Friday, December 31, 2010

2010: The Year of the Tea Party

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

-- Mohandas K. Gandhi

In 2009, they were ignored by the establishment and mainstream media, then ridiculed (not grass roots, but stroturf!).

In 2010 they were taken seriously enough to vilified as racist.* Then they began to win. And win, and win.

Even their electoral defeats -- in Delaware and Nevada -- were victories in a deeper sense. They resulted from primary elections in which Tea Party voters "imprudently" gave a black eye to the corrupt, disgraced Republican establishment, nominating (gasp!) unapproved candidates. In so doing, they made it very plain that electing Republicans is not their goal at all. They want to change things -- at least to reign in the worst excesses of the present corporatist system. You can't do that by being "prudentl"

Happy New Year everybody!

While I am at it, here is a charming essay by Peggy Noonan on the wonderful Robbie Burns song, Old Long Since (Auld Lang Syne).

* As reported in the Washington Post, a UCLA graduate student carefully photographed every visible sign (about 250 of them) at a recent major TP rally. Among her findings: " ...There were uglier messages, too - including 'Obama Bin Lyin' - Impeach Now' and 'Somewhere in Kenya a Village is Missing its Idiot.' But Ekins's analysis showed that only about a quarter of all signs reflected direct anger with Obama. Only 5 percent of the total mentioned the president's race or religion, and slightly more than 1 percent questioned his American citizenship." If these data are indicative, they suggest that the TP as a whole is actually less racist than America as a whole.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Denis Dutton, RIP

I just heard from Noël Carroll that Denis, an old friend of mine from college, died yesterday. The last I had heard from him was a month or so ago, when his cancer had re-emerged and he had gone back into chemo. I had expected this, but not so soon. He had been struggling with the disease for some years. Cheated the Old Man out of several more, he did!

Soon after graduate school, Denis made the unusual career move of relocating to New Zealand, so our contacts were sporadic for a long time. I once asked him how he liked living in this dinky, middle of nowhere country. He said there were advantages to living in a small country. For instance, he knew is own Prime Minister -- personally. (I now think all countries should be small.)

For at least twenty years, we never met face to face. Then about ten years ago we met up again at a meeting of the American Society for Aesthetics. At dinner with Robert Solomon (now also forðférde, or "journeyed forth," as my pagan ancestors used to say) we talked about Denis's remarkable career to date. Soon out of graduate school, he rounded up the few distinguished philosophers who had discussed the presentation of philosophical ideas in literary works (Peter Winch and Stanley Cavell prominent among them) and with their support founded the journal, Philosophy and Literature. To this day, it is the only journal I know of dedicated to this subject, one that is dear to me, as you may know.

Years later, he scored another and greater triumph, with Arts and Letters Daily, sometimes called "the greatest web site in the world). If you go there quickly, you can find links to many obituaries for him in the left column.

At these ASA meetings, he had recently sold the site to the magazine Lingua Franca, and was managing it as their employee (along with performing his more conventional academic duties). Not wanting uncouthly ask how much dough he got for it, I said that, gee whiz, I bet they paid him a tidy sum. He just said, "How do you think I could afford this suit?", pointing a thumb at his lapel. I had no idea what a thousand dollar suit would look like, but this nonetheless made his point pretty effectively.

At dinner with Bob Solomon, though, he was in a glum mood. His whole career has been based on the ideas of others, he said. He was little more than a conduit through which others communicate. Nonsense, we said. You've found something, something important, that you do better than anyone else. How many can say that?

When we had lunch the next day, he told me about some new ideas he had been working on, involving the remarkable persistence of some visual motifs in the most popular landscape paintings, and the possibility of explaining them via evolutionary psychology. Within a few years, he had produced a book that created something of a sensation in the artworld. It is one of the very few books of real philosophy that in my lifetime has had a strong effect outside the tiny world of academic philosophy. Conduit indeed!

He had climbed his last mountain!

In the last message I got from him, he didn't seem to be much happier than you or I would be to die while still in his prime. But I'm sure he realized that he had lived a very full life. Full to overflowing.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Now Chris Matthews Wants to See O's Birth Certificate

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Matthews asks, it seems to me, a legitimate question: Is there any good reason why Obama should not do what other Presidents have done, and request the release of his full birth certificate? His interlocutors stumble around and finally agree that, sure, why not, he might as well do that.

