter what their political beliefs, would dispute this: if each and every person dedicated the same amount of resources he currently pays in welfare-directed taxes to “helping the poor”, the poor would be much, much better off than they currently are. (I put scare quotes around “helping the poor” because definitions vary widely, depending on your political and economic ideologies; that being said, I’m confident that under almost any such definition, other than the “compassionate” eugenics one, my statement still holds)

The point is this: though there are undoubtedly many reasons for welfare systems, one of the primary ones is that a state-run welfare system assuages the ethical guilt felt by a large segment of the population.

With this framework in mind, let us turn to a specific example: Gregg Easterbrook’s column/blog entry “Poverty: Blame the Middle”, specifically this paragraph:

No, I won’t blame the greedy rich and the hypocritical politicians for the continuation of poverty amidst plenty, because this shifts attention away from the group that is most to blame: typical Americans. It is the country’s middle-class, middle-income majority that endlessly demands new government benefits for itself, locking up public funds that could otherwise help the impoverished. It is the country’s middle-class, middle-income majority that does not pressure politicians for higher minimum wages or similar reforms, because the country’s middle-class, middle-income majority—much of which boasts of being Christian—doesn’t care what happens to the forgotten poor at the bottom, or even likes the poor kept that way, as this ensures a cohort of lawn workers and burger-flippers who will accept low wages.

Aside from the fact that, as Bill Russell points out, Easterbrook’s economics are suspect, what’s really apparent is that Easterbrook thinks that people, especially Christians, have an ethical obligation to help the poor through government programs. As Russell says:

It is disappointing for such a smart man and great writer to take the position that those who disagree with him are morally inferior. It is even more disappointing for him to argue that Christians have a moral obligation to help the poor via the coercion of government. That is a big leap from Christian philosophy, which I understand to encourage voluntary acts of charity and compassion. If anything is morally repugnant, it is Easterbrook’s interpretation of Christianity, under which Gregg Easterbrook determines what is compassionate, and then forces everyone, at gunpoint if necessary, to pay whatever he determines to be “fair” wages and taxes.

In my view, what Easterbrook has done is take the cognitive dissonance discussed above a step further: not content just to let government action substitute for his own ethical responsibilities, he’s actually made government action an ethical responsibility in its own right. Rather than noting that it’s a shame that poverty still exists in our society and making the entirely reasonable argument that people ought to heed their ethical responsibilities by dedicating more of their resources (time, money, labor, whatever) to helping the poor, he’s arguing that people have an ethical responsibility to make government help the poor. That is to say, Easterbrook believes that this self-deceptive rationalization is an ethical responsibility. I hardly need to mention that Easterbrook is far from alone in this opinion.

So what’s my point? Simply this: if you have an ethical obligation, government action does not relieve you of that obligation and is not a substitute for acting on that obligation. So let’s stop deluding ourselves.


Posted by shonk at 07:24 PM in What the Fuck? | permalink | comment

What makes people want to barcode themselves? Or, for that matter, literally barcode themselves (and lots more examples)? Conspiracy theorists have been decrying the barcode as the mark of the beast and predicting mandatory barcode tattoos as part of the New World Order for years; apparently lots of people want to get a head start.

February 16, 2004

Evolutionary Psychology

Posted by shonk at 10:25 PM in Geek Talk | permalink | 2 comments

Having a long-standing interest in evolutionary psychology, I was pleased to come across a link to this interview with Dr. David Buss over at Improved Clinch. Therein, Buss addresses the opposition to evolutionary psychology’s findings. On the topic of political dogmatism:

A second [reaction] comes from political ideologies—people have agendas for making the world a better place, and evolutionary psychology is erroneously believed to be at odds with social change.

People think “if things like violence or infidelity are rooted in evolved adaptations, then we are doomed to have violence and infidelity because they are an unalterable part of human nature. On the other hand, if violence and infidelity are caused by the ills of society, by media, by bad parenting, then we can fix these things and make a better world.”

It’s what I call the “romantic fallacy”: I don’t want people to be like that, therefore they are not like that [interviewer’s emphasis]. The thinking is wrong-headed, of course. Knowledge of our evolved psychological mechanisms gives us more power to change, if change is desired, not less power.

On the “social constructivist” opposition (the first paragraph is attributed to Buss, but I’m assuming that’s a mistake, so I’ve changed the initials to those of the interviewer, Bernard Chapin):

BC: Under the “stranger than fiction” category, in a class I taught last semester to graduate level teachers concerning human development, all but one of them answered negatively to the statement that there is a biological basis behind many of our mating behaviors. They honestly believe that “male” and “female” are socially constructed roles. How does one combat such dogmatic views? What suggestions do you have for refuting the “social constructionist” only bias among many students?

DDB: Unfortunately, students are still being taught long-outmoded ideas that have no empirical or theoretical warrant. Evolutionary psychology has revolutionized our understanding of human mating, and many other domains as well. If you ask “what new insights and empirical discoveries have been produced by those operating in a social constructivist theoretical framework?”, you come up empty-handed. If you ask the same question of those working in evolutionary psychology, you come up with literally hundreds of fascinating empirical discoveries, generated by powerful evolution-based theories.

Eventually, the outmoded social constructivist theories will fade away, since they do not generate novel insights or important empirical discoveries. Evolutionary psychology, in contrast, is here to stay.

So stick that in your pipes and smoke it, Sigmund and Carl!

L'habit seul fait le moine aujourd'hui

Posted by Curt at 04:10 PM in Ramblings | permalink | comment

It seems to me that the sociologists may have it right that racism is increasing today, but not as a result of the standard litany of rote causes. We certainly obsess about the idea of race probably more than at any other time in the history of humanity, certainly more than anyone did in the segregated South except possibly Joe Christmas. Perhaps I should reach back a little further. A strange thing has happened in the world: there was once a time in which the majority of people in the world were animists, that is believed that every sensible object in their view was possessed by, or under the influence of, a guiding spirit, a living thing which interacted with us. The world was a great mystery, but endlessly stimulating, inspired by the interaction with new and unknown personalities every day, in the trees, in the grass, in the building stones. Then came the long shadow of Plato and his age. He did not deny the existence of true forces and animating powers in the universe, but he consigned them to some distant netherworld, far removed from the empty shapes and illusions of ours. This was only compounded by the relentless monomania of Christianity, Islam, and the like, with their reduction of all cause and force to the sheer singularity of an omnipotent God, like the single animating eye of the sun in the desert. And finally we have arrived at the era of Nietzscheanism, with its dictum that “behind the masks lie only other masks,” and now we are literally unable to comprehend the possibility of real substance in the world in which we interact, and instead resort to investing meaning in purely arbitrary and incidental appearances. It is no wonder, then, that we should fix on race as a talisman of cultural and existential significance (this is as true of academics and activists chanting “Black is beautiful” as it is of any confirmed racists); if ideas, principles, passions, or even simple intuitions no longer hold any significance, then why not build up something as utterly meaningless as skin color into a founding determinant of personality? It should be clear that I do not view this fixation as a disease limited solely to the subject of skin color implied by the term “racism” but rather as a product of the time-bred suspiciousness and nihilistic idealism of centuries of academic thought.

Finding Humor in Unlikely Places

Posted by shonk at 01:51 AM in Literature , Politics | permalink | comment

Apparently the mid-winter doldrums have gotten to be too much for the College Republicans at Roger Williams University in Bristol, Connecticut, so they’ve decided to liven things up by protesting affirmative action with a whites-only scholarship :

The application for the $250 award requires an essay on “why you are proud of your white heritage” and a recent picture to “confirm whiteness.”

“Evidence of bleaching will disqualify applicants,” says the application.

Now, some may take offense to this, but in my opinion, it’s pretty damn funny. I mean, come on, “[e]vidence of bleaching”? And I, personally, would love to read the essays they get. You know a few will be wacko white-supremacist screeds, which, admittedly would be a little scary, but I’d be willing to bet that most would be hilarious, because the essay writer would either be treating the whole thing as a joke or trying like hell to be serious and as a result writing the most stilted, artificial crap imaginable. Hopefully, someone will rise to the challenge, write a good satirical piece and win the whole thing.

Now, some of you may not find a lot of humor in this. You may be wondering what, exactly, I find so funny about these right-wing reactionaries and their racist programs. Well, here’s what’s funny: a few decades ago, people started noticing that black people were underrepresented among college graduates; instead of doing something productive, like raising the standards in high schools, or tying teacher salaries to performance instead of tenure, or, heaven forbid, saying “maybe this whole ‘public school’ paradigm needs to be re-thought”, those people decided to start accepting and giving extra money to under-qualified black students. Which isn’t funny, in and of itself; it’s actually quite tragic, because two of the primary consequences of this approach were to engender racial jealousy on the part of whites and to ensure that the qualifications of every black college graduate were viewed with suspicion by those paying attention to what was going on. No, what’s funny about this mess is that otherwise intelligent people take it so damn seriously, to the point where they get spitting mad when somebody says “Hey, this doesn’t make any sense”. Now, this scholarship thing isn’t, to me, as good as affirmative action bake sales, which take the thing to its logical conclusion, a sort of reductio ad absurdum, but it’s still good for a chuckle.

