Harry Hope's Saloon

This blog takes it's name from the setting for O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh -- a lousy gin-mill; a smoked-out, greasy dive where the habitues have all landed, it seems, permanently. Their lives, in each case, are paralyzed by fear and laziness. Like my own.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Move this thing?

Worth thinking seriously about. I like the title of the Blog and I would hope to keep it - though creative activity has been next to none for months, it remains a space that begs to be filled in the spirit of its name ...

I don't like the settings here anymore. I don't care that herbal drug and textbook salesmen think this blog is worth a bookmark.

J, let's go.

Friday, September 30, 2005

Als das Kind Kind war...

Recently, I revisited the “City of Angels” soundtrack, a real basket of gems with one each among the best tunes by Sarah McLachlan, U2, and Alanis, plus a great prog-rocky piece by Peter Gabriel and some classic Hendrix. It’s a hard album to just leave on in the background, jumping between styles with what can feel like the speed of channel surfing. But, moving on...

I think I’ve nailed down my reasons for increasing dislike of the American remake of Wim Wenders’ colossal “Himmel ueber Berlin”. Plenty of people on the IMDb have bashed CoA as boring, as heavy-handed, as “horrible, sentimental garbage”, and it is certainly all of that, although not unworthy enough of a spiteful “1” vote. But, no, the real reason it’s so terrible is that it has taken the profound, pervasive theme of the original and swapped it out for lame cliches. In the process, it bears witness against typical (late 20th) American palettes of desire and loss. And by looking just a little deeper, the filmmakers had every opportunity to avoid this insult.

The theme of “Himmel ueber Berlin” is foreignness. It takes place, of course, in a divided city, whose halves simultaneously face societal unity and division, where a physical symbol of disconnect looms large. The central human characters are: a French acrobat with a traveling circus, disconnected as a foreigner and as a performer; and Peter Falk, whom nobody can help seeing as Columbo. And then there are the disconnects of time and memory: an old man visits Potsdamerplatz, in his mind a bustling center, now a weed-choked lot. A poem runs throughout the film, concerning the loss of childlike virtues in the adult. Foreignness goes down to the smallest detail, as when Nick Cave’s inner monologue reassures himself that he’s “not gonna tell you about the girl”, just before he takes the mike and introduces a number with, “I’m gonna tell ya about a girl.” And, of course, there are the angels who want to be human, and the human who wants to be an angel.

What then, is the comparable theme of “City of Angels”, in a city not devastated by change or separation (and seemingly chosen only on account of its name), where all of the principals seem to be true blue Americans? What jumps out at me is: death and sex. Looking back, it’s striking how little death per se is present in HuB. The suicide witnessed by Cassiel, of course, but even there, the death seems less significant than the despair. But in CoA, death is everywhere. The acrobat has been replaced by a surgeon, whose chief source of despair is children passing on “before their time”. Peter Falk is replaced by Dennis Franz, whose character is introduced as suffering from serious health problems. And, of course, the ending, and the realization that when one “takes the good with the bad” as a human, death is the Big Bad.

And the Big Good is sex. Not the notch-in-your-belt kind, of course, or the sixties love-in kind, but the cheesy chick flic kind. One reviewer nailed in, writing that in the post-“Top Secret” era, he couldn’t believe anyone would try to play a fireside sex scene straight. In a cabin, mind you, on a quiet wooded lagoon up at Tahoe. For anyone with any ironic sense whatsoever, it’s a far cry from the rich erotica in Berlin clubs or outside a performer’s trailer at night.

What’s makes CoA so disappointing, even insulting, is that the United States, and particularly Southern California, has more than its share of foreignness, personal displacement, and roles that disguise the real person. The characters could have been a Guatemalan immigrant, a tabloid-hunted sitcom star, a “VH1 Where Are They Now?” aging rocker, a newly-imported Yao Ming type playing for the Lakers, or a bazillion other interesting things that would Americanize the theme of HuB as well as being more inherently interesting than a generic “cute lady doctor” or a generic “very sick man”. There could have been some real feel for the rich local culture, instead of some generic muggers, a generic homeless dude, and, you get the picture. And, yes, I like the soundtrack, but jeez, somebody really decided to remake “Himmel ueber Berlin” in L.A. and not have any scenes of real musicians performing in local clubs? The fallen angel could have been Gwen Stefani; that would have been fucking awesome.

What I’m particularly looking for response on is: whether the mass American audience is really so incapable of artistic appreciation for themes as rich as displacement or isolation, such that it demands a explicit payoff of sex, death, or close escape from death, to keep engaged. That’s the question that continues to emerge from contrast of this great film with this mediocre one.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Nice Priorities...

Investigators said Marco Garcia, 54, was found dead inside Ybarra's Jewelers on Sept. 13. He had apparently been killed during a robbery, according to authorities.
[...]
"Besides being my brother-in-law, he was my manager here at the store," said Samuel Ybarra. "I'm going to miss him so much because he was a great help in my business."

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Six degrees of insomniac surfing

So, I'm on a Scrabble server and notice some kewl lyrics in this guys finger notes. He warns me that the group is "very emo". "Emo" is a rather nebulous musical term, of course, so I go to Wikipedia what for to look it up. There is a page-of-the-day on anarcho-capitalism. So I click on that, leading to an approximately hour-long surf session that goes like this:

anarcho-capitalism --> David Friedman --> Society for Creative Anachronism --> Rennaisance Fair --> Longform Improvisation --> (my thought: something that is the opposite of) --> David Mamet --> Homicide --> Murder --> Year and a day rule --> Jubilee --> Jubilee (comics) --> Generation X (comics) --> Generation X --> emo.

Aaaaaah. Much better than typing three letters to find what I was looking for.

Friday, September 09, 2005

New at The Onion

Damn, these guys are good...

White Foragers Report Threat Of Black Looters

NEW ORLEANS—Throughout the Gulf Coast, Caucasian suburbanites attempting to gather food and drink in the shattered wreckage of shopping districts have reported seeing African Americans "looting snacks and beer from damaged businesses."

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Very important survivor

Hehe, glad to know he's safe, up there at Red Stick.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

So much to learn...

Okay, before you ask, I stumbled upon this little testimonial in a particularly surfy kind of mood, via anti-Disney pages.

Although it may be tedious, I urge you to read through to the end, for there is truly a payoff. Oh my god, man, oh my god. (Scott: read it out loud to the girls. That would be hilarious.)

Expertise and the educated layman

John Derbyshire on National Review Online in response to a post on political parties and Intelligent Design, goes deeper:

The problem with science is that it's a gnosis -- a body of esoteric material you need to spend years mastering. It is therefore inevitable that the people who do master it become a gnostic elite; and it follows from that that any public issue involving science can, and usually does, degenerate into an elite vs. masses squabble.

I don't know any way out of that, but I do wish we could do a better job of showing people what a proper scientific attitude _is_, a thing which I think can be grasped by anyone, even without any specialized training in a particular science.


This speaks to what may be among the trickiest features for a technologically advanced pluralistic society to negotiate: while we certainly need oversight of specialized elites by well-rounded, critical-thinking laymen, this oversight needs to be infused with appreciation for what specialization requires and for the levels of analysis it allows. I myself depart from many libertarians in (consciously) allowing many of my values to be shaped by the expertise of others. For example, I don't take the primary job of a music or film critic to be informing be of stuff that I would like today (although that function is certainly nice), but rather showing me ways of liking new things, and new ways of liking old things. Similarly, but with graver import, I think that the primary job of an economist is not to provide me with ammunition for positions I am already determined to hold.

On a societal level, however, I'm worried about how well this balance will hold, and what the consequences (short- and long-term) might be if it further degenerates into "elite vs. masses" warfare.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Posting just before work

Scott, I suspect you'd really appreciate this guy.

For instance, this old entry.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Artists and Criminals

This, attributed to Stanley Kubrick, film maker non pareil, obsessive craftsman, and genuine eccentric:

I've got a peculiar weakness for criminals and artists. Neither takes life as it is.

I'm presuming he means "peculiar weakness" the way most people do when they confess a weakness for chocolate or nicotine or long legs (all of which can be very bad for you) - that is to say, he rates them highly. To say "I love you" is to surrender, to admit weakness, to give up freely because you are worth so much (or because I need something to exist that is worth so much or my life won't mean anything).

[Hey, where the hell am I going with this?]

Anyway ... yes. So I'm presuming Kubrick doesn't just mean that criminals and artists are interesting subjects for film. That artists and criminals are valuable forms of life ... somehow higher: like Nietzsche's artisits and saints and philosophers.

Artists and criminals. Criminals and artists. I like that.

Wish I could be one.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Don't I Know my Brother?

Almost just as I thought ... dude calls me up last night to tell me my name was not so much included in the list of familial flag-wavers for the sake of irony ... as that the flag-wavers were added for the sake of extra punch in a joke intended entirely for my benefit.

I love that kind of stuff. That's good quality humour.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Fighting for Glory (oh yeah, and my freedom)

And he ran along the trench, with its mortars and riflemen, machinguns and grenadiers. And he killed them all.

I do not know exactly why - I think it was either an accident, or a lark - but my brother included my email address in a list when he shared this link today.

It's titled This Will Make You Proud - and it's a lustrous, adoring, genuflecting, tribute to "real American" Brian Chontosh, USMC, who directed his humvee into the buzzing center of a dark ambush, saving some of his marines, and killing and wounding dozens of enemies. Gasp.

Knowing my brother, I do believe I was being winked at. I recognized most of the other addresses/names in the cc list - family, and old friends of the family: a regular bunch of hard-working, boot-lacing, rifle-polishing, law-enforcing, law-breaking jacks and jackies.

