Monday, May 31, 2010

More Time Travel

Another entry point in our culture for thinking about time travel is sports. Sports fans think about this all the time, wondering what Ty Cobb would hit in our era, or what would happen if the '59 Celtics played the '89 Pistons. In contrast, no one spends much time arguing about whether Meryl Streep would have won an Oscar in the 1940's, whether Ulysses S Grant would win a 1992 election versus Teddy Roosevelt, or whether Winton Marsalis would have succeeded at jazz if he had lived during the Dixieland era.

Our loss. Those would all be fun to think about. Sending Winton Marsalis back for a Field of Dreams moment? (Or more precisely, Kinsella's companion book The Iowa Baseball Confederacy, which is better.) I can see him wanting to make the movie, too. Or Presidential Playoffs set in a particular year? I'm thinking a 64-team field, seeding by number of terms and vote dominance in their own years, with at-large bids being given to close finishers like Al Gore and William Jennings Bryan. But maybe a double-elimination tournament would be fairer. None of that World Cup group stuff, though. This is America.

And who wouldn't want to see Errol Flynn in a movie with great CGI?

Sports and Sci-Fi have more male fans than female, so maybe that's part of it.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Logo Similarity

We have a Recovery Act project going on in our town. When I first saw the logo, I figured it was just my paranoid right-wing mind that thought it oddly suggestive of the Obama 2008 campaign logo. And I was driving by quickly, so I didn't get a decent look at it.

Tangent: You'd think New Hampshire would be just full of these things. The primary season will go into full swing right after the Nov 2010 elections, so maybe they're holding off until then. /tangent

So I went to look up both logos to see if it was just fevered imagination, and found that I'm not the first person to think this. A writer at the LA Times thought so too. In fact, both logos are designed by the same company. They aren't hugely the same - not communist dictator the same - but the Recovery Act logo, especially when driving by at a good clip, sure seems evocative of Obama's campaign logo.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Wedding Dance

Four years and a few weeks ago we went to Asbury College to watch Ben graduate. While there, we visited Southland Church outside of Lexington, a megachurch with lots more bells and whistles than we are used to. As part of the service, illustrating a sermon point, there were four couples of varying ages on the stage, dancing close while "I Hope You Dance" played over them. I am turned off by this style of Christianity which takes secular banalities and tries to stretch them into a spiritual truth. I'm all for the sacred permeating all of the secular world; the secular permeating the sacred, not so much. Also, I don't like that particular song all that much.

We were interrupted by Tracy's cell phone, which she had neglected to turn off, ringing. She was clearly upset at the news she was receiving, and we passed the grim news down the row: "Adam Bishop is dead." I wrote at the time about the worship and the young man's death in this post. He was almost 20, an only son, killed in an early-morning car accident on Mother's Day, driving through the night to come see Mom.

It was his sister who was married today, and while all was properly joyfully, some nods to mourning were there. Her white gown was hemmed in black, the Matron of Honor made reference to their brother in her toast, and an interesting additional custom was added in. After the bride's dance with her father, and the groom's with his mother, Tommy went over to his new mother-in-law and danced alone with her. Very poignant, very moving.

They could not possibly have known the connection for our family, but the song was "I Hope You Dance." I still don't like it much, but it brought tears to my eyes and will have even more meaning now. That's how country musicians stay in business, I guess. Three Chords and the Truth, as the saying goes. All those artificial, overhyped stories really do happen to us all.

Wedding Vows

Brides and Grooms tinker with the vows a lot these days. Promises from the old formulae get left out and others added in. Some of the new additions are very nice, quite moving. I do sometimes wonder whether some things were left out intentionally, or just didn't make that couple's top ten list when they were composing them. But in Christian weddings, at least - we don't see many others - two vows seem to always make it in: faithfulness, and "in sickness, in health." Notice that these are highly measurable, compared to the vaguer sentiments more popular now.

They are clearly important, and this is obvious even to young people who don't have a lot of experience in the world, and who grew up in a culture where these promises are not kept. We might suspect that these are so crucial to the definition of marriage that we cannot even loosely consider it without including them.

With life extension becoming what it is, the 21 year-olds I watched today may be making a hundred-year vow.

In Our Own Image

Early man made things and Did Stuff, and in groups: hunted, ate, shaped rocks, hated. It was part of just staying alive. There wasn't much time or energy for solo contemplation. Early man had gods who made things, Did Stuff, and lived in groups: moved, loved, punished, battled. Along came Greek philosophers - back before Socrates, maybe Democritus or someone - who noticed that Ethiopians had gods who were black and had flat noses; Thracian god had red hair and blue eyes, just like the Thracians. They reasoned that man must be making gods in his own image, which hardly seemed right.

So they sat and thought about it and decided that the real gods were beings who thought things rather than doing things. And philosophers have tended that way ever since, even Christian philosophers, describing gods who more like thoughts, and didn't have any personality. Proving their point about making gods in their own image, I guess.

When Jesus came, he Did Stuff. The prophets before him and the early saints, same thing. Worth thinking about.

Origins Of The Moonwalk

Kyle will be going to a wedding reception with us today, and will doubtless moonwalk and wow the crowd. So, in honor of Kyle.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Close Playoffs

Sure there have been close and hotly contested playoff series in recent NBA history. But it's hard to beat 1981, Boston versus Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference finals.
(1) Boston Celtics vs. (3) Philadelphia 76ers: Celtics win series 4-3
• Game 1 @ Boston: Philadelphia 105, Boston 104
• Game 2 @ Boston: Boston 118, Philadelphia 99
• Game 3 @ Philadelphia: Philadelphia 110, Boston 100
• Game 4 @ Philadelphia: Philadelphia 107, Boston 105
• Game 5 @ Boston: Boston 111, Philadelphia 109
• Game 6 @ Philadelphia: Boston 100, Philadelphia 98
• Game 7 @ Boston: Boston 91, Philadelphia 90
The series was already close, but look at the last three games. The Celtics, down 3 games to 1, win games by 2 points, 2 points, and 1 point to win the series. Two 1-point games and three 2-point games overall.

Something Newer

I just like it. Listening to Kyle's stations is sometimes good for me.

Sunday For Tea

I was hoping to see Peter and Gordon singing it, but there doesn't seem to be a tape of that. I had forgotten how much of a crush I'd had on Diana Riggs.

-ible or -able

I was always told to guess "-able" on a debateable spelling, because there are "many more" of them. For some reason, I decided to see if there was a more reliable rule I could find on the internet.

Sort of. To be quite sure, one could look it up - not always practical in the moment - or enter the word into a document that has a spellcheck feature. But once in awhile, you still have to guess, don't have a ready source, and hope not to look sloppy. In addition to the link's info, know that "many more" in my first paragraph turns out to be about 80%. The rule at the link about whether a word comes from Latin or not strikes me as unhelpful. It is not always obvious, even to those who pay attention to such things. Plus, that's not 100% certain anyway. The rule of thumb at the bottom is sort of interesting, though.

Extraordinary Compassion

Upon further review, I did not accurately describe the Compassionate People in my last post. As I did not name them – and shall not – it doesn’t make much difference regarding the individuals. But as I did violence to the understanding, it deserves correction.

These are all people who show a high degree of ordinary compassion 80, 90, even 99% of the time. They are fine, exemplary individuals at those times, and we might all wish to be more like them. But there is a switch that gets thrown, a move to extraordinary compassion that creates problems. Terminology misleads here. What, after all, could be wrong with extraordinary compassion? Yet there is something subtly wrong with it, and it can lead to great cruelty.

“If you are kinder than God, you will end up being cruel.” I have tried to locate where I read that line. I believed it was in Elie Wiesel’s remarkable Souls on Fire, a liberating book on the Hassidic masters, but I cannot find it there. Perhaps it was in discussion with the person who gave me the book. Perhaps I even thought it up myself. I can’t trace it now.

First: There is a doubling-down on mercy, a determination to pursue that strategy regardless of circumstance. People get locked into patterns Mercy is sometimes the only thing that will work. There isn’t enough mercy in the world. Therefore mercy shall be my weapon against evil, and I will not abandon it no matter how things look. Even when it appears not to work, those are the times which test my compasion, and I will persevere.

I will note that Jesus was enormously merciful, but he was not always merciful. It was not that he was incapable of enough compassion or that mercy was beyond him in some circumstances, but that it is sometimes the wrong thing to do. Relatedly, mercy does not exist except within a framework of justice. If we let every thief and murderer go free in hopes that the kindness may cause repentence (heck, it works in fiction, such as Les Miserables, all the time!), we are not kindly but simply anarchic, living in a Hobbesian state of nature. The genial person called a judge who presided over such pardoning might think himself merciful, but he a horror.

We can see this readily enough in the extreme, but fall for it when it is milder. The visible difference between a high degree of ordinary mercy and the dangerous extraordinary compassion is often subtle, ambiguous.

And second: We are to forgive everything done against ourselves. We are not to allow our worldly goods to have any hold on us, lest we fail in generosity. But what is the principle when we have authority over others? If I am head of a family and someone sins against all of us, or has need of generosity from us, what right do I have to give away what belongs to them? We see clearly that this is wrong in the extreme – we cannot give away money for the baby’s food to someone who has sponged off us and is asking again. If I have no responsibility for others and choose to give up my last dollar, that is my own affair, and perhaps an excellent thing. I leave aside for the moment the question whether the gift is actually good for the recipient or whether it is ultimately destructive. That is a separate issue of cruel kindness we may explore later. For now, that is a complicating or intensifying factor, but not the central issue.

