Monday, November 15, 2010

I Could've Been an Assenisipian

Among Thomas Jefferson's unfortunately neglected ideas are a series of names he proposed for states to be founded in the then-Northwest Territories, which is to say, the lands between the Appalachians and the Mississippi. The New York Times discussed these names in an 1889 article. Especially relevant is the proposed name of the region that is now northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin: Assenisipia, after the Assenisipi (or, as it is known to the white man, the Rock River). Why, the name is positively pulchritudinous, if I do say so myself. I resolve to write the federal government to propose the breakup of the states of Illinois and Wisconsin so that Jefferson's original intention may be honored.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Moar Historical Attack Ads

So, this video is almost as funny as the Kant video below. Some of the names the Founders called one another. . . a more enterprising blogger might write a post comparing the characteristics that people in their time thought disqualified a candidate for election to those that disqualify candidates today. I, for one, don't retreat from the belief that a man raised by a half-squaw on hoe cakes has any place in the halls of American power.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Kant: Wrong for America

Here, in this season of political ads, it is only fair to consider the philosophers as well:

Thursday, October 7, 2010

How Free Is Free Speech?

As you may be aware, the universally-despised nutcases from the Westboro Baptist Church are defending their right to free speech before the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, over at FPR, Mr Fox suggests that maybe we should restrict this particular sort of free speech, even though we all admit that the only harm it causes is to make some people who are already having a bad day — viz., the bereaved family of a dead soldier — have a rather worse day.

It's true that I've always felt a bit uncomfortable around die-hard 1st-Amendment supporters; perhaps that's because I've never felt the inclination to express anything that anybody would care to stop me from saying. But at the same time, it seems a bit ominous to restrict the exercise of free speech when it has no deleterious effect on anybody's well-being (except feelings, which the law rarely takes into account), or even on anyone's reputation (as libel and slander might).

Ought we to fight to the death — like Voltaire is said to have proposed — for the right of these deluded, hateful people to say what they want? Or are some things simply not worth fighting for?

Monday, September 13, 2010

Founding Father Insults, Vol. 2

Collected in the Philadelphia "Port-folio" in 1802, and is cited as having been written by "THE SAGE OF MONTECELLO." To the tune of "Yankee Doodle," if you will.

Et etiam fusco grata colore Venus. - Ovid

Of all the damsels
on the green,
On mountain, or in valley
A lass so luscious ne'er was sen
As Monticellian Sally.

Yankee doodle, whose the noodle?
What wife were half so handy?
To breed a flock, of slave for stock,
A blackamoor's the dandy.

Search every town and city through,
Search market, street a
nd alley;
No dame at dusk shall meet your view,
So yielding as my Sally.
Yankee doodle, &c.

When press'd by loads of state affairs,
I seek to sport and dally,
The sweetest solace of my cares
Is in the lap of Sally.
Yankee doodle, &c.

Let Yankee parsons preach their worst—
Let tory Whittling's rally!
You men of morals! and be curst,
You would snap like sharks for Sally. *
Yankee doodle, &c.

She's black you tell me—grant she be—

Must colour always tally?
Black is love's proper hue for me—
And white's the hue for Sally.
Yankee doodle, &c.

What though she by the glands secretes;
Must I stand stil-I shall-I?
Tuck'd up between a pair of sheets
There's no perfume like Sally

Yankee doodle, &c.

You call her slave—and pray were slaves
Made only for the galley?
Try for yourselves, ye witless knaves—
Take each to be your Sally.

Yankee doodle, whose the noodle?
Wine's vapid, tope me brandy—
For I still find to breed my kind
A negro-wench the dandy!


* It appears that neither of the lovers agree with our Milton, who represents the angel Raphael, upon being asked the question whether t
he Heavenly Spirits love! answering

With a smile that glow'd
Celestial rosy RED, love's proper hue.

But de gustibus non disputandem—The Montecellian lovers are not altogether angels.

† They (the blacks) secrete less by the kidnies, and more by the glands of the skin, which gives them a very strong and disagreeable odor.

Seems the tea-baggers are in good historical company, no? For reference purposes, though, all of the italicizations are from the original text, if you can believe it — though, the image was not. It certainly makes Jon Stewart's political commentary seem more tame.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Alaskans sing out

This isn't as funny as it could've been -- which is saying something for a combination Gilbert-and-Sullivan-anti-Sarah-Palin-attack-ad.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Singing through countless ages

As if we needed any more reasons to loathe the voice of Christians crying out for the realization of their religious fervor (and Catholics, I mean you, too) the Christian (and Jewish, if you can believe it) reaction to xenophobically misnomered 'Ground Zero Mosque' is doing it's best to give us one.

Setting aside the question of the mosque's propriety, constitutionality, sensitivity, relevance, etc., isn't it enough for Christians to know that their detractors will burn in an everlasting holocaust of pain and despair? I can't imagine that oppressing them for the blink of time that is their earthly existence is going to have much of an effect.

But then again, I'm not this guy.

Founding Fathers Insults, Vol. 1

John Adams, regarding Thomas Paine's The Age of Reason:
I am willing you should call this the Age of Frivolity, as you do, and would not object if you had named it the Age of Folly, Vice, Frenzy, Brutality, Daemons, Bonaparte, Tom Paine, or the Age of the Burning Brand from the Bottomless Pit, or anything but the Age of Reason. I know not whether any man in the world has had more influence on its inhabitants or affairs or the last thirty years than Tom Paine. There can no severer satyr on the age. For such a mongrel between pig and puppy, begotten by a wild boar on a bitch wolf, never before in any age of the world was suffered by the poltroonery of mankind, to run through such a career of mischief. Call it then the Age of Paine.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Losing the use of our feet

Fear not: this isn't a post running down the automobile. It's one about how to use them more efficiently. 'Pologies, Mr Berry.

