Thursday, July 31, 2008

Book Blogging: Halfway Through Wings of the Dove




Image by Flickr user Today is a good day used under a Creative Commons license.


I'm at the halfway point, or just about, of Henry James's The Wings of the Dove. I'm enjoying it a lot; this is the first James I've read besides "Daisy Miller" and The Turn of the Screw. It's been slow going. I find James's prose exhausting, but not in the sense that it's unpleasant, just in the sense that I feel physically exerted reading it. It's a rare feeling in fiction and a very rewarding (though tiring) experience.

Like a lot of people, or so I'm assuming, I suspect I like Milly too much and the young lovers too little. But we'll see. I'm getting that creeping feeling I sometimes get in a book or movie where I suspect that I know where the story's going to go and don't like it. But Henry James doesn't seem to be the kind of author who'll let me down. So we'll see.

No spoilers, please!

the conservative ordeal

Marc Ambinder reflects on race and the reverse-race card.

One of my constant frustrations with conservative culture is that it is at once contemptuous of "the politics of aggrievement" and identity politics, and yet constantly takes part in those things too. Conservatives love to mock black people, gay people, women, non-Christians and other minority groups for their tendency to complain about, or seek special protection from, discrimination or disenfranchisement due to their minority status. But this kind of complaint comes from a movement that has become expert at playing exactly the same card; indeed, I would say it was an invaluable component of the Republican ascendancy of the last decades.

What is the standard Limbaugh line, but a long whine about white male marginalization? What is the most basic message of the FOX network, other than to claim that conservatives are the victims of bias? Listen to Sean Hannity's radio show (if you've got the stomach), read a conservative blog, check out any given article in The Weekly Standard. Perhaps the most obvious recurrent theme is the idea that conservatives are the victim of a long and steady conspiracy to degrade and oppress them, and that they operate in a sea of biased liberal institutions. Never mind that the conservatives controlled the White House, both houses of Congress, and a large portion of the federal judiciary as little as two years ago; never mind that talk radio is absolutely dominated by conservative voices; never mind that the supposedly liberal mainstream media has been so cowed by accusations of bias that it now defaults to conservative. Often enough, conservatives in their own minds just can't catch a break.

Look I'm amenable to certain claims of bias against conservatives, though I often find the charge overblown. But it's an empirical claim, I guess, one that can be supported or refuted by evidence. What bothers me is that conservatives have such enmity for tactics that they use so enthusiastically.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

foreign policy and the pretense of understanding

Stories like this, which have grown like weeds in the major newspapers since 9/11, to me illustrate one great advantage of the non-interventionist worldview: being unburdened from having to understand and navigate the morass of internal politics in foreign countries.

The Iraq fiasco has been characterized throughout by this kind of news story, long pieces detailing the immense internal upheaval and internecine warfare going on at any given time in any particular unstable country. Americans who closely follow the news, politics or foreign policy have become intimately acquainted with names like Moqtada al-Sadr, Ayatollah al-Sistani, the Badr Brigade and AQI, Ahmad Chalabi and Abu-Musad Al Zarqawi, SCIRI and SIIC.... And all of that, of course, is mediated by an international news media that (while I believe it to be overwhelmingly competent) is far from perfect. To put it simply, internal politics in any country are incredibly complicated, and it is close to impossible for a citizen in any country to understand every aspect of those politics. For a the government, citizenry or media of a culturally and geographically isolate country like the United States to attempt a working knowledge of the shifting internal politics of Iraq, Afghanistan, or Zimbabwe or Sudan or similar, is incredibly difficult.

What foreigner could ever really untangle the twisted and shifting internal politics of countries that don't share our culture, our language, our system of governance? Part of the true ideological poverty of an expansionist foreign policy is that it makes a mockery of the idea of an informed citizenry. Though not everyone is an expert on health care, everyone experiences their own access to health care and that of those close to them. Though not everyone is qualified to explain the ins and outs of US Tax code, everyone pays taxes and understands the impact that taxes have on their life. Domestic policy is close at hand, ever-present and immediate for the voters of a democracy. But a foreign policy that requires the average voter to understand, say, the inter-tribal warfare of Waziristan region on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border is an invitation for a dispassionate, ill-informed citizenry.

And it breeds a strange combination of misunderstanding and overconfidence in the pundit class. It is the height of arrogance for, say, James Kirchick to believe that he really understands what is happening in Zimbabwe. The truth of the matter is, it is the people of Zimbabwe, and they alone, that can truly understand the Zimbabwean situation-- and only then contingently and temporarily. But this fact isn't a reason for despair. It's an opportunity to remember that it is entirely moral and just for Zimbabweans to be the sole arbiters of Zimbabwean internal affairs. I am often confronted with what I find a real cognitive dissonance on the subject of foreign policy among otherwise principled and intelligent people. I've grown accustomed to feeling truly divided on the issue from people who otherwise I feel great intellectual and political sympathy with. It is profoundly weird, to me, for great powers to be intimately involved in the affairs of sovereign governments. It is deeply strange for a remote country of vastly different circumstances to be so heavily involved in shaping the internal reality of Afghanistan. And it is a perverse and reckless foreign policy ideology that turns this kind of remote manipulation into the default state of the world.

gibbons!

Ben Crair sings the praises of the gibbon, and he's goddamn right. If you live in a city with a zoo, and that zoo has a gibbon exhibit-- go. They're just incredibly graceful and athletic creatures. Many zoos have gibbon exhibits with ropes hanging from the ceiling, or swings or similar setups, so that the gibbons can show off their acrobatics. It's astonishing how fast and controlled they are; if you've thought of Tarzan swinging through the jungle on vines, that's pretty much what we're talking about.

I haven't lived in Chicago for a couple years, so I don't know if this animal is still alive. But as of 2 years ago or so, in the (free) Lincoln Park Zoo gibbon exhibit there was a one-armed gibbon. He lost his arm after sticking it through the cage to try and get food from a zoo patron. With one arm, he can't swing the way other gibbons do-- but he's still remarkably mobile. He used to grab a rope with his one good arm, secure it under the armpit of his stub arm, and swing to the next rope. When he wanted to climb upwards, instead of climbing two armed like the other gibbons, he would stick the rope under his stub arm, then use his other arm pull himself up bit by bit.

I would watch them for ages when I went down to the zoo, and him in particular. He seemed to me to be a great symbol of overcoming disadvantages, a natural one, one which lacked any of the subtle condescension or pity that often marks those things. There's no fuss or angst, just an animal with a disadvantage who makes do, and who receives appropriate concessions for his disadvantage.

They really are remarkable animals and I have a soft spot for them.

Monday, July 28, 2008

me no like elec-trick car

The commenters at Jalopnik don't like the Tesla Roadster. Shocking, I know.

Why are people so eager to be shrill stereotypes? Why?

Dark Knight Plot Hole Repository

So, really, I don't mean to seem like someone who hated this movie. It had lots of cool moments, and the three major performances-- Christian Bale, Heath Ledger and Aaron Eckhardt-- were great. And my major beef isn't even with the plot holes, it's with the bloat, the competing Two Face and Joker plotlines that should have been two movies, and the resulting damage to both as the result of refusing to choose one.

