Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Ross Telegraphs

Discussing the recent revelations and the corresponding controversy, Ross Douthat appears to arrive at a sweeping indictment of the Church:

The lesson of the American experience, now exhaustively documented, is that almost everyone was complicit in the scandal. From diocese to diocese, the same cover-ups and gross errors of judgment repeated themselves regardless of who found themselves in charge. Neither theology nor geography mattered: the worst offenders were Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston and Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles — a conservative and a liberal, on opposite ends of the country.
Regardless of who was in charge, from coast to coast, diocese to diocese, the same abuses and the same cover-ups recurred over and over. This is the definition of an institutional crisis, a systematic failing.

Failures of this scope, magnitude, and human impact would seem to call for sweeping, fundamental, root-and-branch reforms, right? Of course not!
Popes do not resign. But a pope can clean house. And a pope can show contrition, on his own behalf and on behalf of an entire generation of bishops, for what was done and left undone in one of Catholicism’s darkest eras.

This is Holy Week, when the first pope, Peter, broke faith with Christ and wept for shame. There is no better time for repentance. [emphasis mine]
At exactly the point in the column where Douthat might have stepped out of line, he remembers the obedience demanded of him, steps back into line, and begins reciting the catechism of servile, craven submission: "Popes do not resign." There is no argument as to why it should be, let alone continue to be, that "popes do not resign" -- it's just "popes do not resign," unadorned with justification or explanation. He might as well have written it in Latin.

Popes do not resign. Period. What can a faithful follower of Mother Church do or say in the face of this changeless verity? When the Church is shown to have some kind of institutional, systematic rot through which it shelters, enables, and shields child rapists, a bold member of the Catholic laity might dare suggest that the pope should "clean house" -- which, we have learned, means nothing more than "send the bad priests down the road to the next diocese," with predictable results. Moreover, the daring Catholic might propose that the pope should show some contrition, maybe weep a little, and be sure to throw the word "repent" around.

Yep, that should cover it.

Watch This Amphibian

If this common toad (Bufo bufo) jumps out of that hand and goes into hiding, it might indicate something more than a skittish toad that doesn't want to stand in its own urine -- it might indicate a large earthquake is imminent:

The best hope yet of an earthquake predictor could lie in a small, brown, knobbly amphibian, [preliminary research] suggests.

The male common toad (Bufo bufo) gave five days' warning of the earthquake that ravaged the town of L'Aquila in central Italy on April 6, 2009 ... By March 28, more than 90 male toads had mustered for the spawning season, but two days later, their numbers suddenly fell ... By April 1 -- five days before the quake -- 96 percent of the males had fled.
Check your male toad supplies. If their numbers have dropped sharply in recent days, and it isn't because you've been killing them or letting them be killed for sport (you sick bastard!), brace your valuables, stock up on necessities, gather all your spare bubble wrap around, stand in the sturdiest load bearing door frame you can find, and hold that position until the large earthquake comes.

The study raises a troubling question: where do the male toads go? I'm no population biologist, but I would think that the mass "vanishing" of toads from one place must correspond with a mass "appearing" of toads in another place, or group of places. People in those places will, on the strength of this study, tend to cease their preparations for earthquakes, and speaking from the heart of the Cascadia Subduction Zone, this simply won't do. We need to be surrounded by bubble wrap and standing in sturdy door frames at all hours of all days, regardless of the male toad count.*

So long as living male toads exist on earth -- the very kind this study purports to monitor -- a rough analog to a law of thermodynamics holds: living male toads cannot be created or destroyed, but just go from place to place according to the locations of geophysical calamities.

* I kid because I'm terrified.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Avatar vs. Little Bigfoot. Who Ya Got?

Based on this compelling series of clips, would you say Little Bigfoot looks better than Avatar, or a lot better than Avatar?

2.5 MINUTE LITTLE BIGFOOT! from Everything Is Terrible! on Vimeo.

Says the floppy-haired kid: "I hate you, Bilbo! I hate you! I'll miss you." That needs to be a bumper sticker, the words on an official seal, the tagline of a blog, the subtitle of a book, the title of an album, or maybe all of these.

Three Understated Chaps

Please, Richard Dawkins, step out of your customary reticence and tell us what you really think about the pope:

No, Pope Ratzinger should not resign. He should remain in charge of the whole rotten edifice - the whole profiteering, woman-fearing, guilt-gorging, truth-hating, child-raping institution - while it tumbles, amid a stench of incense and a rain of tourist-kitsch sacred hearts and preposterously crowned virgins, about his ears.
While I would hate to see anything happen to the Vatican's stores of artistic and cultural artifacts, nothing else about it is worth preserving if it can't bring itself to purge the child rapists and enablers, regardless of their rank. Child torture and rape on a massive worldwide scale is not the sort of thing that washes away with an unctuous letter along with accusatory dispatches from flacks.

Matt Taibbi has a few choice words on it, as does the ever-underspoken Christopher Hitchens:
This is what makes the scandal an institutional one and not a matter of delinquency here and there. The church needs and wants control of the very young and asks their parents to entrust their children to certain "confessors," who until recently enjoyed enormous prestige and immunity. It cannot afford to admit that many of these confessors, and their superiors, are calcified sadists who cannot believe their luck. Nor can it afford to admit that the church regularly abandoned the children and did its best to protect and sometimes even promote their tormentors. So instead it is whiningly and falsely asserting that all charges against the pope—none of them surfacing except from within the Catholic community—are part of a plan to embarrass him.
The pope should be embarrassed, but he should deal with that embarrassment in court, under oath, and then, as the law prescribes, in prison.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Wilbur in Profile

As it turns out, the flap of skin hanging from Wilbur's underside is a feature of the kind of cat he turns out to be -- mostly -- an Egyptian Mau, which is Englyptian for Chat Francais or English Cat. My daily accusations that he had let himself go over the years have been misplaced and unfair, but no less necessary or hilarious. A housecat's self-image must be carefully managed lest it run to full-blown hubris.

I learned of the Egyptian Mau from a profile of the breed on the banally evil Animal Planet tee-vee program, Cats 101, which occupies a substantial portion of the channel's airtime not devoted to Dogs 101 or the execrable Animal Cops.

I can confirm that Wilbur is a speedy and relatively active cat, which is the best excuse I can presently think up for the poor framing of this photograph, which attempts to highlight his gray fleshy speed flap against a gray background. He moves around a lot, and I have only so much patience for trying to herd him in front of a properly contrasting background.

Also, his eyes are really that red, especially when he's trying to use telepathy to immobilize prey or persuade someone to change the channel to Animal Planet.

As I mentioned above, he's no pure-bred anything; he was free for the taking, chosen for being the most vocal and mobile of a four-kitten caboodle. His vocal habits, his coloration, and especially his longing for what most cats would regard as physical abuse suggest he has a little Siamese in him.

My son was deep into Charlotte's Web at the time, so he chose the name Wilbur, and I've since corrupted that to Wilson, "the beast that nobody likes," and other insulting variants, again as a means of keeping his self-image in check. It has not worked. He is smitten with himself, more than ever now that he is revealed as belonging (mostly) to the fastest, and quite possibly founding, breed of domesticated cat.