Unfortunately, I’m not convinced the College Republicans at Roger Williams or anywhere else have enough of a sense of humor to laugh about this whole thing. In my experience, College Republicans are a pretty dour lot, unable to take a joke and usually the first ones to run to the dean when someone plays a joke on them. At least, that was my experience in undergraduate, where the president of the College Republicans was a seriously uninteresting person with no trace of a sense of humor.

Oddly enough, this president of the College Republicans at my otherwise fine undergraduate institution was from Olathe, Kansas, which is the municipality represented by Kansas State Senator Kay O’Connor, who made headlines in 2001 for her opposition to women’s suffrage. That’s right, she’s not only a voter herself, but a state senator, and she’s opposed to women’s suffrage. Her reasoning:

I’m an old-fashioned woman. Men should take care of women, and if men were taking care of women (today) we wouldn’t have to vote. I’m sorry women have not been taken more care of. We have gotten the short end of the stick.

Sadly, this isn’t the sort of irony that’s funny; rather, it’s the sort that makes me want to punch a wall. Women have indeed gotten the short end of the stick throughout much of history, but I wouldn’t say that the 19th Amendment was one such instance.

Speaking of fools, the estate of James Joyce is certainly giving O’Connor a run for her money. They’ve threatened legal action for any public readings of Joyce’s work at the celebration of the 100th Anniversary of Bloomsday. For those that don’t know what Bloomsday is, it’s the name given to June 16, 1904, the date on which the action in Joyce’s Ulysses (whose primary character is Leopold Bloom) takes place. As pointed out in the above-linked post:

Public readings do not displace commercialised use of Joyce’s work, so the estate does not lose income from their occurrence. Of course, the estate is technically within its ‘rights’ (though this does indicate reasons for reforming European copyright law) but such vigorous enforcement is unnecessary and distasteful.

I would go a step further than that, and assert that public readings of Ulysses would probably encourage additional purchases of the work, which is a famously difficult read but is quite lyrical and funny when read aloud. In fact, the Joyce estate may well be hurting sales by raising such a fuss about what is intended to be a celebration of the book generally considered the best of the 20th century. Since amazon.co.uk has only sold 2,374 copies of the beast in its history, one might have thought the estate would have taken this into account.

Of course, what’s really ridiculous about the whole thing is that Ulysses actually went into the public domain in 1941, 50 years after Joyce’s death, only to go back into copyright when the EU retroactively extended copyrights to death + 70 years in July of 1995, which surely made for some interesting times in the publishing industry. One might wonder how, exactly, a work can simply be removed from the public domain, but it does provide for an interesting possibility: “readings from certain editions of Ulysses, published or
prepared in the period between 1991 and 1995, could fall outside the
Joyce Estate’s control.”

In a further twist, if current copyright laws had been in effect for the entirety of the last millennium, Ulysses might never have been published in the first place, as it is rife with emulations of other writers’ styles, popular songs and advertising slogans and jingles; literally hundreds of lawsuits might have been filed, rather than the measly one that DJ Danger Mouse currently faces.

Now if only Ms. O’Connor would speak out about how books like Ulysses are eroding our moral sensibilities, I might be able to tie together all the loose strings in this post into some sort of coherent conclusion.

February 15, 2004


Posted by shonk at 04:33 PM in Geek Talk | permalink | 10 comments

Serre's Linear Representations on Finite Groups

If I were a Springer-Verlag Graduate Text in Mathematics, I would be J.-P. Serre’s Linear Representations of Finite Groups.

My creator is a Professor at the College de France. He has previously published a number of books, including Groupes Algebriques et Corps de Classes, Corps Locaux, and Cours d’Arithmetique (A Course in Arithmetic, published by Springer-Verlag as Vol. 7 in the Graduate Texts in Mathematics).

Which Springer GTM would you be? The Springer GTM Test

February 14, 2004


Posted by shonk at 06:50 PM in Geek Talk | permalink | comment

Three different sorts of maps, all fun to play with:

the Degree Confluence Project — A project attempting to get pictures of each of the spots on Earth where a latitude line crosses a longitude line.

gnodA “search-engine to find things you don’t know about.” I had the most fun with the map of literature.

KartOO — A visual metasearch engine.

How to explain bumper stickers?

Posted by Curt at 04:44 PM in Bitching and Moaning | permalink | 9 comments

Why are the anti-war activists and the anti-capitalism activists and everyone else who might be suspected of having it in for the U.S. government so desperate these days to assert their patriotism? I’m no supporter of activists of any stripe, but it seems to me that they do themselves a double humiliation by insisting that their blind obedience and self-abasement before some idiotic cause does not preclude them from also blindly obeying and self-abasing themselves before a flag. I have my doubts about the sincerity of a lot of this rhetoric, but even if all of the braying to the effect of “Peace is patriotic” or “I’m just as patriotic as anyone in this country even though I think the U.S. should be exactly like Sweden” were sincerely meant, it’s still rather contemptible. Why not be unpatriotic? Would that be insufficiently narrow-minded? Once again, we must have recourse to the under-appreciated sage Bill Hicks:

“I was over in Australia and [everyone asked:] ‘Are you proud to be an American?’ And I was like, ‘Um, I don’t know, I didn’t have a lot to do with it. You know, my parents fucked there, that’s about all. You know, I was in the spirit realm at that time; [I shouted:] ‘Fuck in Paris! Fuck in Paris!’ but they couldn’t hear me, because I didn’t have a mouth. I was a spirit without lungs or a mouth, or vocal cords. They fucked here. Okay, I’m proud.”

But of course, it’s better that they didn’t fuck in Paris, because than he would have been French, and it remains an open question whether the French possess a sense of humor (this article suggests that they don’t).

Finally, a unified theory!

Posted by Curt at 02:11 PM in Language , Literature | permalink | 1 comment

While, today I have found yet another long-overdue takedown of a linguistic travesty. And no, it is not the snide carping about “Ulysses” among Irish writers preceding the centenary of the “longest day.” I hope that my perspective on complaining will be easily anticipated by now. It is all pure jealousy, even if some of the literary points of the matter are well-taken. Why attempt to beat a corpse now? Would they prefer that Irish writers have the stature that they did before Joyce? No, rather I mean this dismissal of thesaurae in general and the still-in-print production of Mr. Roget in particular. The best line, apart from all the sectarian quibbling about what really constitutes a synonym, is this:

“The safest storehouse for writers to fetch words from is their own head. In it are the words and phrases, read and heard, that have struck or pleased them. Among these will be the colloquialisms, the neologisms, the new metaphors hatched out of current events, that are unlikely to be in any existing list. Only the treasury of the mind can supply just those turns of phrase with which writers express their own thoughts and not somebody else’s.”

As much as this may seem a pure and unexonerated platitude, it is so very true in one important respect. In the continuing argument of attrition over the relevance or non-relevance of a literary canon, I notice that the one thread which holds together almost uniformally the writers who are with little controversy acknowledged to be the most important in their particular language, Shakespeare, Dante, Pushkin, Joyce, Kierkegaard, Chaucer, is that these were the most prolific inventors in their literary languages (even when that invention consists primarily of borrowing from other languages). Consider Chaucer and Shakespeare. Chaucer lived in the very midst of the great shift from Old English to Middle English, and he had an inestimable role in expanding its grandeur and intellectual capability by importing hundreds of French- and Latin-derived words to serve his work in the French- and Latin-derived literary genres in which he wrote. In the decades before he was born, English was a very Germanic, still basically oral, and regional language. Within a century of his death, the English language was undeniably within the orbit of the greater post-Roman intellectual imperium of Europe. Similarly, roughly the lifetime of Shakespeare constitutes the period of transition between the Chaucerian form of Middle English and English as it is spoken today. In Italy, similarly, if one reads any literature from before Dante’s birth, it will likely read like a fairly indecipherable dialectical form of Latin, whereas “The Divine Comedy” is written in language almost identical to modern Italian. I could go on: when I asked my best friend about how Pushkin had affected the Russian language, particularly in terms of borrowing words from French, he started reaching out and snatching at the air in all directions to demonstrate. Anyway, needless to say this point is less well-appreciated than it should be, because few people can read all of the major literary languages, and so the linguistic style and influence of the great writers must be largely accepted on faith.