I really don't like being a single inclusion on a mass email - not typically. But something about this was okay. I felt kind of special. Thanks bro. I love you, too. And ... gosh. Thank you Brian Chontosh!


P.S. The following, with a subtle wink of my own, was my reply, to the entire list:

Man.

Who the hell created this life-slandering treacle?

And why was it sent to me?? I'm not a military worshipping zombie ....

Is this supposed to be ironic?

Monday, July 18, 2005

Choices

Check out what Julian Sanchez is penning these days.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Monuments

Perhaps so those few of us can, by comparison, more deeply appreciate this, which I feel particularly blessed to have come across quite accidentally.

Freedom Tower

Who named this thing, anyway? Why do "we" have to be represented in such an embarrasing way at every opportunity?

I kind of like the necessary emphasis on anti-kablooey, indestructable security throughout the design of a project so named, too. Good stuff, when you think about it.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Clear!!

fweeeeeeeeeee ... Chu-chunk! ...

fweeeeeeeeeeeeeee....

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Self-Control

Here's what I think: it might not be the case that nobody who can laugh and dance without fear or self-consciousness ever lost their job, their house, their car, their credit. But I'll bet that nobody whoever lost their job, their house, their car, their credit knew yet how to really laugh and dance.

Looking over these words from my last post, I'm thinking this was not a very careful point to make in connection with John Riegle, the Elvis taxicab driver. The article does not say, but maybe Mr. Riegle did know how to laugh and dance before his wife's death. Maybe he felt all of life so passionately, and suffered this loss so greatly, that losing possession of everything else was just consequential, just stuff that also happened. Maybe then these did not even feel like losses though.

The point I was making was really autobiographical. For I feel always like I am just about to lose everything. I feel always on thin ice, dragging my things around with me. Scraping my feet along always so softly and fearfully ... and incrementally, that I never begin to approach the horizon ... slipping around in place. I have this theory that I should just dance; that what's beneath the ice is part of the world too, and I should not dread to touch it. But I never test the theory. Every instinct tells me to be careful, for God's sake. Don't bound. Don't leap.

To move away now from the metaphor, it's like this: I feel fixed. The world frightens me. I sit there quivering, trembling with restraint. I'm resentful, insufferable. I'm isolated, ignorant and incurious. I can't dance ... so don't ask me.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Long live the King

Here's a great little story about redemption --- after a fashion. John Riegle drives the "Elvis Taxi" in Sacramento (about 12 miles from my home in Davis). Okay, he's a bit cracked. Says he "channels" Elvis. He sings and shimmys and shakes his pelvis in front of his cab, carrys on like a damned lunatic ... and delights his clients ... and makes a tidy sum. I especially like this passage:

Beneath the sunglasses and the alter ego is a savvy business person. Riegle has a bachelor’s in marketing from San Francisco State University. But he’s in it for more than money. Riegle says driving a cab helped him heal from his wife’s death. "I lost everything back 11 years ago. Lost my job, my house, my car, my credit. Wound up a hobo, wino, over in Del Paso Heights. Spent about two years in the VA hospital rehab. What a mess my life was when I lost Judy. Oh my god. Fixed and all better now, though. The cab business is one of the things that has fixed me, and made me strong and healthy again."

Here's what I think: it might not be the case that nobody who can laugh and dance without fear or self-consciousness ever lost their job, their house, their car, their credit. But I'll bet that nobody whoever lost their job, their house, their car, their credit knew yet how to really laugh and dance.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Thus Spoke Wittgentstein...

God can say to me: "I am judging you out of your own mouth."

Your own actions have made you shudder with disgust when you have seen them in others
.

--Vermischte Bemerkungen

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Gibt es irgendwo eine lebendige Blume?

Thought this might be germane. It's certainly German:

...Und zwar ist die Religion das Selbstbewußtsein und das Selbstgefühl des Menschen, der sich selbst entweder noch nicht erworben oder schon wieder verloren hat. Aber der Mensch, das ist kein abstraktes, außer der Welt hockendes Wesen. Der Mensch, das ist die Welt des Menschen, Staat, Sozietät. Dieser Staat, diese Sozietät produzieren die Religion, ein verkehrtes Weltbewußtsein, weil sie eine verkehrte Welt sind. Die Religion ist die allgemeine Theorie dieser Welt, ihr enzyklopädisches Kompendium, ihre Logik in populärer Form, ihr spiritualistischer Point-d'honneur, ihr Enthusiasmus, ihre moralische Sanktion, ihre feierliche Ergänzung, ihr allgemeiner Trost- und Rechtfertigungsgrund. Sie ist die phantastische Verwirklichung des menschlichen Wesens, weil das menschliche Wesen keine wahre Wirklichkeit besitzt. Der Kampf gegen die Religion ist also mittelbar der Kampf gegen jene Welt, deren geistiges Aroma die Religion ist.

Das religiöse Elend ist in einem der Ausdruck des wirklichen Elendes und in einem die Protestation gegen das wirkliche Elend. Die Religion ist der Seufzer der bedrängten Kreatur, das Gemüt einer herzlosen Welt, wie sie der Geist geistloser Zustände ist. Sie ist das Opium des Volkes.

Die Aufhebung der Religion als des illusorischen Glücks des Volkes ist die Forderung seines wirklichen Glücks. Die Forderung, die Illusionen über einen Zustand aufzugeben, ist die Forderung, einen Zustand aufzugeben, der der Illusionen bedarf. Die Kritik der Religion ist also im Keim die Kritik des Jammertales, dessen Heiligenschein die Religion ist.

Die Kritik hat die imaginären Blumen an der Kette zerpflückt, nicht damit der Mensch die phantasielose, trostlose Kette trage, sondern damit er die Kette abwerfe und die lebendige Blume breche.


-- Marx, Zur Kritik der Hegelschen Rechtsphilosophie

Ay, there's the rub. Sane writers from Epicurus through Nietsche to d'Unamuno and Camus, when distilled, have been telling us precisely that there is no such flower. Where Dawkins' science forces us to go, we can see no artificial social repression to be removed, which we might have hoped to yield a true image for which religion is the negative. Instead, we see social and personal fault woven into the very fabric of our selves and our societies. With this science, this wisdom in place, it no longer appears merely practical impossibility, but a conceptual impossibility, for "us" to separate ourselves from what we despise.

(I really need to get ahold of a hard copy of that book, BTW.)

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Why the unreasoning right?

The Dawkins interview mentioned by Scott in the previous post is, to my mind, both highly admirable and generally uninteresting. It's admirable that he's unwilling to give ground on the stupid "agnosticism" tactic. And it's admirable that he's willing to stand against the intellectual crippling of children and adults. However, most of the interview is spent knocking down easy targets, and the two really engaging questions it raises are never pursued.

One of these questions is how the advent of genome mapping, screening, and engineering will affect the future course of species and ecosystems, and especially the kinds of organisms we're willing to call "persons". I'll put this one aside, along with the question, developed by Scott, of how religion can interfere with the pursuit of meaning and goodness. For the time being, I want address the issue of the current American turn toward religious conservatism, and its relation to the Enlightenment spirit that inspires Dawkins. He says:

My American friends tell me that you are slipping towards a theocratic Dark Age. Which is very disagreeable for the very large number of educated, intelligent and right-thinking people in America. Unfortunately, at present, it's slightly outnumbered by the ignorant, uneducated people who voted Bush in.

But the broad direction of history is toward enlightenment, and so I think that what America is going through at the moment will prove to be a temporary reverse.


But what isn't mentioned, and absolutely ought to be, in this segment of the interview, is the impressive momentum throughout the twentieth century of intellectual systems which, while godless (at least in principle), were nevertheless immune to the enlightenment of science, rooted in wholly unreasonable conceptions of human nature and history, and often as deeply threatened by the insights of evolution as is any godly religion. As a short list of isms, I'll mention Marxism, racialism, modernism, radical egalitarianism, second-wave feminism, deep ecology, and Ayn Rand's Objectivism. It's important to reflect on the rise of these belief-complexes in order to remind ourselves that we don't avoid the pitfalls of bad religious belief (what Dawkins calls "delusion") merely by disbelieving in an Old Man In The Clouds; but also, with more immediate significance, it allows us to more soberly, and less fearfully, assess present ideological trends in the USA.

The idea that we're heading into a "dark age" for science, and in particular for evolutionary theory, is a tough conclusion to avoid, if we were to tacitly accept that the major enemies of "the right" (from either side's perspective) are in fact mostly Enlightenment, pro-science value systems. At an anecdotal level, I'm not at all convinced that that's the case. As one example, the "left" in this country has managed to deeply entrench a taboo against considering genetic contributions to psychological differences between the sexes and races. (Dawkins' head should be shaking at the obvious dearth of endocrinological and evolutionary biological expertise among "gender studies" departments.) As another example (and somewhat contradicting the first, if reason is to be our tool), a more recent taboo has developed against research concerning environmental contributions to sexual orientation. Not always, but far too often, the wrath of the academic and political left has descended upon researchers who attempt to quantify and test a broad hypothesis which (to my mind) is patently obvious: that such undesirable behaviors as rape, sexual harassment, adultery, bigotry, and male-on-male violence are largely manifestations of genetic patterns that have had great reproductive power for our ancestors. (As opposed to their primary cause being, say, the propaganda of a patriarchal conspiracy, or the alienation brought on by technological developments.) Having read most of Dawkins' books, I'm virtually certain that he'd agree with me in condemning these taboos. Among Salon readers especially, he should have taken the opportunity to mention them, and to expressly connect them to the harmful aspects of religion.

