All posts for the month March, 2010
Posted by acilius on March 29, 2010
Those in authority have decreed that reading the comic strip Pickles makes a person unhip. I for one care nothing for hipness if I must sacrifice my daily reading of Pickles to attain it, and so I defy their judgment.
Posted by acilius on March 26, 2010
The other day, I posted about James P. Carse, a longtime professor of religious studies who reminds us that religions are not reducible to sets of beliefs, and who argues that the tendency to treat them as if they were is responsible for much evil in the world. I was reminded of Carse’s arguments yesterday when I was looking up the latest links on my favorite filter blog, 3quarksdaily. There was a link to a piece by Richard Dawkins, “The Faith Trap.” Dawkins considers the case of a clergyman who has ceased to believe inb the doctrines of his church. Dawkins holds that the only honest course for such a clergyman is to give up his job and look for another line of work. Non-theistic belief of the sort associated with writer Karen Armstrong won’t satisfy Dawkins:
To the trusting congregation, Karen Armstrong would be nothing more than a dishonest atheist, and who could disagree? You can just imagine the shocked bewilderment that would greet a ‘ground of all being’ theologian, if he tried that on with churchgoers who actually believe that Jesus was born of a virgin, walked on water, and died for their sins.
Notice that clause, “who actually believe that Jesus was born of a virgin, walked on water, and died for their sins.” Apparently, Dawkins believes that acceptance of those and similar propositions is an essential condition for qualifying as a Christian.
Further on, Dawkins writes:
What other career, apart from that of clergyman, can be so catastrophically ruined by a change of opinion, brought about by reading, say, or conversation? Does a doctor lose faith in medicine and have to resign his practice? Does a farmer lose faith in agriculture and have to give up, not just his farm but his wife and the goodwill of his entire community? In all areas except religion, we believe what we believe as a result of evidence. If new evidence comes in, we may change our beliefs. When decisive evidence for the Big Bang theory of the universe came to hand, astronomers who had previously espoused the Steady State Theory changed their minds: reluctantly in some cases, graciously in others. But the change didn’t tear their lives or their marriages apart, did not estrange them from their parents or their children. Only religion has the malign power to do that. Only religion is capable of making a mere change of mind a livelihood-threatening catastrophe, whose very contemplation demands grave courage. Yet another respect in which religion poisons everything.
“Does a doctor lose faith in medicine and have to resign his practice?” Some do, I’m sure, though not in the sense Dawkins wants to invoke. If we define medicine as a set of beliefs to which one either does or does not subscribe, then it would be strange if a doctor were to cease to subscribe to those beliefs. But of course no one really thinks of medicine that way. Medicine is a collection of practices, communities, and institutions, which are more or less generally supposed to achieve certain results, and which are more or less generally supposed to be worthwhile both in themselves and in light of those results. There are indeed certain beliefs that come easily to people engaged in medicine, but those beliefs are at most one aspect of medicine, not the essence that makes it what it is. The same description might be applied to farming or to astronomy.
Taking up that description, we can revisit Dawkins’ question. Does a doctor lose faith in medicine and have to resign his practice? I suspect any number of doctors do just that. One enters a profession because one has some idea of what the work of that profession is in itself and what results such work can be expected to achieve. After some years in medicine, a doctor might very well discover that his or her initial ideas were unrealistic, and that s/he is not willing to continue with the practice of medicine. So too might a farmer or an astronomer decide that s/he would be better off in some other occupation.
If we think of a religion, not as a set of propositions to which certain people all assent, but a collection of practices, communities, and institutions, which are more or less generally supposed to achieve certain results, and which are more or less generally supposed to be worthwhile both in themselves and in light of those results, then we might find that members of the clergy are not so different after all from other professionals. For some people, belief in the truth of a particular creed or notion might be one of the goals of religion; it would be very strange indeed if this were the whole function of a religion for any sizeable number of its adherents. However prominently particular beliefs may figure in debates between adherents of various religions, in attempts to defend particular religions, and in power struggles within religions, the vitality of religion does not come from agreement with any given set of propositions, but from the bonds it sustains between people. I’ve come to know a great many deeply religious people in the last few years, and I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of these who seem to spend any time dwelling on the dogmatic beliefs of their traditions.
Dawkins provides a rather amazing example of what I like to call “the Academic We.” This is a construction in which a professor-type uses the first-person plural to describe the state of knowledge or opinion among some unspecified group of people. Dawkins claims that “In all areas except religion, we believe what we believe as a result of evidence.” Do we really? Sixteen centuries ago, Augustine pointed out that we believe a particular man to be our father and a particular woman to be our mother based on authority, not on evidence. Readers of Augustine have had no trouble since coming up with any number of other vitally important beliefs that come to be widely accepted without any evidence whatever. Vast numbers of people believe in racist ideologies, for example; on what kind of “evidence” could those beliefs possibly have been formed?