But the more I think about the movie more plot holes spring up, so I'm just gonna post a bunch here as I think them up. Not as a mean-spirited campaign against the (wildly successful) movie but as a public service.
  • Many of the most vexing danglers and mixed-up concepts come from the Joker's trip to jail-- a trip, we learn, which the Joker intended to take. It's revealed that the Joker intentionally let himself be captured by the police in order to get into the Major Crimes Unit's lockup so he could kill Lao, the crooked Hong Kong businessman. He wants to kill Lao because Lao is the chief witness for the prosecution against the mobsters Harvey Dent and the Gotham PD indicted.
  • As the movie constantly tells us, Harvey Dent's credibility is essential to the prosecution of these mobsters. Batman himself tells Dent that if people found out Dent was pulling his Russian roulette routine with the Joker's henchman, the prosecution would fall apart.
  • But the elaborate, dangerous chase scene that the Joker set up to attack Harvey Dent in the police truck-- an event, remember, that the Joker took part in so he could get arrested and get to Lao-- happens after Harvey Dent "admits" to being the Batman.
  • So wouldn't Dent's credibility already be null? Wouldn't the prosecution fall apart anyway? If Dent's integrity is so vital to the prosecution of these mobsters, as the movie insists on telling us again and again, why would the Joker go to so much trouble to attack Lao? What sense does that make? And how could Dent have prosecuted the mobsters if he was in jail for being Batman, anyway?
  • Of course, it's hard to imagine why the Joker would go through such an elaborate, incredibly dangerous attack on the police convoy if he only intended to do it in order to get arrested. I mean he does seem to make a real effort to kill Dent, but again, if Dent is dead, why the pretense of going to jail? Lao becomes useless without Dent, and anyway at that point both the crusading DA and Batman would be Dent. (Joker tells us, after all, that he really thought Dent was Batman.)
  • Why would Gordon house not only the Joker, but also the Jokers cronies (including the one with the cell phone bomb implanted inside of him) in the same MCU holding facility that houses Lao? I thought the whole point was that nobody else would be in MCU to kill Lao.
  • Now with the Joker in custody, Gordon and Batman grill him to find out where Dent and Rachel are, who have suddenly disappeared. (Why Gordon didn't immediately think "Hey I wonder if the cops who took Dent and Rachel home might be involved, I don't know.) Eventually the Joker talks (kind of invalidating the whole "you can't get me to talk cause you won't kill me" speech, but whatever). Gordon and Batman race off to try and save Rachel and Dent. (The Joker having played a flip flop regarding Dent and Rachel, for reasons that weren't 100% clear to me other than, you know, he's one bad dude).
  • Here comes what to me was the just laugh out loud, are-you-kidding-me part. The Joker, who has killed dozens and terrorized Gotham, fought the Batman hand-to-hand to a standstill and pretty much revealed himself to be the A-number one badass on the planet, is left in an interrogation room (not a cell, mind you)...unshackled...alone... with a single, middle aged cop in a suit. Now, the holding cell that has the Joker's crony with the cell phone-bomb inside him appears to have an entire precinct full of cops in it. But the Joker? One old dude. Who either has a key, or just has the door unlocked, because the Joker quickly takes him hostage and walks into the other room.
  • He takes the cop hostage, by the way, so he can make his one phone call, and thereby trigger the bomb in his buddy, creating confusion and allowing him to get to Lao, so he can kill Lao (preventing the prosecution of the mobsters) and find out where the money is. Of course, this plot could have been foiled if, instead of leaving this one, conveniently old cop to stand alone in the cell with the Joker, the cops had just locked the door of the interrogation room, or, call me crazy, put him in a cell.
  • But the Joker does take the hostage, he does call the cell phone bomb, it does blow up, which does create the conditions that allow him to get to Lao, who he does get the location of the money from, and then kills. So here's the real question: why does he bother to kill Lao at all, if he's only going to kill the mobsters? Why prevent a prosecution if your intention is only to kill the people being prosecuted? Was it so he could find out where the money is? (The money, by the way, is apparently sitting in a boat in Gotham harbor, instead of on its way to Hong Kong). He just burns the money! And if his intention was just to kill the mobsters and set their dogs on them, again... why kill Lao? It's not like he needs to get the head mobsters out of jail; the head mobsters have made bail. They're there for the Joker to kill anyways, and he does. He just wants to free all the of their lieutenants and goons so they can be in his gang? Again, Dent is about to blow up, as far as he knows. And his credibility is already shot, or at least it was as far as the Joker knew when he intentionally got arrested. So doesn't that mean, by the movie's own assertion, that the prosecution is screwed anyway? Why go through all the rigmarole?
I mean... I find this all a tad unconvincing.

Power Lines



Image by Flickr user Rob Innes used under a Creative Commons license.

Has anyone else ever looked at power lines and suddenly realized how weird they are? I mean we have lots of frankly amazing technology, but we continue to power our homes, in most areas, by a series of wooden poles strung with highly dangerous wires holding powerful electric current. hey obstruct sight lines like crazy, and they're ugly, and they seem to me to pose obvious safety risks and vulnerabilities to interruptions of service.

I suspect that in the not too distant future we'll look at pictures of regular town and city streets and really be taken aback by the presence of power lines. They really are quite weird to look at when you get it into your head to actually look at them instead of kind of ignoring them out of existence.

yet another lousy cri de couer

Strange mood today, and then I read this. I don't know why this man did what he did, but taken out of context and with only this information to go with, it's precisely the kind of mad doomed bold creative human enterprise that I have great affection and affinity for. There's usually some sad mundane or sinister motive when the other shoe drops on things like this, but for now I'm kind of consumed by the idea of the eighteen year old kid who stole buses to take them on their routes.

Perhaps this would be better intended for somebody's earnest Livejournal post. This is the sort of thing that I should learn to hold onto. But I confess that my adult life has been often preoccupied by the weird quiet intersections of private longing and public self. I have little patience for the Gawker set who have decided, on their own, that "private is public". Your private might be public. Mine is not. To give away the private self to everyone is to rob yourself of your ability to give it to any individual, and that's a poverty of its own. I'm really not a fan of Emily Gould-style overshare. Revealing the pragmatic details of your life, it seems to me, betrays the point of this project. We use the oblique and the sideways to reveal ourselves to others because the baldly stated and the obvious are at once too open and too dishonest. (I learn the most about someone from what I have to slowly and gently learn, thin strands of understanding that have to be pulled lightly and long, before they're understood). Yet at the same time I believe in the iron heart of loneliness that under girds the Internet and I can't help but think that many people labor away at this thing because of some slight hope for mutual understanding.

Of course I'm saying this on a blog, aren't I? Sometimes I think my hypocrisy knows no end. I've been critical of snark in the past, but it has the advantage of preventing things like this. Sentimentality and mawkishness are close to unforgivable in art, and I suppose here to. I guess my only defense is to say that I try hard not to take myself seriously, and my little failures like this one aren't for lack of trying.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Dark Knight

So, yeah-- The Dark Knight is no good.

Spoilers, yeah?

The movie motors around on the edge of coherence for pretty much the whole thing. There are many, many blockbuster movies with worse plots, but really, theres so many head scratching moments. Why, in the pivotal chase scene, weren't there more cops in support? I understand that they were trying to sneak him out in the dead of night, etc. etc., but come on. And, of course, we later learn that the Joker wanted to be caught and gain his access to the holding cells. But he comes pretty close to his goal of killing Harvey Dent anyway. And why-- why, why, why-- would you leave the Joker, who has gone on this legendary killing spree, unmanacled and unchained, in a holding cell with a single middle aged police officer in a suit? Does that strike you as some sort of impenetrable guardian against this guy who's been creating terror and havoc?

Why was that boat full of cash still sitting in Gotham? Or did the Joker go to China? And why did the Joker go to all that trouble to kill Lao if he was just gonna kill the mobsters and burn their money? I mean who cares at that point?

Let me join the chorus in saying this movie is too long. And not by ten minutes or even twenty. This should have been a tight, gripping Batman vs. Joker story of two hours. But it's not just the length; it's what the length does to the pacing and the story. There is an extended scene in Hong Kong that, while it makes some little difference in the plot, is essentially worthless for the larger vehicle-- except that it introduces the (extremely unconvincing) "sonar cell phones" plot device. (Which itself serves to introduce the orphaned Big Brother/warrantless wiretapping theme. I think people literally cannot have Morgan Freeman in their movies without writing in a scene where he reveals himself to be the conscience of the film.) I found the two boats sequence at the end entirely lifeless, as was pretty much the entire climax.

Simply put, the people behind this movie made two and refused to choose. For the life of me I don't know why the Batman franchise refuses to learn the lesson that having two villains in every movie dilutes them both. Batman has great villains, but you can't waste them the way they have. The problem with the bloated Batman Forever and Batman and Robin seems to be that they felt it wasn't an "event" if they didn't stick two villains in per movie. But I don't understand why the two Christopher Nolan movies had to be the same way. It's bad enough to have the Joker and Two Face (maybe Batman's two best villains) in one movie, and it's bad enough when two lamely portrayed villains further diminish each other by crowding the other out ala Batman Begins. But what's truly unforgivable is that Two Face (and Aaron Eckhardt) are wasted in such a way that dilutes Heath Ledger's performance and the at times great Batman/Joker showdown of this movie.

And it is, indeed, a powerful performance by Ledger, though I felt it faded along with the movie as time went on. The opening sequence is awesome and I think a tighter, more restrained movie could have been filled to the brim with the power of Ledger's performance. As it is the movie is such a hairy dog, so thematically and narratively promiscuous that even a huge performance like Ledger's Joker gets a little lost in the shuffle. (I'll be here all week, folks.) Again-- drop the Two Face story line. Bring Eckhardt into the story, end with him getting his face melted and set it up for a great Two Face movie next time. Let this movie be powered by Ledger and Bale and their animosity, instead of literally leaving the Joker hanging there-- a deeply unsatisfying conclusion to that storyline. (Sadly, Ledger's character will hang there forever.)

What's really depressing about this movie is that it's just one more example of how badly movies need to be trimmed down. Every movie I see these days is twenty movies too long. Everyone seems not to trust their material; we've got to add another fight, we've got to fit in five more gags. And it leads to all this useless time-wasting. It's the sort of thinking that gets you the Batman-as-James-Bond scene in Hong Kong or so. much. tangled. thematic. exposition. (You know what would have been awesome? If someone in the movie had a discussion about the real meaning of heroism, or something).

It's such a shame. Nolan is a talented guy, Ledger and Bale are great. There are times when the movie gets the Joker so completely right, where the scary, grim tone-- evident from the first trailer-- really takes the movie to the next level. If Hollywood had the discipline to let those moments, the interplay between Batman and the Joker, power the movie... it could have been something really amazing.

Restraint, economy, subtlety-- they're powerful tools.

Update: The more I think about these plot holes the more they multiply, and the more they annoy me.

