Monday, August 31, 2009

Modesty, Humility, Understatement

In my recent post Modesty II I discussed the cultural value of understatement being confused with Christian humility. They are not unrelated, but the overlap is not so great as some (okay, liberals) suppose. It occurs to me that this was one of the things happening in the library discussion I had about the book True Patriot, which I reviewed here. My main disputant, who is also a friend, kept insisting that the common displays of patriotism are not true patriotism. This is obvious enough, but he seemed to be going further, insinuating that they were a mark of shallow patriotism. He told a story about a previous co-worker who displayed Christian symbols quite obviously, but was a known womanizer. He was haranguing me a bit about how such applied to displays of patriotism as well.

That wolves can hide in sheep's clothing is fairly widely known. What would be the point of hiding in wolves' clothing, after all? But I can't see any point to bringing in his story unless he were claiming that characters in sheep's clothing are usually wolves. If he meant something milder, he would have told a different story. People eventually say what they mean if you let them go on long enough, don't they? Depending on the strength of the prejudice, there is a type of mind which leaps to the conclusion that sheep's clothing is anything from frequently to infallibly evidence of wolfishness. Which is insane, because real sheep do actually exist. Most creatures in sheep's clothing are, in strict point of fact, ovine.

Without trying to add to my Origins Of Liberalism series, I think I stumbled upon this additional bit. The deterioration of Christian humility into a cultural preference for understatement has been taken on by the Arts & Humanities clan as an indicator of virtue. Display equals hypocrisy. It's a tough idea to defend when you look at it out in the open like that.

Nuts, Charlotte Corday, and Jean-Paul Marat

That squirrel who hopped into the Minnesota couple's Canadian vacation is all over the web. Now there is The Squirrelizer, which puts him into any shot you choose.
I though Marat/Sade would be nice.

Okay, there's a problem here. The whole thing keeps disappearing. I'll have to upload it a different way.

Working Around The House

My granddaughter was by to visit while I was up on a ladder over the weekend. Similar things have happened several times. She is going to think of her grandfather as one of those old guys puttering around the house fixing things all the time, a characterization my children would find risible.

Knowing Less By Knowing More

One quarter of my genealogy, my maternal grandmother’s line, comes from the Lake Vattern area in Sweden: Ulricehamn, Fiskeback, Liared. Not being able to read Swedish, it’s easier to assume that people didn’t move much in that region before 1860 and my ancestors came from there oh, approximately forever. Another eighth looks Scots-Irish via SE New Hampshire, with some Puritans thrown in at times. The rest seems to be solidly Massachusetts Puritan, though some by way of Nova Scotia.

Until the 1980’s I just thought of that as “English,” from god-knows-where in the UK. I may have known that the surname “Wyman” suggested a remote Anglian or Saxon origin. But not until I read David Hackett Fisher’s Albion’s Seed did the larger picture come clear for me. East Anglia was the white-hot center of Puritan migration to New England, and by the very name of this area (the counties of Norfolk and Suffolk, sometimes Cambridge and Essex) one can tell it absorbed most of the Anglo-Saxon invasions beginning around 400AD.

Thus I pretty much assumed that most of my English lines would eventually run to ground in East Anglia, and more than half of those genes would at some point have transited what is now Schleswig-Holstein in Germany and the rest of the Danish peninsula (if any of the Jutes had worked their way into the mix). That’s not all that far from the Swedish bunch, if they were indeed in the area 1500 years ago, and so I came to regard those corners of the world –from London to The Wash for a millenium, from Vattern to Hamburg farther back – as being my regions of origin.

The actual genealogy, when we could trace it back to the UK at all, wasn’t cooperating with this theory. Counties like Bedfordshire, Lincoln, and Hertfordshire were bad enough. They were at least close. But Isle of Wight and Bristol showed up as well. Quakers on Cape Cod. I knew that a number of factors - non-paternity events, the odd Australian moving to Londonderry in the 1800’s, families up and moving miles away for reasons no longer known – made any one line vulnerable. Yet with gaps of the same type throughout the family tree, I reasoned most of them would fit the dominant pattern. Massachusetts Puritans equals Norfolk and Suffolk equals 50% Anglo-Saxon and Danes, the rest being Britons, and the occasional Frisian.

This theory has very little chance of being true, I find. Where I can’t find an immigrant ancestor on any line I check the surname prevalence and find that all those Crowells, Whittemores, Spinneys, Neats, Eatons, Doanes, and Larkins don’t tend to come from East Anglia. Any of them might have, but the trend is against it. The southern coast of England, from Cornwall to Kent seems to have the highest concentration of those names. As Hampshire and Wiltshire are also represented, some connection to my favorite areas of Avebury and Watership Down are also possible. Those areas had their Saxons – Wessex and all that – but not nearly so many.

One teeny line way back goes through Norfolk, another through Suffolk. A few around Cambridge. That’s the whole East Anglian DNA census at present.

Furthermore, I learn from Bryan Sykes Saxons, Vikings, and Celts that the tribes which gave us our language, the Normans and the Anglo-Saxons, didn’t give us their genes as well. Less than 25%, actually, and a lot of that on the East coast of England. The rest are from the original Britons, who like the Picts and Gaels, were Celts and had been in the UK for thousands of years.

It’s a theory much more boring, but at least more likely.

Checks And Balances

Obama opponents have been legitimately worried about vote-manufacturing via ineligible voters. A few census estimates here, a few out-of-district busloads there, it all adds up. Not so much as to change the face of the universe, but perhaps enough to move a close election. Whether this actually results in many votes or changes any elections remains to be seen – and we may have some measurements coming out of the 2010 Congressional elections. But the next test will be more interesting. The presidential primaries (and caucuses) will be the next round of elections. Obama was skilled at dominating the caucuses with trained advocates on the ground in every location. He did less well with actual elections.

He will have to run against other Democrats first. Running against an incumbent of your own party may be political suicide, but if Obama’s numbers stay low, not running against him might be mass suicide for the Dems. I have admitted many times before that I am not good at the horse-race stuff of politics. Whether Obama would face more challenge from the far left in his party – fewer in number but more committed – or from a bluish dog, I can’t say. But if there is major chicanery, he’ll have to get it past his own party first.

Could be interesting.


Never eat at a place called Mom’s, play cards with a man named Doc, or date a woman named Caprice.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Farewell To The Bert Lahr Of The Senate

Modesty II

There was strong social sanction against bragging or even implied arrogance in my family. You would never say you were the smartest person in the class, or the most popular - you waited for someone else to say it about you, at which point you would demur, noting several other people who were smart or popular. Other people's ideas were not to be rejected right back at them, if offered in the proper spirit. Something good must be found in your companion's idea, and attempts at accommodation must be made. There were layers of exception to this, such as male banter allowing extreme insult as an expression of bonding and affection. Yeah, let's go drink beer up there and get chased through the woods by the cops again and you can leave me for dead while you save your sorry ass. Great idea. There is also a Yankee tradition of deflating showoffs with wry comments, which may not even sink in until you are gone. I have wondered if it is a northern European, especially Scandinavian Lutheran thing. Or whether it is a value most intense in New England. Or just good manners nationwide.

