Thursday, August 26, 2010

America's Ruling Class

Anthropologist Brian Fagan tells us* that all pre-industrial states were rigidly hierarchical structures that systematically transferred wealth from the edges of society to the center -- toward a state-created ruling elite. The privileged few, or at least the head man, were thought of as divine, or at least as having a special relationship with the gods that separated these people from the toiling multitudes. (Sumer, possibly the oldest state on Earth, called itself "Land of the Lords of Light.") Public religious ceremonies held in intimidating temples served to legitimize their right to consume the product of the labor of others and to dictate their beliefs and actions.

Most people think that with the advent of the industrial age, the state, or at least some states, changed into the exact opposite of this. After all, we now have democracy and separation of church and state. The new state doesn't represent the private interests of a select group, but the public interest. In ordinary language today, the words "government" and "public" often mean the same thing (eg., public school, public sector, public land, etc.).

According to this blockbuster essay by historian Angelo Codevilla, America has been moving to an updated version of the old system for about a century now. The new ruling class differs from the old one in that it does not claim to be divine, but its members are profoundly certain that the are intellectually and therefore morally superior to the rest of us. More exactly, they believe that we are bigoted, greedy, and racist compared to them, and that this is the basis of their right to correct our behavior and consume our product. (In a way, they still think they are the Lords of Light.)

They are very much like the old sorts elites in another way: they survive by a system of patronage, ie., the suction of wealth from the periphery to the center, toward a select group of client individuals and organizations.

Codevilla's view of the current situation is seriously depressing. In his view, the ruling class is well represented by the Democrats, while the others are well represented by nobody. The Republican establishment is part of The Center. Further, the only possible alternative to the present situation would be a change so radical as to deserve the name, revolution.

Some quotes from the article:

Thus if you are not among the favored guests at the table where officials make detailed lists of who is to receive what at whose expense, you are on the menu.

Even more significantly, these and other products of Democratic and Republican administrations and Congresses empower countless boards and commissions arbitrarily to protect some persons and companies, while ruining others.

Because modern laws are primarily grants of discretion, all anybody has to know about them is whom they empower.

Americans think it justice to spend the money they earn to satisfy their private desires even though the ruling class knows that justice lies in improving the community and the planet.

Since The American Spectator ran the piece, they have been flooded with emails. A book version is in the works. I urge you to read it, if you haven't already done so. It will make you pray that he is wrong.

[Hat-tip to Linda Frey for alerting me to this article.]
* Human Prehistory and the First Civilizations (The Learning Company, 2003), Lecture 19. Like last summer, I've been listening to a lot of recorded lecture courses, mainly on history.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Star Hustler Passes

We were sad to hear today that Jack Horkheimer died late last week. Mr. Horkheimer did more than anybody to popularize naked eye astronomy.

There's plenty up there worth looking at with just your eyes -- or better yet, a pair of binoculars. Just dig out your binocs (the larger the light-gathering lens is, the better), Google the words "binocular astronomy," and you're set to go.

Above is Jack's last show.

In case you are wondering about the title of this post, The Star Hustler used to be the title of his little show. According to the above-linked story, the advent of the internet forced him to change it. It seems that youngsters who Googled "star hustler" got an eyeful when this led them to the web page for Hustler magazine. So he became The Star Gazer.

His seemingly indestructible enthusiasm will be missed.

Keep looking up!

Friday, August 20, 2010

Is this Classical Music's Golden Age?

This is one of those weird debates, acrimonious and nasty, in which I fundamentally disagree with both sides. Traditionalist Heather MacDonald wrote this essay, which ticked off modernist Greg Sandow. (Here is her reply.)

Her idea is basically this: Classical music is flourishing today as never before. The standard of performance is higher, there are more performers, there are more works available, audiences are more sophisticated, than ever before. You even have instant access, she points out, to beautiful performances such as the one I've embedded above. Classical music is in a new golden age.

There is a huge gulf between the way this person thinks about the arts and the way I do. Look at it this way. The reasons she gives for thinking the music is flourishing are: a) the performers of the music, b) the conduits by which the music is communicated to the audience, and c) the audience that listens to the music. What is missing from this list, class? Anybody? Anybody?

That's right! The music!

Here is an analogous argument: Dodo birds are flourishing today. More museums have dodo bird exhibits than ever before. Their quality is higher than ever. You can even see stuffed dead dodo birds on the internet! For free! So don't give me that stuff about how the golden age of dodo birds is dead and gone, pal. You're full of crap.

Okay, that's a little silly. Here is a closer analogy. Poetry today is flourishing. There are more volumes of old poems written by dead people than ever before. Previously unknown old poems are discovered and published every day. And they are embalmed in such beautiful editions! You can even read old poems by dead white guys on the internet!

I have been told that the most recent piece of classical music to become an established part of the standard repertoire is Strauss' exquisite Four Last Songs, which was composed in 1948. If the last poem with that sort of status were that old, no one would be giving an argument analogous to MacDonald's that poetry is flourishing.

I guess the reason it is possible for an intelligent person to give an argument like MacDonald's is that she doesn't think of classical music as an art like poetry or painting. What she means by "classical music" is something like the world of people who collect antiques, old coins, or classic cars. It so happens that the world of classic car collecting is flourishing. There are several shows every year in my area. More classic cars are being restored and displayed every year. It's really cool. But the giant automobile with tail fins is not flourishing. It is as dead as the dodo.

