Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Black Vocalization Style

Famed Honky Gary Trudeau, creator of the Doonesbury comic strip, once ran a series making fun of Gladys Knight's backup singers, the Pips. To his eyes and ears, they weren't doing much back there, just moving a little and singing "Ooohh" at the end.

Well, a lot of white people think that, but they should shut up when they don't know what they're talking about. We grew up thinking that the tune and the words were just about all there was to a song. There might be arrangements of a song, but really, same thing. People who studied music started to grasp more about dynamics in music, but the requirement in chorus or choir was pretty much always the same for white people. Sing the note true, with no flourishes; keep the rhythm exact, except maybe some little expressive delays if you were the lead singer; enunciate the words clearly, because there were lots and lots of them, and they'd get lost if you weren't precise. It was a style of music made more possible by the printing press, plus the increasing affluence which allowed people to buy instruments.

They didn't have 20-piece orchestras in the slave quarters, remember? In black music, the voice is used as an instrument. The dynamics are more intense, the flourishes and bent notes much more common. Here's a fairly extreme example.

There were white traditions, most notably Church of Christ congregations that forbade instruments not mentioned in the New Testament. Which is like, everything. But the developed style was primarily African-American.

How things get their start is not necessarily why they perpetuate. Even after slavery, even as black musicians obtained and mastered instruments, the half-voice/half-instrument style persisted and developed. Blues guitar includes a lot of backup instrumentation now, but if you listen to older blues artists, you will hear the guitar or harmonica taking on vocal characteristics, the human voices carrying some imitation of the accompanying instruments, including percussion. As these were often songs for performance, not just recording, the audience or congregation is often brought in to sing bits, providing more instruments. Here are two from the 20's-40's that illustrate this.

Sam Cook later sang with the Soul Stirrers, BTW.

When you do this, the clarity of the words gives way. No six verses of complex poetry for this style. So to get the message across, you have to repeat the words many times. To white people, this seems irritating. Why keep saying the same thing over and over? Isn't that a little theologically oversimplified? Well, maybe. But when you've got whole congregations, whole cultures that are skilled in using dynamics and flourishes, they're going to hear things beyond just the melody and the words. And they're going to be able to do things others can't, melding instrumental and vocal into a different sort of symphony.

Further Tolkien Branching

Reflecting on the liberal vision as reflected in fantasy literature, I discovered that Tolkien records many types of vision in LOTR. There are dreams, vague but accurate for Frodo, specific and revelatory to Boromir. The pool of Galadriel shows possible things, the Palantir only true ones, though it can mislead. There is the searching eye of Sauron, which many can sense and occasionally see; plus creatures from other realms, such as Nazgul - the ability to perceive these is heightened by the ring, but Glorfindel seems to do so unaided. There is the waking memory of the elves; Sam's vision of himself as gardener of the world when he takes the ring; Faramir's apprehension of Boromir, a true sight which seems like a vision to him; sights and sounds in the barrow, candles in the Dead Marshes, and the intuitions of many. Quite a thorough list for one book.

This in turn reminded me of an earlier post of mine, including the widely different experiences of extended life in Tolkien: elves, wizards, Gollum, ents, Bombadil, dwarves, and various monsters all have long lifespans, but their experiences are quite distinct. Another thorough list by Tolkien.

Ilya Somin at Volokh Conspiracy has a post of how LOTR is really about property law, and the various means of acquisition.

I. Acquisition By Creation
II. Acquisition By Conquest
III.Acquisition By Find
IV. Acquisition By Adverse Possession
V. Acquisition By Agreement
VI. Acquisition By Gift
VII.Temporary Acquisition By Necessity
VIIIAttempted Re-acquisition By Self-Help

Somin links to a similar article by Canadian Jacob Kaufman.

Where does it end? Tolkien's characters experience not only a wide range of temptations - power, honor, escape from duty, simpler life, beauty, wealth - but many methods of temptation. There are varieties of government and varieties of evil, all in fairly thorough detail

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Pushing The Envelope...

...just a bit farther. Again. Via Maggie

Dictionaries Charmingly Explained

And brilliantly, too. Don't you want to know what "erinaceous" means? Yeah, you do. Some of you really do.

I got this from Maggie's Farm, which got it from Language Log.

Further Discussion - Envisioning

The oversimplified version of this post: In fantasy literature, the standard liberal vision turns conservative, which is why progressives have very mixed reactions to the genre. It's not actually that sharp a distinction, but it will do for openers.

A small, prosperous, agricultural and small crafts society, which wants only to be left alone to live in peace. It doesn't get more idyllic than that. But trouble in the form of evil from without comes to them. The Shire, Archenland, Redwall, the Four Lands, Prydain, Malacandra, the Minnipins, The Land (in Thomas Covenant) - all fit this description. Even Gont, Arthurian England and Susan Cooper's or Alan Garner's England draw from this.

It is hard to call this a political vision, as it is more of a universal desire of good people everywhere. It certainly fits a liberal or Green vision of non-polluting economy, equality, conflict avoidant to the point of near-pacifism. Everyone has a job, but no one seems to toil or suffer. Both wealth and poverty are mild. The evil without is warlike, seeking treasure or power, straight off the Daily Kos stereotype index page for conservatives.

Yet this fits a libertarian vision as well - people are left alone to do as they please, authority is wielded lightly, differences are tolerated in the best sense, with no social pressure to either celebrate or discourage them.

And still again, it is a conservative vision, far more conservative than is common today. However much mutual respect is shown, these societies are hierarchical, usually monarchical or religious. Custom is respected and traditions kept. The old are accorded wise, and ancient texts are consulted for guidance. Everyone works for themselves, yet somehow the whole society benefits. Everyone is comfortable with not only racial but even species distinctives.

To move from this specifically literary to the more general idyllic vision for a moment, this may be why progressives are so distressed who do not seem to share their intensity of vision, and are sometimes even eager to impose it. They discern correctly that this desire for such a society is not theirs only, but shared by all good peoples. Everyone would like it if they would only give it a try. That others might desire such idylls but have very different ways of getting there does not seem valid to them. (Remember from the last post that the progressive approach is to erect a structure of what should be, then put everyone to live in it, expecting things to eventually come right. Come to think of it, this is enormous evidence of their belief in the force of environment in shaping personality and society.)

This is also the vision of the smooth-running machine of nature, economy, and relations between nations, which was #4 in my list of key features of liberalism.

And, in the stories, those who do not share that vision are invariably very bad people.

But the fantasy genre turns largely against a full liberal vision, beginning with pacifism. The peaceful villagers reluctantly conclude that they will have to take up arms. Often, they are so unused to this as to be at a disadvantage, which the authors clearly regard as an error. The evil cannot be reasoned with or placated. Much loss of life can perhaps be avoided by outwitting the evil, or holding on defensively until it devours itself, but it is central to the genre that even gentle people eventually have to fit an arrow to the string or take sword in hand.

The complaint against battle-glorification came to the forefront when the Tolkien and Lewis series were made into films, but there has been an undercurrent of this opposition for decades. I remember the dark looks and mutterings when Lloyd Alexander's books were winning awards in the 60's, even though they are among the least warlike in the genre (he was forgiven much because even pacifist women loved Eilonwy). When Lewis attracted criticism it was more for his religious themes, and Tolkien was first on the block when someone disliked fantasy per se, with little reference to bearing arms. Yet even then I heard and read complaints about the warriors in Weirdstone being unnecessary and perpetuating masculinist myths, or the incitement to racial hatred that could result from orc-slaying.

Though even among progressives, all this was deemed less worrisome because of the types of weapons used - no guns, please - for reasons more romantic than logical. Perhaps the reality of fantasy/medieval battle on the screen stripped some romanticism away.

Relatedly comes the fantasy genre's reminder that these good things come at a price. This life does not come easily. It is not a matter of simply going there and living it. Though fantasy literature does feed the idea that it would be easy, except for the occasional interruption by fully evil forces, and conservatives should give no thanks to fantasy authors for perpetuating this myth.