Think about the last time you drove down a major thoroughfare (say, a road with four+ lanes). In the words of "Tommy Boy," you're driving along and you're driving along, and lo, you and eight-ten other cars have to stop suddenly at a stoplit (or a stop signed) intersection to let perhaps one or two cars out onto the thoroughfare. While one or two such stops in a trip might be more or less expected, my suspicion (evinced largely by anecdotal and personal experience) is that numerous such stops are what precipitate road rage and, in general, traffic anxiety. Indeed, city and especially suburban driving can be especially frustrating because of the prevalence of such intersections along widely used roads.

Now, it's clear that such stopping and going introduces a significant inefficiency into travel plans bedeviled by such intersections. To illustrate, consider progress along your car's route in two respects: the route your car actually takes and the route it would take if there were no stoplights or signs or what have you. Call the first route the "actual route," and the second the "ideal route." The degree that your actual route approaches your ideal route (as with most things) might be considered the degree to which your travel is efficient. Thus, the most efficient travel will be that which is least encumbered by stopping, and the most inefficient travel will be that which is most encumbered by stopping.

So, here's the more or less normative claim: at least one responsibility of traffic authority is maximizing travel efficiency. Thus, considered in light of that one responsibility, traffic authorities ought to eliminating as much stopping as possible; or put differently, traffic authorities ought to increase the relative amount of "going."

Given these preliminaries, it's pretty obvious that (at least) stop lights at the intersections of major roads and non-major roads (say, at a four lane road and the entrance to any private business, like a Wal-Mart, Target, or shopping center) are enormously inefficient and represent an abrogation of the traffic authorities responsibilities.

As bad as the inefficiency is, though, there's another way of putting this problem that ought to burn the biscuits of most semi-liberal anti-Wal-Mart types. If people had to wait significant periods of time when leaving their local big box store (or making a left-hand turn in to them, for that matter) the added time might well discourage them from patronizing that establishment. So, people who frequent large shopping centers and other businesses that have such stop lights slowing down traffic are going to be willing to suffer the extra time added to their schedules, because they know that on some future occasion, they'll be the benefactors of the inefficiency. In other words, the inefficiency is a sort of tax they're willing to pay because they know they'll benefit from the tax eventually.

I see two interesting corollaries of that traffic inefficiency tax.
  • First, even a general willingness to pay the tax doesn't reduce the aggregate inefficiency. Now, this is an empirical question that (obviously) I haven't tested. But anecdotally, I submit that very seldom is it the case that the number of people waiting at the minor thoroughfare will outnumber those inconvenienced by the stop at the major thoroughfare. This seems right, for one, because if it were often the case that more people used the minor than major thoroughfare, the minor thoroughfare wouldn't be the minor one; and for two, even when more people are inconvenienced at the minor thoroughfare, we can account for this with sensored traffic lights that detect the number of cars waiting at the minor stop.

  • Second, by supporting these sorts of inefficiencies with our tax dollars, we're usually offering tacit (but definitely effective) public support for the sorts of places where one often finds such stoplights. In my experience, these are usually large shopping locations and housing developments in rural locales. Think about these sorts of housing developments: would wealthy suburbanites so willingly flee the suburbs to more far-flung towns, if they knew their already considerable commutes would often be lengthened considerably by significant waits just trying to get out of their housing developments and onto the road? Many might, but my guess is that at least some wouldn't.
And further along these lines, how often does one notice such lights at the entrances to our more community-oriented and local establishments? By making it more difficult to enter and exit such places (and additionally, by making it easier to enter and exit the competition) our communities make it that much harder for non-ideologues to discover the places about which the rest of us are ideological.

All of that is just to say that there are very small but very effective ways that our communities tend to encourage the sorts behavior that are, themselves, anathema to community. Why make it easier to shop at businesses whose owners (and, often, employees) have no interest in the health of the place? Why make it easier for the same sorts of people to turn our farms into further sprawl? And not only that, free marketeers (read: Republicans) ought to stand in the way of these sorts of measures, since the measures create an artificial demand for living and shopping in these locations.

Do you have experiences like this, or am I preaching to an empty choir here?

Friday, July 2, 2010

I Maintain My Objection to Popular Things

Theodore Dalrymple, besides having a spectacular name, is quite right about soccer (er, football). Towards the end of his entirely reasonable article on snobbery, he sums up my thoughts:
On the subject of football, I am a snob. I do not detest the game as such, for I accept that it can be played with skill and achieve a kind of beauty, but rather the excessive importance attached to it by millions and hundreds of millions of my fellow beings. Try as I might to expunge the thought from my mind that this enthusiasm is a manifestation of human stupidity, I cannot.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Context Sensitive

Living in DeKalb keeps me, alas, on the move in car rides of pretty appreciable distances. While one might rightly loath such a loathsome fact about my present condition, it's chief benefit has been the opportunity it affords me to listen to books on tape (that is, CD) that I might not otherwise have had time or excuse to pick up. In the last two-ish months, I've listened to Richard Russo's Empire Falls and Bridge of Sighs, to Joseph Ellis great biography of Washington, His Excellency, and as well to John Adams, McCullough's sort of meandering titular biography.