Ultimately, what I'm suggesting in mentioning these points is that the broader social dynamic which we're undergoing, of which growth in the religious right plays a crucial role, is probably not as simple as Dawkins makes it seem in the interview (a temporary swing away from enlightenment, to be followed by a larger swing back toward it). It may actually be more comparable to an immune system response, against so many godless anti-enlightenment movements of the last century. That is, it may be an indication to the contemporary left to thoroughly purge itself of its own delusional and dangerous ideologies, and to more fully embrace the teachings of legitimate science and history when it comes to our biologies and our social structures. Maybe it's wishful thinking, but I'm increasily noticing indices of precisely that dynamic.

And, after all, Andrea Dworkin is out of the picture. Let Dawkins be the new left, then -- hallelujah.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Beating my Chest ...

This isn't very gracious, I know. But I want to revisit this paragraph I myself wrote earlier in All in One Take:

Amor Fati, Nietzsche would say - Embrace your fate! Take the world, good and ill ... this is no rehearsal. This is your moment on stage. What a miracle ... you're here! Do you know, statistically, how impossible that even is?? And what, you want more?? What, another life?! Oh man, Let your heart race now, let it skip, eternally while you breathe!

And these thoughts I want to compare - their content anyway, if not their tone and measure - to this brief response from Richard Dawkins in an interview currently in Salon (Registration required, but you can get a day pass):

How would we be better off without religion?

We'd all be freed to concentrate on the only life we are ever going to have. We'd be free to exult in the privilege -- the remarkable good fortune -- that each one of us enjoys through having been being born. An astronomically overwhelming majority of the people who could be born never will be. You are one of the tiny minority whose number came up. Be thankful that you have a life, and forsake your vain and presumptuous desire for a second one. The world would be a better place if we all had this positive attitude to life. It would also be a better place if morality was all about doing good to others and refraining from hurting them, rather than religion's morbid obsession with private sin and the evils of sexual enjoyment.


To that let me just proudly add ... yeah, see? Exactly.

Monday, April 18, 2005

The Cowen Questions

Over at Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen has had the audacity to claim that he holds beliefs with what is quite possibly insufficient evidence. (!) Although deeply offensive to my normative standard of 101% rationality (according to which, as follows rationally, we are all sinners) I feel that such an attractive assortment deserves sniffing.

[clearing throat]

1. China will someday just get up and attack Taiwan. Recent progress aside, how many rational decisions have Chinese governments made in the last six hundred years? And its inability to get over the idea of conquering Taiwan will stop China from democratizing anytime soon. I am not in general a "China hawk," but I view Taiwan as, sadly, a goner. I remain amazed by how many "liberal" Chinese simply think Taiwan is "theirs."

While it certainly seems that the PRC will get away with assimilating and corrupting Taiwan, is it not far more plausible that a series of deals between the Party and crony capitalists will faciliate a reunification scheme to (like Hong Kong on a much larger scale) establish much greater superficial freedoms on the island, and providing much more in the way of bread and circuses than the mainland gets, while gradually consolidating ultimate power?

2. High-quality American high school students study too much and have too many extracurricular activities. Yes, I am thinking zero-sum game. It would be better for most of them to go out and get jobs bagging groceries. They would learn more about the real world.

Hell yeah. The only thing I'll add is that most of the application-padding extracurricular activities (and, probably needless to say, far too much of the curricular) reflect a painfully shallow standard of well-rounded virtue, with all of the attendant absurditites of thoughless adult value-projection onto adolescents. For a particularly clear example: I doubt that many kids list "Dungeons and Dragons" on college apps. I sure as hell didn't. But looking back, there's no doubt in my mind that the role-playing game did far more for my intellectual development, on a diversity of subjects, than did French Club or Debate Club or wherever the hell else I hung out with my smart friends for one hour a week.

3. Shaquille O'Neal is the greatest NBA player ever, bar none. (Well, OK, there is some evidence for this.)

Heh, no way. I'm writing this from the Sacramento area, so you may disregard with a snicker if you so choose. But Shaq has done so well because he gets away with many offensive fouls, every game, appalling in frequency and degree, by almost any standard you can name: the history of basketball, the spirit of basketball, or the standard by which most his contemporary centers are held. Most of his points come from shielding the ball with his back to the net, knocking a defender back or down a couple of times, and just kinda stomping to the basket for an easy lay-in. Okay, so rules evolve, and maybe he's pioneering a new style that hasn't caught on widely enough. If so, basketball is going to end up a really stupid sport.

4. The first two Star Wars installments (yes, that includes the one with Jar Jar Binks) were excellent, and will someday be recognized as such. Maybe you view those films as engaged in excessive pandering. I see them as a Bildungsroman (Anakin/Darth) which makes few concessions to popular taste and also presents public choice theory in sophisticated fashion. Lucas simply doesn't care if the films make no sense in stand-alone fashion, nor should he. By the way, in the interests of personal safety, I've decided to limit my number of car trips before May 19.

I haven't seen "The Clone Wars", so can't really address your point. But I thought the first movie was atrocious, for the acting, the weight of uninspired action over development, and especially for the weirdly quick resolution.

5. High-quality barbecue (alas, not available here in Virginia) is better than most expensive French restaurants. And I love most expensive French restaurants, especially when someone else is paying.

Yep, but lots of ethnic and local cuisine is, at its best, also better than expensive French restaurants, often with much less fat and snob content. Somehow the imported Thais seem to make consistently excellent dishes without reminding you of that fact incessantly, or criticizing your beverage pairing. You know, the main reason I've opted for muckety-muck French restaurants is precisely nostalgia for a time and class level where I might have lived as such a snob. Luckily, I don't get that disease very often.

6. Aesthetic judgments are, in principle, objective rather than arbitrary.

Well, duh. Unfortunately, I suspect the master key will lie far in the future, coming from advances in the study of cortical structure, philosophy of consciousness, and a really rigorous form of semiotics. Hell, if we're already having so much trouble with the concept of "IQ"...

Monday, April 04, 2005

Why I don't like your music :->

Oh, what a breath of fresh air to read this summary of a certain artist's own musical tastes:

There's a certain kind of melodic sense and a more old-school approach to songwriting, like a more crafted song. I'm not so excited about bands that are more about vibe than about good songwriting. But then again, the vibe has to be there too. And lyrics that are written to a certain standard, with the music married to the lyrics in a particular kind of way.

Hopelessly vague? Of course, but it makes for a rallying cry.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

pontification

Man, I'm about to fucking lose it at just about every single article rigorously alternating the terms "pope" and "pontiff". What are you assholes trying to do, show off your SAT vocabularies? I'm not certain, but I'm pretty sure that the last time I read a story about someone's child, I didn't see gratuitous substitution of "offspring", "progeny", etc.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Good genes

My cousin has just been signed by the San Jose Earthquakes. He's such a great guy -- I'm really happy that he's back in the area.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

ad non sequitum

Here comes my Terri Schiavo post ...

Heard a set of propositions bordering on the sublime this afternoon as I tuned in to the eminently entertaining Michael Savage "Savage Nation" radio program (and I mean that in the very worst possible way).

A guy calls in and says something like:

Oh man, I tell ya, these liberals! They're all het up to murder this handicapped woman, but man, they couldn't stand to see Christopher Reeve die. I mean, his handicap costed a helluva lot more money, he needed a lot more care and resources, so why are they so eager to kill this poor handicapped woman????

And this was Savages immediate response:

Let me tell you something. Here's the bad news. What we're seeing today is just the first steps to Nazi rule. Do you understand that?

Too rich.

Can you spot the fallacies? This is college textbook material.

But I lied, of course. This is not a Terri Schiavo post. The ethico-biologico-juridico questions that are the crux of that case are of only occasional, academic, interest to me ... not more so than in the case of Karen Ann Quinlan, or of Nancy Cruzan, or of the diaboloical case of Josef Mengele (which seems to be what Savage was referring to).

Which is to say that here I'm more intrigued by the fray - by listening to the way some people, in some regrettably too large public squares, talk about the way other people talk about, and react to, whatever happens to be on the docket for the week.

I mean it's all too rich.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Appropos my last post ...

To go along with the passage I quoted from Berger, James Wolcott fires hard against cause celebre spectacle and hypocrisy in his latest blog post, railing against the usual suspects - Peggy Noonan, Tom Delay - quoting liberally (no pun intended)(...no, honest!) from Alexander Cockburn and Paul Craig Roberts, and including this passage from The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason, by Sam Harris:

Faith drives a wedge between ethics and suffering. Where certain actions cause no suffering at all, religious dogmatists will maintain that they are evil and worthy of punishment (sodomy, marijuana use, homosexuality, the killing of blastocysts, etc). And yet where suffering and death are found in abundance their causes are often deemed to be good (withholding funds for family planning in the third world, prosecuting nonviolent drug offenders, preventing stem-cell research, etc). This inversion of priorities not only victimises innocent people and squanders scarce resources; it completely falsifies our ethics.

Harris' book was recently skewered in a review on reasononline, and perhaps justifiably: bad enough this comment is flatly anecdotal - which is okay when I do it - it's also, I think, flat wrong. This might be fixed by a little qualification: "Faith tends to drive a wedge between ethics and suffering..." or "The faith of some - maybe even most - people tends to drive a wedge ..." Something like that. I think this is why Wolcott includes this passage in his post; he means to be saying "The faith of scum like Tom DeLay and Rick Santorum never seems to succeed in anything but driving these wedges..."

Taken as such, the passage makes its point. Speech about morality sounds always empty to me when it is busy naming pariahs, creeps, freaks and dangerous characters; when it is busy circumscribing "family values" and declaiming outsiders and degenerates to that hallowed version.

