The American Conservative, September 2009

american conservative september 2009One of the traits of this magazine is a tendency to grandiose theoretical explanations.  That’s one of the things I like about it; I’m into grandiose theoretial explanations myself.  It isn’t scholarly publication, and few of its authors have academic reputations to defend, so that tendency is not always restrained by the standards that keep theorizing under control in academic journals.  Sometimes that means that the magazine runs a provocative, bold idea that might not have survived heavier editing; sometimes it means that it runs something that’s just plain cheesy quality.  Again, I’m a pretty cheesy guy, so that’s okay with me. 

For example, this month Ted Galen Carpenter points out that Americans by and large are quick to view political disputes in foreign countries in a romantic light, seeing the ghost of Thomas Jefferson in all sorts of unlikely figures.  The next piece, by John Laughland, picks up on this same theme, explaining this American tendency as a sign of the influence of the philosophy of the Enlightenment.  Laughland writes that “the key to understanding the West’s love of revolutions” is Westerners’ characteristic desire to believe that “politics can and should be a story with a happy ending.”  This desire has run rampant in the West ever since the thinkers of the Enlightenment undermined the traditional Christian belief that the cosmos was ordered in a hierarchy, that justice was to be found in that hierarchy, and that the ruler’s power should be limited because the ruler was subordinate to God.  Laughland identifies Immanuel Kant as “the greatest of all Enlightenment philosophers,” and summarizes Kant’s theory as a belief that ordinary reality is unknowable, but that the highest reality is “the categorical imperative- an abstract universally valid proposition that becomes real when it is willed.”  Proceeding from these rather drastic simplifications, Laughland declares that:

The attraction of Enlightenment liberalism, therefore, is the result of a deep emotional need for a philosophical sytem that enables man to create a reality in a universe he does not understand and thereby to escape from the difficulties of the world by believing that everything will turn out all right in the end.  Lacking a real belief in the afterlife, it also holds that the drama of human salvation is played out in this world, in history and politics. 

Again, this is a severe oversimplification, but it has a certain plausibility.  Where Laughland really goes off the rails is in his closing section, in which he argues that Enlightenment liberalism has an “objective ally” in Islam:

[B]ecause it has no priesthood, Islam, and especially Shi’ism, is fundamentally a “democratic” religion comparable to Puritanism and other forms of Presbyterianism.  There is no established hierarchy; the Koran must be read equally by all.  Of course Allah is supreme and Islam demands absolute submission to Him; on the face of it, this seems the opposite of the liberal model in which the individual is subjected only to himself.  But this very submission is egalitarian, creating a mass of individuals who are equal in their abstractness.  Moreover, God’s will is [merely] will, it has no correlation with natural law as in the Christian or Jewish traditions.  Islam is therefore a profoundly voluntarist religion.  Because Allah is absolutely transcendent and unknowable, he is like the Kantian thing-in-itself: mere command. 


The Funny Times, August 2009

Layout 1Ray Lesser’s “Your Inner Fish” includes these two memorable paragraphs:

In his book Your Inner Fish, [Professor Neil] Shubin describes many of the recent amazing discoveries in paleontology and genetic research to explain human origins and evolution. We quite literally contain the entire tree of life inside our bodies. He says humans are the fish equivalent of a Volkswagen Beetle souped up to race 150 mph. “Take the body plan of a fish, dress it up to be a mammal, then tweak and twist that mammal until it walks on two legs, talks, thinks, and has superfine control of its fingers — and you have a recipe for problems.”

The difficulty of engineering a fish to walk on two legs has resulted in many a sore knee and sprained ankle, not to mention closets full of poorly fitting shoes. The strange loops and detours our nerves and veins have to take to get around various organs lead to other common annoyances such as hiccups and hernias. Four of the leading causes of death in humans — heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and stroke — are mostly due to having at our core a body that was designed to swim around all day, rather than sit on its keister surfing the Internet, or drive truckloads of sardines from L.A. to Indianapolis. Fish don?t get hemorrhoids, either.