Update 2: There's nobody else to pin the Two-Face murders on than Batman? Really? Nobody? They can perfectly fake Jim Gordon's death, but they can't pin the murders of two mobsters and two crooked cops on someone else? Like, I don't know, the Joker? The city's been in chaos for weeks, a hospital just blew up, there's bombs on every boat and building, the Joker just happened to have murdered a bunch of gangsters anyway, but the public will be so interested in these four particular murders out of dozens, and the truth is so certain to get out, that the only way to save Gotham's conscience about Harvey Dent (which is apparently the most important symbolic construct since Jesus Christ's) is to blame the killings on Batman. Batman can pull the fingerprints off of a single disintegrated bullet and match it to someone, but they can't plant the fingerprints of another dead mobster onto the gun and bullets that killed a couple of crooked cops, a mob boss and his goon? Sure, that'd be a lie, but you're lying to them anyway! You can choose anyone! Tell them the goddamn Scarecrow did it!

Update 3: People whose opinions I care about tell me that I'm allowing myself to be overly swayed by the plot holes. And, you know, they have a point. They're annoying, but I guess that's summer blockbuster for you. My major complain remains, though-- I just find the encroachment on the Joker/Batman conflict by the tacked-on Two Face conflict inexcusable, and a real waste of Two Face, who should be given his own movie.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

I don't quite know what to say.

I am constantly told, in the comments section of various blogs, that my appeals to the rank immorality of the richest country in the world having so many people who are unable to obtain health care are a mark of my deep lack of seriousness and inability to understand economics. But at some point, I can't keep trying to look beyond these needlessly suffering people. If there is any such thing as human morality, certainly it must condemn a system where so many, surrounded by such affluence, have no ability to arrange routine medical care. What kind of a situation do we require before we feel we can foot this bill? People hate this argument, but the fact that we spend so many untold billions in Iraq while not having the money to expand S-CHIP takes me beyond any kind of partisan or political anger and leaves me with real, heart-deep despair. If not this society, who? If not now, when? This is the sort of thing that gets me labeled self-righteous or a martyr, which is another way to say that I believe in right and wrong and am unafraid to name one or another. At what point do all appeals to efficiency and capitalist ideals melt away in the face of so much hardship?

Sam's Clubbing

Reihan surveys the state of the election and likes what he sees. I don't quite buy it.

In this election, Reihan is right-- Republicans have reason for hope, though I think Reihan is missing one major factor among the blue collar voters he identifies: the Democratic presidential candidate is black, and there remains a shriveled but beating heart of racism in this country whose every pump damages Obama's campaign. I'm not a big supporter of the "he should be winning by more" meme; it seems like a classic example of the media looking for anyway to spin electoral politics as bad for the Democrats. But I do think that a case can be made that the Obama campaign has not taken enough advantage of some favorable conditions. And whatever else is true, the McCain camp receives treatment from the campaign media that money can't buy.

In the main, though, if I was a Republican I think I'd be depressed by the continued dominance the Democrats enjoy over Hispanic voters. For all his backtracking and shameless pandering to his base on the immigration issue (like not voting for his own bill), McCain is about as palatable from an immigration standpoint as a Republican is going to be. I keep hearing about how Hispanic voters (and Mexican immigrants in particular) are "natural parts of the conservative block" and that, as they become a more affluent demographic, they'll start to vote Republican more often. That could still certainly happen, though I would hope to see better numbers even now-- I mean, look at this (via Yglesias and several others). Those are ugly numbers. I also wonder, too, about the consequences of these competing narratives for conservatism. Can conservatives rely on an ideological influx from rising affluence and still court the Sam's club voters? I'm not sure if they can, or at least if they undertake the project of Grand New Party in good faith, as Reihan and Ross certainly do.

I think the larger thing for me, though, is that "grand narrative" style political analysis only has limited salience for me. I mean when people talk about an era of conservative dominance stretching from 1994 to 2006 or from 1980 to 2006 or continuing to the present or whatever, or the "60s revolution" or whatever-- I understand the appeal in doing that, and I'm not denying that such things exist. But to me they just have little meaning in the specific context of an individual time. I'm much more interested in talking about this issue, this bill that's coming up, this latest immoral military adventure, this election, this Supreme court case. The wider tableau is interesting but largely uninformative.

I also find that such discussions tend to simply be an opportunity for either side to declare victory. Conservatives tend to say that the reason their ideological cupboard is bare is because they won-- immigration reform, crime, the cold war! Victory all around! And there has always been a triumphalist edge to liberalism, the notion that in the long term we win, and you can't fight change, etc.

I tend to think that the best way to confront that is to let people declare victory. Because who cares? Congratulations, conservatives! Atta boy. Now on the to the issues at hand.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Primaries are different than general elections.

I think that this perfectly illustrates what Yglesias was saying for months-- that because Hilary Clinton was beating Barack Obama in a certain demographic in a Democratic primary (or vice versa) in no way means that Obama will be unable to win that demographic in the general election.

Pax Krauthama

I'd really like to see Reihan Salam's reaction to things like this. Reihan is a vocal supporter of the Iraqi occupation. To his credit, his arguments tend to be more concerned with security than with democracy building. But how far to take it? Certainly, if we embark in the straightforwardly imperial mission that Krauthammer seems to advocate, we could increase security in many places. But does the appeal to security overwhelm our most basic principles of self-determination and democracy? I honestly wonder, in Reihan's case, since he has been such an enthusiastic supporter of a war for security.

We have been in the business of telling the world that the cause of democracy and the interests of America are identical for about seven years now. I wonder just how frank men like Krauthammer and his ilk would have us be in this new iteration? Would we keep the fig leaf of democracy promotion? Or would we accept the bare imperialist nature of our foreign policy project, and stop with that pretense? I very much doubt it. I don't think great powers ever have a particularly difficult time handling the double-think of wars of aggression and belief in democracy.

Since 9/11 the word imperialism has been, in mainstream political discourse, essentially off the table. Criticism of the Iraq war has been prevalent, of course-- but you just didn't drop the I-word, in part because the neoconservatives so zealously asserted their interest in democracy. But in the larger sense, I think this is again a facet of the fact that so many conservatives (even the heterodox) simply can't conceive of an American action as immoral or rapacious. So many start from the position that the American is the definition of the good, and then align their moral critique of the world in kind. What must remain is this simple fact: if we remain in Iraq when the people of Iraq oppose our doing so, we are nothing but an aggressive, occupying army, acting for our interests and access to resources. We might spruce things up with the odd appeal to stability; but then Kipling did, too. People are capable of recognizing that the British expression of a desire for stability could be honestly made, while still being at heart a justification for a naked resource grab. I wonder if people can hold those two thoughts in mind regarding Iraq.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Today in compassionate libertarianism

Wilkinson says "If your labor is worth less the $6.55 per hour, life is probably not easy for you."

If you're being paid less than $6.55 per hour for your labor, life is probably not easy for you. One way to help you out, of course, would be to establish a certain bare minimum that society believes any labor is worth. Then, you know, you wouldn't be being paid less than $6.55 an hour. (Which is still about $4 less than the minimum wage 40 years ago, adjusted to todays dollars.)

Or you can follow the Wilkinson Way, and just wait several millennia for capitalism to work itself out so you aren't poor anymore. True, you'll live in poverty, with great hardship and extreme sensitivity to economic bumps in the road-- unexpected car trouble, for example, can absolutely throw life into chaos, if you're poor. (And I should know). But, hey, you'll be working towards that great project of capitalism, and someday one of your ancestors will be able to look back and smile, knowing that your life was just a small step on the way to capitalist utopia. And, you know, things are tough all over.

fear teh terror

Jeff Goldberg continues to inflate the threat of terrorism, wildly. What really rankles is how fond he is of simply asserting that "we're gonna get nuked!", as though anyone really knows with certainty that this is going to happen. I really wonder why, to someone like Goldberg, Al Qaeda has chosen to wait 7 years to attack us again, if they really have the kind of capacity that he imagines. They're really just lying in wait, Jeff? Really? Look-- by the fourth plane, the knowledge that America was threatened by terrorism had eliminated Al Qaeda's most potent weapon. The use of jetliners as missiles was a massive security flaw, but one that has largely been closed; closed, thanks to reinforced cockpit doors, air marshals, and passengers who absolutely will not allow terrorists to use jets as weapons again.

Yes, there are many security holes in any country. And, yes, there are some spectacular attacks that could happen, like a nuclear bomb. But that's just another way to say that we are living real life in the real world. There are an infinite number of possible attacks out there, in America or anywhere. But what would Goldberg have us do? Stay in a state of catlike readiness? Build a bunker in our backyards? I've got this book I got as a gag gift, something like "One Hundred Ways to Survive the Y2K Crisis". Perhaps Goldberg would prefer if I used it as a manual for life.

I just think it's really irresponsible for anyone to assert that we are going to endure a nuclear attack, and that use that bald assertion as a way to appear serious; it's using the imagined murder of thousands, perhaps millions, to adopt the pose of "telling it like it is." The average person faces a far greater threat of being mauled by a dog tomorrow than of being nuked. But that doesn't mean they should walk around living their lives in fear.

What I really wonder is...why did the Atlantic hire Jeff Goldberg? Was it literally just to have his name on their masthead? He barely ever posts. He has poor opinions of blogs, bloggers and blogging. There's nothing like access to him on his blog, as there's no comment section and he never seems to respond to emails that aren't about Walmart or from raving anti-Semites. There is certainly plenty of Jeff Goldberg content out there for whoever wants to consume it (and I'm sure many do.) So why would the Atlantic hire a guy who brings very little content to their blog roll and has explicitly stated his low opinion of blogs? I don't get it.