Posted by acilius on March 24, 2010
Say what you will about the men who have served as Vice President of the United States, they’ve been a lively bunch. Just look at how incumbent Joseph Biden behaved at the single most important ceremonial occasion of his term in office so far, yesterday’s signing of the health-care reform measure:
Posted by acilius on March 24, 2010
[A]ccording to the British ambassador to Italy, Mussolini was “like any other gentleman.” The King of England decorated him with the Order of the Bath, and Austen Chamberlain, the British foreign secretary (whose half brother was Neville, future prime minister and champion of the Munich accord), considered Mussolini a sincere, charming patriot, and certainly preferable to any other “Italian.” Sure he was a dictator, the foreign secretary admitted, but one simply could not “apply British standards to un-British conditions.” As Saunders acidly comments, Chamberlain’s remark “contained all the narrowness and smugness of an imperial conceit.”
I’ll grant that saying one cannot “apply British standards to un-British conditions” may have been an imperial conceit when it was used to keep agents of the British Empire from being held to account for actions they took in Britain’s colonies. I would not agree that such a remark is also an imperial conceit when it is said in the course of an argument to the effect that the UK should not pursue a policy of confrontation with another state. Indeed, to call on one state to take an interest in the internal affairs of another state is to meet any definition of imperialism. Many have said the the function of ideology is to enable a person to hold two contradictory ideas simultaneously; that Saunders can say, in evident sincerity and to the approbation of The Nation‘s reviewer, that to defer to the sovereignty of a foreign state is to be an imperialist, shows the ideological power of liberal internationalism. Certainly Mussolini’s regime was unjust; perhaps there might be a case to make that Britain and other world powers should have embarked on an adventure in the 1920s to coerce Italy into good behavior. Not too long ago, neoconservatives like William Kristol openly described the US invasion of Iraq as an imperial project, a project which they claimed was justified because Saddam Hussein was so wicked a tyrant. Kristol would likely have endorsed the idea of an international campaign to bring Mussolini in line as well. Harsh as Kristol’s words may have been, at least they had some recognizable meaning. One could rebut Kristol by arguing against imperialism. Saunders and liberal interventionists like her are worse than Kristol, in that their ideology has drained words of all meaning and rational argument of all purpose.
There’s a review essay about Jane Jacobs. Unless you’re familiar with Jacobs’ work, skip it. It seems to be an attempt to counterbalance the usual portrayal of Jacobs as a critic of urban gigantism and an advocate of self-sufficient neighborhoods by summarizing her view of the advantages big cities offer their residents. That’s fine up to a point, but the essay goes so far with it as to leave the impression that Jacobs was an uncritical booster of the big city.
Jo Ann Wypiewski’s been thinking about the dilemmas facing same-sexers who would like to live openly in places where that isn’t easy:
“For the longest time, the gay movement told people in rural areas, Just move to the city and come out,” Joe said afterward. He was raised in Oil City, and one sister still won’t talk to him. “That’s not an answer if you’re connected to your family, your job, your town. And you can’t expect oppressed individuals to take the whole burden of coming out on themselves.”
A friend of ours, a man in late middle age, spent much of the 1960s in Berkeley, California. He often fondly recalls the evening he spent in the city jail with Mario Savio’s cousin. When someone of the “Baby Boom” generation tells a story about an adventure s/he had in The Turbulent Sixties, I tend to react with a reflexive scepticism. That’s why I cherish that story. If he had claimed to have spent a night in jail with Mario Savio, I would find it impossible to believe him. If he had claimed to have spent a night in jail with Abbie Hoffman’s cousin, I would have found it impossible to believe him. But Mario Savio’s cousin– who would make that up? Mario Savio is a name that will impress too few people these days to figure obliquely in any fictional boast. Only a direct encounter with the man himself could win anyone any points for a brush with celebrity, and then only if the audience were rather well informed about the fine details of the New Left.
So I smiled warmly while I read a review essay about Savio. It doesn’t mention Savio’s cousin, but you can’t have everything.