As fantasy authors develop their worlds, they have to flesh out how these things came to be, what motivates evil creatures, and how even the good people have susceptibility to evil acts. To make the world believable, even internally, all these why's and how's have to fit together somehow. Even in Piers Anthony's Xanth novels, where even the demons are rather interesting and understandable fellows at first, as he progresses through his adventures, darker and deeper understandings of annihilation, chaos, and evil begin to take shape. The later books remain comic, but real dangers and fears emerge in books 4-6. The fantasy author must eventually confront his own vision of hell. To reveal the character of the hero(in)es, their own understanding of temptation, cost, fear, and conflict must deepen.

Just like real life, eh? When one attempts to put the vision on a page and explain to others about it, it is assailed by realities similar to those that humankind faces everywhere. The dream can no longer be held vaguely, thoughtlessly. All of a sudden, to keep the dream afloat the characters have to start acting like conservatives, concerned with what must be done rather than how anyone feels about it.

I also note here that this is what happens to utopian societies as well. They become more conservative or they cease to exist.


Yet not everything flows against progressives forever in epic fantasy literature. For all the battles and military strength needed to buy time in Lord of the Rings, the real battle is ultimately Frodo's journey, which becomes increasing pacifistic and spiritual as he goes on. He casts away armor and knife in Mordor, and even in the final struggle against Gollum, the latter is not pushed to his death, but slips. Taran's final sword-stroke is founded on his spiritual lessons in the preceding four books, and is not even against his opponent's human form. The last battle in Narnia is revealed at the end to not be much of a physical battle at all, but the lead-in to purely spiritual conflict. In this genre, one can buy time through force of arms, and often must, but evil is ultimately only defeated by good.

As a side note, it is curious that even such clever people as Pullman and Moorcock, who subcreate well, are unable to refrain from considerable emotional leakage when they attempt to reform these tendencies of the genre. They just have to tell you that they are trying to be an anti-Tolkien or anti-Lewis. They somehow cannot contain themselves. I am reminded of Screwtape inadvertently turning into giant caterpillar, actually.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Sauron Himself Is But An Emissary - Part VIII: Summary and Opening Discussion

The Assistant Village Idiot’s Progressive Experience
Click on the music, read on, and comment

I have used Boomer music as my examples, because that’s what I know.
Fortunately, there are enough retroheads in succeeding decades that most people can appreciate these illustrations. But hey, if you want to send me examples from other decades, I’m all for that. I’m sure U2 and Green Day have got plenty to draw from. If I get enough material, I might make an alternative version of this with different music. To those who would protest that these are the opinions of folksingers, not the general populace, I would note that these songs sold millions. They could not have been popular if the message were abhorrent to folks. On the contrary, it was the message which sold many of these tunes.

You may comment under each section or at the end, as you think best.

I warn you, this music could suck you in and make you liberal all over again.

If We Would But Dare

Joan Baez 500 Miles and There But For Fortune

The key features of liberal thought, that persist over decades:

1. An expansion of brotherhood, of those we are generous to and avoid going to war with except in extremest emergency. Part III - Expanding Brotherhood Marx divided mankind by class rather than nation, later leftists added belief and attitude as dividing points, so that fellowship was extended to “all who will go with us” versus “those who hinder the change.”

2. An expectation that the social pressures which work on them should work on others. Those who resist are seen as insensitive, stupid, and difficult. Liberals like the idea of being a person who resists social pressure, but the reality is more mixed. In Little Boxes (below), Malvina Reynolds and Pete Seeger are creating social pressure on young people by mocking it in their parents.

3. An understanding of wealth creation that deemphasizes hard work and legitimate individual use of the system as preeminent drivers. Group action, luck, and exploitation are seen as having greater influence on who succeeds. This is why Republican candidates say they will work for you, while Democrats say they will fight for you. Both are playing to the understandings of their potential voters.
3a. Related. The belief that money and too much work are bad for you, and your effort should go into other things, other wealths. This is fine as far as it goes, and quite wise. Unfortunately, it is combined with a constant comparison between the money that some people have versus what others have as if it is society’s great measuring stick. Which is a direct contradiction. Which leads into…

4. A belief that the natural course of events is for things to go smoothly, with only intelligent management to keep them going. The balance of nature, the modest economy, the desire of all humans to live in peace – these are powerful influences for human good. When something different occurs it is not because life is risky, difficult, and dramatic, but because something in the smooth machine is malfunctioning and must be fixed. Which leads to…

5. A tendency to envision long-term utopian goals and choose actions that will bring about that vision. Convincing people of that dream and erecting an appearance of that vision – the UN, universal health coverage, conferences, treaties, negotiations – are of greater importance to them. The idea seems to be “if we build the appearance, the reality will gradually follow.”

Original Caste - One Tin Soldier

Each of these is partly true. If they were entirely untrue, they would have been abandoned years ago. Sometimes making generous gestures does increase understanding; luck, group membership, and gaming the system do have more effect than self-made men are often willing to admit; going through the motions of improved behavior sometimes does lead to internal change.

Flowing from this is that these ideas would work if we would but dare to try them. If we were more committed to generosity and negotiation, other nations would eventually respond in kind. If we would share the wealth, we would find that we liked that life better. If we keep putting energy into the UN, or cabinets that look like America, or insisting that people say nice things about less-favored groups, then these things will become the reality over time.

It should be noted that while there are progressives who are flat-out lunatic believers in these principles, willing to go all in with your life and your money in order to try these theories, most liberals are more reserved and gradualist in their approach. Conservatives often wonder why the saner-seeming liberals do not rise up and banish the nutcases from their midst. Sometimes we cynically conclude that the progressives in power just want the votes, money, and energy of the true believers. I think the problem is deeper. I think the moonbats are not banished because the mainstream liberals are also true believers. Because their personality style is more measured, they see themselves as practical and moderate in their goals.

And quite frankly, they do not hear what comes off their lips or jumps off their keyboards with much objectivity. Though the nutroots provokes more anger – or merriment – among conservatives and libertarians, it is the mainstream left that is the greater danger, and troubles me more, for they are also true believers, but don’t perceive that.

If we stare hard at the five key features above, comparing each to various religions and philosophies we see that this is the American Revolution compared to the French Revolution. Part II - The Nature of Evil As Brent pointed out in a comment well back in this series, much of the direction of the American revolution stems from the basic ideas in conflict during the English Civil War, essentially resolved in the Bloodless Revolution of 1688. But for Americans unfamiliar with those, a comparison of the French and American Revolutions will be enough to go on.
Let us take each in turn.

Peter, Paul, and Mary – Come And Go With Me

1. Discussion. Expanding the circle of brotherhood is certainly a noble ideal. Though it owes something to both Judaism and ideas of unity under empire, it gets its strongest push from Christianity. It is almost a Christian idea – perhaps we should see it as an heretical Christianity. As a practical matter, we are not well-designed for expanding such circles. When we embrace a new set of people, we drop some off the back without noticing. We are not designed for unlimited fellow-feeling.

Those progressives who caution us most vehemently about nationalism and jingoism, insisting that America has much to learn from other cultures (especially Western European elites), have dropped a lot of their fellow Americans into the bad pile. They speak of other subcultures with contempt and accusation, saying things about them that they would never say about oh, Belgians or Hindus. This is not a broadening of brotherhood, but a mere transfer. I don’t know why this is. I do not know that it is inevitable. The American experiment itself seems to be evidence that we can expand our boundaries of affection beyond the merely tribal. Perhaps under Christ we can all learn to see all humankind as our brothers and sisters.

But right now the people doing the most insisting that we need to dare to believe in this theory are the same ones who are most vicious to the rest of us. They have divided along the lines of “those who will go with us” versus “those who hinder us,” yet they do not see it. They don’t notice who was pushed off the back of the iceberg when they welcomed new penguins in the front.