Don't toot your own horn. Bragging is unseemly. Pride goeth before a fall. Sit at the lower place and wait to be called to a higher. Display is in itself suspect. The arrogant are tempting the Fates to bring them down.

It is a good enough value, but it like all virtues, it carries its opposite vice in its bosom. People brought up with this learn to quietly congratulate themselves about how humble they are. And, congratulate each other how modest they all are, not like those braggarts from the wrong side of the tracks. They learn to hint and angle for compliments, to disguise their self-promotion, to show mild disdain - in tones that speak volumes to those in the know - for others. Wearing religious jewelry, except perhaps a teeny cross necklace, is taken as a sign that one is in fact not religious. Only the falsely religious make a show of it, dear. T-shirts with flags? Uggh. Perhaps a tie pin, or a small lapel pin if one is a veteran, but no more than that. Such displays brand you as some false patriot, a hypocrite.

It is pretty easy to see that this is a value of taste, making understatement in itself a virtue. Well, it's easy for everyone else to see this. Those enslaved to this particular god don't see it themselves, of course. They see only that those others must be hypocrites, because they have offended against good taste. This is Value Central for the Arts & Humanities Tribe.

How this starts to impact one's political, social, and religious beliefs should be abundantly clear. If anyone says that America is the world's greatest nation, they must be taken down a peg. Taking Americans down a peg is perhaps the first goal of European elites, and they would do it even more if it didn't cost them so much.

In the 60's and 70's it was thought to be very closed-minded to believe that there was nothing good to say about the USSR. One might believe that democracy and America were generally better, but it was the mark of a boor, an unthinking jingoist, to write off half the world - an entire political system as being valueless. Such extremity couldn't possibly be true, and thus those others who saw value in alternative ideas must be the open-minded ones, the thinking ones, the balanced ones.

You can see for yourself how well this false dichotomy was played in growing the ranks of liberals. If you say that the free market is much better than socialism, you must really mean that the free market is perfect, and results in no problems. Therefore you are an immodest boor who can't be correct. If you say that America is the greatest nation, it is just code for saying that Europeans and Latin Americans and Orientals have no value at all, and that all their customs, foods, and art are worthless. But liberals love foreign food and foreign art - it is their mark of how sophisticated and open-minded they are. So you must be stupid, unwilling to make the slightest effort to learn from other countries.

In its earlier stages it is merely irritating, requiring that one makes proper obeisance to the negative things about Christianity, or America, or the free market, or any other institutions of the west. Wishing to make reference to the settlement of America, some demurrer about slavery or Native Americans or the rights of women must be mentioned at every turn or one will be upbraided. Reference to the Christology of the church in the Early Middle Ages must include incantations about the Crusades, doctrinal rigidity, and the Inquisition. It is not only tiring, but effectively dictates what can and cannot be discussed. It blurs the focus of intellectual discussion, so that everything might be dragged back into the disputant's preferred narrative of oppression and exploitation. Did the Puritans and natives of Massachusetts Bay get along better for 50 years than the European tribes and local Indian tribes got along with each other? No matter. Lord Amherst approved giving smallpox blankets to the Indians a century later, proving we were just evil, don't ya know. And we didn't respect Native American religious beliefs either.

This irritation, given full rein, eventually poisons and polarizes all discussion. In the end, one can't make enough obeisance or recite enough incantations to obtain a platform. The opposite extreme, which sees only the oppression and exploitation can then rule unchallenged. Thus does the virtue of modesty devour itself, swelling into ever-greater arrogance.

When I state this so emphatically, I will easily be accused of exaggerating. Put so baldly, good liberals will insist that they of course don't mean any such thing, and that it is I engaging in the false dichotomy. I wish that were true, because the national discussion would get on better if it were. I would love to say I am just going over-the-top to make a point. But people actually write and say these things all the time. I get into discussions about historical, social, or religious issues all the time. Whenever a liberal hits the conversation, the proper bows must be made to one god or another of political correctness, at the beginning; after each positive point about the virtues of the west; and finally in benediction as well.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Best of May 2006

Four posts about how Boomer political fashions eventually became their religious beliefs: That 60's theology; that 70's show; Jim Wallis in Sunday School; and related bit about the superstition of socialism, Step on a Crack.

Two posts on theology neither right nor left, Labora Est Ora and another about extremely long life.

My fun times at Diversity Training.

Boy Names and Girl Names

Advice on child-rearing, much of which I learned a little late. Playing Defense Against Your Children.

What's the Real World, anyway?

And defending American children against all those criticisms about how stupid they are. Including good things about McDonald's and bad things about service in Europe.


Several conservative blogs I frequent have had comments sections burning over in fury about Ted Kennedy. No need to list why - you already know the things he did. Within the same threads others, equally conservative, have had less invective, choosing to comment more on what the Democrats are making of his death. Some object to the sappy hagiography of a deeply flawed individual. Others analyse why he was so iconic to the left.

A third group, also conservative, strives to be as gracious as they can. I understand all three groups but lean emotionally more to that last group. It seems polite. Don't speak ill of the dead. As a typically blunt person, perhaps it seems odd that I should tend to this last category. It seems odd even to me, so I have tried to piece together where this attitude comes from. Why would we consider it simple politeness to behave this way. It is not as if such a rule were universal in our society - it certainly has not been on the left in the last decades.

It seems an older value, a politeness more common in an earlier era. Is it also regional, more a New England thing? Is it even more ancient, left over from superstitious times when people feared that the recently dead were more of a danger, until they were finally put to rest on All Hallow's Eve? Did it hang on longer on places with stable populations, where memories were long and grudges held?

I relate it to the New England virtue of modesty, where one does not make a scene; one does not brag; one does not discuss how much you make or how much expensive things cost; one's religious beliefs are not advertised to an admiring bog. I can't make a solid intellectual connection, but these things seem related in my mind and I cannot fully shed them even when I disagree with them.

The entire concept of modesty set me thinking in other directions, one of which I will develop as an addition to my series on the origins of liberal values. But for now, I am most concerned with this one value of not speaking ill of the dead. Is it an archaic value that we should allow to fall out of fashion, or is it intimately tied up with other whole packages of virtue?

Where You Come From

A series of reasonable probabilities chained together often creates an improbability of result. However much we were taught this in math class – that 90% times 90% times 90%… very rapidly becomes a less than 50-50 chance – we resist the concept. We like to apply it to history, social policy, and why our relatives act the way they do. Just about everything. If Churchill hadn't mentioned that day...

This becomes a touch humorous when discussing genealogy. The general rule is that 5-10% of births every generation are “non-paternity events.” That is, the father of record is not the actual father. If you trace your line back and keep track of how many males you had to trace through to get to a particular person, after about 6 guys you are talking about folks who have a less than 50% chance of being a blood ancestor. 12 guys, 20%.

The worse news in this is that the surname line, which is by definition father to son and the one which folks are most interested in, is thus the most fragile genealogically. We are fond of saying things like “Well, we Wallaces came from Ayrshire in Scotland, mostly, so…” Yeah. Ancestors last in Scotland in the 17th C, via Ulster in the 18thC? Sorry Douglas, you might not be a Wallace. You might still be a Scot, of course, as they were the bulk of who would have been around for those non-paternity events.

