Friday, December 27, 2013

Because I Say So

Religions commonly make obviously false assertions—resurrection, transubstantiation, personal immortality—because it wouldn't be enough of a test of loyalty to ask believers to believe in something that was likely or even possible. I think the tenacity with which police and courts cling to outlawing pot has a similar rationale. How would it demonstrate the unquestionable power of the state to outlaw behavior that everybody, including criminals, knows to be wrong? You might as well have a plausible religion. What fun would that be? Which is why the more evidence accumulates for the relative harmlessness or even medical value of marijuana, the more the authorities will resist legalizing it. Of course they may eventually lose that fight. If so, I predict they’ll find some other practice of equivalent triviality and outlaw that, particularly if it is associated with minorities since the other great function of unreasonable laws is to provide a pretext for keeping the nigras down.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013


Though a musty venue for embrace
The tomb’s just not a private place.
To be alone, there can’t be many,
But it doesn’t count if there aren’t any.
We’re all like Christ, at least in this,
Although less likely to be missed
And we have to harrow hell before
The hour when we are no more:
Whether we sin or we behave,
We’ll leave behind an empty grave.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Looking for the Right Problem

It's interesting to compare our experience with the Soviet Union's. Like us, the Soviets were handicapped because their leaders bought into a disfunctional ideology and tried to make up for its shortcomings through education. For a while, that worked reasonably well for the Reds because literacy and technical training compensated for the inefficiency of the demand economy—the Soviet economy grew enormously before the 60s. Even in a lousy system, people who could read and write are vastly more productive than illiterate peasants. Our problem is that we already have mass literacy and a fairly high level of technical education. Incremental improvements are unlikely to have more than incremental benefits. Better education probably can't bail out Neoliberalism the way it bailed out Communism, even assuming that the current war on teachers and test mania are actually going to improve schools, a dubious supposition.

Getting back to a sensible mixed economy with lower levels of wealth and income inequality is a better bet than the endless pursuit of some magic formula for wonderful schools. Education isn't the right problem.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Destructive Interference

Health care reform is complicated enough without getting confused about the reasons we need to change things:

1.     We ought to care about ensuring adequate health care for everybody because we’re decent human beings.  
2.     We ought to lower the cost of health care to everyone because it’s in our self interest to do so and we’re not damned fools.

Either motive should be sufficient in itself to motivate reform, but appealing to both of them at the same time in the usual muddled way weakens what should be an irresistible case.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

He Who Wills the End

Since even the CNN talking heads are coming around to the realization that the current level of inequality is politically and socially intolerable, it's kinda odd that so many people still get upset about "redistribution" as if it were a dirty word. If you think we should do something about inequality, you've already opted for redistribution of some kind, though I'm not denying it makes a big difference how it is accomplished.* Changing the tax laws in incremental ways, raising the minimum wage, and actually enforcing existing labor laws are better than a frontal assault on the gated communities, though, admittedly, they don’t make for exciting television. The central fact is that however you do it, you are going to have make certain people less rich and they are going to object to that. So will the talking heads, for that matter, when they finally realize the implications of the new meme for entertainers with seven figure incomes. That may take a while, since for these folks, it’s a long, long way from premises to conclusion. They will end up objecting to each and every concrete step towards improving the distribution of wealth while at the same time repeating that something must be done.

* I'm reminded of the punch line of an old joke: "We've already settled that. Now we're haggling about the price."

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Two More Limericks for Very Select Audiences

An ingenious shrink named Elise
Trained a troop of medicinal fleas.
Their bites were quite itchy,

But the gloomy and twitchy
Found scratching a welcome release.

There once was a maid of Iraq
Who had a magnificent rack,
But unlike the ass
Of the maid of Madras,
Her boobs were a literal fact.*

* Explaining jokes has some of the same futility as attempting to recall a fart, but I have discovered that there actually are people who don't know the following limerick.

There once was a maid of Madras
Who had a magnificent ass,
Not rounded and pink
As you probably think.
It was brown, had long ears, and ate grass. 

Knowledge of the classics is at an all-time low.

Composition Class

There are intelligent conservatives who know better, but most of ‘em seem to be unaware that it's a logical fallacy to argue from what's good for an individual to what's good for everyone. If I stand on a footstool, I'll be able to see the parade better; but that doesn't mean if everybody stands on a footstool, they'll all see the parade better. 

Give a man a fish and he won't be hungry for a day. Teach him to fish and he won't ever have to be hungry. Yep, and teach everybody to fish and there won't be any goddamn fish left. 

The Walmart version of the same thing: it's OK that a giant outfit doesn't pay its workers a living wage because, after all, any one of them may become a manager and make oodles. Look at every right-winger's favorite token negro: he shows what they all ought to do. Succeed and become the owner of 168 pizza restaurants. Why can't they all be like that?

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Was heisst Denken?

I rented the biopic Hannah Arendt from Netflix the other day. The movie occasioned a couple of thoughts:

1. Arendt’s book about the Eichmann trial created an enormous controversy, in part because many, especially many Jews, felt that she somehow diminished the evil the Germans did by portraying one of its perpetrators as an insipid nonentity incapable of genuine thought, a scarecrow whose head was stuffed with clichés in lieu of straw. The usual take on the banality of evil, however, rather glamorizes Eichmann’s ordinariness as if it were different in some essential way from our ordinary ordinariness, which, after all, doesn’t automatically result in a holocaust, though it does, for example, currently yawn at torturing people in hellish prisons. What’s alarming about Arendt wasn’t that she didn’t blame Eichmann enough or even that she blamed the Jewish authorities too much, but that her version of Eichmann matched too many of her—and our—contemporaries.