We're all pretty smitten with him, but don't tell.

Optimism, Progress, and Lunacy

It's usually wise to walk past lunatics, avoiding eye contact or any form of direct engagement. As illustration, consider Vox Day (VD), who stands on a virtual street corner barking of the Enlightenment's embrace of a heedless optimism that declares progress inevitable -- progress toward something that VD professes he can't locate:

Precisely what that something will be is never explained in any degree of detail, but we are given to understand that it will involve some level of societal secularism, sexual and racial equality, and as little physical labor as possible ... the first Enlightenment having rather notoriously failed to deliver any of the benefits once promised as progressive inevitabilities by the likes of Rousseau and Voltaire ...
This is truly odd barking. Did shoddy thinkers like Rousseau and Voltaire promise benefits that history never delivered, or did their clumsy writings fail to define the benefits of history's "progressive inevitabilities"?

Shorter VD: the Enlightenment failed because it didn't deliver benefits it didn't define.

Backing up a step or two -- again, a good idea when dealing with corner screamers -- it's difficult to imagine a more fitting illustration of VD's brand of barking than Voltaire, whose most famous work, Candide, is a book-length mockery of the idea of easy optimism and "progressive inevitability" -- its subtitle is "or, Optimism." Here's a rather famous passage from the book's concluding chapter:
"I would be glad to know which is worst, to be ravished a hundred times by Negro pirates, to have one buttock cut off, to run the gauntlet among the Bulgarians, to be whipped and hanged at an auto-da-fe, to be dissected, to be chained to an oar in a galley; and, in short, to experience all the miseries through which every one of us hath passed, or to remain here doing nothing?"

"This," said Candide, "is a grand question."

This discourse gave birth to new reflections, and Martin especially concluded that man was born to live in the convulsions of disquiet, or in the lethargy of idleness. Though Candide did not absolutely agree to this, yet he did not determine anything on that head. Pangloss avowed that he had undergone dreadful sufferings; but having once maintained that everything went on as well as possible, he still maintained it, and at the same time believed nothing of it.
In an earlier chapter, after much hardship and many calamities, the title character addresses optimism explicitly:
"Alas!" replied Candide, "it is the obstinacy of maintaining that everything is best when it is worst."
It requires an especially audacious form of insanity to accuse Voltaire of what has come to be called Panglossian thinking.

Tossing Rousseau into the mix hardly clarifies the picture; Rousseau and Voltaire sharply disagreed on most everything, but here again, whatever his gestures at optimism about the nature of human beings, Rousseau's most influential work in political economy, The Social Contract, arrived at a pretty long list of qualifications and limitations on the possibilities of a just social order -- for starters, he was skeptical that a decent society could emerge from anything larger than a city-state.

In this, at least, Rousseau shared a keen understanding with other Enlightenment thinkers -- Montesquieu, Locke, Jefferson (don't tell Texas!), Madison, et. al. -- of the principle that unchecked power will erase any progress and justify the grimmest pessimism.

As I said at the beginning, it's best to walk on past corner screamers.

(via Rust Belt Philosophy)

Mind-Blowing, Heart-Changing Snack Chips

I have never tried the potato chips promoted in this ad, but on the force of the evidence presented, who could doubt their quality? They can alert a robotic dog to the need to go bipedal, dance, temporarily don a female doll's head, wave plates over his crotch, hold up a detached human ear, and otherwise lift the spirits of a wan Japanese school boy. By the end, as in any comedy deserving the name, the chips have inspired the robotic dog to bring romantic closure:

(via Portland Mercury)

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Sunday First Song Blogging

Schubert's Wintereisse begins with this song, "Gute Nacht," and only gets better from there:

The Silver Jews began Bright Flight with "Slow Education":

Stereolab began Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night with "Fuses" but they won't allow it to be embedded. Sonic Youth started A Thousand Leaves with "Contre Le Sexisme," which succeeds at setting a tone but not at much else.

Neko Case has a knack for opening songs -- "Things That Scare Me" is the first track on Blacklisted:

Here's a strong opening to a strong album -- "The District Sleeps Alone Tonight" on the Postal Service's Give Up:

Abbey Road began with "Come Together," one of many desert island songs made by The Beatles:

"Is This What You Wanted" started Leonard Cohen's New Skin for the Old Ceremony:

And so on.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Fiat justitia ruat caelum

Here are a couple of theses to nail to the nearest door:

[T]he Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which Ratzinger [the current pope] headed from 1981-2005, declined to defrock Father Lawrence C. Murphy, even though he molested at least 200 boys at a Wisconsin school for the deaf. In 1996, then-Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland twice wrote directly to Ratzinger requesting a trial aimed at defrocking Murphy, whose crimes were known to three successive Milwaukee prelates.
Ratzinger's office declined. Moreover:
[A]s archbishop of Munich, Ratzinger presided over a meeting that approved the return to parish work of an admitted pedophile, who went on to molest more children. A memo from that period also seems to show that the cardinal was "kept informed about the priest's assignment."
There is a time and a place for minimizing such deeds as these by Ratzinger and lower-ranking functionaries of The Church: never and nowhere.

Raping and torturing children is a crime and should be treated as such. Justice permits no exceptions.

There's more on this from Ophelia Benson.

Ten Books

A blogger has certain responsibilities, including, inter alia, listing the top ten books that have influenced your view of the world. It would be perverse not to participate, but I will anyway because it's interesting, and because I don't want LarryNiven to come after me with a tire iron or pack my dryer's exhaust vent with pine cones and contact cement (it's a long story, one I haven't finished making up).

I list the ten in alphabetical order by author so as not to suggest any hierarchy or ranking. The presence of a book on this list is only to suggest that the book shaped how I see the world, not that I presently endorse anything in or about it:

  • Albert Camus, The Fall. With or without god, we will not escape judgment, if only our own.
  • Noam Chomsky & Edward Herman, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of Mass Media. I don't know how many Chomsky speeches I've seen or heard in which he is introduced by quoting The Nation, "not to have read Chomsky is to court genuine ignorance." Maybe. Not to have read this book is to court genuine ignorance of how mass media function in modern societies.
  • Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. This was not the first philosophy book I ever read, but it's the first one that left me reeling: reeling in a good way, that is, in a way that forced me to step back and think about the foundations of knowledge.
  • Herman Melville, Moby Dick. After a few pages I had forgotten that this was one of those World Classics That All Must Suffer Through. From that moment on, I continue to look to this amazing, swerving, cosmos masquerading as a book as a prompt for reflection, ideas, novelty, and, it must be said, practical advice on whaling.
  • John Stuart Mill, On Liberty. Negative freedom formalized and defended.
  • Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra. The ideas range from brilliant to unintelligible to laughable; the manner of expression, with its bombast, irony, and self-aware audacity, entered my head and never left.
  • Plato, Euthyphro / The Apology / Crito / The Cave Allegory from The Republic. I know, I know, but Plato wrote dialogues rather than books per se, and any anthologizing of them is a tad arbitrary. I first encountered these as a unified reading assignment, one years before I read Kuhn, which is an indirect way of saying they didn't initially strike me as special. First impressions can be very wrong! The questions he raised and how he dealt with them have a way of provoking and enduring long after the first encounter, as those first interlocutors were the first to discover.
  • Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason. Among the first skeptical books I read, this opened my eyes to what clear thinking and lucid expression can do with nonsense, and spiced that with the thrilling insight that America's canonical heroes can be more radical than they're often portrayed.
  • Carl Sagan, The Dragons of Eden. This was the first "serious" non-fiction book I remember reading, and its breadth and daring quite ruined me for any kind of specialization. I still think of it as a paragon of intellectual curiosity and a model of science popularization.
  • William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet. This was the first Shakespeare I read and it surpassed the hype. Starting with Act 1 of that play, I have understood Shakespeare as the writer to consult to see the possibilities of the English language.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Marvels of Photoshop (SJKP Bait)