The “teabaggers” are a group of right-leaning Americans who have been making headlines for the last year or so by sending teabags to their elected officials as a symbol of political protest. The teabags are supposed to be reminders of the revolutionary spirit of the 1773 Boston Tea Party. They didn’t have teabags in 1773, but then cloth sacks filled with tea would cost a lot in postage, so I suppose it’s all right. One Bostonian, perhaps trying to bring matters full circle, claimed to see the Virgin Mary in a teabag. The teabaggers have also made news by disrupting public appearances by members of Congress. Most left-of-center Americans have been unhappy with the rise of the teabaggers. Alexander Cockburn, however, sees much to admire in their movement. He sees an anarchistic side to it, and sympathizes with its petit-bourgeois members:
The lower middle class is what we’re focusing on here, the people who own auto repair shops, bakeries, bicycle shops, plant stores, dry cleaners, fish stores and all the other small businesses across America–in sum, the “petite bourgeoisie,” stomped by regulators and bureaucrats while the big fry get zoning variances and special clause exemptions. The left always hated the petite bourgeoisie because it wasn’t the urban proletariat and thus the designated agent of revolutionary change. Today’s left no longer believes in revolutionary change but despises the petite bourgeoisie out of inherited political disposition and class outlook. Ninety-five percent of all the firms in America hire fewer than ten people. There’s your petite bourgeoisie for you: not frightening, not terrifying and in fact quite indispensable.
And the petit bourgeois are legitimately pissed off. Whatever backwash they got from the stimulus often wasn’t readily apparent. They can’t afford health plans for themselves or their employees. They’re three or four payrolls away from the edge of the cliff, and when they read about trillions in handouts for bankers, trillions in impending deficits, blueprints for green energy regs that will put them out of business, what they hear is the ocean surge pounding away at the bottom of that same cliff.
The conventional parties have nothing to offer them. The left disdains them. But here comes the tea party.
Cockburn likes some weird things, but maybe he’s onto something here. If New York Times pundit David Brooks is afraid of the teabaggers, they must be doing something right.
A straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Committee shows that while grassroots Republicans don’t like the Obama administration, they sure don’t want to go back to the Bush-Cheney days. They oppose many of the same things lefties oppose. One suspects that a genuinely populist American Left might be able to make common cause with them on issues from antimilitarism, to monetary reform, to civil liberties.
I make my living teaching ancient history, so I take notice when I hear that historians are under fire. Jon Wiener’s article about historians who have come into contact with the tobacco industry thus came to me as something sobering. Over the years, many historians have been intimidated into silence by the industry and its lawyers. Many others have been corrupted by tobacco money, making misleading statements in the press and in the courts and then benefiting from tobacco-linked donations.
General Alexander Haig died earlier this year, a fact that occasions some doggerel from Calvin Trillin. I remember when Haig ran for president in 1988; Haig’s name had long been familiar, but neither I nor any of my political-junkie friends ever imagined he would run for president. As a top-level army staff officer, later as Richard Nixon’s top aide, then NATO’s Supreme Commander, and finally as US Secretary of State, Haig was a symbol of the Washington elite, but not a leader who had a following outside the capital. We weren’t alone in laughing at Haig; his whole campaign turned into a bit of a joke. A joke that could still garner laughs years later, as this still from The Simpsons shows:
Posted by acilius on March 21, 2010
For the last couple of weeks I’ve been trying to find a video of this that was viewable in the states, only to discover that a link to this one was posted on UOGBFans all along. I suppose that’s what I get for looking everywhere but the obvious place:
Posted by acilius on March 19, 2010
Posted by acilius on March 19, 2010
Yesterday’s Ferd’nand strip:
I wrote something here several weeks ago remarking on a tendency I’ve observed in myself. I’ve often thought that the reason I’m more relaxed outdoors in a natural setting than inside my apartment or my office is that when I’m in a space that belongs to me, my eye constantly lights on things I might control, or that I have controlled, or that I should control. There’s the computer; I might control that, and do any number of things. There’s a bookcase; I bought those books and put them into order on the shelves. There’s a pile of papers; I should file them in an orderly way. Outdoors, I see the trees, the soil, the sky; they get along quite all right without my control. I’m glad to see I’m not the only one who is bothered by an urge to take control of my environment, to put things in order.