All persons of authority or influence make these decisions on behalf of others, and the judgement calls involved are dizzying. When my sons were young and I went to church meetings, or didn’t go to church meetings because I chose to be home, which was the robbery? Discerning that is what authority is for. But in either case, my generosity to one is stinginess to the other. In matters of ordinary generosity or compassion, it is mine to choose. But is it ever my right to make my children give an extraordinary gift?

The kindly people I am thinking of were all in positions of authority or great influence – perhaps that is why the sample is skewed elderly and male*. They are doctors, pastors, department heads, heads of non-profits and the like. The have the power to command the actions of others. They have the worldly authority to require others to grant more than justice. Do they have the moral authority?

The more authority one has, the more one is able to require others to go beyond justice into mercy. This differs qualitatively from a high degree of ordinary compassion. This is an enforced extraordinary compassion, and there is something terribly wrong about it.

Some dramatic examples may illustrate. If a church member who worked with the youth group molested some of them, neither the pastors nor the deacons nor a vote of the congregation can declare them forgiven in the eyes of that organization without a release from the victims and their families. But Christians are supposed to forgive, we are supposed to receive the repentant sinner back after discipline and confession… But that forgiveness is not yours to give. Any of those categories might have the worldly authority - legal or church polity authority – to declare whatever they want and enforce it, but it’s not morally right. To insist that the victims accept them back and share worship with them cannot be demanded. It is theirs to give freely, or not. Even if they are wrong to withhold it, or vindictive themselves, or would benefit from forgiving, the others do not posess the moral authority. Being kind to the one is to be cruel to the other.

The director of the homeless shelter who promises that “we” will get you a ride, because she knows one of her staff goes home that way. Those extras get promised in business as well, under the name customer service – except that it’s not the business making the gift, but the employee. One can see where it can get fuzzy. Good employees want to please the customer, and may quite willingly give; good managers are able to inspire others to greater generosity. But coercion has now moved in and taken a place at the table, even if he doesn’t eat much.

To forgive a plagiarising student and letting her keep her scholarship is robbery from the person who just missed getting it in the first place.

The social and political implications of this leap to mind pretty quickly. But let’s hold that off for a bit, and keep to the consideration of the individual. What causes some of our most compassionate individuals to flip a switch and engage in damaging, hypertrophic compassion? The political discussion may hinge on it.

*When I search intentionally for examples younger or female I can find them in memory. They will apparently have their turns.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Cruel To Be Kind

In the context of a Korea discussion, neo linked to an AISH article, Cruel To Be Kind. It describes simply but eloquently why destroying evil is perhaps the greatest act of kindness possible.
The classic example is the story of King Saul and King Agag. Saul was ordered by none other than the Almighty Himself to kill all the citizens of the nation of Amalek. But Saul had compassion on their leader. He spared his life. And in that one extra day allotted him, Agag fathered a child who was the ancestor of one of the Jewish people's most vitriolic and hateful enemies in history, the villain of the Purim story, Haman.
I have been reflecting recently on the dangers of compassionate people. Not of compassion itself - compassion is a good thing when it is servant and not master. One can have compassion and still be strict, or even severe.

I have spent many of my days with Compassionate People. The Human Service professions are awash with them; churches attract them; my early days as a coffee-house folksinging socialist were entirely too formative of my previous political beliefs. Yet even in those dense atmospheres, there are some who develop especial reputations for compassion. I am thinking of a type: elderly men who are beloved for their gentle wisdom and concern for others, known for their ability to inspire others to greater kindness. I have known a dozen such, but am focusing on five. I have seen the dark underside of their compassion - their need to be seen as the most compassionate person present, and the trail of good people feeling inadequate left in their wake. All of them were so exceptionally skilled at this that their dangerousness was only apparent if the mask by accident slipped (momentarily - covered fast as light), so that one was able to step back.

They were all basically kindly men who did much good. The undermining of those around them can only be seen if one looks specifically - at which point it leaps out, and you wonder why you never noticed before. The wounded they leave behind do not blame them. As they are aspiring Compassionate People, they blame their bad feeling on themselves.

There is a story in this, but I am very unsure I can write it. No - I am quite sure I do not have the skill. But scraps of it may be salvageable. I am still sorting this out. I am thinking of at least one line that should come near the end.
So you are telling me that this man's children and all the best people who worked for him spent their entire lives feeling inadequate, but he was a compassionate man?

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Liberalism and Reasoning

There have been a few books and articles written recently characterising liberalism as a sort of mental illness. I haven't read any of them. I certainly have some sympathy with the idea that there are psychological mechanisms that prevent liberals from seeing some aspects of reality, but mental disorder seems a bit of a reach.

I could cheat and say that my experience arguing with progressives has some similarities to my discussions with the mentally ill, but that would be choosing my data conveniently. In fact, most of us act about the same when confronted with an idea we think is wrong, ill or not. As frustrating as it is to try and get psychotic people to admit the possibility of a different interpretation of reality, it is actually not that different from all rationalization and evasion.

Here's the interesting question: in psychology, we are presented with people who have been told a thousand times their ideas are crazy before they get to our facility. They've been told but they haven't believed the tellers. Our job is to get them to accept, however partially and grudgingly, a set of facts that everyone around them can see (even other psychotic people) without effort.

Play that out in political persuasion. I contend that liberals simply do not understand conservative arguments. They think they do, but they cannot accurately repeat them back. They are usually unable to describe them without caricature. Yet even in an MSM saturated subculture, they must have heard the opposition arguments a hundred times. What prevents the hearing?

No cliches, please, unless you are willing to give some explanation or evidence why the cliche is true.

Sarah Matadora

Sarah Palin seems to have this remarkable ability to get people to say stupid things when they attack her. So sure that this time we've got the goods, they say the most amazing things. (Just for fun, try to remember one of her prominent critics expressing themselves calmly. You can find some calm criticism on the internet, usually from moderates. From the journos and talking heads - insanity)

Now it is ramping up to doing insane things. A furious critic, intent on writing an unauthorised biography, has moved in next door to her to watch her. That is more than a little creepy. I don't know there's anything illegal about it, but it smacks of an enormous intrusiveness and depersonalization.

It's just nuts. Is there anyone who didn't have some possibly pathological explanation occur to them upon hearing this news?

Sarah Matadora. Ole.

Time Travel

Not about time travel at the end, though.

It has been decades since I've been all that fascinated by time travel as a plot device. But I love it as a daydream. There may have been some interesting TV shows and movies over the years since I stopped watching, but everything I've caught a snippet of seems to fall into one of two categories: 1. Let's go back in time and fix something. Kill Hitler, maybe. Or 2. Let's go back and be knights in armor, stretching the rationale for our being there to the breaking point. Time Tunnel, Star Trek, Doctor Who, whatever. The "future likelihood" devices of Dune and Asimov's Foundation are only category #1 turned inside out.

Or also, because two of my many abortive novels from my early 20's (I usually made it about forty pages in) used time travel as a plot device, I got to see how easy it is to dream up opening variations of this stuff.

As a daydream, those two categories still make for excellent starting points, but they don't really give you much after a few minutes unless you add something in. I also use the idea from T L Sherred's "E For Effort," being able to go back and observe any moment in time, though one can't affect it. One could find out lots of useful things. Solve crimes. Learn where the Indo-Europeans actually came from.

But it is only when you push category #1 that it starts to get interesting. If you fix something in the past, what else gets changed in the present? Arthur C Clarke engaged in the brief speculation of someone who traveled into the prehuman past, killed a butterfly, and ceased to exist. Are we quite sure that preventing even a great evil will work out for good? Can you go back and keep having a whack at a moment in time until you get a present that is really good; or is each reality, once destroyed, forever inaccessible?

Larry Niven has a variation on this that is a fun speculation. If it were possible in some way to get information into the past - you wouldn't have to go there yourself, just get a message through - that would not only affect the present, it would also affect what message the new present sent into the past. It would create a loop, likely instantaneous, where all of reality could get stuck until some equilibrium is reached. Niven speculated that time travel would thus erase itself.

All this by way of prologue. Those of us who get a kick out of imagining the different outplays of time travel, time messaging, past observation have much less trouble imagining how a good and omniscient God can allow evil. It is apparently a major hurdle for many nonbelievers, and even lots of believers have trouble wrapping their minds (or perhaps their hearts) around the idea. But those of us who have played at a limited omnisciences, with at least an attempt at good, don't have much trouble with the concept.

I don't use it as a proof - how can one use a physical impossibility to prove an apparent improbability? But as an imaginative exercise, it's where you want to go. Carry that daydream around in your head for a few years, and the question of the existence of evil will not haunt you so much.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Letter From China

My friend Tom, who manages a US corporate branch in Shanghai, sends along the following in response to this news link via Instapundit. (I have to send him the stories in full via email, as internet censorship, known by Americans inside as The Great Wall of China, forbids most linking)
The US is playing a losing hand. China will continue to talk the talk, and then do whatever it wants. There are no repercussions for not being supportive of US global policy(Iran or Darfur) or for China acting in its own self interest. And the US continues to believe that they want to be friends. They don’t want to be enemies( yet) the strategy is to use the existing system in a very strategic way. They are seeing the US become like Europe- with ever escalating social programs and an inability to pay for them, the military will gradually be cut and eventually become irrelevant. By that time, the Chinese economy will be among the top 3, and the only one willing to spend money on the military. Ergo, no force necessary. We become, or have become, like the Europeans- everything can/must be negotiated diplomatically. And to threaten force is unacceptable. It’s the only strategy left. Not a great way to play poker. Look how well the Europeans have done with Iran( this time we really mean it!).

