Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Bring Back "Folly"

Here is an interesting column by Martin Gardner on late chess great, and anti-Semitic and anti-American (America is run by Jews, dontcha know) nut case Bobby Fischer. It contains some facts I did not previously know -- as for instance that in his later years, after he went completely over the edge, he seldom changed his clothes or removed his baseball cap. I imagine downwind of him was a bad place to be.

Gardner's main thesis seems wrong to me, though. The explanation of the Fischer phenomenon, he suggests, is that he was very very intelligent about chess and very very unintelligent -- in fact a complete moron -- about everything else. He suffered from unevenly distributed intelligence.

The modern notion of "intelligence" denotes a certain value-free adroitness in manipulating symbols of certain sorts, such as words and numerals. It enables you to solve problems of certain a certain kind. If your problem is "how do I make this crackpot theory of mine seem plausible so I can continue believing it?" then this intelligence-thing is just what you need.

As I suggested when Fischer died, a failure of intelligence was probably not his problem. Rather, his problem was with something that people don't talk about much any more: wisdom. Wisdom means understanding the things that must be understood in order to live a good life and be a good person. A person who lacks wisdom is -- another nearly obsolete word -- a fool. Fischer was a straight up, confirmed, incurable fool.

Back in the days when people respected wisdom and abhorred folly, intelligence was called "cleverness" and was not worshiped as it is now. Cleverness, like wisdom, is good, but, unlike wisdom, it is also dangerous. It is what makes a successful thief and a fluent, plausible and captivating liar.

You don't need a lot of intelligence, just enough to balance your checkbook and do your job. What you cannot do without is wisdom. Without it you are a poor lost soul, wandering in life's dusky maze without a clue, indeed without a will or a way to find one. And that I think is what Fischer was. A damned fool.

I wish we could bring back the ideas of wisdom and folly. But that would mean a huge cultural change. It would mean placing value on things that we hardly even have words for any more, and letting go of things that we value too highly.

By the way, it just occurred to me, this probably means we're all fools now.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Public Option is not Optional

The term "public option" is a clever piece of propaganda. It underwrites equally slippery bits of sophistry. Wouldn't you like to have the opportunity to choose between private and public insurance? Don't you like having choices?

A better question would be "Wouldn't you like to be forced to pay for the insurance policies of millions of other people? Don't you like being forced to pay for things that you don't get?" The "option" of some is the compulsion of others. They are two sides of the same thing.

Look, either this government insurance company will "pay its own way" (with money collected from customers) or it will not. If it does, it is pointless. It is just another commercial enterprise (though a non-profit one). If it is a good idea, why hasn't the market come up with it all ready.

If it does not, you are forced to pay for it. That is not an option.

Yet everyone calls it the public "option." On that point, its proponents have won the propaganda war. Yet there is one aspect of this that pleases me. It shows that the proponents of coercion and compulsion find it helps their cause if they sound like libertarians. Isn't that the sincerest form of flattery?

Don't you like having choices?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Balloon Boy

Say, did someone repeal the Constitution while I was in the bathroom just now? What happened to the presumption of innocence? It seems to have turned up missing.

I think the pathetic lunatic, Richard Heene, and his wife are getting a very raw deal from the Larimer County Sheriff's Department.

Sheriff Jim Alderden has held press conferences in which he does not merely announce that charges will be brought but actually presents arguments for Heene's guilt. He has also bloviated to the same effect on The O'Reilly Factor. (Bill O'Reilly, being a worshipper of authority figures, such as police officers, treated him like royalty.)

Richard Heene's chances of getting a fair trial anywhere on planet Earth are looking pretty thin. He should get his day in court.

Move along folks, there's nothing to see here. Nothing to see. It's time to find something else to be obsessed about.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

My Contribution to the Whole Foods Buy-cott

In the spirit of the Whole Foods Buycott, here is a recipe of mine that probably will require that you shop at Whole Foods. In my town, as far as I know, that is the only place you can get one of the ingredients. I have been making it since I was a poor student back in the hippy era.