Update: Freddie plagiarism watch?!?! It occurs to me that the "catlike readiness" joke was used on the Daily Show shortly after 9/11.... I felt when I wrote it that it's kind of a well know meme and that I wasn't ripping anybody off. But I figured I'd drop a note to say that no illegitimate appropriation was intended.

the hydrocodone analogy

I hit upon an analogy awhile back that I think it pretty good.

I've come to learn that drugs like Percocet, Percodan and Vicodin are closely related opiates, whose generic names are hydrocodone or oxycodone. The various names tend to differentiate not what the active ingredient and main pain killer is, but what over-the-counter pain killer the drug is cut with. Vicoprofen, as you might guess, is cut with ibuprofen. Lortab is combined with aspirin. Percocet has acetaminophen in it; Percodan has aspirin. And so on.

And why do these drugs have these less powerful oral analgesics combined with powerful, prescription-only narcotics? You might imagine that it's to increase the pain-killing ability. But when you've taken 10 milligrams of an oral opiate, you're not likely to even tell the difference made by a couple hundred milligrams of acetaminophen. The reason that these oral analgesics are added to these drugs is, strangely, because they have a low threshold for overdosing; by usual pharmaceutical standards, relatively low doses of these analgesics will cause stomach pain and injury. The idea is that, because of the added danger of overdosing on these oral analgesics, people will be less likely to use these oral opiates as drugs of abuse and less likely to develop an addiction (a major concern with any kind of opioid.)

Unfortunately, drug addicts tend to not be particularly concerned with long term problems or their health in general. And while oral opiates aren't particularly prevalent as drugs of abuse, it seems unlikely either from a deductive standpoint or from the data that a particularly high number of potential users are being diverted from abusing these pills because of the presence of these over-the-counter painkillers. Instead, it seems likely that drug abusers and opiate addicts simply ingest more than is safe and risk the damage to their stomach anyway-- thus increasing, rather than decreasing, the danger of abusing these drugs.

To me, this is also a perfect metaphor for the drug war: efforts at stopping drug use by increasing the penalties for use only serve to increase the harm done by using. Drug addicts often don't consider the consequences of their behavior, and it is clearly the case that harsh enforcement has not stopped drug use in this country. And though these harsh punishments may be good faith efforts at reducing use (and thus the negative consequences of use), they have the perverse effect of increasing the harm of use. It's true that damage to health, employment and social standing are negative consequences of drug use. But arrest and jail are very damaging to a person as well, and if we sincerely are undertaking opposition to drug use out of a desire to limit the damage done to drug addicts, how can we legitimately justify these harsh punishments? The first step in ending the destruction of the drug war is to stop harming people in order to save them.

the museum of Gaza

The New York Times demonstrates its deep, deep hatred for Israel in a short piece about a new museum in Gaza.

I wonder if there will ever be a time when we can straightforwardly denounce oppressive behavior by Israel, and call it for what it is, and not fear accusations of antisemitism or sympathy for terrorists. I'm sure the Times will take some heat, somewhere, for a simple story about the negative consequences of an annexed piece of land under siege. Many would invoke the terrorist history of Hamas, and, yes, it's an appalling story. As I have said before, I hate Hamas. But I don't believe that the people of Palestine should suffer for the crimes of their government, and I don't think that things like repressive curfews, blockades and military checkpoints can ever be the tools of righteous governments. At some point, you have to disconnect the consequences of that behavior from its antecedents, and whatever the crimes of Hamas, I ask what a Gazan 12 year old has done to endure this kind of sanction.

The path out, of course, is the path to peace, for Israel and Palestine. And that path remains what has been the international consensus for decades: a real, viable, self-governing state comprised of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and the Palestinian section of Jerusalem. I personally advocate a land bridge between the West Bank and Gaza (with equal territory ceded back to Israel). But it has to be a real state, with real autonomy, real control of its borders, waterways and airspace, and the ability to act in every way as a mature and independent nation.

It'll be strange for a city to be divided between two countries, but of course not unprecedented. I remain on this subject an incurable romantic; someday I see a city divided into two countries but joining two people, and in that cooperation a symbol of peace and shared prosperity, and a reminder of the difficulties of the past. It's a remote wish now but one I do believe will come to pass. As Gershom Gorenberg has said, we don't have the luxury of being pessimistic. It's cooperation or destruction, eventually. The peace process is not some pleasant fiction but a necessity, an arduous but ultimately inevitable step forward if the people of the region are ever going to escape their troubles.
hiring man said son, if it was up to me....

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

no TV

Via Megan, Tom Lee attacks people who say they have no TV.

I know this is supposed to be funny, but I think it is a good example of a depressing phenomenon. The cult of non-judgmentality has now grown to the point where you can't imply judgment of someone or something else. (Not that there's no judgmentality in our culture; far from it. But like everything else, it's unequally applied.) Lee is so certain that not owning a TV, or saying so, is an act of judgment that he has to preemptively erase that judgment. It isn't just wrong now that someone say "I don't like your conduct"; it's now apparently bad that someone else might partake in conduct different then your own, and in presenting an alternative to your conduct appear to be judging it. This is a culture of self-obsession taken to its logical conclusions. (Yes, people can be pretentious in saying that they own a TV. But I find this guys Twitter post, taken out of context, to be insufficient grounds for making that claim. And making fun of someone for not owning a TV would have been funny, oh, four years ago.)

Consider the constant claim "everyone cheats". On the face of it it's rather elementary bad faith; whether or not everyone does something makes little difference to the moral content of that actions. But it's also just wrong; not everyone cheats, though many do. I don't. I'm willing to bet that the number of people who are like me is higher than people tend to think. In the fact that I don't cheat there isn't implied judgment of those who do. I do, in fact, think it's wrong to cheat, and I'm judging those who do when I say so. But my judgment comes from saying so, not in refraining myself. The desire to say that everyone cheats not only comes from the notion that, through asserting that everyone does it, the immorality is dulled. It comes also from the desire to eliminate those who don't and eliminate the notion of alternative behavior.

economic conservatism and Iraq

An enduring puzzle, to me, is the strange tension between classical economic conservatism and support for the Iraq war. Despite the common notion that the Iraq war was only the product of the shadowy cabal known as neoconservatives, many mundane movement conservatives were and remain staunch supporters. (Think Jonah Goldberg.) Indeed I found there to be a strange glee among the orthodox Bushite right in the opportunity to expel the paleocons. Like the neoliberal's sneering contempt for his more orthodox brethren, the Limbaugh right had great derision for paleocons. As in many cases in life, in politics you are often most critical of those closest to you.

There is a basic ideological incongruity to this support of Iraqi occupation, I find. Doctrinaire conservatives, after all, object to liberal social programs on the grounds of fairness (the idea that it is wrong to take money from one person to support another person, even if they're suffering) and on grounds of self-reliance (the idea that a social safety net creates a "culture of dependency" and makes it more difficult for the poor to extricate themselves from poverty.)

Both of those concerns, it seems to me, are even more relevant in a discussion of Iraq. I can't understand why it is unfair to spend tax dollars on the poor people of inner city Detroit, but principled to spend tax dollars on the poor people of Iraq. This, after all, has been the most persistent and loud argument for a continued presence in Iraq; when Reihan Salam says that those opposed to the occupation have not arrived at a consensus that Iraqi lives are worth saving, this is what he means. The appeal to democracy and to security (which are close to the same thing) have the most salience to me, though I find the idea that the presence of an occupying army could ever coexist with democracy or self-determination to be plainly ludicrous. But these appeals are incompatible with standard Republican boilerplate on fairness (ala Grover Norquist) or self-reliance (ala Newt Gingrich). If it is unfair to fund a Head Start program for the people in the next county with tax dollars, I fail to see how it can possibly be fair to fund Iraqi dam building in Anbar with tax dollars. I am largely an internationalist, but even I believe that we should privilege helping those who live in our country when it comes to ways to spend our tax dollars. And, of course, most of these movement conservatives are straightforwardly nationalist and explicitly value American lives over those from other countries. On an emotional level, I don't understand how you can feel more of an obligation to people thousands of miles away than you do to those who live within your own country. And to the degree that taxes represent a social compact to fix whats broken in your own community, I really don't agree that a tax protester can find spending that money on Iraq more palatable than spending it at home.

The typical thing to say is "we broke Iraq, so we're responsible for it", which is a strange thing in context: are we really less responsible for the mess in West Baltimore? For Camden, New Jersey? Bridgeport, Connecticut? Centuries of colonialism, followed by decades of despotic rule, helped to break Iraq before we decided to further break it (in order to save it, of course!); decades of neglect and marginalization helped to break the American poor. Simply because these problems have distant and indeterminate antecedents does not remove our responsibility for one or the other. And if we are going to respond to either, let's respond to those working within our economy, in our system.

The argument to dependence too I find incompatible with support for the Iraqi occupation. Surely, creating a government that works under the imprimatur of ours, that is defended militarily by ours, that spends our tax dollars and depends on our infrastructure, diplomacy and intelligence-- surely this is a far greater threat of dependence, and a far harder one to extract ourselves from than one shared by individuals and families. Matt Yglesias has been resolute in describing this phenomenon. It is impossible to say that American presence is heloing the project of democracy in Iraq where, at every turn, that project is either co-opted or disrupted by American hands. The weak form of this argument is a simple appeal to governmental infantilism; the Iraqi government has no genuine need to legitimately rule on its own, so it won't develop its own ability to do so. The strong form, mine, is that a Vichy government simply can't be a real democracy. Who, when push comes to shove, has the power in Iraq? Not even the most strident apologist for American influence in Iraq would say that the Iraqis have the power to make policy that the Americans really, really don't like. (Well, Michael O'Hanlon might. That dude will say anything.)