The Chinese figure that they control 20-25% of humanity- and if they can keep it together they can lead the world. They will always be the single biggest voter on anything, and given a normal distribution of votes, they will always end up being the decider.

Look at the Korean situation. The Chinese love it. It provides them with a buffer between S.Korea( and the US), it occupies huge amounts of assets in Korea and the US which are totally unproductive, and it always comes down to everyone asking them to get the North to play nice. Their only concern is if the North implodes, what excuse can they dream up to make it a client state with a greater legitimacy than having the South take control. But I assure you, it won’t be a big deal.

In terms of economics, as the biggest holder of US debt, a currency revaluation would cost them billions from the start. Very tough for the Chinese to swallow. If they do revalue, I bet that there is a back room deal which will compensate them for top line currency losses. Once again, it will be US tax dollars at work.

Have a nice day.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Me 'n Limbaugh: Part Two

Rush is a taunter and a braggart. The fury against him this generates is social, not intellectual or moral. It is the tribe perceiving itself as under attack, interpreting him as at least a status danger and maybe a physical threat, and reacting emotionally rather than logically to him. He is like a political cartoonist escaped to the radio and TV, doubly infuriating liberal print cartoonists and the radio and TV voices - who for so long were used to plying their wares without having to answer even mild critics. (More on that below.) Limbaugh invaded their territory – loudly, brashly, unashamedly. They have handled this by becoming childish. The talking heads speak in code pretty well (left or right - that's their job). But listen to the water-cooler talk, the forwarded emails, the HuffPo and other internet comments and notice how often blowhard, conceited, I can't stand to hear his voice... comes up. Those drive the anger.

You can always tell when the Democrats think they are in trouble. They start hinting that Limbaugh is the leader of the Republican Party. They challenge him only in venues where they are in no danger of having to answer him directly. I am thinking 1994, 1998, 2003, 2006. And last year, the Obama administration just couldn’t refrain from sparring with him. It pleases their base, and disquiets moderates who might be thinking of voting GOP. Limbaugh. Drumbeat : Doom, Doom, Doom. Dangerous. Braggart. Doom. Doom. Fires up those dangerous right-wingers, who we know are on a hair trigger to start getting violent. Doom, Doom. You don’t want Doom, Doom LIMBAUGH running the country, do you? It’s starting to have a bogey-man feel to it.

Rush is a constant on the American political scene. He originally encouraged a lot of conservatives, converted a lot of moderates, and infuriated a lot of liberals. That middle function is less in evidence now, though it still happens. His message hasn’t changed much, he just keeps finding new illustrations. And he finds those illustrations, over and over again, from the things prominent liberals do. You will not that his focus is almost entirely on liberals of prominence. He might generalize about that group as a whole, but he seldom picks out a small target of some obscure progressive saying something stupid. And because it is the rank-and-file who have put those big fish on the buffet, it is not especially unfair that Limbaugh lumps all of them in together, is it? It may feel unfair, even ridiculous, to the average Democrat to be called a socialist when they know they personally believe in the free market pretty strongly, but are worried about unregulated cheaters. But those fairly reasonable people elected folks who say some extreme things. And Rush loves to play the tapes of them doing it.

Rush says outrageous things, and then provides evidence for them. The usual criticism of him is to quote the outrageous statement and nothing more. Cue rolling of eyes, smirking, and sighing how ridiculous that is.

It is similar to Rush’s own tactic of playing the tape of some public figure, and then commenting at length about that. There is an enormous difference here, however. People quote or play a few sentences of Rush and then riff on it. Limbaugh plays much longer sections of those he skewers. I listened for two five-minute periods on Friday. He played a consecutive 20 seconds of Barney Frank’s press conference about financial reform. Maybe he picked the worst 20 seconds. Maybe if we had heard 20 minutes we might have a different impression. But if you are Barney Frank, calling the press conference and preparing your remarks beforehand, you might get to backtrack on an unwise phrasing or an imprecise sentence, but you can’t claim context when you get that much running time. You own it. It’s fair game.

Then Rush went on to play a song parody, “Banking Queen,” which was rude. Vulgar. Childish. Song parodies are easy, I wrote them in 6th grade. Similarly, he read the NYT report of the Armed Services Committee voting unanimously – he repeated u-na-ni-mous-ly as a taunt – to forbid trying foreign detainees in country. Is he that rude, or is it just a tactic? Maybe both.

He then went to the outrageous claim: that the Obama Administration had intended this all along. They had never intended for a moment to close Gitmo or try terrorists civilly in country. It was all just for show for his more radical base. Cue eye-rolls, shaking of heads, and accusations that Rush is crazy, divisive, and irresponsible. Rush, in reply, cues the tape from his archives. He predicted this a year ago. You may still think he’s overreaching, but the farther left, who cared deeply about the issue more than about electing Obama (Firedoglake, for example) is suspecting the same thing. Obama has been all talk and no action on this issue since day one. So. You can offer counterarguments if you like, and maybe Rush has got it wrong. But his case is plausible.

It has always been this way. I had a discussion a decade ago about Rush’s claim that the MSM was taking its cues directly from Democratic campaigns. Why, that’s ridiculous. That’s outrageous. And if you want to just leave it there, pretending that he claimed that the DNC was calling up journos and telling them what to say, you can just dismiss it. But he brought out the research, week after week, a steady drip, drip. No one mentioning gravitas, according to Lexis-Nexus. DNC sends out a fax – these things are always leaked – suggesting that Bush doesn’t have sufficient gravitas. That weekend fifteen separate journos mention gravitas, and Rush makes it into a montage (he loves montages). Repeat for months. No one told them to bring up gravitas, it’s not a collusion or conspiracy (Quelle horreur!). The journos just get played by the DNC, who can count on them to essentially agree and go “Hey yeah, y’know, it really is disquieting that Bush doesn’t have sufficient gravitas. Great word. Right on the nail.”

Okay, maybe there’s another side to this. Maybe the journalists openly reject 90% of what the DNC faxes, and Rush doesn’t mention that. Do the research and prove him wrong if you like. But the outrageous comment has some evidence behind it after all.
Blowhard. Windbag. Braggart. Smirking. Taunting. Maybe so. I react very badly to his tone myself. But those are social comments, complaints that Rush doesn’t address them in the proper way, not statements about his accuracy. Is he more of a blowhard than Ted Kennedy? Or Robert Byrd? Frank Rich? The braggadocio bothers me, but there are many notes of humorous self-deprecation as well. And the flip side is that Rush showcases and boosts others more than anyone. He quotes at length from columnists and bloggers he admires. He goes out of his way to note politicians and writers – even Democrats, liberals, progressives, Europeans, Ivy Leaguers – who he thinks make important points. No one else is coming to mind who does that as much. Except for bloggers, whose medium requires it. His expansiveness is general, whether he uses it positively or negatively.

This hits on Rush’s strongest skill, not as a funnyman, or a thorn, or even a persuader. He is an encourager of conservative ideas and thinkers and a discourager of liberal ideas and thinkers. He makes predictions, and often it’s a reach, but he hits a lot of those. And when he hits, he usually quotes someone else to illustrate it – some Democrat or talking head who has confirmed suspicions and made an ass of himself, or some conservative/libertarian writer who sums up the confirmation especially well.

Some ironies: As a political cartoonist of the radio, it was predictable that Gary Trudeau and Garrison Keillor would be particularly incensed by him. They are used to not having anyone answer back – that’s why one becomes a cartoonist or storyteller, after all. You can paint the picture the way you like, without anyone interrupting your beautiful fantasy. Both went after him and became deliciously unfunny. Folks who also hated Rush might encourage and say “yeah, that’s right, you tell ‘em!” and chuckle sardonically. This tricks you into thinking you are funny. But it just fell flat – and I was still half-liberal then and uncomfortable with Rush, so I don’t think that’s just home-team rooting. In fact, the lameness of their responses were part of the final push for me. Is this the best they can do? Weak.

Stewart and Colbert – as best as I can tell from clips – owe their show’s style to the original Limbaugh TV show. Those shows may appeal to an SNL audience and draw on some of the same cultural norms, but the news parody commenting style descends from Limbaugh. Onion Network News, which makes up stories based on current events, is the descendant of SNL.

I don’t see that they quote those they are lampooning at length, though.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Gaudete, Rejoice

Red Sox

Well, the Sox have gotten good pitching and are beating people, even though they aren't scoring more. Just as I hoped last week.

I have had to eat my words earlier than expected on David Ortiz.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Moral Reasoning

The John Templeton Foundation has a series on The Big Questions. Question Six is Does Moral Action Depend on Reasoning?

There are heavy hitters here, and not all agree. Quite a bit to think about, if you want to push yourself. I'm still trying to absorb some concepts that are described in fairly simple words but don't quite penetrate.