The mother to daughter line, hardest to trace, is of course more reliable because even when the occasional mother or sister gets “credited” with a birth, it goes back into that line in a generation anyway. True, there are always unrecorded events of early widowhood and remarriage that obscure the biological line, but it’s still way better than the male percentage. You get some extra advantage if you are tracing back through heavily Puritan lines, or Cohen lines in Jewish heritage, because there’s evidence that they were down even below that 5% line. Everyone else, plan on 10%.

I’m sorry to insult your ancestors like this and knock the stuffing out of your DAR line, but that’s just the statistical reality.

As DNA evidence improves, we begin to be able to track a little better. In every surname line there seems to be numerically dominant genetic group which would have the strongest, though not indisputable claim to be the father-to-son surname line. There are usually a few other large lines, suggesting that those nonpaternity events occurred in the comfortably distant past, so you can at least claim your family has been Harrisons for several centuries (though not the Original Harrison).

We got lucky in our surname evidence. A picture of my great-grandfather Charlie Wyman in Nova Scotia looks enough like me, and even more like my brother, that we can safely start counting our six males back from there. And a good thing for future generations, actually. Though anyone who spent 10 minutes with my Dad and any of his sons would be overwhelmed by the resemblance of gesture and personality (even though two of us did not grow up under him), looking at a photograph wouldn’t give you much indication we were related. None of us looked like his father either, until the last year or so, when I started seeing him in the mirror. (You guys are next). But tentative conclusions I had reached about my general ancestry I am rethinking. My confidence in having a fair number of East Anglian forebears has waned recently. I doubt that many of you will be interested in the specifics of that reasoning unless one of the surnames jumps out at you as one in your own family tree; the reasoning itself and the collateral information may be of some interest. I’ll likely write that up over the weekend.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A Need To Believe

The believe arose in the 20th C that primitive man was more peaceful than modern man, and that modern hunter-gatherer tribes, with exceptions, engaged in mostly low-level or ritualized combat. The 18th and 19th C stories of cannibalism in the New World were progressively discarded as exaggerated tales told by enemies. Our remote ancestors may have lived dangerous lives, but it was more often large animals that supplied the danger and kept them always ready with the spear.

More interestingly, as evidence of the continual warfare, cannibalism, and gory violence of both prehistoric man and current foraging societies piled up, it has been resisted in more and more strident tones. Anthropologists seem not to want to abandon the idea of man at peace with nature.

It's pretty easily traced to Rousseau's Noble Savage, plus a long string of European thinkers who noted the exploitation and violence of "civilised" man and saw it as something new. The imagined agrarian and pastoral utopias seemed to drive us to these edenic dreams. The concentrated carnage of two world wars and a hundred 20th C tyrants quite naturally suggested to kindly minds that there must be a better way, and that way lay in the opposite direction of technology and organisation. There may have also been guilt by Europeans around the exploitation and elimination of native tribes around the world, and a desire to disassociate oneself from the guilt by identifying with the superiority of the victims' culture.

But now we know. Many New World tribes practiced cannibalism. Modern hunter-gatherer tribes may engage in only low level warfare, but they do it continually enough that 0.5% of their populations are killed by warfare each year. That would be 30,000,000 people a year killed in war worldwide each year if that percentage held for the planet as a whole. Archaeological evidence suggests that early man suffered similar losses. The elaborate armor and large numbers of copper and bronze axes were held to be status symbols and forms of money. When 5000 y/o Otzi was discovered in the Alps in 1991, he was armed to the teeth, but anthropologists speculated that he was a shepherd who had fallen asleep on a trading mission and died peacefully. When X-Rays revealed an arrowhead embedded in Otzi's chest, archaeologist Lawrence Keeley noted wryly that if his suspiciously hafted axehead were his money, then "his dagger, a bow and some arrows were presumably his small change." A mead deal gone bad, eh?

Something similar happened to anthropologists about sexual mores, most notably when Margaret Mead's Coming of Age in Samoa came upon the scene. The need to believe that other societies were more sexually casual in contrast to rigid Western morality was powerful, and paralleled much psychoanalytic work in its conclusions. Mead and Freud are greatly undermined, if not outright discredited these days, and perhaps it is unfair to hold them especially responsible. The culture wanted to go in that direction, and so took what it liked from Maggie and Siggy and disregarded other writings of theirs which were less congenial to the age.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Shelby Steele

From Sigmund Carl and Alfred, via Maggie's.

Shelby Steele's essay captures something important, a refinement of an idea that has been hanging around for some time. Minorities are alienated from conservatives not so much on the basis of active discrimination, but because liberals looking like they care about them and go out of their way to try things they think might help. That the things liberals do for minorities range from useless to damaging does not count as much as the appearance of caring. Conservatives, whose very message speaks toward hope through self-reliance rather than group identity, has little it can counter with in that sphere. We know this is what works and will lead to greater freedom. We believe that should be enough, and shading that toward a specifically ethnic or racial appeal would undermine the basic premise.

Candidates, writers, and speakers who aim for redemption, of making up for or at least caring about past injustices, plus those which may continue, resonate strongly with minorities, particularly African-Americans.

Conservatives think this is hypocrisy calculated for votes at worst, and annoyingly useless at best.

Steele says it better.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Handling Bats

Over at Maggie's, Roy Lofquist has a solution in the comments about dealing with bats who are in wrong places - such as your house, for example. Spritz 'em with water and they're easier to catch and move.

I don't have to do this often, twice in my life, maybe, but it's a nice strategy to keep on hand.

Coffee Stains

We used to play a car game when the children were young. What is Mom's favorite song? What is Jonathan's favorite food? We would each guess, and then be given the correct answer by the referenced person. One episode became legendary in the family, when the question was What is Dad's favorite color? and Ben, likely about seven, answered with a snigger "White, with coffee stains." Ouch.

My oldest son turned 30 today and spilled coffee. I am 30% amused by this and 70% wincing in embarrassment and having bequeathed this life to him.


In honor of my third son's fiancee considering him insensitive - which he doesn't know yet, and he doesn't read this blog so I'm not worried about mentioning it - I link to the story of Roger and Elaine, perhaps the best thing Dave Barry has ever written.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Judd Gregg Pie Chart

The Union Leader had a front page picture of Judd Gregg illustrating who, exactly, are those 47 M uninsured. It looked like a pretty good chart, so I went looking for it.

Judd Gregg for President, 2012

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Dog Ate His Homework, Apparently.

Carl over at No Oil For Pacifists does the simple research that the interviewed expert couldn't be bothered with. Let's bet that this won't stop Dr. Avorn from pontificating on the subject, though.

Interestingly, doctors are among the most irritated by pharmaceutical companies, and it seems directly tied to their disdain for the marketing. There is an assumption that medicine-makers should be devoted entirely to getting the best medicine to the patient, as they themselves theoretically are. A noble ideal, but I'm not sure it would lead to the continued medical improvements we count on.