As I have said before (see this link) the real issue here, unless you are insane, is not whether he was born here, it is whether this man has to play by the same rules to which others are subjected. He has persistently refused to release a wide spectrum of primary documents about himself that customarily are released by presidents and presidential candidates (see the same link). The most powerful human on planet Earth should have fewer privacy rights than the rest of us, not more.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Would Jesus be a Liberal Democrat?

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Jesus Is a Liberal Democrat
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire Blog</a>March to Keep Fear Alive

There is an issue here that even non-Christians like me and Bernie Goldberg can find interesting. The immediate issue is: Are people who vote for the government to give resources to people who need them practicing Christian charity? Behind this is a deeper issue, which does not presuppose Christian ethics: Are they practicing some virtue of benevolence or other -- perhaps generosity?

Colbert thinks the answer to both questions is obviously yes. I think the correct answer is no, for two reasons.

(Both are different from the reason O'Reilly gives, which is that , as he sees it, Christian charity and liberal charity are different traits, as the former is qualified by ideas, such as individual responsibility, which are absent from the latter. This is the idea that Colbert is ignorantly ridiculing in the above video.)

First: If you are really generous, charitable, etc., you have already given to the needy. The only thing your vote can add, at most, is to force others to give. Now, if I give you my coat, that may be generous, but if I give you someone else's coat, it cannot be. You can only be generous, etc., with your own property. If Al Capone tips a shoeshine boy with a stolen $100 bill, he is not being generous. His subjective affect at that moment may be identical to what a generous person might feel, but generosity is a moral concept, not a psychological one. A mere feeling is never sufficient to make an act virtuous.

Second: Further, by voting, you are not even forcing others to give. When you vote, you are never doing anything but voting. Unless the tally, minus you, turns out to be 1,395,735 to 1,395,735, with yours being the tie-breaking vote, your vote has no effect on the outcome of the election whatsoever. As Thoreau put it: "Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it." Voting is thus a great corrupter of morals, a smugifier, a hypocriter. Well, at least I've done something about the problem now! No, you haven't. Now get off your fat ass and really do something.

I think there are a significant number of liberals who believe the Colbert thesis: that simply voting a certain way and having certain opinions makes them more virtuous than people who do otherwise. It would explain the moral contempt some of them seem to show toward people who are to the right of them. It would also explain why they are often so easy on people who are to the left of them. Stalin may have murdered millions, but at least he presided over a state that gave free medical care to those it did not kill. (The same thing is true of Hitler, but nevermind that.)

The intuitive idea behind this is obvious: the liberal voter, the charitable Christian, and the Communist dictator do have something in common: all care about the needy. That may be true. But it does not show that liberals and socialists are more virtuous than others. Aside from the empirical fact that there are plenty of people who care and yet do not fit this political profile, there are reasons #1 and #2, above.

Monday, December 20, 2010

A Christmas Festival

We've played a number of different classical-music-style Christmas medleys in the Madison Community Orchestra over the years, and this one is clearly the best.

One reason is that it really isn't a medley at all. People who have tried to present it as a sing-along -- distributing lyrics to the audience -- have found that some of the keys that composer Leroy Anderson uses make part of it impossible for most people to sing.

It really is a symphonic movement, with the familiar tunes treated at times as orchestral "motives." It begins with one phrase -- half a bar long -- from "Joy to the World" and then rushes into "Deck the Halls," shifting back to "Joy" in the seventh measure.

The last section is a majestic version of "Adeste Fidelis" accompanied by a rhythmic phrase derived from "Jingle Bells." Amazingly -- it works! The coda is a rollicking jumble based on the opening phrases of “Jingle Bells,” interrupted briefly by “Joy to the World,” and a few measures that seem to derive from “Hark the Herald,” ending by hammering away fortissimo at the first two notes of the chorus of “Jingle Bells.”

Try doing that as an audience sing-along. But, boy, is it fun to play!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Bubba's Return

Warning: Coarse language at 1:45.

For those of you who are too young to remember, this is what an actual, adult-type President sounds like. He doesn't just use language in order to cheer-lead and "inspire" people. He uses it to, like, you know, explain stuff. Also, to present rational arguments.