Me 'n Limbaugh

Part Two will be more about Limbaugh himself

Rush Limbaugh and his influence came up in a recent series of emails. Colbert and Stewart also came up in the exchange. I suspected that I hadn’t written much about Rush over my 2300 posts, and that seems a glaring lack. Everyone who comments frequently about political culture should probably get around to Limbaugh somewhere in five years. The site search reveals that I have mentioned him briefly in five posts, and in passing in five others. They former have some similarity to what I will say here. Three from 2007 have more than a few sentences about him - one also included Jon Stewart, and was the most pertinent to my email discussion. I defend a comment of his as not-outrageous here.

A fourth talks about media influence in general and his place in it, so that also fits. The fifth is my own poor attempt at humor.

I still agree with those posts, though one ends with a statement even I can’t figure out what I meant. They serve as supporting data to my next post.

I listened to Rush for a few minutes at lunch for over ten years, occasionally catching a full hour. Yesterday I made a point of listening to him again. That’s the extent of my authority.

Preliminary exercise #1: Which is worse, taunting or smirking?

Those aren’t the only ways to disagree, of course. There are declaring, hinting, confronting and a dozen others. But when things go bad, they often tend into one of the two categories.

I grew up in a culture where taunting was considered much worse. You could get in trouble for smirking (wipe that smile off your face) but taunting would bring parental wrath. Taunting was something low, not done by nice people. My mother’s second marriage was into a games-and-sports family where jocular taunting was more accepted. It was not always entirely well-meant. Further on in highschool or college, smirking became an art form (particularly in the arts). I still react to taunters badly. There seems something just wrong about it. Yet when pressed, I am unable to identify a moral or logical reason why it should be worse. There is clearly something more social attached to class about the preference. The stereotype of taunting is Hulk Hogan. Of smirking, William F. Buckley, Jr. Though more acceptable in polite company, smirking may be crueler and more dangerous.

The social exceptions illuminate some deeper trends. Male banter around sports and games is often affectionate, though not always so. Smirking is seldom well-meant. Smirk at your opponent in a sport and your own fans may turn on you. Yet between lovers, it is smirking that is sometimes affectionate, taunting seldom. Taunting springs from the realm of the physical or emotional power, smirking from various others: authority, wit, knowledge, social control.

None of us likes to be on the receiving end of either; nor of criticism in even its politer forms of hinting or declaration. But though we react badly to both, we react differently. Our automatic primitive responses tell us that the taunter might erupt into violence. The smirker bears watching closely and may be more dangerous, but is not an immediate threat. It’s pretty easy to understand this developing in our social understanding all the way back into our small-tribe, hunter-gatherer days. But does our evolutionary response to these two styles, developed when society was 100-200 related individuals who met on uneasy terms with other groups a few times a year, translate at all into the discourse of 300 million people? Can we trust our responses to accurately warn us of danger?

There is not a clear left-right political breakdown on this taunting versus smirking. The right may lean more toward taunting and the left to smirking, but Ted Kennedy was a taunter. Jonah Goldberg is a smirker. But it does go some way toward explaining current reactions. The farther-left protestors who tend toward taunting do erupt into violence rather frequently. Taunting on the right, less often. Taunting seems to mean something different in the two groups. Ethnic protests – Hispanic, Arab, African-American – are awash in taunting. I am not at all certain that has the same meaning or potential for violence in each group.

The whole impression of "hate speech" may owe more to this social history than to content. Smirkers are positive that taunters are violent. Taunters are certain that smirkers are devious.

Preliminary exercise #2. Word Association.

In popular culture, the psychoanalyst’s word association exercise is about what your immediate response it to a series of words. When the analyst says pretty, do you say “girl” or “awful.” But the more important aspect is what you hesitate over. What is the immediate association you pushed out of your mind and would not say? Conscious or unconscious pushing out, it still has meaning.
There are words we dare not say, and move with astonishing speed to find an acceptable substitute to disguise it. More deeply, there are thoughts we dare not think, and move even faster to substitute those. Reasoning is not mainly about applying a set of logical rules on a set of words or ideas. Reasoning is first about examining what we dare not say, and second what we dare not think. Only then are we even able to apply the set of logical rules.

In the hard sciences, the data is sometimes revealed to have been pointing in a certain direction for years though no one could see it, because they were determined to see something else. With core issues of meaning, identity, and legacy at stake, this is even more desperately true in the realms of morality, politics, and theology. What is it that we dare not even entertain, that we evade and seamlessly change the subject when the thought comes near?

A Comparison of Presidents

As near as I can tell from the record, the presidents before my lifetime were well aware of being the leader of all Americans and responsible to them, whether they hated him or not. It was part of the expectations of the job. Similarly, the citizenry regarded the officeholder as their president, however furious they might be with him. Perhaps I have understood history wrongly, but that seems to have been the case.

Truman's presidency ended just before I was born, and I was not aware of political matters during all of Eisenhower's time. But the memory of others around me was yet green and much of the record has always been available. They seemed aware of being president of all Americans, even those who disagreed with them. Kennedy biographers, even those quite critical, reveal a man who likewise carried that expectation of himself.

Johnson arrived with a deeply partisan reputation, and later in his second term was vilified by many on the left. Yet he rose entirely to the public expectation of responsibility to all, even while he was arm-twisting for legislation. At that point the citizens began to drop their end of the bargain. Somewhere in that time the left began shading over from "I am furious with my president" to "He is not my president." Those on the right who were angry may not have abated in their fury, but conservative culture did not foster that kind of abandonment.

I remember something about the campaigns of '60 and '64, but not the tone of the candidates. Campaign mode is a little different, and rather more oppositional, us-them speech is appropriate there. I remember Nixon the campaigner injecting quite a bit of an attitude of Our Americans as opposed to Not-Quite-Americans. In his defense, many of his critics were fully in that mode, having taken the next step from the Johnson era and defined themselves in terms of a loose "Westernism" that included American liberals and much of Western Europe. Further, after the campaigns were over Nixon did seem to elevate to the expectation somewhat. He clearly saw himself as president of "the bulk of Americans."

Yet something was lost here, and Nixon seems to have started it. (Or is it just my hippie memory that thinks so?)

Ford was determinedly president of all, and though Carter had some tendency to promote divisiveness for his ends, he comes out clean here. He saw himself as the leader of the nation, not of the Democratic Party, even to those who hated him.

Reagan had some oddities when measured on this scale. He brought Nixon's president-of-90%-of-Americans attitude when speaking generally, but in his actual interactions with people, including opponents who despised him, he remained gracious. He could even become starry-eyed about the presiding over the 90%, and in all international dealings, it rose to 100%. That last hearkens back to a much older tradition. But the American people were more used to the not-my-president approach at this point and his opponents were more open about this than had been true even under Nixon.

Bush 41 never dropped his responsible-to-all attitude, whether his polling was good or bad at the moment. The country was as divided under him as it was under any of the others I have named. Memories are short. During his son's term people would believe they recalled a different America under 41, when people could disagree with their president but still respect him. They forget or they lie. The left hated Bush 41 at the time and were quite open in their regarding him as a second Reagan, who they did not acknowledge as their leader.

Clinton, who initiated the permanent campaign, stayed in campaign mode in tenor as well. While he frequently rose to the higher expectation of how a president is to represent the people, he just as often fell to an attitude of "I am representing the good Americans in their battle against the bad ones." What Nixon had started and Reagan engaged in, Clinton increased and made his default position. Something new happened in the citizenry here as well. Elements of the right began to speak in terms of not-my-president. This is a sentiment against some of their central values, so it never caught on fully. But it appeared for the first time and even had some eruptions during Bush 43's terms.

Those who opposed Bush 43 will scramble to find some way to show that the following is not true, because to acknowledge it would be expensive. But Bush returned the presidential attitude to something near that of his father. He was conscious of his responsibility to the entire nation, even when they were vilifying him. Interesting evidence of this is in how far his opponents had to scramble to even find things they could twist into divisiveness. "You're either for us or against us" didn't have the meaning they pretend even when referring to other nations. It had none in referring to Americans. No matter. It fit what people wanted to believe about him.

Obama seems to still be in campaign mode, so there is a lot of data left to accumulate on him. His campaign is now switched from his person to his agenda, and one is tempted to cut him a little slack on that basis; but how is that different from any other new president? The early results are very disquieting. Far more than Clinton, Obama remains in "leading the good Americans against the bad ones" mode. He had barely a kind word for the flood victims, and nothing but complaining about other people regarding the oil spill. He complains about Americans to other countries.

Conservatives complain that we are seeing a re-enactment of the Carter presidency in Obama. Sorry, but I can't imagine Jimmy Carter doing this. Nor Bill Clinton even when most beleaguered. We are in new territory here. And on the right, not-my-president, an idea that was previously anathema, is spoken out loud.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

It All Depends

I am striving mightily not to follow the Red Sox at this point. I haven't even read the individual statistics all year, which is usually my favorite aspect. But I have succumbed to temptation and looked at the standings once a week.

Boston is in an essential tie with Philly and Toronto for 2nd place in all of baseball in Runs Scored (Yankees are first). But the Red Sox are fourth-to-last in Runs Allowed. This was supposed to be a pitching and defense team.