2. The movie had a welcome thematic balance. It wasn’t just about the dangers of thoughtlessness. It was also about the dangers of thoughtfulness. There were several ways of participating in Nazism; and one of them, exemplified by Arendt’s former mentor and lover, Martin Heidegger, was rooted in a terrible, ruthless* commitment to thought—the movie includes a scene where Heidegger lectures his students on the philosopher’s unconditional obligation to think. Arendt blamed Heidegger for political naïveté; but that was as much of a dodge for her as it was for Heidegger, who had certainly known what he was doing all along.  Philosophical intensity or arrogance, to use the word that keeps coming up in the movie, is problematic in itself and not just when it has bad real-world implications. It is not merely irritating to the passers by. Since the philosopher puts himself or, in this case, herself, above the feelings and wishes of the community or nation, philosophy is always akin to crime. No society is or ever will be tolerant of free thought as the tame philosophers kept on the payroll in universities rediscover when they say the wrong thing too publicly.  We also keep tigers in zoos because it pleases us to look at dangerous beasts from a safe distance. When the tigers escape, we shoot them. 

* I’ve been told that the Nazis had rücksichtslos redefined as a virtue in the official dictionaries. I don’t know if that’s true, but ruthlessness comes pretty close to what Heidegger calls resoluteness (Entschlossenheit).

Monday, November 18, 2013

To the Winter Palace

“No more ads! No more ads!” Slogan of the revolution I led in a dream the other night. I had an elaborate theory that explained why forbidding advertisements would, all by itself, suffice to bring the millennium. No redistribution; no direct democracy; no revolutionary vanguard; no brown, black, or red shirts; no dictatorship of the proletariat; no new socialist man or even new capitalist man, no John Galt or Karl Marx, just Marketing verboten! Every stage could be skipped so long as no one could any more sell any thing to any one over the mass media. The people would no longer be bribed into bemusement by the poisoned bait of supposedly free entertainment and news or impoverished in a vain attempt to acquire the goods they had been hypnotized into craving. I insisted that the truly soul-destroying welfare of our age is dispensed by corporations, not government agencies. “Pay for it yourself, damn it” was the motto of the utopia to come. “Why do you think Mad magazine used to be so good?”

In the dream, in which I looked rather like Trotsky and dressed in 1920 era clothes, I was self-assured to the point of insanity and just knew that the time had come to move from theory to practice. When the authorities tried to raise objections, I shut them down, Ayn Rand style, with arguments that were absolutely unanswerable because I didn’t give the other guys any good lines—it was my dream, after all. Unfortunately, I can’t remember many of these arguments. I do recall that the establishment politicians accused me of hypocrisy because the brilliant political posters my followers had plastered all over the city were themselves advertisements. I laughed that off, though some of the posters really were pretty alarming, if not so different or more morally dubious than the latest TV spots for Call of Duty. Especially perverse were the parodies of fast food ads that promoted cannibalism, the goofs on cosmetic ads that glorified pederasty, and the take offs on car ads that made serial murder gleam like chrome. “You have woven the rope that will strangle you,” I cackled, thoroughly enjoying the role I was playing. Eventually the officials gave up on reason and tried to arrest me, but they had to flee when the cops switched sides and an enraged multitude surged up the escalators to seize the seat of power, which look remarkably like the top floor of the local Macys. It was glorious. Talk about getting off at the Finland station!

For a while after I woke up, I had to remind myself that I hadn’t really figured anything out at all. I even spent a few minutes thinking of something good to say about advertising. Wasn’t that easy.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

A Foreign Policy Suggestion that Will Go Nowhere

Why is Iran our perpetual enemy? Is it because we once subverted their democracy and installed a dictatorial government in its place? Is it because we've waged economic war on them for decades and previously encouraged their neighbor to wage real war on them to the tune of a million dead? Is it because they somehow made us shoot down one of their airliners? I know it's human nature to find it hard to forgive someone for the sins you've committed against them, but maybe we could try just this once.

A thought experiment: what if, instead of endlessly proposing ways to fence in Iran, we made our goal a real normalization of relations? Instead of suggesting that some sort of uneasy truce could be maintained by slightly lessening sanctions, we looked forward to an era when there weren't any sanctions at all? So long as we treat Iran as our version of the Great Satan, we don't have very much leverage for serious diplomacy. If a genuine peace were in prospect, Tehran might be much more amenable to a deal about its relationship with Hezbollah, for example, if it didn't need to hang on to Hezbollah as a bargaining chip in an endless cold war—the idea that the Iranians have some tremendous interest in the Palestinian issue is very dubious to me. Of course they don't like Israel's policies—almost the entire planet doesn't like Israel's policies—but I've yet to meet a Persian who really gave a damn about what was going on a couple of countries away. So long as the Israelis keep threatening to nuke 'em, however, they have to be interested. 

Of course any prospect of peace will require keeping the Israelis under control. Netanyahu, et. al. are never going to stop banging the war drum because the ongoing artificial crisis provides essential cover for the de facto annexation of the West Bank, a process that will take many years to complete. We don't need Israel to sign on, though. We just need them not to panic and push the button—coming up on one hundred years after the outbreak of World War I, we need to remember what mischief minor powers can cause by vanity and miscalculation.