In its extreme, we get the concluding lines of Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun, in which the protagonist insist that if “you” great persons ever send us little guys to war against other little guys again, we will turn our guns on you.
He was the future he was a perfect picture of the future and they were afraid to let anyone see what the future was like. Already they were looking ahead they were figuring the future and somewhere in the future they saw war. To fight that war they would need men and if men saw the future they wouldn't fight. So they were masking the future they were keeping the future a soft quiet deadly secret. They knew that if all the little people all the little guys saw the future they would begin to ask questions. They would ask questions and they would find answers and they would say to the guys who wanted them to fight they would say you lying thieving sons-of-bitches we won't fight we won't be dead we will live we are the world we are the future and we will not let you butcher us no matter what you say no matter what speeches you make no matter what slogans you write. Remember it well we we we are the world we are what makes it go round we make bread and cloth and guns we are the hub of the wheel and the spokes and the wheel itself without us you would be hungry naked worms and we will not die. We are immortal we are the sources of life we are the lowly despicable ugly people we are the great wonderful beautiful people of the world and we are sick of it we are utterly weary we are done with it forever and ever because we are the living and we will not be destroyed.
If you make a war if there are guns to be aimed if there are bullets to be fired if there are men to be killed they will not be us. They will not be us the guys who grow wheat and turn it into food the guys who make clothes and paper and houses and tiles the guys who build dams and power plants and string the long moaning high tension wires the guys who crack crude oil down into a dozen different parts who make light globes and sewing machines and shovels and automobiles and airplanes and tanks and guns oh no it will not be us who die. It will be you.
It will be you-you who urge us on to battle you who incite us against ourselves you who would have one cobbler kill another cobbler you who would have one man who works kill another man who works you who would have one human being who wants only to live kill another human being who wants only to live. Remember this. Remember this well you people who plan for war. Remember this you patriots you fierce ones you spawners of hate you inventors of slogans. Remember this as you have never remembered anything else in your lives.
We are men of peace we are men who work and we want no quarrel. But if you destroy our peace if you take away our work if you try to range us one against the other we will know what to do. If you tell us to make the world safe for democracy we will take you seriously and by god and by Christ we will make it so. We will use the guns you force upon us we will use them to defend our very lives and the menace to our lives does not lie on the other side of a nomansland that was set apart without our consent it lies within our own boundaries here and now we have seen it and we know it.
Put the guns into our hands and we will use them. Give us the slogans and we will turn them into realities. Sing the battle hymns and we will take them up where you left off. Not one not ten not ten thousand not a million not ten millions not a hundred millions but a billion two billions of us all the people of the world we will have the slogans and we will have the hymns and we will have the guns and we will use them and we will live. Make no mistake of it we will live. We will be alive and we will walk and talk and eat and sing and laugh and feel and love and bear our children in tranquillity in security in decency in peace. You plan the wars you masters of men plan the wars and point the way and we will point the gun.

Or you could attend closely to the lyrics of just about anything by
Jefferson Airplane, or the smug Us/Them mentality of CSNY.

Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young - Teach Your Children

Pete Seeger – Little Boxes
2. Discussion
Part IV - Social Pressure
The technique of using social pressure to keep each other in line leaks out into the foreign policy idea that we can shame other nations into doing the right thing by appealing to their better natures. If it doesn’t work, it’s only because we didn’t give it enough chance. Sometimes we must speak a little sternly, but if we could only inspire those other people enough – if we could only get them to see – if they would only dare – then they would begin to negotiate with us. Check out these key sections of Obama’s Cairo speech – they are hard to beat for vacuity. This issue has been a source of tension between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran. For many years, Iran has defined itself in part by its opposition to my country, and there is in fact a tumultuous history between us. In the middle of the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government. Since the Islamic Revolution, Iran has played a role in acts of hostage-taking and violence against U.S. troops and civilians. This history is well known. Rather than remain trapped in the past, I’ve made it clear to Iran’s leaders and people that my country is prepared to move forward. The question now is not what Iran is against, but rather what future it wants to build.
I recognize it will be hard to overcome decades of mistrust, but we will proceed with courage, rectitude, and resolve. There will be many issues to discuss between our two countries, and we are willing to move forward without preconditions on the basis of mutual respect. But it is clear to all concerned that when it comes to nuclear weapons, we have reached a decisive point. This is not simply about America’s interests. It’s about preventing a nuclear arms race in the Middle East that could lead this region and the world down a hugely dangerous path.

Pete Seeger – Banks of Marble

3. If you have ever worked hard (or smart) for something and achieved what others did not, you will wonder why you ever doubted that effort and skill were dominant, nor why anyone else doubts that. On the other hand, if you meet a person who has had a disadvantage not of their own making – an illness or accident, a troubling background, belonging to a less-favored group – you will wonder why you ever thought effort and skill are all-conquering. Both things are true, and there is no getting around it. Part V - A Thought Experiment Yet most people will be happier in the long run if they believe the former. We fear that some will be damaged by the idea, coming to despair in the end – but the human power of rationalization is usually much stronger than that. For those who believe in their own agency, despair is temporary.

On the other hand, such an attitude can lead us to look down on others. It is good to think “There but for the grace of God go I.” How then does a society structure itself so that it teaches everyone that their effort is everything, but nothing? We have the Calvinist Arminian split cut along different lines here. (For those not up on that, the Calvinists paradoxically worked harder than anyone else in order to reassure themselves that they were one of the elect, who didn’t need to work for their salvation. The Arminians believed their effort of conversion was key to salvation, but once that was done, a lot of them tended to fall into disrepair and not make so much effort.). Paul’s words in his first letter to the Corinthians is likely the closest we can come to expressing both halves of this paradox.
But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not
without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. 1 Cor 15:10

I’m not sure that any society has ever got that contradiction resolved, though America has perhaps done best at it. The school where I have learned this best has been family relationships. Being a husband; a son and stepson; natural father and adoptive father; brother, uncle, grandchild, in-law. When you have divorce, estrangement from parents, childlessness, distance, you are greatly hampered in learning how this contradiction plays out in real life – how someone can work like a dog for wealth but give self and treasure away humbly.

Single mothers and couples without children vote overwhelmingly Democratic. I don’t know how closely that stacks up with the Democrat subcategory of Liberal, but I’m guessing there’s considerable overlap. People can learn a way through this contradiction other ways than family relationships, but it is a powerful disadvantage.

No one fully understands the complexity of value, wealth, worth, and honor in a society, but liberals understand it considerably less well, and haven’t a clue about it. Their confidence that they understand more when they understand less is what makes them dangerous.

Ray Stevens – Mr. Businessman

Absolutely true. Part V-A - A Thought Experiment - continued The other wealths that progressives tout are indeed more valuable. So why are they so angry, then, if they’ve got it so good? If money isn’t the key to happiness, why are they so resentful of other people having it? If businessmen choose to waste their lives, why should Ray Stevens be so pissed?

Ah, we know the answer, don’t we? The excuse that others are starving and impoverished by it is certainly not true in this country. That wealth destroys the environment is a popular shorthand, but ultimately weak idea. The objection to some people being much, much richer than others means two things: it means that liberals don’t have top status in our society, and it means that the machine is not running smoothly. (see #4). And if the machine is not running smoothly, it can never usher in the vision (see #5).
4. Discussion. Part VI – How Things Work In case you ever wondered where this idea of kindly, balanced nature which should be left alone comes from, these two videos should clear it up for you. It comes from middle class folksingers trying to recreate a romantic stable location they never had as children. They sold the idea to suburban kids who were reminded of their childhood summer vacations.

Joni Mitchell Big Yellow Taxi

John Denver - Country Roads
5. Discussion points about Part VII - Envisioning
Absolutely nothing about it in the words of Jesus or the rest of the NT. Even the Revelation to John is not about a vision we should strive to make true, but one that will be true regardless – indeed, already exists in some way. The emphasis on Kingdom living, of Christians behaving in certain ways for the good of others (and ultimately, themselves) contains no hint that this will change this world – no hint of a vision we are supposed to be striving to bring about. Even in the Acts of The Apostles, when many thousands of people lived or attempted to live this way by grace for a short time, there is not a whisper from Peter, from Paul, from John or James, that this is going to or even intended to be a model that will eventually include nonbelievers. Those dreams are added on later, much later. Until the Renaissance/Reformation/printing press/discovery of the New World, the dreams of Christians were heavenly, not earthly dreams. (See The Dream of the Rood, Hildegard of Bingen, The City of God.)