And so, it breaks my heart to say, is classical music.
BTW, here is a more professional performance of "Cum Dederit Dilectis" than the one to which she directs us:

Monday, August 16, 2010

Why the Right to Own a Gun is Fundamental

I'm using the above story as an example in a paper I am writing on the right to arms. The relevant part of the paper:

Suppose that when John Lee had pulled his gun out, someone had coercively prevented him from using it. Suppose, for the sake of the argument, that the gun had been a revolver, and someone grasped the cylinder, preventing it from turning and aligning a fresh round with the barrel. Clearly, that person would be violating Mr. Lee's property rights in the gun but, just as obviously, they would also be violating his right to defend himself. Part of the reason this sort of forceful interference would be a rights-violating act is that, in addition to his property rights, he has a right of self-defense.

Since this is a matter of right, this would seem to be true regardless of the motives of the person who deprives him of the means of defending himself. As far as the question of whether his rights are being violated is concerned, it makes no difference whether the person is an accomplice of the attackers, or whether they are motivated by a sincere belief that defensive violence is wrong. If there is a right of self-defense, it is being violated in either case.

If that is so, then a right of self-defense rules out the power to coercively deprive one of every means of exercising it.

That would mean that the right to self-defense rules out ordinances that ban weapons such as Mr. Lee's life-saving Glock semi-automatic.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Ground Zero Mosque

I wasn't going to say anything about the proposed ground zero mosque/community center because I don't have an opinion about it or anything to say that is not obvious, but in light of Obama's comments on Friday, I figure I ought to state the obvious.

BHO said: “ Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country. That includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances. This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country, and will not be treated differently by their government, is essential to who we are.”

My obvious comment: Whether you have a right to do something, and whether you would be morally blameless in doing it, are not only two different questions, they are almost completely independent of one another. The only connection I can see is irrelevant here: If it is morally okay for you to do it, you must have a right to do it. The opposite inference, the one that Obama seems to be employing, does not work: from the fact that you have a right to do something, it does not follow that you would be blameless in doing it. The moral pros and cons that affect action include a lot more considerations than rights, many of which have nothing to do with whether a government ought to interfere with it.

I would apply the same reasoning to all of the following:
  • Opening a gay bar next to the ground zero mosque.
  • Opening a strip club in the same location.
  • Building a Shinto shrine near Pearl Harbor.
  • Building a Catholic convent near Auschwitz.
Obviously, there are differences between all these cases as well as similarities. I'm only saying that, though, by my standards, all would be within the rights of those who, hypothetically, would be doing them, this does not settle the issue of whether they would be okay things to do. In the case of the Catholic convent near Auschwitz, an actual historical case, I am told that Pope John Paul considered the project, and then canceled it after listening to arguments from Jewish groups.

Update: To be fair, I should note that the next day BHO denied that his Friday remarks were meant as an endorsement of the proposed mosque. As to whether the new comments constitute backpedaling, or whether they actually make the very same point I am making above, I am undecided.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

The Nebraska Star Party

This week Nat and I will be at the Nebraska Star Party, so we'll be out of touch.

By the way, the NSP is an omnium gatherium of astronomy hobbyists from around the midwest and the northern prairie states. We show up with our telescopes and look at the many wonders burning in the chill inhospitable reaches of space. Should be really cool!

We've never done it before so it's pretty exciting.

E Pur Si Muove! will be in back touch when we get return!

Monday, August 02, 2010

The Paleo Diet

I've been trying a new diet. I hesitate to post on it, because its hard to explain it without sounding like some kind of nut. Here's my best shot.

During my travels last summer, I listened to an excellent audio course from the learning company on neolithic Europe. I was very impressed by Prof. Adams' account of the transition from the paleolithic to the neolithic. It prompted me to write this rather bitter post about how this transition made human beings to be morally worse than they were before.

Another thing that struck me at the time was the extreme dietary change involved in this transition. The agricultural revolution, which marked the end of the paleolithic, took humans off the diet they had been on for about 2 1/2 million years -- lean meat, fish and seafood, fresh fruits and vegetables, and nuts -- and put them on a completely different type of diet, one based on some starchy staple such as barley, wheat, rice, potatoes, yams, etc. There was apparently a period of time in which Europeans stopped thinking of vegetables as food for humans. The human race forgot about its original diet, and we are still basically eating neolithically today. The Neo diet is enshrined in the carb-heavy, fat-phobic "food pyramid," which is the basis of Michelle Obama's campaign to "reform" government school cafeterias.

How did this extreme change work out for humanity? In one way, it was a spectacular success. These starchy staples were cheap to produce, and switching to them sparked a population explosion that is still going on today. Now, there are six billion humans on Planet Earth, and many of them would surely die if these low cost, starchy foods were to disappear overnight. The neolithic diet enabled billions of people to experience the great gift of life who would never have existed otherwise.

But low cost generally means lower quality as well. Could it be that the diet that we ate for our first 2 1/2 million years is higher quality, in the sense of being more oppropriate to our genetic makeup, than the one we ate for the next 10,000? As Prof. Adams tells it, neolithic Europeans were markedly less healthy than paleolithics. In fact, they lost stature - literally. Archeological evidence indicates that with the new protein-poor diet, human beings lost five or six inches of height.

So at the time I thought to myself, maybe somebody should come up with a sort of "hunter-gatherer's diet," based on humanity's original dietary regime.

Recently I found that there actually is such a thing, and I'm trying it out. It's explained very well in this book.

If you follow it rigorously, it's a remarkable weight-loss program, which at the moment is actually why I am doing it. So far, it's working: I've lost four pounds in a week, and I have had no cravings for any of the things that are not on the diet. This is remarkable, because there are a lot of things that are off-limits: grains, legumes, dairy -- even fruit juice (the only paleo beverage is water).

The theory is that there are no cravings because I am eating the diet that I was genetically designed to eat. The cravings you experience on other weight-loss regimes are your body's way of saying I'm not supposed to do this! This is so wrong! I hate you!!