To me, individual morality would consist in never- or seldom-flagging humor ... love, patience, curiosity and tenderness to all (or all possible). Social morality must probably consist in the old, forgotten liberal values: eradication of poverty, respect and protection for the least among us ... that kind of thing.

So, for now at least, I guess you can count me out. I'm crabby, not very patient, not fighting to alleviate the scourge of want and constant social care. These beliefs of mine, if true, only include me in the number of those who recognize something like the extent of their own depravity, and to a small degree, among those like, in this case, Wolcott, Roberts and Berger, and among those like the good people at Sojourner's (check out The Budget is a Moral Document) who want, I think, not only to say, "hey! we're moral too!!" but to kick over the tables in the temple and clearly call the money-changing moralists immoral.

Bad Day, Bad Mood ... Bad writing

Liked this passage from a recent article in Salon.com, {Kevin Berger, author) concerning this week's congressional hearing on steroids in baseball:

I should admit that I tuned into the hearings Thursday mostly in agreement with Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Randy Wolf, who said that Congress's new zeal around steroids amounted to "chemical McCarthyism." The din of condemnation seemed hysterical, hypocritical and a distraction from baseball's much more serious political scandal, which is its exemption from the federal antitrust act, which allows wealthy owners to earn exorbitant profits and pretty much rob cities of taxes in the process. And isn't it rich that this is the same government committee that mostly failed to investigate wrongdoing at Enron? The collapse of which made it awfully hard for a lot of folks in Houston to afford tickets to watch the Astros' Jeff Bagwell slap a double to the right field gap. In short, the steroid witch hunt seemed another log on the bonfire of religious moralism that blinds us to the country's more serious problems.

I don't really think much of the comparison to investigations, or lack of same, into the Enron scandal, which sounds too much like the tired old defense of Martha Stewart, who is supposed to have been molested in ways spared Ken Lay, but the overall sentiment, and especially the final statement, hits the mark.

I've been lamenting for some time, to anyone unfortunate enough to raise anything like the issue around me, that the incorporated "religious right" in this country suffers from a very distinct and conspicuous lack of real morality.

And I think the problem spreads way beyond that amorphous, scolding group. Everywhere I turn, to whomever I look, left and right, I seem to see pinched faces, thin skin and gleaming eyes staring in judgement, bespeaking an urge to punish - compounding resentment and misery; redistributing shame and rage in the name of gods and parents and children and family values and structure... in accordance with the way we are brought up. It's all very modern crisis, very Munch and Brecht, very fin de Siecle...

I'm judging: I find it immoral.

Monday, March 14, 2005

jailbait: fifties and nineties

I must confess: if someone would have suggested this connection to me yesterday, I'd have scoffed at such superficiality. Now I'm just sort of dumbfounded.

From the Wikipedia entry on Lolita:

The case of Amy Fisher, whom in 1992 the press dubbed the "Long Island Lolita", helped popularize the term among a new generation. Screenwriter Alan Ball considered writing a play based on the Fisher case, but the story soon got away from him and mutated into the screenplay which became American Beauty (1999). The narrator, played by Kevin Spacey, falls for a teenage girl, who is a "lolita" in the mainstream or pornographic sense but is too old to be a Nabokovian nymphet. His name, Lester Burnham, is an anagram of "Humbert learns".

Monday, March 07, 2005

Utter Bullshit

A friend recently emailed me a link to this book review of cartesian scholar Harry Frankfurt's On Bullshit.

How nice to see eminent philosophy training its best lights on the world we actually inhabit.

top ten atrocious rhymes

A lot of people don't like 'slant rhyme' (near rather than absolute identity in the ‘rime’, the final stressed vowel of a line and all following sounds. See, for example, the rhyme ‘rivers’/’lovers’ in Stalling's "Listening to the Monkeys..." -- and see what she does in stanza 5!). Unfortunately, I often hear it described either as laziness or as a sort of antinomian rejection of a pure-ryming tradition. However, aside from its usefulness in the deliberately weaking of a pattern, slanting can save a poet from the atrocities of the present list. In some of these cases, an obvious semantic link renders the rhyme completely uninspired. In other cases, usually when perfect rhymes are sparse, a rhyme pair is so highly conventionalized that it often seems undermotivated by content (‘forced’).
“The bells that cool my horse's tramp”, was Emily Dickinson’s apt metaphor for the value of slant rhyme. The following, then, must be elephants, or perhaps Panzers.

10. ‘seven’/’heaven’

I guess it's not as bad as ‘twelve’/’delve’ in the old nursery rhyme, but it's much more common. Country Joe and the Fish deserve kudos for the line "five, six, seven, open up the pearly gates", simultaneously a) punning on ‘8’, b) semantically evoking the lame rhyme for ‘7’ without lamely articulating it, and c) staying on topic. Best counting song I’ve ever heard, and maybe the only decent one.

9. ‘death’/’breath’

If Shakespeare jumped off a bridge, would you do it too?

8. any combination of ‘fly’/’high’/’sky’

“Wind beneath my Wings” uses all three. Nice song which otherwise adheres to a regular pattern of fairly weak slant rhyme (‘shine’/’behind’; ‘truth’/’you’; ‘be’/’wings’). Yet one attempt at pure rhyme, and it’s hella lame.

7. ‘love’/’dove’

Whoa, how lucky that we have a symbol whose name rhymes with the name of that which it symbolizes! Guess we won’t have to put any, uh, thought into our poetic metaphors.

6. ‘junkie’/’flunkie’

Sorry, Sheryl. I still love your songs, even this one, but the rhyme is so severely lame that it needs live-in care.

5. ‘wait’/’late’/’date’

Billy Joel rhymed ‘date’ with ‘masturbate’. That was much kewler. BTW, did you know that Senator Clinton used “Captain Jack” at a major campaign function? Hilarious. I guess they read lyrics as often as they read bills.

4. ‘baby’/’maybe’

Okay, so not much rhymes with ‘baby’, but please don’t qualify your love on the basis of a purely poetic desperation.

If we were old-school Mormons, love songs might be adressed to our ‘babies’, facilitating rhymes with ‘rabies’ or ‘scabies’.

3. ‘bad’/’mad’/’sad’/’glad’

The words are far too literal, and the emotions too superficial, to be so strongly juxtaposed as in rhyme. Rhyme them with ‘fad’, ‘clad’, ‘plaid’, or ‘Galahad’, but not with one another.

2. ‘cry’/’die’

Which one did Elvis say he was lonesome enough to do? How about Hank Williams? John Denver? I always forget.

1. ‘mother’/’brother’

Anticlimactically obvious, I think. Lots of nice slant rhymes to choose from here. Highly recommended.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Will to Will

Will Wilkinson has been writing open letters to an old Randian self-slice. In the things-I-wish-I-had-written file:

"(Further suggestive-but-incomplete Nozickian digression . . . Capitalism and reason developed together, but this isn't obvious. Proponents of reason missed this, and indeed thought reason had been sufficiently refined to transcend capitalism and rationally plan a good society. This turned out to be a disaster. But this is a new sense in which capitalism contained the seeds of its own opposition, and in which anti-capitalism was unwittingly (and ironically) anti-reason. The next step in the development of reason is its self-consciousness about its limits, and its contribution to a dynamic unplanned order. Hayekian Hegel!)"

Monday, February 21, 2005

Centers

Last night, I was browsing my ancient (late 60s) National Geographic books, and in "The Amazing Universe" by Herbert Friedman I came across two jaw-droppers concerning the accompishments of astronomer Harlow Shapley:

"Moving our sun trillions of miles seems a Herculean task, but Harlow Shapley accomplished it in 1918 with an inspired assumption. Until then, astronomers guessed at the size of the Milky Way, usually placing the sun at its center..."

"...single-handedly, Shapley removed the sun and earth from a central position in the Milky Way and placed us close to its outskirts -- an almost Copernican accomplishment. In the Missouri native's words, it was 'a rather nice idea because it means that man is not such a big chicken.'"

Jigga-wha??

What we call the 'Copernican revolution' was indeed a great astronomic paradigm-shift, but is much more significant as a revolution in theology, philosophy of science, and the rest of the humanities. It means, for one thing, that we don't allow religious authority to straightjacket our investigations into the world. Even more importantly, it means that if we are to pursue meaning, we must follow other paths than cosmic centrality (or perhaps, by implication, immortality).

I can consider myself neither a scientist nor particularly a historian of science, but I am completely incredulous as to Friedman's claim: that professional astronomers in the twentieth century actually took as their default the centrality of our solar system in the galaxy, and that there was anything shocking about a disproof. Hadn't the real revolution, the conceptual revolution, already run its course? Whether an accurate depiction of 1910s astronomy or just one author's bizarre take on it, is there any limit, an existentialist might say, to such absurd goalpost-shifting?

Sunday, February 20, 2005

So much for homogeneity in academia...

More on Ward from the Rocky Mountain News:

Another controversial Churchill essay is his Pacifism as Pathology, a treatise contending that nonviolent protest is ineffective and a sure loser.

His defiant stance is underscored in big and small trappings of his life; on the side of the refrigerator in his kitchen, along with more mundane items, is a small patch bearing the silhouette of an assault rifle, and the words, "Peace Through Superior Firepower."

Interesting dude. This may be worth getting a hold of. Most striking for me is how close this sounds to the frightened stereotype of armed citizen advocacy that I encounter with regularity from leftist acquaintances. Although I don't want to leap to conclusions without having read his full explication, I suspect that I support civilian gun ownership for reasons almost diametrically opposed to Churchill's. My support is for local, immediate deterrence to personal crime, the self as the primary source of personal defense, and a reduced reliance on massive bureaucracy for local civility and morality. I see guns, in essence, as tonic against explosions of violence in two respects: first, by reducing the local crime (including that committed by police!) that can set them off, and second, by allowing individual decisions to react to the problem locally and proportionally. Peace, in other words, comes not from besting a threat through active use of weaponry, but from staking out one's personal sphere sufficiently that aggression becomes too costly at the level of local decision-making. In a diverse society, making civility pragmatic is an important precursor to healthy cross-pollenation of ideas and traditions, although this latter societal value naturally requires a bit more than a healthy set of thorns.