Brown rice is good for you. Unfortunately, as it cooks, many of the grains tend to explode, turning it into a starchy glop. Also, considering that it is a whole grain, it has disappointingly little flavor. Vegans are used to it, but people who are used to fine food find it hard to get down. My secret is to cook it with wheat "berries" (ie., whole grains -- I don't know why they call them that, it just sounds stupid to me). They hold their shape and add both flavor and texture. Nowadays you can get it as a boxed mix in your grocery store, but I find it doesn't work well as a mix because the wheat takes longer to cook properly than the rice does.

Good-Enough-to-Eat Brown Rice


1 1/2 cups Whole Foods basmati brown rice.
1/2 cup Whole Foods hard red wheat berries.
One medium onion, minced.
Three garlic cloves, minced.
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme.
Salt and pepper to taste.
2 tablespoons butter or olive oil.
2 1/3 cups broth (chicken or vegetable are good).


Simmer wheat in about 2/3 cup of water or broth for 10 minutes (I do it in the microwave while doing the other preparations.) In a 2 quart pan, saute the onions in the butter/oil until translucent. Add garlic and saute briefly. Add all the other ingredients, including wheat with its water/broth. Cover tightly and simmer for 50 minutes.

Note that by making the obvious ingredient choices this dish can easily be made vegan.

Though it is palatable, this dish is bland enough to serve under something with more flavor and protein, such as curried cecci or lentils. If served as a side dish, I recommend stirring in some toasted pecans after cooking (toast raw pecans in a skillet).

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Get-Limbaugh Obsession Explained

All week I have been trying to figure out the left's curious fascination with Rush Limbaugh, and I just now think I figured it out.

As you probably know, it spiked when, last Monday, news leaked out that he was part of a group of investors who are bidding to buy the St. Louis Rams. Immediately, there was a wide-spectrum establishment media blitz in which an array of people attributed to him some absolutely vile racist comments, one saying that the monster who killed MLK should get a medal, and another saying that slavery had its good points because at least it kept a bunch of criminals off the streets. When these quotes turned out to be complete fabrications -- the source being a vandalized Wikipedia page -- few of these people came out with retractions or apologies. Meanwhile, Limbaugh was fired from that consortium of investors.

Why this never-ending campaign against Limbaugh? And why (as we hear from Time magazine) is it vigorously encouraged by very high-ranking members of the Obama administration? It's as if their hatred of him is literally boundless.

What the Hell? He's a radio talk show host, fer Chrissakes! He obviously has no influence on anyone outside the approximately 30% of Americans who already agree with his conservative views. Don't the administration and its friends in the media have more important things to talk about? You know, things like the threatened end of the dollar, the continually worsening economy, or the fact that the Taliban may already have won the war in Afghanistan?

The realization I just had is that actually this obsession may have little to do with sincere hatred.* These folks are simply applying Saul Alinsky's Rules for Radicals, a cynical and mean-spirited book in which Alinsky -- who has long been one of Obama's heroes, and one of Hillary Clinton's as well -- explains his methods for bringing about social change. Specifically, they are applying the last rule in Alinsky's list:

RULE 13: Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it. Cut off the support network and isolate the target from sympathy. Go after people and not institutions; people hurt faster than institutions.

In the present case, this means: 1) Pick your institutional target. For better or worse, the Republican Party is the only institution with any real power that stands in the way of the administration and the left. 2) Put a human face on it. They chose the unattractive, already unpopular face of Rush Limbaugh. If they can just make this mask stick to the Republicans, they won't have to discuss them, much less any ideas that they may or may not stand for. 3) Isolate this human proxy from anything that would make it morally or emotionally legitimate. The National Football League is an institution for which many Americans have some respect and which they take half-way seriously. (Whether this is foolish or wise is irrelevant here.) Limbaugh must not be allowed to involve himself with any such institution. The line about him has to be that he is an isolated hate-crazed nut that no one you respect would have anything to do with. Thus, as silly as this might sound at first, it is actually important that he not be permitted to buy a share in an NFL football team.

