Monday, December 24, 2007

Merry Christmas 2007!

A lot of people I know must secretly find Christmas very annoying. Just think of all its bad points:

1. All the giving that we are doing is directed toward people to whom we are sentimentally attached, so it is really selfish. True altruism would be giving to complete strangers, people we have no selfish reason to give to.

2. At Christmas, we give things to individuals, and turn our attention away from the good of society as a whole.

3. Christmas giving is wasteful and actually diverts resources away from the total social good. The things we give are mostly useless things -- candy, wine, a necktie, toys.

4. Further, all this money brings about less real value than the same money would produce if it were spent by the recipient of the gift. (Your uncle would have picked out a different necktie if he had chosen it himself, one that would be better for him.)

5. Christmas giving is regressively redistributive. We don't give to people because they are weak, sick, incompetent -- because they need our help, in other words. No, we give to them because of their virtues and their strengths, because we find them worthy of love. Instead of giving to them that have not, we give to those who are already well-endowed by nature, circumstance, or their own efforts. Giving is only good when we give to the right recipients, and Christmas selects the wrong ones.

As you can probably guess, these are the reasons I love Christmas. Merry Christmas from all of us here on Jefferson Street to all of you! And happy all those other holidays, too!
The picture above shows the Madison Community Orchestra giving one of its annual Holiday Concerts in the Capitol rotunda (the largest stone dome in the world!). That's me in the brown suit on the far left, playing the second violin part of Leroy Anderson's "Sleigh Ride." Photo by Deborah Katz Hunt.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Has Global Warming Stopped?

British astronomer and distinguished science journalist David Whitehouse raises the above question in a recent article in The New Statesman. "'The fact is," he says, "that the global temperature of 2007 is statistically the same as 2006 and every year since 2001."

Demonstrable, global climate change has been flat for seven years now. The closest thing I have found that turns this into a vivid image is a graph on this environmental alarmist website. Scroll slightly down from the top. Note that this graph has no bars for 2006 or 2007. So just imagine continuing the flat area at the right end of the graph for two more bars and you get the picture. Flat.

But that's not the bad news for those who are married to human-produced carbon dioxide as the cause of climate change, forsaking all others. As Whitehouse points out, carbon dioxide levels have risen relentlessly throughout the flat period. As I am sure you know, causes and effects aren't supposed to vary independently of each other. Why climate change has flattened we really don't know. But it doesn't seem like the carbon theory, plausible as it is on its own, can do the explaining by itself.

Whitehouse looks like an interesting person. You can find his charmingly low-tech web site here. He once wrote an article on UFOs called These Close Encounters of the Absurd Kind, in which he said: "I will feel more confident that aliens have landed when I see David Frost interview one." Penn and Teller should use him as a source!
Added later: Whitehouse is of course a journalist. Here is an older article with a similar point of view by Bob Carter, a scientist, a geologist who works in paleoclimatology. Note that his statement, "the last eight years [have] proved to be a period of stasis," can now be amended: the last nine years. Here is a video of a recent talk by Carter -- a very effective one!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Is Prejudice Ever Good?

A reader wrote to me yesterday with an interesting question. In my earlier post Random Quotations I listed this quote, attributed to Mark Twain: "I know that I am prejudiced on this matter, but I would be ashamed of myself if I were not."

The reader said that she was thinking of putting this quote on the wall at her work place, but wanted to know the context of the quote before venturing to do so.

Hm, I thought, I believe I know what you are thinking. It would be embarrassing to put the quote up and then a co-worker says something like "Say, don't you know it was racial prejudice he was defending?"

I looked at the source from which I got it, a review of the book In Praise of Prejudice: The Necessity of Preconceived Ideas, by conservative essayist Theodore Dalrymple on the web site of the conservative New English Review, but it was no help. It contained no indication of the source or context of the quote.

The idea that prejudice can be good is an occasional theme of American conservative essayists going at least as far back as the title essay of Richard Weaver's Life Without Prejudice and Other Essays (1965).

[Disclaimer: I didn't post those quotations because I agree with them. I was commenting on their literary qualities, not their truth or falsity.]

After more searching, I eventually did find the source. The quote is from The Innocents Abroad, chapter: "The Ascent of Vesuvius, Continued." It was slightly misquoted, which was what made it hard to find initially. Here is the passage from which it was taken:
And here, also, they used to have a grand procession, of priests, citizens, soldiers, sailors, and the high dignitaries of the City Government, once a year, to shave the head of a made-up Madonna--a stuffed and painted image, like a milliner's dummy -- whose hair miraculously grew and restored itself every twelve months. They still kept up this shaving procession as late as four or five years ago. It was a source of great profit to the church that possessed the remarkable effigy, and the ceremony of the public barbering of her was always carried out with the greatest possible eclat and display--the more the better, because the more excitement there was about it the larger the crowds it drew and the heavier the revenues it produced--but at last a day came when the Pope and his servants were unpopular in Naples, and the City Government stopped the Madonna's annual show.

There we have two specimens of these Neapolitans--two of the silliest possible frauds, which half the population religiously and faithfully believed, and the other half either believed also or else said nothing about, and thus lent themselves to the support of the imposture. I am very well satisfied to think the whole population believed in those poor, cheap miracles--a people who want two cents every time they bow to you,and who abuse a woman, are capable of it, I think.

These Neapolitans always ask four times as much money as they intend to
take, but if you give them what they first demand, they feel ashamed of themselves for aiming so low, and immediately ask more. When money is to be paid and received, there is always some vehement jawing and gesticulating about it. One can not buy and pay for two cents' worth of clams without trouble and a quarrel. One "course," in a two-horse carriage, costs a franc--that is law--but the hackman always demands more, on some pretence or other, and if he gets it he makes a new demand. It is said that a stranger took a one-horse carriage for a course --tariff, half a franc. He gave the man five francs, by way of experiment. He demanded more, and received another franc. Again he demanded more, and got a franc--demanded more, and it was refused. He grew vehement --was again refused, and became noisy. The stranger said, "Well, give me the seven francs again, and I will see what I can do"--and when he got them, he handed the hackman half a franc, and he immediately asked for two cents to buy a drink with. It may be thought that I am prejudiced.

Perhaps I am. I would be ashamed of myself if I were not.
So the prejudice involved was indeed racial prejudice.

Is there a moral here about the nature of prejudice?

A prejudice is, roughly speaking, an unjustified belief. To hold and act on such a belief is to act in blindness and thus increase the likelihood that (by your own standards) you will go wrong. If you do go wrong, you will be walking into a booby trap that you set for yourself. Kind of like the reviewer who did not check the source of this quote.

Monday, December 10, 2007

David L. Hunt 1923-2007

My father died very suddenly one day last week. He died as he had often lived in his later years, as he had come to prefer: alone and unnoticed. In life, he could be a fairly annoying person. I think my mother really hated him, and it would be hard to say that she was simply wrong to do so. She had reasons, maybe even one or two good ones.

He was a member of the so-called "greatest generation," a veteran of World War II, Pacific Theater of Operations, and one of his many racial prejudices was the Japanese -- a pigheaded idée fixe that mere facts and logic could never budge. His heroes were John Wayne, Johnny Cash, Mark Twain, and H. L. Mencken. There were no women in his pantheon, and all his gods were very white.

So why do I miss him as much as I do? What are these tears about? I guess I'm writing this to figure that out. Friends and lovers are chosen, and show what you want to be. Relatives are assignments given by Nature. They remind you of what you are. This of course can be unpleasant. Conversations with my Dad could be tests of my liberal virtues, such as they are. His phone calls were sometimes pop quizzes in tolerance. My grades improved as I got older. I eventually realized that being insensitive and something of a bigot are shortcomings that can be balanced and outweighed. Also, I stopped arguing with him when I developed my now-overwhelming aversion to wasting my time.

I suppose his virtues were just the obverse side of his shortcomings. He and his twin sister Doris were the last of the nine children in his family, and born prematurely. As he told the story many times, he almost died in infancy. This made him especially precious to his mother, who always treated him like a little prince (how Doris fit into this I never thought to ask). He got used to doing things his own way, with relatively little need to take the preferences of others into consideration.