Obama's skill set is impressive but extremely narrow: mainly, he's good at giving a certain sort of speech. So far, he doesn't seem to be outstandingly good at much of anything else. Soon we will all know whether he has the sort of humility (I can't think of another word for it) that it takes to fundamentally re-orient yourself and learn profoundly new things. The evidence, to me, is still ambiguous. On the one hand, he seems to be trying to learn a thing or two about running a giant nation-state from Bill Clinton. That's a good sign. On the other, he voluntarily did this news conference with Clinton (even going through the trouble of as it were hunting for the key to the briefing room), when many of us could have warned him that Bubba's performance would make him look, well, weak by comparison. That's not a good sign. He does seem to be a person who is profoundly unaware of his own limitations.

Below is the entire press conference. The laugh-out-loud moment, where Obama says he can't stick around because he can't keep the Ol' Ball 'n' Chain waiting, is at 10:40.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

WikiLeaks: Pro et Contra

I'm of two minds about the Wikileaks revelations. Is this a good thing or not?

Polymath right-wing commentator John Derbyshire, in his weekly audio blog, is also of two minds, and expresses both of his minds pretty well:

Julian Assange, the Wikileaker, is said — by his mother, who ought to know — to be driven by, quote, "a deep-seated mistrust of authority." Now, a deep-seated mistrust of authority is no bad thing. It is in fact a very American thing, though Mr. Assange is Australian. Let X be the number of people — world-wide, throughout history — who lost their property, liberty, or life through placing too much trust in authority; and let Y be the number of people who lost their property, liberty, or life through placing too little trust in authority. Is there any doubt that X is much, much bigger than Y? Is there any righteous American conservative who doesn't feelsome sympathy stirring in his breast at hearing the phrase "a deep-seated mistrust of authority," in an age when authority is instantiated in the likes of Barack Obama, Eric Holder, and Hillary Clinton?. ...

Well, all of that was the heart speaking. Then the head spoke up; and for the record, I am very much a head guy, not a heart guy. Raison d'etat is not an empty phrase in my lexicon. To preserve and advance the interests of their citizens, nations need to do certain things, not all of which should be made known. There are useful lies to be told, useful pretences to be preserved, useful people to be protected. Some of that needs secrecy.

Right now, I lean to the side of John's "heart." On the one hand, I have no problem with government secrecy per se. Everyone has a right of self-defense against bad guys, and that right includes not only the use of force but of deceit as well. You do owe not an obligation of truthfulness to those who are actively trying to rob or assault you. Legitimate governments -- assuming any such exist -- excercise these rights on our behalf, and any organization that is going to use defensive force and fraud must also use secrecy.

But this is, if you'll pardon my cliche, a double-edged sword, which can cut the wielder before it damages the enemy. Government secrecy protects it against its legitimate enemies -- and its own citizens as well. This is an evil that seems to be inherent in the nature of government itself. There are no states without state secrets. And yet state secrecy makes it impossible for the voters to have exercise any real control over the state. You have no hope of controlling a thing if you don't even know what it is. And some of the information Wikileaks is revealing is clearly stuff the voters should know.

There is no perfect institutional solution to this problem. The notion of a state that is democratically controlled by its own citizenry is thus an illusion. Maybe a necessary part of the best solution we can have -- a partial, inadequate, and dangerous one -- is such non-institutional, indeed criminal, initiatives as these leaks.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

We Are 500!

Our son Nat pointed out to me a few days ago that I recently posted my 500th post. To be specific, it was this one.

I just took a sample of some posts, figured the average length, multiplied by 500, and came up with the result that the posts on this site comprise over a quarter of a million words.

Talk about chronicles of wasted time! (Okay okay, I know that's not what Shakespeare meant.) Oh well, if I haven't stopped yet I don't suppose I will do so any time soon.

We at E Pur Si Muove! thank you for your support.

By the way, I just noticed that Kali Fontecchio (see "Some Sites I Try to Keep Up With", left sidebar) posted a 300th-post anniversary message, which included this cute video by Nico Colaleo:

Kali's 300th Blog Post from Nico Colaleo on Vimeo.