Another amazing time, .11 off his own record. For comparison, if Carl Lewis setting the record in 1983 were in the race, he would not even be in this picture.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Best of April 2006

This going to take forever.

I did a series on Faux Logic: Four Parts of it are here

My pictures from Budapest, including the interior of Matthias Church (click to expand). Others under April 2006 on the sidebar. Relatedly an update on Dragostea Din Tei (the Numa-Numa Song), which I still love. A better video here.

My idea of sending our poor people on vacations to poorer countries, and another original idea about birthrates and being a victim or an oppressor nation.

A combined political and linguistics post about the term nazi.

Mildly humorous rants about prophecy, addiction to advocacy, and Jimmy "Birdhouse" Carter.

More seriously. The Last Gift of Mary Magdalene.

Thoughts on the Duality of Islam and Perpetual Life.

And Always and Never.

Violence: False Positives

Glenn Reynolds links to Josh Marshall's essay at Talking Points Memo, where Marshall claims the political right has a deep-seated problem with violence. My first thought was "Yeah, so deep-seated that we haven't seen it for decades," reacting off the amount of public violence we have seen from the right. In further contrast, I was remembering that the FBI considers eco-terrorism the primary domestic threat in America, with $200M in damages.

But other people can go on at length on such issues. I should bring what I know about myself, that others do not.

I know these people, whether left or right - or at least I know the ones from NH. I have worked in acute psychiatric emergencies most of my 30 years at the state psychiatric hospital. I know people willing to be violent on behalf of their causes, real or imagined. I know people who have been violent on behalf of their causes.

I am not any national expert, nor have I done any scientific research in the area. I have only observations, reflecting my own biases (well to the left when I started, well to the right now). But scanning my memory, I am speaking from a familiarity with about four dozen individuals, a few of which have made the national news. In general, these folks are unclassifiable politically, as they are mixed in many ways. Given that limitation, I think that those on the right tend to hole up with weapons, believing themselves under attack, while those on the left tend more to strike outward, seeking to create a splashy situation. I won't guess what that means for more normal folks, if anything.

But Marshall's comment sets up another line of thought for me: who are each of us afraid of?. He minimizes the violence on the left, referring to "animal rights activists who freed a bunch of gerbils." He perceives no danger from the left, perhaps because he himself is not in danger from Black Panthers or union thugs. Similarly, those on the right may not perceive much danger from rightists bringing guns to health care town halls, figuring they are unlikely to be targets themselves. Josh Marshall, OTOH, may worry that he could be a target.

Fair enough. Our impression of personal danger may overwhelm our objectivity in such matters. We may all unconsciously realize what groups we are unlikely to run afoul of if we just live our normal lives, and regard them as relatively safe. Those from the other side of the ledger, who we can plausibly imagine being across the line from in a counter-protest situation, we might find much more spooky and unbalanced.

Here's the bad news: it doesn't work that way with unbalanced or sociopathic people. Think Lenin and Trotsky, or Sunnis Vs. Shi'ites. Nutcases are fully capable of turning their homicidal natures on those around them before those who are most opposed to them. We focus our impressions of who is dangerous because that is what our instincts tell us to do for safety. Beset by dangers, we try to identify the primary one. But our instincts are not designed well for that purpose, so we make up plausible stories to quiet our fears. These stories are usually wrong. We are seeking rational explanations for irrational behavior.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Character Issues

Inspired by a post at neo's I remind you of the character issues, not policy leanings, Obama ran on.
No more blaming
Not accepting federal campaign funds
The people, not lobbyists and special interests
Posting legislation online for examination
Listening to others

He has not merely fallen short on these categories. He is closer to their opposites.

Contract II - Step I

The Republicans need something along the lines of the 1994 Contract with America for the 2010 elections. This is not only to have something to offer disaffected Democrats and Independents, but to keep their own focus, and to give us something to hold them accountable for.

To review, the CWA was several things last time - some procedural changes in Congress, plus some specific legislative goals. Examples of the former would include requiring a 3/5 majority for tax increases, zero baseline budgeting, and term limits for committee chairs. The legislative proposals included legislator term limits, balanced budget, and SS reform. The complete list of both parts can be dug up pretty easily with a search engine.

There were two main problems, one of appearance and one of reality. Though the Contract signatories had only promised to get all these items to the House and Senate floor for debate and vote, there was nonetheless a widespread impression that they had promised to make all these things happen. The House largely did its job in this, and passed a lot of the items as well. Many of these died in the Senate or were vetoed by Bill Clinton. The Senate, you may recall, including many Republicans, took the view that they didn't want to make changes too quickly, and wanted to slow them down and consider things. This was ultimately the heart of the erosion of support for Republicans over the next decade. And despite the rhetoric of revolution, the GOP never had strong majorities even then. As not all Republicans are conservative, conservatives never had a majority in either house.

The second problem was more substantive, but less noticed. A lot of Republicans gradually went native in DC, passing budget increases and doling out pork. A minority stuck to their guns throughout, and they remain largely unthanked by American conservatives. They fought the long twilight struggle against most Democrats, some Republicans, and most of the media.

Frankly, I wouldn't mind if we just took the 1994 package and tried it again. There's some pretty good stuff in there. But if Contract II has only partial overlap, and includes some things more current, that's fine too. I ask only that we all keep focus that the first aim is to bring the key requests of the people up to the floor of both houses for debate and vote. We are so far in the hole at this point that passing any major reform is likely to be beyond legislative capability - particularly with presidential vetoes in play.

But we can air out the debate and take names. Contract II - Step I

Monday, August 17, 2009

Sisters & Daughters

A warm, honest article by Robert Miola in First Things. Though a professor of Early Modern Catholicism at Loyola, he had some difficulties watching his daughters enter convents.
But then, in 2005, I find myself saying with dismay, “You can’t be serious.” Another daughter, Rachel this time, looks at me with deep blue eyes. Her lip quivers. Robert Kaske’s book of medieval sources, my gift to her before she heads to graduate school at Notre Dame, sits on the table, already a relic from another dispensation.

“You are wholly different from Chrissy and wholly unfit for that life,” I insist. “She loves rules and you can’t stand them. You were a feminist at the University of Chicago, and this is a life of submission and obedience.”

She struggles to remain calm. “It’s not a matter of rules or my sister. It’s not even a matter of who I am, and, I’m not sure you know me anymore anyway. Don’t you trust that I have thought about this at length?” Her temperature rises. “Do you really want to argue with joy now and the hope of eternal life later?” she says sharply.

Death Panels

The phrase seems overwrought to me. There seems to be an element of using this club because it’s effective, not because it’s strictly accurate. Let me tell you how this would have worked. There would be lots of forms involved. Doctors, or designees of the social work type, would have a discussion with you. They would have a form in front of them that tells them what must be included in the discussion. They would tell you about your rights – you would have to sign for that, both for your rights in general, plus any specific rights deemed important enough to be mentioned specifically. You would sign for those extra. Then this social worky person would ask you what your choices are, probably in checklist style, to make sure nothing gets left out.