He always did just what he wanted to do, not what he was supposed to do or what people told him he had to do. His character was sharply focused. What he really wanted to do at any one moment was, well, something constructive, it didn't seem to matter what. He was no "workaholic," but he was always up to something. If nothing else was happening, he would go out into the backyard and pave part of it with concrete, or rip out one variety of plant and install another. His backyard was written up in the local newspaper, with a big color picture of his magnificent shrub roses and delicate, translucent begonias. This is a trait I failed to inherit, as you know if you have seen my yard. (Or maybe it just took other forms, like this stupid blog.)

He always said that he chose his trade, repairing mechanical watches and clocks, because it's a thing you can do when you are old and feeble, so he would not have to retire. And he didn't. He kept it up, pottering away and listening to angry right-wing talk radio (he eventually came to regard Rush Limbaugh as some kind of semi-liberal sissy) to the very end. He almost literally died at his bench. An eighty four year old man, decades older than most people when they retire, dies at work. As near as we can determine, he was coming in the side door of his shop, going from the work bench in the garage to the one inside, when he dropped his Nat Sherman cigarette and keeled over backward, stretched out on the floor, and never got up. Being a Sherman, the cigarette simply went out, instead of burning the place down.

His shop always smelled powerfully of gear lubricant and good tobacco, and always had at least fifty mechanical clocks in it, the rustle of their ticking as calming as forest murmurs. Their hourly discordant clanging and dinging was an experience I will surely miss.

I think I loathe death for two reasons. For one thing, it comes too early. Humans should live twice as long as they do. Seventy or eighty years is enough to do about half of what one brain can accomplish. Dad left a shop full of unfinished projects, as no doubt will I. The other thing is the waste of knowledge. When that brain hit the floor of his shop and faded out, a lifetime of unrecoverable knowledge faded out. His trade was a handicraft, Medieval sort of thing, and could only be passed on by way of apprenticeship. He had once hoped one of his grandchildren would become his apprentice, but it never happened. If only there were some way to just download all that experience and pass it on to others through a cable! So much of it just goes to waste. (This, by the way, is a problem that traditional immortality does not solve. This knowledge would be equally wasted if locked away in a sexless, bloodless, dirt-free heaven where there are no watches and clocks because there is nothing to do and nowhere to go.)

I was surprised to learn that his will requested "no service." An agnostic in his earlier years, who seldom entered a church unless some woman brought him, I think he ended up a believer of some sort or other. I suppose he just found funerals creepy and depressing, and didn't want to inflict one on anyone else. My brother and sister and I decided that what we will do is have a wake instead. Eat his favorite foods, drink his vodka (he left three gallons in the pantry), tell stories, cry, laugh. Maybe read some letters and poems (his favorite was Robert Service). I think I'll barbecue some ribs with a cherry-based sauce I'm working on, and cook up some fish steaks with orange zest and white grapes. That's the way to remember someone whose motto seemed to be: Life comes around once. Deny yourself nothing.

Added later: The picture at the head of this post is taken, without permission, from the site of a local newspaper (scroll down their page to see a charming write-up about Dad) [photo credited to Rory Mcnamara.] I hope they accept this link as just compensation for swiping their excellent photo. I don't seem to have any decent digital pictures of him of my own. I like the expression in this one. He seems to be saying, "Yes, I got your joke. I just didn't think it was funny." This shows him in the last year of life, aged 83 or so. To the left is a much earlier one, which I scanned. On the back he has written: "11-2-46 / To Mother / With Love / from David on his 23rd Birthday." That would be about two weeks after I was born. It was probably in the mountains east of Los Angeles. That's a guess, based on the fact that at that time L. A. was our home.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Happy Birthday Józef!

Darn! Yesterday, December 3, was the 150th birthday of Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, aka Joseph Conrad, and I missed it. Well, here is his Wikipedia picture and a belated birthday greeting, shouted across the abyss.

In a commemorative piece, Giles Foden (The Last King of Scotland) repeatedly characterizes Conrad as a Modernist. He seems to mean this as a compliment. I think he is twice wrong.

Perhaps the greatest single era in the arts in the West began in the late eighteenth century and culminated in the early twentieth century. Then some vicious idiot shot the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, and it all came crashing to a gruesome, brain-splattering end. After the war, Modernism spread like the Great Influenza Pandemic. Eventually, it turned art, once the breath of life, into a pointless game for over-educated snobs. (With all due respect, I think this is what James Joyce, the greatest Modernist of them all, accomplished.)

There are of course connections, both artistic and personal, between Conrad and Modernism, but he really belonged to the last generation of the great epoch that Modernism destroyed. Modern without being Modernist, ironic without being cold or nihilistic, romantic without being sentimental or confused, complex, subtle, and profound, his greatness is a chilling measure of that vast waste of time in the arts, the twentieth century. How he dwarfs them all! Now that we are waking up from the long, international nightmare of Modernism, it is time to start creating real art again!

(Hat-tip for these links to Arts and Letters Daily.)

Monday, November 26, 2007

What About James Watson?

Given how many times I've posted on freedom of speech issues, I feel, well, odd about not having posted on the James D. Watson flap last month. I guess I should say something about it.

In case you have been sequestered in a remote monastery for the last five weeks, an international furore erupted as a result of this Times (of London) article. The article was based on an interview Watson gave to a former student on the occasion of his coming to England to publicize a new book of his, appropriately titled Avoid Boring People. The article included the following:
The 79-year-old geneticist said he was “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours - whereas all the testing says not really." He said he hoped that everyone was equal, but countered that “people who have to deal with black employees find this not true”.
In the ensuing flap, he was the subject of virulent denunciations, not only in the press, but in the scientific community. His English speaking engagements and book tour were canceled, and he suddenly "retired" from the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, an institution that he headed for years and which probably only exists because of him and his achievements.

I just want to say something, briefly, about two of the questions that are raised by these sad events.

First: Are people who believe that some races are on average smarter than others racists and bad people?

Not necessarily. This is a scientific question and the answer to it consists of morally neutral facts. Facts are facts. If the race-to-intelligence link should turn out to exist, that may be regrettable, but there is no point in sniveling about it, and we certainly shouldn't moralize about the people who bring in the evidence. Some of the people who believe in the link do so because they are racists, but I am sure that others do so because they honestly think that is where the evidence leads. We will never be able to figure this out in an atmosphere of moralistic hysteria.

Maybe I should add that I actually don't have any opinions about this issue, because I frankly don't find it interesting. So what if (as the evidence does seem to suggest) Jews and Asians are on average more intelligent than people like me, and Blacks and Hispanics are on average less intelligent? What does that have to do with how I should relate to a Mexican friend of mine, or and East Indian friend? Obviously, nothing. What does it have to do with how they should see themselves? Again, nothing. By all accounts there is a large portion of any given major race that is more intelligent than the average member of any other race. To draw conclusions about any given individual (supposing one has any personal knowledge about then at all) is simply a fallacy.

Then why are people so worked up about this? I think it's because they are not concerned in this case with individuals, they are concerned with groups. There is an idea afoot here that William Saletan has cleverly named liberal creationism. The form of egalitarianism now dominant among "liberals" requires that all racial groups, at least all major racial groups, have equal amounts of the benefits of social cooperation -- wealth, income, prestige, etc. Whenever they don't, that is unjust, and massive amounts of state coercion are justified to correct the injustice. For various reasons, this does not make sense unless the various racial groups are genetically identical in relevant respects: if on the contrary there are significant relevant differences among the genetic endowments of different races then, at a minimum, attempts to establish this sort of race-based egalitarianism by forceare attempts to sweep back the sea.

The problem is that this assumption, of the genetic identity of races, is clearly an empirical proposition and obviously could be false. Creating a world view that hangs by such a slender thread seems a seriously dumb thing to do. At least the Christian creationists were clever enough to base their world view on propositions that are unfalsifiable. This assumption puts the standard lefty paradigm on a collision course with some o f the most powerful and rapidly developing of modern sciences: namely, those that are connected in relevant ways with evolutionary biology. Hence the "liberal creationism" label. If I were one of these racial egalitarians, I would revise my world view, probably by switching to some other sort of egalitarianism.