I'll leave for another time discussion of the changed experiences of listening to rather than reading a book. What I want to note now is a bit of appreciation I've gained for just how intriguing were times in which the American Founders lived--and how little most contemporary Americans probably really know of them.

For instance, I'd be interested in a poll that asked people to correctly determine what claim to fame made John Adams a shoe-in for the first Vice-President of the United States. I can say with some shame that I had no knowledge of Adams' meeting with the British Admiral Howe (or that Howe-the-Elder's [sic] younger brother was a general who commanded the British ground force before Cornwallis) that very nearly brought a peaceful end to the Revolution not one year after its inception; or of his work in France during the Revolution; or of the praise he received for securing two multi-million dollar Dutch loans, despite British threats against the Dutch navy; or that he served as the first American Ambassador to England, just a few months after the war ended.

Or that despite the historical attention paid to the animosity between Jefferson and Adams, until Adams became Vice-President, the two had been rather close friends. Jefferson and Adams had vacationed together while Adams was Ambassador to England and Jefferson to France. Abigail and Jefferson had a lengthy (if, toward the end, very terse) correspondence. Abigail had, while in England with John, cared for Jefferson's daughter for several months. And John Quincy Adams wrote of many a formative hour spent in the company of Thomas Jefferson, when both families resided in Paris.

No, the real hatred between revolutionaries was between Alexander Hamilton (Federalist) and Jefferson and James Madison (Republicans). I recommend the Adams and especially Washington biographies in large part because of the number of hilarious insults it unearths with respect to this particular hatred. For instance, in a letter to Washington after Jefferson had retired as Secretary of State and Hamilton remained Secretary of the Treasury, Jefferson (ever the xenophobe) writes of Hamilton:
"I will not suffer my retirement to be clouded by the slanders of a man whose history, from the moment at which history can stoop to notice him, is a tissue of machinations against the liberty of the country which has not only received and given him bread, but heaped its honors on his head."
In another letter, this time to Madison, Jefferson writes of a speech Washington gave before leading American forces against the Whiskey Rebels. The speech contained "a parcel of shreds of stuff from Aesop's fables, and Tom Thumb," which sufficed to convince Jefferson that that speech had been written by Hamilton. Snap!

To really get a grip on that hatred, it's hard to forget that one of Jefferson's closest allies and the Vice-President of the United States killed Hamilton in a duel. I mean, he killed him! Now the story is shrouded in more than a little mystery and intrigue, but here's how I understand it, after having read a few historical accounts. By the beginning of the 19th century, death by pistol-duel had become a pretty uncommon way to die, given that the practice had devolved into a sort of gentleman's face-saving event. At this time, the order of operations began with one man taking the first shot, unencumbered by cross-fire from the second, since it was assumed by the second that the first would purposefully mis-aim and fire to the second shooter's right or left. Then, the second shooter would do the same. Each man, having defended his respective honor, then departs the field.

Of course, that's not how it went down in Burr v. Hamilton's torso. The story is that while Hamilton may have, indeed, intended to purposefully miss Burr, Hamilton nonetheless shot the branch immediately above Burr's head. According to Burr's supporters, the breach in protocol left Burr uncertain as to whether Hamilton had accidentally or intentionally mis-fired, and Burr unwilling to give Hamilton the opportunity to be more forthcoming in his intentions (the two used single-shot Wogdon pistols, as the flintlock revolver was not invented until 1814 or so), shot Hamilton in the abdomen, whereupon Hamilton promptly died 36 hours later.

Interesting, those lives and times. Reader, I entreat you to think upon just how much America has changed from then to now. From a time when the Vice-President could shoot the Secretary of the Treasury, to a time when the Vice-President can only shoot a lawyer. That's a long way, I know. The more amusing image, of course, is that of Joe Biden mortally wounding Tim Geithner. Now that, I should think, really would be a bfd.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

In the Long Run, Look Who's Not Dead

Click on the following link if you should be possessed of the false belief that economic theory can't be rip-roaringly funny.


I take it you stand corrected?

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Reason the Second, Why Britain is Better than US

Our political leaders make every effort to appear as inoffensive as possible, in part due to the inordinate power of elderly voters. Their scandals, perhaps because of the wholesome front they put up, tend to be of the sexual variety. (And, of considerable sexual variety.)

Britain, on the other hand, can have politicians who are clearly unpleasant people. I present Prime Minister Gordon Brown: in addition to his reported violent tantrums and surly demeanor, he has a propensity to insult voters. (That particular voter describes herself as a "lifelong Labour voter" and had previously thought of Brown as "very nice"!)

I don't know about you, but the Tories are looking pret-ty good right now, not only compared to Labour, but especially compared with their insane Republican counterparts in this country.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

"Futility Closet"

Distraction, as everyone knows, is inimical to discipline. But I can't help sharing this "idler's miscellany of compendious amusements". It's a fascinating collection of anecdotes, paradoxes, riddles, oddities, and sundry miscellanea. I've spent several hours browsing it, and I've not yet covered one year's worth of its material (there are five).