It’s well meant. One of the cost-drivers in medicine is people in end-of-life situations who haven’t told us what they wanted. There is obviously some hope that if we find out what everyone wants, some of them will let the system off the hook on keeping them alive. There’s not an especial initial need to see this as the government scrounging around for grampies they can unplug. They’re just hoping to find some grampies who would prefer to be unplugged early. I would be one of those grampies, for example.

The problem is going to be in how this plays out over time. With added permission to withhold treatment, Holland has found that 8% of the time, doctors didn’t really have any permission from anyone to pull the plug, they just thought it best. Doctors don’t really look at your life and your body the way that you do. They will see some things more clearly than their patients, but unavoidably, their own view, individual or collective, of what kind of life is worth living will steer their hand.

Would there be any unintentional pressure to convince you to reduce care? It wouldn’t have to be a cartoonish “Now Barbara, you wouldn’t want us to have to go to ridiculous lengths, would you?” It could be just a mild social pressure for everyone to scale back a bit.

It not only could be that, it would be that. Who in the system is going to encourage you to ratchet up the care you require? What our society considers to be the default settings would steadily drop.

So we would see 1) an increase in the number of people whose wishes we know. That’s a good thing. We would also see 2) an increase in the people we let go. That’s a natural consequence of 1), but more mixed. It will fairly rapidly lower the threshold of what the society thinks is the range of “proper” things to do. People who want support withdrawn quickly will gradually be seen as having having made the right decision, those who want heroic measures as having sucked up resources unfairly. Like all social changes, the argument will not be in the realm of “unplug granny, we want to go to Cancun,” but at the margins. We will drift toward greater acceptance of the idea that old folks shouldn’t want to use up resources. They should want to sign out sooner. I understand that. It’s how I feel about myself – but I feel less strongly about that when it’s my wife or my children I’m talking about.

How far will those slopes slip? I refer to both the doctors’ slope and yours. Maybe it is where we want to go. Maybe previous life expectancies were more natural.

Whether it is irony, paradox, or fortuitous that this is occurring just as we are on the verge of medical discoveries which will extend life greatly I can’t say. The two forces together would seem to be driving us toward a world in which we have much more say about when our life is to end, about what is a life worth living. Emphasis on “seem.” The social consensus will make it more difficult for individuals to make truly free choices. Which is true about most things anyway. How far will that slope slip?

I don’t think character necessarily improves with age, at least not indefinitely. We don’t know what personality changes go with transitioning from being an active nonagenarian to active centurian and beyond. What if some attitudes that I already see growing in myself in my 50’s – irritability, impatience, wanting to narrow my field of face-to-face contacts – continue over the decades, regardless of physical health? What if I am greedy for more life and increasingly don’t care what effect I have on others?

One additional thing. We think certain limitations on our lives would be unendurable, but when we get there, we find they are endurable and we want to go on living. Which view is more valid, when we were 72 and said “such-and-such would be no life at all, put me away,” or the thought at 82 that “it’s not so bad after all, I’ll keep going, thanks.”

Here’s an interesting thought-piece on bioethics. Ignore the fact that Rawls and Wassuna are referred to approvingly.

Broadly Speaking

In broad strokes, the Christian who is a political conservative would say, “We are commanded to care for the poor, especially our own poor, but Jesus in no way specifies the government as the agent. There is no gospel command that Christians should be making their governments do anything.”

The Christian who is a political liberal would counter “But we weren’t in any position of power then. In our culture, the individual Christian and the institutional churches have some influence. We are responsible for influencing our society be as just and generous as possible.”

To which I reply, “It’s a trap. See with what easy invisibility influencing our society becomes government, plus some spare change”. To use the questioning style from the chapter summaries of textbooks “What has happened to the church in the countries which have done this? Why do you think this is?”

Sunday, August 16, 2009


An absolutely amazing time

Comment Inspired

David's comment under Fashion Statement inspired this.

As I recall, they had a song, too. Maybe that's the problem. Maybe our side needs protest songs. Would "On a Bicycle Built For Two" be too subtle? Does anyone actually know "Brother Can You Spare A Dime?" How about "The Times They Are A-Changin'?"
Come Senators, Congressmen please heed the call
Don't stand in the doorway don't block up the hall
For he that gets hurt will be he who has stalled
There's a battle outside and it's ragin'
It'll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin'

Can you dig it?

Church Camp

Kyle had never been to church camp before. Fits in pretty well, I'd say. The sound of middle-school girls saying hiiii Kyyyle causes me to shake my head at this point. We're trying to find somewhere that he doesn't fit in right away, figuring it will be good for his character. We may have to drop him off somewhere he doesn't speak the language to accomplish that.

Political Archetype

Reading Booker's discussion of archetype, I was struck by how much played out in the last presidential election. Robin Hood was a half-Norman, half-Saxon hero who (supposedly) robbed from the rich to give to the poor. He didn't really, as his gig was more in the line of general outlawry and harrying the Norman overlords (hmm, maybe there's something in that line of thought). But it has a real Obama feel to it, dunnit? McCain, OTOH, had been in the dungeons of the monster and was a proven old warrior. A lot of Obama's support seemed predicated on the almost mystic idea that "it's time," and his youthful, Luke Skywalker greatness was destined to step into leadership. Complaints that he had no experience were dismissed as people just not getting it. He comes out of obscure origins, too, another plus in those plots. Obama's own comments suggest this Kwisatz Haderach view of himself, uniting the races, bridging the understanding between the elites and the regular guy, tying together the capitalist and the socialist, the East and the West, the Christian and the secular, just by showing up and being himself. Beer summits for all.

I suspect such archetypes always linger beneath the surface in all our election decisions. But this one seems to have been particularly problematic.

Fashion Statement

I have called liberalism a social rather than intellectual viewpoint, but usually refrain from going all the way with that and calling it a fashion statement.

This is in part because for many this is untrue, or at least an exaggeration. Yet I remain convinced that the fashion statement aspect of liberalism is seriously neglected as an avenue of understanding. This Washington Post article that Insty links to is a quite blatant example. If liberals don't want the accusation, they should stop giving us so much ammo.

Following that line of thought, and remembering that "it's not how you dress, it's how you accessorize," notice that certain items, like diaper bags and firearms, are just not going to go with any good outfit. What other things occur to you as politics symbolized by accoutrement?

Hey, you can turn that on conservatives if you want, too.

Saturday, August 15, 2009


I have no skill in predicting social and political outcomes. But I have to think that long term, it has got to be bad for African-Americans when white liberals complain that it's racist every time they don't get their way. Who do progressives think is going to be blamed for misuse and overuse of the tactic?

It's infuriating to watch injustice play out.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Mailing List

Commenter akafred is head of a nonprofit Life For Sudan. He recently got two emails from David Axelrod about Obama's health care proposals, setting out what the White House feels are the facts to counter misinformation about the proposed legislation and the surrounding discussion on health care reform. I understand a number of these emails have gone out, not from the DNC or some PAC, but from the White House itself - from the government.