The exceptions in this case definitely prove the rule. French, for example, certainly has canonical writers but no truly dominant figures. And probably the relentless codification and self-ossification of the language on the part of the people, seemingly designed to stamp out all irregularities and innovations, is largely the reason for this. Furthermore, the writers whose reputations stand at the apex in French literature, Corneille, Racine, Molière, Montaigne, Mme. de Sévigné, were writing at the time of, and indeed helped in the creation of, the establishment of the codes and regulations of the language and its literary forms. Flaubert’s method of composition has been widely admired, but it also makes him emblematic in my opinion of the whole course of French literature and of secondary literary lights generally: he searched for the exact right word within the confines of his language rather than inventing (or stealing) it. Thus, it seems almost indisputible and proverbial to me that, whatever the psychological and philosophical implications of a writer’s work, their most important influence will be on the shape of their language. Perhaps modern literature is generally a matter of secondary importance today because the creation of new words, new means of expression and, ultimately, new modes of consciousness, derives today largely from other areas of culture. Whose mode of expression in speech (and perhaps in thought) is not sensibly shaped by the use of language in movies, in music, and in business? But whose voice, except in a certain sort of academic context, is shaped by contemporary poetry, for example?

I would be the last person to bleat about the lost kingdom of the poets or some such nonsense, but it is very obvious to me that the importance of a writer is almost entirely correlated with the extent to which he is the author of his language. Think of Samuel Johnson, the first dictionary-writer, who is regarded as the greatest literary figure of the 18th century in Britain, despite not writing a single book which is read (as opposed to used for reference) by anyone in his own time or ours. Or the two writers in English who have probably had the greatest influence on literature and culture in this century, Joyce (inarguably) and Tolkien (debatably). They were probably the two, in my opinion, who took on the project of the invention of language most seriously and on the most grandiose scale, and it seems to have been for both of them the most important consideration in their work. And consequently their notoreity is inassailable, despite some fumbling with rather basic elements of narrative writing in both cases.

Here's hoping the seller learned a lesson from Mike Rowe

Posted by shonk at 03:54 AM in What the Fuck? | permalink | 2 comments

The next eBay auction that will undoubtedly result in ridiculously massive and totally bogus bids: 867-5309

Actual Scholarship

Posted by shonk at 02:50 AM in Economics , Politics | permalink | 1 comment

Over the last couple days, I’ve been doing a lot of work and a lot of reading, but not very much writing. I hope you’ll excuse me for merely providing links to two very thought-provoking articles. If you have the time, I strongly recommend reading both. If you only read one, I would encourage you to read the second (especially you law school types). And yes, it’s a complete coincidence that both are written by professors at George Mason.

“Why I Am Not an Austrian Economist”, by Bryan Caplan.

“The Myth of the Rule of Law”, by John Hasnas.

An excerpt from the Hasnas article:

If four generations of jurisprudential scholars have shown that the rule of law is a myth, why does the concept still command such fervent commitment? The answer is implicit in the question itself, for the question recognizes that the rule of law is a myth and like all myths, it is designed to serve an emotive, rather than cognitive, function. The purpose of a myth is not to persuade one’s reason, but to enlist one’s emotions in support of an idea. And this is precisely the case for the myth of the rule of law; its purpose is to enlist the emotions of the public in support of society’s political power structure.

People are more willing to support the exercise of authority over themselves when they believe it to be an objective, neutral feature of the natural world. This was the idea behind the concept of the divine right of kings. By making the king appear to be an integral part of God’s plan for the world rather than an ordinary human being dominating his fellows by brute force, the public could be more easily persuaded to bow to his authority. However, when the doctrine of divine right became discredited, a replacement was needed to ensure that the public did not view political authority as merely the exercise of naked power. That replacement is the concept of the rule of law.

People who believe they live under “a government of laws and not people” tend to view their nation’s legal system as objective and impartial. They tend to see the rules under which they must live not as expressions of human will, but as embodiments of neutral principles of justice, i.e., as natural features of the social world. Once they believe that they are being commanded by an impersonal law rather than other human beings, they view their obedience to political authority as a public-spirited acceptance of the requirements of social life rather than mere acquiescence to superior power. In this way, the concept of the rule of law functions much like the use of the passive voice by the politician who describes a delict on his or her part with the assertion “mistakes were made.” It allows people to hide the agency of power behind a facade of words; to believe that it is the law which compels their compliance, not self-aggrandizing politicians, or highly capitalized special interests, or wealthy white Anglo-Saxon Protestant males, or _______________ (fill in your favorite culprit).

But the myth of the rule of law does more than render the people submissive to state authority; it also turns them into the state’s accomplices in the exercise of its power. For people who would ordinarily consider it a great evil to deprive individuals of their rights or oppress politically powerless minority groups will respond with patriotic fervor when these same actions are described as upholding the rule of law.

Consider the situation in India toward the end of British colonial rule. At that time, the followers of Mohandas Gandhi engaged in nonviolent civil disobedience by manufacturing salt for their own use in contravention of the British monopoly on such manufacture. The British administration and army responded with mass imprisonments and shocking brutality. It is difficult to understand this behavior on the part of the highly moralistic, ever-so-civilized British unless one keeps in mind that they were able to view their activities not as violently repressing the indigenous population, but as upholding the rule of law.

The same is true of the violence directed against the nonviolent civil rights protestors in the American South during the civil rights movement. Although much of the white population of the southern states held racist beliefs, one cannot account for the overwhelming support given to the violent repression of these protests on the assumption that the vast majority of the white Southerners were sadistic racists devoid of moral sensibilities. The true explanation is that most of these people were able to view themselves not as perpetuating racial oppression and injustice, but as upholding the rule of law against criminals and outside agitators. Similarly, since despite the . 60s rhetoric, all police officers are not “fascist pigs,” some other explanation is needed for their willingness to participate in the “police riot” at the 1968 Democratic convention, or the campaign of illegal arrests and civil rights violations against those demonstrating in Washington against President Nixon’s policies in Vietnam, or the effort to infiltrate and destroy the sanctuary movement that sheltered refugees from Salvadorian death squads during the Reagan era or, for that matter, the attack on and destruction of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco. It is only when these officers have fully bought into the myth that “we are a government of laws and not people,” when they truly believe that their actions are commanded by some impersonal body of just rules, that they can fail to see that they are the agency used by those in power to oppress others.

The reason why the myth of the rule of law has survived for 100 years despite the knowledge of its falsity is that it is too valuable a tool to relinquish. The myth of impersonal government is simply the most effective means of social control available to the state.

February 12, 2004

Deregulating the Airwaves

Posted by shonk at 04:15 AM in Economics | permalink | comment

Unfortunately, I don’t have time to comment on this, but I thought I would pass along the link: “Why airwaves should be deregulated”

February 11, 2004

Unfortunately, you don't get what you pay for

Posted by shonk at 12:49 AM in Politics | permalink | 13 comments

After nearly a three-week layoff, JTK returns with a vengeance :

Q. Who Gets A Better President …

… - a conscientious, informed, principled and intelligent voter or a dim-witted and ignorant voter?

A. They both get the same president!

February 10, 2004

Count me out of the movement

Posted by Curt at 02:35 PM in What the Fuck? | permalink | 8 comments

I am a vegetarian and despise the Atkins diet for a number of reasons, but if this is the type of “evidence” that the vegetarian activists are relying on to discredit it, they need to make a break with their consciences long enough to shoot themselves…

Politics on Drugs

Posted by shonk at 12:41 AM in Economics , Politics | permalink | 6 comments

In a very thoughtful article in Wired, “Stop Making Pills Political Prisoners”, Lawrence Lessig addresses the following issue: many people in poor countries are dying because the drugs that could save their lives are too expensive.

This behavior outrages many in the developed and developing worlds alike. How can drug companies be so callous? How can they deny medicine to millions just so they make more money?

The pattern also puzzles economists. Patents give drug companies monopolies over their products. The rational strategy for a monopolist is to price-discriminate, to charge more in places that can afford it and less in places that can’t. For example, with price discrimination, it would make economic sense to charge Africans practically nothing for drugs sold in Africa, as long as the same product could be sold in the US for lots more.

So what’s the problem? Why doesn’t this sort of benign price descrimination result in cheap drugs for the third world? As Lessig notes, arbitrage is a problem, but not an impossible one.

Another reason is more intractable: the grandstanding politician. If big pharma price-discriminates rationally, it guarantees the following query from some representative in some committee hearing: “How come a hospital in Lagos spends $1 for this pill, but the local Catholic hospital in my district must pay $5,000?” And, of course, in the Inquisition that is congressional testimony, there is no effective way to answer such a question. Graphs about monopolies and proofs about the benefits of price discrimination don’t get you far on Capitol Hill. The rational drug company thus expects that rational price discrimination would lead to irrational price control - and the end of the ability of big pharma to earn enough from high-paying countries to support the cost of developing drugs.