As the proprietor of the ZehnKatzen Times blog, tireless promoter of unicorns over Portland, and accomplished graphics smarty-pants, SJKP is far more competent than I to address this amazing capability of the new Photoshop software, but I am not one to let barely knowing what I'm talking about get in my way:

Stalin could have used this feature to scrub photos of official enemies, but I have to say, setting aside the bloody maneuvering behind it, this example (source) isn't so badly done on a purely technical level:

We can appreciate how the threat of the gulag sharpens the mind on a task such as airbrushing a photograph, even if, in this instance, the naive viewer of the "improved" image is left to wonder why the photographer centered the frame as he did.

The availability of such technical advances in Photoshop provide one more reason to be happy that Stalin and his system have been scrubbed from reality, not just images. Mostly.


(via Sullivan)

Christianity as Open Marriage

Top-shelf evangelical Brian McLaren has written a new book explaining that Jesus is wonderful and important -- but not in any way that precludes seeing other gods:

Consider the core evangelical belief that only Christians are going to heaven and everyone else is doomed. That may have rung true for his grandparents' generation, he [McLaren] says, but not now.

"A young evangelical, Roman Catholic [or] mainline Protestant growing up in America today, if he goes to college, his roommate might be Hindu," he says. "His roommate might be Muslim. His roommate might be Buddhist or atheist. So, suddenly the 'other' is sleeping across the room."
Wow. All it took to refute the claim that Jesus is the only true path to salvation -- a point on which Christians, starting with Jesus himself, tend to be emphatic -- is a Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, or atheist roommate.

Thus does a 2,000-year-old edifice of Christian theology fall by the wrecking ball of college roommate assignments. Who would have guessed the importance of underpaid university administrative functionaries in the adjudication of deep questions of theology?

Go ahead, Christians. Have some quality time with other gods -- amuse yourself with their distorted portraits of reality, immerse yourself in their idiotic rites, observe their pointless holidays, wear their team uniforms, chant along with their vague nostrums, damn those that they damn. Explore. Play the field. Jesus is cool with that.

I think I see McLaren's point: what's not worth doing is not worth doing well, and Christianity is not worth doing.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The State of the Waters

Despite violent threats, galling obstructionism, and perfervid rhetoric that has bounded from absurdist to alarmist and back again, the House and Senate have passed health care reform into law. Health insurance reform is a fait accompli, and this union is a little more perfect for it; whether it is calmer and saner remains to be seen.

The politics will be what they will be, but for those curious about how the reforms affect people's lives, Matt Yglesias has compiled a helpful summary of some of the immediate, noteworthy, and positive changes. More reform is needed, but this is a start.

A little steadfastness can resist a big sea of bullshit.

Holy Crap an Osprey!

The latest installment of Holy Crap a [bird]! profiles the osprey I saw this very morning as I ran along the crystal clear waters of the Willamette River. I have seen ospreys there many times, but this morning's osprey was carrying a spotted fish, probably a trout it was trying to rescue from an abandoned 1974 Ford van submerged in the waters. I am pretty sure the fish was dead, and that the van will never start again.

I would say it looked exactly like the photo shown above (from the Smithsonian), but that wouldn't make it strictly true. It looked more like the one pictured to below (from Wikipedia) given its distance from me as it flew by.

Another difference: the one I saw this morning was being pestered by a crow, who evidently thought it was a good idea to follow and harass the much larger bird in hopes the osprey would drop the fish. As clever as crows can be, I don't think the crow was thinking this through very clearly.

It didn't look anything at all like the V-22 Osprey shown below, and not only because it wasn't a flaming, twisted ruin with mangled US Marines calling for medical help. I'm glad it was nothing like that.

Don't dare miss previous installments of Holy Crap a [Bird]! previously posted to this precious, precious blog:

Holy Crap a Chukar!
Holy Crap a Bald Eagle!

At the risk of disappointing my five readers, I will probably never post a Holy Crap a Pigeon!, Holy Crap a Robin!, Holy Crap a Starling!, or Holy Crap a Crow!, because I consider those birds too common to provoke a "holy crap!" reaction, if not outright contemptible.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Bootless Cries

As Pope Ratzinger continues bleating and wailing while walking past growing piles of damning evidence against the institution he leads, Johan Hari asks 'why?', and Andrew Sullivan replies with a version of 'why not?':

I'm religious. I demand to be protected from no debate.
It's delightful that Sullivan is religious and demands to be protected from no debates. Really it is. It's difficult to stress how delightful it is. Really, it's super -- the bee's knees. Sullivan continues:
And many of us who believe are indeed saying - and have been saying for a long, long time - that using religious authority to cover up child abuse is evil, insupportable, corrupt and wrong. But if the church hierarchy does not understand this, if it does not instigate root and branch reform, if it uses this occasion to double down further, then it will deserve the secular assault that will come.
Hmm. A "secular assault" sounds pretty rough, but as rough as it sounds, it sounds even more vague. As in: what is a "secular assault" in the present context? The force of Hari's complaint is that, under any imaginable circumstance where an organization's principal condoned, abetted, or (at best) lazily neglected charges that the organization's agents raped and abused children on a massive scale, the "assault" would take the form of legal action: prosecutors would bring charges, cease and desist orders would be promulgated, premises would be barred, inquests would be undertaken, records would be seized, persons of interest would be detained for questioning, and so on. Or so we would hope.

We would so hope, wouldn't we? We the civilized people of the world would tend to favor that sort of "secular assault"? We could instead pursue a well-tried alternative form of "secular assault," that of allowing an angry mob to do what angry mobs do when formed to rise up against child rapists. The disadvantages of this alternative are, I trust, equally well-tried and well-known by now.