I have little love and less trust for the current Iranian regime, but Iranian internal affairs are just that. Meanwhile, the notion that Iran is pursuing an aggressive foreign policy that would justify making their business our business is not something any one ever bothers to provide evidence for. It’s an assumption, a default, a prior, even an axiom, and has to be something of that sort since what you can’t argue to, you have to argue from. The historical record, which is publicly available after all, is a story of an Iran endlessly on the defensive against the machinations of the Russians, the Brits, the Americans, the Iraqis, the Israelis, and the Sunnis.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Stubborn Facts

Gene Sperling, director of the White House’s National Economic Council, got in some hot water over the weekend for suggesting that entitlement cuts were on the table in a budget deal. He’s walked back his remarks since and, to be fair, it’s always hard to figure out what Sperling means. On the other hand, for several years his boss has snuck plugs for cutting benefits into any number of speeches, even Convention stem winders where they never fail to break the rhetorical momentum. It’s hardly unreasonable to assume that the administration not only buys into Centrist commonsense on this issue, but thinks that it’s worth alienating the Democratic base to try to act on it. If that’s true, Obama and his people have a lot of company, much of it not on the right. The necessity of reigning in Social Security and Medicare is always treated as something all reasonable people agree about by the reporters and talking heads of CNN and the Washington Post and other moderate media outlets.

If economics were a science like physics or astronomy or biology, it could be that the imperative need to cut entitlements was a natural fact like heliocentrism or the evolution of living things that only schizophrenics, hayseeds, and religious fanatics still dispute. Economics, however, has an irreducible normative component. You can’t define good policy without stating, or more often, implying but carefully not saying, for whom the policy is good. It is this issue upon which the desirability of entitlement cuts depends, not some fact of nature or mathematical theorem. The arithmetic becomes relevant on the other side of the political question of who matters. So what does seem to be true is this: we can't maintain and increase the current high levels of income and wealth inequality without cutting entitlement benefits. If the government of the United States were conducted on the basis of promoting the general good, on the other hand, one would come to very different conclusions about entitlements. There is no serious problem with Social Security—nobody should have to live on cat food because of Alan Simpson’s innumeracy— and what gets featured as a problem with Medicare is really a problem with an absurd health care system that costs far more than it has to.

Monday, October 28, 2013

(    )

Like parentheses, errors come in pairs. The Soviets just knew that a command economy would outperform any market economy and drove their regime into the ground trying to prove it. We've bought the opposite error of thinking that markets automatically outperform government agencies even in areas like pensions, health care, and education where experience has long shown they don't and that bureaucracies are more efficient—very few companies have ever been run half as smoothly (or cheaply) as the Social Security Administration. Thus there's a certain symmetry between Brezhnev and Ted Cruz...

Unfortunately, it isn't just the Republicans or the Conservatives who are still trying to make markets do what they can't do. It’s also commonsense for the technocrats who dominate the Democratic party; and just as the would-be reformers of the Soviet economy thought they could tweak the system without challenging the faulty assumptions upon which it was built, the administration and its technocrats are mostly just compassionate Reaganites for whom the market is magic. Of course part of the reason the ACA is so complex is the dysfunctional character of American politics, but it’s a dodge to blame it on the Heritage Foundation. Obama and his cohorts may have different ethical priorities, but the New Democrats, like New Labor in the United Kingdom, have the same economic theology as the Republicans and that’s a big part of the problem.   

Francis Spufford wrote a wonderful novel, Red Plenty, about the decline and fall of the Soviet economy. It tells the story of how well meaning and intelligent people failed to make water run uphill and overcome the fundamental weakness of demand economies. One of these days, somebody will have to write a novel about how our society suffered because the economic dogmas of Neoliberalism just couldn’t be made to work.   

Sunday, October 27, 2013

A Memorable Fancy

Content analyzers, the statistical computer programs the NSA and Amazon use to identify terrorists and customers, can’t actually read, which is why bemused dentists from Cleveland wind up on the no-fly list and I get peppered with ads for books on Biblical exegesis. The ways that such substitutes for human intelligence fall short shouldn’t keep us from recognizing the ways in which they also exceed human intelligence. Insight is more glamorous than method; but where being right is more important than being clever, in medical diagnosis, for example, it’s often second best. There’s an irony in the triumph of big data over consciousness because it echoes an earlier episode in which consciousness first demonstrated its advantages over instinct. Just as understanding things wins many battles against mindless number crunching, hunches and feel often outperformed and continue to outperform reasoning, at least in the moment. Still, John Henry and Kasparov eventually lose. I actually had a dream about all this last night, but in the dream there was one further wrinkle. I conjured a cognitive power that emerged on the far side of brute AI and exceeded its reach as far as it will eventually exceed ours. Of course such a thing would be perfectly incomprehensible to us—you might as well hope that an especially intelligent bowling ball would get a joke—but it was somehow consoling to imagine we’ll have a better successor than Watson or Sky Net. Maybe it’s like Westerns. There’s always a faster gunslinger out there.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Capital Accumulation