I think this sort of strategy fails in the long run. However, I have to point out that I am prejudiced. For decades I have worked at helping young people understand ideas, theories, and arguments. Ideas, I have always assumed, are extremely important. If this sort of strategy represents the correct way to connect with the minds of your fellow human beings, my life has been a big fat mistake. So bear that in mind when I say, I think this will fail. However, perhaps out of wishful thinking, that is what I believe.
* Maybe I should qualify this: it may not depend on sincere hate. For hate there surely is. Note, for instance, Chris Matthews' recent on-air comment, about Limbaugh, that "at some point somebody's going to jam a CO2 pellet into his head and he's going to explode like a giant blimp. That day may come. Not yet. But we'll be there to watch." I wonder why no one seems to worry that this "climate of hate" might result in violence.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Real Ruling Class

Is there a ruling class in our world? Surely, there have been castes or classes in the past, with some ruling and extracting the product of the labor of others, while others must obey and be exploited.

Marxists say there is such a class and that it is the capitalists. Others think that insofar as the power of capital rests on voluntary market transactions, the ideas of "ruling" and "exploitation" do not really apply here. Others look for more mysterious, hard-to-see rulers. Who really rules us? Is it the Trilateral Commission? The Jews? The Bavarian Illuminati? Each theory is more arcane than the last.

I think the answer to the question is the one that is right under your nose. Consider the very words, "ruling class." Who literally rules you? Who has the power de facto to extract wealth from you without your consent and even against your wishes?

The answer of course is the state, the government and its employees (see also the above graph, click to enlarge). For most its history and prehistory, the human race has lived in stateless societies, in conditions that were very primitive but also very equal. With the birth of the state, extreme political and economic inequality comes about. Primitive states were often frankly wealth-extraction devices and had virtually no other declared function. Modern states have evolved considerably and, I admit, do some things that are for the common good.

The wonder of it is that, though this answer is screamingly obvious, it is almost never given. Looking to see who the real overlords and masters of the Earth are, people consider everything but the obvious.

My point here is not (yet) to judge or blame. Maybe these people deserve all this wealth and power. My point here is the irrefultably obvious one: that they do indeed have them, staggering amounts of them, and that they are gaining on the rest of us day by day.

Beyond that, my only point is that we probably should not give them any more than they already have. It is in this context that I view the health care reform bills now before congress. Any one of them would surely be one of the largest gains in government power in the history of the republic.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Pelosi Gets Creeped Out

To view this video, I recommend you hit the PLAY button first, then the FULL SCREEN button. In fact, if you've already seen this viral clip of Harry Reid's patronizing and creepy gesture with Nancy Pelosi's very human response, scroll forward to 5:25 and you will be able to see the whole cringe-worthy episode in slow motion (!).

This clip is the gift that goes on giving. I laugh out loud every time I see it. And cringe at the same time.

Here's an extra dimension of creepiness in what Reid is doing: his obvious lie about how everyone in the meeting pledged to support BHO's Afghanistan policy, whenever he gets one and whatever it ends up being, is an attempt to conscript her into a policy position that is not congenial to her at all. The eye-roll rather graciously fends off this crude attempt.

She is from San Francisco and he is from Searchlight NV, two places that are at least as different as the Senate and the House. I can see how it might get clashy at times.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Obama Wins Prize for Not Being George Bush

Actually, I'm not George Bush either, could I also get something for that?

For a serious discussion of the award, see this. For a list of the people who were passed over to give Obama the prize,look at this. [Later: The same blogger explains this list here.] I wrote on the weirdness of prize committees in general here.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Twilight Zone Episodes: MyTop 10 List

I don't take top ten (or top n, where n is any number) lists seriously (especially after the AFI's loathesome "100 Years, 100 Movies" list) but they can be fun to do. Here, in no particular order, is my attempt at a plausible list of the 10 greatest T-Zone episodes, presented in knowledge that there are many other possible "top 10" lists. Except where noted, all were written by Rod Serling. 