Sullivan continues:
I fear the Church's hierarchy is as over now as the Soviet hierarchy was in the 1980s. But, unlike the lie of Communism, the truth of the Gospels remains. So when will we Catholics have our velvet revolution? When will we finally stand up and deliver our church from the evil that now controls it? And when will this farce of an establishment finally crumble into the dust it deserves?
And thus we end on the same question with which we began -- in which a faithful servant of Mother Church troubles deaf heaven with his bootless cries, perfectly willing to rend his garment pitifully and in public, but unsure of what more he could possibly do or say.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Earth: Two Views

The first view -- the flat earth viewpoint -- arrives from among the more thoughtful of my right-wing social networking friends:

For those who can't see the image clearly, and for those who would rather not, friend Li'l Cheney has said:

FYI climate change earthies - On March 27th at 8:30 pm I will be turning on every single d@mn light in my house. Oh, yeah - they will be full incandescent 100 watt babies. In fact, the gym uses 1,800 watts alone! Yee haw! Just remember this while you sit in the dark "helping" the earth!
Yes -- long story, totally not worth it -- Li'l Cheney has a gym. Li'l Cheney will be illuminating that gym and the rest of his abode at max power to commemorate Earth Hour (the tyranny is loosed upon us on March 27 at 8:30pm local time). I also expect him to use the word "hippie" even more frequently than usual during that hour.

I'm not sure what I'll be doing that hour, but I am reasonably sure it won't be calculated to impress my political foes.

The second view -- the oblate spheroid viewpoint -- comes illustrated with a graph, and hails from Matt Yglesias:
We passed the Clean Air Act and created the Environmental Protection Agency. And as Mark Perry from the conservative American Enterprise Institute points out these environmental policies worked and the air is now far cleaner ...
After which, Yglesias describes the tortuous route by which the AEI hack contrives to demonstrate that making legally-enforceable rules against pollution has had no effect on pollution, which, of course, stands to reason and angers hippies.

Political Wildernesses of Fact and Lore

Judging from the profusion of citations (e.g. one, two, three, four, five, six, etc.), the health care reform bill that President Obama signed into law today required that each person crippled with an interest in politics shall, at least once, cite these remarks of lugubrious conservative David Frum. As I am no anarchist, I hereby comply:

This time, when we [the right] went for all the marbles, we ended with none.

Could a deal have been reached? Who knows? But we do know that the gap between this plan and traditional Republican ideas is not very big. The Obama plan has a broad family resemblance to Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts plan. It builds on ideas developed at the Heritage Foundation in the early 1990s that formed the basis for Republican counter-proposals to Clintoncare in 1993-1994.

Barack Obama badly wanted Republican votes for his plan. Could we have leveraged his desire to align the plan more closely with conservative views? To finance it without redistributive taxes on productive enterprise – without weighing so heavily on small business – without expanding Medicaid? Too late now. They are all the law.

No illusions please: This bill will not be repealed. Even if Republicans scored a 1994 style landslide in November, how many votes could we muster to re-open the “doughnut hole” and charge seniors more for prescription drugs? How many votes to re-allow insurers to rescind policies when they discover a pre-existing condition? How many votes to banish 25 year olds from their parents’ insurance coverage? And even if the votes were there – would President Obama sign such a repeal?

We followed the most radical voices in the party and the movement, and they led us to abject and irreversible defeat.
I think everyone would do well to stop making confident declarations about the state of voter sentiment months from now. Not so long ago, the GOP was doomed to wander a 'political wilderness' forever hence -- naked and bedraggled, clutching a dog-eared Ayn Rand novel and a tattered Bible, pecked at by crows, rummaging through trash bins digging for scraps. Today, the Democrats are similarly doomed in November. Yawn.

If he weren't one of history's greatest monsters, I might feel a twinge of pity for David Frum (I probably wouldn't, but I might) because he seems to be awash in the notion that the GOP gives a damn about public policy. And they do, if by "public policy" one means nothing more than de-secularizing the laws of the land, reducing the taxes paid by wealthy people, and sending others' sons and daughters to fight, maim, be maimed, kill, and be killed in foreign lands.

Glum Frum also seems to have missed the fable of Br'er Rabbit, who begged and pleaded with his captors not to throw him in the briar patch. To state that in non-fable terms: David Frum appears to have stated, and yet to have missed, that for all its histrionic wailing about socialist death panels and obstinate refusal of good-faith policymaking, the GOP got a great deal of what their standard-bearers have long said they've wanted in the way of health care policy (when pressed, by the exigencies of election season, to mention something other than god, tax cuts, and war). Whereas this new law is far from the aspirations of those of us who have been advocating for reform from the liberal-left.

He's right to say, or rather imply, or perhaps betray, the true source of the right's caterwauling all these many months: the passage of health reform, modest and imperfect as it is, stands an excellent chance of validating the radical idea that people can, from time to time, benefit from public policy in concrete, straightforward, important ways. He is also right to say that repealing this law seems far-fetched, but as I said, we should pause before the temptation to make predictions in politics.

Monday, March 22, 2010

A Very Lars von Trier Welcome

You'll enjoy this if you're a fan of Lars von Trier, but then again, if you're a fan of Lars von Trier, you're probably already of the view that "enjoying things" is dubious practice: a dodge, a feat of cowardice, a mask to conceal our true selves and abstract away the hideousness of the world.

Denmark Introduces Harrowing New Tourism Ads Directed By Lars Von Trier

(via commenter Reuben)

Sunday, March 21, 2010

An Important Step

By a 219-212 vote, the US House passed the Senate's deeply imperfect but ameliorative health care reform bill. Typical of the journalism we get from corporate media, the graphic above (click to embiggen) arrives after the bill has become law -- after, that is, the long period of time during which large numbers of Americans demonstrated confusion and misunderstanding about the bill's impact -- but provides some useful information nonetheless.

Like the health care reform bill itself, the graphic is late and incomplete, but it's still an improvement. This is a positive change. More of the same will be needed.

Breaking Bad Season Three: Beware of Actual Drama

As of this writing, we are roughly an hour away from the beginning of season three of Breaking Bad, the best dramatic series on the AMC network that isn't Mad Men. This puts it at second place among all current televised dramas across all networks, and whatever is third best is so far behind the first two as to be barely perceptible.

In addition to its excellent casting and superb acting, Breaking Bad's screenwriting sets itself above the usual run of filmed drama by daring to follow through on the grounding premises of its story, even as dark and unsettling as they are. I have deliberately avoided any news or gossip that might betray the forthcoming trajectory of the story, so I am pleased to have no spoilers to offer, but suffice to say this is a series that would, and very well might, dramatize the death of a central character. Or then again, maybe it wouldn't and won't -- the interesting thing is that for Breaking Bad, so unlike the usual run of filmed dramas that trade in putting its protagonists in profound peril, this is a genuine question.