Life For Sudan did not contribute to Obama or any candidate, nor is it on some collection of mailing lists of people who might be sympathetic to the administration's ideas. Even if it were, it would be improper for the White House to use or purchase such a list to put out its side of the story as something coming from the government. There is a a line dividing what an administration can do as advocacy versus what it can do as government. Imagine if George Bush has sent out an email giving reasons for the Surge to all military families, or defense contractors. Yet this is the same thing, except Obama has actually done it. The source for the White House must be the government registry of nonprofits, a group they rightly or wrongly believe might be on board with their ideas.

Obama is using government information to campaign for his ideas. We saw this occasionally under the Clinton administration. It comes from the attitude that "this is good for the country, so we can use the government's resources to accomplish it. It's not unethical, because it's in a good cause."

My recollection is that this was what horrified liberals most about the Nixon Administration, that he equated his election with what was good for the country, allowing him to use the machinery of government to accomplish partisan goals. It takes a Nixonian hubris to think like that - which perhaps is the Democratic norm these days.

Perhaps there is some other explanation which will be uncovered in the next few days which is more innocent. At the moment, it looks very much like a misuse of government resources to advocate for one side in a legislative discussion.

The Richmond 12

On the non back-roads of SW NH, Rte's 119 and 32, I saw many signs reading "We support the Richmond 12." I'd never heard of them. I leaped to the conclusion that this was some tax or libertarian group run afoul of the authorities. I was completely wrong. The Richmond 12 are volunteer officers of the Town of Richmond who are being sued by the Saint Benedict Center, a schismatic Catholic group rejected by the Vatican. The SBC wants to put up a large building, and is not shy about its aims to "make Richmond holy." That word make bothers me a bit. There is a three-page article from the Southern Poverty Law Center that sums up the issues pretty well. The SBC are Feeneyites one of those groups that keeps trying to go back upstream in Catholic dogma, not merely to an earlier time, but up some tributaries that are part of Catholic history, but not Catholic teaching. We Protestants have our own versions of same, of course.

The above link on the Feeneyites seems to be from a local boy. Good on ya, mate.


I am finding this less fascinating as I go along. Back roads in the daytime start to look as alike as interstates after dark after awhile, except where they turn into Class VI roads and become undercarriage nemeses. I have long been fascinated by looking at road maps and trying my hand at getting places a new way, or exploring an area I am staying in for a few days.

Google maps at least indicates with vague shading when a road might be substandard; mapquest does not. Delorme gazetteers, which burned me years ago with Old Antrim Rd, almost suckered me in with Rabbit Hollow Rd.

Yes, I should be immediately suspicious of anything named "Rabbit Hollow Rd," but in NH, such things can still be the best road between two points.

You can tell an old road by the aged trees coming right up to the side of it, and in New Hampshire, by the stone walls on both sides. The moss and lichen on the stones are an additional clue, if you need one. I found that both Rabbit Hollow Rd and Talbot Hill Rd were prime thoroughfares a hundred years ago.

I also went through the Franconia Range, which is nowhere near Franconia - which has actual mountains - and Scotland, NH, which is clearly still swamp Yankee territory two hundred and fifty years after its founding by those Scots-Irish who also settled Appalachia. (And you can tell.) All this to find a back way to Rte 78, a Massachusetts highway that creeps over the border to end ingloriously in NH. I had never been on it. I doubt I'll need to see more of it.

Worcester Lunch Car Diners

Backroading around SW New Hampshire - the West Coast of the state in more ways than one - I stopped for lunch at the Mt. Pisgah Diner. Hamburger with mushrooms and bacon, glass of juice, cup of coffee, out for under $7, including tip. The menu stated that the structure is a "Worcester Diner" from the 1930's. I have been to a lot of NH's diners, but I had never noticed such a reference before.

The Worcester Lunch Car Company, now defunct, built about 600 railroad-car shaped diners in the 30's and 40's, scattered all over the country, but mostly in New England. Those who are up on diner history apparently regard these as important historic items.

Images and more info.

Against the Commonly-Held Belief

One thing I did pick up from Booker's sweep through many literatures is that the myth of American focus on self-reliance rather than the community is just false. Self-reliance as a key to adulthood is universal in literature. Americans, in fact, are more likely to put a sidekick along with the hero. The English take this a step further by putting a whole cast of characters into the adventure, from Robin Hood's band to Watership Down. So they can point fingers a bit, but not others.

Westerns are what folks usually point to when making this point about the American obsession with the lone here. But the same archetypal stories from The Odyssey onward were set wherever it was plausible there could be an adventure - in far lands, not at the corner store. The American West was the most plausible setting for adventures at the time. Now it's space. Europeans, especially the English, used the sea or Africa for the same purposes.

There will be more to follow on all this. Booker's writing certainly provoked thought, even when I disagreed.

Book Warning

I recommended The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker a few weeks ago, after having read about 150 pages. With unfortunate prescience, I wondered whether it would change at around page 200 and I would unrecommmend it.

I still recommend it, but with warnings. It does change at about page 200. After setting out how the standard archetypes fit into the seven basic plots - dark feminine, light rival, Wise Old Man, all that - it rings all the changes (to use a favorite campanological phrase of mine) for the next 150. Do you wish to find an example of the hero rejecting the light anima in the Quest plot? It's here. It becomes clear that Booker's intent is to ram home the idea that proper use of the archetypes are what make literature satisfying and whole. He does as thorough and as good a job of this as any I have read.

He makes one enormous omission throughout the book. He focuses entirely on the hero or heroine coming to balance and adulthood by accepting or incorporating both the masculine (strength, order) and feminine (empathy, intuitive whole) virtues into their personalities. The other great set of archetypes, which relate to the scapegoat and sacrifice, he neglects almost entirely. He simply doesn't see these as key. As a consequence, he misses the point of some stories entirely, cramming them badly into his anima/animus framing. I noticed, as other Christian readers might, that he misses the point of Biblical stories and Christian works especially. He provides stunning insights into these stories, then walks blindly by great hulking gobs of archetype that don't fit his pattern. He is emphatically but incompletely Jungian in his interpretations and psychology.

But all is not lost. Booker traces an interesting literary starting with the Romantics, showing how western storytelling has gone all wrong in the last 200 years, tracing its decline. If anyone would be sympathetic audience to the idea that our thinking has gone off the rails since 1800, it would be I; but CB doesn't make the case, even to me. He provides an enormous amount of evidence for his case, and displays remarkable insight, but doesn't close the deal. If you want to get an efficient precis of film, opera, novel, and theater plots, this is as good a summary as any. I can now pretend I have read about 100 more books because of Booker.

All this is setup to what may be Booker's secret aim, a hundred-page rant about the deterioration of story in the 20th C, with particular attention to the intentionally transgressive books, films, and plays.

And a glorious fine rant it is, too. His editors apparently gave up the struggle at this point, as Booker includes sputtering incendiary points flying off from the main thread every few paragraphs. Beautiful, some of them, though they flash and die, igniting nothing.

I gave up entirely at page 600. Whatever brilliance he added after this I will just have to do without.

Happy Anniversary

Happy Anniversary to Mom and Dad. 33 years ago, they started it all. They have been a wonderful example of marriage for all of us boys.

the boys

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Why waste your time in medical school?