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Before Friendship

So, I had an idea for an essay on friendship—of mutual interest to Ross and I, I should think—but I could not for the life of me find a citation for a phrase that I thought would make a great title. Here's the phrase:
"By their friends shall ye know them"
Since I haven't been able to find a reliable origin in nearly ten minutes of Google searching, I leave it to you, dear reader, to help me out. Upon discovering no immediately obvious origin, I was inclined to believe that this phrase was just a modification of a phrase from Mark, "By their fruits shall ye know them," that has been handed down for some time. But perhaps you'll discover something different. In fact, I hope you will. After all, I'd hate to see a phrase so poignant as this relegated to what I should think is a large pile of mis-translated sentences that simply stuck around.

If you find any of those, I'd enjoy mention of them, as well.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Tut Buße, das Himmelreich ist nahe herbeigekommen

It was a year ago—liturgically speaking, if not calendrically so—that I was in Vienna, attending the Maundy Thursday service at the Stephansdom. Cardinal Schönborn—who is reputed to be papabile—presided. Now the Roman Church in Austria is reeling from an abuse crisis, and only yesterday Schönborn presided at a "Day of Repentance" service in an attempt to acknowledge the Church's complicity in shielding abusers. This would be rather passé for us Americans, except that more allegation-makers (er, 'allegators'?) have stepped forward with details about a pedophile priest in the archdiocese of Milwaukee.

The thing everyone prefers to argue about, of course, is the root cause of this scandal. In more liberal quarters the tendency is to blame, besides an insular and hierarchical culture that encourages unswerving loyalty, the mandatory celibacy required for all (Western-rite) priests. More conservative commentators, such as the charming Bill Donohue, have put all the blame on homosexuals. (Did you catch the Catholic League's quarter-page advertisement on the editorial page of the NY Times this week?)

Of course, the best way to go about this scientifically would be to split Catholic priests into two groups, identical save for the fact that one group also has married priests, and the other group has no queers—not even, or rather, especially not, the closeted ones. Give both groups twenty years, and tally the number of abuse cases.

What would be the result? Well, I don't know. I'm resigned that there will always be pedophiles; even the most disgusting abuse of trust can be explained by the fact that people are sinners, all of them. But what gets my figurative goat is that the Church hierarchy, either by design or by neglect, failed to stop the bad priests. How, exactly, are Church leaders working to alter the system in which abuse could not only occur, but recur? If the Romans are to maintain any credibility as the visible Body of Christ on earth, they've got some reforms to enact.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Great Contemporary Essays in Ethics

The Crooked Timber has a post this week requesting recommendations for superlative essays in applied ethics that are also accessible to non-philosophers. I've had the privilege of reading many (though definitely not all) listed there, and if you're interested in reading what philosophers think about many practical moral issues, I suggest taking a look, here.

For my part, I can recommend the following. I'm not posting links to the articles, because very few are open access. However, if you have access to a library, you probably have access to JSTOR, and if you have access to JSTOR, you have access to all of these articles.
  • Utilitarianism
    — "A Critique of Utilitarianism" by Bernard Williams

  • Moral Relativism
    — "Moral Relativism Defended" by Gilbert Harman

  • Euthanasia
    — "Against the Right to Die" by David Velleman
    — "Death" by Thomas Nagel

  • Abortion
    — "A Defense of Abortion" by Judith Thomson
    — "A Kantian Argument Against Abortion" by Harry Gensler

  • War
    — "War and Massacre" by Thomas Nagel
    — "The Problem of Dirty Hands" by Michael Walzer

  • Super Interesting (and oddly convincing...)
    — "The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant" by Nick Bostrom
The great thing about applied ethics is that so many of its philosophers are truly excellent writers--an aspect sorely lacking in much philosophical writing.

Thursday, March 11, 2010


Ross posts on his 'other' website:

"...[T]here's something to be said about the sports-mania that afflicts our society. It is certainly obvious that international sports have very little, if anything, to do with promoting goodwill among nations. Bread and circuses, I say. Bread and circuses"

One wonders whether this is the sort of bitterness bred from never having won a round croquet--but I digress.

What exactly are you teaming up with Christopher Hitchens to oppose? On the one hand it sounds suspiciously like what Merlin called in The Once and Future King, "games mania," but on the other, you seem to paint the Olympics with the same broad brush. What, pray tell, gives?

For my part, the essence of most sports consists in their participants' attempts to exert physical dominion over another in competition. Thus, a virtue of sport is when that superiority is expressed for the sake of excellence, and not so much for the sake of dominance. And that's what I enjoy about the Olympics. Very few of its competitors train as hard as they do in order either (a) to make the sort of money that American athletes make or (b) to engage in some personal tete-a-tete with the aim of destroying an opponent, without regard for the virtues of glory and achievement.

To illustrate, consider the difference in athletic attitude between college wrestlers and professional basketball players, and I think you'll get a sense of what mean. The professional basketball player, anymore, is of a low, and often thuggish, background, putting money before the pursuit of victory. But toward what, other than glory and excellence, does the college wrestler put his time and pain? So too, I'd wager, for the Olympian.

To be sure, there is something brutish in many an athlete--something from which we recoil when we notice it in some non-athletic setting. But nonetheless, to the degree that we're interesting in praising what's praiseworthy, I'm not sure why the physical achievement of the athlete is so readily dismissed in favor of that of the violinist. Or organist.

But if all you're hand-wringing about is "games mania," I don't really think that the great majority of Olympic sports involve that--as evidenced by the utter lack of enthusiasm with which we attend to most of the sports during their four intervening years. Most of them are pursued for what those virtues pursued in the original Olympics--namely, glory and pride. And if such are the pursuits of contemporary Olympians, then I'm all for the contemporary Olympics.