Do watch, but be forewarned: the viewer will experience actual drama.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Of Bluffing

This is Nate Silver on the 'bluff' made by Congressional progressives on health care:

It feels good to assert that progressives just need to be tougher -- perhaps even to the point of feigning irrationality. These arguments are not necessarily wrong -- a reputation for being tougher bargainers would help at the margins -- but it misdiagnoses the problem on health care. The progressive bloc failed not because of any reputational deficiency on the part of the progressives but because their bluff was too transparent -- they claimed to be willing to wager enormous stakes (health care reform) to win a relatively small pot (the public option). That would have been beyond the capacity of any poker player -- or activist -- to pull off.
Not all bluffs are equal. Negotiations may feature bluffs that are completely disingenuous from the start -- raising the bids even when holding a pair of off-color three's -- versus bluffs that are only exposed as such after the final deal has been made, when a bettor reviews all the stakes, considers all the cards in sight, and concludes the best move is to take a modest loss rather than a complete washout.

Bluffs have their place in negotiation. When progressives pledged to vote against any health care reform bill that lacked a public option, they telegraphed not their insincerity but how one aggressively bargains for a public option. This is what bargaining looks like. In any high-stakes, consequential negotiation, there can be expected to be histrionic threats, dramatic feints, and wild lunges -- and after all the cards are laid down, the revelation that there had been, all along, a degree of overstatement.

When critics like Glenn Greenwald say progressives need to be tougher (as cited above), this is, I think, part of what he means. The progressive bloc of Congress has, I will charitably suppose, learned that the ugly gamesmanship that goes along with negotiating is part of the duty of a public servant. They don't need to relish it; certainly they shouldn't make it their focus or mistake it for more direct, straightforward, pursuits; but they need it. This won't be the last time.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Friday Hope Plucking

Two things stand out from this week's installment of Phila's always-worthwhile Friday Hope Blogging feature:

  • C-Span has posted all of its vast video archives to the internets, and not only that, they've made these archives searchable, and not only that, the search function works. Yes, it actually works!

    You can find the videos of all the varied people who have made their weirdly-timed appearances on C-Span to say interesting, important, provocative things on a dizzying variety of topics, not just politics -- literature, art, music, culture, religion, science, ethics, philosophy, film, life, the universe, everything.


  • This one is terrific, but also bittersweet. China is investing heavily in 'smart-grid' electrification:
    China put construction of the smart grid on its strategic agenda to facilitate the use of renewable energy and reduce the country's excessive reliance on pollution generating coal power ... Construction of the grid fits well with the country's efforts to build an environmentally friendly economy. The project will boost the development of clean energy, improve energy efficiency and bolster pollution controls ... These efforts may also give a shot in the arm to other industries such as the electric vehicle sector ...
    Sigh. I hear it told that the USA once aspired to lead the world in such forward-thinking endeavors, and now and then actually did so -- even when, as in the case of China's current efforts, it involved the expenditure of public funds.
Hope lives, and so does ambition.

More Moral Clarity

More 'keep enemies closer'-style support for health care reform has arrived from soulless monster Paul Broun, Congressman from Georgia:

BROUN: If ObamaCare passes, that free insurance card that’s in people’s pockets is gonna be as worthless as a Confederate dollar after the War Between The States — the Great War of Yankee Aggression.
Atop Rep. Broun's previous insights remarked upon in the annals of this precious, precious blog -- that a "bill of attainder" is some sort of exotic, probably made-up phantasm irrelevant to the pressing need to protect white-dominated Congressional districts from organizations that would seek to register uppity black voters; that he just can't be sure if Barack Obama is an American or a Christian, or, truth be told, whether the deviant physiognomies hailing from faraway Hawaii suggest full human status; that the status quo on health care is good enough since, to use his own illustration, people suffering from acute depression aren't physically barred from going to hospital emergency rooms -- we can add two more. To wit:
  • Americans face the fell prospect of "free insurance cards." Rep. Broun is under the impression, or seems to want to create the impression, that the bill before the US Congress would insert a "free insurance card" into every citizen's innocent pocket. This is false, but if it were true, Broun would consider it an affront to American self-reliance the magnitude of which we have not seen since, well ...
  • "The Great War of Yankee Aggression," at the start of which men like Rep. Broun were still free to own the human beings they had paid to have shipped from Africa. Then as now, an interloper with questionable racial sympathies brought Illinois-style changes to the peaceful, contented climes of Georgia, some of which were known to poll poorly among certain demographics.
Let us thank Rep. Broun for drawing such a vivid line between humanity, justice, and civilization and whatever it is he represents and would hope to see rise again.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Keeping Enemies Close

Fresh confirmation of Michael Corleone's "keep your friends close but your enemies closer" arrives from this exchange between two raging enemies of decency and justice, Congressman Steve King and lunatic Glenn Beck:

KING: They intend to vote on the Sabbath, during Lent, to take away the liberty that we have right from God. [...]

BECK: You couldn’t have said it better. Here is a group of people that have so perverted our faith and our hope and our charity, that is a — this is an affront to God. And I honestly, I don’t think anybody is like, “yes, and now what we’ll do is we’ll vote on the Sabbath.” But I think it’s absolutely appropriate that these people are trying to put the nail in the coffin on our country on a Sunday — something our founders would have never, ever, ever done. Out of respect for God.
Their concern for the Sabbath is touching, or so I take the tone they're trying to establish to complement the usual alarmist idiocy they radiate. But suppose we take them at their word (why not?): voting health care reform into law will insult their nasty, vicious god, which sounds to me like just one more reason to do so.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Bee More Ironic

I don't think rock critic Brent DiCrescenzo knows much about The Bird and the Bee, judging from this review of their forthcoming tribute to Hall & Oates, Interpreting the Masters Volume 1: A Tribute to Daryl Hall and John Oates:

That ridiculous title reads like a thesis paper, as if the writers of “Maneater” were Manet. Coming from this dedicated lounge-pop duo, it’s meant without a trace of irony. Thankfully, this cover album is far more quirky and playful than academic, turning blue-eyed soul smashes into chirpy little music-box numbers.

Most who tackle soft-rock classics crank up the volume, as if to validate cheese with more pungent notes for more sophisticated palates. The Bird and the Bee head the opposite way, pulling Hall & Oates’s sugary tunes into fluffy cotton candy. Brainy elevator music, really. Washes of groovy Moogs, bleeps and bloops gurgle under Inara George’s breathy, if straightforward renditions of ubiquitous hits like “She’s Gone” and “I Can’t Go for That,” giving off the vibe of Stereolab jamming on toy instruments. There’s one original, “Heard It on the Radio,” which bounces along on rubbery bass and canned electric guitars like some lost credit roll from Mannequin 2: On the Move. But like Oates without a mustache, it’s hard to see the point.
I'm glad the review mentioned Stereolab so that my google alert picked it up, without which I might never have found it. Nothing else in the review gladdens me, but since I bravely embrace the assumption that rock critic Brent DiCrescenzo doesn't care about gladdening me, I will move forward and try to dig a little deeper. (I only said I'd try.)