The standard line might be to turn this question around on me; why does my heart bleed for the poor people of inner city Detroit and not Iraq? But the ace, it seems to me, resides in the simple fact that the Iraqis are not citizens of my country; and more importantly, while I would gladly pledge foreign aid to a young struggling country like Iraq, since I am at heart a liberal democrat in the basic sense, I can't support the occupation of Iraq; American influence is simply too great an impediment to Iraqi self rule, self-determination. When people counter the claim that for those pro-occupation, all roads lead to staying, they tend to say that for those anti-occupation, all roads lead to getting out. Which may be true; but that isn't a problem if, like me, you find occupying another country militarily an incredibly extreme and weird thing, and that the default state, if we believe in democracy and self-determination, should be to abandon military annexation. It's not a rule that's free from exception, but in general it's a great one, and worth fighting for.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

longing for Gordon Gecko

The Powerful Tonic responds to my sniping in the comments of an American Scene post. It's worth looking at in full.

I can see where you get the impression of my over-emphasizing money. I’m pushing back hard against what I see to be an extremely pernicious and inhumane error. It is my considered view that the value of wealth to almost all the manifold aspects of well-being is badly underestimated, and that the massive humanitarian consequences of economic growth and higher incomes are not sufficiently recognized (indeed, they are vehemently denied by what I think are ill-informed people). Money is a mere means. But it is an effective means for the achievement of many of the most important things in life — health, longevity, the fulfillment of potential, the opportunity to be creative, happiness. There is, in my view, no single thing that would increase human well-being more than rapidly increasing average incomes. The easiest way to do this is by massively liberalizing immigration restrictions in rich countries. The second easiest thing to do is to increase rates of economic growth in countries with already sound institutions through better regulatory and fiscal policy. I take these to be moral imperatives not because I fetishize money and growth for their own sake, but because alleviating suffering and promoting human flourishing are important to me, and there are no alternatives that promise a fraction of the humanitarian payoff.

So: I take back the idea that Wilkinson only cares about money. That was a careless thing for me to say. But I still have a lot of issues with this.

The first thing is that I just disagree with the magical capitalist line, that someday wealth production will largely end poverty. But that's only to say that Wilkinson and I disagree, which is no big thing. We were discussing the prevalence of money in Wilkinson's philosophy, not monetary policy or even the value of capitalism, and this is obviously a much bigger subject than can be hashed out here. I'm confident that Wilkinson does value many transcendent things, but believes that money is the means to achieve them.

The danger, of course, is losing the forest for the trees, and I do think that Wilkinson often falls into that trap. While my misapprehension of his views on capital acquisition was unfair, it was also genuine-- from reading his average blog post, I think you can certainly be forgiven for thinking that this is a guy who believes that value in life is reducible to cost. And we risk prioritizing wealth acquisition, in the pursuit of logistical access to transcendent things, in a way that damages our ability to realize those transcendent things. It really does hurt your ability to value friendship, beauty and virtue if your every thought is on the bottom line. It really is harder to focus on the emotional and moral content of your life if you make choices that privilege obtaining money over living life in agreement with your emotional and moral self.

You’re talking to a guy who chose to be an art major, then went to grad school in philosophy, and now works at a think tank. I think of my luxury to dabble in painting, philosophy, and politics, and to not need to care much about money, as a side-effect of the massive wealth of the society in which I live. I want others to have similar advantages. Forgive me if rich people who don’t think money matters drive me up a wall.

This, I have to say, bugs me. I assume that Wilkinson mentions being an art major and a philosophy guy to show his dedication to transcendent things, and good for him. But, look-- if there is value in those things, in spiritual and artistic and aesthetic things, than there isn't anything wrong in rich people arguing for them. Yes, I understand the frustration. It's easy to say that all you need is love if you have food in your belly. But that shouldn't disqualify the rich from saying that, in fact, they think that love is the most important aspect of life; if they're right, they're right regardless of their material wealth. I also find there to be a soft bigotry in Wilkinson's "feed them now, worry about their souls" later attitude. If we really do think that these transcendent things are worthwhile, and ultimately more important than material things, to treat them as pleasant irrelevancies for the poor is condescending.

But these are minor considerations, and they really just underscore the major division between myself and most libertarians. I must confess that I am given great pause by Wilkinson's confidence that, someday, capitalism will make us all so rich that the great majority of human suffering is erased. Wilkinson is hardly the worst at this, but I do find him on a continuum of "magical capitalist" libertarians, a vocal and growing group who feel that someday, capitalism will work its work with such efficiency that we will eliminate poverty by the continued production of wealth. This utopian libertarianism, it seems to me, has grown concurrent with the general ascendancy of libertarianism of the last decade.

I've been worried by this trend. It used to always be the libertarians who would tell you, quite straight-facedly, that yes, capitalism creates winners and losers, and that this is good and fair. It was the libertarians who would admit that cutting such and such social program would indeed create suffering for some people, but would argue that issues of fairness and efficiency would counterbalance that suffering. Now, though, it seems libertarianism is filled with people who have magical thinking about capitalism, who find within it the power to create security and abundance for almost everyone, if not to create a perfect society. Where the former rapacious capitalists were caustic and cynical, these utopian libertarians are idealistic and hopeful.

I like Wil Wilkinson a great deal more than I like the Gordon Geckos of the world. And I like Megan McArlde and Julian Sanchez and others more, too. But there was a kind of honesty to the arch-capitalists that I admired while abhorring their policy positions. I can't help but think that there is a kind of failure in this utopian libertarianism, a refusal to make a choice between unfettered markets and social justice. But then, that begs the question, and I don't know if capitalism will indeed open the heavens wide and rain down financial security. I guess we'll see.

coed naked yoga: not just for t-shirts anymore

James Poulos highlights an entry in the "Fatuous Yuppie Amusement" catalog that, indeed, seems like it could be an occasionally amusing Saturday Night Live sketch about fatuous yuppie amusement. (If a novelist named one of his characters "Isis Phoenix" I'd punch him in the face.)

You know folks, I know of an enterprise you can undertake with naked strangers that, while not usually transformative as an individual act, is as a facet of one's life quite transforming. It also has an elaborate disrobing ritual. And it (usually) doesn't cost you any money, unlike your average yoga class. It's called having sex, and while I've never found nirvana while doing it, I'm rather fond of it.

James hints at my major reason for distaste at this idea, saying it's another effort "to sanitize and sublimate animal nakedness". The idea behind all of this, of course, is that only people who are hung up on Puritanism couldn't enjoy watching a stranger bend himself into a pretzel, buffo. But the most honest feelings I get when reading that article is how prudish the whole enterprise is, how terrified of sexuality it is, how desperate to make shared nudity into yet another trip to the corner store. Stripping nudity of sexual power and sexual connotation isn't being free-spirited; it's robbing yourself of one of the few human situations left that has the power to remove ironic distance and create a sense of total immediacy. I reserve shared nudity for sex because I respect and enjoy sex, and I am not willing to give it away in a non-sexual context, and especially not to the woman who serves me my coffee in the morning or my mailman or Patricia from accounting.

There's too few places in the average life which are genuinely different, immediate and real. I can't understand the desire to regulate shared nudity to just another item to cross off the daily list, or the urge to voluntarily give up what little we have left of private space. If this is just surrogacy for sex, as I sometimes suspect, well-- there's something to be said, still, for the real thing.

the Machinist fails to improve.

Farhad Manjoo's "Machinist" replacement at Salon.com, Joe Hutsko, picks up right where Manjoo left off-- that is to say, writing the most embarrassingly over the top, sycophantic Apple fawning imaginable. And this being the Web, you have to get to really quite amazing levels of gurgling to reach those peaks. There were times with Manjoo when, in all honesty, I wondered-- no joke-- if this was really some kind of paid advertising for Apple. Seriously. I mean I at least honestly entertained the question. If you're a paid journalist and I have to wonder if that's the case, shouldn't that tell you something?

As far as Hutsko's enthusiasm for the eBook reader on the new iPhone goes, look, it's cool that they have that kind of functionality now. But Hutsko seems to elide right over the major complaints with reading an eBook on any LCD screen-- he doesn't seem to mention glare or viewing angles at all (the first great virtue of eInk) and he actually counts having a backlight as a strength. But backlit eReaders suffer because of the demands on the battery charge; eInk's second great virtue is that it costs no electricity for the page to remain visible. Hutsko's response to the drain on the already notoriously short-lived iPhone battery? " ...plugging in to the charger is advised if you don't want to awake to a pitch-black screen." Ah. I see! I'll just plug it in. Of course, if I'm going to be tethered to a cable, why not just read books on my desktop? What sense does it make to laud the benefits of a portable eBook reader if you acknowledge that you'll have to be stuck on a power cable because of the limited battery life?