Noam Chomsky argued that the rapidity with which children learn language proves that an important part of our language ability is innate. Particular languages are culture specific, but we learn them quickly thanks to an in-built language acquisition device, often abbreviated as LAD in the trade. There are plenty of reasons to think there is something to this idea of language learning even though it probably goes too far and not even Chomsky retails the original version these days. What interests me about Chomsky’s idea here, however, is not its ultimate validity but the way it was received. Back in the day, as I recall, it seemed revelatory and also rather obvious to people of my age. I wonder now if it seemed so obvious to older folks, especially those who had actually raised children; for even if kids do learn language with remarkable rapidity, parents do spend a great deal of time teaching them. Parents are rather less likely than 22-year old grad students to forget about the hundreds of hours of conversations, of reading out loud, of answering endless questions that go into child care in middle class American households. It’s easy to think that people learn things without being taught them if you don’t have to do the teaching. But callow grad students aren’t the only ones who need to learn this lesson.
Some revelation: you don’t know things that you haven’t found out about. Sounds more impressive in Latin: Nihil est in intellectu quod non prius in sensu. Well, one man’s cliché is another’s axiom; and, to judge from what I often read or rather don’t read in political speeches, this home truth is still news to many—I guess nobody told ‘em. I’m not just talking about all those articles about how ignorant kids or people in general are about geography or history, the ones that imply that we all ought to be born with information about the location of France and who fought whom in World War I. The more consequential examples are those in which people blame whole populations of people for what they don’t know even though they come from groups that have been systematically prevented or discouraged from learning. Centuries of effort were required to achieve what we take for granted as the intellectual patrimony of middle-class people as if it were something in the genes. That comparable work must be done to achieve the same results for those who were left out on purpose is somehow scandalous or at least surprising.
Angels have no memory; but neither do many people, at least when it comes to forgetting the secret of their own advantage. The essence of conservatism, despite its official respect for tradition, is a general amnesia, one that allows conservatives to think that the results of history, often rather recent history at that, are eternal facts. About cultural capital, it turns out most of us are conservatives. We may laugh at millionaire politicians who were born on third base and believe they hit a triple, and yet forget that we ourselves inherited a great many words if not a great many bucks.
The classic study of the issue, done back in 1995, found that the children of professional people heard an average of 45 million words in their first four years while the children of working class people heard 26 million and the children of welfare recipients heard 13 million. The lesson often taken from this result is that parents should be encouraged to talk more to their kids, read to them, encourage their questions, and so forth. There’s surely nothing wrong with this moral, but aside from expecting an awful lot from people who are often living close to the edge, it ignores the fact that a large part of the reason the parents don’t give enough words to their offspring is that they don’t have that many words themselves. Almost everybody learns the full grammar of the language they are born into, even if the dialect they acquire may not be the official version. The full possession of the resources of a language, however, is a heritage that grows over generations and requires sustained and costly efforts to foster and preserve.
Experience is a great substitute for brains, and culture is a great substitute for experience. Maybe that accounts in part for the observed fact that so many members of long-standing elites aren’t particularly bright as individuals. They don’t need to be.

Monday, October 07, 2013

Contradiction #4

We are constantly told that society works because everybody pursues their own interests; but we’re surprised when people conclude from this endlessly repeated lesson that it is virtuous to be as selfish as possible because the more selfish everybody is, the wealthier and happier we will all be. 

Sunday, October 06, 2013


Whenever Obama does something we don’t like, proposing to cut Social Security benefits in exchange for larger tax revenues, for example, liberals like me debate whether he’s selling us out or engaging in political jujitsu, hence the perpetual question about whether the President is playing 11-dimensional chess.  This question is based on a fundamental misconception. You don’t get to pick the game. It isn’t dealer’s choice. Politics is always vastly more complicated than the cartoon version we run in our heads, where all the villains line up on one side and all the heroes on the other and the interests, prejudices, and principles of the two parties are internally coherent if only you look at them from the correct perspective. In fact, there are a great many animals in the tide pool and even the minority of them that have backbones exhibit only provisional loyalties to alliances which, in the nature of things, are always temporary. Is Obama playing 11-dimensional chess? Of course he is. The question is whether he’s playing it very well.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Golem/Faustian Bargain/Sorcerer’s Apprentice (Your choice)

Since conservatism is the defense of privilege, it depends upon political arrangements that give minorities leverage over majorities. The risk with this strategy is that it’s hard to ensure that the same mechanisms you create to game the system won’t be used later by the wrong minorities to defend the wrong privileges. That’s what’s happening now as the ideological right uses techniques like political blackmail to promote causes irrelevant or harmful to monied interests. The old guard of the Republican party is horrified by the government shutdown, but they have no one to blame for themselves. Having created and armed the monster that is the right-wing base, they find that they do not control it.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Dreaming of a Plan to Feed Myself on Batter, Possibly Plan 9

Hiding out from a crew of Mexican roofers, I spent the morning at the Bazaar Café working out the script for a burlesque review based on William Empson’s famous book. Tentative title: 7 Types of Ambiguity, Count ‘em 7. The idea is that the audience can never quite decide whether they can see anything or not. After that, inspired or perhaps maddened by the Mariachi music still reverberating in my ears, I came up with a project with even fewer commercial possibilities, a script idea for a SciFi channel Saturday night movie. Here’s the pitch:

A literal-minded but brilliant physicist decides to settle an old theoretical question by actually performing the Schrodinger’s cat experiment. In the set up, the inevitable other scientist, older and wiser, tries to explain that the experiment won’t settle anything whatever happens. You’ll just have a dead cat or a live cat on your hands. The younger man is contemptuous, implying that you can’t make omelets without breaking paradigms. Unfortunately a PETA activist catches wind of the project and attempts to forestall it by breaking into the lab. He gets past the security system successfully but drops the vial with the cat poison as he attempts to destroy the experimental set up. Dying in anguish in the arms of the scientist, who has rushed in a desperate attempt to save him, the zealot curses the experimenter and seals his doom by giving him the evil eye with an extremely evil looking eye, at once frosted over and bloodshot, presumably from the effects of the poison.