It is interesting how even the religious communities we regard as conservative now – Mormons, hard-working Shakers, and Amish – started as liberal groups in their time.

In researching this Vision Thing (as we called it in 1992), I ran across a number of references to Star Trek being a liberal vision of a future world. There might be something to that, but the evidence given was always remarkably the same: it was a world in which people didn’t care about races! And didn’t want war! And wanted a clean environment! As if no one but liberals cares about those things. We are again up against the same wall – if you aren’t as focused on this vision as we are, then you must not care.

Folks were less convinced that Star Wars was a liberal vision. Yet that led me to consider the whole fantasy/sci-fi genre in terms of its political thought. Tolkien and Lewis certainly did a lot of “envisioning,” yet we would hardly put them in the progressive category. Heinlein had a strong libertarian leaning, Asimov was more classical liberal than modern progressive (which would make him rather conservative now). There’s a lot to play with here. When we go into the next discussion section I will want to treat this at length.

Bring us home, John

John Lennon - Imagine

Just Because I Love It

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Medical Care In The UK

Retriever posts this account from the BBC

Up to 15,000 people aged over 75 may be dying unnecessarily from cancer each year in the UK, according to research.

The Assistant Village Idiot's Progressive Experience

That's the working title of the summary post in the Sauron Himself Is But An Emissary series. It rather sounds like a late 60's psychedelic album title, probably British. Which is all to the good, because it will be rather like that, with multiple music videos to be used as both evidence and background, and a different structure for commenting and cross-referencing than is usual for this blog.

I'm quite pleased with how it's turning out, but it has to be put up all at once, so I will be working on the editing tonight, and likely won't get it posted until tomorrow.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Sauron Himself Is But An Emissary - Part VII

Creeping toward the end here. I think Part IX will be a summary

Part I Is progressivism a grandson of communism, or a cousin?
Part II The Nature of Evil
Part III Expanding Brotherhood
Part IV Social Pressure
Part V A Thought Experiment
Part V-A A Thought Experiment - continued
Part VI How Things Work


I Have A Dream, Imagine there's no countries, Visualize World Peace, I dream things that never were and ask “why not?”, the liberal organization Common Dreams, I Can See A New Day, Last Night I Had The Strangest Dream, New Frontier, Woodstock Nation, Imagine Seven, Teach Peace, What if they gave a war and no one came, half-a-dozen Arlo Guthrie songs, 1-20-09, the Netroots site Progressive Vision, HuffPo's Mike Lux always talking about Obama's Progressive Vision. Even the magazine titles show this: American Prospect, New Republic, versus the conservative American Spectator, National Review, Weekly Standard.

Envisioning some utopia and moving toward that is of enormous importance to progressives. It has been a recurring theme since Rousseau, through Marx, the utopian communities of the 19th C, the Bolshevik and Nazi New Men, and exploded in popularity during the 60's. Even those who are older and more cynical respond to this rhetoric, just tempering it with a doubt whether the baddies will ever let it be.

Consider also: those in the arts who make their living by envisioning something and making it appear are overwhelmingly liberal. In university math departments, the theoretical mathematicians are liberal, applied mathematicians more conservative. The social sciences, including education at the graduate level, is comprised of people who have a vision of how things are supposed to be, with theories clung to tenaciously despite slight evidence. Even in religion, where we might expect more conservatives, we find that the New Agers are all on the left, and the Christian Left is heavily into visions of a new society that lives by Jesus rules.

It's not accidental that progressives have fewer children. It's hard to keep convincing yourself of this vision thing when you've raised more than one child past the age of eight. Imagining and dreaming helps, but the adjustments are constant.

It would be easy to mock this, and I am sure some snark has crept into my description. But envisioning is not itself a bad thing. It is a core human ability that separates us from other creatures. All humans do a significant amount of envisioning - imagining, dreaming - in order to organise our lives. Conservatives do a lot of envisioning as well, to carry out our ideas and plans. It is not at all to be despised.

Yet it seems to have peculiar force among liberals. My guess is that they are much better at it than others, and so lean on that strategy more. Core liberals tend to have higher SATV than SATM, higher verbal than performance IQ's. They go into fields that require abstraction, verbal fluency, word pictures. In art, you can make things come out the way you want. In engineering, not so much. In applied sciences, you are making constant tradeoffs of cost vs. strength vs time constraints vs. flexibility, and the trick is to make something that works, not to hold true to the original vision.

Their visions have more reality for them than these do for other people. Not an either-or, but a matter of degree, and I suspect it is tied to a brain ability. As a strong imaginer myself, I think I have some understanding of this - and it perhaps explains why I started out on the left. In the arts and theoretical mathematics to boot.

A curiosity of all this - and here I will have to go a bit negative - is that if you do not believe in their vision, progressives think there is something wrong with you. You must subscribe to some evil or lesser vision, or be too stupid or fearful to embrace their vision. I don't pretend to understand this, and it is certainly not universal among liberals. But it is common, and plays strongly in the national dialogue. Perhaps someday you'll join us... Clinging to their guns and religion... the ongoing anti-military rhetoric. Something about the progressive attachment to visions of a better world makes it hard for them to see others as merely wrong - they have to ascribe pathology and evil motive to them.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Recent Research link.

If you like some rapid-fire summaries and commentary on recent genetic studies, Steve Sailer has a hit-and-run on eight studies reported by Jason Malloy at GNXP. That in turn led me to GNXP, a discussion forum for Gene Expression. Fascinating stuff.

First up for review was the final nails in the coffin for Donahue and Levitt's theory in Freakanomics that legalised abortion in the 1970'2 was what caused the drop in youth crime in the 1990's.

Alternative Training

A PhD psychologist I worked with years ago mentioned that it was common in Jewish families in the circles he had grown up in to have sons trained in a craft or trade in addition to their academic expectations. He himself had been trained as a jeweler before going on to university in psychology, and thought this had been all to the good. It had helped put him through graduate school. There had been a five-year stretch when he didn't want to be a psychologist, and he had worked as a jeweler most of the time, while keeping some part-time work in his academic field. Whenever he moved, he could usually secure at least some income from the craft, supporting himself while he established his practice.

The idea sounded wise, and attractive, but I never did that with any of my sons.

Recently a father at church who works in a medical field wondered if he should send his sons to a six-month or one-year training to be a medical technician that does sleep studies, or x-rays, or phlebotomy. They don't take that long, are solid respectable professions, and are unlikely to go obsolete in the near future. Also, they give a young man - presumably women as well - a different perspective than other students might have, providing some inoculation against the idiocies of college.

We have one more boy that we're bringing up now, one whose academic interests do not seem obvious at the moment, though they are likely to be in creative, verbal tasks. I wonder if we should consider such a strategy as well.

Comments appreciated.

Sauron Himself Is But An Emissary - Part VI

Part I Is progressivism a grandson of communism, or a cousin?
Part II The Nature of Evil
Part III Expanding Brotherhood
Part IV Social Pressure
Part V A Thought Experiment
Part V-A A Thought Experiment - continued

How Things Work

Progressives lean against the hard work and supernatural explanations of how things work, and toward the beliefs that luck and rules of the system are more dominant. This is a matter of degree, not an either-or proposition. Furthermore, they have different opinions about what the rules of the system are, believing that much of (other) people's success comes from exploiting weaknesses and loopholes in the system as much as from discovering how it works. They believe that a lot of people game the system, and that is how they got ahead.

Note: If some other site links back to this part only and you disagree with the above, I urge you to do the thought experiments in Part V and V-A before complaining. If you don't, the above assertion will seem wildly unsupported.