Yet again, we see the justification of the equation

rational ignorance + public choice = massive suffering

It is quite rational for the politician to be ignorant of the beneficial side effects of price discrimination; after all, his overriding priority is to get re-elected, and the people in Lagos aren’t casting ballots in Congressional District 3 (hence the public choice part of the equation). Now, one might well argue that a congressman has no duty towards the people dying in Lagos. Be that as it may, the simple fact of the matter is that the hypothetical drug company being discussed will charge a profit-maximizing price in as many places as it can, so the politician is really doing his constituents no good by grandstanding about the price-discrimination. The net effect is that everybody (except the politician) is the same or worse off than they would be otherwise.

Just to make things perfectly clear, I would just like to point out that, although the proximate cause of unneccessary suffering and death in Lagos is, as the anti-globalizationists point out, the greed of big corporations, the ultimate cause is, in fact, the self-serving state. By which I mean to say that, indeed, the reason cheap drugs aren’t widely available in the third world is exactly because it’s not profitable for the pharmaceutical corporations, which have profit as their number-one priority. However, the reason offering cheap drugs to the third world isn’t profitable (at least in this scenario) is not because of “market failure”, stunted morality or any of the standard reasons, but rather because of the perverse incentives created by state action. And not just malicious state action, either: as I’ve pointed out, the politicians who would potentially intervene and try to stop price discrimination are not acting irrationally, given their incentives, nor are they actively trying to screw over the third world. I’m not a fan of corporatism, but I do feel sorry for those in charge of big corporations who get the blame for the problems in the third world when the blame rightfully lies at the feet of the same people who have managed to hoodwink the public into believing that they offer a solution. That Which is Seen, and That Which is Not Seen, indeed.

At this point, it seems appropriate that I insert a caveat. I’m not trying to justify the patent system in this post, as anyone who is a frequent reader is probably aware. Rather, if patents are going to be enforced, it seems to me that they ought to be enforced consistently. That is to say, part of the justification for patents is precisely the sort of beneficial price discrimination being discussed, since the arbitrage hurdle is more difficult to clear absent a legal monopoly (by arbitrage, I mean someone buying pills in bulk for a buck in Lagos and then selling them for a fraction of the $5000 price tag in New York), so it simply makes no sense to justify the patent system on one hand with beneficial price discrimination while effectively never allowing that price discrimination to take place.

February 09, 2004

The eagle has been landed!

Posted by Curt at 03:27 PM in Literature | permalink | 2 comments

Well, at least the Weekly Standard wasn’t all bad this week. Joseph Epstein finally took down George Steiner

Best Epstein description of Steiner: “an incomparable impression of the world’s most learned man.”

Most inadvertently hilarious Steiner line: “”the interactive, correctable, interruptible, media of word processors, of electronic textualities on the Internet and the web, may amount to a return, to which Vico would call a ricorso, to orality.” Well, yes, Vico might call it that. Then again, so probably would anyone else who spoke Italian.

Second-most inadvertently hilarious Steiner sentence: “Relations with Taoism and Confucianism will be those of rivalry and reciprocal insemination.” Reciprocal insemination—where the hell was he born? No wonder he thinks homoeroticism is so essential to teaching.

Sure, why not nationalize the Super Bowl

Posted by shonk at 01:15 AM in Sports | permalink | 2 comments

Okay, I have to admit, I was pretty sure that the statement I quoted in this post would be the dumbest thing I would read all day. Turns out I was wrong. Today’s winner comes courtesy of the Weekly Standard’s proposal to nationalize the Super Bowl :

bq. You cannot make the American public, least of all its children, travel a gauntlet of pornography in order to celebrate what has become more or less a national holiday. Among the solutions that ought to be on the table as we discuss what to do about this calamitous spectacle is that of nationalizing the championship game. Prevail on the NFL to let any television station that wishes the right to do its own broadcast. That way, those who want a comment-free version of the game can watch C-SPAN, those who want color commentary can watch one of the networks, and those who want a peep show can watch CBS.

Excuse me?!? Nationalize the Super Bowl? The only semi-coherent defense of nationalizing anything I’ve ever heard was based on the idea that people had a right to the thing being nationalized. So are we to gather that the staff over at the Weekly Standard thinks being able to watch the Super Bowl is a fundamental American right? As Aaron at Football Outsiders comments :

Possibly the stupidest idea ever. This column — no, not just a column, an editorial — from the Weekly Standard is also the official signal that the Republican establishment has totally, completely given up on limited government and the free market. Apparently, in the future, professional football will be rationed to the citizens through a Soviet-style government bureaucracy so as to limit breast sightings.

Here’s the simple solution to whatever problem there was with Janet Jackson’s bared breast, impotence pills and farting horses: if that sort of thing offends you, don’t fucking watch. The whiny retort, of course, is this:

But, but, but little kids want to watch the Super Bowl, and shouldn’t be subjected to that stuff. Why, it could damage them. Think of the Children™

First of all, if you’re doing such a poor job of raising your children that they would be damaged by a naked breast or a farting horse, you’re not much of a parent. You might want to consider the possibility that teaching your kids that the human body is evil, that the naked female body is even more evil, and that the torso of a naked female body is most evil of all is damaging your kids far more than a two second exposure to Janet Jackson’s unappealing mammary. Read The Professor and the Madman and pay particular attention to what W.C. Minor does to himself at the end (or, if you’re lazy, just read the fifth-to-last paragraph of this quick synopsis).

Second, we live in the age of TiVo (and, even if we didn’t, you could achieve the same effect with a VCR). If your kid wants to watch the Super Bowl and you don’t feel like he can handle the halftime show or the commercials, give him the TiVo replay sans accoutrements.

There’s one other thing about this article that raises my ire that I’d like to comment on: the seemingly increasingly common idea that state action is a legitimate means of persuasion. There’s no way in hell, outside of a federal law (or, I suppose, a truly gigantic federal subsidy) that the NFL is going to give up the massive amount of revenue that it garners from selling the rights to broadcast the Super Bowl, so this notion of “prevail[ing] on the NFL” is a thinly-disguised euphemism for “forcing the NFL”. News flash: there’s a big damn difference between persuasion and coercion and just because it would be someone else (i.e. the state) doing the coercion doesn’t make it okay. A lot of people seem to operate under the mistaken delusion that the state has supernatural rights that justify it doing things that no single person or other organization has the right to do. Do not make the mistake of confusing legality with morality.

February 08, 2004

Rhetorical Question

Posted by shonk at 09:39 PM in Uncategorized Current Events | permalink | comment

How soon before a lawsuit is filed against American Airlines?

Too Stupid for Words

Posted by shonk at 02:23 PM in What the Fuck? | permalink | 1 comment

Keith Carson, Alameda County supervisor, expresses his doubts about the use of police department funds to purchase a gunboat to patrol San Francisco Bay:

I think local officials are caught in a quandary. We may have the gunboat out there to protect the goods moving on the water, but the money taken from some other area, some preventative program, might force some mentally deranged person with a gun to shoot somebody. [Emphasis added]


Aliens Cause Global Warming

Posted by shonk at 02:44 AM in Politics , Science | permalink | comment

Please, do yourself a favor and read Michael Crichton’s speech Aliens Cause Global Warming. If you still have a few minutes, be sure to check out his Remarks to the Commonwealth Club, which touch on similar issues.

Gay Penguins

Posted by shonk at 01:29 AM in Sex | permalink | 2 comments

According to the New York Times, homosexuality is common among animals. Thank God; maybe cultural conservatives will finally stop yammering about how homosexuality is “un-natural” and, therefore, ought to be punishable by jail time. Incidentally, I would mention that this position is only one half of the silly argument from nature and the other half isn’t any more intelligent. As Paul L. Vasey, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Lethbridge, points out:

For some people, what animals do is a yardstick of what is and isn’t natural. They make a leap from saying if it’s natural, it’s morally and ethically desirable. Infanticide is widespread in the animal kingdom. To jump from that to say it is desirable makes no sense. We shouldn’t be using animals to craft moral and social policies for the kinds of human societies we want to live in. Animals don’t take care of the elderly. I don’t particularly think that should be a platform for closing down nursing homes.

Abiola gets a little more worked up :

Even if it could be established that homosexuality was rampant in other animal species, that would still tell us nothing about whether we as humans ought to endorse it: after all, cannibalism is rampant amongst animals too, but we refrain from giving it our approval. On the other hand, even if it could be shown that in no other species had homosexuality ever occurred, we would have no justification for ruling it out in our own - no other species builds skyscrapers, drives cars or watches movies, either. Rather than waste time and energy on a spurious appeal to an ill-defined concept of what is “natural” or otherwise, I think gay activists are better off taking the libertarian position: “it’s my life, I’m not forcing you to join me, so leave me alone.

Anyway, I personally couldn’t care less about anybody else’s sexual orientation (or “preference”, as seems to be the new buzzword), but I do have two questions. First off, how exactly do lesbian penguins have sex? Maybe I’m behind the times, but I was under the impression that penguin engineers hadn’t mastered the vibrating motor yet. Second, what, exactly, was this article doing in the “Arts” section? Surely the “Science” section (or “Politics” at a real stretch) would have been more appropriate to the content. Or were the Times editors trying to ensure that the article’s readership would be exclusively homosexual?