Oh, and if you don't bother to read the whole post-- the reason that the iPhone is the best and worst eBook reader around? Why, because the other apps on the iPhone are just so awesome that you don't have enough time to read. Seriously, that's the twist. I can't make this shit up. I'm tempted to write to Joan Allen and ask her if she knows that a PR guy for Apple somehow infiltrated her online magazine.

To me the worst aspect of any kind of fandom is that it makes you a servant to the things you admire. People end up so devoted to expressing their love for a thing that the suspend their critical capacity, their discrimination and their judgment. And, well, non serviam-- I refuse to allow my affection for anything or anyone-- art, artist, gadget, politician, whatever-- and get to the point where I seem like an advertising agency. Plus, you eventually start to dull your own power to impress anyone. The more hyperbole you engage in, the less and less meaning your praise has. When you say "Seeing the eReader program icon on the iPhone's screen literally brought tears to my eyes"... what value can any kind of praise you write after that have? What would it mean to say something is "very good"? In a rhetoric where applications on a gadget move you to tears, words like "good" and "excellent" and "superb" lose any meaning whatsoever. And who values their critical eye so little that they would suspend it utterly for a corporation, a commodity, a gadget?

self parody watch

Kids these days! With the hippity-hop music and the girls in trousers!

Get off my lawn!

Monday, July 21, 2008

an open letter to America's waitstaff

Gentle waiter, noble waitress,

I have but a small favor to ask. Though perhaps unknown to you at this time, it is the case that in many restaurants, and particularly in chain restaurants, sodas and other soft drinks have a "free refill" policy. Under this strange policy, when one of your customers orders a soda, they are not just ordering that cup of soda, but the right to have that cup of soda refilled, again and again-- for free! I know this is perhaps shocking but it actually is the case.

Here's my request: please be careful when casually suggesting that one of your costumers have another soda. If you aren't careful, you can imply through your gentle encouragement that the next soda will, in fact, be free. That isn't such a big assumption on the part of your customer because, again, there are quite a few dining establishments where this extravagant "let me refill your cup with about 20 cents worth of syrup and carbonated water... for FREE" policy is the law of the land. So as you can see, it's important that you either say something that lets your devoted customer know that the refill will not in fact be free, or-- my preference-- let the customer decided himself if he is ready for another one.

Of course, I mean to make no accusation here. Just because your tip is dependent on the size of the bill, and you thus have financial incentive in misleading your unwitting customers about whether they'll pay for another soda or not, this in no way is proof that you in fact have been intentionally misleading them. And I'm sure there's no restaurant duplicitous enough to encourage you to be that misleading and in doing so enhance their bottom line.

All of this goes double if you work for a restaurant that is not just a chain but a "theme" restaurant whose conceit is that eating there is actually a jungle adventure, where I am forced (in the celebration of my twelve year old niece's birthday) to endure my "tour guide's" moronic scripted narration of our safari journey where my brain is repeatedly stabbed by the sound of Sassy the goddamn animatronic gorilla screetching and hooting every 7 minutes exactly, broken only by the warbling of your fellow wait staff as they sing a corporate birthday song set to the tune of "Pop Goes the Weasel". If you happen to work at a restaurant like that, take extra care not to say something like "can I bring you another soda", as the experience is already akin to crawling through hell, and anyways it would make sense for the refills to be free considering you already charged me $17.99 for a plate of tortilla chips and a diced onion, and Lord knows you aren't breaking the bank buying quality ingredients for my horrifically bad "Monsta Pasta".

all my love,

Freddie

the movement

Ta-Nehisi Coates and Megan McArdle discuss regrets about not opposing the war from the beginning.

This is a touchy subject with me, for which I have tangled and confused thoughts. I was, and at heart remain, an anti-war activist. For personal reasons (largely involving exhaustion, but for other reasons as well) I no longer am involved on a day-to-day basis, though I remain (as we say) in solidarity. Though this kind of credentialism will get you labeled a fascist (or worse, a Democrat) by many in the movement, it's fair to say that I was a leader in the movement, and I helped organize some large events. One, in particular, I believe is the largest in Connecticut state history, though I could be wrong. I still have the permit, framed-- not because I thought it was a great achievement but simply for how hard we had to fight to get that permit. (When local governments don't want something to happen, they won't throw up roadblocks and turn on the fire hoses. They'll just slowly smother you in their vast bureaucracy. There was a period of time when I was spending more time shuttling between Hartford's permitting department, the police department, the parks department, and various other accountability-free bureaucratic hells than I was at school or work.)

I guess the thing to say is that it's hard for people who weren't the subject of it to remember just how deep the ridicule and vitriol went for the activist class. You could be opposed to the war, though not without professional cost, if you did so in a way that demonstrated that you weren't one of them, if you constantly genuflected to the idea that the old kind of opposition, the America-hating left, the Vietnam-style anti-war crowd, was deeply, deeply Unserious at best and wicked at worst. We were pretty much reviled in the punditocracy. Slate.com and The New Republic reserved special contempt for us, but even bland fare like Time and Newsweek had little use for those whose opposition to the war compelled them to speak out in protest.

Then there was everything that happened, Mission Accomplished and Fallujah, Abu Ghraib and Al-Zarqawi, the Mahdi army and the Badr Brigade, ink-stained fingers, Ahmed Chalabi and Nouri Al-Maliki, the battles for Baghdad and the surge, 2003 becoming 2004 and 2005 and on. As the conventional wisdom changed, it became a truism that the war was a failure, and then unjust. But there was never a time, despite what you may have heard, when those who had mocked the anti-war movement repented. Oh, plenty of people adopted the movement's positions; and many people, ala Peter Beinart, publicly displayed remorse for having supported the war. But on a personal level, the sting of the run up to the war remained and remains, and even now there lingers an understanding that the unwashed anti-war left just isn't to be trusted.

A curious thing started happening. Awhile back Slate.com ran a piece questioning why there wasn't an anti-war movement "like there was in Vietnam". I almost spit out my gum. I wanted to reach my hands through the screen and throttle the words written there. Slate was a huge part of the movement to degrade and vilify the anti-war movement. They wasted no opportunity to portray the anti-war left as weak, blinded by hatred of our country, and deeply naive on matters of foreign policy and war. It just isn't true that there isn't an anti-war movement; it is in many ways bright and vibrant and far more thoughtful than previous ones. And the anti-war movement of the Vietnam war didn't begin nearly as early as the Iraq war one has-- indeed, the thought of opposing a war before we had entered it would have been crazy prior to Vietnam. But, in a certain sense, it's true. The anti-Iraq war movement is not what it could be. But to what degree is that the fault of people and publications like Slate and its writers? How can a publication help create such a noxious environment for a movement and then lament that movement's lack of relevance?

Michelle Goldberg is a typical case. Goldberg spent plenty of time attacking the antiwar movement when it first started up. And yet she opposed and opposes the war, she demonstrates opinions on Iraq close to the conventional wisdom within the movement and in almost every way was and is in closer solidarity to the "loony left" than the neoconservative mainstream of the time. This, I'm afraid, was a common thing. Because the cultural associations with anti-war protesters were and are so disqualifying to the political commentariat, because most in the movement lack the aggressive heterodoxy that is so in fashion, because they resemble anti-globalization protesters and carry all the negative connotations that does for the punditocracy, because they are the spiritual ancestors of the Vietnam hippies who, I'm told, destroyed leftism, the Democrats and America-- because they aren't the kind of people our chattering class takes seriously, whatever their ideas-- Michelle Goldberg and Peter Beinart and Jacob Weisberg and William Saletan and every other liberal commentator (neo or otherwise) stood opposed to them.

There are many, many problems with the movement. None of them, though, are the ones that are popularly conceived. I long for a time when simple questions of righteousness will be more attractive as a subject to the bloggers, editors and journalists than questions of culture. If you expel a movement of people because you don't like their associations, their music, their dress, their customs and idiosyncrasies-- and, yes, their dumb slogans and their certitude and their occasional self-absorption-- you risk losing sight of the fact that they may just have views congruent with your own.

Guilty Pleasures Meme

Tagged by MegArdle. The meme: what five songs in my iTunes are my guiltiest pleasures. I would probably say most embarrassing pleasures, because my feelings aren't really of an internal feeling of guilt but more a sense of "I hope nobody finds these in my music folder." That unnecessary complication out of the way, my choices:

  • The Sign, Ace of Base. Because it rules, and they're Scandinavian, and I've got a crush on Scandinavia. (Culturally, more than politically, actually.) Plus that key change, where she sings in a higher register on the last verse? (I saw the sign! That part.) Genius.
  • Put It On Me, Ja Rule. I can't believe I'm admitting to this. There are many, many people who would eject me from a moving car for liking this song. I just dig it, I don't know. And that video, where they're all working out in the prison yard... I get a little choked up.
  • All or Nothing, O-Town. In addition to being a band whose name is an incredibly lame way to reference Orlando, Florida, O-Town featured a white dude with dreadlocks, a song called "Liquid Dreams", and a guy named Ashley Parker Angel. Ashley Parker Angel is a name for that girl you used to stare at in Bio II, not a teen heartthrob.
  • How Bizarre, OMC. Although this is the kind of song that makes me reject the whole "guilty pleasure" concept. It's great! It's a pop masterpiece. It's by a Maori gang banger, if memory serves. I'm supposed to feel guilty about liking it? Fuck you, society, and your expectations.
  • Breaking the Habit, Linkin Park. I have no defense. Truly.

giving the elephant a goddamn peanut

Ross Douthat gives the elephant a goddamn peanut.