 1. "The Midnight Sun" (Season 3)
About this one, I have already written this: ... a brilliantly crafted piece, full of irony and surprises. The surprises begin immediately after the title, which suggests a land of frosty cold, but soon is revealed to refer to a world of searing heat, where the sun is so huge and bright it still lights the sky at midnight. They continue to the end, which is one of the best "twist" endings (Rod called them his "snappers") in the series. The closing narration is also mercifully free of any preachy or patronizing moral.
2. "The Eye of the Beholder" (Season 2)
The closing narration gives the impression that this episode is about relativism: what is ugly to the aliens in the story is beautiful to us. But a closer look at the dialogue suggests it is about race. At one point, the doctors tell the protagonist that if the operation fails they do at least have special places where people like her can live with others of their kind. Her response is the most emotionally intense line she says, delivered almost as a scream: "You mean a ghetto, don't you!?" Earlier in the fifties, Serling had written realistic teleplays for dramatic shows like "Playhouse 90," and had never been allowed to deal seriously with the subject of race, generally because a sponsor objected (God forbid cigarettes should be associated in the viewer's mind with something that upsets people!). Now that he dealt in fantasies and parables, he could discuss it to his heart's content.
3. "Walking Distance" (Season 1)
Rod Serling was an intense, chain-smoking workaholic. Two of the most heartfelt and personal episodes are about an overworked man who is overcome by nostalgia for the slower-paced, easier-living world of the past. The town that is walking distance from the hero's malfunctioning car is no doubt based on Serling's childhood home, Binghamton, New York. Note the original score by the great Bernard Herrmann.
4. "A Stop at Willoughby" (Season 1)
This is the other great flipping-out-from-overwork story. This one suggests, disturbingly, that actually being dead is better than living that way. Or maybe the idea is that this nostalgia for the low-pressure world of the past is actually a death wish and should be avoided. We report, you decide.
5 "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" (Season 5, Richard Matheson)
Even more disturbing than the monster on the wing of the plane (at least for the viewer) is the possibility that no one will believe the hero when he says he has actually seen it.
6. "Nick of Time" (Season 2)
A marvelous parable about how irrational beliefs can be as enslaving as chains and bars, if not more so. A young man finds himself unable to disobey the advice of a fortune telling machine in cheap diner.
7. "The Odyssey of Flight 33" (Season 2)
No philosophical point here, just a disturbing story about an airliner lost, not in space, but in time. I vividly remember seeing, probably on the original airdate in February 1961, a certain shot at the end of the episode. It turned out to be the most expensive piece of film made for a TV show up to that time ($2,500). It was a clay animation of a brontosaurus looking up from what was supposed to be New York city.
8. "The Monsters are Due on Maple Street" (Season 1)
Probably the original inspiration for this one was the idea, common among Cold War liberals like Serling, that right-wingers who make reckless accusations of Communist sympathies are playing into the enemy's hands. We must have national unity! Fortunately, because he was expressing himself indirectly through images and action, this little drama has a much wider and deeper application.
9. "The Invaders" (Season 2, Richard Matheson)
One of the "reversal of perspective" episodes, of which there are many. One remarkable thing about it: until the very end, it contains no dialogue at all.
10. "It's a Good Life" (Season 3)
Is it about life in a PC university? Or the constant pressure to be upbeat and optimistic? Or is it a nightmare vision of a world dominated by the young? All of the above and more!
That was fun, though I had to leave out some of my favorite episodes, including ones that I have written on for publication: "A Quality of Mercy" and "The Purple Testament." By the way, numbers 2, 5, 6, and 7 are discussed at length in "Philosophy in the Twilight Zone."

Monday, October 05, 2009

Was Michelle Obama Begging?