So it all depends - if you think their pitching will seriously come around, the Sox will contend. The Runs Scored are sufficient for any team to be a contender. If you think the pitching will not even be good, never mind excellent this year, then they have no chance. None. When you are already near the top of the curve in hitting, there just isn't that much realistic space for you to get enough better to change your wins and losses. The league best is a little better than 900 runs most years. A handful of teams have scored 1000. The Red Sox are on pace to score about 890. Lots of teams win the pennant with 890. If they started hitting at best-of-the-decade pace from here on out, they wouldn't score that many more runs.

OTOH, there are a few teams this year that have allowed just a little more than half as many runs as the Sox. Like 55% as many. To contend, Boston needs to reduce its Runs Allowed by something like 40%! I'm sure no team has done that for longer than a month.

Retriever On Doubt

Not only does commenter retriever have an accurate description of what it's like to go through times of doubt, she also says nice things about me. Which is the important thing, of course.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010


I have a speculation, an hypothesis. I stress that because I have not data to support it, and I'm not sure how one would even acquire such.

I have commented often that standard-issue elite liberals socially enforce tribal discipline with condescension. It is a warning that one might next be socially excluded. I likely have given the impression that this condescension is always delivered with a sneer, whether orally or in print. Much of it is, but that is not universal. There are earnest, wide-eyed liberal folks who don't necessarily mean to condescend, and have no trace of it in their tone. They are just commenting, with general bonhommy (reference?) about how the general mass of humanity needs to be educated about their particular cause, and we need to raise awareness about this or that. They are not aware of any especial contempt for the great unwashed, they just don't know, not like thier good friends who have read the right books.

So just keep that piece in mind when I suggest the following.

Who would be most vulnerable to being affected by such condescension, whether said meanly or earnestly? The vague discomfort of sensing a world of the intelligent, good people almost in reach - but one you could be turned away from as not quite good enough? Young people, certainly, but also any outgroup, especially minorities. The Jews have developed an American strategy of "we'll beat you at your own game," and in many ways taken over many of the wittier, more cosmopolitan high spots. Not only do we get it, we get it better than you. We can grab these spots and set the rules.

I would think African-Americans, especially bright and educated ones who hover at the brink of acceptance into the elitest - most righteous, most thoughtful - would be highly susceptible to the promised charms of entry into the inner circle.

Perhaps I am projecting. I was a bright child of divorced parents in an era when divorce was not mentioned aloud, who always felt I had something to prove, and for whom entrace into an inner circle could be very sweet. I was vulnerable and susceptible, and perhaps I assume too much about others. But it intrigues me.

It is much easier for me to shrug off the condescension of liberals because I proved I could do it. I don't have any fears that I wasn't clever enough or socially aware of subtle cues that progressives identify each other with. I did it, and I have to tell you it's not that hard to be a liberal. It is far more socially demanding, sensing the room and knowing where to get reinforcement for your sense of superiority, than it is intellectually demanding.

Emotionalism Over At Reason

Radley Balko of is guest-posting on Instapundit, and links to a story about a Congressman resigning, adding his own comments. For example,
It appears that temptation has brought down another family values crusader. I blame gay marriage!
Please read his whole post - it's short. The usual justification for such juvenile insults is that everyone loves to puncture hypocrisy. But the squirming pleasure that both libertarians and anti-conservatives get from these stories - a pleasure they do not seem to take when the subject isn't sex or much less often, drugs - suggests that something rather adolescent is in play.*

People who approve of drunk-driving laws sometimes drive when they have had too many, and still approve of such laws after they have been caught (In some instances, they approve of them more). Folks who stretch the truth usually still disapprove of lying. A man might steal something and still approve of personal property laws. Doctors who write scrips for off-label uses still approve of pharmaceutical regulation; lawyers sometimes break the law; Cowards may wish they had courage.

Presumably, one might approve greatly of reason, even naming a magazine or a website after it, yet still not be always logical.

St. Paul tells us to take every thought captive. Miss Manners teaches us that politeness, properly understood, is the foundation of civilization. Old proverbs tell us to say nothing if we can't say something nice, or to make our words sweet because we may have to eat them. I approve of all of these rules. I don't always follow them, but I approve of them. Isn't this observation rather...basic? Obvious enough that it hardly bears mentioning? Why is there such difficulty absorbing

All this has been pointed out many times whenever a person professing a strict sexual morality does not live up to his own standards. Yet every time the scene repeats we read, not mere complaint or accusation but blood-drinking joy, as if some great moral victory has been won by the other side. So the logical argument is out there (often put far better than I have here), it remains unanswered, and the sniggering continues. Congressman Souder may indeed be a hypocrite and deserve exposure. But hypocrite has a specific meaning, of a person who pretends to a value he does not actually believe in - who privately doesn't believe the rule that he broke is true or very important. Or perhaps, believes that it is a good rule, but only for other people, not for oneself. That is not always the case when someone commits a sin. It certainly isn't true every time I commit a sin.

So I conclude that there is something that the critics just plain don't want to look at about themselves. The dish is on the buffet but they pass it by each time. Reason does not consist only in putting forth logical or mathematical premises and trying to draw conclusions. Come to think of it, that's not even the most important part. Self-examination to learn if one's views are driven by some reward - whether material, psychological, or social - is the more important part of Reason**. Because once we know there is some added benefit to saying X, we must search vigorously whether the benefit is causing us to bend our logic, however slightly, to come to a conclusion that will be gratifying to us.

Interesting that Ayn Rand's claim that altruism never exists because we always get something back for it should be so prominently illustrated among the Randians.

Aside from the high-school attitude in insult, there is something more subtle and dark. The jeers, as are prominent in Balko's post, suggest that the exposure of a hypocrite adds logical merit to one's own argument. If people only believed as we do, they wouldn't have all this problem. I think that came up a lot during the Catholic priest pedophilia scandals, as people pretended (and still pretend) that there is a greater incidence of this sin among priests, absent any data to support that claim.

*Balko also misrepresents the congressman's statements about drug laws - misrepresents them to the point of deceitfulness and even (gulp) dishonesty. But that's only a sidelight here.

**Because a person who realises that he has selfish motives in holding a certain opinion or advocating an action might refrain on that basis alone, even if he hadn't worked all the logical points out.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Doubt: The Introduction. First Impressions

I mentioned receiving Jennifer Hecht's book Doubt from a friend. I have just started it, but already have puzzlement about it.

Jennifer Hecht brilliantly describes some aspects of the Great Schism between the meaningfulness and purposefulness of the world as we contemplate it from within our minds and the seeming meaninglessness of the universe when we sit farther back from ourselves and observe the actions of humans. If the universe is so meaningless, how do we come to have a concept of meaning at all? Yet if it is meaningful, why is its general pattern one of random, pointless events that do not correspond to our ideas of justice and meaning?
The universe is more powerful than we, but when it comes to demonstration of sentience and will, we find ourselves in the the uncomfortable position of being the smartest, most powerful creatures around. There is no one to help us. Thus there is a rupture between daily life, in which individuals are rarely the highest authority, and the larger picture, the macro-reality of humankind, in which we as a group are the authority on everything.

In describing the differences (and some similarities) between how nonbelievers and believers view the world, she seems spot on when describing the split in general. I found myself nodding "Yes. That's it exactly." Yet whenever she gets more specific about what Christians believe, I furrow my brow, and eventually shake my head. No, that's not quite it. That's not how we see things and describe them. It's something like, but there is some veering wide of the mark at the end. I doubt that I am expecting her to match my own idiosyncratic way of putting things; I was at adult Sunday School this morning, and so have the thinking of some Christians about these same questions quite fresh in my mind. (We are discussing such basic doctrines as the nature of God and the design of creation.) I don't think Hecht accurately describes what any one of us believes, nor any Christian I have read or met. There is a wall, an opacity which she can't see through. She will write that Jesus resolves the schism by teaching this, and gets it about half right, or that Augustine was beseiged by doubts in such-and-such a way, getting that half right.

This is not just because she might disagree with us. Ms. Hecht seems quite willing to bend over backwards to see things as the various groups do and present them as positively as she can. She constrasts the general monotheistic belief with rational materialism and other atheisms, with agnosticisms and Eastern perceptions. She tries to be genuinely fair, and I have little doubt that she would describe honestly if she could. This makes the book a little thrilling, as that is a courtesy that strongly opposing philosophies rarely extend to each other.

I will have a try at describing what she misses. Perhaps a clearer description will occur to me as I read further. She repeats several times that belief is a comforting state - a mistake nonbelievers often make. I don't know if this drives part of her understanding. To enter belief is to enter a more dangerous and puzzling world, not exit into a comfortable one. (That is not an argument for the truth of Christianity or any other belief, but is a mere description of what happens.) Second, she looks suspiciously likely to be seeing only the positives that result from doubt per se. That freedom from some doctrines has resulted in death, injustice, and poverty does not seem to occur to her. Like a parent watching her kid's soccer game, she sees only the fouls against, not fouls committed. That is very natural, but not very helpful.

But most importantly, she relates religion and experience of the trancendent to feeling or impression, with reason more properly applied to science and inquiry. I suspect she is moving in the direction of finding both necessary, or even marrying them in some way, but at the beginning, she clearly assigns these to two realms. I think this is unfair to both religion and science. The former may make more use of feeling and impression, the latter more use of reason, but neither is pure in that regard. Nor should they be.