But to think of oneself as among the oppressed, and aiming to amass sufficient firepower (literally and metaphorically) to defeat the oppressor, seems to me exactly the wrong way to go.

Paul Craig Roberts

Here are his bona fides.

And here is one of his most recent columns.

This is your calm answer to the aneurystic Zell Miller ... only don't look for him to be delivering any major party keynote addresses in prime time.

Eichmanns (part 1?)

I'd like to thank Scott for inviting me to his little unbirthday party. I've brought some more candles for his cake, and they're the special kind...

OK, so I've been reflecting upon Scott's recent post regarding the Ward Churchill "scandal". Now, I'm not going to get into advocacy of academic freedom, because the relevant arguments are either (moral universals) both widely available and rather boring, or else (sociological applications of evolution theory) somewhat beyond my expertise and worthy of separate discussion. Nor am I going to discuss the ethics of killing innocents (from whatever the agent's own perspective on justice) in the service of targeting the guilty. Here, instead, I want to discuss the other question, the one at an intersection of ethics and metaphor/analogy theory: to whom can our received construal of Eichmann and his role justifiably be mapped?

First off, I'm going to take it for granted that 'evil' is either preserved in any such mapping, or reduced somewhat (perhaps to 'very bad'). If moral badness were not essential to the analogy, I see no sense in choosing Eichmann as the source concept, rather than any number of morally neutral cogs throughout history and literature. Second, Eichmann is a conduit for larger evil forces. Third, he is personally dispassionate toward the evil cause he serves. Whether or not this is literally true of the man (and it almost certainly isn't), it has come to be, as a result of his "just following orders" defense at trial and of Hannah Arendt's general acceptance of his self-characterization for the sake of her larger points about human nature and history, critical to the symbolic Eichmann, which is what concerns me here. Fourth (and this is as true of the symbolic as of the real man), Eichmann not only witnessed, but made executive decisions in the organization of, the evils for which he and his society were condemned. The suffering was before his eyes, he was in a position to tabulate it, and did in fact report on it to his superiors as progress made. Put these features together and I get an analogical frame like this:

Eichmann Frame (EF): An Eichmann is a person who is evil by virtue of acting out of duty to an institution, while dispassionate toward the institution's values, and who thereby knowingly lets evil work through them as a conduit, while personally confronted with the suffering that makes such work evil.

Now, a frame is not an analytic definition, so a person need not satisfy all of the above precisely in order to be reasonably called an Eichmann. Features of the frame can be weakened or backgrounded; they can even be dropped, so long as enough of pragmatic importance is preserved in the frame. (Somewhat in Churchill's defense, he did refer to the WTC deceased as "little Eichmanns", and, as the qualifier 'little' suggests, did not claim that the individual evil of these individuals rose to Eichmann's level.) So, my two questions are: (1) To what extent are the various features of my 'Eichmann' frame central or peripheral? (2) To what extent do the WTC deceased (universally or on average) make the analogy go through?

Hold that thought. Scene change.

Here, in The Stand, is how Stephen King introduces the dark man, Randall Flagg:

“His pockets were stuffed with fifty different kinds of conflicting literature -- pamphlets for all seasons, rhetoric for all reasons. When this man handed you a tract you took it no matter what the subject: the dangers of atomic power plants, the role played by the International Jewish Cartel in the overthrow of friendly governments, the CIA-Contra-cocaine connection, the farm workers' unions, the Jehovah's Witnesses... the Blacks for Militant Equality, the Kode of the Klan. He had them all, and more, too... There was a dark hilarity in his face, and perhaps in his heart, too, you would think -- and you would be right... It was a face guaranteed to make barroom arguments over batting averages turn bloody.”

Aha, so here we have evil manifested as passionate hatred, ideology of all 31 flavors, movements in every case to cleanse the world of the corrupt. The force of the devil, says King, is the force that can make trivial differences into fuel for murder, and more substantial yet still surmountable differences into fuel for genocide. (I see essentially the same message in the Stones' Sympathy with the Devil, for what it's worth: the crucifixion of Jesus, Nazi expansion, October revolution, and in every case the same "game"; "Anastasia cried in vain" because the passion of the movement was immune to sympathy.) So how does this relate to Eichmann and Eichmanns? Well, consider my above formulation of the Eichmann Frame: it seems that the only difference between the EF and the Flagg evils involves the word 'dispassionate'. So then, how distinctive should this single feature be? Should I think about two very different evils, perhaps a Scylla and Charybdis to navigate exactly between? Or should I construe them as manifestations of the same evil force?

I'm inclined toward the latter. Until this very moment, I never planned to invoke Dungeons & Dragons in a blog, but in a flash I realize how formative may have been its bidimensional model of moral character ('alignment'): good-neutral-evil along one axis, lawful-neutral-chaotic along the other. When I invoke the concept of good versus evil in describing an individual or behavior, I instinctively attempt to distinguish it from the concepts of reliability versus spontaneity, thoroughness versus cleverness. The distinction cannot always be made of course, and is likely unjustified in many of the cases where I do make it, but nevertheless my working position is the Lawfuls of the world (as little as I enjoy talking with them at parties) differ from my personality in ways orthogonal to moral goodness.

Thus, I would tend to isolate such traits from the rest of my Eichmann Frame, resulting in something like this:

(EF'): An Eichmann is a person who has predominantly Lawful personality traits, and who is evil by virtue of knowingly letting evil work through them as a conduit, while personally confronted with the suffering that makes such work evil.

I think it fair to assume for the sake of argument that the majority of deceased WTC workers were not of a primarily revolutionary or radical bent. That is, I will grant that any evil they might bear is more of the Eichmann than the Flagg variety. In deciding the extent to which Churchill's Eichmann analogy goes through, I want to further pursue the second and third clauses of (EF'). That is, we should ask two questions of the analogy's target domain: (1) What can the person reasonably believe about the institutional forces which they serve as a conduit; (2) What is the person's revealed capacity to perform explicitly cruel actions, to see suffering and continue to push it forward?

It seems obvious to me that the majority of WTC workers did not reach little-Eichmann status with regard to these two features. Perhaps we should discuss, however, how a hypothetical individual might qualify?

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Won't Somebody Please Think of the Children?!!

Tonight I learned, listening to Weekend Edition on National Public Radio, that former presidents Geroge H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton are currently touring Thailand - to visit areas ravaged by last month's Tsunami.

"Both men," we are told "became emotional when given photos showing children being washed away by the tidal waves."

So ... why do I need to know this?

Mind you, there was no other information imparted. Just that the two presidents went to Thailand and choked up (or became quiet and reflective - whatever. I guess we are to use our imaginations) over photos of doomed children. It was reported so succinctly, a matter of such quick course. And I - cynically - wondered ... did they really? Why are you telling me just this?

Sensitive and Serious Consideration

Well, my fine gentlemen, let the trumpets sound! Let's see whether meanness and mediocrity have the power to gag a man who wants to clean up society!
-- Dr. Stockmann in An Enemy of the People

Thank heavens for The Leiter Reports. Having so very little time to do my own research these days, Brian Leiter's site has been my portal into the progess of the great Ward Churchill "Little Eichmans" essay flap.

Churchill's claims need to be assessed and challenged without equivocation - without fingers pinching noses, without mealy mouths garbling invocations of the first amendment or academic freedom no matter the requisite feelings of revulsion.

This entry from Leiter, which among other things, references Ibsen's observations concerning majority opinion, shows how. Here is an excerpt:

Yet it is equally clear that Gerald Dworkin (Philosophy, UC Davis) was absolutely correct to say the following:
[T]he main theses [of the essay] represent moral, political, and empirical claims about the cause of the attack, and its moral character. No faculty member should be dismissed because of such claims.

It is easy enough to reconstruct something like the crux of Churchill's argument which shows it to bear out Professor Dworkin's characterization. Churchill is making three claims:
(1) The success and profitiability of American capitalism depends on U.S. imperialism, and, in particular, on U.S. actions that have brought death and misery to millions around the globe. (This is an empirical claim.)

(2) Those who (actively? intimately?) participate in the power centers of capitalism (and thus profit from it) are morally implicated in the aforementioned death and misery. (A moral claim about responsibility or, as Churchill says, "collective guilt".)

(3) These same people are, therefore, legitimate targets of retaliatory violence. (A moral claim about desert.)
This omits stuff, obviously--for example, the empirical claims Churchill apparently shares with the Pentagon about why the U.S. was targetted.

The empirical claim in (1) is plainly a topic of legitimate scholarly discussion. Academic freedom obviously protects one's right to affirm it or deny it outright, or to take some view anywhere inbetween.

The moral claim in (2) raises a whole host of important issues about the moral responsibility of institutional actors, issues which are also plainly legitimate topics of scholarly discussion. Churchill plainly has no systematic or even clear view about what level of involvement confers moral responsibility. Nonetheless, it would be extraordinary if academic freedom did not protect the right of a professor to make moral claims about how participation in an institution imports responsibility for the actions of the institution. ((2) is also the claim, I take it, that gives rise to the inflammatory Eichmann comparison: Eichmann was a functionary within a system that brought death and misery to millions, and thus bore moral responsibility for those wrongs. That there are disanaologies, obvious and otherwise, between Eichmann and, e.g., investment bankers [as actors within the "capitalist system"] that bear on moral culpability is the real reason for thinking the analogy inapt, and thus gratuitously insulting. Yet a bad analogy, in the course of making a claim about collective responsibility, can not possibly be grounds for termination in a society which protects academic freedom.)