I'm finding it hard to understand the logic of Michelle Obama's speech to the International Olympics Committee. When I heard somebody describe it as "begging," I had to think about it. I'm still thinking.

It does seem to fit the correct definition of begging. What, after all, is begging?

As I see it, there are four ways to get something from other people. One is to offer something in trade, trying to elicit the voluntary consent of the other party. On the other hand, you can pretend to offer something in trade and then fail to carry out your offer (fraud) or you can violate their rights or threaten to do so (including the various forms of theft). Somewhere in the twilit realm between these extremes is begging, in which you do not violate the rights of the other person, but neither do you offer them anything of value. The reason you give them for transferring the desired object to your possession is simply your own naked desire for it. You have nothing else to offer.

In this sense, most of Ms. Obama's speech clearly consists of begging. Give us the Olympics, she seems to be saying, because I have wonderful childhood memories of watching them on my father's lap. Give it to us because my dead father would want it. Give is to us because I want it. I truly, sincerely want it a lot.

In fact, her speech is a case of what you might call mega-begging-by-proxy, because she is presenting the IOC with, in addition to her own unadorned desire to get the Olympics for Chicago, the desire of the children of America, who want it too. They, too, love baseball, and so forth.

To this the skeptic might say, What about the children of Brazil, of Spain, of Japan? Don't they want the Olympics too? Don't they love sports just as much as American children? Well, sure, what she is saying makes no sense if you think of it as a logical argument about who deserves what. But it makes perfect sense if you think of it as begging, which isn't logical and isn't about desert.

If I am homeless and starving and out on the street, and I approach you asking for money, I'm not saying I deserve your money more than some other panhandler, or more than you do, I'm just asking for it. If you have other requests for your wealth that you are considering at the moment, it's your job to weigh them, not mine. But I do want the money.

What Ms. Obama is doing here clearly fits the definition of begging. But there is something that gives me pause here: the psychology seems all wrong. If I am on the street asking you for money for a meal, my manner and bearing will reflect that I realize how weak my claim on you is: I am a stranger and there are no bonds between us other than that we are both human. My request will be cringing and obsequious.

On the other hand, just because my claim is so weak, my manner will show that I would appreciate so much the more your kindness and generosity at conferring this undeserved benefit on someone with no claims on you or your property, if you should see fit to confer it.

I see none of this in Michelle's demeanor. Especially, I see no cringing. Her desire for the games is presented almost proudly, almost as if it were a promissory note the world signed when she was sitting on her father's lap.

Is it possible to beg without realizing that's what you are doing? Or is there a fifth way to get things from other people, in which naked desire is presented, not with cringing and prospective assurances of gratitude, but as a claim and a right? I don't quite get it.

Added Later: Until I read this column by George Will, I was the only person I knew of who had written in any detail about the speeches that either of the two Obamas gave in Copenhagen. Here he points out, as I do here in the comments section below, that both of them are actually very poor persuasive speeches. For me their amazing badness consists in the fact that neither one of them raises a single consideration that could possibly be regarded as a reason why the IOC should give the games to Chicago instead of Rio, Madrid, or Tokyo. The interesting question is what they thought they were doing.

Further Update: The humorless media have taken it upon themselves to combat the above, very rare for the establishment media, foray into Obama-satire. Note the grim warning that someone may poke fun of the president again, in the future:

Friday, October 02, 2009

Philosophy in the Twilight Zone

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the airing of the first episode ("Where is Everybody?") of The Twilight Zone, one one of the two greatest dramatic TV series ever (the other one being of course The Sopranos).

Maybe this is a good time to announce that a book of original philosophical essays on the series that I edited with Noel Carroll is out in paperback.