(Those were jokes, dammit. Not very good ones, I’ll admit, but at least I tried to inject some humor. Don’t I get some credit for that?)

February 07, 2004

The Attack of the Baroque

Posted by shonk at 09:34 PM in Literature | permalink | comment

In the spirit of what Curt’s done recently with Heine and Rudel, I wanted to share three of my favorite Spanish Baroque poems.

I’m not much of a poet, so my translations aren’t terribly good, but they’re better than nothing, I suppose, if you don’t speak Spanish. The short lines in the first poem made a poetic translation difficult, but I’ve done the best I can. I took a bit more license with the second, trying to maintain the rhyme scheme at the cost of word-for-word literalism. The third is virtually untranslatable, so I’ve gone with a strictly literal translation. Enjoy.

Letrilla XLVIII

  Andeme yo caliente
    y ríase la gente

  Traten otros del gobierno
del mundo y sus monarquías,
mientras gobiernan mis días
mantequillas y pan tierno,
y las mañanas de invierno
naranjada y aguardiente,
    y ríase la gente.

  Coma en dorada vajilla
el Príncipe mil cuidados,
como píldoras dorados;
que yo en mi pobre mesilla
quiero más una morcilla
que en el asador reviente,
    y ríase la gente.

  Cuando cubra las montañas
de blanca nieve el enero,
tenga yo lleno el brasero
de bellotas y castañas,
y quien las dulces patrañas
del Rey que rabió me cuente,
    y ríase la gente.

  Busque muy en hora buena
el mercader nuevos soles;
yo concha y caracoles
entre la menuda arena,
escuchando a Filomena
sobre el chopo de la fuente,
    y ríase la gente.

  Pase a media noche el mar,
y arda en amarosa llama,
Leandro por ver su dama;
que yo más quiero pasar
del golfo de mi lagar
la blanca o roja corriente,
    y ríase la gente.

  Pues Amor es tan cruel
que de Píramo y su amada
hace tálamo una espada,
do se junten ella en él,
sea mi Tisbe un pastel
y la espada sea mi diente,
    y ríase la gente.

—Luis de Góngora, 1581


  Let me walk with feeling
    and let the people laugh

  Let others play at governing
the world and its monarchies,
while my days are governed by
a bit of butter and soft bread,
and on early winter morn
a bit of orange and brandy,
    and let the people laugh.

  Dining on a golden plate
let the Prince have his thousand cares,
like tiny golden capsules;
for I at my poor table
prefer to have black sausage
bursting with juice on the spit,
    and let the people laugh.

  When January has covered
the mountains in deep white snow,
let my brasier be loaded
full of acorns and chestnuts,
and let there be a friend to tell
stories of the king who went mad,
    and let the people laugh.

  Let the merchant - good luck to him -
search the globe for brand-new suns;
I’ll be finding shells and snails
while walking on the fine-grained sand,
listening to the nightingale
singing from the poplar’s branch,
    and let the people laugh.

  Passing over the midnight sea,
burning with amorous flame,
let Leander seek his lady;
for I prefer to let pass
from the gulf of my winepress
the white or the red current,
    and let the people laugh.

  Since Love is so cruel as to
make for Pyramus and his beloved
a wedding bed from sharpened steel
upon which he and she unite,
let a cake be my Thisbe
and the sword shall be my tooth,
    and let the people laugh.

Epitafio 212
  A Roma sepultada en sus ruinas

  Buscas en Roma a Roma, ¡oh, peregrino!,
y en Roma misma a Roma no la hallas:
cadáver son las que ostentó murallas,
y tumba de sí proprio el Palatino.
  Yace donde reinaba el Palatino;
y limadas del tiempo, las medallas
más se muestran destrozo a las batallas
de las edades que blasón latino.
  Sólo el Tibre quedó, cuya corriente,
si ciudad la regó, ya sepoltura
la llora con funesto son doliente.
  ¡Oh, Roma!, en tu grandeza, en tu hermosura,
huyó lo que era firme, y solamente
lo fugitivo permanece y dura.

—Francisco de Quevedo

Epitaph 212
  To Rome buried in her ruins

  You search in Rome for Rome, oh lost pilgrim!
but find Rome in Rome itself you never shall:
a corpse is all that’s left of her great wall,
and the Aventine is for itself a tomb.
  The Palatine can but lie where once it reigned;
and sanded down by force of time, the mounted seals
as victims of great battle themselves reveal,
Latium’s herald silenced as ages gained.
  Only the Tiber yet remains, whose current,
if once it watered the city, now weeps
at the casket with funereal lament.
  Oh, Rome!, in your grandeur, once so sweet,
that which was firm has since fled, without consent
now only the fleeting endures the heat.

Poema Satírico 522
  A un hombre de gran nariz

  Erase un hombre a una nariz pegado,
érase una nariz superlativa,
érase una alquitara medio viva,
érase un peje espada mal barbado;
  era un reloj de sol mal encarado,
érase un elefante boca arriba,
érase una nariz sayón y escriba,
un Ovidio Nasón mal narigado.
  Erase el espolón de una galera,
érase una pirámide de Egito,
los doce tribus de narices era;
  érase un naracísimo infinito,
frisón archinariz, caratulera,
sabañon garrafal, morado y frito.

— Francisco de Quevedo (Góngora was supposedly the inspiration for this satire)

Satiric Poem 522
  To a man with a great nose

  There once was a man to a nose attached,
there once was a superlative nose,
there once was a half-alive alembic,
there once was a badly bearded swordfish;
  there was a sundial badly faced,
there once was an elephant face up,
there once was a nose for scribes and executioners,
an Ovidius Naso badly nosed.
  There was once the bowsprit of a galley,
there once was a pyramid of Egypt,
the twelve tribes of noses it was;
  there once was an infinite nasality,
Frisian archnose, mask-mold,
painful swelling, purple and fried.

Zweig, no longer just auxiliary Nietzsche reading

Posted by Curt at 01:58 PM in Literature | permalink | 2 comments

Perhaps only in central Europe, stricken, pulverized and torn out apart by rival totalitarianisms, have what Theodore Dalrymple calls “pre-ideological” intellectuals really become popular heroes in the 20th century, those such as Franz Kafka, Vaclav Havel, and also, perhaps, Stefan Zweig, who seems to be remembered now in America, by myself included, as a somehow important intellectual but only actually read through tangential association with more influential writers, such as his biography of Nietzsche, for example. Dalrymple is evidently out to revive Zweig as a signal beacon for the beleagured minds equally repelled by every ideology, and he further advances, or at least does not refute, Zweig’s own claim that the Viennese milieu before the world wars was the place of greatest freedom in Europe precisely because no formal codification of a particular ideology of freedom existed. Perhaps pre-ideological, after all. While Dalrymple clearly sympathizes with and admires such a view and such a world, the connection between Zweig and Nietzsche is a curious one, because Nietzsche, regardless of the facts of his own life, would almost doubtless have despised utterly both the type of existence that Zweig emulated and the one that he actually conducted, a sort of rootless cosmopolitanism, passive, indecisive, prone to fits of self-martyrization, and above all not so much consciously doubting as merely unsure. Zweig himself mounted a defense of this way of living:

“In wars of ideas, the best combatants are not those who thrust themselves lightly but passionately into battle, but those who hesitate a long time before committing themselves, and whose decision matures slowly. It is only once all possibilities of understanding have been exhausted, and the struggle is unavoidable, that they enter the fight with a heavy heart.”

And in fact his application of this to his relationship to the Nazis, for example, while drawing widespread scorn both at the time and since, is in fact of a very deep kind, though the principal element is undoubtedly weariness:

“it is true that he joined no anti-Nazi groups and hardly raised his voice against the Nazi horror. As a free man, he did not want the Nazis to be able to dictate his mode of expression—even if it were in opposition to them. The insufficiency of this fastidiousness at such a conjuncture needs little emphasis. But Zweig felt—in his own case, since he did not speak for others—that strident denunciation would grant the Nazis a victory of sorts. And—like many intellectuals who overestimate the importance that the intellect plays in history and in life—Zweig viewed the Nazis as beneath contempt. Their doctrine and world outlook being so obviously ridiculous and morally odious, why waste time refuting them?”

Well, so perhaps Zweig was overly content with the impotent intellectual existence that drove Nietzsche to insanity. But it is interesting that while Nietzsche, in succumbing to insanity, essentially surrendered the fight against his intellectual demons, Zweig in fact, by killing himself, was the one who actually took the rote course of existentialist heroes, willing himself out of an existence whose constraints could no longer be suffficiently recompensed for him. Ultimately perhaps Zweig can be judged similarly to the manner in which he judges the main character of his novella Buchmendel:

“Zweig makes it clear that though Buchmendel was eccentric and his life one-dimensional, even stunted, he could offer his unique contribution to Viennese civilization because no one cared about his nationality. His work and knowledge were vastly more important to his cosmopolitan customers than his membership in a collectivity.”