Of course the incident sets off a huge public debate about the ethics of the experiment, and the university where the scientist works forbids him to continue. The scandal only makes him more determined to proceed, though it eventually costs him his job. Since he doesn’t happen to own a castle, he rents a room in a seedy motel and enlists the help of an affirmative action student, a white kid from Atlanta named Floyd, who captures a mangy stray cat to serve as the experimental subject. The cat, by the way, is not a black cat but a gray Manx—no clichés here. There follows some business about the scientist’s fiancée, who is a law professor but for some reason always wears fuck-me shoes like every lady lawyer on television, none of whom have any fear of hammertoes.  

After the statutory minimum of heterosexual subplot, the fateful night arrives. In lieu of thunder and lightening, the scene is accompanied by the usual urban noises: police sirens, guys mansplaining something or other to their date or spouse in the adjoining rooms, gunshots that are probably from a TV show, etc. The unfortunate cat is put in the chamber along with a fresh vial (saucer?) of poison and a tiny sample of radioactive material connected to a switch so that there is a 50-50 chance that the cat will be poisoned. At this point, faithful to tradition, the lights dim even though the set up only requires a couple of AA batteries. After the appropriate interval, the doctor opens the apparatus, which the audience has realized by now is an old microwave oven in heavy makeup. You can’t see what the Doc sees, but his unhealthy excitement is obvious as he shrieks, “It’s alive? It’s alive?” while Floyd looks on with an uncomprehending smirk. Alive or not, which of course is the question of the day, the cat is certainly not quiet. It utters an unearthly scream, rather as if it were in heat, and leaps out of the device, badly scratching the scientist’s face as it bounds past him and out the door, but not before bouncing around the makeshift lab and trashing the place like a rock musician. The two rush outside to recapture the cat, but it’s made a clean get away. Good time for a commercial.

The next morning, the doctor wakes in the wrecked motel room like a guy with a hangover. His face is bandaged on one side; and you can see, although maybe he doesn’t realize it himself, that blood or some more dubious fluid has soaked through the dressing. He’s not doing so hot, and it doesn’t help when somebody starts pounding on the door. He’s almost relieved, if only for a moment, that it’s the cops and not the motel owner. It seems that the body of a hooker had been discovered in a nearby alley. The cops don’t think the scientist was involved—they’re just doing a routine canvass of the neighborhood—but looking over his shoulder at the lab equipment, they jump to the conclusion that they’ve stumbled across a meth lab. 

That afternoon, the action resumes at the police station where the fiancée is picking up the scientist after what we can only assume was a day of long and difficult explanations. The explanations aren’t over with, either, since the woman, who, incidentally, is still wearing high heels, is steamed. Her man keeps insisting that he made a great discovery, that the danger and embarrassment was worthwhile because, you see, it turns out that the quantum wave function can actually collapse half way. It isn’t just that the cat is both dead and alive while the experiment is in progress. It’s both dead and alive afterwards. Which, apparently, also accounts for its extremely bad mood. While the guy rambles on about all this, giving us an extended example of cable-channel physics, he’s getting more and more excited and also keeps pawing at his bandaged face. She’s not buying what he’s saying, but her anger is mixed with concern since it’s obvious he just isn’t right. She suggests he needs to forget about the cat and go to the hospital immediately. As she reaches over to touch him and he shrinks back, you realize that he’s pulled off the bandage. She recoils in horror from the ravaged eye which, naturally, is clouded over and bloodshot. The scientist collapses.

At the hospital, the doctors can’t decide what’s the matter with their patient. Some of them think it’s a rare form of cat scratch fever. Some of the assume that it’s the result of exposure to the poison meant for the cat. One older doctor even suspects classic hysteria, but that diagnosis is rejected since time travel is even less likely than quantum indeterminacy. The fiancée tries to explain the experiment, but they surely aren’t going to buy that story. Of course, it doesn’t help when they admit that whatever it is, it’s very serious and that their patient is hovering between life and death. They can’t spend too much time on this one case, though, because the city is in the midst of a sudden crime wave. Bodies are turning up all over the place, each shredded to ribbons; and street people, still alive but badly clawed, are staggering into the emergency room raving about a demon cat. 

The fiancée calls the scientists senior colleague begging for help. He’s the same sober old man who tried to warn him off doing the experiment in the first place. He agrees to look over the lab notes; and, in a brief interval of comic relief, interrogates Floyd, who obviously never understood what was going on, having only been accepted to a PhD program in the first place because there were so few white STEM students. Despite Floyd’s dubious help, he believes he has figured things out and goes to see the physicist in the hospital. The patient is now completely gorked out, or so it appears, so the conversation is actually a soliloquy featuring yet more SciFi explanations. “I was wrong about your theory. Too bad you can’t hear me confess how closed minded I was, etc.” While this is going on, the camera, but not the older man, notices that the patient, though hooked up to various drips and wires, is actually beginning to twitch. In fact, while the distinguished professor faces the other way and continues his lecture, his young colleague sits up in bed, tears off the leads and tubes, and very quietly rises up behind him. We don’t actually see what happens next. The camera pans down the deserted hallway outside while we hear ferocious mewing coming from behind the closed door.