The wall of non-perception that she comes up against is similar to the not-quite-getting-it that believers have about each other. Catholics understanding much but missing the point of Protestantism. Protestants perceiving and even admiring the beliefs of the Eastern Orthodox but still not fully grasping them. More strongly, I note this same not-grasping in Jewish understanding of Christians, and as well as I can understand it from the outside, Christian perceptions of Jewish beliefs. Hecht shows this same type of missing essential points, but at an even farther remove. It is not a misunderstanding because of hostility, it is just, well, misunderstanding.

It may be that there are things about belief (and even disbelief) that can only be understood from the inside, or in retrospect after belief is accepted or rejected.

I can't comment on whether she describes the types of nonbelief, and the experience of unbelief, accurately. She may descibe them better, or she may lose the thread with them as well.

Nostalgia Is A Place

We think of nostalgia as a state, like reverie. But it should be capitalised, a proper name of a place, Nostalgia. It is created in our own minds, out of scraps of memory - events which were once real - so it is not a fictitious place. But neither is it entirely real.

We go to work and imagine home, and when we get home, it looks greatly like the place we imagined/remembered. At home, we remember work, or church, or a friend's home, and when we get to those places, they look much as we remembered/imagined. This tricks us into believing that other imaginings in memory really exist as well.

Yet Nostalgia is not quite a real place, not only because we can't go there, but also because the memories are unreliable. Recent brain research suggests that when we recall an event from 2005, we are not recalling 2005, but retrieving the last time we remembered the event, which may have been in 2009 or even only last week. There is considerable debate now whether a long-term memory is generally stable over time, or whether each time it is recalled makes it vulnerable to being changed. To make an analogy, a long-term memory is a solid object in the brain. But when we heat it up to reuse it, does it hold its shape and go back the way it was, or does the heating up make it moldable, changeable, flexible?

It is not a fully either-or debate. Even the neuroscientists who hold a strong view of memory persistence accept that subtle changes occur. And those who believe in extreme plasticity of memory note that some things do not seem to change, or not easily. The research seems to be pointing toweard more plasticity at present. When we heat up the memory, associated memories from earlier or especially later times seem to influence it.

Note: This may prove useful in treating traumatic memories, BTW. Chemically interfering with the memory-making process when a subject recalls the traumatic event seems to weaken the power, the emotional charge that the memory has. The events are recalled, but later bits of information - such as the knowledge that the abusive relationship is over, or we are not in a war zone anymore - get a chance to exert more influence on the memory. I do worry what the abuses of this memory-changing technique might be, however.

We have nostalgia for times and places that are now cut off from the whole. I do, at least. I have nostalgia for childhood places and friends. They connect to my current life only insofar as they affect me. I don't have much nostalgia for my children's early years. Those have a continuity with the present - later memories inform the recall of those earlier events. I have some nostalgia for places Tracy and I used to live, or for friends we no longer see. But any person or place that has maintained continuity doesn't live in Nostalgia. Not mine, anyway. When I go there, they are not residents - they are visitors like me if they are there at all.

Thus, I have some nostalgia for Romania and Budapest, which are in my recent history, but little for Chris and J-A ten years ago, and less still for my two older shildren ten years before that. They occupy space in the present. All memory of them then is but a piece of now.

Nostalgia is rather an island, then. Or a place accessible only by ghost trains or overgrown trails - rather like the traveling through the crack in time in WP Kinsella's The Iowa Baseball Confederacy. (Recommended, BTW.)

Saturday, May 15, 2010


I have mentioned in many contexts that the more you give someone, the less grateful they are. Though such things have political implications, I am more concerned with the individual effects. Also, I am not merely concerned with the spiritual and emotional effects on those ungrateful wretches who would be easy targets, but on decent people who don't ask for much, generally provide for themselves, but are recipients of generosity from time to time. Me, for example.

It is hard to receive without feeling one-down, just as it is hard to give without feeling one-up. Ingratitude may be a signal that we have taken something as well as given something. In fact, the receiver may unknowingly consider what he has lost - a sense of self-efficacy - more precious than whatever object he has gained.

People who receive all the time usually find that sense of being "lesser" to be intolerable. (Each side of the charitable transaction can find themselves poisoned no matter how innocent the intent on the other side.) They seek rationalizations and resentments - whether to elevate themselves as deserving in some way, or to denigrate the other as a flawed person who is obliged to be generous.

When someone is generous, it is easy for all observers to just slide into the assumption that they had the money "to spare." How could they give it if it weren't spare, eh? Even if it's their last dollar, our learned and automatic response to observed giving is so strong that we rapidly pop them back into the category of those who have "extra." To then see them as fortunate, or lucky, or undeserving is not such a far slide from there. They have extra. I don't have enough. Life's not fair. It's a short step from there to I deserve at least some of what they have. They are supposed to give it up.

Many of my readers are political types, and will find the social implications of this screaming at them. Fine, but I ask you to drop that for the moment. We're not talking about those others, remember. We're talking about me. And likely you as well.

Before we even get to the difficult gratitude to God (who is abundantly wealthy, so why don't I have more?), we receive from a hundred people a day who we don't even think of gratitude toward: a clerk living in personal tragedy who mustered politeness and even forebearance toward us; a driver who adjusted to our carelessness or entitlement; a family member who declined to argue, even though we were in the wrong. And aren't we just entitled to no traffic jams or construction, and restaurants to be open when we want them to be?

I haven't done anything to earn my air or water. And as much as that should bother me and spur gratitude in me, it doesn't. I feel a complete entitlement to a thousand things. That's how far down we can go in 57 years. Why do we expect God to give us long lives, again? Were we planning on improving that much in the next decades?

Friday, May 14, 2010


All dads understand this dad, but what we hope is when the bell rings we are able to answer, as he did.

Technically, It's Not Illegal to be Illegal... Massachusetts. A quote by non-Senator Martha Coakley that has just become important again.

It rather puts me in mind of Miracle Max in "The Princess Bride."

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Celtics to the Conference Finals

I fear Orlando more than the Cavs.

Okay, well that's obvious now that the Cavs are eliminated, but you get my thought here. I fear Orlando more than whoever comes out of the West, too.

There are plenty of folks who will tell you that the Celtics match up well with Orlando, containing and diminishing the Magic's strengths. They'd better.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Tomorrow, a Rant

Just what you've been waiting for, I'm sure.

Update: It's tomorrow.

With NH state budget crises continuing another highly-placed individual used one of my least favorite metaphors yesterday, the state budget as family budget. Conservatives may use it as often as liberals, and I don't like it either way.

Usually, these highly-placed individuals are content to stroke their chins and make coded references to "looking at the revenue side of things." By which they mean a broad-based task. But sometimes they go full out and feel obliged to explain that if a family can't make ends meet, sometimes cutting their personal budgets just isn't enough. What they need is to make more money. From the family side of the analogy, that's sensible enough. Here's the problem from the government side.

The government is not the parent in this family. The government is one of the teenage children we hire to do some work around the place (and if you keep screwing up, we'll give the job to your younger sister, even if she doesn't (yet) know how to start the lawnmower). The citizens are the parents, not you. This is the center of what you don't get - and neither does more than 50% of the electorate. You are not the parents.

The citizens in the NH family may be bad parents. We may even be very bad parents. I grant that possibility, and some days even agree with it. But I also know that teenagers are likely to believe their parents are doing things wrong, and even have lists of examples why they are, when the parents in question are doing reasonably well. The teenager's opinion is interesting, but not decisive.

Also, the teenager is sometimes right. There are bad parents with wonderful children. Happens all the time. But the teenager is seldom a good judge of that.

Teenagers have great ideas about all the good stuff the family should buy. They are in fact often authorities on that subject. Sometimes they are even right. But that's not enough to get to be the parent, and decide that somebody else (mom or dad) needs to work more hours.

We citizens need the reminder also. We have to be the parents, or the children will take over and rule the household. It's just reality, a law of nature. Power vacuum and all that. Citizens also have to be willing to step up and be parents, even under criticism and challenge.

Elected officials are teenaged children we hire to do work around the house. Hold that thought.

Not Even Looking

As usual, this fuzzy-minded rubbish shows up not because I was looking for particularly bad examples of church-leftist thinking, but just on my way to something else. Postliberals don't have to go looking for this idiocy, it's just there, around every corner. This particular essay by Simon Beard over at ekklesia (A new way of thinking! What a tag line) is especially fun. It plays to several of my favorite soapboxes all in one short essay. Go on over, read it. I dare ya.

I know nothing of the legislation in question - heck, I might even agree with the author if I read it closely, though I doubt it. It is the style of argument, emotional and social that pretends to be intellectual, that is so typical.

Fun with Gladstone. Beard quotes his famous
liberalism is trust in people tempered by prudence, conservatism is distrust of people tempered by fear.
The irony: In the context of mid 19th C England, the meanings of conservative and liberal are almost exactly reversed from their meaning today. Gladstone was a classical liberal who hated socialism, quite a different item from the left-liberal of today. And 19th C British conservatives tended strongly to aristocratic rule and monarchism* - rather the opposite of Tea Partyism and conservatives complaining about elites forcing their views on an unwilling majority today. Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher both cite Gladstone as a major influence in their own thought, and William would be quite at home in the Conservative Party today. Apparently the Conservatives of his era thought so too, bolting en masse for the Liberal Party in 1922.