The real candidate for a claim that is "morally depraved" is thesis (3), but it too is a moral claim, however shocking, that is related to the kinds of issues that are discussed all the time in connection with the moral legitimacy of war and the killing of civilians. When I have called the various academic war-mongers (none of whom have had their jobs threatened, to my knowledge) "morally depraved," it is for the same reason people are calling Churchill's (3) a "morally depraved" view. I think it is morally depraved to countenance the intentional or foreseeable killing of civilians, whether in the World Trade Center or in Iraq, and I do not see any plausible way of explicating claims (2) and (3) (about responsibility and desert) such that one's conclusion ought to be otherwise in these cases. (Some, including Churchill himself, have suggested that the point is not to endorse the justice of retaliatory violence against responsible institutional actors, but simply to make the ironic point that such a principle follows naturally from the standard U.S./Pentagon attitude towards civilian casualties in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, the essay as originally written does not, I think, support that interpretation: vide its last line, for example.)


For what it's worth, I think I can illuminate at leastone of the disanalogies attendant on the Eichmann reference this way: Adolf Eichmann was a something of a case study. The nominative subject of Hannah Arendt's book: Eichamann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. He was as Leiter says, a functionary in a deathly pernicious system - a cog with a peculiar talent for organization. More than that, he was, I think, for Arendt, an exemplar of the character of modern evil - trivialization. Eichmann was a trivial man, with a small soul, easily fobbed off with warm comforts and lazy rationalizations - cordoned off in his restaraunts, his automobiles and his offices and apartments - disconected, incapable of suffering and constitutionally unsympathetic.

But Eichmann himself was standing - in his plexiglass casing - before the bar, in high relief under the lights. His story was played out. Given that, he became for Arendt a symbol of what was at the time a barely perceived condition. He is the index. He was not himself the condition. And those who died in New York on September 11, 2001 will not simply, just like that, become, en masse, symbols of a symbol - exemplars of Eichmann.

Some who died that day may very well have been trivializers too. But how are we to know? Who's to tell us so?

This open letter to Churchill, from the brother of a victim, which I also accessed through the Leiter Reports, Says much the same thing, and much more, and much better ... Deserves serious consideration.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Welcome New Member

In the august tradition of Scrappy Doo, Cousin Oliver and that kid who used to call Conrad Bain's character "Mishter D", I am happy to welcome my brilliant friend and spiritual brother Jeremy Goard to the saloon.

Jeremy's intellectual standards are high, and his voice and style are everything I have ever hoped for with this blog. I look forward - with relish - to the exchange in store. Here we go now, he and I, writing our little hearts out about politics, criticism, literature, film, philosophy, religion, philosophy of religion ... tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral ....

Mein Freund ... Wilkommen

Monday, January 31, 2005

Devil's Workshop

I have recommended to my lil 'ol bookclub that this week we read this essay by Mark Slouka from the November issue of Harper's Magazine - a superb consideration on the diminishing American soul.

Googling the essay, I came accross a decent thread on the subject on the Majikthise blog -- which was recently rolled on jameswolcott.com.

I'm hosting the club this Friday -- I intend to ply everyone with delicious bread pudding, and hold earnestly fourth about the urgency of increasingly narrow margins and the frustration generated by rampant instrumentalization.

What am I talking about? Read the essay...

Friday, January 21, 2005

The Cost of Cruel Ignorance

Overheard this morning --

Bush supporter John, of Indianapolis, being interviewed on the street at the presidential inauguration by DemocracyNow!'s Amy Goodman:

Goodman: So do you give any thought to the soldiers coming home from Iraq in body bags?

John (sounding definitely no more than 25 years old): Absolutely. That's just the price of freedom.

Jerk.

What's he doing in Washington?

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Resurecti

At last ...

Just about one month since I sat in my two-bedroom apartment, preparing to take my temporary leave from the blogosphere (so called), from virtually all form of life in the Web - unable to surf for any sustained period of time, to ponder over email, to stay electronicaly abreast of world events --

I am in my new five bedroom, two-story home, computer room assembeled. Ready to begin again.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Witness

Take an emetic ... you who read this. You know well the Christian meaning of witness to the truth: a man who has been scourged, beaten, dragged from one prison to the next, until at last he is burned, beheaded or crucified.

- Kierkegaard

Friday, November 26, 2004

Scrupling

In All in One Take I wrote:

And am I blurring a distinction that ought to be taken to exist between romantic and universal love?

Some of the most eminent thinkers in the history of the Occident have already answered no. Plato, Augustine, Dante, Castiglione (Castiglione?!) all wrote of the sure and steady path from focused ardor to divine rapture - as I think I did once, proceed from love of a single girl, to a passion for the universe that brought her to me.


This passage needs qualification, doesn't it?

It raises the question, or questions: what if the universe takes that object of focused ardor away, as it did your Denise when you were fifteen? What follows? Moral devastation? Rage? Universal melanchoy and maybe hatred over the ungracious take-back?

I think these questions can be answered something like this: devastation and melancholy, definitely. Also the potential for rage and hatred. But these last emotions, and others like them, usually resorted to in order to give direction and vent to the melancholy, are never necessary. Just incredibly tempting.

We want to have the capacity for suffering, to bear immense pain and emotional trauma. These are the wages we pay for being open to great joy. I believe they entail a capacity for empathy - for deep moral engagement.

I want to submit that giving in to rage and hatred are indications that we do not have such capacity. That we will rather vent than bear it.

And this is a sign that we are unable to venture on love. We won't risk it. We will gamble away our better angels.

Thursday, November 25, 2004

To Shifting Constellations

To my enigmatic father and his wonderful, patient wife; to my own Miss On-again Off-again. I miss you, today especially. Wishing you the happiest Thanksgiving possible.

My son and I are moving this weekend - same town, new house. Posting will be rather spotty, I predit - spottier than usual. It all depends on SBC and how quickly they can reconnect my DSL in the new place.

Disclaimers

Textbook disclaimer stickers, lifted from the often brilliant Leiter Reports.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Tainted Blessing

Passionate hatred can give meaning and purpose to an empty life. Thus people haunted by purposelessness in their lives try to find a new content not only by dedicating themselves to a holy cause but also by nursing a fanatical grievance.

-- Eric Hoffer, The True Believer

Sunday, November 21, 2004

All in One Take - Hyperbolic

Tell you the truth: I'm waging a personal battle with myself these days, as a confirmed Christian in the Tolstoyan sense of turning the other cheek and resisting not evil.

Did I say Chrisitan? I did. But I'm also an atheist. I'm not saying, with the agnostics, that one just doesn't know for sure what lurks beyond the veil, and therefore cannot be sure ... I'm saying that religion is a matter of faith and I believe that God, that white-bearded trinity, that all-knowing and all-mighty personification of perfection in the heavens, does not exist. And I think that makes me an atheist.

But then again, I am a Christian.

Some kind of one, anyway. The kind that would fain follow the example set by Jesus of Nazareth if he were taken as a man. I believe in the power of passion and redemption. I mean passion in the Latin sense of the term: passio, root of patient, suffering the world to exist and press on me. And I mean redemption through love - real love, as in curiosity, awe and amazement in the face of that world.

Amor Fati, Nietzsche would say - Embrace your fate! Take the world, good and ill ... this is no rehearsal. This is your moment on stage. What a miracle ... you're here! Do you know, statistically, how impossible that even is?? And what, you want more?? What, another life?! Oh man, Let your heart race now, let it skip, eternally while you breathe.

Let the infection of insult and petty resentment, the plague of fear and mean annoyance, starve and die in your breast. Don't let it boil and incubate. Don't let it spread and touch others. There's your power to make a huge difference. Live now all in one take, and teach through your example ... like Christ. Try, anyway.

That's the imperative ... the only one really worth heeding, I think. Obey just this, and what will follow? Compassion and creativity? Yeah. The sort of deep humanity which is the surest spring of justice? Yes. Intellectual and emotional acuity, a penetrating view of your social and natural environments? Yes, yes, and yes!

Hey. Let me ask you something...

Were you ever young and really in love? Did you then find yourself leaping out of bed ridiculously early, whistling in the shower while it was still pitch dark outside? I did ... every day for a month. I was in high school. It was my first, and so far only, experience with being completely gone, head-over-heels, crazy in love. The gril's name was Denise, but that hardly matters any more. I loved Denise, but more than that, I loved the world that had Denise in it - how brilliant it was! How sharp and distinct its features and forms, how generously it nourished and innervated me. I hardly slept a wink, and never needed to.

We were young, restless, fickle. Denise would break my heart and shatter my beautiful world - but I have the memory of all that pure energy and stunning joy that was just really unabated while my good fortune lasted. With apologies to Nabakov, this sort of thing happening to a boy in his fifteenth summer will mark him for life.

Therein somewhere lies the transformative promise of love.

I would hope I may experience such a transformation again, and this time let it sustain ... transcending, without replacing, the contigency of fickle hearts, gloriously embellishing the shifting consteallions of human relationships. But is it possible? Or have I -getting older - pretty much lost the ability I once had to drink so deeply?

And am I blurring a distinction that ought to be taken to exist between romantic and universal love?

Some of the most eminent thinkers in the history of the Occident have already answered no. Plato, Augustine, Dante, Castiglione (Castiglione?!) all wrote of the sure and steady path from focused ardor to divine rapture - as I think I did once, proceed from love of a single girl, to a passion for the universe that brought her to me.