The fiancée has been doing her own investigation and eventually returns to the motel room—apparently it was paid up for the whole week. She realizes somebody is there already and assumes it was the assistant. “Claude! Claude!” she calls out, having somehow gotten confused about Floyd’s name. No one answers; but she hears a scrabbling noise, which sounds like some one were pawing at sand. When she enters the room, she finds what’s left of Floyd lying around the room and turns towards the bathroom. We see by a convenient clock that it’s half past midnight, and then the shadow of an enormous cat looms up. The lady screams. Just then some one else enters the room. It’s the physicist, though in his undead state he’s a little hard to recognize. “Branes! Branes!” he cries, and that gets the attention of the cat, which springs on him from the darkness as the lady falls back in a swoon. Depending on the CGI budget, one is treated to a more or less memorable but definitely desperate battle as the adversaries wallow this way and tumble that employing every tooth and claw in the awfullest way you ever saw.

In the last scene, a dog-faced police lieutenant is trying to debrief the fiancée, but not getting very far with the almost catatonic woman. He tells his partner that the scientist was probably abducted by gang members in revenge for the trouble he had caused what with the cops all over the neighborhood investigating tales of cat attacks. “Either that or the two cats ate each other up, heh, heh.”   

I’m not sure if there’s enough here for a theatrical movie, but it’s not my fault if the cat didn’t have a long tale.

The Quest for the Historical Scrooge

In the Gospel according to Charles, Scrooge has a change of heart after he is visited by a ghost and three spirits. Recent research by the Ebenezer project indicates that he actually left the party because of political pressure. His Conservative critics pointed out that his famous questions—“Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?”—though intended as an expression of right thinking, actually implied the wealthy did in fact have responsibilities towards the poor. If he was going to support liberal programs like the Poor Laws, he was no better than a frog-loving Chartist and deserved to be primaried. Threatened with mid-term defeat, Scrooge made a strategic retreat into sentimentality and superstition.  

Sunday, September 22, 2013

“Reh, Reh, Reh” or Notes on Proto-Soupysalian

I have the habit of responding to something I hear on TV or the Internet by muttering “Reh, reh, reh” when what I hear is obviously copy, i.e., professionally scripted discourse that nobody stands behind and nobody believes, discourse written in purposive anonymity and designed* to be delivered in a voice at once suave and bland. No doubt I recognize this sort of thing so readily because I’ve written so much of it myself in my various vocational incarnations. ** Partly it’s just filler—there is so much air time and you have to say something—but it’s also a kind of ventriloquism, an attempt to impersonate commonsense in somebody’s interest. Ventriloquism originally meant speaking from the stomach (venter). In the case of the “Reh, reh, reh,” most of it obviously emanates from the belly of the beast, which partly accounts for my dyspepsia about it.  But it isn’t the fact that so much of what you hear everywhere is interested that gives commodified speech its unmistakable character.  Both those that read the script and the hired hands that compose it in the first place obviously resent the indignity of acting as purchased people. The flatness of so much of what you hear, its trademark insipidity, is a workplace protest on a par with spitting in the soup, except that the irritated waiter is mad at the customer while the performer on TV is asking for the audience for forgiveness and signaling a decent insincerity—I’m just making a living. Even Flo wants you to know that the dummy hasn’t lost all her self-respect. Well, maybe not Flo. Considering the probable size of her residuals, she may very well have learned to love Big Brother.

Of course, everybody understands all this very well—you hardly have to read complicated treatises on Late Capitalism*** to grasp the nature of a system in which everybody participates every day. I had intended to supply an explanation of the origins of “Reh, reh, reh.” It appears that the expression evolved from “O reh, o reh,” the one and only utterance of White Fang, a canine character who appeared regularly on the old Soupy Sales show. I say White Fang appeared but actually only his enormous paw appeared. You never actually saw the whole dog.  I’m told that White Fang’s voice was once a recording of the howl of the Hound of the Baskervilles, but the record got broken just before a show and “O reh, o reh” was the adlibbed substitute. Somehow “O reh, O reh,” gradually got transmogrified in my idiolect into “Reh, reh, reh,” which will probably scandalize the purists—there are still lots of people in my age group who instantly recognize the “O reh, o reh.” In my defense, let me point out that in practice the two expressions are related by chiasmus. Each time White Fang would say “O reh, o reh,” Soupy would interpret it differently. It could mean anything. Each time I hear copy, I interpret it as “Reh, reh, reh” because it means the same thing or the same non-thing or nothing.  
* If this paragraph were copy, I would have written “crafted” instead of “designed.”
** The Buddhists have a genre called Jakata tales, which consist of accounts of the previous lives of Gautama. How about Jakata tales about somebody who resolutely refuses enlightenment?
*** The “Late Capitalism” bit is probably an instance of copywriting on my part so I ought to “Reh, reh, reh” myself here. As I’ve written many times before, I don’t know if there is anything late about contemporary capitalism. It certainly isn’t “late” as in my late Uncle Jake. Only a prophet knows if the system is on its last legs or will go on till the sun cools off, and I agree with the rabbis that prophecy is for fools and children. There’s also the far from minor problem of whether it really makes sense to speak of capitalism as a system with so definitive an essence as to be something susceptible of old age and death. Which is not to deny that our economic system is changing, of course. For example, I find myself muttering “Reh, reh, reh” more and more, not only to the TV or the I pad, but under may breadth as I listen to twenty somethings pitch themselves to one another in the garden behind the coffee bar.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Syria Again

The only people who will be surprised (or scandalized) by the muddiness of American foreign policy in the Syrian crisis are those who are unfamiliar with diplomatic history. Which is to say that the only people who will be upset are the vast majority, at least the vast majority of pundits. When people complain that nobody learns anything from history, they usually have in mind some substantive lesson unlearned; but it seems to me that what people don’t learn from history is something rather more general. They don’t get the texture of how things happen. In particular they don’t absorb two basic facts:

1.     People have to live every hour, day, week, month, year, decade, and century of human life. It isn’t that the longue duree is necessarily more important than histoire événementielle, but that the periods between the famous events are sequences of events that aren’t experienced as inconsequential by the participants even if they quickly disappear from public consciousness. The fact we generally aren’t interested in the parenchyma of history doesn’t mean you can get from Monday to Wednesday without going through Tuesday.  The politicians, generals, and diplomats of the past could never be sure which of their words and actions would matter and got gray hair and hypertension over crises that even PhD candidates have long since forgotten. Of course every happening hyped on the Huffington report is not the Defenestration of Prague or the Assassination of the Archduke, but nobody can be sure about that at the time and, anyhow, they still have to get up in the morning.