Most of them, anyway.

[BTW: This smacks of an argument that Ross, a teacher, and I had about six years ago--one that, if I remember right, I was on the losing end of at the time. I believe that Ross and she argued that music ought to be a for-credit high school activity to the exclusion of athletics, while I argued that either neither or both should be considered for credit. No matter now. As Jeremiah-qua-Deuteronomist almost wrote in Kings "All will be revealed in the fullness of time." A lost footnote to that quotation: "All = That Aaron is right."]

Or in internet parlance: Aaron FTW!]

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Remember when....

If you have any trouble recalling the hyperbolic atmosphere, the anticipation, the in-all-honesty sense of hopefulness that gripped our country during the 2006-08 primary and general election seasons, you were probably as checked out as most of your fellow Americans. But, in case you were at all like I was, and you are now like I am, yearning for the excitement those days gone so recently by, it'd do your heart well to pick up a copy of John Heilemann's and Mark Halperin's Game Change.

For my part, from the reports on the book's contents, I thought before I read it (in three days!) that it would turn out as nothing other than an encyclopedia of election gossip. And it is certainly that--though, not only that. It is, more importantly I'd say, a chronicle of what we all took to be a seismic realignment of the course of the American political and social future--a literal realization of the first days of the kind of world that so many of us have treasured up in our hearts--and a rebuke of a decade (and a pretty formative one, for me) in which fear was the ordering criterion of our lives. Whether that realization was, well, real is a separate question (sort of), but what Game Change does with significant affect is remind us of what it felt like when it felt like it was real.

By and large, the book tells the tale of the election, from the decisions to enter the primaries in 2006, to the organizing days of each campaign in 2007, to the primaries, general election campaign, and election itself in 2008. In such great detail are this book's details recounted, it is hard to believe that Messirs Halperin and Heilemann didn't wire tap offices, cell phones, homes, campaign planes and buses, the Capitol Building, the White House, and more than a few bedrooms across the country. But absent lawsuits to that effect, the reporting is superb. Each candidate is rendered--lovingly, somehow--in all of his or her glory and vainglory. Reading this book was like finally seeing up close a painting you'd known for many years only in books; its cracks, its aging, to be sure, its imperfections are starkly rendered, but so too is the awe with which it first struck you. At least, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton appeared this way to me, as did numerous staffers who believed with their whole hearts in the virtues of men and women who were, in their own hearts, scoundrels (see esp.: John and Elizabeth Edwards).

In any event, before I spoil too much of the excellent story, I'll say as further recommendation that the writing is peerless--as political books go, anyway. The sentences are crisp and intellectual, and the narrative is constructed with simultaneous, yet distinct plots that slowly, but surely, coalesce as the political herd is thinned. So, we read about Clinton's decision to run, then to Obama's, and finally to Edwards. The entire long (but gripping) story of the Democratic nomination process plays out in similar fashion (Clinton, to Obama, to Edwards), until turning finally to the Republicans. Really, it's quite gripping, and I hope you'll read it (and contribute here!) if you haven't already.

Also, one might consider picking it up only to find out what advice Joe Biden was given before his debate with Sarah Palin. Other than this, that is:

"Don't let her lure you down any rabbit holes with her crazy syntax and run-on sentences."

And that ain't even the half of it.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

It would seem we're idiots

Ever the curmudgeon, Dr Peters has unleashed another jeremiad today. Towards the end he says something I've heard before:
I would require philosophy every semester[.]
He then follows it with something I've thought many times over:
[B]ut who would teach these classes? Professors of philosophy? They love quarrels, not wisdom.
He... has a point, don't you think?

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Oh, those magical Christians


I've been thinking, lately, about the "magical" elements of Christianity. And lo, in an article in the Jewish Review of Books ("It's not just for Jews anymore!"), I read this:
To put it crudely, if Christianity is a fantasy religion, then Judaism is a science fiction religion. If the former is individualistic, magical, and salvationist, the latter is collective, technical, and this-worldly.
The article, incidentally, was quite interesting; it asks, and attempts to answer, why there have been no great Jewish fantasy writers. But I digress: I'm wondering about the characterization of Christianity as "magical", which, I think, is not inaccurate. There are certainly elements of the religion that defy any sort of conventional logic (viz., transubstantiation, parthenogenesis, trinitarianism, &c.). In recent centuries, various sects have attempted to excise those elements that have proven increasingly baffling to modern man. The end result of this process is, I suppose, Unitarianism. My favorite Unitarian joke, if you must know, is this:
Q: How do you get a Unitarian family to leave town?
A: Burn a question mark in their front yard.
Last night while I was trying to fall asleep it occurred to me that, should one remove all the "magical" elements of Christianity, one is left without any sort of physical manifestation of the Divine whatsoëver. The Real Presence in the Eucharist? Out. The Incarnation? Nope. Miracles? Well, of course not. A de-magicized Christianity is, in fact, a good deal more "spiritual" and a lot less material.

Here I shall make an argumentum ad verecundiam: Wendell Berry says we need to be a good deal more cognizant that we are creatures of matter, so it must be true. (The implications of this are fodder for a great many other posts, but I shan't delve into that here.) I wonder, however, how a Unitarian, or a Jeffersonian agnostic, or certain Episcopalians, can back up this sentiment without recourse to that absurd idea that matter itself has been made divine.