In some cases, they believe that others must have gamed the system, because they are not nice people, yet somehow got ahead - graduating without the right ideas, being thought pretty without good features, or getting rich by doing something they think useless or evil.

I conclude from this that liberals believe that the machine is supposed to work smoothly, and life work out pretty equitably. When it doesn't, it is because something has gone terribly wrong with the culture, or the economy, or the authorities. In the normal course of events, people are supposed to go to work at a job that is useful, make a little money, and do what they want with the rest of their time. Some can't, and we take care of those, but when that picture of life does not occur, they go looking for where someone has screwed up the machine through prejudice, incompetence, or greed.

If one group of people has prospered, and one has not, how can that not be wrong, they reason. Someone must be cheating, or the rules must not be quite right. Society should intervene to make things come out right.

When you look at it that way, conservatives - or any Americans - don't necessarily disagree with this, to a point. Whether this belief descends from the Enlightenment or from thousands of years in small bands, everyone has a tendency to look at life this way. The difference is that progressives believe in this much more strongly, while centrists, conservatives, and especially libertarians believe that some rules of the system are not subject to change just because we don't like them.

Thus, a belief that Nature would go on pretty well if humans weren't screwing it up is much more common on the left. The idea that natural foods or natural medicines are better for you and confer some sort of body advantage is more common among liberals. The idea that all races must have similar endowments in all fields, despite uncomfortable evidence to the contrary, is common among all Americans, but universal on the left. Progressives are very disturbed by data which shows that some people in America are much more rich than the average.

This last provides a fascinating insight into liberal versus conservative thought. When one points out that African-Americans, even in Mississippi, have a higher average income than Swedes, progressives quickly retreat to the premise that Swedes are somehow richer in some less-measurable way, because they are happier, and share things in common, feel less separated, and have more security. This is not entirely untrue - one's perception of wealth in comparison to others does turn out to be related to feelings of well-being. But conservatives roll their eyes and wonder what on earth will make these liberals happy? By objective measures, African-Americans are better off. If they moved to Sweden, they would notice a downturn in wealth. Why should we be responsible for how people feel about their standing?

Yet I will caution again libertarians and conservatives ready to jump to conclusions here. This belief that the system is supposed to work is not unknown to you. You believe that a lot more effort and cleverness are needed to create wealth than progressives seem to think - that prosperity doesn't just happen, but is the result of putting a great deal of energy into an otherwise entropic system - but in understanding liberals, you have some foundation to draw from.

Beowulf Goes To Tim Horton's

HWÆT, we cupdena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga þrym gedruncnung,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon!
oft Scyld Scefing spittena latte,
monegum mæxwellhus meodosetla ofteah,
donutas duncin, syððanærest wearð
folgers funden; he þæs frofre gecaffeina,
nescafe under nestle weorðmyndum þah,
oð þæt him æghwylc ymbstarbucra
æt hillsbrothers hyran scolde,
gevalia gyldan; þæt wæs god kaffe!


I have grown tired of radio PSA's telling me about diabetes, seat belts, hypertension, watching for children, and non-discrimination. All are worthy causes. So what?

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Children's Sermon

We shared worship with another congregation today, and the Children's Sermon was based on Micah 6:8. She asked what is justice, and then explained that it is making sure that everyone has enough.

That's not true was my first thought. That's generosity, or kindness, or mercy or something. My wife accurately pointed out that I had been asked to do the children's message and declined, so was in a really weak position to complain. That is also true.

It's been interesting to think about, though. It certainly ties into my current series, though it's something of a discussion for later. It's true and it's not. There is an important truth for Christians there, yet it also misleads. If one tries to prove it either true or not true, one runs into contradictions. This'll be fun.

Sauron Himself Is But An Emissary - Part V-A

A Thought Experiment - Continued

Consider now the other theories of why some have wealth and others don't. If you believed that hard work was not merely a usual component in wealth, but its overwhelming driver, how would you look at your various neighbors. How would you see yourself?

If you believed that wealth beyond a minimum level was by definition an exploitation, a taking of what belonged to others for your own comfort, how would you view the wealthy and the poor. Remember to expand this thought experiment to include other wealths, such as beauty or education.

If you believed that all of this was written before the beginning of time, and your worldly goods immutably set by an omniscient good, what would be your view of government? Or of God Himself?

As I noted early on, few if any people are absolute purists in these matters. But some do lean very strongly toward one or another belief, so it is worth considering the pure situation. When I return this discussion to perceiving what the core values of modern progressives are, the weighting of these factors is going to loom large, and all answers lead to contradictions.

The Food of a Younger Land

This book by Mark Kurlansky certainly looks fascinating, reporting as it does the recipes uncovered by WPA workers before the interstates and fast-food changed our eating habits. But really, when you are talking about recipes for chitlins and fried beavertail, isn't it a little ridiculous to stoop to the obligatory swipe at the "low quality" of chain restaurants?

I never got served chitlins, any part of a beaver or squirrel, or even lutfisk, but we had liver and other unattractive parts of animals, lard was common, and canned wax beans counted as a vegetable. I'm not sure what the objection to Applebee's would be in that context.

I object to the group birthday chants at chain restaurants, but that's another matter entirely.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

A Way Through The Fog

There are conflicting accounts and speculations on the Walpin IG matter. I have a rule of thumb for piercing the darkness in such things: assume everyone involved is lying, at least somewhat.

You'd be surprised how revealing that can be. So take as a starting point that everyone - Walpin, Obama, Eiser, the Americorps board, KJ - is shading something. How Senators Grassley and McAskill might be lying escapes me at present, because they are in the question-asking side of things, but we shouldn't rule out that possibility and extend them infinite trust just because they say they are reformers either.

And don't forget the various media figures and organizations involved. Assume that all of them are leaving out key parts of the story as well, and reframing and redescribing what they do report. The critics and defenders of Obama both. View them all with more than suspicion.

When I reviewed the material through this prism, it looked quite different.

And Obama looks very, very, bad under this assumption, no matter how the threads get untangled.

Sauron Himself Is But An Emissary - Part V

A Thought Experiment

How do the good things of life come to us, both the necessities and the luxuries? Hard work, dumb luck, Providence, exploitation? What about other kinds of wealth, such as beauty and intelligence? Most Americans are not purists for any of these categories. Even the most iron-willed self-made man will willingly grant that he, and certainly others, have benefited from good fortune or Providence along the way, and even the most fatalistic of us go about our day performing actions designed to achieve a certain end.

Because of this, tight categories are not going to be possible, and there will be overlap. Nonetheless, people assign very different percentages to how much each of these affect one’s lot. I will drift over the overlapping choices a bit.

Luck, or Providence if you are more religious, always provokes conversation. In entertainment, who makes it and who doesn’t has a legendary randomness, yet even there, talent and hard work seem to increase one’s luck. A contractor’s success would seem to be heavily weighted toward hard work and good judgment, yet even he benefits from living in an area that is prospering and needs buildings.

We say we are lucky to have been born in America and not in Haiti, and that is certainly a good fortune we did not earn. On the other hand, it is not merely accidental that America is more prosperous than Haiti, but the result of past decisions of our direct ancestors and our fellow citizens of previous decades.

The Rules of the Game. In this formulation, success comes to us by understanding the principles of what makes the overall system work and applying them. There is a great deal of variety in this category, because some folks think that effort is the number-one principle, while others would think that attaching oneself to the prospering tribe is key. This obtains even in those other wealths: even fanatic studiers might choose a college for its reputation and associations, and the elusive attractiveness of being in The In Crowd can be a more valuable beauty than good features. We send out signals of wealth, attitudes, intelligence, and culture, and these factor in to whether we are considered lovely.

A “rules” formulation can have heavy negatives. Exploitation and chicanery are in a sense rules for gaming the system, and the difference between finding a loophole and finding a legitimate advantage is not always clear. But the idea that there is some impersonal system which responds to whoever pulls the levers, is common.