2.     Relations between nations are mostly made up of trial balloons, misunderstandings, kicking the can down the road, playing to the newspapers, chest thumping, flattery, brag, bluff, and willful obfuscation. Muddle is the métier of the diplomatic corps, always has been, always will be. Or if somebody can point me to an important historical passage where one side or the other had a definite plan and carried it out decisively without lots of backing and filling, I’d be obliged if they’d tell me about it.* A couple of squirrels taking turns chasing each other around a tree trunk is a pretty good first order model of international relations, not surprisingly, after all, because international relations are just mammalian behavior carried out on a very large tree.  

If you look at what happened over the last couple of weeks as a typical diplomatic sequence, the administration’s performance looks pretty good.  I wrote earlier that I didn’t think Obama wanted a war and it appears I was right.  In this affair and also in Libya he acted rather like any number of 19th Century statesmen who were pushed towards intervening in some Balkan hellhole by the newspapers and the hawks in the irresponsible domestic opposition.  Success under these circumstances is damage limitation by minimizing the scale of military action or, even better, resolving the issue through great power negotiations.  

That said, I don’t think for a minute that John Kerry was playing 11-dimensional chess when he suggested that Assad could avoid being attacked by agreeing to give up his chemical weapons. He simply lucked out, lucked out, that is, assuming that the current stand-down of tensions doesn’t turn into some other kind of debacle. It’s just that I figure a skillful diplomat is rather like Maxwell’s demon, an agent who exploits random fluctuations to achieve his goal, which, in this case, is to avoid useless and destructive military action while limiting the freedom of action of Syria’s government. One can only hope that the administration can blunder into a similar happy outcome in its relations with Iran. Enough mistakes and Obama may yet earn that Nobel Prize.
* The only candidate that comes to mind is the Bush Administration’s single-minded determination to invade Iraq. Chaney and company knew what they wanted and got it. Maybe the Austrian ultimatum to Serbia in August 1914 also counts since it was designed to make war inevitable and worked perfectly.

Contradiction #3

Business culture remains extremely conventional, and even quite high-level managers are very careful to validate their bona fides by repeated displays of conformism. Even the eccentricities of billionaires come from an approved list of quirks. In a time when commodification quickly erodes profits, however, businesses absolutely depend upon creative employees. Businessmen are like prudes who find they can’t resist picking up hookers.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Apologia Pro Vita Sua

Back in college a philosophy professor quoted me a famous bit from Lessing:  If God were to hold all Truth concealed in his right hand and in his left only the steady and diligent drive for Truth, albeit with the proviso that I would always and forever err in the process, and offer me the choice, I would with all humility take the left hand, and say: Father, I will take this one—the pure Truth is for You alone.” I think I was supposed to be edified, but instead I wondered out loud if you can really claim to seek the truth if you won’t take it when you can get it. Dr. Erickson was momentarily taken aback by this humorless rejoinder, but I’m sure he got over it. On the other hand, if he came up with a cogent response, I don’t remember it.
Here’s the thing: I understand why the guy who owns the track doesn’t want the greyhound to catch the rabbit, but it seems to me that it’s a pretty sorry hound that doesn’t try. In his parable, Lessing sounds like he’s being meritoriously humble, but he’s really looking at things from the point of view of the master of the dog races. A self-respecting philosopher who knows his place in this world may be perfectly well aware that his chances of success are not brilliant, but he always strives to finish the game even if that eventuality might turn out to be rather depressing.* What looks like and perhaps is hubris is actually one of the duties of his station in life.   
There are various meaningful ways to look at what philosophy is. For example, academic philosophy is a discipline with a professional tradition and has gradually accumulated technical expertise in a cumulative way. One can be a philosopher in this sense and remain a regular Joe who punches the clock and goes home at 6.  What I mean by philosophy is quite different. It’s the crazy project of understanding the world in and for yourself as if the universe could come to consciousness in an individual. The natural sciences, as becomes more and more obvious in the age of hundred-author papers, mass databases, and accelerators 17-miles around, are communal enterprises. The knower in the sciences has long been an us and may soon enough become an it as inquiry gets outsourced to the inorganic. Meanwhile, in philosophy, the knower is definitely an I. The motto of the operation is Wo wir waren will ich werden.
The idea of philosophy is quite absurd granted the disproportion between the littleness of the mind and the vastness of things and even more in view of the intrinsically social nature of thought. On the other hand, even in acceding to the fallibility of my own judgment, I’ve got to do the acceding. Even the Scholastics, who crowned Theology as the Queen of the sciences and therefore claimed to give the final word to the Magisterium of the church, couldn’t quite do so, not only because the submission of my mind to the consensus of a select group of elderly Italian pederasts is my decision, but because eventually I have to decide what the dogmas mean. The same dilemma faces those who think that science, that modern Magisterium, is going to make it unnecessary or jejune to philosophize; but aside from the fact that the sciences only deal with certain select aspects of reality, they don’t interpret their own results. I still have to figure out what to think about the status of physical laws or even of mathematical theorems. Of course scientists often do ask questions about such things. They don’t do so as scientists, however.
The inevitability of philosophy is hardly a triumphant assertion. The normal scorn cast on philosophers is all well deserved. Thing is, though, in laughing at philosophers, you make fun of humanity itself. There really is something deeply funny about our condition, and people who think of themselves as philosophers aren’t in a fundamentally different fix than anybody else. They’re just willing to wear the clown suit in public.  