Any thoughts? I suppose I'm a bit out of my depth here, both theologically and philosophically.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Am I Going to Watch the Health Care Summit?

In short: No.

And why not? I won't watch, because my sense is that the incentives for cooperating or not cooperating in discussion are more or less transparent for both the President and Congressional Republicans, such that watching would yield no new, relevant, or interesting information to me about the process of health reform. To illustrate, what follows is an account of how I think things will go down.

How I Think Things Will Go Down

There are several of moving parts to this reasoning, so I'll try to handle things in a stepwise fashion. To begin, let's lay out some terminology. Call Republican grandstanding and parroting their current talking points "Heckling" and call Republicans who do this "Hecklers." Call the President calling out the Hecklers' Heckling "Silencing the Hecklers" or some derivation thereof.

Step 1
I don't think that the Republicans will be able to have something that does not look like a productive discussion, since the threat of being Silenced by the President on national television ought to deter most Hecklers, and since the President will quite simply Silence any Heckler undeterred by the threat.

Step 2
Then, the President will tout which Republican ideas are already in the bill and lay out some new (though probably unexpected ones) that he's willing to compromise on.

Step 3
Then, one of three things will happen: (A) Republicans won't know how to respond to the President's charity in Step 2, and will look like morons in their attempt; (B) The Republicans will just keep Heckling, in which case, see Step 1; or (C) the Republicans respond amiably and the conversation is productive. One notes that, for (A), (B), or (C) the President comes off looking like the hero. And even if the Republicans refuse to converse cooperatively, the President looks great too, because, hey, at least he tried, right? So, either way, the Republicans look bad on this, and the President looks good.

Step 4
But just because the President looks good at the discussion does not mean that he'll win the spin game afterward. One can imagine a scenario (i), in which he does win the spin game, since he'll have so many positive clips from the discussion. But scenario (ii) is possible, as well, and in this one, the Republicans are able to manipulate the spin such that the President gains no significant advantage from having triumphed in the discussion.

The Analysis

Notice, though, that none of these steps ought to provide sufficient motivation to watch the discussion. Consider the following

For Step 1, I don't know about you, but I've already had my fill of watching the President Silence his Hecklers, so the possibility of witnessing the undeterred Heckler being Silenced by the President doesn't have a lot of pull.
For Step 2, I can read a more comprehensive discussion of the President's additional compromises in Friday's New York Times, or wherever, than whatever the President will give on Thursday, so hearing a rough version Thursday when I can read a better version Friday is hardly motivation to tune in Thursday
For Step 3, the motivation provided by (A) and (B) are the same as for Step 1; hence, no motivation to watch. (C), I'll admit, could turn out to be motivating.

For Step 4, while interesting, this is entirely about the post-game spin, much of which will take place on Friday, since the discussion happens in the evening on Thursday. Thus, since only the post-game spin is (mildly) interesting, I have no real motivation to watch the game itself.
All of that said, this analysis comes up short on one key concern that I have. Briefly, it's that some Republican strategists surely know better about these things than I know. So, just as surely, they've anticipated something like the predictions I provided--the conclusion of each scenario being: Republicans lose. But one would expect that their knowledge that they will lose under any analysis like the one I've given would have provided sufficient motivation for Republicans not to enter into the debate. It would have, anyway, if the Republicans who knew better didn't have some trick up their sleeve that they thought could derail the likely outcome of the discussion. Call this possibility Step 3 (D), in which Republicans throw some unexpected curve ball at the President and end up running away with the coverage.

The possibility of (D) speaks in favor, I think, of watching the discussion. So does (C). But for the latter, given the intransigence of Republicans throughout the entire health care reform debate, I don't see how this discussion would motivate them in any greater degree to cooperate than had any other previous discussion. This seems especially reasonable, given that their incentive to participate in this discussion was surely lower than the incentive not to participate, if the likely consequence of participating was cooperation and the eventual passage of health care reform, and the likely consequence of not participating was a week or so of bad coverage of Republican unwillingness to cooperate.

Now, those incentives shift significantly if Republicans are highly confident that their wild card in (D) will overcome the President's intellect and rhetorical skill. And they must be, for why else would they concede to having the discussion in the first place, if they weren't confident that they could beat the President? I don't think that they would.

But even with Republican confidence in their wild card, is the likelihood of (D) so great that I should spend my time watching the discussion, waiting for (D) rather than doing whatever else I was going to do? I think not. Here's why. The likelihood of (D) isn't dependent uniquely on the Republicans confidence in (D); in fact, it's not dependent on their confidence at all. The likelihood of (D) is dependent on the President's inability to overcome (D)'s wild card, and that inability is, itself, dependent both upon all of the President's men not having anticipated (D)'s wild card in advance, and upon the President not being able to skillfully handle the wild card when it arises. In short, the likelihood of (D) depends upon the President being less intelligent and talented than Congressional Republicans. And since I think that this is very unlikely, I have little confidence in the likelihood of (D), and thus have little motivation to watch the discussion.


Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Grotesque

A few nights ago, I watched a French film entitled Irreversible, by Romanian director and screenwriter Gaspar Noé. Noé develops the narrative by ordering the forward-moving scenes in reverse chronology, much in the way of Christopher Nolan's Memento. So, the first scene of the narrative depicts the final ten minutes of the story, minutes (say) eighty through ninety; the second scene depicts minutes seventy-one through eighty; and so on, until we see the first nine minutes of the story when the film ends. [To help clarify some of the terminology, let's call the plot as told in reverse-chronologic scenes the narrative and the plot as told in standard chronology the story.]