When you can become a doctor just by saying it? Me, I'm going to perform gallbladder surgery this evening. Can't be that hard.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

The Hero Obscured

Just a thought before I go. Booker's The Seven Basic Plots, which I am enjoying so much, and hope to finish over vacation has a repeated observation common to many of the basic plots: The hero or heroine obscured. From the comedies where one of the parties is disguised or mistaken for someone else to the heroic tales where the seemingly unimportant figure turns out to be the king or the long-lost princess in the end, the hero obscured must be enormously important to us psychologically.

Other variations include a character with amnesia, or in the grip of an obsession which makes them not themselves, or overshadowed by an unrelenting parent of other dark figure, or away on a long journey, or, or, or... simply everything, it seems, from Odysseus to about half the characters in LOTR or Star Wars.

Booker relates this to coming of age and coming to wholeness. Only when the disguise is off in the end can the character become whole and join her other half and inherit the kingdom. Rather than being about romance and wealth, the stories are about the personality and society coming into balance, drawing on our desire for romance and wealth as symbols of that wholeness.

Pick a story. Jane Austen. PG Wodehouse. David and Goliath. The hero or heroine is obscured in some way, and the resolution of that is the plot.

Take Your Time

There are a lot of new posts. I'll be away most of the week, so you don't have to race through them.

Between them, Jonathan and Ben should be able to handle most questions.

Best of March 2006

Reflections on evil People of the Lie/The Great Divorce

The Faux Logic of adolescence

Avoiding manipulation by turning arguments both ways

An opposite is often true

Ionesco's Rhinoceros, where he drops his absurdism because he knows the truth.

Reading Aloud, joys of

Three essays on British Leftism: The Reduced Shakespeare Company, Wombats, and The Bearded Pig

Something About McDonald's

As We Forgive Those. Ouch

Lottery Winners and Paraplegics. Dan in the comments links to the research.

Not really Living In Tune With Nature, Red Feather.

When Christian and Nutritional Myths Collide. Fusion

Politics Made Simple Michael Totten goes to the Genocide Museum.

Added Value

It is hard to measure how much added value college provides. In my case it provided a wife, but that wasn't in the brochure or the Barron's Guide. If we step back from the academic mindset we might see this more clearly.

If you were hiring someone to look after your preschooler, the type of credential they had might be important to you. Person A has a few courses in child development and first aid. Person B has multiple years of specific study. It is in one sense quite easy to choose between those two, and we leap to the conclusion that the years of study provided important knowledge. Yet regardless of the content of the training, we know something obvious that we overlook. The latter person was willing to devote years to learning the task, the former might have been quite desultory in their studies. Even if the content was useless in both cases, the person who was willing to make that effort is likely to be a better bet for your child. They care about this. They want to do it well. The people who are in this pool of multi-year study are not the same people as those who have only the few courses.

If that group excels over the others, we falsely conclude that it must be the training that provided the added value. We don't stop to consider that the person may have had much if not all of that added value before they even started studying.

So if you collect a bunch of kids with SAT 1300 - I guess that would be SAT 1950 now - and put them in one college, and put a second group of 900/1350 in another college, you would expect the former group to look a lot smarter at the end of their college careers. But how do we sort out how much of that smartness was added value by the college, and how much was where they were going to go anyway if people just generally put the right books and assignments in front of them?

Is there any school that really gives you $150,000 of added value?

Friday, August 07, 2009

Knowing Grandparents

We overestimate how well we knew our grandparents. We have a picture based on memory we can attach a lot of things, even true things to, but we often didn't know those things or understand them very well at the time. Much of the shared time was when we were quite young and/or they were quite old. Our young selves have much they do not really understand, and our old selves are not always our most representative.

Few of us spend much time with even one grandparent after we are adults ourselves, for obvious reasons. One of my grandfathers lived until I was thirty, but I didn't see him more than once or twice a year over his last decade. Most of what I know of him is what my own father told me. That wouldn't have meant much if I didn't have some relationship with Grampa myself, plus some concrete memories of his house and the things he owned. But it still remains that on the day he died, I couldn't have told you much about him that I learned on my own.

I could tell you more now. When we become adults and have jobs, bills, wives, children, cars, and so forth, we can fit the pieces that we have into something more solid. Yet it's a retrospective exercise. I was very close to one grandmother, who lived nearby and whose house I went to for lunch every school day from 2nd-6th grade. I lived with her when my mother went into the hospital. Nanna died while I was in college - I probably know four times as much about her now, not least because the things I learned later - that her marriage was unhappy, that she lost her first child a few months after she was born, that she had to go to work after finishing 8th grade - were not the things we tended to share with children.

Post 2000 - Unlearning

I thought of doing some massive summation for Post 2000 - some key idea that threads through all my other posts. Nothing was on the hot list of things just about to be posted in anticipation of going on vacation, so I sat back and pondered what might be most appropriate.

I have chosen instead a humble topic, because I'm better at that. I can sometimes come up with a new idea, or find the central idea in a mass of rhetoric, or read something that others might miss, but there are folks all over the internet who do that better than I. What I most hope to provide is preliminary answers to the question "What is the obvious thing here that we're all missing?" As in my immediately previous post, I believe just thinking, in and of itself, favors the religious and social ideas I hold to. Not that I have attained, as St. Paul says, but I press on.

Tonight is a good time for a dose of my own medicine. I don't think I have been standing back and blurring my eyes to see the obvious much lately. I have gotten caught up in the temptation to be sharp-eyed and find the telling detail. I'm okay at that, but it's not my strongest suit.

So looking over my allies instead of my opponents might be a good idea. Let others illustrate for you how Obama and the Democrats are showing shoddy reasoning, or imperiousness, or manipulativeness. What of the conservatives, libertarians, and evangelicals, eh?

The nirthers are getting a lot of press, and I thought at first the attention focused on them was an attempt to make a small group look like the heart of the GOP. Polls suggest there are more of them than I thought. I think it's a low-percentage cause. It's unlikely to be true, and unlikely to be provable even if true. The fantasy that somehow overlooked point is going to bring down a president and usher in a period of small-government conservatism is the same sort of wishful thinking a certain type of mind always gravitates to. I recall the Buchananites getting worked up a few NH primaries ago: the evangelical vote will coalesce around him, then the union Democrats, and that will create a lot of conservative Catholic groundswell... Or similarly, the tax protesters, or the Libertarian Party, or the Ron Paul supporters, all falling prey to the same unlikely hopes.

It sounds exactly like the 911 Truthers, alternative medicine extremists, antiglobalists, and whatever on the left. If we can just get the word out to a certain level, then people will see, and wake up, and we'll get critical mass...

I don't know what drives this entirely, but I sense that these folks just have an exaggerated case of what we've all got - an inability to unlearn what we "know." It's a brain structure thing, and folks with schizophrenia have particularly impaired ability to hold their thoughts at arm's length and consider other possibilities. But for all of us, once a belief is in place, it takes a lot of counterevidence to knock it out. I point out incredibly stupid things that Obama says to my more liberal friends, frustrated that even after several solid pieces of evidence they can't shake the idea that he's a smooth and persuasive speaker.