* In practice, of course, philosophical careers do end; and there is something melancholy about that too, especially when a person mistakes tenure, professional recognition, or even becoming a bust in the Hall of Fame as what it had been all about. In writing about this, at least, Lessing was perceptive. He wrote to Moses Mendelssohn  “It is infinitely difficult to know when and where one should stop, and for all but one in thousands the goal of their thinking is the point at which they have become tired of thinking.”

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

A Dying Man Can Eat Anything: an Old Man Can Say Anything

I’m not particularly radical, but I know I come across that way at times. I sound radical because I more or less write what I think, at least relative to the going average for straightforwardness. The substance of my ideas is not far to the left or philosophically drastic or, for that matter, original; but having arrived at a time and place in my life where there are few consequences to speaking up, I sound strident to others whose words and even thoughts are under more effective external or internal censorship than mine. That’s not bragging. It would be if I paid much of a cost for typing away in the dead of night to a tiny audience of old friends, puzzled interlopers, and perhaps NSA bureaucrats. But I’m not risking much. I’m not in the situation of so many of the business people and academics I know who have to be extremely careful about what they put on the Internet because an unwise spasm of sincerity really can complicate their lives and even menace their careers. After all, in this age of universal surveillance absolutely everything is taken down and may be used against you. 
Speaking truth to power may be heroic. Speaking truth to the void is mostly just comical. Indeed, in the limit, it is essentially virtual; for just as a bird is only able to fly because of the resistance of the air that apparently hinders its flight, speech means to the extent that it does work against the burden of custom and expectation. When the Emperor admitted that the war situation had developed not necessarily to Japan's advantage, it mattered, though his majesty wasn’t entirely forthright about the situation. By the same token, if a TV news anchor or an ex-president takes a big risk and speaks with five percent more candor than usual, the incremental sincerity counts vastly more than any number of my rants, even assuming that in some cases I’m actually right about something. When I was in the publishing business, I used to tell potential authors that they had a choice of changing the thinking of a great many people in a small way or, if they pulled it off, changing the thinking of a very few people in a big way. Unfortunately, there’s a limit to this trade off because zero times anything is zero. If you’re going to bet on a number instead of a color, you should at least pick one of the integers and not one of the reals.

Saturday, September 07, 2013

Contradiction #2

American managers and venture capitalists are trained to get in fast, make a killing, and get out with the goodies; but running a successful enterprise requires employees who want to provide superior goods and services. Which means there is a permanent disconnect between the mission statement and the ethos of those in charge.

The Crux

For all I know, the administration is misleading us all about the nerve gas attack in Syria; for though my impression is that Obama is even less eager to intervene there than Clinton was in the former Yugoslavia, my government has been lying to me about such things all my life. In any case, rightly or wrongly, when I first heard about the incident, I assumed that the real issue this time wasn’t whether or not the attack had occurred as described, but whether a missile strike on Syria was an intelligent or moral response. Since I had and have strong doubts about the utility and legality of military retaliation, the truth of what happened at the outset seems less critical to me. I also noticed that the best-informed critics of military action I heard on NPR and elsewhere didn’t focus on the reliability of the intelligence it was premised on but on its potential strategic drawbacks. Since the weapons-of-mass-destruction fiasco of the Bush years is such a living memory, I figured that the critics would play up doubts about what happened if they thought that such doubts would hold up. For these and some other reasons, if I had to guess, which is all it would be, of course, I’d come down on the side of thinking that the Assad regime will turn out to have been, as advertised, responsible for what happened. I chose to direct my skepticism elsewhere.

What I’m waiting for is a cogent explanation of what a limited attack on Syria could accomplish. Absent that, the validity of intelligence about the event isn’t particularly relevant. It is, in fact, something of a red herring that confuses the debate by assuming that we’re preparing to reprise old mistakes when, most likely, we’re pioneering new ones. It isn’t just generals who are forever preparing for the last war. And what if Obama and company call everybody’s bluff, overruling the defense/intelligence community for once, and revealing what we actually know and how we know it? Would that settle things politically and discredit the critics even if it did not address the rightness or wisdom of the proposed response?

I recognize that these considerations may already be moot since Congressional opinion seems to running against the President.  Unfortunately, a no-vote will not settle my anxieties because not acting has its own risks and the prospect of serious non-military action is tenuous because so much of the coalition opposing Obama now is even more opposed to meaningful international cooperation than to military adventure. One could argue that it doesn’t matter how grim things become in Syria, but I wonder if it will be politically possible to ignore six months or six years of televised horror. What’s going on is indeed a civil war, but then so was the Spanish Civil War. The Syrian war is a struggle that, willy-nilly, is a proxy for most of the overt and latent conflicts of our world. I’m not sure we should be indifferent to it, and I’m damned sure we won’t be able to be indifferent to it.