Little effort is needed, really, to see the problem. If I read rock critic Brent DiCrescenzo's first sentence correctly, he is claiming that the Bird and the Bee is blind to the irony of titling a tribute album to Hall & Oates as Interpreting the Masters Volume 1: A Tribute to Daryl Hall and John Oates. There are a few ways to re-read that claim with emphasis, each of them calling attention to something outrageously ill-considered about the claim:
  • The Bird and the Bee is blind to the irony of titling a tribute album to Hall & Oates as Interpreting the Masters Volume 1: A Tribute to Daryl Hall and John Oates: this version fails to recognize that The Bird and the Bee was awash in irony in its every public presentation long before this tribute album. To be exact, The Bird and the Bee trade in a sort of self-aware irony that perfectly fits a tribute album to a slightly schlocky 80's pop act -- there is a dash of derision mixed with genuine tribute in their work beyond and apart from this new album. It's what they do. It's their thing.
  • The Bird and the Bee is blind to the irony of titling a tribute album to Hall & Oates as Interpreting the Masters Volume 1: A Tribute to Daryl Hall and John Oates: this version just insults The Bird and the Bee by suggesting that, yes, maybe they know their way around irony and maybe they don't, but they don't seem to appreciate the cultural cachet of Hall & Oates. I mean, of all the tribute albums to make, they make one for Hall & Oates! Ha!
  • The Bird and the Bee is blind to the irony of titling a tribute album to Hall & Oates as Interpreting the Masters Volume 1: A Tribute to Daryl Hall and John Oates: this version combines the worst of the first two by refusing to perceive that The Bird and the Bee granted its tribute album such a grandiose title precisely to ratchet up the irony.
Note to rock critic Brent DiCrescenzo: this will be an ironic tribute album to Hall & Oates. If "ironic tribute album" smashes atoms in your head in a confusing and discomfiting way, you're on your way to getting the idea.

I look forward to it, and hope we can expect future volumes in the series from The Bird and the Bee.

But wait! I still haven't finished Pericles, Prince of Tyre!

There could well be another Shakespeare play:

[A] little-known 18th century play Double Falshood was propelled into the literary limelight today when it was claimed as a lost Shakespeare.

Professor Brean Hammond of Nottingham University will publish compelling new evidence next week that the play, a romantic tragi-comedy by Lewis Theobald is – as the author always maintained it was – substantially based on a real Shakespeare play called Cardenio.

Hammond has been backed in his assertion by the Shakespeare publisher Arden ...
Call me a fuddy-duddy, but the historical scholarship on Shakespeare achieved to date has done little to give confidence in this "compelling new evidence." Also, what kind of name is Brean?

Then again, maybe. Almost anything is possible. Almost. Every self-respecting Shakespeare geek has heard of a lost play entitled Cardenio, but everything past that gets cloudy quickly.

It bears watching.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Love of Orchid and Wasp

The accompanying audio characterizes this as an instance of "sexual deception," but if this wasp is anything like a lot of guys I've known, that's a trifling distinction.

(via Pharyngula)

Maybe God is a Chickenhawk

Just in time for sign-making season among knuckle-dragging bigots, this news will do nothing to increase Fred Phelps's church's esteem for members of the US military:

60% of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans believe that being gay or lesbian “has no bearing on a service member’s ability to perform their duties.” Only 29% disagree.

– 73% of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans say it is “personally acceptable to them if gay and lesbian people were allowed to serve openly in the military.” Only a quarter (25%) would find it unacceptable.

– 73% Iraq and Afghanistan veterans say “they are personally comfortable in the presence of gays and lesbians.” Only a quarter (23%) is uncomfortable, and hardly anyone is very uncomfortable (only 7%)
Our troops are evidently frittering away their time and effort on, well, I couldn't say what, but it is something other than despising gay people with the deadly intensity that the leading gods demand.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Civil F_ckin' Discourse

I enjoyed this video so much I watched it twice, but I couldn't get over the sense that it was reminding me of something even better:

And then it hit me -- this is what it reminds me of:

(via Portland Mercury)

Jesus H. Beck

We pick up the action somewhere at the intersection of politics and religion, where an American television personality recently focused his insanity, to the consternation of many of Jesus's earthly lieutenants. Here's a representative reaction:

Glenn Beck's recent statement that people should "run as fast as you can" and leave any church that mentions "social or economic justice" is nothing short of a call for his listeners to disregard central tenets of their faith because they do not conform to Mr. Beck's political ideology. He is advocating that they abandon the full Gospel message in favor of a hollow idol, and he is doing so for worldly gain. His statements cannot be allowed to stand unchallenged.
Alas, this critic seems to be on to something. Reviewing Beck's rantings, it is difficult to deny the conclusion that he has hitched a tendentious selection of the Gospels to his cracked ideology, and presented the admixture as the proper, correct, and complete understanding of Christianity.

One reels at the possibilities this opens up, and I'm afraid they're past hypothetical -- Beck's critic cited above has, in the very criticisms cited, done the same thing, saying, for example, this:
Jesus saw his ministry as a continuation and fulfillment of the call for justice and righteousness of the Hebrew prophets. One cannot know him without seeing that context around him ... The ideas of economic justice (see Jer. 5:28), rights of workers (see Isa. 58:3), and redistribution of wealth (see the year of Jubilee in Lev. 25:8) are in no way foreign to the biblical text ...
Truly the rot has spread, the horse has left the barn, the Pandora's box has been thrown open, Eve has re-gnawed at the bark of the tree of knowledge: the purity of the Gospels have been sullied by the intrusion of everyday political dispute.

Count no one more alarmed than Andrew Sullivan, who arrives with a pox on the houses of all who would perturb Gospel truth:
... [A]lthough helping the poor is obviously a critical facet of Jesus' teaching, it is a legitimate matter of debate how to help the poor. Socialism, for example, clearly does not help the poor: it just makes everyone poorer.
Duh! Every toddler knows Jesus hated socialism. Sullivan continues:
My own view is that there should be a collective and strong safety net for the poor, combined with, for Christians, a very powerful, indeed binding, injunction to give and give generously to others, and to take a personal interest in the needs of others. There's a balance here, in other words, between social justice and statist redistributionism. And while Beck is obviously out of line - the Catholic Church's teachings on social justice could not be further removed from Ayn Rand - I'm suspicious of the dangers of taking the virtue of social justice and turning it into the system of socialism.
Duh! Every toddler knows Jesus hated objectivism.

To be clear -- and if we're ever to get the Gospels back on track, we must get this clear -- Jesus was, politically, somewhere between Josef Stalin and Ayn Rand.

Wiping away a couple of layers of my sarcasm: does anyone else find it odd that Catholic Andrew Sullivan is lecturing Mormon Glenn Beck on the finer points of Catholic teaching, as if a Mormon, let alone a mentally unhinged one, would have the slightest reason to give a damn about Catholic teaching? Does anyone else stand a little staggered at the spectacle of a gay Catholic lecturing a non-Catholic asylum escapee on the tenets of Catholicism, without first having made peace within his own sect over whether, to mince no words, he should live on correcting said tenets or would better serve The Church as a fagot? Pun intended?

Wiping away the remaining layers of sarcasm: assertions about the true essence of Christianity as conveyed through its texts -- leaving conspicuously begged the question of which texts qualify as 'its' texts -- are as common as houseflies, considerably less interesting, and almost as beneficial.