Here’s an xkcd from a couple of weeks ago:
This also reminds me of something I’ve observed in my own psychology. Many years ago, I was in the dentist’s chair, having a cavity filled. They didn’t give me one of those contour pillows that usually cradles your neck at the dentist’s. I became aware that I could, if I wished, turn my head abruptly to one side or the other and cause myself great pain. Not that I wanted to do that, of course, but the sensation of freedom, the realization that nothing was stopping me from doing that, was quite unsettling. Back in 2007, Keith Knight did a whole cartoon about just this point:
One of our first posts on Los Thunderlads was a link to this strip. That post is titled “The Imp of the Perverse,” a nod to Edgar Allan Poe’s story of the same name. Poe’s story includes these paragraphs:
We have a task before us which must be speedily performed. We know that it will be ruinous to make delay. The most important crisis of our life calls, trumpet-tongued, for immediate energy and action. We glow, we are consumed with eagerness to commence the work, with the anticipation of whose glorious result our whole souls are on fire. It must, it shall be undertaken to-day, and yet we put it off until to-morrow; and why? There is no answer, except that we feel perverse, using the word with no comprehension of the principle. To-morrow arrives, and with it a more impatient anxiety to do our duty, but with this very increase of anxiety arrives, also, a nameless, a positively fearful, because unfathomable, craving for delay. This craving gathers strength as the moments fly. The last hour for action is at hand. We tremble with the violence of the conflict within us, – of the definite with the indefinite – of the substance with the shadow. But, if the contest has proceeded thus far, it is the shadow which prevails, – we struggle in vain. The clock strikes, and is the knell of our welfare. At the same time, it is the chanticleer-note to the ghost that has so long over-awed us. It flies – it disappears – we are free. The old energy returns. We will labour now. Alas, it is too late!
We stand upon the brink of a precipice. We peer into the abyss – we grow sick and dizzy. Our first impulse is to shrink from the danger. Unaccountably we remain. By slow degrees our sickness, and dizziness, and horror, become merged in a cloud of unnameable feeling. By gradations, still more imperceptible, this cloud assumes shape, as did the vapor from the bottle out of which arose the genius in the Arabian Nights. But out of this our cloud upon the precipice’s edge, there grows into palpability, a shape, far more terrible than any genius, or any demon of a tale, and yet it is but a thought, although a fearful one, and one which chills the very marrow of our bones with the fierceness of the delight of its horror. It is merely the idea of what would be our sensations during the sweeping precipitancy of a fall from such a height. And this fall – this rushing annihilation – for the very reason that it involves that one most ghastly and loathsome of all the most ghastly and loathsome images of death and suffering which have ever presented themselves to our imagination – for this very cause do we now the most vividly desire it. And because our reason violently deters us from the brink, therefore, do we the more impetuously approach it. There is no passion in nature so demoniacally impatient, as that of him, who shuddering upon the edge of a precipice, thus meditates a plunge. To indulge for a moment, in any attempt at thought, is to be inevitably lost; for reflection but urges us to forbear, and therefore it is, I say, that we cannot. If there be no friendly arm to check us, or if we fail in a sudden effort to prostrate ourselves backward from the abyss, we plunge, and are destroyed.
Examine these and similar actions as we will, we shall find them resulting solely from the spirit of the Perverse. We perpetrate them merely because we feel that we should not. Beyond or behind this, there is no intelligible principle. And we might, indeed, deem this perverseness a direct instigation of the Arch-Fiend, were it not occasionally known to operate in furtherance of good.
I’m no psychologist, but I wonder if there is a connection between the urge to take control of our environment that makes Ferd’nand unable to rest if he can see his unmowed grass and untrimmed hedge-row and the impulses Knight, Poe, and xkcd’s stick figures who enjoy math describe. Seized by the imp of the perverse, we might find ourselves doing any of an endless list of things. If we act “merely because we feel that we should not,” there is no telling what we might do. Likewise, at the first moment we are seized by the urge to take control of our environment our subsequent behavior is highly unpredictable. If we act merely because we feel that we should, we confront a list of possible actions that is just as endless as the list of things we should not do.
Not only do the imp of the perverse and the urge to take control of our environment resemble each other in that we become unpredictable when we first succumb to either; they resemble each other also in their characteristic outcome, which is that we accomplish nothing. Occasionally the imp of the perverse may lead us all the way off the precipice, all the way to punch the other person, all the way to scream from the audience during the stage play; but far more often we simply shift in our seat, uncomfortable to recognize such an urge in ourselves. And occasionally the urge to take control of our environment will lead us to complete one task after another and put a space into good order; more often, I would say, it distracts us from each task, preventing us from completing anything satisfactorily.
Posted by acilius on March 17, 2010
My favorite read from the antiwar Right has undergone quite a few changes since it began in 2002. Founding editors Pat Buchanan and Taki Theodoracopulos are long gone from The American Conservative, and the hard line those men have taken against immigration from poor countries to rich ones is no longer the magazine’s editorial policy. Last year, the magazine scaled its publication schedule back from biweekly to monthly. This issue suggests that some further changes are underway.