My own contribution (other than the introduction to the book and a lot of editorial work) is a biographical essay on the development of Rod Serling, the creator of the series and author of 92 of the 156 episodes, as a writer. It is a very interesting story, dramatic and funny by turns. As I say in that chapter:
The emergence of the Rod Serling who created The Twilight Zone is a rather odd case of artistic evolution. He changed, rather abruptly and driven by the pressure of circumstance, from an artist who thought it was his highest calling to comment on the problems of the day by depicting them directly, to one who commented on principles and universals involved, not merely in the problems of the moment, but of human life itself. In so doing, he became just the sort of author who deserves the sort of treatment he is given in the essays in this volume. For to move from the concrete issues of the day to the principles that underlie them is to move from a journalistic approach to these problems to a philosophical one.
My favorite T-Zone episode is probably "The Midnight Sun". Partly I'm sure this is due to my childhood crush on the star, Lois Nettleton (a half hour of a sweaty Lois wearing nothing but a slip -- woo hoo!), but it does happen to be a brilliantly crafted piece, full of irony and surprises. The surprises begin immediately after the title, which suggests a land of frosty cold, but soon is revealed to refer to a world of searing heat, where the sun is so huge and bright it still lights the sky at midnight. They continue to the end, which is one of the best "twist" endings (Rod called them his "snappers") in the series. The closing narration is also mercifully free of any preachy or patronizing moral:
The poles of fear, the extremes of how the Earth might conceivably be doomed. Minor exercise in the care and feeding of a nightmare, respectfully submitted by all the thermometer-watchers in the Twilight Zone.
The tale is full of meaning, but the meaning is for you to find. Kind of like life.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

L'Affaire Polanski: Artistic Privilege?

"If Shakespeare returned to the earth to-morrow, and if it were found that his favourite recreation was raping little girls in railway carriages, we should not tell him to go ahead with it on the ground that he might write another King Lear."

George Orwell, "Notes on Dali"
When the great film maker Roman Polanski was arrested in Switzerland for a crime he committed three decades ago (he pled to sex with a minor, but the victim's grand jury testimony would indicate it was coerced -- ie., plain, ordinary rape) my first reaction was to think that the case ought to be dismissed, for a number of reasons.

But everyone I respect among the people who have taken a stand on the issue (including Eugene Volokh, Megan Mcardle, and Nick Gillespie) have taken the "do the crime, do the time" position. I have only found one person on the other side for whose legal and moral judgment I have much respect, and that is Anne Applebaum. (Sorry, but the French Minister of Culture, along with novelists and Hollywood glitterati who are solidly backing Polanski do not count. And Applebaum's judgment is tainted in this case by the fact that she is married to a Polish politician who is actively lobbying for the Polanski, who is of course of Polish ancestry.) This gives me pause.

Let me comment on just one of the issues involved here. Should Polanski get some special consideration because he has created some cinematic masterpieces? Artsy cognac-sipping Europeans say yes. Prudish American Philistines say no. I guess I have to agree with the Philistines on this one.

Beethoven's friends, it is true, put up with his making potty jokes over dinner, along with much worse behavior, because they loved his music and loved him for creating it. On the other hand, it was still true that he was a jerk. (To see him at his worst, read this.) The jerky behavior and the sublime music were traits of the same person. He was both of these people, and many others besides. That's what human beings are like: complicated.

If you are deciding whether to accept a dinner invitation, or buy a ticket to a concert or a movie, you have to weigh the good and the bad and make your own decision. On this issue I side with the artsy types. I love the arts and creative people in general. I would give up a lot to have dinner with Beethoven, fart jokes and all.

But that's only relevant when I am spending my own time or money. If the legal system is involved, that is a completely different matter.

Here it is not a matter of disposing of what rightfully belongs to me, but of the rights of the weak and the innocent. We have no right to dispose of that because we think Chinatown was a great movie.

If Richard Wagner, not satisfied with writing insane anti-Semitic rants like Das Judentum in der Musik, had attacked a Jewish girl, I would have said (though very regretfully, I admit), "do the time," even if it meant he would never complete The Ring.

We knew all along that we would have to give up something in order to have a world where basic rights are protected. Like freedom, justice isn't free.
Breaking news: The French government seems to be turning around on this issue.