Anyone who's heard anything about this film has at least heard about Monica Bellucci's nine-minute, uncut, steady cam rape scene. Suffice it to say: not easy watchin'. In addition, the first twelve minutes (or so) includes the most brutal depiction of a murder that any film has ever exposed me to. Now, if I were to ask you which character you thought the murder victim was, which would guess? And the murderer? Since the plot involves the rape of a female character, your stock assumptions about who takes revenge upon whom would be correct: respectively, the rape victim's boyfriend and the supposed rapist.

In short, what I'm saying is that the film's story is pretty unoriginal.

Story Plot

What makes the film interesting, then, is it's narrative.

Narrative Plot
SCENE 1: In which we see a character is murdered with incomparable brutality.
SCENE 2: In which we learn that the murder victim raped the murderer's girlfriend.
SCENE 3: In which we learn that the murderer is a philanderer and used coke before finding out his girlfriend had been raped.
SCENE 4: In which we see the rape, learning thereby that the boyfriend murdered the wrong guy.
Etc. etc.


One notes that all of the past-tense verbs in the narrative description would be future-tense verbs in the story description. So, when we learn that the murder victim was presumed to have raped the boyfriend's girlfriend, we believe in the story that the murderer will avenge his girlfriend. And when we learn in the narrative that the boyfriend murdered the wrong guy, we know in the story that he will murder the wrong guy. What the film is doing, then, is offering us an overdone storyline and showing us just how that storyline normally manipulates our emotions. For senseless violence startles us. But vengeance thrills us and justifies the violence. But philandering and drug use mitigates our sense of justice. And the rape itself becomes all the more horrible, then, because we know that the rapist will not meet justice. Based on this sort of analysis of the plot, I'd submit that Noé's purpose it to point to a problem with standard stories: so much richness in a plot is lost, simply in virtue of the order in which we depict it.

Now my purpose with all of this is not to meditate on Noé's film. It is, rather, to ask a simple question of the film's content: to what extent does the gruesome depiction of certain sorts of human behavior require justification? Reading the negative commentary of Irreversible, I found that in their reviews his critics treated this abhorrence as a sort of cheap, sideshow trick used to startle and enrage his audiences. And as evidenced by these very critics, the 'trick' did just that. But having watched the film, I can't help but think that the repugnance of those two scenes is playing a much larger role in a complex commentary on just how films jigger with our emotions—how willing we are to accept the premises of some films and reject those of others, despite incredible similarity in film structure.

My suspicion is that such an analysis could apply to most other art forms—novels chiefly, and to some lesser extent music and painting. But even so, in the best case scenario for Noé, the disgustingness of those scenes is essential to the delivery of his message. If we accept that premise (or some weakened version of it), to what degree does the moral outrage that watching those scenes motivates in us demand justification? Or does it at all?

After all, when we buy our tickets at the theatre or pay our rental fee (or peel back the first pages of a book, hear the first taps of the baton on the music stand), there's a sense in which we have consented to allowing the author/director/conductor to inspire us with certain emotions and to thereby raise questions about whatever topic is of interest to him. And those who disappoint and satisfy us, we call them respectively terrible and great. But whatever the sense in which the director has obligations to his audience, I would argue that the audience has similar obligations to him—to treat whatever depiction he offers with what we might call a Principle of Aesthetic Charity. Such a principle might require us assume that any director is attempting to point our attention to something better than the base and low. I would also argue that such a principle operates in tandem with a second: The Principle of Coherence, which stipulates that the best interpretation of a work is that which can consistently account for greatest number of the most important elements in the work. And if the most coherent interpretation shows that (say) a director employed certain techniques or depicted certain base and low images that cannot be accounted for under that coherent interpretation, then our obligation to the Principle of Aesthetic Charity dissolves, for it's clear in such a circumstance that the author was utilizing the base and low in just the sorts of ways that Gaspar Noé's critics have accused him.

A corollary, of course, is that if the depiction of the base can be accounted for in the most coherent interpretation, then there is some degree of obligation on the interpreter to accept that depiction. For my part, I do not find this obligation too extreme—but then, there are many human behaviors that I have never seen depicted.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Dumb Things Read on the Internet, Vol. 1

"I suppose it’s possible that Dear Leader’s regime may seek to consolidate political power to the point where the transcendent is eclipsed by a world-immanent polis. And, while there is always a remnant that will worship God there appears a point when the libido dominandi surges and engages in the passion of war and death. The problem is that the world-transcendent truth, which is the ordering force of the soul, has been rejected by the current world-immanent regime, the milieu, the politeia and disorder dominates as men engage in Apostrophe, the turning away from the Divine ground.

"The good news is that remnant may just be the Tea Party people."

Ah, there it is. I'd never considered the Connexion between the world-immanent and its Remnant in the inimmanent. How the world-transcendent Orders de anima homo--and how to evade the Milieu-catalyzed Apostrophe--is a Story for another Day.

It's easier to believe that a computer program chose words randomly from Hegel and composed them thusly than it is to believe that another human being sits around having thoughts like that all day long, isn't it?

If it helps at all, "Dear Leader" is a reference to President Obama. Or Rocky and Bullwinkle.

See  full size image

Notice the resemblance?