What I wonder is, does Douthat have any idea what it must be like to be black and attend a prestigious university? For everyone around you to assume that you were the beneficiary of special treatment? For people to assume that you must be undeserving? I don't ask that in an "I'm offended" sense, or just to express judgment. I just genuinely think that it would behoove Ross to ask himself about the potentially ugly consequences of this kind of thinking.

I have conflicted feelings concerning affirmative action, though I'm generally in favor. But I do think an unfortunate byproduct of it is this kind of thinking, that anyone who is favored must be some space-hogging charity case. But let's be clear-- it's the people making the assumption that anyone black at a top school must be there because of racial tokenism who need to take care to not paint one with the brush of all. And though thinking someone who's black must only be at an Ivy because of affirmative action isn't the same as assuming someone isn't smart or dedicated because he or she is black... those two thoughts are at least cousins, and we should go carefully in their direction.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Watchmen

The Watchmen trailer is out. I'm sorry to say that I've never been a fan of Watchmen the comic. To me, it's the classic example of enhanced reputation from reduced expectations. People don't expect much from comics, particularly maturity or narrative complexity; so when a comic makes feints towards those things, people tend to compliment the comic-- regardless of whether the comic actually pulls those things off intelligently or effectively.

Many people have long derided the "grim and gritty" trend of the '90s, where comics creators tried to combat the childish associations of comics by making their stories absurdly hard-boiled, with big guns and guys with stubble and hard men and clenched dialogue... often to ridiculous effect. But what people tend to ridicule in Youngblood or X-force or similar fare, they laud in Watchmen- which I think is a mistake. Watchmen's style isn't any more effectively mature than those titles, and worse, it has a lot more pretension and self-regard than those books do. It's relentlessly bleak narrative is like that of many dramatists and movie makers-- it wrongly believes that anything needlessly downcast and depressing must be a work of High Art. And you can count me among those who find the final plot device of the series, the *SPOILER* faked alien attack thing both unconvincing and cliched. YMMV, of course.

One aspect of the comic that I'm unrepentantly sickened by is the relationship between two of the characters-- we learn that a woman raped by her teammate is... secretly in love with him for it. Now, I'm not a particularly sensitive feminist. But I find the suggestion that rape could be an act of love, or that it could create feelings of love, or even that love could survive a sexual assault-- that's just disgusting, and to use such a trope to make a cheap gesture in the direction of "adult themes", or whatever the fuck, is unforgivable to me.

Update: It saddens me to live in a world where the guy who made 300 can be regarded as a "visionary director".

Update 2: Cole Porter asks if I dislike comics in general or just Watchmen. Should have been more clear-- there are many comics I love . My absolute favorite comic book ever was the Electra:Assassin limited series, which I think is really magnificent. I also dig Sandman, some Batman, and assorted other. I do tend to go for the pretentious lit-kid variety of comic books, but then I'm pretentious and a lit-kid. I only ever read comics in graphic novel form; I'm not a snob, I just don't like having to wait to read entire storylines.

baby penguin power

A post by hilzoy at the Daily Dish I think connects with my earlier thoughts on justifications of environmentalism. Again, I think that you can both acknowledge that there is no appeal to "the natural" that compels us to defend baby penguins and still strenuously defend the notion that we should try to prevent baby penguins from dying as a result of climate change. And while I think that we should be convinced as an issue of environmentalism that a linchpin insect species deserves equal protection compared to baby penguins or pandas, the fact that people don't operate that way doesn't in any meaningful way undercut the project of environmentalism. It just reminds us again that environmental issues are important because of human concerns, not because of some extra-human appeal to the natural order or similar concepts.

conditions on the ground

For months pro-war scolds have been telling us that we should be receptive to evolving "conditions on the ground". The question is, what if the conditions on the ground involve Iraqi support for a timetable?

It's always a breathtaking thing, watching the ponderous liberal conventional wisdom start to turn. The success of the surge-- that is, the tendency for areas that have been successfully ethnically cleansed to become less dangerous-- has begun such a shift, slow, imperceptible at first but gathering steam. Now, though, it appears the Iraqis, so enormously burdened by low expectations, are taking control of their own country and their own destiny and beginning the difficult task of asking an occupying army to leave. Let me make my prediction plain: there are many who, in the face of an Iraqi government asking for self-determination and independence (if this Vichy government is in fact permitted to do that by the American occupation), will drop their long-held saws about democracy and freedom and resist, saying it's too early, it's too soon, we need to stay a few more years, the Iraqis don't know what they're saying, they aren't quite a mature enough society to realize the error of their ways.... Then, I think, the real nature of the American presence will be revealed, although for those who begin from the assumption of American righteousness, there will always be justification for whatever we do.

I am, of course, an irredeemable ultra-leftist, an America-hater, etc. etc. But I tell you it truly baffles me that people are so willing to I think the basic failing is the belief that the descent into authoritarianism is some kind of hard turn, as though some rapacious imperialist twirls his mustache and decides, dammit, we'll be an empire after all. But the road to empire is often paved with humanitarian intentions, and the fact is that the soft racism and bigotry of American paternalism is in great danger of devolving finally into simple domination of another country and people. Love of country is something I can understand, though I don't often share it. But credulity for one's country, an uncritical and unquestioning acceptance of the righteousness of the actions of one's country, is never anything but destructive.

There is no bright line distinction between paternalism and authoritarianism. If the Iraqis want us to leave and we refuse, what possible claim could we ever have to fostering democracy? The past years have seen the occupation of Iraq become quite unpopular. But the last year or two has seen a subtler shift, into an acceptance of the idea that the architects of the Iraqi war are merely incompetent do-gooders, men with the best of intentions who, in an attempt to do something righteous, created chaos. I don't quite agree. But what I really don't agree with is the notion that this has any difference. If we act in Iraq contrary to the Iraqi people's wishes, however pure our intentions, the meticulously constructed defense of democracy building and humanitarian action crumbles into nothing.

Friday, July 18, 2008

doing the Sailer dance

Daniel Larison dances the night away.

Steve Sailer is an interesting figure in the blogging world, and particularly in the comments section of the Atlantic blogs. Like a hereditarian ghost, Sailer wheels in and out of the comments of Yglesias and Douthat, drops a few race science bon mots, and skeedaddles out again. He is a one-issue kind of guy. Sailer occasionally talks about unions or Israel in comments, and his blog is fairly well-ranging. But in the comments sections of the blogs I read, what Sailer really likes to talk about is black people and Mexicans, and the various vagaries that the country endures because of their predilection to stupidity and criminality. This is, I think it's fair to say, a singular obsession of Sailer's. I can't tell you how many times I've read a post by some blogger that has little to nothing to do with race, and found a comment by Sailer that takes some incredibly twisted rhetorical path to include the various failings of black people and Hispanics. For Sailer all roads, it seems, lead to "race realism."

Make no mistake: Sailer unapologetically and explicitly believes that black and certain Hispanic people are genetically predisposed to lower intelligence and higher aggression and criminality. He is quite open about this; in fact, he is positively logorrheic on the subject.

On the substance of the issue, I disagree with Sailer and his intellectual comrades. But I disagree with many on many things. What rankles about Sailer, and about hereditarians in general, is how immensely important their pose is, how meticulously they've crafted their stance to at once embrace a noxious ideology but simultaneously abdicate any blame for those beliefs. Sailer's comments often take the same form: that he and his brethren are lonely, principled crusaders who, in the face of enormous bias and hostile reception, press on in service of the truth. Like Dr. Stockmann in the face of his angry neighbors, Sailer and his comrades face fierce social and public reprisals, and yet continue to righteously pursue the truth. And it should go without saying that Sailer would never wish a predisposition for stupidity and aggression on black people, oh, heavens, no. Sailer weeps for the black and Hispanic people he has such low regard far, he does. But a sad truth is still the truth, and though he would do anything in his power to change it, he cannot.

This intellectual framework undergirds the hereditarian movement. William Saletan's controversial series in Slate is a seminal moment in this tradition; at every turn, Saletan asserted his deep emotional pain at having to report these sad facts. A truly breathtaking example of self-aggrandizement masked as self-flagellation, Saletan's piece worked so hard to achieve a certain martyr air I half expected him to simply write "Message: I'm wounded here, people." Sailer has perfected this technique, made it his own. The only thing that rivals his iron-clad belief in race science is his own pain at it being so.

All of this, of course, is bullshit. It is a way to buttress an empirical and philosophical position with the language of martyrdom, a way to create a self-defending narrative that at once attacks large groups of people and simultaneously appropriates their grief at being attacked. In short, it is an act of leverage; repeat the cries of marginalization and intellectual oppression long enough, and the idea of it overwhelms everything else, till only the politics of aggrievement-- so mocked when undertaken by racial minorities, or women, or homosexuals-- remains.