Jon Winokur’s “Curmudgeon” column collects quotes on boredom.  My favorite is from Henry Kissinger, “The nice thing about being a celebrity is that when you bore people, they think it’s their fault.”  Norman Mailer and Bertrand Russell are not as far apart as one might suppose; Russell said, “Boredom is a vital problem for the moralist, since at least half the sins of mankind are caused by it.”  Mailer said, “”The war between being and nothingness is the underlying illness of the twentieth century.  Boredom slays more of existence than war.”  These two are not far from an author Winokur leaves out, Blaise Pascal, who famously attributed most of the trouble in the world to people’s inability to sit quietly in their rooms.  Frank Moore Colby said, “Every improvement in communication makes the bore more terrible.”  Nancy Astor said, “The penalty for success is to be bored by the people who used to snub you.”  Rochefoucauld said, “We often forgive those who bore us, but we cannot forgive those whom we bore.”

Harper’s Index reports that in April of this year, 27 percent of the respondents to a poll identified as Republicans, while another poll in the same month reported that 20 percent of respondents agreed the “Socialism is better than capitalism.”  So perhaps we should put the GOP on the same footing as socialists.

Tips For Aspiring Poets

Never let it be said that a career in poetry is not viable. You can become a successful poet by simply following the handy tips listed below.

PD*40018071) Think Positive. Nobody likes a whiner. And poets always seem to be harping on the negative. Americans don’t want to know how to die. They want to know how to lose weight. How to get rich. How to sustain that erection! Be the poet of erectile dysfunction, and you might just be the poet who picks up a fat check.

2) Take Your New Positive Attitude And Direct It Towards The Paying Customer. The customer is your friend. Your typical poem really doesn’t seem to pay much attention to the living retail customer.  The time you spend trying to figure out what’s wrong with the people who don’t buy your poems is time you could spend fixing the poems.

3) Think About Your Core Message. Your average reader might like a bit of fancy writing, but at the end of the day he will always ask himself: What’s my takeaway? He will inevitably ask himself: Is this poet making sense? Of course, poets can dodge questions about what they mean by making a fuss about the complicated way they say it. But eventually your shrewder customer is going to see through the packaging to the product.

4) Strive To Be Relevant. Once you start making sense you can turn your attention to making sense on a topic that concerns lots of people. Here’s an example: a lady finds a human finger in her Wendy’s chili.

5) Overcome Your Fear. You may be thinking: OK, I see how I can reach a mass market, but what will other poets say about me? You are right to be afraid. There will be some jealousy. Some envy. But take comfort, you’re not alone. Flipping though a stack of poetry books published in the past couple of years I found a lady poet named Ai. Ai wrote a poem called “Delusion.” It starts:

I watched the Trade Center Towers
burning, then collapse
repeatedly on television
until I could see them clearly
when I shut my eyes.
The blackened skies even blotted out my vision,
until I screamed and threw myself on the floor

See! It can be done! Here we have proof that you can grab something off the front page, stuff it in a poem, and still hold your head high. But I sense there’s some evil little demon sitting on Ai’s shoulder: Fear of success. The reader thinks: “OK! Now we’re finally getting somewhere. Sure, I’ve already seen the World Trade Center collapse on TV, but maybe I’ll pick up a new twist here.” But then what does Ai do? She forgets about the World Trade Center and goes off on some depressing story about her sister!

She grew up without a View-Master

Thanks to haha for linking to this LA Times story in which a woman tells what it was like to spend the first 48 years of her life unable to see in three dimensions, and what it was like to gain that ability in middle age.

An extreme case of the etymological fallacy

learn pashtoYesterday on Language Log, Mark Liberman posted about the a curious claim that in the language of the Pashtun people of Afghanistan, “the word for ‘cousin’ is the same as the word for ‘enemy.’”  Professor Liberman cannot find evidence to bear this claim out, and strongly suspects that it is bogus.   What sticks in my mind is this quote Liberman gives from an essay by Louis Dupree collected in Islam and Tribal Societies, edited by Akbar Ahmed and David Hart (Routledge, 1984):

Language sometimes reveals unarticulated (or downplayed) conflicts in a society. The term for cousin in Pashto is turbur [and] the word for the worst kind of hatred is turburghanay which could be literally translated ‘cousin-hatred’. But the non-literate, rural Pushtun deny this interpretation. They say: ‘Turbur is turbur and turburghanay is turburghanay. They are separate words. How can they relate? How could I hate my cousin? I would fight to the death with him. I would never leave his body behind in a fight. I would give him my last crust of bread.’

The overwhelming majority of Afghans and Pakistanis cannot read and write, so showing them that the written turbur is a prefix and -ghanay a suffix, which, when combined create a compound word, fails to impress.