Next, we have fun with hymnody. I was Binging "How Can I Keep From Singing" and Mr. Beard's essay was one of the early hits, which is how I got there at all. He quotes the hymn at the end of his essay, wrongly identifying it as an early Quaker hymn. That's a small error, as a lot of folks think that. It is actually an American Baptist Hymn from the 19th C. Beard quotes the third verse, trying to provide as much religious cover and moral self-congratulation to his side. The second irony: The third verse isn't original to the song - it was added in later and sung by Pete Seeger, who removed much of the Christian content from the other verses when he performed it. It was a big 60's hippie-folk song about defying tyrants (hehehe).

Thus Beard unwittingly provides evidence for my contention that the real religion of church liberals is 60's leftism. Okay, some liberals. Simon spends much of the rest of the essay telling us how hateful the people not supporting the bill are, how small-minded and evil, while describing the supporters as lovers of equality. He quotes Jesus preaching freedom, without making the case that his view is anything similar. He then quotes Mary about scattering the proud, leaving the reader to assume that it is not Simon and his pals, but their opponents, who are the proud. No evidence for this, just the usual sneaky way of saying "Jesus is on my side," though they would find that a blasphemous claim from their opponents.

The usual.

* I grant that these descriptions are over-simple.

So here's Enya with the song in question, including the more-political verse I don't like. And who knows, maybe the figures in the video reveal her politics to be opposite to mine. No matter, I can make the adjustment. Beautiful song.

Sunday's Coming

Via the Out of Ur website at Christianity Today International. Passed along by akafred.

"Sunday's Coming" Movie Trailer from North Point Media on Vimeo.

To be fair, the comments were kinder, though still finding it funny. My contribution there:

Excellent comments keeping the criticism in perspective. Yes, it's a liturgy among those who would be horrified to think they have one - rather like everyone wearing blue jeans everywhere in my era to show they were unconventional. But this also can be done well. If it is no less "packaged" than traditional or liturgical worship, neither is it more packaged. It can be shallow, but assuming that it must be shallow because it is not our preferred personal style is a weak argument.

Noel Paul Stookey - "Peace In The Valley"

So if you meet a man in a pastel suit
With an alligator Bible to match his boots
You might not like his style too much
But if he could reach a soul you could never touch
You gotta say...

Peace in the Valley
Peace on the mountain too
Before you tell a man he's got a splinter in his eye
You better pull the log out of
Pull the log out of
Pull the log out of you.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Politicians and Sports

This will go from light News of the Day to something more serious.

Mayor Menino screwed up his speech for the dedication of the Bobby Orr statue. He used the word ionic instead of iconic, and he mistakenly attributed “splitting the uprights” to Varitek, a baseball player, rather than Vinatieri, a football player. Boston sports fans are more likely to hound him for the latter, but I give him half a pass on that. Word-storage is a funny thing, and V-ethnic substituting for V-ethnic could just be a slip of the mind. Jason Varitek has certainly been mentioned more often than Adam Vinatieri over the last few years. Yes, he should be more careful about his sports info when he is speaking at a sports function. Either he was speaking off-the-cuff, seldom a wise choice; or he read his cue-card wrongly, not an encouraging sign; or the speechwriter he hired screwed up, also not good. Yet it’s only dumb, not monumentally stupid.

I take that back. As I wrote out my reasons why he might have mistakenly said Varitek instead of Vinatieri, I concluded it’s worse than mere slippage.

Ionic may be closer to monumentally stupid. It is, I grant, at least a real word. But missing iconic shows that he doesn’t really know the word. It’s not a readily hearable mispronunciation, a regionalism, or even a frequent mistake, as irregardless would be. The mayor might be able to get the meaning of iconic right on a test, when he had time to think about it, but it is clearly not in his usual vocabulary. Don’t use it, Mayor Malaprop.

My usual sports talk show verged on important knowledge this morning, then veered away from it. They noted the mistakes and immediately related it to other sports bloopers by politicians: Teddy Kennedy saying “Mike Maguire and Sammy Sue-ser*” and Congressman Chris Shays saying “Rafael Palmeiri getting his 300th hit.” They wondered if these politicians, who don’t know that much about sports but hold hearings on steroids and otherwise regulate the industry, might also not know much about the other things they pass legislation on. They stayed on this for a few minutes, bringing up personal incidents of watching C-Span and suddenly realising that the speaker didn’t actually know much about the topic at hand, but was pontificating anyway.

They almost got it. In the end, they shrugged it off, saying that sports isn’t all that important at the end of the day. It doesn’t really matter if they don’t understand it. They saw it as an unfortunate oddity, not part of a trend.

Yet it is part of a trend. I recently noted how little state legislators know about mental health. The recent hearings with Goldman Sachs revealed that Senators don’t understand that industry. Few of them understand much science. Sometimes they can’t do simple arithmetic. They don’t understand much about war. Or health care.

Well, what do they know? They know lots of important information about getting elected: what emote-words voters want to hear, what the party breakdown is in various regions, what types of advertising are most effective, what issues are currently hot, whose hands need to be shaken, how to raise money. As many of them are lawyers, they also know legal terminology pretty well. Some don’t have much beyond that in knowledge of the law, but there are a fair number who actually do understand it. They know how their own legislative bodies work, who is responsible for what, and something of who the key people are.

That’s about it. You can’t count on elected officials at any level actually knowing more than that. Getting sports names and facts wrong is not an interesting oddity – it is a window into the rest of their knowledge. There’s nothing wrong with not knowing something about a subject. There is something very wrong about pretending to know a subject when you don’t, and then asserting legislative power over it.

Our recent presidents, notably, have all had sports knowledge (except for Jimmy Carter). Obama and Nixon have probably had the most extensive knowledge. Perhaps it is important to the general image of a presidential candidate, which we examine in more detail than we do senators or mayors.

Related: Bill James wrote in amazement about David Halberstam’s Summer of ’49 that the famed journalist, on whom we had relied for much of our political reporting, had gotten so many important facts wrong in the book. Worse, these were facts that would be relatively easy to have researched, and seemed in the service of a particular narrative about manager Joe McCarthy. Perhaps, James wondered, this was an unimportant complaint against an important writer who was having a bit of a lark with a sports book. But what if Halberstam had shown a similar sloppiness in his other books – about Vietnam, about the Kennedys – which had been so influential? It turns out, in fact, that this is exactly the criticism of Halberstam by serious historians – that he served up misleading and even false information in the service of a political agenda.

Update: Vince Masi of ESPN add the following: "So who puts the bug in candidates' ears about seeming what they are not? John Kerry last week professed to be a big fan of 'Manny Ortez,' then re-emphasized the phoofery by correcting it to 'David Ortez.' No, that was Dave (Baby) Cortez and 'The Happy Organ.' A few years back Kerry went on a Boston station with Eddie Andelman and said 'my favorite Red Sox player of all time is The Walking Man, Eddie Yost,' who never played for the Red Sox.

*Kennedy gets a pass on the second syllable because that’s just his accent. The first syllable, not so much.

Monday, May 10, 2010

What Is Love?

Michael Novack's No One Sees God, which I referenced earlier, has an intriguing section about some of the great saints who had less and less direct experience of God as their lives unfolded. Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross is mentioned, as are St. Theresa and her namesake Mother Teresa. He makes reference to "revelation by subtraction," where God reveals Himself by stripping away illusions.

Two things about this. One, I've missed the boat on this. I know exactly what he is talking about, and see that those more committed than I have striven to know God more fully by this teaching. I just eventually gave that up and said "Well, prophet ecstacies (what's the reference?) are not going to be on the menu for me, I guess. Oh well. Carry on, then." I'm regirding to change that, BTW.

Two, I was immediately struck by how thoroughly unconvincing that would be to an atheist. That was the context Novack placed the discussion in, trying to show a similarity between the internal lives of some saints and some nonbelievers. I think he is correct, and I think it possibly profound, but I imagined myself as a skeptical hearer encountering this argument. "Well, that's a poor evasion. All that's happening is that you're seeing nothing, but you're calling it something. Worse, you're calling it something special. It's all rubbish." I didn't have a quick answer to that at the time.

One came up tonight in another context. A young woman from our church who comes down to see Tracy because she's arguing with her parents all the time was describing staying over at her (relatively new) boyfriend's house. (Sidebar for the curious. She insists, taking some offense, that nothing is "happening" during these times. And we believe her. For now. She doesn't accept our cautioning that this unstable and tempting situation will not go on indefinitely. The same conversation that adults have had with 18 year-olds for a thousand generations.) Within this discussion of the new boyfriend - who is sooo cute - and how they never fight, and her friends say they act like they've been together for a long time, and, and, all the other things that 18 year-olds have been saying to adults for a thousand generations - in that context, she asked my wife "What is love?"

So Tracy, after giving her own answer, calls out to me to come in and answer the girl's question. Keep in mind that we're not giving this answer to a thoughtful, abstract thinker. She's friendly enough, and nice enough, but a little ditzy. Let that frame any answer you attempt in the comments.