I have no illusions that Vienna before the war was such a paradise as Zweig made it out to be, but at the same time that imagined paradise seems to have found expression and life at least in his own personal existence and in his imagination, which is as far as any of us should seek to inflict our ideals.

Around the Web Today

Posted by shonk at 01:59 AM in Uncategorized Current Events | permalink | 1 comment

In the news

  • Great taste, less privacy — the magnetic strip on the back of your driver’s license contains more data than you might like. And bars and restaurants see this as a great source for marketing data. As if this should surprise anyone.

Other interesting links

  • The Sound…Of Silence — there are at least nine different tracks of utter silence available on the iTunes Music Store. At 99 cents a pop. Disappointing to note that John Cage’s 4’33” is not, apparently, among them.

February 06, 2004

Écrasez toutes les autres infâmes!

Posted by Curt at 02:55 PM in Ramblings | permalink | 4 comments

Recent postings on anti-trust law have set me to thinking, as is my wont, in a very unhinged way. My brother claims below that a definition on the part of the government as to what constitutes fair competition and an open market is a real travesty of arbitrary imposition on business. But it would seem to me that our real national problem (or perhaps global problem) is not that markets are being forced open by the government but that the government is itself the grandest of violators of the principle of openness and competition. It seems to me furthermore that it is due to a lack of real contemplation of these concepts which leads to an expansion of governmental mandate into so many areas of social life. The social contract is clearly an absurdity, a farce, a delusion. Were we the least bit serious about the issue, no one would be a citizen save those who actually do sign a contract, put themselves under the jurisdiction of the law and take in the benefits that accrue to them from it (an agreement, by the way, which they ought to be allowed to dispense with whensoever they choose to), and hence children, for example, would not be considered citizens of a nation, though they ought to be granted the benefits of citizenship until they may decide whether they wish to carry on so. This constitutes my response to the grave failing of all political philosophy, which is the impossibility of true choice. Every government appropriates total control of a certain piece of the earth, and while one I suppose has the choice of leaving one to submit oneself to the authority of another, there is no such thing as true autonomy. Don’t come to me with objections as to whether the children of non-citizens would be included within a government’s purview or not, or whether restrictions should limit economic interaction between citizens and non-citizens—these can only be the objections of a compromised partisan, not of a truly reflective mind. All this cavilling is about only subsidiary issues—the real choice must be whether one wishes to submit oneself to the Mandate of Heaven or not. But of course this is all a delusion on my part—no one, not even the founding fathers, really believed a fig in the social contract; it was all a land grab of the spirit, and the greatest coup of all was in convincing so many people in the reality of the social contract, that they themselves had chosen to live in such a way—which I suppose they actually have, but not consciously and not seriously.

Clarett Ruled Eligible

Posted by shonk at 11:03 AM in Sports | permalink | comment

Maurice Clarett, Ohio State’s wayward star running back, yesterday won a lawsuit he brought against the NFL for barring him from the draft in April. The ruling stems from the judgment that the NFL’s policy to exclude players less than three years out of high school is a violation of anti-trust law. From the judge’s decision:

The NFL has not justified Clarett’s exclusion by demonstrating that the rule enhances competition. Indeed, Clarett has alleged the very type of injury — a complete bar to entry into the market for this services — that the antitrust laws are designed to prevent.

I tend to side with Skip Oliva when he says, “It’s always a sad day when a federal judge decides what ‘enhances competition’ in the private sector”; the NFL, as a private organization, ought to be able to set whatever standards for employment it desires, and then suffer whatever costs are associated with maintaining those standards. Instead, the NFL (and, ultimately, football fans) will be forced to suffer the consequences (and I’m convinced they will be largely negative) of unskilled players with high “potential” like Clarett being forced into the league by judicial fiat.

Oliva responds to the reaction of Tony Kornheiser and Andy Pollin:

Kornheiser said the judge upheld Clarett’s “civil rights”—as if the men who died at Yorktown, Gettysburg, and Iwo Jima gave their lives so Maurice Clarett could force the NFL to hire him against its will.

And if you think I’m out of line invoking those battles, consider how many lives and businesses have been destroyed by the antitrust laws. The “civil rights” of Americans are violated every day by those who infringe private property rights in the name of “competition” and “fairness”. These laws—and I use that term loosely here—are nothing more than an excuse for handing unchecked, arbitrary power to the government.

On this issue, he’s exactly right. Anti-trust laws, even at their best, are some of the worst-written and most arbitrarily-enforced laws currently extant. Furthermore, even if one were to accept the validity of the anti-trust framework, the NFL is not anywhere close to a monopoly. The NFL is really in the entertainment business, where they face incredibly stiff competition from not just other sports leagues, but movies, music, television, etc. To say that they have a meaningful monopoly on much of anything is to miss the forest for the trees. Certainly, someone like Clarett doesn’t have much of a chance for high-salary employment anywhere other than the NFL, but neither the NFL, the courts, nor anyone else should be held responsible for Clarett making personal choices that leave him only a single viable option. Clarett has no more of a right to be employed by the NFL than a sociology Ph.D. has a right to a tenure-track job, instead of a job waiting tables or selling over-priced coffee.

As Skip notes in the comments to Eric’s post over at Off Wing Opinion:

The court found this rule violated the Sherman Act under “rule of reason” analysis which, like all antitrust law, is purely an invention of the judiciary with no direct basis in statute. The court found there was a “relevant market” for “NFL players” that the NFL exercised “exclusive market power” over. This is conventional antitrust trickery — defining a relevant market as the company’s own product.

Ultimately, I suspect Clarett will be eligible for the April draft despite the NFL’s appeal of the ruling. If the team owners who make up the league’s leadership were really serious about preventing Clarett and others like him from turning the NFL into the NBA, none of them would draft him. In fact, not drafting Clarett would be a good idea even if he weren’t an underclassman, as his litany of troubles at Ohio State do not speak well of his maturity and ability to handle the increased competition he will face at the NFL level. Unfortunately, as noted on Off Wing Opinion, “if that were to happen, we’d have another lawsuit, except this time the charge would be collusion.” Not that it will ever get to that stage, as some limp-wristed owner is sure to make select Clarett in the early rounds.

JC of Old fishinghat has a slightly different take; he sees this as a positive judgment, not necessarily for its effect on the NFL, but rather for what it will do to the NCAA. He has this to say to the statement made by Wally Renfro, senior advisor to the president of the NCAA, that “[f]rom an educational standpoint, we’re disappointed in the court’s decision” :

Oh how you weep for the children…you jackass! Many of these poor kids with immense athletic talent are forced to sit through classes they don’t want or need. If a player wants a college degree, there is nothing stopping him from getting it after his short NFL career is over. There is nothing inherently valuable about a college degree. Just ask Bill Gates, who realized his skills were more valued in the real world than in the academy. Colleges earn huge sums of money for putting these kids on the football field, yet the college kids see nothing but a scholarship that they never wanted in the first place. The reason these kids play is the expected value of NFL wages that may or may not come in the future. The NFL gets a cheap training ground, the NCAA gets a low cost fundraiser. Don’t put that “for the good of the children” crap in my face! If we want antitrust law to do something good, we should hope the courts would tear down the college sports monopsony of the NCAA, which is propped up by heavy state subsidies.

Hear, hear! The NCAA’s stance on amateurism is ridiculous and the only reason, in my opinion, that it hasn’t been slapped down by the courts is that the biggest beneficiaries of major-college sports are state universities. Football programs like the one at Ohio State bring in millions of dollars in revenues for the university, while the players receive only a scholarship to attend classes that most of them have exactly zero interest in. Of course, there are exceptions, like former Colorado defensive lineman and current MIT professor Jim Hansen, but Division I football players are, on average, more likely to fail AIDS awareness than get a degree in Aeronautical Engineering.

Web Politics

Posted by shonk at 12:46 AM in Blogging | permalink | 2 comments

Over at bighead, Petya is thinking about getting rid of her links page. Why? As with most of us, I’m sure, she’s added friends’ sites to her list of links “not because I frequent them but because it’s the right thing to do.” At heart, though, her concern is the following:

This whole link-business is totally confusing. On one hand, it’s absolutely straight-forward. The internet is build on the premise that people will find information and each other through following them. On the other hand, however, especially within the blogosphere, it’s totally political. It facilitates the creation of a web-specific hierarchy where the more people link to you and the more mentions you get, the more valuable whatever you have to offer becomes. So much for the pure need for self-expression and the like.

Put another way, too many people forget the point that a URL is not a mark of quality, reasoning that a site linked to by a lot of people must be worthwhile.