Second Question: So, when Watson was relieved of his administrative duties by the board of Cold Spring Harbor Labs, that was an injustice, right?

Again, I have to say, not necessarily. Contrary to what John Derbyshire has suggested, Watson's quoted remarks go well beyond the legitimate scientific issue that I have been discussing here. He seemed to say that all employers know by experience that blacks are less intelligent than whites. This could only be true if, contrary to what I've said above, that they are all less intelligent than all whites. This of course is absurd. He also seems to be saying that the reasons why the economic problems of Africa are so horrible is that these people are just too damn dumb to do much better. (To get an idea how horrible these problems are, go here. Note that the shrinking and falling blue circles represent Africa.) We are dealing with a 79 year old man who even in his prime had a way of saying rather loopy things in public. There is at least some reason to think that he should not be in a position in which he supervises other people.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving 2007!

Well, as I write, the turkey is about to come out of the brine. Here's hoping for the best - for all of us!

Thanksgiving represents so many of the simple values that are easy to scoff at, and nobody represents that -- both simple values and the easily-scoffed-at -- than Norman Rockwell. At the left is his "Freedom from Want," from the website of the Norman Rockwell Museum of Vermont. It was painted as part of a series celebrating FDR's "Four Freedoms" speech. Click to enlarge. (See Joseph Epstein's take on Thanksgiving as a cultural relic here. Hat-tip for the link to Denis Dutton of Arts and Letters Daily.)

[If you can forgive my sounding a negative note, I just can't resist pointing out what a servile conception of "freedom" that FDR speech represents. The four freedoms are: freedom of speech, freedom to worship (not
of worship -- evidently, failure to worship isn't an option), freedom from want, and freedom from fear. As Walter Kaufmann pointed out long ago, all four are fully enjoyed in the better sort of prison. I prefer the paintings to the speech. I am painfully aware, though, that most of the people I respect would have the opposite preference.]

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Glory and the Grief of Thanksgiving: A Note to Cooks

This will be the first Thanksgiving on which Nat is coming home from college. He's been doing a wonderful job (finding time to publish an article in a student paper along with getting As in difficult classes!) so I wanted to go all out in making this meal great.

I think cooks like Thanksgiving because it is such a challenge: the ingredients are so un-promising! First, there are the cranberries, which Jeffrey Steingarten has said are "not a real food." Then there is pumpkin pie. This is a dessert based on a species of squash. As it is usually prepared, it is little more than a platform for serving nutmeg. Finally, there is the roast turkey. By the time this bird is cooked enough to crisp the skin and not kill your guests, it is usually all dried out.

[I can't believe that people love Thanksgiving for the food. It's really all about feasting with loved ones, and the nostalgic memories that accumulate year after year, like subtle flavor-elements blooming in a fine wine. If you like the food so much, how come you only eat it once a year? This anthropologically interesting oddity might be called The Lutefisk Phenomenon.]

After all these years, I am still struggling to improve my solutions to these thorny culinary conundra. For the pumpkin pie, I have used this recipe for pumpkin cheesecake ever since it was first published in 1992. This year, for variety, I will try Ellie Krieger's lightened-up version of pumpkin flan.

As to the turkey, since 1996 I've used this brined turkey recipe, or adapted it in various ways. All non-brining recipes are too horrible to contemplate. Once I started brining, I never looked back! For reasons that I don't yet understand (something to do with osmotic pressure?) brining helps keep the bird from drying out.

This summer, I purchased a gas smoker, and I am going to try combining this process with the brining technique I have been using. Properly done, smoking accomplishes the same thing as brining. It is a low-and-slow cooking method, using temps that are high enough to cook the meat but too low to cause the juices to drip out (smokers don't even have drip pans!).

Below is the recipe I am going to try (no, this will not be one of those compassionate Thanksgivings), a radically revised version of my base recipe. First, a word about the revisions:
  • I am introducing flavoring agents into the brine. This has become standard practice since I began brining in 1996.
  • The baking soda: I am worried about the acidity that orange zest will bring to the brining process. I'm really not sure what difference it will make, particularly because the bird will be in the brine for such a long time. We're brining the bird not pickling it. To be safe, I'm adding baking soda. I hope this will neutralize the citric acid without ruining anything else.
  • I am finishing the bird in the kitchen oven to crisp the skin. Also, this allows me to introduce the butter rub. I don't want to do this in the smoker because the butter would drip and, in the absence of dripping pans, possibly produce some nasty soot. Also make a mess of my smoker.
  • Using the turkey cannon, a "beer can" style marinade-introduction system, will further enhance moistness and help keep the smoking process from taking all day. (I will assume that the cooking process will take about 3 1/2 hours: smoking time plus kitchen oven time plus resting one hour.)
  • Because I can't be sure of the cooking times (smokers are hard to control!), I've purchased a remote-probe digital thermometer with cable.

Brined and Smoked Orange-Thyme Turkey

For the brine:
Two quarts vegetable stock
1/2 cup light golden brown sugar
One gallon water
One tablespoon zested orange peel
½ teaspoon baking soda
Three or four sprigs fresh thyme or one tablespoon dried
One tablespoon black peppercorns
One teaspoon red pepper flakes
One pound kosher salt
One bag of ice (seven pounds or so)

One twelve-pound turkey
One teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon cayeene pepper

Orange-butter rub:
1 ½ sticks unsalted butter, room temperature
1/4 cup fresh-squeezed orange juice
1/8 cup fresh-squeezed lemon juice
2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme or 1 tablespoon dried
1 tablespoon zested orange peel
1 teaspoon zested lemon peel
½ teaspoon freshly grated black pepper
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper

For “beer can” system:
3/4 cup white wine
1/4 cup fresh orange juice
1 medium chipotle chili, crumbled (chipotles are dried)

In a stock pot, combine brining ingredients, except for ice, and bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve salt. Remove from heat. Cool to room temperature and chill until cold.

Put turkey, with cold brine and ice, in a camp cooler big enough to hold the turkey. Place in a cool place, such as a basement or Wisconsin back porch in November, for six to twelve hours (overnight is good).

Remove the turkey and discard brine. Drain turkey and aim an electric fan at it to dry it off while doing the following. Whisk together ingredients for butter rub. Start up smoker, with wood chips (I will be using finely split apple chips). Set up beer can system (I will be using my turkey cannon) and introduce wet and dry ingredients into the system after heating them to boiling in the microwave. Lightly sprinkle turkey with cayenne and paprika.

Place the turkey, with the beer can system, in the smoker. Insert the remote probe of a digital thermometer into the bird as per thermometer instructions, setting the alarm for 150° F and smoke until that internal temperature is reached. Keep the smoker temperature (I use three different thermometers for this purpose, simultaneously) at about 280° F during this process.

Now move turkey and beer can assembly to a pan to catch drippings and, with a brush, paint the turkey with generous amounts of the orange butter. If the turkey’s extremities (wingtips and leg ends) are already brown, cover those with foil. Reset alarm to 160°. Place in the bottom rack of a pre-heated 500° F oven to crisp the skin. Before that temperature is reached, paint the turkey with more of the butter. When the 160° internal temperature is reached, remove bird promptly. Tent loosely with foil and let rest for one hour (160° is too rare for some tastes, but the bird will continue to cook as it rests).

I'll be serving it with this cornbread stuffing. It's my current favorite.

If you spot any mistakes in this plan, please do let me know!

Update a week later:
Well, this turkey recipe turned out to me amazingly good. I think using apple wood chips turned out to be especially important: it prevented the smoked turkey from tasting like pseudo-ham (as it probably would if you were to use hickory) and gave it a wonderfully different flavor. Deborah forbade me to ever change it as long as I live. I got an email yesterday from someone who tried it and he described it as "perfect" (thanks, Richard!). But enough of this bragging! I also, I guess it's inevitable, found there were a couple of mistakes in the recipe as written above. I'll post a revised and corrected version before Christmas. [Added Later: Make that next Thanksgiving. Anyone who wants it before then can email me.]