Supernatural. This is a bit different than providence, which may operate unasked for. Supernatural intervention is sought and asked for, at least vaguely, or the result of previous actions. For Christians and Jews, this would be focused on petitionary prayer. Other spiritual practices would fall more under the supernatural side of the rules of the game. When God reminds or improves us through scripture or the events around us, that is less “miraculous,” and more an application of spiritual principles. (There are Christians who teach that certain techniques of prayer make the spiritual systems work. I’m ignoring them here. In fact, I usually ignore them anyway.)

Here’s the thought experiment part. Even though these categories are not mutually exclusive, take each one in turn and ponder what social, personality, and political effect each theory would have on its believers. By examining each in pure form, we can later see how the threads interweave.

Pretend that luck, or good fortune, provided all the explanation why the people you see or read about have what they have. Do they work hard? Well, they were lucky to have good parents then, who taught them that, or gave them DNA that includes a perseverance gene. Does she sell more product? Well, she’s got that natural charm, y’know? And it doesn’t hurt that she’s young and pretty. Issues of prejudice come up in this a lot. Would he have been appointed if he were black? Would she be on the board if her mother hadn’t founded the company?

Imagine a few generic "people" working at your job, or living in your neighborhood, or going to your church, who believed this way. What would it all look like to them? Imagine how people from other countries might look at us if this was their prevailing belief.

Don’t cheat. For the sake of completeness I should set out the thought experiment for the other categories, but if I do that, you’ll just keep reading and skip the exercise.

See you tomorrow.

It's Been So Long...

...since I did an ABBA photo. This is from their older, mellower years. they look...surprisingly acceptable here. Like folks I would have been happy to sit down and have a akvavit with without worrying about something like this suddenly breaking out.
If your sidebars obscure your view of this, click on the time stamp below.

Friday, June 19, 2009

The Moderate Voice

I have been dropping by The Moderate Voice group blogsite the last few days. I had been a few times before, but was looking around because my brother had gotten some Walpin info there, exculpatory for Obama.

Just so you know...

They don't actually deserve the label "moderate," but they're close. They have some centrist bloggers, and at least one who claims to be right-of-center, though I haven't done an appraisal of his work. Before I move to an overall commentary on the site, let's do a bit of history.

When I was in college, the idea that the popular culture, such as advertising, sitcoms, and movies, was consistently portraying unfortunate stereotypes of women and blacks was just coming to the fore. The complaint was that these groups were often ignored in spots where they might be expected to have just as much prominence, and when they were portrayed, it was in some demeaning stereotype. People denied it. Then they acknowledged the worst examples as being something that should be excised. But the idea that this was all a ridiculous complaint, revealing an oversensitivity on the part of blacks and women, held on persistently. It held on as things slowly changed, with a large subgroup of Americans maintaining all along that the prejudice-sightings were exaggerated and overinterpreted.

You may take whatever view you please as to how things are now. I don't have TV and don't go to movies, so I am in no position to agree or disagree on the current state of affairs. What is interesting for this discussion is that we can now go back and look at those commercials and TV shows from the 60's and 70's and see that of course they reinforced stereotypes. Everyone can see it now. It seems amazing that anyone could ever have denied it.

Somehow the people then just didn't see. I saw it some, but being neither black nor female, did not have the sensitivity to it that they did.

Were some people oversensitive and overinterpretive, seeing evil and harm where none was intended? Certainly. People with victim mentalities will see discrimination in the slightest difference. But in the main, the complainers were correct. There was prejudice, and it is now painfully obvious.

I think of that when I hear liberal denial of double standards in public discourse. I try to allow for my own confirmation bias and selection bias, but am still left with a large pile of data that seems quite obviously a double standard to me.

Back to The Moderate Voice. One of the bloggers decried the "vile hypocrisy" of a conservative politician, generalizing that to right-wingers in general. Another uses the words "Christianist," "warmonger," and "crazed" pretty offhandedly. One can certainly find such invective in the comments sections on the right as well. But you don't find that in the posts of even most far-right blogs. I certainly don't encounter anything like that from anyone on my sidebar. Even Little Green Footballs, which is pretty over-the-top, doesn't tend to such hyperbole.

When folks on the right use that sort of invective, those on the left are either enraged or simply dismissive that one could even hope to reason with such a ranter. I can play either version of this arguing sport, but merely require that the same rules apply each way.

As with the lack of ability to see what later became obvious with black and female portrayals, I think something similar is going on here. The very simple exercise of "how would this sound to me if the roles were reversed" seems to be lacking.

The Moderate Voice is a center-left blog. And not a bad one. Just not quite what they aspire to be.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Roller Derby

Roller Derby is apparently back. They had it at Burning Man and everything. I watched a few clips. It's okay, but this...
This is real Roller Derby

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

A Few Words On Health Care

In my use of the word "liberals" I should stress that I am refering to some sort of core liberal: a person who is not just likely to vote for Greens or Democrats because he thinks they are nicer, somehow, but a person who follows at least a handful of issues with some attention and comes out pretty regularly on the liberal side. Often I will use the term progressive for this. It is seldom a pure situation. Nearly everyone has an issue or two where we break ranks with our fellows, and a few more which we care less about than others in our political corner.

Progressives have for years advocated for some sort of universal health care, health insurance, socialised medicine, single payer plan of various designs. This has nearly always been portrayed in social and moral language - that they are ashamed or embarrassed to live in a country that does not have this, or that it is unfair that anyone be unable to get needed care. In my multipart series on liberal values I will be touching on this, and the weaknesses of those arguments (there are some strengths), but for now I have a different observation.

The argument has suddenly shifted to exclamations that we must have one of these national systems for economic reasons. That only some such system will save us money, which will in turn stimulate the economy which is in CRISIS. I don't believe them. They cannot have switched ground so quickly and completely. They still want this for the same reasons they wanted it five, ten, and thirty years ago. They are using the language of saving money in hopes of throwing a fast one past us. I dislike that on principle.

No doubt there are some progressives who were quickly convinced of this - some folks of any belief are easily persuaded by leaders. But I think most aren't. I think most are being sly. For a good cause, they think. In order to speak the language of conservatives and finally convince them on other grounds, perhaps. Good PR and all that.

But separating these two streams of persuasion allows us to look at both more clearly. And the second one is merely insane. Creating more jobs by creating nationalised health care is like saying "We can't pay the rent, so let's order out for Chinese." It's bizarre. There is a stretch at making a connection by tying it in to cost savings on medicine and procedures because of government contract and economy of scale. Or that old favorite, preventive care, which works great when you have a time machine, and have full benefit of retrospection, but in real time always costs more. Cutting out the waste will somehow make the whole economy more efficient, so there will be more left over - somewhere - for someone to hire someone else.

Yet this is the government. Even if they could legitimately find some places to streamline things and save some money, everyone knows that this is a government program. It is not going to ultimately cost less. It might do some other things that progressives like, such as guaranteeing care to people between jobs or getting dental care for lower-middle-class kids, but it is emphatically not going to save money, no way, no how. You know it. I know it. Obama knows it. If they could save money this way, they would have already done so with the VA and Medicare systems, because that would be a primo sales pitch.

All these great proposals where we could save money, if we just let the government do its thing are purely hypothetical. If everything goes according to plan, it will work. Dude. Not gonna happen.

What other similar countries spend and what they get for it is interesting and partially relevant, but never even a close match. We have a different legal climate that drives up costs. (It does some very good things as well, but it does drive up costs.) We have all the expensive equipment much more available here. It's much easier for a doctor to resist ordering an expensive test that is mostly precautionary when it is 50 miles away than when it is on the next floor above.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Link: Tolkien Rocks

I have never linked to an Amazon blogger before, but author China Mieville has a great post Five Reasons Tolkien Rocks. (via Instapundit)

It is not fawning, but it is a well-thought and well-written essay - loved the vocabulary - about elements of Tolkien that we should remain appreciative of, even if we do not care for his writing or rate others more highly. Mieville does not mention it, but much of what he says applies also to JRRT's "Bewoulf: The Monsters and the Critics," his 1936 essay which changed all of Anglo-Saxon commentary forever.