I think it's for this reason, this meticulously crafted, rigorously disciplined pose, that Sailer has engendered such a weirdly affectionate attitude from liberal commenters. Whenever Sailer comes up, there are always leftist commenters who, while they take great pains to distance themselves from Sailers views, will tell you that Sailer's not a bad guy, that he is genuinely tortured in what he says, and (this more than anything else) that he certainly has no racial animus in his heart, no actual anger or resentment towards black or Hispanic people. Oh, no-- whatever thoughts he may have on the natural ability of racial minorities, or on their genetic predispositions, Sailer wishes them no ill. Oh, he'd uproot decades of legislation and litigation designed to increase racial justice, but most are sure that he doesn't dislike them.

I must confess I have never quite understood this reasoning. Whether or not Sailer or any other hereditarian has good old fashioned racial hatred in his heart is remarkably irrelevant to me. I could really care less, to be honest with you, what the average person feels about black people. What I care about is how they act towards black people and other minorities. I care what public policy they endorse regarding race and racial justice. When the Saletan series was lighting the web on fire, bloggers fell all over themselves-- left, right, and center-- to say that we needed a new definition of racism, that simply talking about racial difference had to be separated from knee-jerk thoughts of racism. I don't know; I'd like to think that I'm relatively open-minded. And yet I absolutely struggle to conceive of a concept of racism that doesn't include "I think the large majority of black people are stupid" within it. If racism is only and always a matter of slurs and burning crosses, our opposition to it is a weak brew indeed.

I am not in the habit of mind-reading and I won't try to comment on what Sailer "really believes". I certainly believe that Sailer believes that he bears no ill will towards black people, whatever his opinion of their intelligence. But his single-mindedness and his tenacity when it comes to finding the underpinnings of every American vice within our multi-racial makeup is very disturbing. I have tried many times, in the comments section of Matt Yglesias's blog, to follow his thinking down the logical rabbit hole to its logical ends. But he often demurs. I can't coax him to comment on many of the natural consequences of thinking that black people have a statistically huge likelihood (according to his perspective) of being simply mentally unfit for the standard American economic and educational life. Despite his often repeated admonition that stereotypes are stereotypes because they are true, I can't get him to say whether he thinks that Jews are wicked, greedy or conniving. And I can't get an answer as to why a man whose thoughts on racial minorities are so extreme and so all-encompassing seems to have such modest policy proposals in the face of them. I don't doubt that Sailer believes what he says he does and prefers the policy prescriptions he says he does. But there is a disconnect between the size of his rhetoric and the size of his proposals, and I wonder if it is a matter of Sailer underestimating what it would take to counter the enormous problems he says we face. Sailer's lack of classic ugly race-hating racism is important and valuable. But it is most assuredly besides the point.

And this disconnect leads to this strange dualism that I have often encountered. This is the Sailer dance, though it isn't restricted solely to Sailer, who is just a particularly vocal proponent of race science. It is the strange tendency of hereditarians to be at once incredibly open and frank and yet on some subjects withdrawn. People who quite boldly pronounce on taboo subjects (and seem to quite enjoy doing so) suddenly become shrinking violets in the face of certain questions that arise pragmatically in response to their stated opinions on race science. This combination of openness and coyness is a strange thing to encounter. In truth, I don't think this is because hereditarians are afraid to say what they "really think" but instead are afraid to consider the potentially horrific consequences of making sweeping claims about the fitness of entire races.

But what of this horrible oppression that Larison and Douthat and others have identified, this vast conspiracy to denigrate Steve Sailer? What of his many trials and tribulations at the hands of a leftist orthodoxy caught in the grip of politically correct madness? Yes, it's true, I do in some ways exclude Sailer from my intellectual framework in a way that I don't, say, Kathryn Jean Lopez, despite my vast differences with her. I continue to read him, I continue to react to what he says, and I take care to engage with the content of his arguments when I do. But, yes, I don't feel on a simple personal level entirely the same way towards him as I do other opponents. And it is true that Sailer is in many ways excluded from respectability by many in the blogosphere.

And yet what does that mean? It means that Sailer is judged because of the things he says. Is that such a horrible kind of marginalization? Isn't that, in fact, the basic currency of any public discourse? The ways that Sailer suffers from his opinions are oblique and ephemeral. He still has a blog, rather well read. He publishes for a major American magazine. He is linked to and cited approvingly by thoroughly mainstream and popular journalists, pundits and bloggers. He makes a living as a public intellectual. Oppression should be made of stronger stuff. No one, to my knowledge, is calling for Sailer to be silenced. No one advocates that he be dragged off to the Gulag. They merely insist, as I do, that we actually interrogate the content of his work and hold him accountable for his views. He is hardly the only voice on the Internet to be somewhat marginalized. Noam Chomsky, whose crime is a critical and incredulous appraisal of American foreign policy, has been similarly banished from the Serious blogosphere. Indeed, I can't imagine a major magazine's blogger stable linking approvingly to him with anything like the frequency with which Sailer is linked to. Appearing to hew too closely to Chomsky would be to reveal oneself to be one of them, the dirty hippies, the unwashed America haters who even those with books critical of unilateralism and American foreign policy must, for professional reasons, take care to distance themselves from. No such powerful cloud of exclusion surrounds Sailer, or so it seems. Indeed, quoting him appears to create a certain kind of conservative cache.

Larison falls into an old trap, in discussing Sailer. Like many people, particularly those who occupy ideological fringes (as the paleocons like Larison do), he assumes that a position that is controversial must be principled. Because Sailer is courageous in challenging a conventional wisdom-- and he is-- that wisdom must be wrong. Because so many of those mushy-headed liberals are quite certain that racism is a pernicious evil, a uniquely damaging and spiritually deadening social disease, there must be something to this race science, after all. This is the consequence of a public discourse that privileges anti-liberal contrarianism above all things, one which imagines that an idea's value is in direct proportion to its distance from liberal orthodoxy, one which conceives of all received wisdoms regarding equality and racial justice as just more leftist dogma. And it is precisely why all the people lauding William Saletan for his courage were so aggravating. Those who are the beneficiaries of ideological protectionism have no claims to courage.

It is not oppression to ask people to accept the social and professional consequences of what they believe. I don't know, particularly, where Douthat or Larison stand on race science and hereditarianism, nor do I suggest that they should be thrown out of respectability or marginalized for quoting him or defending him. But I do believe that their certainty that Sailer has been unfairly maligned has more to do with culture than with rationality. No one can serve two masters; you can't pursue the truth when that concern is overwhelmed with unmasking liberal belief as fraudulent and discriminating. Steve Sailer's views have political and moral content; he expresses them, to his credit, straightforwardly and openly, for the most part. What strange definition of respect would allow for this openness of opinion but shield it from vigorous dissent?

tough golfers

Actually, Jack, young golfers are soft because they're golfers.

I'm not one to begrudge someone their favorite past time, though there are environmental issues with golf that concern me. And I'll even argue that golf is in fact a sport, which some people deny. But if you're straight-facedly saying that golfers aren't as tough as they used to be, I'm not quite sure what to tell you. Pebble Beach is not exactly Soldier Field in January.

Update: It should be noted that Nicklaus is so tough he arrived at the British Open by private jet.

little steps

Something's been on my mind the past few days.

A few days ago it was a gorgeous July evening, the kind that springs up every once in awhile and makes the usual unrelenting heat a bit more bearable. A steady breeze was up, and the sun was low in the sky, and it was pretty close to perfect. My hometown lies along a river, and there's a park down against it. It was so nice after work I went for a walk along the river.

As I walked down to a more secluded spot, I came upon two men sitting on a bench. They were middle aged and still dressed in their uniforms from work. And by the smell, they were obviously smoking marijuana. As I approached they smiled but quickly hid their joint; they didn't seem mad, at all, just embarrassed, and a little scared. I just smiled back and kept walking.

It's taken me a little time to decode this, but I've been thinking for awhile about just how mad the whole thing made me-- how ridiculous it is that two grown adults should be afraid of encountering a stranger because they're sharing some marijuana.

I don't smoke marijuana, or do any other drugs; at this point I barely drink. But it's absurd that two adults, after a long day of work, can't enjoy smoking something together after work in a public park, when they aren't harassing or bothering anyone else. And it's really absurd that they can't even legally do so in the privacy of their home. As in, utterly, entirely absurd.

What really sticks with me is that quick moment of fear, apprehension and embarrassment that they conveyed, This feeling, the feeling of being in caught in something, this unconscious guilt, is one that I'm afraid I see more and more of in the future. People tend to laugh off stories like this. They see them as isolated, unimportant incidents, unconnected to any larger loss of liberty. But being arrested for dancing at the Jefferson memorial, like being arrested for carrying a sign that says "McCain=Bush", is not merely a minor legal matter, just like that sense of fear and guilt associated with doing something you do not feel is wrong is not a trivial emotion. These things are part of a growing sense of constraint, a gradual and near-invisible erosion of liberty, where the burden moves from the government (to prove they have just cause to restrict something) to the people (to prove they have some compelling reason to have the right to do something). Every time a protester is arrested and then released without charge, or removed from a public area without cause, or in any other way prevented from expressing him or herself without cause, a small but real part of the American character is further erased.

I've said before that the loss of freedom in American isn't likely to come from tanks rolling down Main Street. It's much more likely to come from the gradual, perhaps imperceptible march of increasing government reach and power, and shrinking private space. It's the Pink Police state, the decency laws, the crackdowns on loitering and vagrancy, the little steps taken every day to take a little bigger piece of the people's right to self-determine.