Saturday, November 17, 2007

I See Beowulf -- With a Beowulf Scholar!

Thursday night Deborah and I attended the local premier of the new film of Beowulf, in a special Imax 3-D screening for press and VIPs. Due to our host, John D. Niles, reigning king of Ango-Saxony, (thanks Jack!), we were indulgently placed in the latter category. Afterwards, Jack held a very interesting question-and-answer period.

Of course, he had to point out that as the writer, Neil Gaiman, adapted the story for the screen, he seemed to feel that he had to "sex it up." In the poem, Beowulf is, as near as we can tell, celibate. Not so in the movie. [This BTW is one of the biggest differences between literary heroes and movie heroes. Yes, Philip Marlowe does marry Linda Loring, but not until the unfinished last book in the series. No doubt, the reason for this difference is that the movies are more democratic. The masses are not interested in celibate heroes.]

In principle, Jack didn't mind that film-makers changed the poem into a completely different sort of story -- an 3-D thrill ride with oceans of gore and eye-popping spectacle -- indeed, the anonymous Beowulf poet was no doubt also re-imagining yet earlier stories. Being "unfaithful" to your sources is keeping faith with the tradition!

But he did regret that the film makes no use at all of the single greatest feature of the poem: the language! I noticed that they put a number of songs in the film (good idea, that! these people probably sang a lot!), but in every case the lyrics were rhyming verse, not alliterative verse. What for?

He also pointed out that the visual design of the film, though often beautiful (especially Grendel's cave), had almost no connection with the design of Viking-age artifacts that survive. [For an insight into what this means, get Jack's brand-new edition of Seamus Heany's translation of the poem. It is crammed with gorgeous full-page illustrations of period artifacts.] Again, this seems like a terrible waste to me. The film seems more influenced by the design of video games like World of Warcraft than by actual Ango-Saxon culture. Great film-makers take everything that is great in their sources and build on them. The present strategy seems to me like turning your back on a banquet to catch and eat flies (to borrow a simile from H. L. Mencken).

Anyway, though this is not Lord of the Rings or 300, it is worth seeing. I recommend that you only see it in IMAX 3-D, though. Otherwise you will sit there wondering why they keep hurling things (spear-points, rocks, pieces of furniture, dead bodies, monsters) at the camera. And you'll miss half of the fun. More than half, actually.

By the way, I haven't mentioned what I find the movie's greatest virtue because it was something that would probably influence no one else. As the world's only fan of Crispin Glover, I relished his portrayal of Grendel. I would have seen it if only for that!

Random Quotations

Below is a list of quotations I've compiled over the last couple of weeks. The only constraints are that I think all are of high quality, and also that I don't remember seeing any of them before two weeks ago.

What makes a good quotation? I think the only thing that all these have in common is a complete lack of unnecessary gestures. There are no wasted words, also no wasted ideas: no qualifications, no explanations, and no explicit argumentation or evidence.

This may explain why of all the authors below, selected at random, few are professors, and only two are philosophers. People who like to spell everything out are not quotable. (I can't think of any quotable statements by John Rawls. In fact, the very idea is comical, is it not?)

It also implies that quotable passages are in effect aphorisms. If other literary forms are islands and continents, aphorisms are mountain-peaks.

I don't think there is anything else the items below have in common. Some are clear, others are vague. Some are truisms, others are paradoxes (the opposite of a truism). Some are like a soothing lotion, others prick like a cactus-spine.

Anyway, here is the list:

"Always laugh when you can. It is cheap medicine. "
Lord Byron

"They never fail who die in a great cause."
Lord Byron

"First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win."
Mohandas Gandhi

"Tigers are more beautiful than sheep, but we prefer them behind bars."
Bertrand Russell, on the Romanitic admiration for wildness.

"Those who offer false consolation are false friends."
Christoper Hitchens (This one is quoted from memory and so is probably not accurate.)

"Anarchism is founded on the observation that since few men are wise enough to rule themselves, even fewer are wise enough to rule others."
Edward Abbey

“I know that I am prejudiced on this matter, but I would be ashamed of myself if I were not.”
Mark Twain

"If you talk to God, you are praying; if God talks to you, you have schizophrenia."
Thomas Szasz

"Since everything ends badly for us in the inevitable catastrophe of death, it seems obvious that the first rule of life is to have a good time; and that the second rule of life is to hurt as few people as possible in the course of doing so. There is no third rule."
Brendan Gill

"¿Y por qué no te callas?"
King Juan Carlos' actual words to Hugo Chavez. ¡Que viva el Rey!

"A professor must have a theory as a dog must have fleas. "
H. L. Mencken

"A man may be a fool and not know it, but not if he is married. "
H. L. Mencken

"Democracy is also a form of worship. It is the worship of Jackals by Jackasses. "
H. L. Mencken

"It is a sin to think evil of others, but it is seldom a mistake."
H. L. Mencken

... Uh-oh. If I allow H. L. Mencken quotes, the whole list will be his his stuff. I hereby ban them....

"There is but one way left to save a classic; to give up revering him and use him for our own salvation."
Jose Ortega y Gasset

"Poetry is adolescence fermented, and thus preserved."
Jose Ortega y Gasset

...Okay, Ortega will also take over the list if I let him in. I quess I'd better end it anyway...

Darn! The two-weeks rule I laid down at the beginning prohibited me from giving one of my favorite quotes, but what the heck here it is anyway:

"Those who fight for the future, live in it today."
Ayn Rand

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Does Religion "Poison Everything"?

I've been reading God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by the the always-amusing Christopher Hitchens.

His ornery sub-title raises a question that, believe it or not, I find myself taking seriously. Does it?

You know, of course, what prompted the "new atheism," the surge of books by Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennet, as well as lesser luminaries, some of whom burn hotter if not as brilliantly. It's because of 9/11, the day that changed everything.

That morning I rose late, about ten o'clock or so, and began what I expected would be a slow day. At noon my friend Don Downs of the Poli Sci Department was going to bring over some documents about a professor who had been de-tenured and fired by the Board of Regents, a case that we though raised some serious due process issues. We were thinking of trying to get the faculty senate to take a position on the case.

Quite unexpectedly, the front door bell rang. It was Don. I opened the door and looked at him sourly. "You're early," I said.

He looked at my bathrobe. "You haven't turned your TV on yet, have you?" he asked.

"Why? What happened?"

"Somebody flew a passenger plane into one of the towers of the World Trade Center and knocked it down."

"O my God," I said stupidly, "that must have killed hundreds of people."

"Oh, thousands," he corrected me.

The next thing I said was an angry outburst: "Do you see how wonderful religion is!? How it helps everyone to live together in peace?" Don looked startled.

How did I know, instantly, that this was a religious act? I don't think I was even sure right away which religion was involved, but that religion was at to bottom of this seemed beyond doubt. You have to admit that, wherever there is widespread and persistent violence in the world, especially irrational vioulence -- whether it is on Ireland, Lebanon, Israel, Aghanistan, Iraq, Sri Lanka -- it is usually caused by religious differences. Hitchens argues convincingly that the last European war, the civil war in Yugoslavia, was really about religion as much as anything else. "Ethnic cleansing" was really religious cleansing. It was Christians killing Muslims, and doing so because the Muslims were Muslims and, most particularly, because the Christians were Christians.

Years later, it occurred to me that there was a simpler explanation of how I knew that this was a religious act. The clue lay in the fact that the violence on 9/11 was obviously suicidal. The pilots of those planes must have died together with their innocent victims. When we secular humanists commit an atrocity to make the world a better place, it is because we selfishly want to live in that better world. If the atrocity can't possibly have that motive, one knows at once the motive was religious. The statement an Islamist once made to a reporter, "We will win because we love death as much as you love life," surely is a profoundly religious statement.

Hitchens would quickly point out, and he would be right, that this does not really undermine his thesis. After all, the very worldliness of the secular is a constraint. If I want to live here with you, that is a tie between us. My selfish desire to live is something you can appeal to when I grow too indifferent or hostile to your interests. In the gravest extremity, when all else has failed, it makes possible the ultima ratio, the last of all reasons, the threat of death. Religious fanatics, with their "self-sacrificing," "altruistic" behavior (which incidentally are a fake self-sacrifice and spurious altruism in people who think that they will be rewarded with eternal bliss) cannot be appealed to in this way.