This is because I am expecting them to start from a neutral point, a zero point. The evidence I provide should be enough to make the case that he's really pretty thoughtless, cockily flying by the seat of his pants in situations he should think through. But the human mind doesn't work that way. They're not starting from a zero point. Just as importantly, neither am I. There are ideas it would cost me a lot emotionally to give up. I've done that inventory at least twice in my life, neither time quite voluntarily, and I don't know if I've got the ruthlessness to do it again.

Much easier to just say what I think more loudly, eh?

I'll be away for a week, reading nothing that bears directly on current issues. Let's see if I am able to unlearn some little thing.

Stop Grinding

I work with a psychiatrist who mentioned offhand (when three of us were discussing how random Newsweek had become) that he likes to listen to the BBC and read The Economist to get a more objective POV. I didn't have the heart to tell him that both of those, especially the BBC, are quite liberal in their slant. He's a wonderful guy, smart enough that the word "prodigy" probably got bandied around as a child, and a very solid thinker.

I'm glad I didn't say anything. I recall from the early 90's a survey which showed that people who took two newspapers voted more conservatively, even if both newspapers were liberal. The POV from the BBC is not going to be objective, but it's at least different, and causes one to think.

Thinking is a good thing. Conservatives should remember that in terms of principles, evaluation, and observation, thinking in itself works to our long-term advantage. We need to retain the confidence in our beliefs that provoking anyone to think, at all, will eventually bear fruit. Will we lose many battles along the way to those who will play off the emotions and social status of liberal views? Absolutely. We will in fact lose most of the battles.

But if better ideas and devotion to the truth does not eventually prevail, and only the few are able to see through the fog, then there is no point in making it better for the others, except for simple kindness. We must give them the dignity of risk as well. If people wish to be manipulated on and on, then they are not ready to be free. Protecting them from their decisions will perpetuate their childhood.

That is perhaps world-weary and uncaring, and it frightens even me. If the semi-sensible people of the the country cannot bear the truth, then it is the poor, especially the virtuous poor, who will suffer most. The sociopaths will find a way to survive, even by the skin of their teeth.

The Skin Of Our Teeth. A tangential association, but stunningly appropriate, now that I think of it. One of my favorite plays, and very much a message for our times, even if it was written in the 1940's.

Next tangent. The Skin of Our Teeth, 1942. The Abolition of Man, 1943, Orwell's 1984, completed in main in his head in 1944. Perhaps only war, and pushing great thinkers to the brink, can elicit the truly prophetic. That's my working theory.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009


Steve Sailer, responding to a tortured academic argument that explains why 1960's beliefs about the poor should be revisited, so that we might help them buy houses now.
Personally, I suspect that the main reason that poor people are less likely to pay back their mortgages than rich people is because poor people tend to have less money than rich people, but, then, I'm not the Dean of Social Sciences at NYU like Dalton Conley, so what do I know?

The Dignity of Risk

Public guardians, at least in NH, occupy the unusual ground of being strong civil libertarians who nonetheless are the actual people who overrule their wards, making them submit to things they would not on their won. As a result, they are often very thoughtful about ideas of liberty, rights, and autonomy.

A guardian today, discussing a patient with a Narcissistic Personality Disorder and significant substance abuse issues (the youtube series I sent you, Ben) stated that a year ago, she had signed off on some pretty intense limitations of his autonomy, because he was so continually drunk and refusing his anxiety treatments that she felt he was not able to make a decision. But today, he has been sober some months and can at least verbalize what the consequences of drinking or missing treatment are (even more so, now that he is on Antabuse). She now will not agree to those restrictions, reasoning that he does appreciate what is in front of him, at least enough to have his decision honored.

She called it "the dignity of risk," and the phrase impressed me greatly. It bears significantly on national decisions about health care, privacy, and safety net. To take away risk is to unavoidably take away a certain amount of dignity.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Why We Vote

90% of the people don't know enough to make an informed decision
09% are clever enough to talk themselves into any damfool thing.
The remaining 1%? Doesn't exist. There was an error in the first two numbers.

Used Cars

So creating a scarcity of used cars via the Cash for Clunkers program - now greatly expanded because it's been such a "success" - will drive up the price of the remaining used cars. That should help poor people a lot.

Elves, Dwarves, Angels

There is something difficult about capturing goodness in a group of beings. Even Tolkien relied greatly on contrasting goodness with easier-to-depict evil. It never quite works, though. Angels, those great warrior spirits, have deteriorated into babies and pixies in the poplar imagination. I once tried to give a better approximation in a children's sermon by asking them to imagine if lightning had a voice.

The LOTR movie Gimli is a bit unsatisfying. He is too obviously comic. Dwarves are serious, serious as stone. Yet in The Hobbit, Tolkien had already committed to drawing them as a bit ridiculous, in that first song about breaking plates. He attempts to show this with the centuries-old laughing elves as well. It never quite rang true. It seemed a stretch.

Intellectually, I accept that elves could be as he describes, with age giving them gravity but constant art and craftsmanship giving them a lightness of spirit. But their songs weren't funny. Someone else's humor, seen from the outside, never does seems all that compelling. Peter Jackson solved this by highlighting the gravity of the elves and the humor of the dwarves - the reverse of the Tolkien emphasis - but it's hard to fault him on this. Going the opposite way would perhaps be even less believable.

The realm of Faerie contains many things, including humor and tragedy we can only partly enter into. In our era, one almost has to revolt entirely against the Disney "little people" of various sorts, all too cute and buffoonish. Gimli rides a bit too close to Disney for my taste. Yet once one has put a humanoid up for view, its grotesqueries will strike us as either comic or evil; perhaps it is an inborn response. Monsters without some human attributes swollen wildly out of proportion are mere dangers, eliciting the same fear as a swamp or a cliff, but no levels of fear. It may be that the monsters in the story are humanish because they represent the parts of humanity (or ourselves) we dislike and wish to banish or overcome.

I have no advice on how to depict angels or elves better. If ten thousand years of artists and storytellers can't capture the idea of "good, but dangerous," I am unlikely to hit upon the solution.

Lewis tried it with a lion, and that captured a great deal that is missing from the Good Monsters of our stories.

Sunday, August 02, 2009


My nephew Doug, who is a graduate student in engineering at Tufts, is getting married today, and we will be in Scituate for the wedding. I got him started years ago climbing mountains, and he went on to complete all 48, including many winter climbs. I don't climb much myself anymore, but it's nice to see it was meaningful to someone.

Best wishes, and with great affection.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Best of February 2006

I just figured out this is going to take a year to do this series.

February 2006 Ben was working the Winter Olympics in Torino. It doesn't bear much on current events, but those who are interested can click on the first of the Commenter's Blogs and hit the archives.

Games Mad, about Gaelic hurling
Psychiatric cop-outs

Habitat For Humanity goes liberal O'Sullivan's Law

Types of Liberty. Our forefathers meant something different

Thoughtful articles from the Social Affairs Unit

Reflections on the Second Commandment. A hobbyhorse of mine.

Parallel Hatreds. About prejudice against ethnics.

The actual influence of Black English

Hukt On Fonix

The necessity of self-mockery.