I had written a very long (and very bad) response to this, but I think, instead, that I’ll just make the point that online dynamics are fundamentally social, not political. It’s tempting to ascribe the bad aspects to “politics”, but in so doing I think we stunt our ability to understand and explain those dynamics. Much as we may dislike it, not all hierarchies are the product of politics.

And yes, I’m aware that “political” has a colloquial as well as a technical usage. But I think that the misapplication of the term is an impediment to communication and every once in a while I feel the need to rant about it.

February 05, 2004

Cubism Pisses Bill O'Reilly Off

Posted by shonk at 11:43 PM in Ramblings | permalink | 3 comments

Over at mock savvy, Neil points out how silly Bill O’Reilly’s concern about the erosion of values is:

He goes on to fret over secularization, and the attrition of “values that made - and still make - our nation great.” What values might those be? The Protestant work ethic so dutifully instilled by our slave driving forefathers? The sanctity upheld by our witch-burning Colonial demigods?

The point here is not to nitpick America’s tarnished past, but rather to discern the fallacy of nostalgia for some apocryphal American Utopia. I can vaguely understand the sanguine desire for a society of tried and true moral absolutists, but for God’s sake spare me the banality of this variety of feigned reminiscence.

My opinion is that O’Reilly is just nostalgic for the days when public dissemination of nudity was called “art” and people who spent all day looking at it were considered sophisticated. In that light, his is a self-interested call for the demise of non-representational art.

Of course, Maddox has a more concise interpretation: Bill O’Reilly is a big blubbering vagina.

Playing by the Rules

Posted by shonk at 11:31 AM in Economics , Politics | permalink | comment

Over at Old fishinghat, Bill Russell responds to John Edwards’ South Carolina victory speech :

The other problem I have with Edwards is that he likes to characterize the poor in America as typical Americans, who play by the rules, but get the shaft. One might ask the question to Edwards, what are the rules that one should play by avoid poverty in America?

I would argue that the rules for a fair society would be that anyone who completes high school, has children only while married, and works full time should not be poor. How do Americans who play by these rules do?

- Of workers who work at full time jobs, at least fifty weeks a year, only 3.3% live below the poverty line.
- Of all workers who have only completed high school, only 5.8% of them earn income below the poverty line.
- Of all children, 5.6% of those living with married parents are poor compared to 26.4% of those living with single mothers.
- For families where the parents are married, and both work, only 1.4% or 374,000 live below the poverty line.

In the comments, Joe J. adds “Furthermore, to characterize the very small percentages of below poverty line individuals in your examples, it should be noted that their is a high probability that their poverty is a transitory condition.”

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly? Not Quite

Posted by shonk at 10:51 AM in Art , Politics | permalink | 2 comments

The good: Wales police chief pushes for drug legalization, saying current drug laws do “more harm than good”.

The bad: Former surgeon generals call for tax hike on cigarettes (link via Improved Clinch), apparently believing that, though smokers “lost their free choice when they became addicted as children”, a $2 tax increase will prompt 5 million to quit. Jacob Sullum comments in the linked post:

In other words, people who can’t break tobacco’s tenacious hold suddenly find that they can when the price of cigarettes goes up. Apparently, the free choice that is lost when you start smoking can be restored through taxation. Only the fleeced are truly free.

The beautiful: Buddhabrot

February 04, 2004

Unexpected sonority

Posted by Curt at 09:02 PM in Literature | permalink | comment

For those who consider German to be a crooked branch from which nothing straight can grow:

Die Lorelei

Ich weiß nicht, was soll es bedeuten,
dass ich so traurig bin;
ein Märchen aus alten Zeiten,
das kommt mir nicht aus dem Sinn.

Die Luft is kühl und es dunkelt,
und ruhig fließt der Rhein;
der Gipfel des Berges funkelt
im Abendsonnenschein.

Die schönste Jungfrau sitzet
dort oben wunderbar;
ihr goldnes Geschmeide blitzet,
sie kämmt ihr goldenes Haar.

Sie kämmt es mit goldenem Kamme
und singt ein Leid dabei;
das hat eine wundersame,
gewaltige Melodei.

Den Schiffer im kleinen Schiffe
ergreift es mit wildem Weh;
er schaut nicht die Felsenriffe,
er schaut nur hinauf in die Höh’.

Ich glaube, die Wellen verschlingen
am Ende Schiffer und Kahn;
und das hat mit ihrem Singen
die Lore-Ley getan.
—Heinrich Heine

I know not what it means
that I am so sad;
a tale from the olden times,
that I cannot forget.

The sky is cool and darkening
and quiet flows the Rhine;
the peaks of the mountains sparkle
in the evening sunshine.

The most beautiful girl sits
up there, miraculous;
her golden jewelry flashes,
as she combs her golden hair.

She combs it with a golden comb
and sings a song up there;
which has a wondrous,
powerful melody.

The boatsman in a little boat
is siezed with wild pain;
he does not see the cliffs,
he looks only up in the heights.

I believe that the waves devour
both the boatsman and the boat;
and this with her song
the Lore-Ley has done.

Diapers and Politicians

Posted by shonk at 12:21 AM in Politics , Words of Wisdom | permalink | 4 comments

Today I saw a bumper sticker I really liked:

Both diapers and politicians ought to be changed

Often for the same reason.

Now, I know that sounds like a stereotypically vacuous-but-pretending-to-be-deep bumper sticker slogan, but bear with me for a moment; there’s actually something to this one.

First, and obviously, the comparison is fitting because, just like politicians, all diapers get soiled. Not just some. All. At this stage, the equation between politicians and dishonesty is as close a we’re ever likely to come to a cultural tautology.

Less superficially, I think the comparison between diapers and politicians is apt (unwittingly, no doubt) because one of the first steps a person makes towards maturity is when he leaves the Pampers behind. Uncomfortable, ungainly and unattractive though they may be, diapers are fundamentally degrading to any sort of developed consciousness, an indicator that the person wearing them is so helpless that the only way he can be prevented from spreading filth and disease is by literally wallowing in his own shit.

So yes, politicians, like diapers, ought to be changed, and usually for the same reason. But remember, only the most helpless and self-loathing of people wears diapers for his whole life.

A Parliament of Whores

Posted by shonk at 12:15 AM in Politics , Words of Wisdom | permalink | comment

From Parliament of Whores by P.J. O‘Rourke:

I’m not sure I learned anything [about government] except that giving money and power to government is like giving whisky and car keys to teenage boys.

— pg. xxiv

Many reporters, when they go to work in the nation’s capital, begin thinking of themselves as participants in the political process instead of glorified stenographers.

— pg. 34

So what if I don’t agree with the Democrats? What’s to disagree with? They believe everything. And what they don’t believe, the Republicans do. Neither of them stands for anything they believe in, anyway.

— pg. 26

On that note, you can now send in your campaign contributions via Amazon. Good luck trying to figure out which to support.

February 03, 2004

Les provençaux

Posted by Curt at 11:06 PM in Literature | permalink | comment

De dezir mos cors no fina
Vas selha ren qu’ieu pu am,
E cre que volers m’enguana
Si cobezeza la-m tol;
Que pus es ponhens qu’espina
La dolors que ab joi sana,
Don ja non vuelh qu’on m’en planha.
—Jaufré Rudel

My heart will not cease to desire
Which I could not love more,
And fear that my desire will be lost
If too much I covet it;
Because it cuts sharper than a thorn,
The sadness that I feel at joy,
Of which I do not want anyone to complain.

Do You Support the Troops?

Posted by shonk at 01:25 AM in Language , War | permalink | 5 comments

The other day, someone asked me if I support the US troops in Iraq. The question came after a friend of hers had attended a speech in which Michael Moore said that people who equate anti-war with anti-troop made him angry (Moore says something similar in this article). Now, my opinion of Moore isn’t real high, but the question itself got me to thinking. I’ve thought about it for a few days, and I still don’t know the answer.

My indecision isn’t based on mixed emotions about troops or the war, per se, but rather stems from the fact that I don’t really know what it means to “support the troops”. Sure, I’ve heard that phrase tossed around plenty in the last year or two, but, after thinking about it, I’m honestly unsure what it means.

A quick check at dictionary.com yields the following definition for “support” :

1. To bear the weight of, especially from below.
2. To hold in position so as to keep from falling, sinking, or slipping.
3. To be capable of bearing; withstand: “His flaw’d heart… too weak the conflict to support” (Shakespeare).
4. To keep from weakening or failing; strengthen: The letter supported him in his grief.
5. To provide for or maintain, by supplying with money or necessities.
6. To furnish corroborating evidence for: New facts supported her story.
a. To aid the cause, policy, or interests of: supported her in her election campaign.
b. To argue in favor of; advocate: supported lower taxes.
8. To endure; tolerate: “At supper there was such a conflux of company that I could scarcely support the tumult” (Samuel Johnson).
9. To act in a secondary or subordinate role to (a leading performer).