In view of this, why do we persist in associating religion with peace and public order? I do it myself! To some extent I think it is a sort of illusion of perspective. We in the liberal West have a distorted view of what religion is really like. Our religions have been corrupted by two centuries of contact with peaceful secular humanists. The idea that peace and public order are good things is by no means a product of religion: the three great monotheistic religions resisted it quite violently for many centuries. It arises from the sort of thinking that secularists have been doing all along: naturalistic thinking about life on earth.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Ortega Still Matters

What follows is based on part of an article on José Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955) I am writing for the Cato Institute's Encyclopedia of Libertarianism. Actually, I am co-authoring it with the muy estimado y distinguido Dario Fernández-Morera. I've written a couple of other articles for the project, but it's been a while and I don't remember what they were about. Ortega writes with great charm, but reading him can be very disturbing, and I've been wondering how much of what he says is true. In particular, he liked to predict the future, and to analyze the present in ways that would indicate which way things would be going. By now, half a century after his death, one of the biggest questions about Ortega is: How close to being right was he? We know a thing or two about how things would go!

Ortega’s best-known work by far is The Revolt of the Masses, published in 1930. In it, he describes a new sort of human being, which he calls the Mass Man. The Mass Man is the product of the unprecedented material abundance that European civilization achieved during the nineteenth century. This prosperity brought with it sudden increase in the size of the population, which in turn produced two effects which, combined, brought about devastating results. The new people inevitably have attained considerable political and social power. At the same time, it has proved impossible to educate them in the traditional manner, to subject their minds to the discipline of abstract standards, including those of tradition, logic, facts, or science. The mind of the Mass Man does not measure its internal experiences by any standard superior to the self. In politics, this unconstrained frame of mind expresses itself in the form of “direct action.” Its characteristic literary expression is the insult. Above all, the Mass Man has a powerful affinity for the state, as the state promises to provide two things on which the new human type places great value: security, and results without effort. The Mass Man treats the material abundance that created him as if it were the fruit of an Edenic tree, his for the plucking. He neither knows nor cares about the institutional framework that makes this abundance possible. Eventually, his indifference will kill this abundance off at its root.

Another persistent Ortegean theme is his fascination with “liberalism,” by which he meant the classical liberalism of the nineteenth century, an idea that he both admired and criticized. One of the most distinctive ideas in his critique of is his conviction that this sort of liberalism, even in this relatively freedom-friendly variety, has always been too indulgent and optimistic in its view of the state.
Liberalism [he says in the essay “Concord and Liberty”] has never been quite capable of grasping the significance of the fierce nature of the state. ... Let us admit that societies cannot exist without government and state authority; that government implies force (and other things, more objectionable but which it would take too long to enumerate); and that for this reason “participation in government is fundamentally degrading,” as Auguste Comte whose political theory was authoritarian, said...
Fundamentally, in Ortega’s view, the state is necessary, but it is a necessary evil. He held a similar view of society itself.

... What should we make of this? For the moment, I just want to make two comments, one on his gloomy analysis of the Mass Man, and the other about his comments on liberalism and the state.

Surely, the biggest single question is this: By now, we have long lived under the rule of the Mass Man. Is it turning out as he thought it would?

Here is one reason for thinking he was basically right, at least on one point. Most Americans reject in any form the idea that human beings evolved from other life forms. They must be dimly aware on some level that evolution is the basis of the biological sciences that have prolonged their lives, enhanced their comfort, and banished many of the terrors of the past, but they simply don't care. Scientists! What do they know? Polls show that this vertical invasion of barbarians is advancing year by year.

This is exactly the sort of mental "indocility" that Ortega complained of. You might wish to say that, in a way, things were no better in the past, and you would surely be right. Medieval peasants were no paragons of rationality, and were no doubt worse in this respect than the products of today's "public" education system. But Ortega would point out that the peasant was used to submitting his judgment to human authority, to the judgment of people he was convinced were his betters. He had no idea by what standards these mysterious people regulated their thoughts, but he did know that disciplined minds exist and that he could indirectly share in them by accepting their judgment. Today, this constraint has been removed. Well, good riddance to it! The alarming thing is that it has been replaced by -- nothing.

Ortega was very worried that science would not survive in this sort of environment. It the past, it would get along in European society with only the support of a determined minority of adepts, but minorities don't run things any longer. He may have been right about this.

At least that's how it looks to me right now. But maybe I'm just being momentarily overcome by the Ortegean gloom.

On the other point, I am more sure that Ortega has hit close to the mark. Liberalism, even in its more libertarian version, has always been under the spell of the notion that the state is some sort of club (social contract theory), that it is no more ethically problematic than any private association, such as a charitable foundation or a business corporation. This idea, so strange when you stop to think of it, is one for which we have already paid a terrible price, and will continue to do so. Reading Ortega is a healthy antidote. Who knows? Maybe there is a chance he will save us yet!

Monday, October 29, 2007

Eating Our Fellow Animals: The Real Question

Which is the proper condition for a duck to be in? Like this (call it condition #1)?

Or like this (call it condition #2)?

Okay, I'm going a little too fast here. I should back up and say first why I am putting the question this way. (What question? I'll eventually get to that too.)

Robert Nozick has asks some very interesting questions about eating animals.

Suppose (as I believe the evidence supports) that eating animals is not necessary for health and is not less expensive than alternative equally healthy diets available to people in the United States. The gain, then, from the eating of animals is pleasures of the palate, gustatory delights, varied tastes. I would not claim that these are not truly pleasant, delightful, and interesting. The question is: do they, or rather does the marginal addition in them gained by eating animals rather than only nonanimals, outweigh the moral weight to be given to animals' lives and pain? Given that animals are to count for something, is the extra gain obtained by eating them rather than nonanimals products greater than the moral cost? How might these questions be decided? (Anarchy, State, and Utopia, pp. 36-37.)
Yes, these are indeed the questions. Note that on this account of it the question is not whether killing and eating the duck violates its rights.

The idea of animal rights makes little or no sense to me, probably because I think of rights as freedom-extenders. The reason it is important that I have rights to this pencil, this computer, this car, etc. is that it means it is not wrong of me to use it without anyone's consent and, at least as important, that I can exchange them by mutual consent with other rights-holders, to get things I want more. Nothing a duck can do is either right or wrong in this sense, nor can it give or withhold consent. [Very different implications follow if you hold another view of rights: that they are security-enhancers. The fact that you have a right to something is important because it enhances the security of your holding on to it. Security, safety, is something animals can have.]

But supposing I am right about this, that animals do not have rights, it does not follow that they aren't morally considerable at all, that you can do just any old thing you want with them, without justifying your actions. What would a justification of eating animals be like, in that case? Again, Nozick asks an interesting and helpful question:
Suppose then that I enjoy swinging a baseball bat. It happens that in front of the only place to swing it stands a cow. Swinging the bat unfortunately would involve smashing the cow's head. But I wouldn't get fun from doing that; the pleasure comes from exercising my muscles, swinging well, and so on. ... Is there some principle that would allow the killing and eating of animals, but would not allow swinging the bat for the extra pleasure it brings? (ASU p. 37.)
So now you can see why I put my question in the way I did at the beginning. The value humans get from moving the duck from condition #1 to condition #2: is it relevantly different from the pleasure of swinging that baseball bat? Nozick thinks the answer is "no."