See the original quotation, here.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Another Berry-ite

Here. A Montanan (I think) tries for one year to live (almost) as Wendell Berry's work might instruct him. It's always interesting to me which behaviors Berry fanatics--whose numbers include both Ross and me--try to excise from their routines and which they live on with.

Monday, February 8, 2010

"Moral Luck"?

[cross-posted with (at?) Joyous Catastrophe]

I'm not a regular reader of The New Yorker, but if I happen upon it (i.e., if I find it unused in the common kitchen area of the house), I'll give it a look-see. In an article on Van Gogh, there's a digression on Gauguin—who, like Wagner, happened to be a generally terrible man who made extraordinary art.
[Bernard] Williams points out that Gauguin's is a prime real-life case where doing the wrong thing—abandoning your wife and children and betraying your friends—appears to be morally justifiable, since the art made was, as it happened, great. Moral assessment, Williams suggests, has a strong component of sheer contingency and chance. You run a red light and no one notices; I run a red light and hit an old lady and I'm the worst guy in the world.
Gauguin is the original of the type, of whom Picasso is the most famous realization, of the artist as gambler—the solitary risk-taker, indifferent to anyone's welfare but his own and therefore capable of acts of independence and originality unknown to timid, orderly, nice people, acts that thrill and inspire new acts a century later. It is the goal of that kind of modern artist to run the red light and hit the old ladies—the old ladies of custom and convention. Where art since the Renaissance had attempted to limit luck in a system of inherited purpose and patterns, modern art demands that you press the pedal as hard as you can, and pray.

So that's what's wrong with modern art: the urge to upset people enough to be remembered for it by future generations, and the rejection of "inherited purpose". The great myth of modern art (of modern man, come to think of it) is that the artist is an autonomous individual whose actions, however abhorrent, may be justified by the acclaim of people unknown, or unborn.

It is far to easy for me to sit back in my armchair and complain, though. Let me talk of something I may be a bit more qualified to discuss: music. We see the same type among composers, as well: Wagner, Schoenberg, perhaps even Mahler(?!). But the world would be a far worse place without the music of these men. (For those uncertain about Schoenberg, I suggest you try his Gurrelieder, or Verklärte Nacht. Gorgeous pieces.) Would their great art have been possible if these men had not been egotistical bastards? I don't know.

Reason the First, why England is better than the United States

Its citizens are able to recompose their leaders' speeches thusly.

Somehow, in spite of what obviously constituted a prodigious effort on behalf of its producers, the American version doesn't quite pass muster.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

See, the problem with FPR is...

Both Aaron and I have at times been peeved, other times prit'near enraged, by posts of varying levels of wrongness at the internet's preëminent collection of localists, Front Porch Republic. There, it is taken for granted that any "true" "localist" must be against evangelicals/abortion/same-sex marriage/Obama. (And this is only in writings by editors. Various commenters—Mr Cheeks chief among them—reach teabaggity levels of craziness on a regular basis.) Now, it is true that I am against some of these things. But I have difficulty accepting that they are all inimical to the idea of community. Take my local farmers' market (which I visited today), for example: what difference to that community would it make if my waitress at the market café attended the Praise Jebus Bible Temple? Or if the woman selling specialty salts happened to have spousal benefits with the woman selling scented candles a few booths down? Or even if the apple-seller man voted for Obama? (Abortion, I admit, may be a different case—it certainly is, from a moral standpoint. But I suppose the odds are quite good that some woman I saw today once had a safe and legal abortion. Did that affect the community?) Yet all of these things would be heavily discouraged, if not verboten, in the idealized community envisioned by one or another of the Front Porchers.

This, I think, may be the chief problem with FPR: every contributor has a differ'nt idea of what the basis of localism is. So you have Médaille ranting about distributism while Peters bemoans the utter failures of Protestantism while Fox tries to reconcile the localist impulse with the Democratic platform. And meanwhile, in the peanut gallery, we have comments extolling the One True Faith (be it Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, or Calvinist), defending the "localism" of multimillion-dollar sports franchises, and damning Obama's socialism and Kenyan nationality. The only thing we can agree on is that Wendell Berry happens to be right (at least, some of the time).

Sunday, January 24, 2010

First Dispatches

Welcome, readers, to yet another of the internet's worth-its-while blogs—a fitting description, one suspects, of the writing, if not of the reading, that goes into most internet publications. Regarding which, we'd like to assure you early in the process that our own writing will be quite worth the while for us, and while we make no claims as to the confluence of our interests with yours, we suspect that you'll find this blog worth its weight in gold. No high aim, to be sure, for anything made entirely of pixels, but compared to the opportunity cost of reading most other things on the internet, we think you'll be served best to bookmark us straight away. Or to pick up a copy of The Republic. Whichever.

This blog is written by two graduate students once hailing from the same town, now exiled to two roughly similar post-industrial college towns. We plan to write on topics related to our respective areas of study: sacred music and theology, for one, and for the other, philosophy. (The interdisciplinarity of our posts, we think, will do the administrators of our shared undergraduate institution proud.) We will also post on whatever else interests us, including but not limited to topics related to localism and agrarianism, the weather, and general cultural commentary. Also, as you will note in the upper right, we'll have brief posts on books and articles we're reading, films and television we're watching, and the music and lectures we're listening to. We hope you'll comment and advance the discussion of those posts you find most interesting, and and we welcome film, book, and music recommendations always. Or almost always, anyway. Thanks kindly for reading, and we do hope you enjoy what you find here.