So long ago.

But today, like I keep keep noting, I cherish my enemies. Today I'm thankful for the ire stirred in me by the Ann coulters of the world, for the one fingered victory salutes from Republicans and hypocritical "family-values" Christians, for giving me something against which to rail. I'm grateful to the the assholes cutting me off in traffic, to the skin-deep groveling gossips trading in offense and insult.

They allow me to participate in the mean little game - while I wait, someday to be transported. I don't leap out of bed; but having gotten up, I always find I have the sinister drive to fight another crummy day.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Sacred Cash Cows

Over on Lullabyes and Alarums, my pal Jeremy Goard has a nice little meditation about Audrey Seiler and the Wisconsin kidnapping hoax, and the quick redirection of ire and spite by a disappointed public that had been primed for manhunts and trials.

"Heightened by the impending national outrage, and subsequent purging from collective memory," writes Jeremy, "my feeling for this face, name, and story left a lasting mark. I believe it continues to teach me essential lessons about myself, about "human nature", and, indeed, about Christianity."

Now, in the aftermath of the Scott Peterson double murder trial, comes a fresh disappointment. It seems the Chamber of Commerce muckety mucks hosting the trial in Redwood City are feeling rather let down because the case brought a smaller boom in tourism than they had hoped when they began lobbying for the honor.

Why were there fewer pilgrimages than anticipated to the site of sensational history in the making? I don't know. Maybe the case was too old and shriveled, the hype too weak. Ah, but probably not. I don't know, I wasn't watching. In any event, this dearth of ghastly tourists should probably just be taken as a minor exception to the rule. I think in most ways there still must be good capital to be made in peddling judgment and outrage - still a good ghoulish trade in pitchforks and torches.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

Revelling in Revenge

That's the title (in English) of one from the hundreds of endlessly suggestive epigrams penned by Friedrich Nietzsche.

"Uncultivated people," he says, "who feel insulted are accustomed to set the degree of insultingness as high as possible and to recount the cause of insult in strongly exaggerated terms, so as to be able to revel in the feeling of hatred and revengefulness thus engendered."

Appropos of Nietzsche then, I found this blog site while browsing through Salon's Right Hook column the other day.

It includes this One Fingered Victory Salute, by a blogger going by the Nom de guerre The Elder, who vents his passion with provocative relish:

The truth is that ever since the 2002 election (and earlier in some cases) we've had to put with a non-stop barrage of invective directed against President Bush. And now it's time for a response.

To the sneering punks who called Bush a smirking chimp, the conspiracy nutjobs who couldn't say four words without Halliburton dribbling out of their mouth, the goons who tried to shut down GOP campaign offices, the morons who think Bush is an idiot, the defeatists who encourage our enemies while demanding that we don't dare question their patriotism, the thugs who painted swastikas on Bush campaign signs, the sophists spouting "regime change begins at home", the historically challenged fools who compare Bush to Hitler, the "It's all about oil" idiots, the Fahrenheit 911 watching simpletons, the delusional paranoids who claim that fascism is now upon us, the self-important nobodies who fancy that their dissent is even worth crushing, and the disaffected expatriates who trash our president and country overseas to curry favor with their Euro buddies, I have a simple message using the straightforward words of Dick Cheney:

Go fuck yourselves.

I also want to extend my one fingered victory salute to some specific individuals and groups. So here's a big Fuck You victory shout out to:

Michael Moore, The City Pages, Al Franken, National Public Radio, Bruce Springsteen, MoveOn.org, Barbara Streisand, the a-holes at The New York Times (big-time!), Dan Rather, Rock The Vote, Garrison Keillor, CBS News, George Soros, The Guardian, Michael Stipe, The Minneapolis Star Tribune editorial board, P Diddy , Minnesota Public Radio, Nick Coleman, CNN, Paul Krugman, Kim Ode, the eastern half of Canada, Molly Ivins, Whoopi Goldberg, and France.

And I have a further message to all those (especially relevant for Michael Moore) who claim that they'd rather leave the country than spend another four years in George W. Bush's Amerika:

Don't let the border gate hit your ass on the way out.


So he writes ... probably trembling with excitement.

Of course, being rather uncultivated myself, my sensibilities are offended and I embrace the insult like a lover. I nurse it as a precious grievance - I post it here so I can share the feeling with you, so we can wait impatiently togehter to revel, and gloat, in our own spectacular revenge!



Thursday, November 11, 2004

Bad Faith

There are always those who take it upon themselves to defend God, as if Ultimate Reality, as if the sustaining frame of existence, were something weak and helpless. These people walk by a widow deformed by leprosy begging for a few paise, walk by children dressed in rags living in the street, and they think, "Business as usual." But if they perceive a slight against God, it is a different story. Their faces go red, thier chests heave mightily, they sputter angry words. The degree of their indignation is astonishing. Their resolve is frightening.

These people fail to realize that it is on the inside that God must be defended, not on the outside. They should direct their anger at themselves. For evil in the open is but evil from within that has been let out. The main battlefield for good is not the open ground of the public arena but the small clearing of each heart. Meanwhile, the lot of widows and homeless children is very hard, and it is to their defense, not God's, that the self-righteous should rush
.

--Yann Martel, Life of Pi

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

The Day After - WTF?

Wow. Republicans pick up more seats in the Senate (including, of course, Tom Daschle's)and the House. Bush wins re-election and I guess it wasn't really very close - in spite of the Kerry campaign's wan pledge last night to have every vote counted in Ohio.

How could Florida have been so closley contested in 2000 and so firmly in Bush's column now, and especially with the president's record? ... and with Nader a non-factor, no less. I scratch my head.

And what in the world would it have taken? Why could Senator Kerry not beat the man who lied about the evidence needed to make war on Iraq? Who pranced and cavorted around before the cameras in his flight suit while people were dying over there? Who lets us pay for his war, with our 3 pennies a phone call tax, our spending a half-hour's wage on a gallon of milk, a quarter-hour's on a gallon of gas? Who supported Vietnam but ran from the fight? Whose number two did likewise? Who calls for a constitutional amendment discriminating against homosexuals (and that's what it would do)? Why could Kerry not defeat this man? Why, for God's sake, was this man not impeached years ago?

Monday, November 01, 2004

My New Favorite Blog

...one of them anyway:

James Wolcott, editor and critic for vanity Fair.

Saturday, October 30, 2004

Clear Choice

Returning immediately to the theme --- hermaphroditic democrats and brush-clearing republicans...

There's a video making the rounds showing John Edwards primping and fluffing his hair for several minutes before a television interview.

And I guess in immediate response to this, one of my favorite columnists - Michelle Malkin, and I'm speaking facetiously, in case the use of italics is not a sufficient tip-off, laid the terms of the argument as bare as could be.

Cogito, ergo sum

I'm looking up the word "egghead" in Webster's Third New International Dictionary. The first term of definition is "intellectual." This is followed by an example of usage, from some old Newsweek article. In the example somebody is described as "something of an egghead himself. He boned up for covering the Korean war by reading Thucydides." [Here's my own example: "he's kind of an egghead - actually has a copy of Webster's Third New International at home."]

I'm going to ask my readers, the few and, I hope, the faithful, to take their time with this post, visiting each of the links provided, at great leisure. Go brew a cup of tea ... or shake up a cocktail ... or roll yourself a big spiff. Whatever helps you settle in all comfy cozy.

The Lie about Taking Risks

The election is, to borrow a phrase from the film 28 Days, "extremely fucking nigh," and I'm thinking - as I'm wont to do - about the peusdo-manly, anti-intellectual quips the president seems to be tossing off more frequently in his speeches as the day becomes more nigh. "The senator from Massachusttes," he says for example, "is real good at taking positions - he just can't take a stand."

I think it was during the second debate - the one in which he refused to acknoweldge having ever erred in office outside of nominating a few judicial candidates who turned out to have lesser character than he originally thought - that Mr. Bush kept insisting: leaders must be willing to make unpopular decisions. They can't stick a wet finger in the air to guage the political wind. They must be guided by principle and do what is right. Bush would appear to be such a leader. He has, as Zell Miller decalred at the RNC: "a spine of tempered steel!" ... unlike Kerry, who will not stand up, Kerry the weathercock who squeaks and twists in the breeze. Going to war in Iraq was just this kind of decision: risky, unpopular, but right and neccesary.

This little essay, from Stewart Nusbaumer, in Intervention Magazine, suggests on the other hand that political absolutism is very, very popular, and may be growing more so:

Anti-intellectualism has a long tradition in America, a long tradition in every country, yet today in our country it seems stronger and more vicious--a relentless plague wiping out reason in whole sections of our country. Males especially, admiring our inarticulate, dimwitted president, have never been prouder of their own inarticulateness and wear shallow thinking as evidence of their swaggering “manhood.” John Kerry not only rubs them the wrong way, he outrages them.

Sometimes I think our advanced technology and great wealth is only a fig leaf for our pathetic primitiveness. Lately I have been thinking that a lot.

Although many of us still cling to the Jeffersonian promise that common citizens in public dialogue can craft thoughtful solutions, we can’t hide from the spreading darkness.


That Bush has harnessed the energies of this old tradition, this ancient popular will, shows a shrewdness and a sense of history that nobody I know would probably think to admit.

He is the latest in a long line of straight shootin' sons of guns - a line that includes Davy Crockett and Roscoe Conkling, that runs through Dwight Eisenhower, Dirty Harry Callahan and Ronald Reagan. He has expediently chosen the posture of reassuring inexpedience.

