Friday, October 29, 2010

Halloween Under Attack

This post is a re-run. I published it last year and am inclined to repeat every word of it today. So I will:

A school near me has announced that for a Halloween even this week students are only allowed to come to school in Wisconsin-themed costumes: you know, like dairy farmer. I'm sure Ed Gein would not qualify.

To some extent, I would imagine, this is due to a desire to avoid complaints from religious nut-jobs who think Halloween is about worshiping evil. (In the world of government schooling, everyone has veto-power. Hence the bland tediousness of the product they dispense.)

I think, however, that this is also part of a wider trend, to take the fright out of Halloween. This of course destroys the whole point of it, which is to be frightening. I see this trend as in interaction between two of the most repellent aspects of our culture today: our cowardly yearning to eliminate all causes of fear and anxiety, and our sentimental, diaper-sniffing worship of children. Together they have produced many results, including the virtual extinction of chemistry sets, the near-impossibility of kids wandering off and playing without the supervision of an adult who maintains a play-date calendar, the doomed efforts of many educated Americans to turn their boys into girls, and -- over many years -- the gradual erosion of the spirit of Halloween.

The universe is a dangerous place and everything is bad for you. Even if we have a rational response to objective occasions for fear, there is still the subjective one of remaining fears themselves. Coping with fear is something we need to learn early.

The Halloween approach to fear is, not to run away from it and censor those who remind you of it, but to confront it and master it. Halloween is when kids get to be scary. A scary kid is not a scared kid. Being scary and grossing your friends out is empowering. Also, pretending to be the thing you fear tends to demystify it. Familiarity breeds not fear but contempt.

In a world where people are continually trying to manipulate you through your fears, turning fear into a game can actually be liberating. I think Halloween is good for kids and should be bigger and scarier than it already is.

(Hat tip to Uncle Eddie for the vintage postcard illustration.)

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Ticked-Off Crowd Pledges Allegiance Anyway

There is something about this that seems to summarize life in America today: touching, chaotic, nutty, and, well, just embarrassing -- all these qualities being mixed up with a moderate dose of hostility and anger. Just like the good ol' U S of A!

According to this story on a right wing web site, it all began normally enough, when things suddenly took a side trip into Goofyland:

At a U.S. congressional candidate debate this past week, the crowd of approximately 300 in attendance drowned out the moderator's objections, not to protest over government policies or to argue some candidate's comments, but to insist upon reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.

Illinois' 8th Congressional District candidates had gathered at Grayslake Central High School in Grayslake, Ill., to participate in a debate moderated by Kathy Tate-Bradish of the League of Women Voters, Evanston branch.

During Tate-Bradish's opening comments, an audience member [who apparently thought he had walked into ninth grade homeroom -- LH] stood to ask if the Pledge of Allegiance would be recited.

"No, we are not," the moderator responded, "That is not part of the proposal tonight."

Several in the crowd then began to shout, "Why not?"[while others shouted "Boo!"]

When it became clear Tate-Bradish was not going to allow the Pledge to be recited, the audience stood and said it anyway.
I suppose I would have joined in the Pledge myself -- a thing the Democrat and the Republican did and the Green Party candidate did not. But the reason is mainly that I hate to be a party pooper. If the folks around me are having fun doing something, and my non-participation would have a wet blanket effect, then I'll generally join in, provided I see no harm in the thing.

On the other hand, I've never really cared for the Pledge. And the idea of having children begin every day by swearing their loyalty to the state really bothers me.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Juan Williams Fired at NPR

When I saw this in prime time the other evening (yes I watch O'Reilly -- so shoot me) I immediately had two reactions. The first was, Juan, that's a little creepy. He was confessing what is in fact a predjudiced emotion, and in a tone that suggests that such a feeling is understandable, perhaps even rational. The second was that he had just damaged himself.

Little did I know! Soon Williams was fired from his decade-old job at National Public Radio by means of a phone call -- no discussions, no meeting, no appeal, and despite his having a contract. (This last may mean he can sue them. I sure hope so!)

What amazes me is that he made this statement in illustrating the idea that political correctness can make it impossible to discuss reality as it exists. I guess NPR doesn't do irony. They also don't seem to care about the PC (but sensible) things Williams went on to say in this interview (see the above link.)

If we are going to discuss prejudice, people have to be able to confess to it. And the idea that it can be understandable is one of the views that have to be defended. That is an indispensable part of the process of assessing the truth of such ideas. NPR has made a mighty move to paralyze such discussion.

Update: Here is an article with an online poll on whether NPR should have fired Williams. Even though the site is one that would attract people who appreciate "politically correct" concerns, the vote is overwhelmingly "no." This is heartening!

So You Want to Go to Law School!

It's the time of year when a millions of seniors are thinking about whether to apply to law school, to some other sort of school, or simply to hope they will be one of the lucky few who can find a job in this economy.

Here is the last post I wrote about this vexing issue. I am tempted to just repost it here, but maybe a link to the wise is sufficient.

A while ago I got a grant and spent a year sitting in on law classes and reading a lot of cases. I did it because I have enormous respect and admiration for the legal systems that evolved out of the English common law, and for the centuries of brilliant people whose tireless work created this great framework for civilization. It soon became very obvious that I was absolutely the only person there who had this attitude, or any attitude that resembles it.

One prof, since deceased, described to me a case he was working on in his private practice. It was a boundary dispute between two guys who owned some vacation property in northern Wisconsin. It had been going for years, swallowing time and money as it crept along at virtually Dickensian pace. Something about my reaction -- honest, I was trying to be polite! -- caused him to look down, a little shamefaced, and say: "Yes, lot of the work we do is as warriors fighting for people who hate each other."

Update! This just in: Law Student Asks for a Refund.

Friday, October 15, 2010

An Offensive Truth?

I just don't get this. At 1:50 Bill O'Reilly makes a statement that all the world (minus the Truthers, who don't really count) knows is simply, literally true ... and Whoopi Goldberg and Joy Behar stalk out of the set in a snit! (Gee, Jimmy Kimmel cracked, you'd think that people with names like "Joy" and "Whoopie!" would be more cheerful.)

I don't care for the way O'Reilly consistently exaggerates the importance of symbolic, "values" issues like "the ground zero mosque," but on the other hand anger at the truth just makes no sense to me. Unless the particular truth involved is an invasion of privacy or some kind of proprietary secret, true statements should not make you mad.

What we have here is of course an example of what people call Political Correctness, which I would define as "selective linguistic sensitivity." The idea is that it is always wrong to say anything that "demeans" or "degrades" members of a list of oppressed groups. Against this doctrine consistently applied, truth is no defense. If a truth demeans a protected group, that truth is Verboten.

My own standard -- and I know it can be very difficult and painful to apply -- is that if you find the truth demeaning, you should try to come to grips with it, not forbid others to ever mention it.

Make your peace with the truth. It's going to win anyway.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Wow! The Nobels Give the Prize to Someone Who Deserves It!

The 2010 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature is one of my favorite living authors: Peruvian expat Mario Vargas Llosa. Here is a student at Princeton University, where Vargas Llosa is currently a professor, blogging about his addressing some students about the award:
I just returned from attending the reception in the Chancellor Greene Rotunda honoring Professor Mario Vargas Llosa, this year’s recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature. I am still fighting an overwhelming sense of wooziness from having just observed history in the making. As I stood listening intently to Professor Llosa’s words, I could only marvel at how beneath his humble, sophisticated demeanor, there exists this remarkable internal landscape of profound wisdom, astute intelligence, and unbounded passion. Professor Llosa is the embodiment of an individual who dares to exercise the freedom to think independently and to follow the pathway paved by his ideas, as evidenced in his writings on freedom and his decision to run for the Peruvian presidency in 1990. In witnessing Llosa speak of the importance to read with a voracious appetite, I was moved by the profound power of ideas. Llosa described reading as one of the greatest pleasures life affords us. To carry on the message, propitiously in time for midterms but also for life....
I couldn't have said it better!

I would describe his aesthetic as nineteenth century realism updated with a post-modern sensibility. His works are often big, epic in scope, thematically ambitious, and yet absorbingly narrated. Well-known factoid: about a quarter century ago, he underwent a sort of political conversion, instigated by his young son Alvaro, from collectivism to individualism. Afterward, he had a heated encounter in the Mexico City Opera House with collectivist Gabriel Garcia Marquez which ended with Vargas Llosa punching Marquez in the nose.

Every ten years or so, he publishes a collection of essays that are very much worth reading. One essay I remember especially fondly was written the day he finished reading the complete works of José Ortega y Gasset (and I thought I was a big fan of Ortega!). He says it is a shame the twentieth century did not place him in the position occupied by Jean Paul Sartre. One reason Ortega would have been a better choice: mejor prosa.

Update: I told the above story about the Mexico City Opera House from memory. I've since found out that the incident occurred before V-Ll's conversion. Neither man has ever divulged the cause of their quarrel, which seems to have been personal and not political. Further, the blow was to Marquez's eye, not his nose. We at E pur si muove! are zealous to avoid becoming a source of misinformation, like so much of what you see on the web.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Freedom of Speech, According to John Waters

In the segment that begins at 6:40, the always-interesting John Waters becomes possibly even more pro-free-speech than I am, by saying "you should be able to yell 'fire' in a crowded theater."

Come to think of it, I guess I agree with him there. As far as the fundamental issue of principle involved -- the issue of what our rights are -- I think it is both true and important to say that you should indeed be able to yell "fire" in a crowded theater.

After all, what offense am I committing, exactly, if I do falsely yell fire and start a panic? I would be committing exactly the same offense if I simply threw the fire alarm switch, with the same results but without saying a word. This simple fact shows that, the right is that is violated by shouting fire is not a right against being harmed by another person's speech. It has nothing to do with speech or freedom of speech.

But surely, under normal circumstances, the person who maliciously causes a panic is violating a right. What right is that? Consider another little thought experiment, proposed by Walter Block years ago in one of the most thought-provoking books ever written: Before you enter the theater, you can see, printed very clearly on the ticket, the following warning:
Meanwhile, I have devised a plan to do something -- far more clever and imaginative that yelling fire or throwing a switch -- that will send you and the others flying for the exit before you think Wait! Stop! We've been tricked! What fun!

Obviously, no one would do this, but I would say that this bizarre, crazy arrangement would not violate the rights of the bizarre, crazy adults who agree to enter into it.

This mere theoretical possibility shows that Oliver Wendell Holmes was wrong when he first made the "shouting fire" point in Schenck v. U. S. His point was that the government can prohibit speech with a certain content (in the Schenck case, criticism of military conscription) simply on the ground of the physical consequences of that content -- the "clear and present danger" it creates (in Schenck, danger to the government).

The right that is violated by falsely shouting fire is a contractual right, and the most important single feature of contractual rights is that they can be altered by mutual consent.

Under ordinary circumstances, I should be punished for falsely shouting fire, but the reason for this has nothing to do with the government's alleged right to censor certain messages on the ground that they are inherently "dangerous." One way to make this point is to say, as John does, "you should be able to yell 'fire' in a crowded theater."

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Bob Dylan: Another Racist Exposed!

A comment in Obama's interview with Rolling Stone last week raise some new interest in, of all things, Bob Dylan's political views. Speaking of Dylan's appearance at a White House concert commemorating the civil rights movement, the POTUS said:
He didn’t want to take a picture with me; usually all the talent is dying to take a picture with me and Michelle before the show, but he didn’t show up to for that. ... Finishes the song, steps off the stage — I’m sitting right in the front row — comes up, shakes my hand, sort of tips his head, gives me just a little grin, and then leaves. And that was it — then he left. That was our only interaction with him.
Here is an article that recounts two possible explanations for this strange phenomenon -- a celeb who's not gaga for Obama, who doesn't go for O, who doesn't doff his fez for the Prez. How can we explain this?

One Dylanologist (an actual word!) says that Dylan is clearly a "racist" who "hates blacks." The evidence? He decodes the lyrics of Dylans songs, offering for instance this hermeneutical nugget:

And he says, “the pump don’t work, ’cause the vandals took the handles.” The pump, pumping money into the economy, giving blacks money, doesn’t work ‘cause the vandals, the liberals, took the handles. The ax handles, like Lester Maddox used to give out pickaxe handles in his chicken place to beat blacks so the whites can beat up blacks over the head with them. Get it?
The interviewer says "Yeah." My sentiments exactly, if by "yeah" you mean "you're insane."

Another Dylanologist avers that Dylan is simply way less leftist than people think and probably is not a fan of Obama's policies, offering as evidence Dylan's explicit statements. For instance, speaking of his political views during the hippie days in his autobiography, Dylan says: "My favorite politician was Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater ..., and there wasn't any way to explain that to anybody." Chronicles (Simon and Schuster: 2004, p. 283).

I have to vote for the second interpreter. I never much cared for the old "intentional fallacy" idea, which entails that the artist's explicit statements are irrelevant to interpreting a work of art. I once heard John Searle call it "the intentional fallacy fallacy." Right on, John!

On the other hand, the intentional fallacy, or something like it, is a pretty handy idea if you want to find "racism" in everyone who does not worship at your altar.

I admit that there are some hidden meanings and ominous signs in the world, but people who do a lot of decoding are almost always charlatans or paranoiacs. At their most sinister, they try to "expose" your hidden meanings in order to prevent people from hearing what you are explicitly saying in plain English. When they do that, they become character-assassins and enemies of open discussion.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

The Tea Party Concept of the Constitution

Katy Abrams' famous "sleeping giant" speech begins at 5:38. I was initially confused by her comment that Sen. Specter had abandoned "the Constitution." I think Specter's baffled answer, about opposing illegal wiretaps and activist judges, also misses her point.

Jonah Goldberg in a recent column reported something that I suspect involves the same sort of confusion:
"I have been fascinated by (Delaware GOP Senate candidate) Christine O'Donnell's constitutional worldview ..." Slate magazine senior editor Dahlia Lithwick confessed. O'Donnell had said in a debate, "When I go to Washington, D.C., the litmus test by which I cast my vote for every piece of legislation that comes across my desk will be whether or not it is constitutional."

To which Lithwick, a former appellate law clerk, Stanford Law grad and widely cited expert on the Supreme Court, responded, "How weird is that, I thought. Isn't it a court's job to determine whether or not something is, in fact, constitutional? And isn't that sort of provided for in, well, the Constitution?"
(First of all, if I may be so pedantic, the Court's power of striking down unconstitutional legislation is not in the Constitution. It was seized by the Marshall court early on because to them it made logical sense, not because it is mentioned in that venerable old document. An expert on the Supreme Court not knowing this --
how weird is that?)

Anyway, this is what I think is actually going on here: When people like Ms. Abrams and Ms. O'Donnell talk about "the Constitution," they often don't mean the literal word of the law as contained in that piece of parchment, and they definitely aren't referring to current SC interpretation of it. What they really have in mind is the conception of government that originally lay behind the Constitution -- a smaller, smarter government. It was a government that cares enough about the people to avoid burying them in a crushing load of debt. (Note that the generation of the framers and the next generation of leaders actually reduced the public debt from a staggering $50 million -- that's in 1790 dollars, not 2010 ones -- to zero. They did so in part by selling off government assets. Hey, there's an idea!) When O'Donnell says she will use constitutionality as the main test of whether to vote for a law or not, I think the test she has in mind is that older conception of government, not whether it ought to be struck down by the Supremes.

As an academic myself, I prefer to speak more precisely and literally than this. When I say "the Constitution," I mean the actual constitution, not some vague "philosophy" behind it. But I see no harm is using the word in this short-hand, symbolic sort of way in the public forum, provided that people understand what it is actually supposed to mean. Otherwise, what these folks are saying will sound "weird" -- or plain stupid. It's not stupid at all -- Dahlia Lithwick's embarrassingly patronizing remarks notwithstanding.

Friday, October 01, 2010

The Campaigns Go Negative

This is a hilarious parody of Alan Grayson's by-now-notorious "Taliban Dan" ad, aimed at an opponent who -- surprise, surprise! -- is leading him in the polls.

And then there is this, my favorite parody attack ad:

Seriously, though, folks, with the nation within sight of a serious fiscal crisis, isn't the current plague of negative campaigning simply irresponsible? One of the cliches of the punditry is that (a) people say in poll after poll that they hate negative ads, but (b) they work. I think this time (b) will turn out to be false. With the nation in sight of a serious fiscal crisis, most people will see these attack ads as something akin to fiddling while Rome burns. If your opponent has committed a felony, by all means expose it. Otherwise, talk about the issues! Update: Note the refinement/revision of the above that I introduce in response to a comment, below.