I'll be talking to the students in my political philosophy class about this tomorrow. I'll post on possible answers to this question after that.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Richard Taruskin, Pottymouth

Richard Taruskin has a sometimes interesting, sometimes wacky, and at all events if way too long article in The New Republic on what I guess you might call the death of classical music. In case you haven't heard of this phenomenon, here is one of many pieces of evidence he brings forth:
Since the "British invasion," nearly half a century ago, it has been socially acceptable, even fashionable, for intellectuals to pay attention primarily to commercial music, and they often seem oblivious to the very existence of other genres. Of no other art medium is this true. Intellectuals in America distinguish between commercial and "literary" fiction, between commercial and "fine" art, between mass-market and "art" cinema. But the distinction in music is no longer drawn, except by professionals. Nowadays most educated persons maintain a lifelong fealty to the popular groups they embraced as adolescents, and generation gaps between parents and children now manifest themselves musically in contests between rock styles.
Taruskin's article is a review of three new books that argue, with one degree of nostalgia or another, that the death of classical music is regrettable and should not be allowed to happen. Since Taruskin is the chair of the music department at Berkeley (where I once audited a fine course on Beethoven's symphonies), you might think he would be favorably disposed toward these books and inclined to help their authors along. Well, you would think wrong, my friend! He dislikes all these books, with an aversion amounting in one case to apparent hatred.

His hatred goes to the author who defends classical music most vigorously, Julian Johnson of the University of London: "disgraceful," a "rant," "Adorno epigone," "futile," "moral grandstander," "obviously mendacious (unless stunningly ignorant)." Johnson, it turns out, is even (almost) guilty of the worst thoughtcrime of them all: "[His] social snobbery," Taruskin says, "borders on racism (we have minds, they have bodies) and the browbeating is blatant (assent or be lumped with Them)." How it borders on racism he never tells us, beyond this cryptic parenthetical remark. (Maybe he's thinking that classical music is only interesting to white people, while popular music is the property of some other race.... Wait a minute. Isn't that sort of racist?)

The rhetorical low point comes when Taruskin points out that a passage from Johnson's book "resonates with" a nasty, anti-semitic passage from Wagner's Das Judentum in der Musik. He tells us that Wagner's obnoxious attack on Mendelssohn (Wikipedia picture above) "echoes" Johnson's attack on rock 'n' roll. How it does so is not entirely clear. There's no hint of anti-semitism or racism in what Johnson says. The only obvious connection is that both Johnson and Wagner are attributing quasi-ethical traits (like shallowness) to the music they don't like. But such accusations are best left obscure aren't they? They do more damage that way. They create a sort of guilt by association.

What is all this about? What, one wonders, is the real object of Taruskin's hatred? At one point he attacks another of these authors for having seven index entries under "political correctness," which, Taruskin explains, is "the discredited euphemism through which privileged people have gone on the offensive in defense of their privileges." At this point I think I begin to understand. What we have here is an over-the-top sort of egalitarianism. Even defending classical music is suspect because that suggests it might be better than some other sort of music, which in turn suggests that the people who like it might be better than people who don't and ... oh, the the humanity! Sob!

All this name calling is the PC version of pottymouth. This is as dirty as this guy knows how to talk, at least for publication. He is really, really provoked.

My point here is not to defend Johnson (though from the picture of him on his website he looks like a nice enough person) or Taruskin's other victims. I just think it's amazing that the ongoing egalitarian revolt against the very idea "high" or "fine" art has gone so far that the Chair of the Berkeley music department is actually a partisan of the revolution. Just that.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

"Islamofascism": More Sloppyspeak

This week, David Horowitz brought his "Islamofascism Awareness Week" campaign here, speaking on campus on Monday. I wasn't there, but I hear that the always-entertaining Kevin Barret created a disturbance and was removed from the hall.

Before this event, a faculty email list I'm on heated up considerably when someone attacked Horowitz' use of the term "Islamofascism." I guess it's okay if I reveal that this was Howard Schweber of the Poli Sci Department. More conservative people on the list were inclined to defend Horowitz on this point, and one sent around an essay of Christopher Hitchens' in which he defends this usage.

I have to side with Howard on this one. I think this is another example of the morally sloppy sort of talk for which I earlier snapped Desmond Tutu's suspenders.

Fascism is a political ideology with several distinctive features. One is the idea that the state is more important and valuable than the individual or any other part of the total social whole. Another is corporatism: the idea that the individual and all other social units are to be "incorporated" into the whole by various political means, including government-controlled unions and guilds, heavy regulation, and a deliberately cartelized economy. These means do not include the state owning everything outright, as in Communism, but the intended result is the same: total control. Much of this is reflected in Mussolini's memorable motto: "All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state."

Obviously, this has little to do with Islamism (a much better word than that of Horowitz and Hitchens*), which generally boils down to the idea that the state ought to impose Sharia (Islamic morality written up as a legal code) on the entire population, regardless of their own religious convictions. Osama probably doesn't give a damn about cartelizing the economy. He's much more interested in beating women up for not wearing their veils properly.

In the wide, nasty family of authoritarian political ideologies, Islamism and fascism are not even first cousins, let alone identical twins. To speak as if they were is to blur factors that are morally and politically distinct.

Hitchen's argument (see the link above) seems to go more or less like this:
1. Islamism is murderous, anti-intellectual, and authoritarian.
2. Fascism is murderous, anti-intellectual, and authoritarian.
3. Therefore, Islamism is fascism.
So interpreted, the argument is an obvious example of the fallacy of the undistributed middle:
1. Dogs are animals.
2. Pigeons are animals.
3. Therefore, dogs are pigeons.
There is, however, a more charitable way of reading what he is saying, which involves a more modest conclusion, something like: It is alright to speak of Islamism and fascism as if they were the same. But then the argument will need a new premise, something like the one labeled #3 below:
1. Islamism is murderous, anti-intellectual, and authoritarian.
2. Fascism is murderous, anti-intellectual, and authoritarian.
3. It is alright to speak of two things as the same if they share common features.
4. Therefore, It is alright to speak of Islamism and fascism as if they were the same.
With some trivial revision, this will become an obviously valid argument -- except that the new line 3 is not true as stated. To justify speaking of two things as if they were the same, the common features involved have to be essential, or really important, or so important that they outweigh the features you are blurring out of focus when you speak of these two things as if they were the same. Are Islamism and fascism similar in that way?

Here's where things get interesting.

I think, in a way, that Horowitz and and Hitchens do have a reason to say "yes," but that I do not and most likely neither do you. They, unlike most of us, are from the Old Left, or, in Horowitz' case, from the New Left of the 'sixties. In that political environment, the word "fascist" was a loose, sloppy term of political abuse. It meant "any sort of anti-progressive authoritarianism," as contrasted with Communism, which was progressive authoritarianism.

When they moved from the Left to the Right, these two men brought some of their old bad habits with them, like unruly boys tracking mud into a Victorian parlor. I don't think American conservatives should pick this particular habit up from them, of using "fascist" as a term for a broad spectrum of things they don't like. I think they should get out the carpet-sweeper.
* I admit though that it is far from perfect, because it might seem to obscure the absolute difference between Islam and Islamism. But to call the phenomenon "Islamic extremism" or "Islamic fundamentalism" seems clearly objectionable in other ways, and on the whole worse. I am certainly open to suggestions on this point.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

The New Politics of Fear

H. L. Mencken said it:
The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.
Today, both American political parties are inflaming the fears of the populace in ways that are more or less obvious. The Republican party is dominated by people who appeal to your fear that you will be killed by a Middle Eastern terrorist. The Democratic party is more and more under the influence of people who appeal to your fear that a vast, diffuse, sometimes contradictory array of catastrophic results will follow from human-caused global warming. (For a remarkable piece of Chicken-Little-ism, see this website, which is overseen by Bill Clinton's former chief of staff.)

I will never forget what it was like to be a small child at the height of the Cold War. I remember lying awake at night wondering what would happen to our house if they dropped The Bomb. There was a naval base in our town and San Francisco was just on the other side of the hills to the west, so there wasn't much chance of the Russians missing us. I hoped that the fact that I slept on the bottom bunk of our bunk bed might afford me some protection. The collapsing ceiling would regrettably crush my little brother to death, but at least I might have a chance to climb out of the rubble....

It's a terrible thing that anybody, especially children, should have to live in an atmosphere of politically-caused fear. In 1989 Communism collapsed, and with it our fear of it, and of nuclear annihilation. I thought the millennium had arrived: at last, the Freedom from Fear that politicians had been promising us!

Hardly more than a decade later, these two new fears had taken deep root, almost as if they had always been there. They are spreading like crabgrass. No sooner had the very real (though government-produced) danger of nuclear annihilation receded into the background than people began to obsess about these new grounds for worry. It's as if people find life without fear hardly worth living.