It’s hardly surprising that this fails to impress!  Even assuming that Dupree’s etymology is correct, and that the turbur he hears in turburghanay is the word for cousin, we would hardly be warranted to assume that the currency of the word turburghanay implies that Pashtuns secretly hate their cousins.  As Josh Fruhlinger puts it in a comment on Liberman’s post,    

Particularly instructive and hilarious is the quote from the Ahmed and Hart piece, in which the learned outsiders pity the illiterate Pashtuns for not understanding the underlying etymological-psychological implications of the language that they (the Pashtuns) speak. People are determined to believe that language shapes thought even when the acutal speakers of said language don’t recognize the things embedded in the language that are supposed to be shaping their thoughts.


The Economist, 18 July 2009

economist 18 july 2009Three pieces in this issue address the state of economics as an academic discipline.  One laments the current state of macroeconomics, characterizing it as a discipline in which too many practitioners have been “seduced by their [theoretical] models” and have lost interest in data that might contradict those models.  Another discusses the efficient markets hypothesis, the role that hypothesis has played in shaping the theory and practice of modern finance, and tries to asses the likelihood that the efficient markets hypothesis will retain credibility in light of the world’s current financial crises.  A leading article calls on economists to bring about a “reinvention” of their discipline.  Evidently the requirements of this reinvention dictate that “Economists need to reach out from their specialised silos: macroeconomists must understand finance, and finance professors need to think harder about the context within which markets work. And everybody needs to work harder on understanding asset bubbles and what happens when they burst.”  Economists must recognize that “in the end” they are “social scientists, trying to understand the real world.”  I’ve always been rather skeptical of economics, but I suspect that most economists knew that last part already. 

There are also two pieces about lunar exploration.  One asks whether it makes sense to send more people to the Moon, quoting Buzz Aldrin’s opinion that it would be wiser simply to move on to other destinations.  Another reviews two new books on the Apollo 11 landing, in time for the 40th anniversary of that event.

The Nation, 3 August 2009

nation 3 august 2009Jonathan Schell’s remembrance of former Defense Secretary Robert Strange McNamara begins with the story of Schell’s meeting with McNamara in 1967, at which he, then a young reporter for The New Yorker, briefed the secretary on what he had seen American forces doing in Vietnam.  Schell would not hear from McNamara after that meeting, but declassified documents would subsequently reveal that the secretary had responded to it by attempting to discredit Schell’s story and block its publication.  Schell mentions McNamara’s subsequent contrition for his Vietnam policies, stressing that the remorse he suffered was quite trivial compared with the what the people of Vietnam suffered during the war McNamara did so much to design.  Still, Schell points out, McNamara was unique among high-level US policymakers of recent decades in publicly admitting error.  The piece ends with Schell’s line “If there is a statue made of McNamara, as there probably will not be, let it show him weeping.  It was the best of him.” 


Knowledge is its own reward

In Consultation, by Joseph Schippers

In Consultation, by Joseph Schippers

Dostoevsky sometimes had his intellectual characters ask each other if they would rather be clever and miserable or stupid and happy.  If they claimed they would rather be stupid and happy, he had them jeer at each other.  “You’d have me believe that you could be like the simplest peasant woman, believe everything she believes, if it meant happiness?”  Evidently he thought that clever people needed cleverness more than they needed happiness.

It seems that Dostoevsky would have been at home among rhesus monkeys.  Ed Yong reports on an experiment in which rhesus monkeys were offered varying amounts of water and the opportunity to know how much water they were about to be offered.   The monkeys showed an interest in knowing how much water they were about to be offered that had no connection with the water itself.

An abuse of power?

He's still getting people worked up

He's still getting people worked up

Andreas Willi, professor of Greek at Oxford, takes issue with a letter addressed to the US president that has lately been gathering signatures from American classical scholars.  Willi’s article can be seen in pdf form here.


On 18 May 2009, 200 Classical scholars from around the world sent an open letter to the President of the United States of America, Barack Obama. This unusual action, and the contents of the letter, raise issues which may not have been considered by all those who have endorsed it, but which deserve consideration. In order to put the discussion that follows into context, it may be useful first to quote the body of the letter itself. [[1]]


Dear President Obama,

We, the undersigned scholars of Graeco-Roman antiquity, respectfully request that you intervene to clean up some of the historical debris left in southeast Europe by the previous U.S. administration.


Red State Update

Thanks to “Kate L,” a frequent commenter on Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For, for pointing us to this video: