Saturday, May 30, 2009

Forget Sotomayor

Was her comment that a "wise latina" would more often than not make better judicial decisions than a white male racist? Well, duh! Is she herself a racist person? ¿Quien sabe?

This could change when confirmation hearings begin, but at the moment I can't get very excited about questions concerning judge Sonia Sotomayor.

Here are two articles, one by a liberal and one by a conservative, that say basically the same thing.
The word on the street is that she will be a reliable liberal vote but, on the other hand, since she is not the sharpest pencil in the box, she will not be a lefty Scalia, inspiring the troops, leading the charge, and changing the direction of the war of ideas.

Further, since she would be replacing Justice David ("Mr. Disappointment") Souter, she will not be changing the vote profile of the court very much.

The Sotomayer nomination is a train hurtling down the track. If the Republicans and their cheerleaders on Fox News and talk radio have any sense at all, they will get off the track and let it speed by.

It is much, much more important that they focus their efforts at dealing with the administration's proposed health-care "reform." It is beyond comparison a more important issue. While the SCOTUS pick constitutes a personnel change, this would man an institutional change, and a big one. It would mean an irreversible, fundamental change in the sort of country America is.
Plus, unlike the nomination of St. Sonia, with her "compelling life story," the opposition actually has a chance with this one. I don't think the American voter is going to be pleased with the idea of adding yet another trillion or so in taxes/debts to the already pitifully encumbered economy. Nor will they like the proposed massive, regressive tax on "sinful" beverages to pay for it.

Sotomayor is exciting because she is so symbolic -- she symbolizes things for both sides of this issue, very different things, of course. I doubt though that there is much there of substance, behind the symbolism. And to get sucked into symbolism, ignoring the real world collapsing around us, would be criminally negligent.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

What About the Kid's Consent?

As you probably know, Daniel Hauser and his mother are now fugitives from the law, in an attempt to avoid another round of chemotherapy. Judge Rodenberg has issued an order to have the boy seized immediately if he is caught and put in a foster home. District Attorney Olson is considering asking Rodenberg to jail Anthony Hauser, Daniel's father, until Daniel is found. That would in effect mean holding him hostage. The county sheriff has promised Mrs. Hauser on TV that she will not be incarcerated if she just comes back home.

Meanwhile doctors are worried that Daniel's growing tumor will shut off his windpipe and suffocate him while he is hiding from Rodenberg and Olson.

Now I'm going to say something that a lot of people would think is just plain insane.

Discussion of this event is generally framed in terms of the rights of the parents: do they have the right to refuse consent to medical care for their son. My thesis is that the consent that ultimately matters most is that of the child.

I've heard it said that, at the age of 13, Daniel cannot give informed consent. That is true of legally valid informed consent, but it is literally false if not qualified in that way. Surely, someone at that age is able to give or withhold consent. They are also able to be informed: I'm sure Daniel can understand and believe statements like "the doctors believe you will die if you don't undergo more chemotherapy, but have an 80 to 90 % chance of living if you do."

Can't he then base the former on the latter, ie., decide whether to give consent based on information? Of course, the standard answer to this is "no." Basing decisions on information, as opposed to emotion and superstition, is what rationality is, and children are not rational.

This seems to be the only real argument the authoritarian-paternalistic side of this issue has. We don't have to worry about the consent of children because they can't give consent. Consent is rational and they are not rational. This seems to imply that, if they could consent to anything, their consent would be enormously important, as it is in adults. However, they can't.

But they can. I am convinced, by my own experience, that the idea that children are irrational is is simply false.

What children lack, compared to us, is not reason but information. They know very little. But this is not the same thing as being irrational. Once given information, they can process it logically -- often more logically than adults. After all, they do not have an adult's investment in political, economic, and religious institutions that systematically inflame their fear, hate, greed, and powerlust.

I have no Utopian solution for this problem. A social system that, unlike ours, treated children as rational human beings would not work perfectly by an means. Above all, it would be difficult to determine what the judgment of a thirteen year old really is, given that evolution has hard-wired them to be strongly influenced by their parents.
Right now, though, no one can deny that the current authoritarian and paternalistic system is imperfect as well. By trying to force the state's preferred medical treatment on Daniel, it has brought about a situation in which, as far as we know, he may be getting no treatment at all and may die very soon. Right now, the best that the officers of the therapeutic state and their apologists in the academy can hope for is that they will catch little Daniel, drag him back to New Ulm, separate him from his parents, and force him to suffer the horrors of chemotherapy more or less alone. Will they strap him down as the prepare the dump chemicals through the "port" they have already installed in his chest? Will they forcibly sedate him? Time will tell.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

A Little Poem About Mass Suicide

When my old friend and teacher Don Emblen died, I figured I should put a couple of his poems on line. Don abhorred almost everything electronic, and it is probably for that reason that there are few traces of him on the web. Such are the wages of Luddism!

The one poem I could find was posted by fellow former student Glenn Ingersoll here. It's a pretty good one, I think. So good, in fact, that I can't seem to find a better one.

Another one I liked, at any rate, is from the same book as the above one, Notes from Travels (Santa Rosa: Engdahl Typography, 1986). It has a pronounced Jeffersian tone:

Back Country

Farther out, there still are caves in the rock

where mountain lions pace

and clean their claws on the granite

before or after the kill.

Later, comes the purity
after leather scuff of pads,

whine of insects at the opening,
owls like velvet gongs haunting the old oaks.

Finally, the canyon night resorbs

the song of gnats;
the night-hunters drown in their own feathers;

the purring seeps surely into stone

and makes a silence
white as bone.

I like the way it ends with two lines in iambic, and a rhyme.

Looking for another one to post here, there was one that instantly riveted my attention. The reasons for that were mainly extra-literary, but I think they are of sufficiently general interest to justify posting it here. It's from Under the Oaks II, the second of three volumes of poems having to do with Santa Rosa Junior College (Santa Rosa: SRJC, 1995). It's dated 1978, and the dedication says: "For Richard Tropp (English Department, 1972-1978) dead in Guyana 1978." Here it is:

The People's Temple

They worked and sought and stared

and thought they say, at last, the Sun.
It was the spy-hole of a furnace
they looked through.

Better that fiery glimpse

than no vision at all,
than dull eyes fastened
on the square end of a tube

and a long safe life in a cold blue haze.

I think this same Richard Tropp was probably the author of a notorious six page long suicide note found at the scene of the Jonestown horrors. People have come up with two possible authors, one being him and the other being Jim Jones' wife. Some favor the latter alternative because there is something about the note that seems "feminine" to them. (I'm not sure what is feminine about it -- the handwriting doesn't particularly seem so to me.) There is a documentary about Jonestown in which excerpts from it are read in voice-over by a woman. I, on the other hand, am impressed by the fact that, as you can see if you read the note, the author thinks he/she should have written a book about the People's Temple community and regrets failing to do so. The sort of person most likely to feel they have a duty to write a book would, I should think, be an author or an English teacher.

Contrary to what you may have heard, academics are generally not a radical lot. They are mostly rather boring, in fact. Think Democrats, not Commies. But every once in a great while you find one who really is radical, if not outright bonkers.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Donald L. Emblen 1918-2009

I was saddened to learn this morning that Don Emblen, my first creative writing teacher, died on Friday April 24.

When I was compelled by a lack of resources to attend Santa Rosa Junior College for the first two years of my college education, I made the best of it by hanging out at Don's office. In my whole career as a student, he was one of the two teachers who made the biggest impression on me.

We disagreed about almost everything, and I'm sure he found some of my opinions horrifying, but there was some overlap in our Weltanschauungen. He introduced me to one of his favorite poets, feeling sure that I would love him too. That was Robinson Jeffers, and he was certainly right about my reaction. He had carried Jeffers' Tamar, Roan Stallion, and Other Poems with him throughout his Navy service in World War II.

More than probably anyone I know, Don followed his curiosity wherever it led. He got interested in Peter Mark Roget, father of the Thesaurus, and wrote the first biography of him. He got interested in new Swedish poets, learned Swedish, and translated a bunch of them. When he became interested in Japanese poetry, he taught himself Japanese, translated some more, and taught in Japan.

He claimed to have written over 4,000 poems, but he published none that I know of in conspicuous places. Often he printed them himself in his cluttered-but-neat garage workshop.

When he "retired" (people like him never retire!) he began publishing a newsletter called The Reader's Rejoinder, consisting of letters written to him by his many friends about whatever they were reading. He completed exactly 250 issues, the last being issued posthumously and arriving here last week.

He was in the midst of rereading The Brothers Karamazov (Volkhonsky trans.) when death overtook him at age 90. His wife, Linda, was reading the Constance Garnett trans. at the same time, and when one of them got ahead of the other, he or she had some trouble not giving away what happened next in the story.

He will be missed by a great many people.

I will try to post one of his poems later today.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Commencement Week in the New America

Yesterday Pres. Obama gave his commencement address at Notre Dame U., where thousands of Roman Catholics interrupted him with roaring applause and multiple standing ovations. This for a man who, as recently as 2001, was a powerful supporter, not merely of abortion, but of infanticide as well.

Meanwhile, Cong. Ron Paul spoke to 14 graduating home-schooled teenagers in a Baptist church in Brazosport Texas.

Among his comments:
It’s very important we encourage home-schooling and make sure it’s always legal, and our governments never decide they know best. Too often, our government would like to be the parent. Home-schoolers know exactly who’s responsible for education, and that’s the parent.
He also said this:
Have a sense of values. That comes from family. That comes from church. That comes from community. Life is precious. Life and liberty are a gift of God. If we do not put the effort in to protect those liberties, we can lose them. The Constitution and our government are to protect our liberties. Ultimately, you will have to invest some time protecting liberty.
This was expected to be a quiet, obscure event, but so many people showed up there was standing room only.

After the speeches, there was a slide show with pictures of each of the students and sometimes-tearful testimonials from friends and relatives.

It sounds like those kids are getting a great start in life. To be honest, though, most likely so are the youngsters at Notre Dame. The ability to applaud, with sincere enthusiasm, the wielder of power, even when he or she is someone whom by your principles you should despise, may soon be a cardinal virtue, indispensable for life in the New America.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Niccolo Machiavelli to Repubs: Hands Off Pelosi!

After her seriously weird press conference Thursday morning, the best Machiavellian advice to the Republicans is: Treasure her! Pray that she keeps her job! She is worth millions in campaign contributions! As long as this is the face of the new Democratic congress you have a chance to come back.

To the Democrats: If there were only some way you could lure Dick Cheney out from under whatever rock he's crawed under, and get him to stick his face far, far into the public spotlight and keep it there you ... oh wait a minute ... never mind.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Jourdon Anderson's Letter to His Former Master

I adored this letter, which is spreading through the libertarian blogoshere as I write. I laughed out loud at the fine touches of irony, indirection and understatement, like "Mandy (the folks here call her Mrs. Anderson)." Before I was done reading it, I thought "this is so good, it might be too good to be true." If it were produced as a work of art, it would have been a pretty good one. This alone would arouse suspicions.

From what I gather from this discussion page at, it seems the basic facts are these:
  • There was indeed a man named Jourdon Anderson who lived at this time; his grave is not far from the spot on which this letter purports to have been written.
  • It was printed in the Cincinnati Commercial and reprinted in two other papers at that time (click image to enlarge). So it is old.
  • According to one of the reprinting papers, the Cincinnati one declared it "to be a genuine letter from a freedman to his former master."
  • Copies of the letter in Anderson's hand evidently do not exist, nor do copies of the letter from Col. P. H. Anderson, to which he is purportedly responding.
  • I think that someone who has had the life that Anderson ascribes to himself would have been illiterate, or nearly so.
  • But I see another copy of it, from a book published in 1865, in which it is described as "[w]ritten just as he dictated it."
So, as others have said, the most likely hypothesis is that it was produced by Anderson himself, though no doubt with the help of others.

So you can circulate this marvelous letter with a clear conscience. At the very least, it is clearly a contemporary document, a far cry from the familiar version of "Chief Seattle's Speech," which was largely concocted by environmentalists more than a century after the event.

Monday, May 04, 2009

The Two Faces of Feminism

Here is a feminist blogger (and former chair of Planned Parenthood), Gloria Feldt, defending feminists who fail to respond to writers and activists who have used sexist language in attacking Miss California for her opposition to gay marriage.* When I saw it as it first aired Friday night I was shocked.

The first big shock was when Feldt seemed to say that Laura Ingraham (or "the likes of" her) had used the same sort of language against Feldt herself. I myself have never, in my entire life, called a woman the b-word (follow the last link above to see what I am referring to) and I find the suggestion that Ingraham would talk that way in public hard to believe. (Her notorious comment that Meghan McCain was only trying to be a political pundit because she was too "plus-sized" to be a model, though mean and tasteless, fell far short of this kind of thing.)

The second shock, at least until I had a chance to think about it, was Feldt's strange explanation of why this sort of talk is okay with her.

Here is the only way I can find to make sense of her seemingly contradictory remarks:

Feminism, she says, is "about justice." By this she must mean that feminism is opinions about what justice is, not that it requires you to treat actual women decently. Precisely because it is a collection of opinions, women who have the wrong opinions can become, in her words, "fair game." Language that would ordinarily be denounced as misogynistic hate speech is just one more thing that they have coming to them.

Feminism, on this conception of it, is not supposed to protect women as women. It protects women who are feminists, and women who do not give this sort of feminist any trouble. Women who wander off the feminist reservation can expect rough treatment from them.

Is this really feminist at all? Well, yes. There are actually two kinds of feminism. One is liberal feminism. It says simply that women have exactly the same basic rights as men, and that these rights should be respected in every case.

The other is radical feminism. It aims at the goal of eventual, perfect equality of the sexes, a sort of sexually classless society. It exploits the rhetoric of equal rights when doing so helps to achieve the goal. At other times, violating those same rights serves the same progressive purpose (eg., it might intimidate and silence enemies of progress). At those times, it violates rights without flinching. It's for the greater good, after all. Academic versions of this sort of feminism back up their radical methods with a theory the understands genders in more or less the way the Marxist understands economic classes. Harsh methods are needed to bust up male hegemony.

What we see here is obviously feminism of the radical sort. Something tells me we will be seeing a lot more of it.
* It is important to realize that there are feminists who have not failed to respond.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

A Generation of Spoiled Idiots

This is one of the wisest, most enlightening standup (well, except that Louis C. K. is sitting down) routines I've seen. Also it's really funny.

The phenomenon he is describing here is undeniably real. It overtakes all of us, at least upon occasion.

I see two elements involved. One of them was expressed by Ortega y Gasset in The Revolt of the Masses:
The world is a civilised one, its inhabitant is not: he does not see the civilisation of the world around him, but he uses it as if it were a natural force. The new man wants his motor-car, and enjoys it, but he believes that it is the spontaneous fruit of an Edenic tree. In the depths of his soul he is unaware of the artificial, almost incredible, character of civilization....
Those wonderful technological implements are human achievements. Real people actually how to make these things. Their achievements are only possible because certain economic and moral and legal institutions are in place that enable us to reward their efforts and prevent us from exploiting or molesting them. Most of us have no clue as to what these institutions or even that these people exist.

The other element I see here is what is sometimes called "the entitlement mentality," which says that whatever is desirable is therefore a right (at least if I am the one who wants it).

Obviously, both these attitudes are moral diseases. What causes them? Democracy? The market economy? Prosperity?