I sometimes think that humans have a deep, thanatos-like urge to scare themselves silly. But something tells me this can't be right. Humans are not masochists. A more likely explanation, less counter-intuitive in its assumptions, is social and not psychological. This explanation holds that this phenomenon is, as Mencken half-hints, a byproduct of the state. Like nuclear terror, the new fears are government-produced, though in a completely different way.

The state is a massive instrument of coercion. It is a way to gain power and wealth, and quickly. But in a democracy, you can only use this coercive apparatus if you justify it to your fellow human beings, to the very people who are to lose their freedom and their wealth for your benefit. This is of course difficult to sell.

My hypothesis is that the most effective way to do this is to generate fear. Clearly, the best strategy will be to appeal to some emotion or other. Emotions rivet one's attention to the desired goal and jam up one's ability to put the goal into context and see the big picture. An emotional reaction is always an overreaction. It is always a context-dropping reaction. That is of course just what you want, if you are trying to get people to let you take away their freedom or their hard-earned wealth. It seems to me that all of the emotions are either irrelevant to this goal (eg., lust), to difficult to arouse (eg., love of truth), or too weak (eg., pity for the sufferings of our fellow human beings) -- except for fear. I predict that all political factions and parties will compete at all times to scare themselves and each other into a witless stupor.

What this theory predicts is of course that people will act as if they actually want to be scared, that human life will resemble one continuous Halloween, a non-stop, self-generated fright fest. Well, that is pretty much what it is, isn't it?

If Mencken and I are right about this, this system is one huge protection racket. What Bush and Gore are selling is relief from fear -- a fear you wouldn't have if it weren't for them! There is one big difference, though, from a criminal protection racket. If you ignore the gangster's offer of protection, they really will blow your store up. If you ignore Bush and Gore, then your chances of being killed by a terrorist, or a human-caused hurricane are, well, much less serious. Basically, you have nothing to lose but your mental chains.

Having said that, I suppose I'd better add a qualification: I'm not suggesting that either terrorism or human-called global warming don't exist. Nor do I advocate "doing nothing" about them. What I am suggesting is that we do our best to ignore the enormous amount of shamelessly obvious fear-mongering on these issues. Fear-mongering on the terror issue has already cost us horribly, and continues to do so. Environmental fear-mongering promises to be disastrous as well -- unless we cast off those mental chains.

People want to live in peace and tranquility, yet they have created a system that traps them in a state of perpetual alarm and even at times of craven hysteria. Voters of the world, unite!

Monday, October 15, 2007

Why are Prize Committees So Laughable?

Yes yes yes, I know. The Nobel Peace Prize is now impossible to take seriously. But hasn't this been true for a long time? After all, it's been awarded to not only Al Gore but to Henry Kissinger, Yasser Arafat, Jimmy Carter - and other people whose contributions to peace were negligible or on balance negative. And then there was Rigoberta Menchu, who got the prize for a book that was later shown to contain a significant quantity of deliberate lies. And for her "work" as a Marxist revolutionary.

There's a phenomenon here that is much larger than this one prize.

Consider the Nobel Prize for Literature. Here is a list of some of the people who did not get that one, but could have, because they were very much alive when the award was being given: Leo Tolstoy, George Meredith, Anton Chekhov, Henrik Ibsen, Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling, August Strindberg, Henry James, William Dean Howells, Georg Trakl, Guillaume Apollinaire, Sigmund Freud, Joseph Conrad, Thomas Hardy, Rainer Maria Rilke, Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, Miguel de Unamuno, Constantine P. Cavafy, Edith Wharton, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Stefan Zweig, Luigi Pirandello, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Robert Musil, W. H. Auden, George Orwell, Hermann Broch, André Gide, Ludwig Wittgenstein, E. M. Forster, Jorge Luis Borges, Vladimir Nabokov... Well, it goes on and on. [These names are from a highly entertaining article in which Ted Gioia imagines a parallel universe in which the prize goes to people who actually deserve it.]

Then, perhaps most disgracefully inept of them all, there are the Academy Awards. Here are some directors who never won an award for best director, and who could have, because each one made several (at least!) pictures in this country: Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, Charles Chaplin, Fritz Lang, Josef von Sternberg, Ernst Lubitsch, Preston Sturges, Nicholas Ray, Stanley Kubrick, Max Ophuls, Jean Renoir.

Why are these prizes so absurd, so easy to ridicule and laugh at?

Here is one partial explanation. Judging who is "the best" in one of these fields involves weighing and deciding between incommensurable factors, in the sense that we cannot find one candidate better than another simply on the grounds that they possess more of some specific quality than another. It is not like judging which horse crossed the finish line first. "Competitions are for horses, not artists," said Bela Bartok (who as far as I know never won a prize for anything). He was right.

We do make judgments like these, but we do so by sorting imponderable factors on the basis of moral, philosophical, or ideological principles. Why do you suppose that the pro-Communist Gabriel García Márquez won the Nobel, while the libertarian Mario Vargas Llosa (who once punched Marquez in the face) did not? Isn't it pretty obvious?

All such judgments are necessarily ideological or, in this sense, biased.

The trouble with the above awards is that they are ideological and pretend not to be: they are just prizes for "the best" in a whole vast field of endeavor. As a result, they are dishonestly and inconsistently biased. The prizes that are not ridiculous, that make perfect sense, are the ones that are openly ideological, like the Prometheus Awards.

I am not saying that the other sort of list have no value. They are, more than anything else, entertaining. They are also fun ways to raise issues and start discussions, like the tempting project of drawing up one's own "top ten" lists. But they are only fun if not taken too seriously.

What I personally do take seriously, I have to admit, is five Norwegian politicians trying to use the Peace Prize to influence who the outcome of the next American Presidential election. If that is what they were trying to do. But I won't get started on that here.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Happy Birthday, Atlas!

This week marked the fiftieth anniversary of Atlas Shrugged, a huge novel everyone should read -- preferably while they are still young enough to appreciate its boundless idealism. In that way it is like reading Shelly's Prometheus Unbound, or indeed anything by Shelly. Or Hugo or Schiller (Rand's own youthful favorites). I first read it in the summer after my senior year in high school, and it's by now safe to say that it was an experience I'll never forget. I did nothing else for three or four days, immersing myself in the 1084 pages of the 1963 Signet paperback edition. It put me in a near-hallucinated state of mind, surrounded by railroad tracks, smoky tunnels, a dystopia ruled by demented intellectuals, and a shining utopia in the sky, gloriously ruled by -- no one. When I went away to college, my best buddy gave me a copy of the original Random House hardbound edition, which I still have. ... I couldn't let the anniversary slip by without mentioning it, though for the moment I'm sort of written out on this subject. I recently wrote an essay on its structural aspects that expresses about everything I have to say about it that I haven't said before, for now at least. I will mention one remarkable feature of the book that I discuss there: what I call its "meaning-saturation." Before you've read very far, you know that everything in it means something, often several mutually consistent things at once. Rand once said of her favorite movie, Fritz Lang's Siegfrieds Tod, that while it was in production Lang had a sign in his office, "Nothing in this film is accidental." The same seems to be true of this book. It is a very intentional book. That I think is one thing that makes it so re-readable, even beyond the age when most of us are able to share fully and heedlessly in its glowing spirit.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

New Assaults on Free Discussion in the University

Here is an excellent essay by Kurt Anderson (with whom I don't often agree) about the current wave of attempts to end discussion and silence disagreement. He says, inter alia:
Some of these episodes were trivial, some significant. Some were about trying to prevent speech (Ahmadinejad, Summers, NARAL), some only about stupendously overreacting to it (O’Reilly, MoveOn). But they all reflect a common temperament: an instinct to repress the disagreeable or the impolitic. Almost any argument about race, gender, Israel, or the war is now apt to be infected by a spirit of self-righteous grievance and demonization.
One thing I like about his essay is that it clearly recognizes the pervasiveness of this curious phenomenon. It comes from all parts of the political spectrum, left, right, and center.

Over the years, I've noticed that these things do, as I've just suggested, come in waves.