(via The Majesty of Being).

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Shamrock Run 2010 - What Now?

Today's Shamrock 15K only seemed uphill the entire way, but my topologist friends* assure me that any out-and-back or looping road course must match elevation increases with corresponding elevation decreases, right down to the foot. Still, I was happy to get out there and back in 1:08:12 (7:19 mi/min pace), which was not a personal record for this distance or even this course but better than I had expected given the middling quality of my recent training.

The Shamrock Run is among the most popular and best organized running events in Portland, and these two facts aren't unrelated. This year, I noticed they embraced the suggestion I made this time last year by moving the post-race festivities to the large expanse of the Waterfront, rather than trying to cram all thousands of us into a small parking lot to collect our post-race beer (pale ale or hefeweizen by Widmer) and food (more on that below).

I am not sure what happens when someone does something I suggest -- is there a fee I'll be asked to pay? Will I need to sign some papers? Something else?

They also gave us chowder after the run, courtesy Stanford's, and here enters my cavil. They offered salmon chowder as our free food -- salmon chowder and nary a scrap of anything else. I don't doubt it's a fine batch of salmon chowder they make at Stanford's, and I truly appreciate the effort and the gesture, but I think I speak for a lot people when I report not being much of a chowder person. As a vegetarian, I am especially not a salmon chowder person, so this left me with nothing. I pause now while the reader fights back a tear.

Cavil aside, I give my thanks to all the volunteers and organizers who made this event go so well, and my congratulations to all the competitors.

* All topologist friends mentioned in this post were interpolated for dramatic purposes. Resemblance to actual topologist friends would be impossible because I don't have any.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Antichrist is a She?

Roger Ebert was among the many critics left baffled by Lars von Trier's Antichrist, but compared with, say, Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, or Dogville, I didn't find this film as impenetrable as other Lars von Trier films. This is a difficult film to take, whether or not any sense can be made of it. Suffice to say that the horrors of the opening scenes are eventually surpassed, and that's saying a lot. [Spoilers below.]

On the thematic substance behind the infliction of emotional damage on the viewer, Roger Ebert has something of it, and he begins with the psychology of the main characters:

We must begin by assuming that He and She are already at psychological tipping points. She has been doing research on witchcraft, and it leads her to wonder if women are inherently evil. That may cause her to devalue herself. He is a controlling, dominant personality, who I believe is moved by the traumatic death to punish the woman who delivered his child into the world.

Their first stage, Grief, is legitimate. Their error is in trying to treat it instead of accepting it and living it through. Of course they blame themselves ... She mentally punishes herself. For reasons he may not be aware of, he is driven to deal with her guilt as a problem, lecturing her in calm, patient, detached psychobabble. Her grief is her fault, you see, and he will blame her for it.
A central question of the movie becomes how soon will 'He' turn against 'She,' and just how much should we hate Her, and by extension, all women. I think those who accuse the film of mysogyny are not far off, but I don't think it's quite as simple as that.

The woman's scholarly research on witchcraft, and the way the man's understanding of her guilt culminates in the discovery of the literal artifacts of that research, suggest a deeper story, one long pre-dating these characters. The 'He' character all but suggested the answer at one point: in the course of studying the history of witchcraft, the 'She' character came to believe what she read about women. There in the isolation of the cabin, with only her young son, the patter of acorns on the roof, and hostile wilderness, the manuscripts created a psychic momentum and constituted a just-so story that gave shape to the perception of her own human (not strictly feminine) flaws, follies, appetites, and shortcomings. Without necessarily realizing the transformation, she became the role she had studied -- a torturer, a sadist, a witch.

I think the film leaves this question very much open: whether individual human beings can break free of the limitations of their darkest stories. One immediate irony of this reading is, of course, how the film adds another dark narrative to the annals.

Spreading the Fremdscham

Leave it to the Germans to invert and toy with every moral posture -- it turns out the German language has the word fremdscham, which is something like the good twin of schadenfreude. John at Obscene Desserts has helpfully tracked down a more precise definition of fremdscham:

The phenomenon of 'fremdschämen' refers to an empathic process in which person A feels ashamed in place of person B. Person B is not aware that they are in a situation about which they need to feel shame; person A, however, absolutely is. From this embarrassing feeling of being touched by the situation in which person B finds himself unknowingly, person A feels vicariously ashamed for him.
Toward making this term better known in the English speaking world, John asks:
So, which public personage do you immediately feel a strong sense of Fremdscham?
Oh, let me count the ways.

As much as I admire and appreciate his work, some of Keith Olbermann's more overheated commentaries raise feelings of fremdscham. I find myself muttering, now and then, "um, you might want to take that down a notch, Keith" -- as Ben Affleck did on one memorable occasion.

I feel fremdscham when Bill Maher takes some valid insights about pharmaceuticals, drugs, health, medicine, and nutrition, and cranks them past eleven to a full-blown crank theory of human well-being. His advocacy of a skeptical outlook is crippled by these diversions into sketchy fancy.

I feel fremdscham when Bono takes to the microphone to remind us, sometimes in almost these exact words, that rock stars can save the world. He means well and does plenty of good, but he seems to have ducked beneath the wave of irony that had enveloped popular culture by the end of the 1980s. The intense earnestness, dating to U2's beginnings in the late 1970s, came with a grandfather clause.

I feel fremdscham for Nicholas Cage, who shows just enough promise as an actor to make it painful to see him in so many unwatchable films. Something similar might be said of Robert De Niro, whose filmography and performances started so well before turning, in recent years, cringe-worthy or worse.

Generally speaking, moments when established television performers pursue film acting should be considered elevated fremdscham watch situations. Anthony Edwards and the cast of Friends except Jennifer Aniston come to mind.

As it comes off the English speaker's tongue, it doesn't sing quite its evil twin schadenfreude, but fremdscham definitely has a place in our repertoire.

Call it a meme -- what public figures incite fremdscham in you?

Friday, March 12, 2010

All the Hazards of Love

Apropos nothing, really, except truth and beauty, someone has gone to the magnificent trouble of converting "The Hazards of Love" by the Decemberists into a youtube playlist. Surely this can't be right by intellectual property laws, but I realize I shouldn't call you Shirley.

This a fitting treatment for this album, as its songs form a single narrative line from start to finish, with the final song ending on the line "these hazards of love never more will trouble us" -- if it sounds like a happy ending, you'll need to listen as many times as it takes to find out, and then listen some more.

It shouldn't be difficult given the quality of the material. The playlist is still there as of this writing, but as with one of love's famous hazards, it probably won't last. Fortunately acquiring a copy all your own is worth the money, and gives all the time needed to cherish it.

Congress Has the Ball - Health Care Now

I had to swallow hard first, but this is the text of the note I just sent to my Congressman, Earl Blumenauer:

Rep. Blumenauer, Please vote FOR the Senate health care bill. While far from perfect -- 'single payer' is the best way to go -- the current bill makes significant improvements over the costly, unjust mess we have now.