It's easy to generate Hallmark answers, or those saccharine Love Is... cartoons. "Being married to your best friend." The sentiments of the latter aren't especially bad, but those little kids make me retch. But in such a situation, you want to generate a pretty decent answer, even if it is off the top of your head. Love is being nice to each other when the children are throwing up. No, that's not what I want. It does get across the idea that it is only associated with the sensation of being in love. But I really wanted to drive that idea home in this particular instance. Love is what happens after three years (or eighteen months, or six months, or whatever the duration of the body experience of "being in love" is).

I admit, that's still got quite a bit of Hallmark in it. It's easy to say things like that - cute phrases that pretend to be profound. But it hit me just a few minutes later: that's the revelation by subtraction that Novack was referring to - and an experience that many nonbelievers could instantly see the truth of.

Sunday, May 09, 2010


Charles Austin, who has a blog of his own, Sine Qua Non Pundit, commenting at Protein Wisdom
I find that many progressives like to sneer at those who believe in angels and demons, while blithely overlooking their own belief in Santa Claus.


I may have linked to them singing this song before, but I know I have never seen these costumes. I would have remembered that.

These posts are becoming less and less ironic. I'm starting to like ABBA. Now I know why double agents have a hard time knowing exactly what side they're on. You tend to become what you pretend to be.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

On Being the Assistant Village Idiot

Every writer has an audience in mind, however vaguely. Mine has changed a bit over four and one-half years.

I believe, though I may misremember, that my intended audience when I started this blog were (in order) my two older sons; our Bible study, church friends, and their children; my wife (who was lower on the list because she generally heard my opinions anyway); lastly, some other bloggers. Hmm... some vague idea of posterity, or the national conversation, or seekers after truth comes into conception of "audience" as well. I'm not sure who they are, really.

My sons were not at home but still youngish, and I was concerned about legacy - yet you can't just call every night and say "you know what I've been thinking, and what article you should read?" Friends get pretty tired of that, also.

It occurred to me writing the last post, which referenced them and caused me to think about the trajectory of their lives, that I no longer have them in the back of my mind as the primary audience anymore. They are in the mix, but they are quite fully formed at this point, and I no longer have even a vestigial drive to form and shape them. Influence, yes, but I pretty much do that with everyone. Very few of my Bible study and church friends ever read AVI much - less than 10%, I'd say. Maybe less than 5%.

My own commenters and the small circle of other sites that are my online network are who I think of now. That includes the son, wife, and church categories, but I am as likely to think of terri or carl or gringo while composing now. And I am still often choosing my words carefully in case some of my more challenging commenters drop by again.

Testing Doesn't Measure Schools

Last week, American Enterprise Institute carried Charles Murray's Why Charter Schools Fail The Test.

The latest evaluation of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, the oldest and most extensive system of vouchers and charter schools in America, came out last month, and most advocates of school choice were disheartened by the results.
Murray remains a charter school advocate, but doesn't think tests of individual students are a good measure of schools. He has been saying this for some time with few people listening, so he hopes the recent studies provide a teachable moment for educators of all ideological leanings.
So let's not try to explain them away. Why not instead finally acknowledge that standardized test scores are a terrible way to decide whether one school is better than another? This is true whether the reform in question is vouchers, charter schools, increased school accountability, smaller class sizes, better pay for all teachers, bonuses for good teachers, firing of bad teachers--measured by changes in test scores, each has failed to live up to its hype.

It should come as no surprise. We've known since the landmark Coleman Report of 1966, which was based on a study of more than 570,000 American students, that the measurable differences in schools explain little about differences in test scores. The reason for the perpetual disappointment is simple: Schools control only a small part of what goes into test scores.

Cognitive ability, personality and motivation come mostly from home. What happens in the classroom can have some effect, but smart and motivated children will tend to learn to read and do math even with poor instruction, while not-so-smart or unmotivated children will often have trouble with those subjects despite excellent instruction. If test scores in reading and math are the measure, a good school just doesn't have that much room to prove it is better than a lesser school.
We like to think that schools are one of the dominant features of the education of society's children. Perhaps this is because we spend so much money on it, or they spend so much time there, or it's one of the few things people have in common. We spent lots of money to send our kids to private Christian schools, and I don't regret a dime of it. Okay, maybe a few bucks of it.

But it was not academic superiority that was the driver in this, though the Christian schools exceeded the local public offerings in most ways. While there was some chance they would not have thriven in a different environment, it is likely they would have done just as well. Nor was I worried about their being exposed to the teaching of evolution; rampant liberalism maybe, but evolution would have been a slight positive. And, when all is counted, you are going to have to undo some of the school's teaching of your child wherever they go. We decided we'd rather fight some battles than others.

Being in an environment that was unapologetic about its devotion to Christianity, Western Civilization, and writing proficiency were important. We think the emotional support they received was somewhat better. We think smaller schools in general are a better environment. We hoped to load the dice a bit on choice of friends.

But from earliest years we said quite openly that educating our children was our responsibility, not the school's, and acted on that. This sometimes annoyed them when we would have higher expectations than the teacher on what was an acceptable paper or project. (You can still get Ben to shake his head about his New Hampshire History project in 4th grade. Even at the time he would say "It's already an A+! There is no A+++!" But Tracy has taught NH History for two decades, and his project was going to be the most thorough in the annals of NH education. And it was, too.) The two Romanians in particular saw this as bizarre.

I would not say out loud what I then knew to be true but was even less acceptable in conversation in the 80's and 90's: that genetic inheritance was the dominant factor anyway.

Government Budget Discussions

The commisioner of the Department of Health and Human Services for NH - who I understand is a very nice guy - held an information meeting for employees of the Division this week. What was drummed home was how hard they are trying to not lay people off and to keep up services during hard times. In this, they spent a fair bit of time on how poorly the state legislators understood our needs and our problems. All week we have been hearing grimly satisfied stories about how stupid they were when they came to visit, seeing the reality of what their decisions mean.

Commiserating was the order of the day, including the statements from the higher-ups who were clearly focused on the political happenings and what they meant for us. The problem, it is clearly implied, is those irritating legislators who don't really understand about mental health and how much it costs to do it right. There is a lot of talk about educating legislators, and calling them up and letting them know how you feel. (Note the last word of that sentence.)

I've been hearing this for over thirty years, and have another take. Why is it that it always takes these guys by surprise that the legislature doesn't know very much about what we do? Every two years we hear the same thing. Those darn poopie-headed legislators. If only they knew. I submit that it is irresponsible of the administrators not to take this into their calculations after this many repetitions. How is this an unexpected development?

Of course they don't know much about our field. Nor about tourism, infrastructure, schools, motor vehicles, or any of the hundred other things they have to make decisions on. This is what government is. There is no magical legislature somewhere where the people all get it about everything. This is a reality of life. They are never going to know a lot about the reality of any government department. They are mostly reasonably intelligent people who want to learn the most important things about each of the areas in order to make some sort of semi-informed decision. That is all they are ever going to be at best. Even under Obama, children. Even if you elect a 50% Democrat 50% Green legislature. They will just be uninformed but somewhat more sympathetic to you.

What we call educating the legislature is mostly an exercise in getting them to adopt our world-view about what's important. That's not their job. Repeat, that's not their job. If you can get a few of them to see it your way so they will vote how you like and maybe influence some other legislators, you still haven't educated them. You just have equally ill-informed people who you perceive as being on your side.

When government budgets get cut, all departments go into the zero-sum game of trying to show that what they do is more important. They hold rallies. They form action teams that call legislators or try to get news stories out. People who know people talk to other people behind the scenes. Horror stories (or veiled threats) of how terrible things will be if we can't do our job the way we want are darkly circulated. Then when the hard decisions have to be made, some other guys can be blamed for not understanding. What we who know the field will not do with a scalpel, someone who doesn't know the field comes in and does with an axe. And we complain - look, they used an axe and did stupid things. Quelle surprise.

Apparently, preserving our self-righteous feelings of how important we are, and how right our world-view is, is more important, when push comes to shove, than the job our agency does. (Never mind the importance of keeping the costs down for the people who pay for it.) We would rather stand proudly and insist to all the world how inhumane all this is, and refuse to go along with it, than be prepared to get as much work done for our customers under any circumstances. This accusation, BTW, I level more at those higher-up, who don't want to be considered in the same batch as those stupid, inhumance legislators. We lower down are pretty used to making due with whatever comes down the conveyor belt.

Do you want me to acknowledge the reality that citizens in general, and the legislature in specific, don't understand how expense mental health treatment is, and it would be great if folks knew? Sure. As an example, local hospitals keep trying to open Designated Receiving Facilities for mental health, because the amount of reimbursement they see getting per patient looks like easy money. They're sure they can cut costs better than any dumb old government agency. Then they open it and find that mental health care (or DD care, or elderly care) is far more labor-intensive than they thought and costs a lot. So they get out of that side of the business. It's very expensive. To do it right, it would cost us a lot more. Legitimate costs, not just crap like Wellness Fairs that I always complain about. Oh, if only people knew how expensive it was, we'd get more money. No, if people knew how expensive it really is they wouldn't think we could do everything for everyone and elect people who tell us we can, and still punish the mean old corporate money-makers who fund this whole enterprise. If the citizenry knew, they would say "Holy crap! We can't afford that unless we cut lots of other cool stuff that makes us feel good, plus let the economy go into Hong Kong-style freewheeling capitalism with lots of risks. Can't have that."