A sample:
1) Norse Magic

For too long the Greco-Roman stories have been the Big Pantheons on Campus. Zeus this, Persephone that, Scylla-and-Charybdis the other, the noise is endless, and anyone smitten by the mythic has to work hard to hear any other voices. For some of us, there's always been something about this tradition--and it's hard to put your finger on--vaguely flattened out, somehow; too clean, maybe; overburdened with precision. Alan Garner, perhaps the most brilliant sufferer from this disaffection, once put it thus: to him, the Greek and Roman myths were 'as cold as their marble'.

Compare the knotty, autumnal, blooded contingency of the Norse tales, with their anti-moralistic evasive intricacies, their pointlessly and fascinatingly various tiers of Godhead, their heart-meltingly bizarre nomenclature: Ginnungagap; Yggdrasil; Ratatosk. This is the tradition that Tolkien mines and glorifies--Middle Earth, after all, being not-so-subtly a translation of Midgard.

For those of us who regret the hegemony of the Classicists' Classics, the chewy Anglo-Saxonisms of Mirkwood and its surrounds are a vindication. We always knew these other gods and monsters were cooler.
Though frankly, I liked this less-literary section better.
3) The Watcher in the Water

Dude. That totally was cool. I mean, say what you like about him, Tolk gives good monster. Shelob, Smaug, the Balrog...in their astounding names, the fearful verve of their descriptions, their various undomesticated malevolence, these creatures are utterly embedded in our world-view. No one can write giant spiders except through Shelob: all dragons are sidekicks now. And so on.

But the thing about the Watcher in the Water is WTF? Here the technique of under-describing, withholding, comes startlingly to the fore, that other great technique for communicating balefulness. We know almost nothing about the many-limbed thing in the water outside Moria. Some think it's a giant squid: me, I say not, given that it lives in fresh water, has too many tentacles, and that those tentacles have fingers. Which squids don't have. But we know three things. It is tentacular; it is badass; and it is weird. And that uncertainty is what makes it rock.

Sammy Sosa

In my day, we used performance destroying drugs.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Democratic House of Representatives

I don't think most folks are aware of how consistently, and sometimes enormously, the Democrats have been the House majority party over the last 50 years. Does anyone know where there is a website that allows one to make a multiple-choice quiz to import to a blog, similar to twiigs.com does with polls?

Which reminds me, I haven't done a poll in awhile, have I?

Well, if I ever find such a site, here are the answers to the test I'll put up.

Starting with the 86th Congress in 1959, the Democrats had a 66% majority in the House, a number wildly different from what we think of as a majority today. They did not drop below 56% for the next 36 years, when the supposed great Republican Revolution in the elections of 1994 produced a bare 53%-47% starting in 1995. In those 36 years, the Democrats had a 60% supermajority for 20 of them, topping out at 68% in 1965-66. That's nothing. The Democrats had 75 and 80% majorities in the 30's.

The Republicans, OTOH, have never had a supermajority, or anything close to it. During the 12 years the Democrats spent in the wilderness from 1995-2006, the Republicans had 51, 52, 53% majorities the whole time. When the Democrats leaped back in in the 2006 elections, they grabbed 54%, higher than the Republicans ever had. The federal government, for all the assistance that Republicans have (unfortunately) given to it, has been an essentially Democratic institution for almost 80 years.

There are certainly a variety of conclusions one could draw from this. If you are a Democrat, you might fairly point out that the country occasionally chooses a Republican president, but from their own districts pretty reliably choose Democrats. You might cite any number of reasons why Republicans deserved their low numbers.

I bring the numbers up because of the general misconceptions we have about our own recent history. The 8 years of the Reagan Era were actually part of the decades of Democratic dominance. Reagan governed against the prevailing winds of 56-63% Democratic majorities. The 8 years of the Bush 43 era were actually the most evenly divided in our history. The Republicans have had the House, more than 51 Senators, and the presidency in only 2 years, 2005-2006. I bring this up mostly because of the overheated rhetoric of Republicans "controlling" all branches of government during those years. Rubbish. Kennedy and Johnson had control. Carter had control. Bush had Arlen Specter.

I also ask you to keep those numbers in mind when looking at these graphs that Glenn Reynolds ran over at Instapundit today, here and here.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Sauron Himself Is But An Emissary - Part IV

Part I Is progressivism a grandson of communism, or a cousin?
Part II The Nature of Evil
Part III Expanding Brotherhood

Social Pressure

I have commented many times on the negative side of the social aspects of progressivism. In later commentary I will tackle again the idea of a good thing gone wrong. Yet it is important to remember that social pressure is often a good thing, and even when it is ambiguous in its goodness, sometimes a necessary thing. If the alternative is to force people or use violence, then society of course does better when it can accomplish its goals peacefully.

This plays out in at least two ways with progressives: picking up social cues, and how one makes one's money.

It is easy to caricature the high school aspect of any group's enforcement of its values. But it is not accidental that this enforcement starts in middle school and reaches a peak in the late teens. Age cohorts in even primitive societies have to learn to work together efficiently, and thus must communicate some important real values for group comity, plus some more arbitrary values for group bonding and distinction from other cohorts. Much of this is not taught to them by their elders, but by each other.

The people who you work with who don't pick up social cues are maddening. If they can't read the cues that a particular joke was not appropriate in this setting, or that certain meetings are supposed to be highly formal, or that everyone is tired of listening to them and they should shut up, everyone else in the group regards their judgment about all matters with suspicion. If he doesn't know when to shut up, we don't want him representing us with our biggest account. In politics, commenting that such-and-such a Senator is "tone deaf" on an issue, if she really doesn't get it why her comment bothered so many people, then we question whether she will hear their legitimate concerns. Reading the social cues accurately is a way of saying "I understand what's important to you."

When we sat in court waiting for our permanent guardianship hearing, Tracy and I noticed young people scheduled to appear who had made no effort to look presentable. In fact, many seemed to revel in their refusal to kowtow to group norms, wearing offensive T-shirts or strongly counter-cultural styles. It's a bad move, because it silently tells the world - and the judge - I reject your values. That attitude may be okay when you are creating a work of art, but when the present discussion revolves around whether you have understood societal norms as regards getting into fights, or stalking your girlfriend, or ripping people off, your attitude reveals that you still don't get it. Your desire to Be Yourself and have your personal expression regardless of circumstances is more important to you than the rights of the other citizens of your society. That's a problem.

It can get subtle. The protester in the park who has a badly-lettered sign with a dumb joke is a goober who has no credibility. But if your signs and presentation are professional-looking, you run the risk of appearing slick. In both popular cultural expression and in conversation, showing that you can read social cues is enormously important to liberals. If you can't pick up on signals they regard as obvious, they wonder what other obvious things you will overlook. They won't trust you to get it right in Congress.

Minor tangent: when Rush Limbaugh first came out, my thought was "He's just doing what political cartoonists do, but he's doing it on radio." To progressives, it was not only his ideas, but his style which infuriated them. If the guys doesn't get that you aren't supposed to talk like this on the radio, then how reliable can he be? NPR responded by developing an even more rigid signature style that was as opposite as possible - to show their listeners that they get it. This is how it's supposed to be done.

Reminder to conservatives: resist the temptation at present to dwell on how these social cues can sometimes be irrelevant but highly valued by progressives. Because we've got 'em too.

As to money, the social pressures around how you made it are a very necessary thing. If you got rich on kiddie porn or arms smuggling, you should not be accepted into polite society. When nothing can be proved against you but everyone knows the approximate reality, social pressure is sometimes the last line of defense against the wicked. Progressives' ambivalent attitude toward wealth often comes from this value. If you made a fortune doing something they don't value, or even worse, disapprove of, they can be quick to let you know that.