For one thing, the editors seem to want short pieces to end with pungent epigrams. So Stuart Reid’s column about Peter Hitchens’ less interesting brother praises him for the the fine satires he directed at self-important British Conservatives in the 1970s (Reid ruefully admits that he himself met Peter Hitchens’ brother’s sardonic descriptions perfectly at the time) and praises him also for a 1986 piece arguing that the word “terrorism” should be discarded as worse than useless. Reid laments that Peter Hitchens’ brother has now become an angry voice calling for endless war and jeering at advocates of peace. The pungent epigram at the end is this:
Some people say that Hitchens himself is now a conservative. That is absurd. But he might one day make a great police chief.
Eve Tushnet’s column about the contrast between “Washington the dateline,” where the US government is headquartered, and “DC the hometown,” where she grew up and lives today, also ends with a pungent epigram: “Official Washington can disappoint you, but only home can break your heart.”
Not only is the magazine’s style changing; there are signs of further shifts on poitical issues. A review of a new book by former Texas Republican Party leader Tom Pauken notes Pauken’s case for replacing many federal taxes with a border-adjusted Value Added Tax, a proposal that the magazine has looked on warmly in many pieces in previous issues. This time around, the response is much cooler, even dismissive: “Would the harm to consumers be offset by the benefits to producers? Even if so, it’s hard to imagine the consuming many making that sacrifice on behalf of the producing few.” Perhaps it is hard to imagine, but I would join Pauken in saying that something like it must happen if the “producing few” are not to go on becoming fewer and fewer.
Not everything about the magazine has changed, however. Bill Kauffman’s column closes with his characteristic assertion that “small really is beautiful.” The smallness he discusses is that of the planet Pluto and the resources available to its discoverer, the unlettered 24 year old farm boy Clyde Tombaugh. Tombaugh’s formal education had ended, apparently forever, when he graduated from high school; there was no money to send him on to college. Toiling in his family’s pasture, he built his own telescope and spent nights drawing freehand sketches of Mars and Jupiter. On a whim, Tombaugh sent these sketches to Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. The observatory operated on a shoestring budget; when its director saw Tombaugh’s sketches, he seized the opportunity to hire someone who might be capable of the drudgery involved in searching for a hypothetical “Planet X” beyond the orbit of Neptune. After Tombaugh spotted Pluto on a series of photographic plates, he was awarded a scholrship to the University of Kansas, and began a distinguished academic career. Kauffman points out that in a properly funded observatory today, “a 21st century Clyde Tombaugh would be wearing a hairnet and ladling mac and cheese in the cafeteria.” I suspect that a 21st century Tombaugh would likely have qualified for a scholarship to the University of Kansas without having to discover a planet first, but Kauffman does have a point. The bureaucratization of science, like bureaucratization generally, may be the road to efficiency, but there’s something to be said for the independent, uncredentialled researcher.
I can’t resist mentioning that the Believer (aka Mrs Acilius) takes a keen personal interest in Pluto. I read this piece to her; when I got to the bit where Kauffman says that the officials of the International Astronomical Union who in 2008 decided to reclassify Pluto as a dwarf planet were a group of “costive bastards,” she let out a war whoop that would have done her Cherokee forebears proud. She was not satisfied with Kauffman’s conclusion that the label “dwarf planet” might “be okay” because “small really is beautiful,” however. She wants it back on the list of full-fledged planets.
The theme that “small is beautiful” comes up in another piece, Patrick Dineen’s “Counterfeiting Conservatism.” Dineen traces many evils back to the introduction of primary elections in the USA in the early decades of the 2oth century. While primaries were supposed to break the grip of political elites on the nominating process, in fact they merely replaced the old elite of local party bosses with a new elite of political professionals who operate on a national scale. This development has in turn led to the nationalization of elections, the rise of partisan ideology, and a new concept of patriotism. Where a 19th century American might have thought of patriotism in terms of loyalty to a particular state and reverence for particular historical figures, the nationalized politics of the 2oth century pushed Americans to identify patriotism with enthusiasm for the nation-state and its expansion.
I should also note a report on current US politics. There’s an antiwar candidate running for US Senator from Indiana. That isn’t the likely Democratic nominee, Congressman Brad Ellsworth of Evansville, but his predecessor in the US House, Republican John Hostettler. Hostettler opposed the Iraq War from the beginning, and even wrote an antiwar book. If Hostettler wins his party’s nomination, Indiana will see a conservative, prowar Democrat squaring off against an even more conservative, antiwar Republican in November. I wonder how the Indiana contingent of Thunderlads will react to that choice.
Posted by acilius on March 16, 2010