The Horror of Long-Haired Men and Short-Haired Women

In the old Dark Age natural encyclopedias and taxonomies existed to catalog God's creation. Everything in the Great Chain of Being was qualitatively defined and clearly classified. Apparent hybrids, which blurred the lines between species - baboons that resembled humans with doggish ears and grotesque arms, or just dark races of primitive humans lacking any civilized manner, copulating freely and without bash - were counted as monsters. This was when fantastic fables, bestiaries and morality tales featuring serpents with wolves heads, humans with serpents heads, dragons, centaurs and changelings really proliferated. Paintings and illuminations typically depicted the devils of hell as cloven or claw footed, scaly beasts on two legs - leering, half-formed with narrow chests and pregnant bellies, prodding, poking and eating the tormented sinners consigned to their evil domain - this in contrast to the unblemished, perfectly-formed, in all aspects human, except for their white wings, angels of heaven.

Earlier in this blog, I mentioned Richard Hofstadter's book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. Hofstadter describes several of the pillars of popular thought in the history of this country, one of which is the insistence upon certainty and clear delineation, simple truths and well-defined roles. In the late nineteenth century, for example, during the period of the big reform movements - abolition, women's suffrage, temperance - politics was held to be a man's business. It was messy, bare-knuckled and hard-swinging. Politics was for unsentimental realists. Reform, on the other hand, was for idealists and romantics. It was for people unsoiled by the dirty business of living. It was for women.

Reform ideas were lofty, they were worthy, but they were unobtainable. If they had only been left for women to tend, respectable women - wives and mothers - they would have been fine, as ideals. But whearas they were unworldly, they tended to attract confused and unworldly people who could not perceive their proper place in the scheme of things. Groups of agitators gathered around the movements, populated by bossy, short-haired women in pants and effete long-haired men with soft hands and overgrown fingernails. They were all freaks, monsters. Of men, for instance, Hofstadter wrote:

It was not enough to say that the reformers were hypocritical and impractical. Their cultivation and fastidious manners were taken as evidence that these "namby-pamby, goody-goody gentlemen" who "sip cold tea" were deficient in masculinity. They were on occasion denounced as political hermaphrodites. The waspish Senator Ingalls of Kansas, furious at their lack of party loyalty once denounced them as the "third sex" - "effeminate without being either masculine or feminine."

And the women:

they would become masculine, just as men became feminine if they espoused reform. Horace Bushnell suggested that if women got the vote and kept it for hundreds of years, "the very look and temperament of women will be altered." Their appearance would be sharp, their bodies wiry, their voices shrill, their actions angular and abrubt, and full of self-assertion, will, boldness and and eagerness for place and power."

It must be entirely intentional that today Mel Gibson would cast a woman in the role of Satan for his blockbuster film, The Passion of the Christ (Italian actress Rosalinda Celantano), making her up to seem a more than vaguely female male. Androgony is sinister. Ambiguity fearsome. The erasure of bondaries confusing and unnatural.

This is interesting: I have this book by Joyce Salisbury, a professor of History at the University of Wisconsin - Green Bay, titled The Beast Within. Dr. Salisbury points out that while we may find squirrels and chipmunks appealing if we're outdoors watching them scamper about, we might recoil in some horror if they happen to cross our thresholds and take their act into our houses - dashing into our homes, darting underneath our sofas. This, I think, is a small but really extraordinary insight. I believe I just might want to react by fleeing from the house myself.

It's perfectly human to draw these lines. Even among the most unapologetically sensitive and tolerant of us, they have to be laid down somewhere, and anything crossing over them induces a sort of inexpressible anguish. The popularity of the president's position rests on his claim to the time-worn mantle of unapologetically protecting the least sensitive and tolerant among us - and a great mass I think it is - from same-sex marriages and snaggle-toothed terrorists.

The Medium is the Moral

But is Nusbaumer right? Is darkness spreading? Is anti-intellectualism in America actually getting worse? Well, four years ago, on the dawn following the last presidential election, Todd Gitlin said that it was, pointing especially at what seems to be the know-nothing imperative being reinforced constantly by the "psuedo-intellectual" punditocracy, repeating their maxims and phrases ad nauseum, stating the terms of any kind of debate as simply as possible and circumscribing everything. Gone are the likes of Walter Lippman. Cokie Roberts now stands in his stead:

A central force boosting anti-intellectualism since Hofstadter published his book has been the bulking up of popular culture and, in particular, the rise of a new form of faux cerebration: punditry. Everyday life, supersaturated with images and jingles, makes intellectual life look hopelessly sluggish, burdensome, difficult. In a video-game world, the play of intellect -- the search for validity, the willingness to entertain many hypotheses, the respect for difficulty, the resistance to hasty conclusions -- has the look of retardation.

Again, there is a continuity to the earlier nation. Long before Hollywood or MTV, Tocqueville observed that Americans were drawn to novelty, turnover, and sensation. How much more so in a world of cascading, all-pervasive images, where two-thirds of children grow up with 24/7 access to television in their bedrooms, where video and computer games flourish, where mobile phones guarantee access when and where one chooses, where the right to be instantly entertained and in-touch seems to preoccupy more of the citizenry than the right to vote and to have their votes properly counted.


The pace is relentless. Cable and network news, talk radio, public access programming, and weblogs, and the online publications I myself rely on and link right here - packs of wolves in sheep's clothing (speaking of boundary crossing). In the benign name of creating an informed populace, this style-over-substance noise just keeps hammering us all into shape. Clear shape. Simple forms - with simple truths. Who has time for Thucydides? Indeed, who is capable of him?

Monday, October 25, 2004

Bloody Nuisance, Modern Evil

Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents is, I think, one of the staples of college survey courses on the literature of the "modern crisis" - that loose collection from the western cannon that is taken to chronicle man's complete alienation from ... well, everything, including himself. And college is in fact where I did happen to read this, one of Freud's last works. If someone were to ask me now to describe Discontents, to summarize what Frued has to say therein (which, honestly, pretty much never happens), I would probably think a few seconds and answer something like, "Well it's definitely a cultural critique, particularly of a technology-driven culture, in this nuclear and increasingly electronic and consumerist age, where our values are placed, or I should rather say misplaced, only on the so-called virtues of hard work and self-sacfrifice, in the vague name of progress. It's weird that so many of us toil so constantly, run so hard, after these perceived creature comforts that seem, when you think about it, especially designed to make our toil and running just more efficient - it only encourages us to toil still longer in pursuit of an even greater, and no less elusive, comfort. This dehumanizes us. I think this is what Freud was on about; many others, especially since Freud, have said pretty much the same thing .."

Yes, I really do tend to speak this way.

And at about this point in my discourse I would probably be hoping that my interlocuter might stop me, or better still, help me somehow, by picking up the weave of conversation and knitting their own observations into it. More likely though, they'd just kind of stare at me, and let my speech, inevitably, dissipate into a string of ever more disconnected generalities, frayed by frequent pauses.

See, I don't remember perfectly at all the thrust of Discontents, and this hypothetical courting is based on the one passage that has always remained with me. Here I reach for the old Norton volume I actually used in college, in which I have underlined:

One would like to ask: is there no positive gain in pleasure, no unequivocal increase in my feeling of happiness, if I can, as often as I please, hear the voice of a child of mine who is living hundreds of miles away or if I can learn in the shortest possible time after a friend has reached his destination that he has come through the long and difficult voyage unharmed? Does it mean nothing that medicine has succeeded in enormously reducing infant mortality and the danger of infection for women in childbirth, and indeed in considerably lengthening the average life of a civilized man? And there is a long list that might be added to benefits of this kind which we owe to the much despised era of scientific and technical advances

Let me interrupt to point out - in case it needs to be: much despised because considered responsible during the industrial revolution for the displacement of families, for the removal of homes and hearths, for the ashen city streets and blackened landscapes around victorian-era Manchester, for Dickensian villains and mutated factory children, for tenements andrampant consumption (I mean, tuberculosis), for the peppered moth proof of natrual selection.

But here the voice of pessimistic criticism makes itself heard and warns us that most of these satisfactions follow the model of the "cheap enjoyment" extolled in the anecdote - the enjoyment obtained by putting a bare leg from under the bedclothes on a cold winter night and drawing it in again. If there had been no railway to conquer distances, my child would never have left his native town and I should need no telephone to hear his voice; if traveling across the ocean by ship had not been introduced, my friend would not have embarked on his sea-voyage and I should not need a cable to relieve my anxiety about him. What is the use of reducing infant mortality when it is precisely that reduction which imposes the greatest restraint on us in the begetting of children, so that, taken all round, we nevertheless rear no more children than in the old days before the reign of hygeine, while at the same time we have created difficult conditions for our sexual life in marriage, and have probably worked against the beneifts of natural selection? And finally, what good to us is a long life if it is difficult and barren of joys, and if it is so full of misery that we can only welcome death as a deliverer?

Well thank goodness for this, anyway: we have since engineered such techniques of birth-control as makes its exercise cheap and almost universally accessible - so that a little care allows us virtually to "beget children" as often as we please without begetting any we don't want.
so hooray for progress!

On the other hand, there is something to this cost-beneifts analysis of Freud's, and it is, a few antiquated variations aside, I think, a kind of timeless caveat. I think of that sequence in Michael Moore's Farenheit 9/11. We see an actual television ad for some communications company. It seems they are working hard in Iraq to provide the telephone and computer link-ups for soldiers to keep in touch with their families. "Here at XYZ Corp, we're making sure our brave troops lose none of the experiences of being at home!" Or on a more quotidian level - I think of the evening recently when I watched three young ladies sitting at, but not sharing, a table in a pizza joint. Each of them spent the entire meal engaged in private conversations over their separate cell phones. Distance is stressed and warped. These gadgets make it easier for us to get away just so we can reach longinly back or something. Weird.