Yes, even those on the center-left have a much longer disapproval list than the rest of us, but it is important to keep in mind that this social approval of how wealth is acquired serves an important function in all cultures. Everyone does this to an extent, and an inward look should precede an outward finger-pointing here. You might also pity them for signing on to a culture that sharply limits in what manner you make your dough. Progressives have social sanctions for being plumbers or commercial developers or retailers of unapproved merchandise that puts them down in the social scale in their group. This contributes to their resentment of those who made money those ways, so they attempt to apply the same social sanctions that they are subject to.

Ah, I've gone negative on that. Sorry. Back to basics. The original impulse to use social pressure to curb unseemly, useless, objectionable, or even immoral behavior in others in society is a good thing.

There is an additional money piece. If a company moves an entire division from Maynard, MA to some less-expensive location to save money, progressives also figure in the social cost. Families are uprooted or lose jobs, social networks are harmed. Liberals feel that these costs should be factored into such decisions by the companies. They believe that there is some additional social contract between the employer and employed - that the employer should care about the employees. Both sides of the political spectrum exaggerate the failings of the other on this score. He'd run over his grandmother for an extra few bucks, versus They expect the owner to go out of business and go broke. Avoid the caricatures at present.


Contemplating several things which are annoying me, the words "sink down into humility" came to me. It wasn't a depressing "sink" at all, but more like a settling and lowering, almost comfortable. Okay, not quite comfortable.

I'm preaching in August, and this may figure into it. I have been slipping into some self pity, and so have thought Note to self: resolve to be less self-pitying, but that hasn't worked. I have been more irritable. Note to self: be less irritable, but that hasn't worked either. The "sink down" thought I immediately recognised as the real problem, even before the "into humility" part came. Arrogance has been the problem, driving the other two.

It's nice to have a diagnosis, anyway.

Friday, June 12, 2009


I was actually relieved when the guy's grandfather told me today "If you let him out of the hospital today, I guarantee he will be dead by tonight!" The last 72 family members who have said that to me have been wrong. I used to go cold with fear when I heard that, wondering whether we had seriously misjudged the patient's dangerousness, and shuddering to imagine the hospital's liability problem in that situation. But somehow, those are not the patients who do kill themselves. I'm not sure why - perhaps it is something of a family style of high drama that doesn't mean anything. I'm just guessing.

Not to entirely make light of it - I'm sure these family members are not just trying to manipulate us, but are deeply concerned when they say this - but it is reminiscent of my theory on hitting squirrels with your car.


I have been leading the dump Ortiz movement this season. Maybe I was wrong.

David Ortiz's BA, OBP, SLG, & OPS for the month of June .310 .394 .655 1.049

Thursday, June 11, 2009


I am not sure if Chris Muir over at Day-By-Day is just trading on the general cuteness of the idea of general impression concealing basic innumeracy among Obama supporters in today's cartoon. But it is far more deeply true than first glance. This is it exactly - the triumph of impression over reality. Obama himself may not be a gabillion sort of guy, but his base is, and he relies on that to effect sweeping changes.

Hold the thought behind this cartoon in your mind until November 2, 2010.

Sauron Himself Is But An Emissary - Part III

Expanding Brotherhood

As promised, I am working backward from what liberals say today about their values, trying to discern whence they spring. I will return in another post to the historical data.

Liberals deplore the dividing of the world into Us vs. Them. They see the world as having gradually progressed from tribalism to nationalism, and now progressing from nationalism to internationalism. To constantly expand the categories of people to whom we show good will is to them, a mark of civilization and moral improvement. They also believe that this can be made to happen by external pressure, though not easily. School desegregation is their best political example of this, coupled with their own experience of moving from childhood to adulthood. They learned that people different from themselves are not the dangerous folks they had been taught to be suspicious of – that you could be on sports teams with black people, or visit other people’s homes and churches without going to hell.

Something like this is the way to world peace and understanding. They are not dogmatic about how this is to be accomplished, and in fact are quite flexible and creative about finding ways to accomplish this. This is a large part of why they see themselves as openminded, and conservatives as narrow, and prone to bigotry. Nor are all progressives starry-eyed about this. Many willingly concede an enormous difficulty in getting this to happen, especially on an international level. They agree that there are dangerous nations which must be contained at times, treated firmly at others, and not everyone is an ally.

But they believe deeply that we must continue to try – that one or all of the strategies of putting people in contact with each other in an attempt to hear each other’s point of view will eventually bear fruit. Even if it takes a hundred years, with many setbacks, this is the goal of brotherhood we must seek.

There is an enormous weakness in that argument I will not go into here. Just now we are trying to discover where the belief comes from.

The roots of the idea can be traced to both the monotheistic religions – the brotherhood of humankind under one God; and to empire – the equality of citizens of many nations under one empire. The development of this concept is an entertaining subject, which I may return to, but it is the 20th C versions of this I am concerned with here.

After WWII there were great changes in how the world turned. The Europeans moved away from their version of nationalism, seeing that as the driving force which had gotten them into two catastrophic wars. The US moved (relatively) rapidly in the area of rights for African-Americans, resolving to finally make good on its American Dream for everyone. The national unity during the war was no small part of this, and the extension of said rights was often framed in terms of how blacks had also fought, well and honorably, in the devastating war. Though NATO and the UN had different, even opposing goals, both were transnational organizations in which the US played leadership roles. Israel was founded, the first nation created by international consent. (Ironic it is now the one thing the international community seems to want to take back.) International trade, communication, and travel expanded enormously.

To the left, everything seemed to be moving according to plan, albeit slowly. The world was learning the necessity of internationalism, and peaceful change, and talking through difficulties. All that Esperanto, unionism, One-World sentiment, colorblindness, civil disobedience, cultural exchange, and elevation of the common man seemed to be paying off. Ignore for a moment how much information they had to overlook to perceive things this way. It was easy to ignore, because the problems were underreported. I understand this feeling well, as I felt it – still feel it, despite my suspicion of its limitations.

It is important for conservatives to remember that much of this was not illusion, but largely true. All this does work sometimes. By changing external circumstances, you can get people to change, at least a bit.

To the far left, the idea that the Soviet experiment might also come true, perhaps more slowly, did not seem farfetched. The world seemed to be moving in their direction, though not in the way predicted. People were getting it somehow. The world was changing.

I hesitate to break the mood of understanding this aspect of what drove liberals and still drives them. It is a noble sentiment, consonant with Christian, Jewish, and Enlightenment thought. I will say only that the progress was glamorous, the difficulties subtle and harder to notice.

One hint: American nationalism was not like other nationalisms.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Science Fair

I went to Kyle's 7th-grade science fair tonight. I worried that his group's project was going to be embarrassingly lightweight. I needn't have. They seemed to be in the top half, trying to cook frozen pizza with various batteries. (It didn't work, so they bailed and cooked it in the sun in a reflective oven.)

Mento's and Diet Coke have replaced the baking-soda-and-vinegar foaming. There were four of the former, only two of the latter, with one team doing both for comparison. Girls did experiments with cakes, cookies, perfumes, and eye shadow. The three who tested whether vinegar makes tie-dye brighter had great marketing, wearing their creations. Science, not so much. But they got the pizazz part down pretty well.

Look, no one made the girls choose these, got it? This is what they chose.

Proofreading seems to be a weak skill these days, which seems a shame when they've got word processing with spell-check. "Light blob" was my favorite.

Ben is still king. All seven of his elementary school science projects (K-6) were better than all but one of these. That one was a boy who made a cardboard wind tunnel and tested what propeller angle generated the most power. That was at least in Ben's range. There was a girl who had a video of measuring whether her purebred dogs could learn a maze faster than mutts that was reminiscent of Ben's magnum opus, the Squirrel Video. But she had clearly lost interest after the second Jack Russell Terrier just looked at the maze and lay down.

Ben went to a small Christian elementary school which we still maintain was the best education we could have found in the state. I believe that even more tonight.

Addendum: I should mention, before I have to listen to him complain about it, that Jonathan's science fair projects in 7th and 8th grade were also magnificent.