Definitions 1 & 2, I think, can be quickly dispensed with, since nobody is really, physically supporting the weight of “the troops” (though, in conjunction with 5, one might make a case for number 1). Number 3 is a bit of an archaic usage, number 9 doesn’t really fit (though it’s somewhat ironic that the biggest self-proclaimed “supporters” of the troops, namely politicians, have displaced the actual troops into a supporting role) and number 8, though appealing to those who’ve heard Jessica Lynch’s story quite enough, thank you, is surely not the relevant meaning. Number 6, of course, is the sort of support needed by those that started the war, not those fighting it. So I think we can safely eliminate all those possibilities.

We are left, then with the following three, which I’ll address one-by-one. I’ll start with the easiest one:

5. To provide for or maintain, by supplying with money or necessities.

Needless to say, I think pretty much everyone has this one covered. Whether you like it or not, if you’re an American, you’re giving monetary support to the troops. Even if you don’t pay income tax, the simple equation deficit spending = inflation means you’re footing part of the bill. While I suspect this isn’t really what people mean when they say they “support the troops”, the fact is that this constitutes a very real (though involuntary) form of support.

a. To aid the cause, policy, or interests of: supported her in her election campaign.
b. To argue in favor of; advocate: supported lower taxes.

Part b. seems to be more of an abstract principles type of thing: how do you argue in favor of “the troops”? I mean, I suppose you could argue in favor of increased pay and/or benefits for soldiers, the idea that it would be better if soldiers didn’t die, or the notion of the warrior as a superior personality type, but none of those options seem to really capture the meaning intended by someone who says they “support the troops”. Surely many who “support the troops” would argue some or all of these things, but, in context, it doesn’t seem essential to support any of these ideas (except, of course, the second, but that seems to be more a matter of simple human decency, rather than an active form of support).

We seem, however, to be getting closer with 7.a: “To aid the cause, policy, or interests of”. Certainly, someone who “supports the troops” has their interests in mind. However, this definition, especially with its use of the term “aid”, would seem to imply action rather than psychology, whereas most of those who claim to “support the troops” don’t take much action in that regard other than that of making the statement, perhaps accompanied by the ostentatious display of a flag, and the inertial paying of taxes that we’ve already addressed. I don’t necessarily mean to imply that those “I support our troops” bumper-stickers aren’t playing a key role in aiding the causes, policies and interests of the troops, but let’s just say that I’m a bit dubious.

None of these definitions seem to be entirely satisfactory and we’ve only got one left:

4. To keep from weakening or failing; strengthen: The letter supported him in his grief.

This seems to be the most compelling of the bunch, which is why I’ve saved it for last. Certainly, I think most would agree that anyone who sends favorable letters, care packages, etc. to the troops does indeed “support the troops”. Again, though, this seems to be more of a sufficient than a necessary condition, as many people who have done nothing of the sort claim to “support the troops” (without any irony or argument). Furthermore, the tone of the “support” espoused by most of these people doesn’t seem to be of the “keep from weakening or failing” variety. Or rather, the undercurrent that does exists seems to be of the bandwagon-jumping, self-congratulating variety.

That leaves us with this notion of “strengthen”. It seems consistent to suppose that someone who “supports the troops” would give them strength through their support, or at least to act in such a way that might strengthen the troops morale. I guess I still don’t really know what that means, but surely that’s what is implied by this notion of supporting the troops. However, under this definition, is it reasonable to say that one is opposed to war, but still supports the troops? What I mean is this: all the soldiers volunteered to join the armed forces and the polls seem to indicate that most are in favor of the war effort — would it give them strength to know that you’re against their being there in the first place, even if you claim to “support” them in spite of that fact? I don’t know. Can one be in support of one takes the Moe Szyslak attitude: “I’m a well-wisher…in that I don’t wish you any specific harm”? I don’t know. Is it strengthening to know that someone “supports” you even if they haven’t thought critically about the reason you’re doing what you’re doing? I don’t know.

I guess my point is, I still don’t know whether I “support the troops”. I hope they all make it back safely, that they have loving families who write them letters and send them pictures of home, that they’re able to live normal lives upon their return, but, on the other hand, I haven’t sent any letters or care packages (and I don’t plan to). As I said in the beginning, I’m not confused about how I stand in relation to the troops or the war, but this whole idea of supporting the troops is so over-used and so carelessly used that I think it has just lost all meaning for me. Even after going back to the very definition of “support” and writing at some length on the topic (it’s now been over an hour that I’ve been at this), the phrase “support the troops” still seems hollow to me, in spite of the fact that it seems to want to imply something important and meaningful.

But then, I have been accused of being cynical. On occasion.

February 02, 2004

A speculation

Posted by Curt at 09:02 AM in Sports | permalink | 3 comments

The Patriots’ name and logo leads me to wonder how the Super Bowl would have gone had they been owned by, say, the U.S. government. Would Patriots ownership insist that covert surveillance of the pre-game show indicated that Dan Marino and Deion Sanders were in the stadium and that the Panthers might be planning to use them? Would they then admit that no evidence existed that either of them had played in the last five years, but still claim that Carolina might be planning on reviving their careers? And after the game would they claim that their pre-emptive strike had prevented the Panthers from having enough time to suit up Marino and Sanders? Would ownership claim after, for example, after the numerous uncalled late hits on Brady and the Patriots receivers that the officials were not enforcing the resolutions laid out by NFL playbook, and that NFL officials had in fact become obsolete? Would they even release injury reports? And finally, would they simply deny that the missed Vinatieri field goals occured or would they rather claim that a defeatist media elite was focusing only on the bad news, while at the same time unveiling plans to launch a rival network to ESPN which would broadcast only successful third-down conversions?

February 01, 2004

That's Right

Posted by shonk at 10:43 PM in Sports | permalink | 9 comments

Yes, you saw right, they really did show a naked breast during the most highly-rated network television program of the year.

And as for the psychiatric industry...?

Posted by Curt at 06:22 PM in Literature | permalink | comment

In its obituary to the morosely introverted writer Janet Frame, the NYT decides to focus on the question of the alleged mental illness in her life that finds significance in her frequent literary treatment of madness. Key graph:

“She next traveled abroad on a grant from the New Zealand government, and in London a panel of psychiatrists determined she was not mentally ill, just different from other people.”

If only we could all be judged so generously, but I have my doubts.

Why the Rich Fear Globalization

Posted by shonk at 03:40 AM in Economics | permalink | comment

After finishing up The Ball and the Cross this evening, I spent some time catching up on some old posts scraped by my aggregator and came across a post at AnarCapLib that linked to an Indian article on “Why the rich fear globalisation”. I was reminded, of course, of Curt’s recent post and the linked Wired article about outsourcing to India. One of the points made in that article stood out:

What begins to seep through their well-tiled arguments about quality, efficiency, and optimization is a view that Americans, who have long celebrated the sweetness of dynamic capitalism, must get used to the concept that it works for non-Americans, too. Programming jobs have delivered a nice upper-middle-class lifestyle to the people in this room. They own apartments. They drive new cars. They surf the Internet and watch American television and sip cappuccinos. Isn’t the emergence of a vibrant middle class in an otherwise poor country a spectacular achievement, the very confirmation of the wonders of globalization - not to mention a new market for American goods and services? And if this transition pinches a little, aren’t Americans being a tad hypocritical by whining about it? After all, where is it written that IT jobs somehow belong to Americans - and that any non-American who does such work is stealing the job from its rightful owner?

In “Why the rich fear globalisation”, Surjit Bhalla makes something of a similar point:

The leaders and operators of the anti-globalisation movement are the formerly colonising rich whites, who, as per their heritage, need non-white intellectuals as their disciples and followers.

Fundamentally, Bhalla’s argument is based on the following simple observation:

During the twenty years pre-globalisation period (1960-1980), per capita incomes in the poor world grew at 2 per cent per annum compared to the rich industrialised world’s growth rate of 3.4 per cent i.e. the poor world grew at a considerably slower rate.

In the globalisation period (post 1980), the poor countries began their long march towards catch-up. In sharp contrast to the previous 20 years, the fortunes were exactly reversed —the poor economies registered a growth rate double that experienced by the rich countries - 3 per cent per annum compared to the rich countries considerably slower growth of 1.5 per cent per annum. And the poor in the two poorest countries, India and China, saw their incomes increase at an even faster pace — above 5 per cent per annum for over 20 years.

Coincidence? Maybe, but I suspect not. The “intellectual” vanguard of the anti-globalization movement may or may not be motivated by a different sort of “intellectual vulgarity” (to use Curt’s phrase), but the rank-and-file of the anti-globalization movement, the people that make it something to be reckoned with are more likely, I suspect, to fit the profile of the Pissed-Off Programmer described in the Wired article, people motivated not by a desire to actually help those in the third world, but rather by their own pocketbook. Which I can certainly understand, but spare me the platitudes.