During the nineties, hundreds of universities across the land enacted speech codes to protect various races, ethnicities, and life-style groups from language that is "hurtful," "demeaning," or "degrading," but usually not otherwise clearly defined. Most of them by far are still on the books.

Currently, there is a wave of angry controversies over the very idea of allowing some guest speaker or other the use of a university forum.

For several years there has been another wave, one that is still rolling on as I write. Anderson does not mention it, probably because he does not see it as part of the same phenomenon. I have in mind a series of incidents in which there are moves against faculty members who are, so to speak, not clearly enough "on the right side" of the War on Terror. Ward Churchill is detenured and fired for reasons that would probably apply to others who are not being molested. Norman Finkelstein is denied tenure at de Paul, under suspicious circumstances. The summer before last, a Wisconsin state legislator hears a university instructor espousing his 9/11 conspiracy theories on talk radio, and demands he be fired. He nearly succeeds.

I am very sorry to say that almost none of the people who resisted the speech codes of the nineties have uttered a single objection to this last, obviously most vicious, series of moves against academic freedom. Last year, when some of us at UW circulated a letter urging that the 9/11 conspiracy theorist not be fired (see link above), we could not find a single political conservative who would sign the letter. (That is, to the best of my memory. If someone shows me I am wrong about this I will gladly publish a retraction.) Nat Hentoff said it years ago in the title of a book: Free Speech for Me, But Not for Thee.

Should we just figure that there is a division of labor here and leave it at that? The right will defend the speech rights of its pet violators (racists, homophobes, etc.) while the left will defend those of its own favored offensive ones (left-wing anti-Semites, people who appear to be soft on terrorism, etc.). I don't think such an arrangement would be stable in the long run, because it would fail to fully recognize the basic principles at stake. One such is to be found in the wise words of William Allen White: "Liberty is the only thing you cannot have unless you are willing to give it to others." Those who will not defend the other fellow's freedom stand to lose their own.
PS: For a brand-new case of the speech-code type, see Gene Volokh's blog for today. (Be sure to look at the linked news story at the end to see the suspended professor's defense. Some of the commenters didn't, and probably ended up thinking his behavior is much more odd than it was.) For an abundance of material on this case, see Barry Dank's Dankprofessor blog, link in the panel at the left. PPS: The graphic above is from the Mises Blog. Go there! Gain enlightenment!

Friday, October 05, 2007

University of St. Thomas Disinvites Tutu

As many of you know, the administration of the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis has revoked an invitation to former Archbishop Desmond Tutu to speak there next year. In a possibly unrelated development, the chair of the department that invited him has been removed as chair. Here is the story. (Hat-tip to Ruchira Paul for alerting me to it.)

I can't resist pointing out that the things the administration, and those sympathetic with its decision, said in defense of that decision were right out of the lexicon of "political correctness." That he has said things that are "offensive," things that are "hurtful" to Jews. Critics of their decision claim that he was disinvited simply for being critical of Israel. I'll post about this later.

Added later: I just want say two things about this. 1.) I doubt that it was just for criticizing Israel that he was disinvited. For many years, many Jews have found comments he has made offensive, and I don't think it is unreasonable to find them so. 2.) Nonetheless, he should not have been disinvited.

1.) The Wikipedia article about him says in part:
When lobbying for divestment at a 2002 conference in Boston, Tutu stated, "My heart aches. I say why are our memories so short. Have our Jewish sisters and brothers forgotten their humiliation? Have they forgotten the collective punishment, the home demolitions, in their own history so soon? Have they turned their backs on their profound and noble religious traditions? Have they forgotten that God cares deeply about the downtrodden?" He continued by saying, "People are scared in this country [the US], to say wrong is wrong because the Jewish lobby is powerful - very powerful. Well, so what? For goodness sake, this is God's world! We live in a moral universe. The apartheid government was very powerful, but today it no longer exists. Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Pinochet, Milosevic, and Idi Amin were all powerful, but in the end they bit the dust." ... Tutu's comment about a "Jewish lobby " [in the print version of the speech, Tutu wisely changed the phrase to "pro-Israel lobby" -- LH], as well as some prior remarks, caused some offense, including by some who believed he was making a direct comparison of it to Hitler. Speaking in a Connecticut church in 1984, Tutu said that "the Jews thought they had a monopoly on God; Jesus was angry that they could shut out other human beings." In the same speech, he compared the features of the Temple in Jeursalem, Israel's holiest site, to the features of the apartheid system. In conversations during the 1980s with the Israeli ambassador to South Africa, Eliahu Lankin, Tutu "refused to call Israel by its name, he kept referring to it as Palestine," Lankin recalled. In 1988, he rejected the charge of antisemitism, saying that criticism of the Israeli government is "immediately dubbed anti-semitic as if the Palestinians were not Semitic" by some.
One thing that is potentially offensive about some of these comments, and things he has said elsewhere, is his habit of indulging in sloppy moral equivalences: the Israelis' treatment of the Palestinians is like the Nazis' treatment of them, Zionism is like racism, Israeli policy is morally evil in just the same way that Apartheid was, Israelis knocking a man's house down is like the same man blowing up Israelis with a bomb. Surely, there are different degrees of evil and injustice, and in all these cases there are obvious and profound differences that he does not seem to to care about very much.

Particularly annoying is his persistent tsk! for goodness sake! dismissiveness when Jews are offended by his comments. He seems to be a man who is so convinced of his own virtue that he literally can't believe it when others seem to find something about him morally objectionable. It must be the "Jewish" lobby! This guy would not survive as an assistant professor in a modern American university, with its speech codes and its atmosphere of heightened linguistic sensitivity. In my world, you might be forgiven for offending members of some protected group of people, but you had better show that you understand why they were offended by what you said!

Offensive in a different way is the following, also from the Wikipedia article:
During a 1989 trip to Israel's Yad Vashem museum, Tutu said, "We pray for those who made it happen, help us to forgive them and help us so that we in our turn will not make others suffer."
Now, I am sure that as a Christian clergyman he often has to advise somebody to forgive some past wrong and get over it. You should forgive the professor who gave you a B when you deserved an A. You should forgive your wife for having an affair with her tennis instructor. That is often very good advice. But to apply this to the Holocaust, and to say it to people who survived its horrors ... how many different things are wrong with that? (I leave this question as an exercise for the reader.)

2.) About Tutu I have somewhat the same problem that I had with Rumsfeld and Ahmedinejad: If I were voting on whether to bring him to my university, I would ask, rather skeptically, why we should expect him to say something that would advance the discussion of some subject that we find interesting or important. But of course St. Thomas is not Wisconsin. They would no doubt have different views from mine about who would be a good contributor in the academic forum. Fine. By inviting him in the first place, they have as an institution decided that he is a qualified contributor. In that context, to disinvite him can only mean that he is being barred on account of his having made comments like the ones quoted above.

My own view -- of course! -- is that none of these are reasons why someone should be barred from a university campus. He has said things that would be offensive to many (probably not all) of the Jews I have known. But that sort of thing is always true in free speech cases. No one was ever censored for giving no one cause to be angry.

Further, as I do with university speech codes, I doubt that the disinvitation was a good thing for the people who were supposed to be "protected" by it. I happen to know Jews who live in Minneapolis, and I bet they are rather uncomfortable right now, knowing that it was for their sake that this man was barred from St. Thomas. It's not a position I would want to be in, at all!
Added still later: Maybe I should point out that I have said nothing about the one issue that most people are arguing about here -- whether Tutu is an anti-Semite. I think this issue is a red herring. For one thing, the St. Thomas administration was careful to avoid accusing Tutu of being an anti-Semite. In addition, the evidence I have seen so far suggests that the charge of anti-Semitism may represent the same sort of sloppy use of language of which he himself is chronically guilty. There is no smoking gun on this question. However, a case can be made that he indulges in the sort of behavior that can get a person into big trouble under a typical university speech code: chronic, targeted, unrepenting linguistic insensitivity toward a historically oppressed or persecuted group of people. In other words, the leftists who are attacking St. Thomas' decision (rightly, in my view!) ought to be against speech codes as well.