I realize you committed to vote against any bill that doesn't include a public option. I urge you to side with the good against the perfect. Pass this bill and then continue to press for the additional changes we need.

Health care is a right. Every step toward recognizing and actualizing that right, however small and imperfect a step, is positive and good. Every vote against it is a vote against civility and justice.

Thank you.
What is "good" and "better" about the bills currently under discussion? They would mean, among other things, these positive changes:
As it currently stands, the legislation would cover 31 million Americans and offer consumer protections to all Americans, eliminating the ability of insurance companies to deny people for pre-existing conditions or to rescind coverage to people who get sick. Its ten-year $875 billion price tag would be funded by Medicare cost-savings (without jeopardizing benefits) and a mixture of new taxes. It would reduce the deficit by $118 billion in the first ten years.
I urge everyone to contact his/her own representative and express support for the bill. Whether you want to e-mail, snail mail, fax, call, or even stop by, the contact information for your representative can be found here.

For the cave-bound, here's some background on the Congressional maneuvering happening now.

On the Water - Now With Rabbits

I was already slightly obsessed with this song, "On the Water" by The Walkmen, but now that I've seen the video, I don't think there's any hope for me:

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Intellectual Vanguard of the Teabaggers

Is this a car salesman? An insurance salesman? A candidate for public office? Close enough. It is the spectacularly fitting visual accompanying the write-up of the Fresh Air podcast featuring blowhard David Walker, who churns out the following:

There are three key points with regard to spending. Spending more money than you make on a reoccurring basis is irresponsible. Irresponsibly spending someone else's money is unethical; and if you're a fiduciary, a fiduciary breach. And irresponsibly spending someone else's money when they're too young to vote and not born yet is immoral. And all three of those things are going on right now, and they threaten America's future.
Setting aside the substance momentarily, as a feat of rhetoric, every syllable of this is embarrassingly hackneyed: there are "key points with regard to spending" -- not important, salient, significant, noteworthy, relevant, pertinent (etc.) truths, realities, things (etc.) to consider, ponder, recognize, understand (etc.) about spending; not things I'd like to say about spending; not warnings I have come to deliver about spending; not things I've concluded, found, discovered (etc.) about spending; not important findings, truths, realities, facts (etc.) about spending; no, there are "key points with regard to spending."

Naturally there are three of these "key points," three being the expected number of items on any list drawn by ardent fans of cliches. Interestingly, there are actually four items, but the pull of the three-item cliche is so strong that the speaker willingly breaks the parallelism by tacking a secret third between the natural second and natural third.

The "three" items are carried along in refrains, with each refrain terminating on what's meant to be a dramatic rebuke: "irresponsible," "unethical," "fiduciary breach," "immoral." Then, just at the moment when we might hope to hear we're innocent of one or two of the rebukes, any hope of surprise vanishes (they're all going on now) and we are told the unspeakably grave consequences (they threaten America's future).

If you threw up in your mouth a little while reading that, there may be hope for you.

On substance, Walker's presentation was, if anything, more shallow. Gamely trying to draw something more than platitudes out of Walker, Terry Gross quoted James K. Galbraith:
To focus obsessively on cutting future deficits is a path that will obstruct, not assist, what we need to do to re-establish strong growth and high employment.

Private borrowers can and do default. They go bankrupt. With government, the risk of non-payment does not exist. Government spends money simply by typing numbers into a computer. Unlike private debtors, government does not need to have cash on hand. Public debt isn't a burden on future generations. It does not have to be repaid, and in practice, it will never be repaid.
Whatever the merits of Galbraith's statement, it's undeniably the kind of thinking that splashes a bleeding seal in the waters where sharks like David Walker swim. And yet this was Walker's direct reply -- maybe you can spot the part that's more thoughtful than nuh-uh!, because I can't:
I think he's out of touch with reality. You can't spend more money than you make, indefinitely, without having severe adverse consequences. Under our present path, within 12 years, without an increase in interest rates, the single largest line item in the federal budget is interest on the federal debt. If there is a two percent increase in prevailing interest costs, which many people believe is optimistic, its going to be worse than that. The only thing the federal government will be able to do in 2035 - which is only 25 years from now - based on historical tax levels, is to pay interest on the federal debt.
Walker has tossed in a lot of numbers and things that sound like definite metrics here -- 12 years, single largest item, two percent, 2035, 25 -- but he hasn't addressed what Galbraith has wrong: he hasn't said why the US federal government can't continue doing what it has done continuously since the late 1960s, and over many episodes before that, which is to function as though Galbraith is exactly right. This was Walker's opportunity to explain -- to a large audience of people not generally inclined to see things his way -- that, contrary to Galbraith and everyone else in the Keynesian school of economics, debts held by government should be understood on the same terms as debts held by private parties. Instead, Walker repeated, using slightly more specific terms, that public debts "threaten America's future." Neat.

Judging from this presentation from one of the titled experts of the debt histrionics movement, it's little wonder that non-experts come across as baffled, dishonest, or both when asked for details. The shark rots from the head.

Digby was similarly irked by Walker's presentation, enough to inspire this fine rebuttal and this one.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Stonecutters Strike Back

Here's the trouble with officious, authoritarian blights on human society -- in the everyday course of business, they do things that produce the need to release statements like this:

To preserve the mission of our schools, and to respect the faith of wider Catholic community, we expect all families who enroll students to live in accord with Catholic teaching ... Parents living in open discord with Catholic teaching in areas of faith and morals unfortunately choose by their actions to disqualify their children from enrollment. [emphasis mine]
The sort of living that's in "open discord with Catholic teaching" turns out to be moving through life with the wrong sexual inclinations -- the ones that turn woman against man and toward other women, never show up for the rite of confession, and fail to recite the Rosary properly.

I don't see why any fair-minded observer, nor the Catholic official who wrote this, should find anything genuinely "unfortunate" in this. Lesbian parents seeking scorn, rejection, fanaticism, and slightly above-average test scores can find them in plenty of places; and for the Church's part, it's difficult to see what they'd find unwelcome in the opportunity to hoist the banner of their preposterous, bigoted superstitions, without which they're just another tax shelter with costumes, theme songs, and a rapidly aging membership pining for things no one else misses, like the Stonecutters (Cf.).

Churchy goes on:
To allow children in these circumstances to continue in our school would be a cause of confusion for the student in that what they are being taught in school conflicts with what they experience in the home.
Out of charity and delicacy, I will draw no conclusions about whether this implies that parents are expected to look the other way if someone rapes their children at home.

Possible Food Pyramids

Really-existing social engineering operates this way:

The Farm Bill ... provides billions of dollars in subsidies, much of which goes to huge agribusinesses producing feed crops, such as corn and soy, which are then fed to animals. By funding these crops, the government supports the production of meat and dairy products—the same products that contribute to our growing rates of obesity and chronic disease. Fruit and vegetable farmers, on the other hand, receive less than 1 percent of government subsidies.
We get what we pay for in life and in public policy, and we are currently paying for a situation where most of our food is corn, either turned into meat or sweetener.

(via Andrew Sullivan)